29 Nov 2015

8. The Pine Forest

The Canary Pine is rather special. Unlike most pines, it very often recovers after being cut down, especially if it is young. Secondly, it has three needles joined together and not two like most pines. Thirdly, it is very fire resistant – it’s not that it won’t burn but rather that it joins forces with the flames. These rush up the trunk burning off part of the thick bark and then catching the needles at the top. As the pines are usually close to one another the canopy fire spreads quickly. All this happens so quickly that the fire never really gets enough time to burn down the forest. After one of our forest fires, the scene is heartrending: black tree-trunks, red canopies and a red carpet of scorched needles on the ground, not a sound or sight of life. But then the next year, new needles are sprouting on the high branches and latent buds are breaking out from under the thick scaly bark. In three or four years, most people would never realize there had been a fire.

Nevertheless, forest fires on the island can be very dangerous for their speed of propagation can be so fast that hikers and even people in cars can easily be cut off from escape. If they spread from the forest they can devastate cultivated land. During the hot dry summer months, teams of fire-fighters and invigilators keep watch on traffic going into the forest, barbecues are forbidden, and people are asked to be very careful with cigarettes. Sometimes all access is cut off.

The pine forest is generally a very quiet place. There is no undergrowth except for small patches of grass because the ground is covered with a thick mantel of pine-needles. And very little life, except for an occasional kestrel – I often wonder what they eat! But it is a life-giver. The crowns capture from the clouds moisture which drips down to and through the mantel to be absorbed by our porous soil.

The forest is hardly used at all today, but in the past it was economically very important. Pine needles were used for bedding, animal and human, and in times of need the nuts were eaten as well as the tender inner bark. The white wood satisfied a great variety of uses but the dark, solid and heavy resinous heartwood was most important. This “tea” (pronounced “tay-ah”) is virtually indestructible except by fire. It was used extensively in building, especially in the more wealthy homes, and for making such things as watering and feeding troughs. Large splinters were used on top of the beams as a base for flat roofs and, curiously, the esteem in which a young married couple was held could be judged from the length of the central load-bearing beam of their roof. The resin in this heartwood readily burns and so splinters provided convenient torches for lighting the way as well as village festivals.

The Pine Forest high up near the centre of the island. Notice the ancient pines in the background.

19 Nov 2015

7. Don Zósimo

For four hundred years the island’s forests were harvested irresponsibly. Where once there had been pines and laurels there were finally barren slopes, scrub and gullies. A few majestic pines proudly stood, and still stand, here and there to remind people of what the island had once been. Then soon after the Spanish Civil War, a young forestry engineer from the island of La Palma was sent to El Hierro by the government. The post was only temporary but he fell in love with a girl from here and spent the next fifty years or so replanting the forest.

Not long ago, I was driving a Canadian and a friend to El Pinar (which means “The Pine Forest”) when the Canadian suddenly said, “Aren’t these pines tall? They’re much bigger that those at home!” I was naturally surprised but my friend exclaimed, “Of course, Don Zósimo lived HERE, not in Canada!” There was more truth in that than my friend realized. In Canada the forests are big business but not where Zósimo was. Zósimo loved his trees almost as much as he loved his family. No-one dared cut one down, or even uproot a little Christmas tree, without his permission. And gradually he and his team clothed a huge swathe of the southern slopes of the island in forest, just a few thousand pines a year.

He had a sense of humour, too. The story goes that that some-one in the Ministry sent him an order to plant trees in a certain hollow on the edge of the forest. When the civil servant came to inspect whether his order had been carried out, he found the hollow planted with row upon row of fig and almond trees. “What´s this?” he exclaimed, “I meant pine trees.”

“As you just said ‘trees’ and this is common land, I planted trees that would be most beneficial to the local people, almonds and figs. There are plenty of pines all around!”

Hoya del Gallego (The Galician's Hollow) planted with fig and almond trees

18 Nov 2015

6. John Hill

It just had to be an Englishman who way back in the early sixteenth century planted the first vineyard on El Hierro. His name was John Hill and he came from Taunton in Devon. What he had come out here to do in what then must have been a godforsaken place is a mystery. Perhaps like me he just wanted to plant a vineyard. Or, more likely, he was running away from someone or something. Some historians suggest he was arrested by the Inquisition fifty years later for bad behavior but I think they are mixing him up with another adventurous Englishman, Thomas Nichols.

There must have been grapevines on the island before John Hill’s time: the earliest colonists came from winegrowing areas like Portugal and Spain  – why do we say winegrowing and not vinegrowing? They surely brought vines with them at least to plant outside their front doors. John Hill, however, saw what we would now call a “business opportunity”, but we don’t know if he made a fortune or simply drank himself to death.

We don’t really know where he planted his vineyard, either. The most likely place is somewhere near where the airport and port are now. At that time it would have had the best climate because the damp air and more frequent rain would have benefitted the vines. Diseases such as mildew and powdery mildew that thrive in such conditions had not yet been introduced. Wherever it was, he must have been held in certain esteem by the locals since they named a promontory after him: La Punta Juanil. And I’ve named my own wine after him.

5. Laurisilva

Laurisilva of course means "Laurel Forest". It is a damp evergreen forest that thrives in the humidity of the cloudy northern slopes of the island and in some places goes over the ridge and down until it mingles with the pine forest. In fact, there is little left of the true laurisilva, the forest that extended all around the Mediterranean 40-15 million years ago. Over the centuries the representative trees have been cut down for fuel, and cabinet- and tool-making, and have largely been replaced by species such as "Haya" (literally "Beech" but really quite different) and Tree Heath, a sort of giant heather. On a smaller scale you may find an illusive strawberry tree; a clearing of forget-me-nots; a needleless holly, red berries and all; curious ferns, some with long furry tentacles, others with heart-shaped leaves, and with luck a creeping Canary Bell-flower.

I love the monteverde. It reminds me of the Rackham illustrations in my childhood storybooks. The rays of sunlight pierce the darkness and mist, illuminating the twisted trunks and branches, and the shaddows suggest strange inhabitants. On the side of the gullies, the roots stretch out to trip you up. Blackbirds click, tits purr and a myriad of other little birds chirp and chatter. You may even see a woodcock, or a great buzzard may come near to warn you away from her nest. The air is pungent with leaf-mould and decaying wood, or wild garlic if you tread on it. Fungi, mostly inedible or even poisonous, come up singly or in armies or make fairy rings around tree stumps. There are few animals in the evergreen forest, except for the odd feral cat and an occasional rabbit.

If you do venture into it, though, be very sure of your sense of orientation. The forest undergrowth hides the lie of the slopes, gullies and deep ravines. I once found a young German couple hopelessly lost, soaking wet and shivering like frightened kittens in their light clothing. It was the middle of winter and they were more than three thousand feet up. They might not have made it to safety.

Heath Trees and Forget-me-nots in the evergreen forest

16 Nov 2015

4. The Big Picture

El Hierro, the youngest, the westernmost of the archipelago, is, like all the Canary Islands, of volcanic origin. It is the tip of a gigantic pyramid that rises above the floor of the ocean more than fifteen thousand feet, of which only one third is above sea level. Over the last million years, time after time our island has tried to recreate itself, time after time enormous volcanoes have grown out of the remains of those before them and time after time they have collapsed under their own weight. Now, old and tired, splattered with hundreds of cones and minor craters, the island is no more than a pile of volcanic rubble. But what rubble! Black sands, lapilli, pumice gravels and clays, basalt, clinkstone dikes … and lava.

The Trade Winds blow thousands of miles from the northeast most of the year at this latitude. When this damp sea wind hits the island, part of it rises up the northern slopes and over the mountain ridge, cooling and forming clouds as it does so. The rest goes round the horns of the island, filling in the void to the lee without rising so much. But luckily the island isn’t nice and smooth. There are nooks and crannies all over the place, bits sticking out and hollows and holes, cliffs and ravines. A hiker's heaven and a meteorologist's nightmare. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say the north is wetter and cooler, the south is sunnier, warmer and drier. If it's a cloudy day in the north it's likely to be sunny in the south, and vice-versa.

That is the big picture. The rest of the blog is about the little picture. Without the big picture, anything I can write about (including the people) might not make sense.

In this NASA photo, the northeast Trade Winds leave tails of turbulence to the lee of the islands that affect the wave patterns.

A dense blanket of clouds -"el Mar de Nubes" ("the Sea of Clouds") - is formed as the Trade Winds hit the heights of the island. Sometimes the clouds creep a short way over the ridge, as they are doing in the northeast in this photo by NASA.

2 Nov 2015

3. First Impressions 2015

Today there is no longer the sensation of adventure in travelling to the island, no feeling that you are going somewhere different, far away. Communications by plane and ferry are rapid and “twenty-first-century” comfortable. Once on the island there are real roads, not the dusty old tracks of fifty years ago, and even tunnels through the mountains. And, of course, we have all the services a modern society expects: electricity, municipal water, a modern hospital, maritime cable and satellite telecommunications connections with the rest of the world ... When you come out of the airport you’ll see one of those monolithic advertisements informing us this is the first “wifi free” island in the world. Ignore it! What it means is that there is a free wifi service at different points on the island. Of course, it doesn’t usually work! So perhaps after all “wifi free” is more correct than “free wifi”.

Fortunately, not much else has changed, really. The villages are much the same, a bit tidier and cleaner. One or two on the coast near the port and airport have grown considerably and become dormitories for people working in Valverde. The forests, recently hit by several fires, are better attended. What always strikes me, and I suppose many other people, when I return from somewhere else is the air. It is simply clean. You feel it in your lungs, especially as you go higher into the mountains. It also affects your vision: you can see things more clearly and further away. Another curiosity is that things don’t smell. You have to stick your nose right into a flower to smell it; on the plateau in the centre of the island you cannot smell the fields of grass and hay and you can only rarely smell the pines in the forest. Perhaps our air, constantly on the move, does not have time to absorb odours.

People talk of the climate change. Our weather hasn’t changed much though, I don’t think. You may still freeze in August at Jinama or have Christmas dinner in the garden in Frontera or even in El Pinar. Don't think that because it's a sunny day in Valverde, it will be sunny in Frontera, too. Or that you know all about it because you've been to the Canaries before. El Hierro will not let you do that. El Hierro must be approached without assumptions. El Hierro dictates the rules.

El Golfo, looking northeast. Jinama is above the cloud at top right.

2. First Impressions 1970's

As a family, we first visited El Hierro back in the late 70’s. At that time there was not even a ferry to the island: a crane picked up the car in a huge net and deposited it on the deck of the rusty old ship that made the crossing from Tenerife every week. After an interminable 12 hour voyage, we climbed the old winding road, at times cut into the very face of the cliff, towards Valverde the capital of the island. It was cloudy, windy and cold, the kids were screaming in the back of the station wagon and my wife asked “Where on earth have you brought us?” Good question. In Valverde, this Sunday in August was like a cold October day in England, misty and wet. Our spirits were dropping. We continued up the mountain road through deserted villages to Jinama, a vantage point with a magnificent view of the northwestern coast.

At least it was supposed to have a view. When we got there the wind was howling and you could see no further than your imaginary shadow. We were right in the clouds. There was a little chapel there, locked up, into which people threw coins - and others fished out with bits of wire – and next to it a stable from which we could hear the bleating of sheep. A door creaked open and a man in dark shapeless woolen clothes appeared and called the children inside. We had to follow. The place stank although it was welcomingly warm. Pancho introduced himself and milked a couple of sheep into some filthy yogurt pots for the delighted children. He then took us to a little lean-to where he made coffee, the best I’ve ever had, and offered us some cake. He explained that the weather was sometimes like this in August. The trade winds came in from the north, hurtling themselves against the mountains. That’s why he had to hand some home-made “aguardiente” - transparent spirit distilled from winemaking leftovers. We began to feel better and went outside to see what the children were doing.

The sun had come out! The wind had dropped! It was still very cool, but what can you expect if you’re out in the middle of the Atlantic at more than a thousand metres above sea level. We leant against the wall and looked out over the bay, El Golfo. There were still a few clouds, but they were chasing each other way below us, giving us moving glimpses of the white houses of Frontera and green vineyards. Above them, the forested slopes of the mountains formed a great arc that seemed to cradle the village and the little hamlets at the edge of the immense ocean. My wife felt considerably better about the place I had brought her to.

View of El Golfo from Jinama on 1 September 2015

1. About this blog

“Oh! We know El Hierro. We went there last year for a couple of days. Didn’t like it much. Too quiet for us. No beaches, nothing to do. You can see everything in one day.”
How many times have I heard that! This blog is not really for fools like this but for those to whom “knowing” is more than just getting a tan and sending a postcard home. Over the years I’ve met curious people who’ve asked me the most extraordinary questions about the island, about its people, their customs and idiosyncrasies, … even about its politics! If you have anything you want to ask about, please contact me.
So I hope to tell you things about El Hierro that you won’t find in official brochures or guide books. Things that might help you understand this island. I may exaggerate a little sometimes, or be too critical, or simply wrong. The entries will not be in any special order, just more or less in the order I write them.
I take responsibility for my ideas and views and what I say, but I ask you to respect the principle of copyright. Unless stated otherwise, the pictures are mine.

I could have offered a wild flower but somehow apricot blossom seemed more appropriate.

(If you want to see superb National Geographic-type photos of the island, check out José Luis Rodríguez in Facebook, or Google JoseMRW13.)