Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Because they're so pretty - thistles in Calatanazor

Les Horts, Languedoc, France

A many hours journey brought me to the doorstep of the mountain “gites” (rental cottage) that my friends Shawna and David have rented for a couple of weeks. I am partaking of their generosity and offering a modest amount of writerly solidarity as Shawna and David also work on writing projects (between hikes up precipitous mountain trails, runs along converted rail tracks, swimming in pools of blissfully sparkling waters in any of a number of gorges, trips to the markets, and, of course, partaking of the cuisine – it’s France, after all). I confess that I am a total geek for French culture at the moment – the food, the food – is there any better? This are of France of fascinating and I will have to return to learn more – This was the place of the Cathar resistance to the Roman Catholic church. And these mountains – the Black Mountains are a piece of heaven on earth. The collaged photo above is the view from the front window of the chalet that we are staying in. Incroyable.

Our writing Corner

Angel bought a table to place under the awning of the garage so that Clara and I would have a place to write outdoors. Though the sun was rather hot, the air was so dry that this shady corner was ever a cool spot – perfect for writing as we were also spurred on by the ceaseless buzzing of bees on the honeysuckle.

A Parade for Hinojosa del Campo

Well, the dust had hardly settled from the Baja España when this quiet town was disrupted once again. This time by a parade of antique cars that was making its way from village to village. Everyone turned out to marvel at the craftsmanship and chrome and antiquity of this remnants of a more genteel age (even if that age is mostly myth).

Dust and Thunder – The Baja España Has Come and Gone

It was a day of sun and dust and souped-up engines of all kinds as the Baja España roared by this sleepy – though, on this day, very alert, town. Great fun for all, especially the kids who would look for the signs of distant dust and come running from their lookout spots yelling “Polvo! Polvo! Otra! Otra!” (“Dust! Dust! Another one! Another one!”) The arrival of every one of the over two hundred racers (motorcycles, quads, cars and trucks) was greeted with the same enthusiasm by the wee ones, even if the adults flagged and, by the end, were counting the minutes before they could retire from the hot sun to the cool confines of the TeleClub and a cold drink.

Carrasquilla – The Tree at the Centre of the World

Many cultures in the world speak of a world tree – a tree that exists at the centre of the world and around which the heavens revolve. Yggdrasil in the Norse land, its roots in hell and its branches in heaven, Odin, the Allfather, hung upside down and gave it an eye that he might gain wisdom. African cultures tell of trees that gave life to all who could say its true name. Baobabs and yew trees, ash and cedar, oak and pine. All kinds of trees have the honour of being the world tree. Here in Hinojosa del Campo it is a carrasca tree – an oak – and it is called by the villagers here “carrasquilla.”

Numancia – Las ruinas

Numancia – The Best Offence is a Defence

This archaeological site tells the story of a pre-Roman Celtiberian people who once thrived in this land. Celtic control once covered Europe and there remains but little of a once vast people – now found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Galicia and Bretagne – with a modern offshoot in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The story of this site is one that is beloved of the people of Soria. The Numancians resisted Roman conquest for 20 years. They waged a resistance struggle centred in this amazing fortified hill town for two decades before the greatest Roman general of the age, Scipio Africanus was dispatched to deal with this intractable enemy of Rome. Scipio had Numancia surrounded by seven roman camps, none more than a kilometre away. A wall connected all seven Roman camps. As effective a blockade as that seemed it was yet eleven months before the Numancians were defeated. But the way that the story survives, it would seem that, like the Alamo in the US, the Spartans at Thermopylae and Julio Buitrago in Nicaragua, the Numancians won the day.

Calatañazor – Orson Welles Slept Here

Wednesday was grocery and roadtrip day. So off to Soria we went with a couple of side trips to some notable spots. You approach the medieval village of Calatañazor along a winding road carved from the native rock amidst a confluence of steep ravines. This was once a fortified hill town and, as with many such sites, all that remains of the magnificent wall that enclosed this hilltop are fragments. Clara pointed out that walking through these streets was like walking through a set of a Shakepeare play – and I’m one to agree. The small houses of mud and clay, rough brick and stone, exposed beams and unusual double doors speaks of antiquity. The town wears with honour the event, long ago, of Orson Welles making a film here – Bells at Midnight, I think. Gotta see that when I get home. Angel, a natural anthropologist, spoke from some while with a fellow who worked on the film.

Soria – Home of Antonio Machado

Antonio Machado is one of my favourite poets and this is a land that loves its poets. He wrote: “between living and dreaming is something more important: waking.” Fleeing the Spanish civil war he crossed into France where he died not long after and is buried there. Ironically, Walter Benjamin, the famous German theorist of culture crossed into Spain fleeing the Nazi regime and where he died shortly thereafter. He is buried in Spain near the French border.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

My Writing Retreat in Hinojosa del Campo - Casa Martinez

Sunset in Hinojosa de Campo

Windmills – Let’s Tilt Shall We – or not

What would Don Quijote make of these modern windmills? Would he tilt at them? Ahhh, as the struggle to establish a wind power industry grows I Canada I am amazed to travel over this land and see these great turbines majestically populating the mountaintops of this windy land. Vision of something to come for Canada? Let’s hope!

Future Site of International Writing Workshop – I can dream, can’t i?

Wandering about this lovely village, enjoying the warm summer days and cool summer evenings of this 1000 metre-high altiplano valley, my attention was called to this vacated carpentry shop. Hmmm, it got me to thinking. Imagine an international writing workshop here in the Spanish countryside, far from the distractions of the urban world where more and more of us live. This village is hanging on to life by the skin of its teeth. Once a vibrant farming community, the changes in the global and local economy, the introduction of technologies that allow two people to do what used to take 50 and the general lure of cities has depopulated this region, not just this village. People have lived and farmed here for centuries, millennia perhaps. The presence of history is almost palpable. I can imagine no better place in which to take a break from ever-accelerating pace of 21st Century life. Ahhh, imagine a couple of dozen people from around the world, sitting down to write together for a few weeks. I know, I know, it isn’t cheap. And how would we handle languages? Would it be the dominant English? The local Spanish? A mix? I like to dream. So, if you’re a very rich person reading this who’s looking for something pretty cool to put your money into, give me a holler.

José Maria Valverde poem

José Maria Valverde

José Maria Valverde was one of Spain’s great poets of the 20th Century. He wrote about literature, taught philosophy and did the definitive Spanish translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He also translated all the works of Shakespeare and Rilke, the New Testament, Goethe, and more. Yup, all of ‘em. He and his family lived in exile while Franco was in power and they returned to Spain after Franco died. He is also the father of my friend Clara whom I am currently visiting. José Maria died 10 years ago and Clara and her husband Angel interred his ashes in the local cemetery of Angel’s family village of Hinojosa del Campo. Angel and Clara have fashioned a plaque that now adorns the gravesite that has on it a poem Jose Maria wrote when he was a teenager. Some years ago Clara sent me the following story in which the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire met Jose Maria:

Paulo Freire meets my Father (José Maria Valverde)

They are both dead now.

But before they left, the two frail-looking men met. “Teacher,” “philosopher,”
“liberation theology intellectual,” “communist,” “theoretician,” “writer” and
“wise man.” They both carried the same labels without letting them get to their
white-haired heads.

Paulo requested a meeting while visiting Barcelona and his entourage arranged for it. It was to be a breakfast meeting. The living room was packed with expectation: family members and admirers wishing to witness the meeting of the two Old Masters.

Freire walked in, wearing his sailor’s hat, quiet, timid. They smiled, shook hands and exchanged brief words in Spanish and “Portunhol.” They sat, each sinking their bony bodies into their armchairs and they grinned at each other like children, recognizing each other, not needing to utter any of the many sentences written in their long list of published books.

They were pleased, comfortable, sharing a few observations about the world, exchanging a couple of jokes, silences, complicity.

The entourage watched, some still expecting the “The Truth” would be uttered, some knowing that it already had.

Paulo left. He left me two things: his sailor hat and his words in a book: “To Clara, with so much clarity...”

Romanesque tower in Agreda

Road trip to Agreda

As much as I am aware that indigenous people have lived in the Americas for millennia, I still feel in European cities something of the age of this place that I rarely feel in North America. Here in Agreda (where we came to buy some propane) I am moved by the am moved by the antiquity of the buildings and streets. And of the weight of the storied past that still lives in the stones of this place. This city was a place where three cultures (Muslim, Christian and Jewish) co-existed (if uneasily and if a little idealized and mythologized today) for many generations. Muslims lived and ruled in Spain for many Centuries before they were finally defeated and expelled by Christians by 8th century. I was impressed by Ridley Scott’s vision of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven as a place where Christian and Muslim and Jew could worship side-by-side. And I wonder if there were moments elsewhere in history (as perhaps here in Agreda) where that peaceful idea was realized – if only for a moment. I am saddened and angered – as I’m sure many of you are – with the escalating conflict between Israel and Lebanon. I despair of ever seeing it end in peace that isn’t the peace of the “desert” as John Prebble concludes in his history of the battle of Culloden. I understand much about the politics and history for control of various pieces of land. But a part of me refuses to understand what cannot be “understood” of the greed and short-sightedness of human beings for it is something fundamentally irrational. And can there be a rational explanation for the irrational? I am unsure.

Ah Hah images - see previous post for context

Hinojosa del Campo, Soria, España

This ancient village of stone houses looks like it has grown straight out of the earth. There is an organic quality to the way the houses are arranged in the village – the streets are at strange angles widening and narrowing seemingly on a whim. The houses seem more collaged together than constructed. This village belongs to this landscape. Which reminds me of the word “human” which comes from “humus” which means “of the earth”. It is common to attribute such sentiments to Indigenous peoples around the world though the etymology of “human” does suggest that the sentiment also once existed importantly in Western culture. This also reminds me of a story of struggling for an image to use to represent aboriginal Canadians in the Ah Hah drawing workshop ( a method of popular education using drawing. A characteristic shape is used for people that looks something like the left hand image in the next post. It was agreed that this did not respect the differences between non-native and native Canadians. Someone proposed using this basic image with a feather added on top. But there was concern about the stereotyping that would likely result. So someone proposed the right hand image in the next post - where the line beneath the feet represented the earth and acknowledged that native people were identified by their relationship to the earth. I have always loved this simple and elegant expression of identity. And, while I believe that we are all connected to the earth, the populations of the dominant global culture (euro-america) are profoundly alienated from the earth – from all the rhythms of nature, the behaviour of weather, the cycle of the seasons and more. Native people, despite centuries of oppression, have sustained a connection with the land that remembers still that we come from the land. I came across a clever bumpersticker-worthy quote a while back: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice”. Indeed, we would do well to remember that volcanoes still explode, floodplains are not wise places for new suburbs, global warming is not a joke and when the rich monopolize all the safe places to live the poor will live wherever they can, including a mountain that will blow up or tumble down under heavy rain. Too many of us live against this world and not with it.
I am reminded that the word “humble” also comes from the ancient word for earth. I wonder if the common sense notion of humble as meaning “weak” or “lowly” comes from a misunderstanding of the origin of the word. For you could say that humble means “low to the earth” which conjures an image of weakness, subjugation, grovelling, if you assume the person is low to the earth because they are in front of someone with greater power than they. But, in this case, we could see them as not so much low to the earth as they are under the power of someone. If we just take the word humble to be about our relation with the earth, then being low to the earth could be a very good thing. In aikido (as well as numerous marshal arts, I am sure) , to lower one’s centre of gravity as much as you can is to be more and more stable. Humble reminds us that we are of the earth. And the earth is actually a very, very strong thing.

Baja España ’06 Madrid-Aragon

Well, the sleepy summer weeks that characterize life in this ancient farming village are about to be disrupted by a rare event. Apparently the Baja España ’06 Madrid-Aragon is going to race (literally) right by this village on Friday. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event and will no doubt be the talk of the village for months and years to come.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why Cities Are So Wonderful

La Rambla is one of the greatest walking stretches of urban road in the world. Unlike the frenzy of Broadway where people seem to be rushing from somewhere to who-knows-where the thousands who throng La Rambla give wonderful meaning to leisurely strolling. There are two things things in this world that i could watch for hours and hours, sitting still, calmly, serenely: any body of water (river, ocean, lake) and people walking by - another kind of ocean or river, i suppose. And such wonder it is. It reminds me of an old collection of Indian stories called the Kathasaritsagara which means "The Ocean of the River of Stories." That is what La Rambla feels like.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Barcelona rooftops collage

Here's another shot from the balcony. If you click the pictures you can see them bigger.

Happy to be in Barcelona

Well, i've arrived in hot and humid Barcelona. Feels a lot like how i left Toronto. My friends' apartment is simply gorgeous and looking off of their rear balcony you see one of Barcelona's most famous sites: the Gaudi-designed cathedrahl. It's funny how the cranes seem to fit.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Waiting to fly

I'm off to a small Spanish village to do some popular education writing. Thanks to the Metcalf sabbatical grant. Yay Metcalf.

It seems a lot of people i know are travelling at the moment - it's a perpatetic summer, you could say.

Judy Rebick is in Bolivia and you can follow her exploits on her travel blog: A Better World.

I'm gonna post pics as well once i'm on terra firma again. Check back.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Here's an earthblanket i painted over 12 years ago (it's 4' x 5'). Here's a brief description from a popular arts 'zine i'm working on:
An earthblanket is a type of mural that dian marino conceptualized in her final years of teaching and artwork. It suggests the metaphor of a blanket, something that we associate with comfort and warmth, that can be spread (metaphorically) across our wounded and ailing earth. As a collective mural exercise, it provides an opportunity for doing environmental education. You can use either a contour or grid mural to do this. I have most often done earthblankets by having individual participants create individual images on small squares (4”x4” or 8”x8”) and then affixing the small images to a larger piece of paper. You can also affix the smaller pieces to a piece of cloth. Or you can make the mural as a quilt – using fabric to fashion the individual squares.