8 Jul 2018

51. Biodiversity among the grapevines of El Hierro

Vines cultivated in El Pinar under the unique conditions of El Hierro. Volcanic soil high above the clouds, to the east
 La Gomera and Tenerife and further still, Africa.  (Photo, O P Harris)

You might be forgiven for drawing a parallel between the biodiversity of the grapevines of El Hierro and that of the island’s wild plants, or even Darwin’s finches in the Galápagos. There is every reason for doing so: on the southern edge of the northern hemisphere’s winegrowing zone, the Trade Winds and the rugged mountainous terrain of the island provide a thousand microclimates and dozens of volcanic soils, and … remoteness over time.

We boast of our distinctive wines produced from varieties of grapes specific to the island – Dr Francesca Fort of the University of Tarragona and her team have identified, using DNA analyses, nineteen varieties specific to the Canaries of which nine correspond to El Hierro alone. Statistically this is a disproportionally high degree of diversity. As far as I know this is not the result of intentional breeding – artificial selection – although a couple of the varieties are considered ‘crosses’.  It seems to be taken for granted that the ‘exclusive’ varieties have evolved through mutation over time on this remote island. This in turn suggests that natural selection has been at work. I cannot accept this attractive idea.

Natural selection requires sexual reproduction, i.e. parents pass characteristics on to their offspring. As the DNA of both parents is recombined, mutations (errors) occur. If the mutation is beneficial, the offspring prosper. If it is harmful, it is not passed on to successive generations. Grapevines are not propagated sexually from seed but by grafting and from cuttings. In a sense every vine in my vineyard is a part of a much older vine that has been growing for many, many years. My second reason is that there has been ridiculously little time in evolutionary terms since the introduction of grapevines – they do not predate colonization at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

From the beginning, settlers brought with them from ‘home’ cuttings of their favourite varieties. Every labourer’s ruined hovel, and there are thousands of them throughout the island, bears witness with a skeletal ghost of a trellis. Many of these imported varieties may have succumbed to the brutal new conditions on the island but some flourished. Some of these, in turn, formed the basis of the island’s wine and brandy industry while others remained testimonial. Winegrowing boomed until the 1850’s when our vineyards were wiped out by powdery mildew. The landowners went and did something else, but the labourers could only remain, scraping out a living. They also looked after their household vines.

In contrast, on the mainland and the rest of wine-producing Europe, the tradition was too ancient and the landowners too wealthy to abandon after phylloxera had gutted their vineyards, too, in the 1850’s. These were replanted with choice European varieties grafted on American stock. Minority varieties were lost.

Phylloxera has never reached El Hierro and the powdery mildew that struck us on the island can be treated with sulfur. In this way, El Hierro became a sort of unique conservatory of pre-phyloxera varieties of grape, perhaps not Merlots or Chardonnays but pretty good all the same. And if one of our varieties, lets call it "X", differs from its supposed parent "Y" somewhere else by a significant degree (in DNA terms), then its more than likely that we have supposed wrongly and had better start looking for "Z".

It seems to me our biodiversity may result from a quirk of history rather than any evolutionary process, that our special varieties are marvelous ‘Rip-Van-Winkles’ that have been asleep for 500 years while their siblings elsewhere fell victim to diseases and agribusiness. Now that we have woken them up, let’s hope we don’t make the same mistakes.

1 May 2018

50. Roast Chicken Wings

The two villages, San Andrés on the right and Isora on the left, where Ramón Barbuzano spent much of his life, appear to be resisting the ominous shaddows cast by encroaching cloud.
“The Herreño is someone who expects you to turn the pages so that he can read the newspaper.” At first I thought my friend’s judgment harsh but I later came to understand there was more than a little truth in it. The islander shows very little initiative: he will let others innovate and, if the experiment works, only then will he adopt the idea. He is wily and manipulative, looking only after his own interests, even at the expense of friends and relatives. The Herreño is not lazy, but to be employed is a last resort: the emigrant islander was almost invariably a market stall-holder, taxi-driver, shopkeeper or taverner.

The only explanation I can find for this is that it is a response to centuries of abject misery.  Earlier posts in this blog suggest the historical hostility of the environment, the droughts and famines. It stands to reason that if your family is on the verge of starvation you are unlikely to invest your last seeds in experiments into new methods of cultivation. Solidarity has its limits if sharing the little food you have means your children will go without. And if there’s a chance windfall going for nothing, you’re not going to let someone else get there first. But what I have hardly mentioned before is the pitiless exploitation of the humble people by landowners, traders, money-lenders and ‘authorities’. Not, of course, that in this respect El Hierro is different from anywhere else - it just lasted longer.

I recently read a book by Ramón Barbuzano Morales, “El Precio del Silencio” (The Price of Silence) which relates the author’s life from 1916 to his death in 2014. The book shatters the romantic, harmonious, Rousseaulian picture of life in El Hierro that many would have us believe. Despite a certain understandable repetitiveness and victimization, Barbuzano describes in brutally clear language the penurious life of a peasant family in the cruel, hypocritical, oppressive social structure throughout much of the twentieth century. Curiously, the ancestral strategies and values that had made existence possible, though not always livable, still linger on, even among younger generations, despite the collective memory of the islanders going back no further than the 1970’s, or at the very most to the emigration of the 1940’s.

Curiously, reading between the lines, it is clear that Ramón was no different from those he so bitterly criticizes. He was a man of his circumstances and, like others, he created a better life for himself and his wife by emigrating and astute management during more recent years of bonanza. Of his quotes, the pearl must be: “Si te dan las alas de su pollo, quieren la pechuga del tuyo.” (If they give you the wings of their roast chicken, it’s because they want the breast of yours.)

El Precio del Silencio, Ramón Barbuzano Morales, 2017, Ibukku – available in paperback and Kindle editions

9 Feb 2018

49. Boxes, water and old men

The visible edge of a dike of grey basalt
cutting vertically up through different
layers of mostly porous rock. The brown
layer in the middle is possibly that colour
because it was burnt by a very hot lava
flow of basaltic material which formed
a fragmentary sill whose vertical prisms
are just visible to the left of the dike.
The Canary Islands are huge piles of volcanic rubble sticking out of the sea. Much of this rubble is made up of layers of porous rock on layers of hard impermeable rock, called 'sills', so that each island roughly resembles a many-storeyed wedding cake. As the cake consolidated it cracked and into these cracks lava was squeezed up from the magma below. This lava solidified into impermeable walls called 'dikes'. Inside the island, then, the dikes and sills together formed a stack of boxes with impermeable sides whose porous contents filled with water filtering down over millions of years from rain and snow on the surface. Consequently, at least in the western province, there are few vertical wells and the islands’ supply of ground water is extracted by horizontal wells, called galleries, that break through the walls of the boxes (the dikes) as they burrow at different levels into the sides of each island.

Unfortunately, in our island there are few effective sills and few boxes. The precipitation we receive simply leaches down and down into the heart of the island, then out into the sea. Traditionally there was no point in digging wells near the villages. Attempts to harness runoff in dams in the gullies proved useless because without modern materials the porous ground absorbed all the water. So the only water available to the islanders was the rainwater they collected in their domestic cisterns, a few minor springs and a natural lens of freshwater at Icota near El Pinar. And of course the Garoé.

In the middle of the twentieth century some enterprising islanders from La Palma tried to cultivate bananas in El Golfo. They finally gave up but they did leave us a part of the solution to the island’s water problem. Wells can be effective if they are cunningly located and designed. One such is the “Pozo de los Padrones” on the straight road through the badlands to Frontera, just after leaving the tunnel. There is a panel on the wall of the pump house explaining how the excavation begins as a well (pozo) going straight down and then continues as a horizontal gallery under the imposing 3,000 foot crag opposite.

A view of Frontera on a day of sunshine and drizzle in February. The mountains part-hidden by cloud capture the moisture from the Trade Winds and this water filters down through the rock. El Pozo de los Padrones is at the foot of the crag in the centre of the photo and burrows right into the heart of the mountain.

There is a tap at the pump house where the public can collect drinking water, pure unchlorinated “fossil” water. One day I was there with my collection of five-litre plastic bottles when four cars pulled up, each driven by a man of my age and, of course, we struck up conversation.

The pump house at Pozo de los Padrones. The relic on the
left painted white was the scoop at the head of excavations
when the gallery was being dug. The rubble was taken out
in gondolas like the one just behind it. The excavation must
have been backbreaking work for the men aided only by
dinamite and this minature machinery. A gallery is a very
confined space, perhaps little higher than a man and not
much wider than the skips on rails, the air stifling, damp
and hot.
While we waited our turns, the banter went something like this:

- “When I was a young man I used to go to the spring every day. Not to get water, mind you! But to chat up a certain young lady. Now she sends me here to get me out of her sight!”
- “That’s it! Things have changed. No girls here today, eh? All up at the tables in the Avenue. Showing themselves off. Drinking gin-tonics!”
- “Yep! All we’re good for is to fetch water, take the rubbish down, walk the bloody dog and mind the grandson when his parents are out!”
- "When I was young, old men were looked up to, respected. Now you’d think we’re in the way! And that's if they see you!”
- “Nonsense! We old men are the greatest.”
- “How come?”
- “The greatest. The biggest thing today. We don’t fit in anywhere!”

15 Jan 2018

48. The Garoé

Water, water everywhere, 
Nor any drop to drink …
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge)

Or so it must have seemed to the garrison of soldiers entrusted with conquering the island. Until a native princess besotted by one of the officers told them the secret of the Garoé, the tree that miraculously distilled water. That is, according to the romantic legend (see my post 33. History part 2 ). The original tree was destroyed many years ago but it’s well worth a visit to the site and its replacement.

The dutiful visitor will leave the hired car at the crossroads near San Andrés and undertake the two and a half kilometre walk along the windswept heights on a dusty or muddy 4X4 track. Once out of the pine forest (definitely not Canary pine) there is a bird’s-eye view of the ruins of La Albarada, the first colonial settlement on the island and, further along on the left, magnificent views of the foothills and valleys to the west. The site of the Garoé is surrounded by a high wall. Once through the wrought-iron gate you listen to a touristic sales pitch and pay your modest toll before emerging into a different, magical world, a green Avalon of swirling mists, vertiginous slopes and shaddowless forms at a thousand metres above the Atlantic.

It is a pity that whoever designed the awful little informative signs was not so bewitched by the surroundings. One tells us the path is slippery: “slippery floor” – oops! Others give us architect’s plans of the half-dozen cisterns dug into the ground to collect runoff from under the tree (and presumably water seeping down through the rock) and then ask us not to throw coins into them. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid events like that of the over-enthusiastic young unofficial guide who jumped into one of the cisterns only to find it was deeper, colder and darker than she had anticipated.

The Garoé tree itself grows in a cleft in the side of the mountain facing the Trade Winds coming in from the northeast. The winds cool as they rise and form clouds which are funneled into the cleft. The humidity becomes so high that the water vapour condenses on every surface it encounters, particularly on the leaves of vegetation. This phenomenon, called horizontal rainfall, is not exclusive to the Garoé and occurs all over the island, especially in the north. On misty days you will no doubt notice wet patches on the roads and hear drops banging on the roof of your car as you pass under an overhanging pine or evergreen.

From the back of the cleft looking past the moss-covered trunk of the Garoé towards the mist coming in from the north.

However, the Garoé was, as the legend suggests, an important source of water for the population before the advent of deep wells, desalination plants and municipal distribution. In 1948 there was a terrible drought that was directly responsible for the emigration of thousands of islanders. The true story goes that a certain Tadeo Casañas, simple agriculturist and bee-keeper from San Andrés, observed what happened at and around the Garoé. I don’t know if he made use of a naturally occurring screen of heath-trees or constructed some other sort of screen, but he was soon capturing the water distilled from the horizontal rainfall and channeling it in hollowed-out flower spikes of sisal plants to where it could be collected by the villagers for consumption or for watering their animals. This relief in such distressing times, at least for a few of the islanders, is a perfect example of the ingenuity, resilience and self-reliance of the true islander. It is a pity that the engineers in our institutions cannot boast of similar initiative. Since then no-one has thought of improving on Tadeo’s idea. In fact, most people have never even heard of it.