“The loveliest day of the year!” the voice sang at the end of the telephone on March 24. And there were more lovely Irish spring days to follow. Meanwhile, here, it rained, lightly but steadily, and there was a cold wind even when, for intervals, the sun shone.
It was quite different down on the plains. In Seville, daytime temperatures were 23 degrees. A common perception is that all of Spain is warm all year. Not so. An hour out of sweltering Seville, driving back, via Granada, to our mountain retreat, I pulled in at a restaurant and, on the TV news, saw cars engulfed in raging blizzards in Navarre. This, on “the loveliest day of the year” in Ireland.
But the “gentle rain from heaven” — to use Shakespeare’s words — was much welcomed in the mountains. It was “twice blessed“: the god was blessed for sending it and those who received it considered themselves blessed too.
Recent years have been hard in the Alpujarras region of the Sierra Nevada mountains: this year, the drought is expected to be worse than any in living memory. I was told that, come June, tempers will be fraying and neighbours will resent neighbours as some crops remain green while others die. Hopefully, these recent days of rain may help.
There is much ploughing going on in the mountain fields — silent ploughing, because it is done with mules, usually a pair, joined by a wooden yoke and drawing an iron plough. Only the commands or whistles of the ploughman breaks the silence in the high mountain terraces. Sometimes, when the shepherd passes with his flock, the bell-wether’s bell is heard. Fruit trees are in bloom, and now the robins and blackcaps sing.
A month ago, on a grey-green Irish-like evening with mist rolling down the hills, we watched a flock of perhaps five hundred sheep and goats ascend the steep side of a broad ravine opposite us, winding through the low bushes in streams, all of a sameness in the mist. Reduced in size by distance, crawling mechanically upward, nose to tail, dividing and rejoining in creamy tributaries and confluences, they looked for all the world like armies of maggots ascending the hide of a beast.
On March 24th., at the Coto Doñana, the vast wetland area at the mouth of Spain’s greatest river, the Guadalquivir, I heard my first cuckoo of the year chiming like a demented Swiss clock amongst the live oaks and wild olives. On the lampposts by the roadside, storks, larger than our herons and all white but for black hind wings and red beaks and legs, were decorously sitting on their nests made of great piles of sticks, often no more than twenty feet off the ground. Sparrows were nesting amongst the sticks but, sensibly, on a lower floor. Such ready-made sites may appeal to lazy parents but as storks are partial to rodents, frogs, snakes, fish and young birds, their fledglings must risk death from above when they step out of the nest and first take flight. Perhaps the parents are wise enough to delay their exit until the stork is away on business elsewhere.
It is surreal to see a bird the size of a stork perched in a wild olive tree hardly larger than a shrub. It is even more surreal when the one stork becomes two: in fact in this case they happened to be in no parallax when I first saw them, the second entirely hidden by the first.
They were in the midst of a courting ritual, performing elegant neck-dances and clacking their bills together like flamenco dancers with their castanets.
It was a beautiful day to be out on the marshes, 21 degrees with a breeze and the sky full of raptors, many black kites and, then, two booted eagles low overhead, an osprey hunting over a pond, a pair of marsh harriers quartering the rice fields, dipping and wheeling only a few feet above the green sward. The ditches were full of tiny fish in their millions, and crayfish, and water flies in huge rafts.
Plastic bags are still big in Spain; already, we have bags of bags to take to Recycling. The smoking ban is optional in bars but widely resisted with large signs saying “You can smoke here”.
Set against such environmental profligacy, there is the clever Spanish toilet cistern which delivers to measure. The flush is activated by pressing the plunger on top. Press it again and the flush instantly stops so that only the desired amount is delivered, saving waste. Someone should import these devices to Ireland. We have water galore but it takes fossil fuel to pump it.