Medium 9781607321507

An American Provence

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"I have talked about luscious wines and succulent fruit and exquisite dinners. But there may be no more evocative experience of the two valleys than the smell of new-mown hay in the fields at dusk. If a person were to close their eyes, they could not tell if they were in Provence or the North Fork Valley. That sweet, earthy odor is part of the beauty of these places." -From An American Provence

In this poetic personal narrative, Thomas P. Huber reflects on two seemingly unrelated places-the North Fork Valley in western Colorado and the Coulon River Valley in Provence, France-and finds a shared landscape and sense of place. What began as a simple comparison of two like places in distant locations turned into a more complex, interesting, and personal task. Much is similar-the light, the valleys, the climate, the agriculture. And much is less so-the history, the geology, the physical makeup of villages. Using a geographer's eye and passion for the land and people, Huber examines the regions' similarities and differences to explore the common emotional impact of each region. Part intimate travelogue and part case study of geography in the real world, An American Provence illuminates the importance sense of place plays in who we are.

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PLACES

ePub

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking
new landscapes but in having new eyes.

—MARCEL PROUST

Colorado men are we, from the peaks granite, from the
great sierras and the plateaus, from the mine and from the
gully, from the hunting trail we come. Pioneers! O Pioneers!

—WALT WHITMAN

BECAUSE I AM A GEOGRAPHER, I cannot stop looking at, thinking about, or visiting places. Perhaps some kind of genetic disorder compels me to go to places, to study places, to compare places. Other geographers appear to share my malady, and they tend to use the word place with a whole collection of meanings non-geographers might not appreciate. We geographers see place as the interaction of all of a location’s physical characteristics, including soils, vegetation, climate, and geology—much like an ecosystem except broader and of a much larger scale. We also think about place as the nexus of human occupation of and habitation on the land. In this context, as characterized by National Geographic and others, place is “space endowed with human meaning.” Place may even be mythical or spiritual or psychological. I, like my geographic colleagues, see place in all these ways in our attempt to make sense of the world.

 

THE LAND

ePub

That land is a community is the basic concept of
ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an
extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest
is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.

—ALDO LEOPOLD, A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC

WHAT STRUCK ME SO POWERFULLY that morning in Hotchkiss and sent my mind flying to Provence was the way the land looked and how that view affected my memories and geographic instincts. There was the long east-west valley below me, with its season-affected river; there was the sere natural landscape that became lush and prolific only if water was added; and who could miss the elongated mountains running parallel to the valley, which, in turn, paralleled the river in its flow westward? Then there was the undefined, visceral feel of the place that transcends words but is vividly palpable nonetheless.

At this point an astute reader will rush to an atlas of each of the two places and locate them in the larger context of continents, oceans, and latitudes. He or she will find that the latitudes of the North Fork and the Coulon are significantly different. The North Fork straddles the 38°, fifty-minute parallel of latitude, while the Coulon is much farther north and sits astride the 43°, fifty-three-minute parallel—putting the Coulon more than 350 miles north of its Colorado counterpart. This is about the distance from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Columbus, Ohio, which many would consider two different worlds. But the North Fork sits in the middle of a huge continent, and the modifying effects of large water bodies such as oceans and seas are minimal, if not nonexistent. The North Fork is also surrounded by high mountains that greatly affect the moisture and temperature regimes. The Coulon, on the other hand, is on the much smaller European continent and is dramatically affected by large water bodies, specifically the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and—more important in this case—by the North Atlantic Drift. This drift is an extension of the Gulf Stream arising in the warm Gulf of Mexico and flowing northeast through the North Atlantic. It literally brings warmth and much more moderate climates to the entire western side of Europe, including much of France.

 

VILLAGES

ePub

Every day or two I strolled to the village to hear some
of the gossip which is incessantly going on there . . . taken
in homeopathic doses, [it] was really as refreshing in its
way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of the frog.

—HENRY DAVID THOREAU, WALDEN

THE PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY OF PLACE is the indisputable foundation upon which I have constructed the common vision of two like landscapes. But the human concentrations in the small towns and villages add a critical aspect to the two regions that is essential to our understanding and appreciation of their similarities and differences. The small towns of the North Fork are understandably dissimilar in many ways, although these differences are like a set of études on a single theme as opposed to individual works. The same can be said of the villages of the Coulon. Each French village is unique in detail, but the differences are only variations in degree. This discussion of the “urban” environments will cover nearly all of the towns loosely included in the North Fork region and a good representation of the villages in the Coulon (see the maps on pages 13–14 for the locations and distribution of these peopled places).

 

WINE

ePub

I offer thee Mirèio: it is my heart and spirit,
The blossom of my years.
A cluster of Crau grapes, with all the green leaves near it,
To thee a peasant bears.

—FRÉDÉRIC MISTRAL, MIRÈIO: A PROVENÇAL POEM

Make me poor, I will make you rich.

—THE VINEYARD TALKING IN AN OLD PROVENÇAL PROVERB

SOME PEOPLE ACTUALLY READ those large, detailed tomes written about wine. These several-hundred-page volumes usually try to cover all major wines from around the world and look at every significant wine-producing region. Thousands of places need to be discussed, some in great detail and others only in passing, as wine is one of the most widespread and complex commodities produced globally. I admit, I am a wine nerd who reads these books—many of which are very well written, some even funny, and usually intensely informative. But never have I seen more than a quarter of a page on the wines from Coulon and never even a mention of the wines from the North Fork Valley. There are no Château Mouton Rothschilds or Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Papes in the two appellations in the Coulon Valley separated by the river—the Côtes du Ventoux and the Côtes du Luberon. And absolutely no one would confuse the North Fork with Napa Valley—not a faux château to be found. Fame and size tend to drown out mention of smaller or newer or less glitzy wine regions. As far as I am concerned, that is a good thing. If the two landscapes discussed here were already famous for their wines, it would leave very little for this curious, thirsty geographer to discover. I am most assuredly not a wine expert, but I love wine and I love trying to understand landscapes, which is where these two disparate passions merge.

 

FOOD

ePub

Nothing would be more tiresome than eating and drinking
if God had not made them a pleasure as well as a necessity.

—VOLTAIRE

How we eat can change the world.

—ALICE WATERS OF CHEZ PANISSE

THE SHARING OF A MEAL with friends or family is one of the most universal joys nearly all cultures possess. Something about a communal dinner, lunch, or even breakfast often brings out the best in conversation, interesting discussion, laughter, and thought. This might be because food is such an intimate thing—we humans literally take it into our bodies as we take in few other things. Numbered among these rare items are water, air, and the occasional glass of wine. Maybe this is why the communal meals we have had in both the North Fork Valley and the Coulon are so memorable and almost always bring a smile to our faces.

The laughter part began early during one communal meal we had with Yvon, Joanna, and other guests at the Leroux Creek Inn. Yvon gets most of his food for these meals from the gaggle of organic farmers and ranchers in the area. This particular night Yvon was making roast pheasant, which came from the pheasant farm up on Redlands Mesa. Yvon claimed with a straight face that for a few days before the meal he had driven up on the mesa at very high speeds in hopes that he might get some roadkill of escaped pheasants. He swore that this was what we were eating that night. Whatever the pheasant’s provenance, it was delicious. Even if Yvon had not spent hours aiming his truck at birds on the mesa, these meals are never simple affairs. They always start with a selection of aperitifs—calvados, white wine, sherry, or some other product made into alcohol. Conversation, aperitifs, and hors d’oeuvres can last a long time—an hour or two at least. It is interesting that the French seldom use their own term hors d’oeuvres—instead, they usually call appetizers les entrées.

 

SIGNATURES

ePub

Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun,
And with him rises weeping; these are flow’rs
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, THE WINTER’S TALE

We are in the redemption business: healing the land,
healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.

—JOE SALATIN, WEBSITE FOR POLYFACE FARMS

MUCH OF THIS BOOK looks at the many similarities that exist between the two valleys—nearly the same climate, nearly the same landscape, nearly the same cultural, social, and economic commitment to a place. But each of these places, and really every place on earth, has its own idiosyncratic qualities. I see these qualities as “signatures,” those things that are essentially unique to a person or a place. And like a person’s signature, some are easy to read and others are nearly incomprehensible. Because the two places have many signatures, I have chosen one from each of the valleys—they were the easy ones from a possible long list others could create.

 

HIKING

ePub

Walks. The body advances, while the
mind flutters around like a bird.

—JULES RENARD

I HAVE JUST BEEN LOOKING AT A HIKING MAP for the Grand Mesa—the big, flat-topped, volcanic mountain that defines the northern horizon of the North Fork Valley. The map was produced by one of the world’s great geographic organizations, and I have nothing but respect for all of their publications. But what struck me immediately after having spent a month living and hiking in Provence is the paternalistic tone the map’s information section takes. The map’s extensive legend section includes the “10 Essentials” for being prepared. Such things as bringing food, water, a map and compass, sunglasses, and matches are on the list. Then there are six suggested hints for planning ahead, such as preparing for emergencies and scheduling your trip during low-use times. On top of that, there is a list highlighting travel and camping details, a list on how to dispose of “waste” properly, a list telling you what not to take from the area, a list telling you how to minimize the impacts of campfires, and a list telling you how to respect other hikers. It is exhausting to memorize all the lists and their exhortations. I feel as though I need a list of lists to keep track of the lists I am supposed to adhere to. Whatever happened to the simple mantra “Take only pictures, leave only footprints?”

 

LA CHEVILLE (THE ANKLE) INCIDENT

ePub

He who limps is still walking.

—STANISLAW J. LEC

BASTILLE DAY, that celebration of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” Our special French July 14 dawned some-what cooler and fresher than the hot, sultry days before. It was almost invigorating—well, as invigorating as the low nineties in intense sunshine can be. Up to this point we had only done a few hikes in the Provençal countryside, and hiking is one of our favorite ways to get exercise and to really see the landscapes that are generally hidden from even the smallest roads. The inn where we were staying is only about a kilometer from the scarp that defines the southern side of les Monts de Vaucluse. Just up the road is one of the locally famous hikes up the substantial gorge carved out of the ubiquitous limestone—a perfect setup for a half-day, vigorous hike into terra incognita and our first attempt at hiking les Gorges de Véroncle.

Les Gorges de Véroncle cut their way through hundreds of vertical feet of limestone and run for several miles north into the higher uplands of the Vaucluse. The main gorge looks unlike most valleys or canyons—it is more like a deep surgical cut into the rock. But this cut was made by millions of years of running water, not a scalpel. At places along the worn yet rugged path, the gorge bottom can be as much as 330 feet below the plateau above. This is not a great distance by Black Canyon of the Gunnison standards, but this gorge is narrow, and at times it seems that hikers could almost touch both sides of the rocky slot if they spread their arms. A series of old abandoned mills (moulins) within the gorge were built to take advantage of the rush of confined water down the steep grades during the wetter season and after the more enthusiastic thunderstorms during the summer.

 

LANDSCAPE MISCELLANEA

ePub

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome,
dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May
your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—EDWARD ABBEY

Everything ends this way in France—everything.
Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic
affairs—everything is a pretext for a good dinner.

—JEAN ANOUILH

WHEN A BOOK SUCH AS THIS IS WRITTEN, the big picture of a place usually stands out and is the dominant theme. That is invariably appropriate. But sometimes this larger view begs for some little-picture scenarios that give the text a more human inclination. It is not uncommon for these small, idiosyncratic miscellanea to help bring into sharper focus the intricacies of landscape. What follows is a collection of these small pictures that are not necessarily directly related to each other but that, taken together, give the book a fuller texture of the two valleys.

I have talked about luscious wines and succulent fruit and exquisite dinners. But there may be no more evocative experience of the two valleys than the smell of new-mown hay in the fields at dusk. If you closed your eyes, you could not tell if you were in Provence or the North Fork Valley. That sweet, earthy odor is part of the beauty of these places. But of course that beauty is a counterpoint to what happens when the sheep are moved down to nibble on the stubble left after the hay is cut. The calm bleating of the flock is accompanied by the annoying buzzing of thousands des mouches—the flies that are everywhere and that get into everything, including the exquisite dinner or charming glass of wine you are trying to enjoy while dining on the lovely outdoor terrace. You take the one with the other—a sort of Coulon or North Fork yin and yang.

 

THE FINISH / C’EST FINI

ePub

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new
landscapes but in having new eyes.
(redux)

—MARCEL PROUST

I REPEAT PROUST’S QUOTE because it was an appropriate start to the book, but it is an even more suitable closing. The basic characteristics of landscapes have been outlined innumerable times and in various ways by geographers, anthropologists, and landscape architects. But basically, a landscape has three core elements, including the foundation—the geomorphology and geology of the earth; the biota (mostly vegetation) supported by that foundation; and the human influences, impacts, and alterations of these two physical factors. This is pretty prosaic stuff. The poetry of landscape evolves through the myriad ways we humans sense it—metaphorically, by having new eyes looking upon the land where we sense the place and put it into our own personal context of understanding.

These “new eyes” can perceive and interpret the land in good ways or bad. It would be the epitome of Pollyanna-ness to assume that new discoveries will always be sanguine. In this light, in Out of Eden Alan Burdick observes that the world in Darwinian terms of the individual is nasty, brutish, often deadly, and short. Yet the world of the aggregate is remarkably “quiescent, functional, persistent, and durable.” The two worlds of the Coulon and the North Fork are just such landscapes—the brutal, severe one at the individual level and the much more sanguine, holistic aggregate. One can see the combination and interaction of all the living things and the environmental base upon which they depend and relate. We can see the bucolic whole; unless we get close to the ground with our senses, we probably miss the intense nature of life on the edge in some remarkably harsh places. But the juxtaposition of the harsh, wild uplands of the piñon-juniper woodland and la garrigue and the fruited, fecund farmland of the valleys is one of the things most endearing to me as a viewer of the landscape and most strikingly similar between these two places. It is also a testament to the grit and resistance of human occupation of both of these lands and landscapes.

 

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