24 Mar 2016

20. Spring album

Spring is sprung,
The grass is ris,
I wonder where my camera is!

That little ditty was imagined before the age of mobiles. Now no-one need lose that shot that proves he was there or that reminder full of colour and selfie smiles unless, that is, he forgot to charge the damn thing!

El Hierro is not grandiose like the Rocky Mountains. Its beauty is more intimate, on a more human scale, not only in size but also emotionally. It's not the unchangeable mountain reflected in an unruffled lake but the unpredictable response of life to the equally unpredictable elements life feeds on.

This year Spring is indeed strange. It was warm in January and the plums blossomed even before the almond trees. Then it was cold and windy and now the plums are blossoming again, rectifying their mistake. Our Wistaria brought out one early tentative bunch of blue perfume at least six weeks ago. Now it should be in full flower but it isn't. Just a few young bronze leaves. Then again, since October it has only rained less than a half of what it usually does by this time. Between them, the NAO, the Niño and Climatic Change are doing their best to promise us an interesting year, to say the least.

I'll be going out with my camera (if I can find it!) and my mobile over the next few weeks and will add new photographs to this album. So do come back to this post from time to time.

These fig trees will soon have tender green leaves and the first of their two yearly crops

The bright pink blossom of a peach reveals abandoned terraces

Clumps of some sort of daisy cover the high pastures in the west of the island

The giant dendelion endemic to El Hierro in the garden next to an almond tree with a few late blossoms

This year the most photographed field in El Hierro, at the turning to El Pinar near San Andrés

The birth of a new cane on a grapevine with a baby panicle which will become a bunch of grapes.

Small figs growing on last year's wood. These will be the first crop ripening at the beginning of summer. The second crop which ripens in autumn grows on this year's wood.

The wonderfully scented orange blossom. A suggenstion of fruit to come is on the left.
At last the Jasmin and Wistaria

The vegetable garden was earlier this time last year. Apricot in blossom on the left.


Wild peas

21 Mar 2016

19. Farewells and friends

I’ve been rather quiet recently. February and March are for us quite busy months, in terms of work and socially, too. The vineyard needs a lot of attention: the grass and weeds need cutting and the vines need pruning. But the wonder of seeing, often in a question of days, new growth sprouting from the buds we carefully left on the cut-back canes and the minute inflorescences that will become future bunches of fruit make it all worthwhile. It’s also the time when friends who every year spend part of the winter here leave to get some skiing in the north or to see the spring start further south. It’s a time of farewell dinners, glasses raised, and seeing-off trips to the airport.

As in most places where people go on holiday or become “foreign residents”, it’s difficult to make real friends with the locals in the Canaries, so foreigners tend to mix more with people like themselves, usually of their own nationality. This is especially so in a small island like El Hierro. The Herreño is hospitable, funny, easy to get on with (if you don’t mind unexplained delays when getting the plumbing done) and often surprisingly generous. But he is the islander and you will always be the outsider. His society, despite apparent internal rifts and quarrels, is closely knit. Like the people from La Gomera, the people of El Hierro are all cousins, perhaps not literally but family ties are strong and very, very extensive. They had to be like this since it was a forgotten island, left to itself, and conditions were sometimes so hard that, as in the middle of the twentieth century, the population had to emigrate en masse. So, if you spend some time here, you’ll get to know a lot of people, acquaintances not friends although they’ll call you “amigo”.

An Herreño I once knew, he’s long dead now, was a man who had led a convulsive, hard life but was still able to talk about it with clarity and devilish humour. We were talking about “amigos”. He maintained he had never had a real friend and I said I had.
“What is a friend?” he asked.
“You tell me,” I said.
“A friend is someone you can wake up at two o’clock in the morning and say ‘Come on, get up, I’m going to kill Eusebio!’ and who pulls on his trousers to go with you to help.”
There aren’t many like that, especially if Eusebio is their cousin!

They can't see us behind the tinted airport glass but they know we're there. So they wave.
Or are they waving goodbye to the island?

18. Kilroy was here

People have an almost irresistible urge to leave their mark wherever they go. I remember going up to Las Cañadas in Tenerife many years ago. The road passed a spring called "Fuente de Joco". Over most of the other graffitti, some British hooligan had painted in huge white letters on the rock-face behind the spring "JOCK'S FONT". Criminal but funny! Luckily, on El Hierro we don't get many hooligans, just occasional lovers cutting his and her initials into a wooden guard rail appropiately at the edge of a precipice.

The last persistent Kilroys we had in El Hierro were here probably six hundred years ago, perhaps much earlier.They left words in an ancient alphabet inscribed into the surface of rocks. Juan Álvarez Delgado, in my opinion the best authority on these questions, called them "Libico-Berber inscriptions". The alphabet appears to be ultimately derived from the Phoenician which later spread, with variants, via Carthage (now Tunis) throughout North Africa and the Sahara. One variant is still used by some Touregs.

Our seaman's name may have been read from top to bottom
or from bottom to top. In any case it should be translated as
"Kilroy"! This inscription was found recently near
La Restinga.
It's fairly certain that the Canaries have been visited by seafarers since at least 500 BC. North African seamen were often crew and it is likely that some were left, voluntarily or not, on the island. Significantly, these inscriptions are often located near places where ships could approach the coast. So we can picture one of those stranded seamen anxiously watching day after day for a sail on the horizon. He may not have been literate but he could probably write his name, and so he did, into the surface of the rock. Some of these inscriptions are accompanied by simple figures that are clearly not letters. One repeated figure is a circle exuding clouds and could be a sort of helmet or hat with feathers. If so, these inscriptions may even be medieval (in our sense of the word).

There is another totally different sort of inscription on the island, similar to those dating at least from the bronze age and found in many parts of Europe and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Perhaps better described as "rock art" they consist of circle, lines, squiggles, spirals and other forms distributed apparently haphazardly on the rock face. These will be the subject of another post later on.

If you like exploring for this sort of thing, take a bottle of water with a spray trigger. Often the inscriptions are only fully visible if the rock is wet. One of the latest ones to be discovered was found by a tourist near La Restinga, so don't lose heart if you're not lucky first time.

"Kilroy was here" was, and perhaps still is, a common phrase scribbled in jest on the walls of public lavatories, historic buildings, classrooms, prison cells, phoneboxes etc.