I’m a rotten traveller. I get horribly stressed about missing flights and trains, I agonize over picking places to stay or eat, and I generally spend a good portion of any trip in a state of subdued anxiety. As a result, I was inordinately proud of myself for taking two trips to France, one in 2010 and one in 2013. In the division of labour in our travel world, I arrange the transport, lodging and restaurant reservations and my husband organizes cars, bikes, and what we’ll do each day. Once I’ve decided where to stay, I also spent a lot of time reading books about the region. This year, we spent a week in Southwestern France, north of Toulouse. One of the most surprisingly things I discovered was that this was part of the ancient kingdom of Aquitaine, of Eleanor fame. I’d managed to read numerous historical novels without actually processing the fact the Aquitaine was so far south (maybe I shouldn’t admit that).
One of the books that came up again and again in my research was The Lost Upland by W.S. Merwin. I never managed to find a copy before we went, but the gite we rented in the little town of Marcilhac sur Célé (pop. 200 or so) was well stocked with all the classic books about the region. I was able to read The Lost Upland in an area just south of the land that inspired it.
The book is a collection of three long stories, set in rural France after World War II, as the forces of modernization, depopulation and change begin to erode a way of life that had gone on for generations. Merwin won the Pultizer Prize for poetry and his writing is both concrete – deeply rooted in a place he had once lived – and lyrical. The reader learns a lot of the history and nature of the area but this information flows naturally from and into the exploration of the characters at the heart of each story. Merwin’s skilful and subtle revelation of the venality of one of the characters in “Foie Gras” left me in awe. “Shepherds” has the feel of autobiography but it’s also a story about the war and the resistance, about sheep and their herders, about neighbours and villages and about change that brings both a better life and a poorer one. The last long novella, “Blackbird’s Summer”, is about passing on a legacy that can never really be inherited.
Through all the stories runs the love of a land both beautiful and hard and a people used to being isolated and independent. The hills and plateaus (the causses) here are ancient, were ancient when the Romans came, marching over the hidden caves decorated in charcoal and ochre by artists 20,000 years dead. Merwin’s descriptions enriched my own visions of the place as we walked over the causse or got lost on the narrow lanes, our car’s GPS unable to find us below the limestone cliffs. (Will it spoil the romance if I say that the iphone always worked for that, even if the only place to make calls was the town square?)
“By the second year the brambles were gone from the garden. They had been piled in the gaps in the walls and filled them, to the delight of the mice. Down the middle of the garden, only an inch or so below the surface, I had found the limestone ridge, part of the a fault, a spine of the cause. It was shattered like a fallen column, and there was a good soil in the crevices. I filled them with thymes and herbs, more savory, rosemary, oregano, tarragon. The garden changed and filled but was the same place. Month after month that corner of the causse fed me. I worked there hearing the upland talking to itself, feeling the air pass over it. In the spring and early summer the birds were present all day and the nightingales sang until noon. The cuckoo changed its song twice in that season. The strawberries ripened in the shadow of the north and east walls. In early summer I could stand at the end of the day and look over the wall of the garden, up the lane which the sun, setting in the oak woods beyond the house and the long pasture, was flooding with dazzling yellow light, and could turn and look the other way, under the walnut tree and see the sky already the color of a plum, and across the cut, by the ruined house on the far ridge of oak trees, the full moon rising.”