by Martha Anne Toll
We don’t look up enough.
I had the immense good fortune to spend part of September in a town called Auvillar in southern France at a writing residency sponsored by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Auvillar is a stunning Gallo-Roman town on the Garonne River. It sits on the pilgrimage route that converges with the Camino de Compostela which traverses northern Spain to terminate at Santiago de Compostela.
Auvillar is a welcoming place; townspeople put signs in their windows to notify hikers of available chambres.The ancient chapel to Saint Catherine is opened every day for pilgrims (a sanctuary for arts fellows as well). Neighbors leave out food baskets for walkers passing by—succulent fresh tomatoes, and figs plucked straight from the tree.
I was in Auvillar an embarrassingly long time before I remembered to look up. When I did, I discovered an abstract figure appended to our studio building that suggested both tumbler and hiker.
The artists’ residence and studios were at sea level, but the actual town of Auvillar is set atop a near vertical incline. It overlooks fields of sunflowers, poplar groves, towns dotted with church steeples, and two giant nuclear cooling towers that form the region’s economic base.
I took to climbing the hill to Auvillar once a day, often more. Looking up, I saw statues of pilgrims appended to corners of buildings and tucked under eaves. These delightful objects portrayed people from multiple walks of life—the pious, the joker, the observant, the established. Part whimsy and part encouragement, the sculptures are a visual refreshment after a rigorous climb.
That is, if you look up.
We writers are a brand of pilgrim, wandering through our minds’ detritus on quests we may never identify. Author and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth’s most recent book, Savage Gods, recounts such a journey. There is the physical side — reckoning with his ceaseless world travels — and the mental — an interrogation of his professional arsenal: words and language.
In Savage Gods, Kingsnorth looks up, down, and inside. He doesn’t find it easy. After a lifetime of environmental activism and reportage, he’s moved his wife and young family to Ireland to live off the grid. Where he expected to find rootedness, he finds disconnection; where he believed he’d chosen his future, his gaze jerks backward. He means to spend more time parenting and educating his children; instead he feels lost and lonely.
If Kingsnorth lapses into self-indulgence, he can be forgiven. His self-assessment is brutal in Savage Gods. Why did he fail to see that home was in fact the characterless suburban village he just left? Why didn’t he understand where his real friends were? Unfortunately, they are not in this picturesque part of Ireland where he knows no one but his wife and children.
In his malaise, Kingsnorth questions everything he’s done before. Have his choices been foolhardy, thoughtless, arrogant? He’s deeply troubled by his younger need to impose views on others (read, his activism), his father’s relentless upwardly mobile push that terminated in suicide, whether his Buddhist practice is relevant, and how he can live a moral life. In short, Paul Kingsnorth is on a tortured search for meaning.
He’s not alone. Count me among the legions traveling through this dangerous, frenzied world who’s also on a tortured search for meaning. Writing is the one sphere where I can — not often and not easily — enter a church that quiets the outside world. I say “church” without religious implication, just as “pilgrimage” encapsulates something broader than a religious journey.
Which of these quirky characters watching over Auvillar shall I choose as guardian of my wanderings? The blue fellow with the spiked hair tipping over in his seat makes me laugh. I trust the stern rectitude of the two stone figures, even if I can’t decide whether they’re mother and child, nun and postulant, or monk and novice. The tumbling hiker inspires a sense of elasticity and adventure. I love that an artist thought about and designed and created each of these statues, just as I am trying to undertake my own creative act.
In Savage Gods, Kingsnorth struggles to answer what’s next. “If not writing, then what?” he asks. “Being, I suppose. But being is harder.” He makes peace with his lack of clear vision for his future. In so doing, he flags another positive: his certainty that since words brought him to this juncture, words will save him. If his track record holds, he’ll look up and write on.
As for me, I’ll need to hold onto those wonderful creatures hanging off the sides of buildings in Auvillar, as a reminder to look up and relish the journey.
Martha Anne Toll’s essays and reviews appear regularly on NPR Books and in The Millions as well as in the Washington Post’s The Lily, the Rumpus, Bloom, Narrative Magazine, [PANK] Magazine, Cargo Literary, Tin House blog, The Nervous Breakdown, Heck Magazine, and the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her fiction has appeared in Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Slush Pile Magazine, Yale’s Letters Journal, and Poetica E Magazine among others. Martha is also the Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund, a path-breaking social justice philanthropy focused on criminal justice reform and housing and homelessness. Martha tweets at @marthaannetoll.