A green pat on the back for the Sierra

poppies 2

The ancient rivalry between the kingdoms of Granada and Seville is well documented, and very much alive and kicking.  Which is why the ecologists  of Granada have reacted with fairly unrestricted glee to the news that the Sierra Nevada has become the first National Park in Spain to be awarded  entry to the much coveted Green List of the IUCN.( the International Union for the Protection of Nature.)  Not that we’re gloating, but poor old Doñana, home to a handful of expensive, mangy wild cats and the odd stork, say the folk of Granada,  has failed against the odds to have its bid accepted.

And the thing is, although  many of you may not have heard of it, the IUCN is a very significant player in these matters, and their views carry weight. In fact, the IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organisation,  with more than 1,200 government and NGO Members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries.   With the key word here being expert, for these guys are neither administrators nor jealous politicians,  but for the most part  exceptional, dispassionate scientists whose role is to describe the truth as they see it.

when it snows

So it’s a fair old honour for the Sierra  Nevada to be given this acclaim, especially when you consider that not only is it for now  the single site in Spain,  but one of only 23 internationally,  in an exclusive list stretching from Kenya to Korea to Columbia .

Fair recognition too, we think, for it is an area of immense beauty, astounding  biodiversity and with a powerful history to boot.  With more than 86 000 hectares of protected land it is by some margin the biggest National Park in Spain, and of course the highest, with peaks rising to over  11 400 feet.   Such is the height gain from practically the shores of the Mediterranean to the towering peaks  that it allows for various, distinct habitats which are home to more than 2100 plant species,  leading to the claim that as many as 80% of Europe’s endemic flowers are found within its borders.   There are also huge temperature swings through the year:  in the summer it is not uncommon for the thermometer to rise above 40C, whilst in the winter it can plunge to 20 below, so it is remarkable how various species have been able to adapt to such wildly fluctuating conditions, and to cope with drought and the challenge presented by 300 days of the most intense solar radiation.


So this award underlines what we’ve known all along, namely that it’s fabulous , that it’s fragile,  that it’s home to a myriad rare beasties, that it’s freely accessible, and most important perhaps,  that the powers-that-be are undeniably aware of all of  the above  and are offering  not only recognition but also the best protection that European environmental laws can currently provide.

Come and see for yourselves.  Despite the restrictions placed on the hunters, road builders and developers, the rest of us can roam and explore freely on foot.  There are no access issues, no tolls, no fences, and, most pleasingly of all,  virtually no people.   Unlike somewhere like say, Doñana.  Did I mention that they are not yet on the list …..?

  1. The author wishes to note that he has no axe to grind with the people of Seville. Rather that this is an amiable rivalry, a bit like that between fair Lancashire and t’other  lot.


Portrait of a villager

Were you to stage a play which required a composite, stereotypical  version  of a  swarthy, scruffy Spanish rascal then my friend Pedro would walk straight into the part.  This wise, be-whiskered, mocking, half-educated, dentally challenged campesino, is the real McCoy,  complete with all the contradictions.

When you meet him it’s like shaking hands with the Thing from the Fantastic Four. Blue eyes set deep behind an inscrutable wall of wrinkles, his direct gaze seems to weigh you, and find you somehow light, or lacking.   Put kindly,  he has a pleasingly relaxed attitude to his attire and personal grooming;  think of the antithesis of Metro-man.   Yet he exudes a sense of independence, almost of aloofness.  He is strong, canny, funny and also honest, up to a point.   I suspect that as a young man he may have been handsome.  There are dark rumours about his past.

When we first came to the village all those years ago I was drawn to this scary, complex character and we worked together on several building projects. That is, he worked and I observed and scurried around exhausted and tried to make myself useful in the role of apprentice,  whilst he muttered under his breath about the uselessness of college boys in general and me in particular. In action he was a joy to watch, poised and elegant as he selected the perfect stone to jigsaw into the wall he was building.  I also learned to swear horribly. It was often a fairly unmanning experience. Whenever I said or did something especially dim or naïve he had this habit of whistling softly inwards between the gaps in his teeth; on bad days it was like working next to an ever boiling kettle. In contrast, on the rare occasion I did something right he would give that gruff, grudging cough of approbation, and I would melt.

He’s as Spanish as could be, but  has that Yorkshire trait of telling the truth as he sees it.  One fine day, for example,  he caught me standing  with an English friend next to a drystone wall we had just spent three days  rebuilding.  Muscles  sore, backs aching, fingernails broken in a manly kind of way, we are feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, chuffed at the scale of our achievement.  “David !” shouts  Pedro. “ who fixed up that wall?” “Me, actually” I say smugly.  His reply is as withering as it is pertinent.  “Claro,” he pronounces, “ It’s shit.”   And with that goes on his way.

That section of wall, I confess, is no longer with us.

A few years ago he came with us to climb to the top of Mulhacen, for fun.  In the 1950s he’d worked for a long time there as a shepherd and knew every  gulley and crag,  but though a hundred times he’d grazed his flock to within half an hour of the summit, he’d never before set foot there. Hadn’t he been a bit tempted, I wondered. Not at all.  He wasn’t even defensive about his lack of curiosity, and at first I was mildly discomfited, it seemed so unambitious.  For him it was just work, rural drudgery.  It only came to me later that there isn’t really much difference  between Pedro on the mountain and the London commuter who spends a lifetime on the Piccadilly line, but whose thirst for knowledge never takes him to the terminus, for the simple joy  of discovering what Cockfosters or Uxbridge is  really like.

The thing is, I trust and admire him, and can’t get enough of his wily,  countryman’s  fund of stories and practical advice.   Over the years he’s shown me  amongst other things  how to kill a pigeon, where to find wild asparagus, truffles and  French sorrel,  how to make a  herbal  tincture to take away toothache,  the scene of an atrocity after the Civil War, and an evil concoction which he claims will keep away wild boar. (Don’t ask:  it’s mostly bits of other wild boar, toasted.)

It was Pedro who taught me – eventually – the correct way to prepare an alamo, or poplar , the tall, straight trees which are used as beams in all the buildings hereabouts.   As  soon as it is felled you need to peel away all the rough bark from the trunk, but crucially, leave a 30 cm collar of unpeeled bark at one end. The purpose of this eluded me at first.  After two years of seasoning though, you soon see why, for the intact collar performs the function of a sacrificial zinc anode on an outboard motor, in that every bug, larvae or fungus makes its home there, leaving it soft and loofah like, whilst the rest of the peeled trunk is left hard and unblemished. The trick, of course,  is to cut down the tree at the appropriate time of year, in fact under a waning moon in August.  No one but the most ignorant fool would ever dream of doing  otherwise. Pedro told me this after he and his friends had watched patiently as  nonchalantly I took my new chain saw to such a tree in January.  Could he not have stopped me beforehand, I wondered through gritted teeth.   With a wicked grin, he shrugged.  He has a magnificent shrug, that Pedro.

Wry.  I think that’s the word.  Once in his stables with a group of walkers someone asked innocently whether it was true they kept the animals beneath the household so their body heat will help warm the rooms above. Nope, says Pedro.  “You ever tried getting a cow or a pig up the stairs?”