Friday, 24 August 2012

Man in the maquis

The Ardèche - 15th August 2012

The village of Grospierres (in English, 'boulders') lies at the foot of a range of low, rounded hills, overlooking the Chassezac plain of the Ardèche, southern France. A big holiday village is sited on the lower slopes, otherwise Grospierres seems dedicated to cultivating vines and tapping trade passing along the D111.

The land is dry this August; the atmosphere is heavy with fumes of heat and veils of cloud.

Grospierres is the essence of the Midi: tracts of stony ground bristling with maquis scrub; dark green hills of holm oak and pine rising from hot, open plains; villa houses with red-tiled roofs, shuttered against the sun; roadside fruit vendors; hectares of tailored vines. The Ardèche is the edge of the Mediterranean world, and its place names are evocative: Cabaresse, Prade, Salavas. I am reminded that the Occitan language is closer to Catalan than French.

My friend Nicolas Panel and I are visiting his friends Marc and Violette who are staying at the holiday village. Their children are having a happy time, absorbed with swimming and horse-riding. The village has pastel-coloured houses sited on terraces, grouped around a centre complex with a pretend bell-tower. The view includes strategically planted umbrella pines and pointed cypresses. Everything looks neatly Mediterranesque. But the place is too predictable, and I am not used to such vivid concentrations of humanity. I have an opportunity to explore the local landscape. Gathering my water bottle, camera, sun hat and a packet of peanuts, I head for the hills.

I want to get to know the maquis better, and I am also attracted by a series of rocky outcrops visible along the hill crest. The heat makes walking a chore, but away from the village I soon find a stony track leading upwards. It passes exposures of grey, calcareous mudstones and, higher up, limestones. Trees begin to crowd the path. Just short of the hill top, I am surprised by a brown-skinned jogger who overtakes me, sweating on the gradient. This vision of daring male vigour has the effect of condensing my being, focusing it on a sense of its own mortality and the mission in hand.

I find myself standing on red soil full of limestone fragments - a true terra rossa - surrounded by a low, bristling woodland of box and holm oak; the box lends a strange, meaty smell to the air. There are oaks of a type I have never seen before, and a fine shrub with ribbed, spear-shaped leaves and clusters of small, coral-pink fruits. There is almost no ground flora. Piles of dead twigs are scattered among small trees of several years' growth. In other areas the holm oaks are much larger, about 20ft high, with no signs of recent attention. This land is evidently being managed as a kind of rotating coppice, most likely for firewood. Perhaps this is the best possible land-use for this environment: the soils is thin, very stony and very dry; if ever it yielded more abundantly then centuries of over-exploitation for sheep and goats may well have destroyed its fertility; if ever thicker soils were present they have now been washed off onto the plain. By a long process of selection, the flora here would tend to feature plants which grazing animals found unappealing because of their thorns or bitter, aromatic oils. The result is maquis, garrigue or matorral, whatever you call it.

Quercus pubescens - a species used in truffle culture
Pistachia terebinthus - the turpentine tree
I wander for half an hour among the maquis, immersing myself in its small variations, picking up trails that seem to lead somewhere - then nowhere. I stop to examine seed pods, twigs, fossils. The suspended impression of being lost vanishes when the view opens out before me. I have reached the rocky outcrops which overlook the plain.

A massive apron of angular stones fronts the hill scarp, through which ribs of rock and a few stunted shrubs protrude. It extends sideways in both directions. If this hillside were a human face, one would say that the forehead was a hard, supra-orbital desert frowning over the village below. The rock fragments clatter and clink underfoot in a metallic, non-human way.

Some kind of physical drama is being enacted on this hill crest. I imagine that any rain falling on it flows through the shallow soil across the limestone, flushing away fine particles. Freeze-thaw action during the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago probably created this mantle of fragments, and winter frosts continue the process today. My thoughts disappear into a geomorphological reverie, experimentally peeling back time to make a series of hypotheses to make sense of what I am seeing here. I pick up a piece of limestone: it falls into pieces, like a sheaf of paper, and fossil shells appear engraved on the pages. Layers of an ancient sea bed are breaking up in my hands.
The holiday village is spread out below; the sun is veiled by cloud; the heat is abating. The plangent sound of a love-soaked pop song wafts up densely from below, electronically amplified. The place is an oasis of human life grafted onto the rocky soils of the Midi, only made possible by water. The swimming pools are a palette of shocking blue on the plain.

It is time to return to the human world. Pushing my way back through the maquis, I come across a small clearing with strands of honeysuckle and a tall spurge plant. A few black animal droppings are lying there, probably roe deer, the only signs of mammal life I have seen so far. I shake out a handful of peanuts from my bag and leave them in the clearing, as an offering to the gods of this place. Perhaps wild pigs will find them in the night.

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