But mostly light
My local world is bounded by windmills. Round hilltop towers, now shorn of their sails, some falling back to nature, others repurposed into circular homes. Many of the taller hilltops near this village are capped with a windmill, their curves juxtaposing with the angles of the distant line of pylons stepping southward in great cable-linked, invasive metallic strides.
Throughout the day, from the first light until the last, these stunted sentinels act as giant sundials, barometers against the azure or beneath the grey, sometimes vanishing for hours at a time, only to reappear in evening brilliance, all between us bejewelled by fresh spring rain and the low angle of the sun.
I live beside ancient hills, just where the flat plain rises to my back, to the south, the east and, for a short distance, the west. The dawn is swift and the sun stays in the sky, no cover once the day breaks. The dusk, however, is the opposite, a ballet of light and shadow, as the sun slips behind a hill, to usher in night, only to suddenly reappear, before repeating this dance, forest-clad hills skirted, and the patchwork of fields and white of the buildings lit again.
Throughout the evening, the windmills are points in this play, bright pinnacles, gnomon, casting long fingers of shadow. As the sun moves into hiding I swear the world begins to whisper, only to regain its voice as the daylight returns once more; birds sing, dogs bark, the sheep reassure one another, as a wave of technicolor rolls towards my position, at a speed which serves to reminds me how fast our planet spins, making me feel a little dizzy.
I wonder whether the missing sails once cast corkscrewing shadows of their own. Whether they were broad and slow enough to add to this marvel, or whether the miller had always locked them by the time the sun was setting. I wonder who else gazed from this village to this interplay of light and dark, what they thought at the end of a long day in the fields, or working with the local iron. You can find slag from the smelting here, dating back to the time of the Romans, or earlier, when the Miróbrigenses spoke the now long-extinct Tartessian. Names, an alphabet, lumps of melted rock, all surviving long after their makers are dust.
All those days spinning into years, those years into centuries and millennia, time adding layers to this place, sunset after sunset, no two ever alike. The windmills watch, as do I, one day both to return to dust, as the hills themselves are worn away as the world turns. I find this oddly reassuring.
I have now lived in Portugal for nearly two months. I am taking the definition of “lived” as having been in the apartment, not the time spent on the road in February, exploring. This is a decent stretch of time to begin to draw some conclusions about a place, albeit with the caveat of lockdown and life being a little different in this day and age. It is, for example, very difficult to find friends or a community without the ability to move around.
I originally started this section in long-form, writing paragraphs and explanations about each item on my list. However, as I am wont to do, it turned into a giant essay. I am sure a list is more palatable, so here we are, bulleted points for your perusal:
Clouds, oh the clouds, the colours, the shapes, the movement.
The wind — an old, close friend, and how I have missed it.
Warm sun and lots of it.
The quality of the light, indoors and out. I was spoilt by this, growing up in Orkney and living in Caithness — but have missed it in Chiang Mai and SE Asia — here is similar to the north of Scotland, there’s just something about the air. Which leads to…
The air quality. It is so fresh, so pure, it is a joy and my lungs are so very thankful. The ocean winds keep it moving.
Unheated (other than a fireplace) homes, wearing woollen clothes inside, the evenings scented by woodsmoke.
The wealth of insect life, that crucial building block for a healthy ecosystem.
Birds everywhere. Their song a constant soundtrack to the day. The clattering of the storks, screaming swifts and squabbling sparrows just some of them.
Wildflowers in an abundance and variety I do not believe I have ever actually witnessed (the Machair in South Uist comes close for spectacle, but there are more species here). Makes me ashamed of the relative desert some parts of the UK have become.
The smell of the place — whether the eucalyptus plantations, the dry burnt scent of the pine trees, the woody deep smell of the cork oaks, the labdanum oleoresin of the brown-eyed rockrose, or the many different tendrils of flower perfume.
Portuguese blended coffee is surprisingly good. Really, very good.
The wine is an astonishing revelation. So much depth and flavour.
The wine labels are just as delicious, beautiful artwork featuring local nature.
The unexpected joy at watching a roof being taken down and a new one put back up, using techniques I doubt have changed in a long, long time (chainsaw excepted!).
Also unexpected — a 13 Euro electricity bill for the whole of March.
The beauty of the night sky, the stars sharp and bright, our position and a lack of bright night lights enhancing this.
Fresh citrus, especially oranges and lemons.
Cutting down on food-miles — most of what we buy is produced very, very locally.
For now, this list will suffice; there is more, which I shall, no doubt, share over time.
Much of my time this month has been taken with the redrafting and edits of my third novella. I really want this to be released in May, for a number of reasons, but it is taking longer than I would like. It has also grown in the redrafting and can almost be called a novel. As yet I do not know what it is to be called (but it will have the word “death” in it, yes).
This story features the introduction of a key character in the longer fantasy epic to come, at two times in her life, the stories weaving across time, showing how the years in between have changed this character, how she has grown and what she has lost. It is also an attempt to capture fear, to keep the reader breathless, through both tales, with little time for rest — this is not the easiest thing to do; pacing issues are often taken for granted when they work but, when they don’t, they really stand out. I am still hopeful you will be able to get this story very soon — it will also come with a bonus tale, which is essentially a monster hunt, featuring the same character and set in between the two stories detailed in the novella.
The swifts came back to Portugal much earlier than I am used to in the UK. Which is not really a surprise, given how much warmer it is, and how close to Africa. What is a surprise, is how swiftly (sorry) they got to work repairing their nests and getting on with the process of creating another generation. I suspect they may also leave earlier than I am used to.
I am also surprised that our resident pair of storks aren’t sitting yet. I keep thinking they will be, any day now, but then off they both fly for an hour or two. They are certainly mating, increasingly, with considerable clattering afterwards, the male’s wings outstretched and folded like origami, swaying from side to side. I will keep you informed.
As with all forms of nature study, if I put in more time, I get better results. I am trying to ensure I look outside more, for a period of minutes, rather than a brief glimpse. This affords wonderful results, with the smaller birds, which dart and hide so quickly, often appearing when I look — there are more here than I know, and I am often consulting my guide (it’s in French, so I then have to search online for the English name — this serves to lock new species into my brain, in a remarkably useful manner).
As an example, I looked outside after this paragraph, for two minutes. I saw swifts, barn swallows, red-rumped swallows, house martins, a great tit, a white stork, a blackbird, a short-toed treecreeper, house sparrows stealing water from a dog’s bowl, and a black redstart flitting to its nest. In two minutes, from a window on the fourth floor, without binoculars. I am well aware how lucky I am.
Finally, for this section, I have to mention owls. Specifically, barn owls. For some time now, I’ve been hearing them both screech and hiss as I read in bed and I suspect they may be nesting in the church tower. As we got ready to head to bed the other night, Aurélie called me into the spare bedroom/gym although, seeing as she was looking out the skylight window whilst brushing her teeth, it was difficult to work out what she was saying.
It turned out a barn owl had flown just above the window — we suspect it may have been sitting on our roof, which explains the hissing and nearby screeching. I looked out the window with her and, despite her pointing and urgent words, it took me a while to see the owl — or owls. There were two and they seemed to be dancing together, ghosts at night, above the sleeping village, their white feathers catching the light from below, appearing and disappearing as they twisted and turned. As I have said before, sometimes, when you witness a moment of nature, you just know it will stay with you — and this was one of those moments, pure pleasure and an unforgettable treat.
Exercise Bore and Saving The World
In the past I have, on several occasions, threatened to discuss exercise, fitness and movement. This threat has never really come to pass, however. For me, exercise is best done alone. I tried a gym, once upon a time, ooh, ten or more years ago, but it did not work for me. I’m too much of an introvert, too terrified of what others think, that they watch and judge, that I’m somehow doing something wrong. Better, then, to work out at home.
When we moved here I came equipped with a kettlebell, my gymnastic rings, a homemade punch-ball, and an exercise band. I have been working out consistently over the past seven weeks, trying to develop a decent routine, to fix the niggling aches and pains, revert the anterior pelvic tilt of too long spent sitting at a desk, and generally feel good in my body.
I also have some specific goals, but I’m not ready to discuss or share these just yet. There’s a reason this passage is entitled “exercise bore” — I do not want to become one of those people who see the need to evangelise about exercise, there’s no point. It’s an individual thing, as far as I’m concerned, you have to commit to no one but yourself.
Instead, I write this to touch upon a thought which flashed through my mind the other night. Who are we? Are we our bodies? Are we our minds? I lean towards the body merely being a vessel for the brain, for the mind and I cannot help but consider how has this vessel altered across my life.
I wonder what a teenage me would make of forty-something Alex? He would be dismayed that the pure vision he enjoyed was slowly worn away by a decade of office work, artificial lights, lack of daylight and excess computer glare doing their thing. He would note that I stand taller now, the fear of being seen which encouraged me to hunch as soon as I grew no longer present, back muscle work pulling me tighter and more upright. I suspect he’d probably also be surprised by the muscle size and definition — goodness knows I am now; it is a validation of the work I’ve put in, yes, but not one I take for granted. Sometimes I catch sight of myself in a mirror and wonder who is staring back.
I am stronger now than at any time in my life. I may not be at my heaviest but I am at my healthy-heaviest, adding over a kilo of muscle in the time I’ve been in this apartment.
For a long time, I got away with doing little or no exercise, trading on the foundation of an active childhood, not too worried by the years of smoking or drinking but, as I got older, I realised I could no longer do that, no longer rely on good genetics and the past alone.
The big change came when I understood that the person best placed to manage my chronic issues, whether physical or mental, was myself. No one else would do it for me. I started researching, reading, watching videos, working out what was best at that time, then later. And I kept at it.
Now I enjoy strengthening what is weak, working on damage: repair, revitalise, repeat. I like that I know exercise helps me mentally; it is a tool in a box of tools, it is a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole.
Recently, I’ve begun to consider the world in a similar way. To begin to consider a possibility of change through specific action.
It is hard not to imagine a better world. When the Berlin wall fell, I remember feeling things might actually change. I remember wondering what shape a world without division may take, but of course all that youthful optimism was removed, piece by piece, over the following decade or two.
(Incidentally, I have never had a better explanation behind this shift than the Adam Curtis documentary The Power of Nightmares. Well worth a watch.)
However, seeing as I taught myself to regain that youthful optimism, I find myself thinking, what if…?
We could alter things. Really alter them. Replace the intolerable inequality of rampant, late-stage capitalism with something new (of course, there are economists who suggest this is already happening and is inevitable).
We could seriously look into the idea of a universal basic income.
We could reconsider our cities, the size of the pavements, replace car-centric infrastructure with bike-safe lanes, for example.
We could stop killing the National Health Service (in the UK) and look at a system that isn’t so cruel (in the US). Invest in doctors, nurses, pay carers a decent wage, thin out those fat cats, the bankers, the city-types, those who make money with money for no reason other than the love of money. Stir things up a bit, share out what remains.
We could treat nature as the crucial system of support and care it is, rather than an inconvenience or resource. Pause and reconsider how best to use this one planet we currently have. How to share, again.
We could perhaps start to shout about positive news, about those things which show what an incredible species we are, our best achievements, rather than concentrate on our worst qualities. The media here is culpable, true, but the problem is not just them — they only provide what is craved. Switch the craving, make us want good news, then serve it.
We could actually address climate change. Not treat it like an inconvenience which needs lip service, but realise it represents something far worse. Then turn our minds to how best to help our world.
There are many other things we could do, many things I would like to see — fairly paying artists, writers, and musicians, for example — but will they come to pass? I do not know.
I do know, however, that this represents an opportunity almost sacred — we talk to each other in ways we now take for granted but, in reality, only occurred in a bare handful or two of years. We adapt so quickly. This communication is key — the more of us who talk about these things (and we are doing), the more chance there is of those with the power to do something listening. Maybe. Let’s see.
If I can do it to myself, a slightly-damaged, slightly-worn, once-jaded-now-content forty-something, perhaps there’s hope for the world yet?
You should expect more messages in May. I have signed up for a couple of marketing/promotion ideas, to see what may work to build the growth of this newsletter and to sell more books. I will be talking about this over the next month, recounting figures, the cold, hard data, what it means, and how I try not be discouraged (e.g. it can be tough when no one new has signed up here in over two months, but hey, that’s all part and parcel of the game and, honestly, I know my own lack of marketing has something [everything?!] to do with this). Watch this space.
If you like reading this newsletter and think you know someone who may also enjoy it, by all means do please pass the link along or give me a boost on social media (and thank you for those of you who do — I really appreciate it).