Day Trippers: Mas Palou
Words and photography by Molly Steele
Between the crackling of morning in the branches, a near-noon bird song, and the dripping of heavy dew, the noise of not-so-distant cars occupy a layer of sound and presence that brings the world to the casa rural. We all wake slowly, orienting, familiarizing. An abandoned house is off in the distance, its silhouette attesting to the history here reaching further back through time beyond anything I’ve touched in America. Atop a hill overlooking vineyards sits the grand house of our artist residency. A stone chapel framed by trees of centuries old twisted bark holds the dust of generations. The family hosting my residency at Mas Palou is tethered to Catalonia like the roots of the hundreds of acres of vineyard dating back to 1623. They know old recipes, traditions, lineage, and the home is filled with heirlooms passed down and down, and further still.
Contrarily, I carry my history in a small ziplock bag of 5x7 photos, less than 10 in the stack that make up my prosthetic memory. What would my mom or dad, from whom I am estranged, think about a place and family tightly knit as this? The way life has led me to not capitalizing their names as proper nouns shares its source with the same gust that blows me over the ocean, a safe distance to do my remembering. Yet, I struggle to remember. Unlike an errant seed in the wind, I’m a branch from a Florida orange tree grafted with intention onto another of my choosing, more resilient and sweet than that from which I was torn. At the end of the road for my family line, my dormant womb is the last holdout in our lineage.
On the first morning of this artist residency, I saw in the water of a birdbath my own reflection as my mother. Like her decades prior, I find myself in the Spanish countryside, running, searching, asking, loitering. Visualizing a Venn diagram of our personhood, my understanding of her is exiguous. When imagining a life of cohesion, I realize it is merely a guesswork of our commonalities. My mom is wild and independent. In camouflage pants with pearls and hiking boots, she mowed lawns, rode a Harley to clean houses, and was a backwoods home nurse to raise my brother and I. There are memories I wouldn’t dare mention here, and then there are instances that are affirming of my own character and its connection to her. Like for example, the time she towed our full-size jacuzzi on a trailer behind our ’60’s Ford pickup truck out to the prairie to camp for Thanksgiving. Find me another mother who would. Yet here, the family’s shoes are clean, their eyewear costly, their labor outsourced and porcelain glimmering. Those who tend to their vineyard move like ghosts along the perimeter, unacknowledged, lacking reference. I think of my parents, both farmers and land-tenders, and how their labor and struggle affords me a lens to recognize that in others. In this environment so opposite from what I’m familiar with, I obsess over imagining closer ties to people and place.
My relationship to land is a heartbroken poem, a white knuckled grasp on a story malnourished of progenitors. I do want history and lineage, traditions, heirloom, place. Like a reed, I am linked to the swamp with longing for the amaranthine symphony of cicadas in concert with the bull frog and rustling pine forests. Here in Catalonia, there is a tradition in late winter and early spring, the harvest of the Calçots, a green spring onion. The Calçots are left dressed in the soil that nurtured them, as they’re strung together on wire as if constructing a headdress or necklace. Each garland is draped over a hot fire made with a bed of grape vines where they’re cooked and charred in succession and then bundled in newspaper to finish cooking off of the flames. Every detail is rooted in centuries old culture, the soil nurturing both the spring onions and the family, a cyclical flow, a cord.
They say, “You’re going to Spain, it’s going to be great. The work will come.” Days in and I’ve gone through more wine than ink. Every morning a new day thinking only of fading marshes, the memory of silt and muck. What comes is a growing sense of separateness from any anchor, forcing the question of identity’s recipe. Place, name, language, aesthetic, QR code, social security number, assumed pronouns, perception, resumé, script. Married to the story of the swamp, colored by clay in the road stuck to my shoes. Now the story moves with me like cans dragging unceremoniously several blocks from the event.
Ball without a chain
Endlessly rolling around
A cloud drifting by