There comes a time when, in the life of anyone who writes anything, it is the moment to write about becoming old. My time has come. The telling begins in small pieces, travelling around in the infinite spaces. It begins with the body.
Interesting now to stand back in the vastness of my mind and view this body I have both loved and contested for so many years. I have never liked to view it as if from the outside in photos or in mirrors. I can look at it only from far away in the shop windows in cities or as a ghost in my train window as the whole huge machine passes through the darkness. Only then does it appear as the spector it must be.
I “see” it mostly from the inside, my view of my hands, my legs, my feet the indicators of its boundaries. I feel the periodic and rhythmic surging of something in the middle of the space I seem to occupy. I sense tinglings and aches that seem to come from different points in that small bubble.
Ever since this bubble first floated to the surface of this particular world, I have spent most of the time being only that bubble, aware only of what it contained and how it bounced up against furniture, other bubbles, breezes, heavy winds, always trying to float up and away but finding that some force kept it trapped.
It is a body that has piloted my awareness and allowed me to experience the great joy of the senses. It has done miraculous things like master the coordination of nerve impulses necessary to walk, to swim, to ride a bicycle, to dance with abandon, to play a flute with some proficiency– at some point even to run.
It has never been able to coordinate with any brilliance the impulses from this brain with its movement of sinews and muscles, lungs and heartbeats, but it has done well enough to move me through a brilliant array of encounters with the life all around it.
In the past few months, it has become increasingly obvious that it no longer has the resilience I have counted on since the “I” of it began. As appendages appear in view, it is clear that the strange stuff that covers them is drying out. There are strange discolorations. The molecules of the muscles, sinews, ligaments and bone are no longer fresh and flaccid, vibrant with life.
Despite all the lovely vegetables this stomach receives from our garden and converts into humming nutrients, all the little spheres and globules, the pulsating atoms of this bubble are slowing.
All their infinities of activity have brought me here to a place far away from their habitual rounds–to a place where the very air they draw in vibrates with the lives of so many humans. The place is thick with the stories they left in their wake like lines of forgotten poetry covering the floor. For aeons, these other bodies trod over these paths through these hills, drank this water, listened to other generations of the same birds, spoke words, sang songs, loved and died in every way imaginable. Although it knows it will likely be floating around in this environment for some time to come, drinking it all in, t
his bubble that I have called “me” has begun to sense it is joining this coming in and going out, that it too will burst, leaving drops of an essence that perfumes the wind. Begun to accept.
We are on our way to the Dordogne, the refuge of the Neandertal, the land of the caves where the ancient humans painted and carved on walls tens of thousands of years ago. The beautiful, rich valley of that big river, lined with limestone cliffs. On our way to finally see Lascaux (of course not the cave itself where we nearly destroyed the artwork of the ancestors before closing it off, but the elaborate replica, Lascaux Four, there at the base of the hill where the cave itself sits, closed to all but a few occasional scientists in moon suits). On our way to the valleys of the Dordogne and its tributary the Viesse, we stopped for a pique-nique in the city of Cahors.
We drove in the way we had come four summers ago when we were wandering the area, looking for a new home. We remembered the cafes by the river, away from the flow of the big old buildings of the city, and the trees that will flower later in July. We turned to the left to stay close to the river and settled on a spot with benches that looked over the water to the cliffs beyond, old houses with their clay tile roofs nestled at the base of the rock, next to the river.
It was just beside the road, but it didn’t really matter. There were trees, grass and rose bushes. We found a bench beside a fig tree, poured ourselves some wine, brought out the bread and cheese and olives, ate and watched the parade of humans, cars, buses and bicycles.
When we had almost eaten our fill and were pouring a second glass of wine, we each, in our own way, gradually became aware of a presence quite near us on the lawn. I had hesitated to turn and look, sensing it might be some semi-wild creature we would scare away. Walter had looked. He turned slightly and touched my leg. “See that woman? She has a parrot in the tree.” I turned squarely to see.
“Bonjour”, I said, suddenly unsure of the gender to the person who stood there, close to our bench, chopped brown hair under a nondescript cap, loose-jacketed, looking up at a big, brightly colored parrot in a fig tree beside us.
“Bonjour” replied the person, the voice either male or female, a bit rough. The parrot looked at me, cocked its head and squawked.
“Il est curieux de vous.” the person explained, glancing quickly at us and turning back to the bird.
“Comment dit-on ‘parrot’ en francais?” I wondered aloud.
A blank look passed quickly over the face turned towards me, incomprehension. Something in the eyes, perhaps a directness in the brown-eyed glance, made me recognize this person was a woman.
“Quel es le nom de cet oiseau?” I stumbled.
“Bertrand,” she replied. “Bertrand, mon perroquet.”
Confused for a moment, I thought, no it can’t be a parakeet, it’s too big, then remembering some lesson I’d had with the French word for parrot, I said,
“Oui, perroquet! Il est beau avec le rouge et le bleu et le vert. Quel âge a-t-il?”
A small smile of pride, just a hint, appeared on her face as she calculated the length of time and then replied that he was thirty-four years old. I translated for Walter, who was picking up much of the meaning already. He said,
”I wonder how long parrots can live? That’s pretty old.”
I asked. She said with some confidence that they could live to be about fifty but most kept in a house lived to be about forty.
“I’ve had him since he was a few months old,” she told us, with an accent that seemed part of the air she had breathed since a child.
We talked for quite some time, learning that he like being outside and would not fly away, that he couldn’t say any words but imitated the bark of the neighbor’s little dog quite nicely, that he sometimes imitated a laugh from the television. It was clear that this bird had been her closest companion for all those years. We learned somehow that she watched movies about the old days in France. In fact, she watched a lot of old movies on her TV at home. She had been born in a nearby village and lived in Cahors all of her adult life. There was much I wondered about her life but didn’t dare to ask, what she had done, had she been married, did she have children, what kind of home did she have.
We told her we were going to the caves at Lascaux, about a hundred kilometres north on the Dordogne River. Her round, tanned face crinkled. She had heard of them, of their paintings, but had never been. It reminded her somehow of a movie she’d seen about men who wore plumes on their helmets. She had been to Toulouse with her father once or twice she remarked, hearing we lived further south, near the Pyrenees.
Our conversation could have stretched on and on. She was clearly content to have our interest. We could have become acquainted. But the road called us, the paintings in the caves, the river itself. We made our excuses. She motioned to Bertrand who sidled up the branch and jumped to her shoulder where she snapped a leash on a ring around his leg.
As we gathered our things she stood, watching, Bertrand squawking, impatient. She waved, unmoving, as we walked toward the road. “Au revoir!”
“Bonne journée!” I called back.
For those moments, walking away, I was filled unexpectedly with a certain kind of joy. Having seen through the window of her eyes some part of a life, some flicker of recognition beyond the filters of language and culture, I was stirred, happy to be able to communicate in my imperfect French. As we climbed into the somewhat battered car we’d bought a few months ago here in France, I looked forward eagerly to the next things we would experience on the road–together; the beauty of the cave paintings, the unknown stretches of a big river that had supported so much life for so long.
She, on the other hand, was probably returning slowly, by way of several familiar stops, to some small old house nearby, perhaps to chat for a while with a neighbor, then a meal in her kitchen and an evening to watch old movies with her parrot chattering in the background. Perhaps content. A good day. A recognition. Small things.
There is a time when the mist here floats on the hills behind the house in the morning. As dreams mingle with visions of what we call the solid world, as I move from sleep to what we call waking, there is less division on such mornings. One morning the mist may be violet, sitting as if it were the warm breath of the still-sleeping hill itself clinging to the silence. Another morning like this one, the mist seems to float yet is without movement. Obscuring yet filled with light as the still colorless sky becomes infused so very gradually with the warmth from the sun rising over the mountain to the east.
There is also a time when one comes to a new place when the separation between that which we have come to know as our self and that which is not self is as imperceptible as the separation between mist and hill, mist and tree, mist and sky, between dream and the re-assembling morning world.
This morning when I was awake enough to tell my body to move and start the conscious day, I walked in my nightgown into our front room, a room lined with windows facing the road and a tiny kitchen space. As I passed by the windows on my way to the kettle, there was a flash of yellow at the corner of my eye. Two yellow-vested women seemed to be standing on the other side of our garden fence, in front of the row of rose bushes. Yellow vests. Signifiers of emotions and opinions which are not quite clear. A restlessness I cannot yet penetrate.
There’s a way in which the mood is turning, unwilling to continue along a disturbing path where the desires of the haves push the lives of the have-nots in ways they cannot control. As I went to set the water to boil for tea I wondered—was it this restlessness settling here in front of the house on the road into the village on a Sunday morning? Was it village workers responding to some emergency? The range of possibilities is as yet unclear to me, jumping into a new world of complexities woven over thousands of years. The cues of a very different culture, cemented into my awareness since childhood, can mislead. And imagery of the yellow-vest is ambiguous even to the French that surround me.
Then another flash out of the corner of my eye–a runner coming down the road opposite ours, down from the trail through the woods and turning left in front of our house. Then another and another, all with leggings or shorts, little backpacks of different sizes and all holding some sort of collapsible walking sticks.
Ah, yes, a cross country race! It began to come into focus. The women with the vests were officials, guiding the runners. The logo on the yellow vests became clear–”Trail des Citadelles.” They were running from one high Cathar citadel to another. Walter, about to come naked into the front room, forewarned, put on some clothes, looked at the situation in the road and said, “We have to bring those women some coffee.”
Moments later, two cups of strong coffee in hand, we walked out together to the fence and offered them. Both women, seeing the cups, said “Oh! Oui! C’est si gentil!” We stood for a while talking with them over the little fence as they greeted runners with “Par la. Tenez a gauche.”That way. Stay to the left.)
In my faulty French, I ask questions about the race and the weather. They answer warmly and willingly. They had been coming to this very spot every Easter morning for the past eight years, through the shifting dates of Easter and through rain, cold, heat and even snow. They had seen the house empty for four years in a row and were now glad to see it alive again. Today was just right. Fresh, but not at all cold. A bit of rain and grey skies, but definitely spring.
Back under the eaves of the house, we pulled out a couple of chairs and watched, dry, through the light rain as families with children waited to see a husband or father, aunt or mother come down the road to take the bend around the corner. Some on the course had already been running for three or more hours and faced many more. As each one was sighted, their small groups of supporters clapped and cheered them on. Sometimes the father or mother stopped briefly to kiss each one in their little crowd on both cheeks before running on to cheers of “Allez! Allez!” from behind.
Each interaction that connects us to this place, this home, that allows us to penetrate just a little into the life of the people here is like waking into one reality from another, dream to dream. The man who, for instance, has a beautiful garden at the other end of the village, where the river winds past the old mill and past green patches and lilac bushes. This man who was eager, when asked, to tell us all about the work he does to make a beautiful vegetable garden with rows of hoop houses and beautifully mounded potatoes and how he protects his cherry trees and harvests them and how he cuts and stores up his wood.
Or the woman standing just outside her door at the turning before the bridge whose little dogs barked at me as I passed, who said “Beaucoup de bruit avec peu de cause.” ( Lots of noise with little cause.”) We both laughed in the amber light of a sunset descending over the mountains around us, both touched by it in ways beyond apprehension.
Or the old man carrying in a huge chunk of wood through his blue front door who said “Ah. Oui, mon poêle est vraiment grand,” (Yes, my stove is truly large) when I commented on how huge it was, there in his old strong arms. The woman who gave me a ride in her little car she pulled out of the garage when I knocked on her door and said, “J’ai tourné le genou pendant la randonnée. Ça fait mal. Vous pouvez me conduire à l’autre bout du village??” (I turned my knee while I was hiking. It hurts. Can you give me a life to the other end of the village?) Concerned, she asked if I needed to go to the doctor. When I said it was not that bad, we chatted on the way about the house we’d bought whose previous owners were her friends of many years
Such beauty to be found. Here we are in the midst of it. Eyes open. Ears open. Nostrils flaring to smell the incredible blossoms of spring. Hearts listening, wondering, caught by the intensities of sunlight through parting clouds, sense of self dissipating like the mists over the hills, stirring and waking from dream into dream. So many other realities exist. This is one.
Paris. A city. A city with the ills of big cities. A city like all cities with a million individual worlds swirling around in its boundaries. A city with such flavor that the whole world holds it in the heart of its imaginings like some living treasure.
We went to Paris from our new home in the countryside of the Ariege in the foothills of the Pyrenees, from the fresh winds of the south to the stinking air of the Metros and wide streets filled with cars and buses spewing carbon monoxide. from the work in the garden and the planning for the work on the house to the city that is so richly imagined. Walter had never been. I had never been there with him, only told him stories of the Paris I had loved in its days after the student revolt. We had just three nights in Paris.
We went to some of the usual places. We walked past the badly wounded Cathedral of Notre Dame where the smell of charred wood still lingers and tourists stand at the barriers clicking their tongues and discussing various theories they’ve read about the cause of the conflagration.
We spent a day wandering in the Louvre until our knees ached.
We wandered in the streets around the Sorbonne and the Pantheon in a thunderstorm and bought little music boxes in a wonderful toy store that we happened on in the downpour. We poked through the book stalls on the quays and browsed the books in front of Shakespeare and Co. We ate in bistros and sipped Armagnac in cafes while we made up stories about the people passing by. We walked under grey skies in the Jardins de Luxembourg and the Tuileries. We took the Metro to the Champs Elysee and bought a Paris umbrella to walk in the rain through rivers of water where the old cafes and the elegance are now lost to the visual noise of Mac Donald’s and Starbucks and arcades. We saw the Tour Eiffel looming as we went by the glamorous buildings of its neighborhood on the elevated tracks of the Metro. We spent hours in the Musee D’Orsay and the Orangerie. And I wandered in the neighborhood of Butte de Calle around our hotel, sampling the boulangeries, tabacs and epiceries while Walter rested—our usual routine.
And there we were, our first day, wandering in the evening near the Boul’Mich to see what had changed, pausing at the intersection at the corner near the Musée de Cluny, idly reading the affiche about the history of the place. Curious about the little ruin I could see through a gate, I popped in to take a closer look while Walter read. There, surrounded by the higher walls around the Cluny, in an obscure little place with a temporary-seeming fence in front of the stone ruins of the Roman bath, the sound and smell of the traffic faded suddenly and trees grew. A man of some middle age with an impulse similar to mine had walked in behind me and had gone to stand at the fence a small distance away. As we stood there quietly, wondering about the piles of stones, a bird began to sing, hidden in the greenery above.
Listening for a moment to its clear notes, a song that seemed not to repeat, going here, going there, lilting pure, I realized it might be a nightingale, the bird I have been waiting to hear for so long, a bird not heard in America. Impulsively, excited, I turned to the stranger there in the enclosure just off the busy thoroughfare of Boulevard Saint Germain, this man with a round sympathetic face, greying hair, unfashionable glasses and said, “Vous croyez que c’est un rossignol qui chant comme ca?” He listened a moment, head tilting up, and said, a bit uncertainly, “Oui, je crois que oui! C’est pas sur mais quatre-vingt-dix pourcent.” He turned to me and smiled a small smile. “Ici,” I said, “au milieu de cette grande ville?” He paused as we listened to the song still sprinkling down from one of the trees over the ruin and, nodding, said, “Oui, c’est ca, Oui. Je pense que oui.” and smiled again his small smile, turning only partly toward me in his deference towards a stranger. We listened for another brief moment, each smiling but not to each other, until the song ended and the characteristic sound of a Paris police car in the distance blended in to the sounds of the traffic going by outside the wall. We looked at each other briefly, smiled down at the ground, wishing not to look too directly at such a moment of fleeting intimacy and, saying our Au revoir, he walked through the gate of the enclosure into the street in one direction and I in the other to rejoin Walter on the corner.
And then, our last evening in Paris, after a lovely romantic dinner near the Place D’Italie where we shared a bottle of red Corbieres from our neighboring region of the Aude and ate duck and perfectly cooked steak (a rarity in France), we were walking back to our hotel when we noticed a man filling a bottle at a big metal spigot in a chrome structure in the middle of a small square. In our village in the Ariege, there is such a place where, although the water is not monitored by the city, it is gathered in bottles by the locals in the same way- from a metal spigot in a stone basin under a sign stating Eau non-contrôlée. Coming down the hillside above it, spring water untreated and uncontaminated by livestock is preferred by the locals to the village water. Watching the man filling a bottle from a spigot set in a public place, it was hard to believe we were seeing a source of spring water here in the middle of Paris, here in a tiny park off the Rue Bobillot in the Place de Paul Verlaine two minutes walk from the big indoor mall at Place D’Italie. Looking at each other to confirm we were thinking the same thing, we walked towards the man still filling a bottle under the spigot.
He seemed neither young nor very old, bent there with his water bottle. Saying hello, stumbling over French vocabulary, I asked whether this water was actually potable. He was immediately animated as if waking from a dream to find us, and, saying, yes, it was good water, held out his bottle to offer us each a taste. We each drank, knowing the other had quickly considered and rejected the notion to decline a drink from a stranger’s bottle. It was good– fresh, cold and slightly sweet. He told us that yes, in fact, it was from a deep artesian well that had been drilled in the nineteenth century, still used by locals.
Reading about it later, I discovered the well is near the Bievre River, where it dumps its overflow in times of heavy rain. The river, still flowing into the Seine, was covered over a century ago and now was somewhere under our feet as we walked. In the lovely old yellow and orange brick building on the park marked Piscine, an old pool draws on the water from the well. The man leaned on a pole to talk with us, saying he had grown up in a nearby neighborhood with a French father and Japanese mother. He had lived abroad for years and worked in environmental engineering. Now had come back to his native Paris where he felt he belonged. We talked more about our farm in the States, our move to France, our shared interest in the environment and water. Each invigorated by the encounter, we said our goodbyes, exchanged compliments and went our ways. As we walked away to go back to our room for our last night, still a bit drunk on wine and happenstance, we talked about water, always so precious to humans, the element around which they gather, how it flows through our village just as it does through Paris, still seeping up in this neighborhood of Butte de Caille, fresh water now more rare than ever.
Here in France where the Neanderthal evolved and lived skilfully till gradually overpowered by the modern humans with their complexities of language, we have gathered around water, rivers and coasts, lakes, springs and streams. We learned long ago to build systems to distribute the water and irrigate crops. But the water that comes directly from the source is the most precious of all. There it is, flowing pure in the midst of the sewers and roads and endless buildings of Paris like the improbable song of the nightingale and the small smile of a stranger with a round face. How we may come to count on such quiet knowledge of the essentials of life, stored by communities against all odds.
When I was a small girl I discovered the interior world of puddles. It was perhaps for me the dawning of consciousness.
My first discovery. The awakening to the wonders beyond the ordinary, beyond mother and father and the hard surfaces of Brooklyn sidewalks and the contained universe of a front porch, beyond even the wonders of carousel horses, walks to the delicatessen beside my enormous father or the dark, sinewy jaguars in cages.
One day I just saw it. Walking somehow by myself, after a rain. Here was a world no one else knew, unexplored. I could stand beside the watery expanse, big or small, and look endlessly into worlds of shimmering trees and clouds. In that world, there was even the watery presence of someone else with brown eyes and short blond hair, someone who seemed to understand me well. I wandered and wandered down and in, beyond the seen into the unseen.
Later I dove deeply into books in the same way. They were worlds of my own, unexplored by anyone else, intensely known. Even later I began to find other people who had read the same books, explored the worlds the words somehow projected, experienced them in some way inside of themselves. It was a revelation. They had experienced something I thought only I had experienced. Was it the same experience? Was it different? How could I get inside them to know? These people who had also read were even more unknowable than the world of puddles, more impenetrable.
Maybe my world of puddles in known by the people who fish. Maybe that is what they explore there on the surface of the rivers and lakes, there on the anglers’ surface. I watch them standing in the river here that flows through the village, past the bottom of our garden and beyond, through many villages, standing there in their high boots for hours on end. There is so much in that clear substance, so many layers. I try to intuit what they see, to intuit the thoughts passing through their minds like the flow of the water itself.
I almost see it, then it shifts, out of my grasp, like the clouds that pass over and obscure the watery reflections.
When in the midst of danger, it is necessary to clear the mind of fear.
As I look out into the clearing sky, clouds drifting through blue in a silent etheric wind, clarity is all there is. Even the grey of a floating cloud disturbs the mind for only a brief moment in its passage through the window frame.
In the middle of the night, a memory of a possible mistake the day before jolted me awake, its voltage striking out from the world of dreams. At first a gaseous cloud of foreboding, the lights switching on one by one in the rooms of my mind quickly gave it form and color. Consciousness, fully activated, was pulled, as if by some magnetic force, to circling thoughts of all the catastrophes this one mistake would generate. I had no doubt I was doomed. From that small rotten seed, rot spread out in larger and larger circles until the whole world was nothing but rot, crumbling away into nothingness. “No”! I almost called out. Not wanting to wake my sleeping partner, I called silently on all the forces I know, the forces of beauty, the forces of comfort and tenderness “Absorb this!”, I called out in silence, “I’m only one tiny atom in the ocean of life. Let this rot disappear in that endless sea!”
Just then, a flash of light in the black sky through the window. Just at the meeting of dark hill and dark sky, a comet had burned in the atmosphere. Just there. Just at that moment, it’s particular light had reached my particular eyes. It’s just like this that things burn away as they rub against the molecules of air. “There,” I told it silently. “Take all that mess! Take it!” In true comic book fashion, the explosion of light that had happened in some flash in some moment long past blasted the mass of rot to smithereens- “POW!”. Then, reciting to myself all I knew of the basic childhood lessons of falling stars and luck and wishes, I let myself be comforted. I passed back through that hazy boundary, never remarking the passage. I floated into sleep in this still strange house, in this still strange village, in this still strange region of a still strange country.
The cloud of grey anxiety still floats around me like a swarm of gnats. As I did with the ringing in my ears, I have taught myself through long practice to use the immense space inside me to push that fear out beyond the curves of the infinite The “it” of it then exists no more. There is only empty space. I hear only silence. The sounds that penetrate through the delicate bones of my ear dissolve with more than imperceptible immediacy in that vast quiet. They existed but never did.
Then another night arrives and I’m awake in the middle of it, looking out once more at the dark curve of that same hill, stars bright above it in the frame of the bedroom window. The long-handled triangle of Cassiopeia is balanced on two vertices just above the horizon of the hill, the line between the two piercing points of light perfectly parallel to the gentle curve of rising earth. In drowsy relaxation, I watch as the whole delicate edifice of the constellation settles ever so slowly onto the hill. As I drift and wake, I see those two stars are vanishing like bits of smoke into the dark mass of the hill. The whole spaceship of the beautiful queen is sinking imperceptibly into the earth. I shiver, smiling, and pull the covers around my chin, feeling the wind of the earth speeding on its axis.
I’m walking now through the village, exploring, probing. I try not to look like some overly curious tourist, poking into places where I will never return, but it’s useless–the force of my curiosity draws me everywhere. I walk the path by the river and then along the length of the long main street of the village. On my way back to the house, I realize with a kind of sudden ecstasy that the sound of water is everywhere, in the streets of the village and all around this place nestled in hills and gorges, a place where people have settled for millennia—the reason they have been here. The river, the little canals dug to divert the water from place to place, the small stone basins with spigots still running with public water, the open faucets of the laveries where women gathered to wash the family clothes in huge stone basins, the mill races, still running around stone buildings where their water pushed wheels and ground grain, little waterfalls, big waterfalls—all running, playing the infinite musics of water. There are few spots in this settlement, spreading from a central street and a church, where the notes of running water can’t be heard. It’s a flowing village.
The snow-covered peaks of late winter will soon send their melt down as they have forever and the river behind the house will sing with even more excitement. This winter brought snow, late and lighter but enough. We can only look for the rhythms to continue somehow in some new form. We can only encourage them with our planting, our tending of the fruit trees, our preparation, our connection. That’s what we’re doing here, after all.
There was a time when I moved from one secure place to somewhere else, as I have done now.
There is a sepia photo of a small girl in a cage with white rabbits. Sitting there in its frame in the living room of my last home and in some other familiar position in the house before, I assumed it was a moment my mother had captured at a petting zoo somewhere in my misty childhood.
But this evening, as I looked at it again, in this new place, on the top of a dresser purchased at a second-hand store in Mirepoix, furniture now mine in a room in a partially settled house in Southern France, I recognized suddenly another reality. There I was, in my backyard in the first place we’d moved from Brooklyn. In our new town, I was five years old, tending the rabbits that were mine, that my parents had given me, in the pen my father had built for them there on the square of grass behind the duplex they’d rented on a nice old street in a nice old town.
Now, as I recapture those images of childhood, I didn’t feel that small in the big world, that sweet and delicate. In my memory of the rabbits, I was a person of consciousness, of large awareness–of rabbits, of a body of some magnitude navigating tree-lined streets on a tricycle, of other people in my world, of great imaginations.
In the photo, I am as little as my granddaughter. She will remember herself as a person of agency, just as I remember. She will remember conversations she has had with friends. She will remember herself in those dream-like memories as a real person in interaction with the world. She will know who she was.
Here I am, back in France, in France, in France. Anywhere. Everywhere.
It’s clear we are all experiencing the same waves. We are in the same ocean.
For several days after we arrived, the afternoons were warm and even sunny. We sat in an outdoor cafe in the village of St. Jean de Verge one late afternoon sipping Kronenbourg beers, watching local people at the other tables chatting and relaxing at the end of their workday. The little square was decorated with white lights in the shapes of swans and Sapins de Noël ready to spring to life after dark. The Gilets Jaunes were on the roundabouts in the bigger towns, stopping traffic periodically, gathering around bonfires made from stacks of recycled pallets. The burning bonfires, the destruction in Paris make visible the burning resentment of those who have little towards those who hoard the wealth at the top–so ironically modern while so ancient just as is the xenophobia manipulated by synical leaders. It was a relief to be out of the stress and noise of the US. Even the political chaos of Brexit and the rampages of the Gilets Jaunes seem calm.
Now here we are, back in Fa, the village that came to feel a bit like home this past summer, at the rambling old house of our British friend, with the tower of FA in its backyard, its tiled patio still catching the afternoon sun, its warmth now brief.
Today in the misty rain I hiked up into the hills behind the village where the ruins of the ancient village of Fa once spread itself around a protecting little castle. My last hike up the same hill was in humid 32 C degree heat, dressed in a flowered sundress and straw hat I’d bought at the Sunday market. Now I wore the same woollens and Gortex jacket I’d worn on my endless walks over the Yorkshire Dales in the chilly rains of August. The landscape, in fact, felt much the same, the rolling hills, the views over extended valleys, the dry stone walls, the muddy tracks, the puddles of water, the steady light rain, even the gusts of wind on top of the pass above the old tower.
We’re back in France to face all the practicalities of starting a home in a new culture, with new rules, new ways of approaching the tasks of life. Because we’ll be living in a rural area in a small village without public transport to speak of, we’ll have to buy a car, deal with car insurance and then, eventually, with the whole loathsome process of getting a French drivers license. We have to figure out the best places to buy all our household goods like mattresses, stoves, refrigerators, pots and pans, dishes, linens and on and on. There are great second-hand markets and decent online marketplaces. There are networks of friends to ask. And there’s life to live. Endless walks to take. Castles and caves to see. Other areas of France to visit. A rhythm to settle. A new way of life that contains selves that are at once fluid and contained, familiar and new.
Today, I saw two things that particularly mixed the soup of self the way only a jolt of joy can do. This time it was two things that link together strangely, both revelations of the quirky imagination that lurks everywhere, in all ages of humankind, in all places we live and move. The first was such a simple thing. It had such brilliant elegance in its practical ingenuity. I watched as a friend from Australia casually put the heel of his “gumboot” in the rounded slot carved out at one end of a short painted board. He put the toe of his other foot on the bottom end of the levered board and pressed. His boot with the trapped heel came off nicely. He pulled his foot gracefully out of the boot, stuck the other boot heel in the slot, pushing down on the clean part of the bottom of the board with his stocking foot. Pop! Off came the other heel, easy as can be. And I, having lived in the rain and mud of several parts of the US had struggled for years to pull off my muddy, clunky rubber boots, using the outer edge of the door jamb or resorting to a friend to help. Here it was, so easily solved.
Then, walking up the hill past the village cemetery where only long-time residents of Fa may be buried, I happened on a small piece of land nestled into the side of a hill. First I saw the wooden shack with tarps of various colors for a roof and salvaged window panes stuck in here and there on one end of the small holding. Then the small camping caravan appeared (what we call a trailer in the States) and then I saw the new construction. A large pair of beautiful wooden gates, clearly newly made, each more than 15 feet tall, stood at the entrance to the land as if to keep people from trespassing up the drive of an elegant country estate. The beginnings of a beautiful wooden cupola could be seen at the back of what might be the beginnings of a landscaped island of garden. In the chill of the late afternoon, the whole thing looked empty of life.
If you live in the same place for a long time, the relationship to what we know as our “self” becomes more rigid and fixed. We think of our self in relation to all that comprises a life. With seismic shifts come the chance to experience the huge reality of self—the reality of self before it has the chance to pretend it actually is what its surroundings urge it to be—to experience the huge reality of the interior before it gets the idea of a new form, new edges. That self is now naive—it has yet no fixed belief about what it is, what it sees, what it hears, what it smells, what emotions turn up. It exists without the heavy anchor of habit for some brief wafting moment. In the process of being seduced, the self is more like someone in the bloom of love, open, infinite.
The world now echoes and reverberates. The anxieties of the US seep into the anxieties of the French. The distress of the people on the bottom is beginning to break free. We are pivoting. We are all travellers, travelling through a particular life in a particular time. See like a traveller. Be open to possibility like a traveller. Hear the people around you like a traveller. They are travellers too.
When I’m walking I’m happy. Even if I’m feeling miserable, I can feel the misery full on, I can have a talk with it. It can do its real work.
This morning in Garsdale it was clear enough to hang out the wash. By one o’clock the rain had returned and the laundry had to be brought in to finish drying by the heater. But even with the rain coming down, the weather is much more tame than yesterday’s when we were walking across the fells from the village of Malham near Settle, winds of sixty miles an hour or so driving rain and hail across the moors, sheep standing in depressions near the drystone walls to ride it out.
The walk to Malham the day before had been wonderful. Despite predictions of rain all day, the rain came in bits and the sun came in and out, the wind gentle, driving the clouds in their various forms and shades of grey, cloud shadows running across the spectacular vistas of hills and dales with their craggy limestone cliffs and outcroppings, over miles of vast green squares marked off by miles of drystone fences, white and grey and brownish. The rain pants we’d bought that morning kept us dry in the wet spells. Some of the territory was familiar from a walk a week before from Settle–satisfying to recognize a tree, a style, a stretch of re-forested land, a lane, a farm, a turning.
Just before reaching Malham, as we made the choice to take the footpath rather than the Pennine Bridleway, my spirits were high, my heart particularly open. We had just spotted the beautiful oval shape of the water of the Malham Tarn, as lovely as any lake, I’m sure, that I haven’t yet had a chance to see in the Lake District. The sight of it had lifted me further.
Checking the map together, a bit tired, we had a bristly moment of interaction. On the trek down the hill to the village hidden by trees in the bottom of the cup of the wide valley, I had the time to walk with the dis-ease that had suddenly surged up in me, feeling it molded by the effort required to find footfalls through rocks and mud on our downhill climb, softened by the vast beauty of the surrounding hills and cliffs.
This is the beauty of walking. It took a while to make out the actual buildings of Malham, nestled as they are in the greenery by the stream of the Malham Beck. By the time we were close enough to recognize the charm of its setting, the beauty of the stone houses with flowered gardens, the trees bending over the trickling water, I had digested the pain of the emotion enough to understand its origin. We would soon be leaving this countryside, this place where we had come to feel settled for a time. We would be leaving Europe and returning to the US to grapple with the difficulties of immigration, both technical and emotional. Upheaval. Like the motion of the tectonic plates creating the landscape. Ah, yes… My old friend that rumples me, always.
Thirsting for a British beer, one of our last, we headed directly for the inn overlooking the beck, the one over the stone bridge where a willow leans over the bank. It was warm enough to sit outside by the stream, drinking Bitter (which is actually creamy and smooth), feeling luxurious, enjoying the hum of our bodies after their exertions, drinking in the beauty all around us, surprised by the sight of tourists gathered in this isolated spot. The distress that still smoldered was cooling, no longer needing to sear to do its work.
After we checked into the hostel down the road and had a rest in our bunks, we came back for a lovely dinner at the same inn by the water. Checking our weather apps, we discovered that severe weather was predicted for the next day, our walk back to Settle. A big storm Ali, the first of the season, was blowing across the northern part of the islands from the tropics. Eighty-mile-an-hour winds were forecast. Big rain. No one in the village seemed the least concerned.
We went to bed and slept well, dreaming the many dreams as we do every night here in the quiet and calm of the Yorkshire Dales. We agreed to wake up and decide then whether to continue our walk or take the one bus a day from the village to the train station at Skipton. We figured we’d walk if the morning looked at all decent.
It dawned warmish, breezy, grey and dry. We had our breakfast and picked up the packed lunch we’d asked for and set out on the “top” part of the circle walk back to Settle through Malham Cove. Why not try it. As we started out, I had no conception of the beauty we would see in the walk through the cove, nor the wildness of making our way over the high moors in high weather. We watched as a large group of walkers started out over the first part of their walk, evidently prepared, as we were, for anything.
The walk away from the village gives a deeper sense of why it has settled into its nest there in the cup. There it is protected by the trees gathered around the water, sheltered by cliffs and hills at the edges of the bowl. Having had a life there for so long, raising its sheep and cows, mining its limestone, it has blended into its landscape with the sigh of a weary body sinking into a cosy bed.
So nearby, less than a mile of walking over the Pennine Way through lanes and then fields, the limestone cliffs that surround Malham Cove begin to rise up. Just there, dwarfed as you feel, you can see how the little river flows directly into the parting of the rocks. Around the cove, the land becomes a park of green grass, oak and rowan trees, dotted with limestone rocks of all sizes, looking tended yet wild.
For awhile we explored the deep canyon and the waterfalls seeping between the feet of the high limestone cliffs. Eventually, we found the bridge of field stone slabs that takes you over the swollen stream to start the climb up the huge rocks of the other side of the cove. The way is made easier by a seemingly unending flight of huge limestone steps that wind their way along the side of the rocks, their scale like something made for a race of primordial giants, each turning presenting yet more shifting pictures of the widely winding valleys and softly rising hills. Winded, we paused several times to breathe it in.
And then, unanticipated, not indicated on our map, one or two last turnings before the true top of the fells, we came upon the stretch of enormous, flat limestone rocks called a Limestone Floor. Protected from the wind and rain and foraging sheep, rare plants grow in the narrow crevices between these gigantic slabs. The sheer expanse and flatness of it, spreading towards the cliff edges and the horizon, gives a sense of the infinite. We walked from rock to rock for a bit to see more of what lay ahead, but the going was precarious enough to better be left for younger legs.
The weather was holding as we climbed over one rise after another and came to the turnoff to Malham Tarn around a limestone outcropping. A couple whose path had converged with ours turned that way in the building wind. We kept on across the fields to follow the Pennine Way back to Settle, saving the trip to the lake for another day. So much of what we do now contains the piquant sense of a last experience of the place, greeting and parting at once. With places like these, I at least like to pretend I will return. There is so much more.
As we took the left and began crossing the next field to the gate over a road, the rain began. After climbing the first hill up to the high plateau of the moors, the wind was beginning to push the rain it in its characteristic gusts across the fields. Time to stop and put on rain pants before we got truly wet.
We took off sweaty shirts and put on a couple of warm layers. The best would have been wool next to the skin but I at least had a good mohair sweater to put on top of a dry shirt and Walter a fleece. As we tightened our boots and pulled on our wool hats, the wind was beginning to gust with real strength and the rain had started in earnest. The sheep, most positioned now against high dry stone fences or in the gullies, looked at us as we passed, ready to run if we tried to join them, seeming to wonder what we were doing here in such wind. Four miles to Settle.
Here the moors stretched out on either side with little variation. Distant bluffs were hidden in rain and fog. Since I often like to walk faster than Walter, we had a bit of distance between us, a solitary yet linked experience of the walk. At first, still dry and exhilarated from the beauties of the first three miles, the pushing wind had little effect. As the rain began to really pelt and the wind to exert its true strength, the going got a bit harder. But leaning into the wind and crouching down a bit in the most powerful gusts, overcoming a brief moment of a kind of panic, I even welcomed the hail that came next.
We each sang our own songs, the sound of the other’s voice drifting in and out softly, as we put one foot in front of another, the going much slower than before. My feet were wet from stepping into a bog near the last stream and my sweater had soaked up some water through a pocket hole I’d forgotten to zip, my hat was wet, but the wind was not cold. For all its power to push as if to lift you away over the fences and the hill’s edge, it felt like a wind that carried just a tinge of warmth from the place it was born. We trudged on in our singular ways, knowing the other was enjoying the challenge, anxious just enough for the other’s safety to stay close.
Hungry and a bit tired from struggling against the wind, we rounded the corner of a hill the other side of Jubilee Cave, a place in the limestone outcroppings we’d picnicked a week or so before in nicer weather. Then we had sat on the grassy, mossy hummocks with our backs to the cave, enjoying the warmth of intermittent sun and the grand sweeping view of dales to the left and outcroppings to the right. Today, we scrambled into the rocky opening as humans clearly have done for millennia, climbing over pools of water to some dry rocks at the back. Here in the last recess, there was no wind. The quiet was a relief. We were warm and sheltered. We took off wet socks and replaced them with dry ones and shared the sandwich from the hostel. Nothing like it.
Dry and renewed, we climbed out into the still powerful wind that tried to push us back up the hill and wound our way down to the walkway of the Pennine Trail that here goes straight for a way between rows of dry stone walls. The rain had stopped for a bit and the walls gave some protection from the wind. We felt a renewed sense of happiness, a buoyancy. The Dales had given us a chance with a different dimension of their beauty, the power of their wildness.
As we approached the gate where the other path comes down from the larger Victoria Cave, three young women with a couple of small dogs were organizing themselves as they came through a field gate, looking at a map. We asked if they needed help. They were dressed fairly lightly with no hats and seemed unconcerned about the weather. I suddenly felt overdressed and a bit fuddy-duddy.
“Oh, no,” said the one without a dog on a leash. “We’ve just come out to do the circle but on the way up we were attacked by some cows in a field. They were running after us and kicking at us and the dogs. We’ve never seen anything like it! We had to run for the gate. Fortunately, it was close enough to get away and put a barrier between us. Unfortunately, we can’t go back up through that field again to do the circle so we’re trying to figure out whether we want to go up the other way.”
We confirmed that it was, indeed, a very unusual event for cows to attack, especially if they had no calves.
“Maybe it was the wind that disturbed them,” we agreed.
Evidently deciding to call it a day, they trotted off merrily ahead of us in the direction of Settle.
“Hmm,” I said to Walter. “Hearty English!”
As the rain cleared off, the wind dropped and the blue patches of sky began to appear, our jubilant mood spread itself out over the whole landscape. The path down to Settle is beautiful and now felt familiar. You can see the towers of the old textile mill at Langcliff as you turn down to the left along the hills. The limestone cliffs on the hills over the town loom to the left after a quarter of a mile or so and the whole town stretches to your right in its bed in the valley, limestone quarries guarding its flanks.
The green of the fields around you and the misty colors of the distant fells and dales is such a satisfying background to a walk that you feel you could just go on that way forever, thinking of nothing and then thinking of something for a bit, tossing it around, following it in its several directions and then releasing it into the fresh air–being captivated by some form, some color, some particular grace of motion, some particular beauty of light while all else disappears.
The day had arrived for the Moorcock Sheep Show. The weather was remarkably pleasant. No sign of rain. The air actually felt warm. Tee-shirt weather. Not the norm here evidently, even in summer.
We came to live here in the Yorkshire Dales for a couple of months in the way that much happens for us—through the opening of an unexpected door. We are in a time in our lives when we can wander. So here we are, in a little hamlet without a car, in a cozy little stone house lent to us by friends, dependent on the grace of delivered groceries and on the obscure Settle-Carlisle Train Line that runs by the cottages to get to a town or village of any size at all.
As is always required, we’re tuning ourselves to the circumstances. Harmonizing. Soaking in what is present–the character of the people, the fauna and flora, the beauty of spreading hills and valleys, the geology, the air. The grace of living here is that we are able to explore the Dales endlessly by foot and to chose our moments. As one walker on holiday (one of many walking and walking, day after day, all vacation long) said to me, “It’s cheating. You can wait till the rain lets up and then start your walk!” So, when we’re not writing or reading or making a foray into one of the towns up and down the line, we do.
Although it is just down the A684 about two and a half miles from the Railway Cottages by car, it would take us over an hour to walk to the show on the footpaths over the fells up above the road, but the walk would be so much more pleasant. We congratulated each other on our decision as we hiked with our daypacks over the stone bridge behind the pub, past the small river Eden with its waterfalls, hearing in the distance the continuing whine of the racing weekend motorcycles as they careened down the stretches of the highway below us.
After a very pleasant three-or-so mile walk, losing the path from time to time through the bigger fields and finding it again to climb the varied stiles in the dry stone walls, we arrived at Moss Beck and walked the steep tree-lined lane up to the fields where the show takes place, stopping to gather some plump rose hips along the way.
When we arrived at the top, a young man, looking somehow comfortable (as Yorkshire natives tend to look in most circumstances) in a loose tweed suit coat, a button down shirt and red tie, sat at the gate with an old man who seemed to be there just to keep him company.
As he took our gate fee, he welcomed us, as obvious strangers to his home, with a genuine twinkle of friendliness in his eye. I watched him as he traded quips with Walter. His slim, smooth Yorkshire face contained more expression and subtlety than you would expect from a “country boy”, more ease and confidence, a sense of self without arrogance. The unexpected delight of it hovered and hummed above the lingering exhilaration from the walk. Savoring this state, I took Walter’s hand as we crossed the grounds towards the beer tent. In front of the tent, a brass band was playing “When You’re Sixty-Four” as they perched on precarious folding chairs set up on the uneven grass, the men all nattily dressed in black suits, white shirts, red ties and black hats and the women in black dresses.
The whole afternoon at the show was like that. Surprises. A small opening into the real life of this place. We bought Wensleydale Best Bitter, brewed in honor of the show, from the blond woman pumping beer in the tent and carried the plastic glasses with us as we went to watch the sheep and their handlers, eager to drink it all in.
The heart of the show was the temporary pens with their movable sides enclosing constantly moving groups of sheep. Here were young teen-aged girls and boys and their older family members all working together to manage their sheep and show them to the judges to their best advantage.
We watched and read signs, trying to make sense of the action, Walter explaining what he could extrapolate from his own experience. Each breed of sheep has its own “classes”: Tup Shearlings (yearlings after their first shearing), Aged Ram (two shear or above), Tup Lambs, Gimmers (ewes between their first and second shearing) Lambs, Pairs of Tup Lambs, Ewes (Small Breeder), and just plain Ewes. Even Walter, who had grown up with Future Farmers of America and knows quite a bit about raising and showing livestock, was amazed at the wealth of detailed knowledge represented by all these farming families, some judging and some showing, all here for one purpose. Even amidst the air of celebration, an atmosphere of activity and subdued excitement, it was a no-nonsense event.
The first pens held the Texel sheep, an animal bred for its remarkable muscle development and lean meat. I learned later it was a sheep originally from Francw which had then been exported to the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia and then back to England as a hardy animal able to roam long distances, require little care, lamb without assistance and grow to marketable weight quickly. It’s a white-faced sheep, with no wool covering the face, often with a charming big wrinkle in its nose. When we’ve seen them on our rambles through the dales they sometimes look at us with expressions like those of friendly but suspicious young dogs. On one of our long walks out through the countryside, we’d found a ewe with her head stuck in a fence made of big wire mesh. She had evidently been there for some time, bleating, but it wasn’t until we slowly walked up to see if we could help that she reflexively pulled backwards, easily freeing her head from the noose. Wonderful animals, but likely not as intelligent as dogs. These were beautiful beasts in the pens, wool fluffed and died a light rosy brown to accentuate their colors, magnificently proportioned. The young men managing them in their pens were clearly happy to show them off to admirers–and to be admired themselves.
Then there were the now familiar Swaledale sheep with curling horns that remind me of the wild Mountain Goats back in the Rockies. They’re the sheep we see on all our walks from the cottage, with their black faces and white noses. Up here in some of the highest parts of the Yorkshire Dales, they are easily able to over-winter on the fells. Like the wild Mountain Goats, both the ewes and the tups have curling horns, although those of the tups of both the wild and the domestic are much larger. On our way over to the show, we’d even seen a ram looking somehow mythic with two sets of horns. They scramble over everything, and their black and white faces lifted in mild curiosity have become the characteristic greeting as we walk along the footpaths through the fields.
Since they are our neighbors in the fields spreading out around the Railway Cottages, I’ve tried to learn more about them. Named for the Swaledale Valley near here, they are used primarily for their meat which is of good quality both as lamb and mutton. I think I’ve even bought some in the butcher shop in Settle. Their coarse wool, known for its durability rather than beauty, doesn’t command a very high price but is used for carpets, rugs and insulation. The ewes, very good mothers who can raise lambs well even under harsh conditions, are also used to breed the Mule Sheep, here often crossed with Texel tups. We saw some of these Mule Sheep in the next pens, blue and black faced with wool of good quality, good hardiness, good meat, and ewes that often birth twins—a huge advantage to the farmer.
Finally, we moved on to the pens with the Herdwicks with their white woolly faces and greyer bodies, looking like the iconic sheep that they have become. Something about the width of their faces and the set of their eyes makes them look particularly appealing. We hadn’t seen any of these on our walks. It turns out their genetic characteristics are specialized for the conditions of the Lake District, a region quite nearby here but geologically quite different. Due to its origin in violent volcanic activity, the primary rock there is granite while here in the Dales, once under the ocean, there’s abundant limestone. There the granite, which takes much longer to break down into soil, created a terrain where lush grass is much harder to cultivate. The Herdwicks have been the sheep of that region since at least as far back as the twelfth century, able to graze (as we soon learned) even on lichen.
As we admired the Herdwicks, we remembered together how we’d recently discovered they were Beatrix Potter’s favorite sheep. She, in fact, had become the first female elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Foundation, a mark of the high esteem in which she was held by local farmers of her beloved Lake District. What we didn’t know at the time was that she was an expert mycologist, self-taught, highly insightful and curious, who had become fascinated by fungi and lichens at an early age. Because of this passion, she learned to produce highly detailed, accurate, full-color drawings of the specimens she found on her walks around the countryside where she grew up.
Her idea to create the richly illustrated children’s books that made her famous came only after the rejection of her work on the dual hypothesis of the nature of lichens (called “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”) by the all-male Linnaeus Society. It was then that she recognized that she would not be able to make her way as a scientist in a persistently misogynistic environment. Undefeated, she decided to use her skill in drawing from nature to earn her living in some other way. She followed the advice of an old family friend who was involved in publishing and tried her hand with children’s books.
Remarkably, it was these books, with their exquisite depictions of the animals and plants of the English countryside that, through their enormous popularity, insight engendered the beginning of a conservation movement in Great Britain. Her children’s books and drawings stirred a sense of the importance of Britain’s natural heritage Britain in the same way that the writings of the Scottish-American naturalist, John Muir, did in America. Both are considered parents of the conservation movement of the twentieth century.
In her late thirties, with an inheritance from her aunt and the money she’d made from her astonishingly popular books, she bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District a place she’d gone frequently for the holidays of her childhood. There she dedicated herself to living simply and caring for the land, the flora and fauna, and the sheep that depended on it. While managing her large and expanding farm, supporting efforts to save the rare Herdwick breed, and continuing to write her children’s books, it was at Hill Top Farm that she was also able to return to research in mycology, her original passion. Walter, who grew up without the delights of children’s books (and who developed a healthy scepticism of all things charming) found a surprisingly kindred spirit in Beatrix– someone rejected by the system who, undeterred, continued to pursue observation, research, advocacy and writing in the quiet spaces outside academia. Another surprise.
As we stood there discussing Beatrix and her love for Herdwick sheep, I noticed a man about our age standing near us. He was slim and not very tall and had two dogs on leashes, one a black and white border collie, the other a smaller beagle-like dog. By the look of his face and the ease of his bearing, he was clearly a part of the local Yorkshire crowd. He was in his element, yet his skin was incongruously tanned and, unlike the other men, he wore a small earring and had a decorative cotton scarf tied around his neck. The look was familiar. As I overheard him talking to a couple with their own large dog, I noted that his north country accent was tinged with a familiar lilt, an overlay of the sounds of French. I was intrigued.
As he stood next to us, talking about the sheep to another local, I finally got up the courage to join in and ask a question.
“We haven’t seen these Herdwicks on our walks around here. Are there many in the Dales?” I asked.
“No, no. You’re right,” he replied, the French accent less pronounced. “There are only a very few.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Well, they’re specialists in the Lake District terrain. Here on the limestone-based fields, there’s good grass. It’s not like that in the Lake District with the granite. They’re very hardy sheep, can stay out on the hills over-winter and can subsist on eating lichen. That’s the important thing. No other sheep can do that. My brother has the family farm in the Lake District. I grew up taking care of these sheep.”
We settled into conversation. Here was a local who could answer so many of our questions about the husbandry of the sheep of the Dales. We learned about the financial value of the Tups and the Gimmers and what the judges were looking for in the different breeds of sheep.
“The Texel, see, the back legs of the tup have to be thick, strong and long with a good stance extending backwards. That’s not just for the characteristics of good muscle meat but it indicates they’ll be good breeders, able to mount the females on the hills and keep steady. That way they’ll be able to breed with many, many gimmers—thirty or forty. That’s what you want. A ram went for 7000 pounds up there at the farm last week after it won a first. These prizes are worth a lot of money to the farmers.”
“The gimmers have to have a good wide stance in their back legs and be able to stand with the back legs thrust back, like when their standing on a hill and bracing themselves with their back legs. That way they’re firm and open to being mounted.”
“The tups are of course worth three to ten times more than the gimmers. It’s the tups that will breed with thirty or forty or even fifty ewes that will pass on the traits that determine good milk production and the quality of the meat. The ewes pass on the mothering traits.” (This was one of his questionable claims. It is, in fact, true that the rams, because of the number of ewes they impregnate, have more impact on the quality of meat and quantity of milk, but its a numbers game. For the locals, it’s, of course, the big picture that counts. You buy a tup who’s sired lots of tups with good milk production and you’ll increase the milk production of the herd—that is, if he also is strong and mates well, another reason to pay for a good prize ram. )
“See that woman over there in the pink puffy vest? She’s one of the breeders. This is serious business here today. These sheep you see here have already won prizes in smaller shows. The ones that get prizes here today are the best of the best. Those breeders are here to buy. They try to blend in, not make themselves conspicuous, but they’re here to spend a lot of money.”
The conversation worked its way along until we were comfortable enough to get a bit more personal. We mentioned we were moving to southern France. He admitted, then, that he had been living in France himself for more than thirty years. He said,
“It’s a great place to live. You have to learn French, eh? They’ll respect you more.” We agreed.
“I come back here several times a year to help my brother on the family farm. It’s only about a six-hour drive through the Chunnel. My brother calls up and says, ‘What ya doin’? And I say ‘Hangin’ about.’ Then he’ll say ‘It’s lambing time,’ or ‘We need to mend fences,’ or whatnot and there I’ll come. I’m still a local after all.”
As he relaxed, his French accent became more pronounced once again and he began to deliberately slip in a word in French here and there to tease us. As he talked, he managed his two dogs, sometimes speaking sternly to one or the other until they settled again and he could continue.
His story was a good one: a story of a difficult lot that turned lucky. He was the younger of two brothers. When his father died, as has been the case through the millennia, his older brother inherited the sheep farm. Instead of forcing his brother to give him his share of the inheritance, he decided at the age of twenty-one to leave his own share of the inheritance money to his brother so the farm would have the investment it needed to stay alive.
“He’s family,” we said. “He would help if you needed it.”
“Nah,” he replied. “He would, but I’d never ask. I’ve made my own way just fine.”
“I took off to London for college and put myself through. I studied landscape design and agriculture. As soon as I graduated I was lucky enough to be able to do work in my field. A lot of people weren’t so lucky.”
He, in fact, said he had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time and landed a job doing landscaping consultation for Prince Charles who had just purchased the estate at Highgrove.
“He wanted to expand the garden but there was a wall bordering the estate farm that cramped the area for the garden. I told him it was easy. We would just move the dry stone wall back and make the farm smaller. I assured him we would reconstruct the wall exactly as it had been. He agreed. We marked each stone and moved the wall, stone by stone, back in its place, further away from the Great House.”
When I asked whether he had expertise in building dry stone walls like the ones all over the Dales he said,
“No. I didn’t do any of the actual rebuilding work. I managed the project. I told people here’s what we’re doing and then they did it. That’s what I like doing!”
The rhythm of his story-telling was now in full swing.
“After that was finished, I was told about a farm project in France, in the Champagne district, near the village Epinal, that needed a manager. A friend urged me to apply. I got the job. I’ve been there ever since, almost forty years. I’m not sure how I got it over all the other candidates.”
When I said that I was sure his skills had something to do with it, he replied, “Nah! There were hundreds of candidates more qualified than I was. I’m sure Prince Charles pulled some strings for me. It was political, like most things.”
As we were leaving, a family came by with two large dogs, one quite young, the woman trying awkwardly to sort them out and keep them away from the man’s two smaller dogs. He engaged with them and soon was asking about the dogs. The young one continued to pull at the lead and wind himself around legs.
Our new friend told them that their dogs would soon learn–if they were smart enough.
“Here’s the way you tell if they’re smart,” he said.
“You should always check this if you’re thinking about getting a dog. You can determine their intelligence by whether they have two or three of those long hairs under their chin.”
To demonstrate, he showed us the hairs under the chins of his own dogs. First the border collie.
“See. She’s intelligent. See the three hairs?”
Then the little one.
“Now this one is not very smart. He just has two. He’s teachable but not smart. If there’s only one hair, you don’t want the dog. You can’t train them.”
On examination, the family’s young dog had three. Lucky. They confirmed that he was, indeed, very smart. The other had two.
“Yes. You can teach him, but don’t expect him to be brainy!”
As we parted to go see the Swaledale Sheep being shown, he called out, incongruously,
He and Walter shook hands and as I reached out my hand he, in typical French fashion, pulled me lightly towards him and gave me three alternating cheek kisses. Awkward, missing the cue for the third, I muttered,
“Sorry! I missed. In the Ariege, we only do two.”
“In France, we take every opportunity. We’re greedy! Good luck with your life in France!” he said with a laugh, pulling in his dogs as he turned to walk on towards more friends and more talk.
Who knows about such a guy? Another surprise. In true French (and perhaps Yorkshire) fashion, we never exchanged names but came away friends.
We lingered for a long while, watching the farmers and their families expertly show their sheep, guessing at which would get the red ribbon as first prize, wrong more times than not, learning a lot about the people and their sheep in the process. We ate our lunch on the grass with another beer, bought some cake, a pair of hand-loomed local wool socks and some homemade preserves to take home and walked the four miles back, stopping, of course, at the pub that’s a mile from the cottage for one last pint, some wonderfully hot and crispy chips (French fries) and a bit of chocolate cake.
As we sat together near the window, enjoying the light of the late afternoon and the background of soft Yorkshire conversation in the now familiar room, we agreed that what we had just witnessed was the evidence of a complex knowledge that runs very deep in this culture. It is a knowledge of the nature, breeding and care of sheep, of the land and of the weather, passed on through a few thousand years, for as long as the Dales have been denuded of trees by the people who have lived here. In this place of rolling hills with its intricate network of valleys and the rise and fall of the fells, its winds and its rain, the histories of the sheep, the vegetation and the humans are so closely intertwined as to be impossible to untangle. Each has contributed its breath to this seemingly simple yet complex atmosphere. And now we, too, are breathing it in, greedy as the French for all it contains.