ABOUT THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE
In the beginning, man was strained by nature and he dared not to do otherwise than the other beasts; he lived from hand to mouth, pursuing farther and farther wild herds running in search of fresh pasture.
And so was it for thousands years - son hewing flint as father and daughter nourishing kids as mother. They were cold, they were frightened.
It came incredibly that man grew bold enough to sow his land with seed, thus putting an end to the terrible sovereignty of fortune. In the place where weeds and woods used to spread, cereals rooted deep; and man discovered the taste of bread. Tied up to earth, he domesticated beasts and enclosed them. He learnt to preserve and he bound nature to work for him.
As hunting had ruled in the olden days, so agriculture and rearing ruled in the following days. And he who did it, a new man, was the peasant.
The photographs of this Cdrom show his marvelling at the earth he has humanised, and his gratitude unto nature which finally has become his friend.
~ ~ ~
The peasant is a little being, lost between sky which crushes him, and earth which engulfs him. With his arms, he attempts to put at peace the powers on high and the powers on low. If he succeeds, he does remain in life.
However, the law of the sky is not the law of the peasant. One year, it rained so much that crop rotted upon the ground; another year, ears became hollow by drought; one day, hail worried young shoots; not considering ice which took rivers beyond blooming time, storm which spoiled fruit trees, overflows of rivers which drowned beasts and cultures.
Exhausted, the peasant continues to scratch the ground, without fancying leisure or holidays. Bent to his furrows, he sometimes raises his eyes, scanning the sky with anguish, trying to forecast a progression perhaps fatal of the clouds, the secrecy of winds which turn mysteriously above his fields.
Will he eat, morrow?
~ ~ ~
The patience of the peasant has no limits. He awaits, he prepares, he hopes.
Common mortals wonder only at what is unusual. The peasant marvels at what is usual. For it is more difficult for an acorn to become an oak than for a man to go to the moon.
The peasant believes in things which cannot be seen; in signs, which are promises; in crop, which will come as comes a miracle. In the morning, he wakes up, and death has not taken him yet.
Without bitterness or sadness, he knows that the end of his time is near. The trees which he has planted will survive him and will give fruit to his children and to those who will come to life after them.
When all seems to be lost, life rushes around, changes and springs anew. A piece of trunk, felled and abandoned in a meadow, hasn't it been covered the following spring with tender small branches and fresh leaves, so preparing fruit for the summer time?
What was alive has died, what was dead gave back life.
~ ~ ~
Painted in the bottom of prehistoric caves, the beasts of those times galloped in the dust of the stone which has been crumbling away. Hanging strangely one above the other, they have become motionless since who knows how long. Since long enough for the beasts, which had been their models, and also for the species of these beasts, to have disappeared from our land.
Nowadays, our appeased herds rise in tiers on the hills. Hanging strangely one above the other, the cows graze peacefully the dense meads prepared by man.
In the morning, they wait for man to lead them to meadow; and in the evening, to lead them to byre. They await his warm and steady hand to stroke their back, they respond to his voice's sound and follow him where he wants them to go.
Since such a long time they have lived together, they have learnt to know and to like one another. Man guards his beasts from the fierce animals, he builds sheds for them against cold and rain, every day he changes their litter and waters them, he mows the grass of meadows and garners the leaves of trees and the hay for them to eat during winter, he heals them when they are ill and helps them to breed.
The beasts are no more afraid of man; and with their whole body, they give him what they have. Milk every day, and their flesh, which have saved man from hunger; and their byre soft warmth, which has saved him from the mortal cold of winter; and their colossus mighty, which has drawn the plough and the waggon full of heavy harvest.
With their calm and gentle eyes, they stare at him with curiosity; they don't cast down their eyes before man, trying to understand this astonishing being, thence forgetting to chew a blade still half out of the muzzle.
~ ~ ~
In the beginning, man has settled near water, for with no water, life cannot be. Rivers and streams, overflowing their banks, fertilised uncessantly the land with alluvions. The streams bred plants, fish, game. And the fens, for the ones who knew them well, were a paradise and a shelter that protected them from foes and fierce animals. In those days, all was within reach.
Pools and fens gradually dry; torrents, which used to saw mountains and to widen valleys, yet flood the land no more and run in trickles, which a stone bridge quietly spans.
However, when you penetrate those old places where man has dwelt, thousands and thousands years ago, all at once it happens something strange and undefinable. You are seized by a strong feeling, ever the same one, that you will no more forget. It is as if you were arrived at home : suddenly the tension ceases, wind stills; tender softly shaped hills shelter you from the outer world. In the bottom of this rounded site, a tribe would live of yore.
Later on, man climbed up onto cragged spurs, onto eminences, from where he could better survey and attack. Before, he nestled in the foodful earth; then, he willed to be the master of the land.
We are the sons of those two kinds of men : the one who contemplates and the one who makes, the one who receives and the one who takes.
~ ~ ~
The peasant knows the earth. The geologist, as to himself, has to proceed to chemical analyses to pronounce. The peasant instead, with his own eyes, sees the location of an ancient fen, discovers the limit between heavy and dried land, guesses a thick soil and a fountain. The colour of the ground, its crumbly or soft aspect, the plants covering it, murmur around him and guide him. Thus he let poor land to be forested and built his house close to the richest ground; he set culture on high plain, herd on slope and orchard in valley.
The earth and the peasant have agreed since millenaries. The peasant sees such an ancient and sage harmony being destroyed by modern agriculturists. He shivers with fear : "They have ploughed meadows!" for he knows how bad are wet soils for cereals.
A good soil is soft to be rolled between the hands; it smells of earth, a strong and inviting smell, which makes you rest and be raptured. The peasant's eyes kiss his land, observing its metamorphoses, waiting for its delays. Then, harvest time coming, he cannot believe his eyes : wherever he looks, there is something to eat!
~ ~ ~
In a misty glade, wood hems in two or three smoking huts...
This primitive image has been rubbed away, chopped through by forth-marching fields and meadows. Then, hamlets bespeckled the land, at an hour's walk, each sheltering three or four families rooted to their ground. Beyond the hamlet stands the unknown.
The peasant has a master : nature, which demands from him much more than any human master. Up with the sun, the peasant ends his work only after hours and hours of labour, at the close of the day. He can rely upon himself only, and does not know how to be ill nor how to take a rest. Who else would plough the land? Who would split the wood for winter? Who would dry the dewy hay? Morn and eve, cows are awaiting to be milked, hens and ducks to be fed. Even on his wedding day, if the storm brews, he has to leave the feast to hastily garner the crop. Yet, how to hold it against nature, as nature makes him live?
Thus he has been accustomed to do himself what was necessary to survive : food and house of course, tools and clothes as well. Man, woman, child are each necessary : to the man, the dangerous struggles and the exhausting outdoors work; to the woman, the incessant farm and orchard toil; to the child, running to fount and minor tasks.
Of this life echoing with the shouts of familiar beasts and the laugh of rushing children, what does remain in our empty country, but a lonely tractor which, slowly and wilfully, persists in ploughing its furrow one close to the other, or picks up the straw balls rolled and abandoned by another engine?
The last Days
Apple trees are in blossom and their white petals scatter around. A stone-paved path wriggles in ruts, then goes hardily over the hill. Air is chilly and for a moment, it snows small frozen flakes. The blue-green weed covers the slopes as in wet cold spring. Two or three cows browse to and fro. The sky is whitish, with pale blue gaps.
Every morning, an old woman walks up the main road which goes out of the village. Clothed in black, crooked and bent by strain, she pushes a small light-cart full of faggots. She climbs slowly onto the top of the mount. One day, she came back no more.
~ ~ ~
The wind blows on falling leaves. As in a speedy but melancholic waterfall, the leaves separate from the tree which has nourished them.
The trees, to die, have dressed in heavy tapestries, encrusted with gold and bronze which shimmer in the sun. The sunshine makes autumn strong colours revive and warm. Stiffened beside their trunk, some leaves seem to be burning against the blue of the sky. Another one has remained, thoughtfully, on a naked shrub. Floating clouds fly behind unclothed branches.
From the top of the big tree, a shivering leaf falls down to join its colourful sisters which are already asleep in the bluish water of a pond; little by little they have browned and sunk into the sombre depths; and on the pale covering them water, glide without halting white and vaporous clouds.
~ ~ ~
What are the secrets of the world? Wild birds gather and turn in the grey sky, ready to migrate. A stream runs down the mountain and its cold limpid waters come back no more to glitter on the pebbles of its bed. The ploughed lands at autumn vanish into fog.
Who does understand these secrets? Do the wet marshy plants know how to heal, how to give life, how to accomplish desires? Does it know, the big bald tree in the mead, coming by degrees out of the mist? But the mist takes it back.
Is the world only what our eyes can see, a glass case ornate with alluring paintings? Does our voice carry beyond walls? Is there anybody hearing?
The beings, which are living, are they hidden powers, messengers, signs? This big gnarled trunk, crooked with age and watching, is it standing at the doors of life?
And the men, when they speak, do they say anything?
Nevertheless, in the shade of a pear tree, weeds have grown around the waggon. And the evening sun plays passing through the leaves of the tree to lighten sometimes the old wooden wheel, sometimes the common weeds which keep it company.
~ ~ ~
Some trees greet us from high above, in the tender azure of the sky. Vivid berries dye the bushes. Brambles spring out of the hedges and hang lazily amongst blackberry flowers. A narrow path dives into the foliage, in the shadow of an oak, beside a cow which tries to watch, straining forward.
Have they abandoned such things, those who are gone for ever?
Cuddled in the mist, their enclosure seems to float on the slope of the hill. Castles, towers, crosses and chapel gather inside the walls. A path winds off across the fields to those thoughtful and silent dwellings.
Nevertheless, their city does not fence itself, and its wynds wander in the weeds. A thick ivy fleece covers at its best the remaining stones of an ancient chapel; a few crosses press around as if stumbling. Three olden tombs contemplate them.
Another tomb stands apart - pondering and talking to trees and to clouds. Two steles bend their shoulders each to the other and whisper some remembrance. Coming out from a box-tree, a humble cross opens its arms to a nearing bud. Above the little wall, the tombs gaze at the far village of the quick, with its abodes so narrow and so locked that they seem to be dead.
It's easy to find out an ancient path : it has authority and it is inviting.
Every so often, it seems to linger across the fields or try to go round a mead : Good gracious! old John's mead ought not to be crossed! Hey look how it hangs onto the slope, running straight ahead through bushes, without losing the level line.
There's so much wisdom in this level line! The cows do find it by instinct when they pasture on hills. The ancient path comes out from the mists of time, far before the Romans, far before the Gauls; a vestige of an old beast path, might be.
It is a record of those days when going slow was better than going tired. With it, you won't save time; to our modern roads, indeed, time is money. The ancient path enjoys man's pace.
You can rely upon it. The ancient path knows its way, for it goes to vital places : water, dwellings, good lands. It stretches its thin ribbon beyond dale and down, so far away as to be out of sight.
It is made of earth and stones, like the surrounding landscape; its drawing resemble the drawing of hedges and fences; the same flowers and the same weeds grow around the fields as well as along its sides; it is fragrant with ripe wheat and of new-mown hay; and even, some trees present passing people with their fruits.
~ ~ ~
A few days ago, the cold has come. The ancients do worry, because if it frosts, cold will deeply penetrate the earth and ruin the seeds. Ravens gather above hardened furrows and croak in the air.
Yesterday afternoon, all at once, a sharp cold descended; men and children rushed into the kitchen as hungry as a hunter : presage of snow, said the ancestor. The sky was all white.
On waking-up, ears filled up with a surprising silence : outward sounds were muffled, barely born, and not a thing resounded; through the window was coming a dim light without edge or contrast, which looked phosphorescent on the walls. What had happened?
A hallucinating whiteness struck your eyes as soon as you glanced outside, an enchanting world was resplendent, immaculate, in the wonder of its birth. One night had been enough, and the world was changed!
Nothing more was as it had been yesterday : smoothed out, buried under a cloth of dream. However, a path could be traced by its winding onto the hillside bushes. Hedges were still in their place. But they did not part the meads anymore; they drew black lines on the uniform whiteness, mysterious odd figures, which had never been noticed before, and which resembled the true features of this place, that another world would have revealed. The big oak, which had been hidden in fields and hedges, then stretched around its branches as a crown and displayed its least twigs and last dried leaves outlined against the white ground. Near some firewood, the old barrier, which had not been secured, had half-opened and was leaning down to a luminous unknown world.
A light cart was moving forward creaking on its way to a smoking farm. Afterwards, in the keen dry weather, silence took back the land.
Without a sound, a horde of wild boars hurried out of a wood and at an even speed dashed through meads and fences, as a supernatural apparition. The sun was sparkling upon the grains of ice heaped with lightness one over the other, the least move scattered an impalpable dust falling down softly with no noise.
Fortunately, snow has come : it will ward the earth from cold and will shield the seeds.
~ ~ ~
Wheat has overspread and overwhelmed the land; only the church and the hamlet's roofs overhang those pale fields baked in the sun of July.
The path comes down from the hamlet and waves among fields. Two children come back from a brook, busy and joyful; two little dots dancing amongst the hills which softly go up and down.
Catching crayfish had been a very enterprise. First, the brook was hiding in fresh grass and thickets; then, it lapped on the irregular stones of its bed; moreover, small pebbles in the bottom changed colour with the beaming sun and shaped creatures that you did not know : a unicorn, monsters, the head of a wolf had appeared; later, shadows in their wane had all rubbed. It was under the large flat stones that crayfish could be found. One only was the way to catch them and not to be nipped : coming above and pressing them on their waist. If you weren't bold or swift enough, a sharp tail strike would make them jump back and disappear into the splashes, who knows where.
The unrelenting sun hardens the spikes; they bristle and rustle with a stifling breath of wind; the air is tough; all is hot.
Observing you, a kind of grasshopper, bigger and longer than the longest finger of the hand; it is grasping behind the stiff stalk of a wheat spike. The insect turns imperceptibly around the stalk to screen itself, and the child bends his head to follow it, amazed. The colour of the insect blends so well with the colour of the stalk that only the insect's move has distinguished it from the plant. Looking each other in the eye, both are sizing up either universe; they train to realise that under the incomprehensible semblance, a will is struggling and persisting.
With the coming even, the cicadas' song grows deafening. A strong scent of bread breathes out of wheat.
~ ~ ~
When the village is on top of the hill or of the high plain, it seems to stand at edge to block the way, mured in its façades deprived of windows, tightened under the authoritative bell-tower of its church. When the village is on a slope, the rosy tiles of the roofs emerge from thick woods descending to the valley and its stone houses nestle one near the other close to the old church.
A woodpile lies near, a crooked plum tree rises above, which stars with yellowed leaves the dry twigs and faggots. Some nettles keep them company, showing their heads amongst the branches, kissing in tender waving the wounds of the dead wood that weather has slowly dulled.
Three geese proceed solemnly, with stalwart neck, fierce bill and feathers immaculate as snow, pacing together in irreproachable precision. So do they penetrate into a mossy lane - last trace of the ancient ditches that bounded the village. Then, between the two stone walls, their venerable figures thins down in the distance.
In a windy shed, forks and rakes have been left around, and worn ropes and leather thongs are hanging on nails. A hay waggon takes the whole room; and in the shade of its big wooden wheels nests an old wheelbarrow filled with straw; and in the hollow of the neatly displayed straw, a hen has laid her eggs and is sitting on them, in the warm. Behind her, a row of little chicks, of a light yellow tint, is peeping : they are running frenetically behind their mother which is, as for her, quietly walking under the waggon.
The path goes down the slope amongst the houses, running along the doorsteps which stone has been rubbed by sabots, greeting the humble weeds and the Virginia creepers that climb above the doors. Finally, the path stumbles at a house standing right in the midst of its way and parting for ever the way that goes up from the way that goes down.
~ ~ ~
Rain has begun to fall without being noticed, grey in the grey sky, drizzling as some kind of wet blur. It has slidden a drab and milk-white veil in the air, softening colours and shapes, confusing the far distance. In the hollow of the slopes, bushes round a spring have mingled with falling water; and the old path, which goes away beyond the hills, is slowly fading in the thickening droplets.
The sky has filled with rain : it is falling down as a balm and, little by little, is seeping through the earth, moistening plants and things. In an orchard, rain trickles down the rough boughs of the apple-trees, and black traces of water grow large down the trunks; amongst shimmering grass, a cobweb is all pearled. A smell of wet ground and leaves breathes out, a perfume of moss and of ripened apples. Within three days, meadows will be green again and a new sap will run in all the stalks. Land revives.
Boots are heavy with sticky clay, and soaked clothing makes you shiver; in the midst of the rainy bluish fields, you are glad discerning a massive barn. Standing on its thick beams and protected by its strong timbering, it shelters a perfectly dry rammed earth. Nothing remains but to snuggle in straw or hay and to breathe, in the warmth, the delightful scents of the flowers and of the grass which have been drying here since summer.
Meanwhile, ducks have gone a waddling in the soppy farmyard and, ruffling their feathers, little birds are having a bath at a puddle's edge. As for frogs - splash! pluff! paff! plunk! - they have jumped all together into the pond at the first approach. And in the ripples on the water, camouflaged in air bubbles floating on the surface, round eyes are coming out, the ones after the others, and taking up their position as observers.