We have just returned from a two-month stint in the relatively free world – UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal – and are now back in the Himalayas. Two long whole months wherein nobody addressed me as if I were a child imbecile servant – how long ago and far away those happy carefree days now seem. Two weeks ago, in Portugal, we got the news that Laser, my dog, had gone missing, presumed eaten by a leopard. The second dog in the last two years to go the same way – leopard food – because they weren’t shut away at night, when leopards hunt.
My days used to start with a pre-breakfast walk with Laser and drew to a close with a pre-dusk ramble, after which I fed him and shut him in. Now I walk alone. I blame no one but myself. Least of all the leopard, a beautiful creature, deprived by years of overhunting and encroachment of its natural prey. Nor the people charged with his care, who work from well before dawn to after sunset and have little time to chase a recalcitrant dog. Laser was my dog and I went off and left him for two months in a hostile environment with inadequate care provision. If I ever get a dog again, a big if, he will be kennelled while I am away.
His brother, Oscar, comes round every day whimpering and wagging his tail submissively. We are the nearest thing he has to a birth family – the two brothers were rescued from the streets of Dehradun as puppies by the remarkable Jodie Underhill, the Waste Warrior – our inspiration in the titanic battle against the proclivity of so many people in India, it seems, to turn their immediate environment into rubbish tips. Oddly. Every month we clean up an area – a couple of months later it is strewn with garbage.
Had we kept the two dogs together they might have both managed to scare off a predator, but we were obliged to give one away to the neighbour; Oscar, the dimmest, turns out to have been the most fortunate.
While we were in Iberia we collected olives, from the tree, with a view to planting the seeds at Himalayan Orchard. Buying olive seedlings in India would involve a 1400 km round trip to Rajasthan. I love olives and olive oil, plus it has been proven beyond scientific doubt that they improve your life expectancy along with the appreciation of the good things in life. Life expectancy in India (no olives) 68 years. In Italy (olives) 83 years. QED. Wine might be added to the equation. Along with a whole load of other things which you could add to the list no doubt – but my point is that I like olives, and wine. Red wine, from grapes. And while we’re in that area, grappa. Nonino.
So, while we were in La Mancha, at Alcazar de San Juan, the very heart of Don Quixote country, we stayed with a lovely old friend whose family owns and runs the second largest wine and alcohol producing company in Spain – 40 million litres a year. That’s 40,000,000 litres. These people seriously know what they are doing. It was such a refreshing pleasure to be in their company and to listen to people who actually know what they are talking about, rather than making things up off the top of their heads. Like BBC Radio 3. And like Radio 3 presenters, amazingly humble – far more interested in the subject than in their own egos.
(We highly recommend their reserve wine, if you can find someone who sells it: Monte Don Lucio Reserva La Mancha.)
In passing, I have been told that if you happen to belong to the small minority who raise objections to being addressed as if you were a child imbecile servant then this means you have an over-inflated ego. Should you fit into this slim demographic, well, we could form some kind of psychotherapy self help group. We could all sit around and take turns in coming up with the most annoying pompous half-witted comments we can think of and try them out on each other. After 30 years or so there’s a chance we might build up some kind of immunity.
Anyhow, we collected fresh olives, and once back at Himalayan Orchard followed the instructions – soaked them for 24 hours in cold water, removed the flesh, scrubbed them, pierced a small hole in the pointier end, and planted them in cocopeat – nutrient free peaty stuff that retains moisture and once the roots start to develop, allows them to freely wander without compacting. Only after the roots have developed do you then need to transfer them to a more fertile substrate so that the leaves get going. They should then be kept at below 13 C, so I unwittingly put them in my tool shed. The following morning every single olive stone had been taken by a rodent. Not one left. My thoughts immediately turned to killing rodents, regrettably. I’m not keen on the traditional snappy mousetrap as it doesn’t always lead to a clean death. The live traps and a deep bucket of water at least mean it’ll all be over within seconds, but in the end I was persuaded by my mother-in-law’s home-made rat poison balls, which coincidentally resemble olives. The next morning all eleven balls had disappeared from my workbench.
Some neighbouring children (who attended last autumn’s art exhibition) came round to torment the chickens and discovered a dead mouse, which one had to assume had dined on MIL’s fake olives. At the time, we had the two desi chickens that we acquired last autumn, and who were now producing eggs, plus the surviving (gargling) cock. As all three were now a good year or so old, the plan was to allow them to mingle and produce chicks. So we started making a dog and cat-proof fence. We have very occasionally come across desi chickens in the open, and often wondered how they managed to survive with cats and dogs around. Most chickens in India as far as we can tell are reared in huge industrial batteries, where their miserable existence is maintained with processed chemicals and hormones in cages where they can barely turn round. We had dinner a couple of years ago with a chicken farmer in Chandigarh who produces thousands of eggs a day but never eats any of them himself, knowing the crap they are fed with. He keeps half a dozen free range birds for his own use.
Our two hens were moved within their mobile toblerone pen to their new space under the cherry tree while I got on with the dog/cat proof fence. A temporary arrangement, but the hens wasted no time in scratching their new bit of virgin soil away to the extent that one of them (Hunny?) tunnelled her way out, and was immediately enjoyed by Oscar, judging by his sheepish behaviour and blood-stained chops, spelling the end of my sympathy for him.
Tomorrow, inshallah, the new pen will be finished and the cock (Basil?) will finally get to be with the remaining, non-tunnelling hen (Nunny?) and fingers crossed for some good news in the form of the pattering of little chicken feet.
I enjoyed Basil’s former mates very much – I like a gamey bird – and am exceedingly looking forward to a bit of Laikram’s goat. As last year, Laikram gave a goat the chop around mid-January, dissected it into smallish pieces which are hung and dried on a washing line downstairs, where a fair bit is still left. I have been promised a portion imminently.
A couple of nights ago I was served Himalayan Goral, a wild goaty antelope indigenous to these parts, which is on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Near Threatened Red List – ‘declining significantly’ due to habitat loss and overhunting. My MIL (a strict vegetarian) had somehow managed to get hold of some and gone to some trouble to prepare it. Which presented me with yet another ethical decision regarding other life forms. After some cogitation I came down on the side of not offending MIL.