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Into the past: Fieldwork in search of the ethnographic object

This anthrostory shows the path I walk in search of an ethnographic field.

Published onMay 27, 2022
Into the past: Fieldwork in search of the ethnographic object

Lanzarote, Spain. The island of endless winds. As jagged and barren as one can imagine the landscape be after a volcanic eruption. Frozen in the moment, frozen in black. Frozen indeed. Yet, in Timanfaya, The Fire Mountains, if one dares to walk barefoot there, the soil will burn the naked skin under ones feet. (One does not dare). Roads stretch across the island from the south to the north, from east to west, from coastal areas across central peaks, pitted and dusty roads with chains of black basaltic lava on both sides. ‘This is not a place to find life’, are my thoughts.  A single plant and a few wild flowers that grow in between the rocks of lava take me by surprise. 

A silence, like a curse resting across the volcanic landscape when the wind does not rampage. To not be what I named it, ‘the island of endless winds’. ‘Am I in for this’, I wonder. To not know at all. A blackness cuts through the landscape, only visible through the contrasting white stripe in the middle of the road. A sudden, overwhelming darkness before my eyes. Yet, those moments hold the largest potential for appearance of light, ethnographic light. That much do I know. If only I can endure the darkness.


This project (‘Is this a project?’, I am thinking). Let me try again: This project is like a book without frames; without beginnings, without endings, without a plot or a story line. So far, I am the only character. ‘Is that a problem’, I ask myself. ‘To whom is it a problem?’ There are no people in my photos. Should I be talking to someone, other than myself?


What am I looking for, if anything?


The first time I heard of the story was in 2018. It was in September. I was in Lanzarote to prepare for the ironman race known as the toughest in the world. It takes place on the island every year in May. In the small village, La Santa, I met Alexander. He was a French triathlete and dreaming of a professional career. I dreamt of climbing Tabayesco, one of the legendary climbs on Lanzarote. Alexander taught me the techniques of climbing and descending, and of becoming friends with the feared gusty winds. On road bikes we climbed Tabayesco from the coast of Arrieta, across Los Helechos and descended through Los Valles towards the town Teguise. 

Halfway on the climb to Los Helechos the picturesque views to a valley appeared. ‘This is Haria’, Alexander said to me, ‘Valley of the thousand palm trees.’ ‘For each child born there’, he continued, ‘the family plants a palm tree’. From afar, with the sun in my eyes, I saw clusters of white houses and silhouettes of palm trees. 


I return to Lanzarote on a number of occasions to continue my preparations for the ironman. The erupted black lava landscape that I ride through on my road bike increasingly captivates me, fascinates me, even absorbs me, as if ‘we’ become one. For every climb I do that takes me through Haria, in the wind, I hear the whispering echo of the story of the thousand palm trees. 


We; the landscape and I.


Everything I am, everything I do, everywhere I go holds potential for being ethnographic material. I live an autoethnographic life. Always trying to find my way, home, in this world, as who I am in the spaces where I (am supposed to) belong, supposed to be coming home to. How come it can be so challenging to arrive there? As if the arrival is always postponed. As if home can be everywhere and is nowhere. Finding way, home, the sense of belonging and being home in the world is what I explore in relationships between people and nature.


Now that I play with the wind on Lanzarote, climb any mountain, know the current in the ocean and have the landscape under my skin, could Lanzarote be home to me? 


As an anthropologist, I never had a region. I am not even sure we have regions anymore in contemporary anthropology. 

Could Lanzarote be my region?

‘Yes’, is the answer, ‘definitely’. Lanzarote is the perfect place.

Am I living in an anthropological past?


July 2021. 

It is two years ago I did the ironman on Lanzarote, two years ago I was here on Lanzarote. 

I live in Casa Limones now. It is Sebastian’s house, the only colored house in Haria. Yellow. It is on Calle Crisantemo no. 16. The street descends towards the central square of the town, Plaza Leon y Castillo, where the market is on Saturdays under a huge tunnel of pine trees. A bit further, to the left, there is the small square, Plaza de la Constitucion where the library is across the street. Sofia’s art shop is on the one corner of the square. On one of the other corners is where Pedro hangs out from early morning with a Tropical in his hand. Calle Crisantemo leads out of town on three sides, north towards the village Maquez, east down towards Arrieta on the coast and south across Los Helechos towards Teguise. No. 8 looks like a tired house, miskept with the white paint peeling off on several larger areas, the blue paint on the door has turned greyish from years of sun, wind and no moisture of any kind. But inside on the first floor, there’s a guitar hanging exactly under the light bulb, as a homemade shade. On the wall a big world map, just behind the drummer. I know because I have been standing across the street several times in the evenings when I have returned from hiking off the beaten paths in the valley. The sounds from an electric guitar, a funky bass and drums made me stop to listen. ‘Men practicing’, I thought, based on the glimpse I had of the forehead of the drummer through the window on the first floor. They practice a short passage from a song, then some funky notes that keep me listening from across the street. There is more to Haria than echoes of a story in the wind. 


Haria, Valley of the thousand palm trees. A cluster of square white houses with wooden green or brown doors and window frames. A few open spaces with trees and a couple of restaurants, a coffee shop in a narrow alley between white walls, some artisan shops and a couple of very small supermercados. There is a church too.

The library is a square building across from Plaza de Constitucion, the square is decorated with overwhelmingly purple Bourganvillas. The library opened only some months ago after it had been closed for years. ‘It is the place to begin my investigations’, I am thinking, to ask around about the story of the thousand palm trees.

I enter the library and says hello to the woman behind the desk. She is younger than I, her eyes are smiling just above the facemask. I decide to go straight to the matter and ask her if she has heard this story about the palm trees. ‘For each childbirth, the family plants a palm tree’, I explain. She has never heard of it, she says. I correct myself and say, ‘In fact, for each girl the family plants one palm tree, and for each boy, they plant two palm trees’. Jochem in the bike shop in Puerto del Carmen, told me this version of the story. ‘Typical’, I think to myself, ‘always a gender difference, always male privilege’.  ‘But’, I add to her, ‘I’ve been told they don’t do it anymore.’ No, she has never heard of it, she repeats in a tone of voice I understand as both surprise and curiosity. She offers to ask her colleagues about it the next day, when they come to work in the library. ‘Where are you from’, she asks, and I answer that I am a researcher from the University in Copenhagen, ‘an anthropologist’. ‘Some years ago’, she responds, a German researcher came to investigate a shipwreck and she helped him in the process. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, we were aligned in trying to find out about the story. If there was anything to it at all. 

Encouraged by this friendliness I left, crossed the street and entered the artisan shop. Most of the artwork clearly expressed relations to the natural environment of Lanzarote; either through the materials or the motifs. High-spirited I asked the woman in the shop if she had heard about the story. The ‘yes’, filled me with excitement. Her name was Sofia; she lived in the next village, Maquez. In that village, an old man had told her about the story. Was he still living in the village? ‘Yes’, she said, ‘he is one of my neighbors. I can ask him for more information.’ I told Sofia what I knew so far and how I had come to that knowledge. I would drop by her shop again the next day.  


In Puerto del Carmen some days earlier I had been swimming in the ocean in the early morning. Coming out of the water, I saw a woman coming down to the beach. She smiled at me, said hello and began talking to me about swimming. Her English was new. She had only studied it for a year but managed to explain that she came on weekend mornings to swim with her brother and a friend. They were part of a swimming club, but preferred to swim in this bay, rather than the other bay next to the old harbor. We talked a bit about swimming and I asked her if she lived in Lanzarote. ‘All my life’, she said, ‘except from a few years in Madrid’. She lived in Yaiza, a town I knew from road signs when riding my bike through the areas of the Fire Mountain and la Geria where they grow grapes for wine in the volcanic soil. 

‘Had she heard about the story?’ ‘Yes’, she said, ‘my grandmother told me about it, when I was a small child’. ‘But’, she added ‘I don’t know if it is true’. She did not know more, except they did not do it anymore. Her name was Olenka. 

Energized by this, I went to see Jochem, the guy who I rented a bike from for transportation. He had lived in Tias for ten years, a small village on the mountain up the coast from Puerto del Carmen. He told me the gendered version of the story and ‘actually’, he added, ‘there are two stories’. The second is ‘the joke story’. ‘The joke story?’, I repeated. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘every time a girl was born, instead of a palm tree, they planted a cactus.’ 


Cactus. Palm trees. In the unpleasantly hot afternoons in Puerto del Carmen, I made searches on google into the symbolism of palm trees, of cactus and on the story. How come I had failed to see that beyond the lava, Lanzarote is cactus and succulents. Plants that barely need water to live. The little water they get, they deposit in their bodies to survive the drought. So do palm trees. There are more than a thousand different kinds of palm trees on the island, I read. I already knew three different versions of the story, but in cyberspace, it was peculiar absent. 


I began asking around in Puerto del Carmen, first among the taxi drivers and learned first what a huge mistake it was that I did not speak Spanish. Also, that I had to go to Haria, if anywhere on Lanzarote, it would be the place to find the story. 


I went by Sofia’s shop again the following day. She pulled out a one-page printed document in English from the counter. On the paper, she had typed an explanation of the tradition. The story had become tradition, I noted to myself. There was also some additional information about the use of palm trees in the valley. 

I was thrilled. Someone seemed to know about the practices, rather than just having heard ‘something’ about them. I asked Sofia if it would be possible for me to meet the neighbor and if so, if she could help with translation. She would try, but said the neighbor was sick and needed to travel for treatment in Las Palmas on Gran Canaria in the next days. 


“According to tradition, once a palm tree was planted for every girl born, and two for every boy. 

This is because the droughts and famines of the 16th and 17th centuries caused an important demographic crisis in the town, therefore the birth of a new creature was something that deserved to celebrate in this original way and that today leaves us a palm grove, to a large extent destroyed during one of the pirate attacks that the island suffered throughout its history. 

Another reason why palm trees were planted in Haria is because of the use that was given and gives to the leaves of the tree. Once dry, the palm leaves are used to make wicker baskets and hats. This branch of crafts is still alive thanks to the tireless work of one of its neighbours, to whom the city council dedicated a statue that you can see near the artisan market area. 

dates, mats, brooms, baskets and many other things come out of the palm. Even its leaves have been used as animal food. The cultivation of the palm created many jobs.”


The parents of Sofia’s neighbor had told him the story. They had worked for a very rich family in the 1930s that used the palm trees for many different kinds of products. 

I returned to the internet searches and found: there had been a rich family. There had been a fierce Algerian pirate Morrato Arraez who raided Haria for livestock in 1586 and burned and cut down most of the palm trees. There had been a school teacher who send his pupils out to count the palm trees in the valley. They counted more than ten thousand palms which is why, the valley sometimes has been called ‘the valley of the ten thousand palm trees. There were illnesses. 


“On my hike to Mirador Rincon, I noticed how dry everything is, that all the plants that grow here, are plants that need no water, such as cactus. There are cactus everywhere and all sorts of them, even trees that are cactus. I also noticed that quite a lot of the palm trees have died, they stand with no leaves on the top, like infertile phalluses.” (Haria, July 21st 2021, extract from my journal)

Quite a contrast to how the palm trees are symbolically represented in the story, I noted.


In Haria, Eulogio, is an 86 year old palm leave weaver, the last one who still practices the traditional craft of weaving baskets in Lanzarote. ‘He must know’, I thought, ‘about the story’. Of all the people I have met so far, he is someone who actually uses the palm leaves for something. 

I found him by accident one day when I passed a garage in a narrow street on the outskirts of Haria. He was sitting in the corner right at the door, his chair surrounded by palm leaves on the floor, engaged in weaving a basket. I greeted him, looked at the crafts he had in the garage, asked – with signs and body language - if I could sit on the empty chair and watch him work? ‘How could I not have thought about it’, I thought, ‘that I needed to be able to speak Spanish.’ I sat for a while and then left.

The next day I came back. I had been on the mountain looking at cactus, at all the different types of succulents that grew there and I had picked fallen nuts from palm trees. I explained to Eulogio in four Spanish words that I had been on ‘el camino’ to the top of ‘Los Helechos’, while I cursed myself that I had not learned a bare minimum of Spanish. He responded with a friendly smile and pointed at the empty chair with his hand and said ‘vacanca’. Yes, absolutely, it would be nice to sit and rest and drink some of my water. He worked. I watched. We kept each other company for a bit. Sometimes I tried to put the few words together in Spanish that I thought could make it into a sentence; Senor, valles de los palmeras, story – I did not even know the word for ‘story’. He then said a lot of Spanish words that were sentences. Paused and then continued. From time to time he looked up from his work at me. I tried to recognize some of the words to grasp a bit of meaning, but without success. We sat in silence again until I got up, greeted him and left. 

How was I going to find out what he knew – if anything – about the story of the palm trees? Could I bring Johanna from the library? Or Sofia? Would it not be too much to ask of them, and too much for him that I showed up with a local translator. What if he did not know anything at all, then I would have waisted everyone’s time. 


Sebastian’s mother’s first name is Marisol. She thinks it is perfect because she loves the ocean and the sun. ‘Mar’ means ocean, ‘sol’ means sun; that much have I learned in Spanish by now. Marisol has lived by the ocean all her life, and now she has both a house in Arrecife and in Arrieta, both towns are right on the east coast of Lanzarote. I should come to Arrieta, she said when visiting today, ‘and swim’, there are some wonderful natural pools. Her parents lived in Haria. I do not know why Sebastian told me, that she, his mother lived in Haria, when in fact she did not. And that she loved talking about Haria, when she actually did not know a lot about Haria. Instead we talked about her. Her eyes that needed to be taken care of in the hospital, because of – I think – an accident she had in her car years ago. She cannot drive, she told me, meaning that she has always been a bad driver, which probably caused the accident. She has always been moving, between places and in places. She even moves belongings around. Now, she says, she is trying to move less, she tries to focus on inner movement. Something she thinks of as a bit egoistic. The story of the palm trees? ‘No’, she has never heard of it. Neither had her parents ever mentioned a story like that, nor does she know anything about palm trees. 


I already know more than my informants. 



What do I know? 


Back at Sebastian’s place in the night, I thought about what I actually would say to Eulogio if I spoke Spanish and how I would approach an informal conversation with him. I began looking up Spanish words and how to conjugate verbs. I wrote a few sentences down and wondered if they would be enough to stimulate some kind of answer, or just a reaction. 

‘Senor, soy un profesora de antropologia y trabajo en la Universidad de Copenhague en Dinamarca. Yo examino la importancia de las palmeras del valle. Sé que las familias plantaban una o dos palmeras con el nacimiento de cada nino/a. Conoce la historia de los ninos y los palmeras?’

Eulogio listened, nodded and then he said, it is ‘no real’. Not real, I heard him say, the story is not real. What a disappointment. ‘If it was real’, he said, ‘why would there not be many more palm trees in the valley’. ‘Just look’, he pointed out of the garage door, where there was a view to a half-dead palm tree. He was right, just as I had wondered myself. But why, why were there not many more palm trees and why did many of them seem to be in such a bad state? Still, what is it about this story? As I have tried to follow it, it seems the truth of it has come less to matter. 


The story of the thousand palm trees. 

A birth of a human gives birth to a palm tree.

One human life, one plant life. 

People and nature connected.  


True or not, the story IS. And sometimes is not.

What am I seeing? 

Or not seeing?

What is the question, this story is the answer to?



Blackness, still. 

I endure.


This anthrostory shows the path I walk in search of an ethnographic field, with or without connecting observations, sensations and experiences, certainly neither a short nor a moderate movement through the landscape, indeed yes, a challenging hike that requires endurance. I am not sure what to name it. Just fieldwork, perhaps. 


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