Saturday, May 24, 2014

Not Dry: Mallorca's stone

Mallorca has a fair for just about everything. While many of the fairs are designed to excite taste buds or a desire to buy something to mess around on water with, some fairs can sound altogether less exciting or enticing. A celebration of stone might well be thought to fall into this category. But think again. Mallorca wouldn't be what Mallorca is without stone. It's reasonable to say that most places wouldn't be, but Mallorca is defined by its stone, by its different varieties that have adorned its architecture, by the white stone, the yellow stone, by the stone of pre-history, by the stone which shapes and marks out its landscape. Mallorca is stone as much as it is sea and sand.

In Binissalem they honour stone; the eleventh stone fair is taking place this weekend. It is an occasion for the not untypical accompaniments to a Mallorcan fair - giants, music of different types, demons banging drums, dancers dancing the ball de bot, and food (rabbit and noodles in Binissalem's case) - but it would not be the occasion it is without something on which it can be built. Stone.

Binissalem has its own stone variety. What is quarried there, technically one understands, is a marble. Its colour varies from dark blue to light beige, and a principal use of this local quartz-veined stone is for flooring. The stone at the fair will not be Binissalem's alone and nor will the stone products be solely those for building purposes. There is a highly innovative stone craft movement in Mallorca, one pursued by younger artisans, that has given rise to exceptional new designs. Some of these were exhibited at the Pollensa Fair last November, and Binissalem will also be showing them off.

But there is a much more traditional stone industry in Mallorca, evidence of which can be seen on its landscape. It can be walked on, walked over or even walked through, if you are an animal of the right proportions. It is the dry stone of Mallorca.

Dry stone working is a very old craft on the island. A class of worker known as the "marger" is said to have been noted among occupations at the time of King Jaume's conquest in the thirteenth century. More certainly, it was documented two centuries later. The marger is a dry stone worker. The occupation still exists of course, but it had been under threat. In the 1980s, because of a lack of demand and because of an aging profile of dry stone worker, it was in danger of disappearing. So, in 1986 the Sóller School of Margers was formed. Its primary objective was instruction to help with the restoration of dry stone walks. The Council of Mallorca developed on the work in the Sóller and has since instituted training programmes, especially aimed at younger people. There may not be a huge demand for original dry stone working, but there is significant demand for restoration work. The promotion of dry stone walks has helped to bring about the demand. It has been a good example of tourism, heritage and employment combining for their mutual benefit.

Though there is a question mark as to when the marger occupation was first noted, there is clear evidence that it was an occupation in the times immediately after the conquest, and that is the dry stone paths, which are reckoned to date from the thirteenth century. From the following century, there is also evidence of dry stone shelters having been built. These were created for a variety of purposes - as refuges, for storage, for animals and for housing workers such as charcoal burners, seaweed collectors and even snow gatherers, who also had the use of dry stone snow houses, those in which ice was stored and that was to be used in the making of early ice-cream with almonds.

But it is the dry stone walls which are probably the most visible examples of this old craft. They came in different forms rather depending on why they were built, for example for land or crop demarcation or for enclosing livestock. The latter - sheep, pigs, goats and game - were considered in their construction; hence why there are gaps to allow them through. There are also smaller gaps so that water can pass through them.

Stone, as the theme for a fair, may seem a little dry, as it were, but it most certainly isn't. It is bound up with Mallorca's history and with its present and future. In its different types and with its different purposes, it is hugely important. And it is on show in Binissalem.

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