El Portal: The storks

April; we left El Puerto de Santa Maria, usually just El Puerto, early morning. Cold air, not England cold, but more than cool, so that you wanted to put on a jacket or a scarf. The sun, as we moved from the shade, free wheeling down the first slope descending our way, just about made up for it. With almost African strength it more than touched, you opened to it like the cream compositae everywhere in the uncultivated earth. Reminding you that it was not we humans that created fertility.

We were cycling, a pilgrimage of sorts, through some of the back roads, towards the Sierra de Cadiz. New roads were everywhere, the mafioso grip of the road building companies screwing with the EU saw to that. Dual carriageways that brought the message of death with every neatly calculated scourging of the landscape. But this scourging let the sins lie, deeper and deeper. Once a man philosophised with a hammer, in fact a delicate metaphor that meant sounding out the ideas we were walled up in and no longer could see. To find a way out. Now technology beat down with a sledge hammer, a war hammer, and in spite of roads leading everywhere there was - quite likely - no way out.

Here's a thing. The road doesn't lead ever on. The road takes you back to where you started, like a horror film, with the same zombie kids coming to rip your eyes out. On a road you can never get away.

The scenic route. The words mocked me, mocked the landscape, yet there was a touch of affection from long past youth. My mother's words as we drove the long way round through the bush to a long since gone New Zealand home: “Let's take the scenic route.” Gave us kids in the back of the car longer to secretly fight and pinch each other. Cars again. No way out.

We'd left the dual carriageway, turned onto an old two lane road, hiked uphill a bit, and were following a long slow curve. Everywhere from this vantage point, off towards the salt marshes, were wind turbines. Some were stationary, most at this distance turned with deceptive slowness. I wondered idly what they did to the bird life. Regardless of don Quixotes' nightmare conquering the landscape, I wanted this way, the scenic route. I had insisted upon it. In fact it was almost the only way for bicycles towards the distant mountains.

Isla had stopped just ahead of me. I tend to cycle behind; Ines sets a good pace, and if I go ahead sometimes I get carried away. Sometimes I leave her behind. Much rather have her behind ahead, if you get me. I like to see Isla, like to know where she is. It reassures me. Apart from the way she walks, upright, strong, and the way she looks being a joy to see. I'm a bit of a lost child if I'm without her. Is that a man thing, to be a lost child without your woman? When I was young I thought being a man was about fierce independence. But that wears off after a while. Being with someone, that's the hardest thing and “most becomes a man”. You become a man when you see what a child you are, when you see what you need, and that becomes what you want. What you love.

I don't always think when I cycle; well sometimes when the going's easy the thoughts flood in - normally the road, the effort and whatever hits my eyes becomes everything. It is everything, always, only sometimes you realise it more than others. Someone should write about it. And dispense with all the other mystical crap!

“The price of green energy!” Isla wailed, looking at the wind turbines. “Why do we Spanish not care about our land?” I couldn't answer that, I put my arm around her shoulder and looked. Wind turbines are hypnotic, you can watch the motion for what seems ages. There are other things like that, watching a waterfall, or waves on the beach, with that beautiful not quite constant roar. But something in the turbine's circular motion is wrong. Its limited perfection drains something out of one's soul. It's like a tui imitating a mobile ring tone, losing it's atonal complexity for a fake tune. And yet, don't we need this? All machines must be like this to give us our desires?

Between the turbines were grasslands, with some cattle and even sheep. Further over the salt marshes proper started. On the horizon rose the mountains, the Sierra de Grazelema, the tallest looking brutal in their near vertical sides. “Vamanos” I said, and we got back on our bikes.

The old VW turned off the main road through the little town and stopped on a gravelled area with one other car at some distance. A man, slightly greying, got out, bent in and pushed the seat forward. A slim, rather winsome girl of twelve or so got out of the passenger door. Muffled shouts came from the back of the car, a protest vote against mother nature. Car sleepiness was in danger of winning the day, until the dad decided to cut his losses and promise an ice cream at the next possible moment. A grumpy but clearly sparky six year old clambered past the pushed forward front seat, and blinked in the sun. She needed to know where the ice cream shop was, and wasn't exactly pleased to be told it would be the next port of call.

Holidays without mum, or for that matter without dad, were still fairly new. Separation, and divided loyalties, worked out differently in each new situation. Dad – George – earned the main salary, and could afford slightly more exotic holidays, in spite of maintenance payments designed to equalise the financial burden. But children do not obey mathematical logic, and when two divide down to solos, all sorts of recriminations add a weight of pain to each calculation. Not that a temper tantrum is calculated exactly, rather in the moment something bursts out that has all sorts of arrows flying off, some hitting very painful marks.

The family of three moved away from the car, George explaining something of what they were seeing. “The storks make their nests here, but when their babies are grown, they fly off to Africa. They feed all around, in the salinas, the salt marshes, maybe even in Donaña, the nature reserve.” From where they were they couldn't see the river, the Guadalete, which ran behind the building.

They walked up to the stone walls, warm, dusty and bleached even in the April sun. The building was called Azucarera Jerezana, as George could see from the lettering above the main entrance. The old Jerez sugar factory, closed when Cuban sugar went to the USSR, and no longer to Spain. The sugar cane was brought up the river on barges. Now technology has changed, and the plant the sugar comes from. Sweet becomes bitter; El Portal the town was now somewhat neglected, once well off, at least for work, when sweethearts made their vows on the hope of a sugar factory wage. And now the new sugar factory was closer to Jerez, favouring other neighbourhoods.

The roof long gone, the building was now fenced off to prevent access to the immediate area around it, for safety, or to protect the current residents. On many parts of the elevated surfaces, the walls and pillars that remained, were large untidy stick nests. Sitting or standing on many of the nests were large black and white birds. White storks, which were only mostly white, the most striking aspect being a wide black trailing edge to their wings, with the end feathers entirely black, were at home all over the building.

One of them sailed in, circling down, enormous wings out-stretched. “Look, it's a bit like a pterodactyl” whispered George. Wanda and Alice had long suffered their father's interest in many things odd, one being the idea that birds were contemporary dinosaurs, which he was sure of long before it was shown by more and more fossils of feathered dinosaurs and beasts having features of both. Although the big stomping dinosaurs had died, light airy ones continued in a new multiplicity of forms. Or least they were sort of cousins.

If only humans evolved too like that, arms turning to wings, no longer able to build Kalashnikovs and rockets, but only to soar effortlessly, growing into Leonardo's dream, not trying to build it.

The stork might not look so much like a pterodactyl, but it did look prehistoric. It circled down, one or two flaps to control speed, and landed on a nest on the outer wall. It carried a stick, which it quickly poked into the nest's edge. No young were there yet, the storks only arrived from Africa, across Gilbralter Strait, a few weeks or even days ago. They were feeding after their month long journey, and repairing the years old nest. Getting ready to lay eggs. Birds usually returned to the same nest, with the same partner, the vicissitudes of fate allowing.

George was busy with his camera. The children were in most pictures of course. One or two were of just the storks.

We free wheeled down the curving road, me keeping an eye over my shoulder, wondering when the next Spanish truckie would come hurtling by, judging to a few centimetres how little room he could leave for a bike. Screaming "cábron",coño” and “puta”, or even didn't help, at least in terms of the likelihood of physical survival, but it helped disperse a little of the adrenaline of fear called up by these constant near misses. There wascábron no malice, just an unwillingness to alter the perfect trajectory around the curve, or on a straight bit of road, the directness of the straight line, the driver was admiring in his own handbook of skills.

You had to scream carefully though, for many of the roads were accompanied by ditches deep enough to be lethal, so maintaining one's own perfect trajectory was a pre-requisite of survival. I was always scared for Ines, because she panicked easily, particularly if a juggernaut went by too close, so I tried to warn her whenever a truck came up our arse.

Once, driving this time, south of Madrid through arid lands, a red car had madly overtaken us. Someone in a hurry was the obvious comment; a driving cliché we cannot escape too often using. 'Ground level flying' in my old country. An hour later we saw policia by the roadside; the same red car was upside down, halfway up the other side of the ditch. Not a happy sight; for the next 50 or 60 k I kept more or less to the speed limit. But time beckons. Time has replaced the devil it seems as the one who tempts us to mortal sin. Or at least fatal sin.

We hauled up a bit of hill, not too difficult, then down again. We were lower now, the windmills no longer in view. There was a bit of a river though, the Rio Guadalete, with two or three enormous black and white birds standing in the shallows, motionless. We stopped to look. Another one slow stepped with the grace of an ancient queen, Nerfertiti perhaps, amongst the reeds. Suddenly it stabbed its beak down into the water. We were too far to see what it caught, but it up ended its beak with an obvious swallowing gesture. “What are they?” I questioned. Isla looked at my unknowing face with cool eyes. “Storks, o he who knows so much,” she smiled. “You're always the one with the answers”, she laughed, and the stalking bird paused.

Isla is Spanish, and many storks migrate to Spain each year; where I'm from there are no storks, just a rare white heron I've never seen, and a few introduced grey ones which I have. A stork is altogether more impressive. Something about their motionless state at the waters edge held one's eye. Nowhere else to be, no other way to be, the thoughts formed unbidden. It was tempting to say they were waiting, and that is the word we'd normally use. But they weren't really waiting. Waiting implies they were aware of time passing. Yes, if a fish or frog or mouse came into view, their intention – is this right​? – changed, and now the prey was their focus. In the meantime, they stood there, motionless, or, stalking with immense slowness and grace, acting by being motionless or nearly so. Not waiting. We can't do that any more. Who said it, someone, not me, when we starting counting time it was the dawn of the modern age? Now we wait, and death comes eventually, like buses.

Back on the bikes, we pumped up the now straight and flat road, approaching buildings, dirty and ugly, with plenty of roadside rubbish, that advertised themselves with a small road sign, “El Portal”. How old was this town? Was it the setting for a Spanish scifi series? Was hidden here the Spanish answer to Dr Who, or perhaps to “eXistenZ”. Existence truly is the contrary to 'insistence', which might be a neurotic clinging to things as things, and to the spirit of revenge, whereas existence is without revenge: things happen and pass, nothing remains except the one who marks the passing, and she, she cannot hold on to anything either. Terror. To let go of so much. And the opposite of terror as the powers now see it, which only challenges their power. This terror, the terror of seeing things as they are, challenges everything. But doesn't blow them up.

I didn't understand, as these thoughts and other images pass through, and we pull into El Portal. El Paso springs to mind, I am lost in images of things I cannot know, films, music, “hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun”, and death under looming hills.

There was a huge building, no roof, the walls with giant nests scattered across, storks like sentinels stood or sometimes sat on these nests. The walls were 10 metres tall. What was the purpose in this now derelict site? Only a few people, like me, were scattered around. One man and two girls were there. “Can we look?” I said to Isla. “Can't we find a bar, queiro comer algo?” she said, not really interested in storks, which obviously weren't interested in us. As long as we left them alone. Isla wanted tapas and a cool drink. So did I, but now I was intrigued by this weird place.

The other man glanced at us. His younger daughter was saying, “can we get an ice cream now, daddy.” Clearly English. I didn't think there was much hope of an ice cream nearby. “We will soon” was the hopeful reply. He smiled at me, the smile of someone aware of his situation, perhaps wanting to share it with another adult. “Dad, look!” called the older girl. Isla and I turned too, to see another stork almost drift down towards a nest. Drift, with the immense power of timelessness. It landed, and stood, more or less stationary.

We all stood too, still, not waiting. There was nothing to wait for, no bus, no death, nothing was going to happen. Yet we stood, active in inaction, breathing. Sometimes, watching a film, when something is calm, still, you think, now the murderer will appear, now a crocodile will rise from the lake edge. We are so accustomed to violence – and it may come. As we emerging humans wandered across the savannah, a lion could appear, a crocodile could rise; now, we are mostly on the alert, and nothing could be more exciting than a beast appearing that could grab and take you down. Or an enemy, spear raised, rise from the grasslands in front of you.

Once walking on a lonely beach on the west of Portugal, between cliffs and the sea, even with a friend there, no-one else for what seemed miles, big boulders breaking up the sand, endless Atlantic waves, I imagined a dragon, huge, out of the myths of ancient times. I became frightened, even knowing in my, at that time, 20th century mind that there could be no such beast. Panic, the encounter with Pan, the god of nature, is just this. Awesome in the true sense, as we come before something that comes before us, goes beyond us, and eventually overcomes and forgets us. No it doesn't forget, because it never took account of us to start with.

The storks were not Pan, and yet his presence, or their presence, carried across. For 25 million years the storks, the same then as they still are, have flown between Africa and Europe, every year, over Gibralter, or mostly, down across Palestine, Egypt, and the long line of the Nile, into central, even south Africa, following the thermals. Rising on the warm air of the earth below. Here at the gateway between worlds, El Portal, they nest on a roofless derelict building, its human use come and gone, new modern sugar factories up the road nearer to Jerez chundering out the white poison for all our breakfast cereals. And we do not think, no we do not think, in this world that calls to us to think, to stand motionless before this presence.

Someone had to break the silence, the moment. Children have their own times, their own calls, and often will be silent in some deep fascination with what is in front of them. Parents have to move, to be aware, to find what their children need. It was me who turned to Ines. I was thinking not of Pan, but of the long road ahead, a 50 k cycle to the mountains. It was mid morning, the air was cold, we had to move. I kissed Isla, and said, “let's find a coffee.”

Miles Clapham


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