Today’s blog gets passionate about France’s ‘Little Tuscany’, our home for the past ten years. As 2021 draws to a close and a global pandemic continues to bring misery, we are lucky to live in a place where we only have to step outside to realise the world is still full of wonders. Here’s how it hit us that first autumn.
FROM NETTLES TO NIGHTINGALES: CHAPTER13 CHANGING SEASONS CHANGING VISTAS
“Autumn 2011. As former city-dwellers we took a while to adjust to the experience of living up close and personal with Big Nature. The geographic situation of the house meant that we were constantly coming face to face with arresting spectacles. Sitting at the edge of our plateau was like being in a planetarium, or a 3D IMAX cinema.
The vast expanses of earth and sky all around furnished a constantly-changing panorama – at eye-level, the gentle swells of the hills and valleys with their changing colours was cut through by sharp lines of trees and wedges of forests, the branches stark in winter and burgeoning with leaves in summer.
The sky above our heads would one day be a blinding cerulean blue pieced by a burning sun; the next, full of frantic commotion, rolling banks of clouds with black thunderheads, apocalyptic sunsets and fingers of God. In summer evenings a dusty golden light fell over the landscape, gilding grass and leaves.
Every time you stepped outdoors you noticed something had changed; the way the branches bent against the wind or the cloud shadows chased across the meadows, the way the sun’s rays lit up the new candles on the umbrella pine.
Growing up on the edge of Bronte country, I was familiar with the wide, open vistas where immense stretches of moorland reached to the horizon under the inverted bowl of the sky. But the vistas of Little Tuscany were different, full of complex geometry, Cezanne-like in the juxtaposition of their shapes. Nothing was flat; the landscape rolled or climbed or dipped or curved.
To reach the horizon your eye had to travel across irregular fields clinging to slanting hillsides and bounded by untrimmed hedges running up and down vertically or at extreme angles. Beyond were valleys, dark patches of woodland and clusters of habitations perched on hilltops.
As summer drew to an end that first year, we discovered autumn’s ambivalent moods. There were days full of glorious Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness, the smell of log fires, the crackle of fallen leaves underfoot and the promise of Dickensian Christmases to come. Others, damp and chilly, struck a more downbeat note, reminding us of the ‘sere, the yellow leaf’ into which our lives fall after their spring and summer.
For Paul Verlaine, poet par excellence of mists and half-tones, the season’s melancholy and sad landscapes were like a wound – the ‘long sobbing notes’ of autumn’s violins striking a monotonous languor into his heart in one of his most famous poems:
Les sanglots longs/ Des violons de l’automne/ Blessent mon cœur/ D’une langeur monotone.
One day that first September I opened the bedroom shutters and saw nothing except for the ghostly silhouette of brambles at the top of the slope. The panorama had vanished, the universe had shrunk. As the sun rose, the blanket of mist became translucent, each drop of moisture hanging in a shimmering web.
Little by little, a village began to emerge half-way up the sky, a church spire, blurred rooftops. Then the entire hilltop village became visible, floating like an Arthurian mirage in the middle of a lake. Colour was added, streaks of cobalt, and, from the east shafts of sunlight broke through to make the rooftop tiles glint, then turn into sheets of gold.This shifting spectacle continued for most of the morning.
The mist would sometimes lift completely, only to drop again with the suddenness of a stage curtain. At other times the different layers dissolved and re-formed in a sensuous ballet, revealing tantalising patches of countryside, coy folds and hollows, the corner of a field, before swirling veils would hide the scene once more. It was the first time I realised that ‘grey’ could be such an interesting and nuanced colour (fifty shades?) ranging from impenetrable sub-marine murkiness to a scintillating quivering silver, hinting at magical revelations- a witch, a wizard, a fairy, a goddess.
Later I saw a TV programme about a photographer called Simon Powell who roams the Welsh countryside trying to capture the phenomenon known to the locals as ‘dragon’s breath’, huge swirling clouds of vapour that sometimes hit the mountains and valleys of that country in the evenings and early mornings. Our ‘Little Tuscany’, a region of softer, more gentle undulations, offers a spectacle that is meridional rather than Celtic, magical and ethereal as opposed to dramatic and menacing.
“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value,’ wrote Claude Monet.
Thinking of Monet’s numerous paintings of Rouen cathedral and northern haystacks, Turner’s eddying vapours of sea frets and industrial smoke, I envied the artists who were able to capture so compellingly such ever-changing, fleeting moments. For beings such as myself, possessing zero artistic talent, the camera is both a godsend and a curse. The faithful Canon has been called to do duty countless times in an attempt to capture just a hint of nature’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Sometimes this involved studied zooms and panoramas from the bedroom window, other times, eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontations with the elements, standing in the chemin clad in pyjamas and slippers, waving the smartphone in all directions.
Similar to our first misty morning experience was the day in February 2012 when I again pushed back the shutters, this time onto a world in black and white. It had snowed overnight; all around lay silent white fields broken by leafless hedges and the dark density of the oak wood. The chemin disappeared, the temperature dropped to minus 14 at night, our hamlet was cut off, and we were glad we hadn’t planted an olive tree in the field the previous October.
(Extract from my Work (Still!) In Progress: From Nettles to Nightingales).
For sumptuous visual treats this Christmas, take a look at the website of artist Gordon Seward, who has recently won two prestigious Prizes: the Prix Raphaël-Sennelier 2021 awarded by the Fondation Taylor-Paris, and the Prix Renée Asp 2021 awarded by the Académie du Languedoc Toulouse . Three cheers for Gordon and his Muse, Cécile!
And, as 2021 draws to a close, I once again hand over to Kurt Vonnegut:
“I am eternally grateful… for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” (Timequake)
Happy Christmas to one and all, hoping you can raise a glass with loved ones to toast ‘the honour of being alive.’
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Albert Poyet, much loved husband of Françoise, who left us in September. A loyal and supportive friend for forty years, a scholar, a gentleman and an enthusiast who lived life to the full.
©Laurette Long 2021