In Praise of Water and the Antics of the Loir

I returned from three weeks in England to no running water. The bore hole pump was struck by lightning during recent storms and I had to wait for Monsieur Le Forage (Mr Bore Hole) to order a new pump, which meant a week of driving down to the village to fill up water containers at the communal tap. 

It's remarkable how much water we pour down the sink so easily. Using all my water from a bottle made me careful not to waste a drop. The washing up water and my wash water was recycled to flush the loo and water the plants. As inconvenient as it was to be without, my appreciation for clean water became ever greater. As I let it pour from a jug to wash my hands, the coolness and the splashing on my skin felt particularly delicious while the cicadas rasped away in the baking heat. We really can do nothing without water, in fact we are nothing without it. 

Apart from the odd thunderstorm and shower, rain is scarce here from May until September. The smaller streams and rivers tend to dry up, many of them run under the rocky ground towards the coast. Even though I have found most locals take seriously the need to conserve water, I notice too how the farmer on the plain nearby extravagantly pumps water over his lettuces during the heat of the day. The same farmer is known for his liberal use of chemicals; the price paid for people expecting lettuces throughout the year. It's easy to forget that traditionally lettuces were considered a treat for springtime, not something to eat in the heat of the summer, by when they have naturally gone to seed. 

 Dreaming of clear water. The waterfall at Sillons La Cascade

Dreaming of clear water. The waterfall at Sillons La Cascade

The other thing I came home to was a sizeable hole in my bedroom shutter along with a lot of wood shavings and some tell tale droppings. Somebody had been busy.

Meet the loir.

 Serious gnawing has taken place.

Serious gnawing has taken place.

I had heard about the loir long before I met it. Indeed, I had often heard the loir itself before that meeting. 

Sometimes at night there would be a vigorous scratching and scrabbling about in the wall cavities, in the roof space and on the balcony. I was told it was probably the loir who ate through the wiring to the solar panels, who caused black outs from chomping through yet more electrical wires in the attic. 

When I came to visit last September I found all the grapes had been cleared off the vine which grows up the trellis at the front of the house, leaving only the lacy stems. Not one single grape had been left. 'It'll be the loir,' said my neighbours.

 The  loir,  known as the edible dormouse. It was considered a delicacy by the Etruscans and the Romans, who kept them in ceramic jars, fattened them on chestnuts, acorns and walnuts, dipped them in honey and rolled them in poppy seeds before roasting them. 

The loir, known as the edible dormouse. It was considered a delicacy by the Etruscans and the Romans, who kept them in ceramic jars, fattened them on chestnuts, acorns and walnuts, dipped them in honey and rolled them in poppy seeds before roasting them. 

I came face to face with the loir a few weeks ago. I was writing at my laptop when from the corner of my eye I saw the shadow of a tail slip under a nearby chair nearby.

I squealed, leaped into the air and dashed over to the sofa to rouse Betty, who in her younger days was a very fine ratter. I have seen her catch a rat in mid air as it flew out of the compost heap. After watching her sniff around the edges of the arm chair, I took a breath, pushed the chair back, and out shot a furry grey animal, just smaller than a squirrel, and ran promptly over my foot! As I felt the sensation of soft fur and claws on my bare skin, two thoughts converged in my brain. 'this is my idea of a nightmare,' and 'this really isn't as bad as I thought it would be.'

The next thing I knew, it had run directly up the wall and was now clinging to the top of the sliding doors, slipping by its claws as Betty barked frantically below. The creature fixed its enormous eyes upon me and I felt its terror at the same time as my own pounding heart. I gingerly opened the doors, dreading that it might fall upon me, managed to dislodge it with a broom, whereupon the animal shot out into the night, chased by Betty at full throttle. 

Since then, I bought some supposedly inaudible sonic deterrents, but the high pitched tone they make seems likely to drive me away before it does the loir, who continues to squeak outside my bedroom window and scamper from one vine trellis to the next with joyful noisy abandon.

Meanwhile, this week the pump was replaced by Monsieur Le Forage and cool, clear water runs out of my taps as the pure magic that it is. 

Natural Allies

Thinking it might rain this morning, I decided to sow some grass seed in the bare patches in front of my house. I won't call it a 'lawn', as it includes mint and oregano, which send up their scent whenever Betty dog runs across. It is pretty rough with weeds and the daisies are welcome here. It does need a bit of help, so I scattered some soil, seed, then more soil and tamped it down with a rake. Half an hour later, I noticed that the seeds were moving! All over the soil and the grass, the seeds were moving across the earth. I looked more closely: ants were carting it about, carrying the dried seed in their jaws in one direction and returning empty jawed in the other. Following their trails, I saw heaps of seed at the entrance to their ant nests; impressive stores, industriously created within half an hour. With such organised team work, I wonder if any will sprout.

 Tiny snails clinging to wild love-In-a-mist  (Nigella.)  They cover many of the plants here like limpets. They also stick to the bonnet of my car and have often survived the long journey to England.

Tiny snails clinging to wild love-In-a-mist (Nigella.) They cover many of the plants here like limpets. They also stick to the bonnet of my car and have often survived the long journey to England.

It is good to keep the grass short here, as a couple of weeks ago, on one of the first warm days, I spotted a baby snake working its way across the ground. I was unsure whether it was an adder or a grass snake as I have never seen such a small one; it measured about seven inches long. A reminder to watch where I step. And then a few days ago, I felt a chill as I saw a scorpion dashing across the floor. I found it remarkable what perfectly straight lines it ran along. 

Bees are swarming around the small pond in the garden. They are drinking there and collecting water to take back to their hives to cool them down. I have to walk past them to go down to the washing line, but they don't seem bothered by me.

The other evening I had an encounter with a flying praying mantis. I felt something large land on my shoulder. I gave a loud squeal and brushed it off. My friend visiting me from Italy helped me put it outside into the night. It was about three inches long and it really startled me. But it was only praying... 

Friends and guests come and go, but it seems I am never really alone! 

 Buddha unperturbed by the bees. They fly around him all day. Some of their reflections are visible in the water.

Buddha unperturbed by the bees. They fly around him all day. Some of their reflections are visible in the water.

Last weekend my mission was to plant the tomato plants I had bought from Fran├žois in the market. Christophe, who helps me out in the garden, had rotivated a strip of ground and dressed it with goats manure. When I went to prepare the soil for the plants, I found it was completely infested with couch grass. I took a fork to it, but soon had to admit defeat. And so it was that I started digging a new and small vegetable patch down by the washing line, working under my straw hat to protect me from the heat, listening to the poet David Whyte speaking with Krista Tippett on the 'On Being' podcast. I heard him talk about how, 'we have so many allies in this world, including just the colour blue in the sky.'

 Betty lying amongst the young tomato plants

Betty lying amongst the young tomato plants

Being here, I am so aware of the presence of those allies. The cuckoo calls in the distance. The hoopoe bird softly replies. The nightingales sing day and night, cleansing the air, with each sweet phrase of their liquid song different to the last. Frogs start up in the evening with their alien, sonic sounds reverberating throughout the valley.

Dark brown eagles wheel about in that blue of the sky. The great rocks have been here longer than any living thing.

The air is alive with juniper and warm pine resin, blended with the sweetness of broom and roses, spiced with aromatic wild thyme, mint and oregano. Having spent my first couple of years of my childhood inland from Malaga, I have been longing for those southern scents my whole life.

Many of those creatures are considered enemies: the snake, the scorpion, the bees, the spiders I find in the house. So is the couch grass. When I went to the local garden centre and somebody asked for weedkiller, he was told that no, it was no longer available without having a licence. He was directed to a flame gun. I am loathe to kill any of the creatures, and I definitely don't want to use poisons. I throw spiders out of the windows and even the scorpion was put out of doors with a piece of card and a glass. The ants are everywhere and they come in all sizes. If a crumb of food is left out, they are there. They help motivate me to keep the place clean. If not, it will be the flies coming in. The bees, well they are essential. There isn't much water around, so I will share the pond with them. I hope we can all get along. I'll let you know how it goes.