Steve Andrews, The Bard of Ely, in Tenerife
The Bard takes me for a nature walk
I went to see my old good friend Steve, also known as "the Bard of Ely", in Tenerife.
Steve and I go back many years, to my student days in Cardiff. He's a giant of a man, over six foot tall, with a scholar's stoop, a cascading mass of pure white hair tucked under a baseball cap, and a fluorescent green beard.
The stoop is not a physical stoop exactly. It's more a sort of mental stoop. Like when he looks over his glasses at something in nature, something small that catches his attention, there's a stoop of concentration. It's something in his demeanour, a position he takes in relationship to the world, perhaps. A kind of reverence, a bow of acknowledgement to all the small creatures of the world.
Or maybe it's because he is such a tall man, so he's always stooping to be on a level with everyone else.
As for the beard, it is dyed. It's not something that has gone off on his face. Sometimes he dyes his hair too, a whole variety of colours. Once he dyed his hair turquoise. That must have been a very strange sight, a lurching, bespectacled, purple-headed giant with a green beard, looking like something that had just stepped out of a flying saucer, just popped down to Earth to do some shopping at the local supermarket.
Even without the turquoise hair he's very distinctive. Everywhere we went people would turn around to look. There's not that many people in Tenerife with a bright green beard. Not in Tenerife, not anywhere in fact. Green beards are a rarity wherever you go.
It's fair to say that Steve is more than a little eccentric. I don't think he'll mind me calling him that. He is just not at all like other people.
He told me a very funny story about this. He said that when he was about twelve years old he made a very serious attempt to be a normal boy. "What do normal boys do?" he thought. "Normal boys ride bikes."
So he persuaded his Mum and Dad to buy him a bike so he could ride around on it like a normal boy. And then, very seriously, he set about trying to ride it. He rode it up the street and he rode it down again. At least that's how he imagined it would be. All the other little boys had bikes, and they seemed to have no trouble. But every time Steve got on his bike he fell off it again.
He grazed his knees and he scuffed his elbow. He wrenched his wrist and he scraped his palm. He wobbled along a bit and then fell off again, over and over again. Wobble, crash, scuff, wrench, scrape, crash, wobble.
In the end he hated that bike.
The funny thing here is trying to imagine Steve on a bike, this great, tall, lanky, serious-faced little boy, trying so hard to be normal.
One day a friend asked if he could borrow the bike and Steve thought, yes! Yes you can borrow my bike. He was glad to get rid of it.
After a while his Mum and Dad started asking after the bike. This was quite a while later, several weeks later.
"Johnny Blotter has borrowed it," said Steve.
"Well don't you think you should ask for it back?" they asked.
So Steve asked for the bike back but Johnny had to confess that the bike had been stolen.
The normal reaction when you hear that something of yours has been stolen is to be angry. But Steve wasn't angry at all. He thought, Johnny Blotter has done me a favour by getting the bike stolen. I couldn't ride the thing anyway. Let whoever has it keep it.
So he lost the bike and never found it and he never tried to ride a bike again.
We were sitting in a bar by the sea when he told me this story. The fierce Tenerife sun was beating down upon us like someone had left the door open on a giant furnace in the sky. I was sunburnt in odd patches all over my body. We were drinking a beer and listening to the waves crash upon the rocky shore, me huddling under the shade of a parasol trying not to fry in the intense nuclear heat.
Earlier he'd taken me to look at a prospective nature conservation site. At least that's how he described it. He said that he could imagine it being laid out with benches, with a little wall around it to mark it off. There were all sorts of interesting and exotic creatures living there, he told me. Mosquito fish. Dragonfly. Ringed Plover. Damselfly. A few other creatures maybe whose names I forget.
We walked along a main road just outside the town to a place where all these pebbles were piled up. We walked across the pebbles. It was a bit of waste ground, strewn with dog-ends. There was an old plastic-covered blue mattress smeared in mud. The wheels of a buggy sticking out of the ground. Bits of old brick and breeze block and piles of scrap metal.
So we picked our way over the pebbles, stepping round smears of caked, dried mud, glistening with salt, till we came to a scum-covered pool.
It took a minute or two for me to adjust to the scene. I was looking at a dip in the pebbles with a small area of rancid water covered with orange slime. All around there was evidence that this was used as a dump by the local people. Bits of household waste and broken furniture, broken bottles and dog-ends. And Steve towering beside me waving his arms around in an excited manner, talking like a college-professor to a coterie of interested students.
Only there were no students. There was only me.
"See, there, under the algae, mosquito fish," he said. "The damsel fly breed here. Only there aren't any today. No dragonfly either." He was getting weirdly excited over the fact that the creatures that were supposed to be here weren't in fact here.
I realised that I was looking at the place Steve had designated a future conservation site. This pocked and slimed bit of waste ground, this evil-looking patch of stagnant water, with a few silvery little fish like needles darting about hither and thither amongst the weeds, a single, lost, lonely-looking bird hopping along the rim in the searing heat, pecking for food: this was the place of interest that Steve had brought me to see, the place where he imagined benches for people to sit upon and admire. Admire what exactly?
"Ringed Plover," said Steve, as if this explained everything.
Later, as we were walking back he stooped suddenly to pick up a pebble. "No, not here," he said, returning the pebble to the ground. Then he picked up another pebble, and another, until he'd found what he was looking for. "Look!" he said, full of excitement. "A grub."
A little nib of a wormy thing shook and wriggled, burying its head into the mud.
I said, "I've see a bear in the wild Steve. I've seen wolves. I've seen eagles. I have to say, as an excursion into nature this doesn't quite have the same impact."
Steve looked over his glasses at me with a puzzled expression.
Like I say, he's just not like other men.
A Ringed Plover
I have nothing against Ringed Plovers. I'm sure the Ringer Plover is a very nice bird. The one I saw seemed perfectly decent to me, hopping along by the stagnant pool, pecking amongst the pebbles, looking for grubs. And I'm glad for all the Ringed Plover in the world that there ARE still places where they can grub about in, as it were, grubbing up the grubs to get their daily grub.
The problem I had was in trying to imagine this as a Nature Conservation Site.
It was far too grubby for that, by which I don't mean there were grubs to be found.
Steve and I are standing by a stagnant pool in Tenerife, which Steve reckons should be a Nature Conservation site.
Steve said, "See? You can put benches there," waving his arm in the direction of a pile of pebbles, "and then a little wall around it," he said, indicating with a broad sweep the extent of his vision. "You need to put a little wall around it so that people think that's it's somewhere special."
I was just looking at that filthy plastic mattress and the buggy wheels sticking out of the mud, the broken bottles and the rich and varied concentration of cigarette butts strewn all over the place.
Maybe it could be a cigarette butt conservation site too, at the same time, I thought, a place where broken bottles are a protected species.
"You'd need to clean it up first, Steve," I said.
"I don't believe in cleaning things up," said Steve.
And he told me this story.
He said when he was young he was always rooting around in ponds looking for pond life of various sorts. Indeed he still is rooting around in ponds looking for pond life. But this was back in his teenage years. There was one pond in a park in Cardiff (where he was born) known as the Dell which had Great Crested Newt in it.
The Great Crested Newt is a rare and protected species.
So Steve wrote to the Cardiff Naturalists Society to tell them about the Great Crested Newt in this particular pond.
And the Naturalist people wrote back to say that, no, they had done a provisional survey and there were definitely no Great Crested Newts in this pond.
Steve wrote back to say that, regardless of their provisional survey, there were, in fact Great Crested Newts in this pond, and if they didn't believe him then he could show them.
So the man from the Naturalist Society agreed to meet Steve at his Mum and Dad's house so that he could show him the Great Crested Newts he claimed were resident in this obscure and neglected pond hidden in a park in the great industrial City of Cardiff.
They turned up at his door, the so-called expert and his wife, replete with nets and containers and various fiendishly contrived implements for catching rare species like the Great Crested Newt, and they all traipsed off to the pond together.
The pond was in a proper park, but whereas the grass in the park was mown, the pond itself was full of tall reeds and clumps of grass and willow bushes and had more weeds and nettles and suchlike around the edges.
Cardiff is damp and overcast most of the time, by the way, being in Wales, on the Western coast of the British Isles, a generally sodden and dismal region. I only add this detail so you can picture the contrasts in the story, between what we were talking about, and the place we were talking about it in.
Las Galletas, on the other hand, where we were now standing, is on the south coast of Tenerife just a few hundred miles off the coast of Africa and the Sahara desert and is in a hot, dry region, even now, in this early part of the year, transcendentally hot.
So you can try to imagine it if you like, in our heads we are in the middle of a damp, cool Cardiff morning, by a pond, while in our bodies we are being transmogrified in the heat beneath the raging furnace of the Tenerife Sky. I was being mummified in that heat, my precious vital fluids boiling up on my insides and coming out of my ears in plumes of steam.
Great Crested Newts
But back to the story.
So there they were by the pond, the Naturalist with all his gizmos, his scientific equipment, special gloves and his notebooks and pens; and Steve with no more than a bucket and a pair of wellies.
"There are no Great Crested Newts in this pond," said the expert.
"Yes there are," said Steve, who was already becoming sceptical of other people's supposed expertise.
And he waded into the water in his wellies, lifted up a frond of weeds, saw a Great Crested Newt, and with a sudden dart of his hand and a flick of his wrist had caught the newt and with a flop - slip, slop, plop - dropped it into the bucket of water.
"Oh my," said the expert, nonplussed. "My, my. Yes. Hmm. Yes. That um, er, yes, that does certainly appear to be a Great Crested Newt all right. Yes."
But Steve wasn't listening. He was catching Great Crested Newts in the place where Great Crested Newts weren't supposed to be. Head down, alert, peering over his glasses. Lift, dart, flick, flop, slip, slop, plop: one newt in the bucket. Wading in the water, oblivious to anything else. Lift, dart, flick, flop, slip, slop, plop: two newts in the bucket. Completely emersed in his watery, weedy, green world of wonder. Lift, dart, flick, flop, slip, slop, plop: three newts in the bucket. And on. Four newts and then five newts in the bucket. Plop, plop, plop, plop, plop.
"Um, ok Steve, thank you for that, I think we have enough newts now," said the man from the Cardiff Naturalists Society.
So after this the little pond in the Dell became listed as a place where you could find Great Crested Newts and consequently protected, and afterwards cleaned up. They pulled out all the grass and a lot of the reeds and weeds and they tidied up all the growth on the edges, and they made expanses of clear water by pulling out weeds and eventually they built a landing stage of wooden planks so you could stand on it and look at the Great Crested Newts. They planted water lilies in the centre in the cleared part, and the whole thing looked as pretty as a picture.
The trouble is all of this was done with human beings in mind and had nothing to do with Great Crested Newts, who happen to like weeds and reeds and clogged up places. The Great Crested Newts subsequently upped and left, and were never seen in that park again.
"That's why I don't believe in cleaning things up," said Steve. "You see, it was my fault that the Great Crested Newt disappeared from the Dell, and I vowed that if I ever saw anything like that again I wouldn't tell anyone about it.."
Bard of Ely's song "Kingfisher"
- Bard of Ely on HubPages
Bard of Ely comes from Cardiff in Wales but in 2004 he moved to Tenerife in the Canary Islands where, under his real name of Steve Andrews, he has...
© 2008 Christopher James Stone