I’ve started drawing again… it’s long overdue and whilst I feel a bit rusty I’m enjoying making portraits of some old friends from the Sierra de Huelva… For a long time now I have concentrated on film work but it’s such a slow process…. so it feels utterly brilliant to produce a portrait of someone in a morning or an afternoon… images of people who have worked the soil, pollarded chestnut trees, stripped cork oaks, milked goats and cows, herded pigs across the drove roads of the Sierra and hidden bags of contraband flour below their shawls in times of post-war hunger. These are portraits of people who have given me an insight into this part of Andalusia and who have helped bring to life that landscape of forests and abandoned “cortijos” that I pass through when I’m out riding with Chaparro. This collection of drawings will be my homage to them…
Felicita is the mother of Iluminado, the lovely man who looks after my horse, Chaparro. Felicita is now 91 and has worked since she was a child. She and the family had a large herd of goats and cows which produced milk for the towns and villages. The family rented a beautiful farm called La Ribera near the road that winds to Encinasola. Paul and I have ridden through the farm a couple of times on our way to Cumbres or to Portugal and the horses have enjoyed the water from the river there… Felicita has beautiful hands which have must have milked thousands of udders… She now suffers the aches and pains of age but she has an incredible memory.
I got to know Obdulio on the old path that crosses the hills between Galaroza and Valdelarco. He rides his donkey, Morena, to his farm on the Roblecillo path, everyday. He gets up at the crack of dawn so I usually meet him when I’m heading out for a ride and he’s coming home. He jokes all the time, “Hacemos una carrera!”, “Let’s have a race!”…
It would be easy to think that at 84, Obdulio has always worked on the land but on my visits to the farm he tells me about how, for four years, he worked down a German coal mine (so a shared heritage!) and learned to speak a bit of German. He worked as a miner for twenty odd years in La Mina María Luisa, an iron pyrites and copper mine, just near La Nava, a village to the west of Galaroza.
Obdulio still ploughs his land with two, snowy powed, elderly mules, Castaño and Gitano (Chestnut, who is no longer chestnut but grey and Gypsy). He grows all the usual local crops; tomatoes, lettuce, onion, green peppers for frying, cabbage and impressive squashes and pumpkins to feed his black Iberian pigs. His orchard is populated by the old varieties of apples that were once so typical of Galaroza; Reyneta, Rufino, Belleza de Roma (Chaparro always enjoys autumn visits there)… and there is also a great big caqui tree (persimmon), a glorious sight when in fruit in the dead of winter.
Paul and I met Manuel when we were searching for somewhere to leave our horses in Cumbres de San Bartolomé. We drove up to Cumbres with our late friend, Tobias, and asked in the bar if there was anyone who could lend us a field for a couple of nights. A slightly inebriated chap there said we should look for someone called Gregorio so we did. Gregorio is Manuel’s son, a genial man of few words, who is habitually shadowed by his marly, brown and white mastín (sheepdog). In contrast Manuel is someone who likes to converse and whose voice, when necessary, can carry right a cross the valleys, which can be an advantage in the Sierra, especially when Maunel was organising people further down the valley, to show us the path to Higuera La Real. Like most people of his generation he knows all about the “Serrano” paths. Before he retired he worked inspecting pig herds. He still keeps livestock; sheep, goats and a donkey. He and Gregorio have been kind to us when we’ve passed through with the horses and Manuel has kept an eye on Chaparro, Gitanillo and Nerón, slipping them extra hay, when they’ve had overnighters in Cumbres Bajas.
María and Emilio
I was interested in filming the chestnut pollarding, which takes place over the winter months, so Iluminado suggested I talk to Emilio “de La Huerta Grande” (everyone has family nicknames in the Sierra). Emilio had worked with Iluminado’s late father, pollarding chestnuts and stripping cork oaks. I went with Chaparro to meet him, and Paul, my husband came too. We arranged to film him and the family. He was 74 at the time. It really was quite a magical sight to see three generations at work; Emilio 40 feet up a chestnut tree with his axe, then his son, José and his grandson, Isaac, working on the lower branches, whilst Emilio’s daughter, Emilia, was gathering up the branches and burning them on the bonfire. A couple of years later Emilio fell from a high branch of a chestnut tree and injured his arm and whist he doesn’t pollard chestnut anymore he still cultivates both his farm, La Viriñuela, and a substantial kitchen garden.
Over time I have gotten to know Emilio and his wife María. María is originally from a village to the east of Galaroza, Fuenteheridos. When they were courting, Emilio was working in Cumbres Mayores, and on Sundays he walked all the way to Fuenteheridos to see her… Emilio knows all the paths and is my “go to” person when I want to know if a path is a legitimate “camino” or not.
Emilio, like his brother Obdulio, loves to joke, which threw me a bit a first as he can sound quite fierce but I quickly warmed to his earthy sense of humour. He loves trees and tells me of how his ancestors would throw their arms around the trees that provided them with a livelihood. Emilio says that if he wins the lottery he would buy an “encinar” (a holm oak grove) as he can’t imagine anything more beautiful. But meantime Emilio has invested in a young donkey, Chica. I love the optimism of a 79 year old buying a beast that will last donkey’s years. Chaparro and I met Emilio and Chica when they made their first outing up to his farm so we rode along together. I’m thinking of asking if one day he and Chica will retrace his steps from his courting days and show me the path from Las Murtiguillas to Cumbres Mayores…
I enjoy visiting María and Emilio at their kitchen garden on the edge of the village. I learn so much from them. In a recent conversation with María she told to me that she loved her husband just as much as the day she married him, or maybe even more now as she knows him so well after all those years spent together.
© Jan Nimmo 2014
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