On St. John’s Eve, June 23, each year in the village of Isil, in the province of Lleida, in the area known as the Pallars high in the Catalan Pyrenees, the same ritual is enacted, with roots deep in the rich earth of European rituals, a core aspect of which is to light a fire to mark the longest day of the year and ward off evil spirits. In Isil, what happens begins slowly. Once it is fully dark, from the small square in front of the church you can look up and see glimmers of burning wood in the forested hill above as the men of the village carry down logs or long tree trunks that are already burning. You can watch this strange slow procession corkscrew its way down the hill, the trunks beginning to burn brighter. The feeling that this ritual has been going on since time began deepens as you realize that no one around you believes that any of the men carrying the logs is in any danger. They know, from time immemorial, how to choose the wood, how much of each trunk to set alight, and how many men are needed to carry it down and at what pace.
It is easy to feel in these villages so close to the French border that life, with all its traditions and rituals, has the same rhythm as the seasons. Most people who live in these villages were born in them, as were their parents, and it is easy to see that the light from the big bonfire on which all the trunks are placed is also the light of regeneration; it is where the young men and women from this village and the other small villages around can meet and stay up late and dance with each other under the tender eye of the older generation.
It is easy to feel that this is an old, untouched, traditional Europe, and that the proximity to France and even the border itself that runs between France and Spain through these mountains belong to the tradition in the same ways as the rituals of St. John’s Eve in Isil do, or the idea of birth and marriage and death in these villages. It is easy to see the border in this undisturbed world as something that belongs to nature as much as to culture, that is as fully accepted and understood as night and day, something not made by history, but made by more elemental forces that have always been in place, or made indeed by God.
But then there is a photograph. And if that photograph had come to us uncaptioned it could be any group of villagers, all the generations, gathered in front of a municipal building sometime in the first half of the twentieth century. The fact …