31 Dec 2020

64. Back to nature




Like all young people, my generation insisted on believing we could defy the inevitable. We imagined, for instance, we could opt out of the rat-race and go back to nature to plant potatoes in idyllic villages somewhere. A few managed to make it, perhaps even to the Cotswolds or Brittany. But most went back to a ‘proper job’ in London or Lyon, even Brussels. We had not counted on crude reality, nor foreseen how the world was to change.

Not surprisingly, the dream lives on and even goes from strength to strength. For many, life has become unbearable: our cities are inhuman, our work unrewarding, our food tasteless, our relationships bitter, our future uncertain … Today’s ‘back-to-nature’ people, though, are different, savvier. They know there are no derelict farmhouses to be picked up for coppers. They know the earth is way below their knees and that they must have an income. But they also know that today they have a brilliant chance to make it work.

Hideaways ‘far from the madding crowd’ are no longer the exclusive prerogative of successful writers and painters. The pandemic has shown that many of us really can work from home. Air transport since the 80’s has made the world a lot smaller. Computers and modern travel open up all sorts of opportunities, not only to work where you are but also to make where you are work for you.

El Hierro has outstanding potential for initiatives, modest and ambitious, partly because of what it intrinsically is and partly because most of the footwork has already been done. To begin with, its accessibility. Being one of the Canaries, it is easy to get to from anywhere in Europe. IT communications are far better than in most comparable areas on the mainland. The island itself is beautiful. It is quiet and the air is clean. The roads are good and so are our services, especially medical. As long as you don’t pine for the snow, anyone can find within the confines of the island the climate that best suits them. And, of course, El Hierro has none of those things `back-to-nature’ people don’t like. The island is practically virgin territory, just waiting for ideas.

13 Dec 2020

63. Rain


Rain, rain, go away,
Come again another day!

Children's ditty


To most people the idea of pleasure is incompatible with rain. It dampens everything, including our spirit, it floods the pavement with grimy traps for our soggy shoes, our hair clings to our crown and cheeks like seaweed at low tide, passing traffic soaks our trousers up to the knee with a decoction of cigarette ends and dog poo … That’s how I remember it when long ago I lived in a city. Perhaps they have cleaned things up since then …

But here on rural El Hierro, I taught my grandchildren a very different version of the jingle:

"Rain, rain, stay today
And come again every day.”

It won’t, though. So, we can afford to appeal to the gods for it. If it did rain every day, the island would be lush like Honolulu, inevitably full of American tourists in flowered shirts and young Herreñas in grass skirts. And we don’t want that, do we?

We could do with more rain than we get now, perhaps twice our average of 450 mm (about 18 inches) a year on the southern slopes. No, we wouldn’t mind that at all. We know that here the rain can never last more than a few days at a time and that the sun will soon be out in a blue sky like no other. It all depends on old man NAO sending us low pressure and westerlies. No, you’re not alone, a lot of other people haven’t heard of him either. NAO is an Atlantic version of the Pacific’s Niño. Then, we have no rivers to break their banks flooding roads, basements and garages as they apparently do everywhere else. The island’s “barrancos” (gullies and ravines), dry most of the time, are quite sufficient to carry off excess. And third, our soil, volcanic and porous, simply soaks up any rain falling on it faster than a Russian can drink vodka.

Here’s something else you might never have heard of – horizontal rain. No, it’s not rain in a gale, but something far more gentle. The western Canary Islands rise high out of the Atlantic Ocean right in the path of the Trade Winds coming thousands of miles from the north. The winds are laden with moisture which, as they are forced over the mountains, forms clouds.  These clouds, in turn, condense on every leaf and pine needle of the forests high up on the northern slopes of the islands, millions of jewels of the purest distilled water falling drip, drip, drip, onto the leaf-mould below. The volume of horizontal rain that soaks into the forest floor each year must be immense, but the weathermen don’t even attempt to include it in their statistics. And, as far as I know, no-one has ever seriously tried to cash in on the phenomenon, except, that is, for the aboriginal “Bimbapes” at the famous Garoé tree.

Yes, we look forward to rain. Vertical or horizontal, we know we need it. After all, we ourselves are ninety-five percent rain ... indirectly, of course! 

9 Dec 2020

62. Regrets


I have no idea where I am. On a deckchair somewhere, I'm uncomfortable. The light is blinding me to my surroundings. After an age of anguish I begin to recognize my garden. Outside my house. I relax in relief. I close my eyes again. I hear, far off, the grumbling of the sea as the waves crash against the rocks a kilometre away to the east and a thousand metres below me. I don't understand why my relief is laced with regret.

      A blackcap forces out his crystalline riff and is answered by a flock of wild canaries landing in the almond tree, giggling and chattering like a thousand futile fashionable young things. The regret turns to melancholy at the song of a distant blackbird. Blackcap, blackbird … black and white stripes of a hoopoe not ten feet away, jabbing the earth with his long, curved beak. Somewhere between sleep and awakeness, I see him beside the curry plant. I smell the curry plant, immortelle. I don’t know if I really smell it or if I remember the smell. In my mind I sense the wood in the house, warm, dry and resinous, and the stone walls, slightly acrid with age, like me. The native artemisia by the kitchen patio, they call it Moll – as in Flanders – and say it purifies the air. I recall the refined perfume of the stephanotis that climbs the kitchen wall, and the more brazen jasmine, too, and the sherbet of the wisteria. I smell the woodstove in winter and the earth wet with rain in the garden, and the olive tree and the orange and lemon blossoms and hear their beautiful Arabic name “Azahar”. I can’t hear or smell the grapevines but I can hear and smell the winery, and the wine, and I can taste the grapes. And the plums, too, and figs and apricots.  Melancholy …

      I remember my wife and I forty years ago. We looked at each other when we came here, to this our friend’s house. We smiled: this was our place. Neither knew why. We just knew. But things happen, things change in ways we could never have imagined. And we know it’s time to move on. Like our friend did. The house is up for sale.

10 Aug 2020

61. Real People, Summer Islanders, Alemanes and Others

It would have been suicide to try to pass the car in front, stationary as it was on the hairpin bend on the main road through El Pinar. After waiting patiently for a few minutes, I got out and asked the driver to move to the side so that I and the other cars behind me could continue on our way. She sized me up and emphatically said, “On my island, I do as I please!” before resuming her conversation with another woman standing across the road. As I returned to my car I noticed her number plate was from Gran Canaria, nothing especially strange here on El Hierro. Later I told a friend the anecdote, he laughed, “Evidently she was an “herreña de verano!”

The “Summer Islander” lives elsewhere but returns to his/her island in the summer or for special events like local patron saint celebrations. The Summer Islander is excessively patriotic, as Georges Brassens sang “Le con qui est né quelque part” – best left untranslated for those who do not speak French! But the story does illustrate the deeply possessive relation of the islander to the island and to people from elsewhere.

To the islander, people born here are “gente gente” –  roughly “real people”. If they have returned from emigration to America they may initially be referred to as “retornados” – “returnees” – but soon become real people again. But their children born in Venezuela, despite having Spanish nationality, will always be “Venezolanos”.

Everyone else is, as some English used to say, “not one of US”. We are very rarely fully accepted. We are tolerated, welcomed, even admired, as long as we don’t rock the boat. Of course that’s the same everywhere, but perhaps nowhere so innocently admitted. One Easter holiday years ago, a neighbour said to me,
“We didn’t know you were here! We haven’t heard you.”
“We don’t make much noise, you know.”
“That’s why we tolerate you.”
Had I come from Tenerife, Seville or New York, her response would have been the same.

On the other Canary Islands, people from the mainland are often depreciatively referred to as “Godos”. Not so on El Hierro. All Spaniards from the mainland, and from the other Canaries as well, are lumped together as “los de fuera” – “outsiders”. For example, if you don’t know who your landlady is talking about, she might say, “You know, that woman from outside (“esa de fuera”) who drives a yellow Volkswagon.”

Fifty or sixty years ago, the few people from Europe who made it to El Hierro were mostly Germans, young, rather colourful, and had some money in their pockets. At least more than the average local. Consequently, they stood out wherever they squatted, drank or stoned themselves. They were soon seen by the locals as rather comical and game to be fleeced. They were fleeced. Of course, that contingent is no longer here but the name remains. Today, anyone from Europe apart from Spain and Portugal is called “alemán” – German. And not only by the ignorant: I finally gave up trying to convince one of our leading politicians of my origins. I suppose his island culture was stronger than his education and managerial experience. As you might well expect, Germans still form the majority of the European visitors to El Hierro. The story goes that when the underwater volcano was erupting near La Restinga, aerial photographs showed a black-yellow-and-red striped beach-towel pegged to its rising dome some thirty feet below the bubbling waves.

It is not my intention to suggest the islanders are xenophobic. They are not. The curious categorization of others that I describe is the islanders’ strategy to come to terms with the changing circumstances that have overcome them in a shorter time than is the case elsewhere. For four and a half centuries, 1400 – 1850, the simple people of El Hierro survived in isolated subsistence. The only contact with outsiders was with a few clergymen and the occasional administrator of the absentee lord of the island, in both cases collecting tithes. In the nineteenth century, the pressure on the peasants increased and the period of emigration commenced. In America, the islanders clung to their island precedence, the only identity they had, and magnified its virtues, in the face of their new role as underdogs in a foreign society. Their return, largely in the second half of the twentieth century, more or less coincided with the advent of massive tourism, a few representatives of which made it to the island. Some islanders have also been to places other then America as soldiers, students, taxidrivers, shopkeepers … But the fundamental vision of himself and El Hierro that the islander has is the one the emigrant imagined. He is on his island. True, it has changed but he and the other islanders can still cling to their picture of it. There are also a lot of other people here, but he doesn’t quite know why, what they are doing here, how long for, or even whether they should be …

Before Covid
Before Covid, the Sunday morning market at Frontera used to be an untidy boisterous event, one of the few where
you could expect to see in one place the full variety of the island's human fauna. It still is. You might not be able to
identify in the photo the full spectrum but we are all here: real people; summer islanders; a few outsiders, returnees
and Venezuelans, and, of course quite a few 'alemanes' including, apart from myself, real Germans, Italians,
French, Swedes and perhaps a Russian.
Incidentally, if you decide to go and see the market for yourself, don't expect to see stacks of the fruit I mentioned
in my last entry
, most of the produce comes from Tenerife at the nearest!

3 Jul 2020

60. Our Fruit

Some sixty years ago, enterprising farmers from La Palma decided to set up banana plantations in El Hierro. The idea was to truck down from the central highlands fertile soil with which to cover the volcanic badlands at sea level in El Golfo. Some of this earth was just tipped over the edge of the surrounding cliffs. Walls were built to encompass the future plantations and wells dug to supply irrigation. But the island has a mind of its own and the Palmeros had not counted on the wind, the wicked wind, fatal to banana plants. The Palmeros cut their losses and left, leaving all their investment to the rejoicing Herreños. Gradually the new agricultural land was reconverted to other, less susceptible but more profitable, tropical fruit crops. Bananas are still grown in El Golfo, mostly in greenhouses, while the main single producer is an enormous greenhouse in the south of the island.

Hundreds of steel posts form the structure of this enormous greenhouse measuring 120,000 square metres, or

Hundreds of steel posts form the structure of this enormous greenhouse measuring 120,000 square metres, or
30 acres, covered with fine mesh netting to protect the banana plants from the wind and insects. The lorry
and wharehouse on the left give an idea of the size. I find the geometric austerity of the greenhouse somehow
fits in well with the cruel beauty of this desolate landscape in the south of the island.

The area of El Golfo produces excellent pineapples and fibreless mangoes, called ‘mangas’ here in opposition to the smaller fibrous kind. Most of the production of bananas and pineapples is exported to mainland Spain, and mangoes to the other islands. Pawpaws and other exotic fruits are also grown.


Terraces of pineapples. Notice the cruel points have been cut off the leaves to spare the workers on these dense
plantations. The shaddows of 15 foot banana plants show up against the netting on the side of the greenhouse on
the left. The earth for these terraces built on the volcanic badlands may well have been tipped over the 3,000 ft
cliffs in the background.

All of these tropical and subtropical fruit are, of course, relative newcomers to the island. Historically the most important fruit crop in the island was the grape for wine and brandy. And it is gradually making a comeback. Several posts in this blog discuss our viticulture and wines.

Another fruit is the prickly-pear. It seems to have declined in grace in recent years. The cactus it grows on was once farmed in all the Canary Islands for the carmine dye of the cochineal insect that infests the paddles and was used to colour Campari, Moroccan flowerpot hats, lipstick ...

Post 31 in this blog is all about figs. The ubiquitous fig trees are extremely hardy, long-lived and drought resistant and so thrive particularly well on the southeastern slopes around El Pinar, as do almond trees.

Almond trees blossom sometime between Christmas and the end of February and El Pinar is dressed in all tones from white to blushing pink. We know one Scandinavian couple who passed through the village while on holiday and were so enchanted by the spectacle they came to live here. Some say the pinker the blossom the more bitter the nut, but in my experience that is not so. One kind of almond I had never seen before is the ‘mollar’ (pronounced ‘moyAR’), meaning ‘soft’ in reference to the husk and shell which you can separate from the nut with your fingers. Like figs, almonds were once important to the countryman’s subsistence economy, but now California produces them cheaply and you don’t even have to shell them! Nevertheless, in late summer we wake up to the dry “tap tap” of nostalgic old women (and sometimes men) beating the almond trees with long poles to gather the nuts.

Most fruit trees you can buy today are on dwarfing stock for ease of picking. These have by nature very superficial roots and so do not flourish under our conditions of poor rainfall and sandy soil. But an almond tree grown from seed has a good root system, including a very long taproot. So here it has proved an excellent rootstock on which to graft other drupes, like peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums … All of these are grown locally for home consumption.

The russet apples, called ‘Reinetas’, from San Andrés were very much appreciated. Undeservedly so in my opinion. But their production is now barely testimonial, presumably by being priced out of the market and/or climate change. We have found that one pome fruit (of the same family as an apple) that does well here with a little irrigation is the quince. It produces large fruit that ripen in autumn and make a very good jelly. Incidentally, the word ‘marmalade’ appears to derive from the Portuguese word ‘marmelo’ meaning ‘quince’.

Citrus fruit, despite there being a lemon tree in nearly every house’s kitchen garden, demand too much water. In Frontera there were, a few years ago, several plantations of oranges, most of which have been abandoned. They could not compete with imports from Valencia, and now Morocco.

Given the variety and quality of the fruit that grows on the island you would expect some sort of secondary industry such as the production of jam, even on a limited scale, to be successful. But it is not easy to deal with EU rules – devised to favour large manufacturers – nor the idiosyncrasy of established distribution networks ... Never worry! At home we always have a good supply of delicious jam, deep-frozen plums and apricots, fresh pineapple, pawpaws, seasonal mangoes, homemade wine …!

30 Apr 2020

59. House Arrest and Gardening

I’ve not been very consistent over the last year or so with this blog. Firstly, after a lifetime of good health, that most terrible of all ailments, A.G.E., gave me a serious warning which only an efficient and caring health service such as we have here in the Canaries could, and did, ward off. And then I had to devote myself to getting the vineyard and garden back into production as well as a couple of other projects I had set aside.

When, at last, I thought we were almost back to normal, Covid appeared. To me at least, it was perfectly clear the situation was more serious than some people would have had us believe and that some sort of lockdown was inevitable. What I should have expected, but didn’t, was the seemingly authoritarian exercise in control of the masses imposed on us by the Central Government (with its Orwellian misinformation and draconian irrationality). Luckily our village has no local police and the Civil Guards (equivalent to the French Gendarmerie) rarely bother to come here. Especially luckily since our villagers are rather like those of Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub, in Under Milk Wood, idiosyncratically unruly and contemptuous of authority, even though they make out they comply. Regrettably our curate does not deliver odes in glory of El Pinar. Even so, the house arrest imposed on us has made for little change: it is true the bars are closed and so our senior citizens can no longer have their afternoon game of dominoes. But we live in the country. Most people’s gardens are dispersed, so are their goats and sheep, and vineyards … and they go to them despite it being forbidden. So there is little chance of villagers gathering in numbers, even if we want to. If one of us needs to talk in person to another – with, of course, the reglementary social distancing – we phone and arrange to meet at the supermarket. If we need a screw or seeds, the ironmonger is open behind closed doors. One very nice thing also happens: every evening at seven o’clock our nearest neighbour’s children go out on their front doorstep to play traditional folk music on a drum and flute. This is echoed in kind by others from different parts of the village. These kids have already internalized our homegrown ‘gentle rebelliousness’. But before they’ve finished, someone with a loudspeaker on the other side of the village tries to drown this authentic sound with recordings of mainland muzak. I’ve heard this person is a civil servant …

Apart from my weekly excursion to the village supermarket to stock up on things we cannot do for ourselves, I have no reason to leave the property – the vegetable garden and the vineyard are right here. During the seven weeks of confinement we’ve chalked up so far, I’ve finished taking in the winter growing season, sown and got under way the spring crops and started preparing the summer selection. The winter season is from October to March, more or less, and I grow broad beans, carrots, broadleaved chicory, lettuce, turnips, chard etc. The spring crops include the same crops and more – peas, climbing French beans, Chinese cabbage, onions, giant garlic, rocket, beetroot, radicchio, radishes, leeks, grelos (kind of turnip grown only for its tops). I start sowing now for the summer – French beans, cucumbers, courgettes, peppers, melons, watermelons etc. In practice, these seasons run into each other and some things even continue from the winter season into summer. It all depends on the weather. We’re at 850 meters above sea level and it is much cooler than you would expect lower down and it varies enormously from year to year. For example, last year we picked peas in January. This year none came up from my sowings and I gave up in February. Last week, peas started coming up in all sorts of places after turning the soil, so I’ve sown some more, we’ll see! In addition to all these, we have a few odds and sods that seed themselves and need very little attention: artichokes, fennel and Florence fennel, celery, wild garlic … On the other hand, I don’t grow potatoes. I buy a couple of sacks of seed potatoes for a friend and he provides us with all we need during the year and sells the rest of the crop. I’ve never managed to grow decent tomatoes, and cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli don’t respond reasonably to my ungreen fingers.

House arrest has naturally led to this involvement with gardening. I’ve always done it but in an off-hand way. Till now. And we have become foodies!

25 Mar 2020

58. Lockdown in El Pinar

The main street of El Pinar during Covid 19 lockdown. Not a soul to be seen. Normally there would be people
everywhere, maybe a double-parked van selling produce (we have no local police) and dogs sniffing ...
Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, the population of Spain, including El Hierro, has been in compulsory ‘confinement’ for ten days now. This means we have to stay at home and not congregate with people other than those who live with us, not even the nextdoor neighbour. We can go out (unaccompanied) only if it is absolutely necessary. In an appearance on national television, our Prime Minister (who likes to be referred to as President) explained to us what this means: we can go out to buy the bread, to the hairdresser (this possibility was dropped soon after), to the chemist’s or the supermarket, to take the dog for a walk etc. All bars and restaurants, cinemas, bingos, clubs, discotheques, associations and most shops not selling food are closed. So are beaches, parks and any venue or activity that congregates people (or smacks of fun, pleasure or sin). I know, this is the only way we can curb the expansion of Covid 19. What is surprising, though, is that the entire population of Spain, normally so gregarious, unruly and fun-loving, has accepted the restrictions with not so much as a whimper.

El Pinar is no exception. The road where I live was once known as ‘Cholesterol Walk’. A misnomer today. Gone are the sweaty runners, the groups of argumentative old ladies, figure-conscious young ones and dogwalkers. So are the discotheques-on-wheels that whizzed along on the occasional evening. Being on the edge of the village, at times we heard the siren of an ambulance on the main road or the reversing horn of heavy machinery somewhere far away, or, more agreeably, the cries of children in the playground of the village school. But not now. Just the voices of ravens, seagulls, mating kestrels, distant cockerels and tied-up dogs. The village high-street is deserted at all hours. And so is the village square.

On the island we are isolated more than confined. We are lucky in that we have a garden and vines to keep us outdoors much of the time. Likewise, most of the people that live right in the villages have gardens and plots nearby and, I suppose, can go and dig their potatoes despite the rather exaggerated stories we hear of fines and over-zealous policemen. I think the state of sanitary alarm has had little effect on employment here. Our largest single employer is the Cabildo, i.e. the island’s governing and administrative body, and our fledgling tourist industry is hardly out of the nest. Our agriculture and its derivatives  –  subtropical fruit, wine and cheese – must go on. So, we islanders have nothing to envy of the family of four confined to a small urban flat on one of the larger islands or the mainland. In many ways, but for TV and the internet, for us the pandemic has just temporarily wiped out the last forty or fifty noisy years.

On Saturday, I went to the supermarket, duly attired in mask and nitrile gloves.  Most of the other shoppers were, too, but I noticed that several men of around fifty or sixty, whom I did not recognize as being locals, were brazenly flouting the advice of our health authorities. They were, I suppose, what we call ‘Summer Islanders’, projecting the idea that they are a little above us, and the pandemic. Let’s hope they are!