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.

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