Harvest continues on. Even though summer lingers on, you can start to see autumn starting to crinkle the edges. The nights feel cooler, and the grapes hang heavy on the vines.
I’ve been getting caught back in sleepless nights; not because of the baby, who wakes quietly, sweetly, without fussing, in the night around 4 a.m to eat and slips back to sleep almost immediately. This is just run of the mill insomnia…the sleepless nights that have continued throughout this year. In French, they call it “passer une nuit blanche”, or “passing a white night”…those nights where you stare at the ceiling in the dark, uncomfortable and exhausted, waiting for sleep to come.
It’s a good description for sleeplessness, “white nights”…makes me think of the bleary eyed disorientation of being so far north that the sun never sets, when it’s still light at midnight. And even though my room is dark, insomnia hones my eyesight and my senses to the fragile blue light of the street peeking through the horizontal slats of the shutters, to the green light from our clock, to the light from my phone blinding me each time I check the time, again and again, as the hours slide by.
I finally got up and read for a while on the sofa, finishing my book. It was called the Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. I really liked this book a lot, even though it’s taken me ages to get through it. It’s set in the 1970s, and centers around a young artist in her twenties named Reno, who is a land artist, obsessed with speed and motorcycles, drawing lines in the salt flats of the desert. The book is populated with stories, conflabulations, lies, romance and absurd characters…the character of Reno is like a ghost, flat and dispassionate, a blank screen onto which the men around her project their desires. The sentences are crisp and precise, even if sometimes the author crosses a line into pretention…but even then, it’s not clear that the pretentious sentiments and the awkward wording isn’t just the uncertain expressions of Reno tiptoeing into adulthood.
A lot of the reviews referred to the main character as alternately dumb, passive and blank…but I saw her differently. There’s a whole section about Reno getting photographed as a test subject for projectionists in movie theaters, her skin tone serving as a color swatch, a way for them to calibrate their equipment, and I think Reno serves as a blank swatch or a marker for all the male characters in the book. She is always an observer, a passive follower getting swept along, always a blank symbol to people rather than a complex person herself. Everyone uses her as a movie screen to project their own desires and dramas, a foil, an audience for their absurd monologues…and so she is repeatedly used and discarded by the people who are supposed to care about her. She even says at one point that it’s embarrassing to appear to want anything too badly, and thus she hides her artistic ambitions, hides her passions, and serves up a blank mirror to the people around her.
Best of all, there are these juicy passages, these beautifully apt descriptions that you can FEEL, this wonderful prose. An example…as Reno approaches the salt flats on her gleaming new Moto Valera motorcycle for the speed trials:
“On the short drive from town out to the salt flats, the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve—those were the colors here, sand edging to green in places, with sporadic bursts of powdery yellow, weedy sunflowers blooming three-on-the-tree. . . . Pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.”
I was awake, restless and sleepless, and so I was there to hear M’s alarm sounding in the dark at 4. I snuggled up against his back…bed never feels as good and warm and wonderful as when you have to get up. He finally rolled over and stumbled downstairs to make coffee.
They are harvesting muscat and chardonnay right now. Delicate white grapes, fragrant and sweet, always the first to ripen.
You have to harvest at the perfect moment, when the fruit is ripe, and the way you test that is: you go down to the vineyard and pick 100 grapes, randomly throughout the vines, and send them to a lab to test the sugar content. We went down in the evening last week with the baby to gather the samples. There is quite a lot of Chardonnay, spread out over four separate large parcels of land…I think I ate as many as I picked. Sweet and beautiful…the colors are almost like a translucent jade, with the slightest blush of rosy violet under the skin.
I discovered this week, too, that in France, many vineyards plant a row or two of plain table grapes in with the wine grapes. Why? So the workers always have something to eat on hand during harvest. 🙂 It’s true! And when we finished preparing the lab samples of Chardonnay, we picked great dripping elegant heaps of green table grapes, filling the inside of a wooden crate.
The grapes are pressed almost immediately after being picked, and I brought the baby to the cellar to watch. My father in law bought a new pressoir this year, and I watched the clear white grape juice pour into hoses, the skins and empty branches filtered out and left behind. It’s fun to talk to the older people in the village; M’s grandmother remembers people actually stomping the grapes in big vats with their bare feet, the way they have for centuries.
This is the harvesting machine. M learned to drive this machine this year (although I think he’s expecting to run over a few vines.)
As M says, you work hard all year for this moment. It’s exciting and timeless and tiring and wonderful.
…We went back to La Canourgue this week. M’s grandma rented a house there for the last month, as she has every year for the last forty years, a kind of peaceful vacation.
La Canourgue is in the department of Lozere, in the Languedoc region. It’s the least populated department in France, bases its economy on cows and tourists, and interestingly has the lowest unemployment rate in France. This is because of the long-standing tradition whereby young people emigrate to cities such as Lyon, Marseille and Montpellier when they reach working age.
This is the house. There’s a bedroom upstairs with old fashioned wallpaper and heavy wooden shutters where M and I stay with the baby. There’s a little garden full of flowers and an old apple tree leaning over the creek, facing a hillside covered in grazing cows. There’s railroad tracks nearby. It’s very peaceful, and at night the sky glitters full of stars, the Milky Way spanning the horizon. I stand in the garden in my bare feet in the dark, the grass wet and the scent of flowers in the cool air, trying to spot satellites crossing the heavens as the baby, snuggled in his sling against my chest, sniffles forlornly, overtired.
We go mushroom hunting in the daytime in the cool forest, among the slugs and the damp green moss, looking for the abricot colored chantrelles and for porcinins the color of fresh baked bread. We even find a variety of mushroom called pieds de mouton. As we come out of the forest, an old woman in brown stockings and a shapeless smock is coming along the dirt path with her cane, a basket in her hand. Although she can barely walk, she is searching for mushrooms too, and she inspects our haul gravely, with a twinkle in her eye.
“The people here are tough people,” Mathieu whispers to me as we leave.
We make omelettes with the chantrelles, and we all sit around the table into the evening. M’s grandmother is an excellent cook; I’ve never seen this kind of food. SHe is confused by my vegetarianism. As I sit drinking coffee in the morning, she is disassembling a jack rabbit next to me with a pair of bone breaking pliers, removing the head and separating the kidneys. The stew cooks all day, in a black sauce that I realize is rabbit blood (although Mathieu tells me if you can’t get blood, very often cooks will substitute dark chocoilate instead.) When she serves the stew, his grandmother takes the blackened head for herself, the tiny teeth still visible.
She prepares another dish called peau farci, stuffed rice and vegetable inside lamb stomachs, a kind of French haggis. That evening, they devour pig’s feet. There is always a selection of good cheeses at the end of the meal, and fresh grapes. I take the baby away at the end of the meal, sleepy at last, when everyone lights up cigarettes and keeps talking and laughing into the night.
Some pictures of the village…
I’ve had this feeling that the past has been burning behind me. Literally.
You could say, perhaps, that once you take that first step down a path, that the past already begins to consume itself. But it’s weird how your memory holds open those places, bookmarked, almost as if you could drop back in again and nothing would have changed. It’s not the case. Life is more like standing in a moving river…even if YOU are still in the same place, life continues to rush by beneath your feet.
I have dreams, frequently, of being in a familiar house and finding strangely hidden rooms. Sometimes, though, they aren’t even hidden…I’ve just somehow never noticed they were there.
Typically, my sentiment is amazed befuddlement, shock, and wonder… And inside these rooms are lost artifacts from the past: old pieces of art I’d made, favorite shirts, old toys. I go through this warehouse space with the pleased surprise of remembrance.
I read that the Hidden Room dream archetype is supposed to represent untapped potential, but I can say that for me, these dreams represent the confusion of containing withing myself a past and in some cases a past SELF, which no longer physically exists. And if it no longer physically exists, if there are no traces, I wonder sometimes, as memory mythologizes those events, if it happened at all. Memory casts an unrealness over the past, turning it into gross caricatures, whitewashing the shades of grey.
And then, ok, there’s the problem, the very real, concrete problem, that my actual past HAS been burning. Physically.
This picture was published by the Methow Valley News. Since the beginning of July, the Methow Valley, where I lived for the last six or so years I was in the U.S, has been burning, in the biggest fire the area has ever seen. 250,000 acres or more, with multiple smaller fires in the area. Homes have been lost, friends have been evacuated. The town as I knew it is irrevocably changed.
There has always been a kind of wildfire season there. The first year that I moved there: it was the beginning of September 2006, and the wildfires that year were burning all the way up into Canada. I remember the sun barely coming up…just a dim red circle that crossed the sky, the smoky haze thick. We were sleeping outside that summer in a tent, not having yet secured a place to live…there was no escape from the smoke in our lungs.
We stayed in that tent til there was snow every morning…we stuffed hay underneath the tent to keep from laying on the cold ground, the cold getting in our bones. The snow, and the rains of autumn, were what finally knocked that wildfire out in the end…the smoky hot haze replaced by cool crisp autumn nights full of stars, coyotes howling in the dark outside the tent.
Where we were camped was next to the chicken shed, weirdly enough, where four young male roosters were awaiting the inevitable day. I got to really like those roosters. One looked like a little fighting samurai…another was big and dumb, but by far the best at crowing in the morning. As it got dark, they would line up and tuck into their strangely constructed homemade coop and squabble a little before settling down for the night. They would make little noises as they fell asleep in the quickly darkening twilight.
I cried when those roosters were killed as the winter came in. And those wildfires gradually diminished as the snows of winter extinguished them for good.
We moved rather suddenly from Seattle when I was hired by a small glassblowing studio in Twisp, Washington. My dad had just been diagnosed with cancer, and I was struggling with the choice to cash everything in and move back to Buffalo…when this job came along, out of the blue, way out in this tiny rural town east of the North Cascade mountains.
It was time for a change. Work was getting harder to find in Seattle for me…and my boyfriend at the time, a British ex-dogmusher from the Yukon who was living and working as a night cleaner in a backpacker hostel near the Pike Place Market, had just found himself out on the street when the hostel abruptly shut down and was demolished to make way for luxury condos.
The studio that interviewed me looked perfect. Operated by a young couple homesteading out up Twisp River, they promised fulltime work and one day a week in the studio to make my own work. Their work was sculptural, landscape based, acid etched, interesting to me.
The area was strange and beautiful and wild. There were wolves, and cougars, and coyotes. People lived off grid still, with wood stoves and piles of firewood stacked outside their homes in preparation for the long cold winters. You saw a chicken coop and beehives everywhere you went. The local bar dated to the 1800s and had shotgun holes in the walls…and at the bar, side by side, you’d see old hippies, young organic farmers, redneck loggers, sharing beers with people dressed head to toe in handmade buckskin. It was just that kind of place.
There were icy rivers that cut through the valley, and the yellow dry sage-covered hills gave way to pine forests, and finally, the snow covered majestic grandeur of the North Cascade mountains. It was wild and quirky and strange in a way that appealed to me.
Jack Kerouac had been a fire lookout in the summers out here, on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades along with the Zen Beat poet Gary Snyder.The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, two of my favorite Kerouac books, straddle this time in his life. The fact of Kerouac’s ghost haunting the alley just made it all seem more marvelous and magical to me.
There aren’t many fire lookouts left, by the way…In the days of the BEats, young men would head up to the lookouts in the summer, living on top of mountains with no company except a radio to communicate with the other lookouts, a small woodstove, and their food. THe job attracted many writers and artists who sought out the iosolation…but the Fire Service no longer has the budget to employ actual people and a lot of the lookout work is done from the air now.
There is still ONE remaining fire lookout though, named Lightning Bill on Goat Peak. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway: so we packed up our things, piling all our belongings into my tiny mechanically decrepit 1981 GMC S15 Sierra red pickup truck…which ran on three out of six cylinders and, not surprisingly, had the transmission lock completely solid with a screech, half on and half off the isolated road, as it pulled over the North Cascade mountains due to too little transmission fluid in the case. And so, when we arrived at the glass studio on the back of a tow truck, we were grounded for a while, as my ex rebuilt the transmission and I searched for housing.
During the day, I would blow glass with Jeremy, and at night we would cook dinner on a Coleman stove,watching the wildfires color the sunset in shades of crimson and gold. It was the best of times with my ex, to be honest.
My ex: He was/is a flawed, complicated, beautiful, pure person. He was running from a lot of things; he drank too much and smoked too much to escape. When he drank he would go into rages, throwing things, breaking furniture, which he then wouldn’t remember the next day. He didn’t fit well into the modern world. Bank accounts and bills were baffling to him. He knew how to build or fix absolutely anything, but only worked as he needed to, moving irrigation pipe or assisting on house construction when he needed the money. He loved animals, more than people. He struggled with rules and laws, identified himself romantically as an outlaw…but was consumed with fear and inertia. I loved him very much.
For a while there, out in the mountains, sharing a bottle of peach schnapps on the entrance to our tent as the wilfires painted the sky in brillant colors, I thought that things might finally turn around and be ok between us again. It felt like a new start, like anything was possible.
I guess in the end that the euphoria of starting anew temporarily masked out problems, but hardly erased them, and although we had a lot of good times out there in the Methow, we never were able to fix what was broken. And the day finally came when I was ready to move on, and he wasn’t. I’d tried to leave many times before and kept getting pulled back in, by the simple fact that I still loved him. Easier to leave someone you hate, I guess, than someone you still care deeply for, even as you know that there’s no way to keep going on.
I tried to hate but it never worked.
Still, we broke up as I prepared to leave to go work another contract on a ship, and I left with all my things still in the house. While on the ship, I realized that when my contract was over, I needed to get in, get what I could carry and get out before I got somehow pulled back in by the guilt and sadness and emotion…which is what I did in the end, I pulled up outside the house and in three days had the backseat of the car full, the bills transferred to his name. I left most of what I owned behind in my panic to get free. And as I pulled down the driveway for the last time, crying, I saw him standing outside our house…looking very small and lost, finally turning away. I actually screamed out loud at the end of the long dirt road before pulling it together enough to put the car in drive and driving away, the scene of my life receding in the rear view mirror.
I thought I’d go back someday. My stuff is all in storage…I thought I’d go back, just to see it all again. I wonder if I ever will.
Around July 1st, I exchanged a series of letters with my ex as he prepared to move out of the old farmhouse we had shared. The landlady had tired of it all…the garbage, the late rent, the chickens wandering around unfenced, the cats. She presented him with a list of requests if he wanted to stay in the house, but I think in his heart, he was tired of working so hard to fit into a life that wasn’t his for so long. He managed to buy a caravan, arranged a place to park it up Libby Creek, packed up the house over a series of agonozing weeks, and finally moved.
I didn’t hear from him for a week or two, when suddenly my Facebook feed started lighting up with information about a wildfire. It started as four separate fires that quickly merged into one enormous one, that was quickly dubbed the Carlton Complex, and it was consuming the Methow Valley.
This year was a perfect storm. A wet spring led to lots of brushy undergrowth springing up, and then the high winds and insanely hot temperatures (over a hundred degrees almost every day) combined with lots of dry lightning strikes…the tinder box ignited and it all began to burn.
First I began to hear stories about Texas Creek being on a Level 3 evacuation, and I worried about some friends living up there. Before I knew it, Level 3 Evacuations were being issued all over the valley: up Libby and Newby Creek, even the entire towns of Pateros and Brewster, were evacuated as the fires burned, completely uncontained.
The power lines burned and the Valley was plunged into darkness. 911 no longer worked. People’s well pumps no longer worked. The gas stations ran out of gasoline. People were panicking. The fires came closer.
There were one or two nights where I saw images of the flames licking the hills behind my house and descending behind the vet’s office…The entire town of Twisp was evacuated. I looked at the burn map, and the fire covered the area where I knew Rob was camping by the river with his cats.
The weather changed eventually, the winds died down. The fires still burn, there was another scare when a car pulling off the road to change a tire kicked up some sparks that lit off another wildfire, threatening houses around the town on Winthrop. New fires are still being lit as the temperature continues to stay high, but they are being successfully fought or at least contained. And, as the first year I was there taught me, the fires will go out eventually…but not until the snows come in the autumn.
I finally got an email from my ex…he said he moved his trailer in time. He said it’s been very exciting around there lately. Huge understatement. I’ve written in worry since then, but haven’t heard back…I was glad to know he was ok, but I worried still, about his cats and chickens, about all of it.
I grieve for the Methow. A former colleague posted pictures of her home, completely destroyed. She had a wonderful blog about art, gardening, homesteading…she was a jewelry maker and mosaic artist. The images of her drill press and carefully acquired art making tools lying ruined in a pile of ashes broke my heart. She has a young daughter who doesn’t understand.
After I left the Methow and moved to France, our first apartment burned during a lightning storm, taking away most of what I owned. In some ways, as I wrote at the time, the fire was cleansing to me…a symbolic new start, a reminder to not hold on tightly to Things.
I can’t see this fire and all of its destruction and aftermath in quite the same philosophical light, though. The people who live in the Valley are strong and resilient and take care of each other, and it will be ok in the end, the fire will be a memory of adversity that pulled people together, a scar on their collective psyche that will be transformed into a new kind of strength. Still, though, I feel overwhelming sadness…and maybe a little self pity too, knowing that I never really will be able to go back and see it the way I remember it. The enormity of the change haunts me.
How did I stay in touch with the Methow through all of this? Some of it was via the incredible journalistic work of the Methow Valley News, updating the newspaper with images and stories by cell phone during the power outage from the tent city command center at the high school.
But the main source of information was from one of the last remaining fire lookout in the Methow Valley. (In total, there are over 100 fire lookouts still standing in Washington but only 30 of them are actively manned each summer, the height of forest fire season.) He goes by the name Lightning Bill and he ”lives” at the top of Goat Peak near Mazama, WA every summer. He is an artist, poet and photographer, but he is also the forest fire lookout for that peak. Along with his 2 dogs, he makes a weekly trip down the mountain to re-supply and touch base with friends and relatives for a few hours before heading back up to man his post as he has done for each of the last sixteen years.
Lightning Bill is something of a legend around those parts, and has become a popular stop off for hikers in the Valley. He’s been doing this for 16 years, in addition to deep experience fighting fires, including helicopter, ground crew work, and reforestation. In every direction, 360 degreesq, lies a fabulous mountain view of the east slopes of the North Cascades, and Lightning Bill can tell you with his eyes shut which is which. He has a pot bellied woodstove, and makes art and takes photos, writes poetry…And this year, he has been the eyes and ears for those of us far away, updating constantly about new fires and weather conditions, posting photographs and weather outlooks. He has been a godsend to me, so far away here in France.
It’s nice to live in a world where you know someone like this exists.
The fires continue. Mudslides and flash flooding are now a constant worry as the rains begin to come, since water just runs off a blackened, deforested slope that has been affected by fire. Dust storms have kicked up east of the valley. A tornado was spotted touching down near the Hanford site. I think the people in the Methow Valley are bracing themselves for the next plague of locusts. I’m sure that the religious among them are praying, and wondering why so many disasters in such quick succession are befalling such a beautiful, peaceful place.
(From the Goat Peak lookout)
Rare tornado touching down near Hanford.
Time moves on, I guess. Unsettling to see fire erasing the past behind me, though. Sending all my good wishes and good thoughts to my friends back in the Methow Valley…I am with you in my thoughts all the time.
I went running in the garrigue, hit my usual turn around point behind the Bergerie by the big concrete watering-hole sky-reflector… and pushed past, muscles singing, farther into the garrigue than I’ve ever run before, til I came to a rusted out sign that said “Feux Interdit” (Fires Prohibited), which someone had opened up into with a shotgun. The bullet holes have rippled outward in spreading stains of rust that threaten to overtake the lettering.
It’s raining just a little bit, cool on my face. I love the feeling as I run down hills…trail running lets you leap from rock to rock, and the downward slope means the ground is never where I think it will be…feels weightless and light, like dancing.
I am loving my run, don’t want to stop, feeling free, the rain hissing around me, the sky roiling in shades of grey and black, making the green of the trees vibrant and lush…feels so good, and eventually I overdo it, can feel the tendon down my right leg angry and inflamed. Limped home with my knee aching…heard the baby crying as I opened the gate…no, not crying, screaming in rage and frustration…and I’m half-laughing, but hiding it, at the dire, hopeless look on M’s face as he pushes the baby at my boobs.
I shower, we head to his dad’s house for lunch. Everyone is discussing the house we just went to go see. Everyone is planning and scheming and dreaming about it…I slice a tomato and dip it in ginger-infused oil, I try raw soft cow cheeses on crisp French bread as everyone dives into pork chops. A bottle of red wine is brought out, the cork examined…the wine is sampled seriously, quizzically, discussed, and rejected.
My father in law starts telling me about something, a custom in south western France called Chabrot…and I guess the way it works is, there’s a bottle of wine on the table, with six little stars on it, a not-very-good wine, and at the end of the soup course, the wine is poured into the soup bowl to sop up all the remaining flavors, and drunk.
(Here’s how to do it right: How to Make Chabrot)
We gather together his brother and sister,swing by the cellar to pick up the little silver wolf, and drive off into the garrigue…following vaguely worded directions from a friend during a party the night before, we scramble down a hill side, me wearing flipflops, the baby strapped to my chest, headed to a hidden cave that was once a Bronze Age burial site, la grotte de la Baumette.
It’s humid…the air is thick. The sky is heavy. The dog is joyful to be allowed to run free.
We get lost twice. The horizon stretches to the sea…we can see Palavas and Cournonterral set like jewels in the grey hazy green landscape…We find the cave in the end almost by accident, set into a high limestone cliff, the entrance half obscured by blackberry brambles. My husband and his siblings set off into the cave, holding IPhones like flashlights, as I sit outside in the flickering sunlight, breastfeeding the baby with the silver wolf chewing bones, licking the baby’s feet and curling up sweetly in the brush. Little cave wolf. I picture sitting outside this cave in the Bronze Age. I picture throwing mammoth bones to the dog. I picture breastfeeding a baby outside my cave. I look at the brambles and vines covering the entrance to the cave again. I can just barely hear voices echoing from inside.
I get my turn to explore when they return. M and I duck through the entrance and it opens up…there are chambers to the left and right. The walls are shimmery slick with water. There are stalagmites and some chambers that are tiny, claustrophobic, impossible. There’s graffiti and old burned out candles on the walls from time to time.
I return home aching and tired, and plunge into the pool in the dark…we eat corn on the cob and raw broccoli with our hands at the table, and mango ice cream. One last dip, and we head off to bed…the grape harvest, the vendage, begins tomorrow.
At three am, the alarm rings…I can hear Mathieu begrudgingly wake up and get dressed as he prepares to head to Murviel to drive the tractor…I hide under the sheets, trying and failing to cling to the last shreds of sleeps as the baby stretches and dreams…and so the harvest season, it begins.