A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’m back in France after nine months in rural Vermont. I had grown indifferent to the cold in Vermont, the gray skies hanging down like some Sheik’s desert tent. I accepted the shivering look of my shrubs much of the fall and winter; I was patient with the ants who encroached upon the kitchen after the first real thaw. I knew a good deal about chipmunks and their cunning ways of finding a gap in a foundation and of reaching the attic to conduct fiercely competitive races with their friends and rivals. I know, because I was the lone insomniac spectator sitting up in bed, watching the dull ceiling as if it were a television. I embraced this corner of the nation and said it was mine, and puttered around the house most afternoons to kill time. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go, lots to imagine and read about while winter ticked monotonously in the white hillsides and in the crystal-sparkling air.
Everyone I know feels the Bern. The tall, slender woman at the food coop register is named Hillary, and I jokingly asked if she was voting for Hillary in November. She put down a bag of string beans and looked sternly at me. “Never. I can’t stand that war-mongering bitch.” I’ve heard her called worse things at dinner parties. I may have lost a possible new friend by siding with another of his guests on the matter of Hillary’s electability as the sole reason to vote for her. I saw my host fall into a sulk at my words, and see me out at the end of the evening with a curt good-bye. I don’t think we’ll break bread together any time soon. When the dust settles, and one of two Democrats launches the general campaign, perhaps there’ll be some fence mending and the passing around of balm for old wounds. But it seems doubtful at the moment. I left all this in the air like so much flaky snow drifting on the wind when I boarded a taxi and headed to the Burlington airport.
And after twenty-four grueling hours of travel by car, planes, and the bullet train south, I climbed into a friend’s car waiting to take us to our village in the hills below the Luberon, a dark-blue dome of limestone where the boars roam the garrigue until hunting season. This ancient terrain doesn’t change much from year to year, and has altered only in details during my thirty-year residence. Stores come and go, parking lots replace doddering structures that would have collapsed on their own. The market town of Apt, to which Julius Caesar took a liking during his Gallic campaign, has spruced itself up by paving the main road into town, and by encouraging new stores to open up on the ragged edge of town, where traditional French culture dies out into suburban sprawl. But the heart of Apt and the whole of my village to the east, remain resolutely tied to the Middle Ages.
What I wasn’t anticipating on this return was a slow unraveling of my emotions after nine months of hibernation. I didn’t know I was depressed, or permanently moody about the weather, about my taciturn neighbors, and the profound inwardness northern people dwell in through the long gray months of the year. I was used to mumbled greetings and long pauses. I had given up thinking there were other ways to relate to people. But once here and after shaking off the weariness of travel by the third day, I went into the sunny streets of Apt to shop for dinner. But first, I sat down at an outdoor cafe and ordered an espresso. I had the Daily Telegraph with me, and thumbed the pages while I sipped at my coffee now and then. The table was mine. The day was mine to do with as I thought best. I read the paper, smoked a thin cigar, watched the town folk amble by chatting in their musical patois. The butcher shop was open and women filed out with their heavy purchases; down the street was the cheese shop with its tiny display window crammed with cakes of Banon goat cheese arranged on a platter; there were hard cheeses like Mimoulete and creamy tomes from the mountains, and wheels of Roquefort with blue-marbled wedges cut out. I sat there letting my thoughts wander until someone tapped me on the shoulder, an old acquaintance of mine, who sat down and ordered a coffee while we caught up after a year.
I sauntered over to the Red Cross thrift shop to go through the old suit jackets and piles of shirts; I stood among Arab mothers in veils and young French women with toddlers hanging on them, as we all looked for bargains. I didn’t find anything of interest and left, but not without the volunteer women eyeing me suspiciously. I certainly didn’t fit the general type of customer with my straw hat and linen sport coat. But they must have figured I was just slumming.
Out on the street I felt as if I had sloughed off some heavy outer coat. My feet were light, my movements unencumbered by scarves, sweaters, gloves; my nose took in the odors of the bakery shop with its warm fougasettes, pockets of flaky bread holding a mixture of black olives and melted cheese, piles of croissants, six-cereal breads, tangy sourdough loaves, and cakes in a glass case. The woman serving me was attentive and happy, and took great care to heat my purchase and give my wife and me napkins should we wish to eat it now.
Back at the village, I can’t walk ten feet without giving the bises to old friends, kisses on the cheeks instead of shaking hands. I know everybody, it seems. Nine months was nothing in this realm of slow time. We were back in our second home and that was good. Out in the fields below the village, plows moved down the slanted fields as they had done for centuries.
On the second night of our arrival, a friend invited us to a dinner party of some twelve people — an artist with a new exhibition in Apt; a philosopher, her husband, a gregarious, salty-tongued ironist who kept his side of the room in roars of laughter. I sat beside two German doctors who owned a little house across the road. They were headed back to Freibourg soon, and longed to return. Another German was a sound engineer for a public radio station in Wiesebaden, who kept consulting his watch. He became animated when he asked me how many would support Trump in the election. I said thirty or forty percent of disgruntled blue collar whites, many of whom lost their jobs to the tech sector or to global trade. He whistled through his teeth. “Like the Front National here,” he said, blinking to absorb the significance of this political apocalypse. I nodded yes.
We stayed late and ambled home a few houses down to lie in a stupor until morning. Jet travel is torture to the body, but it was heaven to awake to the Provencal sun, the same luminous daylight that inspired Cezanne and Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. You could almost chew the light, as if it were honey smeared on your bread. The vines were sprouting their first delicate light-green leaves; the apricot trees had already flowered, along with the almond trees. The chestnuts were festooned with white flowers and cast a cool black shade all around their massive trunks. Time was so thick it hardly moved the hands of the clocks. It slowed anger and despair; it made people forget their griefs. Everyone wanted human company and was eager to offer a seat at the mid-day feasts.
The earth was the master of human existence and made the rules for how to live. It was the only morality farmers obeyed. They worked the fields according to a mysterious trembling of the wind and the path of the sun from edge to edge of the daylight. You knew they were like shamans and could read the will of the fertile, black earth under their tractor wheels. You could smell the desire of earth to produce, the urge to come to fruition under some benevolent wisdom farmers had acquired millennia ago. And now that earth was pregnant, and panting in its neat rows, and along the river banks, you put aside the rigors of winter and gave in, succumbed, opened your arms to lust and to some gypsy abandonment the moment you heard the pop of a wine cork and the quivering notes of a love song.
Copyright 2016 Paul Christensen