Zen and the art of Gorse clearance

3 simple steps to agricultural enlightenment

By Paul Read

Lets try and be positive about this. Gorse can provide a useful sanctuary for some animals and birds, I’ve seen toads and wasps for example happily co-existing within this hardy plant. Its presence, one has to admit prevents soil erosion in places that perhaps few other plants would grow. And it provides the rocky dry valley slopes of Granada’s coastal strip with a pleasant green appearance. But, alas this is about as positive as I can be because I have almost 10.000sqm of the stuff, and for me, that’s 10.000sqm too much. It has completely overtaken the abandoned olive farm that I´ve just acquired. So much so, that in places the stuff is taller than I am. So thick and impenetrable is the gorse that most of the land is inaccessible. The olives are slowly stranguled, whilst the encinas and alcornoques, the pines and wild palms fight daily for access to sunlight. And down at ground level where no light can enter, almost nothing else survives. So I sought a solution to the problem, and in the 3-step process I came across a little enlightenment.

STEP 1. Vehicle power: At the beginning I consulted my older and wiser neighbours about the problem: "Get in a man and a digger and it’ll be clear in a day or two," advised one. "It’ll cost mind you, but there’s no other way". But I had seen what these machines could do. Another neighbour had recently cleared land for a new road, and in the wake of the noisy machine everything was removed, the struggling olives and oaks, the wild lavender and thyme and most sadly of all was the demolition of the old stone walling that supported the ancient terraces hidden beneath the jungle of gorse. And once the machine had upped and gone, the gorse had been left in heaps amongst soil and rock at the side of the road. This seemed a fire hazard as well as slovenly work. There had to be another way.

STEP 2: Mobile machinery: Instead of getting in a digger we borrowed a powerful petrol driven strimmer with a deadly looking blade attachment that looked like a giant Ninja’s shuriken. Just looking at this machine got me excited - lean, mean and ready to discriminate between weeds and walls. However the recommended uniform proved not so attractive. A welders facemask, cycling helmet, gloves, boots and the obligatory blue boiler suit. Fortunately I wasn’t expecting visitors that day. I donned the many layers and enthusiastically got to work. I calculated that about 2 or three weeks of effortless strimming and happy whistling whilst I worked would clear the bulk of the land. After 2 hours my hands were numb with the vibration of the machine. My ears were ringing with the sound of the engine. My entire body was sweating profusely and vibrating even though the machine was now switched off. My face mask had steamed up long ago and I could no longer make out where I was, what I was cutting down or even on whose land I had indeed been cutting. I had disturbed numerous wasps nests (they were not amused) and been bitten by every insect small enough to be able to creep up my trouser leg, sleeve or face mask. In the madness that consumes you when the adrenalin flows and cutting fever grips, the machine failed to discriminate between large stalks of gorse and young oak, pine and even olives attempting to break through to the surface. I had chopped off a number of small struggling trees, lavender bushes and palms and I felt guilty. Was the steamed up mask to blame or my blind enthusiasm to clear the land? And how much land had I indeed cleared over the two hours? No more than perhaps 10sqm! At this rate it would take 2000 hours to clear the land! At 4 hours a day that’s 500 days! I wasn’t sure I could borrow the machine for that long.

And how efficiently was the land cleared? Looking back over the metres of ground I had cleared, the stalks of the gorse were still there where the slope of the ground had prevented me from cutting close - and everywhere there were random piles of the stuff drifting about. I would have to go back over it all with some hand tool. Then there was the noise and petrol pollution to take into account and whether my bones could cope with another 1998 shuddering hours. Overall not a very satisfactory method. Step two had indeed brought me nearer my goal, though I think that the light was still some way away in the proverbial poly-tunnel. It would take several madder machine moments before the simple and the obvious would present themselves to me. Like most of the more profound lessons we learn in life, proximity to the problem only obscures the answer.

STEP 3: Back to basics: Forced to return the machine after two weeks of crazed cutting I had a convenient break to sit back and review the problem. There still remained over 99% of land untouched. Perhaps not all of it needed to be cut? Perhaps I should concentrate on just reaching the trees and releasing them from their spiny prisons? If, as I worked my way through I could change direction as and when I came across a species I wanted to keep, surely that would be a better way to proceed? But how and with what tool? Enter the long-handled cutters: Silent, light weight, no special masks, no petrol fumes or blue clothes and with these cutters you can reach right into the bush, snip from the ground at the main trunk of the plant and haul it to one side. Instead of hacking blindly through every stem and branch of each plant, select the main trunk only and hey presto! Up comes an entire bush each time. Toss it to one side and move on. After a couple of hours I had managed to cut a path between several trees. I wasn’t sweating, nor had I accidentally cut down anything I wanted to keep. Ok, I wouldn’t clear the whole lot before lunch, but at least this way it was enjoyable, I thought about what I was doing, and I noticed and learnt about the things I worked alongside - the spiders and the toads, the preying mantis and the lizards. All could be encouraged to move, rather than dismembered and spun off into the air in a thousand fragments.

Had I reached enlightment?

Not just yet. And so work continued at a slow but thoughtful pace. Asking one neighbour what to do with the cuttings he said lob them onto another neighbours land or onto the "parque natural" that borders two sides of us. Such advice was beginning to tire me a little. Where were the wise old men of romantic Mediterranean novels with scrunched up paper faces and words of wisdom pouring forth from their leathery lips? Still, I was determined to do something other than just lob the residue onto my neighbours land. The cuttings could be kept and mulched down over the year, provided they were kept weighed down. (A lesson well learnt after a many windy night and the following morning spent scouring the hills collecting up the tangled bushes out of my neighbours olive trees). And the fine thick stems can be cut off and kept as firewood for the log burning stove…

Where the ground has been left with a slight covering of this broken down material, new growth is now coming thorough (and very few gorse, so few that they can be snipped or even pulled up by hand as they are spotted). There are now wild palms, wild grape, lavender, thyme, star clover, wild pea, fennel and mint and this is just 8 months later.

And thus to enlightenment.
1. The more you know the less you learn.
2. Less haste, more speed.
3. Beware the presence of leathery lips.

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