Showing posts with label Royans. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royans. Show all posts

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Medieval meat

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…

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Pierrot wanted a wife

I devote time and energy to family history for two basic reasons. On the one hand, we have a moral responsibility to celebrate the lives of our forefathers. On the other hand, in the spirit of a detective, I'm thrilled personally by the pure problem-solving aspects of genealogical research.

In the rural French context where I settled down some two decades ago, I have no known ancestors, but I often carry out investigations of a family-history kind. I'm interested in the history of my house, and of individuals who were members of its various households. Today, we're accustomed to the idea that individuals and their families might move through several different houses, maybe located in different places. There's an obvious complementary notion: a particular house often supports the existences—births, lives and deaths—of numerous individuals and families.

[Click to enlarge]

Concerning the background of my old stone house at Gamone (which was in a deplorable state when I discovered it in 1995), I've already acquired quite a lot of information. I know above all that its occupant in the middle of the last century was Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957].

Indeed, I think inevitably of my predecessor Hippolyte whenever I gaze out upon the glories of the Choranche Circus and the Cournouze.

Naturally, I've been intrigued by this man Hippolyte, who once lived here in the very room in which I'm writing this blog post. I sense his presence constantly, not as a ghost, but as a factual figure of the past. The spirit of Hippolyte accompanies me whenever I wander around Gamone, and I have come to hallow his memory as if he were an ancestor. Which he is, of course, in a certain sense. I often come upon tiny and trivial elements of my Gamone existence (such as a fragment of metal from an agricultural device, for example) that cause me to believe that Hippolyte must have surely been at the origin of such things. I was only half-surprised therefore, a decade ago, when I came upon a daft oldtimer stumbling up to Gamone, carrying bottles of red wine in a grocery sack, who informed me that he wanted to "have a little drink with Hippolyte". After phoning his alarmed daughter, I didn't have the courage to tell the old man that Hippolyte had disappeared from Gamone half-a-century ago. But had he, really and totally?

I've just learned that Hippolyte's ancestors came from a nearby village named Echevis whose current population is around 60.

Arriving in Echevis, you have a vague feeling that you might have reached a tiny remote Paradise, far from the agitations of the world. And you're right. Besides, Echevis was one of the six villages involved in the amazing survey known as the Terriers du Royans, carried out on behalf of the lord of Sassenage in the middle of the 14th century.

Click here to access my French-language presentation of these extraordinary medieval documents, which are currently being transcribed and translated.

Yesterday afternoon, I drove to mysterious Echevis for the nth time. But this time, I was like an obsessed pilgrim, because I was searching for the roots of my friend Hippolyte. And I struck up a conversation with an 86-year-old resident named Rochas. When I informed him that I was seeking traces of the Gerin family, he told me the terrible tale of Pierrot Gerin, who had been in love with Angélique. (I've been obliged to invent the given names of our characters, who have passed into obscurity.) Pierrot, mentally retarded, worked well for his widowed father, who did everything that was possible to take care of his son. But the caring father was taken aback when Pierrot informed him that he was in love with Angélique, and wanted to marry her.

"No, Pierrot, I can't allow you to marry Angélique and leave our home. As long as I'm alive, I must protect you, and take care of you."

One of Pierrot's dumb mates summed up the situation abruptly: "What a nasty bastard. As long as he lives, your father won't let you marry Angélique. Your only hope is to kill the old bugger."

That was bad advice for a simple-minded fellow such as Pierrot. That evening, he walked back down from Echevis towards the neighboring village of Sainte-Eulalie, to meet up with his father, who was returning from his agricultural labors in the valley. They met up in the middle of a series of five dark tunnels alongside the Vernaison, on the clifftops, known as the Petits Goulets (no more than two or three kilometers from my home in Gamone).

And Pierrot promptly pushed his dad down into the abyss.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Cheerless festivities

At yesterday's annual spring "plowmen's festival" at St-Jean-en-Royans, the atmosphere was so gloomy (in spite of the sunny weather) that I hardly felt inspired enough to take many photos. For the first time in years, the carnival float conveying the festival queen and her two maids of honor was so dull and unattractive that I didn't even bother to point my Nikon in that direction and push the button. One of my shots has a vague Diane Arbus flavor:

They guy at the wheel of the tractor seems to be wondering (like me) what the hell he's doing there, and hoping that the punishment won't last too long. The grim expressions on people's faces, totally devoid of smiles, suggest an absence of joy, bordering on some kind of pervasive anguish. Even the polar bear doesn't seem to be particularly happy.

The participants in this Portuguese folkloric group appear to be totally dispirited, and dancing robotically:

Among the onlookers, there's not a single smiling face. As for the following guy, dragging a stunted Eiffel Tower through the streets of the village, he seems to have fallen asleep with boredom:

I have no idea what was happening to produce such a dismal mood. Is it the economic crisis in Europe? Or maybe the lethargic effects of global warming? Or might it simply be that old-fashioned village festivals of this kind are inevitably winding down in intensity, and dying a natural death? Seriously, if I were the mayor of St-Jean-en-Royans, I would take the initiative of suggesting to my fellow-members of the town council that they abandon the antiquated "plowmen's festival" and ask the young people of the region to invent some new kind of happening...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Staircase is still standing

In an article entitled Awards, which I wrote nearly four years ago, I made fun of a dangerous-looking concrete staircase in the village of St-Jean-en-Royans [display]. A few days ago, I took this new photo of the staircase, which is clearly built to last. Maybe it incorporates extraordinary engineering principles that merit study in the great technological universities.

On the other hand, I should point out that, although I've been driving past this place for years, I've never seen anybody actually using this fine staircase… which is no doubt a pity.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Roadside encounter

The day before yesterday (Wednesday), I ran into a South African couple, Andrew and Brenda, at the petrol station attached to the local supermarket in St-Jean-en-Royans. They were driving a luxurious Fiat camping car, with German license plates, and wanted to find a cylinder of propane gas for their stove. And this product didn't happen to be stocked by this supermarket. Since it was nearly 7 o'clock in the evening, there was little chance that any other stores would be open. So, I suggested that they might follow me back to my place where, if they ran out of gas, they could always use my kitchen to prepare their evening meal. As things turned out, they did not run out of gas, and actually invited me to share their fine dinner (prepared in the camping van), seated in the warm semi-darkness in front of my house.

They told me that they were thinking of selling their bed-and-breakfast business in South Africa, and setting up a guest house somewhere in Europe. So, they were keen to see what kind of possibilities existed around here. Yesterday morning, I took them along to the excellent guest house in St-Jean-en-Royans operated by Roger Dunne (a former UK cyclist) and his wife Teresa. They've done up an old water-mill on the edge of the village, and transformed it into a high-quality base for visitors who can go out bike-riding in some of the most magnificent landscapes that cyclists could ever imagine.

[Click the photo to visit the website of Roger and Teresa]

When Andrew and Brenda finally drove off (heading up towards the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse), they had several good contacts with local real estate possibilities.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Three vague projects

Contrary to what you might imagine, after glancing through my recent blog posts, I've been totally preoccupied, over the last fortnight or so, by no less than three separate projects that I would designate as deep, where this adjective means that they are puzzling challenges that concern me profoundly.

Feudal land registers

Last Monday evening, I was the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Royans historical association, for a rapid presentation of my research concerning the six cadastral parchments created here in the Royans during the period 1351-1356. I'm still trying to stir up enthusiasm for these precious documents, in the hope that I might be able to obtain finance enabling us to translate and publish them. On Monday afternoon, I printed out the contents (nine A4 sheets) of a single "page" (the correct term is folio) of one of the registers, and glued them roughly onto a cardboard backing, 60 cm wide and 75 cm tall.

This gives you a rough idea of what the parchments look like. The six registers—for the villages of Pont-en-Royans, Choranche, Châtelus, Rencurel, Echevis and St-Laurent-en-Royans—occupy a total of 59 folios of this size. For the moment, the scanned registers are presented in my French-language website [access], which incorporates password protection. Well, I'm starting to wonder whether it might be a good idea to create an English-language version of my website, in the hope of maybe attracting specialists in medieval Latin in places such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, etc. The thing that bothers me concerning these ancient parchments is that their likely contents (I say "likely", because nobody really knows yet exactly what information they contain) are no doubt quite boring, unless you happen to be standing on the actual lands with which they are associated. In other words, if a doctoral scholar were to work on such a register, he or she would normally obtain fulfillment by comparing constantly the text with the actual site. In any case, I'm convinced that it would be extraordinary to be able to read a description of my Gamone property that was penned in the middle of the 14th century.

Collaboration with Pierre Schaeffer

I was contacted recently by a music specialist at ABC radio [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] who would like to interview me on the subject of my collaboration in 1970-1972 with Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995], inventor of musique concrète (music composed with real-world sounds, including noises).

The problem, in this domain, is that my personal evaluation of the achievements of Schaeffer may not necessarily coincide with those of a musicologist. My experiences at the research service of the ORTF [French Broadcasting System] were a highly significant chapter of my existence in Paris, but it's a subject that I prefer to handle in detail in my autobiographical writing, rather than in an Antipodean radio interview.

Software development

Concerning my intention of developing a Macintosh tool to access the archives of my Antipodes blog, I've truly been running around in circles for the last few weeks, changing constantly from one approach to another. First, I was thinking purely in terms of a Mac application, but I soon realized any such tool must incorporate the blogger's password. So, I would be able to create this tool for the Antipodes blog, and then give copies of the tool to other people. But I would not be able to envisage a tool that would work for other blogs, for which I don't know the passwords. Then I got around to thinking that a better approach would be to build a website, rather than a Mac app, so that any blogger could use it merely by entering his/her own password. More recently still, I've been looking into the idea of using the PHP language to develop a tool that can analyze the so-called Atom feed, which any blogger can download instantly by clicking a button. Today, though, I've got back to my starting point, in considering that a Mac tool is maybe the best approach. The only thing that's certain is the fact that, whichever approach I finally adopt, it's a much more complex affair than what I had initially imagined. We tend to think that a blog is surely just a simple set of text files with an assortment of images and videos. In fact, the structure of a vast system such as Google's Blogger platform is diabolically complicated.

So, that's a summary of questions that have been running through my mind over the last fortnight or so. The common denominator of these three affairs is that each one seems to be complicated, indeed confusing, in its own way.

Maybe I would be better off sitting out in the sun and admiring the clouds, or watching my fig tree grow.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Legendary bridge

This is a photo of Natacha and me standing on a legendary bridge over the Cholet in the nearby village of St-Laurent-en-Royans:

This massive archaic structure is known as the Pont des Chartreux: that's to say, the bridge of the Chartreux monks.

I heard about this fabulous bridge for the first time back in 1993, soon after I purchased the property at Gamone. A monography on the Chartreux monks of Bouvantes explained that they had owned vineyards in Choranche ever since the 14th century, and that they transported wine from Choranche down to their monastery along a track known as the Path of the Chartreux. The bridge over the Cholet was therefore an ancient element of this infrastructure. But I was often intrigued by the fact that such a huge "heavyweight" stone bridge was necessary to enable a few mules to cross a small stream.

I wondered, too, about the obvious question of how the monks might have built such a splendid bridge. They must have devoted enormous resources to this project. Seeking the Almighty day and night, through their non-stop prayers, didn't the monks have a sufficient density of divine preoccupations without getting involved in such an enormous worldly engineering task as the construction of this bridge over the Cholet? That's a line of rhetorical reasoning that I'd often used in my discussions with Natacha, while visiting splendid monastic sites.

I would imagine that I was trying to say something like that to Natacha on that beautiful day when we were strolling over the lovely old bridge.

Besides, for someone like me who suffers from vertigo, it was frankly weird that the monks would have built a bridge without parapets. OK, the height wasn't frightening… but I would have imagined that animals such as donkeys and mules might have balked at crossing a stream on such a structure. There's the question, too, of why the monks would have decided to build a bridge at this particular spot, which doesn't lie on the beaten track between, say, Saint-Jean-en-Royans, Pont-en-Royans and the Choranche vineyards.

As you can see on this map, the bridge is located on the edge of the vast forest of Lente. Last but not least: How could the monks of Bouvantes have obtained an authorization to carry out bridge-building on territory that simply didn't belong to them? (Saint-Laurent-en-Royans was the ancestral home of the Bérenger/Sassenage lords.)

There's another interesting question concerning the wine-making and wine-selling industry. Everybody knows that the monks didn't make wine at Choranche merely in order to satisfy their eucharistic needs. To call a spade a spade, only a tiny portion of their beverage was transformed regularly and miraculously into the blood of Christ. The rest was sold, maybe to remote clients, to make money enabling the monks to pursue at ease their life of meditation. Now, if they resided in a secluded mountain abode at Bouvantes, whereas their money-making vineyards were located in Choranche (where they owned comfortable premises), why would they cart their produce from Choranche up to their mountain retreat? That doesn't make sense. They would have done much better to drag their heavy barrels of wine down to the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans, where they could be floated to Saint-Nazaire-en-Royans and then placed on barges drifting along the Isère. The idea of moving these barrels up to the monastery in Bouvantes is totally illogical. So, no stone bridge at Saint-Laurent-en-Royans would have been required.

Faced with such doubts, one falls rapidly into the idea that the monks and the Holy Spirit operated surely in mysterious ways. Our humble interrogations merely accentuate the fact that marvelous operations were enacted in unbelievable, indeed miraculous, ways. So, let's keep our minds and mouths shut, and believe what we're told.

Today, I attended a wonderful regional-history colloquium at Léoncel organized in the context of the Cistercian monastery of Léoncel.

The star speaker was Michel Wullschleger, a celebrated professor of history and geography from Lyon, pillar of the Léoncel heritage community, whom I've known and admired for years. At the start of the afternoon session, he promised us that the day would end with a bombshell. Finally, it exploded:

"The so-called Chartreux Bridge was in fact erected by forestry engineers and workers during the Napoleonic era, at the beginning of the 19th century." The absence of parapets reflects the necessity of having to rotate bovine-drawn log wagons, on this delicate corner over the Cholet, without damaging the bridge.

I was startled by this unexpected announcement, because part of the charm of the meager history of Choranche has always been associated with the image of the monks and their mules traveling back and forth between their monastery and our village by means of the famous stone bridge over the Cholet. But the monks had disappeared from our region about a quarter of a century before this forestry bridge was built.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Carmes convent

This convent was founded at Beauvoir-en-Royans in 1343, in the grounds of the magnificent castle of the Dauphin Humbert II [1312-1355], just a few years before all his lands and possessions (the vast territory known since then as the Dauphiné) were donated to the monarchy of France.

In a typical medieval religious spirit, the extravagant 31-year-old feudal lord created this male convent, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine, in the hope—as the Regeste Dauphinois of the erudite local historian Ulysse Chevalier [1841-1923] put it—of "repairing his errors and those of his predecessors". The community, composed of 50 priests belonging to the order of the Brethren of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was referred to as the Carmes.

A few years ago, the dilapidated property was acquired by the associated municipalities of the Bourne (including Pont-en-Royans and Choranche), and the buildings have been expertly restored and transformed into a museum. On Bastille Day, Natacha and Alain invited me there for lunch. These video sequences, taken by my friends, show me inside the museum and then out in the gardens.

I've added the trivial sound effects, first, in order to hide the rumbling noise of the wind, and second, because I've been fiddling around with the iMovie software tool, learning how to get it to do tricks.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Kitsch roundabout

In my recent post entitled France can be disfigured [display], I evoked the subject of decorated traffic roundabouts. This gangrene has just infected the neighboring village of St-Laurent-en-Royans.

In the mind of the "artist", this ridiculous Disneyland monstrosity (located alongside a dull low-budget housing zone) is intended, no doubt, to evoke a nearby masterpiece: the ancient Chartreux Bridge.

This splendid bridge was built over the Cholet by the monks of the Carthusian monastery of the Val Sainte-Marie in Bouvantes, to facilitate their journeys to and from the vineyards of Choranche.

René Magritte's celebrated painting of a pipe bears an intriguing caption: This is NOT a pipe. Maybe we should erect a sign on the ugly kitsch roundabout at St-Laurent-en-Royans stating: This is NOT a Chartreux bridge.

There might be a more conclusive solution. My old Young friend Bruce Hudson [sort out the sense of that enigmatic designation], who picks up all sorts of comical stuff from the Web, sent me this lovely image:

My archaic Citroën is not intended to run forever… well almost. Although it's a perfectly usable vehicle (the proof: I use it all the time), its current resale value is zero, and I'll inevitably have to get around to replacing it one of these days… once I've erected a car shelter on the recently-constructed ramp [display]. Wouldn't it be a lovely departing gesture if my old automobile, impregnated with the historic aura of a former Choranche vineyard (through being left outside at Gamone in rain, hail and snow), were to end its life by making a tiny symbolic act of an anti-Disneyland nature…

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Encounter with local history

Today, in St-Laurent-en-Royans, I met up with an 80-year-old former politician, Gérard Sibeud, to talk about local history. He was the Gaullist député (member of parliament) for the Drôme département from 30 June 1968 until 1 April 1973. During those five years, he was a member of the UDR party (Union des démocrates pour la République).

For many years, Gérard Sibeud was the mayor of St-Laurent-en-Royans. In 1997, he was the founder and initial president of the so-called commmunity of eleven communes located in the Drôme part of the Royans region: Saint-Jean-en-Royans, Saint-Laurent-en-Royans, Sainte-Eulalie-en-Royans, Saint-Nazaire-en-Royans, Saint-Thomas-en-Royans, Oriol-en-Royans, Saint-Martin-le-Colonel, La Motte-Fanjas, Rochechinard, Léoncel and Échevis.

We had planned to talk about Royans history in general, but the principal motivation of this encounter, for me, was to evoke a great scholar who was responsible for the rare historical texts concerning our region. I am referring to a Catholic priest, born in St-Laurent-en-Royans: Abbé Jean-Louis Fillet [1840-1902]. See my article entitled Place with a name [display] concerning this man. Gérard Sibeud gave me a copy of the following poor-quality photo (which I saw for the first time today), which would appear to be the only existing image of Abbé Fillet.

[Click here to see the original photo before I cleaned it up.]

Gérard Sibeud married a woman named Fillet who was a descendant of the Abbé's family, and she inherited the old farm where the future priest was born. And that's where my meeting with Gérard Sibeud took place this afternoon. This property looks out across a plain towards the bare hillock where the great medieval castle of the Bérenger family, called La Bâtie, once stood.

I was pleased to find that Gérard Sibeud was enthusiastic about my suggestion that we should look into the possibility of publishing a modern edition of the collected Royans monographs of Abbé Fillet.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

French website on medieval Latin parchments

After years of refusal, the people in charge of the archives of the Sassenage family finally gave me an authorization, a week or so ago, to publish copies of some of their medieval parchments on the web. Click the following image to visit my new website, which is in French.

Click the fourth line of the menu to see a sample of a few lines of one of the six parchments.

I'm expected to keep an eye on requests to examine the files of the parchments, so I've installed a password device. If any readers of this blog happen to be particularly interested in accessing the 59 folios available through my website, please let me know.

The purpose of this website, as I've explained at length to the person in charge of the Sassenage archives, is to find a scholar (maybe at the Sorbonne) who would be prepared to accept a contract to transcribe (into typewritten documents) and translate (into French) these six terriers (land registers drawn up for a feudal lord) describing Sassenage lands in the Royans. Personally, of course, I'm interested most of all in the parchment concerning Choranche, since it contains a description of my property at Gamone (known then as Chaléon) in the middle of the 14th century.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Plowmen's feast

From one year to the next, the annual plowmen's feast at St-Jean-en-Royans seems to be getting duller and duller. In any case, there is no longer any authentic rural soul in this event. The few surviving plowmen in the region are so busy driving their gigantic luxury tractors across fields that will soon be sown with corn that they're unlikely to take time off to drive into the village and watch the parade.

The only tractors you find here are the old machines that drag the floats. But how can a village queen and her ladies-in-waiting pretend to look regal when they're being carted through the streets like livestock? I often feel that the French villages are emerging inexorably from the Age of Innocence. In fact, they probably left that age about a century ago. So, the age they're leaving now has been one of make-believe innocence. You can sense it in the people's dull expressions. Nobody's really excited about what's happening. They're merely playing out an empty ritual... like going to mass on a Sunday morning.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Communications infrastructure

We often tend to imagine that a technology such as the Internet simply arrives magically in our homes like water in the kitchen sink, or electricity, or TV. In fact, in rural areas, the installation of a high-performance Internet infrastructure is a major task.

For the last few days, road traffic between Pont-en-Royans and the neighboring village of Saint-Jean-en-Royans has been interrupted at Sainte-Eulalie-en-Royans because of improvements to the local Internet system. This road sign announces proudly that regional authorities are building a network in the Ardèche and Drôme départements to handle data flows described as "high-volume and very high-volume". I love their "very" (which is like the Super in Superman). It sounds great, but I'm not sure what it actually means. It's a little like the true clocked speed of Speedy Gonzales.

The photo is amusing in that the building on the left has a barely-readable old sign on the outside wall indicating that it was once the local railway station, many decades ago, for a tiny steam train (often referred to as a tram) that ran between Pont-en-Royans and Romans (in the Drôme).

[Click the image for a larger photo.]

The telecom boutique of my ISP [Internet service provider], Orange, is located in the former terminal city of the little train. So, I like to think that the soul of the lovely little train [What? You didn't know that trains have souls?] has been reincarnated in my Internet connection. Meanwhile, instead of fixing up railway lines, workers are busy at Sainte-Eulalie installing cables for the Internet network.

Don't let this photo mislead you into thinking that all the trenches are being dug manually. If I understand correctly, they only call upon human diggers when the Internet cables are located in the vicinity of existing infrastructural elements such as power lines, water ducts or sewage pipes. The rest of the time, most of the digging and cable laying is done by the following remarkable beast, whose powerful teeth (like those of a mythical prehistoric rodent such as a giant rat) could convert your front garden into a cable network in less time than it takes to down a hamburger and consult your emails at MacDonald's.

The latest models of mini-shovels are acquiring the look and feel of sports cars. [My blog friend Paul might not agree with me on that question.] The guys drive them as if they were powerful toys.

All these land-moving operations are directed from a civil-engineering base camp at the foot of the mountains.

The place where I took these photos this morning is about a minute, by automobile, from Pont-en-Royans. The antiquated steam tram took a quarter of an hour to make the journey from the bridge over the Cholet (seen in the earlier photo) to the terminus at Pont-en-Royans. As for the Internet, these words and pictures will be reaching the Antipodes, after I publish them on my blog, within a few seconds.

This Internet-oriented blog article is dedicated to the soul of the dear departed old train between Pont-en-Royans and Romans, whose rusty remains repose today, anonymously, no doubt, in some kind of graveyard for mechanical puffing elephants. If only I knew its address, I would love to send it an email. But do dead trains read their email?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Local farmers

I love agricultural fairs and farm animals. Is it my particular rural childhood in South Grafton that is resurfacing? Or is this some kind of universal human sentiment? No doubt a bit of both.

I took these photos on a hot afternoon at the annual fair in the nearby village of Saint Just-de-Claix.

There weren't many animals, and not many visitors. I think this is a consequence of the simple fact that most of us, living in this Royans district, are in constant contact with farms and animals. So, we don't really need to visit a fair to see them.

I find that the faces and expressions of farmers are no less fascinating than those of their non-human friends. Often, you can read the feelings of farmers on their faces, through their physical forms, just easily as you can judge the weather by gazing up into the sky. They have a psychological and moral heritage of being direct and honest, and this renders them friendly. They can be complex individuals, capable of selling a five-legged sheep to somebody who's prepared to purchase it, but they are ruthlessly authentic human beings, who never call a spade anything other than a spade.

At an agricultural fair, though, I remain fascinated, first and foremost, by the beasts. When I look at such a litter, I have a terrible physical desire to grab hold of one or other of the squealing piglets and hold its writhing little mass in my bare hands. I recall experiencing this same muscular sensation of touch when I used to caress newly-born lambs at Gamone. (Psychologists such as Corina might detect, in my words, some terrifying sex-oriented affliction.)

Choranche lies just beyond the mountainous slopes that you can glimpse in the background. So, it was normal that the livestock of our commune should be present at the fair at Saint Just-de-Claix. In the above photo, my wild neighbor Frédéric Bourne (son of the present mayor of Choranche) is parading their prize horses.

Nice creatures... including a local cowgirl.

This is a portrait of my neighbor Bernard Bourne, mayor of Choranche, descendant of folk who have inhabited Choranche for centuries. Bernard has always maintained a courteous and timidly friendly behavior with me... even though he probably sees me as some kind of alien invader from outer space. To my mind, Choranche remains pure Wild West cowboy territory.

Visitors might get a kick out of agricultural fairs, but I'm convinced that many of the otherwise calm animals are greatly annoyed by all this silly fuss. After all, a cow couldn't give a shit about being awarded a prize. Many of them are unhappy at agricultural fairs. All they desire is to be left in peace, back on the farm.

Here, on the other hand, is a happy human creature, proud of his new-fangled metallic machine.

The above photo shows a cow emerging from his contraption. But what exactly is this device? What has been going on behind the jail-like metal bars?

That's a closeup view of the hardware. Can you guess what it's all about?

I myself had no idea what it was all about until I asked this fellow a lot of silly questions. He's a specialist in the chiropody of bovine hooves. Does that mean he's like a blacksmith, who cleans up the hooves of horses and donkeys? No, not at all, because the latter animals have a single "toe", whereas cows have two. The general idea, if I understand correctly, is that dairy cows often have hoof problems, which can influence adversely the animal's general state of welfare and productivity. So, the purpose of this giant steel contraption is to hold the beast safely in place while the hoof specialist gets into action with his various tools. Apparently, bovine chiropody is a new and lucrative professional specialty in the farmyard domain.

Talking about lucrative professions, I've been impressed during the last few weeks—while on my way to my regular Internet rendezvous at McDonald's on the outskirts of Saint-Marcellin (in fact, in Chatte)—by the intense activity in the two or three remaining fields of tobacco.

The harvesting takes place rapidly in August, with an armada of agricultural machines, and teams of hired hands to hang the precious leaves on racks. (I avoided taking photos of workers, because they might imagine me as an employment inspector.)

In case you still imagine that French farmers are miserable, with hardly enough money to buy shoes for their kids, here's a photo of a local tobacco farmer:

Driving past his place, I've often wondered about the role of all the vast hangars alongside his modern home. Today, I discovered that half of them house his impressive array of tractors, trailers and specialized farming machines, while the others are drying sheds for his tobacco production.

Tobacco is a sideline activity, because he also runs a prosperous dairy farm, and his house is surrounded by endless fields of corn. The problem with tobacco is that the market prices vary constantly, from one year to the next, and you have to be solidly settled—with cash in the bank, and not too many outstanding debts on your investments in machinery—in order to play the game safely. Outsiders might imagine that, with the drop in smoking, growing tobacco for a living would be a risky professional choice. Not at all. All the old-fashioned tobacco farmers have disappeared, and the demand for high-quality tobacco leaves exceeds greatly the supply. The three remaining farms at Chatte are run by young fellows (like the guy in the photo) who operate in a high-tech style, with computers, etc.

My question: "When growing tobacco, does your crop encounter risks of an agricultural kind throughout the year, such as diseases or other possibilities of degradation?"

Tobacco farmer: "No, not really."

My question: "Does growing tobacco involve a lot of manual work throughout the year?"

Tobacco farmer: "No, there's not much to do while it's growing."

My question: "So, what are your major problems?"

Tobacco farmer: "Finding and hiring seasonal personnel. Besides, these workers are becoming more and more demanding, more and more expensive."

He might have added that this management task lasts for no more than a week or so every year. What he was trying to say, I think, was that old-fashioned farmers (such as his ancestors) carried out the harvesting by calling upon family members, and then helping one another, working first in their own field, and then in their neighbors' fields. Today, on the other hand, you have to run your farm like a business. The fellow actually gave me a figure (which I've forgotten) indicating the precise number of hours of required labor, and its cost, for a hectare of tobacco. And I'm sure he uses the Internet to keep track of the evolution of the price of tobacco in the planet's markets and stock exchanges.

The leaves dry for a year in the farmer's hangars, and then the blending process takes another year. So, customers won't be smoking this stuff before two years' time. Naturally, it is a highly-controlled activity, because the authorities don't want farmers to be setting aside leaves for home consumption, or maybe with a view to setting up a business in home-made cigars.

With all these agricultural images in mind, I can imagine a dialogue between a teacher and her juvenile pupils Penelope and Pierre in a rural primary school:

Teacher: "Penelope, what do you want to do when you grow up?"

Penelope: "My dream, Miss, when I grow up, is to become a bovine chiropodist."

Teacher: "And you, Pierre?"

Pierre: "I want to make a fortune growing tobacco, Miss... so I can buy a McDonald's restaurant for me and my friends."