Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Annual trim

At high school, our dear old ruffled chemistry teacher Gerald Spring liked to tell his favorite joke about a French barber. Holding up a mirror so that the client could admire his haircut, the barber asked: "Is that OK?" Client: "Make it just a little longer at the back, please."

The road up to Gamone has just received its annual trim. A farmer from a relatively distant village [Chantesse, on the Grenoble side of Vinay] has a permanent contract to carry out this work, not only at Choranche, but in several other places. It's a solid money-making affair for this fellow, and the job is easy, provided that no discarded fencing wire is hidden in the roadside weeds. At Gamone, by the time this annual event takes place, the weeds have grown so tall that they droop over the road, and driving through them is a little like moving along a jungle track. Then, in the space of a day, the road becomes as bald as Billy's head after a visit to the lady barber in St-Jean-en-Royans.

The other day I was chatting with my neighbor Dédé, and he offered to speak to a farmer friend about the idea of cutting the abundant weeds in my paddock with walnut trees. The general idea is that farmers are often prepared to do this work free provided they can keep the cut weeds, which they bundle up to make hay for their farm animals. Dédé himself has such an arrangement with the farmer in question. I started to explain to Dédé that I'm not bothered greatly by the presence of weeds around the walnut trees at this time of the year. Then Dédé used a word that has always amused me in the case of weeds. He said that the main advantage in having the weeds cut is that the paddock would look "cleaner". Over the years, I've heard Dédé using this adjective dozens of times, when talking about everything from grass on the lawn to shrubs on the hillside. I understand that long grass and weeds can appear to be "dirty", or at least unkempt, in much the same way as long straggly hair. If people in general did not have this impression, then the gardens of suburbs and villages would be peaceful havens of a weekend instead of transmitting raucous symphonies of lawnmower cacophony.

Here at Gamone, although I have no aversion to weedy paddocks, I do in fact own a particularly powerful and noisy Japanese weed-cutter, shown in this photo taken by Natacha:

If I were sufficiently motivated, I could spend days and days guiding this machine over the slopes of Gamone... but I see no point in doing so. Not surprisingly, Dédé was the first person who pointed out to me, years ago, the futility of devoting time and energy to clean up land, only to find it just as weedy as ever a year later.

All this talk about weeds and clearing up land takes me back in time to my childhood, when I saw my father constantly obsessed by the challenge of eradicating eucalyptus trees on his bush property. I don't know which of the two phenomena he hated most, trees or rabbits, which were both accused of playing a role in depriving his cherished cattle of their precious grass. In that domain, here's a photo of my mother's ancestral Braidwood region:

I was amused by the terse comments penned on the back of this photo by my cousin Peter Hakewill, the photographer: "Sheep country. Bleak. Over-cleared of trees by dumb cockies." [The word "cocky" is Aussie slang for farmer.]

Obviously, the consequences of not removing weeds and unwanted shrubs are considerably more significant when you're obliged to use your land to earn your living, instead of merely looking at it (as is the case for me). I've often thought that the hordes of suburbanites who spend their weekends mowing the lawn and tending to flower beds are in fact expressing an atavism associated with epochs when our ancestors were primeval crop-growers. Now, this thought makes me feel really bad. Why? Answering this question will provide me with yet another pretext for displaying a hazy photo of my magnificent personal mountain, the Cournouze, on the other side of the Bourne:

Up on top of that sacred mountain [well, it's sacred for me], there's a cavernous site [weird on top of a mountain] called the Pas de la Charmate, shown here:

Archaeologists tell us this site was occupied frequently during the four millennia stretching from 9,800 to 5,800 before the present era. That's a hell of a long duration: twice as long as the time since Jesus up until today. And what did my Cournouze neighbors do with themselves during that time? Well, we know they hunted mountain goats, deers and boars, which was a perfectly normal occupation. Maybe bisons and mammoths, too. Apparently, a more amazing occupation of these ancient residents of Choranche and Chatelus was ceramics. They must have had business links, too, with folk living on the French Riviera and even the distant Adriatic coast, because Cournouze digs have revealed the presence of pierced seashells from these places. It's highly likely, too, that my former Cournouze neighbors had developed the art of sowing a tiny acreage of crops to produce feed for their equally tiny herds of domesticated animals, maybe primeval cattle.

In the course of four millennia, a lot of phantoms must have taken up residence up there on top of the Cournouze, and I can imagine them looking down on Gamone [direct line of sight] and murmuring disparagingly, in ghost language: "What a bloody pity that Aussie guy isn't more enthusiastic about keeping his fucking weeds down."

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