Almería: How We Made the Desert

The prickly pears are dying right in front of my eyes.

The blight was first detected ten years ago, not far from the botanic garden I’m currently visiting. No cure has been found so far, our bus driver tells us as we stroll along the garden’s meandering paths: once your Opuntia falls ill, there’s nothing left to do but cut it down and burn it.

I notice an undercurrent of helpless frustration in his words, a sense of having been unfairly dealt a bad hand. I was here, quietly minding my own business, and suddenly this thing came!

The pads in the garden are sadly covered in what seems to be white fuzz. I pinch a bit of the substance, and squeeze; it smears my fingertips a deep blood red, as I knew it would. The insects that are decimating the cactuses are known as Dactylopius coccus, the source of a once much coveted crimson dye: cochineal.

A few centuries ago we would’ve probably been thrilled by white-covered cactus fields, and called it a blessing rather than a blight.

Cochineal was, after all, the main reason Europeans wanted to grow the American prickly pears in their gardens in the first place. Fate seems to have a crooked sense of humour.

The vision of dying plants in a garden devoted to safeguarding biodiversity is haunting. Stoically drooping among native lavenders and tiny endemic snapdragons, the cochineal-infested pads highlight how fragile it truly is, this illusion of protection.

Cochineal growing on Opuntia pads in El Albardinal.

The visit to this particular botanic garden, called El Albardinal, is part of my birthday present: a winter weekend garden tour in the desert, organised by fellow plant-lovers at Bomarzo Garden Tours. It’s not a glamorous desert I’m visiting; too small and tame to merit even being passingly mentioned alongside its much elder siblings in other continents. Although the shadow of the Sahara hovers in the background I’m still in Spain, in our own backyard desert in Almería, province of irony: famous for both its desert-like filming locations, and for producing nearly half the Spanish fresh vegetables exported to foreign markets.

These vegetables are grown under what is commonly known as the “sea of plastic”: miles and miles of greenhouses that can be easily seen from space (go ahead and check it out via Google Maps. It’s hard to miss).

It’s a bit of a paradox, bearing in mind we have the driest climate in Europe, with landscapes that are eerily reminiscent of Afghanistan —at least according to our bus driver, who confides that most of his work involves driving film crews around. “Much safer to film in Almería; eat better, too!” he jokes. Film production arrived here around the time of the Spaghetti Westerns (eg. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and Lawrence of Arabia, and never left.

As we drive into the dusk an hour later, I rest my forehead on the bus windowpane. The roads are empty, the sky a steely grey that dissolves into gold near the horizon. The land we cross is yellow and barren; in some places you can see the scars water has left on the slopes, like fingernails scratching deep grooves in the skin of the mountains. It’s the kind of place where you’d picture palm trees, scraggly bushes, prickly pears. There are thorny shrubs that shepherds would use as shelters when spending the night in the open air, because “wind dont likem prickly thorns, so it dont come nearem.” It’s a land of grass —not green and lush, but the dry, ropy versions we call esparto and albardine: excellent fibres for basketry and other uses.

Wind-ruffled albardine (Lygeum spartum).

It rains so little (a bit over 200 mm annually; it is, technically, a desert), that modern researchers have declared around 75% of the land as natural shrublands. Anybody could assume that these sun-baked hills have always been here, a relatively unchanging backdrop to mankind’s joys and miseries.

And yet, landscapes are like people. Each has its own personality, a quirky combination of base matter and circumstance, relationships and experiences. Each one is a story.

We may think about them as entirely natural places we simply ‘endure’ for better or for worse, like we endure the blight of the prickly pear that “came suddenly out of nowhere”. After all, such things happen in nature all the time, don’t they?

To which I’d reply: they certainly do… yet more often than not, culture plays as big a role as “nature” does.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered, after my trip was over, that despite no drastic changes in Almería’s climatic patterns during the last millennia, the region was heavily forested not so long ago. Deer and bears roamed the countryside, and some of the driest areas of the province were shrouded in pine and oak woods. Astonishing but true, the conquering Romans found these arid lands clad in vibrant green. Because woods change the environment, enabling miracles that, once they’re gone, we believe impossible.

Although humankind began to chip away at forests from the moment we set foot in the region (to feed furnaces, build ships, sow fields…), the last five centuries of agricultural expansion, mining and demographic growth accelerated the process. We unknowingly eroded the miracle, peeling layer after layer of soil until a desert emerged, an inverted caricature of a landscape garden: an environment that looks natural, but is not.

Almería is a cultural desert, shaped by people and their stories.

We have scribbled this tale of aridity on the land as surely as we’ve co-authored the drama of the prickly pears —once invaders themselves, now falling prey to the same insect we ourselves brought here in hopes they’d feed on Opuntia pads, a long time ago. And unless we realise we aren’t spectators but active co-creators of such stories, we risk becoming the victims of our own man-made environmental ironies.

Rosmarinus eriocalyx, an African rosemary; it’s a threatened species in Spain.
Walking into El Albardinal under overcast skies.