26 Jan 2016

13. Springs, Vegetables and Pirates

Most historical villages and towns in the western Canaries are at a considerable height above sea level, usually somewhere between 1200 and 1800 feet. El Hierro is no exception.Often they seem to follow the spring-line and this is undoubtedly true for the other western islands. But not for El Hierro. The few springs we have are only so in name: just bits of seasonally damp ground or the slowly dripping roof of rock in some overhang or cave. Perhaps for this reason, the island’s two earliest villages, Las Montañetas and La Albarada, both long-abandoned and in ruins, were within easy walking distance from El Garoé, our miraculous distilling tree, at a comparable altitude.

You may ask what, then, people did in other villages until the relatively recent advent of municipal supply forty years ago. Water for household use was rainwater collected from roofs and stored in underground cisterns lined first with wood and later with lime. 30 cubic metres per household per year.

Another reason is that the climate at these altitudes is better for settlement. It is cooler and damper and it rains more, and more regularly. This is clearly more congenial than the hot, dry coast to the agricultural settlers from northern and western Iberia. Significantly, Las Montañetas, with the island’s first Town Hall, provided the vegetables and La Albarada the meat for the island’s early settlers.
If you’re observant, you’ll notice that at least some villages must have grown on the sites of Bimbape settlements ( Bimbape: the name of the prehispanic inhabitants – more about these in a later post). But then why did they choose the site?

In my opinion the most important reason in either pre- or post-conquest times was safety. History books tell us with great relish about the attacks by more or less official pirates like Drake, Jambe de Bois, Van der Does, even Nelson. The less spectacular but almost constant and deadly incursions by pirates from the Barbary Coast of north Africa are never mentioned. You would think at first sight that an insignificant island like El Hierro had little to offer in the way of loot. But not so. Like all the other islands it was inhabited by people and slaves were the pirates’ most lucrative prize

Gadifer de la Salle, a god-fearing military man from France, visited El Hierro in 1402. In the chronicle of his voyage (Le Canarien) it would seem 400 aborigins of the island were taken captive that year but this figure is more likely to refer to La Palma. He himself, however, found it natural to capture four women and a boy while he was here. Such prizes would be sold on the European market – how otherwise would there have been interpreters at his service? After the conquest of the island in 1405 the European, Christian settlers taken by corsairs would have been sold on the Barbary Coast White Slave Market to Ottoman buyers. This trade continued into the nineteenth century.

It seems logical then to locate your villages some way from the coast, at a defendable height from which you can see advancing marauders. The villagers of La Albarada are said to have bound their cockerels’ beaks with horsehair so that the fowls’ crowing would not give their position away at night – that’s how serious their fear was! (Here, incidentally, cocks crow at night as well.)

The capital of El HIerro, Valverde, cradled between foothills at 1800 feet above sea level. You can see the breakers near the airport in the centre of the photo. On the horizon, La Gomera and further still the pale silhouette of Tenerife.

13 Jan 2016

12. Magic

El Hierro is full of magic. But like beauty, magic is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not talking about the magic of a spectacular sunset to the west but rather of the improbable pastel colours of the sky in the east at the same hour. Or the smell in the evergreen forest of leaf mold and wild mushrooms that throws you back to childhood, perhaps even a childhood of many generations ago. The pine forest, silent or, if there is a breeze, hissing with the sound of waves of air breaking on the pine-needles. The cloud-mist condensing into drops of pristine water on twigs and leaves, dewdrops on spiders’ webs, giant dandelions with yellow suns for flowers, vineyards on fire in autumn, the sound of a boy practising a folk melody on his flute or the primeaval beating of distant drums on Saints' days …

One of my favourite bits of magic is on the country lane that goes up from El Mocanal to the road to the village of San Andrés. I said "up" because it really climbs steeply past the houses of the hamlet of Betenama before arriving at a relatively flat area with incongruous palms standing high on the left. The lane then climbs again through abandoned walled fields and dispersed stands of evergreens - what remains of the laurisilva forest that once clothed these slopes. As the vegetation becomes denser, you’ll see on your right a wood of Canary “beeches”. On first sight it is a little disconcerting: the trees have straight trunks with no sprouts, quite unlike the beeches in the evergreen forest that look coppiced. The more you look, the more the little wood casts its spell on you. As your eyes become used to the contrast of light you’ll make out sheep grazing on the grass and ferns between the rocks and, perhaps, some way off and camouflaged by the play of light and shadow, the white mare. A scene worthy of Samuel Palmer.

The white mare has lived in the wood for many years, at least sixteen, and she is getting old. Her back sags a little from bearing a foal every year or two, sometimes white like her, long legged creatures that skip around her and disappear on the first weekend of June. When I pick up my younger grandchildren from the airport we always drive home this way. We stop and call out to her. Sometimes she comes but most often pays us no attention at all. I tell them she is a unicorn and only a pretty little girl can tame a unicorn. If a grandson says in petulance that she hasn’t got a horn, I reply he can’t see it because he doesn’t believe. I, of course, have seen her horn on several occasions.

The Unicorn in the gully between the road and the enchanted wood. If you can't see her horn, you know why!

6 Jan 2016

11. Pancho Cura

We wanted island lamb, not New Zealand lamb, for our first Christmas dinner here. So I went up into the mountains to find Pancho Cura, a shepherd I had previously met.

There he was, huddled under a tatty threadbare blanket with his back to a stone wall, his flock on the slope before him in the misty, freezing drizzle of Jinama. He whistled to his dogs to round up the flock and told me to go and choose the lamb I fancied. I couldn’t do that so he reluctantly got up and came back laughing and holding up a lamb by its front legs, belly towards me, for my approval. “But Pancho!” I said, “That’s a female!” (I knew the shepherds only sacrificed the males, the females were for milk and breeding.) He released the creature and came back with another, this time a male.

He refused my money and told me it was a Christmas present. He added that since I knew so much about his calling, I could come back and relieve him whenever I liked. I did go back, the next time we came to the island, with a present for Pancho – a genuine “Esperancera” shepherd’s blanket cape, creamy white with two blue stripes and made in Scotland. We remained good friends after that.

Sheep grazing in the pine forest.  Photo: Orlando Harris