Thursday, 7 September 2017

And did those feet ...

The story of a youthful Christ setting foot on English soil has attracted more than its fair share of theological eccentrics, crackpot cults and religious demagogues who have called upon it to support their equally eccentric and crackpot – and often rigidly fundamentalist – doctrines. As far as my research can make out, the only exception to this ‘colourful’ catalogue of exclusively male clergy is the reclusive, Dorset-based novelist Dr Simone Lacey (no relation). Her 1998 bildungsroman ‘Our Lady of the Orchards’ tells the story of a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality against a background of strict, repressive Catholicism. The sort of faith, one might imagine, of which her fellow authors might wholeheartedly approve. In the opening chapters, the novels protagonist, Samantha Lefebvre, is riding out her crisis of faith as a guest of the Dean of Wells Cathedral where she encounters Dr Hugh Lovehayne, a psychologist-come-amateur historian. An avowed atheist, he invites her to accompany him to Priddy, the village high in the Mendip Hills Jesus is alleged to have visited. His intentions are not honourable, he has every intention of turning Sam away from her faith.
Today I visited the lead mines around Priddy to try and put myself in Samantha Lefebvre’s shoes, given that I’m going through a similar crisis of faith. Jesus’ uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, was a trader and there’s no reason to believe that he might not have visited Cornwall and Somerset, the existence of the Glastonbury Thorn would corroborate that. Dr Lacey’s novel was published in a pre-Twitter, pre-social media age, she had no way of engaging with her readership. I wanted to redress that, revisit the landscape and see how much fact might merge with fiction, use her narrative to make the landscape come to life. Will she approve? I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

He'd said ‘why don't you come up to Priddy with me tomorrow, get out in the countryside, a bit of fresh air will do you good’. He'd said I looked a little pale and wan, he'd addressed me as Miss Lefebvre and I'd replied ‘Sam, please, everybody calls me Sam’. And then he'd put his hand on my shoulder and I'd felt hardly any pressure or weight. 'We can talk about this some more', he'd said. ‘If you like’.
'What are we going to look for in Priddy?'  I'd asked.
‘For Jesus’, he'd replied, ‘we're going to find your God.’

The Mendips rise quickly and steeply out of Wells, the limestone from which the city is built manifests itself in every single corner of the surrounding countryside so that even on the brightest of summer days the underlying rock lends a degree of drabness to the scene. Thin grey walls partition the land into tiny symmetrical empires populated by flocks of newly shorn sheep. On the lower slopes a tractor makes its way through the meadows in monotonous passages: up and down, up and down, up and down the field. Further up small crags appear, valleys open out to give access to the plateau, bone-dry and river-less. The thirsty landscape quickly gulps down every drop of fallen rain into the depths of its subterranean body; the hills are a girt, humongous sponge, sucking the lifeblood from the land before excreting it into the low, flat Levels. The waterless plateau undulates imperceptibly, barely a hedge or tree in sight, just a stunted hawthorn struggling to retain its blossom, or a battered rowan clinging to the lee of a derelict building.

The mist curled over the crumbling wall, from behind a passing sheet of cloud a field of mounds and hollows emerged. ‘What are they?’ I asked.
‘Very good, Sam. I thought your powers of observation might have deserted you’, he remarked, his long, condescending vowels slipping easily under my defences. ‘These are the old lead mines, they date back to before Roman times. I think he came here.’
‘You think Jesus was here, in this field?’ My response bordered on the hysterical.
‘Hey! Don't get so wound up about it. It's no big deal, and I'm not saying it was exactly at this spot. Like I said yesterday, it's quite feasible. His uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, was a merchant; this was an important source of lead for the Middle East. From here they'd take it down to Cornwall from where they'd ship it out over the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, to the ports in Tyre, or...’
‘For Heaven's sake, Doctor Lovehayne, doesn't it mean any more to you than that, to be this close to the Lord Himself?’
I stormed out of the car and stumbled blindly into the field.

Well, I still wanted to believe it. It wasn't that I couldn't commit myself to that belief, it's just that I occasionally felt I deserved a little reassurance. I had no desire to finger His wounds or place my arm in His side; something demonstrably tangible and spiritual would suffice.
But I felt nothing except the cold wind on my pampered face; the frozen touch of nature, isolated and withdrawn. Kicking at the mounds didn't help, under the thin turf there was only soil and stone, littered on top small black globules of rabbit shit that smeared my brown boots. It was an inappropriate setting, surely, for Him to appear in. I’m used to the pomp and pageantry of a church and I can picture Him there, smiling benevolently over His flock gathered together to praise Him. In the dying light, amongst the detritus of man and beast, the vision begins to fade.

The cloud surrounds me, a gust of wind suddenly blows itself between myself and the real world; the warmth of Doctor Lovehayne's car which is all I want to go back to now. I'm lost and directionless, groping around for something, someone to hold onto. The white void hurled itself around me, buffeted me and when I ran to where I thought safety might lie, it followed, harassing, ridiculing.
Like a scoundrel in search of a refuge I turned towards the only place that might offer me sanctuary. The discomfort of the alternate scrape of gravel and white silence was at least equal to the mental torment I might find in the church but I knew that in the pain and anguish I'd find somewhere to hide my guilty head low in shame. The yew trees that guarded the gate – as if this was the entrance to some windswept Hades – hinted at death and decay, the neat rows of gravestones mocking our illusions of immortality. How could my God exist amongst all this? I'd been looking for an Eden, forgetting the Golgothas and the Calgaries, the deacon had said, but I'd hoped the pastoral hills of Somerset might soothe my soul and set my mind at rest. ‘Sam, my child, you need to get things in perspective. Sometimes I think that you look so hard for God that His presence completely passes you by.’
‘Have you come to see the grave?’

This image of Tilly remains firmly entrenched in my memory and I swear it will never leave until my dying day. It supersedes every subsequent episode, shapes and frames the very nature of our relationship. Far from chaperoning me into redemption, I now saw Doctor Lovehayne as the mercenary I’d later make him out to be; my escort into purgatory, at the entrance to which I currently dawdled. She turned from behind a cross that dwarfed her frame and appeared to filter the windblown mist so that it flowed over and around her body, as if she were frictionless. The gloom lightened a little when she came close, I felt she had the ability to reverse nature.
‘Have you come to see the grave?’ she repeated, emerging from the shadow of the monument. I remained silent and rooted to the gravel path. She smiled, cast back her heavy black hood to reveal a mass of curled jet-black hair then beckoned and took my hand. What then passed between us, I couldn't say, and if I knew I think I should keep it a warm, dark secret between the two of us. If she hadn't touched me I might never have moved but remained motionless in a graveyard already overrun with stagnant icons. I stumbled, she led. We came to a prominent mausoleum that stood in a distant corner of the cemetery, alone and aloof.

‘Here we are’, she announced, triumphantly. Her voice was tinged with the soft clip of long Somerset vowels but there was far more than farmers' blood in her proud body. In silhouette she stood elegant and tall, her hooked nose framed by her locks.
The engraving on the tomb confirmed what I'd seen on the walls of the Cathedral:
"Here lies the body of Count Nestor de Lacey, Duke of Nerôche, who passed away this twentieth day of March, 1796. Blessed are those whose eyes have seen the Lord, their sons shall live to reap great riches."
I turned my head in recognition. ‘You're beginning to understand, now?’ she asked.
‘I think so. But it’s not me you’re after, it's Doctor Lovehayne. He's the one who's interested in folklore.’
‘Folklore!’ she hissed, and spat on the gravel. ‘This isn't folklore, it's the truth. I know it and I believe. He doesn't understand. I don't expect people like him to,’ she added, sighing heavily.
‘But look, look, err...’
‘Tilly,’ she said, proffering her olive skinned hand. ‘Tilly Whim.’
‘Sam, Samantha Lefebvre,’ I replied; needlessly for I was aware she already knew. ‘I do believe, Tilly, but it isn't literal. This is … well, it's just a symbol and I don't need to see to believe. I have faith, Tilly, and that's all I need.’
She began to circle the monument then sat on a worn, chipped ledge. She took my hand in hers again and rubbed it against the rough masonry.
‘But you can still feel and believe,’ she whispered. ‘Do you not want to touch? Must you always deprive yourself of tactile pleasures? Here, it will help you.’
Perhaps it was the contrast of her soft flesh and the roughly hewn grain of the stone, in all probability it was just my imagination but when she placed my fingers on the tomb I reeled back as if a bolt of electricity had surged straight through me. Tilly held me as I flinched, she appeared to have anticipated my reactions and her grasp was both firm and comforting. Without her aid, I ran the tips of my fingers along the stone again. It was now smooth and warm.
‘Tilly?’ I asked, nervously.
‘You want me to tell you the story,’ she said. ‘You want to know if it's true.’
‘Yes,’ I nodded. ‘It is true, isn't it?’
‘Why should I lie? I don't need to convert you; I have nothing to prove or sell.’
I forgot the wind that tugged the cloud from the top of the mausoleum and left goose-pimples on my bare arms, the plateau took on a brighter hue. Tilly's words faltered then lilted in a sweet, liquid tone.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

La Ruta Dragonte: A Guerrilla Pilgrimage

John Wylie’s paper ‘A single day’s walking: narrating self and landscape on the South West Coast Path’ (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 30: 234-247, 2005) describes, as it says on the tin, a single day’s walking along the coast path in July 2002, part of a three week, 300 km hike from Minehead in Somerset to Padstow on the north Cornish coast.
This presentation describes single day’s hike along the Ruta Dragonte, a variant of the Camino Francés – as the most popular Camino de Santiago is more properly named – from Villafranca del Bierzo to Las Herrerías in Castille y Leon, some 160km from Santiago on 15 August 2016. It then goes on to analyse some of the issues of affect and emotion raised in the light of John Wylie’s paper. 
The South West Coast Path (SWCP) is a National Trail which runs from Minehead to Poole on the Dorset coast. At 1014km, it’s the longest long-distance footpath in England and its constant ups and downs, from cliff top to river mouth, make it a challenging trail. It’s difficult to ascertain the number of hikers who walk the trail in its entirety every year; some, like John Wylie, walk it in stages but for most it forms part of a day’s ramble.
The Camino Francés is an 800km pilgrim trail which from St Jean-Pied-de-Port in south west France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Although it has two tough stretches crossing the Pyrenees and Montes de Leon much of the way is gentle and undulating, including a long and mostly flat 180km slog over the meseta.
In the whole of 2002 68.952 pilgrims arrived at the Pilgrim Office in Santiago to collect their compostela (certificate of completion). In July 2017, that figure was 47.470. In 2016 the overall total was 277.854: the Camino Francés is not a lonely place, pilgrimage is not a solitary activity. Of those 47.470, 25% walked the final 100km from Sarria, the minimum distance to qualify for the compostela, only 9% (4160) slogged it all the way from St Jean. Many people walk the Camino in one go, many in stages, year after year; very few make day excursions along it.
The purpose of John Wylie’s walk was to activate ‘a space and time within which [he] might engage with and explore issues of landscape, subjectivity and corporeality’. In the subsequent paper he describes the ‘various affinities and distanciations of self and landscape which emerge in the course of walking a fairly wild, lonely and demanding stretch of the Path’ (Wylie 2005:34)
The purpose of my pilgrimage, as part of my PhD fieldwork, was to retrace the path I’d walked four years earlier, the experiences of which precipitated this research. Throughout the hike, which eventually spanned two months and three countries – four if I include Catalunya – there was a tension between the academic and the personal, my commitment to my research and my commitment to the Camino and pilgrimage which have, since 2012, become an integral part of my life. Indeed, it wouldn’t be going too far to call it an addiction. And if I’d been asked to make a choice between the two then I’ve had sided with the spiritual, which says a considerable amount about my positionality.
In the first part of this presentation I want to describe the peculiar and distinctly ‘spiritually-affective’ experiences of a day spent deep in the labyrinthine folds of the Mountains of north-western Spain and recall a quite extraordinary day, the memory of which still brings me out in goosebumps.
I call this a ‘guerrilla pilgrimage’ in the sense of ‘guerrilla’ referring to actions or activities performed in an impromptu way, often without authorization. This time around it had always been my intention to walk the Ruta Dragonte but in 2012 it was indeed a spontaneous decision precipitated by a desire to get away from my fellow pilgrims, to be bluntly honest, after four weeks on the road I was fed-up with many of them and their ‘affected’ airs – there’s an interesting use of affect already. The Ruta Dragonte is a bona fide variant of the Camino but the main route, followed by 99.9% of pilgrims, sticks to the valley so on both occasions I felt an element of transgression, slipping away quietly in the early morning twilight, like a thief in the dawn. Unlike the main route, it’s poorly signposted; not really signposted at all, no ubiquitous yellow arrows. It’s easy to get lost.
Four years later I managed to time my re-enactment of the walk with the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, whether by accident or divine intervention. My mood was similar to that of 2012, it was day 32 of my Camino, four and a half weeks on the road. I’d arrived in Villafranca del Bierzo in low spirits, two days after a long, difficult hike over the Montes de Leon: a dark afternoon of the soul. Once again, I’d set myself apart from my fellow pilgrims, sought isolation.
But I wasn't quite alone. There was another with me; not physically but in spirit, who accompanied me all the way to Santiago, and beyond. But that, dear reader, is another story ... 
Right from the outset I’d been worried about repeating the Camino would be a disappointment and because the Ruta Dragonte had been such a magical walk first time round – the finest day’s walking in my life – I was especially concerned it’d be a damp squib and jeopardise not only the Camino experience but the whole PhD.
I needn’t have worried. 

The Walk
Camino Frances from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela
Camino Frances, Leon to Santiago. Ruta Dragonte in bold square
Camino Frances: Villafranca de Bierzo to O Cebreiro. Ruta Dragonte in green on the left
 Taking one's leave of the main path on the Camino Frances is a weird and wonderful experience, both liberating and, to a certain extent, anxiety-inducing. Even straying a hundred metres from the ubiquitous yellow arrow can have that affect, one feels quite 'out-of-place', almost as if one has entered - or re-entered - another world. Back to life, back to reality, as the song goes. But here, a solitary figure taking to a lonely road, the 'unworldliness of the Camino' suddenly intensified; I was a like a stalking feline, eyes peeled, ears pricked. Every sense on edge.
 The five kilometre ascent up the asphalt path has a bark but, once you get going, not much of a bite. Having been on the road for weeks, I was trail fit and more or less hoovered up the kilometres; the adrenaline was flowing, the endorphins pumping. I was, in a sense, ready for the landscape to enchant me, like one of Angela Carter's willing, post-feminist gothic 'victims'. Transgressing from the principal trajectory had 'purged' me; I was an Eve, a pure untainted form, free from original sin.
  I've no idea why but these chestnut trees really 'did' something for me, if they were any other species I'm not sure they'd have exercised the same affect. Maybe something in the way it spreads its branches and boughs, offering shelter and comforting shade, or the verdant arches beckoning me into their secret, sensual world. They sucked me in, but they never spat me out again.
 Symmetry, asymmetry; flowing folds and weathered rock; syncline, pericline, anticline; fold, fault and thrust; Hercynian gods and goddesses playing tittle-tattle with the earth's crust. There was a moment, when I stood atop the collado and looked down to Moral de Valcarce that I could not stop crying. Petrified pilgrim, rooted to earth, part of the earth. I am the land, the land is me.
  The path petered out amongst orchards and fields of vegetables and fruit and dipped into the woods. The intensity of colour was overwhelming: deep, russet reds, warm, earthy browns and verdant emerald greens. In the corner of this Arcadian tableau, a pockmarked muddy pasture led to a stream. I was hemmed in, deep in the cleft of a riven valley and soaked in an immutable shadow that engulfed every hue and colour except the rippled silvery waters of the stream. This is the exact spot where, in 2012, I was surrounded by a presence and urged gently on by the non-visible hand of kindness. Four years later the affect was more subtle, but no less intense. If I were to be diagnosed with a terminal disease I'd return here, lie down and let body return to the earth whence it came. Kingdoms are clay, this is my space.
 With either luck and/or divine intervention, I found the track amongst the carpet of leaves from the previous autumn. A thin trail, at first, wispy and barely distinguishable. I trod softly, as if to make bold strides would be a statement of arrogance. The climb to Vilar de Corales was tentative but there was a moment, when I passed the rusting yellow bulk of a mechanical excavator, that I realise all was well. Oh, the sweet sigh of relief, of being lost and then found. Like being not-loved then suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, being loved again, like being taken back into your lover's arms. I don't think there's a human emotion quite like it.
  From Vilar de Corales the path crested the ridge then plunged deep down again, alongside the silver-grey crags of a hewn-out quarry. A lesson in care and concentration here; to a certain extent, the spell cast by the landscape of the Moral valley relinquished some of its potency as I negotiated the loose stones and steep gradient. When one treads like a donkey one tends to think like one, too.
 San Fiz de Seo. Appropriately I was singing along to 'The Land of Make-Believe', the second-song-in-the-history-of-all-music by the almost-eponymous 'Bucks Fizz' on my exit from the quarry and crossed the road. A veritable hive of human activity with a water fountain where I paused for ten minutes and let a black cat give me the eye. Above me the clouds were gathering, coming together in vast tropospherical allegiances. I was now on the penultimate stage of the day, a stroll up farm tracks on a gentler gradient beside beehives and pasture. The hills were brooding, full of dangerously seducing menace; the rain deity stretched out her arm to reach me, crooked her index finger to lure me in. She didn't really need to try, I wondered, enraptured. I am the land, the land had me fast in its grip.
  I wanted the storm, physically ached for it, like lusting after the naked form of my lover. My body yearned for the thunder to rumble through the valley and the lightning to flicker in the heavens. I was rewarded, the first drops were sparse and quickly fizzled into the dust but soon the rain began to plummet hard into to earth. I covered my rucksack in its waterproof shell and let it soak me, allowed the warm juices to ooze into my pores and my body's declivities. A precious, unworldly and perhaps slightly demonic energy flowed into me and welled up inside. It unscrambled my thoughts and for a moment everything was 'show me the fireworks, my love, take me to the heart of your country'.
 Even a perfect hike is always one or two kilometres too long, or a draining gradient too far. The last ‘up’ of the day took me out of the ramshackle hamlet of Vilasinde and over to the cusp of the principal arterial valley through which ran the main Camino – and adjacent vehicular motorway. The gloom had deepened, literally and metaphorically, a late summer dusk had snaked its way through the landscape and now curdled 350 metres below. Another steep and stony descent, one of those in which the valley floor seems to have acquired physical mobility and, with every advancing stride the pilgrim makes, takes a step backwards. An infernal game of cat and mouse, the elusive destination refusing to give up the ghost. Somewhere down there are pilgrims, filing through the land, eating up the kilometres, drinking in the experience. The rain comes on, comes off again; on and on and off again. Uncertainty rises up through the sedimentary strata; I’m don’t know where I’m going, but I sure know where I’ve been.
Some thoughts
Pilgrimage is a particular variety of what is often referred to as ‘thru-hiking’ and is quite different, in many respects, to long-distance trails such as the SWCP. It’s as much as cultural and social experience as it is physical and attracts many who might not consider themselves bona-fide ‘hikers. It’s no longer a purely religious phenomenon but many who walk the whole way do for motives that might be considered vaguely ‘spiritual’, for example, walking in the memory of a lost friend or family member. One can still hike alone on the Camino Frances, certainly before one reaches Sarria, but one is always likely to come across familiar faces at ‘natural’ stopping points such as bars and cafes. And Camino etiquette compels pilgrims to wish their fellow walkers ‘buen camino’, whenever they pass one another by.
This day-long Guerrilla Pilgrimage, however, was a very solitary experience, the only contact with other humans being a handful of often bemused locals.
To what extent did that solitude – enhanced by my rejection of my ‘fellow’ pilgrims – contribute to the events of that day? Certainly it fostered a broody introspection, on both occasions I hiked the path.
The working title of my research is You are the Land, the Land is You and its thesis is, very crudely, that, along the Camino, the pilgrim and the landscape become one, in mind, body and spirit. There is no subject/object binary. And this sense of becoming intensifies with the accumulation of distance and time as the pilgrimage unfolds. There is a continuous, mobile dwelling in the landscape, deepened by distance and time, which has the capacity to enhance affect though this capacity is in itself dependent on both human, non-human and beyond-human factors. For example, physical exhaustion, emotional state, presence or absence of company, the weather the state of the path and religious/spiritual inclination. And all of these factors are messy and unstable, in a constant state of flux, individually and together. They’re impossible to tie down or define, difficult to explain and represent so, adopting Wylie’s approach, I decided to use a narrative format as the best way to bring together this tension between self, landscape and spiritual. In this sense, I become not just the pilgrim dwelling in the landscape, always mobile, always becoming, but a conduit for the landscape, the voice of the inanimate.
Unease … surfaces with the narrative format I have adopted. A narrative structure hopefully allows for contrast and progression to emerge; additionally it is intended to be an experiment, of sorts, in scripting post-structural geographies of self and landscape. Of course it has limitations. It flirts with the very figure it wants to query: the coherent, narrating subject.
 Into the woods
West of Clovelly, Wylie follows the SWCP as it ‘trails silently into dense woodland’, ‘spooky in a morning sea mist’:
The woods configure the near and the far in a particular, peculiar fashion. This configuration perhaps links to the ‘anxiety’ which Bachelard associates with ‘going deeper and deeper into a limitless world’. While walking, the woods are endless but practicable, they have a homely, crunchy feel. But to stop is to be hemmed in ...
There’s an interesting contrast between ‘anxiety’ and ‘homely’. Unlike Wylie, I’ve always experienced woods as places of full of possibilities – and that must include religious or spiritual possibilities – not to be feared – although clearly uncertainty does lurk between the boughs and amongst the saplings, sprung with sap and lovejuices. I approach them with a combination of Cartersque post-feminist gothic and Kierkegaardian existentialism, a stride into the unknown, a leap of faith. Things can happen here, and they do. Carter’s post-feminist heroines are active victims, embracing potentialities, putting themselves at risk. Stepping away from the main drag to walk the Dragonte was a risk, relatively and of sorts. It was a trajectory into the unknown, I had no map and no guidebook that covered the route.
About ten kilometres in, deep in a wooded valley I came to a halt. In 2016, as in 2012, I was uncertain of the path which had more or less petered out.
 If immensity is, for Bachelard, the realisation of a self-in-solitude, then stopping is the re-insertion of otherness into this ‘daydream’ in which the horizons of self and landscape coincide. The others cluster around the figure standing alone; the woods are the home of satyrs, bacchants, bandits, sasquatch.
 I’m encouraged in my geographies of the imagination by Wylie’s reference to the presence in the landscape of rogues and mythical creatures in a journal as august as the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. As an undergraduate student of Geography and Landscape studies such experimentations with representation would have been stamped out immediately but how else might one bring out and bring-to-life the enchanting affect of the world around us.
Wylie writes that ‘to halt is to become attentive, suddenly, to the details and textures that are immediately to hand’. Previously, I’d never given much through to the act and impact of stopping. I’m not a great one for coming to a halt on the trail, I much prefer to keep my head down and imagine the kilometres ticking over, on the clock: fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, thirty kilometres – if you start me up I’ll never stop. Never stop.
But here I had to. Because for the first time, after four weeks on the trail Camino, nobody – or rather, no yellow arrow – was telling me where to go. No nymphs or satyrs awaiting me but as I paused to tease a path through the undergrowth the earth seemed to spin off its access in a kaleidoscope of flickering emeralds and scarlets
Spanish eyes and a Catholic gaze
Describing a view of Smoothlands, just west of Hartland Point on the SWCP, John Wylie oozes: ‘it was spectacular, I was all eyes’. His ejaculations reminded me of ‘Gary Gilmore’s Eyes’ by the English punk band ‘The Adverts’ which reached number 18 in the UK hit parade in 1977, the lyrics of which wondered how it might feel the be the recipient of the transplanted corneas of an executed murder.
To be all eyes is to be watching something – or somebody – with a deep engagement, sometimes lasciviously but it also suggests that there are multiple ways of seeing the same landscape with the same set of eyes, or that our eyes might not be as constant as we’d been led to believe. I am, for example, aware that the moment I set foot in Spain I slip my Spanish eyes neatly into their sockets. For academic and personal reasons I have a strong affinity with Hispanic cultures, not just Spain but Latin America too. With cultural – and particularly linguistic – familiarity comes a broader understanding of the landscape, one is more at ease, one knows what is ‘going-on’ above and beneath the surface of the earth, and amongst those who dwell in it. Practically, this might manifest itself though the ability to understand interpretative signs or ask directions (as I did on the Ruta Dragonte). More prosaically, it might translate as an intrinsic and more intense ‘feel’ for the landscape, a recognition that one is not ‘out-of-place’ in an ‘alien’ environment but very much part and parcel of the land: I am the land, the land is me.
Of course, familiarity might well bring with not it quite contempt but complacency, a taking-the-landscape-for-granted. The ‘newbies’ on the Camino, all wide-eyed and fresh faced, to whom it is all so new, hike in a perpetual state of not knowing what’s around the next corner. But I’ve walked the Camino Frances twice, and on each occasion I saw it through a difference lens. Maybe my Spanish eyes are getting bigger, all the better to see you with!
I was all eyes. But our eyes are ever-changing, they adapt and adopt – to the light, to the land, to our moods. Tired eyes, bloodshot eyes, eyes full of tears, eyes blinded by dust. You take the splinter out of your eye, I remove the plank from mine.
In his discussion on varieties of walking, from ‘discursive registers’ such as pilgrimage, exercise and protest to ‘particular modes of engagement’ such as ‘strolling, hiking and guiding’, John Wylie suggests that:
… ways of being-in and being-with a landscape practised as both nature and nation, remain the precondition and the milieu of contemporary countryside walking in England. (2005:235)
I cut my hiking teeth on rambles in the Home Counties countryside before graduating to the mountains of the English Lake District and then Scotland. I read WG Hoskins, the novels of Hardy and John Cowper Powys, too, more avidly than I did my geography textbooks. I moved to the West Country and hiked and wrote about the gentle, pastoral landscapes of Wessex. Then I walked the Camino and now I barely set foot on a footpath in the English landscape.
But even as a student in Weymouth, the Wessex landscape exerted a powerful influence over me, perhaps because, naïve and imaginative as I was, its affect sought out my vulnerabilities and played upon them. The landscape was loaded with layers of myth, legends, fables and symbolism; an ‘excess’, as Holloway (2003:165) describes it. It cumulated on a summer night I spent out in in the open, in a sleeping bag at the foot of the Tor and accompanied by a small amount of cannabis, convinced I might find the entrance to the Celtic underworld. And it was that ‘Celtic-ness’ which appealed, offered a middle-class, Tolkein-reading, late-adolescent male a hint of the romantic rebel (or was it ‘rebellious romantic’?). ‘Celtic-ness’ represented the ‘other’ I felt within, as the first stirrings of gender dysphoria rumbled close to the surface, and it manifested itself in the way I experienced the landscape, a sort of pseudo-Celtic gaze, if you like.
The Camino has its roots in the Catholic faith but to walk it can no longer be considered a predominantly Catholic – or even religious – practice. Yet the landscape has been shaped my centuries of religious and cultural practice, not just the path itself, which has carved itself into its surroundings, has become, physically and culturally – economically too – more than just a ‘path’.
I was born a Catholic, rejected – quite vehemently – as an adolescent due my gender issues. But there’s a good deal of truth in the notion of ‘cradle’ Catholicism, when my gender issues were ‘resolved, and after a visit to El Salvador, I returned to the faith, albeit as an adherent of feminist and liberation theologies.
Santiago himself – St James the Great – is a problematic religious icon, one of his monikers is Matamoros or ‘moor-slayer’ and I feel no spiritual pull towards him. But, for me – and at least one other pilgrim I encountered last summer – the Catholic presence enlivened the landscape. Not just buildings and structures, but the very earth itself. I should add here that this is a very ‘Latin’ Catholicism, with the associated cultural and religious imagery – such as the Virgin Mary. A Catholicism in which the figure of Christ is frequently absent.
This isn’t, of course, a purely visual or fixed gaze upon a framed landscape – both landscape and pilgrim are in a constant state of flux; unrooted, always unsettled, always ‘betwixt and between’ (Turner). It is more, even, than an embodied gaze in that it goes beyond the body as encompassing frame of flesh, blood and muscle and into the realms of the psyche, the emotional and the autoethnographical. Rather, it’s something more akin to what Wylie considers an ‘embodied, practised, contextualised melange of experience within the landscape’.
Let me give an example of this ‘Catholic Gaze’ by contrasting it with what might be considered its ecumenical opposite. The poetry of Jack Clemo was a tangential influence on my research, his sense of the presence of God, through Christ, in the Cornish landscape. I wrote about Clemo for my undergraduate dissertation on literature and landscape many, many years ago; he was a deeply religious non-conformist and this is reflected in the way he viewed the landscape. In ‘Christ in the Clay Pit he writes:
I peer
Upon His footsteps in this quarried mud;
I see His blood
In rusty stains on pit-props, waggon-frames
Bristling with nails, not leaves. There were no leaves
Upon His chosen Tree,
No parasitic flowering over shames
Of Eden’s primal infidelity.
In another poem, Clemo sees Christ’s blood in the red-brown oxidised waters trickling through the mud. It’s a bleak landscape, almost monochrome. I remembered Clemo’s words as I descended into and passed through the quarry. The great slabs of hewn silver-grey limestone were a stark contrast to the pastoral landscapes of the rest of the walk. The path was steep, stony and rough, required my full concentration to avoid twisting an ankle or knee, my focus was in reaching the village of San Fiz de Seo, where I knew there was a fuente (water fountain).
Wylie writes that the ‘footsore body can no longer experience the sublime’, something similar might occur when every mental faculty is engaged in self-preservation. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t experience the quarry in the same way Clemo might have. Perhaps, and more probably, it was because my Catholic Gaze conjured up a very different prelapsarian landscape, not an Eden of ‘Primal Infidelity’. Clemo’s non-conformist landscape – this theology neatly summer up by that line ‘Eden’s primal infidelity’ - is almost Manichean, created by a patriarchal, punishing God who carves out ‘his’ rules on tablets of stone and permits no deviation. Everything is ‘don’t’, very little room for ‘do’.
I want to compare Clemo’s poetic gaze with the Nican Mopohua, the Aztec/Nahua narrative in which a mestiza Virgin of Guadalupe presents herself to the indigenous Juan Diego on the sacred hill of Tepeyac in 1531:
Her garments were shining like the sun; the cliff where she rested her feet, pierced with glitter, resembling an anklet of precious stones, and the earth sparkled like the rainbow. The mezquites, nopales, and other different weeds, which grow there, appeared like emeralds, their foliage like turquoise, and their branches and thorns glistened like gold. (Elizondo 1997: 7)
The ‘Lady’, the Virgin Mary, has a long and rich association with the landscape and those who wander through it, much of which, of course, is due to her conflation with pre-Christian and pre-Columbian ‘goddesses’ and fertility cults. She represents an abundance of nature, a giver of life, a force contained within the earth: a rock in the field, a cave or a stream. She symbolises nature in the fecundity of the pastoral landscape, a ritual that links humanity and nature – in this vision thing there is no arbitrary division between the two. The subject and the object are one and the same thing: you are the land, the land is you.
The Virgin Mary presents herself to Juan Diego, speaks to him, intimately, in his native tongue, leaves her image on his cloak. But what makes the Virgin of Guadalupe different to, say Our Lady of Lourdes or Fatima is her embodied, performing presence, a transformative, becoming-in-the-world. She is not an aloof, detached figure, a merely visual apparition one might put one’s hand through, like a ghost. She is the land, the land is her, nature responds in flor y canto, in the middle of winter, flowers bloom and birds sing.
It was a similar sublime and enchanted presence I experienced on the Ruta Dragonte, embodied, as if it had emerged from the earth. The landscape enlivened and animated, colours intensified, emotions heightened. I broke down, burst into tears.
I’m still trying to work out what I saw, or rather, experienced’ on that day in 2012. In a sense, my PhD is a way of working through that, of establishing whether the accumulation of distance-walked, emotion and life-experience that had led me to the Camino in the first place had made me, subconsciously-disposed to such a phenomenon. Did I, in short, simply yearn my dream landscape into existence? Heaven a place on earth, but just for one day.
I can, on the one hand, go back to John Wylie’s day on the SWCP, slip on my sensible academic shoes and attempt to understand the incident in the light of Lingis’ phenomenology register affect and percept, in which:
Affect and percept are neither mysterious trans-human determinants of our sensibility, nor simply vectors of personal psyche, emotion or intention. They produce and circulate within a nonsubjective, sometimes intersubjective, relational spacing composed of moods, tones, postures and topographies. These are affective levels with which we perceive, a seeing-with, or sensible becoming, in which distinctive articulations of viewer and viewed, for example, precipitate and unfold.
It would seem to offer a convincing account of how the guerrilla pilgrim, with her autobiographical predispositions and her Catholic Gaze, might engage with the landscape to conjure up a particular phenomenon that could be described as spiritual and/or religious. That the landscape performs not in response to the pilgrim’s bidding, like a performing seal, but through a complex set of interactions which give the earth around me an agency. That’s probably the conclusion I’ll come to in the thesis.
But when it comes to the subsequent book I might put my walking boots on and proffer an alternative version. That the Virgin Mary was physically present in the landscape, that day; guiding me, offering me succour. Present not as the hackneyed apparition of second-rate religious art but in the land, with the land, through the land. She is the land, the land is me.