At the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books.Norman Maclean
The Rhône at Arles is a tidal river, which is a thing that takes some getting used to. There are hours of the day where it torrents northward with a single-minded purpose towards Avignon, like a desperate penitent seeking absolution; at others it tumbles southwards towards Port Saint Louis and the Mediterranean, dragging tree trunks and prayers from Geneva. At yet others it is still as glass, a placid mirror reflecting the blue Provençal sky, perhaps shawled in mist or punctuated by a curious cormorant.
It starts life as a glacier on the far side of Switzerland, melting, trickling, torrenting as it slinky-steps down to the southwest, picking up speed when it’s joined by the Drance at Martigny, and puddling a bit to get some banking done at Geneva. From there it collects tributaries in almost poetic, rippling litany: The Morge, the Veveyese, the Venoge, the Aubonne, the Saône, the Eyrieux, the Ardèche, the Cèze, the Drôme, the Ouvèze, the Durance. It has an impressive flow by the time it rolls through Lyon and turns left (@ 60,000 cubic feet per second for those keeping track, or 3,750,000 pounds of water weight – the equivalent of roughly 18,000 elephants rushing past every minute).
Look at a map of the southern Rhône (or imagine yourself a migratory stork peering down from rarer air), reaching towards the Mediterranean in splay-fingered hand, a 360 square mile variegated delta of marsh and salt flats. This is la Camargue. Arles is a bracelet on that hand, just where the Grand Rhône and Petit Rhône splinter apart, Languedoc to the west, Provence to the east. The main flow does a little zig to the east as it passes through town, and just where it zags back west is pretty much exactly where Van Gogh stood to paint ‘Starry Night Over the Rhône”
Blue-black water, aquamarine and darkling sky, golden striations, points of reaching light, the great bear inclining towards Polaris. It’s like the night breaths a heavy sigh and settles. Stars like fireworks, blossoming chrysanthemums; soaring, shearing comets and girandolas…..birthing, breathing, whorling into the night sky like so many celestial exclamation points, a symphony, a dance of eddies and firey ghosts, reflected and muddled in the dark water rushing past below. And on and on it goes.
It’s a land of causeways and canals, rice fields, vineyards, pasturage and saltwater estuaries. On a good day, when papers are graded, and lesson plans are more or less set, we can spend an entire morning exploring, puddle-jumping, stone-throwing, dragon-slaying. It’s the time of year when a 10:00am sun still casts stretching shadows and challenges recalcitrant frost. There’s a stark beauty to the place – miles and miles of scrub and stubble, a patchwork of fields in tenuous détente with the ever shifting sea. To the northeast, like a slumped and slumbering boar, the haziest suggestion of Mont Ventoux. Recently, we walked the herders’ path along the Canal de Rousty, dug in 1543 to control flooding and provide irrigation. It cuts through the wetlands south of town, lined with ash, dogwood, and tamarisk, the waters full of eel and northern pike.
The kids ran from discovery of deer tracks to a corral of horses to watching flocks of honking (chirping, barking) flamingoes pass overhead on their way to North Africa. There were herons, and egrets, and amoebic murmurations of starlings. The air, oddly, was full of spiderwebs – long, sinuous, half-glimpsed strands piloting the breeze, pas-de-deuxing. Not so much that it was uncomfortable or eerie, rather intriguing and quite beautiful – if you looked up you could see them twisting and sailing by. Almost Van Gogh-y.
Lunch was at Les Salicornes, a converted 17th century chapel, across the road from a herd of bemused bulls. Sat next to the massive fireplace, which looks to have been burning steadily for at least 300 years. We come here when we can, they have the best burgers and frites we’ve found in France – nothing fancy, and all the better because of it. Perhaps the bulls weren’t so much bemused as concerned.
Not bad for a 20 minute drive from our door.
Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.Norman Maclean