Winter – 2

Nature dies down in winter. Certainly, at those latitudes where the days become much shorter and the temperatures plummet. Both wind and rain seem to become more frequent. Snow. It is a period of rest and renewal after autumn has put on a final glorious display of colour. Animals adapt to this in one of three ways: some will eat and eat of the autumn bounty of, especially, fruit, putting on large fat reserves and surviving the winter in a state of hibernation, their heart-rates dropping to a scarcely believable one or two beats a minute, their bodies slowly using these fat reserves for the little energy required to maintain a flickering life through those months. Some migrate, seeking a warmer climate until spring returns. These animals are, due to the obvious logistics required to travel hundreds of miles to reach those more hospitable climes, the larger animals and many of the birds. Travel over those kinds of distances would be out of the question for the smaller ones. Others stay put and, in the case of the plant eaters, scratch out a meagre living on whatever leaves and grasses survive through the winter. The carnivores, of course, stay and try to catch them.

Our Neolithic ancestors’ life cycles would be attuned to this pattern too. Autumn must have been lived fast and furiously. In the same way our medieval ancestors worked long hours to bring in the harvests, Neolithic man and woman must have used all the dwindling daylight to bring in as much food and fuel and dry bedding as possible before the winter period. Then by the end of autumn gathering would have largely ceased and they would have moved into a winter rhythm of life.

But how did they get through winter? What of the food they had gathered? Presumably, they had no way of storing fruit – could any of it be dried? Was it fermented for drink? Or was it all eaten as soon as it was gathered, as though they were all so many dormice seeking to build up their reserves? And could this, in fact, have been a part of their strategy to get through those months? To eat and eat until the perishable foods were all gone, and then to stop all but the most essential activities. To expend as little energy as possible and stay as warm as they could. Spending as much time as possible asleep.

And yet, they would still need to eat, and so with dwindling food reserves they would slaughter any beasts kept for that purpose, possibly smoking the meat to enable it to keep for as long as possible. Hunting would continue and might, in some ways, become a little easier. With less vegetation around, there would be less cover for their prey, and in snow there would be clear tracks to follow. But presumably this prey would still need to be pursued, and this would use precious energy, unless they relied more upon pits and snares.

An Andalusian Adventure (2)

Part 1 can be found here: Part 1

It was a long way to Colmenar. I was walking up into the Malaga Mountains, with no map and no directions other than a road sign at the edge of Malaga suggesting that by following this road I would eventually reach my destination.

I suspect I have undertaken other journeys where I have been better prepared.

But the day was perfect for walking, with high drifting clouds and a light breeze to keep me cool, and having done little for several days other than eat, drink and wander around Malaga, I was feeling fit, fresh, and eager to get going.

As the hours went by and I slowly gained height, the clouds began to build up, and the temperature gradually dropped. About an hour from my destination, it finally began to rain. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and I rapidly went from merely chilled to decidedly cold.

Usually, we approach rain all wrong. Buddhists would say unskilfully. If it begins to rain, we hunch ourselves up, both physically and mentally. We fear becoming cold and wet. We need to let go of this fear. It’s a good lesson to learn. Stop. Take several long, slow, deep, breaths, and let go of this feeling. Let go of this need. We act as though hunching ourselves up will keep us dry and make us warmer. It doesn’t. Unless one can find shelter, it is better to accept the rain and finish the journey.

It is a cliché to speak of heightened awareness, yet that is also a by-product of this letting go. We remove our focus from the rain and instead allow it to go elsewhere, where it is really needed. We should throw back our heads and embrace the rain, enjoy the freshness of the rain on our faces. Listen to the sound of the rain on the ground and the leaves around us.

Back then, I hadn’t learned that lesson. I hurried towards the town as fast as I could.

One of the first buildings I came to was an inn. I went into the bar and asked for a room. The room I was given was reached by leaving the bar again and walking around the side of the building. The door to my room had a gap at the bottom of an inch or two, but otherwise fitted the door frame well enough. It was locked and unlocked by the type of huge key frequently described as a jailor’s key. The room was furnished only with a bed, a chair, and a small chest of drawers. There was a mirror above the chest of drawers and a crucifix above the head of the bed, but other than those the whitewashed walls were bare. There was a small window which was shuttered. The floor was of flagstones, with no carpet or mat. To use toilet or bathroom it was necessary to leave the room again and continue still further around the building to reach a very basic room. But again, it was clean. And there was a toilet that worked, and a sink with a cold tap. There was also a shower set into the ceiling I could have braved, but it felt much too cold for that.

Later, I would occupy rooms like this in many other places, in many other countries. Simple, perfectly clean, and usually very cheap. I am not sure whether it is because they appeal to the minimalist in me, but in many ways I prefer them to more comfortable accommodation.

Whenever I have stayed in one, I have always felt I was carrying too much baggage with me. I have been beset with the feeling I should be throwing out some of the items I have in my bag – do I need all those clothes? All those other items? It has been a recurring regret of mine that I have never managed to live a simpler lifestyle than I have. I have never enjoyed the frenetic hurry and clamour of modern urban life, and I hate how easily my life can become complex and filled with what feels like unnecessary fuss.

Here, even the spartan contents of my rucksack seemed too much. Perhaps I had too many books with me…

But now I was here, I changed out of my wet clothes and opened the shutters so I could look out at the low cloud and misty horizon. The rain drummed comfortingly on the roof and I settled down to read a book for an hour or so. I was content, and that’s a good place to be.

I cannot remember what I had for supper that night, but I do remember I drank a bottle of cheap red wine with it. Perhaps that is the reason.

I rather think I slept well, too.

And as in all good stories, the morning dawned bright and clear, the sun shining low in a clear blue sky. Before I left the town, I passed a couple of shops and bought a few items for my lunch: bread, a huge tomato, a hunk of cheese, a couple of apples, a bottle of cheap wine.

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With the improved weather, and the fact I had more downhill stretches that day than uphill ones, I allowed myself the luxury of returning to Malaga slowly, including a stop for lunch of about an hour. Compared to the UK, Spain is a large country and the rural population is comparatively small. Although I was not far from the city, I saw almost no one else on my walk and I meandered along slowly through a mixture of low trees and bushes, many of them in flower – the distinctive Mediterranean maquis vegetation – rocky outcrops and clumps of flowers, and the occasional lone farmhouse. The ground was dry and dusty, as though the rain of the previous day had never happened, and the sun was hot. With my lunch consisting of about half a bottle of wine as well as the food, I was feeling extremely weary and footsore when I reached Malaga again. I found the hotel I’d stayed in before and got a room on the same floor. After showering, I finished the bread and cheese and decided all I wanted to do was read my book for a while and then have an early night.

There was a knock at the door and when I opened it Matthias was standing there grinning.

‘I saw you arrive earlier. We go for beer, now!’

Review of Wilding by Isabella Tree

I wrote this just over a month ago, and never got around to posting it, for some reason.

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I have just finished reading Wilding, and I am almost overwhelmed with several feelings. The first is that I need to come back to this book after a month or two and re-read it, since there is just so much to take in. The second is that this book presents so much information that appears new to us in the twenty first century, yet was common knowledge some fifty to a hundred years ago and was hiding all the while in plain sight, as well as some new conclusions that were also, really, hiding in plain sight. And third, a feeling this might just be one of the most important books I have ever read.

This means I am attempting what appears to be ridiculous, and that is to review a book I don’t think I am yet ready to fully appreciate. But first impressions count for a lot, so here goes, although to keep this brief enough for one blog post, I can hardly even skim the surface.

Knepp is an estate in Sussex, England, which the author and her husband farmed for many years the way most farming is done nowadays – intensively. But as returns gradually diminished and the soil became more and more degraded despite the application of the usual chemical cocktails, they decided in desperation to take a leap of faith and re-wild part of the farm. The reasoning was they were going broke farming traditionally, so something new was needed – perhaps something revolutionary. What had they got to lose?

It was a huge learning curve for them, and many of the steps they took had unforeseen consequences. By allowing the land to revert to the condition it would have been in thousands of years ago, they discovered that many of our birds and insects, for example, actually favour environments and foods different to those we have assumed they do. Interestingly, on reading books written a hundred years or so ago about, for example, birds, they were simply rediscovering what was known then, but overlooked since. Just one example – pigeons do not actually prefer the seeds of cereal crops, but wild grass seed. The fact that they eat so much cereal seed today is due to the destruction of the areas of wild grass they would gave grazed before.

Probably the most important conclusion to take from this book is that a return to a more traditional, environmentally-friendly form of farming is not only better for the environment, but in the long term is even better for farmers who might be initially worried about losing out financially. It’s a win-win situation in that it would enable much wildlife to recover from its precarious, endangered, situation, it would reduce the risk of flooding during periods of heavy rainfall, restore soil fertility without pumping massive loads of chemicals onto the land and, consequently, into the water systems, and reward farmers with not only a better environment but healthier crops and stock which, in turn, would be healthier and more nutritious for the consumer.

Along with most others, I have always understood that back in the Neolithic period, when man was first making his mark upon the landscape in what would become Britain, most of the land was covered in thick, dense, woodland. I also understood that the large wildlife here – the megafauna – consisted of the likes of elk, cattle (aurochs), wild horse, mammoth and the such-like. Basically the kind of large animals that graze and browse the open, lightly wooded, grasslands of the African savanna today. Could we really not see the contradiction in this? This strongly suggests that the natural post-glacial vegetation of the British Isles was an open woodland, rich in undergrowth and grass, maintained by the regular grazing and browsing of this megafauna.

And from that, we understand that much of the habitat association we make today with our native wildlife is just plain wrong – we see birds and animals favouring a particular habitat and assume that is their preference, rather than understanding we have forced them into this by removing their real preferred ones.

There is so much to take in and think about in the this book, as I said at the beginning of this post, that a single review can only begin to hint at the mass of information to take in.

If you have any interest at all in our environment and what we have done to it, this book is an essential read.