No.16~St. Colomban~Sept. 26, 2020

A good-bye to Brittany — revealing secrets about snail mail and pondering the future of man.

My next post will be from Paris. After watching our neighbors close their shutters and head out, we’ll be doing the same in a few days.  

Some of the other houses will open back up for Tous Saints, All Saints Day, an important holiday for the French, or for Christmas or New Year’s Eve. For us, when we stand at the windows and the darkness jumps in just before we lock the shutters tight, the leaving will be more definitive. We hope to be back next year. With new case counts for the virus rising in both the U.S. and France, we can’t be sure.  

We still have a few days to sit under our bonsai-like shade tree, and Isabelle tells me I should appreciate these moments because we do not have many left. After closing up here we will be traveling from one masked city to another — from Paris, where we’ll have to wear a mask as soon as we step out the door, to Somerville, Mass., where there is the same protocol. There will be no more cozy corner, just outside the door, framed by granite walls and under cover of the only tree we have — a tree that was not meant to be a tree at all, but a hedge. 

It had been neglected, and, realizing it wanted to be a tree, we’ve pruned it over the years to be the shape of a parasol. We have added shape, but the tree was already a shape-shifter. It persistently keeps its green leaves, all the while shedding yellow ones, especially in June and July when we have to rake often. It’s called an arbousier à fraises, a strawberry tree. This is the first time we’ve been here late enough in September to see the “strawberries” come to full ripeness. Impossibly red, they hang like small cherries, but look like round, bumpy strawberries. They are edible, the taste falling somewhere between peach and apricot.

We rarely see another tree like it. It’s one of the things I’ll miss. 

I’ll miss our walks along the coastal trails, too, where we’ve seen the hard work of raising oysters — the heaving and cleaning and timing of the work to the tides. I’ll miss our walks along inland trails, through the countryside locals call la terre (the land), to mean anywhere away from the coast. I’ll miss the comfort of walking down trails walled in mossy stone and tunneled by hedgerows hanging with lichen, under the scraggly live oaks. 

Walking yields the fruits of chance encounters. At a farm where we have seen brown goats grazing in the field next to the barn, we stop to greet a family — there are three generations — as they paw through a patch of earth next to the road. They’re harvesting potatoes. The mother of the young children stands up, hands brown with her work. 

“We’re late,” she says through a smile. “We’ve been storing them in la terre.”

There’s that word again. There is the sea, there is the land — and there is also the beekeeper. 

One of our inland walks takes us past a house we have never seen occupied, so we were surprised one day to find someone on the property, standing at the short stone wall between the house and the trail. The house was nevertheless shuttered, and the person was enveloped in white, including head gear with a face screen. 

“It looks like a Martian,” I whispered to Isabelle, and as we got closer, we realized the person in white was occupied with a small, white plastic bucket sitting on the wall. We stopped and Isabelle shared my comment with the creature: we could barely make out that it was a man wearing glasses smiling through the screen. He explained that he was collecting honey from beehives he has on the property, but that the owners are German. They would be arriving soon. 

He closed the bucket and took off his head gear. It’s unfortunate to say we were surprised to discover a Black man. The department of Morbihan, in spite of its beauty, is not diverse. We made gentle note of this. Without missing a beat, he said, “I’m Jamaican, French and Breton.”

A Black man in a white suit in a mostly white corner of France, and he feels included. It was a relief to hear it. 

He has a remarkable idea about how his bees make their honey. He said the surrounding oak trees are afflicted with aphids. In a natural effort to reduce, reuse and recycle, the aphids eat the oak leaves and the bees find what the aphids leave behind — to say it nicely — sweet enough to make honey. 

I held off asking what his honey tastes like. As we walked away, I told Isabelle that my advice would be not to put that information on his honey jars. 

The year 2020 has not been a good year for public health, but here in southern Brittany, it has been a good year for snails. When we arrived in mid-May, Isabelle’s first reaction was to grab the watering can. The plants that line the stone walls around our diminutive yard were thirsty. She tipped the full can to start watering but nothing came out. A few trials and errors later, it became clear that the can was crowded with snails, especially in the spout. 

Perhaps there is mold growing in the can, but we still find ourselves wondering what on earth snails are eating. I raised this point as we walked behind a seaside oyster shop, where a small, lone snail seemed quite content with its spot in the middle of a white wall. The wall looked like it had been freshly painted. What could be good to eat there?

I guess, to a snail, it doesn’t matter. A neighbor opened her letter box this summer to find a snail eating her mail. 

When we’re back in Paris, and then in the U.S., I doubt I’ll miss the snails, or thinking about the bees and the aphids, but I will miss swimming. I already do, because the new moon, the equinox, and the king tides have all ganged up on the summery weather we had during the first two weeks of September, and turned it into early winter. I’ll miss walking down the trail to the beach in my rope-soled espadrilles, feeling the earth close beneath my feet, and I’ll miss floating on my back, making windmills with my arms, focused, meditative, loving the moment, hoping the sea doesn’t love me back and take me all for herself. 

I’ll miss, too, the mysterious stones — les Alignements — that have made Carnac famous for tourists and scholars. There are acres of them, in sizes from small to huge, all lined up, row after row, as if they want to march to some distant shore, as if they are trying to tell us something. They probably never will. The people who set these megaliths upright must have had a language, but they left no trace of it. There are only symbols, untranslatable, carved in stones. 

These ancient residents of Carnac lived in the Neolithic Age of northern Europe. They took up moving giant stones over 6,000 years ago, and they are named, from the Greek word “lithos,” for what they did with stone. This is mostly what’s left of their technology — sharpened stones, standing stones — stones for many uses. Today, marching through the Anthropocene, we do have our languages, but our descendants, instead of puzzling over the meaning and use of stones, will be burdened with pavement, plastic and heat. 

The virus, the wildfires, the storms, the floods are lifting the fog of denial from our eponymous age. There will be no honey made from what we are leaving behind. 
Photos: Boys look like they’re searching for treasure in the sunset at 8:00pm on Sept. 17, St. Colomban Beach; Les Alignements du Ménec, Carnac, in an early morning fog. JK photos. 
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