Friday, 21 March 2014


last year´s grapevines

The new young chestnut trees, the olive tree in the plaza, the pine trees out back. They grow at a slant from the winter winds, but they grow. They survive.
Modesto, 80-something, still hiking out to examine his fields in the morning, still planting new strawberry plants in his big walled garden, still telling everyone how to do things better. He´s emerged in his slippers and Cardigan from his long hibernation. He is up early, marching round the town he´s marched around for most of a century. Winter has marked maps of veins on his face. Modesto does not climb up on the tractor any more, but he is ruddy and sharp.
Modesto´s son-in-law and grandson are farmers out of San Nicolas. They spread nitrate fertilizer, they plow under the winter ryegrass, their tractors crawl and swarm over their fields and Modesto´s these sunny days, rejoicing in the warmth, grumbling that it´s high time for some rain. They burn the brush in the ditches. I burned the brush out back this week, I accidentally burned a little tree of horsetail, it exploded upward like a Roman candle and I felt very sad, like I had injured a child. It will grow back, like the piñon and the Toby Tree out back grew back after I burned them a few years ago.
Out back there, right by the gate, some passing pilgrim dropped his pants and made a poo, complete with toilet paper. I was affronted. Then I looked a few feet away at the mountain of moldering cow manure, a commodity hereabouts. Almost no difference. I shoveled cow dung over the poo. I covered that sin with grace. 
Under the burnt black surface of the yard, down under the crunchy ash,  I see green. The earth is coming back to life, pushing past last year´s growth and this week´s fire, up into the light.


Friday, 7 March 2014

A Tree for Philip Wren

Wren Memorial Tree, and Harry Dog

On Thursday, in the corner of a sunny field alongside the camino, me and Paddy dug a hole.
It was not easy. The soil here is dark clay, but we´ve had enough rain lately that we could break the surface. We used a primitive sort of mattock to break it up, and shovels to clear out the chunks. It was hot work under bright sun. We stopped digging before the hole was very deep. We could not remember just how big the hole had to be.
We were peevish and hungry. We put the shovels in the back and went home.
We were peevish again today. 
Finally, at 3 p.m., the tree arrived. Paddy was deep into his siesta. The delivery truck followed my van up the camino to the edge of the field. The driver opened the door and jumped out to help me unload. The driver  was a very small woman, the same one who´d sold me this strapping young chestnut tree at the nursery earlier this week. I´d expected a big burly delivery man. I sighed. The lady never blinked an eye.
Between us we wrestled the tree off the back of the flatbed truck, onto the ground, over the ditch, up onto the field. She stood up the castañero next to the hole. It towered over her. She looked at the tree and the hole.
"That hole´s not big enough," she said.
She swarmed back up into her truck and headed back to Palencia. I made the hole bigger. I poured ten liters of water into it, and threw in the thawed carcass of a hen who conveniently passed on a few days ago. I put some sand on top, and spit in it, because that is what you do when you plant a tree. And then I went to put the tree into the hole.
It would not move. It would roll, it would tip over, but it would not come out of the big black bucket that covered the roots, no matter how I pounded on it.
I looked around. The tractors crawling over the fields were occupied by the neighbors I usually ask for help with this sort of thing. Paddy, at that particular moment, was not an option.
So I looked over the camino, and I said, peevishly, "Godammit, St. James. This tree is a memorial tree for a pilgrim who died on this road. I need some help here. Send me a pilgrim, please. A big, healthy one." 
I sawed away part of the bucket and got the roots nearer to the hole. I thought of the pilgrim who´d died, a pilgrim who´d stayed at my house, a pilgrim I actually knew.
He was a gentle man. Not a peevish bone in his body. I took a deep breath. 
"Phil Wren, pray for me," I said. "It´s your tree. Do something."   
And that is when the men came rolling up the trail, two tipos from Barcelona with backpacks and beer-bellies. Big men in bright blue and lemon-yellow quik-dri t-shirts, their faces smeared with sunscreen. I hailed them in my bad Spanish, asked them for a hand, told them this is a pilgrim tree.
They stepped right up, peeled off their packs, pulled up the tree trunk so I could free it from the bucket. They dropped the tree in the hole, helped me stand it upright, helped me line up and pound-down a pilgrim staff alongside the trunk. They snapped pictures with each other´s cameras.
I did not have a camera, but I will post a photo of the tree real soon.
I do not know the names of the pilgrims who helped to plant Philip Wren´s tree, but I kinda think Philip knows who they are. Maybe he´ll keep an eye on them from where he is.
They were godsends, after all.

The Wren Memorial Tree was funded by contributors from all over the world who were encouraged by the Rev. Philip Wren, an English pastor known affectionately as "Methodist Pilgrim" on the pilgrim forum. Philip walked the camino several times after diabetes cut short his career as a parish pastor. He died in May 2013 at the municipal pilgrim albergue in Logroño. 
A slate marker will be added to the base of the memorial tree once the soil settles around the roots.