Spirit of the Place


Season’s End 9

Season’s end. John’s hands are stained from pumpovers and “brassage des lies.”   Fermentation finished.  A relief – fermentation is finicky business.   And now we see the extra work in the vineyard paid off; the vintage shows promise.  A few worries ticked off the list. October mornings:  newly crisp air and fog wisps above the valley.  Afternoons:   cold water swim and last caress of summer sun.   Night fall: early. John on the tanks – brassage des lies Season’s end brings changes to our nightly walk.   First the winery, to bed down the wine.   Embrace each tank, […]


Lavender Meditation – July 2018 10

It’s high summer.   The time of first fruits from the garden, long sunny days, kayaks on the water, cool starry nights, village fêtes, music rising from parties all along the river… Lavender time. When we planted the first row several years ago, I didn’t fully realize that lavender is much more than a flower.    We knew of the medicinal properties against insect stings, and also hoped to deter some mosquitoes.   But now, several plantings later, the spectacle of evening lavender has become central to the setting of high summer. Just before sunset is best.    I sit on a broken old […]


Resistance 3

I turned away from last week’s Economist, with its haunting cover of Trump’s lipstick kiss on Putin’s cheek, to page 10 of our local newspaper, Le Resistant. Unlike most of today’s news outlets, Le Resistant doesn’t live on bad news.  Of course there are the usual reports of burglaries, fires and accidents, but most of the stories are about people who don’t groan much about the world because they’re busy doing something about it. Like the tiny village down the hill, where the mayor sponsored a drive to set up a young woman in her own vegetable growing business; 200 […]


Summer Linen 9

Nothing makes me feel as safe and secure as the ritual of summer linen. Even the word linen calms my breath, conjuring up a daily life when real linen was a household staple for everyday use; an era when things moved more slowly. Linen is heavy and wrinkles terribly and must be ironed to regain its wonderful skin-caressing, cool smoothness. To care for linen, one must have time. Today I’m preparing summer linen for the arrival of family and guests. I recall what my friend Helen said the first time she visited: “I fell into bed last night and thought – […]


Summer Solstice 1

Millions of years ago the Dordogne carved a series of caves into the rock cliff under our house.  The village historian told me they were the site of Druidic rituals, later appropriated by the Romans for their own gods. Since it’s the Summer Solstice, I took myself down to the caves this morning looking for the wisp of a Druid or two. The spot is somewhat difficult to access, and hidden most of the year by the shadows of thickets and tress.   But in late June at sunrise, the caves present several niches of warm and inviting nooks.   […]


Rosé 2014 – L’esprit de Jeanne 7

Every land needs a protective spirit.   But where do they come from?   Are they settled in a place depuis la nuit des temps?   Do they migrate in search of suitable territory, like pollinators looking for a place where they can thrive? A few years ago we found our protective spirit hovering near the grotto in the woods. The place was wild, hidden by thorn bushes, inaccessible except to forest animals, asleep for decades.  Here the water flows right out of the rock cliff wall, filtered by fronds and moss and ferns, sweet and delicious. Our spirit is an adolescent […]


Hands 3

John has been complaining about his hands lately. They’re cracked and irritated and purpled with wine stains. Made worse when we filled our first oak barrels to age 1200 bottles. It was a bit of a circus, as always when we do something for the first time. He gripped a fancy nozzle to feed the barrels and yelled to keep me alert on the pump. We assumed there would be some kind of signal indicating almost full, like when you fill up your car. No such luck. No signal, just an exploding geyser of purple, gushing into the air, all […]


Our Move to the Farm 3

It has taken three years and we’re far from finished.  But lock, stock and barrels, we have now officially moved to the farm. A hundred years ago John’s great-uncle bought this land on a hilltop, with its enchanting chateau on the river below.  It was handed down to successive generations, and during the lifetime of his parents, family life in the big house made sense.  When they died that logic seemed to evaporate. Some of the current descendents are separated by an ocean and the joint maintenance of a far-away petit chateau turned out to be more than blood alone […]


Farewell Fair Lady 9

We always called her the Big House.  The locals called it Le Chateau.  As of this week it is the house that belongs to that nice family with two cute little boys. So I’ve taken my last look from the window. The children have walked the creaky floorboards, breathed in the reassuring aroma of our old room, closed up the iconic red portail for the last time.  We’ve bid farewell to the fair lady. And tried to come to closure. It’s one thing to say goodbye to the stones and mortar one has loved and lived.  Parting with the ephemera […]


Apparition in the Vineyard 5

Over the past century France has acquired the veneer of a rather secular country.  But deep in the veins of the rural places there is a quiet yet undeniable veneration of the land, and with it an ancient connection to the Mother of Them All. Those latecomers, the Christians, often built female deity shrines on the sites of Roman female deity shrines; they in turn often built theirs on Druidic earth goddess sites.  Some say there is a magnetic energy in these places. August 15th 2014.  Here on the hilltop it was the Feast day of the Blessed Mother. A […]


A Golden Thread 3

The English cousin called it a golden thread.  The filament that brings them all back each year, to this place, to each other. They’ve known each other since they were toddlers.  Our children, the neighbors from Carbonneau, scattered friends, the English cousins… They’ve been playing Marco Polo in the deep end of the pool since they could swim.  Years of kayak rides down the Dordogne, croquet in the afternoons, “Deux-Cent-Un” around the old trees at dusk… Now in their twenties, they bring along girlfriends and boyfriends to play, toasting après-game with a glass of wine on the terrace. All year long […]


Honey Bees in the Attic

Photos by Michele Marechal

In the days when the children were children it was the perfect secret hideout.  Secluded, silent, untrammeled. A place for scary stories and hatching plots among menacing gargoyles and doors nailed shut for decades.

Tower Gargoyle

Honey Bees in the Tower Attic

But no one goes up into the tower much anymore.   Perhaps that’s why the honey bees took over.

Bee hive inside the tower, between window and shutter

The colony had multiplied quickly by the time the beekeeper arrived.  We were expecting armored suits and masks from ghostbusters, but were greeted instead by the gentle and wiry Monsieur Labaye (yes, pronounced just like “abeille” – honey bee) who brought only his smoking device and a little mobile home.

Monsieur Labaye and his Bee Smoker

Labaye lit up his smoking can – just rosemary, thyme and grass cuttings – saying the smoke is intended to distract the bees, not to make them drowsy.  The intrusion is a threat, but rather than become aggressive, they get busy making more honey (storing up for the imminent emergency) and thus pay less attention to the new beekeeper.

honeycomb, wax visible

This wasn’t the first time honey bees had taken refuge here.  A few years ago a swarm took up residence under a picnic table and a local beekeeper transported the swarm to our woods – we relished their rare “oak honey” with its faintly smoky taste.

honey seeping from the honeycomb

Monsieur Labaye said it’s hard to know why a colony suddenly moves.  Usually, their home has been disturbed; always to follow and protect their queen.

Hive at open window

Since the bees will follow their honeycomb, Labaye began cutting it away to fit into a shelf in the mobile home.

placing honeycomb pieces into shelf for temporary home

He placed the home on the windowsill.

Placing the mobile home

Then he made a little bridge to facilitate their passage.

Bridge to the mobile home

With some gentle encouragement.

Bare hands, bare ankles

No gloves, no mask, no socks.   Imagine the Pied Piper vibrations.

Moving the bees

And all this time he was looking for the queen.  He said she must be a virgin queen since the honeycomb had no larvae yet.  He picked up handful after handful of bees and gently brushed them, searching.

looking for the queen, brushing gently

He found a couple of large male fertilizing bees, but still no queen as the process went on.

found a male fertilizing bee

Suddenly there came a shriek from down below – a visitor almost stepped on a clump of bees.  Labaye picked up the furry, humming mound and began gently brushing.  There in the middle he found the queen. She had fallen out of the hive and been immediately surrounded by her protectors.  He placed her most delicately in the waiting carriage and off they went.

Bees flying

We sighed as Monsieur Labaye drove away with our refugees, and talked about colony collapse and the profits generated by pesticides.  Someone quoted Einstein –  “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

Perfect Honeycomb

We’ll go visit Monsieur Labaye soon to see the honeybees in their new home  – set among thousands of buzzing companions in a field of sunflowers.


June – Linden Blossom Tea 8

Every June we’re brought to our senses by the ubiquitous perfume of the Linden Trees.  A hot Sunday afternoon, time out from chores, we sit under their massive boughs and synch into the hum of hundreds of bees. Someone is dozing in the hammock there, dreaming of Linden Flower honey. Under the soporific spell Henri toys with a flower and asks his Tata Claire if she knows how to make Linden Tea.  Nap time ends abruptly. First, John saws off several low branches that beg for pruning.  We perch inside a fragrant heap of leaves and flowers teeming with insects […]


Ghosts of the Old Winery 3

One day after a harvest, they laid down their tools and never returned. Entering the old winery always makes me think of stepping into the home of an aged and accomplished man, the last of his line, who has had a heart attack in the middle of a solitary dinner.  A neighbor locks up the house, leaving everything as it was: clothes hanging on hooks, shoes by the bed, wine glass and bottle on the table.  Closed up in the dark, preserved in dust. The old winery had become a sort of no man’s land, more like a haunted house […]


Spirit of the Place, Part 6 – Waking Up 2

It was a long and sleepy winter for the House. Dust collected under the beds. Spider webs embroidered the windows. The indefinable perfume of centuries’ old terra cotta tiles, wood beams and hand made chaux appropriated the air. The only sound on that sunny, end of winter afternoon when I was making my weekly rounds was the occasional squeak of a floor board or perhaps a cornerstone, as if the house was sighing and settling into a deeper position.  Our room was warm, heated by sunlight.  The bed was always clean and made up, just in case.  I opened the […]


Spirit of the House Part 5 – Black Out

It was midnight.  The man and I sat on the river terrace and stared mutely at the façade.  Only one light came through the darkness, our son’s bedroom.  The other occupants had retired for the night. The locals call the house “le chateau” as they have for hundreds of years.  But although I’ve adopted their nomenclature, to me she is a fragile lady – as in lords and ladies, ladies in lace hats and white gloves, ladies who keep linen in lavender be-ribboned cupboards, ladies who dress for dinner and ring a silver bell between courses, ladies who write up […]


Spirit of the Place, Part 4 – Queen Lear 1

In that time on the edge, we asked one of our sons to watch over his grandparents during our absence.  Here is what he wrote. Queen  Lear  by Julien Sandifer  I asked Grandmere why she threw my copy of King Lear in the washing machine. “Because it was dirty of course!” Then she went tottering off to chop some rose heads in her garden.  Well, that’s her, my Grandmere.  Eighty six years old, losing her eyesight and her memory and various other brain cells, plus she can hardly walk.  But she still lives in this chateau on the vineyard she […]


Spirit of the Place, Part 3 – Darkness’ Edge

It’s a peculiar thing to live in an old chateau. The walls that envelop us are far older than the generations we can still picture in our memories.  Everything – paintings, sculptures, furniture, clocks, tapestries… are impregnated with the dust and fingerprints, tastes and whims of people whose names we have lost.  Some of their portraits dress the halls – the lady coiffed in a high oblong gossamer bonnet with the face of a fish wife, whose eyes followed the children so she was banished to the bibliotheque, (we recently discovered she had been guillotined) the gregarious fellow in diaphanous […]


Spirit of the Place, Part 2

Spirit of the Place – Part 2 The man first came to this place when he was thirteen.  The chateau and vineyards had been muddling through a period of benign neglect since the death of his great uncle a decade prior, and now the buildings, lawns, flower beds, gardens, woods, even the river’s cliff – all slept around him like characters under a hundred years’ spell.   He planted himself on the terrace over the Dordogne, braced by the allée of centurion linden trees and looked down at the water.  The neglect was oddly comforting.  Like camouflage.  Like a tarnished brooch, […]


Spirit of the Place, Part 1

Spirit of the Place With the wine settled into beauty rest, my thoughts turn to the great old house and surrounding land.  They also seem to have nodded off for a long sleep.  But “Vive le vent d’hiver,” the French children sing.  When it’s all gone quiet, winter winds stir up other elements around here.  They are shy things.  Noise and bustle sends them into attic corners. Yes, I miss the warmth of summer, but I shiver gladly as we bring in the firewood. Winter is best for chance encounters with those who only venture forth under a “vent d’hiver.” […]


A Place for Dreaming

Over the years we’ve lived so many stories on this land my journal entries could fill an 18th century armoire.  In truth, La Tourbeille is such an out of world/out of time place, she should really be the subject of sonnets.  Even the postman goes poet when he steps on the land.  He brings extra junk mail as an excuse when he can’t fill the box with bills; he lingers and chats and reminds me every day that we live in a “magical” place.  For sure, this is a place that makes people dream.  Maybe that’s why I’m trying to write […]