The farmers hereabouts have begun in earnest in the past three or four days to denude their fields of the summer’s crop of wheat and hay. If I were, in my usual presumptuous way, to assume it was about me I could almost guess they are working their butts off, as they do year round, to rub it in as I spend my last two days in my beloved Haut Var.
Driving through the countryside borrowing the fresh eyes of first-time guests, one might suppose, as they do, that what they mainly grow is grapes. So multitudinous and wide-spread are the vineyards, and so alien to the vision of U.S. Northeasterners, all these domaines do give the impression this is the chief, perhaps the only, crop. Equally alien to us Yankees, of course, are acre after acre of wheat, the deep tawny shade of a mature crop. It’s a color of great depth and richness, somewhere in a highly selective spectrum of mine, between amber and yellow ochre and gamboge. Of course, this being Provence, the color changes with the light, and the time of day, and sometimes moment to moment. And if the wind is blowing, forget it.
One does not notice the variety and the plenitude, or the vast expanse of acreage—even in a part of the country which is one of the most heavily wooded in all of France—except from a distance. The height of the hill on which our village sits just happens to be precisely right for a vantage suited either for studious contemplation, or pure esthetic indulgence. And of course, work looks best from a distance, the monstrous machines reduced to Dinky Toy proportions as they move inexorably from one end of each meadow to the next, boustrophedon, “as the ox goes” is the way the Greeks put it (a huge animal pulling a plow is most efficient turning once at the end of each parallel row); it’s a term applied to a manner of writing, which Leonardo, among others, used—be glad I don’t. There may be majesty in purple mountains, but it is nothing to the majesty of noble labor in golden fields of grain.
The machines are gigantic. One is sensible of their potency only by close observation—and there is no greater testimony to their inexorable, if not terrible, power, than to see, as I did, the operator of one these beasts, clamoring over a combine-harvester with his sinuous arms, one of them missing a part of itself ending four inches below the elbow. And instantly I can imagine that one singular gruesome harvest, a life lesson, but a man must work, and work he obviously continues to do.
In most instances, the machines travel from field to field, or farm to farm. As long as I’ve been sojourning here, I am still not clear on the division of land. In fact, I do know that often a single owner has tracts all over the place, each planted differently very often, depending on the yield of a particular parcel, or the market demand year to year. The machines are so big and so expensive there are few of them, and it’s my guess they are used cooperatively, or they are leased cooperatively, or they contract with the operator to take care of all the wheat in a commune (French for incorporated town or village). The first machine to appear is a combine-harvester, as I mentioned, which reaps and threshes in one operation, separating the grains and collecting them, and then leaving the stalks and chaff in long parallel rows along the length of the field. Next comes the baler. In these parts, and at least this year and last, they have been using rectangular balers which leave neat little right-angle parallelopipeds, box-shaped bales—to differentiate them from the rolling balers which leave huge cylinders neatly spaced in rows for the farmer to pick up with his tractor and trailer.
Haying season, which begins about the middle of July and ends with the month, means the roads are at some point, as you travel from village to village, temporarily impassable. Farm equipment by law cannot exceed a speed limit of 25kph (about 15 miles an hour) even on open stretches of highway. But the farmers are the dearest, kindest men (I have yet to see a woman operating this equipment, or driving on the open road; doesn’t mean they don’t, I simply have never seen them) and get out of the way with the first opportunity. They work, and they live for that matter, at a certain pace. And one cannot help get the notion that that pace is somehow in tune with a resonant sense of the pace of living things themselves.
All action is measured. Great amounts of work get done seemingly effortlessly. One leaves in the morning for marché. Does frenzied shopping. Leisurely sits and quaffs coffee and some viennoiserie. On the road to the market town, one sees a field of wheat. On the return trip home, the stalks have been hewn in mounded rows. On the next trip to town, perhaps the very next day, for a dinner reservation at that restaurant one wanted to try, the mounds have been replaced by neat bales. And two days later, the bales are gone. In a week, another machine has been brought in. A harrower. And the field is clogged with great clumps of the marvelous terra rossa, the red earth of this region. Often one has not seen one bit of machinery, nor a single human, as if the labor were done by unseen hands stretching down from the firmament.
In the 22 years of my visits, all too short, however long, this has been the enduring cycle of the days. It happens again in late spring, when the winter wheat, which first sprouts, in late November, an unexpected bright green of shoots quickening the frosty air of December, not very long after the grape harvest. The latter is performed by another genus of huge machinery, tall as a three-story house, and which rumbles snail-paced athwart the neat rows of vines, which have been dressed and bound, row on row, from the start in anticipation of the orientation of the maw of the mechanical picker. The more valuable vintage grapes are picked by hand, but these precious crops are truly unseen, as they lie in vineyards past woods and dales, sometimes several kilometers from the open road, hence out of sight.
Once the winter wheat is planted, and has safely begun to sprout, it’s time for the harvest of the other great fruit of this region. The noble drupe known as the olive. Again, there are mechanical pickers (actually shakers, which, with a quaking motion, force the mature fruit off the trees and into nets spread on the ground at the base of the gnarled trunks). Smaller orchards use the same techniques, but manually.
The other drupes which grow upon this fecund land, the plum, the almond, and the luscious cherry each have their own season. Watches and clocks be damned. Every village has a clanging bell to toll the hour, every hour, all through the day and night. Farmers, as I have pointed out, work to some deeper, slower temporal measure. There’s a rhythm to it. A pace.
And the effect on their lives, and on the daily life of those who devote themselves to this labor is evident even to a dilettante like me. Never mind to the extraordinary common people who inhabit the towns and villages, the hamlets, and assemblages of stone cabins so few in their aggregation that there is no name for it. Dirt roads off the paved thoroughfares that join the market towns go on for great distances, seemingly to nowhere, when they suddenly debouch upon a homestead, and then another, and another, in a small clutch of houses that must surely be the smallest indivisible unit of what can only reasonably be called civilization. And that sense of the pace and rhythm of life is evident even here.
It humbles me. It should humble any man, or woman, who comes here from there, that anywhere whence each of us arrives, usually a city, or some bustling place, filled with the hurly burly, with the Jamesian blooming, buzzing confusion of the so-called civilized world. But I am humbled further, as I consider my reasons for coming here from time to time.
I have described the work of this place, the quotidian activity that defines it, and has defined it for I would guess a millennium. I presume to call what I do, or wish to do, or hope to do work, and I end up, more recently than not, even with my age, and the accumulated experience that comes now with the package that is myself, feeling confused, not clarified. Filled with diffidence, not its opposite. Out of tune, not harmonious or resonant.
This place more than any other—for me, as I can speak for no one else—hums with the eternal, most evident in the quietest moments, when the cicadas are mute, the birds are silent, the woodland creatures have bedded down so even the rustling in the undergrowth has stopped, and the wind has ceased. And in the stillness, the black mantle of night radiant with the unstinting unblinking points of a billion stars, I am overcome with a sense of my own uselessness.