Some years back, I saw a magazine article showing Portuguese farmers demonstrating with placards. The protest was against the Australian gum tree, or eucalypt. Species of eucalypt have been planted all over the Portugal and Galicia, exploiting similarities of climate and soil between parts of Iberia and parts of Oz.
As a bush-dweller, I have no trouble understanding the protest. The eucalypt is a fast growing but long lived tree which is hungry, violent and monopolistic. A gum is dense, brittle, and uses its branch losses to smash or stab any competing plants underneath. It loves fire. There are millions of eucalypt trees in the vicinity of my home, and I need them. But I don’t let them get too close.
You grow up around these big, ragged monsters but find glamour elsewhere: pictures of autumn forests in New England, for example. Then you travel and miss them badly, miss them in your very blood. I found one growing in a park in Rome, and had to hug it. Most moving is the story of Sydney-bound soldiers returning by ship after WWII. Some could smell Australia before they could see it, as the odour of eucalyptus oil wafted out to sea.
In spite of protests, they are now one of the foundations of a Spanish timber industry, along with pines. And Galicia contains half of that industry. As one walks west from Melide, the scale of eucalypt planting is more and more apparent. What may surprise non-Australians is that these species are quite foreign to me, originating in another part of our vast continent. For us, a gum is not a gum.
Such drastic clear-felling of gums is not that common in Australia these days, even in plantations. In Galicia, I saw whole hills planted to eucalypts, near previously planted hills which had been shaved bare in one operation. Maybe they know what they’re doing.
Early spring turned foul for the walk to Arzúa, but there were charms:
Some other noteworthy features of the Arzúa area are the Roman bridge over the Iso, rejigged once or twice over its fifteen centuries…
…the Madalena Chapel, from the fourteenth century, always associated with pilgrims and their needs…
…and these structural oddities, where gum (or other) saplings combine with traditional Galician granite.
The town of Arzúa was shaking with road and path works when I was there. I don’t know if it was the continual noise and vibration or the fact that the town is the last bustling stop before the dash to Compostela…but the theme of Arzúa is impatience. Everyone I spoke to or dealt with was impatient. They were the opposite of those bercianos of a couple of weeks previous. I later asked other pilgrims if they had noted the mood of haste in Arzúa and some said they had.
In particular, I wanted to inquire more about the town’s most famous product, the Arzúa-Ulloa, or cow’s milk cheese. I was keen to sample some older specimens or different grades, but no-one was in the mood to sell me on anything. Even the cheese guy was impatient. The lump I bought was very undistinguished cow’s cheese, not greatly different to many a soapy Aussie cheddar with insufficient aging.
Yet, in some ways, Spanish cheese is the best of all. Spanish sheep cheeses may be just short of the glory of pecorino or roquefort, but they are often half the price. At one meseta supermarket reached just before closing time, I hastily bought some slices of cheddar-like stuff in plastic and a sachet of azul, or blue, cheese, both carrying the brand of a large Asturian dairy corporation. The slices, as expected, were typical of processed cheeses everywhere, and good for upholstering a slice of supermarket bread. The azul is remembered as one of the best cow’s milk blues I’ve tasted, creamy like Danablue, but with the intensity of Stilton.
Of course, it’s not just cheese.
It happens all the time in Spain: the bright flare emerging from dankness and disinterest. If you come to love the country – and I have – you learn to filter out the shabby and the humdrum. So many of Spain’s wonders are unconstrued. Passive reception won’t work: you search, you sift.
I met a Spaniard elsewhere in Galicia, a very travelled photographer whose opinion I came to trust, who said his nation’s commercial problems lay with its off-handedness and lack of presentation. It was Spain, not France, which had the world’s richest patrimony after that of Italy. But France was a perfectly wrapped parcel with florid ribbons. And France had a middle class.
As for Spain, it is the great nursery of artists and artisans…who too often deem themselves navvies. More than that, there seems to be a bit of Arzúa right through the Spanish character: a smudge of impatience which besmirches a very great brilliance.