Friday, 16 July 2010
Peaceful Resistance and Folk Art
Sources differ as to when people started bringing crosses to this small bit of raised ground in the countryside not far from Siauliai, Lithuania, where a hill fort once stood. Some say it began after the 1831 November Uprising to commemorate those who fought and died without a trace. Others assert that it began much earlier, in the 1300s, as a sign of defiance against invading Teutonic knights. And still others believe that this is a very old tradition that predates Christianity. But regardless of when the tradition began, today there are hundreds of thousands of crosses of all sizes and descriptions here, from seemingly everywhere in the world.
The day we visited the wind was racing over the fields. One moment giant storm clouds would be pelting us with rain, and the very next instant the skies would be so blue that if it weren't for the proof of soaking-wet clothes, no one would believe it could have rained. The weather must have switched back and forth between those extremes a dozen times while were were at the hill. The only constant thing was the eerie sound of the wind whispering, chiming, and tapping its way through the crosses on the hill. That, and the sight of storks walking through the fields on every side.
During the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, it was forbidden to plant crosses on the hill. People would come to the hill in the dead of night, over and under barbed-wire fences, risking everything, to lay their crosses, to display their resistance. The crosses on the hill were bulldozed flat a number of times, and sewage was spread across the ground to deter any further efforts. But more crosses always appeared.
I have written for you before about the wonderful, traditional wooden sculptures in Lithuania, and here, too, one can see evidence of that. In addition to carved, folk crosses are Marys, Jesuses, and crying women.
Small crosses grow out of larger ones. There are crosses that people have brought with them from far away places. Crosses of wood, of course, but also many of moulded metal, and everything else. Tiny crosses which seem to have been built spontaneously from found materials are also scattered about -- crosses of twigs and shoelaces, pencils, grass, feathers.... The weight of so many small crosses has, in some places, overwhelmed the much larger ones, and they have fallen, taking whole sections down with them.
A man walks up the hill and stands in the middle for a long time with a pocket video recorder. He has the screen on showing a movie of a teenage girl, perhaps his daughter, and he leaves it playing so that one more voice rings out on the hill, mixing with the strange din of all those crosses in the wind.
Every direction is too full. Too much detail, too many crosses. Imagine, for each cross, a person filled with something that drove them to come all the way to that hill and leave a thing behind, to talk for them on windy days.
And then we are hit suddenly by how much time we have spent standing, staring, at endless varied sameness, wearing clothes of wind wearing us. We came out to the Hill of Crosses on the suburban bus that passes on the nearest big road, a few kilometres away, and we can't miss the next one back into the city.
So we are off, running away from the hill, across the fields and down the country roads to the lone smiling woman at the bus stop across the road, who stalls for us with the same bus driver we had on the way over -- he is laughing at us now that we are out of breath.
But first, one glance back.