Monday, 28 March 2016

Jesus and the fireworks

Lots of wild flowers in the countryside at the moment

We had a bit of time off at the beginning of March: Mark went to the UK to visit his family, and I had friend from the UK over to stay. It was good to take some time out, and on one of the days we went for a lovely lunch at a restaurant on the beach in SalobreƱa.

We sat here and ate lunch. Fish, of course

After our short breaks, we have had a very busy month doing physically hard manual work each day, driven by a schedule dictated largely by the changing season. 

We have continued making very good use of our chipper and have lots of lovely mulch from olive branches which we have scattered around the various fruit trees, the citrus in particular. However, we have had to burn prunings that are too hard or gnarled or awkward to put through the chipper easily. This includes twisted citrus wood, bramble, ivy. We are very cautious about the risks of burning - I am really quite nervous about it. It still hasn't rained. However, we now have all our burns completed in time for the deadline, which is 31st March.

It is now three years since we bought our cortijo, give or take a month, and we have really let the citrus trees get away from us, so we have had a good old pruning to generate more bonfire material. But the trees we have pruned do look proper smart.

Vulcan himself. Note the smartly pruned orange tree in the background.
Random lemon photo-bombing in the foreground

Some of the citrus wood is very spiky. This is usually the wild citrus tree and it grows out below the level of the graft. It is not pleasant to handle!

This is not a torture instrument, it's a bit of woody citrus which we pruned out of a plant.

To top off all the tree work we have been doing, we have coppiced most of the trees around our water deposit. They drink a lot of the water, particularly in summer. As well as this disadvantage, a couple were leaning at very precarious angles and a couple had split trunks. We wanted to have some control over where the heavy wood landed, to minimise damage to the plants and land. We were lucky enough to find someone who could climb with ropes and chains, and he reduced the trees in sections as far as possible. This demanding work took a full week. The gentleman worked with a companion, a fellow tree-surgeon, who had the skills to rescue him if needed.  Thankfully a rescue was not necessary. Lots of strategies were discussed whilst one of them was dangling at a height from one tree or another over a large pool of irrigation water. A dangerous job. Mark did a 3 month course at Kew many years ago and was appreciative of the skill and physical strength involved. 

Ropes, chains and special spiked climbing boots: can you spot him?!


We were also lucky in that the gentleman we found to do the work is committed to the ethos of permaculture, something dear to our hearts, both spiritually as well as scientifically. Thankfully all went well with minimal damage to our trees and nobody injured. However, two of the stumps have fallen into the water deposit and we will be hiring a lorry with a device to heave them from the water.

Now that everything that we wanted to cut back has been done this year, we know the extent of our work for the next month and beyond: chipping, cutting up logs and finding somewhere to put it all! Not much time for housework or decorating at the moment! Thankfully, eucalyptus and poplar go through the chipper like a dream!

There are still two very mature poplars around the alberca and some younger ones. The reduced trees will recuperate but Mark will now be able to reach them and manage their height. The land is looking a bit bare but things are coming into leaf. The sap it rising, as they say!

* * * * 

Here in our local village, we have had the Festival of Cristo de la ExpiraciĆ³n. A procession through town in Christ's honour occurs 9 days before Palm Sunday. Prior to the effigies of Christ and Mary being carried through the streets, there are firecrackers, followed by a solemn band and young women dressed as mourners bearing flowers.

The fireworks were truly the loudest I had ever experienced, probably because we were allowed to stand so close and they were set off in the main street between 3 and 4 storey buildings. My blog title, Jesus and the fireworks, was due to the fact that the two together seem so incongruous. Mark read that in the past people used to bang pots and pans to make a noise in order to ward away evil spirits. Nowadays the fireworks do the job!

Here are the firecrackers set up before the area was evacuated

Cristo with Our Lady photo-bombing behind.
People on their balconies have the best view!
After the ceremony outside the church, Jesus and Mary are carried through the narrow streets by bearers (they are heavy) and they stop at intervals for more fireworks. It's quite a drawn out ceremony and it was a cold evening so we went for a meal at a favourite Sufi restaurant then went back to see Jesus and Our Lady and a few more fireworks after the meal.
Jesus is brought to a standstill and a Catherine wheel is set off.
This is all happening in very close proximity.

Catherine wheel gathers momentum. 

Our Lady with mourners

Our Lady is being carried through the narrow streets.

Although we haven't had much time off we did go for a lovely walk from our house and down to the river bed one day. We ended up at the campground restaurant and had the menu del dia, three courses, drink and coffee all for 10 Euros. There were quite a few workmen in overalls eating there -- we took that as a sign that it must be good! We certainly enjoyed the food.
Down at the river in the valley below us.

Euphorbia sp. at the riverbed

I never really used to pay much attention to Euphorbias, but I am really warming to them! What a pretty flower!

Euphorbia sp.

Mr Sparrow can spot an orchid at 100 metres, no problem! 
The plant was along the track above our house.

What's happening in the garden at the mo? Well, as well as the intoxicating perfume of orange blossom, we have a peach tree which we planted 2 years ago in flower.

Peach tree in blossom

Unfortunately some little critters, a beetle found in Southern Europe called Oxythyrus, is eating the flowers, so we may end up with no fruit. I have been on beetle patrol with a pair of scissors, but I can't spend all the time just standing watching! As peach blossom is largely wind pollinated, I have bought an organic insecticide which I am applying conservatively but I really don't like using it. Apparently, a favourite of this little beetle is pear blossom and that is yet to come into bloom. I would imagine that it hasn't really been cold enough to keep the number of beetles down this year.

Our lime tree has blossom on it:

The lime tree our son bought us for Christmas has blossom. Yay!

The banana plant has made it through the very mild winter so maybe we are in good stead for a bunch of bananas (but we mustn't count our chickens).

Banana and son

Nispera, nearly ripe (5 weeks ahead of last year)

Broad beans (habas) - very Spanish!

We had to harvest a lot of oranges when we pruned the citrus - but we are getting through them no trouble!

Paella at the Sparrows'. From the garden: carrots, parsley, peas, chilli, lemons.
We have just had Easter weekend (Easter Monday is not a public holiday in Spain). As the tree surgery was still taking place over Easter we didn't make it into town apart from Saturday evening. There was a local food & drink and craft fair going on in the sports' hall called 'Hecho en Alpujarra' (made in Alpujarra). We bought ourselves a delicious goats' cheese covered with crushed rosemary and three bottles of crianza red wine made in Laroles, a town not too far away from us. I also bought a lovely pair of sandals, (made in Spain no less!) for only 20 Euros - a lot cheaper than you would expect to pay in a craft fair! 

So all in all, an extremely busy time - the busiest so far since moving out. However, before I sat down to write this post I didn't think I had much to say other than about all the manual labour we have been involved in. Now that I have put 'pen to paper', so to speak, I've realised that quite a bit has gone on. And tomorrow the builders are back to finish off the side of the house, after having had a week off so a bit more upheaval but all towards a good end!

Something is wrong here! They never sit together on the same chair!

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

A winter at last!

We are finally experiencing some cold and unsettled weather. We had been looking forward to an excuse to light both our woodburners and now we have it. The cats love it! They give us that 'can we have a fire?' look of an evening and, success, their wish is granted! The mountainside is starting to look white from about 1300 metres upwards and is very pretty indeed. The vegetation is also 'greening up' a little bit, although rainfall is still below usual levels.

The winds we have had have produced some spectacular lenticular cloud formations. They usually form on the downwind side of a mountain range and often look like flying saucers. This is one we viewed from our garden:

We are pleased to say that we have now finished pruning the olives. We got an olive pruner in to do the really tough stuff. To quote Mark, 'he used his chainsaw like a paintbrush', and over three-and-a-half days he transformed the olives into manageable trees. The pruning was interrupted by windy weather and rain, making it too dangerous for him to climb, so the work could not go ahead on consecutive days.  Whilst the olive pruner was taking down the branches and trunks that had become too old to be productive, Mark and I cleared the debris into piles of prunings to be dealt with at a later date. I would recommend this gentleman wholeheartedly and we will ask him to come back next year to carry out a lighter pruning. 

Before: we had let the trees get too tall and they were either unproductive or the fruits were difficult to reach.

After:Yikes! A promise of harvests to come?

After the pruning, Mark and I were left with about 20 piles of 'rastrojos', olive prunings, each measuring approx 1.5 metres high by 3 metres wide, that needed to be processed in some way. Most local farmers burn theirs. You need a permit to burn (which we have), issued by the Town Hall and valid until the end of March. Various guidelines are set out on the permit, including size of fire, size of clearance around it, times of day to burn and weather conditions (i.e. no wind). We had already had a couple of small bonfires to dispose of the prunings we had previously taken off by hand from some smaller trees. The heat coming from these little fires was so great that they were visibly smouldering two days after we had left them. However, as it had become windy recently, we felt we were going to struggle with getting through a schedule of burning all the rastrojos before the end of March.

To add to our apprehension, there had been 3 quite serious accidental fires on the other side of town, in the direction of the town of Lanjaron. People were evacuated from their homes and one of the fires became dangerously close to a butane and propane deposit at the BP gas station (that is where we buy our bottled gas for cooking and hot water). According to the provincial newspaper 'Ideal', the fires had been caused by 'negligence'. Someone had had a bonfire on a day when there was no wind but then the wind got up speed whilst the fire was still smouldering and blew hot ashes onto the surrounding countryside, which was very parched and ignited. We didn't actually see the fires although a very dirty yellow cloud appeared in the sky above us and there was plenty of activity from the forestal defence helicopter. From the various discussions that took place on the days that followed, it seems as though the fires really shook up the community.

Following what had happened, and as a solution to our reluctance to burn owing to the volume of material, the timescale and the risks, we have a new addition to our family: a small gasoline-powered wood-chipper! It wasn't a bit of kit we had budgeted for but I think it will bring us many hours of happiness!  We had a chat with our neighbour first to get his advice and see if he had any objections regarding cross contamination of plant diseases through not burning cut branches (not that we have any serious problems with the health of the plants). He had no objections and his concern appeared to be over the cost of the equipment, because, after all, it doesn't cost anything to burn. We have also found out that chipping, rather than burning, is endorsed by the Comite Andaluz de Agricultura Ecologica (the Andalusian Committe of Organic Agriculture). So, off we popped to a shop in Granada and Bob's your Uncle. It will take some time to get through all the prunings, what with the other projects we have on the go, but we hope to be finished by the beginning of April. The machine is small enough for us to wheel to some of the other levels of our land. We will use the chippings as mulch around trees to minimise evaporation of irrigation water, add them to the compost heap in small amounts, and I bet our future chickens will love having a pile of chippings to scratch and nosey around in, and their manure will help to break it down into valuable compost more quickly.

Here's Mark getting ready to fire up 'The Daddy'

Olive logs left to season. It would be a waste to chip this, we can burn it to heat the home in a year or two. There are going to be quite a few piles of logs stacked up around the land!

Almond wood from a dead tree, ready for the fire. 
Whilst enquiring about chippers ('biotrituradoras') we also invested in a coarser chain with more rugged teeth for the chainsaw. That will make shorter work of any dry almond trees we may need to tackle. As a result of our activities, we are learning some very unusual Spanish vocabulary, words that I didn't even know existed in English. 

Despite the sudden recent chill, the almond harvest looks as though it will be OK. The trees have finished flowering and the young fruit have set very quickly, even with the petals still attached at the side:

We have had a very nice diversion recently as our eldest son came to spend a week's holiday with us. We picked him up from Malaga one morning and we stopped off in the City Centre (again), this time to visit the Alcazaba (the Moorish fort) and Gibralfaro (Malaga Castle) which sits above the City. The panoramic views of Malaga City are beautiful from this elevated position.

At the Gibralfaro (you don't get grey squirrels in Spain)

One of the Moorish water features in the Alcazaba, being struck by a taser beam
Of course, we Sparrows are proud to take our guests for long walks up hills. Whilst our son was with us, we did one of our favourite and most local walks above us between Pampaneira and Capileira, and enjoyed seeing the white mountain tops. The day before, there had been snow at this level and we walked past snow that had not melted because it stood in pockets of shade. The air was so very crisp and cold.


Another Euphorbia (I have been told)

Poqueira valley village with snowy peaks of Sierra Nevada behind

We also went on a new walk to add to our list. We drove to a village up above us called Soportujar, famous for having been a meeting place for witches several centuries ago. From Soportujar, we followed the GR7 to the village of Canar and back again, a four hour walk. It was a fairly easy walk, except for the climb out of Soportujar village which is the steepest track I have been on so far whilst walking in the Alpujarran villages.

Witchy water feature in a square in Soportujar.

Looking back at Soportujar from the mountain track.
The road can be seen below snaking its way along.
Whilst walking we crossed the Rio Chico which flows down a gorge (barranco) to the villages below. The gorge is bridged by a dam known as 'Dique 24'.

Looking back on Dique 24

Out for a ramble with the Mister

Arriving at the village of Canar

A walk wouldn't be complete without passing a goatherd, a shepherd and being tasered

We spent the last day with our son in Almeria, as that is where he was flying home from. The last time we were in Almeria City was approximately 12 months ago when we went there to buy a second hand car, an interesting experience to look back upon! This time round we enjoyed the city and its surroundings a bit more. Owing to a cloud of Saharan dust that was hanging over Southern Spain and Portugal at the time, the drive to Almeria and the views were very misty indeed. We enjoyed a hearty 3 course lunch with drinks included for 10 Euros each then explored the streets a little. There is a statue of John Lennon in Plaza de las Flores in Almeria City. John stayed in Almeria for 6 weeks in the autumn of 1966 whilst making a film and wrote 'Strawberry Fields Forever' during his stay. Strawberry Fields was actually a Salvation Army orphanage in Liverpool and had nothing to do with the greenhouses in Almeria that provide the rest of Europe with out-of-season strawberries (amongst other produce)!

Janet and John

Sad to see our visitor go, we left Almeria and headed back to our cats and vegetables waiting at the house......

Peas in February

Carrot thinnings, mange tout and spring onions

Last weekend, our 6 year old tomcat, Bobby, caught his first rat which he brought into the house for us, as cats do. His self-esteem has been elevated by a mile due to his newfound status of chief ratter. Not that he has any competition from the others, who are far too old and disinterested in such activities. I wondered if he could work out why, every time I walked past him for the following few days, I gave him a pat on the head? 

We picked up our olive oil from the mill in return for the second batch of olives we had taken: another 10 litres of oil for the store. When you return to the mill, you have a choice of oil or money in return for your crop. Basically, if you want cash it works out that you get about 50 cents a kilo. It's clearly a hard living if you're an olive farmer for real.

A neighbour of ours recently organised for 10 mailboxes to be positioned at the bottom of our track on the main road, and we have one of these in our name. So now, instead of having to go into town to collect our post, we can just wander 2 kilometers down the track with the key then back up again! Just imagine going all that way only to find there is no post!! In actual fact, I am delighted to have this purpose to take myself on a lovely walk from the house. We can still receive mail in town and we will change over to this new address over the course of the year. 

We have been busy clearing an area before the builders come to do a bit of finishing off (more of that in a future blog). Amongst the things that needed clearing, there was a cubic metre of launa, grey clay that is used to cover the traditional flat roofs. All our roofs are in pretty good condition, but in order to 'lose' this material, we chose a roof that looked a bit thin in places and had a few weeds and spread the launa on top. I had the easier job by far, raking the launa out whilst Mark transported and lifted 70 or 80 bucketfuls up to me until all 1000 Kgs had been shifted. 

On the roof it's peaceful as can beeeee...
And there the world below can't bother meeeee......
Let me tell you now!

Nice view!
Once launa is spread it will set hard over time. It's quite an old material that has been used locally for centuries. Spreading the launa made me think of a story that Gerald Brenan told in his book 'South from Granada'. After after serving in the First World War, Brennan lived for a time in the 1920s in a Yegen, a village in the Alpujarras, writing and generally doing what people from the Bloomsbury Set did in those days. He said that when it rained there would inevitably be a leak somewhere on the roof and he would go up and stamp the clay down hard to try and make the roof watertight. He said that looking across the rooftops in the rain, there would be many other people doing exactly the same as him! Thankfully we have a waterproof membrane and concrete between the launa and the roof timbers these days!
Looking down on launa roofs in on of the mountain villages

Gorra de bruja (witches hat) chimneys