First: an interlude. I want to write about imagination today, and because of this, for the first part, I don’t want to use any pictures. NO pictures, no imagery, nothing to set or dictate or control what you see. I want to use just words today. I want to describe a place and I want you to imagine it with me.
…Imaginary worlds. Do we all grow up in them? What were yours like?
I think I have my feet more firmly planted in my imagination than the real world. My imagination drives my decisions and defines my relationship with the objective world.
I’m a dreamer. The moments I’m pulled out of my dreams into the world are jarring and angular. Colors seem gray and noises seem louder. There’s an internal logic and elegance to my dreamworld, a strangeness and a symmetry that mirrors an Escher drawing; that shift in perspective wherein a thing is revealed to be two things, where the geometry of an object is reflected in a larger pattern outside itself.
Dreaming is what I do. It lends itself well to silence and aloneness; it thrives in this environment. After an afternoon fight of sullen tears and misunderstandings (the entire time of which I stared through the veranda door at the irregular stone house, tracing the patterns between the rocks and watching the stretched shadows of the scalloped terracotta tiles undulating across the uneven rough rocks, flattening and blurring my vision until the brightness of the outside world flattened too and the inside space first became soft and then vanished altogether…) I grabbed my book and a bottle of water and ran for the hills…hiking an hour and a half til I reached my cave.
This isn’t a metaphor. It’s a real cave…more specifically, my destination is the long-dried-up groundspring of a long- dried-up river bed that meanders through the hills behind our village. The park at the entrance used to be a vineyard, and there’s a huge stone bridge you have to cross under to reach the park. Your foot steps echo strangely as you pass under, and the wind catches the grating and howls, a little lonely and a little angry. When I first arrived here, I drew this bridge every day in my sketchbook, in sepia and umber on softly textured handmade paper bound in leather, until I could see if in my sleep, and so I know well how the thick stone pilings curve out at a slight angle, and how the arched opening of the bridge resemble an ancient Roman aqueduct. It feels like a gateway away from people and away from civilization, and the way the sound changes as I pass under reinforces that feeling of entering a different reality.
The river bed is full of shallow caves and flattened platformed cliffs and bees, and I’ve seen black pigs down in the gully. Thyme and lavender and rosemary and blackberries line the stone paths (it’s a dizzying perfume after the rain) which are glittering with quartz crystals. The eroded cliff walls are blood red from copper deposits. It’s violent where the stone has worn down and collapsed; great deep crimson gashes raked into the earth. Someone has painted a crude graffiti on one of the stone walls that looks like the pictographs you sometimes see carved into the soft red cliffs in the American southwest, a sort of symbol in red with geometric lines above and below, making it resemble a kind of beetle. I pretend it’s ancient, although the drips from the crude spray paint give it away.
At one point you pass an olive grove, young trees meticulously maintained, the sable gravel raked into square patterns around each tree like a Japanese Zen garden… and beside it, a vineyard of perhaps 15 acres (just bought this year by our winery) that sprawls on a flat plain overlooking the dry river bed below. There’s also a collapsed stone mas, or farmhouse, right on the cliff with a beautifully twisted thick tree growing through the ruined stone walls. Sometimes I sit on this tree to read my book, eating handfuls of grapes…but not today.
I continue on, up up up to where the path widens and opens up into tire tracks carved into the rocky dirt. You can see wind turbines in the distance, perfectly still today… I can hear bells in the undergrowth, the bells on the collars of hunting dogs foraging in the bush for game birds, and sure enough, behind them are solitary men, thin faced with beards, long rifles slung over their shoulders, wading through the foliage and whistling. They look like time travellers to me, and when a shot rings out in the distance, the sound is sharp and sudden and resonates off the hills, startling me. I am wearing my bright red T-shirt, a tiny white scuba diver swimming across my torso, the T-shirt in fact that I bought after my first scuba dive in Cozumel, Mexico, where I swam with turtles and sharks through glittering coral reefs along a wall that dropped off into a cobalt blue infinity…I am happy for the bright red color during hunting season, and the distance I’ve travelled from deep under the water in Mexico to this rocky road in southern France feels miraculous and disturbing and ungrounding. My feet don’t feel like they’re walking on earth anymore, and I feel displaced and uncertain, suddenly. The dry river bed I’ve been walking along suddenly resonates with swimming through the coral walls and caves in the sea, and my walk temporarily sinks underwater. I feel weightless.
The path continues on past the Communal House in the forest, the community house for meetings and wedding receptions, a long, low-slung stone house with a notice written on the side in old calligraphic Occitan advising that the house is open to all. I attended a wedding reception myself here once, riding by bicycle and drinking wine til I was dizzy and thick-tongued in a room full of French people, sitting by a huge fireplace that seemed to take up an entire wall, accidentaly eating snails on little circles of bread, seeing the Mediterranean sea blue on the horizon in the distance in the deepening gloam, the voices of lost, laughing guests in the darkness of the pine trees as the stars came up, reflected in the mud puddles from the afternoon rain.
The house is set in a pine forest, planted in rows and geometric, filtering the light into shades of blue, and today as I walk past the woods, I see the forest has been scattered with hot pink huge Gerbera daisies the size of my hand, arranged in circles and rows all over the stones, and I remember that there was a wedding here just a few days ago, and that the wedding party, cleaning up after the drinking and dancing was over, must have run into the woods still in their fancy clothes and placed these flowers, probably table decorations, in strings and rows and meandering patterns in the woods. The color is jarring and magical and I have to flip a flower over to make sure it’s real. I think about filling my bag with them, and then feel sad at destroying the magic of these bizarre tropical hothouse beauties incongruously planted in the muted blue hues of the pine forest, and leave them be…and sure enough, the three or four blooms that I can’t resist are wilting over my fireplace already now, one day later, their color already fading, the petals collapsing.
I turn and I continue down now, down into the river bed. I pass a huge stone circle, a depression in the ground that fills up with water when it rains, for the sheep that grave up here all summer long (and that fills with frogs and funny swollen-headed tadpoles in the spring)…down down down until I reach the bottom. There are two ancient car skeletons down here, rusted red and sunk into the fist-sized stone river bed. And then off to the right, hidden so you’d never know it was there, is a stone arena, with stunted trees pushing through the rocks.
This is the source of the river, WAS the source of the river, where the water burst out of the earth and filled the river bed and transformed it to a swirling rapids, swelling it in the spring. It’s dry now, and I climb over the rocks until I can see down into the deep black hole set into the stone. It looks like a hole ripped in paper, a mouth appearing out of the rock. It feels hungry, and I feel that tingling down at the base of my spine, the ancestral memory of my ancient tail trying to balance itself to keep from falling.
I always get vertigo here. I’ve climbed down to the mouth of the cave only to see the ground drop away into blackness. I’ve thrown stones into this pit and heard them rattle and disappear a long way down. I want to enter, but the thought of this cave suddenly waking up, disturbed by my trespass, filling with cold swirling water from deep in the earth, the tightness and panic of drowning, flailing in the darkness, the remanants of who-knows-what being washed up from the depths, grabbing at my ankles…it quickens my heart and makes the earth feel like it’s tipping forward into this gaping maw. I retreat higher, a safe distance from the uncanniness of the cave, laying on my back on the warm sun drenched stone and listening to the drone of the honeybees in the branches above me, watching the clouds trail across the sky as the gold light begins to slant at ever steeper angles.
I’m reading a book now by Salman Rushdie, “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”, a retelling of the Orpheus myth…set in the days of rock and roll, the beautiful wild singer Vina Apsara swallowed by the earth during an earthquake in Mexico echoing the ancient Greek stories of Eurydice, a wood nymph, murdered and descending into Hades…Orpheus, her lover, singing so sweetly and playing his lyre to the gods below that he is allowed to bring his love back to the earth above as long as, during the long winding road that leads out of Hell, he does not look back to see if Eurydice follows…losing his faith towards the end and risking a glance behind him only to see his love ripped away from forever, disappearing into the darkness for a single glance behind…Orpheus going mad, wandering the earth, finally being ripped apart by the Dionysian cult…his head, still intact, still singing mournfully for his lost love…tragic and beautiful and horrifying in the way of Greek myths…updated beautifully by Salman Rushdie and I enter his world, sitting on the rocks as the evening deepens. It feels right to be reading this story perched over a cave in the earth, to have the earth drop away below me as the characters in the novel enter their dreamworld, returning with songs, disappearing into the darkness and reappearing. It gives the book the right sense of vertigo, of impending doom, of fear, and I look again into the cave.
Voices echo off the rock, men’s voices speaking French, calling to their dogs, calling to each other, and I know that two hunters have ventured down into the river bed. I lay still on the rock, listening to their French, translating the foreign sounds in my head. The voices come nearer, then farther, than fade away all together, but I stay still, frozen, unable to turn even a page in my book, the sound of paper unimaginably loud and jarring in the silence. I imagine the dogs coming for me, the men shooting after the dogs, and I stay silent, crouched in the shadows by the cave, afraid to try to explain in my halting French what I’m doing here, the old American fear of Private Property and fences and boundaries welling up instinctually in my head.
I never was so aware of this feeling, the feeling of having to apologize for occupying space, the fear of being somewhere I wasn’t supposed to, the fear of trespassing, of not belonging, until moving here to France, where property lines are looser and paths cross public and private land casually. I wonder – not for the first time – if my need to apologize for taking up space comes from my identity as a woman, the feeling of interloping, the desire – present ever since I was very young, five or six – of wanting to disappear, to be anonymous, to make myself so tiny and invisible that I would be invisible, unnoticeable, unable to offend anyone. I begin to breath again as silence falls and the light begins to disappear behind the rocks, filling the corners of the canyon with blues and soft greys, diluting the colors of the evenings into a sepia-tinged photograph, and it’s time to begin the walk home.