Friday, 5 September 2008

The jaded season

The leaves of sunflowers are withered yellow and their faces buckle and droop. Someone has skirted the field whittling eyes and smiles out of the unripe seeds, but it only makes the faces more sad.

Things feel tired at this season and in this place. An eye cast across the hillsides sees only bare ground, rocks and dust, burnt weeds. The soil dominates, even where vines and olive trees stand in rows, a brave facsimile of green.

The land has run dry of the growth of spring and summer but has not yet arrived at the fattening harvest of full autumn and the freshening of days. Has not yet found the final spurt to make it through to the end of the year.

Or is it just us who are jaded? We are too close to the end and not close enough. The transition into Spain still bewilders and drains us.

Yet all the pilgrims seem weary, even though most only set out in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. That first day over the Roncesvalles pass did for them. They have lost that France-hosted knack of forming noisy, happy groups ad hoc in cafes. Here, there are too many languages and no one knows how to address each other. So we huddle in our twos and threes, perplexed and wearied by the road. And we eye the shrines to recent pilgrims who have died along the way, which are more common now than the rare ancient crosses.

Because the road, too, feels weary; a relentless stride towards the end. It has given up on the effort needed to charm us and paces briskly and efficiently on, concreted or paved as often as not; following the straight line of the motorway if need be. It delivers pilgrims in pellets to the staging posts of morning bars and evening hostels. We are enough to make a jaded living for the people along the way, but too many for a lasting memory. We are a business, a commodity. There is no spontaneity in the way we are greeted when we arrive, and no curiosity. Avoiding eye contact with us is safer.

Or is it just that it is the back end of the year? What would it be like here in spring, I wonder. What would the colours of Navarre be then?

So we focus on what tiny pleasures this dry, tired season can spare. An old man pulls down branches with the crook of his stick to gather the first few almonds that have shed their green coats. A single grape plucked from an abandoned vineyard is sharp and full in my mouth, promising the sugar to come. A swallowtail butterfly settles on the dust at our feet. A tiny, red and blue humming bird has got lost in the field of golden stubble. The smell of sage, fig leaves and unripe blackberries. A husky dog barking endlessly into the blue abyss of the Rioja plain from the Alto del Perdón - what had he imagined he saw that made him so tenacious?

27th August 2008

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