Sunday, 14 October 2012

Bones in the Vineyard

Their bitter skins stretch tight over their sweet, seedy hearts. They are Jerez grapes, they hang in great bunches from the last lines of vines atop Segundino´s vineyard.

Yesterday a great mob of Segundino´s kin gathered from far and wide. They came to snip and trim and load and ladle grapes off the vine and into tubs, off the tubs and into the tractor-bed, off the hillside and down into town and up to the open door of the winepress, then trundled into the newly-tiled vat in the funky dark where wine is born.

I told you before about this family, how only two of the brothers  live here full-time, but how their nine brothers and sisters, their spouses and offspring, in-laws and cousins, schedule their lives around the rural rites of vine-cutting, pig-butchering, tree-cutting, bodega-building.  

And when I rolled up on my bike at the vineyard on Friday, they said Sure I could help them with the Vendimia. They needed all the help they could get! And so I was paired with Alberto, Angeles´ 30-something firstborn, an amateur archaeologist who lives in Pamplona. Our hands were busy with the snipping and tucking, and we moved fast along the vines as we talked -- or he talked, mostly. I tried my best to keep up. We talked about Moratinos, local history and culture, what´s been lost since he was a boy here in town, what´s changed for the better. We talked about the Camino -- he walked it in the 1980s, and again not so long ago.

Now and then someone burst into song.

We talked about bones. When he was a boy, Alberto and some other kids found human bones sticking out of the ground right there on the Camino, where the bank had washed out. They loaded them into a big trash bag and took them home. Maybe it was then he decided to study archaeology, he mused.

I asked about those bones. How old might they have been? Could there be a civil war fossa here, a roadside ditch where civilian victims were buried?

No one from Moratinos went missing during the Civil War, he said.  And these bones were clean. Old. The bones found around here go too far back for anyone to remember...Skulls have turned up in the Rio Templarios for time out of mind. Plows uncover tibias and jawbones. People have lived and died here for a thousand years or more, and the clay soil is preservative. When you die it takes a long time to turn to dust.

I told him about Americans´ sense of history, how a building only 200 years old is jealously preserved, considered a landmark -- unless it gets in the way of a parking lot project. Nothing is very old in America. We come from so many places, and the land is so big and wide, we don´t share a lot of common culture. We are individualists. So we honor our family roots. Children compare their ethnic pedigrees: "I´m Russian on my dad´s side, and Scottish on my mom´s." The more mix you had, but more colorful you were... and how chichi it was to have a forebear who was "full-blooded Cherokee!"

He smiled at that. "All of us here?" he said, waving his clippers at Judit and Angel, Sara and Hilario, "every one of us is full-blooded Moratinos. Castilian. Nada mas."

"Purebreds," I said.

We clipped and snipped. He held up a long branch so I could pull the bunches of fruit from underneath.

"The bones you found," I said. "That person might have been one of your ancestors. What happened to the bones? Did you take them to the cemetery to bury?"

Alberto just shrugged. "Why? No one knows anything about whose bones they were. They are bones. They aren´t a person any more."

I gnawed on that for a while. We are sentimental, us Americans and English -- squeamish, morbid, maybe a little paranoid. If my kid found a cranium, I´d scream first, then call the police.  

But old bones, along a path in central Spain... whose innards ended up in Alberto´s trash bag? Were they male or female, Arab, Christian, Jewish, or even Celt?  There´s a paleolithic burial mound a half-mile from the vineyard. There´s a Roman villa nine kilometers east, and a big medieval monastic complex nine kilometers west. Soldiers criss-crossed this countryside, Templar knights, Al-Mansour´s Moorish raiders, French and English fighting over the peninsula. And centuries of farmers, pilgrims, and ordinary Marias and Josés lived here. Their bones had to go someplace when they were finished using them.

I looked at the gravelly soil underfoot, and wondered if anybody was under there, pushing up the grapevines. I laughed at myself, marveled at how centered we humans are on humans -- any bones beneath me could just as well have belong to deer or pigs, dogs or quail, owls or hares or Permian fish, fossilized.

We start as dust, we end as dust. Or bones. We are only us for such a little while.

Smart people make wine while they can. With their families. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

My Own Mountain

On Sunday I went back to Liebana, to the great Picos de Europa National Biosphere Park where the Camino Vadiniense begins. I thought I went there to revisit the Camino Vadiniense Guide, a document I wrote a year ago that would enable English-speaking pilgrims to better tackle that tough trail.

But really I did not go up there for pilgrims, or guidebooks, or caminos. I went there for Me.

The first day´s walk got off to a late start. It began at Liebana, the 8th century mountaintop monastery, and continued at an angry stomp up a busy two-lane asphalt road that was not on the maps. I cursed the Vadiniense Amigos group that publicized and mapped and posted this "re-routed" Ruta Vad without, apparently, bothering to waymark the actual trail. After all that peevishness, I tucked myself into a lumpy hostal bed in Espinama, and let myself sleep with the window open to the nippy night air.

I woke to blue skies and birdsong, and started walking from Pido, a cheese-making village, up an unmarked trail to meet the high-altitude Vadiniense I walked last year. It is a medieval cart-track, full of switchbacks and holm oaks, grasshoppers and wide mountain meadows. Fred climbed up part of the way, til a bad ankle turned him back. I soldiered on, up and up. Gray mountain-tops glowered over me. A troupe of nine eagles circled. (They were not sent by The Great Spirit. No. They were waiting to see if I was fixing to die.)

Alone up there in the wide, bright air, it was not hard to forgive the Amigos. I wrote-off the Vadiniense Guide update as a project for someone else. I realized that stretch of mountain, that remote path, is one of my favorite places in the world. If I publish a guide, people will read it and try walking it. They will carry up the soft goat-milk cheese from Pido, they will snap photos and post them on the web, so even more people will climb up to see it -- or they will come in Jeeps, or on odious, fume-belching dirt-bikes or quads. Soon their Coke cans and cigarette butts will appear along the trail, and signs and waymarks and graffiti inviting more of the same. My pristine mountain will be spoiled by riff-raff. And it would be my fault, for inviting them there, for giving them directions.

So maybe it is a good thing the trail markers are bad, I decided. You have to be determined to do this hike. And determined hikers are not the same knuckleheads who leave a trail of NatureFood InstantNRG wrappers in their wake. I thought about trail guides, and pilgrim hostels, and pilgrims, and pilgrimages. I groused about the whiny middle-class tourists we´ve hosted recently, narcissists who have all the gear and credentials, but not a single clue about what a pilgrim is.

I started to say prayers, something I love to do when I am walking. I prayed for my friends, my family, my in-laws, for the Peaceable and Moratinos. I prayed that this person would find kindness in his heart, that that one would learn to believe in herself, that the other one will overcome her fears and make a better life for herself.

"I guess I ought to pray for myself, too," I said. And an answer answered: "You already are. Your prayers are all about You."

And so I reviewed.

Whilst exulting over this beautiful place, I had declared it all my personal property. This was MY wide, bright air. Those were MY eagles and hawks and crows, circling above a whiny narcissist, a tourist praying for HER friends, family, in-laws, house and village. Praying for herself, her needs, her her her, telling God who needs to be fixed, and how to fix them, is a person who needs fixing, who needs to find kindness in her heart, who needs to overcome her fears, to believe in herself.

A woman walking up 1,700 meters with all the right gear and credentials, and not a single clue. Apparently I have to climb up pretty high to be brought low. I apologized.

At the top of the pass I turned the whole way around and looked over the shoulders of the Picos, horizon to horizon. Mountain after mountain, above the eagles, the sky unspeakably vast.

And me, me me. Unspeakably small. I shut up for a while.

The cold wind blew over the ridge, just like it does every day, with me, and without me.