May 29th, 2010
George Orwell fought during the Spanish Civil War in the Sierra de Alcubierre in the Monegros on the Aragonese Front, during the freezing winter of 1937 (above photo by batiskafo on Flickr). He famously described his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Unlike the diaries he wrote in the very late 1930s and 40s, which have a truly remarkable number of entries on natural history, he wrote unsurprisingly little on wildlife during his time in Spain. There are, however, a few interesting nature-related passages:
THE days grew hotter and even the nights grew tolerably warm. On a bullet-chipped tree in front of our parapet thick clusters of cherries were forming. Bathing in the river ceased to be an agony and became almost a pleasure. Wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round Torre Fabian. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their ears. In the evenings they used to go out with green nets, hunting quails. You spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him, whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.
…and on the geography of the Monegros:
As the road struck into the sierra we branched off to the right and climbed a narrow mule-track that wound round the mountain-side. The hills in that part of Spain are of a queer formation, horseshoe-shaped with flattish tops and very steep sides running down into immense ravines. On the higher slopes nothing grows except stunted shrubs and heath, with the white bones of the limestone sticking out everywhere. The front line here was not a continuous line of trenches, which would have been impossible in such mountainous country; it was simply a chain of fortified posts, always known as ‘positions’, perched on each hill-top. In the distance you could see our ‘position’ at the crown of the horseshoe; a ragged barricade of sand-bags, a red flag fluttering, the smoke of dug-out fires. A little nearer, and you could smell a sickening sweetish stink that lived in my nostrils for weeks afterwards. Into the cleft immediately behind the position all the refuse of months had been tipped–a deep festering bed of breadcrusts, excrement, and rusty tins.
and on the hills and the lack of birds
Often in the mornings the valley was hidden under seas of cloud, out of which the hills rose flat and blue, giving the landscape a strange resemblance to a photographic negative. Beyond Huesca there were more hills of the same formation as our own, streaked with a pattern of snow which altered day by day. In the far distance the monstrous peaks of the Pyrenees, where the snow never melts, seemed to float upon nothing. Even down in the plain everything looked dead and bare. The hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants. Almost always the sky was empty of birds. I do not think I have ever seen a country where there were so few birds. The only birds one saw at any time were a kind of magpie, and the coveys of partridges that startled one at night with their sudden whirring, and, very rarely, the flights of eagles that drifted slowly over, generally followed by rifle-shots which they did not deign to notice.
On stripeless tree frogs and snails
Spring was really here at last. The blue in the sky was softer, the air grew suddenly balmy. The frogs were mating noisily in the ditches. Round the drinking-pool that served for the village mules I found exquisite green frogs the size of a penny, so brilliant that the young grass looked dull beside them. Peasant lads went out with buckets hunting for snails, which they roasted alive on sheets of tin.
On the cold, wild crocuses and mountains
The weather was mostly clear and cold; sometimes sunny at midday, but always cold. Here and there in the soil of the hill-sides you found the green beaks of wild crocuses or irises poking through; evidently spring was coming, but coming very slowly. The nights were colder than ever…..
I hate mountains, even from a spectacular point of view. But sometimes the dawn breaking behind the hill-tops in our rear, the first narrow streaks of gold, like swords slitting the darkness, and then the growing light and the seas of carmine cloud stretching away into inconceivable distances, were worth watching even when you had been up all night, when your legs were numb from the knees down, and you were sullenly reflecting that there was no hope of food for another three hours.
December 19th, 2007
I came across this remarkable event while reading about Barcelona in the Civil War
The “aurora borealis” is a luminescent meteor, a phenomenon that frequently happens in areas close to the North Pole and which can also be seen in rather exceptional circumstances in regions of Central Europe. So the aurora borealis that could quite clearly be seen from the Pyrenees, and even from the top of the Tibidabo hill in Barcelona, on the 25th of January 1938, was an absolutely unusual occurrence. It was in fact a unique experience. There are no known accounts of any other event of that kind at such meridional latitudes. Furthermore, the phenomenon took place in the midst of war, thus causing terrible confusion and shock among the soldiers who were fighting on the Aragonese front.
From THE REPUBLICAN YEARS (www.bcn.es) by J. Fabre, J.M. Huertas and. Pradas
September 4th, 2007
Henri Cartier-Bresson in Barcelona. Barrio Chino. 1933. He wrote “The narrow street of Barcelona’s roughest quarter is the home of prostitutes, petty thieves and dope peddlers. But I saw a fruit vendor sleeping against a wall and was struck by the surprisingly gentle and articulate drawing scrawled there”
July 22nd, 2007
“They write from Galicia in Spain that some fishermen lately took on that coast a sort of monster, or merman, five feet and half long from it’s foot to its head, which was like that of a goat. It has a long beard and moustaches, and black skin somewhat hairy, a very long neck, short arms, and hand longer than they ought to be in proportion to the rest of the body: long fingers like those of a man, with nails like claws, very long toes, joined like the feet of a duck, and the heels furnished with fins resembling the winged feet with which painters represent Mercury. ”
From Scots Magazine 1739.
In Spanish a mermaid is a sirena. More Iberian knicknackery here
July 22nd, 2007
I enjoyed this piece by Hsieh Ch’ing kao on Spain and Portugal from the ever weird kalebeul. More here on his Hai-Lu (1783-1797) on Portugal here.
Spain “…is said to be north-northwest of Portugal and could be reached by sailing in that direction for about eight or nine days from Portugal [one of Hsieh’s mistakes in indicating directions.] The area of this country is larger than that of Portugal: the people are fierce and wicked. Catholicism is the main religion. Its products are gold, silver, copper, iron, wine, glass, and watches, etc. The silver dollars used in China are manufactured in this country. “
June 5th, 2007
This month’s Quercus has an interesting article on Charles Darwin’s abortive visit Tenerife. Darwin had been inspired to visit El Teide after reading Alexander von Humboldt’s acoount of his ascent of El Teide. This helped fire Charles Darwin with a desire to travel leading him eventually to accept the invitation in 1831 to sail as expedition naturalist aboard the Beagle. The first stage of the Beagle’s voyage was to be stopover for several days at the Canary Islands. Unfortunately, just as they dropped anchor, a boat from the islandâ€™s authorities rowed out and informed Captain FitzRoy that they were prevented from going ashore due to a cholera outbreak in England. They were told they would have to wait 12 days in quarantine To Darwin’s dismay Captain FitzRoy gave orders to set sail for the Cape Verde Islands. ” Oh misery, misery we were just preparing to drop our anchor within a mile of Santa Cruz when a boat came alongside bringing with it our death-warrant…..And we have left perhaps one of the most interesting places in the world, just at the moment when we were near enough for every object to create, without satisfying, our utmost curiosity” Darwin’s full description here
|“View of the Peak of Teide”. Histoire naturelle des a les Canaries. Les Miscellanes Canariennes. Planches. Webb, P. Barker et Berthelot, Sabin. 1839
February 21st, 2007
10/10/2006 I came across these accounts of dogs and wolves in A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787 by Joseph Townsend. I assume the tiger is a lynx.
Piedrafita [in Jaca], a little village containing forty six houses is fed by a little valley and surrounded on every side by mountains. The shepherd dogs are large, well qualified to engage the wolves, which are here in great abundance. They wear a spiked collar to protect the neck, and to prevent the wolf from fixing on that mortal part. …..[Pyrenees] On the mountains I am told, are not only wolves, but bears and a species of the tiger; all of which, in the winter are exceedingly ferocious. From the dread of these, the shepherds constantly drive their flocks of sheep and goats into the villages by night, and when they are feeding on the mountains they are attended by strong dogs with spiked collars…. [Pyrenees] All the dogs in the little villages through which we pass have spiked collars . These are absolutely needful because wolves abound in these regions. In winter they become ravenous and bold, but in the summer they commit frequent ravages among the flocks by night if either the shepherd or the flock are sleeping soundly. [Somiedo]
And here is one of the spiked collars, a carlanca. More here. (Fapas)