Province of the Heart: Prologue

“My boy,” he said, “don't think you know everything. You know the sheep, but to know is to be separate from. Now try to love; to love is to join. Then, you'll be a shepherd.” 
Jean Giono, Serpent of Stars

January 30, 2002
Spring has arrived. I hesitated to say it before, perhaps fooled by a winter thaw—but, no. It’s here. For the past week, the weather has been glorious. Warm, sunny. Even the mistral has lost its winter bite. Today’s sky hazes over with a thin film of white, foretelling clouds and cold. Time to take advantage of the weather before it changes. I start off with plans to hike the three miles to the neighboring commune. But, five minutes into my walk, a familiar sound waylays me. Sheep bells—a seductive clang, archaic and wistful. 
A net of tranquility settles over me, stopping me in my tracks. I look across the narrow valley and there, splayed out over the hillside, an intricate pattern of wooly shapes undulates across the hillside, a school of sheep-fish, grazing in the deeps of the meadow. Their barrel bodies mimic the duns of their winter forage: tans, yellows and browns, offset by lighter legs flickering underneath as they mow the slope. 
The shepherd stretches out on the earth, propped on one elbow, facing away from me. I steal up behind him to get a closer look and stay standing some hundred meters away, watching, for perhaps thirty minutes. For months, the haunting melody of sheep bells has followed me on my walks around the hills of Haute Provence, prompting me to puzzle over the shepherds: their ancient way of life and the encroachments of the modern world that threaten it.
They spend all day, every day, out with their sheep and their dogs, ranging over the hills and valleys. When I pass them on my hikes, they acknowledge my “bonjour” with a warm glance, but no words pass their lips. Have they lost the knack of human speech, fallen into disuse during the days and years of solitary roaming? (Later, Fabienne tells me that for many years she walked the hills with an old Andalusian shepherd who joked to her that he only spoke “Sheep.”)
What do they do to keep from getting bored, out there with their charges? They don’t carry iPods; not even a radio. No earphones peek out from under their caps. No books or magazines are tucked under their arms—only their shepherd’s crooks. They are just there with their dogs and the sheep. 
Now, observing my subject from the edge of the field behind him, I understand what shepherds do to keep themselves from getting bored: they watch sheep. Intently. With the same one-pointed absorption as his dog, the shepherd is attuned to each shift and shudder in the massed animals before him. It’s as if the whole triad—man/dog/sheep—is one organism.  
The shepherd calls out something. At first, I assume he’s talking to his sheep; they answer him with a chorus of bleats. A wave of ba-a-as sweeps through the flock. The shepherd mimics them: he ba-a-as; they ba-a-a back. Then he laughs.
A stream of sheep begins to pour into the adjacent meadow. The troop swirls and pirouettes as the dog's swift black shape glances along its edges. The shepherd calls out another command as one small group of rebels advances in the opposite direction. The dog streaks to the left, neatening up the borders of the herd. But, caught up in the excitement of the game, he gets overzealous. The sheep, pressed, become agitated. The shepherd quickly sings out a warning to the dog, who drops back immediately. Then “à droite!” and the dog streaks to the right where the front flank of the herd is beginning to fray toward a lavender field. “Arrête!” And the dog drops to the ground like a stone between two wintry rows of lavender bushes. Together, man and dog settle back into a watchful stillness.  
The minutes stretch out as I stand, transfixed. Though it looks like nothing is happening, something is going on all the time: observation and action are seamless. The shepherd spends his days in meditation; sheep are his mantra.  
As I move off, I notice a pile of dead lavender wood lying at the edges of the adjacent field. Its resin makes for good tinder, so, forgetting my hike, I return home to snatch a bag to carry my find back to the wood stove.
As I walk, I consider the life of a shepherd, my thoughts tinged with envy and admiration. Its timelessness and tranquility lures, although I know that I am irrevocably time-bound in the modern world. “He lived a life of husbandry and liberty, inhabitant and hermit, half-sage, half sorcerer, always poet…” Is it mere coincidence when the next day I pluck a book about Provence from Fabienne’s shelf and find this description of a shepherd?
When I return to the lavender field, the sheep are swarming homeward, a wooly stream limning the contours of the hill. Bells tinkle in the deepening afternoon light. The dog’s dusky silhouette stands guard alongside in the dip of a narrow gully. The shepherd emerges from behind some brush, staff in hand, his sun-and-wind brown face visible now under his broad brimmed hat, his jacket slung around his shoulders like a cape. We nod to each other, then move off, each to our own direction.

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