Damien Enright: On the Canaries, it is the ravens who predominate

Damien Enright: On the Canaries, it is the ravens who predominate

FIFTY seven Canada geese at Coolmain Strand and 47 Canarian ravens touring the sky above the blunted peak of the long- extinct volcano of La Gomera, in the Canary Islands — Garajonay, the volcano is called, for a pair of doomed lovers, Gara and Jonay, she the Gomera Guanche princess, who fell in love with the peasant boy, Jonay, from the island of Tenerife, 50km across the water, which he swam to reach her.

But a priest predicted (priests, at least Catholic priests, were then new to the islands, as yet unconquered by Castile) fire and brimstone on the union and, indeed, the volcano of massive Mount Teide, on Tenerife, blew its top, spewing lava into the sea, which boiled and turned blood red, and the two lovers, on the crown of Gomera’s volcano, together took their lives to appease the gods. And the volcano was thenceforth called after them, Garajonay.

There’s little of the original Guanche language left on the Canary Islands. The uniquely Gomera whistling language is a relict: It communicates worded sentences in whistles. Once immensely useful for communication across the deep valleys, before roads or mobile phones, it is still extant today, as a curiosity.

Also, there is a sentence of Guanche, said to be the words of the Princess Iballa, daughter of the King of the Great Valley (Valle Gran Rey). She joined in an illicit tryst with the rapacious Spanish count who then ruled the island, despite her being betrothed to the son of the king of the next valley — Vallehermoso (Beautiful Valley) — although she was but 13 years old.

When her father and brothers arrived, to surprise Hernan Peraza in the act of union with her, in her domestic cave, she heard the whistling, understood it, and, in the famous, surviving Guanche sentence, warned Peraza to flee, which he did, only to run into the arms of the avengers, who beheaded him at the famous spot, still named Degollada de Peraza, ‘The Beheading of Peraza’.

I hope that long-suffering readers will forgive my repetition of this story, told in this column years, perhaps decades ago. It’s a long-lasting story, which I couldn’t resist telling again.

The geese at Coolmain, and the ravens soaring above the vast swathes of mountain forest of laurel and giant heather, still 70% extant even after the devastating fires of the 1990s, are good news for birders.

Certainly, to see so many crows on this island is novel: Canada geese numbers on Courtmacsherry and Clonakilty bay fluctuate, but 57 together is rare.

The crows are back, because the locals have stopped poisoning them. Perhaps they did it because, as in Ireland, it was held that ravens and scál crows would pluck out the eyes of new-born lambs or kid goats.

Few farmers now herd these animals and small, wild flocks roam the mountainsides, foraging in the rough, but richly endowed, natural plants, many of them spiky or thorny. Clearly, both species are equipped with tough gums and razor-sharp teeth.

Damien Enright: On the Canaries, it is the ravens who predominate

The goats, especially, are crepuscular: They feed in half-light, at dawn and at dusk.

During the days of bright sunshine, when the stones and cliffs of the mountains are as hot as radiators and there are no shadows, only the darkness of caves offers escape from the heat, while some resort to the dense forest — all shade, all cover and, quite often, cloud-blanketed and even with a sprinkle of rain.

A few miles farther on, a few hundred feet lower, the sun is literally cracking the stones.

CRACKED stones can be a problem when the animals forage above the villages, because sharp hooves can dislodge them and start landslides. ‘Ladera’ is the Spanish for hillside and, indeed, many are as tilted as a house-painter’s ladder.

Shooting the goats or sheep is forbidden. The sheep, dressed in the matted haystacks of wool they carry, look as if no projectile, short of a rocket, could penetrate their natural armour.

It is extraordinary how much weight these unlovely animals can carry, especially in the heat, for they often also forage in daylight.

They no longer have farmers to shear them or guide them, as they used to. Some are, still, shepherded or penned, but, increasingly, they run wild.

Such things have changed since we first came and spent a year here, in 1981. It is a thrill to see the tumbling ravens, as they approximate the aerial acrobatics of our choughs at the Old Head of Kinsale and along our coasts; although they could do with lessons and they do not have the eye-catching red beaks and legs of the glossy choughs.

They are all black and, yes, they are shiny; and when they plane above the forests, their plumage winks in the sun.

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