Imagine a story written from the point of a view of a huge saguaro cactus high on a trail in the Sonoran Desert. In my novel ANSWER the two main protagonists do exactly this. The idea grew from a desert hike Anne and I took in the desert during a trip to Arizona a couple of winters ago. The same idea came back to me as I sat in an olive grove last week, halfway up a mountain in southern Montenegro.
The saguaro and the olive both stand sentinel over dusty, dry land tracts which have been traversed in different ways by different peoples over long, long periods of time. In the case of the cactus, it may be anything up to two hundred years, and with the tree, up to two thousand. (Don’t worry, this blog post isn’t about to become a history lesson) but just consider what the cactus must have seen as the lives of the native Americans were overcome by Old World settlers, and how this self-same race of settlers toed and fro-ed along the same parched trails bringing new ways in its wake; until even Anne and I walked beneath its magisterial stare. And as for the Montenegrin pathways, just think of the Greeks and Slavs and Turks and all their conquests…right up to the two world wars and not-so-distant Balkans War. And now Anne and I – as with the saguaro before – passing under an impervious arboreal sight.
Okay, so I’m anthropomorphising – but I like the idea of all those hundreds of lives passing and all the changes that occur either slowly or quickly and yet how those plants just go about their business of simply standing their ground in one never-changing place, patiently developing their gnarly shapes and deeply embedded eyes. I’m not kidding. Take a look at one, an old one, saguaro cactus or olive tree. Full of eye-holes.
That’s why I was glad to have a close-up of an olive tree on the cover of SOUL JOURNEY – all that development, all that change, in such a short space of time, all under the benign scrutiny of ancient bark. In Abigail’s case, such friendly observation – in contrast to her being deviously spied upon by the technology of GCHQ/MI5 agents – was performed by the beech trees of south Bucks.
It’s as though some things are in constant change and other things hardly alter at all. I sometimes wonder if I prefer the one above the other: the serenity and safety of the passive, the panic and fear contained within its active counterpart. Tree or wind.
Well, in a sense, that’s the kind of backdrop and foreground being drawn up as Anne and I continue with our wandering through these Balkan landscapes…
Actually, while sitting in the olive grove, as cool evening emerged, Anne mentioned the setting reminded her of the Garden of Gethsemane – where we had sat in the burning heat ten years earlier – and now there’s an image: the place where Jesus underwent his one moment of doubt, the occasion and place of his DNS (dark night of the soul), recalled in a moment of utter beauty and tranquillity on a campsite. Because, I have to say, I have never sat in such a beautiful camp setting before: the five-hundred year old olives, the grapevines and the dark Montenegrin mountains looking over all. As evening falls you can see why the country is known as ‘Black Mountain’, since the terrain appears preternaturally dark. So, again, rest versus panic.
I think I know what I don’t want: the middle ground. And since I’ve already had my DNS, I reckon pretty soon I’m gonna want to plump for the easy way. Now I’ve just got to find out the best way of doing so.
We met with our daughter this side of the Albanian border and had a fantastic lunch in a restaurant overlooking the river in Ada Bajana – and then we said goodbye again, not knowing exactly where or when we are going to meet up next time. At any rate, it may not be this year, and it may not be on this continent. It won’t be the Balkans, I don’t suppose. Not on that occasion.
We returned to a beachside campsite a few miles back up the road, got changed, and went to a bar to watch the England game on TV.
There you are again: two patient onlookers at the hopes of two nations being played out on a changing screen. Though only for ninety minutes this time.
Posted from a site near Lake Skadar, Montenegro