Thursday, June 12, 2008


This morning I worked in the weeds for an hour or two. Olivier worked near me for a while, putting down driplines for my vegetable garden. We've put the vegetable garden on the terrace just behind the house, at the top of a wall about eight feet high. The top of the terrace is lined in rosemary plants, some of which we transplanted to make room for our petit potager. When Jules put the rosemary in last year, he just dug holes--or whomever he was paying dug holes--and dropped the plants in. No fertilizer, no soil amendments, just rosemary and the local clay. Nothing to discourage the weeds invading, either, so invade they have.

When Olivier finished with the driplines, he stopped to talk a bit before heading on to the next task. He saw the weeds. My method is this: clip them off at the base and then spray with désherbant. I know; I feel guilty about it, but you haven't seen these weeds. Olivier shook his head.

That won't kill them. Nothing will kill that kind of grass.

I raised my eyebrows.

Jules planted it a couple of years ago, up at his pool. Jules' pool is six terraces further up the hill. It's called faux kikuyu; it was developed -- here he nodded his head to the south and the sea -- in Africa, to prevent soil erosion. But here it spreads and spreads. It's already in the neighbors' garden en bas. You can spray it, but it just kills a little part, and then it grows stronger in another direction. C'est terrible, terrible. On peut rien faire.

Oh, I said, pleased to have something to contribute. With us, in America, there is the same sort of plant, developed to combat soil erosion. Elle s'appelle kudzu. You can watch it grow, it grows so fast. And nothing will kill it.

We shook our heads at the perfidy of invasive non-native plants and Olivier shouldered his tool bag and went off down the restanque. I kept cutting and spraying--what else could I do? Short of setting the whole place on fire, or renting a back hoe and scraping off several feet of soil partout to get rid of any vestige of root, all I can do is cut and spray. At least, that's all I've come up with.

I've been spending a lot of time outside in the garden, bent double, weeding and planting. My friend Marcelle, who lives in Cannes, which passes, here, for the big city, teased me the other day: Tu es bronzé comme une fermière. You have a farmer's tan. And I do. I'm not sure what to do about it--long sleeves, I guess, or no sleeves. That requires planning ahead, though. My gardening usually starts out as a quick check and turns into staying til the church clock chimes the next hour. So my arms are likely to remain paler at the shoulder than at the elbow.

Today I thought about the faux kikuyu as I worked at it. It had reminded me before of kudzu, the plant that has taken over entire fields in the American South, in its grim determination to take over the world. I had even speculated that this weed, cockroaches, and Republicans would be all that was left of the planet before too long, and now it's not looking so good for the Republicans. But the kudzu kinship struck a chord with me, the same chord that much of daily life here strikes. Sometimes I feel like Dorothy in Oz. Auntie Em's farm hands have turned into the Scarecrow and his friends; everything is different and yet everything is deeply familiar.

It's not when I'm with the English ladies, or people from the girls' school, that I notice it. It's when I'm with Olivier, or Violette, or Marjolaine, who sells her flowers and vegetables at the rond-point. I come from a background that is three-quarters farming. Families that worked the land since time began, for all intents and purposes--at least for as many generations back as we can count them in America, and presumably a while before that. All of them were, I'm pretty sure, bronzé comme des fermiers. I grew up eating out of my grandparents' garden, and for most of my childhood, the entire family shared the beef from one cow every year. Food and the land had a presence in our lives. It was immediate, tangible. So when Marjolaine tells me that she cut the broccoli out of her garden this morning, it feels familiar. When Violette surveys my garden and says, next year, you should make it a little bigger, I've heard that before. When Olivier bends over my tomato plants and shows me how I should take off the suckers that grow in the joint between two branches, and we commiserate about the weeds, I remember my grandparents, my uncles and aunts having the same conversation.

I know how to plant a garden and appreciate fresh broccoli, stake tomatoes and pull weeds. I know how to talk about those things. There is something deeply comfortable, and deeply comforting, about this kind of talk. Standing in a vegetable garden and talking about the weeds takes me back to my earliest memories, to memories that stretch the length of my childhood. In some deep part of my sense of the world, my idea of what adults do is that they stand around talking about the tomatoes: how many, what variety, and did you remember to pull the suckers off. When I stand on my restanque and have that conversation in French, it takes me back to standing, hot and squinty, in a sunny Southern field and listening to my mother and grandfather have the same conversation, and wanting to be inside at lunch under the ceiling fan getting ready for the cobbler made from fresh peaches. It feels profoundly right. It feels like I just found a book that I loved but had lost and almost forgotten, and now I can read it again.

Those fields, that kitchen with the ceiling fan, the peach trees behind the barn that gave those peaches, are all long gone. I grieved for them and let them go, resigned myself to their passing and loss. But imagine travelling thousands of miles and finding--not the same thing. Different. A restanque. My own kitchen. Apricots are ripening in the tree below Jules' house, and Violette and I plan to pick them together. I want to help her make jam afterwards. It's what we do.

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