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In this great feast of armchair travel, John Hanson Mitchell tells of his fifteen-hundred-mile ride on a trusty old Peugeot bicycle from the port of Cadiz to just below the Arctic Circle. He follows the European spring up through southern Spain, the wine and oyster country near Bordeaux, to Versailles (the palace of the "Sun King"), Wordsworth's Lake District, ...
In this great feast of armchair travel, John Hanson Mitchell tells of his fifteen-hundred-mile ride on a trusty old Peugeot bicycle from the port of Cadiz to just below the Arctic Circle. He follows the European spring up through southern Spain, the wine and oyster country near Bordeaux, to Versailles (the palace of the "Sun King"), Wordsworth's Lake District, precipitous Scottish highlands, and finally to a Druid temple on the island of Lewis in the Hebrides, a place where Midsummer is celebrated in pagan majesty as the near-midnight sun dips and then quickly rises over the horizon. In true John Mitchell fashion this journey is interspersed with myth, natural history, and ritual, all revolving around the lure and lore of the sun, culturally and historically. The journey is as delicious as it is fascinating, with an appeal for all those who look south in February and are drawn to dunes, picnics under castle walls, spring flowers, terraced vineyards, Moorish outposts, magic and celebrations. In short, to everything under the sun.
A Merloyd Lawrence Book
Author Biography: John Hanson Mitchell is the author of The Wildest Place on Earth, Ceremonial Time, and Trespassing and the editor of Sanctuary, the journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Winner of the 1994 John Burroughs Essay Award, he received the 2000 New England Booksellers' Award for his body of work. He lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.
By ten o'clock on the morning of the twenty-first of March, two days after I arrived in Cádiz, having purchased for this leg of the journey a bottle of vino tinto, water, an onion, some tomatoes, and the round little loaves of bread called pan duro, I set out for the Hebrides.
From the San Fernando district, I skirted the tidal flats of Cádiz and headed around the bay to Puerto Real and thence, taking back roads, began northward for the town of El Puerto de Santa María. The traffic thinned once I extricated myself from the city, and I began passing freshly plowed fields and shallow ponds with spiky green spears of grass and croaking frogs. I pedaled along at a slow pace, smelling the morning air, dreaming of the things to come.
All about me there were birds: white storks, ringed plovers, lapwings, and beside the road, stonechats, chaffinches, and sparrows flitting in the shrubbery and wagtails at the pond edges. The smell of the fresh earth and fresh-cut herbage crowded in on me as I sped onward, and the sun was warm, and I felt that I was once more in touch with the actual earth, with a humane, accessible world, as opposed to the cold, watery life at sea. It was all violets and sweet days and the heralding of birds, and the brown hills melting into green.
This was easy riding, no wind, and the countryside was flat, and I clipped along, pacing off the miles comfortably. There were periods on this stretch when I could see nothing around me but greening fields, olive groves, distant, white-washed farmbuildings with red roof tiles, pastures with grazing black bulls, and blue-green hills rising up higher to the east.
Not far outside the city I began riding by bands of country folk, mostly women, headed to or from the fields. They wore wide-brimmed straw hats held in place with white bandannas tied beneath their chins, and they all had round, nut-brown faces, with rosy cheeks and white teeth, and many of them wore full-cut blue or brown skirts and heavy shoes. Some carried mattocks over their shoulders, and they whistled and waved as I sailed by and shouted out phrases that I couldn't quite catch, possibly wishing me luck, possibly off color.
This retreat into the past was periodically broken by hurricanes of passing trucks, as well as whiney little cars that would whip by and then disappear like dreams over the horizon. The road was narrow here and the shoulders were rough gravel, or in some places lined with deep, grassy ditches dotted with suspicious frogs. Except for the cars and trucks, I rode on in peace, alone with the solitude of the seven-hundred-year reign of the Caliphate and the jackdaws in the groves, lapwings in the fields, the dashing flights of kestrels, and the ever-present flickings of sparrows and chaffinches in the brush.
I was purposely taking a small road to El Puerto, as I intended to do during this whole journey, and after a pleasant hour of this circuitous, inland wandering, I retired to a nearby olive grove to rest in the shade. Here I opened a bottle of water, ate an orange, and listened to the bird songs and the whinny of a distant horse and imagined myself free at last, a rambler out on the road, cut loose, the happy wayfarer, out on a splendid sojourn.
* * *
Most pilgrims know exactly the route they will take to their destinations. I had no particular itinerary. My main fix was time; I wanted to be at the stone circle of Callanish on the evening of the twenty-first of June to watch the sundown. My intention was to pedal along on small roads until the summer solstice, and then turn around and head home. Other than that, I had no route, no reservations, and no exact date of return; in fact I didn't know how I would return.
Where I would sleep each night would be a matter of chance. I was traveling light on this expedition, two panniers packed with a few changes of clothes, maps, bicycle tools, and a small backpack stocked with a few things I might need during the day. Lunch, extra clothes, water, and wine were fixed astern on a little rack over the back wheel, and in this manner I forged on, confident that I could find whatever else I needed along the way. I would be burning an inordinate number of calories on this journey and therefore would be able to indulge myself in the local foods and wines of France and Spain. I would ride all day, and then, fully exercised, roll into a pleasant rural town, find a heavy-beamed auberge or pension, top up with a local country repast, a bottle of fine local wine, and a good cheese for dessert, and then retire to my bed to sleep the sleep of the healthy and the just. At least that was the idea. My first night in Cádiz had not offered an auspicious beginning, however.
Two days earlier, shortly after debarking from the freighter, I had begun hunting for a room, but since it was late on a Saturday afternoon every place was full. I was sitting in a little public park near the main promenade, watching the bats twist above the gardens and considering the possibility of spending my first night in Spain on a chill park bench, when two boys sped by on bicycles, spotted me, and spun around.
Spanish boys are not shy.
"What bicycle is that?" they asked.
Why was I sitting here with this bicycle?
"I am thinking of where to stay." I said. "I am going to ride this bicycle to Scotland. But tonight I want to stay in Cádiz."
"Scotland?" they shouted.
"Scotland," I said with equal enthusiasm.
This led to a discussion of football teams—of which I knew nothing, but feigned some knowledge—and this led in turn to some cousin who was on some team that at some point in the distant past took him into this Scotland to play in rain and even snow, and this in turn led to the story of one boy's uncle who, he said, ran a sort of pension.
"We will take you there," they said. "He rarely has guests."
And so the three of us mounted up and I followed them ever inland away from the coast, twisting and mining through high-walled little streets until we came to a small door on a small back street. This door in no way resembled a hotel entrance but they knocked and shouted and pounded and eventually an older gentleman in a cardigan sweater came out and said, yes, he had a room.
It was a dark back room with high ceilings, and a massive old Gothic bed, in which, I later learned, the owner's ancient grandmother had recently perished.
That settled, I went back to the main promenade to meet Dickey and Rafe for dinner.
Rafe knew of a good restaurant that served, so he claimed, the best anguilas al horno in town, a local dish of elvers, olive oil, and garlic, baked at a very high heat in a casuela dish. Dickey left her mother at the hotel to recover from her sea going ordeal and the three of us stayed out late, something that is de rigueur in Spain if you want to have a good dinner. Rafe knew all the hot spots in town, such as they were, and after we had eaten, we went out bodega crawling, sampling the local beers and sherries and listening to touristic versions of bulerías and soleares. Dickey loved it, clapping her hands, clicking, and snapping her fingers, and the performers loved Dickey, with her mop of hennaed hair and her painted nails and her dark lipstick and high spirits.
By two in the morning I left on my bicycle to thread my way home through the labyrinth of streets the boys had followed earlier in the evening. Dickey and Rafe were still celebrating when I left.
* * *
All through the summer and autumn before I went south, during the whole winter in the Everglades, all the time that we were at sea, the great spinning earth had been speeding on its appointed course through the heavens. On my second night in Cádiz, on the twenty-first of March, in the pitch dark of the night sky beyond my ominous bedroom, the sun, as viewed from earth, entered the Ram and crossed an invisible halfway point on an imaginary line known as the celestial equator. At that moment, 3:22 in the morning to be exact, spring officially began.
This perception of four distinct seasons, and the ability of early human beings to track and predict or even control the celestial events, seems to have been one of the constants of the human condition. Artifacts designed to measure time and track the courses of the sun and moon date back more than 24,000 years. There is an ancient mammoth-ivory baton marked with designs that was found on the Mal'ta Peninsula in Siberia that appears to be some sort of calendar designed to track celestial events, for example. But the awareness of the seasons, of the importance of seasonal changes, and of the effects on herd migrations is far more ancient.
The perception of a singular, blazing entity in the sky that appears on one side of a given landscape, crosses the sky, and then disappears on the other side, alternately spreading light and then darkness over the land, must reach back even to the dull consciousness of Australopithecus and the other protohumans who roamed the savannas of Africa over one million years ago. Whether these apelike beings in any way associated this blazing light in the sky with life on the earth, we cannot know. Nor can we know whether, at some point in the slow evolution of the bicameral brain and human consciousness, upon seeing this blaze of light appear each day, these apelike beings stretched their lips back over their snouts and hooted with a specific call to indicate its coming and going. We do know that many species, such as birds and monkeys, begin singing and calling at first light. And we know too that certain species of our distant ancestors, the lemurs of Madagascar, collect together at dawn and sit upon their haunches with their arms lowered, palms outward, facing the rising sun as if in prayer. But as far as early humanoids are concerned nothing is recorded.
We do know, however, that burial sites indicate that even the supposedly dull-witted Neanderthals buried their dead with an east-west orientation, implying a consciousness of sunrise and sunset and—perhaps—an association of light and day with life, and nighttime with death and an underworld, a dark continent that this life-giving sun visits at the end of each day.
Not far from the olive grove where I was resting outside of Puerto de Santa María, there is a megalithic site that is believed to be a part of an ancient protoreligion. And just to the south at Tarifa the southernmost prehistoric cave paintings were recently discovered in an area already known for dolmens, caves, and shelters decorated with art of the Upper Paleolithic period. One of the most important of these Spanish sites consists of a multitude of caves that have been purposefully dug into the rock and megalithic constructions that form a closed gallery around ancient graves containing pieces of ivory, bronze and gold, stone tools, jewelry, and perforated discs made from shells of mollusks. Whatever is known about ancient solar practices has to be surmised from artifacts of this sort—cave paintings, burial sites, and megalithic temples.
Archeologists have found what they believe are solar images in the form of spirals that may be 40,000 to 50,000 years old, scratched on cave walls. The pattern shows not only the circular image of the sun itself, but also the seasonal course of the sun in relation to earth, as it migrates along the horizon during the various seasons of the year. There are also innumerable figurines, technically known as "small art," from the same general period inscribed with geometric designs such as the cross or spirals, and also many examples of one of the most important ancient solar symbols—the swastika. Although sadly eclipsed by the dark star of National Socialism after 1934, this design was a direct representation of the sun's rays and also a reference to the notion of revolving wheels or clusters of the circumpolar stars.
There is also a 37,000-year-old Mousterian artifact from Pech de l'Aze in the Dordogne Valley in France that suggests the people of that period had what we now understand to be a religion, that is to say they were capable of experiencing themselves as separate entities from nature and that in the occasional idle moment when they were not busy surviving they found the time to reflect on their existence.
Although I didn't recognize the image at the time, I had seen one of the scratched solar spirals on a cave wall in Portugal a few years before my pilgrimage. Near the town of Moura, on the Alentejo Plain, there is a small cave entrance with an iron gate across it. If you can find the local shepherd who is the keeper of this cave, for a few coins he will open the iron gate and lead you down deeper and deeper into the narrow passageways. Here, lining the crevices of a wall, is a row of human skulls. A little farther along, on the right wall, are the scratched images of animals now extinct in Spain and Portugal—reindeer, woolly mammoths, wild horses, and bison—created some 30,000 years ago by the ancestors of the people who now live on the Iberian Peninsula. Amid these various scratches, straight lines, squares, and stick figures, I remember seeing an engraved spiral.
Not far from that cave there is later evidence of solar worship, a circle of standing stones about thirty yards in diameter. Twenty yards or so beyond this circle are four larger upright stones about five feet high. They stand apart, at the four quarters of the compass, as if guarding the inner circle from some imaginary invader. This oddly formal company of stones, placed here in this empty quarter of the Alentejo Plain, standing alone among the cork oaks and sheep pastures, was the work of a Neolithic tribe of people who descended from the cave artists. The stone circle, the four outlying uprights, and the whole alignment of the structure are arranged in such a way that the sun, on the summer solstice, will appear just over the northeasternmost marker. On this day, at this singular point, it will halt in its daily march to the north and begin south again. Fifteen thousand years ago, this day marked a major event in the lives of the people who lived on the Alentejo Plain. Now no one seems to notice.
I came upon these early solar artifacts some years ago while I was following the story of another solar-related event, a distant cousin of these ancient rituals, the Christian festival known as Carnival, which takes place the world around at the beginning of spring and is, as are so many Christian holidays, essentially a pagan festival. During Carnival, as any revelers will tell you, anything can happen; the world is turned upside down. It is a holiday that actually dates back to the Babylonian period, and probably evolved out of even earlier Neolithic rites. In Europe it is no accident that this event is celebrated at the end of February, when the world itself is changing, when the spring flowers begin to bloom out of the brown winter fields and the migratory birds return to Rome, where Carnival as we know it originated. Carnival evolved out of the pagan rites associated with earlier cults of the vegetative god Attis and bears some resemblance to the solar-based festival known as Saturnalia, both of which were subsumed by the Christian church in the first century A.D.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
* * *
To begin at the beginning, it is currently believed that some five billion years ago in a smoky region of the universe presently referred to by various cultures of earth as the Milky Way, a vast, incandescent cloud of gas began to coalesce and collapse on itself until it formed just one more of the one hundred billion stars found in the Milky Way.
According to one theory, as it coalesced the cloud began to spin, and the more it shrank the faster it whirled and the rotary forces of this mad turning caused it to flatten into the shape of a spinning top. The force of this rotation was so great that a thin disclike section broke off from its widest girth and separated itself from the central star. This disk continued to spin and eventually clotted and broke apart and whirled off into space to form the nine planets, which, as if in memory of their ancient connection to the mother star, continue circling to this day. Another, more current theory holds that the cloud broke apart earlier and the nine planets formed at the same time as the sun.
Excerpted from Following the Sun by John Hanson Mitchell. Copyright © 2002 by John Hanson Mitchell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted August 10, 2002
Whoever wrote that Kirkus review obviously didn't really read this book and was probably confusing the author with somebody else. Mitchell's books are always so full of good cheer and generosity. (How does such an unprofessional person get to be printed up by a journal like Kirkus anyway?) Following the Sun is so rich--a journey on two levels; a review of virtually everything under the sun, from myth to bird migration, photosynthesis, and the solar origins of Christianity. It's also an amazing bicycle ride--all the way from Cadiz in southern Spain, to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland with journeys through the vineyards of Bordeaux, the chateaus of the Loire and the stone circles of the British Isles in between. Mitchell has a way of falling in with eccentric types, something that is evident from his other books eg. Ceremonial Time, and The Wildest Place on Earth (all about gardens and the American wilderness). He seems to be able to mix arcane facts about the setting of sugar in wine grapes, and the perversities of Roman emperors and the like with a sharp ear for story. There are some great ones here with and some rollicking Old World characters. The author followed back roads all the way, and he did it before the establishment of the European Union when all the food was better, the wine sweeter, and the stories deeper. And Mitchell's writing style, lyrical and smooth, is a salve for whatever ails you. What a pleasure!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.