from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 28 September 2012

pushing the river

(from early September)
Photo by Francis Jones 2011
We've had a week of extraordinarily hot sun here in Quercy, in the Lot area of France. Mornings have been spent reading, writing (in my case) and drinking tea on the terrace, wreathed in wisteria, overlooking the castle, and meditating there too. The village is high above the river and the lush valley with its maize, sunflower and fruit crops, and the little garden here is very private considering how the mediaeval houses perched on the hilltop tumble over each other. In the afternoons, we've walked in the hills, visited the wonderful prehistoric painted caves of Pech Merle (which I'm sure I've written about here before) with their 25,000-year-old painted horses and handprints and their stalactite-chandeliered deeps, or found somewhere to swim.

Little natural details accompany every moment: the dreaming face of the river; the waterfall sound of wind in the poplars back of one of the swimming spots in the river; the many notes of the weir; huge wild hollyhocks dressed in carmine and white; a little bird, robin-sized, with a sooty-blue-black head, silver-grey body, rufous tail – whose song of tweets incorporates in the middle a staccato burst of dry-leaf crackles. It launches itself out of the chimney like a diver into water.

Last year, with my much-loved friends Francis and Hanneke, and my daughter, I had one of those out-of-time days when we took kayaks down the lazy Lot. I'd have to call it a peak experience – even 'normal reality' had a transcendent quality to it. It's hard to pinpoint the exact components – a combination of course of gliding on water, of sun, the company of loved ones, slipping between ancient limestone scarps with their prehistoric secrets, the mediaeval hilltop villages, the way the river-light flickered off the white and ochre cliffs, the kingfishers, and the dog who swam alongside us for a kilometre or two...

So all week this year here I've been obsessed with the state of flow of the Lot. After the (first) heatwave here they opened up the dams higher upriver for the hydroelectric plants, and each time I speak to the guys at the kayak hire centre they tell me there's still 'trop d'eau', although it still looks pretty lazy to me – it's hardly racing along in white water spasms. I can't see beyond my desire to repeat last year's magic; and, more, to convince TM who, a sailor himself, seems to me to have an irrational aversion to kayaking, that it is indeed A Very Good Thing. Plus he's never seen a kingfisher, and I can practically guarantee at least one.

The Lot is enticingly wide and slow in its loops through the gorges, deep and dreamy. I'm so fixed on this that I cannot hear the guys telling me that we could kayak on the Célé, a 'lesser' river that merges with the Lot.

The truth is, of course, we can't repeat these extraordinary experiences. They are 'of their time', and necessarily one-offs.

I reflect, here, on that saying about the truth coming knocking at your door. 'Go away,' you say. 'I'm looking for the truth.' The truth goes away, puzzled. (Actually, I reflect on that a great deal at the moment; seems apposite in many areas.)

So it's not till the last possible day – same answer from the guys – that I consider, at last, the possibility of the Célé being a better option than not kayaking at all. And when we commit to that journey it turns out to be, in a different way, equally magical.

And the Célé is, to my delight, a wilder gorge, albeit a lot narrower and currently shallower – less agriculture, more woodland, more loops and variety, more wildlife. The best river swimming TM has ever had, he says – which converts him. (For a sailor, he's not a bad paddler, either, and shows off with a 'handbrake turn' or two.)

Families of mallard duck paddle past cheeping comfortably to each other. A young grass snake swims in the shallows close to my feet where I stop at a shingly beach for a snack and a pee. Hundreds of trout in the clear water (the Lot was looking pretty muddy, so this is a bonus).

And there, flashing low over the water round the bend like an arrow of thought, is a kingfisher.

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