Philip Hoare

I’m so used to seeing the sea from a deck or a balcony; to look up and see blue mountains is a physical shock, as if some barrier had been raised overnight between me and the ocean; and that its immensity might be dammed behind it, steadily rising, filling with whales and sharks and squid.

But the water runs down from these heights and into the clear, warm, sulphurous expanse of the lake at Banyoles, where I swim on the last available day of September, after which the regulations, inform me, my occupation, my passion, my obsession, is peremptorily outlawed; as if the seasons should act according to man’s wishes, bowing to his demands for safety and dominion.

As I dive in the lake, the water is soft and odorous.  The bottom, which I see through my goggles, is sandy and silty, as if an atomic explosion had taken place centuries ago, or this morning.  A few silvery fish swim primevally below me, as they did when I spent the past week bathing off the beach at Barcelona, itself made up of shattered diamonds – or so it seemed – scattered after some uproarious bacchanalia.  Here the shore is more refined, more ordered, perhaps.   The people enjoying the last day of summer, or the first day of autumn.  Everything is calm.  But the mountains, the trees, the clouds and the sky do not agree.  They have their own stories.

The mountains contrive to look at me, as I look at them, over Olot.   They are there where ever I go.  They challenge me the way the ocean deep does: both unobtainable in their own way, profound in their remoteness from us.  They are another reminder that not everything in this world is under our control, for all that we assume that it is.  This morning when I woke the full moon hung over them, as if it had been born from their peaks; the lunar in Catalunya.  I walked the country paths, where spiders’ webs hung heavy, like trampolines, with dew.

The mountains are sharp and blue in the light of the afternoon sun, acid-etched against the sky, burnt into their own horizon.  They make me think, in my passive state, of the beginning and ending of things.

In the evening they smoke, yielding tendrils of mist out of their green skirts, rising out of the original forest.  This seems an unsinned place, more sinned against.  The white cross down in the valley, which marks executions carried out during the civil war, is only a reminder of how they exist beyond the venality of human actions.  They are an empty theatre to us, a stalled drama, potent with their immemorial past and unknowable future, disdaining our fleeting present.

Basalt rocks piled in domes might be ancient caves back in time.  Legendary animals occupy this valley – the rabbit and the dragon.  Houses rise and fall, are built, and crumble.  Here time is happening at once, here; and not at all.  The next day, the moon falls and the sun rises, and the whole cycle begins again, stretching beyond us.  If whales outlive human beings, making it impossible for us to study them, then how ignorant must we be of those great land masses, that arch over the horizon, diving and rising.

When Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, he did so far inland, far from the sea that inspired him.  He looked out from his window, on his farm, named Arrowhead after the Native American artefacts he found there, and in the distance he saw Mount Greylock.  Its rocky hump seemed to him to take on the shape of the whale which haunted him, and his book.  So too these mountains might haunt me, here in my landlocked state, far from the sea inside my head.