The skin of Doñana

*This article, published in ElPaís Semanal on October 26, 2008, which
included some of the photographs found in this book and exhibition, was
the winner of the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Doñana Sostenible in the
category of photography, awarded by the Fundación Doñana 21

August 12, 2008; 8:30am. Airport of Jerez de la Frontera. Héctor Garrido walks between the hangers to the platform where his
Cessna 172 is parked. He gets into the cockpit through the opening where previously there was a door before Hans, his
pilot, dismantled it in the early morning. The small airplane takes off from runway 22 and immediately turns toward ‘whisky’
(west), heading on a 230º route toward Sanlúcar de Barrameda. After crossing the Guadalquivir River, it enters into LR92, a zone of restricted flight access that only this small plane, and no other, is authorized to enter. We are in Doñana and soon we are flying over flocks of aquatic birds that are poised on the few mirrors of water still remaining in summer. Hans and Héctor wear headphones, but they don’t use the intercom. Héctor holds a small recorder in his right hand and with the left hand directs the flight, motioning to Hans the route and altitude. The synchronization is perfect. He sets about recording the
number of individuals in each of the flocks we visit. Héctor is a bird counter: 1,800 white storks, 375 spoonbills, 410 blackheaded gulls, 65 black-winged stilts, 230 mallard ducks, 870 avocets. To count the members who make up a flock, a bird counter learns to mentally isolate a part of the flock in which he counts the number of birds, divides the flock into
sections of those parts are necessary and multiplies, calculating the total number. He does this in tenths of a second, so fast that he forgets he is doing it in that way.

Sometimes, as when we fly over an area sheltering 90,000 birds of different species, the number of individuals is too great to
count. The Cessna 172 then realizes a circular maneuver, causing the birds to take flight and making it thus easier to count them; at the same time, their flight offers a delicate show of synchrony. On the spur of the moment, Héctor puts down the
grabs the photographic camera with his right hand. He looks down and already sees the frame. Camera at the ready, he slips
half his body out the opening where the door should be, while with his left hand he continues to guide the maneuvers of the
airplane, which banks 60 degrees and turns dizzyingly, pivoting on a wing. The noise of the Lycoming motor of the airplane
drowns out the click of the Nikon D2X, but the gesture makes clear that the CCD registered the mineral spectacle of the wetlands. Héctor is a photographer. He has spent 12 years carrying out this monthly census-taking for the Biological
Research Station of Doñana and has had the necessary talent to see that more than birds exist down there below. That apparently immobile and useless ‘other’ is what he captures in his rich photographic repertoire.

When one flies over Doñana at an altitude of five hundred feet, the same height from which it is seen by the white stork and the flamingo, one is witness to the forms that nature and man have created on the great canvas of the wetlands. At ground level, these forms are hidden on the flat and immense horizon of the lower Guadalquivir, but they nonetheless create the lovely sight one sees from the air. In addition to their undeniable beauty, what captivates me about these images of settings so little frequented, such as the onubense, or Huelva, side of the river, is that they reveal how nature and man use different brushes to paint the infinite canvases to be found in the landscape. The difference is in the geometry. On the one hand, the cold Euclidian geometry drawn in straight lines by man’s rationality, using machines, whether these be simple plows or powerful diggers. On the other hand, the warm but obstinate fractal geometry of the curve and bifurcation sensuously drawn by nature. The battle is a titanic one between two powers, two ways of drawing, two different styles. The struggle has not been eternal: for four and a half billion years geological forces are what have drawn the forms on this planet. These were joined by life some three billion years ago, but life did so as a loyal apprentice of the mineral workshop, copying, retouching here and there, but without disrupting the style of the master. Drawing networks of circles, such as those left by the flamingo in the mud of the wetland pools as it feeds; or fixing and coloring the forms drawn by the tide and the wind, as do the saltwort, salt meadow cordgrass, and the algae that dye the fractal landscape of the island of Enmedio (page 52). Then man arrived a few million years ago and, as yet one more species of life’s diversity, draws his paths on the face of the earth as he hunts for food or looks for water, paths that gently adjust to mineral outline, or bifurcate, such as those formed by the repeated passage of animals looking for water on summer mornings in the springs known as ‘Los Ojos’ (‘Eyes’) of the wetlands (page 44). But the day man picked up a forked branch and traced a straight line in the ground to turn up the soil and sow it, on that day he began to paint the landscape with the arrogance of an apprentice who scorns the master, with a new line that breaks with the style of billions of years. The aesthetic battle begins, therefore, when man plows the fields with the perfection of the straight line, as can be
seen in the irrigated croplands around Doñana, tempted, in this case, by the easy supply of surface water, the well dug in the
sandy soil of the Dehesa de Abajo. It is a touching-up of the landscape, but it is a faint touching-up, a scratch, as light as the estuary that delicately links the shoals of the wetlands in San Fernando (page 86). The grid, however, is somewhat more perturbing, the powerful, humiliating grid, which wipes out all natural indications, such as the one formed by the saltworks of Los Portugueses in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, or the vineyards on drained areas of the wetlands, or the rice plantations fed by the great river. As man conceives new and ever more powerful machines, the transformation of the landscape becomes
more and more radical, more aggressive due to the cold and overwhelming geometry of the housing development, and these
transformations threaten the natural patterns.

The geometry of nature arises from iteration, from the constant, slow but persistent repetition of the same processes. One drop of water after another is what scrapes out, particle by particle, the line in the hard rock, or cuts more easily through the soft sand or mud of the wetlands. This is what gives rise to the similarity between big and small, self-similitude, the repetition of the structure on different scales. This is how bifurcation is born. This is how trees, for example, are created, both living and inert ones, such as the arboreal structure traced by draining water in the mud of the pond of Veta la Palma, in Puebla del Río.
This branched structure is similar to the one created by the Nile in its enormous delta, or to the slender tree of diminutive
channels formed by draining water at low tide as we walk on the wet sand of the beach. It is also identical, or better put, similar, to the one described by Saramago for the Common Cemetery in "Todos los nombres", a structure that ‘observed from the air… looks like a fallen tree, enormous, with a short, thick trunk forming the central section, from which four mighty branches extend, contiguous in their origins but which then extend through successive bifurcations until becoming lost from sight, forming…a leafy crown…’. Contrary in form to the line or grid, this branched structure is nature’s own fractal structure and is therefore, ubiquitous, literally universal. It’s the same structure found in our lungs, the same through which our blood flows, the same along which water once ran on the planet Mars. The aesthetic battle between those two incompatible harmonies that destroy each other is implacable. For this reason, human structures require constant effort to be maintained, because nature is above all stubborn, always powerful, and sometimes dramatically merciless when she is scratched in her depths, when her fragile balance is wounded, inciting her to behave like an avalanche. If man doesn’t make that effort of maintenance, nature takes over and, like a painter working over a rejected work, paints with fractal strokes over the Euclidean
engineer. This can be seen in the mineral-loading platform of Corrales, in the mines of Tharsis (page 54). The order that man
creates, when not maintained, is erased by nature, which employs rain and gravity as brushes to paint a majestic mineral
watercolor with a palette of inimitable colors. This relief is particularly evident in the wetlands, one of the earth’s
most dynamic settings: where are the lines of Euclidean geometry left by the Tartessian settlements that existed here a mere
thousand years ago? Where are those of the famous battle staged less than 200 years ago on the island that gives its name to
Parisian gardens of El Trocadero? They have been erased by the play of tides, which creates structures at low tide that are then
covered by high tide; the next low tide will once again uncover them after modifying them with its erosive hand, and eventually
this play of tides paints those marvelous examples of natural geometry found in the tidal wetlands of the Bay of Cádiz.

Thus, year after year, the play of earth and water redesigns the landscape of Doñana with forms that we previously considered
be whimsical, but which today we understand to be the canonic expression of nature’s fractal geometry. Those forms –
necessarily ephemeral – are the result of the physical dynamic of the wetlands. A dynamic as rich, complex and structured in a
geological context as the beings that inhabit it, and also for this reason, as fragile and unstable. If we accept that harmony is the beautiful relationship that exists between the whole and each of its parts, or between the parts of the whole, then there is
nothing lovelier in Doñana than the forms nature draws in the wetlands. Nor anything as alive.

On the way back to Jerez, I observe how, beneath the vineyard’s army of grapevines lined up in its neat rows, the profile of what was once a wetland appears, traced by the humidity still present in the ground. I wonder to myself whether this conflict of geometries occurs out there, only out there, or whether, on the contrary, it is also being fought in our minds. If we have been biologically programmed to perceive beauty in the sinuous, the intricate, the exuberant curve, is an alternative also molecularly gestating that will warp our concept of beauty towards colder and more regular patterns, towards more exact rhythms? I think of the monolith, the sign of intelligence, Kubrick created for his film 2001, A Space Odyssey, with its straight, cold edges. And then I think of her, of her warm curves.

Juan Manuel García Ruíz