Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In Search of Lost Landscapes

Our time is Jaca is over, for the time being.  There is much more to write about, but I am off to Mongolia for 2 months of fieldwork.  Before signing off as La Pastora de Jaca, I wanted to share one last adventure with Dr. F.—our quest for an archetypical “boalar,” a park-like oak woodland located near most mountain villages where, historically, the oxen (bueyes) or other draught animals were put out to graze.
When I interview herders about their ecological knowledge, I usually start by asking them to describe the different types of land that exist in their valley or region, so that I can better understand how they see and classify different elements of the landscape.  In my study sites, most stockmen understood this question quite readily and proceeded to describe the different types of pasture they used, from the high mountain summer pastures, to the lower mountains, the oak forests, the meadows and hayfields, and in some cases the fields and fallow croplands of the Ebro River Plains.  They classified these types of pasture based on the season of use, land tenure and the vegetation and other characteristics.  One type of pasture referenced in the literature and also described by some of the older herders were the “boalares,” named for the oxen or bueyes that were pastured there, close to the village.  I understood that the boalar were woodlands with a grassy understory, but I didn’t really understand how they differed from other types of wooded pasture that herders described.  So Dr. F. determined that before I departed from Jaca, he would take me to see a perfect example of a boalar, so that I could understand what it was and take photos for my collection.   
Off we went one morning to the Sierra de Guara, a mountain range of the Pre-Pyrenees that lies between the high mountains and the Ebro River plains.  Before we departed, Dr. F. assured me we would be back in time for comida, the mid-day meal.  We drove an hour and a half through the winding roads of the Sierra de Guara, heading for the tiny hamlet of Las Bellotas, where Dr. F. recalled an archetypical boalar of huge ancient oak trees that had been the basis for an illustration in an article he co-authored a decade or two before.  As it turned out, Dr. F. had last visited this particular boalar about 20 years ago, and though he remembered the name of the village, he couldn’t recall exactly the location of the boalar.  After querying several local herders, we headed past the village into the protected area beyond.  The narrow blacktop road turned to gravel and the gravel to dirt and eventually the boulders and deep ruts became impassable in Dr. F.’s family sedan, so we got out and walked.  At this point, I was rather skeptical that we would find the legendary boalar—we were now many kilometers from the village and the boalar were typically located quite near to settlements.  But after taking a shortcut down a long switchback in the road, we finally came across one good-sized oak at the side of the road across from a stone ruin—a former barn or house.  We took photos from several angles, continued down the road, and found another.  Now our eyes became attuned to picking out the vast trunks and spreading canopies of the ancient oaks from the sometimes dense thicket of shrubs and younger trees that had grown up around them.  Dr. F. forged onward, seeking his vision of the boalar—the grassy understory beneath the spreading limbs.  We found one and then another and another, wandering through the woods in a meandering connect-the-trunks trajectory, trying to locate one tree in a sufficiently large opening that a photograph might convey something of what the former boalar might have looked like—scattered oaks in an open grove.  I took many pictures of trees, the grass beneath them, and Dr. F. embracing the gigantic trunks to illustrate their breadth. 
At last we decided we had enough pictures, Dr. F. was persuaded that I had some inkling of what a boalar was, and we began the hike back to where we had left the car.  But when we came to a fork in the road, we weren’t sure which way to go.  My instinct said to take the left-hand fork but Dr. F. thought it was the right, and then headed up a ridge, off the trail, wearing his nice office shoes and button down shirt.  Having enough self-knowledge to know my sense of direction is as notoriously poor as my conviction that I know the way is strong, I had the good sense to keep quiet.  I have also learned that the locals invariably know their way around the countryside better than I, and Dr. F. has spent enough time in the hills and mountains of the region to be considered a local.  Of course this day became the exception that proved the rule.  After several hours of scrambling over hill and dale and cliff and canyon under an increasingly dark and rumbling sky, we finally found the road again, although we were a few kilometers from where we had left the car.  We hiked on in the rain for another half hour—arriving at the car pleasantly soaked and hoping the clay of the road was not too sticky to extract the vehicle.  Luckily we were not struck by lightning (my perpetual fear) and did not get stuck in the mud in the car on the way out.  Needless to say, we did not get home in time for comida.  Dr. F. insisted he had never been lost like that before.  Somehow, this strikes me as unlikely, given his propensity for spending his weekends wandering the mountains.  For me, it was a great end-of-estancia adventure, bookended by the hour and a half drive on either end, Dr. F. waxing poetic about landscape history the whole way, commenting on the beauty of the stone walls, just as he did on our first trip to Linas de Broto last fall. 
I will miss this ancient anthropogenic landscape that bush and bramble are reclaiming after millennia of human habitation and manipulation.  I will also miss the good company, wisdom and humor of my colleague and friend Dr. F., his love for the mountains, empathy for their people, and enthusiasm for inquiry of all kinds.  I smile as I recall one of his favorite phrases:  “Soy experto en el comportamento animal”--I am an expert in animal behavior—by which, of course, he means that he is an expert in the behavior of the human animal, among others.  I am grateful that he saw fit to share his knowledge, insights, contacts, kindness and time so generously with me and my children this year.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Stockman or Gardener of the Mountain?

It is the day after Easter Sunday and the countryside around Jaca is a vibrant fairy-tale green with a backdrop of brilliant blue skies and puffy clouds.  Wildflowers color the roadsides and birdsongs fill the air.  We have only a month left here and it is hard to think about leaving as the mountains come to life after their winter slumbers.  The livestock kept in their stables all winter are back in the fields near their home villages.  Soon the transhumant herders will make their long trek back to the summer mountain pastures. 
A month ago, in mid-March, we organized community meetings in each of the two valleys where I have been conducting my research.  The purpose was to report the preliminary findings and conclusions to the research participants and other community members, and obtain their feedback on the interpretations we reached.  The meetings were well-attended for such small villages (in one, nearly 50 of the 500 inhabitants showed up) and the discussion was lively.  After the formal presentations and Q&A we adjourned to the local bar where we hosted a more informal exchange over tapas and drinks. 
Overall, the research participants validated my major conclusions, and many offered to help clarify the points on which I had lingering questions or uncertainties.  The most interesting response, however, was the strong reaction of some herders in both valleys to the proposal that livestock producers be compensated for the ecological services they provide, and specifically for the role their livestock play in helping to maintain an open and grassy aspect to the mountain pastures, where shrub cover has increased notably over the past several decades.  In my interviews, herders invariably mentioned the increase in shrub cover as the major environmental change in their lifetimes, and all viewed this change as a negative one, in part because increasing shrub cover means less herbaceous vegetation for livestock to consume.  Herders in the two valleys differed in their views about why this change has occurred (more on this another time), and whether these changes are reversible.  Herders here (not unlike many ranchers in the western US) often allude to the fact that the natural values so prized in this area are in part attributable to their centuries of stewardship of the mountains.  So I was surprised by the strong negative reaction some had to the notion that these contributions could be compensated, and the role of livestock in maintaining a desired vegetation composition be more directly valued. 
Upon further discussion the stockmen’s objections became clearer and were related to their sense of identity and purpose as herders.  Their goal as stockmen is to produce the best product possible, and their product is calves or lambs.  If the main purpose of their livestock becomes vegetation control, this would conflict with what they see as their primary aim—to raise healthy and well-fed animals.  Their reasoning is that their animals will only consume the undesirable shrubs when the more palatable grasses and forbs are unavailable, and this would mean basically starving their animals in order to force them to consume the less palatable vegetation.  This is possible, but the result would be less healthy and less productive livestock (fewer calves and lambs of lower weight), and would directly conflict with the qualities they most value in a good herder—one who cares for his animals and produces the best and most fit animals.  They had no objection to the idea that grazing their animals in the mountains might have collateral benefits of managing vegetation, but objected strongly to the notion that the animals be used as “brush-cleaning machines.”  Their role as stockmen was not to be “gardeners of the mountains,” but rather raisers of high-quality animals for food.  It bears noting, however, that not all the stockmen shared this view, and a vocal minority (one of whom I quoted in a previous entry to this blog) believe that the greatest value they contribute to society is the “work” their livestock do in “cleaning the mountain.”  
In the month that remains of our time in Jaca, I plan to talk with the government officials charged with the management of the Natural Park that encompasses the high mountain valleys where the herders spend the summer months, and also with the officials who oversee the administration of agricultural and environmental subsidies for livestock producers in this area.  It will be interesting to hear their perspectives on these issues, and especially their views of the role and value of livestock-based agriculture in this mountain region.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Cow

“When I grow up I want to be a cow.”  Fifteen years ago a school boy wrote this sentence on his paper when a teacher asked her students to share what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Today he is not a cow, but a stockman or “ganadero.”  I love this story, one of many that Dr. F. has shared about his acquaintances in the mountain towns.  It speaks to themes that resonate through my interviews—the identity and future of the “ganadero” or “pastor” (shepherd), and the herder’s love of his animals.  I think one reason I like it so much is that it reminds me of an offhand comment I made once to my future mother-in-law, as we walked in Tilden Park with my sheep herding dog, Maite, (and which my mother-in-law has never let me forget): “I wish I had a tail like Maite’s.” Maite, a border collie-Australian shepherd mix, had a gorgeous plume of a tail that expressed her joy and excitement so effortlessly, and lent such natural elegance to her compact little body, that I longed for a similar appendage. Both the schoolboy and I felt deep admiration and love for our animal companions, which we both confused, at least momentarily, with a desire to become those animals (or at least acquire some of their attributes).
The herders speak about their profession in many different ways.  Most of those I have interviewed came to it through inheritance of a family tradition.  In my study sites, most families had some livestock, even if only a few cattle or goats for milk, and for many herding or keeping livestock was their primary livelihood.  Until the 1990s, many village men also worked in the woods or in the saw mills, but the local mills closed down in both my study areas in the decade of the 1990s, and some families that once had diverse livelihood sources, began to specialize more in livestock, while others left the livestock sector for other pursuits.  All the herders, young and old, acknowledge that the structure of the livestock economy has changed dramatically in the past 20-30 years, and with it the grazing and management practices.  This has changed, in turn, the amount of time people spend with their animals, and the nature of the stockman’s occupation. There are few hired shepherds left (no one can afford to pay extra labor) and most stockmen work full time tending their own herds.  But most are too busy to spend all day watching over their animals, and instead use more recent innovations like electric fences and barns to keep the animals where then need to be, while the men tend to other business.  (And they are virtually all men, in my study sites.  The only woman herder I have met moved to the valley from another country.  Other women are the officially registered owners of some operations but the men do the daily work of running them.)  As stockmen increasingly rely on government subsidies for their agricultural income, and the market rewards them little for the quality of their products, many feel progressively conflicted about their roles.  Are they food providers, agricultural entrepreneurs, or mountain-keepers, whose main role is to manage the grazing and browsing animals that keep the encroaching shrubs and forests at bay and maintain the biodiversity and picturesque rural character of the mountain landscape? I have heard all of these, as well as passionate opposition to some of these roles.  Here are a few samples of the ways stockmen have talked about their profession and their animals, and the emergent themes related to the herding identity.
Love of the Work
I have one thing clear, that what I do I do with pleasure, me and my brother alike.  I always say that a cow gave birth to me.  Well, my mother gave birth to me, ok.  I know there are terrible days, terrible times when the calves die or what have you.  There are very bad days with the stock sometimes, you do have that.  The only thing that is necessary in this for me is that a person likes what he does.  If you don’t like it, go, because it will embitter you.  What I understand is that one must like what one does, and I like [being a stockman].
“Would that when I was 18 or 19 someone had told me, come on, let’s do this and I will support you.  Those were other times, and there was a lot of industrial growth and other jobs, and I always had heard at home that we must abandon [livestock husbandry].  My blood and my heart told me to continue with it.  It has been a fight against the current to be a stockman, my own stubbornness.  And yet I see that it is in my son’s blood.  Maybe in five years he will quit, but he has a lot of willingness, and it comes from inside.  You can see that he understands it and can manage it because he lives it.  So, I consider it a mistake to try to take away this dream.”

Love of the Animals
“I’ll tell you, the livestock, apart from being a means of livelihood, one loves them.  My sheep, I wouldn’t exchange them for any others in the world.  I know that others may be better, of course.  But I won’t change mine.  It is something that—like a pet dog that we give so much importance to—I give more importance to my sheep.  The way that you know a ewe and can tell, she is this one, this is not something you can change.  This isn’t about the economy.  It is something else.  I think it is much more: the pleasure of being a shepherd and of having one’s sheep, my sheep.”

We started with 10 old sheep to have meat for the household, you know? It was kind of a whim, with 10 pregnant sheep…. And with that whim, well, the livestock get to you, the truth is they grab you and hold onto you.”

Herders as Agricultural Entrepreneur vs. Herder as “Man Adapted to the Mountains”
“Now, everything is about nothing but money. They told me that we had to become agricultural entrepreneurs.  And I cannot tolerate that.  I cannot tolerate it.  Because the day that I am in the high mountains and I think my sheep are going one way and instead they go the other and on top of that they are headed for a cliff.  What kind of business man do I need to be?  I need to be a man adapted to the mountains, a little more than the sheep, but nothing more.  Simply that.  And an agricultural entrepreneur is something else.”

Stockman as Mountain-Keeper (Limpiador del Monte)
“What service do we provide? Well, two years ago we were at a meeting in Avila.  There was a conference and there were important people from Madrid, and one gentleman said to me, “You raise calves?”  And I told him, “I don’t consider myself a calf breeder.”  “You are a stockman,” he said.  [I answered] “Yes, but I consider myself more a cleaner (keeper) (“limpiador”) of the mountain. I do more as a cleaner of the mountain than by raising calves.” Because to me, I don’t care if I have 50 or 60 calves to sell.  For Spain, that means nothing.  But with 95 mother cows that graze throughout the year, because when we aren’t in one place, we are in another, we are doing a good cleaning of the mountain.  I consider myself more a mountain cleaner than a calf breeder.”

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Picnics in the Ruins

Rural depopulation is part of the boom and bust cycle of the Pyrenees.  In my own study sites, the human population of one village has declined by 30% and the other by 60% over the past century.  Other, smaller, villages within each valley have experienced even greater population losses, or have been abandoned altogether.  History suggests that this is not the first such boom-bust cycle in the mountain population, but it may be more extreme than past cycles.  Other areas of Spain have experienced more dramatic population losses and rural abandonment in recent decades.  In this landscape history is layered century upon century as in the 21st century forests overtake the terraced fields where farmers once grew wheat and later grazed their cattle, and hikers traverse the roman roads and gawk at Romanesque ruins, leaving our own middens of mandarin peels and pistachio hulls as one more layer in the sediment of time.  Some, perhaps most, of the abandoned villages will slowly fall away into piles of stones overgrown by native vegetation.  But others are being restored and re-inhabited.  Over the past few months we have visited a few of these works-in-progress, as well as sites that have been abandoned and not recovered.
One night in November, my 7-year old son and I ride in a friend’s car to a birthday party at a recently re-inhabited village on a hillside in the Pre-Pyrenees.  The trip takes an hour and the last stretch is up a frozen dirt road through a pine plantation that in warmer weather would be an impassable sea of mud.  We park at the edge of the village and make our way through the dark by the light of our cell phones, not having thought to bring flashlights.  We stop first at the communal bath house where we encounter some of the village residents who invite us to climb up a ladder to the attic and don costumes.  We follow our friends’ lead and decline the disguises—a decision I later regret—and stumble back into the night toward the communal kitchen and dining room.  Here we find a small herd of children aged 2-11, all in costume, painting their faces, and a similar number of scruffy-looking adults clad in creative get-ups related to the party theme—Rural Superheroes.  One caped man wears a metal necklace that on closer inspection turns out to be a chainsaw blade.  A woman who introduces herself, in character, as “Frost” appears to be a spider.  Another enormously pregnant woman bedecked with colorful tubes, hoses and miscellaneous plastic toys and household items later reveals herself to be the absent-minded “Super-mama.” My personal favorite, who arrives late to the party, is “Integrala” (loosely translated Whole-grain Woman) who sports oversized earrings fashioned from kitchen whisks and blows magic flour from the palm of her hand.  After snacks prepared in the communal kitchen the organized anarchy begins.  The birthday girl (a grown-up) decrees that each superhero must introduce him or herself and explain his/her super powers.  We clamber up the stairs to the open loft, which is a music rehearsal studio and communal dance and party space.  The first up is a man wearing briefs on the outside of his trousers, superman style, with a cape and mask.  I have forgotten his superhero name and powers, but his attempt at flying is unforgettable.  He stands on a chair in front of a pile of old mattresses and launches towards the audience with enthusiasm, flopping down onto the mattress pile.  Each superhero in turn mounts the chair, introduces herself, and leaps onto the heap of foam pads, beginning with the adults and ending with the children.  After this piece of theater is over, we adjourn for birthday cake and then reconvene for a round of charades, in which all the partygoers who want to play divide into two teams and must act out silly phrases drawn at random from a large jar, such as “Pirates of the Caribbean in the Orchard,” and the rest of us are the audience in hysterics.  The spirit is one of slightly self-deprecating irony combined with no-holds-barred fun.   The neo-rurals, as these pioneers are known, poke fun at their own earnestness and dedication, and act out to the hilt their non-conformist tendencies while performing the collective role of intentional community.  Not every member of the community is able to attend the party, but all who come play the game to the hilt and collaborate in this magnificent performance played by and mainly for themselves.  In the end, the only un-costumed partygoers are us—the stolid, square outsiders. 
We visit in the dark, but in the daytime these community members hurl equal energy into rebuilding, literally, the tumble down ruins of the old houses, cultivating gardens, tending the forest and a small herd of cattle.  Most do not have day jobs, although a few commute to nearby towns to work as teachers or as seasonal labor in the ski resorts.  The children attend school in a nearby village, helping to keep that school open by boosting its enrollment above the minimum threshold.  Most of the inhabitants come from urban backgrounds and most are well-educated, with university or graduate degrees.  They come lured by the ideals of a simple hands-on life, of free land and a home they can build themselves, and the appeal of living a communal lifestyle.  The inhabitants of this village have been rebuilding for about 6 years.  I end up hiring one of the men I meet at the party to transcribe my interviews with herders.  He turns out to be the fastest and most productive transcriptionist of the several local assistants I hire to help with my research, and I feel as though I am contributing to a worthy project, funneling some of my research funds into the local neo-rural subsistence economy. 
On New Year’s Eve we attend another party at a different recovered village site on another side of the same mountain.  Here, the residents have been rebuilding for 20 years, and the village now numbers 40 inhabitants and receives water and postal services from the government.  One of the inhabitants is a researcher at my host institute.  This visit, too, is after dark, but we take a flashlight tour of the village beneath the spangled winter sky.  Here is the restored church with a climbing wall where the altar once stood.  Later a pot-luck New Year’s feast will be laid out on the trestle table in the middle of the room.  Here is the irrigation water tank which doubles as a community swimming pool in the summer, and here is the orchard and garden it waters.  Here are the buildings, some restored in keeping with the architectural heritage of the region, others--not so much.   Many are still in progress with one or two stories built and another story to go.  We sit in the cozy kitchen of one of the homes and eat cheese with quince jam, and mushroom-stuffed crepes, mere appetizers before the feast to come.  It strikes me that there is a whole other research project here—a counter point to my current study on traditional knowledge and changes in the social networks in the ancient herding communities.  This is a story of renewal and regeneration against the backdrop of rural decay and decline.  But can these two stories intertwine?  Can the neo-rural urban escapees be part of the solution to rural depopulation and agricultural decline?  I do a quick internet search and discover that the two villages we visit may be part of a larger movement, much of it centered in this region of Spain, and that yes, at least one sociologist has conducted a comparative case study of some 40 recently re-populated villages. 
It is New Year’s Day and the snow is too shallow up high to make it worth the trip for skiing, so we drive our borrowed car a short way up the Rio Arag√≥n Valley to visit another drainage renowned for its abandoned towns and ruins.  Here the abandonment seems to have been hastened by the government’s declaration of the area as a national hunting reserve and human repopulation does not seem to be encouraged.  The ruins here are accompanied by interpretive signs explaining the history of the crumbling walls.  At the first village we come to, we climb up a short trail to explore the remains of the Romanesque church.  Most of the roof is gone and the walls caved in, yet some of the original paint is still visible on the patches of remaining walls and ceiling, surprisingly bright blue.  The afternoon light on the stone gives it a golden hue and we delight in the delicate ferns sprouting from the cracks between the stones that formed the cupula of the chapel.  We eat our rustic picnic (cheese, salami, mandarins, almonds) sitting on another wall behind the church then continue our walk to the head of the valley where another, restored, monastery stands.  This simple Romanesque structure is graceful against the backdrop of the encroaching forest and distant snowy passes.  The capitals are intricately carved and there is a long and well-preserved text carved above the main door.  The building is closed but a piece of colored paper tacked to the door suggests that mass is still held here on some summer weekends. 
So these are our picnics in the ruins, some truly ruined, some restored, some rebuilt by young people creating a community from scratch, and some restored and preserved as historical monuments by government contractors.  To save the many waning rural agricultural communities in Spain, these villages will need to spawn their own rural superheroes, or perhaps, welcome in some wandering heroes from beyond their traditional boundaries to help inspire a new generation of innovators.