“I alternate between feeling sympathetic toward humanity and being a misanthrope. When I’m sympathetic, it usually means I haven’t been around people in awhile.”John R. Lindensmith
There is a farmhouse, a mas, in the countryside some miles outside of Arles. It is not terribly accessible – I only noted it from the elevated aspect of an abandoned railroad embankment that cuts through the rice fields about a kilometer distant. There are no major roads nearby. Other than the gravel-topped and weedy embankment, closed to any traffic save the occasional solitary hiker or emboldened fox, there is the cul-de-sac dirt road that leads to its private drive about a half kilometer the other side from the raised path. It sits in the middle of flat and stretching fields, far from any noteworthy topography. And yet this farmhouse has a hedge. And not just any hedge, but a pretty spectacular one, easily twenty feet high. From my vantage I can’t ascertain what it’s composed of, but it has the dark green of maybe bay laurel, or some kind of cedar, or cypress. It looks to be a perfect square, about 60 meters to a side, you can just make out the gables of a roof appearing over the top. And here’s the thing – when I say ‘perfect square’ I mean ‘perfect’. It has been topiaried to an astounding geometric perfection. All of the faces have been trimmed flat and even, plumb as a brick wall, the top as level as a table. Even the sides facing the embankment where, again, no prying eyes will ever penetrate, are trimmed smooth.
On a subsequent bike ride, I managed to navigate to the access road on the far side, only to find the frontage along the road presents a soaring, impenetrable poplar brake, at least 60 feet high, that further shields the farm from view. This is someone who values their privacy. And is very fastidious. And patient – a hedge this size and density can take several generations to reach this point. Perhaps misanthropy is an inherited trait?
There are scant other clues. Sometimes I hear the faint clarnkeling of sheeps’ bells. Branches of some kind of tree rise from the center of the compound, possibly a small private orchard? I’ve never seen a vehicle exiting or entering the (fairly imposing) gate. Chimney smoke, once. Tempted to walk closer for a better look, maybe ring the bell? There has to be a bell, a place like this would have some kind of weathered, verdigris-encrusted chain to pull. But approach from the embankment would mean cutting across tilled fields; the driveway is a bit too imposing, and though I haven’t seen any yet, the Provençal farmhouse dog is more formidable than any hedge.
There is a life going on inside. There must be an array of equipment simply to keep the hedge in trim. There are meals being cooked, tasks being carried out – if the perfection of the exterior is any indication one could extrapolate an almost manic tidiness. There are mice in the cellar, possibly a cat or three; bats nesting under the eaves and in the hedge, an even more reclusive fox in burrow beneath the woodpile. There is a wall-mounted phone that is rarely used. There’s a record in the dust of generations that brought the farm to this quiet, solitary point. And there is someone – I imagine, rightly or wrongly, a single soul, probably male – puttering around and keeping it just so.
And I think I would never be able to live like that, cut off from the outside, entrenched in my ways, wearing ruts in the floorboards as I inward gaze. Then my phone rings; a number I don’t recognize. I let it go to voicemail.