Bitter-Sweet

Strolling through the orchards of Arboleas is the start of a love affair. The fruit trees, heavily laden in their seasons, tempt touch and taste. It is said a person may pick two pieces of fruit in passing. Walk daily and the passion between tree and human might strip the harvest before time.
There is something glorious about the clear, blue backdrop and the lush green leaves. The oranges and lemons peep through the dense branches. They are so big they remind me of Chinese lanterns. By default, thick undergrowth—dotted with yellow and mauve wild flowers—flourishes under the care the farmer lavishes on his orchard.

But 2012 has seen change—the lemon trees have been deprived of water. The farmers can no longer afford to reap their crops for the pittance yielded. These beauties of nature have slowly died and the smell of burning lemon-wood has filled the Almanzora Valley for weeks.

In their place, olive saplings will stand like rookie soldiers, swaying in the breeze. They must become strong and erect before the winter winds buffet the valley. For three years they have to take firm root until they begin to pay their way.

The fruit farmer is in his seventies and his love of the land shines through twinkling eyes when he speaks of his life’s passion. He has worked this soil from boyhood, taking over from his father when he became too frail to leave the house. He is small—like most Spaniards of his generation—but he is wiry. Not for him an expanding girth. His sun-wrinkled skin is a tribute to hours in the open air. His panama, which has seen better days, has not stopped the crows’ feet creasing his weather-beaten cheeks.  

I ask him, in my pidgin Spanish, ‘Fotografia, por favor?’ and to his nod, I point my camera and shoot away at a changing landscape and a changing life.

We understand one another well. When I take my daily walk I look out for him or a member of his family, hoping one or other of them is working their land.  

He is saddened by the loss of his beloved old lemon trees but accepts the need to move with the times. He even has a small van to transport his tools and containers and has put his old donkey out to pasture. More than once he has tipped the vehicle over the edge, front wheels stuck in his orchard, back end still on the road. Unperturbed, he just waits for my husband, or another passer-by, to push him out.

Other plants and shrubs share the surrounding land—wild, natural foliage growing hand in hand with the cultivation that has crept onto the rambla. The banks of the dry river-bed still display reeds three times as tall as a man. Their proud heads reach for the sky, their feet, metres down, searching out the water that once flowed deep in the Rio Almanzora. The farmer’s son says he learnt to become a swimmer in its waters.

Like so many rivers in southern Spain, a winter trickle is all you may see. Where did it go? The farmer shrugs but warns of flash floods—it is still a water bed.

As we speak, beneath the spring sun, his family are helping plant even more young olive trees. Hopefully, in time, these will yield an income and repay the family for their toil. God willing, they will see the first crop and perhaps, many more. He tells me he is a lucky man. His daughter and son, son-in-law and their four children, share his infatuation with the earth. So many of his contemporaries have lost their families to the cities or coastal towns.

Four cents a kilo is little incentive to keep alive the rural life.

©September 2012 Chris Nedahl

Post Script: The flourishing olive groves today, 2021.