Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hole in the ground

Last weekend, Mandrin's mistress dropped in at Gamone. The Mandrin I'm talking about is not the celebrated bandit (described in an earlier post), but rather the donkey of that name, belonging theoretically to my neighbors up the track. For the last couple of months, this old donkey has been the victim of a broken marriage. Mandrin was reared by a lady from a neighboring village: the friendly person who called in on me the other day. A couple of years ago, she gave Mandrin to my neighbors. But this couple split up a few months ago and, in the subsequent confusion, the poor old male has been a little neglected. (I'm talking of the donkey, not the husband.) Not long ago, Mandrin decided spontaneously (for reasons that were surely clear in the mind of a sensitive and intelligent donkey) to leave my neighbors' property and set up residence here at my place, in the vicinity of my donkey Moshé.

Well, the lady and I agreed that the best solution would consist of actually putting Mandrin in Moshé's paddock, to see if these two castrated males would coexist harmoniously. This photo provides a happy affirmative answer. So, from now on, I have two donkeys living here at Gamone.

The lady was accompanied by her 8-year-old grandson: a delightful little kid whose intelligent character struck me as soon as he shook hands with me, like an adult. After the simple operation of leading Mandrin into Moshé's paddock, the boy was wandering around with his grandmother behind my house, and he asked me in an excited tone of voice (like that of the Little Prince, whom I mentioned in an earlier blog): "Please, Monsieur, can I crawl down into the hole?" Here's a photo of the hole in question:

In view of the risk of an accident, it would be unwise to crawl down into this hole behind my house unless somebody's present on the outside. With the grandmother's approval, I gave the little boy a powerful electric lamp and helped him to slide down into the hole, which is in fact a curious horizontal tunnel about 20 meters long, ending abruptly in a cleanly-cut earthen wall. When he emerged, a few minutes later, I asked him to describe any awesome phenomena that he might have encountered in the hole. Wild beasts? Traces of prehistoric cave dwellers? He told us excitedly, like a Jules Verne explorer returning from a voyage to the center of the Earth, that there were big piles of fallen rocks inside the tunnel. When I asked him how high they were, he indicated the height of his ankles.

Many observers (besides myself) have wondered who dug out this tunnel, and when, and why. While I don't yet have any firm answers to these questions, I've reached certain tentative conclusions.

— Most people suggest immediately that the tunnel was created by a farmer (maybe a winegrower, long ago) seeking water. That idea is most unlikely, because there's a natural supply of water some fifty meters further up the slopes. Sure, it dries up in summer, because it's not really a spring, in the normal sense of this term, but rather an exit of subterranean trickles between the porous rocks. But, if this higher supply were to dry up, it would be pointless hoping to find water further down the slopes. So, I rule out this suggestion.

— Was it a tunnel designed to lead to some other place? This idea is absurd, because the tunnel points straight into the hillside behind my house, and there's nowhere to go.

— Was it an underground storage place for farm products of some kind? I can't imagine what one would want to store in such a place, unless it were wine or spirits. But it's hardly wide and high enough to be thought of as a conventional wine cellar. And the fact that the tunnel is not lined in any way dissuades me from thinking of it as a proper and permanent storage place.

— Could it be that the hole was construed as a place to hide either people or things? I believe that this is the most plausible notion. But it's then a matter of deciding the circumstances in which this hiding might have been carried out. As everybody knows, Nazi oppression in the Vercors was horrendous, but it took place unexpectedly up on the plateau, for a brief period in the summer of 1944, not here in the Royans.

— In earlier times, the only great conflicts in this region took place during the so-called Wars of Religion, between Catholics and Huguenots, back in the 16th century, when the monastic vineyards of Choranche were totally devastated by the Protestant troops. Is it possible that the tunnel at Gamone might have been dug rapidly in order to hide precious objects such as documents or winemaking equipment? Insofar as I'm convinced that the ancient stone cellar in my house was constructed around the year 1600, at the end of the religious conflicts, this hypothesis is plausible.

— Finally, there's an observation that supports the idea that my tunnel might be very old. Normally, when you dig a hole in the ground as voluminous as my tunnel, you have to leave the excavated earth lying around somewhere in the vicinity. Well, it has been relatively easy for me, whenever I've called upon an excavator to perform earthmoving operations around the house (as I did, on a large scale, a few years ago), to distinguish between displaced earth and untouched ground. In fact, I was amazed to discover that there were no traces of displaced earth anywhere in the region behind my house, where the natural ground had often been used as a buttress during the construction of walls. So, my present theory is that the hole in the ground was indeed a 16th-century hiding place. If anybody has a better idea, or can detect flaws in my reasoning, I would be delighted to hear from them.

How silly of me. I completely forgot to ask the little boy what he thought of my theory.

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