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There’s a cedar forest near where I live in the south of France, which sprawls across the slopes of a mountain otherwise covered in what the French call the garrigue. You may know the kind of scrub brush by the name of chaparral, the twiggy, gray-green, often thorny bushes that keep down the dirt in cowboy country. It’s harsh country, with long jags of desert-dry weather, and the drone of cicadas all through the heat rages of summer. Hardly anything but juniper and a few species of runty oaks survive much of the time. But it was the dream of a few tree enthusiasts to plant cedars here. It must have been brutal work to break into the hard clay and plunge these frail saplings into the ground, water them a few times and hope for the best. To everyone’s surprise, the experiment began to produce real growth. Cedars are not exactly beautiful, and their shade is patchy at best. But they liked this particular mix of limestone and clay, and a few beads of iron and sulfur, much the way pines like a lot of acid in their roots. Before long, there were new trees growing, and more property was leased and purchased from the surrounding villages. Now one could legitimately refer to the place as a cedar forest, and road signs were put up directing the curious up these crackling wastelands.
I found the place twenty years ago when I was looking for a hiking adventure. Someone told me about it, but without enthusiasm. I drove up there with some misgivings about the burnt look of the hills, but figured I had nothing to lose but a little time. Halfway up the mountain slopes I came upon my first big surprise, a medieval-looking tower rising out of the tree tops, with little arches and intricate stonework. It was just there, inaccessible behind a high fence with a gate and stout chains. No sign explained it; but the path was well trod and someone was living in a house just below, perhaps tending to its upkeep. Everyone I talked to about it has seen it one time or another, but no one knows what it means. L. Frank Baum would have been happy inventing a plot around it, with a few witches and a robed Merlin performing alchemical wonders in a vault nearby. I still don’t know what it means, but the tower rises like a line of poetry out of the mundane surroundings, saying something just over our heads.
There are impressive estates along the way, one in particular behind high stone walls with a few mysterious wooden doors leading in. You have the feeling some family has lived there for many generations, playing tennis in some secluded glade below the manor house. No tourists need knock and expect to be welcomed in. This is deep Provence, far from prying eyes and campgrounds. It would have made a great set for a Monty Python movie about knights and damsels, and a unicorn or two. I passed it the other day and was just as moved by the seclusion of the place and the unyielding will of some uncrowned monarch living out of reach of the ordinary world. In fact, nothing was ordinary on this fragile little road as the motor whined carrying me higher and higher. Maybe I’m all wrong about these fortresses — probably some rock star from England bought the place and lounged around his pool smoking a little dope and entertaining friends. Maybe not.
Jackrabbits scamper across the road in front of me. Their gray fur gleams in the sunlight; they stop briefly to eye me and then leap like a silk scarf into the dense undergrowth and disappear. Clouds hang low, and birds dart like black dots across the bleached sky. Otherwise the world is silent, but for a little burst of hot wind against the car, and the stoic look of so much crumbling rock and parched soil. I hadn’t felt so desolate since my first expedition to Big Bend in south Texas. That epic landscape may be grander and more profound, more disturbing in its mockery of human mortality, but there was something inconsolably lonely about this French road. It was peeling back layers of my adulthood, exposing emotions and memories I had thought buried too deep in my psyche to trouble me. But here we were, the metal skin of my car wrapping me in harsh brilliance, the heat dancing off the hood in shimmers, the distant sky hung with frail summer clouds, the haunting echoes of my childhood beginning to move around in my mind. I felt the pout of my childhood face forming in me, and the pangs of heart I felt as I gingerly entered into adolescence. It was all here, the fluttering pages of an encyclopedia of my past, with illustrations pointing out the various milestones I passed with birthdays, and Christmas mornings, and the furtive kisses I took from the surprised faces of girlfriends.
No road is linear. It is partly an introspection enforced by sitting behind a wheel following the fateful curves of the road as it transports you from one hypnotic point to another, like an excavation of consciousness with a silent bulldozer tearing up the defenses that kept all your emotions in check. No wonder the medieval romances of errant knights involved so many psychological adventures through magic forests and gloomy hills dotted with castles, and dragons coiled about a spring guarding a tormented virgin. Poor knights, they hardly had a chance out there on the road with no map or money, just their spear and a sword and their constant hallucinations.
At one point, a battered sign announced the beginning of La Foret des Cedres, the cedar forest. The road had leveled by now, and the pines and stump oak had given way to something craggier and more mysterious, aging cedars residing in what seemed an impenetrable silence. I parked and walked down a wide gravel path until I reached the first stands of these inveterate old monuments. Their roots clutched the stones below, and their branches were twisted and gnarled. But among these old dowager trees were a few that had grown obese trunks with many half-withered limbs no longer useful to the tree. The upper branches were the big sun gatherers, and the ground was littered with dead limbs, some of them blackened with age. Here were the grandmothers, the old men in drooping robes, somber apostles of some long forgotten faith.
One primordial cedar was covered in galls the size of hubcaps. It stood there like some brood mare that had suckled her foals until she was used up. Gray, long-legged wasps floated among her Medusa-like hairy branches. Her sap bled out of old scars, and ants and other insects were still taking nurture from her. She was creepy, like something you might dream after binge-drinking for a week-end. She was ugly, as haggard and terrible as a Grimm fairy tale. And there she was, in the middle of a dark silence no one could disturb. In fact, as I looked around, I felt I was wandering through the aisles of Notre Dame Cathedral, among the pale stone columns reaching up into the bleak darkness overhead. You could taste the silence on your tongue. It gave you the impression you were a monk in old age, mute so long you hardly knew the sound of your voice. I was sorry I had come here. I was forlorn, wondering what could ever cheer me up again. I didn’t want to hear my thoughts muttering in the back of my head. I was sick of myself. I wished I could escape from my body and fly up into the lattice of branches over me. But that wouldn’t help. I would merely be another owl in the dwindling sunlight. Better to stop, take a deep breath, and return to the car.
It was at that moment something inexplicable came over me, unspeakable joy at being alive! I was not a tree, I was not the gloomy silence around me. I was moving on my own feet, leaving behind the graveyard of tree spirits. Nothing could hold me back or keep me staring straight ahead at the strange gnomes and monsters that pervaded this place. I could reach out to the remaining sunlight and find myself dancing slowly, raising little wisps of dust at my shoes. I was given the precious gift of animation and it felt like gold glittering on my arms. I had come to the edge of breath, to the dim boundary of awareness, and now I was taking back all I had carried with me up the mountain. I felt blessed. I was someone who had not been buried alive in the morbid twilight of the place. I wasn’t held captive by the scrawny arms of yew trees. They would have to chatter without me tonight. I was going down to town, to sit at a cafe, to sip some cold white wine and admire the firm shape of things, the noise people made, the bustling street scene. I was so happy I could hardly breathe just thinking about it. And as drove downhill, I ached all over to return to this forest, to renew this joy. I could do it any time I wanted to.
Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen