Saturday, 6 December 2008

27 Trees

Twas mid-October or so, leaves were turning orange. The month, locals told us, to plant trees. Having never planted a fruit bearing tree in my life, the idea seriously appealed. After all, now we have a bit of land, and I suppose all a tree needs is land, some water, air and sun (and all those just appear for free anyway, right?).

Also we had Paulo (in picture, lecturing on something or other), our nature & land-use guide. He would insist it’s called permaculture, but I’m not so good with names. What he professes certainly seems to make sense: follow the productive patterns, or tendencies, that nature does anyway. But instead of weeds and brambles, lets throw in some plants we like, that produce food, let them interact with each other, let them grow vertically as well as along the ground. Think about light and wind when building something, or planting. Integrate your house with this productive place, so waste is absorbed in the land, and the land is absorbed, through food, into your house. All makes sense.

Paulo was not very impressed at our sudden urge to fill the land with trees. First, he insisted, you need a plan; you need to know where the water flows, where to build a ‘swale’ (a ditch dug on contour along a hill that captures water as it flows downhill) and so on. Yes yes, we tell him, we’ll do that too, we just really wanted to get the tree growing thing started. It can take years after all before they bear fruit, so why not get a few up and atems now then we can think about other things while chewing on a cherry…

So market day came and we went along to meet the tree folk. There we were, standing staring at all these head-high twigs, with labels or colourful pictures attached with the promise of juicy fruit. This, I felt sure, could no way become a pomegranate-producer. So dead looking. OK the oranges and lemons had those dark green waxy leaves. They looked nice. We were like kids in a sweety shop. We went mad: two of those, three of them, Oh, shall we try a white cherry to go with the 4 dark ones we just bought...

We found a seller right on the edge of the market, on the side of the road, selling his twigs of future fruitiness for 2 or 3 euros each. This drove us even crazier. Paulo tried in vain to hold us back, until he too cracked and dived in to the melee. Laurentiu was still here then too, our Romanian film-making maestro, as ever with camera on back, absorbing everything (he films everything all the time until you don’t notice him anymore).

It’s a bizarre thing to choose trees. It seems like the best thing you can do with money. You’re buying a bit of future, like painting in a multi-coloured multi taste experience into future moments that we will, if all goes well, be part of.

For Kira, our tree-climbing creature, we think about which one will grow good hand-holds. For our water tanks at the top of the land, which will create shade the quickest. And kiwi, the fast growing mega leaf that has to be the master-of- shade, we pick to people a dry exposed terrace which gets baked in summer. And, we imagine, an arched avenue you walk under, picking a couple as you go.

One of the best things is the variety you can revel in at this almost sub-tropical latitude (though now it feels more like sub-arctic, in our freezing uninsulated rented home). That’s the thing, it gets a major winter – there was snow in the hills last week! Then a balmy summer. OK, it probably won’t last long in the searing heat that global warming will no doubt deal to us, but while it lasts it seems to be the ideal growing zone. (Kira in picture here raiding some local black acacia trees that we planted around our new trees. Paulo introduced us to this nitrogen fixing concept, good for soil apparantly, and this leguminous tree does just that...)

So our mixed bag (van rather) had – in the baby tree sense – an orange, 4 cherry, 3 pomegranates, a lime, 4 apple, pear and peach, apricot, a lemon or two, an avocado, 5 kiwis (four girls and one bloke – why would this plant be about sex and no others?), 2 red-current bushes, a purple fig, a walnut, chestnut and a hazelnut, 4 grape vines, some pears and God knows what else.

Driving off I suddenly realised it was like buying pets: we had to go and look after them, plant them and so on. Saturday and kids out of school, we all charged down to get planting, which took a bit longer than we had envisaged. In fact it’s taken days and days. Half the problem is deciding where to put things. De we want to pick cherries over a cliff, or have them grow “to you” up on a terrace (Paulo would ask as I was hacking a hole for one of them beside a precipice). Oh.

When we got them to the land we realised we had 27 of them. 27! This is Kira’s day. And mine too. A special number for us. We liked that.

It hadn’t been raining much. We bought a hose and spent hours trapesing round the land to water them.

Then the frosts started to come, by late November sometime, and half the citrus were looking particularly unwell, loosing leaves and just being miserable. We were killing our pets. This was terrible, we tried lime taken from the old walls in the house, ash from the fire, Paulo insisted peeing on them was the thing (we stared at each other in horror) a neighbour gave us some seaweed they said would help.

Then we were told they needed shelter, insulation, against the frosts. So another day is spent building these mad structures around them, and laying old corn stalks over the top (a very permaculture sounding bit of advice from the guy in the market). here's a photo of a straw hat for the orange... Someone also told us that if you put a bucket of water below the tree, frost will go there instead. So we do that too, see the avo water shot...

So now we wait. We wait for spring, for buds to appear, for branches to wake up and stretch into the horizon, and sprout leaves and decide on their shape. Like putting dough in the oven, or even seeing a wee baby and wondering what it’ll look like when its not so small and floppy.

We wait for our future to come to us, well the other way round I suppose, and knowing that in between that time other things will, hopefully, happen in the spaces between the trees. Like a place for us to live in. An outdoor kitchen (between the fig and a Clementine – yes we bought one of those too, a surprise for Chimp, Clementine, Lily and Leon when they come).

The hazelnut we put in front of where we’ll build an outdoor shower and bath, because it grows quick and will become a living screen; also when you’re steaming in the bath you can reach out and get a couple of hard nuts (hang on, surely we should have put a fig there instead – how do you open hazelnuts while you’re having a bath?).

Now it rains a lot, so we don’t have to spend an afternoon watering them all. But what about summer. Uh oh. Didn’t think of that. Summer will come and maybe we’ll find a way.

Last night I was having a dream about visiting someone on the Western shores of Ireland somewhere. For some reason I was deciding that we should move there – hey, it was a dream. But I remember actually planning how to move the trees, one by one, to this new windswept future I had invented. Our twiggy pets have crept into my dreams.

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