An Australian blogger of my generation has been warning his readers for years that, whenever he happens to receive a living plant in a pot, the poor thing dies sooner or later, no matter how my friend attempts to keep it alive. I used to think he was joking. These days, however, I've come to realize there are real-life people like the blogger who simply don't ever learn what has to be done to keep a plant alive. It's like asking me if I know how to scale the outer wall of a skyscraper. It's simply not in my genes. Let's turn to another simple task.
Click to see the dusty ashes
Few operations are easier in life than lighting a fire in a wood oven. But I'm sure there are many people who wouldn't succeed. My ex-neighbor Bob used to brag about his ability to light a fire anywhere with damp wood. He performed several successful demonstrations, but I couldn't stop feeling that there must have been some hidden trick. The apparent dampness of the wood concealed, say, a few drops of alcohol. Well, Bob was surely no more than a smart fellow. Today, I've come to understand that the successful lighting of a wood fire depends upon a few basic operations of a simple nature. You start with the tiny flame of a match, and then you move successively from one flaming object to the next, of ever-increasing volumes and virulence... until you end up with a big stack of blazing wood.
I'm often intrigued and indeed pleased to see that my son apparently learned long ago all these simple facts of life that have only occupied my brain relatively recently. Better late than never...
A recent survey reveals that 75% of French people say that their homes are excessively cold in winter.
Well, this is not the case for me at Gamone. My installation of a large wood-burning stove has proven to be ideal. I hasten to point out that this success is based upon several additional factors:
• I’ve got into the habit of ordering a stock of high-quality firewood in summer.
• I store this firewood in a large and sturdy woodshed alongside my house.
• I’ve learnt the skill of lighting up the stove of an afternoon, using a tiny quantity of pine wood chips.
• Finally, the cold stove must be cleaned of ashes the following morning.
My house is well insulated on all sides. Besides, if ever the presence of snow made it difficult to go outside to fetch firewood, there’s a stock inside the old stone cave behind the ground-floor level of the house.
In my upper-floor bedroom, study and bathroom, electric radiators switch themselves on automatically when the temperature drops. The use of firewood as my principal fuel means that I would not be in danger in the case of an electricity blackout. And I’ve got a stock of candles. So, the general situation at Gamone is comfortable and reassuring. This is a must when you live on the edge of the French Alps.
The autumn light at Gamone is not ideal for taking a photo of trees. My old Nikon and my eyesight problems don't improve the result. But you should be able to identify the two tall poplars alongside the road leading into my property. [Click the photo to enlarge it slightly]
Often, when I gaze at those gigantic poplar trees, the terrible words of Billie Holiday flash back into my mind:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
The only nasty fruits that hang from my poplar trees are heavy branches that might be blown down onto the roof of my wood-shed or even my house. Consequently, I have decided to call upon a local specialist to remove these two trees, as soon as possible. It's possible that this operation might also destroy my letter box and/or my old cherry tree. But that's neither here nor there...
The piles of brown leaves at Gamone have fallen, not from my lovely old linden trees, but from a couple of maple giants. A few years ago, I thought of cutting down these trees, for I'm afraid at times that they could be blown over towards the house. But it's probably preferable to let them live.
Click to enlarge slightly
The next photo shows my apple tree, which has provided me with small fruit this year.
Fitzroy has found a tiny apple, which he is keenly inspecting.
These apples are tender and sweet, and free of insects and worms.
Few readers will be moved by this image, nor by the French-language article that it accompanies here:
But their subject means a lot to me. Jobs I carried out back in the days when I was earning my living now result in a monthly payment that provides me with my daily soup and puts a spoon of margarine in it.
That last statement might persuade my readers that I don't eat spinach and that I probably avoid butter. Neither belief is correct. Look at these two products in my refrigerator:
At the top, you have one of the finest Brittany butters. At the bottom, it's a soft butter from Normandy. As for my spinach, it's hidden away somewhere in the freezer.
The most interesting fact in the above-mentioned press article about retirement funds is that my automatic benefits will almost certainly go on for as long as me. It's nice to know that. My sole aim now is to survive comfortably for a while at Gamone... while consuming dabs of the world's finest butters from Brittany and Normandy, not to forget an occasional bit of spinach. The global picture is one of contentment.
I signed the purchase of my Gamone property on 26 January 1994 (Australia Day). In the quaint office of the notary public François Guiliani in Saint-Marcellin, my daughter Emmanuelle, present as a witness, explained that she was amused to see her father buying an antiquated house in the depths of France (la France profonde, normally designating the deep old heartlands of France). Guiliani, offended, politely reprimanded her: “Mademoiselle, Saint-Marcellin cannot really be considered as the primitive backwoods of France.”
The site of Gamone was spectacular (because of the magnificent view of the Cornouze mountain), but the house was a shambles. Here are photos of the façade:
Nobody had actually lived there for ages. Inside, there was neither electricity nor municipal water, let alone a WC. Looking back, I realize that I was slightly brain-damaged to have invested in such a ramshackle place. The truth is that I had so little knowledge of this kind of affair that I didn't have the least idea of how much time, money and imagination would be required before people could actually live there.
I won’t go through details of the time and vast efforts that were required in order to convert the Gamone mess into a home. For the moment, I simply wish to draw attention to my discovery, long after my purchase, of an ugly pylon (in fact a pair of wooden posts) right in front of the house. It's still there today, directly visible from my bedroom window.
Click to enlarge slightly
In my regular photos of the valley, you never see this pylon… for the simple reason that I make a point of hiding it. But it’s still there, even though it has ceased to annoy me greatly.
That was up until a few weeks ago. I had received a letter from the French electricity company, EDF, giving me an appointment for the arrival of an employee of the company that reads the electricity meters. Well, my meter is in fact attached to the bottom of that pylon. In a straight line, it’s less than 20 yards from my front door, but the land between my house and the pylon is steep and rugged, and the only way of reaching the counter consists of scrambling down a track that starts on the other side of my house. In other words, that pylon was obviously never placed there with the goal of supporting a domestic electricity counter. Now, this is where my story starts to become interesting but complicated, so I beg readers to bear with me.
If you look carefully at the above photo, you'll notice that the wooden pole carries two distinct sets of cables
• Near the ground, and halfway up the pole, a pair of cables is covered in black rubber protection. This is the supply of ordinary domestic electricity. One cable is for my house, and the other for my neighbors Jackie and Fafa. A little further up the pole, you can see the black cable that runs back up to my house. That cable passes through my electricity meter, located down near the ground (hidden behind the bushes).
• At the top of the pole, you can see three heavy steel cables for medium-voltage electricity. On the right-hand side of the photo, these lines bring in electricity from nearby Pont-en-Royans. On the left-hand side of the photo, after leaving the pole at my place, these lines travel up the hill, on the other side of Gamone Creek, transporting the medium-voltage electricity in the direction of Presles. It is important to understand that, at the level of my property, not one of these cables brings any kind of electricity into my house. In other words, it is totally ridiculous that these heavy cables, carrying medium-voltage electricity, happen to be located just a few yards in front of my bedroom window.
The presence of these high-voltage lines has brought about a dangerous situation. In front of my house, more and more slender saplings have branches that rise high enough to enter in contact with the cables, creating a life-threatening danger. I must attempt to find a solution to this dangerous situation, as soon as possible. In a nutshell, I intend to ask the electricity people to move the medium-voltage lines further down the hill. I now know exactly the people I have to contact, and how to do so:
My old garden hose has been left out in the sun and the cold for quite some time. So, I wasn't particularly astonished when it started to develop leaks at both ends. My guardian angel Martine brought her husband Denis to Gamone, to meet me and look into my garden-hose problems. The output end of the hose is a modern aluminium pistol, which has developed the fault of spraying out several voluminous leaks. Denis and I imagined that we would rapidly find a simple means of stopping these leaks... but that, surprisingly, would not be the case.
The input end of the hose is connected to a lovely old brass tap in the form of a bird, which my daughter Manya discovered long ago.
Denis rapidly replaced joints in the brass tap, which immediately worked perfectly. He checked the yellow hose itself, which appeared to be in perfect condition. The only remaining problem was the aluminium pistol, which simply offered no possibility of being opened. As Denis explained, the object had obviously been cast by a manufacturer who had done his best to make sure that the purchaser would never open it. So, Denis told me that I should purchase a new pistol device, and trash the old one. This time, I'll buy a low-cost garden-variety hose pistol.
My dog Fitzroy was excited to see Denis fiddling around with the hose, because he loves to jump around in vain attempts to clutch the spray of water between his teeth. As soon as I've purchased a new plastic pistol, I'll have to get accustomed to taking it off after using the hose, and keeping it safely in the kitchen. In that way, the pistol won't get baked by the heat, frozen by the cold, or chewed up by Fitzroy.
Just over a year ago, in July 2015, I stumbled in the steep staircase at my house in Gamone and had a nasty fall, bumping my head. Doctors have told me that I could have easily killed myself. I'm convinced that the only creature who knows exactly what happened is my dear dog Fitzroy, but he has never told me. Today, in the house, Fitzroy remains constantly a yard or so away from me. Whenever I move up or down the staircase, Fitzroy accompanies me immediately. When I open the bathroom window, Fitzroy immediately places himself between me and the opening, with such determination that I once imagined incorrectly that I might have actually fallen from this window.
Since then, I've never got back to driving on the road. Theoretically, I'm still quite capable of driving. I once demonstrated this capability to my son, on the lawn of his house in Plouha. Above all, I have good eyesight and, since the accident, I've never touched a drop of alcohol.
These days, whenever I need to drive into town, I call upon my friend Martine. She's an expert driver, who looks upon my Kangoo as an excellent vehicle for picking up a fortnight's groceries. Martine has even suggested that she might assist me in getting back into action as a driver. But I'm not at all convinced that I need to do so. I'll soon be 76 years old, and the narrow roads in the vicinity of my house at Choranche are not reassuring. On the contrary, they can be dangerous. So, why bother getting back to the wheel? In spite of all my likely progress, I would be a permanent public danger.
Yesterday, my neighbor Gérard phoned to say hello. He was astounded when I told him (to explain why I haven't visited him over the last year) that I no longer drive my Kangoo. He told me, literally, that abandoning the wheel was surely the worst thing that could possibly happen in the existence of a citizen of Choranche. (To better understand his point of view, you need to be familiar with the steep and narrow winding road that leads up to Gérard's house, which is nevertheless just a few hundred yards away from Gamone.) The news that I had given was as if I had just told Gérard that I was stricken with a major health problem. And he sympathized with me, even to the extent of suddenly referring with pain to his recent personal loss of his mother and two sisters.
To drive or not to drive. That is the question. And I'm more or less convinced that the ideal answer is... Martine.
NOTE A few days ago, the local doctor in Pont-en-Royans (an intelligent Rumanian lady with whom I communicate most often in English) told me that I would recover some facial nerves that were damaged in the fall if I were speak out loud as often as possible. This is not a simple task for a solitary individual who doesn't often use the telephone. So, I've decided to read out loud (in front of my dog Fitzroy) the French-language movie script on which I've been working: Adieu, Abelone based upon The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Rilke. If I work at this task long enough, I might even end up obtaining a role in the future movie.
UPDATE: Click here for another exciting approach to restoring any damaged brain functions.
At Gamone, three big linden trees are located in front of the house, and their dead leaves form a brown carpet, appreciated by Fitzroy.
The dry leaves are light, and they're scattered by the slightest breeze. I've been intrigued to find leaves inside my house, even though I usually close the front door. I imagined that brief gusts of wind carried leaves into the kitchen whenever I opened the door. But there's another explanation...
A big truck-load of firewood arrived at Gamone on the morning of Christine's arrival, and the pile of wood has been present since then, covered by a tarpaulin. Over the last few days, I finally piled up the firewood in my shelter, where it's neatly stacked in six rows.
Click to enlarge slightly
A municipal employee, seeing me piling up all this wood, said that I was surely expecting a harsh winter. It's a fact that I now have a huge stock of firewood. Fitzroy watched with interest all this activity.
A week ago, I had moved blocks of stone into the area of my letter box, to minimize the risk of somebody running into either the mail box or the metallic fence posts in front of Gamone.
I also piled dozens of rocks onto the mound between my residence and the road.
Little by little, members of my Australian family have got around to visiting Gamone.
This was my sister Susan Skyvington, who dropped in for lunch with a Belgian lady friend on 17 May 2015. A month or so later, I slipped down the stairs inside my house... and entered a lengthy period of convalescence, which I spent mainly in Brittany with Christine and our son François.
I’ve often seen this fellow drumming on a wooden pole alongside the tiled box in which I put sunflower seeds for the flock of great tits [mésanges in French] that spend the winter months at Gamone.
He’s a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopus major) [pic épeiche in French]. A red patch on the nape of his neck identifies this specimen as a male. Today, I discovered for the first time that he’s interested in the sunflower seeds inside the box.
Clearly, he had realized that the box contained good stuff for birds. He inspected the situation closely for a while, to make sure that it would be perfectly feasible to move inside for a feed. At one stage, he even made an aggressive gesture towards a great tit that had dared to fly into the box from an opening on the other side. Needless to say, the tit was no doubt surprised to encounter the large head of a woodpecker gazing into the seed box, and it promptly darted off to safety in a nearby shrub.
Finally, the woodpecker decided to venture into the box, where it stayed (out of sight) for a minute or so. It returned to its familiar wooden pole to break open the shell of a sunflower seed, but I suspect that it had rapidly opened and consumed seeds during its short stay inside the box. All afternoon, the bird returned regularly to the pole and the seed box to take advantage of its newly-discovered source of food.
Its size suggests a didgeridoo. But the line of holes indicates that we’re faced with a wooden specimen of the flute family. Could this archaic object be a remnant of a flute abandoned by the hairy musician Pan when he was gallivanting around Gamone, many eons ago, in search of maidens who might wish to learn to play his fabulous pipes?
No. It’s simply a branch of one of my giant linden trees, mortally wounded by a woodpecker.
The blog post you’ve started to read is extraordinarily trivial. Besides, there’s no way in the world that you might be able to deduce anything from that stupid title: You can’t win. What the hell could that mean? I believe that this blog post will go down in Antipodes history as the dullest thing I’ve ever written here. So, you might think of it as a historic piece of shit… particularly if you happen to have masochistic tendencies. At times, in Antipodes, I’ve dealt with earth-shaking themes, such as war, terrorism and the Theory of Everything. Today’s blog post, on the other hand, wouldn’t even shake a dog’s turd, let alone the earth. But I find it funny, and mildly philosophical, evoking human drama and destiny. And I happen to be the sole boss around here. So, if you’re not happy to carry on reading this extraordinarily trivial blog post, please leave immediately.
OK, that’s got rid of all those boring folk. Now, what was I saying? Ah, yes, it’s a particularly dull blog post, and unimaginably trivial. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. The story starts with my precious pair of boots.
Now, they might (or might not) appear to be quite ordinary garden-variety boots, nothing to get excited about. But, as I tried to point out, if you’re looking for excitement, you’ve come to the wrong place. Well, the greatest merit of this pair of boots is that I can slip them on effortlessly, as soon as I get out of bed, without even bothering about putting on socks. Maybe you don’t realize that this is truly a gigantic advantage for somebody like me, who’s awakened every morning at dawn by a crazy but loveable dog who has only one idea in mind: to get out of the house as rapidly as possible, and to race around on the slopes of Gamone looking for wild boars, roe deers, pheasants, donkeys, foxes, etc… Thanks to these boots, I can safely accompany my dog—through puddles, mud, sleet, ice or snow—for the first dozen or so metres of his matinal romp… before leaving him in the hands of God, who generally gives my dog back to me, unharmed, half an hour later. And, once I’m back inside my warm house, I can discard my dirty boots and put on more sensible winter footwear such as Aussie thongs.
My dull story starts here. Insofar as my boots are wide open (even when my big feet are wedged inside), there’s ample room for tiny pebbles, which seem to enter the boots magically, through mysterious channels known only to the Holy Spirit. And I’m sure you’re all aware that there’s nothing worse than suddenly realizing that there’s some kind of a tiny pebble lodged inside one of your boots. To be precise, it was my left foot. So I made an effort to perch in the mud like a one-legged stork (maybe that’s not the right bird) and to carefully take off my left boot. With my hand, I soon located the offending pebble, and I promptly shook it out. No less promptly, the pebble fell, not to the ground, but rather into my other boot, where it was immediately lodged firmly beneath my big right foot.
As I said, you can’t win. Maybe this blog post might have been slightly improved (let's say, less boring) if I had decided upon a more eloquent title such as Out of the frying pan and into the fire, or Not knowing what foot to dance on. Meanwhile, for any kind readers who might still be hanging around out there, I promise to make an effort to write more interesting stuff…
When my computer beeped, a minute ago, I found that my surveillance camera had sent me a nice photo of my neighbor Jackie bringing back a trailer full of hay.
My immediate reaction, as an Internet user, was to say to myself that I must forward this photo to the donkeys, who’ll be so happy to discover that Jackie has a delicious big gastronomical surprise in store for them: a stock of fresh hay! Then I realized that this was a silly idea. I’m not even sure that the donkeys are picking up the Internet at present, because the phone lines are sagging under the weight of lots of snow. Like Jackie and me, the donkeys don’t yet have fiber-optics links.
Here at Gamone, it would be an exaggeration to claim that it’s cold… unless, of course, you were to go wandering around on the slopes—Aussie style at this time of the year—dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and thongs. I prefer to be wrapped up constantly, day and night, in garments made out of the fabulous textile known as polar fleece. I believe that the latest stuff I purchased (through the Internet) is made out of recycled plastic bottles.
Meanwhile, I burn a lot of wood, non-stop, almost day and night. Sure, it’s a luxury, but Fitzroy and I lose no sleep fretting about the idea that we might be privileged rural dwellers. I’m too preoccupied by the tasks of cleaning up the stove every morning, and carting in a new supply of firewood. Then I think of nothing more than warming up my toes, while my dog (often in my lap) likes to combine the warmth of my body with the heat hitting his backside. It’s all very calculated, almost scientific.
Utter luxury (in which I’ve never yet indulged) would consist of lighting up simultaneously the closed fireplace at the other end of the living room. I’ll do this (I promise) if one or other of our children—or maybe even me—were to decide to organize, say, a marriage reception here at Gamone in the midst of winter... and if it were truly cold enough, of course, to justify all the flames. In fact, I’m so enchanted by that luxurious idea of utter flaming warmth in my living room that I really must start looking around for a bride. Or maybe my dog might reveal his secret nuptial plans.
The awkward term “de-extinction” designates the idea of recreating a living organism that had become extinct. This idea gives rise to two quite different questions:
• First, of course, it’s a matter of deciding how to attempt to perform such a de-extinction operation, at a purely technological level.
• Second, there’s the question of the ethical implications of such an act. In other words: Would we have a right, morally and socially, to perform such-and-such a de-extinction operation?
The de-extinction of dinosaurs would appear to be a failure at both levels. So, you should feel free to go ahead with plans for a nice wedding, say, with no fear of unexpected interruptions.
Things get somewhat more complicated when we envisage the de-extinction of Neanderthals.
Let’s suppose that we did in fact succeed in carrying out a successful de-extinction operation. What would you then do with such a fellow? It would be unwise to let him wander around freely as if he were a normal citizen of the world, because he would surely run into trouble, for countless obvious reasons. You could always try to get him adopted by a nice family of well-off God-fearing American Republicans. Or maybe you might think about packing him off to an outback cattle station in Australia to work as a jackeroo. But, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there would be certain unknown unknowns… including the ugly idea that our Neanderthal friend might be enticed into becoming a militant in a jihadist organization.
The de-extinction of a woolly mammoth would appear to be a far more reasonable project.
On the one hand, with the help of modern elephants, the operation is probably feasible, and there would be room enough in the wilderness of lands such as Canada or Siberia to organize an ideal home-place for the resurrected creature, and maybe create a family environment.
In my native Australia, there are two fascinating candidates for de-extinction. The first is an amazing creature that was last seen as recently as 1985: the Gastric brooding frog.
Its mode of reproduction was really weird. The female swallows her fertilized eggs and then uses her stomach as a womb, finally giving birth to baby frogs through her mouth (as you can see in the above photo).
The other perfect candidate for de-extinction is the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which became extinct in 1936.
An Australian scientist, Mike Archer, has made a brilliant presentation of the case for de-extinction of these two creatures. Clickhereto watch his fascinating talk on this subject. At one point in his talk, Archer presents an old-timer who led him to his bush hut which used to be visited by Tasmanian tigers. And he introduces the marvelous theme of maybe keeping these animals as pets. Personally, I almost broke into tears of emotion when I heard Mike Archer making his case for this aspect of a de-extinction project. I looked fondly at this painting of a Thylacine and her pup:
And I said to myself that, since my dog Fitzroy has now developed the regular habit of sleeping inside the house, his charming old kennel is free to receive a guest.
So, if ever Mike Archer were looking for a nice place to house one of his future Thylacine pups, Fitzroy and I would be more than happy to receive such an adorable creature at Gamone. As for the idea of also accepting the Neanderthal fellow, to look after the tiger pup, I’m prepared to look into the question… but I would probably prefer a Neanderthal maiden who wouldn’t mind combining her Thylacine-care activities with housekeeping work at Gamone.
Maybe I’m exaggerating when I refer to these huge pieces of freshly-shot wild boar as medieval meat.
You’ll have to excuse me. My head is in the historical clouds. I’ve been preoccupied for several weeks now by my work on the next book to be published by my Gamone Press.
It’s not so much the meat itself—which has been cooking slowly for the last few hours, in white wine, in my marvelous French-made SEB slow cooker (“crock-pot”)— that is medieval, but rather the means by which I obtained it. In a pure feudal spirit, one of the hunters who had killed the animal, on the outskirts of Gamone, dropped in yesterday with a big white plastic bag holding the pieces of wild boar. In contemporary terms, this spontaneous gesture is the way in which the hunting community (often denigrated by rural newcomers) expresses thanks to the land-owners on whose properties they’ve been operating.
To tell the truth, it took me some time to become accustomed to all the agitation and noise of hunters on the slopes opposite Gamone. I suppose I imagined naively that I might get hit by a stray bullet. These days, on the contrary, I’m fond of these wild weekends, which must be thought of as expressions of ancient traditions in the valley of the Bourne. Besides, Fitzroy and I are well-placed—on our Gamone balcony—to see and appreciate what’s going on. This afternoon, for example, two hunters were wandering around with their dogs in the tall grass on the slopes. Suddenly, the fixed gaze of my dog led my regard towards the presence of a big roe deer, sprinting down towards Gamone Creek, just a few meters below the hunters and their dogs… who were clearly unaware of the deer’s presence.
For Fitzroy, too, there’s the pleasure of gnawing into a wild boar bone.
Getting back to my future book, I’m often tempted to say that living in a place such as Gamone without seeking to find out a little about the previous occupants strikes me as mindless, indeed immoral. I didn’t invent Gamone. I only “own” the place in a short-lived legal sense: the time to write a book, you might say. To use a quaint Victorian term, Fitzroy and I are lodgers at Gamone.
My historical research unearths many surprises, some of which are pleasant with a touch of sadness. Today, if somebody in this corner of the world were to evoke the name of the Macaire family, they could only be thinking, normally, of my aging neighbor Paul Macaire and his dear wife. You have to delve into local history to learn that members of this family once attained great world heights… but outside of France. These illustrious Macaire individuals belonged to a celebrated category of French religious expatriates: the Huguenots. Funnily enough, insofar as these Huguenots disappeared from the local scene, the French are not particularly aware of their existence and of the gigantic role they played on the world scene. I would bet that, if you were to carry out random street interviews in nearby Pont-en-Royans (once 100% Protestant), few people would have the vaguest idea of the meaning of the term Huguenot.
In this global context of forgetfulness and false ideas, I am keen to write my Gamone book during the all-too-short time that I remain a lodger here…