Damien Enright: Strawberry-munching lizards and froglike humans

Before the Easter weekend, we were shocked to hear that ferries were carrying visitors from England across the Irish Sea and, according to Cork and Kerry people, cars were streaming past their homes headed for West Cork, the Dingle Peninsula and holiday cottages and caravan sites in the west.
Damien Enright: Strawberry-munching lizards and froglike humans

Before the Easter weekend, we were shocked to hear that ferries were carrying visitors from England across the Irish Sea and, according to Cork and Kerry people, cars were streaming past their homes headed for West Cork, the Dingle Peninsula and holiday cottages and caravan sites in the west.

We hope those interviewed were exaggerating. Here, on this remote island of La Gomera in the Canaries, we can’t go out, walking, cycling or driving, other than on an essential mission to the nearest shops, pharmacy or doctors.

The news today is that regulations may be lightened over Eastertide. Meanwhile, those I speak to (on the phone or on the pavement below our balcony) applaud the measures. There have only been eight cases here, now reduced to four, and these isolated in their own homes.

This speck in the ocean had the unfortunate distinction of being the location of the first case in Spain, brought here by a German tourist. He had attended a seminar addressed by a company colleague who had paid a business visit to Shanghai. While in Shanghai, her parents had visited her from Wuhan. Afterwards, the man, his wife and another couple came on holiday to Hermigua. The others did not catch it, even though in close contact. Happily, the victim recovered.

The story, as reported in the New York Times of April 7, read as follows. “At the end of January, a German tourist became Spain’s first coronavirus patient. At the time, the health threat seemed for the nation as remote as the tiny Spanish island of La Gomera, where he was treated. Two weeks later, the German walked out of the hospital, and Spain celebrated being again “virus free”.

The respite was brief. Officials stressed that the coronavirus was being imported, notably by Italian tourists; Spain did not risk a domestic epidemic. The response was tardy, as in so many other nations. The count in Spain, as I write, is 14,000 dead.

Better late than never, our government has, this weekend, closed the floodgates, and controlled the flow of human contact and commerce. So let us hope and pray, and turn to happier things.

Yesterday, here in Gomera, my daughter-in-law left some of the precious strawberries grown in her vegetable patch outside our door. They weren’t as sweet as the strawberries I remember grown in our garden, at 14, The Square, Clonakilty, when I was a child. Why not, I wondered, in this land of sun? The answer? Because they have to be picked before the lizards get them!

The lizards ignore everything else in the patch but snaffle the strawberries as soon as they ripen to sweetness. There were lizards, uncommon but not rare, in that Clonakilty garden but perhaps they favoured the raspberries, blackcurrants or overripe goosgogs instead.

Here in the village, the birdsong we hear most, at morning and evening, and before and after siesta — at all times of the day — is the shrilling of blackbirds. They are almost as common as sparrows in a city. Blackbirds are fruitarians, up to 60% of their diet is fruit. In these Gomero villages every second garden had nisporos, peaches, mangoes, pomegranates, oranges, papaya and, in between, the land is all banana plantations. No wonder they thrill and shrill from tops of the highest trees until the sun goes down.

These days, we also see plain swifts, endemic in the islands, smaller than our common swift in Ireland and occasionally pallid swifts, summer visitors, skimming over the village. Both species seem to prefer the mountainous uplands, the world of volcanic plugs soaring to 1,200m, and cliffs, full of fissures and caves and rising to a thousand feet above the valleys. Like the cliffs of Moher above the sea, they form the coast between our Valle Gran Rey and the next valley, another deep barranco worn by water over uncountable millennia.

Here, in this remote valley, as elsewhere, we learn that, by human ill-use, a particle in nature, so small that it is invisible, can change our entire world. The last 100 years has seen our planet damaged at a rate never before achieved. Now, in the post-crisis era, the primary job of governments is to put a stop, by whatever laws necessary, to those mega-businesses whose abuse of nature lays waste our earthly home. In halting such, as in controlling the virus, we have been tardy at enormous cost.

I remember US politician and climate campaigner Al Gore saying the rise in global warming wouldn’t be noticed until too late because it was like cooking a frog. If you warm the water around it very gradually, it won’t jump and save itself from being cooked to death. We are the frog.

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