I sit looking over the valley as willow fluff drifts like snow through the late afternoon sunshine. It won't be long now before the view is blocked by my leafing trees, planted for summer protection. But this afternoon I still see the little village of Sare below, then the long valley over to the Pacific Ocean. My bergerie faces east to greet the sunrise; it is the tradition. All bergeries in Basque country face the rising sun, their windowless backs toward the westwind.
Summer is coming with all of her dangerous beauty. Already the noisettiers have provided the brilliant yellow cone-flowers that garden articles call insignificant. Already the saules have offered pussy willows that have seeded, the merles (blackbirds) have returned with their intricate morning song, the cuckoo's cry echoes across the valley.
When I first moved to LaRhune, the villagers never ceased to ask me if I wasn't afraid, so high up, so isolated, so alone with only an aged pit bull and a toddler daughter, if I didn't quake to the lightening that splits open the night sky, the west wind rushing at 100 kilometers an hour through the old oaks near the house, of the wild boars and foxes, and of thieves in the night. I wasn't then, nor am I now. My view remains that any thief who stomps up the mountain to try to carry down a boxload of my precious poetry books deserves them more than I do. And the rest -- the wind and weather and flora and fauna -- they are part of the package of life on the mountain.
Yet summer holds its dangers. After fifteen years of living on LaRhune, I know dangers exist and most of them appear in the summer. The first to show this year were the guepes. I am not someone who fears guepes, wasps who leave you alone if you leave them alone. And I've been stung by multiple guepes twice and lived to tell the tale, once when I was in a rush to catch a plane and jumped into the 4x4 on a very hot day without looking and sat on several guepes warming themselves on the seat; another time I hit a ground nest with my weed whacker and ended up rolling down the steep incline to keep from being stung any more than the 17 hits I took. It hurt but not terribly. The pain went away in 24 hours, unlike human-inflicted pain that can last a lifetime.
But alas the guepes have taken up permanent residence under the overlapping stones that make up my roof. So there are not hundreds but thousands of guepes with a proprietary right to the area. So far, no stings, but it is just a matter of time. Frelons are another thing -- yellow jackets two inches long, each sting the equivalent of 20 guepe stings. They tend to nest in birdhouses I set up; I was forced to burn one very near the house last summer despite my terror of getting stung and my horror at killing anything. One frelon sting in the neck and its all over; not even a helicopter can get you to the clinic quick enough.
Snakes live on the mountain too. In fact, one big couleuvre lives in the outer wall of my house, not far from my bedrooom window. As is so often the case in life, the big, scary snakes are harmless or almost; the little pencils of snakes are mortally dangerous vipers. You just try to avoid them like malicious people. You never turn over rocks, never put your hand in a hole, wear boots to hike in weeds or forestland. The first time I saw the couleuvre glide along the outside of the house and disappear into a crack between stones in the wall, I considered blocking up the hole like the Basques urged me to do. But I read somewhere that, in China, a snake living near you is a spirit protecting you. Maybe that's why I've never once had anything dreadful happen to me on the mountain.
My one encounter with a viper was a few years back. Out the south side of the house, birds started making a ruckus. On that side of the house the mountain slants up very sharply and ground-nesting birds raise their babies there since it is too steep for most predators to climb. My daughter and I hurried out and saw the two robins diving at a tree limb that was hanging down over the cliff. A viper had climbed the tree trunk and was descending on a branch toward the cliff. Just under the branch was the robins' nest with three young goslings fluttering tiny, useless wings. I watched spellbound as the snake moved its slow, steady way down the branch toward the nest and the adult birds took up suicide positions on the ground between the branch and their nest. I finally came to my senses, ran for a garden saw and a bucket, sawed off the branch so that branch and snake fell into the bucket, covered it quickly with a board and moved the snake to the other side of the mountain. Interference with nature? Probably. But something about watching birds prepare to give their lives for their young fills me with molten lava. It always has.
The worst danger, of course, comes from tourists who hike the nearby contraband trail, following it up to the summit of LaRhune. They talk too loud, try to approach the baby pottoks, and leave a wake of detritus behind them. I fenced in my acres some years back to keep the pottoks from eating my baby trees. Now the fencing keeps uninvited visitors off my land and the trees protect us all -- snakes, guepes, songbirds and me -- from prying eyes.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
I hike up La Rhune in the late morning when my first set of writing work is done. It is by far the most delightful time, no tourists yet, just the occasional old Basque with stories to tell, the vultures with their enormous wings whistling as they pass, the occasional sheep and the pottoks.
When I first moved to Sare, farmers from the community would carry their dead animals up the mountain for the vultures to eat. Well-meaning national health officials stopped the practice a few years ago. Now the vultures are always hungry, always searching. Last year we came upon vultures eating the hooves of a new born pottok baby, it's mother running madly in circles, whinnying. We saved the foal; fortunately only the nail part had been eaten, carried it back to the house with its mother following and kept it there until it was strong on its legs once again.
This year the babies are late. This is lucky since out weather has acting out -- a beautiful January, pouring rain in February, glorious in the first half of March and snow in the last half. April 10 is a good day for a baby pottok on the mountain.
Pottoks are a race of small Basque horses with large bellies and their ranks dwindled to the almost extinct a decade ago. From the side, they look like primitive drawings on cave walls. They run wild, fending for themselves most of the year, in heat and in snow, in driving rain, but village farmers vaccinate them and do what they can to keep them alive, since you must show a live pottok every year in order to collect the government subsidy. All of the herds on the mountain are females. Males get introduced once a year, left for two weeks, then retired. The government is trying to stop inbreeding, which is why all colts are removed or neutered.
I went back today to try to find the babies I saw yesterday but their mothers had already hidden them somewhere in the forest. I was lucky to see them yesterday. It turned the whole week magic.