Our task must be to free ourselves … by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.
Walking the Trail to Salamanca is an exploration and celebration of wildness and the return of iconic species like wolves, bears and bearded vultures – but it is also an encounter with brave souls fleeing cities and the clutches of rampant materialism to find themselves again in the loving embrace of nature. While countless abandoned villages and farms in rural Europe are monuments to a recent migration to the cities, creating opportunities for wildlife to stage an astonishing comeback, I'm also meeting sophisticated and city-wise people choosing to be part of that nature renaissance. A common goal is to reduce environmental impacts and create more sustainable business opportunities by living in harmony with the natural world.
Nowhere is this more vividly portrayed than in the hilltop Catalonian village of Farrera, which has been lovingly renovated as the home of around 25 inhabitants based at the Centre of Art and Nature, which showcases a way of life that honours nature as a source of physical and spiritual nourishment and inspiration. We're three happy pilgrims who are oblivious to our welcoming committee as we walk a narrow winding road towards Farrera, stopping often to pick wild strawberries, raspberries and cherries. I've already trekked for more than two months, mostly alone, although today Miquel Rafa of the Catalunya-LaPedrera Foundation is my guide and Cape Town hiking buddy John Horler has joined me for the second leg of the Trail to Salamanca and World Wilderness Congress in October.
As we near Farrera we become aware of colour, movement and music, a group of joyful troubadours coming towards us singing a welcome. In the village square others await our arrival, their wide smiles warmly inviting us into their special world. I'm almost at a loss for words as we're ushered into a magnificent home that is a work of art itself. After a much-needed shower I show a short video on WILD10 and answer questions about my walk and motivations, Miquel translating into Catalan.
Dinner is a stylish affair and the finest meal imaginable, a variety of local organically-grown ingredients skilfully blended to tempt all the senses, the chef seeing his cooking as inseparable from the art of living. Lluis Llobet is my charming host and he describes modest beginnings in 1996 – less than two decades later Farrera is a much sought-after retreat centre that offers courses, workshops and a quiet place in which to be both creative and introspective. I’d love to write my next book here and would probably fit the profile of visiting artists and writers who spend a month or two in Farrera finding and expressing their gifts. A beautiful book catches my eye and it is all about mature forests of the Pyrenees Mountains as seen through the eyes of artists who spent time at the Centre of Art and Nature.
When Miquel, John and I starting walking again in the morning Lluis gives me a hearty hug and I feel a familiar sadness, wondering if I’ll see him and his inspiring community again. Two nights earlier I'd walked into another big surprise, the village of Llagunes inviting Miquel and I to address them, our 11pm audience including almost every man, woman and child despite the lateness of the hour.
Marc Cortina Grau, a 31-year-old engineer from Barcelona, offers to guide us through a challenging section of the High Pyrenees Natural Park and shares his hopes and fears. He's throwing his energies into making a success of a remote hikers' hostel in Llagunes called Refugi Vall de Siarb. His parents, like many others of their generation, moved to the city decades ago and now Marc is bravely doing just the opposite. He's teamed up with like-minded nature lovers including a geologist, snow and avalanche expert and a mountain guide, and his greatest joy is taking visitors on educational outings and sharing his vision of a different and perhaps better world that's closer to nature.
I tell him about Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, who popularised the hypothesis of nature-deficit disorder, which describes the human costs of alienation from nature. "When people begin to consider the career possibilities of human restoration through nature their eyes light up: here is a positive, hopeful view of the human relationship with the Earth." Richard Louv adds that studies have shown the health benefits of nature range from more rapid healing to stress reduction to improved mental performance and vitality. "Health isn't just the absence of illness or pain, it's also physical, emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual fitness – in short, it's about the joy of being alive … nature is the ultimate anti-depressant … a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit and survival.