Andersen: Like having a thousand Jeromes …
The land is planted and green and growing. Gardens are in every yard and every courtyard. Groves of fruit trees are terraced on every hillside. Vineyards stretch out with gnarled stumps ready to burst into vines burgeoning with summer grapes.
This was southern Spain in April, where villages are picturesque and clustered on hillsides, built with density to preserve surrounding land for agriculture. And where the land is not growing food, it is growing energy.
Vast solar arrays spread over desert hills, hundreds of panels tracking the sun. Where the wind is strong, huge windmills turn lazily, feeding the grid of Andalucia. Spain is a world leader in renewable energy.
While bike touring there last month with my son, Tait, we followed part of the Don Quixote Trail, a sinuous backcountry route that follows river valleys, climbs over ridges and passes through rural farmland.
Statues, paintings and icons of Quixote, Sancho Panza and their faithful steeds are ubiquitous in Castilla/La Mancha, honoring the imaginative work of Miguel Cervantes, famed purveyor of Iberian mythology.
In the hilltop village of Campo de Criptana, ancient windmills built on towers of whitewashed stone are emblematic of Cervantes’s fictive, heroic character, while on the horizon modern turbines catch the wind and power the modern industrial world.
Agriculture provides a visual backdrop across the bucolic countryside. Spain produces more olive oil than Italy and exports more wine than France, and its organic fruit and vegetables feed much of Northern Europe. Spain is No. 2 in Europe and eighth in the world in area dedicated to ecological crops. The focus on growing is impressive.
“It’s like having a thousand Jeromes in each village,” Tait said, referring to Jerome Osentowski, Basalt’s permaculture exemplar at the Colorado Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute.
That’s because food is the culture in southern Spain, which produces fresh, delicious, healthy fruits and vegetables. Edible self-sufficiency is a source of pride for a people and a nation producing as much of their own sustenance as the arid land and sparse water will bear. Conserving water through drip irrigation is de rigueur.
The delicious foods we ate during our monthlong pedaling peregrination we knew came from Spain. In one tiny village, El Chorro, I plucked a ripe, plumlike fruit from a tree on the roadside and sampled one of the most succulent fruits I’ve ever eaten. Ah, the blessings of a Mediterranean climate!
Figs grow everywhere, as do oranges. In many villages, orange trees provide decorative shade in parks, along streets and within confined courtyards. Not only do these trees produce juicy, ripe oranges, but they emit a sweet and redolent perfume that draws you like a bee to pollen.
Riding past certain gardens — whether in the city or the country — we were met with wafts of ambrosia from vines clinging to trellises or from budding fruit trees festooned with white and pink blossoms.
Where Jerome is an outlier in his paradise garden on Basalt Mountain, his same passion for fresh produce seems manifest as a regional trait in Andalucia. Here is a land where small villages are contained, where sprawl is rejected and where people have a relationship with the soil and farm animals that fill their larders.
There are challenges in these rural areas, where the average age of a farmer is 55, where young people flee to the cities, where the economy is tenuous and the work is hard and the summer sun is brutally hot. In some regions, entire villages are for sale. Homebuyers often are British retirees. Still, the vestiges of traditional agriculture appear ingrained, reflected on the land.
Tradition is the key word — whether it is seen in the ingenuous structure of dry-stacked rock walls, in the ornate church steeples rising above tidy streets and colorful tile roofs, in ancient olive groves whose tree trunks are massive and gnarled, or in the braying of a donkey and the crow of a rooster at dawn.
These traditions reach far back, beyond Quixote and Panza, beyond the musings of Cervantes, to a culture rooted deeply in the land that provides it nurture and identity.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays if he’s not busy anointing himself with virgin olive oil. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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