Evolution of a Landscape
You know, the other day was a national holiday, Armistice day, in which we celebrate the end of the First World War and honor those who died for France. This makes it a 4 day weekend, so of course we were up in the Savoie, and after the town's Armistice day ceremony at our village memorial, we had coffee or wine (depending on how old you were, it seemed, the oldest people in the village went straight for the wine although it was only about 9:30 am) in the hall outside the mayor's office.
It was a good opportunity to talk to our neighbors, and we met a few more people in addition to saying hello to the man who had sold us our firewood, the man who comes down to pick his apples, and the older couple who tend the bees up on the hill behind our house. The man who came forth with the most fruitful talk is in his 90s. We mentioned to him that we had been out walking up into the forest in the days before, and we'd seen a cluster of stone foundations, ruins about a half a mile up into the forest. They were rather mysterious, and we wondered if he might share a story about them. His faded eyes glowed a little bit, he looked just past Loic and he took a nice hit of wine, standing silent. I wondered only for a flash if he understood what we were asking him about. Then he began to talk. Some of the other villagers had their ears pricked as well, because I suppose he doesn't talk much. When he was a boy, these stone ruins we mentioned were beautiful chalets, back in the day when the forest that we walk in now was sloped pasture land.
He shared his boyhood memories of the forest we hike in today as broad open field only scattered here and there with a few trees, where they would take the goats to graze. Throughout the old man's lifetime it had filled in, and the forest matured. We know it now to be a wise place, aged now to the point where its floor is laid out with moss and low growing fern like the lush carpet of a fairy kingdom. The trees; pine, interspersed with chestnut, birch, and a few oak tower far above and the beams of light sparkle through the branches like stained glass, while you slowly step between the trees taking in the intricate details of the forest flora.
It is the Alps - steep enough at points to feel like you are climbing stairs. The solemn procession while you slowly put one foot ahead of the other, heart pounding in your chest, seems so ceremonial that it is hard to imagine that this forest could ever have been anything but just the way it is now. It was a very funny thought that as a rugged boy this man took a sun bath on that very slope, munching a hunk of cheese from his sack, while he tended to a herd of goats there. A funny thought indeed that in his lifetime, the mysterious stone ruins were once warmed with living hearths. Flagstones scrubbed, sparkling windows, the upper parts constructed of birch wood, now all long gone, the only thing left are moss coated empty stone piles, trees growing through them, mournful in their solitude. I suspect there is more to tell about the people that lived there. About why they left,what happened to them. I think I will make a point to talk a little bit more with this man.
Forest land in this little corner of the Savoie is public land attributed to each township, each consisting of a commune of several small clusters of houses interspersed along the main roads that wind into the mountains. The little village where our house is clusters up to the edge of the wild land, and the forest is open to residents for hunting, provided they register with the mayor and adhere to strict guidelines about where to hunt and when. When we hike in the forest this time of year, we check with the mayor to see where hunters might be, so we can give a nice wide latitude.
The old man's description of his memory over a lifetime of that land transforming from pasture land, to brush and young trees, to eventually majestic forest gave me a little bit of perspective on nature's bigger cycles as we compare them to our own lives. The thought grounded me for a bit, and also make me think of how a changing environment of any kind changes the offering of a place. I wondered what kind of hunting this village enjoyed when the deep dark forest was simply brush glistening in the autumn sun. I wonder if I should clear the brush on our little plot of land after all or just let it become what it is going to become.
When I had a quiet moment, I settled next to Bernadette humming with the joy of a fresh log, myself with a refreshing glass of the little vin du pays, and I explored a little the few books I had thought to bring about the game birds that are available this time of the year. We won't be hunting, but I will have a chance, as I roam the streets and canyons of Lyon, to do a bit of hunting of another kind.