20 Apr 2016

22. Fiesta!

If there is one thing all the islanders love, it’s a “fiesta”. I often find it difficult to decide whether any particular festivity is primarily religious, an occasion to meet distant relatives and old friends, or something else. I suppose that’s always been the same and I imagine the majority are a mixture. In any case, the people of El Hierro are passionate about their fiestas. So much so that the most important – the Descent of the Virgin – attracts expatriate islanders from the other Canaries, from mainland Spain and even from Venezuela and Argentina.

The Patron of the island, the Virgin of the Monarchs (de los Reyes), was a miraculous gift to some shepherds who had aided a vessel in distress off the westernmost point of the island in 1546. This is celebrated every year at the cave where She was first housed close to where Her hermitage is now. Today’s shepherds offer a lunch of mutton stew to everyone. Of course you don’t have to attend the mass beforehand. For the festivity of The Lanterns, people carrying lanterns walk throughout the night from all parts of the island through the forest to the Virgin’s hermitage.

He's not too sure about this minister of the Church
waving a lollipop of holy water at him!
There are many other local festivities that have their special colour. In Sabinosa there is one (celebrating, I think, Saint Simon but I get so many saints mixed up) when the wine flows freely and you eat dried sea-serpent (moray eel). In El Pinar, Saint Anthony is taken out into the sunshine to bless the animals:  farmers bring sheep, goats and pigs; old ladies cradle their cats in one arm and hold a canary in a cage in the other; hunters in flat caps bring their dogs, and young men recently returned from Venezuela come on horseback. In San Andrés (Saint Andrew, the highest village on the island) the villagers, who are reputed to be somewhat rough, hang their Patron Saint upside-down by his feet deep down in a dried-up well in times of drought. In Frontera, some time before Carnival but apparently unrelated to any specific religious heritage, men dressed in sheepskins chase children and youths and smear them with blacking and soot. At the end of October the wineries traditionally open their barrels and the vintners go from one to the other tasting the brews and eating roast chestnuts. The Cooperative Winery in Frontera has institutionalized this and everyone is invited to dinner and to the dance that follows.

The Descent (Bajada) of the Virgin is held in commemoration of Her answering the prayers of the Islanders after a terrible drought.  In 1740 the people and their flocks were dying of thirst and as a last resort they carried the Virgin from the west of the island to Valverde in the east, following the route along the crest of the island. On the way it began to rain torrentially. Now we have mains water but it was then decreed the procession should take place every four years forever. And so it does. The Virgin is carried in Her sedan-chair and accompanied by male dancers dressed in white skirts (I imagine the white trousers underneath and tennis shoes are a late addition), white shirts and colourful accessories including a most peculiar headdress. The teams of proud dancers representing the different villages take turns at set points to accompany the Virgin. The dances are evidently very ancient (remember Luis XIV danced “le Canarien” dressed in feathers?) and so is the music. I would say that during the Descent and the rites that follow (lasting from the end of June until the beginning of August) the island has at least double the population it has during the intervening four years. My mental image of the last Descent we went to is of thousands of brightly coloured people running, scrambling, tumbling down a slope of scree, sending up clouds of dust into the hot impossibly blue mountain sky, with the dancers and the Virgin’s sedan ahead of them. What I would have given for a glass of water! Not even wine!

Personally I prefer to avoid crowds. But I do enjoy seeing and, especially, hearing a procession from a distance. There is something eerie, indescribably primeval, in the ancestral sound of far-off bass drums and the trilling of distant flutes.

A procession in El Pinar celebrating the Day of the Cross (3 May). The dancers in white and red lead the two sedans housing the crosses, each representing a different part of the village.

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.