IMG_4340Last weekend, we had a picnic in the garrigue, that magical wild place of this part of southern France. It smells like wild thyme and dry pine, with some wild rosemary thrown in. It sings–the wind humming a soprano through the pines, to the beat of the cicadas.

I posted a couple of short videos on Instagram; I haven’t managed to upload them here, but there’s a link to IG at the bottom of the “About” page. We have lots of trees at home, and lots of cicadas, or cigales, but they can’t compare to the numbers–or decibels–in the garrigue.IMG_4353A few days after our picnic, the Carnivore informed me that the garrigue had been placed off limits because of the risk of fire. The garrigue isn’t one continuous place, but many, some connected, others mere islands where rocky soil has preserved the place for wilderness.

We have a wide choice of garrigues nearby. Some draw lots of people. We choose a spot that’s off a tiny road, which itself is off a back road. The entrance to the garrigue is really like an entrance. On one side, vineyards line up neatly. And on the other side of this “border,” woods and brush push up improbably through rugged rocks. We drove up a bit farther than usual, but without a high, four-wheel drive vehicle, it was impossible to go very far. The “road”–a pair of tracks, really–was too rough.

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“Road.”

Our preferred spot is at the crest of a hill, where the cooling breezes come through, and where the trees are tall and create a large oasis of shade, also cool. Our region avoided the worst of the “Lucifer” heat wave that hit farther east, but temperatures had climbed into the mid-90s, which we thought was quite hot enough thank you. The air had that hot-furnace feel that makes laundry dry in mere minutes on the line and tomato plants shrivel. Watering flowers has been banned for some time, and watering food plants is restricted to night hours.

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Picnic table. Simply sandwiches, nectarines, lots of water, a little wine.

Time to escape to the garrigue. However, the hill is big and the path is difficult–uneven slabs of rocks sprinkled with loose pebbles that are like walking on marbles–on an incline. Don’t go too fast. We hiked about 20 minutes to our spot. Along the way, I eyed dead pine trees with the uneasy knowledge that they were dangerous fuel if a fire were to break out. That strong wind, so welcome for cooling, would make a fire spread like….wildfire.IMG_4351Fires are a part of life around here. As in California, I guess. Or like tornados are in the Midwest of the U.S. About 10,000 people were evacuated two weeks ago from a huge fire near Bormes-les-Mimosas in the Var department in southeast France. And a terrible fire in Portugal killed 60 people, most of them trapped in their cars on a highway.P1050041So I look up anxiously every time I hear the buzz of the Canadair water bombers (the Canadair company disappeared in 1986 when it became part of Bombardier, but everybody around here calls the planes “Canadairs” the way Americans call paper tissues “Kleenex”). They fly in pairs, picking up water at the Bassin de Saint-Ferréol, a reservoir in the Black Mountains near Revel that was created to feed the Canal du Midi. The lower they pass above us, the closer the fire.P1050044P1080156I remember seeing the military planes streaking across the sky to and from the base near where I grew up, and being unsettled by the sonic booms that would follow. Those were the days of radiation signs above doors at school, the days of bomb drills and evil empires. My kid was quite upset one day toward the end of the last school year when they had a drill in case of an attack–barricade the doors, shut off phones. The world evolves, but not always for the better.

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Hotel view: La Cité and the Pyrénnées.

I visited a hotel in another garrigue. A lovely setting with magnificent views. On the edge of the property was what looked like a giant water balloon, about the size of the pool at the sporting complex–water for firefighters, should the need arise.

Rain in the summer is rare here, and welcome when it comes. In fact, today is cool and cloudy, and I’m energized to go running. But I won’t be accompanied by the song of the cigales, who fall silent when temperatures are too cool for their liking.

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Welcome change, as long as it’s short. The sun is expected to return this afternoon.

 

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19 thoughts on “Wild Fire

  1. I can smell it all and what you write relates to when we lived in Umbria, and we too went on such picnics. The bright yellow Canadair planes would scoop up water from Lago Trasimeno to dump on forest fires. The locals where adamant that these fires where lit by arsonists, often in revenge for something or other. In the autumn, as we walked along forest tracks we saw how brave nature is, already things were starting to grow again from the burnt black earth. So enjoy what you write, it lifts my day.

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    1. There are some people who light fires, but many are accidental–a campfire that wasn’t put out completely (OK, campfires are illegal, but people probably figured they wouldn’t hurt anything). Cigarettes tossed from passing cars are a big problem–the Herault firefighters put out an ad that says “A small gesture that makes you a big idiot” (Ce petit geste qui fait de vous un gros con), with a photo of a smoking cigarette butt on a road with a car driving away.

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  2. What a lovely evocative post. The crackling dryness with its attendant scents of herbs and danger absolutely shine through. Enjoy profiting from the cooling down on your run … I’m sure the sun won’t be far behind always something to be thankful for!

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  3. Where we live, we can smell the smoke from the fires in the interior of British Columbia.
    The smell of summer around here this year. Watering restrictions are also in effect. Every once in a while the real smell of summer surfaces, dry grasses, fir trees and salt air, mixed together to smell like home.
    Ali

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    1. I had read about the big fire earlier this year, but until you mentioned it, I didn’t know about the ones burning now. I just did a search and yikes it sounds drastic. At least you’re on an island!
      Yes, summer has that special smell. It’s so different here from where I grew up–in the Midwest, the summer air is almost syrupy, it’s so humid, and it’s sticky sweet like freshly mown grass. Here, it’s dry and full of herbs.

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  4. I grew up in very southern Oklahoma and summer’s smell is one of best memories: honeysuckle, mimosa, roses, peach trees, magnolias and my lovely every positive neighbor who planted gardenias outside her bedroom window and slept with the windows open when they were in bloom. I, too, grew up with the sounds, sights and memories of the ever present danger. When my son was in preschool here in Kansas, they practiced drills for bad weather. One day he said something about his day. “We got under our desks and covered our heads in case a giant tomato happened.” Still love the idea of a tomato drill.

    ps: loved your writing and your great love for where you live.

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    1. Australia is a place I have never visited but would love to.
      The heat has a stick-your- head-in-the-oven intensity, whereas where I grew up, and in NYC, it’s more of a just-got-out-of-a-very-long-shower humidity.

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  5. Unfortunately, here in Portland, Oregon, the smell of summer in recent years often has been the smell of smoky air from wildfires near and far away. The extreme weather brought by climate change has been the direct and/or indirect cause of many if not most of those wildfires.

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  6. Bonjour. Just saw your comment on my blog and guess what? We are looking at places near you that can house our huge group…but people want air conditioning (they are mostly from Florida), so that is proving difficult. But anyway, we have to meet, I hope, when I’m close by!
    Mary Ann

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    1. It’s true we don’t have A/C because it isn’t allowed in historically protected buildings. But I have to say that outside July you really don’t need it. (Even in July–we have lived here comfortably for 15 years without A/C.)
      You can email me at taste (dot) france (at) yahoo (dot) com for more info/recommendations.

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