Forty-five years ago I lived for several months in Mont, a Spanish village in the Pyrenees. In many places the international border between France and Spain strays from the crests of the mountains, and Mont is perched high above the Vall d’Aran, a Spanish valley on the north slope of the Pyrenees where France’s Garonne River is born. Because of its situation, the Vall d’Aran has long been a meeting place of cultures and languages. Place names in the valley have Basque roots, from a time when that language was more widely spoken (Aran is the Basque word for valley). When I lived there many of the valley’s inhabitants had grown up speaking four languages: Spanish, French, Catalan, and the local dialect, Aranese, a derivative of Gascon: a pattern that remains true today.
In the 1960s the Spanish Pyrenees had begun to shift from traditional subsistence agriculture to a more modern economy. The smallest villages were the first to lose population as young persons left, drawn to jobs in larger towns and cities. An older generation remained behind, still tending the herds, flocks, and fields in traditional ways. In 1967 Mont—which once was home for more than a hundred inhabitants—had dwindled to only six families: twenty-six persons in all. No one owned a car or truck, and only one house in the village had indoor plumbing.
These photographs document the traditional economy of a mountain village: a livelihood dependent on sheep and cattle; mountain pastures; some forestry; and subsistence crops: hay, barley, and oats. Each family had a kitchen garden and kept a few chickens, rabbits, and perhaps two pigs, a cow for milk, and a horse.
Mont’s common lands—its forests and pastures—provided a modest cash income to each household. In summer the six families combined their cattle and sheep and sent them up into the mountain pastures under the care of a herder: a son of one of the families. By late August the lambs and yearling cattle could be sold; the remaining animals would winter in barns in the village. Each year a few pine logs harvested from the forested common lands above the village provided additional income. And every house in Mont had “free” electricity because the village had agreed to supply water from one of its mountain streams to a hydroelectric plant in the valley below.
The Vall d’Aran is very different today. Some farms remain, but now the valley depends largely on tourism in both summer and winter. The high mountain plateau where the Garonne River is born—formerly grazed by cattle and sheep—is a major winter ski resort. Chalets, hotels, and vacation homes for wealthy city dwellers have transformed every village in the valley, and the capital, Vielha, is surrounded by new construction. Mont, which in the 1960s had more houses than families, today has tripled in size.