Wednesday, March 19, 2008

rhythm number two: the rhythm of human settlement

I'm back from the west coast to grey old Toronto, where the snow is still mounded up on the lawns and the streetsides. BC was very good to me. The pilgrim gatherings were wonderful and more than 200 people turned out for my three public library readings. (My sister was pretty good to me too, driving me all over town.) I just wish I could have brought home some of those daffodils and cherry blossoms.

The second vital rhythm of the Camino de Santiago is the rhythm of human settlement. There is little continuous settlement on the Camino, or in most of Spain. Instead, there is a village, a town, a city, surrounded by a great emptiness. Human settlements, especially in the early parts of the Camino, are like pearls
loosely strung on a necklace.

This rhythm of habitation and emptiness derives in part from Spain's history. In the old days of chronic warfare and raiding, people sought safety in numbers, going out to their fields by day, huddling together at night. It is also a natural consequence of Spain's dryness: where there is a well, people congregate. The resulting landscape impacts strongly upon the walker's experience of the Camino.

Why? Because of course the places I have described as "emptinesses" are nothing of the sort. They are full of space and sky and wind and wheat. They are places that invite the mind and spirit to expand and soar; or, conversely, to feel their meagerness in the face of nature (or "creation" for those who see it that way). They are wonderful places to be alone, places where you can set your eyes on a distant horizon, fall into the rhythm of your walk and let your thoughts run free. (I think of the walk from Puente la Reina, or the Sierra de Atapuerca before Burgos, or between Rabe de las Calzadas and Castrojeriz, or over the Paramo de Leon to Villar de Mazarife...)

And at intervals along this lonely, peaceful way there are human settlements. Compact little boroughs where life is lived in the streets, and the plaza with its fountain is the community living room and the pilgrim rendezvous point.

Which brings me to the third rhythm of the Camino...

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