Monday 19 February 2024

Spirit of Place

Que vengan los peregrinos! Not everyone who walks to Canterbury, or Rome, or Jerusalem is a believer. But such pilgrims are likely to be changed by [getting off the sofa, leaving the daily and] going. It's a bit like people with an OU degree: it's often worth biding a while to talk with those who've been there, done that. My book about Santiago and the process of pilgrimage remains [ahem!] unpublished. As they say, though: "When the walking stops, the Camino continues".

Over the last tuthree years, I've been sitting on my sofa watching two men, once-and-future-pilgrims, getting physical with, and making their mark upon, the unforgiving terroir of a mountain in Piedmont. It turns out to be quite close to the Franco-Italian borrrder, where we were graciously - miraculously - sustained with Found Soup in 1978. 

  • Martijn Doolaard is a graphic designer and film-maker from Amsterdam with two Long-distance bike trips [A'dam-Singapore; Vancouver - Patagonia] behind him. [TMI about his prev life]
  • Fr. Johannes Schwarz is a diocesan Catholic priest from Austria. He walked from home to Santiago as a chap in 1998, then from home to Jerusalem - and back. Fr.J. also has a photographer's eye so, as well as chasuble and pyx, he toted a GoPro along The Way.

These two men washed up on different sides of an inaccessible mountain in the Italian Alps. Both chose to restore tumble-down stone buildings clinging to the side of the mountainside by their finger-nails. Both decided to document the process of transformation [internal, external] in the medium in their tool-kit. Both have established successful YouTube channels by doing stuff the hard way. Both were helped to YT-click-fame by the attention of Kirsten Dirksen who takes a film-crew to aspirant sustainability steaders and asks them to explain themselves: Johannes [05 Dec 2021] and Martijn [01 Nov 2021].

I have a couple of things to say about The Hard Way - informed by 25 years experience of chopping water and hauling wood. We spent the month of July 1996 camping out on our newly acquired property: with hand-tools, two wheel-barrows and a sack-truck. It was fine, we were putting manners on the place while finding trades-folks to do the skilled work. Doran-the-Well lived at the other end of the townland and he came to see how close he could get his drill-rig to the house. Which was not close enough: because the original farm-gate required too tight a turn for his mobile derrick to get in the yard. But, his BiL was Nolan-the-Digger [bloboprev] and he could surely open up that ditch . . . next Saturday, maybe? Not only could the digger move rocks impossible to shift with hand-tools; it also moved a lorra regular dirt and could scart off the bushes from the top of a ditch with a single comprehensive sweep. I didn't stop using a wheel-barrow but I did thereafter book a day from The Digger when heavy lifting was required.

Me and Johannes agree on the virtues {warms you thrice} of reducing firewood to billets and stacking them by hand. Chain saws are so bloody noisy you can't work away while listening to an ear-book. But, it's a good idea to leave felled timber at the cutting site [under rain-cover] for a few breezy months before moving the logs to the firewood processing place nearer the house. Wood gets lighter as the water blows off. Martijn does this, Johannes apparently not. Likewise no sane person will carry building stone up-hill if there's a choice but it's got to be possible to use gravity to help stones downhill that doesn't involve having gravity destroy your knees [as above R].

And further to the picture: building drystone walls is a doddle if the geochemistry generates parallel flat sides as above. If you have a choice don't settle in granite country, the stones are irregular, lumpy and too hard to shape with a hammer-tock or two. Ask me how I know!?

Vernacular architecture inhabits a known place and can build on [lit and fig] the lived experience of those who sojourn there. Johannes' gaff faces South and is tucked into the hill. So, like our place, the snow and frost burns away soon after the sun comes up. And he can see the prevailing wind thrashing the trees on the other side of the valley but not feel it. Martijn's place is, rather, exposed to the weather which can be darkly destructive [L tumbled solar panels] so high on the ridge. And, for him, the sun rises later and sets earlier so the snow lingers for days or weeks longer. Yet, these two steadings are only 1 km apart.

Like the underlying geology, the local micro-climate may make or break your rural dream homestead. Johannes is very conscious about microclimate for growing plants at the very edge of their ecological tolerance. Man, does he relish late season tomatoes and salad!

But I'm here to recommend Johannes' sub-channel One Year in the Life of a Part Time Hermit where he runs through 2023 with a 45m episode of every month. Usual fly-on-wall view of projects and general chopping wood, heaving rocks and weeding the veg-beds: gorgeous film of weather, sunsets, birbs and butterflies; minimal voice-over; informative on-screen notes [check the bot tight corner of screen for ID]. He had, or had at one point, left three holes [one shown R] in the render of the sunny side of his hermitage - so that the resident common wall lizards Podarcis muralis could bunk down at night. The Cave of St George for the teeny dragon!

But, as he warns in the short intro to the series, the last ten minutes of each video is a thoughtful under-stated ramble on religion, philosophy, history, science and the meaning of life. Here's part of what he has to say in May: So let me make this clear. I'm not a guru. I'm not a spiritual master. I'm not a person to aspire to meet or even talk to. You don't need me. You don't need to discern any secrets in my life or take me as an example. I am fundamentally like you – a man, a fallible man, a human. If you find any of the propositions in these videos helpful; if anything that is said rings true – or at least, if any of the questions do, it is not because I'm a source of wisdom. Jan - Feb - then you're on yer ownio. He's been putting them out at the rate of one episode a week since New Year.

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