Tired of the inner turmoil... I took up my walking stick. That act alone was magic. -- Jean Giono, Serpent of Stars
January 1, 2002 La Saumane, Haute Provence, France
(An excerpt from my book-in-progress, Province of the Heart)
After many hours at the keyboard a stretch turns into the realization that I must take a walk, move, breathe the bright cold air of the day. Outside it is not as cold as I had thought; the air has that limpid purity that I love so well here and the sun takes the edge off the chill. Walking up the long path through the village, I pass Mme. Pascal’s—closed, but not shuttered. I have the feeling that if I knock on the door, she would come, slowly as always, ducking through the narrow passage that leads from her home to the interior of the store, with a little dip to her walk, thrusting her hands deep into the pockets of her blue cardigan and say, “Bonjour, madame.” And, as today is New Year’s, she would add, “Bonne année”.
Past the tiny café that is only open on Saturdays and then only for a few hours, past the ancient church with a single diminutive stained glass window set into its side like a precious jewel, I come to the village square, with its broken public phone and its World War I monument. Such markers can be found in nearly every village in France. Three sides of the ugly obelisk are blank under their battle site headings: Sommes, Marne (the “n” is backward) and L’Iyser. But the fourth, Verdun, has thirteen names on it, far too many for such a humble community.
To my right some children play a pick-up game of soccer. To my left a group of older men play a game of pétanque; I am reminded of the games just like it I’ve seen played on the Houston Street median strip in New York’s Little Italy. All the men look alike, short, stocky, bundled up against the cold with caps pulled low on their foreheads, a genotype stemming from the ancient Ligurians who first settled this land. I watch as one man lobs the ball fairly near the goal. Then he lobs another, which falls short of the first. “Putain”, I hear him mutter as I turn away.
I continue up through the otherwise empty village, through the quiet peace of a crisp New Year’s Day, le Jour de l’An, as they call it here. Passing out of the village now, I mount the stony path leading to a high lavender field, past the meadows that were thick with mushroom hunters two months ago but are now deserted, save for the occasional flock of sheep. I listen for the plaintive sound of their bells, so familiar to my walks, but today all is silence. Only the hills call me with their siren song. The thought comes: I love it here because the landscape possesses a peace and clarity that I often find lacking in myself. Under its spell the static clears away and I can just simply be.
Pacing one edge of the lavender field I glance upwards to see the spot across the valley that my friend Fabienne pointed out to me the first time I visited her. Her lover Olivier had died there four years before. Rumors circulate that he committed suicide, but she adamantly denies them. Stories come quick here; intimate revelations are made so easily to me, a stranger. But there are always layers that remain hidden, pieces missing. A friend recently filled in more of the tale: that Fabienne’s lover was married, and he and his wife lived in the same little village of not more than seventy-five souls, if that. The affair sowed a harvest of dissension and side-taking that shook the little community. There were those who condemned the liaison for breaking up Olivier’s family, others who defended the primacy of love.
But there was yet another twist to the story: Fabienne’s lover had been a visionary, a pioneer of sustainable forestry, a regional mover and shaker. Some people he moved; others he shook. Some—those who exploited the land the easy way, clear-cutting stands of forest—saw her lover as an adversary. Their handiwork is visible everywhere, leaving great slashes pockmarked with forlorn stumps of trees in the body of the hills. Where they exploited the earth, he stewarded it, and they hated him for it.
I think back to an earlier walk I took at Fabienne’s suggestion. She had urged me to visit a bergerie, or sheepfold, that Olivier had restored faithfully to its original design, a haven for hikers and sheep alike nestled in the midst of the old growth forest he owned and husbanded.
I trudged for what seemed like hours up the mountain road, pitched at an ungodly steep angle. At first I went right by the bergerie, so hidden was it by the sheltering trees. I came to another sheepfold at the top of the mountain, this one quite ruined, with its roof of mortarless stones all fallen in, save for several lithic ribs that still arched from wall to wall.
There I sat and ate my lunch, trying not to succumb to vertigo. Far below and wide stretched the entire panorama of Haute Provence, all the way to the Luberon and over to Folcalquier and the Pre-Alps rising above the Durance. Cutting down from the Alps toward the ocean, the river was a broad channel of light gray gravel bisected by a turquoise stream of water. The Alps drew a crisp, jagged edge across the horizon and far to the south I imagined I could even glimpse the faint twinkle of the sea. From my perch I could also see the many clearcuts that marred the nearby hillsides. My heart constricted at their heedlessness.
“The trees will suddenly become much bigger,” Génia had said to indicate the beginning of Olivier’s realm. On the way back down the mountain road, I spied a vestigial path lightly treading the edge between an overgrown field and a wood filled with birches of enormous girth. Their smooth trunks rose from roots that writhed like nests of gigantic snakes and I felt I was gazing into “Pan’s country,” as Jean Giono called it. On a hunch, I turned onto the weedy trail. Just beyond the far border of the field, a ghostly shape reared to view in the arboreal gloom, its flat white stones fairly glowing in a patch of afternoon sun. The dark open mouth of its long tunnel gaped as if in surprise at my sudden appearance. I had found Olivier’s bergerie.
Inside, a thick layer of windblown leaves spilled across the floor. Branches and twigs broke the surface. The walls exhaled a musty dampness. In the adjacent hut, a broken window and latchless door afforded entrance to animals, the weather, and passing humans. These had left behind abundant evidence of their temporary tenure: piles of nut shells, droppings, rusty cans, empty wine bottles, scraps of clothing, a cheap sleeping bag dulled by filth. The sad air of neglect that clung to every surface deflated my plans to spend the night. Olivier’s spirit had long ago decamped from this space.
One night, after having a bit too much to drink, Olivier took his tractor out on the gravel road that curves up and around the mountain overlooking his village. He stopped the hulking vehicle where a turnaround juts precariously over the friable hillside. Whether he came too close to the edge by accident or on purpose is unknowable and perhaps unimportant. What is certain is that the tractor tumbled from the precipice, spilling him out, and he died under its treads.
At first, the local police suspected murder, motivated by the controversies, personal and political, that surrounded him. Perhaps it was a local forester who resented the changes that Olivier was trying to bring about, or a vengeful relative of his wife’s. Those theories were soon ruled out, to be succeeded by rumors of suicide. His enemies longed to discover a lesson of comeuppance in his death. Others sought to find comfort in the purposeful nature of the act, no matter how anguished. That tragedy can happen for no good reason is something people are reluctant to acknowledge. But the truth of Olivier’s death will never be known for sure.
These thoughts rattling around in my head, I turn around and start back home. As I pass once more through the village square, I notice that the pétanque players have reversed the direction of their play. Another round. A player lobs one of the heavy iron balls, then mutters, “merde”.
The sun is low on the horizon now, although I am gladdened to remember that the days have begun to lengthen. Hues grow deeper, more golden, shadows more sharply defined. The trees’ silhouettes are black against the still blue sky as I open the door to the kitchen and enter its cave-like darkness.
Tomorrow's post: The euro comes to Mme. Pascal's store.