Sunday, May 25, 2014

Wendy's Monts d'Arrée

A rather wonderful thing happened when we got to the Troglogîte.

Wendy Mewes is my go-to writer when I want to know anything about Brittany, especially Finistère, and something of an all-round hero.  She lives very close to where we stayed, but she does guided walks and researches and writes about the whole region,and keeps a blog about her activities here. She is a power-house of information and knowledge, of imaginative, accessible but rigorous writing and scholarship, plus she's an indefatigable walker and loves dogs. Her first book I discovered was her History of Brittany, and it made me appreciate what it is to be a proper, trained, disciplined historian, who can assimilate and retain huge amounts of knowledge, evaluate it and present it in a form that's concise, readable and appealing. In addition, of course she's working with sources in a second language, which clearly doesn't bother her much but must make things a bit harder going, though in fact her books on Brittany are often translated from English into French.

I already had Finistère, Things to see and do at the End of the World, which covers the whole department and was giving me plenty of ideas - it's set out in fourteen scenic driving tours each rounded off with a comment with particular recommendations, pieces of advice and remarks about anything that has personal resonance or affection for Wendy herself, which is a nice touch.  When I noted on her blog that she was also bringing out a short guide especially about the Monts d'Arrée, the area where we were staying, I asked whether and how I made be able to get it for the trip, and she instantly said, though it wasn't officially out yet (it is now), that she'd drop one round at the gîte when we got there, she passed the place every day.

So within an hour or so of our arrival she came looming out of the fog, for which she apologized, with a copy, wouldn't stop since she had an awful cold and a lecture to deliver miles away in Morbihan the next day, though she did look over our shoulders and ask where Molly was, since she reads here sometimes and is a dog person (Molly was reclining comfortably on the sofa, which was suitably covered in a clean blanket and towel, I hasten to add).  She wouldn't take anything for the book and was nice about my blogging, which I took as a great compliment.  The Troglogîte people, who she introduced herself to and showed the book to before coming to find us, asked later how we knew each other, and had we met before, with that rather puzzled air that people who don't do this blogging/on-line thing tend to have about the friendly, familiar, generous relationships and contacts which it engenders.

So here a a few more long shots of the places she has helped us to explore. Thanks Wendy!

Up to Menez Mikel, the Montagne St Michel again, from near the gîte,

and from climbing it: looking west, 


and east over the Lac St Michel.

And from a drive rather further west, across the Rade de Brest.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Inside the chapel, Montagne St Michel

The chapel door was indeed open (though not in fact this one but the side one). I had the impression it often was, which isn't always usual.

It took a little time for the eyes to get used to the dark,

when they did, it was evident that though the chapel was not maintained, nor used for services, it was far from disused.

All the surfaces - windowsills, altar, wall shelves, were covered in informal, sometimes impromptu but not meaningless objects, votives of all kinds,

vegetable and most of all mineral, including many stones from the path up the hill,

conventionally religious and otherwise.  Some of the fragments on the altar above appeared to be morsels of some kind of cake or bread, possibly buckwheat based, the others indecipherable ceramic shards. The paper envelope may have been something to do with a medical prescription.

the small wall shelves seemed to have been appropriated for particular offerings, 

this one for a man killed in a motor cycle accident was more clearly explained, but many of the objects and marks left were elliptical in their purpose.  Yet there was a sense that everything there had meaning in the minds and intentions of the people who had placed it, it was not mere litter.  I grew up with a fear of de-consecrated space, possibly artificially created and fed by horror films and books, but it seems to me there was no sense of disrespect or malevolence here, its uses might be sometimes occluded but not occult. Although it was decaying and unmaintained it was clean and there was no vandalism, no smell of urine or graffiti tagging, and I can't think there are many agencies to police and regulate the place, although it is clearly much visited. The only mark made on the wall was this mysterious sign, which may, I suppose, be something sinister, but I don't somehow think so:

Possibly it was made by the same young people who left this rough, solemn little improvised tablet, a memorial to a lost friend, perhaps, and to their own passing presences.

The practice of folk belief is alive and well, it seems, in these back lands which have always been a home to it.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Back from the back hills

We've been back from the back hills, les Monts d'Arree, a week already, and I'm afraid I'm just not getting around to editing the photos and doing anything very creative with them.  I seem to have been fairly occupied with other things, and there are quite a few other projects calling to me, which means I put off everything, and now it's beautiful weather and I'd really rather be outside, quite possibly taking more photos, than sitting indoors in front of the computer editing them! 

However, I've just sat down in the comfy seat, with the notebook computer, on which I can't normally carry many photos on or do much editing, and started fiddling about with the Google+ on-line editing tools on the automatically backed up photos - I think this must be the result of a box I must have ticked somewhere along the line with Picasa, not something I actively wanted to get involved with. As with any on-line photo editing it's comparatively slow and laborious, but perhaps that forces me to make more stringent choices.

So here is our Troglogîte, something like a hobbit hole:

and here is a rainbow over the one next door. 

They were interesting places to stay, very cosy and surprisingly light, and very nicely appointed; there was a lovely loaf of organic bread, a bottle of cider, crêpes and an array of pots of jam, wood for the fire, towels and soap all laid on and to hand, unusual for a gîte.  We needed the fire, and to keep a ventilator fan on for much of the time to keep the place well-aired, since the misty, windswept moorlands of central Finistère were, typically, rather misty and windswept for some of the time.

They were very lovely though, and a more varied landscape than I expected. Here is the view from our door: 

The horses lived there.

It was a couple of kilometres to the top of that hill, called the Montagne de St Michel. The old chapel, which served the needs of the isolated shepherds in former times, is now disused, but much visited.

for the views, of which this is just one,

and the bracing air.  

It really was very windy!

Those are old German military emplacements we're standing on.

I'll post more over the next few days.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Tempus fugit, sculpture and off into the west again

People, and there are a few, who have been visiting Box Elder for a very long time, might remember the time, on the occasion of Tom's last Very Big Birthday, when we had a party in the garden and our very own sculpture exhibition, of the work of the Dutch sculptor Jantien Kahn.

Reading back over those posts, and their comments, it's tempting to get melancholy at the old old story of the passing of time and the changes it brings.  I'm struck by the people, on-line and off, who have gone from my life, one way or another, the babies who have been born and grown into quite big children, the children into great big adolescents, the neighbours who have moved away, the friends who don't seem to be friends any more. Why does it never cease to be, indeed to become more and more, sad and strange to us, this lost time, change and decay, business? I'm not someone given to dishonest nostalgia, mostly I'm good at living in the present, I am happy now and much that is in the past I'm glad to leave there and good riddance, but there are times when the balance of things seems to tilt too much towards loss.

But no, it won't do.  The people I've loved best and sometimes lost were the ones who gave me the very best example of living fully and best in the space, and time, there was, for hoping that the best might be yet to be, of practising gratitude, of emerging from sorrow and difficulty and being all the more appreciative of renewal and peace and the beauty in the detail, who have shown that age and time may change but need not erode one's creative gifts, but that an awareness of shadows lengthening, and that our place in time is not infinite, is all the more reason not to squander them. And there is renewal, and good change, things grow and evolve, people fade or disappear altogether but others appear, the landscape changes but we grow accustomed to, fond of, other features within it.

And there are some people who are still around. One of these is Jantien, who doesn't seem to have changed much, though her work has evolved.  She's lately been in these parts again, working at La Residence des Arts in Moncontour, which has provided her with working and exhibition space and simple accommodation, and last Saturday was the vernissage of her exhibition.  We got there early so that I could take a photo of the exhibition space

and Jantien in situ before the crowds turned up.

In fact a good number did attend.  Moncontour is a town of barely a thousand souls, many of whom live in the retraite, the enormous and ancient foundation for the elderly and handicapped on the hill, so the turn-out was heartening to see.

The small lady in the above photo is Susanne, who we used to go to Keep Fit classes with, who must be well into her tenth decade but who still gets out and about plenty,

Here she is again.

One or two of the sculptures were old friends, which had once graced our garden

like this one, 'Leaves',

others were very similar, I don't think this is the 'Blackbird Flight' that we had, but it's clearly in the same series .  Certain themes are still strong; there are still swans,

but in other ways there are changes.  The forms are becoming purer and more abstract, more compact and simple perhaps, so they can at first appear as great polished pebbles, 

(I like how Jantien's head  on the other side of the glass is facing the sculpture, I did that on purpose!)
But the simplicity is deceptive, they are more perfectly balanced than ever, a fact that reveals itself when they are touched and handled, and they present a surprisingly varied number of shapes and faces, so that sometimes, in sorting through the photographs, I wasn't sure that I was always looking at the same piece. 

No small part of their beauty is of course in the exposing of the integrity and quality of the stone, rather like Brillat Savarin's exhortation that good cooking should be about allowing the food to taste of itself, but again, such simplicity, in cooking or sculpture, is deceptively difficult to bring off.  When the form of the sculpted piece is so perfect, though, one can allow oneself to wonder at the colours, the layers of texture, the geodes and chambers within the rock, which the sculptor reveals only partially in the surfaces she shapes.

Other forms and techniques were new, 

such as this elongated horizontal (so tempting reach around and say, 'canoe', 'spearhead', 'belemnite', and who's to say we shouldn't, and yet I feel there comes a point with abstract forms where they should not be continually forced back to where they are abstracted from, and be permitted simply to be themselves...)

and these flattened vase/torso forms (there I go again...), with their lateral seams,

Another departure is in this fine, linear roughening of the surface of the stone,

sometimes entirely covering the piece, quite compatible with revealing the internal natural patterning,

and sometimes combined and contrasting with highly polished surfaces

It has been a great privilege to know and follow Jantien and her work over the years, and we hope to see much more growth and change for many years to come.


As we were back then, we are off for a few days into the wild western parts of Brittany tomorrow for our wedding anniversary trip, to stay in one of these rather wonderful looking gîtes (no stairs means better for Mol, we hope, who's doing OK for now), and explore some corners we've not seen before. In fact the day itself was yesterday, but we thought as we were going right into the hinterland it would be better to make it nearer the weekend to be sure of there being places open to eat, etc. Walking boots are waxed and cameras charged; there is wireless access so we won't be entirely off-line, but hope to be out and about plenty, reading etc.  See you soon...