Friday, December 12, 2008

A Visit with Badger

I walked this morning.

I do it less often than I care to admit. On the occasional winter morning, however, when feeling distracted or restless, I put on the silly hat that I can only wear because wild boar can’t laugh, grab my favorite walking stick à la Bilbo Baggins, and head into the woods.

The sheep were quiet this morning and the frost was just leaving the fields as I passed the neighboring farm. The mist seemed to block out almost all sound other than my own footsteps and the occasional rooster, and by the time I had wound down the little dirt path and reached the valley floor I felt myself in another world. The path then joins a larger track – this one just wide enough for Gerard the baker to ride his quad bike on the disturbingly rare days he leaves the bakery – and I turned left. The woods here are young, mostly hornbeam with a scattering of obligingly gnarled oaks, and visible among the now leafless trees wind rows and rows of crumbling stone. This is all that’s left of the retaining walls that would a century ago have supported the terraced plots of a thriving vineyard.

Especially in winter it’s hard not to detour now and then to explore among the old walls looking for abandoned farm equipment or hidden cave entrances. Today I found a badger set. No sign of the badger of course – he was I’m sure staunchly holed up deep in his cave, protected on all sides by cold gray stone and packed earth, wondering what strange smelling creature was lurking at the gates of his little underground kingdom. So I left him in peace and continued on my way, past the overgrown ruins of an old stone barn, skirting the edge of a young walnut grove, until the path forks. Here I examined for perhaps the tenth time a large battered stone which I am convinced is a flint core from which prehistoric men chipped the raw material for their arrow heads and scrapers (bear with me, it’s just plausible enough…).

The flint core tells me it’s time to stop. I’ve gone farther, many times, through the little hamlet I know lies ahead and beyond. I am probably no more than a mile from home as the crow flies. But here my comfort zone ends, and today I’m not up for an adventure among foreigners. They are border people – not far beyond them lies the frontier with the Dordogne. I just can’t face it.

The funny thing is that I’m only half-joking. One of the corollaries to living in such a slow and remote place is that your sense of local begins to contract. It’s not really so much a question of physical distance – in the countryside you inevitably are obliged to drive farther afield for shops and services than you would living in a city or suburb. But the psychological and cultural territory seems still to correspond to the old feudal boundaries. Like the skeletons of the old vineyards and the leftover stone-age tools, the ghosts of small scale feudalism still leave their mark on the human landscape.

Our part of the Quercy occupies the northwestern corner of the Lot, and borders on two other provinces, the Lot-et-Garonne and the Dordogne. These new administrative borders, arbitrary though they may look on a map, have huge local significance. Our tourist information office, for example, carries almost no information about sites a mere 20 minute drive away, simply because they are on the wrong side of the border. Collecting information for our holiday cottages we must go to three different offices to get pamphlets on all the nearby happenings during the summer tourist season.

But it’s more than bureaucracy. The local economies are different. People smile less over there. And then there’s the driving - people from the Lot-et-Garonne are terrible, aggressive drivers, at least by our standards over here in the Lot. The last two numbers on French licence plates reveal which district the car is registered in, and we have learned from experience that when you see car with that tell-tale 47 plate, you’d better give them a wide berth.

Even the smaller scale feudal territories present some startling contrasts. Take language. They all speak French, right? Behn oui, any of the old timers here will tell you, but they don’t speak the same French in Cassagnes as they do in Montcabrier. Cassagnes is a small village of about 200 souls, a little over an hour’s walk away. Each of these tiny villages have their own dialect, their own character. And don’t talk to a hunter from Montcabrier about the Cassagnes hunting association. Savages, every last man of them.

It’s a contagious frame of mind, and even foreigners (I mean real foreigners, not just the ones from other villages) who have moved here find themselves acquiring both the folk-wisdom and folk-folly of their adoptive village. It is at times surreal to listen to English and Dutch people talking about the micro-climate in Frayssinet-le-Gelat just up the road (it’s too cold for wisteria to grow there, our English neighbor assured us) or the big-village airs put on by the shop girls in Prayssac. I get it most when I’m walking. On foot, every familiar tree stump or pile of rocks is a reaffirmation of belonging, and every unexplored path both an opportunity for adventure and a potential for hidden menace. As much as I enjoy exploring an unfamiliar patch of woods, I find more and more in myself a sense of fellow-feeling with that badger, snugly tucked away in his hole and reluctant to stray very far.

But times change, and younger generation, with their mobile phones and Internet access, are starting to leave some of this feudal attitude behind. Now that several villages must combine to share a school in order to have enough pupils, village cultures are beginning to blend in a sort of micro-globalization. Our own son’s two best friends are from Cassagnes. One of them is the girl he says he want to marry some day.

We’re trying to keep an open mind.

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