Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Stories to be Told

There are stories to be read from the winter landscape. Chapters unfold while ambling along a country path.  A perfect adventure includes sunshine, big vistas, charming hamlets and at least one dreamy chateau. With no leaves to hide the setting and scenes fantastically illuminated by the low angle of the winter sun who knows what the story will be; a mystery,  a romance or maybe historical fiction…… 

At the start today’s adventure was anything but perfect - or was it?

Gathering under streaks of pink and gray clouds, we were not sure if the sun had enough force to sweep them away. Everyone had good boots and an umbrella at hand. Dry shoes and socks were stocked in the trunk for our return at the end of the morning’s loop. A loop that took us around a village just up from Bourdeilles’ river valley. St Julien de Bourdeilles sits up hill on the edge of a large flat plateau.
The plot started blandly. There was an old church (of course) with ten or so homes nestled around it. A few twists and turns later we were crossing farmer’s fields.  The most noticeable feature on the walk seemed to be the stone walls. And then it turned out that indeed the most exciting part of the walk were the stone walls. With nothing dramatic on the horizon to distract us from what was right alongside we began to pay attention to what hemmed us in-- miles and miles of crisscrossing stone walls. 

There was a story to be read on this expansive plateau, we just had to take turns reading the chapters. This was not going to be a swashbuckling, romantic adventure, but a gentle tale of rural life. Life hard-earned and precarious.

The sinewy sturdy stone walls tell of months, years, of the Sisyphean task of clearing rock strewn fields. Stones that grow in a field without any effort on the farmers part - except to annually harvest them on bleak winter days. How lucky that the stones could serve a dual purpose, a winter occupation and walls to hold in grazing livestock.

We’ve picked up the rhythm of this classic farm story.  The plateau was once animated by bleating sheep and the raspy scrape of a plow. Once or twice a year the farmer would head off to market. Heading down valley along these paths carefully laid out between the stone walls. 
This chapter has it’s mysteries. How many folks have walked these paths? Were there people passing through from the farthest reaches of France? Where were they going? What had they seen along the way?  The path is often too narrow for two people to pass side by side and the walls stand as high as our shoulders. What would have happened on the rare occasion when two carts would meet along the path? We laughed at the idea of a farmer trying to convince a goat to back up.. We felt for the driver having to deal with this unexpected, aggravating encounter. Walls can be shoulder high for many long meters and there were no lay-bys to help out. 
Another thing about these path was not so much a mystery as a marvel. If one pays close attention you can see that the stones underfoot are not just natures random toss, but have actually been placed one by one like paving stones. Apparently rainy winters and muddy paths have long been a problem here. More fascinating, parts of the rock path seemed to be precisely cut by a mason.  In fact it is a perfectly long table exactly as wide as a set of train wheels, which is the same width as the farmers’ carts that carved this rock over hundreds of years.
There has been tragedy in the long course of our story. We won’t see a single sheep, the farm houses we pass are shuttered or falling in, and here and there the stone walls have succumbed to gravity and tumbled onto the path. Trees are filling in land once so carefully cleared.
By the looks of the scrawny trees trunks the sheep have not been gone all that long from the pastures. By contrast the pillowy clumps of emerald green moss would make one think the walls have been here forever. 
Behind the walls trees are strewn like pick-up sticks. In an ancient setting this is a  recent drama. A tempest passed across France at the changing of the millennium and left the scars of her fury. Solemnly standing among the downed trees we can see the craggy, dead trunks of once enormous chestnut trees. These ruins tell the older story of when the chestnut blight wiped out an entire chunk of the forest habitat. Their loss was another blow to the settlers’ meager resources.

We closed up our loop and changed out of soggy shoes. Today there will be no story of a fairy princess in her hidden castle tower, no knights in shinning armor. We finish off this country story at a mill. A mill where our farm character might have stopped after walking behind his goat cart along the the miles and miles of stone walls. Or maybe, like us, our farmer had a wandering spirit and he continued on down more miles and miles of walls that led to who knows where. And maybe it’s in the who knows where that we will find some adventure in our stories.

1 comment:

Jean said...

What a lovely account of your walk, eyes and ears open to the past as well as the present.