Wildflowers

On geography field trips to New York, my colleague Henry Buller exhorted our students to look up, to raise their gaze and take in the splendour above street level. So much of what is great about Manhattan is upwards – the magnificent architecture, the iconic facades, the murals, the life of a city built upwards and upwards. Neck craned and an upward gaze, that’s the way to take in Manhattan.

If I was to have visitors to the Rio Guadiana at this time of year my advice would be the opposite. Look down. Focus on the ground. In fact, get down on the ground. Draw your attention into the minute grandeur of the riotous life at your feet.

In The Wild Places, Robert MacFarlane eloquently describes the miniscule universes of floral life in the grykes in the limestone pavements of The Burren in Co. Clare in Ireland. He describes how his attention was drawn ever down, and the closer he looked, the more tiny splendour was revealed – profuse ecosystems of Arctic and Alpine flowers, each individual flower so tiny and delicate as to be easily overlooked by the casual passerby. But take the time to get low to the ground, nose to petal, and a diverse world of colour and beauty reveals itself.

Here on the banks of the Guadiana I have been getting down to ground level, knees dusty or muddy, chin on the grass, marvelling at the tiny perfection of the wildflowers that have suddenly burst into a riot of colour. Walking the old goat path south above the river, the land around is a haze of purples, pinks, yellows, oranges, blues. Get a little closer, and each individual flower is tiny perfection, delicate, ethereal, some tinier than a quarter of the nail on my little finger, others big and brash and showy.

Walk upwards from Sanlúcar towards the castle to find entirely different flowers to those a half mile down river. Walk north a half mile and there are different species still, each delicate species with its own niche along the river. They are all beautiful beyond words. And that’s my problem. I lack the words to adequately describe what is around me. Oh to be Robert MacFarlane.

I’m not much of a photographer either, but I’ve captured a sample of some of these delightful flowers on an hour long walk south along the river yesterday. Enjoy.

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Early morning stroll

I set my alarm for 6.20am. At 5.30 I wake to the familiar sight of Katie, pillow tucked under one arm, Monster Rabbit tucked under the other. No point sending her back to her own bed now, so I move over and she climbs in between Julian and me. She’s cold, from having kicked her own covers off, so I wrap myself around her and snuggle her close. I can’t get back to sleep, so I lie there, listening to the riotous birdsong coming from the banks of the river. When 6.20 comes round I am ready to get up.

I climb over Katie, careful not to wake her, and quickly get dressed. Julian gets up too, pours me a bowl of cornflakes and makes me a cup of tea. I pack my backpack with water bottle, notebook and pencil. At 6.45 I am ready. I climb down into the dinghy and motor the 300 metres to Sanlucar, tie up on the pontoon and fill my water bottle from the public tap.

I have planned a three-hour walk on the Spanish side of the river – one and a half hours north, one and a half hours back south. I aim to be back in the village by 10am, before the energy-sapping heat of the middle of the day.

At first the path follows the river, flat and tree-lined, a steep fall away to the river a hundred metres below to my left, steep grey rock face rising up to my right. I stop at a break in the trees, from where I can see the six boats at anchor in a bend in the river. The river is moving fast with the ebb current, trailing around the boats, bamboo and tree branches and other debris entangled in anchor chains and surrounding the bows. It is my first time to stop and I am startled by the stillness. There is no sound of human life here – no car-filled road in the distance, no airplane flying overhead. My senses are consumed by birdsong, the light, bright early morning voices of a multitude of birds.

Soon I pass a house where a big lumbering dog lazily barks at me. Orange trees grow in the garden and vines form a shady pergola on two sides of the white washed house. The house has no road access, but a path leads down to a small pontoon, where a small white boat is docked.

The path in places is over the bedrock and I scramble along, energised and breathing deeply. I come to a second house, protected by a thick wall of orange-blossomed cactus, with a white washed well, orange and olive groves and a collection of fig trees. Beyond this house I cross a small stream and immediately the land changes.

The path has veered away from the river and I walk among olive groves set in meadows of bright wild flowers. The scent and colour of the flowers and the buzzing of the bees makes me stop in my tracks. I can’t walk through this too fast. I need to absorb it.

I come to an unmarked fork in the path and I choose the path that leads down towards a dry riverbed, rather than the one that leads upwards to the top of a hill. At first this path is wide and clear, passing through more of the same enchanting olive filled meadows, but when it leads down to and along the dried river bed I wonder if I have made the wrong choice. I follow the riverbed until the path rises out of it again. But now it is less clear. I follow what I think is the path, but I have to scrabble through undergrowth and my legs get scratched by thorns and branches. I soon realise that I am on one of the many abandoned terraced hillsides, this one growing almond trees. I wonder if the path I am following has been made by humans at all, or if it is the trail of a deer or some other animal that lives in these parts. I turn around and return to the fork and take the path that leads uphill.

At the top of the hill the terrain changes again, or rather I walk up and down on a wide trail over the hills rather that around and between them. Up and down the paths goes, rounding bends, always revealing more and more hills stretching away to the distance. The bend in the river where I stopped to listen to the birdsong is now far behind me, a small living ribbon in the distance. Here the walking is easy and I stretch out my legs, increasing my speed.

The hills are terraced here, but subtly so, like old tent rings on the tundra, and you have to know what you’re looking for before you can see them. But once you’ve seen one terraced hill, you start to see them everywhere. Lines of ancient terraces gently encircle the hills with overgrown olive groves and almond groves long forsaken for more accessible groves closer to the villages and the river.

From around a bend in the path I hear the deep bark of a big dog before I see the huge sandy-coloured beast coming towards me. His head is as high as my waist. Before he reaches me I see his two companions. They are almost as big as his is and they bark too, but I can tell by their body language they mean no harm. ‘Shh’, I tell them soothingly as they crowd around me. I offer them the back of my hand, so they can have a sniff. Their owner appears, a suntanned man in his 50s, bald on top but with long grey hair almost to his shoulders. ‘Buenos dias’, I say. ‘Or good morning’, I venture, because, despite his deep tan he doesn’t look Spanish. ‘Good morning’ he replies in a rich English accent. ‘They don’t often meet anyone out here’, he says, looking towards the dogs. He seems as surprised to meet someone as his dogs are. We chat for a few minutes. He tells me he lives on a small holding near the river. He is the only person I see all morning.

I stop every so often to enjoy the birdsong. Each time I hear different songs. Part of me wants to know more – which species of birds make these beautiful songs. But mostly I don’t want to know, content with closing my eyes and bathing in the orchestra of sound. Let them be who they are, as unknown to me as I am to them.

All too soon I find I have been walking for an hour and a half. Just to the next bend in the trail, I tell myself, and then, just to the next olive tree. But I know I have to go back. Soon the temperature will be hitting 30˚C and I don’t want to be out walking in that heat. As it is, my t-shirt is soaked underneath my backpack and the flies are starting to take pleasure in my sweat-streaked face. I turn around, retracing my steps, winding my way up and down the hills, across the wild flower and olive tree strewn meadows, past the houses, and along the river.

I reach the edge of Sanlucar just before 10am. At the bakery I buy a fresh loaf of bread still warm from the oven and at the tiny shop I buy cheese, cucumber, lettuce and fruit to bring home to Carina. I refill my water bottle at the pontoon, untie the dinghy, and head home.

Lively river

The liveliness of the Rio Guadiana is astonishing after six months of living in Almería – Europe’s most arid region. We’ve come from a baked orange coastal zone to a riparian idyll teeming with life. The gentle hills that girdle the river are lush and verdant and the river itself is alive. Fish leap from this dynamic river whose current runs furiously, changing direction every six hours with the tides 22 miles downstream. On the flood tide the river runs back upon itself and on the ebb it races down to the sea at even greater speed, carrying tree trunks, branches and innumerable bamboo stalks.
DSCI0412 - CopyThe riverbank is cacophonous with birdsong. There are blackbirds, sparrows, finches, tits, and even more species whose names I don’t know, filling the air with their orchestra of song. The house martins that nest in astonishing number in the gables of buildings in the two villages joyously flit along the river, dipping low to the water, catching insects to bring home to their babies. Egrets and herons patrol the banks, the herons flying like prehistoric pterodactyls and landing silently on the river’s edge. A pair of geese lives on the small beach at Sanlucar and there, and in Alcoutim, three species of duck, including a dozen or so big black and white and red Muscovy ducks make their home.

One day, a baby bird lands on our deck, resting mid-way across the river. Its parents fretfully call to it. One flies away in the direction of the other bank, wheels and comes back, pleading with the youngster to carry on. The other parent perches on our pulpit, pleading, begging ‘Just a little more baby, just a little more’. The little one rises up and flies off, flanked by its devoted parents. We watch, hearts in our mouths, as the baby dips closer to the river surface the farther it flies from us. We will it to make it the last tens of metres to safety. It alights on the deck of a small yacht anchored close to shore. The parents alight on the guard rails and the coaxing begins again.

DSCI0417 - CopyAt dusk, as the songbirds return in vast numbers to roost and the egrets fly upriver, the insects come out. And with them come the bats. These are bigger bats than I’ve seen in the wild before. They fly along the centre of the river, avoiding the masts of the yachts at anchor, eating their fill of insects.

At Sanlucar and Alcoutim, the house martins are a joy to behold. The air is filled with the sight and sound of parents, racing to and from their nests. Every house, every eave is festooned with nests and the piercing songs of adults is accompanied by their swift swooping as they seem to know no fear, diving and banking and loop-the-looping like cocky fighter pilots.

The bleating of small herds of goats and sheep compete with birdsong, the sounds of the former accompanied by the ringing bell around the neck of the lead animal. These ovines, black, brown, tan and white, spend their days resting under olive trees, shaded from the hot sun.

IMG_20150511_094909There are other animals too, no less interesting for their lack of size or cuteness. One morning a huge green grasshopper sits like a bowsprit on the prow of the dinghy as I motor ashore. Another day, we come across a small snake and stand back while it crosses our path. And then there is a larger snake, about four feet long, on the side of the road, nothing left of it but its transparent patterned skin, its long long back bone, and hundreds of tiny delicate ribs not much bigger than nail clippings. There are little green lizards, half way up walls in the villages, scuttling among the undergrowth and across paths farther out.

And the ants. Big ants, little ants, always busy busy ants. Lily stops me every few minutes to watch a tiny ant carrying a giant leaf or petal. Once, when we have a picnic, someone drops a piece of cheese from a sandwich and a platoon of ants marches up and carries it away, manoeuvring around weeds and grasses, and dragging it up and under the boardwalk to their garrison below.

Food grows in rude abundance here. Not just in the cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages and other vegetables, and in the groves of oranges, lemons, almonds and olives that grow along the riverbank and far up into the hills. There is wild food in abundance. Almond, olive and orange trees grow wild, or in old abandoned groves. There is a profusion of wild fig trees, as well as pomegranate and kumquat trees. The fig trees are heavy with not-yet ripe fruit and the kumquats are already juicy and delicious. I’ve been assured that wild vines spiral up the trunks of eucalyptus trees and great bunches of grapes can be plucked from the eucalypts later in the summer. Mint, fennel and rosemary grow wild and in abundance, as do spinach, alexanders and wild carrot. And in the river there are fresh water mussels and clams. This is a forager’s paradise.

DSCI0423 - CopyOn the trails that wind through the hills and along the riverbanks the profusion of wild flowers caresses the senses. The meadow-covered valleys between the gentle hillsides are riotous with colour. Pink, purple, blue, magenta, violet, yellow, orange, red and white wild flowers fill the air with their heady scent. The sight and scent of the flowers is accompanied by the steady buzz of bees feasting on the nectar. Beehives dot these hillsides, where beekeepers collaborate with bees to make honey from these flowers and to contribute to the pollination all that grows in this paradise.

DSCI0424 - CopyArriving in late April, we have missed some harvests and not yet arrived at others. But our stomachs are filled with delicious sweet oranges, we cook with oranges, lemons, rosemary and fennel, and I drink fresh mint tea every day. We pick kumquats as we walk along and we will the tens of thousands of figs and almonds to ripen soon.

Each day we discover some new wonder in this bounteous place, and I’m afraid my poor writing has barely captured the richness of life on the river.