Strolling into the French Midi village of Montreal, I feel that familiar surge of excitement and recognition as I spot the scallop shell emblem that tells me I’m again on part of the legendary Camino de Santiago – the first long-distance pilgrimage walk to be awarded Unesco World Heritage status for its historical and spiritual significance. For a while at least I’m not only following in the spoor of wolves and other wildlife migrating across Europe's Great Mountain Corridor, but walking in the footsteps of seekers over the centuries who have followed more than a dozen routes that converge on the fabled Spanish city of Santiago. It is here that the remains of St James, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ, are reputed to be buried. And for a dedicated few the journey doesn't end here either and continues along paths trod by earlier Celtic pilgrims who followed the stars of the Milky Way to Finisterre and the dramatic meeting place of towering cliffs and stormy seas that was believed to be the end of the Earth.
Each person walks for his or her personal reasons, be they religious, spiritual, historical or simply for the challenge, although the Camino's ability to transform and elevate human consciousness seems in little doubt to those seeking deeper meaning in their lives. The pilgrimage idea first loomed on my personal horizon many years ago after reading a controversial book by American screen legend Shirley Maclaine and another by Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho who described a spiritual awakening on the long road to Santiago. Two years ago it was time, my motivation being to better understand how to be the change I wished to see in the world.
The blue-and-yellow seashell emblems guide me to Montreal's imposing St Vincent Collegiate Church and I open a heavy and weathered wooden door, stepping into a dark and inviting cool. I'm soaked in perspiration from the baking heat outside and relish a time of quiet introspection and gratitude. Even a few months earlier I'd never have imagined the privilege of walking for the Earth as an ambassador for WILD10, the World Wilderness Congress. When I step out again into the sunshine it is with a renewed sense of purpose and a mind wide-open to new possibilities.
I'm between two worlds, trying to imagine the immense challenges of traversing the landscape as a wolf while simultaneously exploring the cultural history of the Cathars who were branded as heretics and ruthlessly persecuted for their beliefs. Maybe the two worlds aren’t so different after all, wolves and the medieval Christian sect both fighting for their right to life in the face of human cruelty and intolerance. This is the heart of Cathar country and everywhere I look there are reminders of what became a popular mass movement in Western Europe led by travelling apostles who described themselves as "good men" and "good women" and "good Christians." The Catholic Church had a different viewpoint and the infamous Albigensian Crusade between 1209 and 1229 was initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism, the pontiff branding them as heretics and ordering their imprisonment and the confiscation of their property. That prejudice smacks of the religious fundamentalism that continues to cause bloodshed and heartache today.
Wolves too are at the bloody receiving end of human ignorance, prejudice and narrow self-interest. And we need them just as we need a diversity of opinions and beliefs, respecting differences and building on common ground. When walking in the great Cathedral of Nature it seems so obvious that we are kith and kin to all the life forms with which we share this magnificent planet. We're interconnected and interdependent.
I'm warmly received as a pilgrim when I stroll into Fanjeaux, home to fewer than 800 souls whose most famous past resident is Saint Dominique, founder of the Catholic Church’s Dominican Order. I stay in the convent that bears his name and meet a delightful dark-skinned nun from the Caribbean island of Martinique. Her English is on the same level as my French, so we mostly communicate with smiles, occasionally resorting to writing or drawing something on a scrap of paper.
Being on a Camino route constantly reminds me to be a pilgrim rather than a tourist, something I delved into deeply during a five-day workshop at Findhorn about exploring inner and outer landscapes. Pivotal to my understandings has been time spent with spiritual and ecological activist Satish Kumar, who as a young man walked on a peace mission from India to the nuclear capitals of Moscow, Paris, London and Washington. The 76-year-old editor of Resurgence magazine sees life as a sacred journey and the Earth as our sacred home. "Either we can act as tourists and look at the Earth as a source of goods and services for our personal use, or we can become Earth Pilgrims and treat the planet with reverence and gratitude," he invites. "Tourists value the Earth and all her natural riches only in terms of their usefulness to themselves, while pilgrims perceive the planet as sacred and recognise the intrinsic value of all life."
Satish says he became a pilgrim at the age of four, when he walked with his mother to the farm, she insisting that walking there was a pilgrimage, whereas if they travelled on horseback or in a camel cart then they were just interested in getting there. "My mother would say that when you touch the Earth, you are touching sacred space – a divine space – and God is present in the Earth. And everything upon this Earth is a manifestation of the divine spirit in physical form. You have to imagine that this flower you are looking at is not just a physical flower; it is an embodiment of divine spirit. The flower is an intelligent and animate being." He walks unhurriedly, stopping often to admire a plant or share a wisdom. "As a pilgrim I discover the mystery, the magic, the meaning and the magnificence of life in every step I take, in every sound I hear and in every sight I see."