O! TO BE IN PROVENCE, NOW THAT MARCH IS HERE!

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that, although this blog is devoted to beautiful, and all-too-fragile New Jersey, I am always longing for Provence.

Mediterranean with Crimson Esterel Massif at its Edge by Popoff

Mediterranean Sea from Esterel Massif, en route to and from St. Tropez

I lived in Cannes from October of 1987 into August of 1988 – in other words, I saw the seasons ’round.

pine tree by Meditgerranean from Internet

Normal Provencal Drive for me, even in winter

In February and March, along the Riviera, trees bloom.  Driving in closed cars up to the sacred hill towns, the perched villages, the fragrance of blossoms fills the vehicle.  Almond blossoms like snow against gnarled hillsides.  Menton’s lemons, grapefruit, mandarines, clementines, and yes, oranges filling the air, until breathing was like drinking Cointreau.  Mingled with the sweetness of flowering fruit trees was always the pungency of wild herbs in the garrigues: thyme, marjoram, rosemary in tall shrubs, oregano, savory and pebre d’ail, a truly spicy wild flavoring.  Animals who fed in the herblands absorbed those savors into their meat, their milk, therefore infusing Provencal cheeses.

Menton's Citron Festival in February

Menton’s Citron Festival around George Washington’s Birthday

The sense of smell was literally intoxicating during my stay there.  One bitter January day in Biot, I was walking its narrow streets, marveling at flowers in small terra cotta pots even on back stoops of houses, blooming in what we know as winter.  Then, I smelled peaches.  I decided I’d just been in this land of enchantment so long that I’d ‘gone round the bend.’  Instead, I strode ’round the corner to find a small fresh food marche, with some of its produce out on the sidewalk in January sun.  Peaches filled the air, as though someone were baking a peach pie.

20110806-100810_peches_etal_marche_aix

Peaches in an outdoor market in Provence

The sense of hearing was newly called into play, not always pleasantly.  The mistral reared its inescapable head day after day in winter, roaring down the Rhone toward that usually placid Mediterranean Sea.  Some say, and I’d believe it, that Van Gogh cut off his ear because driven to this by the mistral.  It can roar for days, causing pipes in your home and shutters on your windows to whine and twang.  We don’t know anything like this wind.  It’s as though Provence wind came through huge faucets, all turned on at full blast at the same time and the same impossible speed, by day and by night, interminably.

Le Parfum des Garrigues

We don’t know wind like this, not even in hurricanes, which I’ve now lived through.  Our winds rise and fall in intensity and sound.  One of the greatest horrors of Sandy for me was the relentlessness of that howl.  The mistral’s is more infuriating, more intense, –a more ceaseless and inescapable blast.

Cheese of Goats, perfumed by wild herbes des garrigues

Cheese of Goats who Roam the Garrigues/wild herb fields of Provence

One time, my daughters had a good laugh on their romantic mother.  Somewhere in the South of France, high above the sea, I enthused, “Isn’t Provence wonderful?  The air smells like champagne!”  We were at a picnic ground high above the sea.  The mistral was so strong, it had blown over a family’s champagne, literally spilling it all over those ancient rocks.

perched village of Provence

Typical perched village – driving through fragrant collines to reach these treasures

It probably doesn’t make sense even to miss the annoying mistral, but I do.  Afterwards, the Provencaux would say of that wind, “Il balayer le ciel.”  (It sweeps the sky.)  No bluer blue ever existed than post-mistral skies, unless you count the Mediterranean, reflecting that ethereal hue.

typica drive near St. Tropez

Everything’s electrifying in Provence.  Breathing itself is intoxicating.  Around any corner, anything can happen.  In St. Tropez’ s Musee de l’Annonciade, one looks at Fauve masterpieces on the wall, then through the windows at the very scenes those vivid colorists painted so masterfully.

Baie de St. Tropez from Musee Annonciade at Sunset

Fishing Boats of St. Tropez, from window of Musee de l’Annonciade

Typica View from Window of Annociade Musee on Baie de St. Tropez

Baie de St.  Tropez from windows of Musee de l’Annonciade

But the queen of all Provencal sense experiences is the amazing mimosa/  Delicate as these blossoms are, they come from a tree.  One filled my second-floor bedroom window in Cannes.  Tiny puff balls moved in the slightest breeze, wafting a scent of lemon and nutmeg in through those bottle-green wooden shutters.  Nothing surpasses waking and sleeping to the delicate mimosa fragrance.  Another miracle was peering through mimosa branches to discover Napoleon’s Corsica so very far away, but only in early winter months.

Magnificent Mimosa in ad for l'Occitane, Provencal's quintessential fabrics

Magnificent Mimosa Tree in Ad by l’Occitane, house of superb Provencal fabrics

Even with my love of New Jersey’s soul-filling beauty, I miss the many electrifications of Provence, especially as March — the month of flower fragrances in that land – begins, with a nor’easter, no less.  No flower fragrances for us, let alone peaches around the corner.

flowering almond treeFlowering Almond Tree – subject of Pierre Bonnard’s last painting – he lived at Le Cannet, one hill over from ‘mine’, L’Observatoire of Cannes

flowering orange treeIn

In Menton, flowers and Fruit at Same Time, on February Trees

Advertisements

WOODCOCKING – SEEKING THE ELUSIVE AT MAPLETON PRESERVE

Sometimes, a bizarre pursuit can result in exorbitant pleasure.

Birders know that late March, –as dusk plunges into darkness, in empty fields, even in cold wind and after drizzling rain–, one of the keenest joys of birding can unfold.  Woodcocks, –even right here in Princeton and Kingston and Rocky Hill and Plainsboro Preserve –perform their mating dance at sundown.  Birders strain to hear that characteristic “Peent”, and the odd ascending/descending whirling buzz that alerts those in the know to look up for that short-lived dance, something unique in all the world.

Last weekend, my intrepid friend, Karen Linder, and I trekked from her Kingston house over to Mapleton Preserve.  We were on a woodcock quest.  She had heard them once this season; I not at all.

When you ‘woodcock’, yes, you have your best light-gathering binoculars at the ready.  But a stellar sense of hearing is even more important.

Also warm clothes, layers and layers, because woodcocking involves a great deal of standing around, every nerve aquiver, as silently as possible.

There’s always the sense that this is absolutely impossible.

And absolutely crazy — it’s almost dark out here.  (It never occurred to us to bring flashlights.  I don’t know if they would alarm the birds.)

Whatever you do, you don’t want to interfere with these essential rituals, without which there would be no more woodcocks.

We tromped Mapleton’s expansive fields, like detectives looking for essential clues.

We came upon a noble skeleton of a deer, ribs like antique scrimshaw, hooves still glossy.  One leg and haunch had been carried elsewhere, and by what?  I hoped coyote.

In an adjacent field, we found the elegant skeleton of a fox.  I don’t know what was more arresting — that glowing, still bushy tail, or that stripped head and o! those fangs…

A great blue heron sailed silently above, an exclamation point against the lowering sky.

Here and there, a bustly robin went about final foraging of the day.

We reminisced about the year when Rush Holt began and successfully completed his first run for office, using the lodge-like building that had been essential to Flemer Nurseries on what is now the Mapleton Preserve.  Rush Holt, that rare politician, who gets it that all nature is connected.  Who does whatever he can to preserve habitat in our region.  Who is in his final term now, to our great regret – although we are happy for Rush. 

Maybe politics and woodcocks seem far-fetched to some NJWILDBEAUTY readers.  But no — without crusading and courageous champions, those fields we were traversing would be concrete and buildings and parking lots and lights that shine all night.  It’s a miracle that this handful of acres stretches golden in last light, shorn and welcoming to woodcocks in their dance.

Suddenly, Karen stiffened, pointed toward a shadowy row of trees.  “Hear that?!”, she exulted.

I missed her sound, but heard my own in trees across another field, –in fact, near the famous allee of Flemer gingko trees.  It wasn’t so much a “Peent”, as the sound of my children’s hushed “neat”, in their teen years — the way modern teenagers almost whisper “cool”.  the more whispery, the more important.

Then a small zippy slate-colored something zoomed over our heads going west.  Something else did the same going the other way.

“Neat”

“Peent”

“Neat”

“Peent”

zip

zoom

All color had left the sky, except a hint of tinfoil.  So we could see no field marks, only woodcock silhouettes.  And very determined they were.

A single charcoal-blue cloud stretched across a backdrop of tarnished silver — a cloud exactly like a mackerel, crossed with a whale.

We tiptoed.

We craned our necks.

We cocked our ears.

A few more zips and peents.

And then it was time to make our almost blind way home.

Something about the sheer outrageousness of our quest conferred profound drama and dignity to our hour in the field.

Something like this would have occasioned my mother’s one profanity, “No other damfool.”…

That’s just the point.

We were out there in the bitter cold, and winds so strong the woodcocks could not create their DNA-spiral dance, because we honor those birds, their wildness and their traditions.

And because we were among those brave committed souls who said, “The Princeton Nursery Lands must be saved.  Attention must be paid.”  Those ghastly hours at those loaded hearings, the grave discouragements, our seemingly futile arguments with frankly pompous experts determined to develop, were not in vain.

Because of preservation, on that cold March night, in Mapleton’s preserved fields, we were in the presence of woodcocks.