Saturday, March 17, 2018

Spring Kids

A wonderful sign of early spring are the baby goats gambling about in the small pastures along our country lanes. Curlicue puff balls springing about on tiny legs, bumping into brother and sister kids. No matter what else might be happening in ones life these bundles of adorableness make one smile. Well, that is for those of us that are causal observers. The arrival of these fragile babies creates some anxiety in those that are responsible for them. Here is a little story told by the best goat cheese maker in the region and the Little Bo Peep of her herd.
Kids in Louise's kitchen with the warmth of the AGA wood-stove.

Well folks, some of you might be wondering how we are getting on....
Well it's been interesting. Last Saturday was day one with 3 goats producing 5 nice kids. That was a good start if a little startling as we had reckoned Monday was the big day. 
Ok so Sunday was quiet and we caught up. 
Then the interesting bit. It got seriously cold. Of course I thought to myself, nothing like a freezing wind when your most precious kids are arriving. 
We did our best to keep the little ones cosy and our water protected. 
The next couple of days was a trudge, lugging water to pigs etc etc. Of course as luck would have it, our tractor was having a much anticipated overhaul, so it couldn't help. 
....but no kiddings!
Last night, as we finished our evening chores I asked the goats, very nicely, if they could please just hang on until this morning, after 9, preferably. 
Well what lovely goats we have...
10 am, Macy produces twin sisters. 3 more kidded in the afternoon. 
I guess they decided in all that cold and ice the kids were better in than out!
Well that or we were jolly lucky.

Thank you for the story Louise!

Monday, March 5, 2018


If someone were to say to you bird images, great big paintings of American birds, by an American artist, you would probably say Audubon, John James Audubon. And you would be right except for one thing - he wasn’t American he was French. That news sort of shocked me the first time I heard it as I think of Audubon as an icon of American art and as American as Davey Crockett.
I came across this tidbit of information in a newspaper article a few years ago.  Then recently there was more news of Audubon and we took a little drive up to the Natural History Museum in La Rochelle to see an exhibit of the early works of a young Jean Jaques Audubon.
It turns out that Audubon led a chaotic life starting with the fact that he was born to a mistress while his father was living in Haiti establishing sugar plantations. His mother died early on and he and his father left Haiti, went to Pennsylvania, and then to France to live with his father’s wife who had stayed back in France. His father pushed him into military school when he was 12 years old to become a seaman, but it was quickly evident that he got seasick and that he had no aptitude for mathematics or navigation. The young Audubon was thrilled to be back on dry land and in the fields where he could focus on birds. From his earliest days he was obsessed with birds, “I felt an intimacy with them….bordering on frenzy (that) must accompany my steps through life.” He was lucky because the 1800’s was a time of huge discoveries in natural history with funding for exploration and buyers of all things that gave the everyday citizen exposure to these new discoveries.
At 18 his father obtained a false passport for Audubon so that he could avoid conscription during the Napoleonic Wars. He avoided the military, but his calamities continued to follow him. Before he even got off the boat he came down with yellow fever. The captain took him directly to be nursed back to health by a group of Quaker women. This was his introduction to english and he always spoke with stilted, old fashioned words. Launched into American life he dabbled in several different careers and moved around from Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Missouri. Along the way he met and married Lucy Bakewell. They had two surviving sons. Audubon was often on the road, or rivers, in search of new bird species and working to perfect his representations of birds. His talent was quickly recognized, but there was a fair amount of competition in the field and he was perceived as a young upstart. Barley keeping his family afloat he did portraits on the side and Lucy was a teacher - the family seemed to be used to wandering around a lot and scratching things together just enough to stay afloat. Whenever possible Audubon tied his work to his passion for finishing up his main project, a book - The Birds of America. He developed wiring techniques that allowed him to show the birds in a more animated way. He’d redo all the paintings that had been done before he worked out this new technique. He hired hunters to gather specimens for him. He wandered up and down the waterways of the east coast where he could encounter the most diversity of birds. In all the project took 14 years of drawings, wandering, and self promotion of the project. There were not many folks that thought he could get the book into publication.

 He was rebuffed by the publishers he approached in Philadelphia. He had somehow upset the leading scientist at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Finally at the age of 41 he took his body of work to England to see if he could find the best engraver and a more sophisticated audience. His talent quickly caught the attention of the British who were in the throws of a Natural History craze. It cost Audubon - $115,640 (over $2,000,000 today) for the printing of the entire work. He earned his money back by selling subscriptions, hosting exhibitions, and selling commissioned works, and animal skins. Whatever it took to get his project out there. A contemporary French critic of The Birds of America wrote, “A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle….it is a real and palpable vision of the New World.”

Audubon’s story continued to be one of the driven, starving artist with highs and lows in his financial life. The things that were never in question were his endurance, his curiosity, and his faith in his work. At a time when he was losing subscribers he is quoted as saying, “The Birds of America will then raise in value as much as they are now depreciated by certain fools and envious persons.” (In 2010 a copy of The Birds of America sold at Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million.)

I’ll encourage you to go to the John James Audubon wikipedia site. This is where my information has come from and there is oh so much more than I have quickly relayed to you here.

Our trip to the museum in La Rochelle was wonderful. The museum is a quaint, old fashioned, natural history museum. We started our tour among the many stuffed birds from the region and explanations of their habitats. These displays were the perfect lead in to the small collection of Audubon works. The museum found these papers tucked in their attic mixed in with the works of one of Audubon’s original teachers and founder of the museum when they did a restoration 10 years ago. The exhibit interwove a bit of his life story with his early works. We had gone expecting to see the big portfolio engravings, but were pleasantly surprised to find how engaging and rich the smaller early sketches were. The early sketches already showed the power of his representations and we could see his early experimantations with how best to share the beauty of these birds that he was so obsessed with.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Rain, Rain and More Rain

Rain, rain, and more rain - to our water logged spirits it felt like it had rained for forty days or forty nights. Thank goodness not days and nights. With the ‘and’ the river would have spilled over it’s banks and into the valley plane. 

Our small village is particularly beautiful because it is divided in two by the River Dronne. On the left bank the houses are all situated well up above the river. Houses on the right bank sit seemingly at river level. It’s the right bank where things can get exciting when the river waters start to creep out of their bed. 
Last summer the Dronne was only ankle deep. We were all moaning about the lack of water and worried that the water table was disappearing. Our tunes have changed after the rains we have had all through December and January, the 3rd wettest period since 1904. You can see water standing between the furrows in fields high up on the ridge, there are unexpected ponds in the fields at the bottom of the valley, and rivulets of running water in the roadside ditches. Ducks are paddling about in new places and we are tired of changing our shoes and socks every time we venture outside.
Sunday morning found a bunch of us standing on the old bridge watching the water roiling angrily around the ancient stone abutments. Was she or wasn’t she going to keep coming up? The rain had stopped for the moment, but there was the question of wether the waters would continue to mount throughout the day. Would this be the year that our gentle Dronne showed us her malevolent side?

The swirling current of the river seemed to wind up the spirits on the bridge. There were animated guesses about whether the up-river dam was opened yet or not? - if not, oh my! You could tell that folks were kind of hoping for a spectacle.

None of the folks on the bridge had homes that were within reach of the rising waters. But, that had not always been true. Before the damn was constructed up stream the Dronne had been much more capricious. If it rained all winter there was no controlling the spreading waters that raced down the valley, bumped into the chateau’s cliff and spread through the wisely empty fields. 

Out on the bridge old timers started competing to tell the best flood story.

“My mother remembers a day when the flood waters were coming up and up. At the time they kept their animals on the ground floor. There were rabbits in cages and a pig in her pen. The rabbit cages were high enough that they would be fine even if the water entered the house.  That pig was a different story. They had a choice to stay awake all night watching for water entering or to bring the pig upstairs - and so they brought the pig upstairs.”
“One year the water got so high that the bakery’s ovens were under water.”

“The year I bought my house there were swans in the parking lot and I had to buy wellingtons to close the deal at the bank up in Brantome. To this day I can’t figure out how the bank stayed open surrounded by water. When asked if I lived in a flood plane I had to tell them that an hour ago the water was 4 inches away from the front door stoop. Thank goodness for the 3 inch threshold as it actually was just enough to keep the waters out. I discovered a funny thing about our right bank that day -the water goes straight down the street to the bakery. Who knew that there was a slant to the street and a better chance of water entering the back of the house than the front that faces the river?”
“I’ve heard tell of a morning when the students came down the hills of the right bank and there was no way to get across for school. To their great disappointment there no such luck as a ‘flood day’ because a neighbor was there with a little fishing boat to ferry them across the flooded fields.”
Everyone on the bridge agreed that as long as the water hadn’t gotten to the end of the little grass ramp there would be no flooding around the buildings. We all headed off to finish our Sunday morning errands. We knew we’d see each other again towards the end of the day when we came back to check on the water’s level.

The rains have stopped being a daily event since then and the River Dronne is back in her banks. There is still no place to walk that isn’t wet and slippery. The skies remain grey, but along the river bank there are now daffodils and the waters gurgle along with less anger and urgency on their way down to Bordeaux.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Chateau Bike Ride

Here are some of the  castles and manor houses that would tempt your imagination if you were to join me on a bike ride around my neighborhood.
 Chateau de la Cote
The roads swoop and climb over hill and dale.
 Chateau de Mareuil
Some of the properties are loosing the battle.
 Chateau de St Crepin de Richemont
 This 'home' is still lived in by the 7th generation of owners.

St Crepin de Richemont
A farmhouse on the hill.
Another farmhouse on a hill. 
Clearly you would rather join me on this ride on a sunny day. If we are lucky and the weather is mild, winter is great with no leaves to hide these magnificent places.
No need to hop on a bike to see this wonderful chateau. If you stay in the little hotel with the blue shutters you wake up in a dream world. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Cinderella's Castle

As a tiny tot I was well and truly indoctrinated by the Cinderella story. I still live with the influences of the millions of times that I asked to hear that fantastical story over and over again. Those magical notions were compounded by the hundreds of times I read any version that I could get my hands on. The more elaborate the book’s illustrations the deeper I feel under the story’s unrealistic grip. My imagination has no problem conjuring a miserable three legged stool set in the ashes of an enormous fireplace, tiny green tendrils climbing over a pumpkin carriage, beautiful lace ribbons and silk bows adorning ball gowns, the glint of magic shinning in the glass slippers, the chiseled good looks of Prince Charming, and best of all, a castle magically hovering over The Realm. Because once you’ve meet Prince Charming you will soon be moving into your own Cinderella Castle.

How I thrilled to the last illustration at the end of the story when Cinderella passed through elegant gates thrown wide open for her triumphant entry. She had arrived. She was now the mistress of the castle and everyone would live happily ever after.

And so to this day I dream of entering the grand gate leading into my very own castle realm. Just ahead there will be a turreted castle floating a bit above the mundane earthling world. Passing through the enormous front doors there will be room after room to waltz in and out of, tiny wood paneled boudoirs followed by silk draped bedrooms, into an enormous
mirrored ballroom followed by a silver laden dinning room with seating for a hundred.

My mind runs run through this imaginative dream each time I drive past a castle. And here’s the problem, here in France the dream of owning a castle could actually come true. Well it could if one had enough money, enough energy, and If one was really and truly crazy. I’m pretty dang crazy, but some serious reality has kept me from falling off the cliff. But, like I said that reality doesn’t keep me from dreaming about all of the folly I could get myself into.
Like the other day as I turned the pages of the local paper and found a beautiful “home” for sale. Well not a home, a castle. Not being very discriminating I wasn’t bothered that it’s not all that old or that it’s architecture is all wrong for this region of stone and more stone. Three photos of Cinderella’s castle leapt off the page and I could picture myself right there opening the front door to welcome you in.
I immediately went to the real-estate web-site. Oh my it was beautiful. Gates entering onto a long treelined driveway, passing manicured gardens. The graveled courtyard stopping at the sweeping steps leading to the grand front door. So good so far, but maybe it was ugly inside….. but it continued to be the perfect dream. Just the right scale, just the right details, just the right light. Oh how wonderful it would be to be the one in charge of all of this.
Just then I could hear Tom coming into the house and I was embarrassed that I was going to be caught lost in internet real-estate world - looking at a castle no less. So I clicked off the page and scurried back to what I was supposed to be doing in the first place. Painting the back hallway. See, we have always done all of our remodeling, maintenance, gardening and housekeeping. 

I grumbled along painting the bottom half of the wall dreading the moment when I had to get up on a chair to paint the top half. I’m not getting any younger and my muscles were going to be sore and  I might even loose my balance and fall. Then there were the tiny paint splashes that I was going to have to scrub on my hands and knees. I’d never get my knees unfolded after that job. On top of all this moaning It was getting late in the afternoon and a gang was meeting at the bar. But no, I had to stay here like Cinderella scrubbing the floor so I could move the furniture back to the hall, so I could find my bedroom. I was certain that everyone else was having a ball.

Oh dang my dreams of Cinderella were coming true just not the right end of the story.

In the end the hallway only took an hour to paint and clean. I got everything back in place and stood back to look at my job well done. Thank goodness for small spaces and tiny furniture. That left me with just enough time to trim up my two window boxes and pop something on the stove for dinner. It would be just the two of us at our table for four. All this before the clock struck 5:30 and I could still make it up to the bar.

What had I been thinking when I looked at that castle with 50 rooms and 40 hectares of gardens. I couldn’t even bear to count the number of windows where I might want to put window boxes or have to clean, Surely at some point most of those windows would stick and someone would have to unstick them. Wonder who that would be……? Tom…….
I guess we missed our time for being the owners of a castle. We’ve had lots of fairy godmothers, but they had the good sense to always keep us humble and living within our means. Tom’s so sweet he’ll say we already have our castle anyway. All 1200 sq ft of it. Just enough for a starving artist and his bonne vivante side kick. At least we have big gates to enter into even if they are a bit rusty and off kilter - they do lead into a most smallish, elegant, garden and there is our realm.

just in case you want a little dream time -- just don’t get caught when you should be working........

thank you to Sharon Santoni for her beautiful blog where you can find a real fairy tale castle where you can stay