Tue 2 Dec 2008 - Thu 4 Dec 2008 48 °F
I wake to a warm morning and a thick head from last night’s wine. Pigeons careen overhead like geese. The flock of peacocks scrabble down the cliff of the canyon outside my little studio. Cars and trucks buzz from the nearby highway that winds over the bridge into Mértola. The air seems more flexible, breathable; it’s a welcome change from the last few frigid nights.
I start what is now my morning ritual: a small fire in the woodstove to burn off the remaining cold in this stone building, a pot of espresso on the simple gas range, rote cleaning of last night’s dinner dishes. The refrigerator isn’t plugged in; I hope its insulation plus the cold nights is doing a good enough job with the milk and cheese.
This place is minimal: no heat besides the small wood stove, and an on-demand water heater that I only turn on when I really want hot water. Heavy blankets act as insulation draped across the rough doors of steel and glass, and more blankets insulate me while I sleep. The simplicity stops my habits, makes me consider actions, ponder consequences.
This is the life of the farm, of earthy practicality. Everyone, even the other guests, has dirt under their fingernails. I feel strangely too clean, sterile with my computer and camera.
News from Portland and Silverton twitters in via the internet connection. Morning here is near midnight there; my urban friends are traipsing around the city, documenting their comings and goings. Other friends on the west coast are off to bed, yawning as they type their last email.
I glance at my camera, ready on its tripod. I made my first photographic exploration yesterday, hefting my gear up the hill above the convent building. On the top of the hill is the aerie, the place the birds live. Up here are odd structures designed not for people but for avians: a short square tower, a dome-like building that could be a granary, an angled wall with a tiny roof. All these are homes for birds, carefully constructed to be welcoming to the birds that fly around the banks of the river.
At the very top of the hill is a wide, flat place, carefully cobblestoned in a large circle, smooth stones drawing the spokes of a wheel. In ancient times, perhaps before the convent, this was where corn was threshed. But there are vaguer meanings here: rumors that the spokes have meanings in ancient astronomy, or point in certain directions to places of forgotten importance. Someone was just telling me of ley lines, of electromagnetic forces that invisibly connect powerful places. This part of Portugal has been inhabited for a very long time: there are dolmens and other stone-age monuments scattered around these Alentejo hills.
And now, in these modern times where we know so much, these convent grounds seem to be built on mystery. Geraldine, Christiaan, and Louie have lived here since 1980; over the years, the family has slowly restored the abandoned, crumbling halls and courtyards, rebuilt the water mill, planted trees, and created and tended to what seems like dozens of tiny, distinct gardens. Geraldine and Christiaan are both artists, and art infuses everything. There is nothing factual and simple and straightforward here; everything has a deepness, as if the meaning is buried like an iceberg. As I explore the grounds, I am always running across small surprises: a piece of smooth glass balanced on a rock, a stack of slate like pages of a book, an arm from an old statue used as the edge of a footbridge.