Taking five trees on a walk

It felt a bit like taking my children on a journey. I had been looking after them for a couple of months, I saw them grow, get stronger, I left them in other peoples’ care off and on when I had to travel abroad and every time when I came back the first thing I did was to check on them, having been worried they might not have gotten enough water or one of the pets in the house might have stumbled over them.

They were only oak trees, the biggest one maybe 20 centimeters tall, two of them twins, growing out of the same acorn. There were 5 - or 6 if you count the twins as two - of them. I had collected the acorns in the forest I grew up in in the Netherlands. I had planted them when I was spending 18 days at the Nau Coclea Artist Residency walking the internet as if I was on a real walk. And in a way it was a real walk. I just didn’t move my feet and stayed in the same room for 18 days while my eyes wandered around on Google streetview and webpages showing live footage from webcams and Facebook pages of people who were at the location I was “walking through”. 

Afterwards I took the sprouting acorns back to my home in Barcelona and they grew into small saplings, getting ready to be taken on a long walk, a real one, starting at Queralbs in Spain close to the Spanish-French border, moving to Nuria and crossing the border to reach Err in France, then back to Spain and all the way down to the Montserrat Mountains. My plan was to plant them on the road to mark the trail, one in the beginning, one at the end point and three somewhere inbetween at the right location. I was curious what the right locations were going to be. I had some ideas about it but you never know how things turn out and what will come on your path once you set out to go on a walk. It was going to be a group walk with different people every day. Some of them would walk the whole route, others would walk for a few days, leave again and be back some other days. Some walkers were there for a day only.

I needed help to carry the trees and I wasn’t sure how eager people would be to add another kilo to the weight they were carrying but the enthusiasm I was greeted with when I asked for volunteers in Queralbs upon arrival was heartwarming.

I carried two myself, one to be planted as soon as possible and three walkers carried the remaining  three. Just outside Queralbs, on our way up into the mountains to Nuria, we made a stop at a fountain, surrounded by plants and trees. The first oak found a new home there.

The next eight days we carried four trees with us through mountains and valleys, across streams, into France and back into Spain, into churches and restaurants, across fields and through forests. I carried the same one myself every day and I collected the others in the evening to restore the soil and to water them when necessary. Two of them were carried by different people but Aleix adopted the one he had been carrying since day one and took full care of it. Sometimes he carried it on his chest like a baby. One day when the whole group had spent some time splashing around naked in a stream I saw him watering the tree with water from the same stream afterwards. He said he wanted to share the same water we had been enjoying so much with the small tree.

I had been planning to plant the twin trees at the Santuari d’el Miracle. As far as I knew, centuries ago, two small boys had a vision there, long before the Santuari was build. Originally two juniper trees marked the spot where Jaumet and his older brother Celdoni saw the Holy Virgin, but after crowds of pilgrims started to visit the location the trees died. The gothic cross that was put there to replace the trees was demolished during the last Spanish civil war. Now a new cross replaces the cross that replaced the trees in the old meadow of Bassedòria, a stonesthrow distance away from the church and convent (el Santuari del Miracle) that were built there after the miracle happened.

A plant is a smart creature. It will put its energy in the proper place in order to survive. During the walking the twin oak had turned into a single one. It can’t be easy for a baby tree to grow up in the circumstances I put them through so I wasn’t surprised it happened. In a way it matched what had happened to the two brothers who had seen the vision. One of them died of the plague 10 days after he told his story.

What I didn’t know was that there was a chapel at the premises dedicated to the disappearance of the Holy Virgin. She disappeared into an oak tree. And the big shiny golden altar piece in the church has an oak tree at its center. We were told that for years the monks had been planting a new oak trees at the location where the historical oak tree was situated but so far all of them had died.

I knew where to plant my oak tree.

So I did, the next day, while Aleix was planting “his” tree half an hour walking away from the Santuari close to some neolithic stones.

Two trees were left to accompany us on the last part of the journey. I continued to carry the same one and the other one was in the company of whoever felt like carrying it.

When we were approaching Manresa I read something I didn’t know. Joseph Beuys had spend some time there which had marked a turning point in his life. Afterwards he carried out the Performance Manresa in Düsseldorf and not too long ago two artists had dedicated a performance and exhibition to Joseph Beuys work about Manresa and they erected a cross opposite the cave of Saint Ignatius. The oak tree has a special place in Beuys’ work (not that specific work but there is for example the 7000 Oak Trees). Since Beuys is an artist I strongly admire I thought I should plant a tree in Manresa, possibly next to the Beuys cross.

But it wasn’t a good place for a tree. There was hardly any soil. What to do? Plant it anyway as a symbolic act, knowing it would most probably die soon? It didn’t make sense. And before I had to decide on a yes or a no the answer presented itself. On the evening before we were leaving Manresa we were taken on a walk out of the city and we arrived at an off the grid house in the middle of endless fields with a view of the Montserrat Mountains. Our guide for that day was living there in a small community of people and they had prepared us a wonderful meal. We drank wine and listened to poets and musicians performing. We had words painted on our arms and legs, I asked for the moon and got lluna. I left the tree there. It would be well looked after.

Before and even during the walk I imagined giving the last tree to the monks at Montserrat. I somehow had no doubt we would meet them, their monastery being the goal of our journey. But I guess our goal was really the mountains and when we arrived at the convent it became very clear straight away. It was the middle of the Saturday, tourists were everywhere and everything shouted “money!”. Fancy souvenir shops, expensive take away restaurants, abnormal parking fees, there was even a bank. We never saw any monks and I considered taking the last tree back home, keep it with me after it had been my partner in crime, my walking companion. But the next day, after we woke up early and made our way out of the religious village and were surrounded by amazingly shaped mountain tops, everything was different. Two artists performed a touching closing performance (the second part of the performance they had honoured us with in Nuria) and we ate our last lunch together.

I planted the tree where we had shared food and wine and our last stories. People started singing in Catalan while I dug a hole and afterwards somebody told me it was a song about a tree. We watered it, said our goodbyes, walked down the mountain and went home.


Day 18. An ending in the company of mountains. Montserrat

Everybody woke up early to see the sun rise over the Montserrat mountains. I woke up early as well but I had seen so many beautiful sunrises in the last 18 days already. There was a small voice in my head telling me I should get up, I shouldn’t miss this opportunity but I silenced it. I got up anyway and stood in front of the window. The sky was turning pink and I could imagine it must be outerwordly up there, surrounded by those oddly shaped peaks, watching the spectacle of the old world lighting up again, returning from the dark.

The square in front of the cathedral was empty. In a few hours it would be filled with tourists again. How did the monks deal with that? Living in a place that was chosen because of its remoteness and silence but had turned into a circus, a tourist attraction where the drinks are served in plastic glasses for double the price you pay in the villages at the foot of the mountains?

I sat at the square and watched the sky turn from pink to blue. I woke up the friend who had come to join me in my last steps. We ate miniature croissants and sausages and scrambled eggs and apple pie and drank orange juice and double espressos and it was lovely but it was odd as well. i remembered the other morning I woke up in the guesthouse of a monastery, then we drank instant coffee and nibbled on some biscuits while it was still dark outside, not even 7 yet.

At 9 the first busloads arrived, at 10 it was impossible to cross the square without almost tripping over people stopping to take selfies. We escaped into nature, it was still doable, when we walked back the crowds were moving up as well.

The final performance was planned at 12.30, a little further away at a spot where everywhere you looked there were spectacular views. Pep Aymerich and Jordi Esteban had placed a small sculpture that looked like a sibling of the one they had used in Núria on top of a small stone hill. The one at the beginning of our walk was white and made out of sugar. This one was made out of basalt and placed upon the same basin they had used before. A bamboo drain was attached to the small sculpture. We gathered around in a circle, holding the small bottle with white liquid we had received in Núria. We added to content to the big container with the same liquid, that once was a solid cone and got dissolved by pouring milk over it. We all said some words while pouring back the little bit of liquid we had carried for more than two weeks into where it had came from. The white liquid was poured in two bowls and two people at a time took a big spoon out of the bowl that was held by the person on their right, looked each other in the eye from opposite sides of the circle and poured it over the basalt sculpture. The bowls and spoons moved around, the liquid followed its path down the stone, into the container and through the bamboo drain into the Montserrat mountains. When there was nothing left Pep and Jordi purified the stone with fire, we all looked each other in the eye, smiling, somewhat emotional, saying thanks.

There was food afterwards and red wine. It didn’t feel as if it was the end of something, maybe because it wasn’t until we would walk down to follow our own path again. When the food was finished, when we cleaned our plates and packed our belongings, I planted the last oak tree at the place where we had shared food and wine for the last time. People were singing a song while I dug a small hole for the tree. A Catalan song they later told me was about planting a tree. We watered it, I gave everybody a seed ball made out of soil from Camallera and Cosmos Daydream seeds and when everybody left I spent a few last minutes just sitting there.

And then it was time to go home again.


Day 17. In every step. Manresa - Montserrat

I said goodbye to Manresa and left, crossed the river, stood still at the highest point of the old bridge to look back. The other walkers had decided to take a taxi to the starting point of a walking trail but I didn’t want to be in a fast vehicle on the last stretch of the walk. My digital maps would show me the way.

The outskirts of Manresa at the other side of the tracks. A giant moth in paint on a wall. Traces of la lluna in blue on my arm.

I walked to the house where we had spent a wonderful evening yesterday. Everybody was still asleep and I left a small oak tree with a note. From there the route led me into an old riverbed, stone walls rising up high on both sides. Silence, 20 kilometers to go, a hot day.

The holy mountains disappeared and appeared again, as they would keep doing throughout the day. I passed golfcourses and laughed secretly at the men sitting in the small golf cart. There were roadside figs and coffee in one of the last towns before arrival.

Something strange happened. While for days, ever since we saw Montserrat for the first time a week ago, the mountains were getting bigger every day, now they seemed to get smaller the closer I got to them.

Power pylons got in the way here and there, violating the view of the naturally constructed backdrop. Two dead shrew mice next to each other on the side of the road. And then I could actually touch the mountains.

In the garden of Santa Cecília de Montserrat, the Romanesque church on the southern slopes, I got reunited with my fellow walkers. We tried to find a fountain to get water for the last kilometers but the only available water was inside the church, in small expensive bottles in a vending machine. The Irish artist Sean Scully has turned the inside of the church into a big installaion with his paintings and stained glass. I would have loved to see it but the entrance fee was too high for a quick visit. I asked if I could use the toilet but the lady behind the counter told me I had to pay the €8,- entrance fee first. I started a small discussion about a church or convent being a place where people should receive help if they ask for simple things but I knew it was in vain and withdrew. You have to choose your battles wisely.

There were two options to get to the Montserrat monastery. The beautiful and long one and the short one close to the big road. Some people hesitated, I did as well, but after all this walking and beautiful landscapes just getting there would do. So we did. And we weren’t the only ones.

I knew, of course. But I hadn’t expected it to be such a tourist trap. Ice cream shops, restaurants, a police office, a tourist train, souvenirs, a bank, cars and busses and tourguides and so many people. It made me sad after having thought of it as the big goal for so many days and I think all of us felt a bit strange. But we all knew the goal was in the road, in the walking, in every step we had taken.

When all of the daytime tourists had left, when the big square in front of the cathedral was empty, when the sun was setting set and the silence had returned, I sat on the steps in the middle of the square and finally arrived.


Day 16. Growing mountains. Manresa.


So many stories that still have to be told. It has been a beautiful walk but days have been so full and as always there is too little time to do everything I would like to do. It is a difficult choice always, to use the time to write down past experiences, to document, or to use the time to experience a new place, new people, be with the group, collect more stories. There are small trees to be taken care of, a suit that has to be embroidered, talks about collectivity and collaboratives, visits to convents, performances and concerts specially organised for the Grand Tour. And apart from the things that are planned there are so many unexpected things happening every day, so many wonderful conversations, magic places, new questions, old memories getting weaved into new ones.
There will be time afterwards to go back to all that has happened. 18 days that feel like 18 weeks. If I would really want to somehow catch all that has happened (as far as that is possible) I would need 18 months.

Today is a rare slow day in the walk. A day where we woke up in a beautiful apartment in the heart of Manresa and I wandered through the city to end up on my favorite square, the one I found when I was walking through Manresa virtually in June this year and explored the city´s street to look for graffiti by using Google Streetview. The square is just behind the warrior girl with the intense eyes, fighting for her dreams, whatever they are.

Tomorrow we will walk the last part of the walk, from Manresa to Montserrat. A week ago the holy mountains suddenly popped up, almost like a fata morgana. The rest of the week they stayed in our sight, sometimes invisible behind other mountains, behind buildings, trees, or hidden by the darkness of the night. Yesterday they were gone completely for a while, it had rained extensively in the early hours of the morning and the solid shapes were swallowed by thick grey clouds, as if God had performed a magic trick.

I guess we will see them again tomorrow, slowly getting bigger in our vision but not really changing size. I wonder if the mountains have seen us getting bigger as well. We must have grown during those 18 days. No man can stay the same walking for 18 days to reach a mountain.

When I put on my suit again this morning, like I´ve been doing every day, I saw two things. A tiny heart and a completely new mountain range.


Day 15. Samurai girl. Manresa

First thing I did when we arrived was to look for the girl I saw when I walked this city intensively in the virtual world (Google streetview) in early June this year. And there she was. In paint. In real.

Day 15. Repetition. Cacis Forn de la Calc - Manresa

The rain started somewhere in the night and didn´t stop. The land could use it so we only complained a little while we dismantled and packed our wet tents. Like most mornings, especially while camping, it all took a bit longer than expected and miraculously just before we were ready to head off the last drops fell down. I lingered a bit, it was such a beautiful place and there had been so little time to wander around yesterday. All over the land around the lime ovens, installations made out of natural materials were slowly changing shape, falling apart, decomposing, growing into something else. I hadn´t had a chance to talk to the people running the art centre yet but now there was, or maybe there wasn´t because I was supposed to walk but I took it anyway. 

It was 10.30 when I left, walking the last bit of yesterday´s walk in return. Nothing looked the same though. Colours were darker and dimmer, the sounds were different, the smell of the burned vegetation in the part of the forest that had recently burned down due to a forest fire smelled far more intense than it did yesterday. What was most shocking though was that the Montserrat mountains had disappeared completely. Not a single peak was visible. Our goal was nowhere to be seen.

Snails everywhere.

In Navarcles I had a double deja-vu. I sat on the same bench I sat on yesterday and stared at the water. No fishermen on the opposite side today, only a young man who looked as if his girlfriend had just left him and he didn´t know what to do. He stood on the riverbank like a salt statue, staring at the water just like me. A runner passed me, singing loudly. He ran across the bridge, passed the immobilized young man on the other side and disappeared out of sight. I checked my map, ate some figs. A runner passed me, singing loudly. He ran across the bridge, passed the immobilized young man on the other side and disappeared out of sight. I walked off before he would do his third round. A completely new road lay ahead after Navarcles.

The path followed the river Seu. Lush vegetation, bamboo bushes and big trees. Confetti on the trail in the middle of nowhere, who had been celebrating what here? A convent with closed doors, cameras checking if I wasn’t trying to get in. A big conference complex in front of it, with the photo of the founder on the wall of what once was a big factory, hence the name la Fábrica. I made a stop next to a young birch wih dead leaves. My hand almost fitted around its bark.

Walking up, out of the valley, I saw some glimpses of Montserrat again. The noise of the highway, that must have started somewhere barely audible and had quickly gotten louder, took over the sound of the water. I crossed a big road and civilisation was back. Allotment gardens, houses, a quite messy environment, dogs barking.
I entered Manresa at what I could only imagine to be the ugliest part of the city. Factories, warehouses, gigantic fastfood restaurants, big parking areas. No beauty without ugliness. And I bet loads of people loved hanging around here and didn’t spend one second wondering about the aesthetics of this place.

Into the center, across a metal bridge. Through a big door into a beautiful spacious hallway. Up the stairs, into the apartment. On the sofa. I had arrived. We had. Again.