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The International Writers Magazine: Spain - Archives

The Mule
James Skinner

‘There is a small fishing town tucked away in a miniscule bay on the north Atlantic on the southern coast of Galicia, Spain, called Hio. In summer it turns into a tourist spot for many inland nationals escaping the heat of the Spanish plains.

Apart from being quaint it is famous for the unique stone sculpture of a crucifix of unusual design that indicates the entrance to the tiny XVII century chapel. Many centuries ago, the hillside surrounding the town was a haven for hundreds of mules that lived in the wild, although some were held in captivity and domesticated to act as a means of transport for the few locals that cultivated the vineyards and ran the town markets. Among other tasks, they were used to carry the barrels of the famous Alvariño wine, well known in today’s international wine cellars, from owner to buyer. Unproven legend has it that the reason for the name of this haven is due to it’s phonetic pronunciation that sounds very much like that made by one of these creatures (hee-haw). However, modern methods of cultivating, manufacturing and transport replaced the usefulness of these four legged beasts. After decades of hard labour the trucks and tractors have taken over.

Carmela Cerveira, who lives in the neighbourhood, is 90 years old and still cherishes her ‘pet’ ‘Pepiño’, a ten year old sturdy specimen that continues to help her with the chores of her small farm. ‘Ever since a child, I remember a mule in the home. He is like another member of the family,’ she said recently in a press interview on the subject. ‘I hope my son and grandchildren will continue with the tradition.’ But will they? There are only 5 left in the whole of Galicia; ‘Pepiño’ is one of them. Like many other fauna in the XXI century – alas! - the mules are another dying breed of animal slowly extinguishing at the hands of consumerism.

Scientists and biologists around the world keep telling us that every day thousands of living species of all kinds of denomination are being wiped out thanks to man’s self destruction. Let’s look at some examples.

A couple of extra degrees added to the planet’s oceans due to global warming, or whatever the hell we wish to call it, and bingo, among other disasters, millions of acres of coral reef are beginning to die. As the glowing heads of these amazing creatures turn to stone, dozens of other moveable underwater species disappear unable to feed or shelter to keep alive. The centuries old cycle of existence is that the big fish feed on the little ones and these in turn nibble on even smaller inhabitants; miles below the surface. Break a couple of links in this gourmet chain and as any physics teacher will tell you, it will weaken and finally collapse. How does this affect those on land above the oceans?

Darwin taught us the origin of the species and how each depended on each other for survival. Hence land based creatures from seagulls to polar bears, penguins to walruses whatever goes on below the surface has a direct impact above. They live off the sea. But pumping gassed garbage into the atmosphere that affects sea temperature is not the only cause of underwater life depletion. Man’s continued exploitation of nature’s fish banks with aggressively destructive trawling is another added compliment that our friends ‘Greenpeace’ are constantly bellyaching about. What the hell! The world is in a complete mess anyway and in self-destruction mode whichever way you look! I could go on... So let’s get back to the mule!

Spanish Mule A mule is a bisexual cross between a donkey and a horse. You can choose between a female of one and a male of the other or vice versa. It doesn’t matter, the result is always the same; again, made up of either sex. There’s plenty of information around giving the exact biological make-up of this incredible animal, plenty of stories written and films made about the beast, but little to hint at whether it will continue to survive in today’s modern dizzy world.

Similar, yet distinctive from its parents, a mule is known for its sobriety and patience. It is tough and enduring. With solid footing and a strong build, a mule can trudge along for miles with more than its weight in gold tied to its back in whatever terrain its owner wished to subject it to. ‘Stubborn as a mule!’ remember the expression? Don’t be fooled. This beautiful beast will not budge if it thinks it’s in danger. Tug at it, push it, kick it or beat its head with a baseball bat, if ‘Pepiño’ thinks he may get hurt by moving a single strand of his body he just won’t move. It also shows that he is faithful to Carmela who knows exactly how to treat him. Armed forces in the world of historical conflict also knew how to handle this incredible animal. During WWII, many armies used them for transporting supplies and ammunition in some of the most rugged areas of Italy and North Africa. General Jose de San Martin crossed the Andes mountain range and liberated Chile from Spanish rule over 190 years ago thanks to the use of mules to transport all his heavy military equipment.

How about Hollywood? We can’t keep the movie industry from having a go at mules! A novelist called David Stern created a character called ‘Francis the Talking Mule’ and his novel was reproduced on the screen in a series of films featuring Donald O’Connor as Peter Stirling, the only person to whom Francis would confide by whispering his inside knowledge helped by the gruff voice of Chill Wills of whatever the plot entailed. He could talk! Peter was typified as a young naive simpleton yet always managed the upper hand thanks to the info given him by his fine four legged friend. None other than 6 films were made with several other cameo ‘mule-roles’. Francis created a moviegoer cult and even fought against the enemy in the same WWII conflict. Even the late Bing Crosby sang a song 'Swinging on a Star' which included a verse on the mule. Just listen to this:

‘The mule is an animal with long funny ears,
He kicks up at anything he hears,
His back is brawny but his brain is weak,
He’s just plain stupid with a stubborn streak,
And by the way if you hate to go to school,
You may grow up to be a mule!’

Poor Beast! How wrong!
Spanish Mule Rules

But it’s the domestic side of the animal that had endured its survival and is now under threat of extinction.
Many moons ago I wrote in ‘Hacks’ about my experiences on a cruise my wife and I took in the Mediterranean during which we visited, among other locations several Greek islands. We have been on another cruise since but that first one was the best. I recall it was aboard a 30-year-old rust bucket that reeled and creaked its way from port to port. You had to go half way round the mulberry bush to go from cabin to lounge. The passengers were a mixed bunch of young and old but above all pretty stable; not too many drunks or old fogies and the entertainment was mediocre enough to be enjoyed by all. As far as the islands were concerned, each had its own charm. Mikonos’ whiteness contrasted with Crete’s filth but it was Santorini that now comes to mind as I put ‘pen to paper’ whilst I mix reminiscence with reality. It was the smell of dung on the downward sloping path of the island as my wife and I literally ran down towards the wharf from the hill top ahead of the rest of the tourist crowd bouncing their way back on the animal transportation system that did it. I’ll never forget Santorini’s mule population!

There is a final caveat to this small dedication to a fascinating animal. A great deal of ignorant humans confuse a mule, which is a hybrid animal as explained above, with one of its creators, the donkey. A donkey is the same as ass and not to be confused with a horse or a pony. Mule is unique! There are similarities alright, particularly in temperament, which I shall not go into. Again, the expression, ‘don’t be an ass!’ is erroneously insulting of a mule’s mirror imaged beast. Although I cannot help but repeat myself, all these animals together with thousands of others are in danger of extinction other than the few odd ones that end up in zoos around the world. Suffice to say that one of the contending parties to the USA presidential elections is recognised by the symbol of a donkey whilst the other is that of an elephant. Could this be a political omen that too much consumerism may cause democracy to also vanish?’

© James G. Skinner. April 2008.

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