Exploring La Gomera
with Xerxes Cook
Text: Xerxes Cook
Photography: Xerxes Cook
Let's play a game.
What do you call a place that's home to Europe's only rainforest, the kind that covered much of the Continent before the Ice Age? A landscape so jagged it takes two hours to drive 25 kilometers across, a place where you can find Germans living in caves, and soon, some of the world's fastest wifi. Do we call it an ecological palimpsest? A deep-geographical thought experiment? A work of abstract geological expressionism? The earth remade as an artwork?
This is a story about the most 3D place I've ever seen.
Closer to the Western Sahara than it is to Madrid, La Gomera is warm enough that you can swim in the ocean year round. At five million years old, it is one of the youngest of the Canary Islands and the same age as Hawaii—a pubescent sweet spot as far as volcanic islands go. People sometimes call it Spain's Galapagos for the huge number of endemic plants it is home to.
As Columbus made his last stop on both his journeys to the New World at La Gomera’s capital, San Sebastián, it's more often called "Isla Colombina.” People and plants have been going back and forth across the Atlantic ever since, with passion fruit, papayas, and avocados growing wild in the island's green north, and cactus like agave and aloe vera are abundant in the sunny south. (Other than a very rare magic mushroom, none of the endemics are edible.)
I first stumbled across La Gomera while flicking through Google Earth one winter, looking to escape London for as little money as possible, to somewhere as warm as possible. Viewed from above, in 2D, the island looks like an irregular orange cut perfectly in half. Near-vertical valleys mark out the fruit’s segments, misty forest ridges make the pith, and black boulder-strewn beaches and sea cliffs give the zest. The moss-bearded laurisilva trees of the Garajonay Forest grow 3000 feet and up, crown the center of the island with an evanescent mist 10 degrees cooler than the coasts.
“This is a story about the most 3D place I've ever seen.”
As easy as the weather may be, life in this topography is anything but. The Gomerans save hours of traversing steep mountainsides by communicating using el silbo, or silbo gomero, a unique whistling language that can carry across canyons five kilometers apart. (For shorter distances, shepherds use a four-meter long pole vault called salto, a gnarly form of rural parkour. It’s a story for another day—look it up on YouTube.)
Mimicking the phonetics of the dialect spoken here in remotest Spanish Macaronesia, el silbo compresses all sounds to four consonants and two vowels—enough to tell someone their dinner is ready, or to warn of an errant goat. As you can now get a 4G connection in even the most shaded of La Gomera’s spots—and as fiber-optic cables get installed across the island with a 300mbps internet connection is set for the end of 2017—el silbo is protected by UNESCO, and taught in Gomeran primary schools as a method to preserve it.
“Consider the moment when we moved beyond the relative sanctuary of the Rift Valley and/or finally got around to eating those funny looking mushrooms 60,000 years ago”
El silbo is also studied in the hope of shedding some light on how humanity invented language—as how we moved beyond fingers and grunts to develop words and sentences (and emojis!) remains a mystery to this day. Some attribute the appearance of language to punctuated equilibrium, where nature reacts to periods of unprecedented complexity through the rapid, and exponential, development of new biological capacities, tools and abilities. Consider the moment when we moved beyond the relative sanctuary of the Rift Valley, or finally got around to eating those funny looking mushrooms 60,000 years ago, and whether we’ve unconsciously destroyed the environment in order to bring about another evolutionary leap in consciousness.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the landscape and its relative isolation out in the Atlantic, the island has been the low-key host to a number of experiments in alternative living. The most notorious was El Cabrito, the winter home of the Viennese Actionist Otto Mühl's Friedrichshof commune, which occupied a bay at the end of a canyon so bone-dry you imagine you might find James Franco sawing off an arm in it.
For three years at the tail-end of the 80s, 200-or-so of his followers gathered here with the aim of overthrowing the "restrictive strictures" of the nuclear family and private property—monogamy in other words—by farming and attempting to fuck a different person five times a day. In 1991, Mühl was sent to prison for heroin and sex with minors, and most of his followers disbanded to the Algarve. Today, El Cabrito operates as a kibbutz-style holiday resort for young German-speakers interested in permaculture and painting.
Megalomaniac Austrian artists aside, the island has been attracting drifters, seekers, and dreamers—hippies, for want of a better word—since the 60s. Europeans in exile from military service, capitalism's endgame, and winter, headed West instead of East along the Silk Road to La Gomera to fix up old farm houses and live off the land. As far as I know, no one has yet attempted to distill mezcal or dilute their DMT—a trans-Atlantic file that hasn't yet been downloaded. Others took Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival all too literally and made their homes in the sea caves, like the Guanches, the island’s indigenous people, did 500 years before. And why not—vegetarians don't use microwaves anyway.
“Despite, or perhaps because of, the landscape and its relative isolation out in the Atlantic, the island has been the low-key host to a number of experiments in alternative living.”
There are also a lot of earthy, middle-aged, German hikers. None seem to have a problem with the other. Their gathering here has more of a surrealist collage feel to it than Beuysian social sculpture. As just a five-minute walk from where Angela Merkel vacationed a couple of summers ago (Jardin Tecina, the only resort and golf course on an island short of both jobs and water) you’ll find someone like Freigeist von Liebenskunst. Rocking matching leopard-print leggings and skirt, and a huge sun-bleached beard, Freigeist carries himself like a shipwrecked Jim Morrison. He keeps a couple of caves by the coast, a farm house up in the mountains, and makes a living regreening arid desert-landscapes, and offering land art workshops and hikes in the footsteps of the Guanches to tourists. He is also the author of an interesting thesis on the "domestication of humans" and how it can be overcome by rewilding children. I like the people you meet here.
Text: Xerxes Cook
Photography: Xerxes Cook