Maya Iriondo – The Oak of Gernika

Litro is pleased to present this first story from Maya Iriondo: meditation on the shifting history and culture of her Basque heritage, where the concept of your roots become figurative and literal.

“When the Basques moved to a new country, sometimes they brought acorns, or saplings of the old tree in Gernika, to plant them where they made their new homes, so that there would be a tree to watch over them. So that they will not miss their roots.”

In the West of Europe, in the Pyrenees, there live a people who call themselves Euskaldunak. They have been there for a very long time. So long, that they remember the first time the snow arrived in the mountains. So long, that the coast where the Atlantic Ocean touches their land has been named after them: the Bay of Biscay. Biscay, or Vizcaya, is how their land has been called by their neighbors. These days, in English, as in French, they are called the Basques.

They call their land Euskal Herria, or Euskadi. It is a little country between the mountains and the sea. Many people have crossed it, but usually did not stay on. The Basques were there already, with their sheep, and their stone houses, and their strange language. They have long names, and music made from stones.

They were sheepherders, in the mountains, but they were also good at building boats, and sailing ships. Many of them were fishermen and navigators. They went West, fishing for cod, and hunting for whales in the Atlantic Ocean. They then came back to their homes, and their catch was enough to keep them well fed through the winter, and to sell to other people, in exchange for the things they needed.

In Euskal Herria there grew many sturdy oak trees. Oak trees have been very important to people, because they have much to give us. Because oak trees live a very long time, and provide shelter and food, they have come to be special to the peoples of Europe. They stand up to storm and wind, strong and tall, giving refuge to birds and other animals. They have become a symbol of strength. Their fruits, called acorns, are used for food, and also as a source of tannin and oil. The bark of some oaks has been used in medicine, in tanning, and in the preparation of dyes. When the oaks die, their wood is used for building homes and furniture, railroad ties and barrels, tools and toys. Oak wood is especially valued in shipbuilding. Without the oaks, the people of Euskal Herria may not have gone out to sea in their fishing expeditions, and the history of Europe may have been a little different.

The people of Euskal Herria had their own customs and laws. Long ago, when people lived by the rule of kings and queens, who told everybody what to do, the Basques did not have kings. They considered themselves equal to each other, with the same rights, and the same responsibilities. So they had councils instead. When there was a decision to be made, they got together, and talked about it, and all agreed on what was to be done. Those councils were held in open spaces, so everybody could fit in, and in special places, to mark the importance of the council, and the validity of what there was decided. Oak trees were very special, so those councils were carried out under the shade of an oak tree.

Now, as some towns are more important than others, because they are meeting places for people coming from opposite directions, or because there are many things to be found at their markets, or both, some councils became more important than others. The council of the town of Gernika, which had a busy market every Monday, became particularly important. The oak tree of Gernika became important as well. People got together under it once a year, to find solutions to their problems and agree upon their future.

The tree grew old, and watched over the centuries as life went on for the people of Euskal Herria. From its acorns, other trees grew, tall and strong, so when it finally died, the council meetings moved to take place under one of those trees, born of an acorn of the old oak.

When part of Euskal Herria decided to be united to Spain, the king and queen of Spain had to come to Gernika, and swear under the tree to respect the old laws of the country, and the rights of the people. This was important, because in those days not everybody in the kingdom had the same rights.

Life went on. There was war in Spain, and many people left. When the Basques moved to a new country, sometimes they brought acorns, or saplings of the old tree in Gernika, to plant them where they made their new homes, so that there would be a tree to watch over them. So that they will not miss their roots.

Spain kept having trouble. A new war started, this time between people who wanted the country to have an elected government, where everyone agreed on what was to be done, and a general who wanted to be king. The Basques, like many other people, fought against this general. But he had more weapons, and he had some powerful friends. So he asked them for help. On a Monday morning, (it was April 26, 1937) airplanes flew over Gernika and dropped bombs over the town, and the countryside. It was a sad, terrible day.

Many lives were lost. The town was destroyed. But the tree did not fall. It stood proud and strong, as befitting a young oak, not yet a century old. From the tree the people took strength, and hope, that carried them through very difficult times. The tree lived on, and the people of Euskal Herria endured the hard times, and sang their songs and spoke their language in secret. Some people left, went to live far away. Some of them took acorns in their pockets.

The tree stood, to see the general gone, and a new king in Spain. There is also a Parliament, which means that the people can have a say in how to run the country. The people of Euskal Herria can again use their language in the streets, and speak it at school. And there is a council every year in Gernika, where the tree stands.

Maya Iriondo is from Argentina and has Basque roots, She is a plant biologist by training and a bit of a drifter. She came to Honolulu, Hawaii, years ago to work on a PhD in Oceanography and ended up married with children instead. As her eldest grows and she struggles to teach him where her family comes from, she decided to write a few  short stories for him and his sister. This is the first.

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