Swapping swallows for scorpions

When we hit the lockdown four month mark, I realised that I was only aware that so much time had passed because my shampoo had run out. I’d bought a 1 litre bottle in my last supermarket trip before full restrictions were announced and my shampoo bottle morphed gradually into a slightly lo-tech calendar. I use it in conjunction with the days the bin lorry comes past (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) to track the inexorable march of time.

I’m sure that many of us are finding the lockdown days a blur, and I’ve discovered that I can’t even tell how much of the year has passed by looking at the natural world.

I’ve come to realise that experiencing the changing seasons in the UK always gave me a sense of routine and familiarity. And if something happened which was out of the meteorological ordinary at least it gave us new small talk material to endlessly rehash – “They’re saying this is the warmest February since the Great Warm February of 1911” and all the rest.

Since moving to Brazil, I’ve spent the first few years in an urban environment – a true concrete jungle for the most part – and I’ve been so desperately trying to make sense of the neverending cultural differences that it hasn’t left me room for processing much else.

I’ve picked up on some things, of course – February is no longer the month of driving rain and endless mud, of cold and damp and your clothes never drying. Here’s it’s the month of blistering sun and Carnival with its constant barrage of noise and heat and barely-clothed bodies.

My rural upbringing gave me an awareness of time which was at least partly based on seasons. Watching the swallows arrive, repair their nests with mud, raise their young and then bid farewell before heading off to warmer shores. Planting rows of beans and potatoes, gathering blackberries before the first frost and climbing trees to pick apples to store in the dairy. Delighting in the first daffodils and walking through carpets of bluebells. Crunching underfoot crisp curls of tan beech leaves which had once been such a delicate new green. Weathering haw frosts that left the ground iron-hard for days and meant that breaking the ice was not just a figure of speech before washing up, and days so hot and still that you had to climb out of the valley to breathe.

All these markers exchanged overnight for a new way of doing things. Summer thunderstorms, with high winds and torrential rains, and winters with days so hot and bright that you sweat in the sun and shiver in the shade. I’m learning that winter is tick season because it’s dry and August is scorpion breeding season so the females’ venom is more potent and can be fatal. I’ve learnt too from the fruit trees in the park that seem to be suddenly laden with fruits – mango, acerola, custard apple, jamelão, avocado – and then equally suddenly, when I’ve remembered to bring a foraging bag, the fruiting time has past.

Tangerines (mexericas) in the back garden

Now that we’ve been out of the big city for a little while I’m starting to appreciate the changes more. There are flocks of swallows here at the moment, seen resting briefly on the telephone wires before continuing with their fly-catching aerobatics, or darting through the dusk so fast I can’t tell which is bird and which is bat. But I’m certain that the swallows weren’t here before, so maybe at some point they too will make their farewells and depart for warmer shores.

So, although I have no anchors here, no years of familiar patterns, perhaps I can use this time when I am physically prevented from pursuing my own plans to pay attention to the beauty that’s ever-changing around me and store it away like those apples laid out to winter in the dairy. Maybe one day in years to come I will look back on this year and see it as a time when I began to decipher the beginning of the pattern.

Swallows on their break

This post was originally published on the 3rd of August 2020 and has been transferred from my previous blog (Brazil from the outside in hosted by Blogger) after some technical difficulties with the site.

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