Landscape of Fear

[Castellano abajo.]
This title was so amazing that I had to plagiarize it, but I want to link to the report anyway, here, about the importance of apex predators in nature. Our farm is some 200 meters away from the Pas del Llop (Wolf Pass) in a valley completely free of wolves, undoubtedly for decades (note to self: check with some of the old-timers on this). The consequence is, as I’ve written before, that the wild boars are completely out of control and we’ve had to fence in about 7800 of our total 10600 square meters. It was a Herculean task, pretty much self-taught, on which we spent the better part of three years (since there’s no electricity, I, the chemist of the team and with the better back, mixed all the cement by hand). I hate the environmental implications of cement but I have to admit that it’s been really nice as the month tick by since the boars rooted out the last seedling in the early part of this year.

The area where I grew up was rocky agriculture land, and the country roads were lined with walls from the stones that the land continuously belched out. I learned the dry-stack technique together with my father, as soon as I was old enough to heft rocks. I say together with, not from, because he was a city boy transplant to the country. It would seem that having the skill hardwired from childhood is worth something; the rock wall that I completed earlier this year has stood the test of several torrential rains, most recently last month, when 445 mm fell in 24 hours, of that nearly 200 mm in only two hours. Which is more than I can say for the roof of the 111-year-old house in which I am living in town, where the rainfall measured less than half that. It leaked like a sieve.

But I digress… Back to the fence which has three parts: stretches where a retaining wall was necessary (the most effort of all), stretches where a foundation had to be built (into which it could be cemented directly), and stretches where it could be cemented against an existing wall. The entire length of the fence is some 315 meters; roughly 90 meters needed foundation and nearly 24 meters required earthworks. The picture gallery below shows a continuous length with a mix of the styles. First is an existing cement block wall that we extended in the same style, then a dry stack wall of stones that came from this source, then a natural cement wall that consists of our own rocks and dirt, plus a small amount of gravel and natural cement that were purchased to make the proper mix. The last part of the wall, dark from moss due to the moisture on this north-facing wall, is an existing retaining wall in the older style that was built when the terraces were leveled.

Many natural construction workshops and many dear friends were involved in making this wall a reality. Many crushed fingers later, I am really happy with how it looks. And the nicest thing of all was my friend P., who later told me, ‘I look at walls completely differently now, it’s really made me appreciate my own heritage.’ One final note: when hiking in the mountains which are full of limestone rock, one is prone to stumble upon one of hte historic limestone kilns that dot the area. But that is another story, and a whole different level of skills (producing my own natural cement) to which, yes, I admit, I do aspire. In the meantime, I would like to cover the cement block wall with a thin layer of plaster made from our soil and natural cement, to impart our natural soil color. And I will await the return of the wolves, who are slowly spreading back through Spain.

En la galería de fotos, expongo las 3 diferentes maneras que hemos utilizado para vallar nuestro campo. El más complicado del todo ha sido construir muros de rentención, donde no había nada para apoyar la valla. Allí habremos hecho aprox. 24 metros de largo, con una altura media de tal vez un metro. También bastante difícil ha sido la necesidad de obrar una cimentación de 40 cm en zonas donde no había nada pero sin necesidad de retener la tierra de un nivel. Allí hicimos unos 90 metros. Lo más fácil, y así hemos intentado aprovechar al máximo, ha sido apoyar la valla en muros ya existentes. En total son aprox. 315 metros lineales de valla.

Las fotos muestran como hemos extendido un trozo de estos muros más feos de bloques de cemento (espero pronto revocarlo con cemento natural y nuestra tierra). Luego hemos pasado a la técnica de piedra seca. Finalmente se aprecia un trozo de muro rústico con cimentación natural (una mescla de nuestras piedras y nuestra tierra con un poco de planché y cemento natural comprados). Al final del todo se ve un muro ya existente, totalmente negro por el musgo, indicación de la alta humedad en este costado norte).

Voldria agrair a totes les amigues i tots els amics qui haveu, juntes i junts amb mi, esclafat els dits per a què tinga murs rústics tan bonics. Però el moment més emocionant de tota l’experiència ha sigut el comentari subseqüent de la meua amiga P., qui ha dit, ‘ara circulant pel meu país, m’és impossible no parar a mirar els murs antics, gràcies per haver-nos ajudat a valorar el nostre patrimoni.’ Un verdaderament plaer, que són una meravella!

Concluyo con la observación de que este muro, como expuse anteriormente, ha sido necesario debido a la falta de lobos en nuestro valle. De hecho, estamos a 3 entradas del Pas del Llop, que llevará ya décadas sin haber visto lobo alguno. Y el desequilibro de los jabalíes, consecuencia de su ausencia, es severo. Ahora espero la vuelta de los lobos con tranquilidad.

Animal(e)s de la Quarentena

Although I can’t say there has been an explosion, I certainly have seen more wildlife than usual in the last 3 months.  I’m trying a different schedule this year as the heat has risen, mainly working in the late afternoon till 11 PM or 12 midnight, using a headlamp. Since the insects have been on the whole less of a plague so far this year and the afternoon breezes off the ocean have been fairly regular, this has been a good way to deal with the heat.

leaky_fenceWading through the wilderness of the farthest completely undeveloped corner of the farm, S. found this section of fence that hadn’t been properly tightened, pushed out from the base cement wall by about half a foot (15 cm); look carefully at the photo to see the bottom wire twisted up and out. It seems most likely the work of a fox, which may explain the matted down grass that we’ve been seeing on the farm for several months since we finished the fence.sleeping_area

We have to wonder, though, if it was more than one fox as the area of matted grass, maybe 4 or 6 sq. meters, was larger than a single animal would have caused. The final photo shows what happened after S. tightened the fence back down, with the disturbed dirt a bit ambiguous with respect to tracks, but most in line with a fox. Animal lovers do not despair, whatever they were, animals the size of a fox or a small dog are able to slip out the slats in the front gate.let-me-out

Animals seen during the last month: countless lizards, countless bees including normal bumblebees as well as a particularly elongated one (note to self: figure out what this is called), iguanas, snakes, rabbits and rodents (mainly heard but not seen). During pruning in the last spring/early summer we found 3 bird’s nests, roughly robin- or sparrow-sized.  But no larger birds, as far as I could tell, made their nests at the farm this year. Then there were the frogs, singing out the whole day long their happiness at so much rain.

Then those seen near the farm, including on the ride home at night, are a partridge in a neighbor’s field, a huge male boar on the road that turned to give me a full look at his enormous size before trotting off down to the ravine, and a finally fox on the road with enormous eyes looking at me before escaping through an iron gate that leads to another farm.

Vida Fecunda

Hace más de un mes estoy yendo menos al campo, dado que esta primavera ha sido curiosamente lluviosa, el cual me libera de la necesidad de regar, aunque ya viene más necesidad de cegar. Con tanta agua cayendo al suelo, casi me recordaría a Centroamérica si no fuera que esta lluvia de aquí es fría. La hierba está creciendo a tope, seguramente este año el campo efectuará más captura de carbono al incorporar esa ¨mala¨ hierba cegada en los cabellones siempre más anchos y ricos en carbono. El año pasado por primera vez planté tomates y berenjenas al largo de varios cabellones entre los mandarinos y funcionó bastante bien, con necesidad de una ayudita durante el primer mes, que es la fase de preparar infusiones de compost o de algun estiércol.

Os expongo una foto de septiembre pasado, cuando al deshacer las piedras amontandas para terminar el muro de piedra seca, se reveló donde estaba viviendo esta criatura.
Este serpiente a lo mejor ha estado acabando con algunos de los conejitos, resultado de dos (que aquí todavía era uno, jeje) conejos que felizmente fecundaron en mi campo este invierno y a la vez comieron todos mis verduras brassicas (curiosamente no los animaron tanto las lechugas).

O no… Después de enterar a dos conejitos perfectitos que habían aparecido muertos en marzo (por lo que leo, los conejos mueren muy fácilimente, incluso de susto), apareció otro medio comedito. Allí no sé si habrá sido otro animal. Con la valla finalmente terminada, ya no pueden entrar perros ni me parece que está entrando tampoco el zorro. Pues, no importa, los conejos ya se han marchado, el melocotonero pequeño que me ‘podaron’ en invierno ha brotado perfectamente, y la vida comienza una fermentación primaveral supercargada por esta gran cantidad de lluvia, unos 650 desde principios del año, a no contar además los 580 mm del otoño de 2019. ¡Verdaderamente asombroso!

La Sexta Gran Extinción / Sixth Great Extinction

[English below. El castellano está debajo del todo.]
Ara tinc pensat escriure sobre els insectes, que actualment ixen molts reportatges sobre la catastròfica extinció que estan patint mundialment. No al nostre camp, es pot dir, que estan encantats amb tanta ¨mala herba¨ en flor!!! Segurament pensa la gent que el camp està molt brut, però els insectes em murmuren, zzzzzmmmmm, ens encanta jugar ací….

Intentem evitar esbrossar fins l’últim moment abans de regar, quan s’ha de tindre una part de cada taula netejada per al pas d´aigua. Però enguany hem tingut ja molt bona pluja (vam mesurar 110 mm el 31 de març, i durant Setmana Santa, han caigut 320 mm). No ha fet falta regar fins mediats de maig! Ací mostre fotos de multiples insects, a més dels ocells que han cercat refugi al nostre camp, Upupa epops. No hem trobat el nuc encara…

The insect extinction underway worldwide (Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction is interesting reading) is difficult to imagine at our farm, particularly in May, after big storms at the end of March and during Easter in April left a veritable explosion of ¨weeds¨ and the motor on our Makita electric weedwacker froze up after only 2.5 years of use (I was quite peeved at the timing). We were subsequently quite late in getting back on top of the weeds, which cannot be left standing in our blanket irrigation scheme, but they provide a good deal of refugees for many critters, including insects, fowl and rodents. Our worst enemies are the ants that like to set up shop among the roots of the cucurbits (we are treating them with boric acid bait), as well as a couple of ravenous locusts that have decimated our peppers. Oddly, although we have a couple of rabbits living on the farm, they haven´t caused any damage this year. This year’s nesting birds seem to be the Upupa epops (Eurasian hoopoe), which have a rather nasty reputation. The male is aggressive with a wicked beak, and the young are scat slingers (they actually squirt feces at predators). The male is constantly on guard, watching us typically the entire morning, so we imagine the nest is nearby, though we haven’t made any real efforts to find it. Here´s a grainy photo of two adults about 150 meters away on the electric line.

Mira la foto de las abubillas que tenemos viviendo en nuestro campo. Todavía no hemos encontrado el nudo, y mejor no lo busquemos, porque el macho tiene mala fama de defenderlo con su pico muy cruel. Mientras tanto, la cantidad de lombrices e insectos que tenemos segurament les resulta muy atractiva. En nuestro campo, no se pensaría que estemos pasando lo que lo científicos ya han nombrado la ¨Sexta Extinción¨.

Valencia in Winter/en Invierno

[El español va intercalado.]
How I miss white Christmases! Although winter’s just never the same for me in a warm climate, this year I made the most sustainable Christmas tree since I was a little girl and we would cut a tree and drag it down the hill to our house. Here, we have a lot of Pinus halepensis that cannot be left to grow as they are both an invasive species and a host to the pine processionary caterpillar (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) that causes painful urticaria in mammals. Since these trees have to come down anyway, we chose one to transport by bike cart and will take it back the same way to compost it. Little Kitty was quite taken with some of the sparkly, colorful ornaments, but fortunately did no real damage.
¡Cuanto me hace falta la nieve durante navidades! Me he contentado con un arbol de navidad de los más sostenibles (tenemos muchos pinos carrascos que no pueden seguir allí, por ser muy invasivos y también por albergar la oruga procesionaria). Así es que hemos cortado uno para transportarlo a casa con el remolque de la bici y ahora lo volveremos a campo para compostarlo.

Here is S.’s solution to the lack of snow… Aquí la respuesta de S. a la falta de nieve… img_3412

I do admit that being able to eat our own mandarins for three to four months is a true consolation, along with the fact that we are able to harvest red beets, carrots, peas, and rucula in the middle of January. The rucula also self-seeded in a separate spot we had planted last year, which warms the cockles of any permaculturist’s heart! Now the broccoli is almost ready for our favorite winter soup.
img_3565Compensa bastante la oportunidad de disfrutar de nuestras propias mandarinas durante unos 3 o 4 meses, junto con la posibilidad de cosechar remolacha, zanahoria, guisantes y rúcula a mediados de enero. Ahora esperamos el brócoli, casi listo para preparar nuestra crema invernal preferida.


[English version below.]
Pues, la primera vez que vimos un conejo a nuestra parcela fue en junio de 2017, pero el mes pasado vi otro bien grande viviendo dentro del huertecito vallado que por las lluvias copiosas y bastante seguidos de este otoño, ya se había llenado con una selva de mala hierbas. Una vergüenza la verdad pero ha sido imposible desbrozar tanta y además en invierno, cayerá ella sola y se convertirá en un mantillo denso que mejorará el suelo. Las langostas este año casi me parece que han hecho más daño, comiendo todas las hojas de las Brassica que puse en setiembre.

Otro cuento bien cómico es que vimos un serpiento persiguiendo a un conejito del tamaño del atrevido del año pasado. El conejito saltaba, paraba para buscar hierbas, vio como se acercó implacablemente la serpiento, dio más saltos, paraba, la serpiente avanzaba y así hasta desaparecer dentro de la maleza, mientras nosotros continuamos trabjando. Por su gran largo, me imagino que ha sido un Malpolon monspessulanus.

IMG_2907Los conejos nos están ayudando también, como se aprecia en la foto, y he aprovechado para aplicar este abono que es suave a las verduras de invierno que tenemos allí entre los naranjos. Ahora estamos debatiendo si seremos capaces de matar conejos para llegar al siguiente paso de una explotación sostenible, donde por supuesto se ha de aprovechar cada posibilidad de proteina que ofrece la tierra….

We have a full-grown rabbit living inside the jungle that was our first fenced-in garden, which we´ve rather neglected. We´ve been thinking about trapping it for food, which will at some point probably becoming necessary if we are truly to live off the land. Making a trap is no trouble, but we are both asking ourselves, exactly how will we slaughter that bunny, in the most humane and least traumatic way? If we find an answer to that question, hmmm, we´ll let you know.

In the meantime, the piles of scat are piling up. And last week we saw the inevitable result of a big rabbit: a small rabbit, about the size this guy was in June of last year. Unbelievably, it was being chased by a two-meter-long darkish-colored snake which likely is the local slightly poisonous (rear fangs only) variety, Malpolon monspessulanus. It was funny to see the bunny hop away, stop, see the snake approach, hop away again, all the while as the snake slithered on. Not sure who won that race but I´m betting on the hare!

Stormy Weather / Tempesta Inesperada

[English below.] Hace una semana, cuando fuimos a la parcela vimos estos chiquillos medio escondiditos, debajos del pecho de su madre. No nos fue posible ver cuantos más podría haber tenido ella por allí abajo. Nos fuimos contentos pensando que en un par de días estaría todo claro.
two baby partridges_HQ

El día siguiente es cuando llovío (medimos unos 65 mm). A ningún labrador de secano le viene mal la lluvia, y de hecho, el pulgón que estaba bastante mal ya se comienza a bajar después de tanta buena lavada. Pero… cuando volvimos el día después de la lluvia, la perdiz roja había desaparecido y los bebecitos también. Lo único que quedó fueron 8 cáscaras de huevos de los nacidos y tres enteros que no salieron.
¡AYYYY!! Cuanto me habría yo gustado la idea de convertirnos en refugio silvestre, con una docena de perdicitos por todos lados comiéndome las garrapatas todas, que este año ha sido una infestación brutal. Buscamos pero no encontramos huella. Nunca vimos tampoco el macho y como estos aves suelen preparar dos nidos, a lo mejor allí han tenido mejor suerte en otro lugar.

Saturday a week ago when we went to the farm we spotted tiny baby birds peeking out from under our partridge; in all we spotted three, but we couldn’t see how many more she might have tucked under her. Content in our new status as wildlife refugee we cycled home, but in the course of the night, a big storm hit. What farmer isn’t happy when it rains? That’s particularly true for this area of Valencia which seems to be experiencing changing weather patterns, such that the typical strong pulses of cold rain along the Mediterranean coast of Spain in October may come late or not at all. This year we waited until January for a single storm of about 100 mm (4 inches).

There tends to be another chance in March/April. The season of 2016-17 was extraordinary, with three massive storms in December that totalled 564 mm (22 inches), another 167 mm (6.5 inches) in January and 138 mm (5.5 inches) again in March. This completely recharged the groundwater aquifer in our valley that had been sorely depleted by a couple of years of drought and flood irrigation.

But I digress. Sunday’s storm brought us a respectable 65 mm (2.5 inches), which is atypical for June. And the red partridge, when we checked on Monday, had abandoned her nest with eight (of eleven) eggs hatched. Neither she nor her 8 chicks were anywhere to be found, nor was there any sign of foul play, and a week later, the three unhatched eggs remain in the nest, which is odd as we definitely have snakes on the farm, though we haven’t seen much sign of the fox for at least half a year. I was so looking forward to the chicks cleaning the area of ticks which have been really brutal this year. There isn’t a day we don’t get back from the farm without discovering at least a couple crawling around on our clothing. But I have to say the relatively cloudy, cooler weather this last month is a welcome break from the brutal Spanish sun.

Lo Que Pasa Cuando NO Dejamos Limpos Nuestros Campos

[English coming soon. Photos are of a brooding partridge incubating her 11 eggs in one of our irrigation hillocks. Which just goes to show the importance of providing refuge for wildlife… No one could accuse us of being neat, unlike what I´ve seen throughout Europe. We like our nature messy!]

El otro día estaba resfriada y me quedé en la cama cuando S. fue al campo. De vuelta me contó que había encontrado un nido con una buena docena de huevos. Está en medio de un cabellón bastante descuidado, como nos gusta dejarlos, porque queremos que se amplien con materia orgánica para cultivos futuros. Estos cabellones representan el refugio perfecto para todo tipo de serpientes, rodeodores y, ¿porqué no?, aves.

Hoy al llegar vimos la gallina saliendo de allí y pude ver sus 11 huevitos de color gris. Me hizo pensar en el faisán, muy común en el campo de donde vengo, pero lo hemos buscado y nos parece ser una perdiz roja. ¡Ahora a ver cuando nos salen los pollitos!

Hardscrabble / Trabajoso

[ESPAÑOL ABAJO] I looked up the definition of this word which, in my mind, is always used as an adjective in association with soil or farming. The Free Dictionary lists it as a noun as well:
adj. Earning a bare subsistence, as on the land; marginal. n. Barren or marginal farmland.
Hardscrabble perfectly describes the state of the soil when we bought it, and hardscrabble continues to describe our attempts to move forward. July was a difficult month, because of the pig attacks I already described here. Our wildlife camera recently revealed that we are in actuality supporting three adult boars and three piglets. After seeing these photos, I immediately stopped camping out alone, even though I hadn’t heard the pigs at all this year. Common wisdom is that mothers with young are in no case to be mixed with. I never thought I would miss Shakti‘s stinkiness so much!SixLittlePiggies

The damage the damned creatures do is startling, to the point that this week we’ve seriously considered calling an end to irrigating the Cucurbitacaea (melons, watermelons, squash and zucchinis) that are scattered here and there, many of which are still not fully ripened. It’s just too much water for an area that, each time it’s trampled (sometimes several times a week), results in more uprooted plants. Next year, however, we have a much better permaculture plan to greatly increase our irrigation efficiency.

In addition, in full July summer heat, some of our historic hand-made ceramic irrigation tubing burst; this time three sections instead of one (as happened last year in June). The neighbor, whose tubing is connected to ours, was unable to water for an entire week as we fumbled our way through the learning curve of irrigation hand-repair, which I am pleased to report was equally shared by man and woman. A chemistry background seems to help quite a lot with high-quality cement mixing, although does nothing for the digging…

Despite the setbacks and the fact that there always seems to be something interrupting the ever-present need to weed and prune and tie up vines and climbers, the larger mandarin trees have several hundred fruits per tree and we kept the garden areas producing and reasonably weed-controlled all the way through the end of July. This is a full month beyond what we managed last year, with probably ten times the garden area under cultivation. It’s testimony to the really significant progress we’ve made in defining what we can grow here. Coming soon: an evaluation of the different sorts of beds, produce and growing conditions that have worked best.

Me resulta difícil traducir la palabra en inglés que elegí para describir la fase en la cual nos encontramos 16 meses después de haber comenzado este proyecto. Conjura imágenes no solamente de un suelo muy duro y pobre (como era el nuestro al inicio del proyecto), sino que de la difícil existencia de la gente que intenta labrarlo. El carácter del suelo se está cambiando rápidamente, sin embargo, y como prueba del tal, nos ha venido encima una plaga que nos lleva al punto de desesperación. Como se aprecia en esta foto de la cámara infrarroja, son 3 jabalíes maduros y 3 inmaduros. Este enorme da miedo de verdad.PigClearAsDay

Al ver las fotos, dejé inmediatamente de quedarme a dormir en la tienda allí, ya que la perra no la tengo conmigo, cuanto me hace falta. Entran casi a diario a buscar los lombrices y escarabajos que, con la mejora del suelo que hemos efectuado, se encuentran en abundancia, especialmente en los caballones que son necesarios para regar a manta y que quieren destruir cada vez que los volvemos a reponer.

Fuera de eso decidieron explotarse 3 tuberías antiguas en pleno calor de julio y como nos falta todavía mucho que aprender, nos tardó toda una semana repararlas bien, mientras tanto el vecino no pudo regar. Un estrés, que nos pasó el año pasado también (aunque siendo solamente una tubería, fue más fácil la reparación). Ya habiéndonos vuelto experimentados en el arte de fontanería campera y alertados de que vaya a ser un problema repetido, nos sentimos más preparados para enfrentar la siguiente ocasión, aunque estaríamos muy contentos si no volviera a pasar hasta el año que viene….