As the crow moon wanes and the world prepares to celebrate the death and resurrection of the old messiah I find my thoughts returning to the events that first motivated us to relocate, body and soul, to this mountainous backwater and set up headquarters in the isolated Pyrenean village of Montsegur. Life in the shadow of the pog is no pony ride in spring sunshine, let me tell ya – at least not in winter when Our Lady of the Snows descends from the heights of the Tabor to blanket the Zone in her deathly, still, white shroud. Most of the locals, even the redoubtable Madame Couquet, draw down their shutters, lock their doors and head for places south. The cobblestones become a skating rink and the main road that snakes down the gorge to Belesta, the D.9 cut by Madame Couquet's late uncle, becomes a deathtrap of hair pin curves and black ice. The path up the pog grows increasingly treacherous, as Madame's former tenant, the controversial German Jewish Grail historian Otto Rahn found to his dismay back in the thirties, making access to the ruins of the Cathar citadel all but impossible. The village sheltering beneath its walls becomes a veritable ghost town. The few remaining locals huddle with their animals beside their hearths and what talk there is turns to the bears and tall tales of who may or may not have seen them. There are supposedly still fifteen bears left in this particular neck of the woods or thereabouts, the exact number being subject to constant daily revision and hot debate.
We thought we saw their tracks in the morning powder near the crossroads at Morenci and while blazing a new trail, searching in vain for the site of the ancient Gaulish oppidum, we came across deep claw marks scored into the leafless trees. A tall fir had been virtually ringbarked and nearby lay the gnawed foreleg of a small deer or izard, which strictly speaking is more like a cross between a deer and a goat. Whatever it was it had been violently killed and all too recently devoured, prompting us to head back down the mountain and curtail our efforts at searching the underbrush any more closely for the elusive 'oppidum', a long abandoned gathering place where the Romans had apparently come in days of old to trade pottery for iron.
Despite the fact that wild bears have all but disappeared from northern Spain and southern France along with the native Pyrenean wolf many of the small villages such as Arles-sur-Tech, Prats-de-Molo and Saint-Laurent-de-Cerdans continue to celebrate the bear as a symbol of virility, in yearly festivals steeped in pagan ritual and richly reminiscent of the 'wild man' traditions of central and northern Europe. Typically a villager dressed in a thick bearskin rampages through the streets of the town harassing women and violently accosting anyone foolish enough to cross his path. Many of the local men feel compelled to wear drag for the occasion for reasons which I admit are not altogether clear to me. The 'bear' is finally chased down and captured by ’hunters’ whose job it is to shave and humiliate him in front of a cheering public, disempowering winter and welcoming in the spring by symbolically shaving off the old to bring in the new.
Little by little the wind begins to lose its bite, the first daisies open to the sunshine, the birds return and buds begin to appear overnight. 'Our Lady of the Snows' packs her bags and slowly creeps back over the mountains, her presence still felt only in the highest crags. The owls and bats return, shutters open, doors slam and slowly the sleepy, rustic enclave of Montsegur returns to life.
Standing outside the Shadow Theatre headquarters one morning having a smoke, I noticed a robin struggling to pull a fat worm from the thawing ground. The next day up at Hannibal's Point, a gigantic golden eagle came soaring up from the deep gorges of the Caroulet right behind Miss Scarlett's head with an viper clutched in its beak, a terrifying hieratic beast out of medieval heraldry, looking for all the world like the logos for the Luftwaffe and the AMA rolled into one.
“ Damn. That thing was big!”
Miss Scarlett turned, watching as the huge bird soared away, the muscular looking serpent still thrashing vainly in its grip. It was a savage looking creature. For a moment we stared after the beast in silence as it soared across east side of the pog before disappearing from view. We didn't have to say anything but we both knew that Spring had come and it was high time we got our asses back up the mountain to reacquaint ourselves with its invisible denizens.
The night of Monday March the 30th was still and warm, albeit a little overcast. We paused at the top of the 'Camp de Cremat' to relight the candle from the grotto of saint Anthony that we had left on the small altar some two weeks before to commemorate the anniversary of the fall of the castle and the martyrs who had perished there in the flames of 1244. Behind us the lights were already coming on in the village as we climbed above the tree line, offering a passing salute to the familiar granite profile of Maurice Magre, the local poet, mystic, and author of 'The Blood of Toulouse', whose graven image adorns the westward facing crag of the magic mountain.
The castle courtyard was much as I remembered it, like a dream that always returns. The scene of so many wonders, terrors and strange events it now stood silent and deceptively tranquil in the gathering dusk like a stage awaiting its dramatis personae. A ring of ash could still be faintly distinguished at the base of the narrow steps leading to the battlement where the witches from Rennes had cast their circle the year before. We found our way up to the ramparts and watched the last of the fading sun dwindle across the vernal hills until the limits of the zone were lost in darkness and the first bats had already begun to circle in the deepening well of shadows below.
Retracing our steps to the stubby remains of the 13th century settlement on the pog's sheltered eastern face I knelt, mouthing the words of an all but forgotten litany as I placed a candle in one of the sconces besides the time worn stone pentagram that we had first come across under rather strange, not to mention downright far fetched, circumstances some two years previously. In the light of the flickering taper we noticed that quite a few of the trees had been cut back over the last twelve months, revealing the ruins of more terraced settlements further down the mountainside. Dismayed by how naked and unprotected this side of the castle felt we vowed to replant the area at the soonest possible juncture. It's about time the pog had a decent laurel and the unmarked grave of Ferrocas, the last Cathar, deserves to have its flowering May tree, lopped down just over a century ago at the command of an outraged local priest, rightfully restored.
After enjoying a good smoke and a hot cup of coffee, thanks to the brand new Shadow Theatre thermos flask, we began to circle the castle widdershins – that is anti-clockwise to the uninitiated.
We travelled by way of a secret path that we found last summer marked out by tiny glyphs cut into the rocks that resemble the phases of the moon. I'm not sure that this is the correct technical procedure for actively invoking the nebulous forces that reside here, but it's as good as any when it comes to protocols for dealing with the invisible world.
There are many such paths on the pog, ways that seem to open and close with the seasons. Self-styled, modern-day troubadour, Micheu Pierre, who haunts Madame Couquet's auberge in the summer months, once told me that it was dangerous to try and define these trails or describe them too carefully to outsiders as if by mapping the paths one might somehow cause them to change location so that the unwary might never again find their way back to the occult kingdom to whence they lead. It is this propensity for the pog and the wild, sparsely populated territory that surrounds it to somehow reboot and reshuffle the fixed certitudes of everyday life that has led us to nickname the area, a densely wooded hinterland of not much more than a hundred square kilometers, 'the Zone' in honour of Boris and Arkady Strugatky's seminal novel 'Roadside Picnic'.
The novel's title is derived from a metaphor proposed by Dr. Valentine Pillman who believes that extraterrestrial or more properly 'ultraterrestrial' beings have not only visited the earth, leaving behind areas where the normal properties of space time have been strangely altered but that there is ultimately no rational, humanly available explanation either for the visitation or the mysterious properties of the Zones and the artifacts uncovered there.
In the novel, he compares the creation of these Zones to "A picnic. Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around... Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind... And of course, the usual mess -- apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow." The nervous animals in this analogy are the humans who venture forth after the visitors leave, discovering items and anomalies which were perfectly ordinary to those who discarded them, but incomprehensible or deadly to those who find them.
As above, so below: Andrei Tarkovsky's masterful screen adaptation of 'Roadside Picnic' - 'STALKER' ( 1979 )
This explanation implies that the ultradimensional beings in question may not have even noticed or paid any attention to the human inhabitants of the planet during their "visit" just as humans don't notice or pay attention to grasshoppers or ladybugs during a picnic. The artifacts and phenomena left behind by them in the Zones are essentialy garbage, discarded and forgotten without any preconceived intergalactic plan to either advance or damage humanity. There is little chance that these God like visitors will return again, since for them, it was a brief stop for reasons unknown on the way to their actual destination. In the novel the government seeks to seal off these Zones and indeed suppress all knowledge of their existence, leaving it up to an emerging criminal underclass of self styled 'stalkers' to chart their own paths in and out of these hypothetical pockets of dysfunctional space time where the normal rules simply don't apply, driven, at least in part, by the oddly enduring rumour of an indescribable treasure hidden somewhere within the ever shifting labyrinth – a folkloric orb or cosmic egg capable of granting one's dearest wish...
The events described in the Strugatsky brothers' novel are pure fantasy, science fiction in the best sense of the term, yet it would seem, to all intents and purposes, that something very similar is taking place in real life in southern Europe, deep in the mountainous fastness of old Occitania only, with all due respect to Dr. Pillman, whatever mysterious force is at work here is far from random.
I first became aware of the unusual properties of the pog back in the early nineties while working as a researcher for Channel Four Television's religion department. Since then I have been propelled through a series of terrifying, disorientating, profoundly challenging and ultimately moving experiences that have left me in little doubt as to what this place is capable of. We cannot understand or hope to explain the causes of the phenomena at work but we can readily apprehend their side-effects, what Graham Hancock might have termed the 'fingerprints of the Gods'.
The widely reported electro-magnetic anomaly, which some insist is strong enough to effect aerial navigation, is readily demonstrated by the deflection of our compass needles every time we climb the pog. The geological composition of the area would tend to exclude the idea of the rocks themselves being in any ways conductive but there is a faint possibility that the magnetic fields could be effected by the action of subterranean waters. Researchers in the early nineteen sixties poured vast amounts of fluorescein into a sinkhole near the Roubelet where the Nazi's are said to have conducted their own illicit excavations during the dark days of World War 2. Some hours later coloured dye was observed emerging from the gorges of Le Moulin on the far side of the pog, demonstrating beyond a shadow of doubt that an underground river does indeed flow beneath the mountain.
In the early 13th century the then head of the Cathar church Guilhabert de Castries wrote to the lord of Montsegur, Raimond de Perelha, asking permission for the treasures and records of their faith to be moved to the fortress and its adherents to be allowed to live 'infra-castrum', a term taken by some to refer to the small settlement that once existed on the chateau's eastern flank while others believe that it quite literally means 'beneath the castle'. Maurice Magre describes a vast subterranean complex, a virtual hidden city with as many as forty galleries containing forges, treasuries and stables. Fanciful as this may be it is generally agreed that the defenders must have drawn their water from somewhere during the ten month siege and speculation is rife about the existence of underground cisterns and other cavities beneath the pog deliberately redacted from the official report submitted by the GRAME ( Groupe de Recherches Archeologiques de Montsegur et Environs ) for reasons that are, as yet, a good deal less than clear to me. There is no objective proof that whatever lies below the mountain could effectively cause the magnetic distortions commonly observed in the area but when confronted by the unknown the human mind tends to reach for whatever rational explanation it can find and right now the anomalous interaction of mysterious subterranean waters is the best I can come up with.
Harder to adequately explain away is the manner in which those pesky 'arrow slits' in the keep tend to break the light into sharp beams, at times even splitting the rays into their component colours such as that deep, lustrous red regularly exhibited on the morning of each successive summer solstice, something that any number of professional photographers and lighting technicians have assured me should be technically impossible without a prism. Once again the GRAME glide around the question by simply stating that the “solar phenomena in the keep have not been scientifically witnessed, recorded or verified” despite the fact that the lightshow in question appears on postcards for the area and is reliably witnessed by hundreds of visitors every year.
As above, so below: Summer Solstice 2008
The pog's freaky acoustical properties are likewise only too apparent to even a casual ear. On the aforementioned anniversary of the burning ( March 16 ) Miss Scarlett and our friend Emiliano, a budding film maker from far off Turin were standing up by the stone cross, drinking a toast to the martyrs with yours truly and munching olives whilst clearly overhearing a whispered conversation taking place between a Swiss couple in the parking lot at the base of the hill. On the other hand, those who have spent enough time here know only too well that you can be standing right behind someone in the keep or the courtyard, screaming your lungs out without them being able to hear so much as a single, sodding sound. Then there's that smell - akin to rosebay or the icing on a wedding cake, spiked with just a hint of almonds. The haunting aroma associated with the immortal mistress of Montsegur and similar apparitions of the so-called 'white lady' reported at Lourdes and Fatima. The 'smell of sanctity' would seem to exist at the opposite end of the olfactory spectrum from the smell of rotten eggs - hydrogen sulfide - the 'fire and brimstone' commonly associated with devils, minor demons and other denizens of the pit just the pog would seem to stand at a sort of crossroads between paradigms, a place where several quantum worlds or time periods intersect and periodically overlap.
Perhaps the so-called 'Cathari' or 'pure ones' attained, as Magre suggests that realm where 'fire has no heat, water no fluidity and matter no substance and still exist alongside us in some 'otherworld', a place that is as 'real' if not more real than our own experience of the 21st century. It would seem to be no mere coincidence that their immortal chatelaine, the 'saint of saints of an unknown religion', the blessed Na Esclarmonda herself, the 'White Lady' of Montsegur has been conflated with the queen of the faeries by popular mythology. The word 'Albi' and 'Elf' would seem to be basically interchangable - both signifying 'white', just as just the pog's defenders, the sons and daughters of Belisenna have been conflated with the 'white people' or faery folk and Na Esclarmonda's kingdom with the folkloric concept of 'Elfame'.The good lady and her courtiers 'vanished into the mountain which closed around her' just as the little people are said to have disappeared into the hollow hill.
The ghostly blue light that Magre describes as emanating from the keep when Na Esclarmonda and the parfaits gather to undertake their spiritual exercises in the later chapters of the 'Blood of Toulouse' and the lightshows myself and others have habitually experienced prior to our encounters with the pog's mysterious denizens is richly evocative of the phenomena associated with the passage of light through the visible human spectrum. A glow might be observed first, sometimes a reddish glow marking the emergence of a person or object from the invisible band of the spectrum into infrared and then into the narrow band of visible light. If the figure is passing through the visible band to the higher frequencies it is cyan ( blueish-green ) before it fades into blue ( hard to see at night ) and then enters the ultra-violet range. The chills experienced by Miss Scarlett and other members of the team may well have been caused by microwaves above the infrared just as the sensation of one's skin 'tingling' or 'crawling' or the air literally thickening about one are reminiscent of the effects of ultrasound or infrasound operating outside the commonly perceptible sonic frequencies.As for the experience of lost or missing time reported all too frequently by myself and the other members of the group, well, the jury's still out...One cannot see a fourth dimensional object with the naked eye but theoretically one can perceive its three dimensional shadow. This should not be confused with the object itself but is simply the closest our somewhat limited senses can come to describing the essentially indescribable. There may a very good evolutionary reason for our apparent inability to get our heads around the broader picture and to effectively experience these encounters with the unknown in their naked totality. As Lovecraft intimates we would almost certainly go mad from the revelation and at the very least experience a good deal of trouble holding on to any sense of ourselves or the so-called 'here' and 'now'.
After making another circuit around the castle I stopped to rest on a set off rocks underneath the tower-dunjeon while Richard climbed the stairs to enter it's inner sanctum. The moon was still hidden and shed a murky light. I sat gazing out at the low lying clouds below that through some sort of optical illusion were lit a glowing red on the top, lit by the city lights of Lavalanet in the distance. I watched them spread out across the valley for a while, but they seemed to be moving in slow motion. Indeed, the whole night was ultimately still, like the landscape was holding it's breath. A low humming started up through the ground at my feet and spread into the rock making it feel electric, almost like a switch had been turned on and the mountain was springing to life. Then before I could even exhale the moon came bursting out of the clouds behind me, changing the terrain so dramatically that it gave me vertigo. The castle threw off an enormous pyramidal shadow on the valley below, so sharply defined and so black that I wondered if it wasn't an enormous abyss or a crack in the world. Shadows are the mirror image of reality, but when they are so powerfully and sharply defined it almost seems the other way around as if all that we see or seem is merely the poor reflection of that inchoate darkness.
The voice of an nearby owl broke me out of my reverie and I followed it's call around to the courtyard where I found Richard standing, drenched in the moonlight, the air around him dense with fluttering, unseen presences.
“They're here...” He smiled, looking more at home than I've seen him in weeks. He took off his hat, inclining his head to greet the shadows that seethed and whispered about us. “All my friends...”
The long, dark winter was finally and truly gone and the castle was making its presence known. Whatever the hell else came down the pike there was no doubting that this was looking set to be a summer like none other...
Above: R.S in the courtyard - midnight - March 30 2010
Note the presence of 'orbs' and other unspecified 'digital artefacting'
in the upper left of frame...
To be continued...