6 Apr 2016

21. Walls

You might well imagine the boys born to the islanders being anointed with oil and water to the priestly words “Go forth my child, go forth and build walls.” There are walls everywhere. Straight walls; meandering walls; walls you can step over and walls three men tall; walls that go straight up one side of a volcanic cone and down the other and walls that spiral up cones making ziggurats; there are walls that enclose fields, pastures and even individual trees and those that enclose nothing; there are crumbling walls and walls standing proud after perhaps centuries of volcanic tremblings; mossy green and gay lichen-covered walls; cyclopean walls; bare walls and botanical walls; retaining walls holding back cultivated terraces and little straight walls in the middle of a field that do nothing. How many millions of rocks and stones have been dug up, picked up and carefully positioned in these dry stone walls, generation after generation? After all, what else but build walls can you do with them as you clear land for sowing and planting?

Our walls are not like the easy dry stone walls you see in some places built with one flat slab of limestone on top of another. The stones here are lumps of heavy, dense, hard basalt often so irregular and rough they can tear the skin off your hands. The walls, up to about two and a half feet wide, are built by placing the larger stones on both sides of the wall so that a relatively flat side faces outwards and forming an interlocking pattern in the centre. The idea is to support the weight of the stone on three points, two at the front and one at the back. As the irregular courses get higher, smaller stones are set in the gaps between header stones and in the space in the centre of the wall. All this gives strength and stability to the wall, besides using up a vast amount of stone.

If you ask me for one thing that characterizes, that is most typical of, El Hierro, I would not say the dripping Garoe tree or the twisted Juniper, both beloved of the island’s publicists. I would say WALLS. They are omnipresent. They represent the efforts of generations and their determination to extract every gramme of nourishment from an unwilling soil. They are the unwritten chronicle of a certain episode, full of mistaken illusion, in the island’s history.

Well maintained walls near San Andrés, the island's highest, and coldest, village.
There a few fences on the island but these are usually just a line of rotting posts and two strands of barbed wire to stop the horse belonging to some returned emigrant from straying. As for hedges … no more than a status symbol outside the “rustic” home of some civil servant or businessman!

Walled fields, now mostly abandoned, in the highland area called Nisdafe. This whole area was once a huge forest that was destroyed by fire many years ago. It burned for three months.

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