What we face

What we face

We have lived in Spain for 9 months, while coronavirus has ravaged the planet, with a tiny temporary reduction in greenhouse gases. But we are way off target if we want only – only – 1.5 degrees C of global warming. The contradictions play out in our own lives. Working on the land and living nearby, we need the car, or the van, when it worked, for many things. We try to cycle there as much as we can.

Cars everywhere, Spain seems the land of cars, every second business in the polígono industrial seems to be a car repair shop. And the business of trying to sort out a car which we want to register and get legal here – but that’s another story. We hope to buy an electric one for the land, a little electric farm vehicle, but substituting electric cars for petrol and diesel is not the solution to global heating. We do have to take the harder journey.

We now have a steel container to keep our tools in for safety and to protect them. Over the container and covering an area in front of it we have built a shade structure so the container doesn’t become red hot in the summer, so grapes and other vines can grow over it to hide its harsh steel sides, which are slatted – was it for animal transport? – and giving us space to sit in the shade to rest and shelter from the summer sun. We had to derust it and paint it with antirust paint – using partly anyway a supposedly environmentally friendly paint to do this. Mario did a lot of the derusting and painting, Maria painted the outside, Toyo and Ali did most of the structure with some discussion and help from myself.

We have planted 230 fig trees, another 70 or so carobs, 50 mastic shrubs (Pistacia lentiscus – it’s not the pistachio sadly, which needs a longer cold period than we have), 20 larger pot grown umbrella or stone pines (Pinus pinea), and another 50 from the Junta de Andalucia grown in root trainer packs (sadly quite a few of them already not in great shape when we were given them, but they were free), plus more rosemary, lavender and another variety of broom or retama. Watering lines had to be laid for the figs and carobs. I also spent quite a bit of September revising the watering lines in the autochthonous areas where the watering is meant to be temporary while the plants get established. Quite a few plants have died, although many trees survived depending on type, where they were planted, and how they were watered. We lost most on the hedges where we also planted very densely and where the watering worked worst.

Permaculture is not easy. We are told to observe well and learn from what the land teaches us. We also have the frailty of human opinion, received wisdom, claims to knowledge and the uncertainty of a project which will take years to really show its results. In 2 years the land has transformed from what looked barren, degraded, near desert, to richly vegetated and overgrown, at least in places. The autumn, winter and spring rains have fed the grasses and herbaceous plants, annuals and perennials, bringing on lush growth, especially in some areas where there is underground water when it rains. Also many more retama are springing up, presumably the young ones were grazed by sheep. The sheep now languish in the neighbour’s bare land, sometimes putting a head as far through the fence as possible to nibble what little they can reach. I feel for them as the wild growth would happily feed them.

The land would become scrub, perhaps maquis, and then open woodland, even without human intervention, especially without human intervention. So now a new panic ensues, everyone visiting looks at the lush growth not with wonder for nature restoring itself, but with anxiety or concern. “What are you going to do with all that?” The fear is fire, spontaneous and threatened – literally. Maria encountered a man coming to pick the wild asparagus, who is a hunter and in and probably out of the allowed hunting season will come to shoot rabbits, birds, foxes, anything that moves, who has told us that even a six foot concrete wall won’t keep the hunters off our land, and that ‘they’ will burn the land if we try to keep them off. The fire risk is not immediate of course, in June or July when the plants have flowered, seeded and died back, becoming dry and brittle under the summer sun, then they’ll burn nicely.

I am looking online at the million hectare AlVelAl project in Eastern Andalucia, Murcia and Valencia ( where they restore barren lands with reforestation, and encourage organic ecological almond production. They use ‘endemic’ sheep to graze amongst the almond trees to keep the herbaceous growth, and fire risk, under control. That’s good with mature trees, but with one or two year old trees everywhere the sheep, like the rabbits, will eat everything, ‘knepping’ the whips, the nursery grown trees seedlings, or ‘barking’ them for the sweet sap.

So we are reduced to our petrol mower, self powered, of course you have to walk behind to direct it. Maybe an electric robot mower is the answer, there is a company making small farm robots for weeding and so on, obviously programmable to recognise particular plants. Malva is now the worst ‘weed’, apparently seeding itself everywhere, but we have had a plague of devil or puncture weed two years ago in the ploughed and disturbed soil, this year it’s a cousin of oilseed rape, which you see in every unploughed or unweed-killered field around. Malva to be sure grows ferociously in areas where there is more than average water seeping underground. But malva is edible (the leaves of some varieties are a good lettuce substitute I read, I find our ones chewy and tasteless), and the flowers are fine for salads, and more important, for the thousands of pollinating insects we want to encourage. The devil weed and rapeseed cousin flowers also feed the bees, and devil weed leaves can be eaten too, best when small and fresh.

Our other pests are slugs and snails, a billion or more live on each hectare. Ok, I haven’t counted them, nor have I read anyone else’s count, but just look – sometimes twenty or thirty small caracoles clinging to a single almond leaf, or hundreds clustered on a carob. Luckily not every leaf or tree is so adorned, but one small tree can have several hundred or more of these small snails, which we pick out manually. I crushed some, sorry, it has to be done. Worse, we resorted to pellets of ferric sulphate, which are claimed to be ‘ecological’, at least the ferric ions and sulphate are plant foods when they break down. But they still kill many other small creatures that eat them.

The newest discovery is the scarab beetle that looks a bit like a bee, Tropinota squalida. What’s in a name? This is recorded as a new pest in Huelva province, not so far away. It looks at first glance like it’s pollinating an almond flower, but a little more observation tells you it’s not. It remains burrowed head first in the flower and in the end destroys it, meaning no almond there. That’s depressing. Truly depressing is the advice to get rid of all daisy type flowering plants, Cistus or rock rose and Cruciferae, all plants that also attract T. squalida. These are plants growing wild, and we have planted many Cistus for their flowers, because they are drought resistant and are native to Andalucia. In its larval phase this bug lives in decomposing organic matter, read mulch, which we have spread around by the tonne to feed the soil, as one does in permaculture. Clear the land is the advice! What about sequestering CO2, which we are doing for sure. Can we not get paid just for that? A Spanish website recommends the use of chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide that is highly toxic and is linked with developmental disorders in children. It was going to be banned in the USA until Trump reversed the decision. Oh well. I’m hoping that the little wasps that nest everywhere in summer will take the squalids, but there aren’t many wasps yet. And the squalids were out early, they don’t normally appear it seems until May.

Here we come to the troubled concept of ‘ecology’. Everyone has their ‘ecological’ products with which to combat this or that pest or disease. I don’t know much about this, I am learning. Nettles can be used to make a basic insecticide, and I have soaked some in a bucket. But all insecticides are relatively non-specific, even if ‘natural’. Many plants produce their own insecticides, the resin of pine trees for example, tobacco plants have nicotine, a nerve poison – that’s why people smoke it – Datura plants produce toxic alkaloids – also fun for some people but potentially lethal, as is nicotine. The truth is everything humans do is an interference in the non-human world, the question is the degree of impact, the longer term effects, the level of damage. My quote of the week: “Nature is not more complicated than we think, it is more complicated than we can think.” Soil biology is a good example.

It seems to me ecology is something that is unknowable in its detail and complexity, and shows both the power and the limits of science. It’s not that we can’t show some, even many of the interrelationships, for example between mycorrhizal fungi and various plant species, or the now famous effect of reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone Park in California, or the wonderful sky rivers floating aloft carrying millions of tons of moisture transpired by billions of trees and other plants to far destinations, influencing the world’s weather, giving rainfall in other places allowing forests there to flourish. Now researchers are looking at DNA in soil samples to identify more of the fungi, bacteria, archaea and viruses that in their billions live in, relate to each other and all the other organisms, and make the soil.

Humankind’s sad Anthropocene influence, we are part of the planetary ecology, the built world now far outweighing all living creatures, plant, animal, fungi, bacteria on the planet. Covering a driveway with concrete is in one sense an ‘ecological’ act, destroying life in, on and above the covered, sealed off earth. Negative ecology.

Soil as we now know is the most extraordinary mix of life, from worms to viruses, and plants immerse their roots in all this shit, literally. Nothing like ‘getting your hands dirty’ as we say. It’s often ok, but everything feeds on something else, and plants are on the menu for many living creatures, including us. How do we move in this complexity, “the flesh of the world”, to quote Merleau-Ponty, and make or take a living for ourselves, leaving enough for everything else?

The hunters for example set a limit at shooting eagles. Nice. But what do eagles eat? Lots of things the hunters shoot. What do foxes eat? The rabbits amongst other things. What do mongoose eat? What about the birds? These are bad we are told. They eat human crops. But also do a million other things. Everything that interferes with human needs is seen as bad. The fox that eats the rabbits the hunters want to shoot. But the fox is just another target for the man with a gun, always a man, or a suffering human being who has swallowed nonsense about what it is to be a man. The main destroyer on the face of the earth is humanity, with the excuse that it is in defence of itself, although it seems to me more truly with the desire for death that we see in so many, politicians and dictators, those that hasten the climate disaster, those that go to war in endless love of violence and revenge, those that seek enormous profits as the rest of humanity stumbles on. A disguised suicide, my longed for death is fine if I am surrounded by everyone else I bring with me.

We dream of a neat, tidy, disease free world. We want life to be nice, comfortable, and not an endless struggle for survival. Tell that to people from the global south, or a black person living in south side Chicago. It’s not exactly that nature is “red in tooth and claw”. There is that side, I often find the remains of rabbits, clearly slaughtered and devoured by a fox or mongoose. But I am struck in thinking about we humans, and the child’s need for love and joyful attention that we have evolved with. There must have been time, there clearly was time, in the harshness of a life hunting, yes hunting, gathering, nomadic to some degree, for children to be cared for, to be loved, laughed with, spoken to and with, in the parents’ special voice for children, jiggled about and enjoyed in all the ways we hope to enjoy our children now. So there was time, enough time, for all this to come about. We weren’t fleeing sabre tooth tigers all the time, only occasionally.

Nevertheless, there was, is now, and ever shall be disease, mostly infectious, that killed and kills many, especially children. It’s not a conspiracy. In all the complexity of life there is ‘disease’, simply because, while the trees and plants are – mostly – innocent, feeding only on water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight, most life feeds on other life. Even with plants it’s not that simple, and the plant roots get dirty, seeking minerals and various trace elements along with water, forming alliances with others especially fungi, getting involved in all sorts of trade-offs and in some sense communicative networks. The trees’ roots, the trees themselves, may be genetically prepared for what they will encounter, yet some will be infected, invaded by organisms that feed on this particular type of roots, or the plant as a whole.

Part of human ecology is the ecology of our friends, our language, culture, modes of expression. I can write in the abstract about ecology, but I could include my own situation. I have moved to Spain, leaving my now adult children, stepdaughter, and friends behind in London. As one of my friends said, who also did this, I have done this before. That is, I left New Zealand, my home country, leaving family and friends behind. I have been back and keep in touch with my sister and a few others. Now, this time, we have a zoom reading group, since moving to Spain, partly fuelled by Covid. Three couples and one widow, in each frame a kiwi. My female friend who is upset about me leaving, the widow, who also misses physical presence, the other male friend who is ‘really’ Irish and lives in Dublin but was born in NZ and lived there for his first 8 years, myself – four kiwis. Partners not, two Irish and one Spanish. Not a Brit amongst us, except sadly John who died, but we all lived in London for years, most of our lives, and met there. Two returning to Ireland long ago, now myself and Spanish wife moving, for her back, to Spain. Nothing is simple, life, even the privileged European, global north style life, is full of pain. Grief, loss, all of our readings have been about the death of parents, the death of partners. And leaving is a kind of death.

Trying to do a sometimes idealised permaculture agroforestry project is full of pain, loss of ideals – how do we grow food for ourselves and others in this fragile, terrible, overheating world full of other creatures, sometimes called weeds, pests or varmints, that want to eat the same food we do, or take its place, or hunt the same rabbits. Poor rabbits. Poor us. Poor planet. And yet we must struggle on, perhaps for me part of the drive is the debt I feel I owe for our privileged position. With bent back, over the soil, the suffering earth, struggling with nature, struggling for nature, as part of ‘nature’, we are in this together.

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