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The earth that holds us

In the first of a new four-part series exploring the history, biodiversity, cultural traditions and associated bird and human migrations of the traditional salt pans of Southern Spain and Morocco, writer Julian Hoffman discovers the challenges now facing these communities at the forefront of climate change.

He used the rake as if a gondolier, pushing the long wooden pole out into the briny water until he drew its flat blade backwards, pulling white crystals free of the shallow pond. The salt pan glimmered and shone in the fierce September heat of Andalucía, its crusted white surface blindingly bright. Flamingos cut a roseate line through the tremulous blue sky. Back and forth the salt maker worked the water, slowly adding to the mound beside him. Eventually putting the rake to one side, he dropped to his knees and cupped his hands around some of the harvest, lifting the glittering white grains until they fell through his fingers like sand.

For such a simple mineral, salt is remarkably influential. Not only is it essential as a nutrient for most animal life, assisting the brain and nerves to transmit electrical impulses, but sodium chloride (NaCl), the basic chemical compound of edible salt, was once known as ‘white gold’, commanding a rare and potent power in earlier ages.

Whole empires, such as those of Venice, Rome and the Habsburgs, revolved around its control. Wars were funded by its sale and waged on its behalf. It shaped trade routes and arcs of exploration. Prior to the development of other means of preservation, salt was used to prolong the shelf life of such colossal quantities of fish, meat, vegetables and cheeses that our common history, for better or worse, would have been radically different without its abundance.

Anger at its taxation, a policy once used by states to generate vast sources of revenue, as all citizens, regardless of their wealth, required the mineral in some quantity, helped foment the French Revolution. And Mahatma Gandhi, on the far side of the world and six decades on from that Gallic uprising, carried out his first act of non-violent civil disobedience by walking for twenty-six days to the sea to illegally gather naturally occurring salt crystals on the shore. His walk highlighted the grave injustice of Britain’s debilitating salt tariff on impoverished Indians, a tax coupled with the prohibition on collecting or producing the essential item themselves. Already weighted with history, that basic mineral triggered the first symbolic steps on the long road to Indian independence.

Alchemical transformation

The earliest Mediterranean salt pans were simply natural depressions in low lying coastal stone, where the hot, dry summers evaporated any seawater that had collected there until harvestable crystals were left behind. In Spain’s Bay of Cádiz, where I’d watched the process of artisanal harvesting by rake, the production of salt has been an inextricable element of life ever since the Phoenicians founded the city around 1100 BC, harnessing its amphitheatre-like bay and low-lying marshes to procure the precious resource.

An Arabic refinement to the process in the early medieval period transformed coastal salt works into the type that still exist, largely unaltered, today. Through either tidal rivers or by being pumped in from the sea, water enters a series of shallow, interconnected basins that are divided by earthen levees and walls. As the pans at the beginning of the cycle become gradually more saline through natural evaporation, the brine is released into the next set of basins, allowing new water to refill the first. As the water journeys through the system of successive pools, the concentration of its salt continually intensifies under the influence of wind and sun, until the thickening brine is channelled into what are known as the crystalliser pans, where the final, alchemical transformation of seawater into salt takes place.

Manuel Ruiz Coto is the eldest of the remaining salt makers in the Bay of Cádiz. His artisanal works at San Vincente keep local traditions alive, not only within the bay itself but within his family too. “My grandfather worked this salt pan,” he says, going on to explain that he still had all the paperwork and deeds dating back to 1870 when his ancestor bought it from the Marquis of Recano. Now eighty years old, Manuel still keeps a vigilant eye on the progression of the brine. Standing beside a hill of harvested crystals, he pointed to the sagging wooden ruins of a salt storage house, where boats would have once tied up on the tidal creek to load the summer’s yield. “The storage house is one year older than me,” he adds with a laugh. While both had been witness to an earlier age, Manuel was clearly delighted to be in far better shape than the building.

There is an enthralling expansiveness to the Bay of Cádiz Natural Park, where the San Vincente salt works are set. The salt pans act like mirrors, doubling the vivid colours of flamingos, black-winged stilts and avocets as they lower to land on the ponds, so that it appears as if two birds merge into one when the spell of the still water is finally broken. And they reflect the sharp, southern light outwards, until a hypnotic glow films the watery flatlands, threaded by the evocative calls of circling birds.

Across the shallowest and most saline of the pans spreads a mesmeric hue, the result of Dunaliella salina, a micro-alga that thrives in salt habitats but which, when exposed to the high concentrations of UV light that are a common feature of salt fields, produces large quantities of protective beta-carotene pigments. The pools can be rose, carmine or orange, though when the salt finally crystallises out of the brine it’s as pure as an egret’s feathers in its peerless white brilliance.

“The Phoenicians came here for a reason,” continues Manuel. “They had the water, the soil, the sun. It’s a natural purifying system, because the water goes from pool to pool and what remains is the salt with all the elements that the sea has, all those other minerals crystallising together.”

Stewardship of the Land

The root of the word salary, salt was once considered so valuable that it acted as a form of payment. But instead of being utilised as wages, Manuel’s Atlantic sea salt will make its way into a variety of foods, toiletries and cosmetics, or be blended with almonds, truffles, hazelnuts, oregano or thyme to create specific seasonings on site. These are just a few of the end results for a mineral that is mythically claimed to have 14,000 uses, being a constituent element in myriad processes and products, including the manufacturing of glass, textiles and superconductors. And like the largely invisible ingredient in all of these items, the people, places and ecosystems of traditional salt pans tend to go unseen and undervalued as well.

Tireless in raising awareness about the importance of salt pans in the Bay of Cádiz, Juan Martín Bermudez founded the NGO Salarte in 2012 because of the “dramatic disappearance of this culture, of this heritage, and this way of life.” His substantial knowledge of the region and its human and natural histories is married to a passionate belief in the respectful stewardship of land for the benefit of all.

“We have been together for thousands of years and we want to demonstrate the huge link between humans and nature,” he says. “And the salt pans, the artisanal salt pans, have been an example of how people, having worked in balance with nature, created new habitats for a huge amount of species. Not just birds, not just invertebrates, not just fish – they created an atmosphere and habitat so powerful that it increased biodiversity.”

Those who still work the bay know this complex landscape and its components thoroughly. Isabel Ariza was cleaning salicornia in a tub when I spoke to her. Otherwise known as glasswort or samphire, this halophytic, or salt-loving, plant grows in the marshes of the bay where she works with her husband, Juan Ariza. “We arrive at seven in the morning and leave at twelve or one at night,” she says. Used in restaurants around the bay, that wild samphire that she’d gathered is sold for four euros per kilo once she’s finished sorting it. “It’s hard work, but we really love it,” she adds. “It’s an attachment to the marsh that we feel deep inside us and is very profound.”

By managing an area of former salt pans as working marshland through the use of sluice gates and levees, creating a remarkably flourishing ecosystem in the process, where flamingos saunter slowly through the pools and white storks parade its edges, the couple gather shrimp, fish and a range of plants to earn a living. “I don’t feel it’s yet dead as a livelihood as people have a real interest in this marsh life,” says Isabel. “We give this place our love, and people recognise that there’s a real value to it.”

The waters of the bay are changing

Spending nearly all of their days in the marsh, Isabel and her husband are intimately familiar with the bay’s winds and waters; they remember its patterns of weather. Such knowledge of place means they’re acutely sensitive to changes in the landscape. “I’ve known this marsh for over fifty years and never was there a problem with the tides,” says Juan Ariza. “There was always some kind of regularity, but for the last few years it’s been beyond understanding. The waters of the bay are changing.”

While a sizeable number of politicians and industry leaders refuse to recognise the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity and carbon emissions, or, if they do, are reluctant to engage with it at policy level because of vested interests and the neoliberal narrative of perpetual economic growth, people who live on the frontline of shifting climate dynamics are already having to contend with its devastating volatility.

“When we’re working trying to fix the earthen walls these days,” says Juan Ariza, “the water can come up to our knees. Then we’ll get onto the wall, which is the highest point, and just resist the tide as it rises. Resist and resist until it drops.” A gregarious man who enjoys the lightness and laughter of company, Juan Ariza’s mood suddenly changes when he recounts the tides. Water was still pooled around their workplace from the previous night’s rising seas and his demeanour becomes serious, concerned and anxious. “We call them the black tides, the tides you don’t expect,” he sighs. “And these black tides can really fuck your life up.”

As well as portents of a changing climate, Cádiz’s marshlands and salt pans remain a repository of immense if fragile cultural wealth, the consequence of traditions that have been worked into the rhythms of the natural world like oil into wood. “Salt has its own culture,” says Manuel, back at the San Vincente salt pan. “The names of things, their wording.” Ancient in origin and incorporating a lexicon of use that few people outside this coastal realm can understand, this is a culture born of an attentive interaction with the living landscape of the bay.

“For flor de sal,” says Manuel, speaking of flower of salt, the most delicate and desirable of salt crystals that form on the surface of the ponds instead of dropping to the bottom, and which require considerable sensitivity and a particular tool called a lousse to harvest, “you need a very specific wind, the aponiente [from the west]. Because if it’s the levantine [from the east] then there are waves on the ponds that crack the surface. Flor de sal needs very still water because it’s so breakable.”

Such knowledge, and the skill required to harvest the salt cleanly before autumn rains ruin a whole season of toil, is as necessary to Manuel today as it was to his grandfather in 1870. Generations of a family linked together by such indelible connections. “This,” says Juan Martín, standing beneath a sky of storks and flamingos, all circling in the brimming southern light over the pools of brine, “is the Earth that holds us.”

This is the first in a series of four articles that will be published weekly. Part two will appear online on March 17 2019.

Julian Hoffman is the author of the award-winning The Small Heart of Things. His upcoming book, Irreplaceable: The Fight for Our Wild Places, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in June. Julian lives in north-western Greece and can be followed on Twitter @JulianHoffman.

All images are courtesy of Julian Hoffman
Main photo: Flamingos, Bay of Cadiz
L: I
sabel Ariza and a relative sorting Salicornia
R: Salt harvesting, La Esperanza salt pans

 

Isabel Ariza and a relative sorting Salicornia - Credit Julian Hoffman
salt_harvesting_la_esperanza_salt_pans._credit_-_julian_hoffman.jpg

The salt pans act like mirrors, doubling the vivid colours of flamingos, black-winged stilts and avocets as they lower to land on the ponds, so that it appears as if two birds merge into one when the spell of the still water is finally broken.

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