Woken this morning by a bird – a Great Tit – that had flown into the window and was panicking. Last week I had a Redstart in my bedroom in France. Living inside out or outside in. Listened to Arnau Obiols’ CD Projecte Pirene, making music with nature, which Quelic lent to me. Another beautiful blue skies day. At the market in Sort, we talked with a man selling honey about the environmental problems being experienced now by bees. Planning to make a trip next week to the small church of Sant Pere del Burgal in Pallars Sobira, one hour away, where there are 11th century frescos of Lucia de la Marche, who was the Countess of Pallars Sobira and the sister of the heroine of my first novel, Almodis. I am trying to find out about mining iron, farming, food, medicine, here in the Pyrenees in the early middle ages. Writing requires immersion, continuity over some time, free from distraction, so it is very good to be here. This is all possible here.
A fabulous day in the library reading about Farrera – birds and wildlife, plants and landscape, people. I read about barking deer, boars with their striped piglets, wild cats and tufty eared red squirrels, fields of white Narcissus Poeticus, Tengleman’s Owl, Black Woodpeckers, the Capercaillie and the Lammergeir or Bearded Vulture. I feel like I have arrived now with a better sense of where I am. A smoky sunset on the mountain peaks.
I am working on two new novels. One is set in the late 11th century and features a female troubadour from this village, Farrera. Most of the action takes place in Toulouse and Poitiers, but there will also be some scenes set here and in Aragon.
The second new novel I am working on is set in the future, in the 23rd century, and engages with climate change and accompanying change on all levels: social, economic, technological. I am especially interested in what the old technologies, lifestyles and means of survival from the past can teach us about the future. At dinner I talk with Ceske about the food that she and Arnau and many Catalans are used to foraging from their environments: mushrooms, fruit, nuts, herbs, and how many city people in the UK and probably many rural ones too no longer have this knowledge for living with the seasonal rhythms.
Tuula, Quelic and I spent the first few days here in Casa Ramon and I grew quite fond of my attic writing eyrie but tomorrow we are moving into the newer, purpose built rooms in the Centre which face out across the spectacular view of the valley and mountains. The skylight in my attic room has a view straight to the weather vane and bell tower of the church. Quelic is working on an installation combining notions of Google and God. Tuula is flying a camera with a kite but is having trouble finding enough wind or, when there is wind, controlling it in the unpredictable turbulence around the mountains. Every day she climbs to Coll de So, the Pass of Sound, seeking wind and has met with plenty of cows. She is painting the colours of Farrera. I am looking forward to finding out more about their work.
At dinner Lluis and Quelic talk about Catalan independence and history. There has been iron mining in this area for centuries and hence the name of this village. Each night Arnau Llobet cooks an amazing meal for us and his artistry extends beyond the delicious food too. Tonight he has scattered pomegranates and red autumn leaves on the table so that it is like picknicking in a forest glade. He was up early climbing above 2000 feet to gather the mushrooms that make part of our meal this evening. He tells us about seeing the shy chamois deer up there.
I have the synopsis of my novel more or less in shape now. It unfolds from that one line of poetry – A morsel of love’s bread, and its knife.
The Centre d’Art i Natura is an interesting building. Above ground it looks like a small outhouse with a large slate roof nearly touching the ground, but then it climbs down the mountainside for five storeys and has a library and class room. It was converted from an old building that once belonged to the Manresa family. I read that back in the 1970s, Senor Manresa, irritated by the drunken japes of the incomers, threatened to shoot all the hippies in the village. Perhaps he wouldn’t be impressed with the 400 or so artists who have stayed in the Centre by now.
Tuula and Quelic tell me about last weekend’s conference – presentations on the mountain environment and its changes, a wonderful music performance by Arnau Obiols using elements of nature as his instruments and drawing on traditional Catalan and especially Pyrenean song. At dinner Lluis and Quelic talk about the local fire fiestas and I describe Tar Barrel Running in Allendale in Northumberland and the May Day Obby Oss festival in Padstow.
Yesterday I said a temporary goodbye to the river Viaur, swollen by the night’s heavy rain and hailstones, and to the heron who is on the weir every morning outside my tiny house in southern France. My friend Rob drove me 6 hours, past Gaillac and Toulouse to the Pyrenees, along the steep sides of deep valleys with a silver ribbon of river below, past ski resorts, and over the Spanish border to the tiny village of Farrera, 1365m above sea level, in the ancient county of Pallars Sobira in the Catalan Pyrenees. In the darkness we couldn’t see the mountains around us but sensed them as the road wound steeply up and up and round and round on itself. We arrived to a welcome from the director of the Centre d’Art i Natura, Lluis Llobet. I am spending three weeks here as writer in residence. We sat down for the evening meal with the other artists in residence: Quelic Berga from Barcelona, Tuula Närhinen from Helsinki and Anna Rubio, who lives in Farrera.
Woke to see what a beautiful place I have arrived in. Organised my desk and walked around the valley to the nearby village of Alendo. Belled sheep are jumping along the ridge sounding like a Balinese Gamelan. Two black mules graze in the valley. A tired grasshopper sits on the path. Dark mountain peaks stand proud of brilliant white wisps of cloud in a blue dream of sky. I am fascinated by the drystone wall constructions. The houses have stones jutting out to sit on, rest your basket on, or for the postman to leave a parcel, or there are cubby-holes in the walls for post or lamps or bottles of milk. There is nothing extraneous. These useful extrusions and intrusions are integral to the houses. The rose window of the old church is created with what looks like a cartwheel. Grey and brown slate roofs are like fish scales. Tall, thin poplars in the valley are growing densely and looking like a green sea, waving. The tree-clad mountainside opposite has the occasional autumnal splash, tree tips dipped in intense red.
I am planning to start writing a novel here that I am calling A Morsel of Love’s Bread, and its Knife, which is adapted from a line of poetry by the Troubadour Duke, Guillaume IX of Aquitaine, written in the 11th century. Guillaume’s poetry is a paradox: half of his surviving works are very raunchy and the other half are heartfelt lyrical love songs. He will be one of the characters in my novel.
At dinner we talk about the origins of the Centre d’Art i Natura which opened in 1996. The Pyrenean villages were steadily depopulating during the 20th century. By the 1970s many where empty and abandoned and Farrera itself had only a handful of mostly aging residents. After Franco’s death in 1975 some of the young people from Barcelona and elsewhere started to move out of the cities, seeking a new rural lifestyle living on the land, as they were also doing in the UK, migrating to villages in rural Wales, Cumbria, Northumberland and the Scottish Highlands. Lluis and his wife Ceske were amongst those who moved to Farrera and there were also new inhabitants from Ireland, Bernard Loughlin and his wife Mary, and occasionally their friend Colm Tóibín whose novel The South, is set in Farrera. I’ve borrowed it from the library here to read.
Frontiers in Retreat is a project addressing ecological issues through art-led research 2014-2018, working through a network of 8 partners across Europe http://frontiersinretreat.org I am undertaking a series of writer’s residencies as part of the project. CENTRE D’ART I NATURA, FARRERA, SPAIN October-November 2014 I am currently writer-in-residence in the ancient and tiny village of Farrera, high in the Catalan Pyrenees. I will be starting a series of blogposts from Farrera in the next few days. JUTEMPUS, LITHUANIA 2014-2018 I am writer-in-residence with Jutempus in Lithuania. We will be launching a website for the Jutempus part of the project, Zooetics, in November 2014 with an Active Glossary and Reading Group. We are presenting a series of lectures by leading thinkers at Kaunas University of Technology in December 2014 which will start a process of unpacking contemporary concepts of The Anthropocene, Nature and Interspecies and consider new conjunctions between these ideas. HIAP, SOUMENLINNA ISLAND, HELSINKI, FINLAND January-February 2015 I will be in residence at HIAP next year. Search under Frontiers in Retreat for all my posts on the topic.