jueves, 21 de marzo de 2013

Palmeral, World Heritage

I am an artist who joins teams working that transform  landscapes. Most of the transformations are haphazardly, steered by economics, by profit or pragmatism without looking any further. Each and every landscape can be read like a storybook on how culture and nature in interaction created today’s panoramas. Some of these storybooks are extremely simple to read, but some are so multi-layered that they are complicated yet very satisfying literature too. Than there are landscapes that are under threat or already ruined. New layers disconnected from the old ones, footloose new developments ignoring the natural and cultural history of the area. But can their be a future without a memory?. The World Heritage site El Palmeral of Elche shows signs of all this. It is a perfect living memory, as well as loosing its footings as “the times they are a changin’ “ .

 January 2012 , we join a small group for an excellent guided walk in Elche’s Palmeral. Here I learn that the acequia’s I visited in New Mexico over the last couple of years are deep-rooted in this Palmeral, in Spain’s contact with the Arab arid culture.

Acequia New Mexico
It was such a a joy to walk along the Acequia Mayor to the palm-plantations, the fields between the palms tilled .... but, no fruits or vegetables will grow on these fields even though the watering system is in place and functioning like it did for hundreds of years.

Why not, and if not, how can the Palmeral withstand the pressure of global economics, and local initiatives looking for space for new ‘needs’? How to prevent that the label ‘World Heritage’ won’t be experienced as ‘beast of burden’ but can function as a source of inspiration? Is it possible for an open air museum to be alive and refreshing? 

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Before visiting Elche and being showed around by someone knowledgeable, I always thought that an oasis was an exceptional, natural feature in deserts, just taken advantage of by people. I never realized these were a combination of -hidden- natural conditions and human familiarity with the desert to recognize the hidden treasure and to develop that treasure by ingenuity and organization of people, plants and water.

Oasis de Figuig, Marruecos
An imported cultural knowledge made human life possible for Elche. The basic structure is still there, and the system adapted easily to new developments like early industrialization. But is this cultural history still readable?  In modern times when agriculture was no longer profitable some of the plantations transformed into parks, nice, cool shadowed, colorful area’s. New neighborhoods seem not to have taken up too much of the old fields, but, they do blur the context of the Palmeral, no longer one can experience the harsh arid natural conditions in direct contrast to the hospitality of the oasis.

Parque Municipal
We started the tour not high in the mountains where the river is diverted into the acequia madre, but we should have I feel. We picked the acequia up at the bridge, and tried to follow it, but were blocked by a derelict factory, and had to leave the main channel where there was no room to follow it through the shrubs growing higher up the river banks. In the beautiful park one doesn’t see or feel the importance of water, the physical structure of the plantation. A new city plaza in the old centre is something I have to think over more closely, but at first sight I like most of this translation of the Palmeral to the present.

Acequia Mayor
Then again, would we have understood the park, the plaza, the mill in the park, the water near the new monastery being essential to Elche’s origin, and as the source of agriculture in the arid (Spanish) parts of America? Could we have seen through the rubbish under the bridge, near the monastery, ..... I don’t think so since one of the guests of the tour was born in Elche, was interested in her own town, knew about the concept of the oasis, but never ever had understood what was part of the oasis and why. Her eyes were opened by the guided tour. And for me, a trained acequia watcher, I could not figure out how the water is organized in this town. Too many channels are no longer visible when walking through town. The virtual tour as shown on the internet brings the concept alive, the relations between city and landscape vivid in the reconstruction are no longer clearly visible in the present city. All in all the essential sense of place seems to be in danger, and that is a threat to the mnemonic qualities of El Palmeral, and by implication to the cultural identity of Elche.

Urban Palmeral
Cultural Heritage has to find a new life, a reason to be part of today’s reality. The mnemonic qualities are the source and awaken these information is important. Written information is important, printed, on sign as well as active on facebook, twitter. The wonderful virtual reconstruction of the past as published on the internet is helpful, but on site oral and hands on information always works best. For that the physical structure and key elements need to be recognizable in their own -functioning- conceptuality. Acequias, paths, walls, fields, sluces, diversion channel, mill, factory, laborers housing, are now too much incidents instead of being parts of one storyline.

Traditional House
Where as exactly the lay out of the fields and the structured waters of the acequias can also be welcomed by the city to facilitate shared interests like a nice relaxed biking/jogging route following a clearly visible acequia through the city, leading out of the city close to the river into the hills around the city. Nice, and always pleasant with the water nearby, may be grids over the acequia mayor where it is now under ground so the acequia is recognizable as well as that it can function as a  drain when an exceptional rain rushes through the streets. Another important proven quality of cultural heritage is that in so many aspects we run against limits in ways we produce food,.

Water gate
Modern, fast grown food often lacks quality as in health and taste, or even beauty. The unique circumstances of year round warmth, and water, and having acres and acres of well maintained  fields deep into town are "the chance" condition to research the possibilities of the fields for a modern ‘urban agriculture’ of slow food, fruit, and specialties. This innovation could be guided by experts: modern expertise on irrigation, high tech-low maintenance automatization, and food production, to be combined with the traditional expertise of the oasis concerning water supply, regulation, and collaboration.

Date Palm orchard
The future of the Palmeral thus seen seems best guarded by this scenario: information, shared interest, innovation, and, back to the basics! The basics being: to develop a hidden treasure in collaboration. The physical structure of the oasis and the social structure of the city should match again, visibly and actively.  Imagine, people who live in the city, planting the fields because the experts have found innovative, economically profitable products. The complete system of the acequia can be followed all over town and way into the hills. This is attractive to tourists, they can rent houses and help out in the fields. They buy the produce and will tell about the dreamlike taste, and atmosphere of Elche. The great hikes in town and out into the hills. May be even the towers will return, no longer watch towers but a line of modern beacons of simple architectural beauty selling slow food, offering a bed and breakfast, beacons of the cultural dynamics of a valuable cultural heritage, reconnecting Elche to the coast. "The Times hey are a changin’

How easily we could have missed the beauty and the potentials of Elche, had we not been offered the tour guided by Mercedes Aranzueque, thank you

Jeroen van Westen 

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