Filthy smoke obscures the coastline as I pass through Pelayo, Spain’s wettest village they say and the last stop before I get off the bus for work. It’s a mountain village above Algeciras, surrounded by beautiful Parque Natural – pines and cork oaks and rocky arroyos that spill down towards the sea. From Pelayo you can see both pillars of Hercules, one on either side of the Strait, or you can when the humid little pueblo isn’t shrouded in mist, which is most of the time.
Today though the fog has been replaced by the skyward plumes of dirty smoke on an otherwise clear day. Another long, dry summer is coming to an end and the crackling, brittle ground is burning. The brown cloud is drifting toward Getares, a suburb of the port, rising from a line of fire on the hills closest to the coast, maybe a kilometre from the road. Southern Spain is accustomed to wildfire and the authorities do not fuck around – the sky is loud and busy with helicopters that to and fro from a flooded quarry closer to town, huge and heavy water bags swinging from their bellies.
It’s quite something to see how much water those things hold – they release it slowly rather than all at once, making wet contrails for some distance before the bag is spent and the helicopter returns to the quarry. On the one hand, the quick and thorough response of the emergency services is testament to human ingenuity; how clever and conscientious we are, with our airborne water-carriers and our fire engines, our busy heroes working hard to save the day!
On the other hand, when you see how much of that water never reaches the ground, but hovers instead before drifting upwards and evaporating – sucked into nothing by a mocking sun – you can see exactly how frail we are in the face of nature’s full force. Busy, brave little bees, but bumbling and butterfingered.
At the academy, classes are disrupted by the constant wupwupwup of the rotor blades above us. There’s a little excitement I suppose but not as much as I might have expected. In the three years I’ve lived in Spain there has never been a fire as substantial as this between Algeciras and Tarifa, but up on the Costa del Sol and further east they’re more common, and the children seem happy enough getting on with their day, entertained by the fluctuations in the volume of my voice as I raise and lower it over the noise.
Five hours later I’m back on the road with K, on our way home. The helicopters have been joined by tubby little yellow planes and the roads are still busy with the emergency response, but traffic flows. Up at Pelayo, the plume of smoke has abated but the aircraft are still active so the fire must still be raging out there somewhere. One of the reasons the reaction is so swift and comprehensive, I imagine, is that this is one of the windiest areas in Europe. The blaze could so easily engulf Getares or sweep in the other direction and take out the fincas and farmsteads that line the hidden coast between Pelayo and Tarifa. All of the conditions are present that might make a heart breaking tragedy for the area and a great spectacle for television viewers everywhere. Today, though, is one of those miraculous days in the Campo de Gibraltar – not even a gentle breeze, and among all the fire engines and police cars we don’t see a single ambulance. They stabilise and finally extinguish it at eight am the next morning and although it could have been ten or more times worse, it’s still bracing to learn that sixty whole hectares of countryside have been destroyed.
Except, it isn’t destruction, is it? It’s only that when it touches us – our homes, our things. We’re the only ones up there with the water bags and yellow bellies – industrious worriers, protecting our plots, standing against the world when we need to because although it can sustain us, it doesn’t have to. It may not even want to. The sun certainly didn’t look very worried yesterday. Its unimaginable energy is a one way street – we are miniscule accidents, unforeseen consequences of its rays, and it doesn’t give a shit.
The fire was no more or less welcome here than we are – its flames may as well have been petals or flapping wings, so natural were they and so thoroughly did they belong. The wildlife that can, leaves. The vegetation recycles without so much as a shrug. Those hectares will be blackened for some weeks, bare for some months; a year from now you will have to look very closely for the signs. Everything is in order, and we rage against it. We alone protest.
We alone object to being mere consequence. We long to be consequential, to radiate our own energy. To be our own sun; it’s a vanity of course but a beautiful one -it builds our cathedrals and splits our atoms, paints our paintings, sings our songs.
Gives us something to do.
The smartphones and motorway bridges, four wheel drives and TV shows – every bit as comprised of solar energy as the birds and the bees, the fir trees and the flames. Our artifice – the thing we call civilisation – is what makes us forgetful. We feel out of place, at odds with our world; we lose sight of the straight line that stretches from the centre of the sun to the keyboard of our computer. We think we’re different.
Another vanity – we’re no more special, and every bit as special, as the countless creatures that fled the fire yesterday, their survival instincts intrinsically linked to their reproductive cycle, and in that they are same as us. Nothing we do has a greater value or a greater role to play than our transmission of the most distilled form of the sun’s power that we have in our possession – our DNA.
Our children. Our greatest work of art, our most advanced technology.
And in an exquisite demonstration of just where we stand in the order of things, some of the little brats will grow up and drop their burning cigarettes on the dry grass, under the beating September sun.