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Heritage Acequias of Spain: The Millennial Huerta of Murcia and the Río Segura Valley
The morning is still fresh, and the cloudless sky swallows the brightly gleaming sun into its deep blue expanse. My eye follows the arching heavens earthwards, meeting the edge of Murcia’s monolithic, ancient cathedral, which etches elegant, fluid lines against the brilliant blue background. A song by Paul Simon is triggered by the image as I see “angels in the architecture… and he says, Amen! Hallelujah!”
Pedro Jesús Fernández, our local guide, calls us into the cathedral, pulling my attention away from the captivating medieval exterior, into the dark, cavernous nave inside. The intersecting, pointed Gothic arches look skeletal, like ribs of a giant whale, supporting vast domes that lift the spirit to a more heavenly plane—the original psychological effect still at work. We pass marble and gold-clad nichos and side-altars with saints and old oil paintings as we circle around the centrally located altar, until we come to the patrona of Murcia, la Virgen de Fuensanta. Pedro explains that the Virgen, as her name suggests, is at the center of the cult of la Fuente Santa—the Holy Spring. Fitting in this semiarid clime. “Her santuario,” he continues, “is in the mountains that encircle the city, at the site of a miraculous manantial—a wellspring—which had been venerated since ancient times, before Christianity, when it was a shrine of Demeter, the Roman goddess of agriculture. And why would a spring be holy here in Murcia? Well, because it is dry as a bone most of the year, and water is the most vital element for the survival of the huerta and soul of Murcia!” Satisfied with having driven home his point about the significance of water here on the Mediterranean coast, he glances at his watch and says, “All right, let’s go! La huerta nos espera—the huerta awaits us.”
It’s no mistake that huerta doesn’t translate easily to English, which diminishes it to an overly quaint “garden” or “orchard.” But, in fact, a huerta is much more than these nuclear notions. In Spain, the huerta is a network of gardens, fields and fruit orchards on a par with a bread basket, and a cultural heartland that is more than just a place where food is grown. Huertas are vast, fertile flood plains steeped in history, crisscrossed with acequias channeling water from a mother stream to thirsty crops. Murcia (fed by the Río Segura) and Valencia (by the Río Turia) are the largest and most well-known of these cultural landscapes in the Iberian Peninsula and two examples out of only six systems of such scale and importance in all of Europe. Moreover, the landscapes are ancient. One canal in Murcia was found to date from the Romans (3rd century B.C.E. to 5th century A.D.), and the acequia system in Valencia is thought to have originated during the Moorish occupation of Spain (8th to 15th centuries A.D.). Despite their productive, cultural and historical renown, the huertas today are under threat from pressures of speculative urbanization, improper resource management, modernization and, increasingly, climate change as well.
Pedro is not a commercial tourist guide. His light eyes, beneath mid-length wavy brown hair, are serious with a touch of humor, and his articulate language and sharp intellect are all part of the package of a young academic-advocate-activist. He is fighting for the preservation of the Huerta de la Vega del Segura (of the Segura Valley) from anyone who would further degrade it, from myopic politicians to shortsighted urban developers. As his colleagues, thus allies, he eagerly ushers us onwards to see the heritage he is fighting to protect.
From the cathedral, our group of acequia academics, activists and enthusiasts from New Mexico, Valencia, Argentina and México piles into a caravan of cars and starts winding through the streets of the medieval city, following the meanders of the Río Segura upstream toward the huerta’s main azud, a word of Arabic origin meaning diversion dam. Today, the river is a creamy yellow, swift and thick with silt washed in from the cloudburst the night before, which caused flooding in some places.
Pedro leads the pack into a less-dense urban belt of the city. He insists that we are following the old city walls, which doubled as a malecón, or flood barrier, even though they have been redesigned as a recreational corridor with benches and paths for walking and bikes. Eventually, we drive up beside a construction site in the middle of a suburban area with roads lined with date palms and oleander bushes with marzipan-scented flowers. To my surprise, we’re led right over the construction site, where a backhoe has recently wreaked havoc on a patch of land. In the background stands a decrepit adobe building with flaking plaster and crumbling walls. I sense that it is the backhoe’s next victim. Pedro stops right in the middle of razed earth, and, as we approach, to our surprise, a partially entombed acequia comes into view! What’s more, it runs right underneath the old crumbling building.
Pedro explains that this old structure was previously a mill run by the flow of acequia water—a fantastic example of local water resources used to the fullest for a water-powered, sustainable agricultural-industrial system, which is what the huertas signified to Murcia and Valencia, historically. But, as the heavy machinery suggested, the old mill was slated for demolition and thus destined for oblivion. Another limb of Murcia’s rich huerta heritage sacrificed on the altar of modernity. But why worry about such an old, crumbling mill, which has long been outpaced by the muscle of carbon-based industrialism and outsourced to cheaper developing countries a world away? For the answer, you need not look further than the fire in the eyes of Pedro and countless other Murcianos and Valencianos; eyes that have witnessed the importance of the huerta through their lives in the way it has sustained individual livelihoods, families and an entire culture—a way of living, tasting, thinking, being.
“The municipality has no interest in preserving such structures, which inform us of our past and express the value of the huerta and the acequias, which are so important for Murcia. The politicians are blind to what they’re destroying for the sake of the short-term gain of urbanization. Without acequias, without water, there is no huerta. And, with no huerta, where does that leave us? Faced with future economic crises, how will we access the earth and the water to sustain us if it is paved over?”
With these words, we continue upstream along the Segura toward the main azud, and our understanding of the sense of place of the huerta—or, to put it in Nuevomexicano terms, its querencia—deepens. It is strange to hear of Murcia’s threats as a New Mexican, where the onslaught of development and commodification of the land and water is imposed by American capitalist culture whose invasion continues even 160 years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Compared to New Mexico, Spain seems to be a bastion of cultural preservation and tradition. But things are not always as they appear. The political and capitalist forces driving urbanization across Spain are also fragmenting the cultural landscapes that have sustained the economy and culture since time immemorial. Not surprisingly, they are also responsible for the construction bubble that caused Spain’s recent financial collapse.
For the next stop on what we now understand is a tour of the invisible power structures in the huerta of Murcia, we pull off onto a dirt road that veers toward a thick stand of carrizo reeds—similar to those lining New Mexico’s own rivers and acequias—also called phragmites. Large hydraulic compuertas, or ditch gates on the acequia mayor (main lateral ditch) come into view as we park on the edge of an appealing natural park with a grove of giant eucalyptus trees. As we step out into the midday heat of the late-September day, cicadas buzz from within the jungle of carrizo stretching down to what we know is the Río Segura by the muffled roar of the swollen river.
We walk along a dusty path toward the grumbling stream like pilgrims in the desert drawn to an oasis. While my eyes remain fixed on the carrizo stands, waiting for the azud and spectacle of water in tumult to come into view, Pedro’s interpretation of the place shakes my attention to his words. “This natural park is nice. It’s pretty. There’s even a large restaurant located over there [gesturing behind us]. But try to locate the local people who it was designed for! There’s nobody here despite the fact that millions of euros from the European Union were invested in it. This type of development is totally inconsistent with people’s behavior and needs. The money could have instead been used to restore and protect the most important huerta heritage in the area, but there is so much resistance to this idea today in Murcia.”
At this, the azud mayor of the Segura, also called the contraparada, came into view. Built in the Muslim period between 800 and 900 A.D., the dam is actually a large weir stretching across the Segura’s channel with a v-notched crest, giving it a tooth-like appearance. The broad, dentured structure smiled, reflecting the intense sun as the rain-swollen Segura cascaded over it, fanning out in a single, rapidly flowing sheet over the drop structure. There is nothing like surging water to pause the human mind because so few things in nature move with such constant, focused unity. Staring at the river at the center of it, I tried to understand the contradictions of this profound landscape. First, the wild river was harnessed to give rise to a rich culture whose roots stretch beyond a millennium. Then, the living substrate, the huerta, is consumed by urbanization, which spreads like a lava flow, cutting the community of people from its vital link to the earth. Links exiled to the vast, unpopulated, mechanized industrial agricultural lands. It at once becomes clear that the huerta and all of humanity’s sources of life are where we are made and renewed. The romantic history-book notion of the cradles of civilization, from Mesopotamia to México, are suddenly fleshed out in living color as I sit beside the roaring waters of the Segura.
As we head back to the city, we stop one last time at a large water wheel located right in the middle of an acequia. The large noria, called “Rueda de la Ñora,” is designed to lift tons of water to another canal that starts at its apex in a masonry Roman-style aqueduct. This noria is still functional, evidence of the millennial ingenuity and engineering savvy visible in the huerta. This is more than a rural hinterland, antithetical to modern, urban capitalist “progress,” but the historic economic backbone of the region. Although it does not give spectacular short-term returns, as does development, it provides a long-term, stable basis for agricultural production, which, in turn, is important for food security and the maintenance of culture and tradition through the continuation of agriculture. Through Pedro’s guidance, we learned the invaluable and transferable lesson that the huertas, from Murcia to the Río Grande, are important socio-environmental canvases of cultural renewal, identity and economy through deep time; their preservation is thus essential.
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