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Travel

Minding the Small

Hike up

Even in the heart of winter, weeds push between medieval stones in Lacoste, France. I make my way up the steep hill. My purpose differs from the tourists hiking to the ruins of Marquis de Sade’s old château, where the path leads. My interests instead bounce from one rain-sodden plant to the next, many of them bearing wildflowers.

I practice the close-looking local farmer Georges Adrian and artist Crystal Woodward described when I met them in the village. They live in the valley between Lacoste and Bonnieux and are as natural as the colors of winter. Adrian spoke in rapid French, then turned to his friend Bruno Pitot while Woodward translated to me English. Before he officially retired, Adrian grew asparagus, cherries, grapes for eating, grapes for wine, and olives. His garden has saint Pierre tomatoes, green peppers, hot peppers, zucchini, and eggplant during the summer. He still prunes his own trees. “He’ll talk about the different greens,” Woodward said. “Like new, young wheat has a special green—if it’s a healthy young crop, it looks different than if it isn’t.” Small observations can hold weight, especially when we adjust our actions around them.

At times, the village is so quiet that sounds echo from the valley: a tractor’s engine, rustling oak leaves. Of course, it’s hard to hear any of them over an amplified heartbeat. The cobblestone is less forgiving than grass, which can recover from the occasional tread. At the base of the château, I come across a crushed shell with a snail still in it. I grow more conscious of where I set my feet.

Some may question the point of minding little things when much of nature seems out of our control: monoculture farming, catastrophic wildfire, devastating flooding, dying bees. But practicing nature-centered mindfulness on a small-scale better equips the land for these changes.

Almost there

The grass growing in the entrenchment behind the château is not an immaculately sculpted lawn but instead a loose braid with many flyaways, pointing every which way. There are flowers, leaves, blades, moss in every texture: smooth, ribbed, velvet, scruff, sharp. Some resemble spiderwebs; others have flowers smaller than a pinky nail. Fine Gardening magazine may even deem its aesthetics “imperfect,” but this untraditional beauty has a purpose.

Weeks before the almond trees will blossom, bees fly like streamers. These wildflowers hold them over while the crops are dormant. Hedgerows and cover crops are also welcome mats for bees to stick around until the lavender, melons, cherries, zucchini, apples, pears, and sunflowers need pollinating. Even self-pollinating crops benefit from thriving cover crops because it’s about balance. Happy soil; happy plants; happy pollinators; (hopefully) happy humans.

“Of course the bees are important,” Adrian said. His grandmother kept bees. Then his brother took it over for years. The honey was different each year, darker or lighter than others.

Inclusion doesn’t end with pollinators, though. Livestock and organic life themselves also play crucial roles in biodiversity. Before they switched to using tractors, Adrian’s family used their mule to plow the fields, used goat manure as a natural fertilizer. The whipping Mistral kept away mildew. The idea is to let nature do its thing. When problems arise, as they inevitably will, look to the ecosystem with careful eyes to help inform any changes.

Adrian uses a raisonne approach, meaning “reasonable” but not entirely bio. He wants to be able to put down something “minimal” to keep them off bugs when they come. The trouble documentary The Pollinators points out how even small amounts of herbicide or insecticide can alter a bee’s system so severely that they die.

At the top

The valley sounds get lost in the wind up here. Cars make their way across the landscape, moving like a steady brushstroke. The farms’ property lines taper and bulge with the countryside roads. The rows of bare vines are straight. Woodward recalled a time shortly after they met when Adrian dug up and replanted a cherry tree that was slightly out of line. He explained that straight lines make plowing easier—animal or tractor. “Beauty is partly to do with what’s practical,” Woodward said. “Not entirely, of course.”

The terracotta-colored dirt matches the oak leaves rustling below. A payson plows a fallowed field beside the history-rich Maison Basse. Adrian’s father used to call it the “most beautiful farm in the whole Vaucluse.” Such high praise rested on more than the way the limestone complements the terrain. It’s also belle for its fertile land and access to a natural spring, which was extremely valuable because it made them self-sufficient. “Years ago, when people didn’t have water, that limited the kinds of crops you could grow,” Adrian said.

Soil can be beautiful, too. The documentary The Biggest Little Farm says that soil is at the heart of everything. When land is healthy, full of life, it absorbs water instead of repelling it. This can mean life or death when heavy rains come—for people, communities, and economic life or death for agriculture business. Rotating the crops replenishes nutrients, making the land more fertile. Taking care of the soil is a way to prepare, to change with the times.

In the cold Mistral wind, which folklore says can blow the ears off a donkey, it’s difficult to imagine the summer sun baking the South of France as it did in 2019 with a record-breaking 114° Fahrenheit. The Lubéron Mountains loom, a silent reminder of the annual threat. Forests can benefit from fire, as it inspires new growth. This hasn’t been the case recently, though. Rock-hard soil and the infernos blowing through—fueled by brushwood and extreme conditions—make fires hellish. The expo feu at Pont du Gard said, “Farmland and pastures that tend to slow or stop the spread of blazes are shrinking.”

Back down

My walk becomes an exercise of stepping closer to see ordinary patches speckled with little sprouts. Sometimes we need to change our perspective to see its beauty.

There are “moments”, as Wordsworth called them, that transport you back to when you experienced it for the first time. I close my eyes and see what farming can be: beautiful and diverse. I carry this Provençal lesson of functional beauty down the hill.

It’s important to talk about tiny things because they add up. There’s more to nature than the sublime disasters. Our behavior, even involving small life, is tied in with those that affect the big picture. After all, we’re no different than those little critters just trying to survive in our shared environment. Or perhaps we’re the soil, the source of change.

If you like this article, check out: https://www.harnessmagazine.com/the-nature-of-dreams/

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by maggiemaize

Maggie Maize holds a BFA in writing from Savannah College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Humana Obscura, Port City Review, Perhappened Mag, and other places.


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