Sunday, February 14, 2021

Rivers Up 2021

As it straddles the Dronne river, the charm of the village of Bourdeilles comes from how houses, gardens, and empty fields are arranged on the river’s left and right banks. On the left bank is the town center, the Bourg. The right bank is host to the “not-quite town center”, the Faubourg. 

Houses in the Bourg rise upward along the road leading up to the castle. A castle that is defensively perched on a rocky outcropping. It is literally overhanging the river. 

Houses in the Faubourg are regimentally lined up along the edge of empty fields that follow the river. These fields are left open because they are on the floodplain. This neighborhood is at the mercy of the river.

Most of the year the picturesque Dronne flows gently along, animating her artistic setting with sparkling ripples and visiting wildlife. The folks of the Bourg and the Faubourg mingle as they cross paths on the medieval bridge connecting the two neighborhoods. One can’t cross the bridge without stopping to count the trout lingering in pools formed behind the bridge’s five stone arches. Everyone’s hands move in or out to show how big this fish or that is. The babble of the Dronne is contagious, echoing into human voices. There are tales told out there on the bridge.  

Those animated neighborly visits above the river are for spring, summer, and fall.  Early winter shortens our chit chat to a quick,“how ya doing?”.  The trout are harder to spot and grey skies don’t encourage visiting.  Only the juiciest bits of gossip are worth a few extra moments discreetly shared over the murmurings of the river. Then the rains start. After the long hot summer months of pounding sun and parched sunflowers, the first few weeks of grey skies and wet pavement are welcomed.

January days alternate between heavy rain or gloomy drizzle. There are no days of drying sunshine.  Little lakes start to appear in the fields along the river. Everywhere, high and low, the ground is saturated. The ducks and the herons gobble up rising worms and drowning moles in the disappearing hay fields. We start to pay attention as the sweet, easy going Dronne creeps up her banks. Gone are the sparkly ripples. The swelling river’s surface has smoothed out, she’s changed color, and she’s moving fast. Newbies to the area start to twitter about how high the river is. Oldies aren’t worried —yet— but they make a mental note of the river’s level each time they pass by - good to keep an eye on the ole gal. 

Instead of every conversation starting with “fine day” you hear “rivers up”.

Bourdeilles organized itself for this annual phenomenon years ago. The Bourg was established here long, long ago because of the high ground atop the cliffs on the left bank. The low lying neighborhood of the Faubourg had to be precisely calculated. Clearly people have always payed attention to the tipping point of the episodic floods. Everyone knows that even a modest change in the amount of water pushing down stream will send the waters seeping into and then sweeping across the floodplain. You can pretty much tell where the water is going to max out in a typical flood by where the line of houses starts. However even with this careful placement there is always the risk that some floods might exceed planning. For the inevitable flooding the ground floor of these homes was reserved for livestock, farm equipment, things that can be easily moved (remember some of the houses date to the 1600’s). Living space starts on the first floor (which, to Americans, is the second floor.)

February arrives and the rains keep coming. Two, three, four days and nights of nonstop heavy rain. There is too much water to rush along towards the ocean outlets. The river pushes off the rocky bank seeking the easiest release.  Water sweeps over the fields. The expanse of water looks languorous and glassy. It also looks menacing.

There’s a buzz on the bridge as folks come out to watch the waters sliding across the fields and creeping up the inclines in the alleyways. There are only a few places that might get flooded, but everyone is watching them with excitement and apprehension.

In 2003 I went to the bank in Brantome to pay for one of those Faubourg houses that a big flood will flood. On my way to the bank appointment I had to stop at the farmer’s co-op to buy Wellington boots, I had to pass swans swimming in the parking lot as I sloshed through water coming just centimeters from the tops of the wellies as I bobbed up and down on springy, quickly laid planks. The actual sidewalk was nowhere to be seen under the flood water. During the closing transaction I had to draw a picture showing the location of our future house (I was learning a lot of new vocabulary that day..) “Is that in a flood zone?” A question whose answer would surely affect our homeowners insurance. What to say? I’d just seen the river lapping at the threshold. “Yes”

Forty or fifty years ago a damn was built so humans could “control” the flow of the Drone. The arrival of the damn put an end to the annual threat and excitement of high waters. Nowadays it seems to be about every ten winters that the reservoir gets more water than it can handle. That’s when the folks controlling the dam contact the town hall, sending out a flood warning. That warning call is when we can’t deny how precarious our situation is. Some people have vertical runners on each side of their front doors.  When the call comes, wood planks are put here to try to keep out the flood.  All of the houses have ground floors made of concrete, tile, or paving stones. Water coming in is no big deal.

Mid-February and the rains have slowed and the dam has closed it’s gates (gotta keep as much water in the reservoir as possible for next year’s inevitable drought). The high water level receded quickly.

Crossing over the bridge, our lengthening conversations are about next week’s forecast for sunshine and warmer temperatures. The River Dronne is nestled back in her banks. Her winter animations are over. We can relax and enjoy the charm of it all— the trout in their pools, the swallows sweeping over head, and the Dronne’s sparkling ripples of spring, summer and fall.


Kathie K said...

Fascinating. Wonderful storytelling. Of course, I'm concerned. Do you move furniture to a higher floor if it looks like you might get flooded? I lived in Feucherolles for 18 months on a street called Rue de L'`Etang, but the pond was so small there was no danger of it exceeding its banks.

Charlie M said...

Did you get water in your house? It seemed to be quite a way above the river.