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Over the hill

August 12, 2010 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

We go up the valley looking for Lorenzo, who grazes his cows on our patch of mountain. Twenty seven cows this year, not much to keep a family on, but not too bad either. Smallholder husbandry has declined steadily in the years that we’ve been coming to Cantabria, but Lorenzo seems to be clinging on somehow, almost thriving. He has Parkinson’s disease, causing a distracting shake to the hands that he clasps around a long walking staff, so it takes some time to notice the surprisingly jaunty twinkle in his eye.

We climb from the road some 25 metres up a steep path to where Lorenzo’s homestead finds a foothold in the hillside. Hens scrut about, a chained dog cannot be bothered to bark, a tethered calf looks out cutely from the stone barn whose upper level provides the family’s solid yet distinctly modest dwelling. No sign of people, though.

I look across the valley and spot on the other side—at the same elevation but a mere hundred metres away, so narrow is the dale just here—three of Lorenzo’s neighbours. Old boys, leaning on their staffs, studying us. ‘Us’ in this paragraph comprises me, our last born, Tian Tian, 14, and her friend from Bristol, Leila, 16, both fashionably attired in frocks with hemlines ten inches above the knee. They look like starlets out of the TV teen drama, Skins. It’s too far across the valley to tell if the old boys’ eyes are twinkling, but I am inclined to guess they might be.

I shout across to ask where Lorenzo is. The old boys holler back that he’s somewhere down the valley doing something to do with cows, but that we’ll find his woman and his son just back down the road. It’s exhilarating—for me, at least—to find that in 2010 the unaided human voice still has a job to do in communicating over distance. I think about the way Tibetans sing, and other mountain peoples too. The hills are alive, and all that.

The old boys were wrong about Lorenzo, who turns out to be busy with a donkey, not with cows, but we find his wife and son in the spot indicated. She, whose name I have not yet learned, is short, red-cheeked, affable, and recovering from an accident that occurred in February. Her left hand got trapped in a bridle that she was removing from a horse when it shied and bolted. The ends of three fingers had to be amputated. She shows us the stumps, which seem to have healed well, and says, stoical yet rueful, that they don’t hurt much now, but, well, they’re shorter. She travels the 60 kilometres to Santander three times a week for rehabilitation. We are relieved to hear that the nearly bankrupt Spanish state is managing to provide this service, including return transport in an ambulance, free of charge.

The son (whose name we still don’t know either; Tian Tian and Leila refer to him as ‘little Lorenzo’) looks really well: much less skinny than last year, and beaming with good cheer. Hard to say how much of this animation might be due to the nubility of two thirds of this morning’s ‘us’. He’s studying mechanical engineering at a college in Santander and has hopes, despite Spain’s 20% unemployment rate, of getting some sort of city job. Probably not in mechanical engineering, but in something, anyway, something to get him away from cowshit and donkeys and horses, all the stuff we find cute and picturesque.

So here we all are, nodding and smiling, at quite an interesting crossroads, the urbane looking for the rustic and vice versa. We confirm that the truck with our furniture has reached Santander and will definitely get here tomorrow. Little Lorenzo confirms that he, his dad and their ancient but still serviceable Land Rover will join the convoy of tractors etc ferrying the stuff two kilometres up the hill, by way of a rutted track whose third hairpin bend nearly wrote off our hired van yesterday, to El Candanío: the broken-down finca which we bought five years ago, and which has finally been rendered habitable, if not exactly accessible. It is set to be a veritable circus procession, of a kind that in some ways marks a new period in the area’s history.

Five hundred years ago, the Cantabrian cordillera was dense with broadleaved forest, mainly oak and beech, and a good deal of this remains on the north-facing slopes: dense and precipitous cathedrals of light and shade, copious with springs and waterfalls, still sheltering populations of wild boar and deer. But much of the timber was harvested centuries ago to supply the shipbuilding yards of Santander, a significant node in the nexus that extracted gold from the New World for the ornament and enrichment of the old, creating a Spanish empire top-heavy with wealth too easily acquired and too easily lost.

The valleys of the River Pas, whose natives call themselves pasiegos, meanwhile turned to cattle and dairy farming not unlike that of the Scottish highlands before the clearances. Peasant families wintered in the valley bottoms, keeping as many cows as they could fit at night into the ground floor of their thick-walled, grey stone cabañas. The animals’ body heat warmed the upstairs where hay was stored and humans hunkered down. Tiny square windows in the human compartment minimised heat loss in winter and heat intrusion in summer. In the warmer months the animals would be driven up to progressively higher pastures, where each family had two or three other cabañas perched on the mountain slopes, at elevations up to 1,500 metres above sea level. The remains of similar structures, shielings, can still be found on Scottish hillsides, albeit at lower altitudes. But whilst the 18th and 19th centuries saw Scottish crofters driven off the land to coastal fisheries, or packed off as reluctant emigrants to Nova Scotia, no such coercive development policy interrupted the lives of the Pasiegos. Through the rise and fall of Spain’s empire they spent several hundred years tending and manuring the valleys and south facing slopes, fetching out stone for barns, boundary walls and drove roads, turning the soaring landscape into brilliant, picture postcard green. Young women from the area, sturdy with all the milk they drank, were reportedly prized as wet-nurses among the gentry across Spain.

Today, old women can still be seen mucking out the lower barns each week, carrying the manure across the meadows in buckets and then spreading it with rakes. Every morning during our stay this year, an unkempt man with long straggly hair, who looks maybe 40 (but it’s hard to tell with people whose lives have so little in common with yours), trudges up our hill accompanied by three even less kempt, raggle taggle-gypsy-o women of even less determinate age, and on up past El Candanío for another couple of kilometres. There they spend the day scything and raking a ten acre (?) emerald meadow, in lines as straight as a well-mown lawn, mantling a perfectly kept cabaña some thousand metres above the valley. These folk, Lorenzo informs us, are Modesto, his aunt, his sister and his mother (funny how the women don’t get named), who live on the other side of the valley, a good hour’s walk from where they’re haymaking.

Kate and I haven’t yet progressed beyond a nodding relationship with this daunting family. They look too strangely intense and other-worldly for casual chat. The four dogs that lope beside them are none too friendly (and defended the upper meadow fanatically the other day, when we passed by, on the over-the-hill route to the village). But Lorenzo says they are good people; it’s Taitos, the local loco, that we have to worry about.

All of this is ending, though. Further down the valley, where it begins to broaden out and trout streams converge into a river, there are now a couple of bigger dairy operations, the kind that conform to EU standards and scoop up subsidies, and where the animals spend most of the year in sheds. (But whence, at least, tractors may be borrowed for furniture removal; and you can still buy nonconformist milk, delivered by the bucket, from doña Carmen’s shop at the crossroads). As the smallholders die or move out, the cabañas along the valley are gradually turning into summer homes and week-end cottages for prosperous families from the Basque country and Madrid.

Most smallholders seem happy to sell up and get out. The youngsters want to go to the city; the oldsters to the village, Vega de Pas, a pretty place that supports half a dozen bars and restaurants through the holiday season, catering to day trippers: city folk who flock to the Green Coast in the summer to escape the southern heat, and cycling clubs from nearer by who come at week-ends to zip along the mountain roads.

So far, the more elevated and inaccessible properties have only attracted a few eccentrics. Still, if you walk far or picnic on the hills, it won’t be long before some hale old fellow approaches—not, as might happen in the English speaking world, to order you off his land, but diffidently to ask if you might want to buy it. (This no longer happens to us, since we are more or less recognised by everyone, and have made it clear that we cannot, alas, afford to buy the whole mountain.) So Kate and I wait with interest to see who, if any, our future neighbours will turn out to be, as we sit out our old age gazing at the Castro Valnera which rises to 1,700 metres.

But we’ll need to do something more than find “time to stand and stare.” Perhaps a petting zoo on the five hectares of grass that Lorenzo’s 27 cows currently “clean” for us. (If nothing eats the stuff it soon turns to thistle and bracken, the first stage of natural regeneration to woodland, which would be fine with us except that the whole process would take 50 years or so, and we can’t count on so much time.) Perhaps a donkey sanctuary bankrolled by animal welfare NGOs. (Sponsor your very own donkey! Only 10 Euros per week!) Or perhaps we can turn one of the barns into Europe’s smallest and least accessible picture gallery, a must for those who like their art to be really recherché.

Not quite yet, though. For a while, at least, we too will only be vacation visitors. We spend a week pushing around our fake-antique Chinese furniture, realising that little of what we own has any practical use, and does not yet include a kitchen sink. Ah well, there’s a little job to look forward to next year.

August 12, 2010