Beith: Regeneration of Forests

Valleys covered with Aleppo pine.

Valleys covered with Aleppo pine.

In both Britain and Spain there is a common phrase: there was so much forest that a squirrel could have gone from the South to the North without touching the floor. Nowadays we cannot talk of a continuous forest but of landscapes dotted with woods,  very few of which are ancient. But nature regenerates and renews itself, and that is the message of Beith, the first few (or letter) of the Ogham, an old Celtic alphabet, which is well known for its association with trees – though there are other lists, like birds, colours, lakes, tools and so on.

In the Tree Ogham Beith corresponds to the birch tree, which is quick to propagate and grow. Where there is no forest in North European countries, this will be the first one to establish new forest and pave the way for other species, hence its association with regeneration and renewal. But in our part of the Mediterranean there are no birch trees since it is far too dry and hot for them, leaving Beith without a tree. Enter the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), resistent to heat and dry weather, and also a tree that will quickly cover forest-less landscapes. Here, we refer to it as the “white pine” (distinguishing it from “red” and “black” varieties), further strengthening its association with the birch tree.

Spain, like many places in Europe and the world, has been subject to a lot of deforestation from the times of the Romans onwards, so only the fastest growing trees would come back, like the Aleppo pine, leaving slower growing trees struggling to recover.

I was looking one day at old aerial photographs of the valley where I live and was amazed to see that just a few decades ago there were hundreds of terraces used for hazel, olive and apple orchards. Now, all this land has become forest, and the terraces are hidden beneath a skin of Aleppo forest. The forest is regenerating!

When I came from England to live here, I didn’t appreciate this pine enough, since I was used to deciduous, broad-leafed forests with a lot more greenness and humidity – knowing what I know now, I can appreciate it more. The land has been cleared of forest, but now it has been left to its own devices, and the Forest is coming back. Long may it continue!

Patchy Veg Patch and Random Lettuces

How did it get there? I don't remember sowing seeds THERE!

How did it get there? I don’t remember sowing seeds THERE!

My experiment with the semi-wild veg patch hasn’t worked out as I’d hoped, but it has had some interesting results. It’s always been experimental, and I’ve been open to any result, because any result can teach me about how to develop the system in this location with its climate and soil.

I learnt the idea from a book written by a Japanese farmer (Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-straw Revolution), which could give ideas about how to experiment, but couldn’t tell me how it worked because, well, different climate, soil, weather patterns et al mean that what works there won’t work here exactly the same way. This meant I had to start from scratch and experiment with what I had.

In the end out of all the different seeds I sowed aming the grass, not much grew. I had beans, peas, rocket, radish, spinach and garlic, including two courgette plants. Not all of these produced anything significant, so I left them to self-seed. One very surprising part were the lettuces: none of them grew up where I planted them, appearing outside the veg patch or amongst the radishes and rocket. Enough for a couple of salads when they’re  big enough.

That's a weird radish... wait, it's a lettuce!

That’s a weird radish… wait, it’s a lettuce!

In the future I can concentrate on what worked this year and improve the conditions, like not putting so much mulch on top or sowing at more suitable times of year (I was very enthusiastic at the beginning, throwing seeds down earlier than I should). Alongside this I can continue experimenting sowing new things. And who knows, maybe some of the seeds I’ve planted are just laying dormant, waiting for the right moment to surprise me!

Avencs de la Febró

Yesterday, I went with NCAT to a beautiful place in the Prades mountains that I’ve never seen before. Last week we went to scout it out, just to see where it is, and it’s a good job we did, because it’s easy to miss the entrance down into it (though the gorge itself is easy to locate).

Inside was markedly colder, and there was a point where you feel the temperature change as you descended. It’s 40m deep, and all the way through there are holes and little caves where the water has burrowed through the rock. There was a huge cave which had a circular tunnel that reconnected with the main chamber (with a huge group of people, mostly kids, I thought I’d leave it for next time).

I was surprised to find a cave at the end of the gorge when I shone my torch down what I thought has a simple hole. It turned out to be a small tunnel that led to a cave which could fit around ten or more people, standing. The big cave was full of visitors, but this one I had a moment alone, and felt at peace within the Earth. 🙂

Senses and the City

It’s amazing the amount of people that get to the countryside and say “It’s so peaceful here.” What’s unusual isn’t that they notice it, but that it’s somehow “out of the ordinary” and not something they usually experience. Contrast this against entering urban areas, especially city centres. We have to filter out all the sensations we’re bombarded with, and, if we become used to this, we develop a habitual numbness, an adaption to stop us from being overwhelmed. We are sensitive creatures, after all. Perhaps there is no such thing as an “insensitive” person, just a desensitised one?

Desensitised like this, we seek out extreme experiences that will fulfill us, or at least give us a brief moment of fulfillment. Perhaps in  drugs and other substances. Perhaps in extreme sports or at adventure parks. If we can’t live these ourselves, perhaps we find it in films filled with high emotions, action and violence, or sex. Something, anything that will evoke something in us. (Or perhaps we seek out things that will numb us more; it can all be too much, even our own emotions and sensations!)

I think it’s necessary to find sanctuary where we can lower our defenses against an intrusive world, where we can appreciate and delight in the little things in life, pleasures that are easily overlooked. I’m used to the rhythms and seasons of my mountain valley home, and my senses pick up on anything that looks “different” or “out of place”, subtle changes in the environment. Back in the city my well-developed defenses come back into play, and I enter The Tunnel, just to get from A to B. It’s a useful adaption, and saves me from more stress than necessary (though I’m not saved from the numbness). But I like living life with sensitivity, using and developing all the senses that nature endowed me with. In natural spaces, I reconnect not just with nature and its wonders but also with my own body, a connection I don’t want to lose.

The Veg Patch Continues


Strawberries and straw

Yesterday me and Mika cleaned out the chicken and goats and collected the straw for the veg patch: we put it with the strawberries. Every years we’ve put grass cuttings or straw, and the stawberries are still doing well. Mika also used our little green house (an old bed structure covered with shower curtains – how’s that for recycling!) and planted some tomato seeds inside. Meanwhile I was clearing another section of my no-dig veg patch to sow fava beans and tomatoes of my own. The spinach, radish and rocket in the first section are doing very well, though I’m still waiting for spring to give a kick-start to the rest. I’ve been planting, more or less, in sections, though I’ve also done some mixing just to see what can grow together. I’ve still got some space to think about. Maybe carrots and courgette?


No-dig garden, covered with a bit of mulch and divided into sections

Hunting Cranks

 Or rather red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii – known in Catalan in cranc vermell americà, hence in title). It is an introduced species that has displaced the native white-clawed crayfish (Austropotamobius pallipes), outcompeting it and carrying a disease to which they are resistent, but the native crayfish are not, so you won’t find them in the same stretch of river.

As volunteers of CEN we’ve spent a few nights (crayfish usually come out at night) removing this invasive species, and we did that on Friday night too, with Jesús Ortiz, the president of CEN, and a few other volunteers. It was very cold and wet, but luckily we wore waders and long rubber loves to avoid getting wet (I did reach a bit too deep on one occasion, and got a glove filled with water!), but we had a very good time. Made even better with good company.

The Wild Patch

Rocket (and if you look carefully you might see spinach poking through too)

Rocket (and if you look carefully you might see spinach poking through too)

Looking carefully amongst the straw and grass I’ve found some radish, rocket and spinach growing! I’m curious (and not a little impatient) to see how they develop.

This afternoon I went into the garden and put some ashes down on top of the garlic (ashes are supposed to be good for garlic, but not for other plants, so I’ll see how that does).  I also put a line of wheat down, with hops that, in the summer, they’ll form a sort of wall to protect the rest of the plants from the excesses of the heat. I put mulch of top of it to protect it from the birds (mmm, big juicy grain!).



The Veg Patch – sowing without digging

For a couple of years me and my girlfriend have been working on a veg patch in the traditional way of digging it up. We haven’t weeded much, just put down mulch when it’s needed, and the weeds we do take we put back on the floor, helping to mulch everything. You can find it described on Biosfera2030 (in Spanish, but you can click on the posts to see our veg patch, “la huerta”, and its products).

This year I read The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka and got inspired to try something: no-till farming. This afternoon I went out with some seeds (spinach and radishes*), threw them out onto grassy-weedy ground, covered them with a bit of straw (for mulch and to protect against birds) and gave them a bit of watering. Without digging the ground up. I’m interesting to see what comes of it.

*I was meant to plant some lettuces seeds too but accidently nicked Mika’s rocket seeds, so I have rocket too.

International Day for Biological Diversity

BV2 034What are you doing for it?

I shall be busy taking more pictures for Biodiversidad Virtual. This’ll be the last day of the testings. We already had a lot of pictures loaded, and there are around 130 species of invertebrates identified. Plenty more not identified, and loads more not even photographed. And most of the photos have been taken on less than a third of the property. And that’s not even talking about plants and vertebrate animals. As you can see, I don’t think we’re going to run out of subject material for a while!

BV2 029 BV2 028 BV2 033