Lanzarote: Agriculture as Art

To understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in and the procession of the year.

Mary Austin, The Land of Little Rain

Just sixty miles off the coast of the Sahara, Lanzarote is a dry little island, with six to eight inches of rain in a good year and less during a drought. Yet this easternmost of the Canary Islands has become famous for its grapes, figs, almonds, onions, and row crops, all grown without artificial irrigation. This makes Lanzarote farming worthy of scrutiny by gardeners in dry climates of the West and Southwest.

The pleasant surprise is that, in solving a crippling horticultural problem, Lanzarote islanders have invented an arresting landscape unlike any other in the world. Geology was destiny for this desert isle, as for all the Canary Islands. Lanzarote’s most recent volcanic activity took place in just the last century, when a series of eruptions destroyed farms and transformed a large part of the island into a scorched moonscape. During a six-year period in the 1800s thirty-two fresh craters were formed and nine villages were buried under lava and ash, resulting in a topography both forbidding and forbidden.

Today much of this region is inaccessible to visitors. In the interests of science many square miles of sharp, clinker-like extrusions, scattered with lava bombs, have been set aside for study. As tiny organisms have begun to colonize the desolate slag fields, restoring life to areas far more barren than California’s Death Valley, the public is permitted only restricted views — limited to small areas within Timanfaya National Park. As at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this otherworldly preserve is both a center for public education and a station for scholarly observation.

Lanzarote’s volcanic disasters created serious problems for island farmers. Residents lost a hundred square miles of cropland to the nineteenth-century lava flows. Many acres were strewn with a blanket of black mineral ash called picón. In a land that receives less rain than San Diego in a dry year, this accident of nature was a catastrophic loss of usable farmland.

Yet with native ingenuity, islanders have turned their horticultural hardship into a triumph of geo-technology. According to local lore, this change of fortune hinged on the chance discovery that a wilting plant placed near a wall made of porous lava blocks seemed to revive. The sponge-like rock had absorbed moisture from the air and drawn it to the soil below. From this observation farmers developed a new kind of agriculture in the arable parts of the island.

The harsh volcanic environment of Lanzarote demands a frugal, disciplined style of farming and creates a haunting, surrealistic landscape. Author’s photographs

The harsh volcanic environment of Lanzarote demands a frugal, disciplined style of farming and creates a haunting, surrealistic landscape. Author’s photographs

As it has evolved today, Lanzarote horticulture embraces three features: protecting plants from sun, shielding them from wind, and mulching them with picón. Large plants such as figs, almonds, and grapes are grown at the center of wide, shallow basins scooped out of the sandy soil. Tucked into these artificial hollows, plants get extra shade during the morning and evening hours. As additional protection against the ceaseless trade winds, low, crescent-shaped walls are built of lava blocks around the windward side of these depressions. For row crops such as tomatoes, beans, squash, corn, peas, and melons, this system is modified only slightly. Such plants are placed in straight, shallow furrows in flat, wind-sheltered fields. In both cases the surrounding areas are then mulched with a layer of picón.

In geological terms picón is called ash, or tephra. Light and inorganic, it is shot through with tiny, interconnecting air chambers. Unlike pumice, which is filled with locked-in air cells, picón readily absorbs and transports moisture. This is thirsty rock. When moist maritime air condenses on the surface of picón, it is absorbed and then drawn by capillary action and gravity to the ground below. Picón is nature’s own drip irrigation system.

But picón is more than a simple hydrophilic mulch. It not only reduces the loss of soil moisture through evaporation and helps put water into the ground; it also amplifies warmth. Because the lava walls and picón chunks are charcoal-colored, they absorb heat during the day and retain it long after the sun has set. For plants that require cumulative heat for fruit development, this warmth is an added bonus.

All of the crops grown on Lanzarote have proved their toughness through centuries of cultivation in the dry, sunny climes of the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, some island products have earned their rightful place in history. Canary wine was mentioned by Shakespeare, and once was highly prized in England. Today Lanzarote still exports its sherry-like Malvasia to Europe, along with onions, tomatoes, and potatoes.

Agriculture as Art

Picón has changed the economy of Lanzarote. Yet the horticultural genius of this island comprises more than its rocky mulch. The landscape that emerged from Lanzarote-style farming is stunning. From its blackened fields verdant green leaves push out of rows and hollows, creating a crater-pocked pattern on the land that not even a modernist designer would have thought to concoct. Form follows function in a landscape of rhythm, texture, and color that is as practical as it is striking.

The mesmerizing effect of the island’s unusual appearance might have been passed by as a quaint provincial novelty if not for the return of one of Lanzarote’s native sons. César Manri­que, trained as a painter in Madrid and New York, came back to his birthplace twenty-five years ago with an artist’s eye for compelling landforms and an activist’s sense of environmental responsibility. He saw strength and beauty in the lean elements of his own land and set out, almost singlehandedly at first, to retain and extend the distinctive features of the island.

Acting as architect, sculptor, regional planner, and educator, Manrique has helped define and preserve that much vaunted spirit of place that characterizes certain parts of the planet. With penetrating and pragmatic vision, he has encouraged villagers to emphasize landscape features that belong to their island alone: the crisp contrasts between black fields and white houses, with sparing accents of green-painted trim that echo the color of the vineyards. Against this backdrop, minimalist touches of brilliant flower colors heighten the drama of island vistas. Against dark hills one long, straight white wall overhung with a single cerise bougainvillea may provide the only evidence of human habitation for miles in any direction. The impact of one spot of glowing color upon the austere terrain is breathtaking. Manrique and the villagers have turned the vernacular into the spectacular through their collaborative interpretation of the Lanzarote landscape.

Small bursts of color make a streetside garden seem like an oasis in the austere landscape of Lanzarote

Small bursts of color make a streetside garden seem like an oasis in the austere landscape of Lanzarote

The water-frugal farm strategies of this Canary Island have yielded far more than cash crops. They have produced a regional identity that is true to its own place. The Lanzarote aesthetic is found in the ordinary materials of the island. It is without pretensions; it is what it seems to be.

Few people are privileged to shape the aesthetic destiny of an entire region, as César Manrique has done. His flair for the dramatic has helped distill for the visitor that genius loci that might otherwise have been obliterated in the jet-set surge of tourist popularity that has overtaken the Canary Islands over the last decade. In fact, the lavascape look of the farmlands has become one of Lanzarote’s most attractive features, along with a soft, even climate, superb windsurfing, and idyllic beaches.

Although halfway around the world, and very different from the urban sprawl California has become, the Lanzarote landscape is important also to gardeners of the Cadillac desert because it strips horticulture to its bare-bones survival-level core. It peels away the mismatched garden images — those billows of verdure and masses of color — that Californians have imported from wetter, cooler climates and have come to consider essential to modern good taste. Dense, naturalistic groupings of plants are as out of place in Lanzarote as they sometimes are in western gardens. Every plant is precious, and each is treated with individual attention — set apart, to be admired for its own best qualities, like a solitaire jewel in a simple mounting.

If it is true that we are educated by what we see, then perhaps through the Lanzarote aesthetic we can begin to see our own environment afresh, with eyes informed by the mandates and natural resources of our own time and place. As Moshe Safdi suggests in Beyond Habitat, “Economy and survival are two key words in nature… Beauty as we understand it, and as we admire it in nature, is never arbitrary.”

Beauty… economy… survival. These words describe Lanzarote — that dry little island that may have some lessons for an island called California.