Often we are unable to tell the way hours are noticed on the top of our watch’screen: roman, Arabs numerals, the entire sequence or only four figures, even digits and so on. In a little classic book, Voyage Around My Room” (Voyage autour de ma chambre), Xavier de Maistre, a French military and writer, native of Savoy at a moment (1794) that this land was neither Italy nor France, and who will finish his life as a Russian general, tells the experience he had during one month, when he was under home arrest as consequence of a banal and victim-less duel. He, according to his whims and state of awareness explored his one room home, its objects, the various views, the shadows, the scents, the lights, the paths, the corners, the spaces and masses in one word the meaning of parts and the significance of whole. He is delighted to discover a whole New World. It is true that he doesn’t say a word of cockroaches, ants, mosquito, flies, spiders, millipedes, fleas and louses or other semi-domestic arthropods (?) which at that pre-pesticide times would be abundantly present and familiar in any human, aristocratic included, habitat.
A few days ago I lived a related experience. Mme des Epaules (a nickname having to do with her beautiful shoulders) and her husband JMD (who does not fancy whiskey despite his fresh nickname) invited me to visit their country place which became recently their main residence. I do not remember exactly if they invited me or I invited myself but the difference was inconsequential. I was there four or five times before, mostly in a social mood paying more attention to people than to the site itself. It was eventually a mistake. The residence is located on a quite large artificial plateau, created some seven hundred years ago by a family of squires who felt the necessity to rise a castle in one of the most strategic sites of the valley. Also, one of the most beautiful.
Thus, a deep green forested romantic hill towers even after the amputation of its conical top in the center of an enthralling vale dug during some million years ago by a beautiful river, fresh and clean, called la Durance. To make the whole even more scenic tectonic forces, that I suspect to be at the origin of the ensemble, provoked the rise of two superbly colored and shaped mountainous chains, which enclosed the valley into a fluid oval shape. From the castle thanks to the French revolution and the extensive use, the Peipin rustics made after, of the spread around building material, cut and uncut stone, didn’t survived too much which the exception of what I considered to be a slightly ungainly, eventually shaking CHAPEL and a little tower, a DOVECOTE my friends said. It is there that I was living during my previous visits notwithstanding being much more of a falcon than a dove. It is a possibility that this dovecote, if it was one, was a part of a today disappeared surrounding wall.
A staunch feminist activist (kind of unnecessary emphasis?), a writer and a skilled amateur artist, no offense intended, Mme des Epaules and her JMD husband, an art historian and experienced journalist on his own, ( I didn’t get any under table money) decided in a moment of insanity to create a culture promoting company. Sworn optimists they called their contraption Palmyre&Co. They pretended that the torch of civilization is going from generation to generation and from peoples to peoples notwithstanding the extensive destruction that hit, ISIS courtesy, that peerless crossroad of cultures which was Palmyre. (Between us I believe that the torch that is passing from generation to generation is often of a totally other nature, rich of offensive igniting virtues, but let’s drop that.) After some hesitations they brought the foundation to Peipin together with themselves. Alive and kicking Palmyre&Co, at one hour and half of Marseille, is against the odds continuously developing The originally barrel vaulted chapel became simultaneously the carrier, the battle horse, the flag-bearer, the sacred stage and the head quarters of the endeavor. The threatening derelict of other times was gone, or better, it metamorphosed into a pretty wide nave, noble of elevation, light flooded, acoustically rich and so well restored that still bespeaks of country and middle age. The one million dollars question, did was it a church or a chapel at its inception? – risks to remain unanswered. The first is a consecrated place from where one can sail into a happy union, a quite rare commodity or towards his final address (mandatory); the second is a space from where one can freely pray and nag the Principal and that is all.
Let’s stay with the Chapel term which is more convenient and more politically correct, less clerical if you follow me. It has an apse covered by a semi-dome, a portal gable which once carried two bells and a side space ( the chapel of a chapel?) where my friends are valiantly officiating on the top of a mezzanine. As soon as I landed I got into Mr. de Maistre mood. With the help of my friends I began to gather and even to see some hot details I failed to apprehend during previous visits. The castle owners were during centuries racketing the users of the two main roads, ancient roman causeways, going through the valley and channeling the toll money to the Dominican abbey of Sisteron, the largest neighboring city. The big and cumulative resent may have been the main cause of the castle dismantling and the employ of thus created space in a pasture ground for cattle. Plans disappeared in the turmoil. The area changed hands continuously until the parents of Mme des Epaules bought the top of the hill from the last owners, some farmers who decided that the cows were unhappy with the quality of the grass. They, the parents I mean, completed during some 40 years of weekend work, using few standing walls, a small country house. The next day when I woke I noticed in front of my door a stone walled well. The well, one of the first signs of civilizations, appeared some 7000 years ago. This one was much younger but sill many centuries old. It has always been there but I didn’t had the eyes to see it. Already on the investigation track I realized that the partially standing wall behind my room, around one meter and twenty thick, was built sandwich like from a dense core of mortar and river stones, covered on both sides with quite rectangular cut, fairly flat, finely grained, grey stone. Soon after I discovered that the same kind of wall or at least the same type of capping consisting of regularly cut flat stone was girdling the truncated pyramid on which the castle was raised on a stretch of more than 70 meters long and 10 meters high. I was exulting. Finally I paid a new visit to the giant cellar, all done in river stones and mortar which has been during the last years reinforced singled handed with a superb sequence of stone pillars, by D. a family friend that I happened to know. I am sure that the postman Cheval would adore this space which may house 150.001 wine bottles and many dreams.
Notwithstanding this set of experiences the castle shape still remained wrapped in the mist of time but its virtual presence became unmistakable like that of the Schrodinger’s cat. The last discovery was totally mine. I remarked in the courtyard a beautiful bush with small and fleshy deep green leaves, giving a very pleasant pungent aroma when squeezed between fingers and some gorgeous crimson flowers. Name? How come? The three of us are urban ignorant. Let’s take a photo and Mme des Epaules brought me in no time to the local and imposing green house. The imposing and kind owner produced a book – Salvia microphylla, one of the thousand species of Sage. Decidedly a good day. Some of the mystery wrapping this world vanished suddenly. If you cannot be sure if Lula took or didn’t some pocket money at least you can swear by the name of this living marvel : Sage. Let’s all of us be sage, once! We returned to our journey and my friend if I am not mistaken crossed the river and got on a dirt road. I do not ask questions, I trust her. She is going to show me something that I never seen yet. A River of Stones, from little pebbles to large cobble ones, but not bigger. A River of Stones? I was going to die of dehydration near one when I got nearly lost in the Atacama desert of Chile a couple of years ago. And we get out the car. I immediately saw, THAT this river of stones, some 25 meters wide has nothing to do with the south and north American arroyos, that are laying in plain even if the source can be somewhere up in the mountains. This one seems to go up the mountain, to climb a steep slope and has not valley or plain outlet. How far I asked ? Till the very end, maybe 1500 meters replied Mme des Epaules. It is a vertical stone river, there is not source up there, only heavy rains change details from time to time, but the bed stays the same. Probably it was illusion but for the moment it was what I have had seen. I look around, the river of stones had banks of soft brown ocher soil, similar to Chinese loess, but much darker. Stones, pretty rounded and polished are disperse nested into this sedimentary layer. But what agent shaved off the soil of this mountain stripe? I don’t know says my friend but some millions years ago the whole area was a sea bottom. It was nice to hear even if the mystery remained complete. We both agree that the stones have beautiful shapes and wonderful hues. They seem only to wait to be mounted and will make wonderful abstract sculptures but it is time to hit the road again if I may use this say in that context.
We crossed again la Durance near Sisteron to come face to face with the magnificent Beaune Rock, called also the Pearl (Gate too) of the Haute Provence. While I was fumbling in my mind for a name to design the amazing vertical channels upon this stone mass the word “gully” appeared on the screen. It solved at least half of riddle of the previous encounter. The River of Stones was a gully, a sharp, often a steep erosion of the soil occurring on the flank of a hill or a mountain. Thus, there are less mysteries in the world than basic ignorance. Let’s hope that the roundness of the pebbles and cobbles will find soon a reasonable explanation. It should be water for sure but the question is when. By the way, similar rounded pebbles were found on Mars. This photo taken by Curiosity, the nice robot and published by NASA seem to indicate it clearly enough. The water that gave them their wondrous shape is of course GONE. Do we have to expect soon similar occurrence on our agitated blob?
If the River of Stone was a starlet, at Hollywood and Bollywood they are like flies, the Beaune Rock is star. It seems to have been modeled by a demiurge at a moment that the stone had the softness of a giant lump of modelling clay (plastiline). It seems but it is not. And now I will go into some pedant rant! The Beaune Rock and the other one which faces it on the opposite shore are terms of a cluse setting. And the cluse is a transverse valley, produced by a river, the Durance which CUT THROUGH the mountain and revealed, kind of geological striptease, the quasi-vertical STRATA of the rock. Image and qualifiers are kind of heavy, I reckon, even if determined by a desire to simplify and share. Hell also is paved with soft intentions… If I am not totally mistaken this rock is an ANTICLINE, a fold of the earth crust, producing a convex, up surging form in a moment that the earth was much more tectonically active and really hot and malleable! Today the world is going warmer, but it is not the same kind of heat…obviously something is needed to cool the Homo sapiens sapiens….What about an unhindered use of GRASS, by standard chillum from the early infancy? We are only one LAW-Vote away….
And then Mme des Epaules drove me to the third stony (middle English, having to do with rocks, I know that is obsolete, but it sounds so swell!) astonishing experience of the day. She was driving towards the site of the “written stone” to allow me have an unmistakable, direct and multiple contact with HISTORY. I want only to mention that to reach the spot we have to follow a narrow winding, climbing road boarded by yellow pieces of land, probably pasture territory and clusters of trees in full autumnal chromatic exuberance. We were on the threshold of falling leaves season which fills the most depressed and banal souls with a romantic shot that could persist at least until lunch time. And quite unexpectedly we have to stop before a sharp curve to use a small parking area marked mostly by the presence of an empty car of some other history’ buffs. The inscription was just behind the corner, quite complete and well preserved but unfortunately with very little space between the words. It tells that it was cut in 410 in the memory of Claudius Postumus Dardanus an ex-prefect of Gaul who built a city called Théopolis, the city of Gods and probably cut a road leading to…it does not say where. For God sake, I was smelling another mystery. City of Gods? This Dardanus was a pen pal of a much more famous bloke, the African Saint Augustin who drove me mad more than once with his rants! I quote from memory: God endowed the men with Free Will only for doing good things! What kind of free is that? He is against slavery but if the slaves cannot get free, they should imagine that they are and have fun! And the last which is a riot, if people copulate it should be only to assure descendants and have to keep the brains in a state of total freeze and empty of any concupiscence thoughts! An Indian Kamasuthra sadhu will be unable to do that… Anyway, inscription or not, despite agitated research during more than hundred fifty years the Théopolis wasn’t found fact that encouraged some weirdo, me too, to pretend that it was dismantled by vicious monks, stone by stone, to build and other cult site, Christian style still! One more occasion for me to meditate on the absurd of the human vanity. Poor Dardanus or the one who wrote on his behalf – the empire on the way to crumble like the western civilization today – launching a probe into the history space upon some great things freshly achieved, Théotopolis etc, which in between, had spare time to disappear totally? It was not wiser the de Maistre squire with his detailed analyze of his household’ functions, shapes and utility?
At return in the evening to reward the efforts and gentleness of my hosts I did one of the most exceptional pork roasts ever. It was fairly close (one mile behind) to the cochinillo (roast suckling pig) I had in the Jose Maria restaurant in Segovia. Mme des Epaules who does not like the animal under this form and very little in general called the next day to tell me with pathos and enthusiasm that she had a gastronomic peak and summoned me to commit again at my next visit. The problem is that not only I do not follow a tight recipe, I have not the foggiest idea of duration, I detest to prick a poor beast with a fork to check the level of cooking, I completely forgot what I put in the concoction I used to sprinkle the meat instead to have it properly marinated before, I criminally opened the oven more than ten times, to roll the future roast from side to side or face to face, the damn old gas frightening oven was particularly impotent! Nevertheless I made adjustments and I got accustomed with the old derelict! What will do I do if until I come back they will acquire a decent new oven?
With infinite respect,