Some of you know I am spending November working on the first draft of "The Book," the story we tell all the pilgs who stop here and (inevitably) ask "what are you doing in the middle of nowhere?" Today I got on a roll, thinking about dirt. Please know this is the roughest of first drafts, and be kind.
Think about the dirt beneath your feet. How connected are you to the land where you live?
And leave me some feedback, OK? It´s getting lonely out here.
We live close to the ground.
Moratinos is all earth, hunkered down under an enormous sky. A Spanish poet once said “the landscape in Castilla is in its sky,” and I know why. The sky is huge around us here, the horizons low and flat and rolling like an ocean, a brown, green and golden ocean.
There are many villages out here. From atop the bodegas, on a clear day, I can see four or five more villages, with great swathes of fields between them and a scrim of craggy mountains on the north and west horizons. We live in a flat place, and we live up high – almost 900 meters above the sea level, on a vast flatland called the “Meseta,” “the table.”
Lots of pilgrims dislike the meseta. It bores them. There are no spectacular buildings or pretty trees laid on for their enjoyment, and in late summer and fall, after the crops are cut, it is dun brown and dusty. They call it a desert, and they make up horror stories about wild dogs and lightning and bad water. It makes them sound noble for having endured it.
Paddy and I met on the prairie, in Toledo, Ohio. We were accustomed to this kind of “boring” landscape, so when we settled in here it felt like home. We found it beautiful in an oceanic way.
We found the Roman villa excavation at Quintanilla, about seven miles away, and dreamed of mosaic murals buried under our barn, inside our walls. Romans lived in this neighborhood. Then came Visigoths, early Christians, cave-dwelling hermits and monastics. The next wave of people to live around here were Arabs from Morocco, wily builders and engineers. Our house is cleverly set into a hillside, with maximum sunshine and minimal wind, good water, good drainage, and gates north and south. The Arabs built the monumental churches of Sahagun, the monasteries that remain in this region, our only tourist attractions – and then they too, with their unpure blood and bad religion -- were sent away. I sometimes wonder who lived first at what´s now our house. They probably bowed each day to the southeast, to Mecca, when they could get away with it.
There is no stone here. The soil is clay, better suited to bricks than crops. All our houses are made from the earth around them, watered and smashed together with straw and sweat, pressed into molds and dried in the sun into “adobes,” stacked thick and wide at the bottom, more slender at the top, rendered-over first with more mud-plaster, later with whitewash, later still with concrete. We make gooey “cob” building mortar with our feet when we need to repair a crack in the outside walls. One summer two years back I demonstrated this for a dozen budding architects from the University of Michigan. They played in the mud, then squeezed and smoothed the goo over the inner walls of the bodega. They got a hands-on education in primitive building materials. I got 26 man-hours of labor, and a job done in an afternoon that would take me a week to do on my own.
As we say in my country: Win-win.
The Moratinos people of the past were not the first to excavate their hillsides. On our southwest horizon, where Paddy walks the dogs many mornings, stands the tumberon – a knob on the flat fields, topped with a national topographical waymarker – one of two within clear sight. An archaeologist told the neighbors it is a paleolithic tomb, a hollowed-out chamber with bones, pots, and flint knives buried inside. Unexcavated still – “how many stone knives do we need?” he said.
When Paddy dies he wants to have his ashes scattered up there, where greyhounds run. Alongside the ancient warriors, ancient neighbors.
Back in town, the bodegas are Moratinos´ best testimony to the power of the ground, and the most memorable thing about this place. They are 21 little caves dug into the base of a hill on the southeast side of town. The villagers dug them over generations, no one knows how long ago, underground caves for making wine and storing cheese and hams.
“When you first dig in, it´s like cutting cheese,” Serapio told me. “But leave it exposed to the air, and it turns to stone. Not hard, like granite, but hard enough to hold up. That´s why in winter they had the children do the digging. It was something a child could do, to occupy the hours. The work kept them warm. They could wriggle into small spaces. It kept them asleep then, for hours, in the dark part of the year.”
The temperature never changes down there, so it´s just right for storing wine. There´s always work to be done, so it´s a perfect excuse for a man to escape the house and spouse, the hot sun or driving rain. It´s cool down there, dark, full of rough homemade intoxicants. The bodega was the original “man cave.” Paula once told me the bodegas were for men only.
“A woman only went there if they wanted to make trouble. Or a baby,” she said. “Under the ground. It is a good place for that, you know. I bet half of every little town comes from the bodegas, one way or the other.”
Pilgrims see the bodegas first as they come into town, and they don´t know what they are. Little doors set into a hill, some well-kept, with TV antennae and water supplies, others derelict, collapsed into dangerous-looking caverns. “Where are the hobbits?” they ask.
“Do you live down there?” a pilgrim asked old Modesto one day.
He said No, definitely not.
“Why not?” the foreigner continued.
“If you had a house, would you live in a cave?” he answered back.
The bodegas need maintaining, and for families with many children and a need for cold-storage space, that was not a challenge. But today? Today more than half of the bodegas are dangerous ruins, high-mainenance luxuries. Only four are used for making wine. Ours is used only for storing the cases of Toro, Navarra, Bierzo, and Ribera del Duero we buy on our travels around Spain. A few of them survive us long enough to be laid down in the dark for a year or so. And for showing pilgrims what´s inside a Hobbit House.
Ours bodega, number 16, is tall and wide with pointed arches and several small alcoves along the sides. It would make a fine Visigothic chapel. I have worked hard hours (with good pilgrim laborers) to keep the chimney standing and the roof intact, but the bodega is not a priority. We have gone out of the baby-making business. Our neighbors notice if we visit there too often.
“You have thirsty guests?” they say, from under their raised eyebrows.
“Bottomless pits,” I tell them. “Thank God good wine is so cheap here.”
“Make them pay, Rebekah. Set a price. They will eat you out of house and home, the locusts!”
“Some leave nothing, some leave just a little. And another leaves enough to pay for all the rest,” I say. And it´s true, so far.
But I digress. I must stay down to earth!
Earthy as the people are here, they are businessmen, too. They are professional farmers. They know how to make this sticky brick-making dirt yield up a harvest of rye, oats, soy, alfalfa or sunflowers each year. They use chemical fertilizers, soil conditioners, fungi- and insecticides. Each of them has a vegetable patch as well, and often a fruit orchard. It is there they show off for one another – year after year, straight rows of perfect tomatoes, beans, greens, artichokes, radishes, lettuces, and peppers. They dike up the onions and garlic, and form channels of dirt to send streams of water to the roots of each plant. They do not use silly plastic irrigation hoses. They pump the water up from the ground and send it via hydraulic hose into their byzantine channels of dirt. Byzantine, or Arabic. Their gardens are spectacular, elegant, and fruitful.
Out in my back yard I tried to build a vegetable garden.
In its fourth year it now is five raised beds and a bower of flowers. I plant according to what I see my neighbors planting, and sometimes I have a harvest.
But I did not grow up here, I did not spring from the cave, I do not know their secrets. The ground to me is a mystery, and only half the things I sow in my garden will ever see sunlight.
I bring in my Penn State Agricultural Extension soil testing service, my Ph meter, my soil thermomenter and ag fleece and little plastic greenhouses. I bring in seeds from England, and my pole beans bear red flowers the like of which Florín has never seen, flowers that predatory birds supposedly cannot see and peck and eat.
But Florín and her sister Angeles pick kilos of beans from their ordinary, white-flower beanstalks. They roll wheelbarrow-loads of potatoes up the street for all to see – and squash and peppers and asparagus, kale and quinces and beets and peas. Pilar, the neighbor next door, and Paco, Juli´s dad, each have elegant, geometric gardens in the middle of town. They spend hours laboring there each sunny day, doing God-knows-what things with a 33rd degree of Masonic complexity.
They are professionals. They grew up with this.
If my garden produced like theirs, I would be hip-deep in produce, I tell myself. They have big families, they know how to freeze and bottle and preserve their vegetables, they know because they need to know, because in some point of their lives they went hungry.
I can save myself a ton of trouble, just go down to the supermarket or farmers in the plaza in Sahagun, and buy the same stuff, same quality, for a song. Dirt cheap.
Like the bodegas. Why do these people continue making wine here, when their local wine is usually mediocre, and decent wine is dirt-cheap all over Spain? Why do they grow garbanzos, a labor-intensive crop that requires the whole town to thresh and winnow, when the Argentines export them here for half the price and none of the work?
It is about the dirt, the land, the rhythm of plowing and planting and harvesting. Maybe it is habit, just repeating what they know. Maybe they are slaves to tradition. Maybe they loved their mother and father so deeply, they honor their lives now by repeating the same rhythms, planting the same crops, dressing the vines their grandmothers planted.
Maybe they are just, like me, occasionally slain by the beauty of this place, the bright yellow sun that opens onto the white barns at 6 p.m., the steel-gray sky behind, the soft green of the germinating November fields. This is a mature kind of passion, a late-in-life love affair. Not to everyone´s taste. But to some, to us? These are our fields, our homes, our dirt and caves, mud and birdsong. Even the doves, as they pass past the window glass, are illuminated.