Old stone walls

Where there is rocky soil, there will be stone walls. I don’t know why, but I love these things that are built of stones. I have enough photographs for at least two stories, and this first one is to introduce you to some of the walls and other structures near where I live. Nearly every day, I pass one or another of these sites as I walk around the hills.

Before there were machines, anyone who wanted to farm the soil had to first do the hard work of removing the larger rocks. By hand.

You can picture it: there is a plot of land that someone would like to plant with food crops. The land is rocky, which makes farm work difficult, so the first chore is to remove all those rocks. The whole family spends as much time as it takes—days, weeks, months, a lifetime—to move the rocks away from the field. As time passes, there are growing piles of stones at the edges of the field.

When the field is cleared enough, attention turns to planting, the most important thing to do because food is needed. Once the seeds are in the ground, and perhaps when green seedlings make an appearance, the farmer might be able to turn some of his attention back to those piles of stones. He thinks they might make fine walls.

A gorgeous dry-stack stone wall next to a road.

A few seasons later, the productive field might have a stone wall marking its borders. Or maybe the rocks will be used to carve terraces from the hillside, allowing even more planting. Maybe the rocks will be used to enclose grazing areas for the goats and sheep. And if that farmer is successful, and acquires more land, he may want to use some stones to build tiny structures further away from his house, to be used for storing tools or a respite from the weather.

I live in such terrain. The land is crisscrossed by myriad stone walls, some in remarkably good condition, others crumbling. Every so often there is a capitelle—a tiny hut—usually built as part of a stone wall. Stones are used for lots of other structures, too; today we’re mostly focused on a few walls and capitelles in the valley I call home.

This is Boussecos, a sentry post on top of a rock outcropping near my town.

Most of today’s adventure is centered around a place named Boussecos, which is a fabulous parcel of history just outside of town. The word “Boussecos,” according to some historians, is an Occitan linguistic derivation that travels from “Visigoths” to “Cossicos” to “Boussecos.” Alas, that is all I have to offer, because there is scant information on this topic.

In the photo above, you can see the great rock outcropping that juts from the hillside. The wide hill in the background has caves where evidence of humans was discovered: tools dating to about 40,000 years ago. Similar artifacts have been found in other nearby towns, too.

More recently, the Visigoths roamed this region for over 300 years, from before A.D. 400 until around 700. Their capital was Toulouse, and they settled a wide region that eventually included much of what is now Spain. They left some things behind, including pieces of their language that made their way into modern French; town names that end with –ens are of Visigothic origin, including nearby Argens (the “s” is pronounced, and the name rhymes with “tense.”)

On top of the rocky outcrop that is today called Boussecos, those Visigoths built a structure that was probably used by sentries to keep an eye on our little valley. The base of their structure remains to this day, which you can see more clearly in the photograph below, at the very top of the rock. It was built in the sixth century.

Later, medieval armies came through this area, and they, too, needed the services of sentries. There’s evidence that they built a fairly large structure near the base of the rock, but almost all that remains is the smooth-faced wall toward the lower left of the photo below.

Later still, in the 17th and 18th centuries, due to a massive famine, there was a need to carve out arable land from the rocky and scrubby hillsides. This was a period of great activity for stonemasons; most of the stone walls, terraces and capitelles in this region date to that period. You can see terracing walls in the photo above.

At the foot of Boussecos.
Boussecos is in the center background in this photograph of the remains of a nearby tower that overlooks grapevines and the garrigue. The tower is of an unknown date, but it sits at the edge of the remains of a Bronze Age village. There are many such villages scattered throughout this region and across Europe; when Julius Caesar arrived, he referred to them as “oppida” (plural), thus each is known as an “oppidum.” Ours is a small example, not even named.
A stone wall in one of the oppida near Boussecos.

The timeline of European history is littered with references to famine. One such occurred in the early half of the 17th century, and a friend of mine who is a bit of an expert on local history says that this particular famine may well have led to the French Revolution 150 years later. It was notable enough to catch the attention of the king at the time, Louis XIV, not a man known for paying a lot of attention to such things.

Apparently, one course of action was his decree that the most valuable farm land had to transfer from wine to food: the grape vines had to be removed to allow space for planting food crops. Animals had to move, too. And thus it was that grapes and farm animals, and the people who took care of them, moved to the hills, which is where I live.

These hills are rocky, scrubby and often dry; at first glance it is not the most ideal land for a farmer. But the hills are covered with stone walls, some of which were clearly used to contain farm animals such as sheep and goats, while others were used to create terracing that allowed for more planting.

This stone wall and its lovely capitelle grace one end of a vineyard that is carved from the garrigue surrounding Boussecos.
Nearly hidden in the garrigue is a long wall that curves to follow the topography of the land. This comparatively spacious capitelle, rather then nestling in the wall, terminates the wall at its eastern end.
Another capitelle in the hills near Boussecos. Sometimes a capitelle is free-standing, but most often they are built as part of a stone wall. They’re usually quite tiny, intended to be a place of temporary shelter during the work day, or for storing tools. There are stories of the capitelles being used as hiding places during the Revolution.
During the lockdown in the spring of 2020, I regularly walked a little-used trail near my house; it took me past this capitelle, which is just as short as most others, but is unusually wide.
There are more capitelles than wells, but there are still plenty of wells, beautiful examples of stone masonry in perfect cylinders.
Sometimes a capitelle looks like a miniature mansion, like this gorgeous example on the Pech, the local word for hill, that forms one side of our little valley. It sits rather grandly overlooking a vineyard and the valley below.
Other times a capitelle is a simple stand-alone hut, like the one shown above. It used to be hidden among the trees and shrubs, but last year’s big fire laid bare the hillside. The capitelle survived intact.
My friends Claude and Maryse, standing on the slope above an especially large capitelle. We were on a walk in an area with several beautiful structures and some lovely walls, too.
Claude sitting inside a spacious capitelle. He pointed out that all that was missing was a bottle of wine and some glasses.
Autumn on Boussecos: a sumac explodes with fall color, and in the background is a stone wall that has seen better days.
The strawberry tree is common in this part of the Mediterranean. It’s also known by its Latin name, arbutus, and the French name is arbousier. By weight, the fruit—which is ripe from mid-October through early November—contains three times as much vitamin C as oranges, although the flavor is fairly bland.

Notorious RGB
I’m still thinking fondly of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who fought so hard for freedom and justice. I think she would have liked the image below.

Wall Street’s Fearless Girl wore a jabot collar in tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photograph by Andrew Kelly/Reuters.

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