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Countryside bursting into life

By MARGARET BROWN [email protected]

Margaret Brown is one of the Algarve Resident’s longest standing contributors and has lived in the Algarve for more than 20 years.

Following a week of dry weather, the hill walks and top part of our land are rock hard while the valley stream might never have been, disappearing below ground three days after the rain stopped.

During its turbulent passage since last December new oxbows have been carved and wide pebble beaches deposited by landslides, and here and there a fallen tree where its roots were exposed by the rushing torrent.

Closer to home, vegetation round the house was already knee high by the middle of March and palm fronds sweeping the ground, the whole area badly in need of a short back and sides. Now freshly trimmed and pruned, the neatness outside has made me see the inside of the house as tired, untidy and badly in need of a spring clean. It is that time of year when clothes look fit only for the lixo, nothing in the shops fit and two weeks at a Health Farm would be a wonderful indulgence.

At the time of writing, Britain seems to be going through a similar dark mood of disillusion and rebellion, with strikes just at a time when one would expect Labour to be supporting its government rather than cutting at the roots and Conservative hopefuls have nothing to offer but hot air and party politics.

One bright spot has been the safe return of five year old Sahil Saeed to his home in Manchester. News that three of his kidnappers had worked for the Spanish Police as translators brings to mind Madeleine McCann’s abduction, and the failure of the Portuguese authorities to close borders between the two countries immediately after her disappearance was reported.

Spring cannot come soon enough with its promise of new life, although birds have been at their mating games for a few weeks now, with the usual mess dropping down from patio rafters and Blackbird threesomes arguing over partnerships.

A local vineyard planted about four years ago appears to have burst into bud almost overnight and, for the first time, the owner has sown yellow lupins and favas between the rows. Ecologically, this is an ideal way to convert molecular nitrogen from the air into ammonia as a plant food, the conversion being carried out by nitrogen fixing bacteria present on their roots. Known as Leguminosae, it is the third largest family of flowering plants of which both lupins and broad beans are members.

For centuries, good agricultural practice required a rotation of crops, one of which always included a member of that family in order to restore the level of nitrogen in the soil. From the middle of the 20th century, widespread use of artificial fertilisers and increased pressure on farmers to produce more of everything from a set area of land has already shown a backlash. Apart from reducing the population of useful insects underground, it has become necessary to use more and more chemicals to maintain a static level of crop production; any surplus is then leached by rain into the sea via rivers and streams. This is one of the causes of fresh water pollution leading to dead areas in the oceans. It is time for a major review of world wide farming practices that are both sustainable and adequate for the basic maintenance of world populations.

Immediate worries are more easily settled. The chimney above our wood burning stove has a wire netting corset which deteriorates with time and when it does, first nesting materials and then sparrows drop down inside the glass door of the fireplace. Panic struck feather bundles shoot forth in clouds of ash when released, leaving through an open window and within a short time are back again banging on the door of the fire. As a daily occurrence, it is messy and there is a niggling fear that some may have been barbecued when the fire is lit at night. The Boss was threatening to rewrap the chimney himself, a definite ‘No-No’ while he is still convalescing but our man from Rumania came in the nick of time and carried out the necessary repair.

Some things are beyond repair. For several months, a local smallholder has been rearing a pig for slaughter, its homely grunts recalling happy days of my childhood on the farm. Then last week, quite early in the morning, I heard the terrible screams of an animal fighting for life. It sounded like a ritual pig killing carried out according to the rites of Matança de Porco. Usually practiced during the cold of winter to avoid flies, perhaps this chilly spring had encouraged the farmer to make sure his larder was full as prices rise and money becomes in short supply. Matança in earlier times was associated with taboos attached to the periodic loss of blood experienced by women. While it occurred, they were considered ‘unclean’, dangerous and offensive to men and among other things, liable to cause spoilage of pork meat during the killing by staring at it.

According to a book by Denise L. Lawrence published in 1988, a small southern Portuguese village given the pseudonym Vila Branca continued to hold these beliefs. Fortunately for pigs as well as for women, most places have moved on, but the ritual shedding of animal blood continues in many less developed countries across the world as well as on the killing fields of war.