In search of the asphodel

In a previous post I described returning to Nant and St Jean du Bruel, villages at either end of a verdant stretch of the valley of the Dourbie on the edge of the Cevennes.  Above the valley lies the contrasting landscape of the causse – the wild and rugged limestone plateau that has a beauty of its own.  For a few days last week we explored that landscape, discovering the abundance of wildflowers that grace the high plains, and searching for the asphodels that in spring – our guide in the St Jean tourist office had assured us – grow there in profusion.  After searching several locations we found them – but only on our last day.

The causses form a huge Jurassic limestone plateau over a thousand metres thick, deeply cut into dramatic gorges wherever a major river flows through it. This is a lean, spare land, sheep country,unspoilt, too harsh for intensive farming.  Pretty, picturesque it is not.  Yet there is in its boundless horizons something that makes the heart soar – soar like the spiralling griffon vultures, riding the afternoon thermals, circling on outstretched wings. Two decades ago these giant raptors were almost extinct in the Cevennes. Now, thanks to a successful reintroduction programme, they’re back again – nearly 100 pairs, apparantly, now breed in the national park.

On the causses, where the vultures search for carrion, life is hard – for humans and wild creatures.  The land is bone dry and scorched in the summers, frozen and snowswept in the winters.

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn
   and in times of famine

the metal bones of the earth
   extracted by hand

the church above the earth
   arms of our clock crucified

all is taken

- ‘Earth’ by John Berger, from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

With its drystone walls and grey stone barns there are echoes of the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Pennines around Malham – but on a much grander scale. It’s the domain of sheep and small patches of cultivation where winter fodder for the flocks is grown.  The scarcity and preciousness of water is revealed in the clay-lined dewponds known as lavognes that are dotted about the causses.  Outside the fortified village of La Couvertoirade there’s an impressive example – this one stone-lined and designed to collect the water that pours from the village streets in winter rains or the occasional summer storm.

The Cevennes is one of the last places in Europe where transhumance still persists: the traditional practice of moving flocks of sheep, that have wintered in the valleys below, up onto the causses to graze on the high summer pastures.  Thinking about this made me think of the English novelist and art critic John Berger who, in the 1970s, moved to a rural community in the French Alps. Berger wanted to observe peasant society firsthand, join them in their work, and better understand their traditions and the challenges they face.

Transhumance photographed by Martin Castellan

Out of his experience came a trilogy, Into Their Labours (from the biblical text, ‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours’).  The first volume was Pig Earth, published in 1979. It’s a description of the life of French peasants – in no way romanticised – written as their way of life was drawing to a close. The book is a typical Berger melange of short stories, journal entries and poetry, and concludes with an essay on the economic role of the peasant through history viewed from a Marxist perspective:

Inexhaustibly committed to wresting a life from the earth, bound to the present of endless work, the peasant nonetheless sees life as an interlude.  This is confirmed by his daily familiarity with the cycle of birth, life and death.  [...] The peasant sees life as an interlude because of the dual contrary movement through time of his thoughts and feelings which in turn derives from the dual nature of the peasant economy. His dream is to return to a life that is not handicapped. His determination is to hand on the means of survival (if possible made more secure, compared to what he inherited) to his children. His ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see. After his death he will not be transported into the future – his notion of immortality is different: he will return to the past. [...] His dream is not the usual dream of paradise.  Paradise, as we now understand it, was surely the invention of a relatively leisured class.  In the peasant’s dream, work is still necessary.  Work is the condition for equality. [...]  The peasant ideal of equality recognizes a world of scarcity, and its promise is for mutual fraternal aid in struggling agaunst this scarcity and a just sharing of what the work produces.

The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal glance
on every side.

Once the animals flowed like their milk.

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.

- ‘They Are The Last’ by John Berger, from Why Look at Animals?

The poor schist and limestone soils of the causses have never been suitable for much else but grazing sheep (to produce, amongst other things, cheese – such as the famous Roquefort – from ewes’ milk or growing chestnuts – which explains why this is an unspoilt landscape, a rugged terrain of low population density, with cultivated land limited to the surroundings of the picturesque medieval villages.

It’s a land which the people of the region fight hard to protect.  When we first came here in the late 1970s there was a big campaign of resistance against the plan by the French government to massively extend the Larzac Military Camp which had served as a garrison and training centre since 1902. The expansion would have destroyed more than a hundred farms included within the new perimeter of the camp. Peasant farmers threatened with expropriation were joined by soixante huitards (‘sixty-eighters’) – assorted hippie idealists, leftist radicals and greens who had settled in the area in abandoned farms and in the dilapidated village of La Couvertoirade, trying to survive by living off the land, making things from wood or opening little boutiques and cafes.  A decade of campaigning finally achieved success in 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected as President and officially ended the expansion project.

Fracking protest in Nant

In the past two years a new ecological campaign has also achieved its goal: in spring 2010, the French government granted three licenses to search for shale gas in the region, employing the technique known as fracking.  Nant was the epicentre of this movement, led by the region’s Europe Écologie MEP Jose Bove, who first came to prominence in the campaign against the expansion of the military camp on the Larzac plateau in the seventies. As a result of that experience Bove became a sheep farmer, producing Roquefort cheese on the Larzac causse.

The event which gained Bové international attention was the trashing of a McDonalds that was under construction in Millau in 1999, a protest against American restrictions on the importation of Roquefort cheese and other products, which were harming peasants who gained their liveliehoods from these products. Bove also wanted to raise awareness about McDonald’s use of hormone-treated beef. Later, the European Union imposed restrictions on importing hormone-treated beef. However, the WTO (dominated by the USA) disallowed this restriction. After the EU refused to comply and remove the restrictions, the United States placed tariffs on the importation of certain European goods, including Roquefort cheese, as punishment.

The campaign against fracking was successful: in October 2011 Minister of the Environment confirmed that the licenses for Nant were revoked.

I can still recall our amazement, thirty-odd years ago, when the forbidding grey stone walls of La Couvertoirade rose up before us out of the desolate landscape of the Larzac causse.  The village was built in 1158 by the Knights Templar as a staging post for pilgrims travelling the old Roman road across the causse.  The walls and sentry towers were added in the 15th century by the Knights of Saint John.  In the late seventies the place had the air of an ancient ruin, with crmbling fortifications and derelict dwellings.

But new life was returning to the place: some buildings were being restored by artisans and hippies, some local but many from distant cities, seeking to tread the earth lightly and live sustainably off local resources.  By the time we returned with our daughter in the early nineties a huge amount of resoration had taken place: the cobbled streets were pristine, most buildings were spruced up and either inhabited or converted into cafes, restaurants or artisan shops.  You could walk around the entire village on the restored battlements.

On every door, it seemed, was nailed the iconic symbol of the Larzac: the Cardabelle.  Although its a member of the common thistle family, the Cardabelle is a protected species and cannot be cut.  So how, I wonder, do all these cardabelles get there?  Because it’s not just in La Couvertoirade that you see them: in towns and villages all across the region you encounter them nailed to front doors.  When we first visited La Couvertoirade cut specimens were on sale and we bought one that is still intact, nailed above our back door.

The Cardabelle is known on the causse as the ‘shepherd’s barometer’, because it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before bad weather. This is why they are nailed to doors – not for good luck, but predict the weather.  At one time, every household kept a Cardabelle for this reason. But the Cardabelle had other practical uses too: it’s possible to eat the heart of the thistle (the plant is related to the artichoke), and use the outer ‘sun’s rays’ portion of its thorny centre to card wool.

This plant, with its history as ancient as the doorways it decorates, is also related to the daisy and the dandelion.  Its botanical name is La Carline a feuilles d’acanthe.  The generic carlina is a variant of cardina, derived from chardon or thistle.  It flowers from July to September, in the field or nailed to a door it retains the persistent yellow of its centre.

The Cardabelle is a popular subject for local artists, inspiring paintings and sculptures, and every newsagents will have postcards with titles like Esprit d’une terre and Soleil des Causses, bearing photographs of it.  (In the 21st century these have been joined by ubiquitous postcards of the Millau bridge).

The 20th century Occitan writer Max Rouquette who wrote everything in Occitan, the ancient language of the area, dedicated a poem to the Cardabelle.  In Occitan it reads:

Cardebela, rosa verda,
roda de prima endentelada,
erba solelh a ras de sou nascuda
das amors de la peira e dau solelh…

Translated into French:

Cardabelle, rose verte
Et roué dentelee
Herbe soleil au ras du sol venue
Des amours de la terre et du soleil…

While the more prosaic English translation goes:

Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…

This reminds me that three decades ago, in a sign of the political disenchantment with Parisian government in this region, you would encounter freshly-painted slogans on walls in villages or along the road that proclaimed Oc! – support for the ancient language and culture of Occitania and for the Occitan Party that campaigns on local cultural and ecological issues and has elected councillors in a few townships.

The party’s members are active in struggles for the keeping of local jobs, against wholesale tourist commercialization, against the nuclear power industry, and for the preservation of Occitania’s natural environment. They also take part in the defence of the Occitan language and identity.

In the 1970s, our 2CV sported the famous ‘No to Nuclear’ sticker, and in France we’d see their equivalent ‘Non au Nucleaire’ badges.  On the causses, ocassionally we’d see the Occitan version (left).

The restoration work at La Couvertoirade continues: this time we noticed that an early seventeenth century windmill on a hill overlooking the village had been restored.  There is a sense of stepping back in time as you enter the village through the arched gateway overlooked by the towers of the ramparts, and then wander the cobbled streets with their little 17th century houses.  At the heart of the village stands the fortified 14th century church of St Christopher with its Templar graveyard.

We followed several paths through the causses during our short stay, always on the lookout for the elusive asphodels.  One warm, sunlit morning we walked out on the causses near the village of Campestre, before dropping down to Alzon for lunch. Skylarks sang above us, and every so often we heard the distant sound of a cuckoo.

The plateau here is particularly rich in megalithic monuments: there are dolmens, menhirs and several stone circles.  We came across these remains, in the scrub just off the path.

They turned out, on closer investigation, to be prehistoric burial chambers, probably from the later 5th millenium BC. They consisted of blocks of schist arranged in layers horizontally and gradually narrowing to create a roofed structure.  An antechamber led to a smaller funeral chamber. They reminded me of the neolithic structures built by the nuragic people that we saw a few years ago on Sardinia.

Campestre proved to be a hamlet, home to just 113 inhabitants, its church steeple visible for some distance across the causse.

Even a place as small as this has its own Mairie 0r town hall.  Here I found perhaps the two most important civic structures side by side.

A noticeboard give an idea of local excitements, including a wild-looking local cumbia outfit operating under the soubriquet Tortilla Flat.

In the centre of the hamlet, the inevitable memorial to the lost sons and fathers of the First World War.  Twenty-two souls lost from such a tiny place, amongst the peasant farmers the Marquess du Luc.

Alzon

The village of Alzon is beautifully situated in a deep bowl surrounded by the high plateaux and revines of the causses.  There we found only one restaurant, and we were its only patrons.  But the attentive owner quickly rustled up a wonderful spread of steak and frites, and for me, the vegetarian, a superb omelette.

During the descent to Alzon a stunning view opens up of the Valcroze viaduct which once carried a railway that ran across the causse du Larzac, linking Millau with Le Vigan  to the east of Alzon.  This must have been a beautiful line to ride, but it survived for only 59 years.

The line was commissioned in 1896 and, after 11 years of gigantic works that included 37 tunnels, 14 viaducts and countless bridges all built of stone, it opened in 1907. Despite an upturn in traffic between the two wars, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1939. Until 1952, it remained open for freight traffic , and the rails were finally removed in 1955.  But, surprisingly, it’s not been converted into a long-distance footpath: which seems a shame, since it would provide a superb path through exceptional countryside.

For our last walk on the causses, we spread out the map and randomly pinpointed a walk along a stretch of Grand Randonnier 71D starting from the village of Cazejourdes.  There, in the middle of nowhere, we encountered the roaring noise of this fearsome monster: out of all the hundreds of square miles we had managed to find the place where the track was being gouged out in order to lay a pipeline.

Fortunately, we were soon able to leave the noise and dust behind, the peace of the causses restored.  It was here, among many other varieties of wild flowers that I found patches of last summer’s cardabelles, some with their bright yellow hearts still ablaze.

Take it with you!
The smallest green thing that has happened to you
can save your life some day
in the winter land

Just a blade of grass,
a single faded little blade
from last summer
frozen fast in the snowdrift,
can stop the avalanche’s
thousand deadly tons
from plunging down.

- ‘Memories’ by Hans Borli

This landscape is harsh, stony and dry yet still supports a rich diversity of plants and animals. Our friends are accomplished bird-watchers and they took enormous pleasure in drawing attention to the variety of birds here – the griffon vultures and eagles, and many more besides whose names I have now forgotten. The songs of skylarks and nightingales was our accompaniment everywhere on the causse.

Just as rich is the array of wild flowers to be seen, especially in the months of May and June, when the thin soils of the limestone grasslands come into bloom and display large numbers of Pasque flowers, rockroses, lilies and orchids. Though the thin turf barely covers the stony causse, wild flowers thrive in unbelievable profusion.  Sometimes, specific plants seemed to be concentrated in particular small areas: one part perhaps displaying masses of blue-purple Pasque Flowers, another with dwarf daffodils and irises, while a third might be awash with purple orchids.  And as far as the horizon, shrubby masses of wild box.

So here is a bouquet of flowers of the causses.  Some of them named, others that I hope to have identified soon.

Brilliant patches of the miniature Wild Tulip (Tulipa australis), possibly imported into France from Asia Minor or the Caucasus by the Romans.

Velvety, anenome-like Pulsatilla that bloom early in spring, giving rise to their common name of Pasque flower, referring to Easter.

We didn’t see many varieties of orchid: the blue and reddish specimens below we saw many times, yet this region is renowned for its  variety and abundance of orchids. A local photographer had presented the hotel where we stayed with an album of orchid photos in astonishing numbers.

Orchis mascula, Early purple orchid

We found many patches of these tiny daffodils and dwarf iris,  Iris danfordiae, (both purple and yellow varieties).

Star of Bethlehem

Helianthemum apenninum, White Rock Rose

Aphyllanthes monpeliensis

Saponaria ocymoides or Rock Soapwort

We finally found the asphodels when walking through the causses near Blandas.  We had come, first to one of the area’s most awe-inspiring sites: the Cirque de Navacelles.

Here the Vis river has carved a deep ravine through the plateau and, in its meanderings, has created huge cliffs and caves.  The plateau is nearly 1000m above sea level and some of the cliffs are more than 300m high. We  walked through the flat, shrubby, stone-littered landscape of the plateau until suddenly we were standing at the edge of a precipitous gorge looking down at the Cirque which contains the little hamlet of Navacelles.  A noticeboard explains that, millenia ago, the river, ‘serpenting with nonchalence’  through the limestone plateau, formed an oxbow lake. The river later resumed its original course and the lake dried up, leaving this curious, horseshoe shaped bowl.

It was shortly after that we spotted our first asphodels by the side of the road.  We stopped the car and walked away from the road.  Soon we were walking through a meadow of asphodels that stretched as far as our eyes could see.  We had arrived a little too late: the flowers were past their best, just beginning to fade and brown.  A week or so earlier we would have been looking at a carpet of white.

The White Asphodel, Asphodelus albus, is a flower of ancient myth.  The Asphodel Meadows constituted the section of the Greek underworld where the souls of ordinary people who lived lives neither wholly good nor wholly evil rested after death (as opposed to the Elysian Fields, reserved for the Gods, the righteous and the heroic, and Tartarus, the abyss of torment and suffering where the evil suffered eternal punishment and damnation.

Homer is cited as the source for the poetic tradition of describing the meadows of Hades as being covered in asphodel. One translation of a passage from The Odyssey, Book XI reads, ‘the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of asphodel’.

The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website explains in more detail:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the Fields of Elysium, a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
- ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry

2 thoughts on “In search of the asphodel

  1. Thank you, Karis, for your generous comment. I write these things for my own satisfaction, but its doubly pleasing that others find them worth reading.

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