Polythene plain

Polythene plain

Yesterday we went to Almeria. It’s an easy 50-mile journey – the A7 takes you there in about as many minutes. A quiet dual carriageway, no tolls, gentle curves, lofty bridges carrying you across deep barrancas where rivers flowed once upon a (very long) time. After 20 miles you reach a vast plain lying between the Sierra Alhamilla (inland) and the Sierra de Gata (on the coast). Alhamilla is a big sierra, represented on the physical map in mid-brown shades denoting higher altitude. Its peak, further inland and out of sight, is 1397 metres – that’s 50 metres more than Ben Nevis. The Sierra de Gata is tiny in comparison, graded only a tentative beige. Its peak, El Fraile, at 493 metres is a couple of Box Hills on top of each other plus a bit.

It was a colourless day, white-grey sky as if an artist, frustrated with work in progress, had smeared a single thick brushstroke across the landscape.  Dirty white, pale grey, take your pick. Unbroken pigment. All perspective stolen away. Dispossessed of the long views, your eye is drawn to the near distance, the wide, flat plain. A polythene plain. Here is an uncomely tented world of hidden crops and unseen labour. Villages suggest themselves here and there, smudged stone and concrete swamped by plastic. The whole world seems made of polythene. Polythene plain merging with whited sky. Grubby, murky, unremittingly ugly.

Each year the polythene creeps further, reaches further north and edges east and west, closer to the slopes of the two sierras that enclose it. Its southern limits are hemmed by the suburban spread of the city so north is the only way. New plastic encampments appear in odd corners where somehow the seemingly arid, hostile land is encouraged to show some hospitality. The polythene helps: it shelters the crops from pests, diffuses the sunlight and creates perfect conditions for condensation, stopping the precious moisture from evaporating and forcing it back to nourish the tomatoes, peppers, courgettes, aubergines, beans, radishes, and all the rest. At least, that’s what I thought. But what did I know? Only that the produce of these polythene plains is laid out in colourful splendour in Almeria’s sparkling covered market. Before a modest tapas lunch, we stocked up joyfully, feasted our eyes and whet our appetites on nature’s abundance: tomatoes in green, red, black; peppers the size of butternuts; butternuts the size of pumpkins; long beans, short beans, broad beans; plump, elongated strawberries; oranges that glisten; apples that blush.

It intrigued and unsettled me, though, this ugliness incubating such copious, nutritious loveliness. I decided to look a little further. A spot of light googling quickly reveals the chilling realities that take place under that sweltering plastic.  I came across a Guardian piece from 2005 by Giles Tremlett: “[the] plants will never touch the soil – they grow from bags filled with oven-puffed grains of white perlite stone. Chemical fertilisers are drip-fed….. “. This is hydroponics on a vast scale; sensible science given the shortage of water in this officially ‘desert’ zone of Europe. Maybe I needed to accept that efficiency trumps aesthetics. But, reading on, Tremlett lists the individual chemicals that go into this drip-fed cocktail, writes about the problems of plastic past its prime piling up “calf-high” somewhere further along the coast or blocking up dry riverbeds.  My uneasiness felt justified.

But it’s never straightforward. The polythene plain is the fulcrum of the economy of Almeria and its province. It rescued the city from poverty when the mercantile industry of past centuries slumped. And it ensures that British (and French and German) dinner tables have fresh tomatoes and courgettes all winter long. The cost, though, seems high.

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