There is the earth, and there is the sky, and somewhere in between there is man. Tuva song
"We are all creadores* here... as much as anyone is capable of dreaming," mumbled tireless Dara to herself, while trying to attach a colourful rag to the doorway in the back of her cave room. She was talking to me, at the same time, keenly making her space more comfortable. Dara is a well-built gipsy woman living in one of the many cave dwellings on the side of Mount Sacromonte. I was often visiting her, when I did ethnographic field work in Granada, Spain. I admired her courageous way to rearrange her things in the cave, which did not do anything about the mess in the room, but nevertheless refreshed it.
Her living space in this massive rock, with its narrow corridors, especially low ceilings, and creatively round rock walls reminded me of an animal den. At the first thought of this I was embarrassed – hasn't anthropology just let go of the term "primitive" tribes, and here I am comparing Dara's house to an animal cave... But it was the most natural comparison. The same association was used by a rather unconventional yet inspiring anthropologist Tim Ingold. The difference between man-made and natural environments is that the blueprints of animal dwellings are coded into their bodies, while people design houses according to their imagination and needs. Every new evolutionary phase in the architectural history relates to changes in human goals or intentions. It is interesting to note, how the history of architecture is still searching for the very first man-made building.
Even the head restaurateur of the Notre Dame de Paris, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, endeavoured to answer that question in 1875. His reply was a rather cryptic and mythical one: that once upon a time, a time-traveller named Epergos visited a god-forsaken tribe Nairitti, giving them rational thinking as well as skills for building. In this myth, there lies an inherent idea that thinking precedes material expression – that the environment needs to be thought of first and built later. This is the way we are used to. In the beginning, the architect construes a plan and then the building gets constructed. It is a matter-of-fact for us. It is also well reflected in our cityscapes, where the main value seems to be on constructing all space, changing the environment and leaving one's artistic mark. Contemplating on ever narrower cityscapes, it seems that the construction has come before the thought...
First hut. Time-traveller Espergos brings rational thinking to people, 1875.
A Gypsy cave in Granada, Spain
However, many native people do not see the necessity for closed spaces. The aboriginals of Australia, for instance, would not agree with constructed environments. They do think about their space, but do not construct it, because everything is already there – everything needed is encoded in nature. In the wide open spaces of Australia, the native tribes see perfect creation in every natural condition, which has been shaped by their ancestors of nature- and animal spirits in the sacred space of the Dreamtime. Their creation is so perfect that man can only minimally affect its physical surroundings. They feel and "think" their environment much better than we do, because for them, constructed landscapes exist only in the imagination, and it is possible to manifest them through a song. How many of us could express through a song, using only vowels and various rhythms, how to get from Tartu to Taevaskoja? Aboriginals can do that, for they are capable of including geography in their singing, explaining clearly how to get to a place of tribal gathering.
Tim Ingold suggested that the hunter-gatherer people, like those of Australia, see and sense the meaning of their whole cosmology disclosed in natural landscapes, so they have no need to change or interfere with it. While the city and village dwellers must construct new meanings and their cosmology through building and changing nature.
I was reminded of the aboriginals and their nomadic lifestyle, when visiting the house of Dara on Sacromonte Mountain. The Gypsies too were once wedded to the wind. Now, most of them have settled down, because the habit of roaming does not fit into the modern world with all its borders. People, whose lives were once determined by movement, learn to adjust and relate to a new and less natural lifestyle. In Spain, like in other countries, there is a dominant idea of wellbeing, correct conduct, and ideal city space, ensuing from a certain group of people and their principles, which is not always so good and natural for everyone.
If we compare the fairy-tales of Gypsies to those of other peoples, we might notice a rather interesting peculiarity. In the fairy-tales of many different peoples, the protagonist leaves home to search for happiness, to save a beauty, or to face a challenge, and once they achieve their aim, they return home, where they had left from. It mirrors the way people relate to space and the world. I see it as circular movement. A person steps out of the house, takes a journey, finds happiness, and comes back, making a circle. Gypsy stories, however, are quite the contrary. If a Gypsy finds happiness (a wise and pretty wife, a treasure, or a beautiful horse) on his long journey, he never returns to the place he left, but continues onward to the wide open spaces that call him. In this way, his path makes a spiral that never leads back, but on to the next curve, where a new home is discovered.
Whether we follow the sun across the horizon or return home for the night; build our environment full or prefer not to interfere with nature; whether we live in a hut, a cave or a skyscraper, it all has to do with what are the unquestionable facts of our lives. The same subtle and often unrecognised matters of fact are the ones creating our world and directing our dreams.
Exterior of Gypsy caves on Sacro Monte,
Granada, Spain, 1949. Photo: Dmitri Kessel
Gypsies in the kitchen of cave on Sacro Monte, 1949.
Photo: Dmitri Kessel
There is a thought from the peoples of the Amazon, that the only real way to change the world is to change our dreams, and it has started to reverberate throughout the world. Because the way Dara, the Gypsy woman, created her natural space in the cave, we too are creating ours, with our dreams and the sometimes limiting matters of fact. "We are all creadores here."
*creator – in Spanish.
For further reading and discoveries I recommend:
Bruce Chatwin, "Songlines"
Tim Ingold, "The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill"
Gypsy fairy-tales (especially first hand related)
is an anthropologist and musician. She also collects fairytales and is a storyteller.