Labyrinth of Silence

'What will this house be like in a hundred years, Dad?' James Mcconachie struggles to answer his son as he considers the past, present and uncertain future of La España vaciada, Spain's hollowed-out interior, an area known for wildfires, hailstorms and abandoned dwellings.
was born in Birmingham in the UK. At 20 he dropped out of university to become a New-age traveller, something he describes as a priceless education in resourcefulness, humility and adaptability. He now lives in remote rural Aragón in north-eastern Spain, where he works as project manager in restoration architecture and sustainable building. His writing focuses on language – both human and animal – and Spain’s rich biodiversity.

 The farmhouse, a solid, austere building of honey-coloured ledge sandstone maybe a couple of hundred years old, sits at the ragged fringe of Spain’s deep interior. Here, in the Matarraña, on Aragón’s border with fractious Catalonia, farmland meets and makes an uneasy peace with the vast, yawning expanses of forest stretching over these mountains into the high, bright emptiness of the Maestrazgo, sometimes called the laberinto de silencio. The wild and unfarmed terrain is a harsh but also delicate matrix of rocky crags, forests of pine, holm oak and maquis scrub. 

If I look towards the sunrise there are ‘my’ fields of almonds and olives, tiny vineyards and in summer, waving fields of golden grain. There are beef cattle nearby and sometimes sheep, driven quietly through the dreamlike, almost biblical landscape. To the west there is the mountain, eroded flat at the top and thickly forested. Behind it there stand hundreds more such mountains, each one more inaccessible and rarely known by humans than the last, the tiny, steadily emptying villages long left behind.

It is a land where much, and somehow at the same time little, has happened. We’ve been here a long time, us human beings, with our whips and ploughs, halters, yokes and grasses. When planting chard in my garden I occasionally earth up hand-worked flints, small, crude, but unmistakable in their purpose and still heavy with their original intent. I keep one on the little potting table in my huerto and use it to cut the twine with which I tie up my tomato plants. Someone before me, knapping this flint, also thought this might be a nice place to rest and take shelter.

I have the sense of an unbroken chronology that leads to the children fishing on the bridge and places your awareness in a flow of generations 

Over the hills there are the sun-bleached fortresses of the Iberos, pre-Roman Iberian Celts. They built their settlements in much the same way as I rebuilt this house, heaving blocks of stone aloft with wooden scaffolds, ramps, curses and inventions. I see some of these larger stones and think of how they might have spoken as they sweated them into place. Two stonemasons, separated by two millennia, and in essence, little else. 

The Romans, of course, swept all before them and now here in the somnolent former Kingdom of Aragón we read the histories of the Iberos in the shattered Latin of their conquerors, though they too, were conquered in their turn. Tribes and empires, kingdoms and nation-states have come and gone, the olive trees and the terraces endure. As I write I’m warmed by the burning in my fireplace of the chopped stump of an olive tree probably around 1000 years old, coming to rest after its 2000 year march from Syria and most likely planted by a Moorish farm labourer down there, in ‘my’ field, for his Christian landlord. 

Thousand-year-old Spanish olive tree (photo: James Mcconachie)

Walking to town I follow a drovers’ path once used by the Cathars to take their sheep to winter pastures near Morella. On their way home to Occitania they would have seen the town from the last approaches much as I do today. Descending, they might have forded the river where I now cross the bridge, built in 1390. With the bridge and the noble seat and the castle set in place the area boomed and became a medieval melting pot of the three ‘peoples of the book’. The Christian overlords, the Moorish labourers, the Jewish traders, farmers and guildsmen. 

It’s a fallacy to assume much about this landscape is pristine, whatever that means. The pines have prevailed, growing faster than the oaks cut down over the millennia for firewood, charcoal, axe-handles and ploughs. The Scots pine at higher altitude was a going concern for a while, tall, straight and resinous, it provided the roof beams for the hundreds of now ruined and abandoned farmhouses or masías, like this one, scattered over the hills and along the valleys.

Crossing the sturdy stone bridge on a summer’s day you’ll find children fishing for barbel and trout, just as they have for over 600 years. Again, much has happened, though arguably little has changed, since that bridge was built. Somehow in this typically Mediterranean medieval town, like thousands just like it across Southern Europe, the arc of history, or of many histories, is laid out in stone and settlements and sorrows, many sorrows. I have the sense of an unbroken chronology that leads to the children fishing on the bridge and places your awareness in a flow of generations. I’m just another face, some other hopes and troubles, another niche in the cemetery.

I think constantly of the tides of people who have come and gone. Where timber could not be felled, when the trees were too cold to bear fruit or even survive, when the savage hailstorms battered the grapes from the vines, the Matarraña’s small but possibly least valuable resource was often next, its people. Through the brutal application of an unfeeling and senseless sociopathy what Aragón has given up is its population, uprooted like the pines before them and packed away to another destiny.

The stone bridge of Valderrobres (photo: James Mcconachie)

There have been many reasons, but the result has always been the same. In 1492 it was the Holy Inquisition that set out the forms of words to make this truth. The edict of Granada expelled the Jews from all of Castile and Aragón. Those who wouldn’t convert and become marranos, or ‘pigs’, those who couldn’t bear a ham in the house or the forced silence of mass, were sent away on pain of death. Over a century later, in 1610, it was the turn of the Moriscos, nominal Christian converts under perpetual suspicion for their Arab dress, language, customs, the clandestine practice of their religion. They were dispatched to the coast and forced to pay their passage to an unknowable future in the Maghreb. 

Closer to us, within memory, in 1947, one of the long, grey years of fear after the devastation of Spain’s civil war, the people were again forced out of their homes, this house among them, as martial law was imposed to crush a brazen but doomed anti-Franco insurgency led by returning republicans. These harried souls were in many cases already survivors of the process of extirpation. When Hitler asked Franco what he should do with the thousands of Spanish exiles caught by the Nazis in occupied France his response was to tell Hitler he could do, well, whatever he liked with them.  At this point the machine of draining value from the people of Aragón was thrumming with a new efficiency. Over a thousand Aragóneses sent to the concentration camp at Mauthausen found themselves quarrying stone, just like their forebears, hauling great blocks up the ‘stairway of death’, and having been told on arrival that the only exit from the camp was through its chimney. 

I think of the tides of people stripped out of the land, ripped away from their lives, beaten onto boats with bibles or terrorised out of their homes with the threat of bullets. Yet somehow, I realise my allusion to the tide is a mistake. Perhaps it is better to see the population, depopulation, repopulation as not the tide, but the waves. The little waves lap at the shore, but the tide is bigger, broader and longer lasting.

Black sheep of Spain (photo: James Mcconachie)

My son asks, ‘What will this house be like in a hundred years, Dad?’ I cannot, or will not say, stuck between candour and a need to protect the dreams of the innocent. Some years ago, a carelessly tended summer barbecue a few kilometres downwind sparked a fire that swept up over the crest of the hills I can see through the largest window of the house. The carpenter friend who helped me build and set it straight joked at the time that it would be ideal for watching the approaching flames.  Just weeks later, on the night of the fire, I stood on the roof watching the crowns of pines over a kilometre away exploding into flame and felt the waves of heat on my face. Deep down, I sense what will happen. 

They put the fire out, that time, over a hundred people fighting it through the night, farmers ploughing in the dry grasses of the empty fields, volunteers soaking the smouldering underbrush, and at first light, the might and majesty of the state, three helicopters, shuttling between the fire and the lake until not an ember was left unquenched. The wind, or rather the lack of it, had saved my house, this time. One day, I may have to tell my son, it won’t be enough.

For now, as the bitter cold of the winters seems to have softened, and rain seems to feature more than it used to, one could assert that the climate here has become gentler, more temperate. The fields are greener, the flowers bloom earlier, brighter, for longer. But the savage weather has become more so, extreme snow dumps over the last decade felled a million trees, crushed a hundred buildings, flooded my house. The hail, always a threat, shatters the roof tiles of the towns or wrecks the cars in the streets and sends people fleeing for shelter, blood-streaked and bruised to their homes, or to hospital.

But the heatwaves. They come each time as a soporific, breathtaking shock. The pines crisp with their dry needles beneath them, where with the oily herbs and the fallen trees you couldn’t dream up a better kindling. Walking through the country when it’s this hot, it’s hard not to imagine a spontaneous conflagration. With the heatwaves comes the lightning, and with the lightning, come the fires.

The people of the town will be mostly gone and as far as the eye can see, there will be wind-turbines, as Spain’s hollowed out interior becomes a vast solar park and windfarm 

So he asks, and this time, I answer.

It will be a ruin, I tell him, the roof burned off, the windows shattered, the stones scorched, blackened and split. The people of the town will be mostly gone and as far as the eye can see, there will be wind-turbines, as Spain’s hollowed out interior becomes a vast solar park and windfarm for the megacities of the coast and the continent beyond. 

And yet, somehow, pondering the arcs and the tides I feel we sit at a moment of inflection, a tregua, or ceasefire. There is a pause, how long or short it may be I cannot tell. Between the vanishing of the people and the seeming inevitability of the fires I sense the coming of a beautiful, rich, if ephemeral, arcadia.

On a personal, perhaps selfish level, this gives me comfort. The long chronologies and the shattered stones and the ancient olives speak to me of transience. The people came and went like me, with their faces creased by small hopes and worries, just as I will in my turn. For now, if the rain and the rivers hold steady, if only for a while I will stay, and wait, for the wolves, the bears, the eagles, to return to the empty places, the forgotten fields, the crags and the mountain tops and for now, at least, the lush green valleys, of la España vaciada… emptied Spain.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 19

Our spring 2021 collection of prose, poetry and art revolves around the theme of death, loss and renewal

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Comments
  1. What an absolutely beautiful, melancholy piece, James. Made me long for Spain, where I lived for three years in the 1970s, in the Canary Islands and Madrid. May you enjoy life in your farmhouse for a long while yet.

  2. Dear James

    Thanks for this sad and lyrical piece. I lived in northern Spain for 18 years — albeit in the less depopulated and greener Cantabrian mountains; but the plains and hills, adobe villages and ceaseless wind of the “empty Spain”—Palencia is the province I know best—have a strong hold on my heart.
    I recognize the existential threat of wildfires and scorched-earth neoliberal economics, yet I would be loath to tell my daughters “this place is doomed, in a hundred years it’ll be nothing but burnt-out ruins and wind farms.” I still believe it’s up to us to make the best future we can. If pines are prone to fire, we must plant fire-breaks of cypress (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34116491) or Paulownia to stop them. If the economics of living in remote and depopulated areas are too marginal, then we need to regenerate ecosystems so they will have the capacity to support thriving communities (the Jean Giono story “The Man who Planted Trees” is a source of great inspiration, albeit pretty useless as a tree-planting guide).
    Mucha suerte y animo,
    con un abrazo,
    Robert

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