At the age of 30, he took to the forest to put out fires and monitor fishing and hunting activities, and, since then, he has not rested in his responsibility to protect and care for the environment. Then, ten days ago, he hung up his boots. Manuel Olariaga, affectionately known as Txomingorri, was born in the Gipuzkoan (Spain) village of Azkoitia, and has just retired as a forest ranger; professionally speaking, anyway, because you can never really fully retire from this job. Woods and forests have been his life and he will continue to explore them, because once you are enchanted by their magic, there is no turning back.
Today, on World Ranger Day, we talked to this ranger who has had “the immense good fortune to have found a job” that he has been “passionate about” and that has made him “extraordinarily happy”, even if he has felt the occasional pang in his heart. Manuel speaks with passion. With his good-natured and cheerful face, he laughs and gets excited as he looks back. At 66 years old, he has earned his peaceful retirement after nearly 40 years of defending nature. He celebrated his new status with his wife and daughters, treating them with a trip to Menorca, where they have just landed.
The forest, his passion
For this Azkoitia native, his profession has become his way of life, and even more, his passion. Because he wasn’t always a forest ranger. Initially he worked on his parents’ farm and did job after job “without much foundation”. He admits that it would have been more likely for him to end up as a mechanic or a carpenter. But in 1986, he took a competitive exam and made the list. “It came about just like that,” says Txomingorri. In 1994 he obtained his permanent position. Except for the first few years, he has always worked as a forest ranger in the area containing Eibar, Elgoibar, Placencia and Mendaro, four municipalities in Gipuzkoa that were under his responsibility.
Monitoring nature and helping
They are known by many names: foresters, environmental officers, rangers, etc. But Manuel likes the name forest ranger. His job was to protect nature and penalise anyone who endangers it; a bit like a ‘policeman’ of the forest. There’s no one better than him to give a detailed description of his responsibilities during these almost four decades, which he summarises as monitoring and helping and giving advice to forest owners: “I managed the procedures for tree cutting permits, monitoring pruning to avoid unforeseen events in non-permitted areas; the processing of planting permits; and the permits issued for burning any materials, but particularly the remains of tree cutting. I also monitored the flora and fauna, as well as fires—if one arises we are responsible for heading up the procedures to extinguish it”.
“I, in particular, had the task of looking after the European mink, a species that is in danger of extinction and whose habitat is the rivers of Gipuzkoa. We must ensure that the riverbanks are well maintained so that the ecosystem is not destroyed,” he continues.
Keeping your cool and staying calm
Manuel is in a joyful mood throughout the interview. The forests remain a part of him, even though they can be dangerous at times. He assures us that he was never afraid. Not even on that spring day in 2006, during the great pigeon migration, when poachers were hiding in a forest in Hondarribia. “We saw them and approached, then one of them became aggressive and pointed his shotgun at us. At the time, I was not aware of the danger but it made a major impression. With hindsight, I realised that anything could have happened to us. In those tense moments you have to keep your temper, stay calm and not lower yourself to their level,” recalls Manuel.
Txomingorri’s life is full of anecdotes, special moments and memories, and some of them end in an emotional and heartwarming embrace. The list of people he has rescued from the forest is endless, but he has a special place in his heart for a young couple from Durango, who got lost on Topinburu mountain (Eibar). He remembers it like it was yesterday: “I was at home. It was 10 August, 2006. I got a call saying that two kids had gotten lost. Some terrible snow had come in and you couldn’t see a metre ahead of you. They had barely any battery left on their phones. But I was able to talk to them.”
-Manual: Where are you?
-The couple: We don’t know the name of the mountain. We entered through the Txonta neighbourhod in Eibar.
-Manual: And have you seen anything?
-The couple: A half-abandoned house.
-Manual: Don’t worry, I know more or less where you might be…
This is when Manuel went into the forest, along with many others, to rescue these two people. Although he had asked them not to move from the site, when he arrived, they were gone. The phone was running low on battery but he was still able to make one last call.
-Manual: Where are you? Do you see a repeater antenna?
-The couple: Yes.
-Manual: To your right?
-The couple: It was to the right, but we’ve moved. Now it’s on our left.
It didn’t take long to find them, then the rest is history: “The emotion, especially from the girl, it’ll never leave me. They were both shivering and hugged me… At that moment you feel something in your chest” – “good god”, he sighs – but I haven’t done anything out of this world. It’s like being a blind man’s guide dog,” Manuel recalls humbly.
“Over time, we rangers gain a special sensitivity and sense of direction,” Manuel reveals. So much so that he assures us “if I close my eyes, I can visualise all the routes in the forests from memory”. Despite the solitude: “The vast majority of the time, we forest rangers are on our own.” His patrol partner has almost always been the green spectacle that is nature, which has taught him so much.
When we ask Manuel what he has learned from observing the forest, he is silent for a few seconds, then he says: “The passing of time… When you look at nature, you become aware of all the emotions that arise in yourself. When you are in the middle of a forest, you want to leave your mark, your hand… so they remain where you have spent so many years”.
The echo of a gunshot
For nearly 40 years, he has been putting out fires, rescuing people and animals, zealously caring for the forests and patiently enjoying nature. His saddest moment came in 2006. One afternoon his mobile phone rings: a young man has disappeared. Every day he had the same ritual: he left his parents’ house at 7:15am, went to feed some dogs and then went to work. Alarm bells went off when he didn’t show up for work and then didn’t come home. His mother noticed that their shotgun was gone. His car turned up where he was feeding the dogs. “People got together in pairs to track him, but I went alone. In a small forest of oak and beech trees I met a boy. We exchanged a couple of ‘iepas’. I asked him what he was doing. And he told me he was picking mushrooms. I told him I was looking for a boy who had disappeared. Then we said goodbye,” recalls Manuel.
When he got back to base, Manuel told the others about the encounter, but apparently the boy’s clothing did not match, so no-one gave it any importance. After a while, the hubbub of all the gathered people was interrupted by the echo of a deafening gunshot, which forebode the worst of fates. The boy they were looking for was the same one Manuel had talked to. “I’ve thought about it many times, going over and over in my head. If someone had shown me a photo…”, laments Manuel, aware that in this profession, there are some things that you just have to put out of your mind.
Fires, the scourge of the forests
Life goes on. And nature also takes its course. Manuel has lived through many fires; the hardest of those was in December 1989, which destroyed 30,000 hectares of forest and scrubland in less than 5 days, 10% of the forest mass in the Basque Country. “Here the most dangerous seasons are spring and fall,” he explains. The forest ranger does not hesitate to state that “forest fires are the biggest scourge of the forests”. “As are human beings, as we tend to encroach on land that is not ours. It is in our hands to protect the health of our forests.”
Manuel is “very sad” to see half the country burning. “It breaks my heart,” says the ranger, getting emotional, wondering “what’s in store for future generations in the not-so-long term.” “Things are getting very very very bad,” he repeats. “In Zamora, 60,000 hectares have been burned. It sounds like mere numbers, but it’s an atrocity. And things are only getting worse with this whole climate change situation. I see trees that never grew here before but now they grow all year round; 30 years ago, there were hardly any droughts here, and now many meadows look like straw; or the next moment, 2 months’ worth of rain will fall in one day “, he laments.
Colleagues who are friends
Manuel was a simple caretaker of the forest. He realises that, while for many, forest rangers are tireless workers who look after the interests of the natural environment“, for others “we are branded as people who spend all day in the forest doing nothing”. Even so, he considers that society’s perception of these figures “has changed for the better, it is more personable”.
An active man who enjoys interacting with people, he proudly acknowledges that he has made “many friends in this job, and some enemies too,” he murmurs, “I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve had around me.” He also emphasises that the “most beautiful thing” that his profession has brought him is “companionship”. “I have enjoyed this job so much! I always went to work with a spring in my step. I managed to live and raise a family with a job that brought me pleasure,” sighs the forest ranger. This is his great success.
“I’m going to continue enjoying the forest”
He now welcomes retirement with joy and happiness. His hobby is enjoying nature, fauna and flora. He leaves mountaineering and climbing to the youngsters. “I’m not up to that anymore!” he exclaims. “My thing now is to look at trees and classify them, and the same with flowers and plants. Now I want to spend nice days in nature, enjoying the views and the trees,” he says. Another different way to walk through nature.
“Now I no longer have that direct responsibility. I will continue to enjoy the forest—my way of life—as long as I am healthy, while, of course, balancing it with my family life”, says Manuel Olariaga, a man who has been a member of a profession on a daily basis, a profession that has the beautiful purpose of caring for the environment, and seeing and feeling nature. He still has one piece of advice for future forest rangers: “You have to make friends with the forest and nature. To treat them as your life partner and to know how to convey this to society.”
Happy Ranger’s Day! Enjoy your retirement, Manuel Olariaga!