RUINS IN THE MOUNTAINS
This piece won the 1st prize in the Non-UBC category of the 1st Terry Writing Challenge.
It started when Rob and I were joking about the medieval arrow slits he’d shown me along the back wall of his house, the one that conveniently enough faced the newly-paved road that snaked up the hillside below. I suggested we could make use of the slits to target the SUV-driving tourists who would blast by on the weekends, hunting for scenery or a day hike. He guffawed and said it would take more than a few arrows to make dents in some of the vehicles he’d seen lately– trucks outfitted for an apocalypse but used largely for navigating city parking lots. Even here in the mountains there was not much to challenge them anymore, what with the new pavement and bright yellow lines to separate the lanes. An idiot could make it up here. Maybe boiling oil then? Yes well maybe. Run up to the kitchen and let’s have a try at it, he deadpanned.
Throughout this exchange I kept strategically mum about my own tourist status, hoping that Rob or I or maybe even both of us would forget that I was here on his farm as a visitor from Canada, which everyone knows (though some politely overlook it) is practically the United States. I did not have an SUV but I did have a disproportionately large backpack, and to a certain class of middle aged Spanish women, some of whom I’d shared a train compartment with the week previous, the two were apparently indistinguishable. Rob himself was Dutch, an ex-patriot, and I took some comfort in this fact.
The truth is that neither of us had a particularly convincing claim on this land, at least not by birthright. I was an ex-suburban North American with only a couple of university Spanish courses and some estranged Barcelonan relatives as excuses for my presence. I had been travelling for about three weeks through northern Spain and the south of France, and was hoping to keep going for a month or two more. To save a bit of cash for the next legs of my journey, I’d decided that maybe volunteering on a local farm for a couple of weeks wasn’t such a bad idea. Never mind that my arms were probably too small and my backpack too big for that sort of thing. And so here I was, a spindly Anglophone on a remote farm in the Pyrenees, with about as much practical application as the lame mule who spent his days munching nettles behind the toolshed.
Rob was an aging hippy with a thick, rasping accent who had woken up one morning and ditched his job at a law firm in Holland to “live off the land” with his family in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by oak forest and abandoned cow pastures, the farmhouse he had come upon was old, six or more centuries, and made entirely of stone in the traditional Catalan fashion. It had no running water, electricity, or heating aside from the fireplace. Encountering Rob in these surroundings was a bit like witnessing a minor cosmic accident. Though weather-worn and seemingly well at home, Rob was about as traditionally Catalan as the dense rye sourdough he ate caked in honey for lunch, or the marijuana joints he smoked incessantly while gardening. He was blonde, toothy, and red-faced as a Scandinavian troll doll. He spoke even less of the local language than I did, despite having lived there for the past seven years. But whether in defiance of reason or for reasons of our own, both Rob and I had adopted this place as our home of the moment, and had managed to entrench ourselves in it like the last hold-outs of a besieged people. Each shiny new gas guzzler that roared past the herb garden seemed a grave personal affront; a pine beetle in our virgin forest. Though we joked about it, we’d be goddamned if we’d let those tourists interfere with our newly-sacred territory.
And so, with a logic endorsed by centuries of history, we decided to build a wall. It was perhaps the crumbling structures all around us which served as our inspiration—Rob’s so-called farmhouse was really more of a fortress, and had more than just arrow slits to prove it. The main building was surrounded by a series of stone-walled terraces which, under Rob’s green thumb, had become home to a variety of edible plants. Remove the greenery, however, and it was not so difficult to imagine small armies toppling to their medieval deaths, siege ladders and all. Think of children’s action figure sets with the little plastic knights and horses. Think of popsicle stick catapults powered by elastic bands. Then think of abandoning the whole set-up in the sandbox one day, only to come back two or three summers later when it is all overgrown with elephant grass and dandelions. That patch of weeds was where we were. We were a little bit nostalgic. But still practical enough to realize that the defences needed updating.
The westernmost side of the garden which sloped down towards the road was in our estimation the weak point of the property, the one most likely to yield a glimpse of gore-tex jackets and wrap-around sunglasses speeding up the hillside on a six cylinder engine. On more than one occasion which Rob had described to me, tourists had stopped to take pictures of the garden and the people tending it. Like we were some sort of fucking freak-show, he rasped, mis-pronouncing “fucking” so it sounded more like fhowking. So up we would build it, a fence following the roadside, high enough to prevent motorists from seeing the garden, and perhaps more importantly, to prevent the gardeners from seeing them. Unlike the original builders of Rob’s fortress-farm, we weren’t so handy with stones. But never mind, willow branches and some wooden stakes could be made to serve the purpose, according to Rob at least. It only had to be eight or ten feet high. And next season when the squash vines took over one side and the blackberry brambles the other, you would barely even be able to see there was a fence at all.
I was excited about building the fence. For one thing, it was the first real project I would have undertaken since arriving at the farm. Up until that point, I had only weeded potato beds and made some sporadic attempts to gather wood and herbs. Only three days prior, I had been laughed out of the business of removing tree stumps from a new garden bed when Rob saw the way I held the axe. The fence, however, would be different. It would be made of light things for the most part that wouldn’t be too difficult to carry. Jeremiah, another volunteer at the farm with considerably larger arms than mine, had already driven the stakes into the ground, so my job would only be to connect them with some recycled electrical wire and weave willow branches through the whole. Another thing that excited me about the fence was the fact that it would be something of a lasting monument. Over the past few weeks of travelling, I had started to accumulate a feeling of pointless transience that comes, I imagined, with living out of take-out containers and a musty backpack. A willow fence was not exactly the Arc de Triumph or even Fort Knox, but it wasn’t nothing either. Unlike my trip thus far, it just might have a purpose. It would stand, and maybe stay standing, and maybe even offer some protection. I liked the idea of being a protector of this place I had come to love despite only having been there a week.
Which brings me to the question, why did I love the farm? A reasonable answer eludes me now almost as much as it did then, despite there being a number of readily regurgitatable responses. It was picturesque, with rolling meadows, obscure streams, and a plethora of wildflowers whose names I still only know in Dutch. There was always a kind of music in the air which seemed to breed in the absolute silence of our isolation. Distant cowbells, enormous bumblebees, creaking doors, the persistent druff druff of a hoe in soil. If you were careful to avert your eyes in the right places, you could go for days without seeing plastic. But there were plenty of irritants as well. The “solar” shower in the garden never warmed past the temperature of a glacial stream, and consequently our bodies festered in a state of pure, unadulterated filth for days and even weeks at a time. Each night without exception, there was at least one scorpion curled amongst my bed sheets that had to be removed before I could sleep. Scorpion dreams were almost as frequent. Rob and his family could (and quite frequently did) cross the line into gut-wrenching hippydom; meditating in the morning, talking to the asparagus plants, rationalizing events based on masculine and feminine “world energies.” This was to say nothing of the other volunteers, who as a general rule were militant raw foodists with a conversational agenda that rarely strayed from the evils of Kentucky Fried Chicken and the virtues of soaking your legumes at room temperature.
The only persuasive reason I can think of as to why I felt so strongly about the farm was that it was a refuge. It was not part of the world around it, but located in an unspecific “elsewhere,” where any problems, issues and baggage you might be carrying became suddenly and dramatically irrelevant. (Even in a literal sense, as I discovered when trying to wade through a nettle field in my studiously “practical” hiking sandals, or in pondering the use of my writing journal when the only ballpoint pen for twelve kilometers sputtered and ran dry.) As Rob’s wife Gaia pointed out to me one day over a breakfast of soggy oats, it was a place medieval peasants and civil war refugees alike had been running to for ages. We were merely the next generation. Though peaceful to look at, the farm had an aggressive undertone which could not be ignored. It stood in crumbling stone defiance of feudal invaders, of Franco, of the communists who opposed Franco, and of everything modern cities and industries had to offer, perhaps with the exception of Rob’s beloved non-alcoholic beers, and the prepackaged bacon bits he ate on the sly. And this is why we needed to build a wall.
Having spent some time puttering around on my dad’s workbench as a kid, I fancied myself somewhat handy with a hammer. On the morning after Jeremiah had driven the stakes into the ground at six foot intervals, I set out with a fistful of two-pronged nails and a long coil of electrical wire Rob had salvaged from god-knows-where. I snipped, I pounded, I wrenched the sharp ends under. Whenever in doubt I used more wire. Pretty soon the fence was looking like the deranged project of a megalomaniac spider. Quite pleased with myself, I broke for lunch. It was two days later, when I was weaving in the willow branches that we gathered from the riverside, that I began to have some doubts about the fence. Despite the number of wires I had strung in every which direction, it didn’t seem very strong. As the breeze picked up towards evening, I could actually see the more thickly-woven portions of it billow like sails towards the road. “It will get stronger when the squash grows over it” Rob asserted, but I was unconvinced it would last that long. Though I didn’t say anything to him, I began to question the reasoning behind Rob’s whole fence design in the first place. What kind of lasting structure was made from willows and electrical wire? And what kind of statement would it be making anyway? “Keep out SUV drivers! We’ve got the old wiring from your basements and we know how to use it!”? As the first line of defence of this kingdom of cowbells, our fence seemed perilously close to treachery.
The fence didn’t collapse overnight as I had feared, but billowed well into the next day and the day after that. It was a lot of work trying to weave an eight foot wall with willow branches, and our desire to get the job done quickly led to a fair number of bald patches. Standing back to see the fruit of a long afternoon of branch-cramming, I was struck by the fact that our fence did not resemble a wall so much as a semi-permeable membrane. Those squash plants would have to grow thickly indeed if Rob and his family were to avoid seeing trucks on the road next season.
I could wax poetic about the fate of the fence, except I don’t know it. It lasted through the remaining week and a half I stayed at the farm, and even neared completion. It continued to look slightly ridiculous. Maybe it fell down, and was a metaphor for our short-sighted hypocrisy in entertaining a pastoral dream. Maybe it stayed standing, and was a metaphor for the endurance of the dream, or a metaphor for compromise, or for the strength of squash. Maybe it just fell down. Or maybe it just stayed standing. I remember the way the willow branches chafed in my fists when I tried to cram them through the framework, the way the electrical wires twanged and stung when I wasn’t cautious. I remember standing there awkwardly with both of these things in my hands, for hours at a time, feeling productive, feeling silly, afraid of snakes in the grass, feeling like I was building something, listening to the cowbells go on tolling the day away.