Sunday, October 28, 2007

Undoing the past

There's a common French understatement for situations in which you're mildly ashamed of yourself because of a negative action for which you were responsible, maybe inadvertently. Suppose, for example, that you drive alongside an old lady standing on the sidewalk, and you discover in your rear-vision mirror that you've splashed mud over her. The expression is: "I wasn't proud of myself..."

Over the last few days, my ongoing demolition of the remaining vestiges of an ancient stone water trough at Gamone has often made me say that I'm not particularly proud of myself. I have the constant impression that I'm devoting a lot of time and energy to the destruction of a man-made object that was simply designed to last, as it were, for ever. I feel at times that I'm undoing the past like a vandal. In reality, I shouldn't have any such qualms, because the structure I'm demolishing has been, for ages, an amorphous mass of half-broken boulders of so-called marne (poor-quality brittle stone) held together by dusty mortar. When I first set my eyes upon the ancient trough, which once collected water from the spring up behind my house, I immediately hosed tap water into it, to see if it could still be used. Within five minutes, all the water had seeped away between the boulders. Besides, the front side of the trough was largely ruined, and the global appearance of the decrepit boulders and mortar was in no way aesthetic. All in all, it was not the kind of structure that I was tempted to try to restore. Besides, I was convinced that it was beyond restoration, and I could see no reason for treating it as a precious object. So, I removed the boulders that were about to fall, and I used the remaining walls, built against the embankment, to support a corner of a wood shed.

Since demolishing this wood shed, to make way for a big yard between the road and the house, with room for a new wood shed up against the hill, I've started to remove the final vestiges of the old trough: a pair of low walls, each one about a meter high and a meter wide, firmly embedded in the embankment. And, when I discover the massive nature and solidity of the construction, I'm a little ashamed to find myself destroying it.

Using a crowbar and a sledgehammer, I've been unearthing dozens of big boulders that formed the buried background against which the trough was built. To my mind, this style of construction is a thing of the past, quite unlike work that might be performed by a peasant or an ordinary farmer who decided to build a trough in a rough and ready fashion. That's to say, I'm convinced that this trough was constructed back in the time when the Chartreux monks were making wine at Choranche. It was almost certainly built by expert craftsmen who would have been hired to perform this task. And they built it to last. But they could hardly imagine that many of the boulders would end up splitting in the cold, and that the mortar would, in time, turn to dust. Be that as it may, I'm not particularly proud of myself, today, to be demolishing this ancient trough. With every blow of my sledgehammer, or every time I throw my weight upon the crowbar to dislodge a boulder, I have the impression that the phantoms of the craftsmen are looking over my shoulder with a sad expression on their faces.

No comments:

Post a Comment