Adventures With Electricity

The journal entry begins : “Today I am camping in the Adirondacks.  I got to this remote spit of land led by Dick, who grew up exploring these parts.  Jim is here, too, of course, and Gordon, still on honeymoon with his bride, Su.  

We are tenting in the woods along the shore of Lake Lila, beneath a 360 degree sky with no sign of anything manmade.  We started the day paddling into a creek with a lot of beaver activity.  We portaged around a couple of beaver dams to get to the back of the creek. 

The whole experience immediately made me feel like I was looking deeply into a painting by Neil Welliver. His work was a beacon for me when I was very young.  And now that I am often without signal in places without roofs or roads, his work seems even closer to me. This was his landscape.  These were the trees and the colors he saw in the forests of the Northeast.  Not my drowsy southern swamps.   “A hostile environment”, Dick says. As much as I am living Neil Welliver here, I am also witnessing Winslow Homer’s camping watercolors brought to life.  

We paddled into our campsite three days ago and set up tents in a fine forest of pine and birch with a pine needle floor.  There are patches of Indian Pipe everywhere I look, and wild blueberries, ferns and mosses.  

It was windy and cloudy when we set up tents, so three people contributed their backpacker’s tarps to make one large dry spot in the forest, and soon after we finished, it began to rain. 

The wind picked up, got wild, and I wondered aloud if my own tent, in the direct route of the wind, was still standing.  It was its maiden voyage— my new ultralight, and the wind thought it was ultralight too.  Gordon sprang up, and ran out in the rain to right it,  and as he pushed in a stake, lightning struck a pine tree fifteen feet away. We  shouted for him and it felt like I moved in super slow motion, getting up from my chair to find him.  He was thrown to the ground but somehow recovered enough to stumble back to us. One foot and one hand were numb.  One finger was ghostly white.  Su wrapped him in her coat and we suppressed panic, just glad he could walk to us, and talk once he got there.  I can only just bring myself to write about it as record-keeping. I felt every emotion, sane and insane, but over the course of an hour Gordon returned to a shaky normal. The storm dropped back to just a downpour. 

When I headed to my tent a few hours later, the bathtub style base had collected several inches of water, as had my sleeping bag and clothes.  I hauled some things around in a shock-induced state of mind, thinking of sleeping under the rain tarp, but reversed that decision when I realized how cold it would be.  I untethered my tent and poured off the accumulated water, shaking it hard upside down, anchored it and started to refill it with anything I could find that was dry, and remove everything that was soaked.  I remembered that, with only one’s body’s warmth you can dry a set of wet wool socks in your tent, so I decided to build on that principle.  I tucked into the tent, wearing long underwear and sleeping on an air mattress, using a garbage bag as a sheet and my raincoat as a blanket, my whole world some degree of cold or damp, the zipper on the new tent’s rainfly stuck on open.  Sometimes you just have to flow with what there is.  Against a background of famine, war, terror and homelessness, not to mention electrocution, such tiny travails are a cipher.  I kept that in mind.  

But what followed the deadly first day was a deep drop into rock, soil and water.  We all had small backpacking chairs, and we spent a lot of time, sunk in those chairs on a huge stone outcropping watching wildlife and the movement of light.  I sense we all unloaded a world of care. 

We hiked a small mountain,  and canoed into secret wild gardens of aquatic plants buzzing with bees and dragonflies.  We heard the loon many times.  All the primary loon calls.  We saw loons flying.  We watched a mother and tiny loons swimming.  And we were the chosen rock outcropping for a little colony of Canada geese.  In the forest, Dick pointed out to me the call of the wood thrush.  

Dick is teaching us all the biology he can in four days.  I found a rectangle of birch bark on the ground and did a drawing on it with a ballpoint pen.  We all hustle to assemble each night on the giant rocks to watch the sun drop behind the pines and birches across the shore.

Slowly, over long exposure, and many meals, paddles, walks and talks, we have connected or reconnected in more relaxed ways. “   

I wrote this two days ago, and today, in my car,  I sang my way out loud and out of tune, through a whole jubilant playlist, headed south through the Shenandoah Valley, my head still full of gratitude and open sky.  

Sleeping in Snow

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Xa3QWB1ltlh7mEDzqVL7Jf9gwvIeC7rn/view

We hiked, last week, to a valley beside Cove Creek, surrounded by tall pines, some of huge girth. The ground was blanketed in pine needles and the sun was so warm we worked in sweaters to set up camp.

A tornado had swept through the forest and rangers had cut trees off the trails so there were dry pine logs scattered all around, even some split wood someone had left. We put together enough kindling and firewood for night and morning fires, filtered some cold creek water and set off to explore.

There was a trail that ran alongside Basin Creek that had probably been a wagon road 100 years ago. We started our gentle ascent on that trail.

It felt remote— like we had left the 21st century and dropped into some other world. I lagged behind the others, photographing roots and limbs and picking up stones.

Our trail led us to the stone chimney that remained from a house long gone. You could approximate how long it had been since the house had melted away by looking at the size of the trees growing out of the foundation. The chimney’s construction was elegant, its edges still crisp and square, its lintel an enormous nearly perfect rectangle, unphased by all that had happened around it. I went to work creating a story about who had lived there, trying to imagine the people who grew up with that dancing, rushing creek as their nearest neighbor. How would your mind work if all your life you heard the low soothing sounds of that creek, so much like a mother soothing a baby…shhhhhhh.

We speculated on where their fields had been— where they had grown their corn and other sustenance crops. I wondered if the father of the family had built the chimney, or if that remote community had one man who was the favored stone mason. The artistry of the chimney made me think the latter, but perhaps, as in barn raisings, the community of men worked together, and as one body had developed their skills.

A little farther down the trail Dick pointed out a millstone half buried in creek sand. We looked for any remnants of the mill that would have powered it, but they were long ago erased.

Every place we explore has its own quirky treasures to share with anyone who will look closely. Backpacking with our own scientist always takes us deeply into a place. It seems like Dick knows the name of every plant, stone, fish or tree.

Back at camp, he picked up a stone and showed it to me— it was micaceous schist with garnets embedded in it. Like walking on gemstones. They were everywhere….iridescent from the tiny particles of mica, striated and studded with chunks of garnet.

The pine fire was hot that night and kept us all warm until late. I sleep really well when I’m beside a creek. Maybe it’s the Earth Mother whispering “shhhh” to me all night. Maybe it’s from the exercise, or maybe the bourbon. I slept in late, hoping someone else would get up in the cold and build a fire. Finally I heard Dick climb out of his tent and exclaim that he’d spooked a buck who was right beside our campsite, and that the whole world was white with snow.

Our firewood had spent the night under a tarp, so it lit quickly and the fire leapt from the fire ring while snow floated down all around it. We made oatmeal with fruit and nuts. Jim and Dick sat under the tarp enjoying the show. So it was– better than any movie–the low slush sounds of the creek, the falling of fat flakes of snow, the leaping of flame, and the occasional visitor.

December

It is the opening day of December and it feels like I’ve stepped into a distilled version of the world. Nothing is left of the trees in the pasture but their bare bones. The light melts away at the end of the day, closing me in tighter and tighter. The slanting sunlight runs up the bark of the walnut tree in long stripes just before leaving for good.

 

The distilled bony forest is the best for exploring. Hidden treasures appear, mostly in the form of lichens, peculiarly twisted limbs, earthbound leaves that look like wood carvings of themselves. Just before January breaks them down to dust, I gather them up and bring them in to lay on the branches of the Christmas tree.

I’ve brought in the fragrant greens, lit the many lights, brought out the several small blankets— one for each of the places I roost. Last night as I walked around snapping on the lamps I saw the cerulean day sky hiding behind the darkening evening clouds as if to say I’m not ready to go yet. I’m still catching the sun. And as the evening progressed, the nearly full moon moved from one side of the house, until, in the early morning hours, it appeared on the other.

This season sharpens the memory. So many snapshots cluster around this time of year— snapshots especially of my father, whom I only had for 23 of my Decembers before he departed the earth for some other place. He left a letter in his safe that said to tell his best friend Tommy he’d meet him at the Great White Oak Tree. So now, as in those 23 years, I expect he is walking over some leafy path on his way to this tree, where someday I hope he will also meet me.

In those 23 years he would take us to the woods before Christmas to look for the perfect mature, lacy cedar tree. Driving home we would pass the town water tower, with its big blue illuminated star on top. Some town officials had erected it, and couldn’t figure out how to extinguish it. So year round our little town was marked by a star that guided us home.

I read somewhere that children remember best the lessons they are taught by their fathers. I know it is the truth for me. My mother was with me for sixty years and her lessons could fill a library. My father’s instructions were few, but are carved into my bones. Fifty years after he reluctantly taught me to drive, when I run off the road I hear him clear as day telling me to stay off the road and plan my reentry instead of panicking and jerking the car back into its lane. His lessons are his barrel-chested, grumpy, powerful protections following me everywhere I go.

Mama taught us Beauty in a thousand ways. Daddy taught us Nature. They both taught us Reverence. In December we feast in the short dark days on Beauty, Nature and Reverence and I think my parents both come in close and all the Decembers become one December.

White Man

 

When I left the grid and headed up a steep and curving road into one of the folds of the Blue Ridge, the world was abuzz with tales of white male misconduct.  There was a headline case of white privilege used to mask acts of aggression against women. In social media, under the phrase “me too”, my friends, my community’s leaders, my former students, my colleagues— every woman I know— was using that phrase to make a political statement about abuse of power, intimidation and shame, and to stand strong in truth—usually long-buried truth.

The other bookend to my journey— on my descent from the Blue Ridge—was the opening of Bob Trotman’s exhibition at Davidson College, also about toxic white male privilege. It was no less pointed than Goya.  Bob is outraged. The work was beautifully and imaginatively crafted and full of bite. This show about white men in suits (as well as one suited woman), was  created by a white man who acknowledges the ironies of his position in the society his work is about— just as Goya was a courtier in the court he mocked. I don’t remember ever being present at any other gallery talk with an audience so full of powerful white men. I found that a little startling. May they be the change-agents .

In the days between these two political experiences, in the company of five best friends, I camped. We shared everything from the smallest twig to four story waterfalls, slept in the beginnings of winter’s cold, cooked over oak fires, ate, drank beer, and told stories. My phone had no signal. I slept beside the South Toe River so I could hear its music all night.

My friends all had interesting campers— one designed by the engineer who created the interior of the space shuttle, another custom-made to accommodate living and serious mountain biking, the third cozy and complete. I slept in my mid-sized tent, full of goose feathers that had escaped my sleeping bag, and ratty disorganized piles of clothing. I really must get organized I always tell myself. I take everything I need, and then can’t find it and have to borrow someone else’s. But, feathers aside, I found that the longer I stayed in that place, and walked those trails, the less wounded I felt, the less need I had for anything other than being. There was a first aid kit of bourbon I never felt the need to drink, and chocolates I never ate. I felt satisfied. I felt peace. I wasn’t trying to soothe some internal beast.

There were long soulful conversations with whomever you happened to be hiking beside. In the dark of clear night, beside the fire, a million stars overhead, deep wounds were talked about and as old and trusted friends, we brought what balm we could find to offer to those wounds. Among this group the predominant theme is always love and tolerance. Acceptance of exactly who you are at all times. If you are judged at all, you are judged to be worthy and wonderful. How I came to be blessed by such friendships I will never know. Some act of unfathomable grace. I believe I was soothed and loved back into living as much by these friendships as I was by the strident beauty around me and the eternal assurance that the earth we stand on is vast and powerful, intricate and interwoven, patterend, textured, and colored— the highest possible art form. And the “civilization” I’d left behind a silly, empty, mean-spirited joke.

Herb Jackson at the Gregg

On a breather from my studio, I set yesterday aside to see Herb Jackson’s latest exhibition, “A Door is not a Window”, curated by Lia Newman and Roger Manley, at the new Gregg Museum on the campus of NC State University.

Like countless artists, my life story pivots on an encounter with Herb Jackson who, 40 years ago, figuratively picked me up out of an art trashcan, dusted me off, gave me a brief list of pithy instructions, and set me on my life’s path. I cannot imagine my life without that pivotal moment and those instructions. So, to see this exhibition was to return to the well— to the Fatherland.

The paintings are, in any circumstance, as brilliantly colored as a bag of gemstones, with textures that evoke geodes, crystals, star dust. And the exhibition has been installed, famously, to make that inescapable. It hangs in a blackened gallery, with light projected directly onto the canvases— and only the canvases.

Herb Jackson is a stone cold master of construction. The interior bone structure— the architecture— of his paintings is always masterful because he has been deconstructing paintings since he was a child. Many of his pithy instructions to me revolved around pictorial architecture. It took me years to master it. I can remember, in my early 30’s, working on paper, so that after the work was complete I could crop it like a photograph to discover the hidden structural power.

I had the gallery all to myself. At first I was an astronaut, zooming through space, watching the cosmos spin by from the safety of my darkened space craft. Then the Rothko chapel came to mind, and I was meditating on these ideas, distilled and illuminated— the rest of the world held at bay.

Then I made up a game. I went from painting to painting, making sure to NOT read the titles, so my associations could run free, and for each painting I wrote in my little notebook a list of words they evoked. I saw landforms and geography. I saw the earth from space. I saw strife, human flesh, ciphers, moonlight, midnight, continents and fissures, the Milky Way, sunrise and sunset, jewels, comets, ether, hurtling stones.

I dropped in by parachute, or was grabbed by the hand, or sometimes by the scruff of the neck and taken into the painting through a route that had been carved out for me. That route was as inevitable as one day following another. I studied his incised lines that read like flesh wounds, each uncovering another buried world of nuance/pattern/color.

The work was, by turns, calm, violent, delicate, brutal. The viewer could get by on nothing but the diet of color that is dished up, without any other thoughts or associations, because there is in this work, the deepest possible understanding of color, manipulated with great originality. In a lifetime of looking at art I can’t say that I have ever seen anyone use color as knowingly. And I fully comprehend the gravity of that statement. That alone is worth the trek.

Reentry

I  just woke up in my own bed for the first time in a month . Yesterday morning, up at 3 a.m., I drove through the French countryside, village after village, on the slowest route I could find to the airport. The spectacular full moon hovered all the way.  I noticed a while back that if I drove in the country with my windows down I could hear cricket sounds the whole time.

This morning in North Carolina, I drove to the grocery near dawn so I could have milk for my coffee.  Over and over I have forgotten I’m not driving a manual transmission, romping the brake like it might be the clutch.  My Honda seems so doleful  after the fun of rolling over hills in a  peppy little rented five speed.  Leaving the grocery store, I  saw a clerk arriving for work. Without thinking, I lapsed into appropriate behavior for France, where one never encounters anyone in public without acknowledging them with a greeting.  “Good morning” I said.    She smiled, I think with a little touch of surprise, and said the same to me.

In the night I woke up  and the moonlight filtering through the trees cast patches of glow on the floor and walls, and half asleep, it registered on me as beautiful– as the moonlight I’d left.

The yard is green from the rains I missed.  The roses  are in full bloom from the fertilizer I said goodybye with.  Today there’s the gentle cloudy light that comes before a rain.

I walked over to Grier and Kim’s farm to say hello, and they gave me a dozen eggs from their hens, and sent me to pick all the fresh asparagus I wanted from their beds, just  like an early  morning trip to a French farmer’s market.

All morning there have been a brood of wild turkeys grazing in the pasture, right under my nose. And I set the fountains to bubbling next to the outdoor table.  It’s every bit as magical as the view I left behind.

 

Among the piles of bills and letters I came home to, there was a postcard from a dear friend.  It said “She dreams in perfect French”.  I do, sometimes, when I’m around it all day, but it is far from perfect.  Sometimes it’s just a voice speaking nonsense sounds that echo the intonations and rhythms of French speech.  Sometimes it is the odd word or phrase, for no particular reason, like an echo in my dreams, ringing over and over in a kind of random rhythm.

It was a rough ride home, hauling six new paintings, and all my tools and the treasures I found, down concourses, across parking lots, through long lines.  But the actual soul transition  from countryside paradise to countryside paradise is not so radical.  In both places there are thorns attached to every single rose.  In both places there’s  beauty enough to break your heart.

 

Spring Planting

A week from today I’ll be trapped in the airless confines of multiple airports and planes working my long slow way back home. I’m feeling the things one feels at the conclusion of a residency, the end of a journey. I noticed, at other less exotic residencies, how the artists bond, share their stories, thrash through opinions about art, and ideas about the making of it. As the door begins to close on that magic space, it seems one first withdraws emotionally, then physically. There’s a hole in the shape of that person when they are gone. It’s as painful for the people who stay behind as it is for the person leaving.

 

I’ve started the process of withdrawal early to protect my soul a little. I’m organizing my piles of receipts, cramming in a few last destinations, and spending 14 hour days in the studio. Finally the painting is flying. After a halting awkward beginning wrapped in jet lag and mental fog I’m deep in. I knew I didn’t want to paint Quaint France. France is so mellowed out and smoothed over with thousands of years of habitation, so developed in its way of being. I was looking for something wild— “sauvage”— underneath all the culture I so love to photograph and study. It’s finally coming clear to me. The last paintings are the best paintings. They revolve around botany— quirky juxtapositions nature allows for here, and maybe only here.

In college I signed up for Botany just because I was obsessed with botanical illustration. I nearly flunked Botany, but I got to stare at the illustrations for a whole semester. Part of what I loved was their dispassionate precision. Sometimes it’s enough to just tell the truth about a thing, truth being stranger than fiction.

 

These days there’s a certain amount of guilt in my thoughts— anxiety about the things I didn’t go see, the museums I skipped. Instead I find myself returning over and over to the supermarket, like a kind of tiny personal ritual. For me, it’s become a microcosm of middle class French daily life.

I like to see what the “specials” are, what is considered ordinary in the life of these people—la vie quotidienne.

I like to observe behaviors . Yesterday a woman insisted I go ahead of her in line at the checkout. It sparked a tiny conversation and a moment of goodwill that I treasured.

Often, after a long day of moving a paintbrush, I will travel many kilometers on the country roads above the village. It’s fun to drive my tiny car. There’s no traffic and I get to see the swell and sinking of the land, the perfection of the spring plowing, the tidiness of the farmhouses and the occasional astonishing ancient church or ruin.

And there is the botany. I have watched those fields first being plowed, then harrowed, and now they have begun to sprout.

A new friend stopped by for a studio visit yesterday. We were talking about how an artist’s work changes over time. How it’s hard to pin it down because it’s always in flux. He told me he’d gone to hear a famous jazz group from the 60’s perform in the 80’s. They’d played the same way and the same things they’d played 20 years before. It was just as he expected it to be. Then, he went to hear Miles Davis play. He said Miles stood with his back to the audience and launched into a barrage of audacious improvisation that was very difficult to take in. He told me how that was, to him, the perfect way to understand the mental wanderings and growth of an artist. I agreed, explaining that sometimes I am doing things I’m not sophisticated enough to understand, and it takes me a stretch of time to wrap my mind around my own ideas. The most uncomfortable, detested paintings are often the fields where the seeds of newness are just beginning to sprout.

Visiting the Deep Past

Finally, I have managed to shrug off the strangeness. I have found a level of ease with everything from starting a new painting to driving a different car. Yesterday I explored outside my circle of familiarity, traveling to a village about 10 km away to see a storied chapel, and really, to visit another time altogether. We drove on looping rhythmical roads over gentle hills, surrounded by nothing but agriculture.

Lachapelle was the destination, with only about 100 inhabitants. Its centerpiece is a thousand year old chateau Templar. Beside it sits a tiny Baroque chapel built in the 18th century, inspired by an Italian opera house. Its sponsor hired an ébaniste who spent many years creating the tiny church adorned with panels and pilasters, gilded and faux marbled.

There were large panels depicting scenes from the Bible and an enormous lecturn with carved eagles to hold the huge communal hymnal.

 

There was a guide who spoke only French, so I struggled to understand the complicated history of this jewel-like chapel. Women and children were seated on the ground floor in those days, and there were diminutive provincial rush-seat chairs that converted to kneelers for each of them. Some had initials from the original supplicants written with brass nail heads.

Men stood in the balcony. There was a stark difference between the high style of the chapel itself, and the beamed and rustic balconies in the rear.

Our visit was initiated by friends of Moulin à Nef, who live nearby. They are also friends of the current maître of the chateau.  He appeared in the church during our visit, and invited us to see the oldest part of his chateau.

The word “chateau” is French for “castle” and in most cases, in ancient times, that meant a fortified position on top of a hill where one could be protected from invasion. Vincent’s chateau surveys all the countryside for miles around. Because the land below is so valuable for agriculture, there are no intrusions from commerce or infrastructure. Just curving roads among hundreds of fields in cultivation, a few old trees, some tile roofed farm structures, and the sky. The one utility line is strung between weathered and knotted grey tree trunk poles with no particular attempt at uniformity.

It was a fine spring day and the village was spangled with blooming roses, irises and wisteria. The magic of it all was feeling as though we were having the same experience one might have had in that same place a thousand years ago.

The chateau’s owner, a retired pilot, explained to us that he’d persuaded his wife to allow him to chip away at an area of the wall in the entrance hall because he thought there might be something interesting in back of it. He, in fact, uncovered a thousand year old massive fireplace. He opened up another wall and discovered a kind of ancient sink where vegetables might have been washed— a stone basin that drained through a hole in the wall to the outside.

He showed us a favorite antique find— an elaborate turntable he’d found in Brittany, asking us what we thought it might have been intended for. Elaborate and polychromed, there was a group of cherubs carved into its ceiling. He explained that it had been installed in the outer wall of a convent, with a bell alongside it. If a woman gave birth to a child out of wedlock the penalty would have been death. It was designed so a woman might have rung the bell, placed the infant inside under the watchful eyes of the carved and painted cherubs, and then turned it, delivering her baby to the nuns within, the woman being neither seen nor recognized.

We ended our day on the terrace of our friends’ remodeled farmhouse. A large and rambling structure, their home was built long ago to fit its environment and serve practical purposes. It is now the warm place where they gather friends and family together. Besides the excellent company, amazing food, the view of miles and miles of farmland, and a stunning sunset, I was most captivated by the exposed ages-old beams and their irregular and quirky arrangement.

They were like large abstract sculptures coming out of the ceiling. When gaps developed, someone hundreds of years ago had created a patch to reconnect the beam to its load.

It reminded me, exactly, of the ways Charles had patched the beams in my own barn. It seems as though a carpenter’s practical wisdom is timeless and universal, passed in some mute fashion across continents, from century to century.

Wood Smoke and Roses

 

Twice today I had to climb the steep hill up into the village to the little grocery.  It was my night to cook supper.   At lunchtime I went up to finish my shopping, and then, when I poured my first glass of rosé at 5:00 and started cooking, I realized I had no butter, so I had to walk back.  The distance from our kitchen to the grocery store is the same as the distance from my kitchen back home to the backside of my farm.  Round trip, one mile.  The big difference is that hill.

 

On both trips I admired the flowers blooming everywhere.  There were parrot tulips in one garden, wisteria cascading over a doorway.  Another garden had flesh and fire colored roses. There was a shrub with thousands of bright blue blossoms, and a lilac bush in full glory.  On the five o’clock trip there was smoke rising from chimneys as the chill of evening descended.  All week the tiny airborne seeds of some plant have filled the afternoon air, lit by the slanting light.  They are everywhere.  At first I thought they were dandelion seeds, but on examination realized they were something fuzzier and more cotton-like.  When you look up at the sky, they are always there, like ethereal sprites flying around, looking for some new place to light.

 

At the grocery, the brothers who are cashiers speak impeccable idiomatic English, but I speak French to them, and ask them to correct me.  When I am corrected, I am more likely to learn the right expression.  My French teachers are so good– they know how to make it really clear.  They pantomime the meanings of words for me so they become unforgettable.  The woman at the art supply store demonstrated that the word  “terminé” as we used it, meant to be dead, not ” finished”, by showing her head being severed  by an imaginary knife.  Gesturing graphically at her body, she explained uses of the verb “to be”.  My grocery store teachers showed me,  pantomiming sleep, that I shouldn’t cook dinner in the “nuit”(night).  I needed to cook it in the “soir” (evening) instead.

The ingredients for dinner were amazing.  I roasted a gigantic yellow skinned hen, along with its innards, covering them all with fresh herbs.  From the jus I made a gravy like my grandmother used to make, with bits of hardboiled egg, celery, and the gizzard, heart and liver chopped fine.  The gravy went over whipped potatoes flavored with scallions and morels.  There was sauteed celeriac and a green salad.  For dessert I made an Alsatian bread pudding using apples and pears and my stale hazelnut bread.  And it all started with a duck paté and a rosé, and finished with several really fine bottles of Bordeaux.

Last Sunday I went to Easter mass at the Gothic cathedral in the nearest town.  All the text was printed in a program and because I knew the liturgy in English it was easy to understand the French.  Driving to mass, we passed a horde of Boy Scouts, returning from a campout, with backpacks and sleeping rolls on their backs.  By the time we got seated in church, they began to reappear as altar boys and congregants.  I loved the kind of gangly, familiar way they handled the candles and censers. A large group of them took seats all together beside us.  I’m not Catholic, so the chilly holy water being freely slung by the priest came as a tiny shock. Incense filled the air. I stood under the ancient vaults and absorbed it all as something intensely French, part of a long tradition of the spirit.

Moulin à Nef is on the Pilgrim Trail to Santiago de Compostela.  Every day pilgrims walk by our windows, or rest in the park between the studio and the river.  They walk, as those Boy Scouts walked, toward some spiritual destination.   They walk, as I walk up that long hard hill to the grocery, to learn some hitherto unknown thing, to fill in some missing piece, drinking in, along the way,  France, her roses and wood smoke.