Monday, October 8, 2007


Yesterday, after the girls had finished their homework, we drove up to Caussols. It takes about half an hour to get there in the car; we go north, leaving our village and heading up into the mountains. We go past Gourdon, one of the most dramatic perched villages in the area, and turn left, winding up still more, until we come to the mouth of a wide plateau: Caussols. We have been there several times with friends and neighbors and have walked along a wide, flat trail that leads through the valley. Each time I had seen a sign, though, that pointed towards a Voie Romain, a Roman road, that cut across the plateau and up into the hills. This is where we went yesterday.

The hills were all shrouded in clouds as we left our village and we were certain that this trip would end in rain and a rush to the car. As we ascended, though, the clouds turned out to be simply fog, and not even a damp fog. When we parked the car at the sign for the Roman road, we put on our jackets and went off down the trail, not yet a road, and the fog was distant. After a bit, we came to what was clearly a road built of stones. It was about two meters wide, with upturned stones on the edges, like very small and lichen-covered New Jersey medians. The center of the road consisted of stones worn white with age laid carefully in rows. Of course in places the stones had given way to the frost heaves of history and were no longer aligned or flat, but on the whole the impression we had was clearly one of: this is a road.

The Romans conquered this part of the Mediterranean coast in the 20s BCE, and stayed here until--well, until they weren't Romans anymore, until there had been enough intermarriage and time that they were just the people who lived here. That's not the official, textbook history--I'm sure that there is a proper date for when the Romans were no longer ascendant in our neighborhood--but I think that for the purposes of ordinary people cultivating olives and trying to stay fed and warm and alive 2000 years ago that that version is probably true. This road was part of a series of roads that linked mountain settlements, many of which still exist, perhaps under different names, today.

We followed the road up a hill, and plain gave way to forest and forest gave way to rock outcroppings. The fog dropped down until it was low enough for the girls to want to stay a little closer to us. I had expected to feel a sense of the profundity of time, of all the people who had walked or ridden this way, but my mind ran to lists instead, and C. and I talked about the coming week and our schedules.

The fog was thicker when we heard an animal calling from beyond a stand of evergreens. We weren't sure, at first, what it was, and C. and I both counted up the local species we knew and decided that, in the event that the eerie howl was not coming from a werewolf, its source had to be a dog. We leashed Wendy and Alice and kept on. Round another bend we heard distant bells, sheep bells, and soon came to a sign that explained that we were in grazing country, with flocks of sheep and their shepherd dogs looking after them.

It was time to turn back, then, and we never did see any sheep, just heard the gentle clang of their bells and an occasional admonitory bark, and, once, a man shouting. But it was a disorienting experience. We could see almost nothing of where we were--no more than 10 or 15 meters around us--and the sound of herds and dogs has a timeless quality. A Roman road, an invisible flock of sheep, and we were chiefly concerned by the question--also timeless--of what to have for dinner.

I have been reading Fernand Braudel's Identity of France, trying to dredge up what I once knew about this country. Today over lunch I came to a passage in which he describes hearing the sound of a grazing herd of sheep on a radio program. This passage comes at the end of a section where Braudel writes about how the relationship between space and time have changed in France. Journeys that took days in the past now take hours, and so everything feels closer together, which makes time go faster: when it took days to travel between cities, time moved more slowly. He writes that, as he sat at his desk in 1981 writing about the diminishment of distances, the radio station France-Culture (I was listening to it this morning in the car) broadcast a programme

about a shepherd and his flock in the Lozere: strange music, the sound of
sheep-bells, a dog barking, a man calling out commands, and the flock travelling
past, gradually moving away into the silences. All at the pace of bygone
times. France is still, for a while at least, a place where life can move
slowly, faster, or very fast. The fastest speed, impressive or threatening
though it may be, is not yet everything. And what a joy it can be, alone
on a mountain side, to rediscover and re-live...the time and space of
yesterday. (Braudel, The Identity of France, 1985, p. 123)

So here's to life moving slowly, and to recognizing the time and space of yesterday when we walk through it.

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