Saturday, 25 September 2010

Muck Redux

 I left you a while back with the air full of a certain farm fragrance. So here´s the latest poo.

manure producers of Galicia
Two Sundays ago we took the dogs out for a long ramble near Calzada del Hermanillos, near a sweetly isolated strip of Roman road/alternative Camino on the way to Leon. We wound it up with a visit to the Casa el Cura, a Casa Rural (rural bed and breakfast inn). Our wild old friend Leonel lives there and helps to run the place. (Leo is the Cuban guy who stayed with us a while last Fall, and tried hard to buy the Alamo here in Moratinos.)

Whilst tossing back shandies in his fine front patio we watched a massive mob of sheep pass by on the street outside. They belong to the family that owns the Casa el Cura, Leo said. And it occurred to me... Leo has dung access. And Leo owes us a favor. I asked. He said “hell yeah.” And the following day, armed with ten black rubber buckets and two shovels and a tarpaulin, we filled the back of the Kangoo with fragrant fertilizer and delivered it up to the back yard of the Peaceable.

The following day I took the galgo dogs to Leon to be neutered. It took all day. I pottered around town, enjoyed several uninterrupted hours in a university library (it was heaven!) discovered a new corner of 16th-century Leon I´d never seen before. I returned to the veterinary clinic in the evening to pick up the girls.

And while sitting on a bench in the sun outside, I felt a fierce itching on my ankles. Then up round my knees. Something was biting me, but I couldn´t see any spider or fly or insect anywhere.

It was maddening. All the way home, and through the evening, and then overnight, I felt the little pinpricks. I couldn´t spend too much time worrying about my itchiness because I had two convalescent greyhounds to deal with, and a camino to plan for, and guests in the house.

Wednesday morning I rose, covered in bright red spots. I showered in the hottest water I could stand, stripped the sheets off the bed, sprayed the bedroom and the laundry room with flea-killer, and washed dogs, sheets, blankets, clothing, and whatever else occurred to me. And as I loaded the machine, I saw what the problem was:

The itchies were FLEAS. I assumed the veterinary clinic must have an infestation, and the fleas came home with us from there. But that place is spotlessly clean.

Then came Kathy and JoAnne, two fashionable ladies from California, ready to walk the last bit of the Camino Invierno with me. (Me and Kathy go way back; she was the very first pilgrim to visit The Peaceable Kingdom, back before it was even blessed. Her sister is an LA Woman, tiny and energetic and neat as a pin). On the way home from the train station JoAnn pointed out there were fleas on her ankles, fleas in the back seat. And a sewer-like odor.

And so I fumigated the furgoneta, too, and set the chickens loose out back, to give the sheep poo a good going-over. I changed my mind about where those bugs must´ve come from: They came with the sheep poo. Sheep are always crawling with fleas, you know, and they´d certainly hitch a ride in the manure pile. A car is always so warm inside, and with the occasional dog and pilgrim chucked in for a nice snack, it would be a flea paradise. And add me, a nice main course. Fleas, mosquitoes, flies, spiders, all kinds of vermin -- they just love to bite me. (Just so you know: Paddy spent that Night of the Bites under the same sheets with me, but suffered nary a nibble. No one else in the place, nor in the car, was bitten. There is no justice.)

So, putting all crawly things behind us, the three of us ladies set off on the train to Monforte de Lemos, for a 120-kilometer camino to Santiago. It´s the same alternative camino trail I followed in April, but without the dysentery, mud, and solitude, and with some improved waymarks. It was MUCH more enjoyable this time around. I intend to write it up fully so other pilgrims and hikers can take advantage of an unspoiled trek through Darkest Galicia.

The hike took a week to do. We came home Friday, beat-up but satisfied. There were beautiful, clean sheets on my bed, and when bedtime arrived I slipped into my favorite place and let out a deep sigh.
I thought for a moment I felt something walking on my ankle.
But by then I was asleep.

Stay with me. The story continues!
This morning a tractor roared up to the rear of our garden and backed a big trailer up to the gate. Inside the cab, smiling the biggest smile in Moratinos, was Eduardo. He´d brought our abono. Three tons of it.
Eduardo, a farmer outstanding in his tractor

What a beautiful gift – farm-fresh fertilizer, tons of it, straight from the dairy to our door. There´s plenty enough for our vegetable beds, trees, roses, flower pots, compost bin, and maybe even the desert wastelands that once were lawn!

Now all I gotta do is finish building the raised-bed frames, and wrestle them into place, and level them. Once I get the concrete mixer back from Bruno, I will set to work to make up some good dirt. I have all the elements now, and Leo even gave me the recipe for garden soil:

Dirt for Growing Things In
1 shovel of sand,
1 shovel of peat moss stuff
2 shovels of regular local dirt (aka “adobe”)
2 shovels of manure

Cream together in the cement mixer for a couple of minutes until uniformly damp and lumps disappear. Dump it into the garden bed, coat with chopped straw, and leave it to bake in the sun and rain for several months (over winter).

And in the spring, with luck and rain, hoeing and weeding, sun and seeds, you get:

Lettuces, carrots, turnips, melons, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and marigolds.

Hope springs eternal, out here on the meseta.
You can have it all if you work hard and ask nice, and when your neighbors give you so many kinds of shit. Excrement is something we all can appreciate if we give it a little thought.

And if you can keep your shiny clean dogs from rolling around in it.
And if it isn´t full of fleas.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Os Da La Bienvenido: A Look Back

The knife plunged through the crispy top layer of pastry, but hung itself up in the gooey honey leaves deeper down. It wasn´t a good knife, but it had come with the house. The light was weak and yellow, even though the the chrome and mirrors behind the black-lacquer bar did their best to multiply the shine back into the salon.

This was our “company room,” the one part of the old barn-turned-dwelling that didn´t have straw or sticks or adobe showing somewhere. The owners had left here a vast boardroom table, twelve faux Louis XVI chairs upholstered in scarlet brocade, and a wall-sized glass-fronted cabinet loaded with schoolbooks, painted plaster geisha girls, and gift-shop souvenirs from a dozen Spanish vacation spots. But best of all, glistening in the near corner, was The Bar. It was shiny as a patent leather shoe, with black faux-leather pads along the edges, and gold-tone chrome trim, with two matching stools like check-marks you could perch on. All this, too, had been thrown in for the price of the house. When you sank the two bare wires into the matching little holes in the wall, the corner glowed with Light Fantastic.

It was real polished wood, Las Vegas Luxe. Someone paid a fortune for it. And somehow it ended up here, in a semi-abandoned farmhouse in Moratinos. It gave the best light in the place, perfect for hacking apart pastries. I wasn´t sure I had enough. I´d bought a dozen. I wasn´t expecting any more guests than that, but I wanted to be sure. So I halved them into 24. The leftovers we could eat ourselves, later on, instead of cooking dinner.

Cooking was a challenge still, in the little summer kitchen. The cooktop was in there, but the oven was in the pantry. We could not switch on the lights in the main house while the oven was turned on. It was kind of fun, discovering what worked, and how to work around what didn´t. It wouldn´t be too long before the place was overhauled, and our lives returned to a convenient kind of normal. Til then, it was an adventure. Like camping, but in your own place.

An adventure, like today. Two weeks after moving in, this was our first social event, our first stab at hosting anything at home. It was a house-warming.

I tried to go about it politely. I´d asked Julia, our first Moratinos friend, what we´d need to do to have the house blessed, and how many people we might expect to turn out. It was a strange question, evidently. Julia had to ponder it for a minute.

“I´ll tell Don Santiago, and he´ll stop by on a Sunday afternoon, after he´s done all his Masses, after he´s had his siesta. It takes maybe ten minutes. Just you, just your family. Private. And you don´t need to give him any money, you know.”

“But where I come from, a house blessing is a big event. Everyone in the neighborhood is invited,” I told her. “Moratinos isn´t very big. I´d like the whole town to come.”

“Everybody?” she said. “All those people, in your house, at one time?”

“It´s an American thing,” I said. She nodded. I could tell she wasn´t sure about this, but she also was enjoying herself.

And so Julia spread the word amongst the neighbors. It was a strange invitation. Julia warned me not to expect too much. Moratinos had never had an “English party” before, and innovations don´t happen too often around here, especially in October. Some people might want to wait and see first, she said.

Sunday came, and twelve people went to Mass. Don Santiago announced the 4 p.m. Event from the pulpit. We all went home. I made the 24 hojaldre bites, and set up some orujo and vermouth for the men. (Vermouth is THE Sunday after-Mass drink here, but only for males.) I put out some lemonade and fizzy water for the ladies. I put on the only nice outfit I could find. Paddy swept the brick pavers in the patio.

It started to rain. I poured myself an un-ladylike vermouth, to calm my nerves. What if only Milagros and Julia showed up? What if everyone decided to stick with tradition, and leave us to our “private family affair?” We´d look so foolish if no one showed up. What would I tell people, when they asked about the party?

And at 3:45 p.m., my nightmare came true. The bell tolled in the church tower, over and over. My heart dropped into my stomach. It wasn´t time for a Mass. When the bell rings outside the normal hours, something is wrong – someone has died, a house is on fire, help is needed right away. Paddy went down to the church to see what was going on. I grabbed some plastic wrap to cover up the cakes. Our party wasn´t going to happen after all. It didn´t much matter, I told myself as I slipped my shoes on and looked round for my jacket. What´s a housewarming, if someone´s died?

The tolling stopped. The rain let up. I scratched the dog´s head and let a few moments tick by in silence. Paddy didn´t come back. So I went to see for myself, down the sidewalk, out the front gate, down the driveway to Calle Ontanon, my ears cocked for shouts or sirens, my eyes open for smoke plumes on the horizon. All I could hear was someone singing.

“Vamos caminando,” they sang, “juntos una iglesia”... I turned the corner and looked down the street to the church. And coming toward me was Moratinos, in full religious procession. Up front was Paco, holding aloft the town crucifix. Behind him, robes flapping, came smiling Don Santiago. Following behind, singing in several keys, was just about everyone we knew, and some faces I´d never seen before. They were dressed in their Sunday clothes. They were coming to our house.

I held open the front gate, held back the dog as they streamed up the steps and into the patio, what seemed like a vast crowd. They circled round our cleaned-up patio, with Don Santiago in the place of honor under the ivy arch. Paco stood to one side with the cross. Modesto flanked him to the right, with the holy water in its ceremonial bucket.

This may have been a strange event, but the padre never missed a beat. He greeted us all, said the holy words written in his book, then took the wand from the water-bucket and sprinkled us all in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Thunder grumbled. Modesto, a poet of local note, pulled a folded sheet from his suit-jacket. He´d composed a few verses for the event, he said. And in the traditional Castilian rhymed couplets of the region, he read out a moving tribute to polite applause.

Milagros stepped up and filled my arms with long stems of iris. She kissed both my cheeks. “I´m Miss Spain!” I said, starting to cry a little. The tears made everyone smile and giggle.

Esteban then handed a gift-wrapped package to Patrick. “Open it now,” he said. “It´s from all of us.” Inside was a blue leather presentation box. And inside that, a splendid silver plaque, engraved with a formal greeting:

“Patri y Rebeca, Moratinos Os Da La Bienvenido. Octubre 2006.”
("Patrick and Rebekah, Moratinos Bids You Welcome. October 2006.")

The plaque is kept now in our living room, where everyone can see it. I think it may be my favorite possession.

Oct. 2006 House blessing: Photo from Modesto´s blog

The plumber we´d been waiting for since Thursday arrived just then, at last. Modesto handed him a camera and made him the Event Photographer.

With the formalities finished and the rain starting up again, everyone moved into the salon, the cakes, Cokes, vermouths. They climbed up the concrete steps and bumped their heads on the low upstairs ceilings, which showered them with dust. They lifted the lid and peered down the well. They told of the people who´d lived here last, the little girls grown and gone to live in Burgos, their beautiful mother whose heart was weak, their father´s skilful basket-weaving and rush-caning, the good mules he raised in the corral out back. (We brought out a basket and a woven mat we´d found in the barn. The admiration and acclaim at their durable beauty turned to clucked tongues and shaken heads – who could have left these treasures behind for strangers to find?)

None of the comments was overly harsh. The culprits, after all, were cousins, nieces, aunts of the commentators. "You forget what´s in your barn. You see it every day until you don´t see it any more,” Julia said. “And which of us has been inside these walls in the last 20 years?”

Everyone looked at one another. It dawned on me that some of them came out of sheer curiosity – an opportunity to look around a house that was closed to them since they were children. Castilian homes are jealously guarded preserves, after all. You can be intimate friends with someone for years, and never see the inside his house.

And this house hadn´t been inhabited year-round since 1982. The woman who sold it came here only one or two weekends per year, to harvest her husband´s fruit orchard and to dance at the town fiesta. The place needed maintaining, and she´d put things off too long. If she didn´t sell it quick, it was going to start costing real money.

The visitors gave us lots of advice: Cut down the trees, they said. Get rid of those rose bushes. Have the water in the well tested. Get some chicken-wire and concrete render on those outer walls, where the wind hits – winter is coming, and those walls are in bad shape. Run an electric line here, and plumbing there. Attach a hose to the well here, and run it through the hallway of the house and out the back window, and voila! You irrigate the little garden out back!

You can use my ladders, my cement mixer, my electrical circuit-tester, my shovel, they said.

You can plant oats out here, and use this part for grazing. The barn will hold 40 sheep, and two cows can live in that storage room there. Why is this bar in here? Did you bring it with you from America?

It all was overwhelming, exhausting. In less than an hour they´d drunk the vermouth and eaten the cakes, washed up the dishes, said their goodbyes, and put to rest all the warnings we´d heard about the stony, cold shoulder these Castilian people would turn to us, the outsiders.

Rain came down in earnest. We put the lid back on the well, and disconnected the glowing chromium bar-lights. We walked back up the sidewalk into the main house, up the stairs, and down the narrow hallway to our cavelike bedroom.

In the half light we grinned at one another. They liked us!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Manure Allure

WARNING: If you are of a fastidious turn of mind, you might want to skip this one. It´s kind of icky. (And you might want to ask yourself what you´re doing here in the first place.)

This one´s about poo, doo-doo, manure -- an essential part of life out here on the plains.

The air of Moratinos today is heavy with the aroma of well-seasoned manure, the rich, black layered remains of months of cow, sheep, and pig living. Farmers let the stuff accumulate on the floors of their folds and barns and yards for a while, then they scrape it up and heap it into mounds. It sits there and moulders until early September. That is a good thing. Fresh patties are too strong for most plants to withstand, but manure, the long-term vintage kind, mellows into a moveable, malleable substance that is very very good for gardens, plants, and fields.

In a perfect world, farmers have too much manure on their hands. They´re happy to have small-time gardeners like me come and haul away however much doo we can move. And back in the day, when Julia and Paquito and Milagros kept dairy cows, and Justi and Oliva kept a big herd of sheep, the manure wealth was a community treasure. Cattle and mules grazed among the trees of what is now the plaza mayor. Their leavings lay where they landed, free pickings for anyone whose roses were fading. Gardens in Moratinos grew lush and green.

Those days are gone, along with those magnificent manure-producing beasts. The plaza is paved-over, and the only critters leaving messes there now are the dog and pilgrim kind. Only the Segundino family keeps pigs these days, and all their stable-gleanings go straight onto their large and lovely garden. The rest of us keep chickens, but their litter only goes so far. (Dog and cat crap are useless for growing things in.) 

So in September, when it´s time to spread manure, what does one do for poo?

Three kilometers up the road in Terradillos is a full-size animal farm, with a focus on dairy cows. The place maintains magnificent mountains of manure out back, and this time of year the dairyman makes manure-runs up and down the N120, delivering richness to the fields of all his friends and relations. When he´s done, he mixes up what is left with water, and sprays it onto his feed-crop fields using a huge tanker truck. It makes for a fragrant few days, especially when he´s using pig shit. When the wind shifts from the east it makes your eyes water.

Two years ago I established a vegetable garden in the blasted adobe-clay oven that is our back yard. That kind of enterprise requires generous helpings of manure. The dairy man was the first person Patrick spoke to (such negotiations are the exclusive province of men). He didn´t know us. He said no, he needed all his poop for his own fields. We then tracked down all four of the shepherds between here and Terradillos, and all four said their sheep-droppings go only to family. There aren´t any big pig sheds around here. So we newcomers were, as they say, shit outta luck.

But next door, Justi´s barn was newly empty of sheep. He´d sold off the last of his herd, and wanted to use their barn to store his tractors. He was pouring a new concrete floor. Which meant scraping level many years of sheep leavings. It wasn´t high quality, he told me, but he kindly carried over two tractor-bucketloads and dumped them outside our back gate. We kept a donkey for a three-week period about then, too, and with her generous contributions our little garden was golden.

For a while. Now, alas, the shit´s running short.

I see the tractor-loads of dairy dung rolling past, I see the hillocks of black earth standing in the farmers´ fields, and I am seized with envy. When we take the dogs out on the back roads for their evening rambles, I notice where the farmers have dumped years´ worth of waste straw and lesser-quality stable litter. I am not picky. I don´t need the pure stuff. Any doo will do.

I am not ready, not yet, to sneak out and rob the poop-piles of strangers. I shiver to think what the neighbors would say if I was spotted on a midnight manure maneuver. What would I say if the rightful owner roared up, tractor headlights ablaze, and caught me black-handed? What charge would a doo-rustler face in a Court of Law?

There is an element of justice at play here. All those times I told people "don´t give me your shit." "Get this crap outta here..." They haunt me. Now that I need some, I can´t get crap for ready money. 

Before I blacken my good name I must exhaust all other options. Last night, with young Juli at my side, I spoke to our neighbor Eduardo. I am told the dairyman in Terradillos is Edu´s cousin. Maybe he can fix up something. Maybe not. It´s kind-of late now, he told me -- that stage of the manure handling is just about done. I may have missed my chance.

I haven´t heard anything today. No truckload of dung has magically appeared at the back gate.

Over in the Promised Land great mounds of fragrant black manure stand waiting to be plowed into the earth. I walked past them this morning with the dogs, who marveled in the wondrous, complex perfume.

If I must, I will drive 50 kilometers to the garden center and buy a carload of pre-composted manure. It will be neatly bagged, I can move it easily and put it exactly where I want it, when I want to. That would be the obvious solution, certainly the easiest if not the cheapest.

But something in me knows the local stuff is best. I want to be able to look those Jersey girls in their liquid black eyes and say "thank you."

Thank you, cowgirls, for giving me your crap.