Spain is not merely a cultural museum for outsiders

One book that recognises this, and one that fails to do so.

The Village Against the World
Dan Hancox
Verso, 288pp, £14.99

The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior
Christopher Howse
Bloomsbury Continuum, 256pp, £16.99

One consequence of the eurozone crisis has been a shift in British perceptions of southern Europe. The return of widespread poverty to countries previously seen as perpetual holiday zones has revived memories of the old continental divide between the industrialised north and the fundamentally peasant, agrarian south, where Greece, Spain and Portugal laboured under postwar fascism. So the publication of two new books about Spain, both from the serious end of freelance journalism, seems to be particularly opportune.

Yet neither book pretends to offer an analysis of that country’s current situation. Instead, Dan Hancox’s The Village Against the World tells the story of Marinaleda in Andalusia, a communist community of 2,700 people functioning – just – within the contemporary state. As Hancox shows, the experiment has real significance in raising Andalusian political awareness and as a model of how to redistribute agricultural wealth and control.

Local knowledge of individual rights and of the needs of Andalusia as a whole springs from the region’s historic and contemporary rural poverty. In the 1930s, on estates belonging to the family from whom the marinaleños would eventually win independence, “Starving labourers who attempted to plough the fallow land were beaten by the police.” In the 1980s, 50 per cent of Andalusian farmland was owned by 2 per cent of the area’s families.

One of the questions to which Hancox returns in his thoughtful, take-nothing-for-granted account is whether tough conditions necessarily produce resistance or whether effective action needs a charismatic leader such as Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo.

So this engaging book is as much a study of idealism in practice as it is of life in a highly unusual pueblo. Hancox lets us experience village routine without pretending to know more than he does or resorting to “funny because it’s foreign” clichés. When he encounters a heatwave, for example: “You try and sweep the dust off your patio, one marinaleña told me, and find yourself dripping sweat straight on to the floor you’re supposed to be cleaning.”

The respectful, intelligent writing places the villagers at the centre of their own story – and that story is fascinating. The Village Against the World discovers the near-feudal patterns of Andalusian land ownership, recounts the pueblo’s struggle with the local landowner and ends with questions about whether Sánchez Gordillo will continue to lead the village in years to come.

Marinaleda’s struggle first became widely known in the 1980s. In 2012, it was back in the news when Sánchez Gordillo led a series of symbolic raids on Andalusian supermarkets, “redistributing” goods to impoverished locals. These gestures of solidarity with the poor beyond its own community illustrate what Marinaleda stands for: a belief that the land “belongs to those who work it”, in “the sovereignty of food” and that food is “a right and not a business”. Its project is utopian, not locally self-interested; its resistance is not only to the state but to the workings of global capital. The village-owned olive-pressing factory, bars and outdoor theatre that Hancox visits are the fruits of a six-year campaign of land occupations, hunger strikes and battles of principle that finally ended in 1991, when the government granted the villagers 1,200 hectares from the duke of Infantado’s extensive estates.

Landowners also feature in Christopher Howse’s The Train in Spain: “Born in 1926 . . . the 18th duchess of Alba . . . inherited seven dukedoms, 19 marquessates and 23 titles . . . She attracted attention by her wealth, gusto and mischievous disposition . . . Her palaces and works of art were breathtaking.”

Howse isn’t interested in the cost of those “palaces and works of art” or the workings of Spanish society. Legends, architecture and the local history of the wealthy cram the pages of his tourist guide with busily researched detail. To some extent, this justifies the astonishingly brief introduction to the book and its raison d’être. “This is a book about Spain, not about trains,” the first sentence reads, before Howse, in the next, boards a “single-carriage train . . . in the foothills of the Pyrenees”.

But is it? This is not a study of how Spain became its contemporary self. It isn’t concerned with climate or citizenship, cultural life or economics. It doesn’t even reveal Howse’s passion for Spain: curiously, this travelogue omits the first-person singular. The omission produces stylistic distortion. When Howse and his companion eat in Sahagún, “Only a man and a woman were dining . . . They ate a plate of jamón, then a leg of lamb. There were kidneys on the menu, too.” It also seems to distort the book as a whole, making it feel oddly purposeless.

Slow travel is about quality, not quantity; flavour, rather than flavourlessness. Trains allow their passengers to see the context of a country’s great cities, the influences and resources that have produced local culture and Culture. The traveller sits right next to a country’s citizens instead of observing them from a hotel terrace.

Yet the coherence and chaos of contemporary life – and of the forces that shape it – are missing from Howse’s account. It’s as if he has forgotten that Spain is a society that exists for itself, rather than a cultural museum for outsiders. Perhaps he travelled first class.

Fiona Sampson is the editor of Poem. Her latest book is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

Mayor of Marinaleda and member of the regional Andalusian parliament representing the United Left (IU) party Manuel Sanchez Gordillo (R) embraces an activist of the Andalusian Union of Workers Union (SAT) as they take part in a protest. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.