The Owl and the Pussycat

And other nonsense

I, like so many others, have done the vast amount of my recent nature observation from the windows of our home. Here, in the west of Alentejo, even on the fourth floor, sometimes nature also tries to bring itself closer to us. Butterflies lay their eggs on our salads and nasturtiums, Moorish geckos hide behind the plant-pots, tiny spiky dragons, who would not surprise me if they hiccupped smoke. Birds have been known to fly in and then out again, sometimes pausing on the open bedroom window and depositing tiny calling-cards on the floor. In the corner of the kitchen sits a fat, elegant spider, high up and patient. She is well fed, for this corner, above the door to the balcony, is where the insects rise and where, subsequently, a constant rain of desiccated corpses falls to the floor. This is not a bad thing, even spiders need love and feeding and, to be honest, I prefer them to mosquitoes who, in turn, love me.

We have managed to install a magnetic bug screen in the bedroom, which is rather wonderful, as it means we can leave the window open and let the cool evening air replace the heat of the day. As a welcome bonus, it also enables me to stand in the dark, looking out at the view at night, inhaling the scent and hearing the voices of the night-shift.

I have previously mentioned the joy of watching a pair of barn owls dance together and, ever since, I have tried to see them again. This new arrangement, where the shutter and window is only closed when the night is cool enough and we are about to sleep, means I can watch and wait, with no fear of that high-pitched whine, signalling a night of misery. The screen went up on Monday, I saw my first owl on Wednesday.

Below us is an orange grove, leading to a hill with trees, more oranges, flowers and grasses in abundance. During the day, small birds flit and call beneath, in, and above these: warblers, sparrows, treecreepers, tits, finches and more. I know there are nests; I have watched birds disappearing into the emerald shade, beaks carrying caterpillars or flies. Yet I never really thought about what became of the birds at night, how they slept, or the dangers they faced.

The owl, a white, silent ghost sailed in from the east, sweeping around the grove widdershins, circling in a tighter and tighter spiral, until it was turning around a single tree, perhaps trying to scare a small bird into making a mistake, to flee into sharp talons and the eager beaks of owlets. I missed what happened next, as I myself turned away to ensure Aurélie did not miss the show and, when I turned, the owl was disappearing back to the east, towards the church. Moments later, a white cat leapt onto the wall beside the oranges, from beneath the same tree. Were these two working together, flushing out prey? Is there an ancient treaty here in Alentejo, where white cats and white owls share the spoils, a union of hunters? Or perhaps there is further magic at work, one owl of the pair cursed to spend the summer in the body of a feline?

Just before we gave up watching, the owl reappeared, passing up the hill, silent and beautiful. Did it see us, standing there in the dark? I imagine it did and, later, told the cat. The next morning, as we prepared for the weekly grocery shop, I heard a yell from the living room. The same white cat had jumped in through the open window. On the fourth floor.

Hello

This newsletter has been substantially edited. I have cut and tweaked, snipped and replaced more than any other recent missive. Sometimes writing is like this, sometimes the words find just where they need to be, in precisely the right order and with little need for help. Sometimes, however, words are fickle, hiding here and disappearing there, just out of sight — phrases which were on the tip of your tongue suddenly find themselves swallowed and lost, whole paragraphs pack up their troubles and leave, without so much as a goodbye.

I recently mentioned how it was fine if people unsubscribe but a thought has been nagging me ever since — I really hope they at least open one newsletter, just to see what it contains. I have, in the past, subscribed to newsletters, only to unsubscribe when I swiftly realised the whole was nothing but promotion and little fresh information or thoughts. I have a deep fear that those who have unsubscribed may think this newsletter is the same — that they didn’t try it, before saying goodbye. For some reason, this thought made me feel a little melancholy.

I can see the logic — download a free book in exchange for your email address then, as is your right, immediately unsubscribe. It makes sense if you only wanted the free book — of course it does, but I cannot help but feel that these people have missed out on something. I like to think of these messages as me talking to you — a friend, a catch-up of sorts and, using this rationale, I hope that the unsubscribers haven’t missed out on a new friendship.

Which reminds me, if you wish at any time, you can simply hit reply to this message and I shall receive your email, or head to the online version of this newsletter and comment, or say hello on Twitter. Whichever way, I love hearing from you. And, of course, you are always free to share this newsletter with others or, indeed, unsubscribe.

In other news, I think I do not thank my Kobo, (or my Kindle before it) enough. Not only can I carry and read an ever-expanding library wherever I travel, but I can quickly click on a word I do not know and absorb the dictionary entry.

One of the physical books I miss the most is my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. For those who do not know, this is a two-volume beast of a book. Shorter, it may be (rather than the 25+ volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is a weighty tome and one which is eminently readable. To lose yourself in a dictionary is a good thing, but it is a thing which often distracts from the initial impetus behind the search, hence being grateful for my Kobo.

Every so often, I deliberately pick a book I know will challenge me, teach me new lessons and new words. I love reading fiction which pulls me into the story, where I do not need to ponder the meaning of a sentence or the definition of a word, but I am deeply aware it is essential for my continuing development to also choose books which ensure I am unsure, which make me think at the time and after, which make me search and learn.

I find my carefully-curated twitter feed often offers me new material to read, recommendations of books are a currency I welcome at all points of exchange. Of my twitterati, I would just like to mention two accounts which have, between them, introduced me to more writers and books than perhaps all the others combined.

I have never known Terri Windling to make a bad recommendation. She is probably already known to many of you but, if you do not follow her on twitter, I would heartily suggest you do so. I would also say her website, Myth & Moor, is quite honestly one of the best places on the internet. A veritable treasure trove of wonders and goodness. Please, do have a peek.

I would also like to take this opportunity to say thank you to RunalongWomble who, every Sunday, asks people what they are reading and then retweets the answers. This is a fantastic way to get recommendations, as is the rest of Womble’s feed, where they recommend other books themselves, reviewing things on their website. Definitely worth a look.

Brave Protopia

I never settle on one internet browser, they change too often to do that. At any one time, Opera may be faster than Chrome, or Firefox may load pages more effectively than Edge, for example — or vice-versa. Recently, over the last two months, I’ve primarily switched to using Brave.

Brave is still relatively new and unknown to many, yet it is increasing its market share each month and with good reason. I first heard of it due to the fact I prefer to use DuckDuckGo as a search engine (as it protects my privacy and offers results which do not fall into a ‘filter bubble’ trap — if you are still using Google, try a few comparison searches on the two, the results may surprise you), and DuckDuckGo is a partner of the browser.

Brave blocks ads and website trackers by default but, perhaps, the most interesting feature is that it also gives the user a method of sharing micropayments directly to websites they like and appreciate. Users can also earn cryptocurrency (which can then be exchanged) by choosing to view advertisements. You need to be at least a little tech-savvy to follow the whole process, but it is simpler than it could be. Website owners can choose to accept payments and tokens in Basic Attention Tokens (BAT).

So far, in the last two months, at the time of writing, I’ve earned nearly 11 BAT, which translates to just under $3 at today’s exchange rate. My plan is to keep this in my wallet, until I find a small, deserving website or blog who accepts BAT. It’s not a lot, but every little counts.

In case you are in a similar situation, and want to throw a few pennies, dimes, cents, or similar my way, NotATravelWriter.com DOES accept BAT, and you can also tip me through my @AlexanderMCrow twitter account or even on Reddit. My website is having a few image issues at present, following a switch to a different host, but I hope to have these ironed out soon.

I am not expecting vast amounts to flow through this channel, but I do find the idea an interesting one, being able to easily share small amounts of money with the creators and writers you appreciate, can only be a good thing, surely?

Micropayments, especially from ‘earned’ resources, such as the Brave adverts, will undoubtedly become an increasingly major feature of the internet. I’d go as far as to suggest that the ability to share and redistribute small amounts of money with individuals in this manner can change the world. I can tip (those who are signed up to receive BAT) from Twitter and Reddit, for example, just because I like a tweet, a post, a piece of art.

If — or when — this form of appreciation becomes the norm, it will make a big difference to writers and artists. At present, a painter receives nothing for one of their works going viral on social media, perhaps they get ‘exposure’, people see whether they can buy a print, or a book — but this is a step removed, it requires effort and time. If those who like the painting click on the ‘tip’ button, send a small amount (say just 10 cents/pence, for example), it does not take long for that tweet to become a moneyspinner. I like this idea.

The world is changing, fast, and it is easy to look at the negatives, to look at the horror we can create as a species and ignore the positives. This is not healthy — we are at a juncture in our species’ history, where we can actually re-balance and address all those issues we are burdened with, make a new, better society, which functions for all — nature and the world included. This is possible — we have the technology and the minds to do so. The biggest problem is that we find it easier to envisage a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world, rather than one where no child goes hungry or uneducated, where nature and humanity are re-balanced, where power is clean and the air cleaner. It is easier to think in terms of death and destruction, and I worry we will simply continue to slip towards this, almost willing it upon ourselves. I also wonder whether the powers that be reinforce the narrative that a protopia is simply too expensive — and, to some extent, they are right. It would certainly mean an end of capitalism, so for those who suck up vast wealth and fail to ‘drip down’ or even pay their taxes, they will definitely lose money. They are invested in misery for the masses.

Change is coming, one way or the other, and I’d prefer it to be a protopian vision to the alternative. I fear there is no longer a middle way. And please don’t @ me about Communism, for example — a protopian vision means something NEW, not a rehash of the old. Follow @monikabielskyte on twitter, or watch her talk on youtube if you want to understand more than my own short, muddled thoughts and words can provide. She is definitely a voice you should hear.

Free Books! Again.

In last month’s ‘normal’ newsletter, in relation to the release date for my third novella, I mentioned that:

“I’m going to say that this will be released in June, and I’m going to try very hard to stick to this statement. Let’s see, shall we?”

Well, as you’ve probably noticed and perhaps also guessed, some time ago, this did not happen. However, something wonderful DID happen this month, which I will tell you more about, below.

Meanwhile, this seems a good point for a small spot of promotion.

This month Only One Death, the first of The Lesser Evil series, is a part of a group promotion over on Story Origin. I’m new to this site and, as yet, have not had enough time to appreciate all there is to offer. This first promotion I have joined is entitled Midweek Madness June’s Jeopardy and, as this title suggests, features books containing some sort of jeopardy or risk. As those of you who have read it know, Only One Death certainly fits this billing, rather too well for some characters. Do have a look and download some of the FREE books available — there are over twenty to choose from. The promotion ends on July the 4th, so hurry!

On June Celebrations

June is the month where both my parents, my Grandma, Aurélie, her father, and several other members of our families all have their birthdays. In the case of my Mum and Aurélie, their celebration is on the same date, with Granny being the day before.

Those of you who know me back in the real world, will probably remember that I like to handcraft gifts when I can, often using wood. I enjoy working with wood, usually utilising a knife to carve, and little else beyond sandpaper. Each such gift takes time and each takes thought and, for Aurélie’s birthday, this was no different.

I worked with two, very different, woods. One gift was made from Acer platanoides or Norway maple, the other from Quercus petraea or sessile oak. The former is easier to work when seasoned, considerably softer than the tightly-ringed Scottish sample of oak I used.

For some time now, I have been carving Aurélie a series of miniatures, wildlife relating to wherever in the world we have been. For example, there is an elephant (the first one, whilst living in Chiang Mai), and a dolphin (after watching them at Chanonry Point on the Moray Firth). This year, I attempted a stork (or Cigogne as we usually refer to them), for rather obvious reasons. ‘Our’ storks may not have bred this year, but they have provided endless interest and entertainment, including this template for her gift.

However, this is not really what I want to mention.

The oak I used for the other gift was a piece I collected from my time out in the wilder reaches of west Scotland, when I went feral and spent months living out in the woods alone. This timber therefore comes with emotional resonance, it is deeply attached to who I am, harvested at a time, nearly ten years ago, when I was working out who I was, who I wanted to be and the direction I wished to take my life. This period of time followed my leaving behind the city I had called home for nearly a decade, where I had been to university (the second, successful, time), where I had met my wife, where I had subsequently parted and divorced. It was a time full of thought, of rumination, and overflowing with questions.

Therefore, it seemed wise to use some of this wood for another big question, a question also full of resonance, a new path beginning. You’ve probably guessed the inference by now but we went for a bike ride out into the cork pastures, to find a lake and a spot for a picnic. Without going into too many details, I cunningly pretended Aurélie still had a birthday present to receive (she had — and still has — to be fair, the postal system being what it is at present), went down on one knee and asked whether she would marry me. Fortunately, she said yes.

The oak ring I had carved had taken a lot of work, a lot of thought and careful carving — one little slip, or too much pressure and I would have needed to start again. As I made it, I used the time to consider what it meant, what it means to me and us, how my path has wound to this point, all those variables needed to bring the two of us together in a city halfway around the world. I make up stories, true, but the world is constantly weaving her own, and ours is a strong example of narrative. To say I am happy would be an understatement.

It was the perfect location to ask that question, the fresh breeze near the ridge-line cooling the heat of the day, the shade of a cork oak ensuring just the right temperature. The photos in this newsletter are from this day, including the tree beneath which we had our picnic and the question was then asked, just imagine the murmur of bees and the calls of birds, the wind in the leaves and the scent of heated soil and cork oak.

Finally

This seems like a good, joyous, place to leave this, although there is so much more I want to talk about — Dark! 7 Wonders Duel! A Time of Gifts! I would like to say hello to new subscribers and a huge thank you to all of you who read these words. It is a great pleasure to have the privilege of sharing my thoughts and notes with you. Until next time, take care of yourselves, and one another.