Back Beneath a Mountain
Of Gold and Silver, Trees and Ghosts
The woods are cool. The air flows above the tumbling, rushing stream, following the steep valley down to the river below. It is urgent, this flow, both water and air, as though it longs to escape the upper slopes, leave the woods behind, and emerge downstream, head towards the sea.
This stream carries secrets. The path through the wood is old, here and there cobbles and steps emerge from the loam and detritus of the forest. This was a substantial route, once upon an age, long before we began to use the motor engine, from a time when the traffic would all have been on foot, whether human, or pack animal.
There are signs and traces of others here, memories of centuries past disappearing beneath tree and bramble, rockfall and ivy. All things head downhill, eventually.
Walls flank the cobbles, in places over two metres (six and a half feet) wide, ancient evidence of field clearance put to another use, sometimes in the middle of what seems at first glance an ancient forest, before you realise these trees have moved back to where their ancestors were laboriously cleared, the land once more a tangle of root and stone. All that work, all gone beneath the fungi and fallen chestnuts. Those fields are now beyond memory, some, I suspect, not even known to the older residents of the village.
Landscape archaeology is something that, once learnt, is impossible to lose. What was previously an undulation or bump becomes something more, a story of our species’ past, written across the land itself. Dots are joined, pieces of the jigsaw rotated and fit into place.
Documentary resources, or word of mouth, can fill in the gaps — here, I have learnt, a young girl minding the goats high up on the mountain discovered a heavy rock, which she carried back to her master. It turned out to be pure silver and, within a short time, a mine was dug.
The stream, which flows through our village and which I hear burbling as I type this, has her source near the old silver mines, now long abandoned and reburied. There is also gold here, and I am sure I will teach Ailsa how to pan, how to find the best places and sift and sieve. Gold panning, much like fishing, is a good reason or excuse to be out in nature, the process a form of meditation. Of course, it is exciting to see those flecks of gold (or other heavy stones or minerals) in the bottom of the pan, but it is not the reason I do it.
Wild mountain streams, carving through forested slopes, are places of thought, places which carry a song as much as they carry precious metals, the air seems scented with green, it is alive with woodland birdsong, butterflies shoaling, gathering in flurries, the animals carefully picking their way to the water’s edge to drink. For there are hunters here, and not all carry guns — some work together, as a family, as a pack.
I have much to share of this corner of the world. And share it, I shall.
It seems as though this is a fresh start, a return which heralds the arrival of a new chapter, or a new book entirely. Some things appear to have come full circle — we once more live on the lower slopes of a forested mountain, once more experience the exhalation of cool air, flowing down and keeping summer bearable. Doi Suthep, staring down at the Thai city of Chiang Mai and the mountain we lived below until late in 2019, is 1676 metres high (5499 feet), le Grand Serre, sitting to our south and a peak of the Massif du Taillefer, 2141 metres (7024 feet). Both are mostly covered in trees, both are full of nature, of history, of trails, tracks and ghosts.
It is good to be back on a mountain.
There are many little vignettes I want to share with you, little sketches of the things I have witnessed, such as the bees welcoming us into our house, or the eagles overhead at lunch time*.
This is the 47th newsletter I have sent. The last was sent in April, the week before our wedding; I had not intended to have such a break.
When you move into a new house, before it becomes a home, you expect a certain level of cleaning, of renovation and decoration. You do not expect to have to cut out whole sections of plasterboard/drywall. You do not expect to have to remove the metal drywall frame, as it has corroded away beneath years of cat and dog urine, the stench at times almost unbearable.
We got the keys to this place the week of the wedding, and began to clean almost as soon as we got back from Ardèche. It has been a considerable and time-consuming experience. Perhaps in a future letter I shall share more about this but, for now, just know that the smell has been vanquished, the rooms all renovated and decorated, new skirting boards added, and some floors removed back to older, less urine-saturated versions of themselves.
We have had help from friends and family — especially Aurélie’s mum, who has been here almost every day, working hard and using her impressive array of skills in order to make the house a home.
Had we known what a state the house was in before we moved here, I think we would have found somewhere else to live. But, now that we are at the point where we can finally look at fun jobs, projects such as a gym, a workshop, and maximising the small garden with plant pots and hanging baskets, things feel considerably more relaxed.
It helps that we love the village and area — the people are welcoming without being intrusive, and the mayor is a force to be reckoned with, ensuring Things Are Done for the village. The nounou (nanny) for Ailsa could not be better. She spends three days a week there, and ‘there’ is a walk up the hill for all of two minutes. The nounou is also a great source of information on the village, on walks and people and whether certain berry patches outside seemingly empty houses can be raided without invoking the ire of someone else…
On one of our walks we found the largest patch of wild strawberries I have ever seen — too many to collect in our repurposed packed lunch containers. Raspberry canes were also shooting up in the vicinity and, lower down, there were sweet chestnuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, fungi, blackberries, and many other edible and medicinal plants. This is a rich place to live, and I feel as though we are only just scratching the surface.
I have not been a part of a group promotion since April — which is one reason having a break from this newsletter was possible, I was not letting anyone else down. However, for July, Only One Death is a part of July Blowout! over at Book Cave. There are over eighty books to choose from here, from several genres, including Adventure, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi. Do take a peek!
Only One Death is, for those of you new here, a permafree novella, introducing characters, locations, and ideas which are expanded in the wider series, The Lesser Evil. It is fantasy, dark and gritty at times, but I believe it is also entertaining. If you have not already grabbed a copy, maybe give it a try?
There is, as I mentioned earlier, much to share of living here. The last few months have been busy with the house, the months before busy planning and then having the wedding. Ailsa will soon somehow be nine months old. I would like to talk more about the wedding, more about Ailsa, and more about living in France, but I try and balance each newsletter so as to remain engaging and interesting to all, those who know me in the real, those who know me online, and those who do not know me at all.
My study-to-be still needs skirting boards adding, and furniture sorting, but it is painted (in a green which enriches shadows and light, making me feel as though I am beneath a canopy of leaves, perhaps surrounded by fern and moss and lichen). The tiny east-facing window lets in a surprising amount of light in the morning. I know that this village will receive far less direct sunlight come winter, but at least the sun will be in the sky for longer than Orkney or Caithness. in Scotland, where the sun is late to rise and early to set. There will, I suspect, also be snow — 60cm (two feet) at once, this last winter.
We have some adventures planned in the coming couple of months, the weeks when the nounou has her summer break — heading to the mountains, to the beach, and to the centre of France.
I would like to have both the study and gym ready for when we get back, for the back-to-school feel of late summer, so I can start work immediately — we are lucky that, as a freelancer, I could pause working whilst the renovations and work on the house were done but, at the same time, I need to work! (Our superfast internet has yet to arrive, however, which is something of a sage in and of itself. French bureaucracy being what it is.)
I find myself noting things down on my phone, ideas and thoughts I cannot wait to expand and share. I have much still to do this year and the near three months spent making our house a home has certainly put that on pause.
However, we now have a home, a place for Ailsa to grow and learn, surrounded by nature and full of love and things of interest and fun — and this is not to be underestimated.
Finally — a theme I keep returning to
This newsletter is shorter than many of the others. This is probably a good thing — an easing-in, a slow return, call it what you will. I would like to talk more, about the things I have watched, read, listened to, seen, done, experienced, thought, or witnessed, but I am out of time.
For those who don’t already know, I’m a classic introvert — I gain energy from being alone, and expend it when I am in social situations. The last eighteen months have been tiring for me, with little chance to recharge. This is not to say I have not enjoyed it, I really have — I love being with people, whether old friends, new friends, or family — but I need that quiet time too, something which will now become much easier. The woods will help considerably, getting out there under branch and bough is regenerative.
As I get older I keep thinking about all the ideas and projects I need to do. I keep considering the places I want to visit or live, the adventures I want to have, and how I want to share them. It is important for me to factor in time to recharge those batteries, so I can make the most of the coming years — a big part of this is keeping myself as fit and strong as possible. I do not want to be an older father, unable to keep up with Ailsa as she grows. I want to be active, engaged, and perfectly capable of doing a headstand to make her laugh, even if I am somehow now 45 years old.
Time is precious. I have spoken of this before — how it is the only real currency which matters. Utilising time wisely is something I have not always been good at — instead, I have not considered myself as perhaps I should have done, not allowed those recharges, and ended up worn out and unable to work or play as I would like.
As with most of the world, the last couple of Covid years have felt like something of a pause, an enforced reordering and reshuffling. We spent the first year of Covidtime very much isolated in Portugal, unable to meet ‘our’ people, unable to find friends as we had intended. We were, however, lucky — finding an apartment and moving in mere days before the first lockdown.
Our plans changed or, more pertinently, parts of our plan were brought forward — we had a baby, we planned and got married — and others were placed on hold for a time. Travel became very difficult, if not impossible, and things are not yet back to ‘normal’, whatever that means.
But, and I want to emphasise this, we were lucky. We had each other. We learnt a lot about ourselves and our relationship and, even in the darker moments, we grew from this.
I have an unfinished essay about luck, a project I have been working on for some years — discussing how I am lucky, but also how I like to feel that certain choices, certain paths lead to others. That, to an extent, we make our own luck, through planning, through experience and through being brave to shake things up, to take those trails thus far unexplored.
Those of you who have read my letters before know that an ongoing theme is one of finding hope — active hope — in all things. The world can seem to be falling apart, it can seem that those in charge are cruel, or ineffective at best. It can seem that decisions are made which merely push yet more money towards the super rich, or that the poor and sick lose out, yet again. These things can all be true and still we can be actively hopeful that the world can be a better, fairer place. I like to think we should all allow time for mourning, for grieving, but never for despair.
It is important we choose our battles, and we learn to fight in a way which is sustainable for each and every one of us. For me, that is through words, through sharing ideas, whether here, or in story. Words have a power unlike anything else and, used carefully and creatively, they can change the world.
By being actively hopeful — that is, not merely being optimistic, but working towards a better world — we bring our own luck. Doors open for us, new tracks lead to something better for all, something more balanced.
Take joy and happiness where you find it, and consider it carefully. We are constantly bombarded with negative, distressing news and images — but there is much out there to celebrate too. It’s all about balance and, with my words, that is what I try to achieve.
Which is a long way of saying I hope you stick around and read my offerings; I hope you look at your own situation, and ponder how to make your world better; I hope that you find a way to do so that brings you and others joy.
And I hope you like stories. Stories are the blood which flows through our species over the millennia, they bind and bond and tear us apart — and all through the magic of language. That is something to be hopeful about.
All photos, as almost always, are mine. These are a few of the non-Ailsa images I have taken since we moved here. There are lots more to come.
*New project ideas since moving here include examining the biodiversity of this area in detail, recording all the species I find within a certain radius of our home and making a large map, with paintings of small adventures and happenings. I am beginning to consider a return to social media, Twitter and perhaps Hive, in order to share more of the little vignettes, bring some smiles and share good things with more people. I’ve not really been on the internet much of late (thanks to aforementioned pee-eradication) and, when I do peek in, the overwhelming majority of commentary seems sad, angry, negative, or resigned to the end of all things. I’d like to do a little to counterbalance this, wherever possible.