The senses of shifting
A meticulous exploration of Manakamana's inexhaustible universe.
"The shepherds are leaving for the pasture,
the mountain range is left sad and silent."
Popular songbook *
My sister does research on the family tree. Her patience has helped her to gather information on births, names and deaths from more than six centuries ago. Almost anxiously, I ask her: From where and to where? And she answers me: they were all born around this same area, in the valley of Valderredible. But did they move? I ask, and she shakes her head. No, they are all from here. The concrete point on the map gets stuck in my sternum. On the one hand, as repose for my anxiety and, on the other hand, as disappointment.
I explore my ego: Am I the only one in centuries who has decided to move so much in my family? There is a great-grandmother on the maternal side who was abandoned in a hospice. Her last name, changed a couple of times, will never give information about her past. The whole universe before her, along with the fine maternal and paternal lines, is something we will never have access to. Neither will we access, we think, the reasons for her orphanhood. What happened, that she was left alone? I see myself holding on to my great-grandmother's story to explain my wounds in some future time. When I feel like an orphan from miles away, I am afraid I will be able to say to myself: this is because my great-grandmother was abandoned.
Since the history of my maternal line stops there, in that orphanage, abruptly, and what I want is to find the migrant germ of my family, I make up the hypothesis that my great-grandmother was an explorer who later had shepherd sons—this much is true—and the rest of the story, we already know.
At that moment, it slips my mind that the shepherds also traveled, with sorrow at times, to the south. Like those mountain people who cried to the Extremaduran moon, longing for their own moon.
My sister has always been like an ant. That's what we say in the family: Marta is like a little ant. A little being that patiently digs in the earth to then transfer the food from one place to another. My sister is comfortable at home and in silence. When in summer she stays for hours in the sea or in the swimming pool, she seems to erase her land ant body to let herself exist in a liquid limbo: in those moments, my sister's body exists in another kind of transit, a non-place. Water is her space of travel.
My sister and I are twelve years apart. She is point A, I am point B, in our parents' genealogy. The distance between point A and point B is a permanent transit. Painful, sometimes, but indisputable in its sway. In the materiality of this bond there is a space-time distance that includes a divorce, a long childhood, a tormented adolescence, a baby. But in the immateriality there are millions of things: pains imperceptible to the human eye, even to the mirror, a deep affection. My sister and I are twelve years apart in material distance and light years apart in immaterial distance.
My sister has calcaneal spurs in her foot: her heels hurt like she's stepping on a nail. I tend to hyperventilate every two hours, with a frenetic heart that wants to drain itself all over my body.
My sister takes root in the earth through pain. I fly off from the wound. It is not our parents' fault; we are just two more sensible beings in the world, carrying the weight of our ancestors from different angles.
My sister has been minutely writing down the names of our ancestors for years. She has several notebooks in which she keeps every new piece of information about the relatives she discovers. She visits churches, cemeteries, censuses. Something that began as a small memory exercise has ended up being a relational and emotional inventory. Last Christmas dinner, she showed up with some printed sheets of paper containing the list of names from our maternal line going back from the 20th century to five centuries ago. There are many repeated names, she told us. Names that could be current. Martin, Soledad, Gabriel, Luisa. The trades are a little harder to find, but most of them were shepherds.
Since I move through the wound, I think my family tree will be able to give me the answers I've always been looking for. Why do I have this kind of foot disease? I have usually given myself my own answers out of the wandering itself: a deep curiosity, a need to get out of the village, an anxiety to catch knowledge through an open body. Discovering that my ancestors were nomadic shepherds opens before me as a new journey.
The shepherd lives between two worlds, the one above and the one below; he spends his whole life in the mountains, alone, far from his own people and from the landscape that saw him born.
That pain of the shepherd is my own, too.
It is nothing epic, but in its naturalness and in survival and necessity lies the most primal epic.
That path of the shepherd is my own, too.
««The shepherds are leaving for Extremadura, they are leaving now» was sung at the farewell on the day of San Miguel. The shepherds left for the grasslands of Badajoz in search of fresh pastures and a pleasant climate. They were looking for something beyond, to follow the rhythms of nature, to accompany her, and in the suspension of transhumance time, to watch and migrate the landscape. My shepherd ancestors left, every winter, their valley of Valderredible, and accompanied the herds to southern lands to escape from the cold side of everyday life. Some morning, very early and next to some stone hermitage of those mountains, the patronesses, the spinners and the laundrywomen said goodbye to the transhumant men.
That farewell of the shepherd is my own, too.
I wake up in a foreign city, a city of my choice. I have come in search of something I don't yet know. I surround myself with like-minded people, we are like shepherds leading a tiny flock.
I unfold myself. I say: I think my body will hate me for this. My body unfolds in the pain of movement. Without a fixed landscape. I am a split body.
In this city I will get to know:
In this other city I will learn:
In my first travels I thought I would learn to name everything from the delicacy of a pen. However, and almost without realizing it, travel as a way of life began at a vertiginous speed. Eighteen years old, first move abroad. Nineteen, second move. Twenty-one, third move. Twenty-one, fourth. Twenty-one, fifth. Twenty-two, sixth. Twenty-two, seventh. Twenty-two, eighth. Twenty-three, ninth. Twenty-nine years old, move number fifteen..
Speed has no rhythm. And this premise made my trip a disjointed journey (or so I felt), disowned, unnamed. Many times I found myself looking at the sky and longing for the same stars but from another place. Always in the longing for the lost land. And for the one I knew would come. My wound was shaped in non-permanence and, at the same time, it was impossible for me to establish permanence because the need to wander was always urgent.
I started to travel very fast, from one city to another, even from one continent to another. I moved through my body: it was the vehicle and the only house that kept up the pace. I woke up every day not knowing where I was going to be born again, wondering if that imagined place would be cleaner, slower, more mine. But I had not yet come to understand that in the journey there is nothing clean, nor slow, nor my own. I had yet to find the primordial core of the decision I had made: to be in permanent transit. And to find tranquility from there. I go through the drafts of my first collection of poems and find this poem that I finally discarded:
I go through the drafts of my first collection of poems and find this poem that I finally discarded:
There is no repeated climate
return no more
in this plain where you don't take
neither heat nor food
the restlessness of the animal
the world becomes healthy water alive with a womb
full of sun and a love
of salt and ear of wheat
transhumant is in this tongue
of open memory
I would like to think that some voice from centuries ago, from my inner threads, from my inner lands, whispered it to me.
Some of the villagers who attended the shepherds' farewell on the day of San Miguel also dreamed of traveling. They did not torture themselves over it, but looked forward to the shepherd's return so that he could tell them about all the nooks and crannies: the rains, the huts, the lost animal of the flock, the colors of the south. These people, who had never left the valley, traveled through the stories at the return of others' movement.
The path of the shepherds with the animals was long. And on that road the displacement was incarnated, it was embodied. There was no turning back: the shepherd would be, forever, a nomadic shepherd. At that time there was no precise map: the only way they measured the distance was from the shelter of the village they were leaving and the possibility of an open and new climate. That is: between origin and destination. But we know that the journey neither begins nor ends, because that would deprive the journey of the movement itself.
My ancestors marked the sheep's route with their sheepdogs. They were distributed in one way or another according to the journey: shepherds and animals formed a map in itself, in continuous displacement. In the case of the shepherds who made the transhumance on horseback, their rhythm was based on the speed of the animal. The shepherd's pace was marked by that of the horse. But the most present animal was the dog, which guided the herd attentively, marking the cardinal points of the cattle routes.
A transhumance movement is a movement of intersubjective language. A care team of living beings that recognize each other.
After each day's journey, and on some evenings, the transhumant team would stop at the resting places—or «majadas»—with their cattle. There they spent the night—the most open and starry night. The next day they would start early and take the opportunity to make a brief medical examination. The nomadic sheep often suffered from patera: an infection of the hooves that affects sheep, goats and cattle, usually caused by the humidity of the soil. A disease of the feet, in this case literal, material, painful, caused by continuous wandering.
The journey requires a deployment of care to continue.
The transhumant sheep's foot pain is the same as my foot disease.
When I decided to leave that city in the south of the south, so far from my home, I celebrated with several friends. It was not a farewell party, but a recognition for that stay. Our love, entangled in various accents, had become a network that would sustain us in the new march. There were hugs, music, a long and wounded night forever in the heart, a kiss on the wound about to leave. The orphanhood and the chosen transit then hurt a little less.
In my case, as in the case of the shepherds, to stay sane on the journey, I need to anchor an A and a B on the map, but underline the A with special emphasis. Underline it and highlight it and paint it. Making the A clear is, for me, a sigh of relief.
That distance of the shepherd is my own, too.
The itinerant exercise of hopping from one place to another is an ancient practice. Communities of shepherds have been traveling with their livestock since ancient times. In the Spain of the Middle Ages there was the Mesta, a guild dedicated to transhumant livestock for the transfer of animals between the summer and winter grasslands, and which established a whole network of livestock trails throughout the territory.
The transhumance of shepherds with their livestock is a universal practice that has barely survived until now, and with the specific peculiarities of each area, to accommodate the changes in each of the contexts. Today, pastoral itinerancy has almost disappeared, in a world that is undergoing innumerable changes in the transport of livestock, as well as in the exchange of culture and knowledge.
The ancestral transhumance is, therefore, a slow journey that has nothing to do with the type of travel we are exposed to and accustomed to today.
I glide across the airport floor. I am like a suitcase. Loaded with a new illusion that won't last long, I lick the floor and move from one terminal to another on the fast and very long belts. No one notices me. No one can notice me in a place like this. Yet I notice everyone: I see feet going slower than others as a reflection of anxiety embodied in the movement (within the movement). I see mothers loaded with big backpacks, big suitcases, big children, big husbands, big burdens, definitely; and I see, too, their desire to flee under their eyes. I glide across the airport floor. I wear the halo of the illusion of a new stage on my face. My whole face is illusion. My whole body: arms, illusion. Hands, illusion. Legs, illusion. Navel.
The airport is a matrix. A full vessel. A womb. The cavern before birth. The airport is not a space, it is a yes-place. The concept of «non-place,»proposed by the anthropologist Marc Augé, did not take long to go viral beyond the academy. It is a term that refers to a space of anonymity—and interchangeable, after all. One of the most representative examples of non-place is the airport. However, my perception is that the airport, as an entry and exit hole for so many human heartbeats, is the most place-like place that exists. Here the self is suspended and placeness is emphasized. The airport has no historical heritage, it has a multiplicity of historical, personal and cultural heritages, all in transit, the languages being spoken one over the others. With enough sensitivity, one could be overwhelmed by so much information, history and beauty concentrated here. But to be affected by that, there should be permanence, which is just the opposite of what an airport gives us. Entrance. Departure. Birth. Death. Is that what makes a place a place: to inhabit through permanence?
An airport is a mere casual crossing of people, an accidental crossing of coordinates. Where foreignness is placed above all things. Above the world. Above the very language that defines «foreign». Here it is not necessary to know the construction materials of the bulk that is the airport, nor the mechanisms that allow the correct functioning of the escalators. Nor is it necessary to know how an airplane works in order to travel by plane. In the 21st century, the knowledge of others is at one's own disposal for one's own travel.
A lifetime by foot. That is the precise distance between the movement of my ancestors and my chosen movement. The shepherd's body as transport. The shepherd's body as a suitcase for belongings. The shepherd's body as a guide for other animal bodies.
I use cars, buses, bicycles, airplanes—even, on rare occasions, boats. My shepherd ancestors walked an average of 20 kilometers a day with their herds. The route was north to south and south to north. An A and a B. It was not just any kind of journey: in order for their herds to subsist, the shepherds gave themselves to movement through an effort that gathered knowledge about adverse climates or the search for shelter to sleep. It was this effort that allowed the shepherds to make a unique reading of the opportunities that nature offered them: knowing the best areas for the passage of livestock or where to find firewood and refuge. The constant observation of the sky allowed them to quickly notice the meteorological variations of vast territories, as well as to orient themselves and calculate the time of day. They knew how to recognize signals in the territory that went unnoticed by others: the auditory ones, such as the precise languages of each animal. The songs of the birds, the bleating of the sheep. Also the earthly ones: the shepherds knew the depth and direction of the footsteps in the mud, which in the end were their tracks of coming and going.
The path of the shepherd is not my own.
It hurts me more and more to move through the landscape without pause. To glance at it through a glass. On wheels. I move, but I do not touch the earth. Today a calf crossed my path on the road. I braked the car with my body wrapped in shock. The calf's gaze pierced the coldness of the car, the metal, the glass, until it reached my eyes. We stood still for a few seconds, without blinking. Then he moved forward. He continued on his way to meet the other cows. Isn't this the real «non-place»? The concession of passing through the landscape without touch. To move with movement without the body.
The word transhumance means «one who recurrently changes places» and has the prefix «tras-» (from one side to another) accompanying humus, earth. In other words, the term transhumance refers to being on the road in connection with the land.
The transhumant shepherd inhabits the frontier. His wandering makes him belong to nowhere and yet, makes him belong to the place where he is. And, in contrast to this, living in displacement distances him from the place where he arrives or from which he departs. His transhumance makes him absent in his place of origin: absent in his emotional ties, absent, also, in his futures.
I arrive in this new city with an air of snow. The dark, ochre bug walks slowly along the window sill while the glass returns the image of a road full of cars at a hundred kilometers per hour. Is this what staying is? I feel ethereal and elderly at the same time. Who is Laura? most people ask. A mystery in silence, that's who I am.
I contemplate the lack and then I understand: the local, the permanence, the connection, the tilled earth. Without it I cannot transcend.
The absence of the shepherd, is it my own?
There are people who move through the world with euphoria, I cannot, I move out of the wound, like an animal whose mouth gets filled with search. It is simply unavoidable for me. With the peace of mind of knowing that I have a place to return to after the hustle—even if it is going to be unknown to me / even if I am going to be unknown on return—I move.
The transhumant shepherd was, on many occasions, the other. And he was so because of his intermittent social absence from the village, because of his work, which kept him disconnected and elusive. When he returned, the shepherd did not share the social spaces in an intense way either, but remained on the margins.
Neither village girl nor urbanite, I'm somewhere in between. Born and raised in a town of seven thousand inhabitants for the first eighteen years of my life, I moved to medium-sized cities and then migrated to macro-cities. I never felt comfortable anywhere but in movement (or in the knowledge of seasonal movement). The settlement, whatever it was, itched me, so to speak. And my restless personality was magnified, in what?
I am capable of demonizing and idealizing my village as much as the cities. I seek nature and familiarity anxiously, at times, and at others I take refuge in anonymity, the noises and the crowds. It gives me peace of mind to know that there is always a bridge, invisible, which is that displacement from one place to another: I know that I can be in the village or in the city until my senses are exhausted, until my body asks me to return to the other pole, to the village or to the city. I know that I have escape and choice.
Many of my ancestors' lives were destined for the countryside. Some were the sons of farmers' sons: they worked the land to obtain the fruit. Others were the sons of herdsmen's sons: they fed the animal with wild land in order to obtain its fruit (milk, meat). Many of these shepherds were sedentary, but there were also the nomads. They were given to movement by an imposed family trade, in many cases, a sacrificed work of comings and goings, from sunrise to sunset. I like to think that the nomadic shepherd was the one destined to transplant his own seed thanks to the movement of other animal beings, out of pleasure; but in reality transhumance was a hard job that responded to the adversities of the landscape itself.
The seasonal sway of the shepherd is my own, too.
But the choice of movement?
Today too, the weather—the same weather as always but more damaged—and hunger—the same hunger as always, the one that seeks the fruit—force thousands of people to give themselves to another kind of movement through the most painful touch: the body throwing itself into the sea, the body abandoning a point A to reach a point... which one? An absolute non-place, exile.
My particular heritage is transit, wandering, the link between one place and another place. In that limbo I build a future inheritance, a shelter, a living.
I do not desire permanence in a place, I do desire awareness.
The shepherds made itinerancy their habitat. There was no distinction between inhabiting and walking. Although an intermittent life can be seen as a source of suffering, shepherds used their knowledge to give a special permanence to their homes (ephemeral), to their materials (perishable), to their territory (displacement). They lived in the present. In pause. In real contact with the landscape and the path.
There is in my transit of today a transit of yesterday: I wish that we move beyond the glass, beyond the speed, through touch, definitely, to listen to the songs of the earth together with the animal bleating.
Our footprints should brush against the shepherd's, that is what I wish.
* Transmitted by transhumance throughout the Spanish plateau