Norma Wilow lives on the island of El Hierro, where she works on Ruido, an independent cultural magazine to support artist development: www.ruidolapalma.com.
Looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean, La Gomera merges between the sea and sky as I tread the pine forests absorbing the wild. The mountains are scorched. Red pine needles coat the paths and there’s not a soul about except for a pair of buzzards in lazy flight. It hasn’t rained for months and the farmers are worried about crop and how to feed the animals. I’d given a man a lift towards La Restinga earlier on; he was going to help out a neighbour on his farm. It’s touching, the nurturing nature of this small community. They weave over the precipices like the roots of the trees, trading with whatever the other hasn’t, as they always have done. But it’s been hard for these last ten months in El Hierro, the smallest and most remote of the Canary Islands.
Shaped like a three-pointed star, it’s the furthest southwest of the seven islands. Life sprouts up in unconceivable places, from the volcanic badlands to the windswept junipers of El Sabinar. When the earthquakes began last July, islanders were blasé. Nobody felt the majority of tremors, and anyway, these are volcanic islands: you put up with the odd rumble now and then. But the quantity was alarming and completely unexpected. The press soon picked up on it. Then the swarms began intensifying over the summer and by October harmonic tremor had set in. I lived in a bay at the time with no streetlights and not even a handful of neighbours. So when it suddenly felt like the house was alive and on the belly of beast I ran into the blackness. I don’t know why, you’re supposed to take cover under a table. Perhaps it was the ripple of stones dislodging from the cliffs that did it, but the earthquake didn’t last more than ten seconds. The next day, the barman at La Bohemia told me what a wise old woman had told him: fill up a glass of water and leave it on a flat surface to monitor the vibrations.
A visible stain was seen in the eruption area of El Mar de La Restinga. It started to spread around the coast and the colour was odd, like the surface had been dipped in a 1960s Technicolor turquoise. You could smell the sulphur and then dead fish appeared. Seagulls were seen hovering around the vent as a “Jacuzzi” bubbled and began spitting out rock. The small fishing village of La Restinga was evacuated and on the other side of the island, the tunnel that connects the capital city of Valverde to La Frontera, the main artery for trade, was sealed off for fear that it might collapse. The TV and papers went ballistic. The tiny eco-friendly island was suddenly a media sensation. El Hierro is a nuclear waste dump; a tsunami threat to America; new Canary Island emerges as underwater volcano hits the surface. Holiday trips were cancelled and the island emptied. But the kids collected the wondrous new stuff on the beaches anyway. These rocks have merged with silver and metal to become spiral rings and pendants.
Over 60% of El Hierro is protected to preserve its natural and cultural diversity. It rescued a rare lizard. It took a step back from mass tourism to invest in agricultural, stock-breeding and fishing industries. All the more reason why the fate of the local fisherman resonated beyond the archipelago. They had, after all, helped establish the marine reserve, home to the tuna, manta ray, burrfish, sharks, swordfish and others, to support marine biodiversity and sustainable fishing. The eruption brought near economic standstill to the island. From the scuba diving clubs to the restaurants and bars. Rumours spread about just how many people were leaving, and there were no jobs. The ferries stopped coming (which caused a spirited protest by island politicians and local businessmen, who stowed away on a ferry to La Gomera and refused to get off until the problem was resolved – it has been). Marine biologists have said it could take up to a decade for the immediate eruption area to recover. It’s delicate, balancing the protection of the local eco-system with livelihood. But ocean life is returning. Dolphins were spotted off the south coast in Tacarón earlier in the month, and I remember seeing rays, my feet dangling off the harbour wall as the little marvels swept like ballerinas to the surface.
The volcano has been declared dead on more than one occasion, so there was genuine relief when it was made official in March. Now the small towns could get back to business as El Hierro prepares to become the first sustainable island in the world, next year, and switch over to 100% renewable energy. There is no more magma flow and although there is the occasional seismic activity burst, it’s largely undetected. The government wasn’t thanked for switching off its webcams to the world, though. But can we honestly predict the wild? Harness the unknown, predominant force close to our heart that speaks a language not swayed by material gain? Perhaps when we’ve stacked enough concrete, ripped enough trees and blackened the oceans, when we’ve obliterated our senses with enough senseless information, far, far away in the edge of self, we can say, there. Considering the responsibility to protect the environment and build a sustainable future, El Hierro has had a raw deal.
But now, as island life resumes, so the scientific community debates the anomaly of the eruption. To date, there have been a total of 12, 671 earthquakes. I go to sleep wondering what spins beneath the ocean, hungry for life. What is it anyway, but an urge to procreate? And the baffling nature of the submarine volcano is somehow fitting with the unique nature of the island. Like an authentic call from the wild yearning life new, reinvention, a little soul in the drone of industry.
(More photos of El Hierro by Sheila Crosby at