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Valley diaries, Spain: La Huerta (part 2) Soil Secrets

Updated: Jan 21

**Below this photo is a short video that accompanies this piece and all that inspired it...


It's been dry here for a while. My friends Vicente and Amparo keep mentioning it, how much the land needs some rain. How the chufa (tiger nuts, used to make Horchata, a kind of sweet milk that's very popular in the area) were all shriveled this year because of how dry it's been. Even with these storms threatening the last few days it's nowhere near enough.

Years ago the Turia River, which flowed through Valencia, experienced severe flooding and was diverted, now converted to greenspace... and it's still called 'The River', which is kind of odd. It was a contentious move that has resulted in a beautiful space that flows around the city, inviting a different kind of movement. Regardless these changes to the land take their toll, not to mention the toll they take on how we think about things.

It brought me back to valleys, those fertile places where the river flowed, so towns cropped up, and lands got tended, in one way or another, as well as relationships. People innovated. Outsiders drifted by on their way through bringing produce and products, ideas, news and new technologies from other places, as people intermingled with each other, the water providing opportunity and the backbone for health, life and thriving. 

'The River'

Just by one of the bridges that crosses 'the river' is the provincial gallery, the IVAM. It's hard to believe but in all my years living in and visiting Valencia I never went...not my time for art back then I guess. This time we made it though. Amparo took us...thank goodness for Amparo. One of my favourite displays was an exhibit featuring some maps of Valencia over the years (before the river became 'the river') and examples of the works of renowned local painter, Ignacio Pinazo. The exhibit included some works in a style he referred to as his "instantaneous" paintings which were quickly interpreted small works he painted as part of his art practice performed on, and in open public spaces. His works and practice highlighted human groups engaged in everyday activities, human flows that made spaces public, ritualised actions, and the human currents of the rural area combined with imaginaries on health, hygiene, pleasure, energy and intersubjective communication that called the established social order into question. Not surprisingly I loved them...they had a particular energy...something about them...

section of an "instantaneous" painting by Ignacio Pinazo

section of 'En la puerta de la iglesia', Ignacio Pinazo

So between galleries, street art, my own drawing, visiting historic buildings in the Huerta, and the much cherished experience of being in Amparo's ceramic studio (happy witness to her current and past work including installations that she has created over the years) it was a very inspiring and culturally oriented visit.

To top it off I just watched Vicente's documentary "La Huerta a la vuelta de la esquina" (The Huerta Around the Corner) from a few years back. It's about this area, my home for these days in this special city where I lived my final years in Spain. I could feel the city calling my heart back as soon as we hit the outskirts on the drive here last week in a way I wasn’t expecting. I'm breathing the Huerta in every day at the moment so seeing this film here now has touched me especially deeply.

Vicente is a committed filmmaker whose work draws attention to historically or culturally significant people, themes and issues often passed over by many. In fact while I was there he was shooting a documentary about the sculptor Vicente Martinez, which was fun to be a part of. The Huerta Around the Corner is a powerful examination of the challenges that present themselves, and the effort it takes to maintain support for this type of city-local agricultural zone, at a personal, cultural and political regulatory level. It also touches on the subsequent risks those challenges pose to the quality and presence of local food supply, and to the overall fertility of this land. The particular style of communal irrigation they use here, that meters water out equitably through a network of canals traversing the fields, has been in place for more than 800 years since the Moors tended these lands. I imagine it as a neural network allowing the fields to communicate with one another, passing on their secrets.

The Huerta in Valencia is an exemplar in the world, the last one left of this scale. The canals are part of the support system for the soil health, originally allowing the small farms to rotate crops several times a year – with the seasons – although all that is changing. Many of the people who own properties in this area now are not involved in farming at all, despite the fact that the regulation kind of insists on it. Nor are they permitted to renovate in such a way that it impacts the plot of land allocated to growing... that's not entirely adhered to though either, as one can imagine.

If the growers don't have the support to keep on growing at this small scale, if urban sprawl means the land keeps getting encroached upon and developed, then the overall soil use changes, and with it the need for a canal system with the shared relationships it has fostered over so many years. The whole thing leads to the risk of the land not being able to do its job of passing on what it needs to pass on in the same way – those secrets – whether they're related to formenting health, or in its duty as a forum for community and communication, or for gestating new ideas and technologies from the people who pass through, like the moors did in their time. 

I remember when I first got to Spain I couldn't find broccoli anywhere. Not the season for it… seemed to me very annoying at the time... but I started buying at the local market, becoming  more attuned to what was available seasonally, enjoying that it was local, and the developing relationship I had with some of the growers, and for the first time I started feeling connected to those kinds of cycles. It felt good, and I carried that on when I moved back to Sydney. I began shopping at farmer's markets and getting to know the people I bought from: the tomato guy, the mushroom guy, feeling their passion and care for what they were bringing to life, and tasting it... what a difference.     

I can taste that here at Vicente and Amparo’s too. Some of the veggies we're eating are from our veggie patch, just behind the wall I've been slowly capturing in my drawing sessions. Plus if you go out the back, through the chicken coop, you get to the neighbour's shop (in a kind of barn space). The shop has produce straight out of their field, which is also just out the back of my friend's place. No transport, no plastic – kilometre zero.

'El Jardin' Oil Pastel on paper 2022

That's one of the things I loved about living in Spain: the proximity many towns and cities have to the land, to what's being grown locally – as you can literally see it  – and the connection to the seasons... eating according to the seasons. I remember the delight I felt when I first saw a pumpkin patch while driving along a country highway. Or the fun feeling when I hear tales from family and friends who regularly go to help people they know stamp down olives to make olive oil, or grapes to make wine, arriving home with freshly bottled litres of the stuff. Unlabelled. Virgin – doesn’t get fresher.

Years ago it was here at Vicente's that I found out that peanuts grow in the ground, and I got to eat them fresh. I had no idea, I assumed they came from trees, like the macadamia tree I used to climb in the front yard of the cute Californian Bungalow where my aunt and uncle lived in Sydney. So by default I also came to know what 'tree-nuts' are.

I've realised... I become informed about things in The Valley: practical, earthly things.

The neighbours don't have any peanuts at the moment so I've been getting them from the local store in town, still warm... fresh from roasting. It’s one of those places you have to know is there otherwise you’d miss it – it’s not as though they have any signage out the front or anything. I wonder how many people still shop locally. The local produce and market culture still exists here but like anywhere else, convenience and price wins out for many people. I saw that happening in the old town in Valencia this time around... more than I had previously.

Valencia has become very popular to overseas tourists in recent years. No surprise, it's a great, beautiful, easy-to-get-around city. The central Market in Valencia is gorgeous with so much variety that it has become a tourist attraction. There's some locally grown produce and much, much more (they definitely have broccoli). I noticed this trip that many cities in Spain have been making their inner city and historical areas into car-free zones. That makes it hard for the residents to get in and out, which has led to them moving out. Now the area is being sold off to build tourist hotels. These are areas that hold so much history, culture and artisan vibe that tourists love it – why wouldn't they – but as the artisans and original residents that bring the pulse to the neighbourhood are forced to move on – there's a heart and soul that goes with them.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a cafe owner in Santa Fe, New Mexico about people moving to Santa Fe wanting something, expecting it to be there, but they don't find it. It’s not the university town it once was, with all that brings. To me it had a bit of a ghost town feel. This is the desert, he told me, you can't come to the desert expecting there to be water, you need to bring your own water. So, yes, there's a flow of people from other places passing through Valencia and The Huerta but what are they bringing that will be part of maintaining the fertility of this special area of the world?




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