Feed on

carrotSo you have decided to live intuitively. You try to tune into what is presumably your destiny by observing the signs in and around you. Now is the time to do so, for the world is counting down to a new year. First you get an urge to take up a long-standing invitation to visit a distant paradise. On the eve of your departure you send out a New Year’s greeting featuring a carrot. Shortly after that you hear of the potentially impending death of a human you care for. Soon after your arrival you receive news of the death of a horse you once connected with. The signs are there: a forest garden, death and a carrot. The new year has begun. I look at this lot and shake my head. What to make of it all?


Forest Garden

Forest Garden Estate terraces widening into a field

Forest Garden Estate terraces widening into a field

Many months ago a fellow whom I met (virtually, that is) through this blog invited me to visit him in northern Portugal. I was tempted and intrigued but kept putting it off, a move facilitated in part by the topsy-turvy goings-on at our livery yard and the demands of our translation business. Ian and I seemed to have much in common. Getting on in years, both of us are former teachers of English to foreign language learners, we appreciate good music and literature, we are drawn to the Portuguese language, we embrace nature, we have only discovered a love of horses fairly recently, and we are on a journey of self-discovery through our interaction with and care for our equine friends. I was intrigued by the coincidences and tempted by the opportunity to explore them.

A large field down near the stram

A large field down near the stream

As we headed into the final week of the year, I felt a keen urge to take up Ian’s invitation and succumbed. A total of three and a half hours of active travel later (not counting the time spent queuing, waiting, and doing what you do when you creatively queue and wait) I found myself driving down narrow, hilly country lanes at the south-western tip of Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes region in the cold, early dark of a winter’s night with nothing but trust in Google Maps to guide me. Getting directions to a point tapped on a map on a smartphone is technology’s equivalent of a godsend when your satellite navigation system does its equivalent of throwing up its hands in despair. And so I arrived at Forest Garden Estate, where Ian and his wife, Victoria (not sure where she got the name, because she is iconically Portuguese in almost every respect) soon had me fed, watered and warmly welcomed.

One of two waterfalls frothing the stream

One of two waterfalls frothing the stream

The wait until morning before I could view the estate and meet its other inmates was worth it. Banally listed as a 22-acre property, the photographs on Ian’s website do not do justice to this patch of earthly paradise. Cassius, a friendly 12-year-old Sheltie, served as my partly deaf guide around the estate first thing in the morning. (Well, he guided my awareness of the terrain over which he pattered between the trees and plants, while I dictated his direction with the odd encouraging call.) Picture, if you will, a collection of intersecting trails that lead you up and down a tree-strewn hill and grassy plant-lined terraces at varying levels, some widening to become granite-buttressed fields or vineyards, while others are host to the growing collection of plants and shrubs which Ian has planted over the years. All are tucked together by a babbling stream replete with waterfalls, which half-moons around the lower section of the estate. Forest Garden Estate: the name is apt.


Impending death

On the last day of the year Vicki and I sent out New Year’s greetings to friends and family in the form of a self-made online card. It features our horses proclaiming the joy of life and urging our fellow humans to enjoy it.

In reply we received an email from treasured friends in New Zealand that one of their daughters was on life support in intensive care following an attack of sepsis. One moment she was celebrating Christmas and enjoying the festive season in good health with them. The next moment she was rushed to the local hospital and then flown to intensive care in the country’s capital. The prognosis was not good as one organ after the next threatened to shut down. Not much imagination is required to conclude that our New Year’s message would probably not have been deemed to be appropriate. Impending death has the tendency to eclipse life … if we let it.



The morning after my arrival in Portugal I fielded a call for Vicki from her friend, Sabine, in Germany. I had only met Sabine once, when she and her husband, Frank, played host to us during our visit to Germany in March last year. You can read about our visit in my post entitled Snippets Germane to Germany. Sabine was clearly disconcerted and in a hurry but I did not probe. Later that day I learned that they had been up until about five o’clock in the morning nursing Frank’s horse, Pam. The mare had suddenly developed botulism the day before and had to be put down within 24 hours. The loss must be devastating.

I have a photograph of a man and a horse. The man is standing next to the horse reaching under her neck to cup her right cheek with his hand. Although the horse is looking ahead it is clear from her eyes that she is with the man as much as he is with her. The man is Frank, the horse is Pam, and they have just met closely for the first time during our visit to the stable that was home to Sabine’s horse, Smella, at the time. Shortly after our visit Frank and Pam took each other as lawfully paired horse and human.

Pam and Frank connecting with each other

Pam and Frank connecting with each other

The loss that is death claws heavily at the heart. It is so coldly, unrelentingly final. Or so it can sometimes seem at the time. I have a large canvas picture of my dog, The Smudge, hanging on my office wall. The photo was taken when he was two years old. He died a little short of 15. Put another way, The Smudge, of the picture was dead almost 13 years before I laid what had become of him since into the subtropical earth of his final resting place. I may lament The Smudge’s demise but I rejoice that I am capable of doing so, for the sadness of his death is merely indicative of the joy of his life, one that I was very privileged to share. Death is the price we pay for the joy of living. The only question we are called upon to answer is whether we deem it worthwhile. It is a question we get to answer throughout our lives, either in the affirmative or the negative. The choice is ours.


The horses

And after that mini-sermon it is time to return to Forest Garden Estate, where I get to meet Gertrude Stein II, the cat, and Ian’s horses, and to hear how he came to be with them. Until about four years ago Ian had virtually little or nothing to do with horses. Having two daughters, there was a pretty good chance that such a situation would change, and it did. Two mares made their way to the forest garden, one being a 15-year-old Lusitano called Lucy with a massive undeterminable growth along her right jawline, which does not seem to bother her, and the other a two-year-old cross with a French breed dubbed Doll. Lucy carried a gift with her in the form of a black filly born in April 2010, who was christened Frida. By that stage Sebastian, a two-year-old grey Lusitano stallion, had arrived. His courtship of the adult mares led to Lucy suffering a stillborn and Doll giving birth to a lovely precocious filly named Gretel in May 2011.

Ian's mares and their fillies

Ian’s mares and their fillies

And so it came to pass that Ian went from no to five horses within less than five years. His equine education has consequently proceeded through immersion rather than tuition and, as in the case of all who are serious about their horsey friends, is an ongoing process. The daughters have since left the parental roost and Ian finds himself constantly but refreshingly challenged to be the best human his horses could hope for. If I was a Portuguese horse, I would be queuing up for entry into Forest Garden Estate.

According to Michael Bevilacqua, ‘Understanding and trust have nothing to do with training.’ The relationship between Ian and his horses epitomises this. During my stay I watched them interact with each other both as care-giver and receiver, and as playmates. There were moments in the round pen when I thought to myself that, if anyone with some experience of horse training were to stand there and watch Ian interacting with Lucy and Doll, they might be tempted to shake their head in scorn. Yet despite the confusion which the horses clearly experienced, they remained entirely connected to their human even after the gate was opened and they were free to go. The bond which Ian enjoys with Sebastian is also special. Horse and human can walk at liberty together. When I compare this to the difficulty which some of the World Equestrian and Olympic Games gold medal winners have merely walking their horses on a lead, I am convinced that Ian and his equine friends share a special bond with each other, one that many if not most who are proficient in horse training (whatever that may mean) can only dream of.

Ian and Sebastian walking at liberty together

Ian and Sebastian walking at liberty together



The night before I was due to leave Portugal good news arrived from New Zealand. Not only had our young friend recovered consciousness and her reliance on life support machines been significantly reduced, she was also capable of humour and of relating fascinating stories of where here being had been while absent from her body. Life had returned and is now offering her a second chance at it, something that most of us will never have.

I look again at the online New Year’s greeting which we had sent to our friends and family. It shows Pip and Anaïs peering out over the door to the indoor manège at our livery yard (hence the halters – they are not allowed to be loose). Below a photograph of the two mares there is a text purporting to be a message from them speaking the following greeting on our behalf: ‘On behalf of our humans, Andrew and Vicki, may we offer you these words of horse wisdom for 2013: life is a carrot … enjoy it!’ (You can view the card here.) The young New Zealand woman is someone whom I have known since she was six years old. I have a photograph of her as a child in a blue satin dress with her arms wrapped around our dogs. They are sharing a moment of joy, the human and the dogs. The little girl is radiant and hovers between the animals like a protective fairy. If she were to become a horse, not in appearance but in essence, life might become a carrot again.

A blue fairy hovers over our dogs

A blue fairy hovers over our dogs


And so it goes

And so we come full circle: the forest garden, death and a carrot. What to make of it all? Nothing. There is no need. To quote a horse I know, ‘Life is a carrot!’ Just take a bite … and then another … and after that another … relishing each one as you go ….

Some endings are breathtakingly beautiful

Some endings are breathtakingly beautiful


Forest Garden Estate has a guest house for anyone who is interested in reconnecting with nature and perhaps also connecting with horses. Additional information is available here. My warmest thanks go to Ian and Victoria for having me as their guest!

8 Responses to “The Forest Garden, Death and a Carrot”

  1. Marga and Wim Oosterhoff says:

    Dear Andrew and Vic

    It was touching to read how you – like so many people in the world – connected with Lidewij (the New Zealand girl in hospital). In fact we hate technology because it is so impersonal, but over the last weeks we have also discovered that technology enables us to connect as never before. We are sure that the positive thoughts that came Lidewij’s way as a result have contributed to her recovery. She still has a long road to go before full recovery, but we are convinced that it will happen.
    Technology also played a major part in the process in hospital: every single part of the body was monitored and adjusted and most bodily functions were at some stage performed by a machine outside her body.
    We are keeping a diary for her and your blog will certainly feature in it.


    Marga and Wim Oosterhoff
    New Zealand

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Marga and Wim

      Your updates from New Zealand are truly appreciated. As you essentially point out, technology is only as good as what it is used for and how that occurs. Receiving your updates by email scores positive on both accounts.

      It is heart-wrenching to hear how much pain Lidewij is still experiencing. Yet it is simultaneously so uplifting to learn of her convalescence: her first words again, her move out of intensive care, her visit to the cafetaria…. May the momentum continue!

      I am sure many of our readers around the world will spare a thought for Lidewij and express hope for her speedy recovery. All these positive thoughts coalescing together … they must make a difference.

      Be well, all of you!

  2. Leanna Kielian says:

    Dear Andrew and Vicki,

    I must admit that when I pulled up your blog and saw the words Death and Forest Garden, I thought the worst about one of the friends from your blog. However, I am so joyful to know that your young New Zealand friend has an opportunity to recover. From the picture you posted of her it is easy to see that she has many gifts to share those who are willing to listen that she will meet during her life this planet. I am so glad that Ian was not a part of what my mind so quickly jumped to before reading further. I am sorry to hear that a beautiful bonded pair such as Pam and Frank have been separated by constrants of this reality, but I have the feeling that Pam will keep them connected in some other parallel realm. From my reading of your blog, I have gained a great deal of insight and thoughts on what actually is connection assisting my continually evolving relationship with the horses and dogs who freely offer so much of themselves to me. I looked up many of the people/horses you have mentioned met along your travels that I had not had the opportunity to learn about. Your blog offers much material for thought with frank lively, even vunerable discussion including some also wonderful insights your readers. This may not have been the journey you had imagined, but I feel that it has become something far greater.

    Happy New Year to you and your horses.

    I look forward to reading more from your journey and whereever it may take you next. Hopefully to a place where the Pip and Anaiis hang their heads inside your windows over your couch on nice days.

    Very sincerely,
    Northern California

    • Andrew says:

      Dear Leanna

      Thank you so much for your encouraging words.

      You are so right: this was not the journey we had imagined but it has definitely become something far greater. When Vicki and I left Australia, we instinctively felt that what we were setting out on would be a life-changing experience. Looking back, I can say that it truly has been life-changing, albeit very differently from what we had originally imagined.

      I love the image of Pip and Anaïs hanging their heads inside our windows over our couch. That would indeed be magnificent.

      The New Year, I hope, has started out well for you, your horses and your dogs. May the rest of it bring you much of the magic of life.

      Be well!

  3. Thank you, Andrew !!


  4. Yeats would be proud of you, Andrew: you know what it means to ‘tread softly’ and so what might have been lost is restored in response to your caring.

    Thanks for the joy that you brought us and the sense that our dreams are unfolding into the future present. Just like our horses, we have to admire your ability to simply get up and go, go with moment.


    • Andrew says:

      Dear Ian

      My visit to you and your forest garden was a very special time.

      Thank you again for having me and to both you and Victoria for making me feel so at home. Beams of goodwill to both of you and of course to Doll, Lucy, Sebastian, Frida, Gretel, Cassius and Gertrude Stein!

      Be well, all of you!