Where the Spirits Live

17th July 2012 – After a six hour drive we leave the busy main road and turn right down into the narrow valley of Arigna, cross over the bridge and start to drive up the road that meanders amongst a forest thick with chestnut trees. This is Arigna in the Italian Alps, not the Arigna in Co. Roscommon; we are going to my mother’s village where I spent all my summers as a child. I haven’t been here in over fifteen years.

While my husband John carefully navigates bend after bend I search for known landmarks: the small graveyard where my ancestors are buried, the huge boulder behind my grandmother house where we used to play ‘shop’, the public fountain where the women gathered to do the washing and to collect water for the house. I recognize the narrow paths amongst the fields where I used to roam free like a wild animal.

Suddenly the valley opens up and here the road ends. My cousins Vanda and Denise are waiting for us. We park the car at the edge of a field (at the edge because the helicopter that bring goods to the top of the mountain needs space to land!) and we drag the suitcases down a grassy path to the house. On the balcony we look around and, as far as the eye can see, the mountains surround us. I feel a strong emotion and finally I feel I am home: this is the place where the spirits live and, over the following week, I summon them up one by one.

Back in Ireland when I was planning this trip I made a mental list of the places I wanted to revisit, the people I wished to meet, the food I was longing to eat and the stories I hoped to hear once more because, though I wasn’t born here, this is the place that made me the person I am today.          Arigna is where I learnt my trade. When I was a child the village had no Art or Culture, no luxuries or refinements. The local people, mostly farmers, only spoke the harsh dialect that has no resemblance with the national language and most of them never went beyond elementary schooling. But their lives and their imagination were no poorer for it.

From them I learnt the art of craft. They were natural at it. Though the women did not paint with brushes, they nevertless wove beautiful rugs rich with the most subtle colours. The men hand-carved bowls and utensils and enriched them with complex designs. From my grand-uncle I learnt the art of storytelling as I accompanied him on long walks, pestering him with requests for one more story about his life in the high pastures, of emigration and hard work in the mines. The rest I learnt from the surrounding world, a picture book full of natural wonders and mysteries that spanned from the mountains and valleys to the plants and animal life.

Later my art studies gradually took me further south, to the towns and cities where Art and Culture enriched my learning and my passion flourished and where finally I became ‘civilized’.

Our visit to Arigna ends with a hike up to the valley where the blueberries grow. While the cousins gather them I walk up to the stream and cup my hands to drink from it, then I sit and look up at the top of the mountain.I summon my grand-uncle once more: “One more story” I plead “a last one”.

And the stream delivers it.