Monday, May 24, 2010
It is the windmills you see before anything, coming into Palma de Mallorca to land. And though I knew there would be mills, the old converted mills on a remote hilltop where I’ll be staying with the other nine writers for our weeks of workshop and retreat, these take me completely by surprise. I couldn’t have anticipated these. This flotilla blown capriciously off course across the whole landscape, this straggling caravan of beautiful stone towers capped with festive sails in dozens of different shapes. Not Greek windmills nor yet the spindly New Mexican ones I grew up with—these are indefinably Spanish somehow. Mallorcan windmills. Windmills in flight I never would have expected. That they’re not turning, any of them, not actually flying (something I notice only afterwards), doesn’t make any difference. The idea of motion is intrinsic to them.
Moli is windmill (molino in Spanish), and the windmills start coming to my attention again, taking on their own substantial weight, the solidity of the stones they are made of.
We’re staying in two old converted windmills on a hilltop with the sea visible in three directions. One of our mills is “John’s Mill.” There’s a stumpier structure, circular too, that was for threshing, and then the casetas, field houses. Everything on many levels, joined by paths and terraces and steps. The mills are not restored to what they were originally; they’ve lost their conical thatching and their great sails. They’re grounded now, without that magical capacity for motion, for paddlewheeling the sky. But even without that they’re magical still—enchanters’ towers of straw-colored fieldstone. John’s Mill is the Library Mill now, with books circling inside it, and a little writing table. There is a place to sleep above, where the finestrons are—the three openings oriented to the three prevailing winds, enabling light and air to enter the mill. The upper floor would have originally been held up by two large rough-hewn trunks of holm oak or wild olive. Above the entrance door there would have been a niche with a statue of the millers’ patron saint, Sant Lorenzo or Santa Barbara.
From the upper terrace in the morning I can watch winds moving two layers of clouds away from one another, in opposite directions. The elements seem more immediate here. This will be a good place to work on my novel on the Greek myths—a similar landscape and climate, the Homeric sound of goat-bells and the silver-washed hillsides of olive trees, besides the figs and fresh fish and the local dry white wines Tina the mills’ owner has promised us. There will be the words we’re studying and the windmills, and, later, after that, the village somewhere east of here where Robert Graves the poet and mythographer lived for much of his life.
We use a millstone as our table, stained with candle wax. In the mornings we gather to discuss our writing around it, and at lunchtime set out leftovers on it and ten each of the brown-glazed plates and bowls. By afternoon it will have been cleared, with only a few pages of somebody’s novel left on it, or maybe a basket of the lovely two-tone plums.
I’m trying to write, at my little pine table at the window which opens on a slope of straw-colored roof tiles and, off beyond, the olive trees and almond orchards and the port. The wind comes up, sending my papers off the desk, postcards flying as if for fortunes (like the Chinese fortune-telling sticks we shake out onto the flagstones one evening at sunset on the front terrace, over the hammered silver tray of gin-and-tonic glasses, lemon slices, ice). The usual predictions: Love, some unexpected news, an inheritance from a questionable relative. But other things seem more important here. Just “more of the same,” maybe; good writing, an unexpectedly good muse.
Or good winds, like the ones Odysseus—who did not have good fortune—squandered and lost. Aeolus, god of winds (who lived on an island much like this one, as it happens), gave the becalmed Odysseus a bag of winds to get him home again, but his sailors drunkenly loosed them, and their ship was driven back to where it had come from. I read that witches in the British Isles were selling winds to sailors well into the seventeenth century (when many of Mallorca’s mills were built). I find Aeolus and the witches both in the book of mythology I’m using for my novel, written by the myth-maker who lived like Prospero on this island, just up the coast from here, the author also of I, Claudius, and Homer’s Daughter, who I admire, Robert Graves.
Next to the Diccionario Castellano above my writing table I find Sundials: Their Theory and Construction; Rilke; Marguerite Duras; two books on dowsing; Balzac; geology; mushrooms and toadstools; other dictionaries (Espagnol-Française; Italian; Spanish; French; English; Catalán verbs); Heidegger; The Little Prince in Spanish; a book on the windmills of the Balearic Islands, which will be a helpful source.
Stones on the floor of one of our mills were laid in 1787, though the original mills were much older than that, as early as the 14th century.
I learn the names of the island winds, in Catalán, and follow them into the Diccionario Castellano and on into English. They are eight:
llebeig - abrego, sudoeste - southwest wind
ponent - poniente, occidente - west wind
mestral - mistral, noroeste - gale, norther, northwest wind
llevant - levante - east wind
xaloc - siroco, sudeste - sirocco, southeast wind
migjorn - mediodia - midday, south wind
tramuntana - tramontana - north wind, coming across the mountains
gregal - northeast wind in the Mediterranean
Aeolus, the keeper of the winds in Greek mythology, lived on an island where the winds were all confined. He kept them in a bag, and let them out to roam free one by one as he deemed wise, or when one of the Olympians asked him. He could stop storms, piercing them with his spear. But the island of winds was to the east of Greece, not to the east of Spain; not here. It is coincidence only. That Robert Graves who wrote about Aeolus lived on this wind-ridden island (coming to Mallorca at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein). That I’ve come to it by chance writing about the myths and their physical situations. That the eight named winds on this island might be said to have been kept confined by the old keepers of the mills, yoked as they were in regular labor.
The windmills were more efficient than the old water wheels brought to Mallorca by the Moors. There were several hundred flour mills (which ours were), and over two thousand water-pumping mills—for drainage and later for irrigation. Most of those were on the plain where the airport has since been built; the highest density of wind-mills in the world. They’ve been a constant in Mallorcan history, a significant feature of the island’s landscape. All but a few have been abandoned now. One was taken to West Australia by a Mallorcan priest. (Another Mallorcan priest, Fra Junipero Serra, came to California and founded the California missions. Christopher Columbus, too, is said to have come from Mallorca, maybe—the town of Genova, which I’ve seen on roadsigns, thought to have been confused in history with the more famous Italian one.)
The keepers of the winds were various. The millers and their patron saints, Lorenzo and Barbara; a farmer priest known as the “water priest” or “priest with ideas,” who helped to plan and implement the complicated system of drainage; carpenters and blacksmiths—the millwrights—fashioning parts from wood and later cast-iron to work the massive blades and wheels; and centuries later, a blacksmith-poet bound on preserving and restoring the old abandoned mills.
And then the fallen millstones, breaking the floors.
In the end again, after everything, it is the windmills of Mallorca that stand undiminished in the mind. The mills are almost all abandoned now, I know, the winds left to roam free like those Odysseus’s sailors loosed from the bag the god had given them, but I can see them in their thousands, in full flight. I like to think of the mill-keepers unfurling the great sails, the sails whose names I’ve learned along with the winds that turned them. There were four types, over the centuries:
lateen sail (triangular)
ramell (wooden blades shaped like a flower in bloom)
ferro (iron blades, from 1934 on)
Blue and white blades became traditional, representing the Mallorcan elements—water and wind.
As I leave the island of winds and their keepers, I imagine for a long time afterwards (now, still), the whole expanse of it alive with the inspirited conflux of wind-driven sails.