Here I am, back in France, in France, in France. Anywhere. Everywhere.
It’s clear we are all experiencing the same waves. We are in the same ocean.
For several days after we arrived, the afternoons were warm and even sunny. We sat in an outdoor cafe in the village of St. Jean de Verge one late afternoon sipping Kronenbourg beers, watching local people at the other tables chatting and relaxing at the end of their workday. The little square was decorated with white lights in the shapes of swans and Sapins de Noël ready to spring to life after dark. The Gilets Jaunes were on the roundabouts in the bigger towns, stopping traffic periodically, gathering around bonfires made from stacks of recycled pallets. The burning bonfires, the destruction in Paris make visible the burning resentment of those who have little towards those who hoard the wealth at the top–so ironically modern while so ancient just as is the xenophobia manipulated by synical leaders. It was a relief to be out of the stress and noise of the US. Even the political chaos of Brexit and the rampages of the Gilets Jaunes seem calm.
Now here we are, back in Fa, the village that came to feel a bit like home this past summer, at the rambling old house of our British friend, with the tower of FA in its backyard, its tiled patio still catching the afternoon sun, its warmth now brief.
Today in the misty rain I hiked up into the hills behind the village where the ruins of the ancient village of Fa once spread itself around a protecting little castle. My last hike up the same hill was in humid 32 C degree heat, dressed in a flowered sundress and straw hat I’d bought at the Sunday market. Now I wore the same woollens and Gortex jacket I’d worn on my endless walks over the Yorkshire Dales in the chilly rains of August. The landscape, in fact, felt much the same, the rolling hills, the views over extended valleys, the dry stone walls, the muddy tracks, the puddles of water, the steady light rain, even the gusts of wind on top of the pass above the old tower.
We’re back in France to face all the practicalities of starting a home in a new culture, with new rules, new ways of approaching the tasks of life. Because we’ll be living in a rural area in a small village without public transport to speak of, we’ll have to buy a car, deal with car insurance and then, eventually, with the whole loathsome process of getting a French drivers license. We have to figure out the best places to buy all our household goods like mattresses, stoves, refrigerators, pots and pans, dishes, linens and on and on. There are great second-hand markets and decent online marketplaces. There are networks of friends to ask. And there’s life to live. Endless walks to take. Castles and caves to see. Other areas of France to visit. A rhythm to settle. A new way of life that contains selves that are at once fluid and contained, familiar and new.
Today, I saw two things that particularly mixed the soup of self the way only a jolt of joy can do. This time it was two things that link together strangely, both revelations of the quirky imagination that lurks everywhere, in all ages of humankind, in all places we live and move. The first was such a simple thing. It had such brilliant elegance in its practical ingenuity. I watched as a friend from Australia casually put the heel of his “gumboot” in the rounded slot carved out at one end of a short painted board. He put the toe of his other foot on the bottom end of the levered board and pressed. His boot with the trapped heel came off nicely. He pulled his foot gracefully out of the boot, stuck the other boot heel in the slot, pushing down on the clean part of the bottom of the board with his stocking foot. Pop! Off came the other heel, easy as can be. And I, having lived in the rain and mud of several parts of the US had struggled for years to pull off my muddy, clunky rubber boots, using the outer edge of the door jamb or resorting to a friend to help. Here it was, so easily solved.
Then, walking up the hill past the village cemetery where only long-time residents of Fa may be buried, I happened on a small piece of land nestled into the side of a hill. First I saw the wooden shack with tarps of various colors for a roof and salvaged window panes stuck in here and there on one end of the small holding. Then the small camping caravan appeared (what we call a trailer in the States) and then I saw the new construction. A large pair of beautiful wooden gates, clearly newly made, each more than 15 feet tall, stood at the entrance to the land as if to keep people from trespassing up the drive of an elegant country estate. The beginnings of a beautiful wooden cupola could be seen at the back of what might be the beginnings of a landscaped island of garden. In the chill of the late afternoon, the whole thing looked empty of life.
If you live in the same place for a long time, the relationship to what we know as our “self” becomes more rigid and fixed. We think of our self in relation to all that comprises a life. With seismic shifts come the chance to experience the huge reality of self—the reality of self before it has the chance to pretend it actually is what its surroundings urge it to be—to experience the huge reality of the interior before it gets the idea of a new form, new edges. That self is now naive—it has yet no fixed belief about what it is, what it sees, what it hears, what it smells, what emotions turn up. It exists without the heavy anchor of habit for some brief wafting moment. In the process of being seduced, the self is more like someone in the bloom of love, open, infinite.
The world now echoes and reverberates. The anxieties of the US seep into the anxieties of the French. The distress of the people on the bottom is beginning to break free. We are pivoting. We are all travellers, travelling through a particular life in a particular time. See like a traveller. Be open to possibility like a traveller. Hear the people around you like a traveller. They are travellers too.
When I’m walking I’m happy. Even if I’m feeling miserable, I can feel the misery full on, I can have a talk with it. It can do its real work.
This morning in Garsdale it was clear enough to hang out the wash. By one o’clock the rain had returned and the laundry had to be brought in to finish drying by the heater. But even with the rain coming down, the weather is much more tame than yesterday’s when we were walking across the fells from the village of Malham near Settle, winds of sixty miles an hour or so driving rain and hail across the moors, sheep standing in depressions near the drystone walls to ride it out.
The walk to Malham the day before had been wonderful. Despite predictions of rain all day, the rain came in bits and the sun came in and out, the wind gentle, driving the clouds in their various forms and shades of grey, cloud shadows running across the spectacular vistas of hills and dales with their craggy limestone cliffs and outcroppings, over miles of vast green squares marked off by miles of drystone fences, white and grey and brownish. The rain pants we’d bought that morning kept us dry in the wet spells. Some of the territory was familiar from a walk a week before from Settle–satisfying to recognize a tree, a style, a stretch of re-forested land, a lane, a farm, a turning.
Just before reaching Malham, as we made the choice to take the footpath rather than the Pennine Bridleway, my spirits were high, my heart particularly open. We had just spotted the beautiful oval shape of the water of the Malham Tarn, as lovely as any lake, I’m sure, that I haven’t yet had a chance to see in the Lake District. The sight of it had lifted me further.
Checking the map together, a bit tired, we had a bristly moment of interaction. On the trek down the hill to the village hidden by trees in the bottom of the cup of the wide valley, I had the time to walk with the dis-ease that had suddenly surged up in me, feeling it molded by the effort required to find footfalls through rocks and mud on our downhill climb, softened by the vast beauty of the surrounding hills and cliffs.
This is the beauty of walking. It took a while to make out the actual buildings of Malham, nestled as they are in the greenery by the stream of the Malham Beck. By the time we were close enough to recognize the charm of its setting, the beauty of the stone houses with flowered gardens, the trees bending over the trickling water, I had digested the pain of the emotion enough to understand its origin. We would soon be leaving this countryside, this place where we had come to feel settled for a time. We would be leaving Europe and returning to the US to grapple with the difficulties of immigration, both technical and emotional. Upheaval. Like the motion of the tectonic plates creating the landscape. Ah, yes… My old friend that rumples me, always.
Thirsting for a British beer, one of our last, we headed directly for the inn overlooking the beck, the one over the stone bridge where a willow leans over the bank. It was warm enough to sit outside by the stream, drinking Bitter (which is actually creamy and smooth), feeling luxurious, enjoying the hum of our bodies after their exertions, drinking in the beauty all around us, surprised by the sight of tourists gathered in this isolated spot. The distress that still smoldered was cooling, no longer needing to sear to do its work.
After we checked into the hostel down the road and had a rest in our bunks, we came back for a lovely dinner at the same inn by the water. Checking our weather apps, we discovered that severe weather was predicted for the next day, our walk back to Settle. A big storm Ali, the first of the season, was blowing across the northern part of the islands from the tropics. Eighty-mile-an-hour winds were forecast. Big rain. No one in the village seemed the least concerned.
We went to bed and slept well, dreaming the many dreams as we do every night here in the quiet and calm of the Yorkshire Dales. We agreed to wake up and decide then whether to continue our walk or take the one bus a day from the village to the train station at Skipton. We figured we’d walk if the morning looked at all decent.
It dawned warmish, breezy, grey and dry. We had our breakfast and picked up the packed lunch we’d asked for and set out on the “top” part of the circle walk back to Settle through Malham Cove. Why not try it. As we started out, I had no conception of the beauty we would see in the walk through the cove, nor the wildness of making our way over the high moors in high weather. We watched as a large group of walkers started out over the first part of their walk, evidently prepared, as we were, for anything.
The walk away from the village gives a deeper sense of why it has settled into its nest there in the cup. There it is protected by the trees gathered around the water, sheltered by cliffs and hills at the edges of the bowl. Having had a life there for so long, raising its sheep and cows, mining its limestone, it has blended into its landscape with the sigh of a weary body sinking into a cosy bed.
So nearby, less than a mile of walking over the Pennine Way through lanes and then fields, the limestone cliffs that surround Malham Cove begin to rise up. Just there, dwarfed as you feel, you can see how the little river flows directly into the parting of the rocks. Around the cove, the land becomes a park of green grass, oak and rowan trees, dotted with limestone rocks of all sizes, looking tended yet wild.
For awhile we explored the deep canyon and the waterfalls seeping between the feet of the high limestone cliffs. Eventually, we found the bridge of field stone slabs that takes you over the swollen stream to start the climb up the huge rocks of the other side of the cove. The way is made easier by a seemingly unending flight of huge limestone steps that wind their way along the side of the rocks, their scale like something made for a race of primordial giants, each turning presenting yet more shifting pictures of the widely winding valleys and softly rising hills. Winded, we paused several times to breathe it in.
And then, unanticipated, not indicated on our map, one or two last turnings before the true top of the fells, we came upon the stretch of enormous, flat limestone rocks called a Limestone Floor. Protected from the wind and rain and foraging sheep, rare plants grow in the narrow crevices between these gigantic slabs. The sheer expanse and flatness of it, spreading towards the cliff edges and the horizon, gives a sense of the infinite. We walked from rock to rock for a bit to see more of what lay ahead, but the going was precarious enough to better be left for younger legs.
The weather was holding as we climbed over one rise after another and came to the turnoff to Malham Tarn around a limestone outcropping. A couple whose path had converged with ours turned that way in the building wind. We kept on across the fields to follow the Pennine Way back to Settle, saving the trip to the lake for another day. So much of what we do now contains the piquant sense of a last experience of the place, greeting and parting at once. With places like these, I at least like to pretend I will return. There is so much more.
As we took the left and began crossing the next field to the gate over a road, the rain began. After climbing the first hill up to the high plateau of the moors, the wind was beginning to push the rain it in its characteristic gusts across the fields. Time to stop and put on rain pants before we got truly wet.
We took off sweaty shirts and put on a couple of warm layers. The best would have been wool next to the skin but I at least had a good mohair sweater to put on top of a dry shirt and Walter a fleece. As we tightened our boots and pulled on our wool hats, the wind was beginning to gust with real strength and the rain had started in earnest. The sheep, most positioned now against high dry stone fences or in the gullies, looked at us as we passed, ready to run if we tried to join them, seeming to wonder what we were doing here in such wind. Four miles to Settle.
Here the moors stretched out on either side with little variation. Distant bluffs were hidden in rain and fog. Since I often like to walk faster than Walter, we had a bit of distance between us, a solitary yet linked experience of the walk. At first, still dry and exhilarated from the beauties of the first three miles, the pushing wind had little effect. As the rain began to really pelt and the wind to exert its true strength, the going got a bit harder. But leaning into the wind and crouching down a bit in the most powerful gusts, overcoming a brief moment of a kind of panic, I even welcomed the hail that came next.
We each sang our own songs, the sound of the other’s voice drifting in and out softly, as we put one foot in front of another, the going much slower than before. My feet were wet from stepping into a bog near the last stream and my sweater had soaked up some water through a pocket hole I’d forgotten to zip, my hat was wet, but the wind was not cold. For all its power to push as if to lift you away over the fences and the hill’s edge, it felt like a wind that carried just a tinge of warmth from the place it was born. We trudged on in our singular ways, knowing the other was enjoying the challenge, anxious just enough for the other’s safety to stay close.
Hungry and a bit tired from struggling against the wind, we rounded the corner of a hill the other side of Jubilee Cave, a place in the limestone outcroppings we’d picnicked a week or so before in nicer weather. Then we had sat on the grassy, mossy hummocks with our backs to the cave, enjoying the warmth of intermittent sun and the grand sweeping view of dales to the left and outcroppings to the right. Today, we scrambled into the rocky opening as humans clearly have done for millennia, climbing over pools of water to some dry rocks at the back. Here in the last recess, there was no wind. The quiet was a relief. We were warm and sheltered. We took off wet socks and replaced them with dry ones and shared the sandwich from the hostel. Nothing like it.
Dry and renewed, we climbed out into the still powerful wind that tried to push us back up the hill and wound our way down to the walkway of the Pennine Trail that here goes straight for a way between rows of dry stone walls. The rain had stopped for a bit and the walls gave some protection from the wind. We felt a renewed sense of happiness, a buoyancy. The Dales had given us a chance with a different dimension of their beauty, the power of their wildness.
As we approached the gate where the other path comes down from the larger Victoria Cave, three young women with a couple of small dogs were organizing themselves as they came through a field gate, looking at a map. We asked if they needed help. They were dressed fairly lightly with no hats and seemed unconcerned about the weather. I suddenly felt overdressed and a bit fuddy-duddy.
“Oh, no,” said the one without a dog on a leash. “We’ve just come out to do the circle but on the way up we were attacked by some cows in a field. They were running after us and kicking at us and the dogs. We’ve never seen anything like it! We had to run for the gate. Fortunately, it was close enough to get away and put a barrier between us. Unfortunately, we can’t go back up through that field again to do the circle so we’re trying to figure out whether we want to go up the other way.”
We confirmed that it was, indeed, a very unusual event for cows to attack, especially if they had no calves.
“Maybe it was the wind that disturbed them,” we agreed.
Evidently deciding to call it a day, they trotted off merrily ahead of us in the direction of Settle.
“Hmm,” I said to Walter. “Hearty English!”
As the rain cleared off, the wind dropped and the blue patches of sky began to appear, our jubilant mood spread itself out over the whole landscape. The path down to Settle is beautiful and now felt familiar. You can see the towers of the old textile mill at Langcliff as you turn down to the left along the hills. The limestone cliffs on the hills over the town loom to the left after a quarter of a mile or so and the whole town stretches to your right in its bed in the valley, limestone quarries guarding its flanks.
The green of the fields around you and the misty colors of the distant fells and dales is such a satisfying background to a walk that you feel you could just go on that way forever, thinking of nothing and then thinking of something for a bit, tossing it around, following it in its several directions and then releasing it into the fresh air–being captivated by some form, some color, some particular grace of motion, some particular beauty of light while all else disappears.
The day had arrived for the Moorcock Sheep Show. The weather was remarkably pleasant. No sign of rain. The air actually felt warm. Tee-shirt weather. Not the norm here evidently, even in summer.
We came to live here in the Yorkshire Dales for a couple of months in the way that much happens for us—through the opening of an unexpected door. We are in a time in our lives when we can wander. So here we are, in a little hamlet without a car, in a cozy little stone house lent to us by friends, dependent on the grace of delivered groceries and on the obscure Settle-Carlisle Train Line that runs by the cottages to get to a town or village of any size at all.
As is always required, we’re tuning ourselves to the circumstances. Harmonizing. Soaking in what is present–the character of the people, the fauna and flora, the beauty of spreading hills and valleys, the geology, the air. The grace of living here is that we are able to explore the Dales endlessly by foot and to chose our moments. As one walker on holiday (one of many walking and walking, day after day, all vacation long) said to me, “It’s cheating. You can wait till the rain lets up and then start your walk!” So, when we’re not writing or reading or making a foray into one of the towns up and down the line, we do.
Although it is just down the A684 about two and a half miles from the Railway Cottages by car, it would take us over an hour to walk to the show on the footpaths over the fells up above the road, but the walk would be so much more pleasant. We congratulated each other on our decision as we hiked with our daypacks over the stone bridge behind the pub, past the small river Eden with its waterfalls, hearing in the distance the continuing whine of the racing weekend motorcycles as they careened down the stretches of the highway below us.
After a very pleasant three-or-so mile walk, losing the path from time to time through the bigger fields and finding it again to climb the varied stiles in the dry stone walls, we arrived at Moss Beck and walked the steep tree-lined lane up to the fields where the show takes place, stopping to gather some plump rose hips along the way.
When we arrived at the top, a young man, looking somehow comfortable (as Yorkshire natives tend to look in most circumstances) in a loose tweed suit coat, a button down shirt and red tie, sat at the gate with an old man who seemed to be there just to keep him company.
As he took our gate fee, he welcomed us, as obvious strangers to his home, with a genuine twinkle of friendliness in his eye. I watched him as he traded quips with Walter. His slim, smooth Yorkshire face contained more expression and subtlety than you would expect from a “country boy”, more ease and confidence, a sense of self without arrogance. The unexpected delight of it hovered and hummed above the lingering exhilaration from the walk. Savoring this state, I took Walter’s hand as we crossed the grounds towards the beer tent. In front of the tent, a brass band was playing “When You’re Sixty-Four” as they perched on precarious folding chairs set up on the uneven grass, the men all nattily dressed in black suits, white shirts, red ties and black hats and the women in black dresses.
The whole afternoon at the show was like that. Surprises. A small opening into the real life of this place. We bought Wensleydale Best Bitter, brewed in honor of the show, from the blond woman pumping beer in the tent and carried the plastic glasses with us as we went to watch the sheep and their handlers, eager to drink it all in.
The heart of the show was the temporary pens with their movable sides enclosing constantly moving groups of sheep. Here were young teen-aged girls and boys and their older family members all working together to manage their sheep and show them to the judges to their best advantage.
We watched and read signs, trying to make sense of the action, Walter explaining what he could extrapolate from his own experience. Each breed of sheep has its own “classes”: Tup Shearlings (yearlings after their first shearing), Aged Ram (two shear or above), Tup Lambs, Gimmers (ewes between their first and second shearing) Lambs, Pairs of Tup Lambs, Ewes (Small Breeder), and just plain Ewes. Even Walter, who had grown up with Future Farmers of America and knows quite a bit about raising and showing livestock, was amazed at the wealth of detailed knowledge represented by all these farming families, some judging and some showing, all here for one purpose. Even amidst the air of celebration, an atmosphere of activity and subdued excitement, it was a no-nonsense event.
The first pens held the Texel sheep, an animal bred for its remarkable muscle development and lean meat. I learned later it was a sheep originally from Francw which had then been exported to the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia and then back to England as a hardy animal able to roam long distances, require little care, lamb without assistance and grow to marketable weight quickly. It’s a white-faced sheep, with no wool covering the face, often with a charming big wrinkle in its nose. When we’ve seen them on our rambles through the dales they sometimes look at us with expressions like those of friendly but suspicious young dogs. On one of our long walks out through the countryside, we’d found a ewe with her head stuck in a fence made of big wire mesh. She had evidently been there for some time, bleating, but it wasn’t until we slowly walked up to see if we could help that she reflexively pulled backwards, easily freeing her head from the noose. Wonderful animals, but likely not as intelligent as dogs. These were beautiful beasts in the pens, wool fluffed and died a light rosy brown to accentuate their colors, magnificently proportioned. The young men managing them in their pens were clearly happy to show them off to admirers–and to be admired themselves.
Then there were the now familiar Swaledale sheep with curling horns that remind me of the wild Mountain Goats back in the Rockies. They’re the sheep we see on all our walks from the cottage, with their black faces and white noses. Up here in some of the highest parts of the Yorkshire Dales, they are easily able to over-winter on the fells. Like the wild Mountain Goats, both the ewes and the tups have curling horns, although those of the tups of both the wild and the domestic are much larger. On our way over to the show, we’d even seen a ram looking somehow mythic with two sets of horns. They scramble over everything, and their black and white faces lifted in mild curiosity have become the characteristic greeting as we walk along the footpaths through the fields.
Since they are our neighbors in the fields spreading out around the Railway Cottages, I’ve tried to learn more about them. Named for the Swaledale Valley near here, they are used primarily for their meat which is of good quality both as lamb and mutton. I think I’ve even bought some in the butcher shop in Settle. Their coarse wool, known for its durability rather than beauty, doesn’t command a very high price but is used for carpets, rugs and insulation. The ewes, very good mothers who can raise lambs well even under harsh conditions, are also used to breed the Mule Sheep, here often crossed with Texel tups. We saw some of these Mule Sheep in the next pens, blue and black faced with wool of good quality, good hardiness, good meat, and ewes that often birth twins—a huge advantage to the farmer.
Finally, we moved on to the pens with the Herdwicks with their white woolly faces and greyer bodies, looking like the iconic sheep that they have become. Something about the width of their faces and the set of their eyes makes them look particularly appealing. We hadn’t seen any of these on our walks. It turns out their genetic characteristics are specialized for the conditions of the Lake District, a region quite nearby here but geologically quite different. Due to its origin in violent volcanic activity, the primary rock there is granite while here in the Dales, once under the ocean, there’s abundant limestone. There the granite, which takes much longer to break down into soil, created a terrain where lush grass is much harder to cultivate. The Herdwicks have been the sheep of that region since at least as far back as the twelfth century, able to graze (as we soon learned) even on lichen.
As we admired the Herdwicks, we remembered together how we’d recently discovered they were Beatrix Potter’s favorite sheep. She, in fact, had become the first female elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Foundation, a mark of the high esteem in which she was held by local farmers of her beloved Lake District. What we didn’t know at the time was that she was an expert mycologist, self-taught, highly insightful and curious, who had become fascinated by fungi and lichens at an early age. Because of this passion, she learned to produce highly detailed, accurate, full-color drawings of the specimens she found on her walks around the countryside where she grew up.
Her idea to create the richly illustrated children’s books that made her famous came only after the rejection of her work on the dual hypothesis of the nature of lichens (called “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”) by the all-male Linnaeus Society. It was then that she recognized that she would not be able to make her way as a scientist in a persistently misogynistic environment. Undefeated, she decided to use her skill in drawing from nature to earn her living in some other way. She followed the advice of an old family friend who was involved in publishing and tried her hand with children’s books.
Remarkably, it was these books, with their exquisite depictions of the animals and plants of the English countryside that, through their enormous popularity, insight engendered the beginning of a conservation movement in Great Britain. Her children’s books and drawings stirred a sense of the importance of Britain’s natural heritage Britain in the same way that the writings of the Scottish-American naturalist, John Muir, did in America. Both are considered parents of the conservation movement of the twentieth century.
In her late thirties, with an inheritance from her aunt and the money she’d made from her astonishingly popular books, she bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District a place she’d gone frequently for the holidays of her childhood. There she dedicated herself to living simply and caring for the land, the flora and fauna, and the sheep that depended on it. While managing her large and expanding farm, supporting efforts to save the rare Herdwick breed, and continuing to write her children’s books, it was at Hill Top Farm that she was also able to return to research in mycology, her original passion. Walter, who grew up without the delights of children’s books (and who developed a healthy scepticism of all things charming) found a surprisingly kindred spirit in Beatrix– someone rejected by the system who, undeterred, continued to pursue observation, research, advocacy and writing in the quiet spaces outside academia. Another surprise.
As we stood there discussing Beatrix and her love for Herdwick sheep, I noticed a man about our age standing near us. He was slim and not very tall and had two dogs on leashes, one a black and white border collie, the other a smaller beagle-like dog. By the look of his face and the ease of his bearing, he was clearly a part of the local Yorkshire crowd. He was in his element, yet his skin was incongruously tanned and, unlike the other men, he wore a small earring and had a decorative cotton scarf tied around his neck. The look was familiar. As I overheard him talking to a couple with their own large dog, I noted that his north country accent was tinged with a familiar lilt, an overlay of the sounds of French. I was intrigued.
As he stood next to us, talking about the sheep to another local, I finally got up the courage to join in and ask a question.
“We haven’t seen these Herdwicks on our walks around here. Are there many in the Dales?” I asked.
“No, no. You’re right,” he replied, the French accent less pronounced. “There are only a very few.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Well, they’re specialists in the Lake District terrain. Here on the limestone-based fields, there’s good grass. It’s not like that in the Lake District with the granite. They’re very hardy sheep, can stay out on the hills over-winter and can subsist on eating lichen. That’s the important thing. No other sheep can do that. My brother has the family farm in the Lake District. I grew up taking care of these sheep.”
We settled into conversation. Here was a local who could answer so many of our questions about the husbandry of the sheep of the Dales. We learned about the financial value of the Tups and the Gimmers and what the judges were looking for in the different breeds of sheep.
“The Texel, see, the back legs of the tup have to be thick, strong and long with a good stance extending backwards. That’s not just for the characteristics of good muscle meat but it indicates they’ll be good breeders, able to mount the females on the hills and keep steady. That way they’ll be able to breed with many, many gimmers—thirty or forty. That’s what you want. A ram went for 7000 pounds up there at the farm last week after it won a first. These prizes are worth a lot of money to the farmers.”
“The gimmers have to have a good wide stance in their back legs and be able to stand with the back legs thrust back, like when their standing on a hill and bracing themselves with their back legs. That way they’re firm and open to being mounted.”
“The tups are of course worth three to ten times more than the gimmers. It’s the tups that will breed with thirty or forty or even fifty ewes that will pass on the traits that determine good milk production and the quality of the meat. The ewes pass on the mothering traits.” (This was one of his questionable claims. It is, in fact, true that the rams, because of the number of ewes they impregnate, have more impact on the quality of meat and quantity of milk, but its a numbers game. For the locals, it’s, of course, the big picture that counts. You buy a tup who’s sired lots of tups with good milk production and you’ll increase the milk production of the herd—that is, if he also is strong and mates well, another reason to pay for a good prize ram. )
“See that woman over there in the pink puffy vest? She’s one of the breeders. This is serious business here today. These sheep you see here have already won prizes in smaller shows. The ones that get prizes here today are the best of the best. Those breeders are here to buy. They try to blend in, not make themselves conspicuous, but they’re here to spend a lot of money.”
The conversation worked its way along until we were comfortable enough to get a bit more personal. We mentioned we were moving to southern France. He admitted, then, that he had been living in France himself for more than thirty years. He said,
“It’s a great place to live. You have to learn French, eh? They’ll respect you more.” We agreed.
“I come back here several times a year to help my brother on the family farm. It’s only about a six-hour drive through the Chunnel. My brother calls up and says, ‘What ya doin’? And I say ‘Hangin’ about.’ Then he’ll say ‘It’s lambing time,’ or ‘We need to mend fences,’ or whatnot and there I’ll come. I’m still a local after all.”
As he relaxed, his French accent became more pronounced once again and he began to deliberately slip in a word in French here and there to tease us. As he talked, he managed his two dogs, sometimes speaking sternly to one or the other until they settled again and he could continue.
His story was a good one: a story of a difficult lot that turned lucky. He was the younger of two brothers. When his father died, as has been the case through the millennia, his older brother inherited the sheep farm. Instead of forcing his brother to give him his share of the inheritance, he decided at the age of twenty-one to leave his own share of the inheritance money to his brother so the farm would have the investment it needed to stay alive.
“He’s family,” we said. “He would help if you needed it.”
“Nah,” he replied. “He would, but I’d never ask. I’ve made my own way just fine.”
“I took off to London for college and put myself through. I studied landscape design and agriculture. As soon as I graduated I was lucky enough to be able to do work in my field. A lot of people weren’t so lucky.”
He, in fact, said he had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time and landed a job doing landscaping consultation for Prince Charles who had just purchased the estate at Highgrove.
“He wanted to expand the garden but there was a wall bordering the estate farm that cramped the area for the garden. I told him it was easy. We would just move the dry stone wall back and make the farm smaller. I assured him we would reconstruct the wall exactly as it had been. He agreed. We marked each stone and moved the wall, stone by stone, back in its place, further away from the Great House.”
When I asked whether he had expertise in building dry stone walls like the ones all over the Dales he said,
“No. I didn’t do any of the actual rebuilding work. I managed the project. I told people here’s what we’re doing and then they did it. That’s what I like doing!”
The rhythm of his story-telling was now in full swing.
“After that was finished, I was told about a farm project in France, in the Champagne district, near the village Epinal, that needed a manager. A friend urged me to apply. I got the job. I’ve been there ever since, almost forty years. I’m not sure how I got it over all the other candidates.”
When I said that I was sure his skills had something to do with it, he replied, “Nah! There were hundreds of candidates more qualified than I was. I’m sure Prince Charles pulled some strings for me. It was political, like most things.”
As we were leaving, a family came by with two large dogs, one quite young, the woman trying awkwardly to sort them out and keep them away from the man’s two smaller dogs. He engaged with them and soon was asking about the dogs. The young one continued to pull at the lead and wind himself around legs.
Our new friend told them that their dogs would soon learn–if they were smart enough.
“Here’s the way you tell if they’re smart,” he said.
“You should always check this if you’re thinking about getting a dog. You can determine their intelligence by whether they have two or three of those long hairs under their chin.”
To demonstrate, he showed us the hairs under the chins of his own dogs. First the border collie.
“See. She’s intelligent. See the three hairs?”
Then the little one.
“Now this one is not very smart. He just has two. He’s teachable but not smart. If there’s only one hair, you don’t want the dog. You can’t train them.”
On examination, the family’s young dog had three. Lucky. They confirmed that he was, indeed, very smart. The other had two.
“Yes. You can teach him, but don’t expect him to be brainy!”
As we parted to go see the Swaledale Sheep being shown, he called out, incongruously,
He and Walter shook hands and as I reached out my hand he, in typical French fashion, pulled me lightly towards him and gave me three alternating cheek kisses. Awkward, missing the cue for the third, I muttered,
“Sorry! I missed. In the Ariege, we only do two.”
“In France, we take every opportunity. We’re greedy! Good luck with your life in France!” he said with a laugh, pulling in his dogs as he turned to walk on towards more friends and more talk.
Who knows about such a guy? Another surprise. In true French (and perhaps Yorkshire) fashion, we never exchanged names but came away friends.
We lingered for a long while, watching the farmers and their families expertly show their sheep, guessing at which would get the red ribbon as first prize, wrong more times than not, learning a lot about the people and their sheep in the process. We ate our lunch on the grass with another beer, bought some cake, a pair of hand-loomed local wool socks and some homemade preserves to take home and walked the four miles back, stopping, of course, at the pub that’s a mile from the cottage for one last pint, some wonderfully hot and crispy chips (French fries) and a bit of chocolate cake.
As we sat together near the window, enjoying the light of the late afternoon and the background of soft Yorkshire conversation in the now familiar room, we agreed that what we had just witnessed was the evidence of a complex knowledge that runs very deep in this culture. It is a knowledge of the nature, breeding and care of sheep, of the land and of the weather, passed on through a few thousand years, for as long as the Dales have been denuded of trees by the people who have lived here. In this place of rolling hills with its intricate network of valleys and the rise and fall of the fells, its winds and its rain, the histories of the sheep, the vegetation and the humans are so closely intertwined as to be impossible to untangle. Each has contributed its breath to this seemingly simple yet complex atmosphere. And now we, too, are breathing it in, greedy as the French for all it contains.
Up to the top of the fells again today, this time with a pack and a little lunch. I’ve walked about eight miles a day the last few days, with slight variations in my route. Today it was down the A684 road past the renovated stone house, past the little Methodist Church build in 1878 for the railway workers, past the Moorcock Pub, through the gate to the Pennine Bridle Way, through the sheep fields, over the stone bridge across the infant river Eden and up the hills past the cleft in the hill with a stream and a waterfall and up to the big old ruined lime kiln at the base of a limestone outcropping.
Just above the kiln, I go through yet another cattle gate in the dry stone walls, turn right, as I have now for three days running, and start out along Lady Jane’s Highway toward Hell Gill. I keep trying to get all the way to Hell Gill and beyond but I only come close before it’s time to turn back for one reason or another. A few miles beyond Hell Gill is the enticing Pendragon Castle, which dubious legend says was where King Uther, King Arthur’s father, died. As with so many cultural ideas, there are many reasons why it cannot be so, but the idea is so appealing in its beauty that it persists.
The weather today is warming. The rain and cold had persisted ever since we arrived over two weeks ago. The atmosphere continues to settle into my bones like the soft, lilting speech I hear around me at the pub and on the train. The morning had dawned with the blowing misty rain we’d gotten used to, but by noon there were patches of blue sky
The other day I met a local man who was coming through the gate at the top of the hill just as I approached. His black and white border collie came toward me tentatively and circled back as the man closed the gate behind him. We exchanged pleasantries and, as often happens, my accent lead him to ask where I come from. As it turned out his wife is also American. We talked about the Dales and the similarity here to the weather I’ve known in the Pacific Northwest. I asked some stupid questions about the Lady Anne Highway. He answered with great forbearance. He told me that the first two ruins along the way had both been inns when the road was the only one in the area. The first, High Dyke, more tumbled down than the second, had been built in the early 17th century and the second, High Hall, about 100 years later. We went our ways, he with his dog for their second walk of the day up on Lady Anne’s Highway, me down towards the Moorcock Pub as an ending to my afternoon of walking.
Over the days that I’ve walked there, it has been this second ruin, High Hall, that’s come to capture my imagination. Perched there along the ridge above the fells, it had been built right on the high road where the drovers used to drive their sheep to market and everyone had used from time immemorial to travel from one town to another. Lady Anne Clifford (for whom it came to be named) used the road in Shakespeare’s time to travel from her castle in Skipton to her castle, Brougham, in Penrith. High Dyke, the older farm and inn, must have been there along the way. Perhaps she and her retinue stopped for refreshment there or even spent a night.
High Hall was built after Lady Anne’s day, sometime in the early 18th century when the road at the top of the ridge was still the only way to travel from one town to the next. Some of its walls have fallen in, huge stones lying in heaps among the rubble of the roof stones. Other walls remain almost intact.
On the south-west side of the ruin, where the buildings end and the hill falls away, two imposing dry stone pillars frame a spectacular view of the valley, the fells and the limestone cliffs stretching out below in their quiet, misty magnificence. A huge chunk of raw limestone rock perches on each of these high stone posts, their odd, strangely evocative forms the only remaining elements of the ruin that seem ornamental rather than structural. Their presence, so whimsical, is a link across the centuries.
Leaning over the wall on the opposite side of what now is a courtyard bounded by dry stone walls, I can look directly through the opening between the pillars. I stand for long moments lost in the sense of grandeur that huge frame creates. I can feel the life that circulated through these rooms, quiet talk and louder laughter, dogs barking, sheep bleating and people pausing to gaze in thought at this same view, lost in the expanse.
These visions enter my dreams. As I lie in bed waiting for sleep to capture me, I think of what it was like to sleep inside the walls of that house, rough woollen blankets pulled around your chin, the quiet dirt and limestone road just outside the door and the moors stretching down the hillside into the vast valleys, the strength of the stone surrounding you.
Dreaming is deeper here. The dreams go on in ways that can be followed forever through the vast rooms of the unconscious, just as you follow the pathways and climb over the stiles in the vast valleys and fell-sides of the dales, one view giving way to another as dream melts into dream.
I must say that the Yorkshire Dales is a very odd place to be. Everywhere else in the world there is heat and fire, smoke and lava, explosions and terrible winds. Here there is quiet. There is calm expanse. There is earth, stone and water.
On our way here we stopped for a couple of days in London near the huge buildings of Canary Wharf, sheltered in an old stone house near the old docks but surrounded by the intense buzz of the energy of thousands of men and women pursuing money. We walked by the temples of the gods and goddesses: Morgan Stanley, J.P Morgan, City Bank, Barclays, Credit Suisse, HSBC, National Bank of Abu Dhabi, and the other lesser deities. A priestess of Barclays even descended into the bowels of the earth with us, resplendent in her headdress of a thousand tiny blue-black cornrows, her bespoke fingernails each painted with different intricate designs and colors, her clothes like those of the male priests, subdued, beautifully tailored, dark bottom, white top, her designer shoes understated with slender tall heels. She sprinkled us liberally with her grace, connecting us to her heavens for a few moments then flowing off in a hum of energy, up the escalators to the heights.
Here in the Yorkshire Dales, in Cumbria, and, more precisely, in Garsdale not far from Hawes, there are miles and miles of rolling green and green-brown hills dotted with sheep, cows and grey stone buildings with rain and rain and rain, just warm enough to actually still be pleasant. The air is clear but often foggy. You can breathe long draughts of it, clean and damp.
Through the window in our temporary home in the Railway Cottages I can see the tiny Garsdale train station platform with its big red Victorian-style lamps.
A train pulls up quietly as I write, barely audible for all its proximity, and I watch a hiker or two come out, settling backpacks on their backs. Off they’ll go across the damp moors where just ten days ago the hot sun of a persistent, unheard of heat wave was still drying the grasses. After a few days of rain that often came down with some force, the streams are rushing high. The waterfalls that run over the shelves of layered limestone that make this scenery so distinctive are frothy and yellow with mud.
Yesterday we took the little white over-priced bus the six miles to Hawes, the village of Wensleydale Cheese and scenes from the old BBC series of All Creatures Great and Small. The nice man at the wheel drove us along the country roads lined with miles of dry stone fences and occasional groves of oak or pine. The countryside that rolled by with its large squares of undulating green went by at such a clip that I felt as if I were along with Toad on his wild ride, Rat waiting for us anxiously back at Toad Hall.
He dropped us off as a favor at the Wensleydale Cheese factory, though it wasn’t strictly on the route. Once there, I tried to get Walter to come into the cheese-making tour and museum, luring him with Wallace and Grommet quotes, but he didn’t make it much past the door. He knows all about cows and milk. He grew up with them.
Our neighbors in the Railway Cottages have a pub and guest house called the Board Inn on the main street of Hawes. We met up there as agreed when I had my fill of Wensleydale Cheese lore. By the time I came in, he was happily eating a toasty sandwich of cheese and onion near the windows and drinking a pint of their best bitter. I joined him, having learned all I could about how to make a somewhat fresh, salty cheese with gallons of raw milk.
The much anticipated Wallace and Grommet exhibit had taken about a minute to absorb. Even so, had I been a kid, I would have opted out of the rest and did what I could to plant myself in front of the screen with a loop of the Wallace and Grommet movies. As it was, I watched a nervous young blond woman demonstrate the steps of Wensleydale cheesemaking to a small room packed with tourists (being careful not to dump the whey all over the floor as she confessed she had once done), peeked into the cheesemaking room where people in white coats and white shoe wrappings worked in a stainless steel environment turning curds, breezed past the Czech tourists fresh off their tour bus, through the “interactive” museum exhibits and popped into the shop to buy some Wensleydale cheese, which like Wallace, I happen to like.
Fueled with cheese toasties and British beer, we walked the loop through the village and up and around the fields and river to the hamlet of Hardraw where we stopped for yet another pint at a lovely pub. Then back to Hawes across the fields and streams. We picked up fruits and vegetables at the greengrocers and other provisions at the Co-op Supermarket and hopped back on the Little White Bus back to the Railway Cottages in Garsdale, the driver not as chatty and driving more slowly at the end of his day.
Now, again, we’re puttering around the cottage with its small, cosy rooms, waiting out the rain. Today it’s evidently part of a tropical storm called Ernesto hanging over a large swath of the British Isles. It’s August and the wind is pushing the driving rain across the moors as it has for a portion of almost every day of the entire week we’ve been here. We could be living in a November in our old home in the Northwest corner of the US were it not for the lingering roses in the garden down the row and the daisies and red campions and rosebay willowherb (what I call fireweed) still blooming in the meadows and the actual warmth of the air most days.
I have adapted to walking on the footpaths and bridle trails across the beautiful moors–to the wet feet, to picking my way around cow patties, sheep dung, mounds of rabbit pellets, bog mud, overflowing streams and puddles. I have learned a lot about sheep from sheer observation. Curious, I am even learning the names of some of the many varieties that graze in the huge expanses of fields and meadows, wet and windblown.
There are the Swaledale with their black faces, white around their noses and eyes with their rams with curling horns like our Mountain Goats back in the Western US. As I walk up a track, I may look up to see a Swaledale ram standing there, looking at me, horns prominent. Matching the brief squirt of adrenaline in my veins, I catch a quick glint in the dark liquid of his cornea as if a neuron were sending out just a spark of an impulse to charge at this intruder. But no, as if the spark had fallen on the wet bog soil, he walks off quickly, out of my way. Only this season’s young males, still trying to follow their mother for a nip at the teat now and then, butt heads from time to time, practising the push for hierarchy in their DNA
Then there are the big Wensleydale sheep with their grey faces, now shorn but puffy with wool in the winter, never feisty, always eating. There are many more varieties in the Dales, but these two seem to be the ones I encounter most in my ramblings. There will be a sheep demonstration on a Sunday in the field behind the Moorcock Pub where we walk for a pint every few days. I’ll learn more about those sheep then. We may even go to a demonstration of dry stone wall construction in the nearby town of Hawes the next week. The dry stone walls around here are made of the local limestone as they have been since inhabitants built them as far back as the Bronze Age. They are built and maintained now for the same reasons they were then—to protect the livestock and to establish ownership of the valuable grasslands.
The walls and virtually all the buildings in the countryside of the Dales are made of the grey-brown stone cropping out of the hills everywhere. What humans have built here seems as much a part of the scenery as the outcrops themselves. Here where the sheep are vigorous and feisty enough to withstand the cold of winter, the walls are close to six feet tall and double walled with ruble in the middle. Where the sheep are more of a docile, low-land sort (as they are in the green lowland fields of Cumberland), the walls are lower. Around the world, dry stone walls have been used to build civilizations and support animal husbandry. For many uses, mortar was unnecessary. The art (as surely it is) of dry stone walling, lost now to our culture, could come in handy in the coming years.
As I walk the footpath that leads out from the Railway Cottages across the rolling moor, over the rushing stream with the waterfall churning with yellow-orange mud, along the path lined with wildflowers now in their last bloom, under a grand, grey stone arch of the Moorcock Viaduct, past the small herd of black and white cows who seem to know me now, I realize I have a different sensation in my body than I have ever really known. It comes from the moors, it’s certain. I’m sure it’s a known thing. It’s a feeling of brown-green calm, a settledness. Whatever I have known as me has combined itself with the rolling expanse of earth, grass and rock and has spread out like soft wet bog. Nothing can disturb it. It is itself and just itself. With this in my veins, maybe I can even return to the work of re-constructing and moving on with the book mostly eaten by my computer last March. I am stolid and accepting like the folks of Yorkshire. Implacable.
Barcelona. Yesterday we spent the much of our day in the beach area of the city, a neighborhood unto itself, Barcoloneta. There the sense of living by the sea infects even the inner neighborhood, removed from the flow of tourists and natives of the city making merry on the beaches. The residents seem to know they are breathing sea air, that the blue of the Mediterranean is just a few blocks on the other side of the high rises.
From the Metro station, we strolled down the wide, palm-lined avenue, with all its tempting restaurants offering fish, tapas and paella, down to the harbor we’d seen the evening before, to the wide, stone-paved parks with magnificent views of the ocean, the cable car up to the nearby hill and the luxury hotels. There next to the beaches people strolled along with us or sat in the shade where tall trees with ferny leaves were dropping their golden-orange flowers to lie like pools of light on the patterned stones.
Then onto one of the wide-spreading beaches, set off from one another by stone breakwaters. The water was astonishingly clear, closer to the color of the water of the Atlantic on the Algarve than to the waters of the posh beaches of the Costa del Sol. The water was so tempting and the atmosphere so free that I took off my shirt and pants and went in for a long and beautiful swim in the calmly lapping waves in my black bra and panties. No one even gave me a sideways glance. We sunned and slept for awhile and bought a watery Mojito and a beer from the beach hawkers in tribute to my son-in-law and daughter, who before they were married, spent a summer hawking coffee and pastries on the beaches of Montpellier.
Completely happy and relaxed, we wandered up into the neighborhood for lunch and found a little place in a small plaza next to a schoolyard. As we waited for our grilled salmon plate with roasted vegetables and salad with ficelles, we drank white wine and Estella Damm beer and watched the life of the neighborhood. A Muslim mother in headscarf sat with her twelve-year-old son in the shade, seeming to wait out the lunch hour during one of the final days of Ramadan while children played in the schoolyard on the other side of the wall.
As I watch this calm scene, loud voices suddenly erupt in the small street running alongside the plaza next to the doors of apartment buildings and small shops. A man on a small motorcycle, a woman with long blond hair on the seat behind him, seems to have run into the back of a small white delivery van. The van driver, young, tall and muscular has gotten out and is yelling at the man on the motorcycle, fist raised in the air. The woman has dismounted from the seat on the back of the bike and taken off her helmet, hair cascading down, uncertain what to do. A few men from the shops have come to try to calm the situation, but it continues to escalate, the man on the motorcycle evidently protesting his innocence in louder and louder voice. Since he is smaller than the van driver, the situation seems precarious. Two tall older men physically intervene and seem to suggest to the man that he calm himself, be reasonable and get insurance information from the motorcycle driver.
Walter walks calmly over to the street near them, making a wide circle on the periphery, to see if his assistance might be needed. As he sits there, watching, a man who seems to be an official appears, the situation seems to come to a very uneasy resolution and the van driver gets in and drives around the corner, in front of our restaurant. But he’s only waiting for the man on the motorcycle who foolishly comes around the corner in the same direction. The argument resumes and the men from the neighborhood have to intervene again. The people sitting with us in the cafe have tried to ignore the whole thing but now look in the direction of the dispute which has now moved to a closer stage. They laugh and comment to each other in Catalan. Eventually, both men drive off, perhaps to revenge themselves around some unseen corner.
Our lunch comes after some time on this beautiful day. We eat with relish and walk back towards the Metro station, past the park we love that stretches with its rows of majestic palms from the Arch de Triumphe at one end to the statue and zoological park at the other.
Today we have a long morning in our hostel and then take the 92 bus a few blocks away in the El Clot neighborhood not far from the Sagrada Familia (which we will not go to see this time) to Park Guell, another unfinished monument to Gaudi At the local bus stop, two older women help us figure out that we are in fact, in the right place, despite the lack of a label for the stop. I now can figure out enough of the Catalan speech (closer to French often than Spanish) to get the gist of their conversation, complaining to each other about the lack of information and the errors in the weather forecast for the day.
I watch the city go by through the windows of the bus, the beautiful Cathedral de San Juan unfolding its astonishing architecture in the moments of passing. I won’t be able to explore it this time. Perhaps if we return. We get out with two young Asian men at the stop for Park Guell and cross over the avenue with the rest of the crowd. All around us flows a soup of different languages—French, Spanish, English, Catalan, perhaps Persian–all probably questioning and responding in their isolated attempts to decipher the same system—the system that defends the entry into this famous place. The guards answer the same questions over and over, pointing again and again in the direction of one line or another.
The internal part of the park is the prize since it contains the only completed buildings of this intended community for the elite of Barcelona, started back when the twentieth century was new. Tickets weren’t available till the evening so we decided not to bother and, instead, climbed around the beautiful park outside the community, up the winding paths and stone stairs to the top where we stood, like the many tourists taking selfies, in awe of the view of the whole, enormous, complicated city, capital of Catalonia, stretched out to the blue Mediterranean there before us. There were the mud-dripped spires of Sagrada Familia Cathedral complete with towering cranes and scaffolding and there the “Barcelona Tower” phallically gleaming proudly nearby, there the jumble of apartment buildings, new and old, most with red tiled roofs, the huge old graceful government buildings, the old churches and cathedrals, the streets winding through—the whole diverse complexity of it.
All the way up there on the top of that small mountain was a neighborhood school, the kids noisily playing in the schoolyard perched here high in strange juxtaposition to all these people from foreign places admiring the view.
Barcelona is like this, life going on in every direction, just regular life, seemingly rather joyous life. We wound back down, me buying a bird whistle from one of the immigrant vendors hawking wares for a Euro or two, taking a video of the young Indian singer with sitar, Walter stopping to ask the attendants at the gate to the inner sanctum about the ongoing reconstruction of the arched entryway, and finally finding the source of the loud chattering in the tall palm trees lining the pathways—bright, iridescent green parrots, another exotic variety of life’s forms, fit for this city of mixtures.
Back down we went into the city in the district of Gracia, really a town in itself, a bit quieter in its old streets than other sections of town, but still alive, and on down to the Metro Station to find our way back to our temporary home.
Later in the night, after a rest and some food, I wonder out to get some groceries for the morning and decide to explore the neighborhood in its night dress. Many small restaurants and tavernas are still open, some with tables on the street or the plaza. An old couple walks by holding hands on one of the tiled streets where cars rarely venture. They stop for a moment, the woman turning to the man, looking up into his face and saying something earnestly—I make out only “Claro.” She seems satisfied. He smiles and they walk on. As at any time of the day or night, parents go by with children in strollers or walking alongside, now a bit more subdued than during the day, but still out and about. A young woman goes by on a skateboard, skillfully gliding and turning.
I walk to the little plaza a couple of blocks from the wide Avenida de Meridiana where people still fill the two cafes of outdoor tables and umbrellas. In the middle of the plaza, folding tables are set up and Arabic music plays on loudspeakers. It is the penultimate night of Ramadan and a local group of Muslims has set up an Iftar meal to share with the community.
Women in headscarves, young men and children are serving themselves and passersby from kettles of stew, plates of flatbread and urns of sweet mint tea. Night has truly fallen now and people are beginning slowly to disappear from the square. I stop and wish some of the young women in headscarves a good Eid tomorrow and take some delicious tea from the older man who stands ready to pour. They find one of the women who speaks English to translate my message and they all smile and say thanks. The food is almost gone. Some of the group begin to clean up and load things into a van parked nearby. Others dump the refuse of their evening’s work into the big nearby garbage and recycling receptacles that conceal deep holes underneath, a ubiquitous part of the modern overlay of this old city.
The plaza and the streets leading into it are dotted with benches in small groups, some facing into the street, some into the plaza, all still filled with people out in the cooling night air, talking together animatedly. Friends walk up to join them, some greeting each other with energy, kissing on both cheeks before sitting on a bench opposite to chatter. A gay couple walks by, arm in arm down a quiet part of the street, one carrying a bag of groceries dangling from his free hand. People stand in doorways smoking, some alone and gazing into the distance, some talking with a friend.
Tomorrow morning the real buzzing life of the city will resume. Just before dawn, sometime around five-thirty, the rumble of the metro will resume periodically like muted peals of underground thunder below the endless apartment buildings. Small cars and vans will whiz by on the wide avenues, knowing when to stop for pedestrians crossing at places with no traffic lights. Bikes will speed by with their varieties of riders, women in dresses, sports riders with helmets, young men going from one part of the city to another sweaty and smiling or determined and driven, some tourists on rented bikes. Motorcycles and motor scooters will zoom by in troops, some weaving gracefully in and out of the traffic, driver with one foot out, ready to stop at a moment’s notice. Motorized scooters will whiz smoothly around the turns from avenue into avenue, somehow keeping up with the rest of the traffic. Old women and men on motorized wheelchairs will occasionally drive with confidence ahead of flex buses, seemingly fragile yet somehow protected. Workmen will start their drilling and banging and pouring of concrete with clouds of dust that pedestrians flow around, accustomed to the practice.
And in the morning we will pack again, something we now know how to do now with efficiency, and take the Metro to Barcelona Sants train station to catch the TGV bound for Paris. We will get out at Narbonne, France and transfer to a train to Carcassonne. There we will start the adventure of settling in a new land. I am trying to start thinking in French.
Somehow Memorial Day passed in the US without any ripple in the rest of the world. Spain. After living in Portugal for three weeks we are in Spain. The difference is immediate. Seville. The land of the mantilla, the bull fight and evidently Catholicism. This is where the Inquisition started and today, nuns walking the streets in a much more evident way than in the devout land of Portugal, we have arrived, unawares, for the region’s most important religious holiday. Half the people of the city of Seville seemed to be ducking into one of the churches on every other street, churches that seem to hide behind walls and blossoming on the inside, to take some special communion of the Eucharist of something unknown to me.
As we sit in the late afternoon at a table on the sidewalk at one of the innumerable cafes, drinking a beer, the breeze blowing, cool. Two nuns walk by in habits, one very small, perhaps a dwarf, the other, tall and dark skinned. I see the small one only from the back, her shoes sturdy and brown just where her skirts end. She is surging ahead, almost dancing. The tall one strides to keep up and I see the side of her face, smiling as she turns up a street towards the opening of a church enclave. She is pleased to be with her friend. Somehow, I have no idea how, it brings back the memory of two horse-drawn carts full of gypsies we saw trotting at a fast pace up the hill past the Intermarche Hipermarket in Lagos one morning as we waited for the bus. Each cart carried five or six people, all adjusting themselves getting ready for what awaited them of the day, one or two faces with expressions of irritation, everyone somehow in motion, urging the horse or tying a skirt, adjusting their position next to their brother or sister or uncle or aunt. We waited a while longer for the bus. After some time, another cart came by up the hill at full tilt with a young man tossing the reins, late for wherever the others were going.
It is 10:30 and we are in bed in our hotel and since 8 pm, marching bands have been parading through the streets in some magnificent battle of the bands in honor of something, which I presume to be associated with a saint. It is a community. We don’t have this where I come from.
Since at least 7:30, the whole city has been alive, having nothing to do with this festival. I have discovered it is the lead up to the day of Corpus Christi, practically the biggest holiday of the year. We have stumbled on this huge festival in Seville, totally ignorant. The city is packed. Thursday it is the holiday itself, starting with a mass in the morning at the huge Cathedral of Seville, Tonight, there are people out on the streets everywhere. Every other taverna and restaurant, of which there seem to be thousands, is packed with people drinking wine, sangria and beer and eating tapas but mainly talking and talking and talking…and laughing. And there is music from many places. Everyone who is not sitting with people in a cafe or talking with someone they’ve run into on the streets is walking down the street or stopped leaning against a wall talking to someone on their cellphone. Sometimes someone sings somewhere.
The bell in the nearby church just tolled eleven times. The street has gone quiet. It seems everyone has just gone in to bed. There will be stragglers, odd young couples having stayed late with friends, coming back across the cobbles, talking softly.
Otherwise, there will be garbage trucks during the night, a motorcycle here and there till early morning. Tomorrow summer may come to the Andalouse. There will be more parades in the street at odd times. More displays going up in unpredictable places on the streets, dark red velvet banners hung from balconies. The streets will be crowded, cars and motorcycles driving every which way, backing up, trying to negotiate corners never meant for cars, even tiny ones.
It’s been two weeks and a bit more since we closed the deal on the farm. We’re on the train in Evora, Portugal, waiting for it to leave the station. It will leave on time. We know that from experience now. The trains and buses run on time in Portugal. Two couples from Iowa have met each other in the station and are talking about their families at the front of the car. The flavor of home. The accents stand out for me as if the words were written in cartoon bubbles with caricatures of Americans speaking their lines.
Our two days in Evora gave us the flavor of the place, saturated with the sounds and smells of pouring thunder and lightning storms, purple jacaranda blossoms set delicately against both blue skies and grey, and an occasional orange tree still in bloom, the fragrance from just a few blossoms seeping secretly into our nostrils as we walked past, intoxicatingly sweet.
For us, it was not a place for sight-seeing. We stayed in a hostel tucked away in a courtyard near an old church, slept, ate and took walks to get acquainted with our surroundings. We found the ruins of the Roman temple in the middle of town and near it a lovely park with a view over the countryside where tourists and townspeople alike gravitated in the late afternoon during a wonderful interval of sunshine and clear air. Praca do Giraldo with its fountain, church, banks, cafes, pastry shop, and mysterious large lump of marble in the shape of some strange part of a human limb led into streets lined with luxury shops where people from the countryside come to do a little window shopping and be enticed to buy the things their small towns can’t provide. The tourists, too, help support this flow of cash into the regional hub.
One of the hosts at the hostel, Margarida, lives with her husband on a farm 30 kilometers from town. Just like back at home, it seems that farmers need to supplement their income with a job in town. She talked about the pigs, sheep, goats and horses and the grain they grow to help feed them. Yesterday the thunderstorms, evidently rare here, finally made it to her farm and “only my farm” where the all the dogs suddenly whined and barked to come into the house all at once. “Terrible!” she said. “Too much rain!” “The climate is changing!”
The conversation shifts from this pivot point to a discussion of the politics of our respective nations. I say that I am already forgetting Trump. She commiserates with my difficulty but says, “He is president because enough people voted for him. Here, we did not get the president the people would have voted for. We elect our assembly. Since some Communists got into the assembly the government had to make a coalition. The leader they selected isn’t one the people would have voted for directly. It doesn’t feel like a real democracy.”
I didn’t go into the reasons the government of the US doesn’t seem like a democracy either, but we agreed on the importance of government taking care of the most basic rights of human life—education of its young people and care for the health of all. She is clear that her country does these things well. I tell her that many Americans fear the nationalization of health care, scared that it will lead down the road to the nationalization of all services and therefore to Communism. She replies, “Maybe it’s just because I’m a European. I believe these things should be a function of the government. They are basic rights. People here believe that with me.”
Now we’re passing a small town where the oak trees of the rolling plains seem to congregate at the boundaries and a huge stork is perched on top of a palm tree next to the ruins of a stone house. Suddenly, I wonder how I could be doing this. How I can be free of jobs, home, possessions, stability, taking a train through a countryside I never thought I’d see. The first night in Evora when the rain streamed down outside our open french doors and the thunder crashed, I cried as if I were the emotion of the storm itself, streaming, exploding, subsiding again. I let it come. The second night I slept soundly until the early morning when the church bells rang five times in the dry, dark air before anything else seemed to be stirring. Margarida insists on driving us to the train station and won’t accept money for gas. We have a pastry and coffee while we wait and then climb aboard our first train of the day.
While we wait for our connecting train in Pinhal Novo, we start up a conversation with a retired couple from Wisconsin at the station cafe when we share a moment of delight watching an old man ride an electric tricycle up the marble ramp in the station, swerving playfully a bit from side to side as he went smoothly out of sight at the top.
They and another couple are also heading to Lagos. We carry our conversation to the platform where we all wait for the train, commenting on the concrete rails on the train track. Turns out the husband worked on the railroad In Colorado one summer during college, laying track. He notices these things now. After that, he was clearly a professional of some kind. We never talked about what we had done to make our livings.
He talks instead about the fifty acres of former farmland they bought when they moved out of town some years ago. It’s about 30 miles south of Madison WI. I tell them that, coincidentally, this is not far from where I lived out in the country in 1976, when I was starting graduate school at the Univesity of Wisconsin in Madison. They are intrigued. We talk about how they’re trying to return their land to prairie and struggled for the first years with the brome grass the farmer had planted to counter erosion. I learned that this kind of grass creates a sterile environment where nothing nests or feeds. They burned it two years in a row and pulled it from everywhere that it mounted its invasions. Now they’re hiring someone to come in and plant a mixture of prairie remnant seeds, heavy on the milkweed to encourage the Monarch butterfly population. When they moved there they’d discovered that, to their surprise, the land around them was owned by people with similar interests. We talk about racoon, orchards, deer and sustainable agriculture until the train pulls up. Nice folks. We could know them. There are so many people we could know.
What kind of home will we have tonight in Lagos? Who will we meet? What will it look like around us in the town? Nothing is determined. A few small things are beginning to come into focus about the people and the country where we travel. What I am doing here is still one of the unknowns. To travel and then return to a familiar life is one thing. To travel in order to create a new pattern is another.
The sun was out in Pinhal Nouvo. Now from the train window the rolling hills, covered with tufts of low oaks and some taller pines, are shrouded with mist. There are no dwellings in sight anywhere. Even in this country, smaller than the state of Pennsylvania and much denser in the webs of its history, there is seemingly endless countryside.
The light reflected from the Ria Mondega is illuminating the front of the train station across from where I sit in the dining room of our old hotel, having a meia de liete , a roll with cheese and linguica and yogurt. It promises to be one of the first truly hot days of summer. The sky is totally blue, unlike yesterday’s cloudy start.
This is our fifth real day in Portugal, not counting the first which was spent in the blur of travel. We’d landed in Porto and made our way to the guest house where the owner and his son met us at the door. With tremendous gentility and sweetness, they had welcomed us and let us get settled. Underestimating the level of our jet lag, we’d gone to have a light dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, where, at four o’clock, a tall, gaunt waiter had met us upstairs and informed us sadly that it was too early for the fish. Exhausted, more drained than hungry, we ended up having his “friends downstairs” pack our order of pork ribs and grilled chicken as take away.
Back in a lovely room in the north end of Porto, we fell onto the beds and slept, I, waking a few hours later to gorge on the grilled chicken and then sleeping again. It was not only the day of travel hitting us, but the three weeks of non-stop work to clear the farmhouse of practically everything. My intervening three-day trip to see my son receive his PhD two thousand miles away from our former home was now a blur, his face and the swirl of so many contradictory emotions coming to me in dreams.
Porto began to show itself to us the next day as we walked in the late morning down the hills toward the River Douro. Still cool at the beginning of May, the sun came and went from behind the clouds, the weather perfect for walking around a town full of workers tearing down and rebuilding the insides of countless buildings, old houses lining every street with faces mute and blank, concealing the noises and the depth and breadth of life inside.
Grandfathers guided their toddler and preschool grandchildren through winding streets where the sidewalks were paved with thousands upon thousands of small rounded rocks in many patterns. Here too in Coimbra, all the sidewalks are the same—each street a different variety, color and pattern of stone. Some complain that these traditional streets collect garbage between the stones and are therefore unhygienic. However, I have not seen as much dog shit here as in Paris or even as on any one of the urban trails back home in Bellingham, WA.
As I walk, I imagine the workers on hands and knees, placing stones, chatting non-stop and laughing to the accompaniment of the clang of their tools pounding the stones into the gravel, working their way along beside the hundreds of doors that lead into the caverns of lovely, unseen homes inside.
But there is a mystery in these cities of Portugal. It is now evening, and we have rested and gone up the hill in Coimbra to the famed Botanical Gardens. Originally started by the university in 1772 as a place to experiment with rare species and teach the medical students about medicinal plants. it is now run down an neglected, much of it closed to the public. Fountains that must have been lovely oases in the lush greenery do not flow. Ponds with goldfish are filled with algae where teenagers cavort and try to feed the fish Oreo cookies, perhaps with felonious intent. Everything is overgrown with weeds. The stones of stairs and tables are broken and lying in pieces. The blue tiles on the sides of the seating areas are cracked and falling from the wall. Exotic trees are dead and brown or dying. The greenhouse is closed to the public and looks as if very few professionals visit to care for the browning plants inside. The whole place has a miasma of neglect. Strangely, there is a modern bathroom near the greenhouse and a couple of workers using leaf blowers and a pick in a desultory effort to clear away a few small weeds and sparse fallen leaves on the verges around the greenhouse, as if in an attempt to deny the wild growth spreading everywhere.
In the overgrown bamboo forest, two workers are inexplicably in the process of constructing a traditional stone pathway through the bamboo, while the poles of bamboo encroach on the ancient buildings and choke the ponds and fountains. The hammer on the stones makes the same sound I imagined the workers had made while laying the stone sidewalks of Porto. Accompanying the ringing taps of the hammer, unfamiliar birds sing in this wildness while domestic apple and pear trees, somehow pruned during the winter, are suffering from lack of water and nutrients in the soils, weeds taking firm hold on the terraces where the fruit trees seem to be making their own lonely effort to survive.
Internet research on the reasons for this neglect seems useless. Everywhere in the two cities we’ve visited so far the stones of monuments and beautiful old buildings are blackened and full of moss. But there is construction everywhere, private renovation of ancient buildings for apartments, new stores going in on old streets, facelifts on crumbling buildings with wrought iron balustrades. But none of it seems to be municipal work. It is clear that the economy of Portugal suffered a heavy blow in 2010 and 2011 after the crash and with the European Union’s instigation of austerity measures here and in Greece, but all indications are that the recent trends are upwards.
Fundamentals appear to be fairly strong. The Centrist Left Wing government is stable and continues to have high approval ratings. In 2012 they began pushing back against austerity and seem to be managing well. The people are working and seem fairly upbeat, despite the perceptions of some other travellers I’ve read that the Portuguese are depressed and rude.
What is the source of all the neglect? I asked the night manager at our hotel if he could tell me why so much of the Botanical Gardens are closed. He replied that the gardens are owned and run by the university as a research area and those areas that are closed to the public are typically areas where experiments are underway and should not be disturbed by tourists. I thought to myself that the research, in this case, must be into the effects of benign neglect on non-native plants. I suppose there might be a Secret Garden grant from the government for such study.
The reason for the take over by weeds and the unchecked effects of water, wind and corrosion there and in the nearby municipal gardens still eludes me. Perhaps the priorities of this socialist government are rightly placed on the care of its people rather than on its municipal parks and monuments. There are also many wild preserves in the countryside and mountains of Portugal. Maybe these (and the cafes and bars) are the refuges of the populace.
Meanwhile, still puzzled, sitting here under an umbrella at a table of the Cafe Santa Cruz in the late afternoon sun, I will enjoy the Fado of Coimbra, which seems to be more chauvinistic and folkloric than the Fado of passionate longing sung in Lisbon. I will sit and feel the sun mixed with the breezes from the Rua Mondango while bats begin to fly overhead in the open plaza around the ancient church where the light is golden for a few more moments.
An eagle came to perch on the upper branches of the cottonwood tree on the farm that would soon no longer be our home. It was a magnificent bird, mature, head strong and white as white. It was watching, head turned towards the house as we sat in our bare dining room on the only chairs left in the house, looking out on our penultimate evening to the barn where the setting sun had once again turned the fir planks a soft lavender. Our purple barn. As I went out across the yard to get one of the last boxes from the barn’s huge dim interior, the huge eagle, still in the cottonwood, called its screeching call, piercing notes echoing slightly in the cooling air.
We worked steadily from early the next morning till late that next night, emptying the last things from the house, and then the last things after that, hauling them to the small storage space or the dump. Then cleaning the house. The weeds in the garden wanted to be pulled, but I passed them by as I walked to the mailbox, ignoring their cries. The rose bushes wanted to be pruned of their winter damage and those that climbed, tied again against their supports, but I told them they would have to wait for someone else to guide them.
Exhausted, working till the last minute, we drove away down the road to our friends’ lavender farm a half mile away. We pulled up the drive behind the lavender fields to the little trailer the sister had parked next to her rescue cows and hauled our last boxes and bags into the tiny space to sort during the next twenty-four hours. Our friends down the road had invited us all for dinner and, after a quick rest in our little haven, we drove there to sit in the garden and watch the evening spread over the white volcano in the distance. On the way back to the trailer after dinner, we passed our usual turn to the farm—home. It hit me unexpectedly–right in the chest. “We’re never going home to our bed.” I tried to choke back the tears but they came of their own volition, hard, breathless. “I knew this was coming,” I said. “I knew it would hit me at some point. I just didn’t know when.”
In our bed in the little trailer after an exhausted short sleep, I awoke to swirling fears, a seemingly endless expanse of dark possibilities, ruin, homelessness. I pulled the thoughts in. I made them hush themselves in the darkness and I went deeply into my heart and the heart of that huge expanse. I went deeper and deeper, wider and wider into the silence.
By the time the first birds began to chirp, the ones that see the light with some inner eye before the sun’s rays begin to penetrate, I was ready to fall into sleep. “You’ve done the work. Now rest.” I slept and dreamed and woke up to the soft sounds of cows munching grass and geese calling as they flew towards the fields beyond, I calmly joyous, ready to laugh.
And here we are on a plane flying over Manitoba, lakes and square fields patterned on a tapestry rug below. I’m thinking how I woke this morning for the second time, after getting up in the night to attend to all the last minute things I hadn’t been able to do, to the chattering cries of another eagle, unseen, somewhere to the morning side of the little trailer. A joyous rousing. A call to come and take part in this marvellous moment. So I did. And made coffee. And smiled at Walter who was turning over to sleep just a little while longer.
And as our friend drove across the border to Canada and up the highway in British Columbia on our way to the airport, two more eagles, one soon, one later, flew across our path and north, their white heads shining. “Come,” they seemed to say, “This way. Come.”