Basque Fact of the Week: My Uncle Tio Joe

We spent the next day, the day after seeing Bilbo, with family. In the morning, we met my dad’s sister Begoña and her family in Gernika. The rest of the family slowly found us throughout the morning and early afternoon as we wandered the city, stopping by the Tree of Gernika and a statue of Jose Mari Iparragirre. We all gathered outside of Gernika for lunch, a monumental event that started at about 2 pm and ended around 7. Almost all of the family was there – my dad’s two sisters Begoña and Rosario, his brother José Luis, and a multitude of cousins and now grandkids too. But, my dad’s uncle, Tio Joe, couldn’t join us as he is just too weak. So, after lunch, we headed to Rosario’s house, where Tio Joe lives, to have even more food and to visit with Tio Joe. Tio Joe turns 99 this December and though his body has gotten weaker, his mind is still sharp.

My wife Lisa, my daughter, myself, and my uncle Javier with Tio Joe.
  • Tio Joe was born on December 26, 1924, in Goikoetxebarri – the farmhouse my dad grew up in – in Munitibar. His full name is Juan José Uberuaga Urionaguena, but because he had a brother also named Juan, he goes by José, or Joe in the United States.
  • Tio Joe spent his whole life working – he never attended high school. He would work on the family baserri cutting grass, milking cows, and the like. When he was 12, he spent two years working in Gipuzkoa for 100 pesetas a year.
  • In 1952, when he was 28 years old, he came to the United States. He had a few uncles already in the US, one of which was the owner of the Uberuaga boarding house in Boise. Particularly during Christmas break, when he got 10 days, he would return to that boarding house. He remembers playing cards and socializing with other Basques, and the great food that his aunt Hermengilda would make. The only big rule that they had at the boarding house was that the boarders couldn’t take girls upstairs.
  • Tio Joe first worked for the Archibal sheep outfit. After a few years, he moved on to the Richardson feedlot in Caldwell, Idaho, owned by Simplot. Two years later, he began working for Boise Cascade as a logger, which he did with a number of other Basques. After a few other short-term jobs, Tio Joe ended up at the plywood mill in Emmett, Idaho, where he worked until an accident forced him into disability.
  • Tio Joe visited us often when I was a kid. My dad always called him Tio, so I just assumed that was his name, so I would call him Uncle Tio. He drove a flashy and always polished bright red car with white trim. His biceps were huge and he would always tease us that he got those biceps by eating eggs whole and that’s what we saw when he flexed his arm – the eggs. In 1984, Tio Joe moved back to the Basque Country, where he has been ever since.
  • Tio Joe was the catalyst that brought his brothers to the United States to also herd sheep. His brother Juan returned after only a few years but his brother Santiago stayed the rest of his life, making his home in Boise. Tio Joe and his brothers were also the reason that my dad came, again enticed by making a better life than seemed possible in the Basque Country.

Primary source: An Interview with Juan Jose Uberuaga, Boise Basque Museum

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 167

The woods were dense with brush and limbs that protruded from the trees in every direction – it was clear no one had wandered back here in many years. Branches reached out and grabbed at their clothes and more than a few times scratched at their skin. Kepa was glad he had worn a hat today – more than a few times he smacked his head against a branch that jotted out at an odd angle. 

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

However, despite the constant battle against the wild flora, the hike was overall pleasant. The temperature was cool and it had been a long time since Kepa had just had a chance to be in the woods, to experience nature in its rawest form with no trail or other sign of human presence. Even back home, when he would go hiking with his dad, they usually followed well-worn paths that had been carved into the ground by the passing of thousands of feet over so many years. Here, the forest was still about as wild as it could be.

Some forty minutes passed as they trudged forward in the direction Kepa had pointed before they reached a small clearing in the forest. At first, it looked empty, but then Maite noticed an overgrowth of vines and plants near one side. Closer inspection revealed the crumbled remains of a wall that had since been taken over by the forest. 

“Looks like the remains of a baserri,” said Maite as she tried to pull some of the stubborn plants off the wall with little success.

Kepa nodded. “It must have been abandoned hundreds of years ago.”

He stepped over what he imagined might have been the front door and into the foyer. The floor was covered with plants such that he couldn’t see the foundation. But, in one corner, he saw some old beams. Pulling some of the vines away, he saw the burnt remains of what he guessed must have been joists from the room.

“Looks like it wasn’t just abandoned, but burnt down,” he said as he drew Maite’s attention to the blacked wood.

“Do you think it was an accident, or was it burnt on purpose?”

“Didn’t Marina say that the villagers burned her house down?”

“That’s right,” replied Maite, nodding. “This must be the baserri she grew up in.”

Kepa looked around. There wasn’t much to see and he couldn’t imagine that anything from Marina’s time besides some burnt wood and old stones had survived. What could they possibly learn by being here?

Kepa heard Maite grunting and turned to see her trying to move some of the stones that had piled up in the center of the gutted building. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“We came all this way,” she replied. “Might as well see what we can find.”

Kepa sighed. He knew better than to challenge Maite when she was determined. He looked around and found an old branch that had fallen off a dead tree. He picked it up and used it as a lever to move Maite’s rock. Underneath, there were just more rocks.

Maite shrugged. “Let’s keep looking,” she said. “There has to be something useful around here.”

Kepa hefted his new tool like it was a rifle on his shoulder and dutifully followed Maite around as she explored the remains of the baserri.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Casco Viejo of Bilbo

The next day, after visiting Munitibar, we spent the day in Bilbo. When I was living in Donostia in 1991-92, Bilbo wasn’t the biggest attraction. It had a reputation for being big and dirty. But, the city has really transformed itself, in part due to the Guggenheim effect. We met up with Pedro Oiarzabal, the heart of the Fighting Basque project, and my old friend from my Seattle days Aitor Pina in the Casco Viejo or Zazpi Kaleak neighborhood. We wandered the Plaza Nueva, getting a few drinks and pintxos and then strolled past the unending streets of shops. Pedro told me how the pintxo scene is changing. Before, people would get one pintxo at a bar and then wander to the next. But tourism is shifting that, such that people get a whole meal of pintxos at one place – enticed by 2-for-1 type deals – and end up just staying at one bar. I’ll be a grumpy old man and say I like the old way better.

Sitting down to lunch in the Casco Viejo with Pedro Oiarzabal (closest on the right) and Aitor Pina (next to Pedro).
  • When Bilbo was founded in 1300, there were two neighborhoods that straddled the Nervión River. On the left bank was Bilbao la Vieja and on the right what became the Casco Viejo. While La Vieja was a mining center with forges and the like, the Casco Viejo was the port, focused on water traffic.
  • Originally, the Casco Viejo was surrounded by a wall that enclosed three parallel streets. However, with growth, more room was needed. The wall was torn down and four more streets were added, bringing the total to seven and giving the neighborhood its other name – Zazpi Kaleak or Seven Streets: Somera (Goienkale, or the street above), Artekale (the middle street), Tendería (Dendarikale, the street of shops) – these are the three original streets – Belostikale, Carnicería Vieja, Barrenkale, and Barrenkale Barren. New walls were built around this expanded core, though that was eventually replaced by another street, the Ronda.
  • In 1979, the neighborhood was made pedestrian-only and it has become a commercial center of the city, containing some 240,000 square meters (2.5 million square feet) of restaurants, bars, and stores.
  • In 1983, the whole neighborhood and beyond was devastated by a massive flood. Something like 2 feet of rain fell in 24 hours, this after a month of steady rains that saturated the earth. Water levels, marked on some of the buildings to remember the horrific event, reached higher than the first floor of the buildings, putting the ground level shops and bars completely under water. 34 people died. Some 101 cities around the Basque Country were damaged by the rains and floods. The Casco Viejo was destroyed, but with time it was rebuilt and has become the commercial and social center of Bilbo that it is today.
  • At the time of Bilbo’s founding, the Casco Viejo already had the fortress of San Antón which would become the Church of San Antón and temple of Santiago, which is, today, the Cathedral.
  • One of the Basque Country’s most celebrated composers, Juan Crisótomo de Arriaga, was born on the oldest street of the Casco Viejo – Goienkale. And not far away is the oldest house in Bilbo. While the exact date of its construction has been lost, it was at least in the 14th century. It is still inhabited. And, on Calle Ronda, the famous intellectual Miguel de Unamuno was born on September 29, 1864. And the first Lehendakari of Euskadi – José Antonio Aguirre y Lecube – was also born in the Casco Viejo, in 1904.
  • The Plaza Nueva, where I met Pedro, was also known as the Venice of Euskadi. In 1871, when King Amadeo I visited the city, the city blocked off the plaza and the entrances to the buildings and flooded the plaza, even bringing in gondolas and asking the people of Bilbo to dress like gondoliers, to mimic Venice. All this because Amadeo was of Italian origin.

Primary sources: Casco Viejo y Ensanche, Bilbao Turismo; Historia del Casco Viejo, Casco Viejo; Bilbao por sus calles y plazas: Curiosidades de su emblemático casco viejo, National Geographic; El día que Bilbao fue sepultada por el lodo, La Vanguardia

Three Years of Fighting Basques

For the last three years, I’ve been collaborating with Pedro Oiarzabal, Guillermo Tabernilla, and the Fighting Basques: Basque Memory of the Second World War project, translating their articles from Spanish to English. The Fighting Basques project recognizes the sacrifices and contributions that Basque Americans made during World War II. These were often the children of immigrants that were not necessarily fully accepted into local society, who came to the United States with little in their pocket but the hopes and dreams that a better life existed than the one that awaited them in the Basque Country. Their children embraced their parents’ new home, served their adopted country, and often became pillars of their communities. Over these three years, they have published some 32 articles, which, with the help of Google Translate, I’ve translated to English and shared on this site. This archive is a place where you can find all of the translated articles.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 166

“What do you think we’ll find here?” asked Kepa as he pulled their car into a little carpark. When Maite had suggested they go to Marina’s ancesctral home in Lapurdi, he was into the idea as he was always ready to see something new, but he wasn’t sure what good it would do or how it would help them.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“Ez dakit,” replied Maite. “I’m not sure. But it’s better than just sitting on our asses and waiting for the next bubble to appear.”

Kepa nodded. He knew how Maite hated inaction, hated just sitting around while things moved around her. She needed to feel some level of control or things would just drive her crazy. 

Sara was a bit different from most Basque towns he had been to. It didn’t seem to have a plaza like he was used to, with the traditional church, fronton, and bar. There was a fronton – an open air structure that was in contrast to the enclosed ones he was used to playing in – but it was just laid out differently. Maite walked the streets with determination, but Kepa wasn’t sure what she was really looking for.

They eventually came upon a cemetary full of funeral steeles. Maite began examining the headstones though Kepa was still confused as to what she thought she might find. 

“What are you looking for? I can help.”

Maite shrugged. “Any sign of Marina, I guess.”

“Given how she died, I doubt she was given a proper burial. And we don’t even know her surnames, to find her relatives.”

“True…” began Marina as she held up her hand, which began to glow with a bright white-blue light. She closed her eyes and swept her hand in front of her, letting it swing back and forth like some kind of divining rod. Eventually her arm came to rest, pointing at one of the steeles in the back. 

Kepa walked over to the steele Maite was pointing to. It was old, the stone edges crumbling and some of the engraved letters so worn that they were barely visible. But the names were clear. “Vicente and Clara,” read Kepa.

“Marina’s parents,” remarked Maite. 

“I guess that means she didn’t make up that part of her story,” said Kepa, “but I’m not sure how it helps us.”

“Let’s keep looking. There has to be something in this town that will.”

Kepa shrugged. “Let me try.” He held up his hand in front of him, pointing just like Maite had done. He let the power of the zatia flow through his body. His arm went limp just as some invisible force took control, holding it up. It floated in front of him, sweeping around. He could feel it bouncing back and forth as it swept an imaginary arc in front of him, each time the arc getting a little smaller and tighter. Suddenly, his arm flew around, pulling and spinning him by one hundred and eighty degrees as it pointed rigidly into the woods behind the town.

“I guess we know where we are going next,” he said as his arm fell limp next to his body.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: The Bombing of Munitibar

I’ve written about how towns in the Basque Country besides Gernika were bombed during the Spanish Civil War. After lunch at the txoko, we went to the plaza in Munitibar to meet my dad’s sister Begoña, her husband Javier, and my dad’s sister-in-law Rosario. While we were there, Beñat Zabalbeaskoa Zabala, one of the town councilors of Muntibiar-Arbatzegi Gerrikaitz who I’ve met a few times before, grabbed me and took me to the udaletxea, the town hall. There, he gave me a copy of a book detailing the 1937 bombing of Munitibar by the Germans and Italians in support of Franco’s coup. I can’t do the book justice here – it is filled with first-hand testimonials of those that experienced that horrific day. I only wish I knew Basque better to more fully understand and appreciate what they went through.

Cover to the book, produced by the Munitibar town council, that chronicles the first-hand experiences of those that were there during the 1937 bombing of the town.
  • The book, entitled Munitibar 1937/04/26: Aire-eraso baten kronika (Chronicle of an Air Raid), collects testimonials from some 31 witnesses who were there on the day of the bombing on April 26, 1937, including my dad’s uncle, José Uberuaga Urionaguena. The book is broken up into several sections that detail the situation in Munitibar the days before the raid, the actual day of the raid, and the aftermath. It is illustrated with period photos, recreations, and maps that highlight where the bombs, some 25 at least, fell.
  • Two days before the attack, the line holding the fascists at bay broke near Elgeta. This led to soldiers and civilians fleeing their advance. In particular, the Itxasalde battalion passed through Munitibar where soldiers were able to warn their families about what they feared would be an impending bombing. Indeed, bombs fell the day before the main attack of the town, in the surrounding forests, leaving craters that some witnesses called the size of a house. As soldiers fled from the front, reconnaissance planes tracked their movements and fed them to the advancing fascists.
  • The towns of Arbatzegi and Gerrikaitz, today collectively known as Munitibar, were bombed on April 26. The Kamptgrupe K/88 squadron, comprised of Junkers Ju-52 bombers supported by Heinkel He-51 fighters and under the command of one Karl von Knauer, left Burgos in the morning, flying over Vitoria-Gasteiz and across the peak of Oiz as they made their way to Munitibar. The attack occurred in the morning, before noon as recalled by multiple testimonies, with bombs followed by machine guns strafing the ground. The squadron made several passes over the town during the day.
  • Testimonies describe how people were in their fields plowing for beets or eating arroz con leche at lunch when the bombs fell. Others escaped to the woods, leaving older relatives who couldn’t easily flee behind in the baserri. The first bombs hit the Mataun baserri, right in front of the door, immediately killing 84 year old Justa Mendibe Arteach and wounding her son and granddaughter.
  • Many of those present at the attack were families fleeing from other towns that had been attacked before. These families didn’t always have obvious places for shelter. Some hid under the bridge, which was an unfortunate choice as the bridge itself was bombed. Depending on the source, between 11 and 36 people were killed and many others seriously wounded during the day. Many houses and town buildings were damaged or destroyed. Craters littered the two towns and surrounding hillsides.
  • The attacks on Munitibar ended some time around 3pm as the planes made their way to a new target: Gernika. Two days later, on April 28, the fascists occupied Munitibar.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 165

To Maite and Kepa’s relief, the next few weeks were uneventful. So much so, in fact, that they actually found time to relax. Maite had heard so much about La Perla, the spa nestled into the heart of La Concha beach, that she had to check it out. So, early one morning, she made a reservation and, while Kepa was recovering from a late night with a few friends in the Parte Vieja, she made her way to the spa. She wasn’t sure what to expect – a spa is a spa – but she was pleasantly surprised by what she found. There were two floors of various water treatments. The first floor had a large pool with various stations of water jets that each targeted a different part of the body – the lower back, the legs, the upper back. Maite could have spent all day just cycling between these stations, but the wonderful sensations as the water massaged her body made her eager to explore the rest of the spa. Another pool, with its own massaging stations and a waterfall that hid a secluded area, was somewhat warmer but otherwise quite similar. So, she made her way to the second floor. This one was filled with yet another pool with yet a different temperature and more water jets. But, it also housed several saunas, both dry and wet. Maite had never really experienced a sauna before and she relished the opportunity. She enjoyed both, in a different way. The dry sauna was maybe a little more uncomfortable at first, but as she got used to the dry heat she felt it relaxed her more. She had heard of a Nordic tradition of going from the sauna to the cold lake, so she immediately made her way to the cold diving pool next to the saunas. The hot/cold contrast shocked her to her core, but energized her in a way she never would have guessed. She hadn’t felt so alert in forever. After the shock of the cold water plunge abated a bit, she made her way to the last station, a waterbed, where she simply lay still for a while. All told, it was probably two hours later when she finally emerged from the spa into the bright sun that sparkled over the ocean in front of her.

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

She texted Kepa, asking if he was awake. A reply came quickly, saying he indeed was, and even showered. Maite asked if he wanted to meet her in the Parte Vieja for a bite to eat since she had skipped breakfast and imagined he hadn’t eaten yet. He replied – Noski! Soon, Maite found herself sitting opposite Kepa at a small cafe where they each ordered a coffee and a pastry to start the day.

“What do we do now?” asked Maite.

“What do you mean? I’m going to eat.”

“I mean, about Marina, about the zatiak.”

Kepa shrugged. “I guess we wait until we see the next light and we go chase the next zatia.”

“Should we do something about Marina?”

“What would we do?” asked Kepa. “We could just ignore the zatiak and her quest, but I have a feeling that would cause more trouble than not.”

Maite nodded. “I agree. I think she might prove vengeful, depending on her fractured personality.” She paused. “Should we be more proactive about chasing the zatiak?”

“Proactive how?”

“Well, we can just sit around here, waiting for another light to appear, or we can try to actively hunt them.”

“How would we hunt them?” asked Kepa between sips of coffee. “We don’t know how to find them?”

“Don’t we?” replied Maite. “When we were in old Donostia, we were able to use our absorbed power to find the zatia there.”

“Bai, but that was because there was a zatia there. There isn’t one here and now.”

“No, but there has to be some signature of them, otherwise how do they appear like they do? And if there is a signature, then that means we might have a way of tracing them.”

Kepa put his coffee down and was silent, just staring off into space. After a few minutes had passed, Maite put down her own cup a little louder than she might normally have done, to get Kepa’s attention. 

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to focus on finding a zatia,” he replied.

Maite sighed. “There might not be another one here – we already found one.”

“Who says there can’t be more than one in a place?”

Maite’s brow furrowed. “I guess no one…”


Kepa began focusing on nothing again, his brow creased in concentration.

Maite didn’t wait for him this time. “I have an idea,” she said.

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: Pelota Mano, or Basque Handball

Before we got lunch at the txoko, we passed by the town plaza. It is always a magical time for me, as people are wandering the town and I’ve spent enough time there that I recognize so many faces, and they recognize me. I don’t always know everyone’s names, but there is just something special about feeling part of the community for me. We then stopped at the Munitibar fronton where some of the local boys were playing handball. We watched as they effortlessly smashed the ball with their hands, sending it ricocheting off of the front stone wall. We decided to take our turn – me, my daughter, my best friend, and his son. It was a humbling experience, as none of us could even get the serve off much less return it. The ball doesn’t bounce like anything we are used to – you have to hit it a lot harder. But it was still fun to be out on the fronton.

“Playing” handball in the Munitibar fronton. Photo by Lisa Van De Graaff.
  • Ball games are almost as old as human civilization and have been developed independently around the globe. The versions played in Western Europe arose from the Romans, who brought these types of games with them as they expanded throughout the continent. Games in which a ball was hit with the hand were particularly popular in France, and the Basque versions – there are several – likely grew out of that. The importance of pelota to Basque society is reflected in the fact that discoidal stelae from as far back as 1629 feature the pelotari profession. Mentions of pelota in the Basque Country go as far back as 1331. However, the modern form played in a fronton against a wall is more recent, with first mentions in 1750 in the town of Oñati.
  • While I was told that there has been some resurgence in cesta punta/jai alai in recent years, during the whole time I’ve known the Basque Country, handball has been by far the most dominant and popular variety of pelota vasca. Handball comes in two varieties, singles and pairs – both are very popular.
  • The rules are relatively simple: each time the ball is struck, it has to hit the front wall once and only once and it can bounce no more than once within the playing area. If it bounces more than once or the first bounce is outside the playing area, the opposing team gets a point. On the serve, the ball has to fall between two designated lines after bouncing off the front wall, otherwise it is a lost point to the opposing team. The game is played to 22 points and there is no time limit.
  • The ball itself is a bit surprising. It isn’t soft or rubbery. Rather, it is made of boxwood, which is covered by layers of latex and wool, and then wrapped in a layer of leather. To protect their hands from the hard ball, players cut small strips of different types of adhesive tape that they form into particular shapes depending on the exact place on the hand where they will be placed. They thus create a set of small, custom-made studs that cover the inside of their hands. Even with this protection, injuries can and do occur. Pelotaris are famous for having hands of steel. I’ve seen documentaries of older pelotaris whose hands are a mangled mess.
  • A tournament to crown the best handball player was begun in 1940 by the Federación Española de Pelota. For the first decade, it was held every 2 years, but in 1950 it became an annual event. That first championship in 1940 was won by Atano III (Mariano Juaristi Mendizábal of Azcoitia, Gizpuzkoa), while Retegi II (Julián Retegui Barberia from Eratsun, Nafarroa) has won the most championships – 11 total, including an astounding 9 in a row.
  • Of the Basque provinces, Nafarroa boasts by far the most champions, with pelotaris from Nafarroa winning 46 of the 79 txapelas. Gipuzkoa is second with 18 and Bizkaia next with 11.

Primary sources: Pelota mano, Wikipedia; Campeonato manomanista, Wikipedia; Historia de la Pelota, EuskalPilota; ‘La increíble historia de la pelota vasca’ contada desde Iruñea, Naiz; Pelota Mano, EuskoGuide

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa: Part 164

Maite slammed the door closed as she got into the car, the rain beginning to cover the windshield. Kepa hesitated a moment, looking at her trepidatiously, before putting the key in the ignition and starting it up. 

The Adventures of Maite and Kepa is a weekly serial. While it is a work of fiction, it has elements from both my own experiences and stories I’ve heard from various people. The characters, while in some cases inspired by real people, aren’t directly modeled on anyone in particular. I expect there will be inconsistencies and factual errors. I don’t know where it is going, and I’ll probably forget where it’s been. Why am I doing this? To give me an excuse and a deadline for some creative writing and because I thought people might enjoy it. Gozatu!

“I can’t believe it,” said Maite as he pulled out of the parking lot and headed toward the road that took them back to Donostia. “She simply doesn’t care what happens to us.”

“I think she does care,” replied Kepa. As Maite shot him a menacing look, he quickly added “She cares that we find the zatiak.”

“Bai, the zatiak. That is all she cares about. You know, de Lancre tried to warn me about her.”

“What?” Kepa jerked and the car swerved a bit before Kepa corrected its course. “When?”

“When we were in future Bilbo. He tried to tell me that Marina was no different than he was, that she was after the power just like he was. I didn’t want to believe it, but now…?” She paused a moment. “I’m not so sure.”

“She’s nothing like him,” replied Kepa. “He just wants to take over everything. Marina wants things back to the way they were.”

“Does she?” asked Maite, looking earnestly at him as he drove down the wet road. “We don’t know what she wants, not really? All we know is that she doesn’t want de Lancre to get the zatiak.”

“And that she doesn’t want them just for herself. We absorb the ones we find, remember?”

Maite looked ahead as their headlights reflected off of the rain drops in front of them. Each rain drop seemed like one of their bubbles, a world unto itself, falling blissfully through time until SPLAT it hit the pavement or their windshield and disappeared. How many bubbles were out there, waiting to be popped by them, or Marina, or de Lancre? Were there more than the number of rain drops that hit their windshield between each swipe of the wiper blades? More than would fall in Euskadi during the drive home?

She sighed. “I guess I’m just tired,” she finally said. “You are right, Marina is an infinitely better choice than de Lancre. But, I find it hard to trust her.”

“I agree with you on that,” said Kepa. “She hasn’t been forthcoming and the way her other selves are fracturing, I’m not sure we should even think about trusting her. But, I am sure we can’t trust de Lancre. After what he did to Blas and the rebels in Bilbo? He’s ruthless and will do whatever he has to to get power.”

“You know, you would make a great lawyer. Or maybe politician.”

“Huh? Why do you say that?”

“You just have a great way of laying things out so that the only obviously good answer is the one you want me to pick.”

Kepa sort of frowned. “I’m not trying to swindle you…” he began.

“Ez! That’s not what I meant!” Maite sighed again. “I simply meant that you make the choices very clear. When all I see is a muddled mess of grey, you help me see the black and the white.”

“I guess that is the scientist in you – nothing is ever fully resolved. There is always more to know. Everything has a caveat.”

Maite paused. “Maybe. But, in this case, there is a clear choice. Thanks for reminding me of that.”

Kepa smiled. “Noski.”

If you get this post via email, the return-to address goes no where, so please write if you want to get in touch with me.

Basque Fact of the Week: How Eucalyptus Became Banned in Bizkaia

On the way down from Mount Oiz, as we took the back road that passed by Goikoetxebarri – my dad’s childhood home – Jon Zuazo told us about how the pine trees of the surrounding forests were dying and how eucalyptus had been recruited to replace it. However, because eucalyptus can be so hard on the surrounding lands, the government of Bizkaia is imposing a moratorium on planting new eucalyptus trees. How did things get so bad?

A eucalyptus plantation, photo from Deia.
  • There is no doubt that eucalyptus is an economically profitable tree crop. Native primarily to Australia, it grows quickly – 13-15 years to cutting, compared to 35 for pine, 100 for beech, and 130 for oak. Its wood has a number of uses, from ornamentation and firewood to being used as fence posts and to help prevent erosion. It is also used in the extraction of biofuels. Because of all of these factors, it is the most widely grown tree in plantations. However, their fast growth comes at a cost – they consume a great deal of water.
  • In the Basque Country, eucalyptus has been seen as a replacement for the pine trees that are being killed by brown band disease (“banda marrón” in Spanish, not sure if this is brown spot needle blight or Dothistroma needle blight). Compounded by drops in lumber prices, the Basque forest industry saw eucalyptus as a viable path toward economic profitability. As of March, 2021, eucalyptus covered 3.5% of the Basque Autonomous Community (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Araba), up by 5 times in the last 35 years. Much of the expansion in eucalyptus has occurred in Bizkaia, which has some 20,000 hectares of the trees. In some places, 50% of the trees have been replaced by eucalyptus.
  • However, eucalyptus has many down sides for the local environment. It releases biochemical compounds that are harmful to other plants and to animals. It soaks up lots of water, further compounding the effect on other plants. All of this impacts biodiversity. For example, the amphibian population has fallen by 50%. There are also fewer birds and insects in regions with eucalyptus.
  • On April 13, 2022, the government of Bizkaia passed a moratorium on the planting of new eucalyptus trees until 2026. The goal is to develop a long term and sustainable forestry plan for the province.
  • The pines that are being replaced by eucalyptus are, themselves, not native to the Basque Country. The native forests contained oak, beech (the Iraty forest is the largest beech forest in Europe), birch, and ash trees, amongst others, including apple. There is a story that the man my mom’s grandparents worked for in Ispaster, who owned a palace there, gained his wealth by introducing pines to the Basque Country. (It was Mario Adán de Yarza of Ispaster who first planted these trees on his land in 1857.) These were radiata pine, native to California, and now representing 33% of the forests in the Basque Country. When the pine was introduced, the Basque forests had been decimated by overuse and the pines brought new life to them. Further, because its lifecycle is only 30 years to maturity, it proved profitable for the baserritarak who called it “green gold.”

Primary sources: Eucalipto, un árbol maldito para nuestros bosques y ríos by Mikel Zubimendi, Naiz; La restauración de los bosques autóctonos del País Vasco, LandK; «El pino radiata llegó a denominarse ‘oro verde’ por su gran rentabilidad» by Miguel Villameriel, El Diario Vasco; El pino radiata en la historia forestal vasca by Mario Michel.

%d bloggers like this: