A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I’m staring out of a large window onto a stone wall where an ancient grape vine hangs heavy with bunches of blue grapes. There’s no one to cut down these clusters; the man who trained the vine thirty or forty years ago died a few years back. His wife is too old to put up a ladder and do the trimming of the runners to keep the vine healthy. The grapes are dusty and beginning to dry out. The little arbor where the vine is secured is rusty, but solid. The rest of the stone wall is bleached white by the late October sun, and a window, with weathered shutters, is splintered and peeling from half a century of rain and wind. I like this wall, it’s permanent, like a slab of immutable time rooted in the granite bedrock on which all these houses sit. My study is about twenty feet from that wall, and lies there in the afternoon light like the hull of an old ship.
I’ve just now begun to recover from a bad cold, a chest cold packing a thousand hard sneezes, sore throat, fever, fatigue, bad appetite. I am at the end of that long tunnel, and the light I long for is this wall, drenched in molten energy, as if it sat in a potter’s kiln for the last firing. It cheers me up to know there is heat not far from where I sit. The study I work in each day is cold, and the books I touch are numb with the chill from last night. Hard to believe no rags of last summer are around anymore. We are sinking into a valley of dark air, getting ready for winter, which will come soon enough and embalm us in an overcast world without clouds, without sharp edges. The olives are gone; the flowers are withered up, the earth is good for a crop of winter carrots and the black stumps of the cherry trees.
A cloudy day, Woody Allen once observed, is the cameraman’s friend. It casts no unwanted shadows under actors’ noses. You don’t have to have grips holding up reflecting panels to keep all those dark wrinkles from spoiling a shot. But sunlight is such a precious powdery gold at this time of year. It is fragile and will dim out around four o’clock as the sky grows hard and the sun shrivels behind the mountains. Then you must push away evening as best you can, turning on lamps and lighting an oil lamp, which I keep on the dining room table. I read beside the hearth, even though I am still too weary to go down to the cellar and haul up some oak wood for the fire. I haven’t lit a fire in ten days or more, hence the stagnant chill that hangs in our rooms. Maybe tonight I’ll splurge and get a blaze going. I feel a little more like myself, which is to say, I feel like doing something physical again. I cleaned up some of the clutter of the bedroom, and will drag the hamper up from the bathroom to get rid of some laundry I’ve been throwing on the floor.
Many friends have gone back to their houses in the city by now. Social life dwindles like a creek until only the year-rounders remain, a hardy bunch who know how to get through the dark months of the year. I don’t envy them. I like packing a suitcase and getting ready for the bus down to Marseille, where my wife and I will catch a plane for Montreal. Then we’ll rent a car and drive the rest of the way south to middle Vermont. It will be similarly overcast and brown, with the hills beginning to roll again once we leave the desolate flat country of southern Canada. The subtle changes in the landscape will be a welcome sight; the rivers will be running with black water, and the hay fields will be muddy with new furrows, where the wild turkeys hunt for bugs and worms. Deer are brazen as they roam around at will, close to the shoulders of the highway, as if no one would dare to shoot them.
But here in France, at this precipitous edge of winter, hunters are everywhere in their red plaids, with their shiny rifles. The dogs leap about in the stubble of lavender fields trying to scare up a wild pig for their masters. They say you can tell a hunter’s dog by the gun holes in his ears. A lot of Armagnac is swigged out of flasks to keep out the cold, and the rifles that swing this way and that in the silvery air may find a dog in the way. I bought a wild turkey for Thanksgiving a few years ago that a woman raised on a remote farm. I showed up and picked out my bird and then went to the barn where men were gathered around a chopping block. They were sizing up a very large hog that had been shot a day before. The men were entitled to a quarter of the carcass if they had been in the group that had routed the animal. The rest stood back and watched. The beast was dismembered with a large axe, and I wondered how many hogs had met a similar fate in this lonely stretch of backcountry. I happened to gaze up to a rafter and saw a long line of pigs’ tails, each with a date scrawled over it. I gather these men were the third or fourth generation of hunters who had been scouring the fields for the past century. The smell of wine was acrid in the air; cigarette smoke singed my nose. The men were round in their heavy coats, as if they had turned into boulders after all these years of hard scrabbling.
My wife is still coughing with her own cold; she’s downstairs reading in the kitchen, which should tell me to get off my duff and get a fire going. I feel guilty as I sit here tapping away. But my own fatigue is heavy in my back and lungs, and I can think of a hundred excuses to remain here watching the sunlight slide over the ruts in the stone wall. Our little courtyard that we share with the neighbor is littered with large, curled up leaves from the mulberry trees around here. The wind picks them up and drops them at my back door, and every few days I must ply my push broom and gather them up. I bend to my task as if I were part of some faded painting by Millet, a kind of “Gleaners” tableau in which white-haired house-dwelling fathers grunt their way across stone yards like this one, filling up a plastic bag with the exhausted glory of June or July.
But the creaking gears of earth to make these seasons and to drag them in and then drag them out again is a source of the most primitive joy. I don’t want to be fixed to any one thing that doesn’t give in to time. I’m aging, and I may have my complaints about it, but I am also keenly aware how much a part of nature I am in my mortality. I stand at this window gazing down at a world that may look fixed, but everything is moving forward, falling through space like so many snowflakes in a vast and limitless hall lit by stars. I’m falling too, and autumn is falling with its naked trees and its squandered flowers. We fall together, hand in hand, as if we had wings and could fly through the thin air. I’m not alone in the world, but part of some intricate basket weave of living things. None of us can escape from our fates, of course; but then, the knowledge that we are in motion, altering our shape, our identity as we trudge along, is part of some barely knowable law governing our delicate existence. And that is good.
The air is so pure and transparent at this time of year that almost anything in the kitchen sends out its aroma into the streets. I smell the soup cooking in some fine old blackened pot in a nearby house. I smelled coffee earlier in the day, and will catch the faint scent of whiskey when the day is over. Someone is getting out the red beans and getting ready to boil them up; the red pepper will bob up and down among the little shards of onion and the lobes of garlic. What was once a garden of tall vines hung with bean pods is now getting its second life as food, delicious food, to be eaten with a hunk of bread torn from a baguette and washed down with a gulp of tart young wine. Fall weakens nature’s grip on the fertile ground, but these rituals of the table are celebrations of what is eternal in our brief lives.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and southern France.