Sunday, May 12, 2013

Les causses (part II)

Now I’ll confess that the place I was headed was in reality rather far away from La Rochelle, as far from there as from Paris, in spirit if not in geography.  I’ve written before of the causses, the limestone plateaus in France’s center-southwest. Cut by rivers – the Lot, the Dordogne, the Tarn, the Aveyron, and their tributaries – into green valleys and steep white gorges, with a roof of dry, rocky grassland dotted with scraggly oak and juniper.  On Saturday we arrived in Blanc, an almost-abandoned village up the Sanctus river valley from the town of Brusque in the Aveyron.  No need to locate it precisely: suffice it to know that it is a lot closer to the middle of nowhere than to Millau or Albi, the closest cities of any consequence. It is also geologically halfway between the Montagnes Noires of the Hérault and the true Aveyronnais limestone plateau.  More about Blanc later.  First, Wednesday, when we went for a walk in the causse, which has long had me dreaming.

Me and Mademoiselle, lost in the causse

In August, when we’d last been here near Figeac, in the Quercy, the grass on the causse was dry and brown. The bare landscape often reminds me of southern Idaho or eastern Oregon, except here the traces of humanity are more well-worn and written everywhere in stone: the dry stone fences that crisscross the hills, the abandoned stone terraces cut into the cliff-sides, the crumbling stone huts and stables at the corners of meadows, and the villages of modest houses gathered together into stony knots.  Older mineral traces are found in prehistoric stone dolmens and sculpted menhirs.

Still, despite all that human-wrought stone, I wouldn’t have guessed that the landscape was of human making, and yet it is: where sheep have stopped grazing, forest has taken over. Here, in a radius outside Millau, pasture and grassland remain because the land is the terroir of Roquefort cheese.  When you eat that iconic French ewes-milk blue, you preserve the causse.  It’s as simple and as unexpected as that.

It is May, and I brought my family to the Aveyron to see the causse in spring.  Limestone soil means orchids, and I’m a bit of a wild orchid fanatic (albeit one with far more enthusiasm than expertise).  I love finding orchids and puzzling over their varied shapes and colors that never seem to be described or illustrated coherently in my wildflower books.  I love them because they’re often terribly difficult to find, yet I discover them in the same places year after year.  They are rare and thus are sentinels of some idea of wilderness than I can’t otherwise reach.  But I can count on them. They show up in May and June, just when I’ve emerged from a long, urban winter, when they are symbols that all is still mostly right in the world.

An orchis singe, or "monkey orchid" (Note that all of my plant identifications are approximate)

Not all orchids are as rare as all that around here, I discovered.  Along the road there are constant bright patches of orchis mâle, which one guidebook assures me is the most common orchid in all of France.  On our first walks around Blanc, they were the only orchids I could find in bloom at all.  Thus my determination to go for a walk on the causse.

My husband found the itinerary, thanks to a pile of hiking books that he brought from home and some quick research on Google.  Our first stop was by the side of a calm country road, where my husband spotted a large patch of rare Pyrenean fritillaries from the car.  They aren’t orchids, but they even more unusual than any of the orchids we’d see.  Alongside we saw orchis singe and orchis pourpre.

Frittilaire des Pyrénées

We left the car in a tiny village, and the kids were soon bounding down a track through pastureland dotted with small trees.  They both love to hike: Le Petit can be counted on to cheerfully hike as much as 12 kilometers in a day, and Mademoiselle will walk as much as her legs and our patience will allow, while the rest of the time she rides reluctantly in a backpack carrier.  Le Petit loves “climbing” mountains and running along the trail.  Mademoiselle notices bugs of all kinds and stops to lean over them in amazement.  They both know how much Mommy loves flowers. Mademoiselle just learned to say “Or-kid!” and Le Petit loves to show off his math skills by counting them along the trail.  Neither of them care much beyond that now, but I love that they have the patience to come with me. 

Le Petit on the trail

The causse was in its robe de fête, with more wildflowers than I’ve seen anywhere in recent memory: anemone pulsatille and orchis pourpre and orchis mâle, wild tulips, violets and globulaire commune, to name only those I was reasonably sure I recognized.  At first, we ran up to each patch and counted and took pictures.  I even squeezed under a barbed-wire fence to get my first good look at some anemones. But soon the marvelous was too numerous even for us.  We found a good place to picnic where we could look over the causse amid the flowers, between the macro and the micro.

Orphrys petite araignée ("little spider")

A wild tulip

Not sure what this one is, but Le Petit liked it best, because it was the only one "not pink or purple"
Anémone pulsatille

Now as I look at the photos we took I realize that each flower is its own world.

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