That magical summer of 1951 culminated in late August, when I made my first communion in the hermitage dedicated to Our Lady of the Orchards, Nostra Senyora de l’Horta–or, as I thought of her, the Madonna in the Tree. Surrounded by fields, gardens, and fruit trees, the tiny church still stands outside the village where my mother was born.
According to legend, the Madonna was discovered by a shepherd who had been napping under an elm in the middle of the orchard. He woke up and there she was, perched high among the branches. Leaving his sheep behind, the shepherd ran into the village and fetched the priest and the verger who, followed by a crowd of the devout, sped to the orchard, carefully cut down some branches, got the statue down, and carried her in solemn procession to the parish church that presides over the village square.
But the next morning, when the verger went to light the altar candles in preparation for Mass, the statue wasn’t there. Panic ensued. Who had made off with the Madonna—thieves, heretics, the devil himself? The village was searched high and low, from the mansion of the wealthy mule breeder to the hovel of the poorest laborer.
The frantic search continued until, once more, the shepherd arrived panting from the orchard. “She’s in the tree again, right where I found her yesterday!” he gasped. The priest, the verger, and the congregants hurried to the elm, got the statue down, and returned her to what they believed was the more dignified environment of the village church. But the following morning she was back in her tree.
Worn down by the persistent Madonna, the villagers eventually gave up, and built her a little hermitage in the middle of the orchard, where she has remained ever since.
The orchard stands on ancient Roman soil, and the Romans had inherited from the Greeks the enchanting notion that every aspect of nature—trees, springs, the very air—was inhabited and protected by benevolent deities. Dryads lived in trees, and were said to bleed when the trees were cut down. Oreads haunted the breezes, and naiads swam like minnows in every stream. Even the bees had their special nymphs, the meliae. The earth’s fertility, being especially important, was attended by, among others, Artemis, Cybele, Demeter, Rhea and Hegemone.
I believe that my Madonna too is a member of that committee of goddesses. She is in charge of fruits and flowers but, in that arid climate, she is especially in charge of water. “Have mercy on us and give us rain, since you have the power,” pleads the old hymn that villagers sing on her feast day.
Compared to her naked pagan predecessors, she appears outwardly tamed and Christianized, but my Madonna, and the many like her who dot the Catalan landscape, is a recurrent manifestation of the eternal Mother, the Old Goddess whose fertility even today keeps the universe going. Our Lady of the Orchard bears witness to the human instinct to regard all of nature as animate, and to revere those aspects—air, water, plants—which give us life.
Today, with our eyes fixed on various screens, our ears connected to disembodied voices, and our skin sheltered from contact with the seasons, we need neither walk nor grow our food. We are in danger of forgetting our physical and spiritual dependence on Nature.
Like the rest of the developed world, Catalonia is overrun with supermarkets and four-lane highways. But out in the countryside, next to a spring or on the side of a mountain, you can still find stone hermitages housing the local version of the Madonna. The ancient polichromed statues, some with dark faces and hands, look solemn and forbidding. Farmers and shepherds once entrusted them with the fertility of fields and ewes, and couples hoping for children still visit them sometimes. But the churches stand mostly empty now, and the old madonnas stare out at the shrinking fields and listen to the hum of distant traffic. Who heeds their message now?
I didn’t know any of this the summer of my first communion. All I knew was that I felt a kinship with the Madonna in the Tree. Like me, who dreaded the return to Barcelona at the end of every summer, she preferred the orchard and the spring, the sheep and the honeybee to the civilized comforts of the village. In the dark, gray days of winter, as I tunneled by metro between my parents’ apartment and my school, I would think of my Madonna in her silent orchard hermitage, listening to the wind and waiting for summer, like me.