I never paid much attention to birds until we moved to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. There, living in a smaller town surrounded by nature, I fell in love with the amazing breadth of avian life, and a pair of binoculars had a permanent home in the kitchen window. When I sold the house, I wrote up several pages of notes about it for the new owners; at least half was about the birds.
Moving to another country on another continent has plenty of challenges, and it took me a while to realize the effect of not knowing the local birds. I’ve struggled to put this feeling into words. Suffice it to say that I’ve been walking around here for nearly four years with a vague sense of unease, of not fully belonging, in part because I don’t know who the birds are.
I’ll be fixing that soon by investing in binoculars and participating in some bird-watching events. Meanwhile, I’ve learned a few birds, to my great pleasure.
This past winter, I was snuggled up indoors, watching a movie after dinner. I heard a sound that I hadn’t heard before; I thought at first it was one of the many hunting dogs living around here. I heard it again, stopped the movie, and quietly opened the front door. Alas, I tripped the motion-detector light, but it didn’t seem to disturb whoever was calling. By now I knew it was a bird, surely a large one. The soft call pierced the quiet night. I thought I’d step back inside to get my phone, to record the call, but that damn light went on again, and the bird flew off silently. I never saw it.
Back inside, I followed a hunch and looked up the bird I thought it might be, and sure enough, my wintry visitor was a Eurasian eagle owl, the largest owl in the world. I once had the great pleasure—and tingling spine—of standing right in front of one of these magnificent birds. Below left is my photograph of her, and below right is another photographer’s terrific shot of an eagle owl flying straight at the camera.
Some time this winter, I realized that a small bird was roosting on my roofed terrace. There’s a place where a short section of wall hangs from the roof, and an electrical conduit runs across that wall, about five inches below the roof. The bird arrived every evening at dusk to sleep while perched on that tiny conduit. It’s certainly safe from the neighborhood’s plentiful cats, but it also seems lonely and a little precarious. I’m here to report that several months later, he’s still a nightly guest, and I finally know what he is: a male black redstart, and most evenings I step outside to thank him for visiting my house.
I find myself wondering what would happen if a black redstart met a red-winged blackbird. Just a thought.
As I write this, there is a chorus of birdsong outside, including the lovely soft call of a hoopoe, one of the myriad birds I’d never heard of before coming here. They’re shy, but I have managed to see them a few times.
Interestingly, hoopoes have a call that isn’t so different from that of mourning doves and cuckoos, which we hear on our hikes. On my computer, I opened three windows to YouTube, and each window had an audio recording of one of the birds. What I ended up with was a delightful counterpoint harmony (if that’s the correct musical term) that I keep returning to because it gives me the biggest smile.
Speaking of songs that give me a smile, I also get a big kick out of the very loud nightly chorus of frogs, little critters with big voices.
On a hike a few weeks ago, Claude stopped near a tree to listen to a lovely bird call. It turned out to be a nightingale, another bird I was unfamiliar with before coming here. Its song is so sweet and remarkably varied, and now that I know what it is, I’m hearing it everywhere. Its song reminds me of the western meadowlark that we had in Colorado.
My last bird story comes from a recent walk at the Étang de Capestang.What the heck is that?, you may wonder. An étang is a shallow saline lake, or sometimes a network of large ponds. There are lots of them closer to the coast, a half-hour south of here, and they have a long history of being a source of wealth for the region through the harvesting of salt, fish and game birds. Capestang is a nearby town whose name comes from the French “Cap de l’Étang,” which in turn came from the Latin caput stagnum, referring to the town’s position at the top of the étang. The Romans had a bridge across this étang, part of the Via Domitia.
We enjoyed a fine walk along the edges of the ponds, hearing the frequent splash of coypu, an imported and over-populated member of the rodent family from South America. It swims like an otter. We also saw a splendid variety of birds: flamingos, glossy ibis, herons, egrets, and more.
With the heat of summer approaching, swallows and swifts have returned to eat mosquitoes—yay—and entertain us with their acrobatic swoops through the air. And there are plenty of other birds; today’s story reflects just a few.
The arrival of summer means that we will soon have our annual cicadas, who come out when the temperature is consistently above about 77 degrees (25 c.) And one of my favorites, dragonflies and damselflies of different sizes and colors are darting about, too. A bounty of delightful gifts from Mother Nature!
Bird : oiseau Owl : hibou; chouette Eurasian eagle owl : grand duc Black redstart : rouge-queue noir Red-winged blackbird : carouge à épaulettes Hoopoe : huppe Mourning dove : tourterelle triste Cuckoo : coucou Nightingale : rossignol philomèle Western meadowlark : sturnelle de l’ouest Flamingo : flamant rose Glossy ibis : ibis falcinelle Heron : héron Egret : aigrette Swallow : hirondelle Swift : martinet noir
I was pleased to read recently that the French government is now requiring that all cleaning supplies include labeling information about any ingredients that are endocrine disruptors. It will take effect in 2022. Of the chemicals that humans come into contact with on a regular basis, endocrine disruptors are among the most toxic and damaging. They are found nearly everywhere: in personal care products like shampoo and cosmetics, scented candles, toys, clothing, furniture, and cleaning supplies. So here’s a big shout-out to the French government for taking one small but significant step to helping people understand the dangers of environmental toxins that are very close to home.
Parting shot Oof, that sounds unpleasant.
And yes, before everyone writes to school me on what a ball trap is, I do know; it’s just that it was a surprise to see it written in English on a directional sign for a tiny French town.
Going to an auction It happened in the Before Times. It was October 2019 BT. (I could say “BC” for Before Covid, but BC was already taken.) Anyway, my sister-in-law Kathy had a business trip to Paris, and I had arranged to meet her there for a few days. It turned out to be a brief but astonishing voyage of discovery.
Kathy was in Paris to attend a two-day Sotheby’s auction of selected works of the sculptors Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne. She was already well along in the planning of an exhibit of their work for the museum where she works, The Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and she had good reasons for being present at the auction.
I met Kathy at the apartment she had found, just across the street from the French Sénat building on the north edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. There was barely time to drop my suitcase and duck into the loo before we were walking at a brisk pace toward the Sotheby’s auction.
Before this trip, I knew nothing of the Lalannes; I had not heard of them and I didn’t know their art. Kathy filled me in on the details as we walked.
This was Kathy’s second trip to France that year; the first time, she met Claude Lalanne at the home and atelier that she had shared with her husband and their family for around 50 years. Claude was pleased about the exhibit that Kathy was planning, and gave her enthusiastic support for it. She died four weeks later.
We arrived at Sotheby’s and stepped into a world that’s familiar to Kathy and brand-new for me. Kathy wanted to connect with some of the collectors and curators in attendance, and to know who had winning bids for some pieces that she hoped to include in the exhibit. She knew many of the people in the room. Me? I looked around in naïve wonder.
The room was crowded, but we found two seats toward the back and right next to the phone bank, which ran the full length of one wall of the room. That phone bank was itself a fascinating part of the auction, watching knowledgeable people in the art world as they spoke to interested bidders, occasionally holding up a bidding paddle, and sometimes winning. There were 4,000 registered bidders from 43 countries. The auction was for 274 lots, which is an astounding number for a single auction.
While I hadn’t heard of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, the art world certainly had. They began their careers in the 1950s, in an enclave of cheap atelier apartments in Montparnasse. Their neighbors included Constantin Brancusi, Jean Tinguely, Max Ernst and Niki de Saint-Phalle; a long list of friends and colleagues included Yves Klein, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí and Jasper Johns; Yves Saint Laurent was an early—and frequent—patron. They developed their personal styles and made life-long friends here, and they stayed longer than many.
As they found success in their careers, they decided to move outside of Paris, relocating to a farmhouse south of the city. Over time, they acquired more land around their property, and built up a large family compound with two full ateliers, one for each of them. Throughout their lives, they referred to themselves as “Les Lalanne,” working and exhibiting together but rarely collaborating on individual pieces.
Both worked as sculptors and they were both fascinated with the natural world, drawing from the plant and animal kingdoms to create fantastical new forms. Their work showed breathtaking skill and craftsmanship; it reflected their keen observation of the natural world; there was frequently a delicious element of humor and playfulness; and everything they did was infused with pure joy.
This was the second day of the auction, and the event began at 2:30 in the afternoon. At about 6:00, we took a break to get some fresh air and find dinner. The auction ended at 10:30 pm, wow! The room had emptied somewhat, but the finish was still exciting. The Sotheby’s staff all donned white gloves to indicate that everything had been sold; there was a standing ovation, and a room full of smiles. It proved to be the largest sale ever by Sotheby’s Paris, at over 91.3 million euros. We caught a glimpse of a happy Caroline Lalanne, one of four daughters, and then left. It was an exciting and exhausting day.
A stylish lunch We learned the next day that two of the sisters had invited Kathy to join them for lunch at their long-time favorite restaurant, Le Dôme in Montparnasse, and they extended the invitation to me as well. It was such a treat to meet Caroline and Dorothée, and to hear their different stories of growing up in the Parisian art world. They were so kind and generous, humorous and witty. Kathy learned new things for her exhibit, and I just soaked up the pleasure of meeting two delightful women who otherwise would not have crossed my path. Their stories served to enrich my view of their parents’ fascinating art, which now firmly occupies a special place in my heart.
The exhibition at The Clark was due to open in June of 2020, and I planned to attend the opening, as did the Lalanne sisters. How wonderful that would have been, but we all know what happened instead. The opening was postponed by nearly a year, and some of the pieces had to be exchanged for others due to the quirks of how art is lent for such exhibits.
That visit to the auction paid off for Kathy: three items from the sale are in her exhibition, including the rhino on the Sotheby’s cover shown above.
The rescheduled opening was a few weeks ago, and the exhibit runs through the end of October. If you’re anywhere near western Massachusetts, I encourage you to make the trip to see the fascinating work by these two talented artists.
A lovely day in this corner of paradise Saturday, 3 April was our last day of freedom in France— our third covid lockdown was looming. The weather was fine, and a small group of us decided to have a day trip, driving nearly two hours to begin our adventure in the hamlet of Douch, situated north of us in the sprawling Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc.
Before putting our boots on the trail, we were enticed by the hamlet, built entirely of local stone. We spent a happy half-hour strolling past ancient structures, some in perfect condition, others showing the effects of time and gravity with warps and dips and missing stones. Douch is a place right out of a fairy tale.
This year is a little different Thanks to the pandemic, there are no events with crowds of people who are singing, dancing, drinking, kissing each other, and generally having a wonderful time together, and that includes Carnaval. It seems like the perfect opportunity for me to offer a brief look at the last century of celebrating Carnaval in Bize.
I was lucky to pass some time with my friends Pierrette and Jean-Marc, who generously shared their trove of Carnaval photographs with me, and patiently worked to help me better understand this event. Both are retired teachers, so the desire to help someone learn is in their training, although my less-than-fluent French probably tried their patience much like any school kid!
The photograph above is marked “1906” on the back. Several people looked at it, but no one could say just where this is in the village. The two below aren’t dated, but they look like they’re from about the same era; each includes a mule- or horse-drawn cart and fabulous costumes.
What is Carnaval, anyway? I was also given copies of a few written descriptions of Carnaval, and I’m including some of that text here. First up are the words of Raymond Pélofi, a beloved teacher who participated in many town events:
Carnivals have always been a time of escapeduring which participants have been able to disregard the taboos of daily life, a time during which they have been able to make fun of the endless and harrowing tribulations of which most of humanity is often the victim.
And then we have the words of my friend Jean-Marc, whose family is depicted in many of the photos below. His father Alphonse was a long-time mayor of Bize, and apparently his uncle Henri was an affable man who could always be counted upon to entertain the crowd. Here’s what Jean-Marc wrote in 2010 about carnaval:
It is a time of secular festivities, marked by balls, processions and masquerades, which should last from Epiphany (January 6) to Ash Wednesday (mid-February)… Etymologically, the word carnival, from the Latin carnelevare means to remove, to abstain from meat. It used to take place from the day after the Feast of the Kings to the first day of Lent. It ended with the fat days, culminating in the Mardi Gras cavalcade. Throughout this period, young people “ran carnival” in disguises and masks, putting their clothes on backwards to invite the spirits to meet the living. One of the characteristics of this festival was also to abolish any royal hierarchy. One poor soul was elected king and donned royal ornaments. A donkey was dressed in episcopal robes and officiated at the altar. All identities disappeared under masks and make-up, symbolizing chaos… Mardi Gras was the last day to eat meat and dairy products. People took advantage of this time to use up leftovers and make crêpes and doughnuts, which were eaten in abundance… Carnival will always remain in our hearts the symbol of the popular festival, during which it is possible, thanks to the anonymity of the mask, to free oneself from the rules and constraints of everyday life and to go beyond moral and social rules.
The pictures above and below show an equipe de meuniers (team of millers) who are dressed as buffoli (an Occitan word that refers to the people who used fire bellows to stoke fires in the ovens of a bakery). There’s no date on these photos, but based on the clothes of the mannequine, I’d guess this is the late 1940s. The man third from left above is Henri, uncle to my friend Jean-Marc.
Above left: Jean-Marc with his sister Francine and cousin Renée. Above right: Jean-Marc’s elder sister Geneviève is escorted by their father Alphonse in the carnaval of 1951. Below: the equipe poses for a photograph. Geneviève is the second woman from the left, and her father Alphonse is the costumed man standing at the right.
What I see Here’s the thing that makes carnaval so wonderful for me: it’s about community. It’s about tradition, and family, and finding the light and the joy, together. For my first carnaval in 2018, I remember being so tickled by seeing entire families dressed in costumes together, all ages participating. Although I now understand it better, that feeling stays with me.
The events of carnaval span four days, although the preparation takes months (costumes and parade floats, planning the various events, and so on). The parade itself, my favorite part, is on the third day; the partying generally starts with lunch, followed by the parade, which flows right into cocktail hour, and then a town dance.
There’s simply no question: for those who participate, the whole family is all-in. All ages are happily engaged in this event—sometimes four generations in a family—celebrating together every step of the way. Each year, the younger kids look forward to general mayhem with silly string; older kids anticipate decorating their parade car and making their costumes; the adults look forward to sharing their skills in design and construction; the grandparents eagerly share stories of carnaval events in years gone by. Strangers are warmly welcomed into this embrace, and all generations enjoy the partying!
There is an abundance of food and plenty to drink; there is warmth and laughter and an over-arching feeling of togetherness and belonging. Someone sees a friend and runs over for bisous. A grandmother dances with her young grandson. Teenagers compare costumes. With a twinkle in his eye, someone throws confetti at a complete stranger.
When we study history, we learn the dates when things happened, and it’s usually wars or natural disasters or disease. Carnaval brings us a different kind of history, the history of the people of this village, and how this season brings them all together. It is a remarkably rich and nuanced tapestry, with new stories being woven in every year. It’s my kind of history.
My heartfelt thanks go to Pierrette and Jean-Marc, for graciously sharing their photos and stories with me, for making the time to help me understand more about this rich tradition, and for doing all of it with patience and smiles. Merci beaucoup. My thanks also to Maryse and Chantal for helping me identify locations in the village, and to Maryse for lending me her photograph.
Photos historiques du Carnaval
Cette année est un peu différente À cause de la pandémie, il n’y a plus d’événements avec des foules de personnes qui chantent, dansent, boivent, s’embrassent et passent généralement un merveilleux moment ensemble, et cela inclut le carnaval. Il me semble que c’est l’occasion idéale de faire un bref retour sur le siècle dernier de célébration du carnaval de Bize.
J’ai eu la chance de passer un peu de temps avec mes amis Pierrette et Jean-Marc, qui ont généreusement partagé avec moi leur collection de photos du Carnaval, et ont patiemment travaillé pour m’aider à mieux comprendre cet événement. Tous deux sont des enseignants à la retraite, donc le désir d’aider quelqu’un à apprendre est dans leur formation, bien que mon français peu fluide ait probablement mis leur patience à l’épreuve comme n’importe quel écolier !
La photographie ci-dessus porte au dos la mention “1906”. Plusieurs personnes l’ont regardée, mais personne n’a pu dire où elle se trouvait dans le village. Les deux photos ci-dessous ne sont pas datées, mais on dirait qu’elles datent de la même époque. Chacune d’elles comprend une charrette tirée par une mule ou un cheval et de fabuleux costumes.
Qu’est-ce que le carnaval ? On m’a également remis des copies de quelques descriptions écrites du Carnaval, et j’en inclus ici une partie. Tout d’abord, les mots de Raymond Pélofi, un instituteur local très apprécié qui a participé à de nombreux événements de la ville :
De tout temps, les carnavals ont été des périodes d’exutoire pendant lesquelles les participants ont pu transgresser les interdits de la vie quotidienne, des périodes pendant lesquelles ils ont pu tourner en dérision les interminables et harassantes tribulations dont est souvent victime la majeure partie de l’humanité.
Et puis nous avons les mots de mon ami Jean-Marc, dont la famille est représentée sur plusieurs des photos ci-dessous. Son père Alphonse a longtemps été maire de Bize, et apparemment son oncle Henri était un homme affable sur lequel on pouvait toujours compter pour divertir la foule. Voici ce que Jean-Marc a écrit en 2010 sur le carnaval :
C’est un temps de fêtes profanes, marqué par des bals, cortèges et mascarades, qui doit durer depuis l’épiphanie (6 janvier) jusqu’au mercredi des Cendres (mi-fevrier)… Etymologiquement, le mot carnaval, du latin carnelevare, signifie enlever, s’abstenir de viande. Il avait lieu naguère du lendemain de la Fête des rois au premier jour de Carême. Il se terminait par les jours gras, dont le point culminant était la cavalcade de Mardi Gras. Durant toute cette période, les jeunes gens “couraient carnaval” déguisés et masqués, mettant leurs vêtements à l’envers pour inviter les esprits à rencontrer les vivants. Une des caractéristiques de cette fête était également d’abolir toute hiérarchie royale. Un pauvre d’esprit était élu roi et revêtait des ornements royaux. Un âne était habillé de vêtements épiscopaux et officiait à l’autel. Toutes les individualités disparaissaient sous les masques et maquillages, symbolisant le chaos.
Les photos ci-dessus et ci-dessous montrent une équipe de meuniers habillés en buffoli (mot occitan qui désigne les personnes qui utilisaient des soufflets à feu pour alimenter les fours d’une boulangerie). Il n’y a pas de date sur ces photos, mais d’après les vêtements du mannequin, je suppose que c’est la fin des années 1940. Le troisième homme en partant de la gauche ci-dessus est Henri, l’oncle de mon ami Jean-Marc.
En haut à gauche : Jean-Marc avec sa soeur Francine et sa cousine Renée. En haut à droite : Geneviève, la sœur aînée de Jean-Marc, est escortée par leur père Alphonse dans le carnaval de 1951. En bas : l’équipe pose pour une photo. Geneviève est la deuxième femme en partant de la gauche, et son père Alphonse est l’homme costumé qui se tient à droite.
Ce que je vois Voici ce qui rend le carnaval si merveilleux pour moi : c’est une question de communauté. C’est une question de tradition, de famille, et de trouver la lumière et la joie, ensemble. Pour mon premier carnaval en 2018, je me souviens d’avoir été si surpris et émue en voyant des familles entières vêtues de costumes ensemble, tous âges confondus, participer. Bien que je le comprenne mieux maintenant, ce sentiment me reste.
Les événements du carnaval s’étendent sur quatre jours, bien que la préparation prenne des mois (costumes et chars de parade, planification des différents événements, etc.) Le défilé lui-même, ma partie préférée, a lieu le troisième jour ; la fête commence généralement par le déjeuner, suivi du défilé, qui se prolonge jusqu’à l’heure du cocktail, puis le bal.
Il n’y a tout simplement aucun doute : pour ceux qui participent, toute la famille est impliquée. Tous les âges sont heureux de participer à cet événement—parfois quatre générations dans une famille—et de fêter ensemble chaque étape du parcours. Chaque année, les plus jeunes attendent avec impatience le chaos général avec des aérosol à fil serpentins ; les plus âgés s’apprêtent à décorer leur voiture de parade et à fabriquer leurs costumes ; les adultes ont hâte de partager leurs compétences en matière de conception et de construction ; les grands-parents partagent avec enthousiasme les histoires des carnavals d’autrefois. Les étrangers sont chaleureusement accueillis dans cette étreinte, et toutes les générations aiment faire la fête !
Il y a une abondance de nourriture et de boissons, de la chaleur, des rires et un sentiment général de solidarité et d’appartenance. Quelqu’un voit un ami et se précipite sur les bisous. Une grand-mère danse avec son jeune petit-fils. Des adolescents comparent leurs costumes. Avec un clin d’œil, quelqu’un lance des confettis à un parfait inconnu.
Lorsque nous étudions l’histoire, nous apprenons les dates auxquelles les choses se sont produites, et il s’agit généralement de guerres, de catastrophes naturelles ou de maladies. Le carnaval nous apporte un autre type d’histoire, celle des habitants de ce village, et comment cette saison les rassemble tous. C’est une tapisserie remarquablement riche et nuancée, avec de nouvelles histoires qui se tissent chaque année. C’est mon genre d’histoire.
Je remercie de tout cœur Pierrette et Jean-Marc, qui ont gracieusement partagé avec moi leurs photos et leurs histoires, qui ont pris le temps de m’aider à mieux comprendre cette riche tradition, et qui ont fait tout cela avec patience et sourire. Merci beaucoup. Mes remerciements vont également à Maryse et Chantal pour m’avoir aidé à identifier des lieux dans le village, et à Maryse pour m’avoir prêté sa photo.
Much has been written about seeing 2020 fully in the rearview mirror, and I don’t have much new to add, which has left me pondering just what to do with this January blog post.
As the year was lurching to a close, I spent close to six weeks not being able to walk much, and since walking is my primary exercise, I was eager to get my feet back onto the trail. That happened a few weeks ago, and I’ve been racking up the kilometers as much as time and weather permit. On one such walk, it occurred to me that I could tell a story of 2020 through some of my walks of the past year.
Where were you in the year 1226? There is a rare treat awaiting us on this year’s winter solstice. It’s called the Great Conjunction, and the last time humans could see it like this was on March 4, 1226.
When two planets in our solar system appear close to each other—from Earth’s perspective—it’s called a conjunction. When it happens with the two biggest planets, Jupiter and Saturn, it’s called the Great Conjunction, which occurs around every 20 years. However, it’s quite rare when they appear to be overlapping each other AND are visible from earth. The last time they looked this close to each other was during Galileo’s time, in 1623, but the planets also lined up so close to the sun that they weren’t visible from Earth. The next time this will happen is relatively soon: 2080.