'Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative.'
- H. G. Wells -
Deep in the heart of Spain, lies a beautiful and tranquil valley. It is a valley steeped in legends, where songs and tales have passed through the years and where still they remain a part of the people and their culture. The valley's name is 'La Guadalquivir'.
As you travel through the valley, it is impossible not to notice the olive trees that blanket the landscape. Miles upon miles they stretch, smothering the land in a canopy of brown and green with tracks and trails dissecting this sea of trees like strokes on an artist's canvass.
Amidst this canopy, lie picturesque little villages huddled on the side of undulating hills or nestling in vales. Little rocky white eruptions dimpling the deep olive green. These villages, unchanged over the past five hundred years, uniformly consist of whitewashed stone dwellings, a church, community centre and of course, the local olive co-operative.
Olives are the blood of the Guadalquivir, and the co-operative is the heart pumping the blood through the valley. An economic lifeline to the communities of the valley, and one has survived countless generations and will continue to survive as long as the olives grow.
If truth is told, nobody really knew when olives were first planted and cultivated in this region. There are many stories regarding their origins. Some growers say the Moors first introduced them. Some say the Romans. Others will tell you it was the Greeks, who first brought them on their trading ships to the coast and from there they found their way gradually inland. Whatever their origins, olives were now what the inhabitants of the Guadalquivir relied on for their existence, and they could not imagine a life without them.
However olives are only a part of the history of this valley and a relatively late one at that. The valley of Guadalquivir has a long past, and one enshrouded in mystery and secrets.
When the first men strayed into the Guadalquivir, they beheld a land of plenty. There were no olive trees then, only a land rich with forest, woodland and clear waters that flowed down from the imposing peaks of the Sierra Madre. The great river that gives the valley its name was fed by an abundance of streams that saturated the soil and brought with it a myriad of life. The first settlers who arrived at this wondrous place coveted it and were happy to live off its bounty.
But as the years rolled by and the needs of the settlers changed, they in turn set about changing their environment in order to better suit their needs and survival. Generations after generation of families gradually reshaped what they came to believe was theirs, until it no longer resembled that what nature had taken so long to cultivate.
Sadly, as this change progressed, the people of the valley began to lose their bond with nature. It seemed that as the people multiplied, the land around them shrank. Trees began to disappear, either through flame or hacked away by axe to feed a growing lust for more land. Streams that had brought the abundance of life to the valley were dammed or diverted to feed small tracts of the land that man now called his own.
It was not just the land that suffered. All living things in the valley, which had lived there before the newcomers had first walked this earth started to disappear or change. Some creatures like the dog and cat became domesticated, but most were hunted into extinction or driven away. Like the morning stars, they simply vanished.
High up in the mountains that encircle the valley, things have remained nearly the same as ever. For mountains do not change. They are the silent observers of history and its secrets, and secrets there are aplenty in this valley. There are also mysteries and superstitions that have grown into truisms, but like the olive trees, no one is certain of their origins. As the people in the valley will tell you: 'Many mouths make many tales and who can ever know the truth.'
I have heard a story about the valley of the Guadalquivir that I would now like to tell you. As to the truth of this tale, I will let you be the judge of it. As a young traveller, I also encountered the valley of the Guadalquivir. I worked the olive harvest alongside the Gypsies, who still migrated down for the seasonal work like their ancestors had done for many hundreds of years before them. They told me a tale that only the mountains could have witnessed, but mountains do not speak, and the Gypsies do not normally talk to strangers, so I must tell you this story.
As I sat with these nomadic people, drinking wine and listening to their folklore by the campfires at night, one particular tale fascinated me. Like many of the campfire tales, it was hard to differentiate between fact and fiction as the origins of the story had been passed down by word of mouth over countless generations. The story mesmerised me and as I listened, I was transported back in time to a past when the Guadalquivir was in many places still the way nature had intended.
However, the period they described, was one of great change. Not only, in the valley, but throughout Spain. Great evil and misery walked among the people of the land. Religious persecution of Jews, Gypsies and Muslims by the fanatics of the ‘Inquisition’ was leaving a trail of pain and shame that soiled the name of the God these zealots worshipped.
Spain was not the only country that had descended into barbarism during this period. Throughout Europe, wars raged, famine and death were the companions of plague and havoc. Feudal lords, supported by roving bands of mercenaries held sway over life and land. Life was worth the price you could pay, and for those who could pay nothing; life was sometimes not worth living.
It is in this period that our story takes place. The exact date is not important. Indeed, it would be difficult to locate the exact decade. The characters concerned in this drama cared little about time or politics. They only wanted to live their lives the way their ancestors had. To them, God and Mother Nature were one and the same and each a part of the whole that is life, but they were living an era of change that was to destroy them.