When a River came back

“We are living in a strange time, right now absolutely anything – good or bad – is possible,” he said. It was mid December – that period of deep winter days when the world had recently received some shocking news, and it felt like a shadow of dread lay over everything.

On a tiny Mediterranean island, day after day of heavy rain like nothing seen before. It just wouldn’t stop. Red ochre-tinted, sticky pools of water everywhere – like the red rivulets which first brought the Phoenician settlers to the hill where Ibiza’s D’alt Villa now stands – the flowing blood of the Goddess Tanit, they had seen. And right now, her blood was all over the island, thick and claggy, hard to scrape off your shoes.

More rain. These days, at times, very little distinction between day and night. This island is a tiny fishing boat at the mercy of a lightening storm at sea. At night time I take solace in my four, thick stone walls, and listen to a storm circling above me, rattling off the sheer cliffs at the edge of the forest. I feel safe, but small. Then, in the early hours of the morning, a new sound wakes me up – a strange, low vibration. Then a bang. Some big hand has reached down from the skies and poked my roof, severing my electricity. Now I feel very, very small.

A Spring, Santa Agnes, North West of the island

I am comforted to find signs of civilisation at the Forada market – a bunch of well-wrapped giris discussing Christmas menu plans and queuing for fruit and vegetables at the only stall which is open on this soggy, red field. Nestled amongst the peppers and mandarins is an irregular-shaped, clingfilm-wrapped slab – the farmer’s wife’s homemade turron. Ground, toasted almonds, lemon peel, cinnamon, brown sugar. I buy her last piece and her eyes twinkle.

Andrea has given up on setting up her stall. Through her car boot window she shows me the warped gazebo pole, broken by the wind – she has spent half an hour wiping red mud off pots of jam and chutneys. I am thinking of taking a walk through Es Broll, I tell her. “Apparently the spring is flowing again.” We decide to go together.

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As always, the valley of Es Broll is deserted – a hidden fairytale, a lush, green gorge mapped with the water systems of the Moors, little stone passageways feeding out in all directions. Pockets of fruit orchards, trees heaving with so much fruit that they seem to have more oranges than leaves.  The place is a silent jewel, ever silent but for the humming of…something….that it’s hard to put your finger on. The buzz of satisfaction that the Moors felt centuries ago, when they used their expertise and craftsmanship to channel water and create a place of true fertility. Or the hum of contentment emanating from the scant Ibicencos living in this valley in a state of timeless, meditative harmony.

But today, there’s another sound – audible as soon as we get out of the car. It’s everywhere. It’s a sound I have never heard on this island before – the sound of moving fresh water. The spring has not just come back to life, it’s booming and roaring.

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We are on a treasure hunt of water, on our route to the heart of the valley. The water gurgles all around us, above and below. There is absolutely nobody here. A ghostly white figure stands overlooking a sloped garden – she momentarily frightens us. Her right arm is waving slowly. But she is a scarecrow, truly the only life here apart from us is the water. At the pink, arab watermill, the current shoots so fiercely through the stone channel that it is creating a new outlet through the stones beneath.

What was it my grandmother used to say about the health effects of being near moving water…neutralising ions? After re-tracing our steps back along the valley and its water course, we feel softer, lighter, better, different.

A River, near Santa Eularia, East of the island

The sky is still soggy and clouded, but the rain has stopped, and now people are leaving their houses, getting together, talking again. The river has come back. The river has come back. What, really come back, really flowing? Yes. Go and see it. See it weaving through the dried banks near to the San Joan road. Follow it along the sleepy backroad to Santa Eularia. Where previously there was a scorched dry river bed, there is now a flowing river. And…at the roman bridge in Santa Eularia, there are cascades. It’s in the news and everything. People have been swimming in it.

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So I get out onto the rural camino to Santa Eularia, the pretty route which, much of the way, follows the course of Ibiza’s long-dead river beneath the tall pine trees, to Santa Eularia where it meets the ocean. I loved cycling this route in the summer, for its tranquility, its trees, and the magical possibility of an empty river bed. Sometimes I got off my bike, leant it against the trunk of a tree and sat in long grass looking down into the empty river. I saw it as an exercise in creative visualisation, a healthy challenge. I imagined the River Dart, in Devon….a body of soft, golden water gently moving underneath the trees. It used to satisfy some kind of thirst which was hard to shake off during those summer months.

From the car it was hard to see over the river bank. I parked, and walked to the edge. There was, indeed, a river, where previously there wasn’t. I tried to imagine where it was coming from, how it worked, what was powering it, where it began. It filled me with magic, awe and fear.

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A River’s Mouth, Santa Eularia, East of the island

People are flocking to the bridge, the Pont Vell. This is like some kind of long-prophesised pilgrimage. The sound of the water cascading over rocks, beneath the Roman arches, is far louder than I had imagined. Amongst the local people gathered at the riverside there is the sense that history is being written, and something monumental is being witnessed. Grandmothers stand with their adult children and grandchildren, seeing a sight familiar from their youth, but one that they never, ever expected to see again.  There is a bizarre feeling that all the longed-for things from the past are encapsulated in this river – and now it’s back, and alive. There is joy and laughter, families and friends with Santa hats on taking selfies in front of waterfalls and a deep river. And maybe there is relief. That what goes, what dies for decades, can come back. That things we turn into grandiose stories about sadness, loss and grief… can simply re-appear one day, without any fuss. “Hello!”

So, during a very dark time, not so long ago, something rather miraculous happened. On a tiny Mediterranean island, a river came back. It’s gone again now, but that doesn’t matter. A story has been completely rewritten.

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Searching for Darkness on the White Isle

They call this island the White Isle. And people travel here from far and wide to embrace the brilliance of the sun’s rays, reflecting on a million grains of sand, and making ripple dances in the turquoise waters. This island supports a religion of the light, and of the sun. As the temperatures rise, the rhythmic beat of the island grows in intensity – from the kitsch dancefloor hits booming out of the shooters bar in San Antonio in the East, to the deep, tribal rhythms pulsating in the early hours of the morning in some giant superclub temple in the island’s centre, to the rising crescendo of drummers congregating for the sunset at Benirras beach in the North. The sun’s rule dominates this island, and the people express their adoration of it in the classic way – through dance. This probably hasn’t changed for centuries.

But in the ebb and flow of this island’s yearly cycle, those days are behind us. In the winter the population halves back down to its normal number, and the Sun God withdraws, retreats, gives way… gives way to what? As the point of mid-winter approaches, I want to know about darkness on an island based around worshipping the light. The recent heavy rains have brought an abundance of mushrooms to the island’s forests, such as the one I currently walk through every morning with the two sweet, slightly overweight dogs under my care. Mushrooms – they live for darkness, they know about darkness. As does the blue-grey wispy moss that covers the branches and forest floor in certain parts that I walk through. But where else is the darkness that I crave on this island, and who else knows about it?

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Photographer unknown: Hippies cross paths with Ibicencos, Ibiza, cerca 1970.

…Well the Ibicencos, of course. They never played any part in this annual sun-worshipping frenzy that happened on the fringes of their little island – the places where land met ocean. They probably weren’t so interested in the edges of their island, apart from the promise of the fish that could be caught in those surrounding waters. Apparently the plots of land near the ocean on Ibiza were considered of least value, and often left to the women of the family (who are probably smiling now…) If you want to know about darkness, it’s probably best to go inland. So let’s go there.

It’s here that you might see, surrounded by red earth, an old Ibicenco woman dressed from head to toe in black, harvesting almonds. A woman whose traditional, heavy cotton clothing protects her from the sun, rather than exposes her to it. A woman whose interests centre not around the sun, but the shade and the shadows. Yes, she knows about darkness.

Let’s also take the little path through the woods, behind a friend’s house near San Mateu. The trees clear to reveal a little whitewashed, stone house surrounded by a wall of gigantic cactus plants. We call it the Vampire House. Why? Because it is deserted – at least in the scorching midday heat. But it’s clean, tidy, beautiful, and mysterious. Around one of the wooden doors are strange geometric designs, carved into the chalk and painted in pastel colours. Ibicenco spells to ward off unwelcome, dark visitors? And at the back of the house is a tiny slit of a window, just big enough to fit the width of your head. There, nestled within the thickness of the wall, your eyes eventually adjust to the darkness and the interior room comes into view – bare stone. Walls and ceiling blackened with woodsmoke.

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‘Casa de Vampiros’, near San Mateu, 2015

This relatively new island obsession with the sun…it has its damaging aspect. The culture which rises up to embrace the sun for about four months every year is the same culture which drains the island of its ecological resources, above all, its natural underground waters, the waters which until recently filled the island’s wells.

With the day of the Winter Solstice soon approaching, I celebrate the darkness of this island, as well as the light. The secrets of darkness are to be found deep, deep inland… and perhaps there is a place which holds the key to it all. At Can Jaume Prats, there is a well, they say, and on it is painted the symbol of the sun. On the Winter Solstice, the rays of the sun in the sky meet the sun on the well. The island’s exterior meets the island’s interior, masculine meets feminine…and the balance between light and darkness is restored.