August 2015 travelogue: Valcamonica, Italy
The last mountain I climbed was a place I saw art that has spoken to our kin over millennia. It still offers a signpost to wonderers and wanderers today. I won’t kid around, the journey was hard; I could hardly walk, even then, plus my asthma wasn’t under control but we were about to see creativity that bore past civilizations.
We flew first to Bergamo (my last flight) then found the local bus to Lake Iseo. Stairs were agony, but the place booked had one winding, steep flight of them to get to the lift they’d promised made the place accessible. Then such a barrier was a serious impediment but now it would be 100% impossible. The apartment was stylish with beautiful views and a sofa-bed that was all about looks, not comfort. The building boasted a cave spa though! The rhythm of life was dictated by the weather and the ferry, yet when every step feels like you’re walking on knives, a ‘lakes and mountains’ holiday is not always restful. Finding food we could both eat while out, as vegetarians and people with food allergies, was a challenge considering the wonderful cuisine available to those with no special dietary requirements. Yet we did comparatively well, navigating menus, supermarkets, and one mountain…
One day, we got up early (a task in itself) to take the first boat crossing over Iseo, then a train into the mountains of Lombardy to trek up to the UNESCO heritage sight we’d been told about; 8000-year-old rock drawings. It became a warm August day and clouds circled distant peaks like whipped cream over meringue. Each breath and step demanded a tall fee from me as we walked past the dwellings of those for whom it was routine. It may not have been as steep to the more able-bodied. I did not know then that was probably my last mountain, though my body was screaming the fact at times. I took in breathtaking views. The climb became rocky, winding through the gift of trees who offered to shade us. A basking cat welcomed us after our climb, their stomach upturned for affection.
On rocks continuing around a dip in the mountain there were ancient etchings. A people from another time spoke to us of their lives and of the nature and spirit of this place long ago. Images of deer were a continuous motif amid tens of thousands of different depictions from prehistoric to modern times as generations conversed through rock. Geometric forms that resemble grids and compass points met scenes of hunting, agriculture and occasionally battle. It seemed those travelling in harsh times were drawing, not only to leave a trace of themselves and their loved ones and so immortalise their experience; nor solely to commune with nature and/or the divine. I imagine those were among the inspirations and compulsion to create.
I believe they were also drawing maps, messages and life manuals for those coming after them. This may have been for future generations of their own families and immediate communities, but just as likely they were for future travellers and to retrace their own steps in seasons to come. The petroglyphs I saw spoke to me of a semi-nomadic existence, determined by the passage of the year and the weather. The deer pictograms link the culture of this Northern part of Italy to other cultures around the world. Close to home it reminded me of Scottish and of course sister Scandinavian and Siberian motifs as well as Native American imagery and history. Such images seem to link so many of us together, reminding us of shared ancestry or heritage so often forgotten or maligned. The deer on the crest for the central England city I live in has a lineage that spans continents and eras.
From reindeer to elk, from moose to Indian muntjac, from bison to fallow deer and highland stags, to the water deer of East Asia, the musk deer of Southern Asia and Barbary Stag native of the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, go back thousands of years and most of us will have forebears who lived side by side with these creatures’ forebears. Go back far enough and branches of our family lines will have lived their lives by the patterns of migration of the antlered ones. The ancestors of deer and our own kin lived in forests, prairies, and savannas from North and South America, each of the compass points of Europe, the Mediterranean basin and across much of Asia. Their antecedents and ours walked a long way. Most continents have or have had native deer. Australasia seems to be an exception, but ancient aboriginal art and song mapping seems to echo that mobile existence lived close to the Earth and the feeding and migrating patterns of fellow creatures. Ancient aboriginal art included messages and sacred rites etched on rock.
Valcamonica was the last mountain I was able to climb, though I chose to hope differently. It was the best ‘last mountain’ I could have hoped for. That art felt like branches of our shared family tree; (yours and mine, reader) had left their signatures there. Go back 7 generations and we each have 64 6x great-grandparents many of whom had multiple children. I do not believe anyone in the world could trace all 64 to the same place or nation, even if some of their lines go deep in one locale. Go back 8000 years and the chances are the majority of us have known or unknown ancestral connections to the cultures who drew deer on rocks to mark their lives, send ‘texts’ or prayers and mark prototype milestones on pathways of abundance to aid the next weary nomad. In the towns and cities, we saw modern iconography and tags spraypainted on stone and concrete. There two repeated motifs stood out, one linked forever to nazism, and the other a counterbalancing anti-fascist slogan. Many will know similar struggles against the loathing of difference and all the old prejudices. Let’s face it, this problem exists across borders in countries including my own.
The trail to Valcamonica rock art seemed to chart a question that is humankind’s last mountain. The answers may be different today but the quest is the same. How to live. How to survive. How to connect. How to protect what we need and love. Many of the challenges faced are different. Others such as getting enough food, warmth and human connectivity while navigating harsh and changing environments and human conflict are as true today as they were in those epochs past. The deer etched into stone tells of that timeless, urgent and evolving undertaking. It also speaks peoplehoods who worked with the patterns of nature and who knit together at our roots. Here’s to the last mountain, it’s a steep one; a doozy, but we climb it together.
Thanks to Sue Vincent for this week’s #WritePhoto inspiration:
For visually challenged writers, the image shows a snowstorm with the silhouette of a stag watching between two trees.