Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Real Work

This is the season of bruyere and sunshine that drips like honey over LaRhune, the mountain's deep scars covered by green fougere ferns. The hum of the honeybee and the gurgle of the stream replace the angry roar of the vent du sud. This is the easy season where birds feast on wild cherries, tadpoles grow legs and sing in the evening.  Even humans relax and smile; the old Basques wave as they pass my bergerie on tractors.

And yet I am disquiet.  Child of trauma, I am most alive in trauma: fires to be extinguished, floodwaters rising, the call to arms. One reason I came to the mountain was to learn to sit in quiet. I am still learning.

In the shade of my red oak, I try to develop chapter 8 of my new novel in a spiral notebook. The work is painful, written in my own blood.  It is slow going, the only enemies to battle my own memories.

Of course summer in southwestern France is not without some drama: swarming honey bees in the living room, a pottok trapped on her back by the tuya, some doctor from Bordeaux racing up the mountain in a four-by-four rescued by the pompiers. And even when life is calm, conflicts are possible for those with imagination.

I leave the notebook in the shade to attack the fougere. The tall eagle ferns cover the slope around my house, so thick and strong in summer that pottoks can hide in them. Each summer I beat the ferns back with a debrossailleuse to let the wildflowers grow.

It is a fun diversion from the pain of writing. As I whack down fougere, I pretend I am battling enemies. They are nameless now; the long revenge list I brought with me to the mountain two decades ago has been leached out of me by LaRhune's patient tutorage. I leave them to karma now: the treacherous family of origin (a little more than kin but less than kind); the demanding lovers; the unscrupulous colleagues. Instead, my weed-whacker takes out less personal enemies: drivers who target hedgehogs on Basque Country backroads; the idiots who butchered a magnificent platane tree near town after a drunken buddy plowed into it on his motorcycle; the hiker who removed the little crutch I had fashioned for an unsteady tree to use as a staff. Walking away from these are part of an advanced course I have only just begun.

As if to remind me "be here now," fate sends me whacking near a wasp's nest and I end up rolling down the slope to escape their fury. As I walk back toward the house past my tadpole pond, I see a large dried bug halfway up a wooden post. A similar bug stands triumphantly on the first one's back like a conquering hero. I feel sad for the vanquished before I understand: it is no bug. It is the larva of a dragonfly that developed in the pond and, that July morning, crawled up the post to split open its own body and step out, moving on to complete its destiny. Did it hurt, I wonder, to rip itself apart, to step out of its past leaving an old self behind?  Always, comes the answer: it always hurts to grow.

My notebook still lies beneath the red oak.  I sit back down, pick up my pen and begin the real work.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

All Survivors

Green leaves and growing things surround the little house, cascade across LaRhune, soft leaves filling in the oaks, eagle ferns covering the bare bones of the mountain. So much to love in summertime, life bursts out of every crevice. I try to be impartial, but I have my favorites.

Many admire the vast and elegant gardens of writer Edmond Rostand, preserved in the Villa Arnaga in Cambo-les-Bains, not far from here.  And the magnificent hanging baskets in Saint Jean de Luz, the public gardens in San Sebastian overflowing with glorious color.  But I give my heart to the wounded, the unlikely, the persistent, the survivors.

I sit beneath the spreading branches of the red oak in a favorite spot behind the house I call Angel's Rest, looking out and down across the land to LaRhune. Young cherry trees have invaded the area, new this year but at least a foot tall already.  Where did they come from?  I finally remember sitting in Angel's Rest last summer, eating a basketful of cold cherries with my daughter, sending the pits flying  from between thumb and forefinger as far as we could.  Unlikely, impossible, unheard of, but dozens of them rooted and grew into a small, brave forest of rounded, yellow-flushed leaves. I love them best.

But not only the cherries.  I also love the pine trees that shot up from where I dumped the pine-cone wreaths we made for the holidays; the little oak I uncovered when I cut back a thicket of blackberry vines, bent to the ground, never to rise again they told me, yet today straight and strong and taller than the house. I rejoice in the forsythia trunk someone gave me for a tomato stake, that, once pounded into the ground, grew roots and leaves and flowers; the chestnut tree growing from a nut that must have slipped into the middle of the dry stone wall; the 200-year-old oak tree above the house, its trunk rotted so much I can crawl inside but it branches as full of leaves this year as ever; the tadpoles born in a temporary pond made when rainwater filled my tire treads, they needed rescue as the water evaporated; the squirrel missing an eye that eats from my bird-feeder in the rain, her tail looped up to shelter her head like an umbrella.

These are hard days on mother earth. Yes, the chestnut tree will one day bring down my wall, the oak may fall and take out the hillside, the squirrel will never make it though the winter.  But does it matter?  They have seized the day, they sing in the sunshine.  Hurt, unwanted, untended, forgotten, they have grown in splendor and I love them best. Survivors.  We are all survivors.

Friday, April 26, 2013


I sit looking over the valley as willow fluff drifts like snow through the late afternoon sunshine.  It won't be long now before the view is blocked by my leafing trees, planted for summer protection. But this afternoon I still see the little village of Sare below, then the long valley over to the Pacific Ocean.  My bergerie faces east to greet the sunrise; it is the tradition.  All bergeries in Basque country face the rising sun, their windowless backs toward the westwind.

Summer is coming with all of her dangerous beauty. Already the noisettiers have provided the brilliant yellow cone-flowers that garden articles call insignificant. Already the saules have offered pussy willows that have seeded, the merles (blackbirds) have returned with their intricate morning song, the cuckoo's cry echoes across the valley.

When I first moved to LaRhune, the villagers never ceased to ask me if I wasn't afraid, so high up, so isolated, so alone with only an aged pit bull and a toddler daughter, if I didn't quake to the lightening that splits open the night sky, the west wind rushing at 100 kilometers an hour through the old oaks near the house, of the wild boars and foxes, and of thieves in the night. I wasn't then, nor am I now.  My view remains that any thief who stomps up the mountain to try to carry down a boxload of my precious poetry books deserves them more than I do.  And the rest -- the wind and weather and flora and fauna -- they are part of the package of life on the mountain.

Yet summer holds its dangers.  After fifteen years of living on LaRhune, I know dangers exist and most of them appear in the summer.  The first to show this year were the guepes. I am not someone who fears guepes, wasps who leave you alone if you leave them alone. And I've been stung by multiple guepes twice and lived to tell the tale, once when I was in a rush to catch a plane and jumped into the 4x4 on a very hot day without looking and sat on several guepes warming themselves on the seat; another time I hit a ground nest with my weed whacker and ended up rolling down the steep incline to keep from being stung any more than the 17 hits I took. It hurt but not terribly. The pain went away in 24 hours, unlike human-inflicted pain that can last a lifetime.

But alas the guepes have taken up permanent residence under the overlapping stones that make up my roof.  So there are not hundreds but thousands of guepes with a proprietary right to the area.  So far, no stings, but it is just a matter of time.  Frelons are another thing -- yellow jackets two inches long, each sting the equivalent of 20 guepe stings.  They tend to nest in birdhouses I set up; I was forced to burn one very near the house last summer despite my terror of getting stung and my horror at killing anything.  One frelon sting in the neck and its all over; not even a helicopter can get you to the clinic quick enough.

Snakes live on the mountain too.  In fact, one big couleuvre lives in the outer wall of my house, not far from my bedrooom window.  As is so often the case in life, the big, scary snakes are harmless or almost; the little pencils of snakes are mortally dangerous vipers.  You just try to avoid them like malicious people. You never turn over rocks, never put your hand in a hole, wear boots to hike in weeds or forestland. The first time I saw the couleuvre glide along the outside of the house and disappear into a crack between stones in the wall, I considered blocking up the hole like the Basques urged me to do.  But I read somewhere that, in China, a snake living near you is a spirit protecting you.  Maybe that's why I've never once had anything dreadful happen to me on the mountain.

My one encounter with a viper was a few years back.  Out the south side of the house, birds started making a ruckus.  On that side of the house the mountain slants up very sharply and ground-nesting birds raise their babies there since it is too steep for most predators to climb.  My daughter and I hurried out and saw the two robins diving at a tree limb that was hanging down over the cliff.  A viper had climbed the tree trunk and was descending on a branch toward the cliff.  Just under the branch was the robins' nest with three young goslings fluttering tiny, useless wings. I watched spellbound as the snake moved its slow, steady way down the branch toward the nest and the adult birds took up suicide positions on the ground between the branch and their nest.  I finally came to my senses, ran for a garden saw and a bucket, sawed off the branch so that branch and snake fell into the bucket, covered it quickly with a board and moved the snake to the other side of the mountain.  Interference with nature?  Probably.  But something about watching birds prepare to give their lives for their young fills me with molten lava.  It always has.

The worst danger, of course, comes from tourists who hike the nearby contraband trail, following it up to the summit of LaRhune.  They talk too loud, try to approach the baby pottoks, and leave a wake of detritus behind them.  I fenced in my acres some years back to keep the pottoks from eating my baby trees. Now the fencing keeps uninvited visitors off my land and the trees protect us all -- snakes, guepes, songbirds and me -- from prying eyes. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Spring in Sare: the song of the merle in the early morning, newts doing their mating dance in the little pond, the pussy-willow-snow flying across the mountain, and new baby pottoks, small and shy, always trying to keep their big mother between their tiny bodies and my camera.

I hike up La Rhune in the late morning when my first set of writing work is done.  It is by far the most delightful time, no tourists yet, just the occasional old Basque with stories to tell, the vultures with their enormous wings whistling as they pass, the occasional sheep and the pottoks. 

When I first moved to Sare, farmers from the community would carry their dead animals up the mountain for the vultures to eat.  Well-meaning national health officials stopped the practice a few years ago.  Now the vultures are always hungry, always searching.  Last year we came upon vultures eating the hooves of a new born pottok baby, it's mother running madly in circles, whinnying.  We saved the foal; fortunately only the nail part had been eaten, carried it back to the house with its mother following and kept it there until it was strong on its legs once again.

This year the babies are late. This is lucky since out weather has acting out -- a beautiful January, pouring rain in February, glorious in the first half of March and snow in the last half.  April 10 is a good day for a baby pottok on the mountain.

Pottoks are a race of small Basque horses with large bellies and their ranks dwindled to the almost extinct a decade ago. From the side, they look like primitive drawings on cave walls. They run wild, fending for themselves most of the year, in heat and in snow, in driving rain, but village farmers  vaccinate them and do what they can to keep them alive, since you must show a live pottok every year in order to collect the government subsidy. All of the herds on the mountain are females.  Males get introduced once a year, left for two weeks, then retired. The government is trying to stop inbreeding, which is why all colts are removed or neutered.

I went back today to try to find the babies I saw yesterday but their mothers had already hidden them somewhere in the forest.  I was lucky to see them yesterday.  It turned the whole week magic.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Universal Health Care

These cold winter days, I load my Vermont Castings stove with dry oak at night, and the fire is almost always still alive in the morning. I open the top, use the little broom to sweep down the ashes. Beneath the spent fuel, a glowing coal, the heart of the fire. It all starts from there.

Today I took my daughter to the doctor because she had a cough. It is one of the reasons I live in France; universal health care is different than anything an American can imagine. After over a decade here, it still amazes me sometimes: My child is coughing so I take her to the doctor, just a few minutes away in the little village. I never wait to see if she gets better; I never consider the time of day or the expense. There is always a doctor "en guarde," a pharmacy open all night, an emergency room in the Clinique de Saint Jean de Luz where there is no wait, where the nurses smile and bring you a cup of coffee, where you are seen almost immediately.

One Sunday I picked up a broken metal lamp and got an electric shock that cut off the 220 volt electricity to the house. I called the doctor on guard to see if I should be worried, although I felt okay. He said I had to come in to get my heart tested, but that I couldn't drive. They sent an ambulance for me, taking my daughter and dog to the hospital as well. They had me hooked up for the electrocardiogram ten minutes after I arrived, and they kept me four hours under observation. Then they drove us home to Sare, a half hour away.

This is a different way of looking at the world, the general understanding that medical care is a right, not a luxury. It is more wonderful than springtime. One feels safe and cared about. It is impossible to hope for in America, wealthy county that it is, because Americans have never experienced it and so cannot imagine it. Once having known universal health care, it is difficult to imagine life without it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Winter is the best time to see the bones of the mountain. Even in early spring, the spiky tuya is covered with lemon yellow flowers, the willows blosson, and green things start to grow. By mid-spring, the omnipresent eagle ferns called fougere uncurl their lacy heads, soon to mount higher than my 5'6" frame. Eventually the native trees--oak and beech and birch--move toward leaf and resculpt the face of LaRhune. But in winter each peak stands stark against the sky, each rise is visible, each gulch, each pottok path. The beautiful slabs of rock are visible too, as as the scars left by men who mined them from the heart of the mountain.

My house is made from stones from LaRhune. It is an old bergerie (from the term berger, French for shephard. Its walls were built dry, just stone on stone, over a century ago. LaRhune is dotted with bergeries--rough stone buildings used to house sheep. Only a few were renovated before it became illegal. Many have stone slab roofs, like mine. The three foot thick walls are warm in winter and cool in summer.

Each house in Basque Country, including bergeries, have names. Mine is Etcheverrygaraykoborda, a long name for a little house. For years, no street numbers identified house locations; everyone knew the houses by their names. I still don't have a street address; my house is called by its name, a name everyone in town recognizes. I myself am not so lucky; after twelve years of living here, I am still referred to by almost everybody in Sare as L'Americaine, the only American in the area.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


The only way to find good weather in the Pays Basque is to live here. Some years Januaries are so warm we regularly eat at the picnic table outside my the little stone cottage. This year, that is not the case. Snow arrived for Christmas, stepping lightly on the very peak of LaRhune, then creeping closer each day. Last weekend the road was closed, a couple feet deep in snow. I don't mind. I have enough wood to keep warm, enough coffee for a fortnight, and my novel in progress demanding attention.

LaRhune sits on the border between Spain and France, my bergerie is on its French flanks. A fifteen minute walk up takes me into Spain via the contraband route. The hike to the top is sometimes forty minutes, sometimes a couple of hours, always magnificent. Pottoks roam the hillside, round-bellied basque ponies left to fend for themselves on the mountain. They grudgingly share the path mornings, when I run.

I have lived here, overlooking the little Basque village of Sare, for over a decade. I have changed over the years, but it has not. LaRhune remains mysterious and engaging, dangerous, compelling. I am happy to share its snow and its destiny.