The snow on the mountain ranged from ankle to knee-deep, and even the landrover got stuck in places. We parked near Cal Victor, the house/ruin we stayed by on the working retreat and where Guhyapati (‘G’) has his yurt. The snow and ice got even worse further along the track and access by any vehicle would be too dangerous to attempt. This time we would be in Cal Monsor on the other side of the valley. This house was rebuilt from ruins by hand with the help of friends and the local community and is a bit warmer than the little yurt I shared with Lucy in September.
By the time the retreat started a few days later the sun was blazing hot. I was walking around in a vest and people were talking about sun hats and lotion. Snow was still on the ground almost ten days since it last snowed. I had no idea snow could last so long in such heat!
The retreat stretched over three weeks from December 20th to Jan 10th. I have been looking for a way to escape xmas for years and finally found it. For those who wanted to celebrate we compromised with a puja.
I tried my first ever persimmon (and second, third and tenth!) – a strange tomato-looking fruit. I know a tomato is a fruit, but a persimmon is, well, fruitier. They arrived in our fruit and veg boxes each week and it was a race to eat them before they went rotten and fell apart, although stewing with porridge seems to work well and they are also nice with chocolate. The boxes included a range of local organic fruit and veg from a co-op. Tragically the squat we were getting bread from on the last retreat got evicted two weeks prior.
Communication, community and group dynamics made up a large part of the retreat structure. We had consensus-based meetings after dinner each day where we each shared in decision making about the retreat. We experimented with bringing mindfulness into this practice as well, sounding a bell after each agenda item. It had a very positive effect, bringing us back to awareness before moving on.
A contentious issue was the vegan question. Three of us were vegan and most others felt we should all eat a vegan diet (plus honey) during the retreat. There was only a small amount of resistance to this, but being an emotive issue it seemed to come up again and again. I learned a lot about communication, patience and compassion during this retreat and this issue and the way we dealt with it had a very large part to play in that. Several others mentioned they were thinking about going vegan by the end of the retreat and I think talking about the issues involved rather than shying away from them was one of the main factors.
G has an interesting method of teaching. He explains complex carbon cycles with a whiteboard and markers and the next day marches us up the mountain to see what he was talking about for ourselves. Yes, here are the lines in the landscape where the ocean floor split and ruptured – and here are the mountains that erupted when the continental plates collided. Here are the layers within the rock right at the top of the highest peak, which were once layers of sediment at the bottom of a primordial ocean. We spent seven hours climbing, sliding and occasionally walking up and down the individual precipices that make up the north ridge. We stopped occasionally – a sandwich here, a look at the view there – but not for long. I felt I had been hurrying the whole way. G said it would take five hours. Apparently he can do it in two – bouncing along from one rock to the next in trainers. I wasn’t sure how to look at him – in awe or with a scowl. I opted for sarcasm, with one eyebrow raised.
Each week we had a Solo Day: a chance to go out into the wildness alone and just be. I spent my first under the overhang of a rock in thick snow. On the second I went to hunt out the ruined houses up on the ledge near the coll. Lito was with me and was very exciteable. He continuously bounded off and then lolloped back again to check I was still coming. After we reached the far end of the ledge I sat down and he got bored and ran off. He came back looking for me after a while and when he eventually spotted me lying on my back on the grass he went
crazy with excitement and bounded over in his lovely clumsy doggy way. It was all I could do not to scream as he lunged towards my face, tongue flapping sideways in the wind. We both collapsed in a fit of giggles. Then he started chasing his tail round in manic cicles and I had to sit very still until he realised I wasn’t playing and bounced off again, pressumably to jump on one of the others who said they might
go up to the coll. I spent hours up there: lying, sitting, meditating or just gazing. The view was magnificent. I feel like I need almost unlimited amounts of space right now. I
almost feel like I could not possibly get enough of it. There was a moment up there on that ledge, having not spoken for a few days as we were in silence and with nothing to do for the day other than explore the wildness and just be. I could see only mountains, forests and fields for miles and miles. I thought: this is what space feels like.
Some people wanted a lot more silence. It was brought to the meeting and after some discussion it was agreed by everyone to have five days of silence in week two. I was initially hesitant, but after hearing from the others I began to see that it could add something to the experience. I have done a ten day silent retreat in the past, but had felt that for this retreat the communication was integral to what we were doing. I was reminded that speaking is only one form of communication. In the end I could happily have had another few days of silence, although it was a joy to speak with the others again and there followed a whole load of some of the most profound and interesting conversations I have ever had.
I am fascinated by the valley’s history. Some of the land Ecodharma is on used to belong to Tom, a local man. Tom’s father was shot by Franko’s men after hiding out in the valley. G has found obscure caves with tins of food in that date back to the civil war. There is also a giant cross on a distant hill that I would love to see sometime. I am told the Catholic Church erected it in support of fascism after the war, but there were loads of anarchists and communists hiding out in the area and they went and smashed it down. It’s still lying smashed on the ground somewhere.
On a long walk alone one day I came across two houses I hadn’t known existed – very exciting as I *love* ruins. The first was last lived in something like eighty years ago. It has plaster on the walls, a bed (complete with human-corpse-sized rolled up hay mattress), worn out straw hat on the back of an ancient kitchen chair and a cupboard with an assortment of old bottles and jars. A few small rooms are still intact and most door and window shutters are still in place, but the floor-boards are caving in and some of the furniture is dissappearing down the hole. I didn’t manage to get down to the bottom floor as I couldn’t see a safe way to do it and it seems as though the top floor may crash down into it at
any given moment.
I was surprised and delighted to see the furthest house as I came over the top of a mountain and saw it in the valley below me. This is the one Tom’s dad was killed in and it is still owned by him. It doesn’t have much in it but is mostly intact with a front and back doorway, ladder going up to small attic space and steps leading downstairs. I found a big dead tree near it and took some of the peeling bark for the altar in the shrine yurt. Later I lit a candle for Tom’s dad and all of the others who lost their lives in this valley.
After the retreat those of us who were left went to Tremp, the capital of the area. It was strange going back to the place G collected me from one month before. I felt different in some indefinable way. Tremp was like a huge city after the valley. We did some shopping and went to Carol’s house in Eroles for lunch and hot showers. It is SO BEAUTIFUL. Really vibrant, artistic, eccentric, creative, rustic, quirky, circusy and delightful. I desperately want to live there and start a community and put a trapeze up in the attic space. It was here we had a meeting one week later, with me talking and G translating into Catalan for a small group of people who want to start a Transition Initiative in their area. I am inspired to hear about how much is going on already in Catalunya.
There is so much more I could write about: contact dance with Ben and Alex, making marmelade with Yashobodhi, wood chopping lessons and discussions about gender with Rob, Jeanette’s yoga classes, Maitrisara’s rising song that woke us more gently than any alarm clock, Penny’s book, singing and poetry round the fire and so many more unique moments that made this my most beautiful winter ever. Thank you to all who took part in it.