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.