A new home in an ancient landscape
The Aveyron is one of the biggest and at the same time most sparsely populated departments in France: 31 people per km2 compared to for example 488 people per km2 in Flanders (Belgium), where my roots are. Its landscape bears still many visible traces of the past. Standing on hilltops, vast natural spaces extend before your eyes, scattered with ancient hamlets and farms built in stone, testimonies of a skilled craftmanship in what once must have been a thriving rural society. Hundreds of kilometers of dry-stone walls have been built on hillsides, forming terraces that once were cultivated and still stand, even though they have been abandoned for decades now. The mountainous region that has been home for the statues-menhirs for centuries, was quite a secluded area in prehistory, and in fact it still is today. The Aveyron counts only one highway running through on its eastern extremity and only a few towns modest in size in a relatively large area. Some places are so remote, that one must drive 15 minutes to get to the nearest bakery, or 40 minutes to get to the nearest town with more facilities. It involves a lot of driving to get from one village to another, on small sinuous country roads
The Aveyron has been able to maintain its authentic character and hasn’t undergone as many changes as some other regions have. Although a big part of the land in Aveyron is cultivated, its nature and biodiversity are relatively well preserved, compared to other agricultural regions. The soil here is often poor and less suited to cultivate demanding crops. Agropastoralism is widespread and most farms raise sheep to produce milk for Roquefort.
I fell in love with the landscapes of my new homebase and I can’t imagine I could ever get enough of them. It is the perfect setting to dream about the future, while imagining the past.
A lot of the old places that have been abandoned, are nowadays re-occupied and restored by young people and families seeking to escape the busy city life. They are in search for a more authentic way of life closer to nature and experiment with more resilient ways to cultivate the earth. This movement has created a new rural dynamic, that is centered around and in between farms, with a lot of local food production and craftmanship. We have lived and worked on Régis’ farm for three years after I decided to settle there. What I loved most about it was herding the goats. During the grazing season, we often sent them out on their own, since they knew their pastures, but quite often I had to climb up the hill in the evening to get them back to the stable before dark. It was my favorite moment of the day, finding myself on top of the hill with views on both sides, surrounded by the goats peacefully grazing, the dull sounds of their hooves and the rustling in the grass. I loved the kaleidoscopic variations of the colors of the sky and the earth, the patchwork of fields, forests and grasslands, the rays of light falling from the sky, moving unpredictably, depending on the speed, shape and color of the clouds passing by. To be able to experience magical moments like these, are essential to life to me, and I feel grateful to live in a place where nature still has its space
Marcel the potter
When Régis and I eventually set off on our small road trip that February afternoon (see “Rooting with stones, part 1“), this meant my initiation to the Aveyron landscape. I had never been to this region before and had no reference points at all. So, the statues-menhirs became my reference points. Looking back at the same map in the same book now, while writing this text six years later, I suddenly realize I know this place intimately. It almost comes as a shock. During six years of exploring, my mental geographical map has formed.
The first friend Régis would introduce me to was Marcel. His hamlet, Lucante, in the next village, was our first stop on our road trip. Régis knew he had a statue-menhir standing in his living room so he considered that would be an appropriate reason to visit. Marcel is a potter and had bought the hamlet in the late seventies. In 1984 they were restoring a wall that had partially crumbled down. During the construction works, a girl noticed some engravings on one of the cornerstones that got uncovered while taking down part of the wall. At that time, Marcel had never heard of the statues-menhirs, so he put the stone aside not knowing what it was. It wasn’t until the local archaeologist came by to examine it, that he understood he was the actual owner of a valuable prehistoric sculpture. Since then, it has been standing on the floor in his living room as a silent, mysterious companion, refusing to reveal anything about all the things he has seen on his journey since a sculptor made him come alive some 5000 years ago.
I went to visit Marcel again while writing this text and asked him if he remembered that day six years ago when we came to visit to have a look at his statue-menhir. “I remember very well. Your French has improved a lot since!” he said laughing.
“You can come and look at it again; it is still here, you are lucky. They decided to open a new museum in Belmont and two years ago I signed a paper that I would borrow it them, but there has been no news since. The project is on hold. It will be strange when it will be gone, but I feel like everyone has the right to see it, it is patrimony after all. The statue-menhir will remain my property they said, but I think that is strange, since how can a stone with such cultural value be someone’s property?”
“My statue-menhir is very special” he continued, “it has a V-shaped necklace and there is only one like it. That’s why I am convinced that my statue-menhir is the ancestor of the Shadocks. Do you know them? You should look on YouTube, you will see. I am really quite sure of it.”
And I did look on Youtube, and this was what I found… Can you see the resemblance?
Read the previous blogs:
Rooting with stones
Imaginary wanderings through the ancient landscapes of South-Aveyron (France) Introduction In 2016 I moved from the Campine in Belgium to a rural, mountainous region in the South of France. This blog tells the story of my rooting in this new environment of the South-Aveyron, that is fundamentally different from the urban atmosphere I grew up in. Quite immediately after I set foot in the Aveyron for the first time, I found myself standing face to face with these enigmatic prehistoric characters sculpted in stone, known as “the statues-menhirs of the Rouerge”. This encounter has sparked my imagination and shaped my…
Rooting with stones #2
Changing agency in an imaginary landscape The power of stories People love stories. Our whole lives are made up of stories. Some researchers say that the main reason why humans developed speech is… ‘gossip’. Whether or not a specific person is reliable or not, is indeed crucial information to our survival. We have been telling each other stories for ages, and so did we in prehistoric times. Wouldn’t it be great to know what these stories were like, what they were about? We love to tell stories about other people, certainly when they are hidden, secret, or difficult to get…