“I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost …. like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood…” Jack Kerouac.
Nature is never in much of a hurry, is it? Everything seems to move more slowly here in the Pyrenees, it would be graceless, somehow, to rush through with no appreciation for age and for the old time that is steeped deep into the stone. Mountains, rivers, and old forests will make you feel smaller in the best way.
So, I have been perfecting the art of moving at a less frenetic pace. Walking along the mountain trails, stopping every few steps to take in the peaks – many still capped in snow almost a month into spring- and the green valleys and smooth undulating hills. We stop for lunch or afternoon wine in tiny villages dotted along the river, filled with shuttered stone houses, laneways festooned with rambling roses and pale purple wisteria climbing and drooping from fences and barns and over porches. In the pastures and along the roadsides, long grass is bright with buttercups and daisies and forget-me-nots. The woodland paths, shaded by oak, birch, fir and beech trees, promise carpets of bluebells and violets, wild strawberries, and ferns. Butterflies, colourful as flowers, some as tiny as a newborn baby’s fingernail, twirl in spirals in the most joyful of spring dances and the red kites and griffon vultures glide in a high sky across the day. There are donkeys, sheep, sturdy draught horses and cows with bells around their necks which clang a gentle rhythm that travels through the valleys. They would be out of time with any of the songs I’m used to hearing but fit in perfectly with the music of the Pyrenees; the songbirds, the woodpeckers drilling out their spring nests, the whistle of raptors and the rush of river and stream over stone. It’s impossible to move through here unaffected.
The Pyrenees are full of wonder. It’s a huge mountain range, a natural border between France and Spain and Andorra to the east. It covers 19,000 square kilometres and includes 200 summits over three thousand meters high. There’s a small population of brown bears that roam wild here, and wolves, once extinct in this area, which have been reintroduced. There are four kinds of vulture, including the awesome Lammergeier or Bone-Breaker and the Griffon Vulture, with the classic bald head, long drooping neck and hunched brown shoulders. We’re in the western Pyrenees, staying just outside the small villages of Sarrance and Bedous. It’s as pretty and magical a place as I have ever seen and I could make a small nest here and settle for life, one little bird among many.
The people are, like everywhere else we’ve been in France, delightfully friendly. They know how to live slowly. Even the supermarket closes for two hours over lunch. Very few of those we have met speak any English, and the bloke, who can make himself well understood in the city, struggles to speak a French the locals here can follow. There’s definitely a difference in pronunciation, we think that’s due to the proximity to Spain, a lot of people speak a mix of Catalan and French, or a dialect somewhere in between here. I have no hope, I can manage, bonjour and I can apologise for my terrible French, desole but I have generally resorted to charades. No matter, the locals are very welcoming and we get by. It’s not such a huge tourist area, too far from the ski slopes, but there are a lot of professional cyclists who stay in the area, they stream past us often on these steep and narrow mountain roads, training for the Tour de France which runs through this region. You’d have to be brave, that’s all I can say about that.
Aside from my obsession with nature, I’ve taken to other gentle pastimes. I’m probably the most wholesome person that’s ever been born, I think. Apart from the wine. I’ve taken up baking bread, with various levels of success, and I am painting watercolours. I have no talent for the latter, but I have come to realise in the last few weeks that the journey can be more important than the destination and that not everything has to be perfect to be perfectly fun. I am loving the mindful peace of sitting in the sun out the front overlooking the valley squinting at a dandelion or a buttercup and trying to mix a yellow that comes close to the sunny glow of them. Or crouching in a patch of long grass, admiring an exquisite spider-web, jewelled by dew or trying to absorb the detail of a fat bumblebee in flight or with its head buried in a flower, so I can fail utterly to capture it on paper later.
I know I say this every time, but I love it here. I feel small and happier for it. There is nothing like being humbled by nature, connected; reminded of your place within the timeless immensity of it all. Of finding overwhelming wonder above you in the sky, before you in sweeping landscapes of stone and water and tree, and at your feet, in myriad miracles taking place before your eyes if you can forget yourself long enough to see them. I am remembering. I am remembering.
What we’re listening to: Glynn’s Pyrenees Playlist:
Basic bread recipe
Things are a little rudimentary in the kitchen here, I have no scales and the measurements in my recipes doesn’t quite match the standard French measurements so I have to guess the yeast and flour. But the oven’s good and the loaves are coming out ok. I had forgotten how restful the process of making bread can be. I’m looking out the window at a garden full of wildflowers, and a vast expanse of Pyrenees mountain range and feeling pretty pleased with myself. I can hear the insistent, gentle clang of cow bells which means the neighbour’s two cows, which we have named Bonnie and Clyde are ambling across the field our way to poke their gentle heads through the brambles and say hello.
Two cups of strong bread flour, white or wholemeal.
One packet and a bit of dried yeast.
Two teaspoons of salt.
One teaspoon of sugar.
Three tablespoons of olive oil.
About three hundred mls of lukewarm water. Too hot and you’ll kill the yeast, too cold and it won’t activate.
Mix all dry ingredients except for the yeast roughly together, then add the yeast last and mix that in too.
Add olive oil and about half of the water. Mix well to a ball of firm dough. Add more water if needed.
Knead well for 15 to 20 minutes.
Shape into a round ball, place in a large greased bowl and cover in cling wrap or a beeswax cover. Cover again with a tea towel and leave to rise for at least an hour, best overnight.
When doubled in size, knead again briefly, shape into a bread-loafish looking ball, cut a cross in the top about 6 centimetres long and bake at 220 degrees c. until it looks nice and brown. You can take it out and tap its bottom if you like. It will sound hollow when it’s done.
I have safely stuck it back in to bake for a further five minutes if I reckon it needs it. It won’t be as consistently good as it would be if you have all the bells and whistles but it’s pretty hard to ruin bread entirely. Half the fun is having a go.
What I’m reading
I’m reading so much poetry at the moment, it’s fitting here in the mountains. Margaret Atwood, Sarah Holland – Batt, Emily Dickinson, Judith Wright. Dog Mountain is by K. Iver, a non-binary trans poet from Mississippi. I found this so beautiful and moving. Their book, Short Film Starring my Beloved’s Red Bronco won the 2022 Ballard Spahr Poetry Prize and they have a PHD in poetry. Follow them on Twitter @k_ivertown or kleeiver.com