-From An American Provence
In this poetic personal narrative, Thomas P. Huber reflects on two seemingly unrelated places-the North Fork Valley in western Colorado and the Coulon River Valley in Provence, France-and finds a shared landscape and sense of place. What began as a simple comparison of two like places in distant locations turned into a more complex, interesting, and personal task. Much is similar-the light, the valleys, the climate, the agriculture. And much is less so-the history, the geology, the physical makeup of villages. Using a geographer's eye and passion for the land and people, Huber examines the regions' similarities and differences to explore the common emotional impact of each region. Part intimate travelogue and part case study of geography in the real world, An American Provence illuminates the importance sense of place plays in who we are.
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About the Author
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An American Provence
By Thomas P. Huber
University Press of ColoradoCopyright © 2011 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
— MARCEL PROUST
Colorado men are we, from the peaks granite, from the great sierras and the plateaus, from the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come. Pioneers! O Pioneers!
— WALT WHITMAN
Because I am a geographer, I cannot stop looking at, thinking about, or visiting places. Perhaps some kind of genetic disorder compels me to go to places, to study places, to compare places. Other geographers appear to share my malady, and they tend to use the word place with a whole collection of meanings non-geographers might not appreciate. We geographers see place as the interaction of all of a location's physical characteristics, including soils, vegetation, climate, and geology — much like an ecosystem except broader and of a much larger scale. We also think about place as the nexus of human occupation of and habitation on the land. In this context, as characterized by National Geographic and others, place is "space endowed with human meaning." Place may even be mythical or spiritual or psychological. I, like my geographic colleagues, see place in all these ways in our attempt to make sense of the world.
Even though I understand place through a trained geographer's eyes, what follows is not a scholarly treatise on the subject. Rather, I offer in these pages a personal exploration of place, my attempt to endow meaning on two simultaneously diverse and yet, to my eyes, similar landscapes. Although this is not an academic study, I still see place and all its meanings and revelations as a geographer might — in this I am powerless to intervene.
The French use the word milieu to speak of place in the more inclusive way we geographers sometimes use. I like using milieu for at least two reasons. First, it is such a rich term in its complexity and its appropriateness as a geographic word. Second, because one of the places central to this book is in southern France, it just feels right to use this lyrical French term, which incorporates the physical setting of place with how people connect and sense a place.
The two places, or different milieux, in this book are perhaps what could be called vernacular or common landscapes and at the same time unique and special landscapes, depending on the viewer's mind-set. I have chosen to reflect on these two spots on Earth for idiosyncratic reasons. My professional and personal lives are intertwined in these places and their landscapes. These two seemingly disparate dots on the world map are similar in so many ways (and dissimilar in a few). Some of these ways are subtle, some not, but the personal and professional convergence drew me in with an intriguing intensity. It was almost as if I was urged on by some internal voice to look more intimately at these places. I literally put aside all of my scholarly projects and dove in with head and heart to see where this would lead.
I hope my passion for the land and the people will come through in the book. Perhaps my look at the North Fork and the Coulon will spur you, the reader, to look at your own personal milieux with a new eye. I would also hope that the book will spur you to travel to places that may be special to you because of your own curiosity and for your own reasons. Maybe instead of motivating you to travel, the book will motivate you to become more intensely interested in your place in the world. As Wendell Berry might say, to become more deeply local. In either case, place is important and is part of who we are. Books about places serve as surrogates for going to those places, but my advice is to use this book as a motivator to instill within yourself a more insightful sense of where you are.
This book was born on an early autumn morning a few years ago. Carole and I had gone to Hotchkiss on a whim. The United States was about to invade Iraq. Our government was unhappy with our French "allies" because they would not cooperate with US intentions. Americans started doing silly things like calling French fries "Freedom fries." One Sunday morning my wife and I read a story in the Denver Post that highlighted a particular inn and vineyard just outside Hotchkiss that were owned and operated by an Americanized Frenchman and his New York–born wife. Carole, whose mother had grown up in Marseille, is half French. We decided that this innkeeper could use our meager monetary and psychological support.
We stayed at the Leroux Creek Inn on that initial trip. I had just awakened the morning after our first night and walked into the inn's communal hallway. I looked southward out the large, second-floor window, and the valley of the North Fork of the Gunnison River filled the landscape in front of me. The inn itself sits on Rogers Mesa with its mix of orchards, farm fields, pre-pubescent vineyards, and piñon-juniper woodlands; the large valley of the North Fork, which runs east-west, is down the hill to the south. Just to the north of the inn is the much bigger and higher Grand Mesa — purportedly the largest flattop mountain in the world. No one can prove or disprove this statement because there is no single definition of what a mountain is or how it is delineated, a point made in entertaining fashion in the film The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came down a Mountain. So the superlative remains as part of the milieu of this area of Colorado. Far to the south looms the plateau of Fruitland Mesa. Beyond this elevated landform, the main channel of the Gunnison River has carved the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (now home to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park), a deep incision in the earth that is visible only if one stands very near the edge. Otherwise the plateau looks benign, just another run-of-the-mill piñon and juniper–covered upland of the American Southwest.
At that moment in 2003, though, my thoughts or vague impressions were focused on the near distance, on the young vineyard lovingly established by the inn's owners, Yvon Gros and Joanna Reckert. The vineyard is small, barely four acres, but the rows of vines marched away from the inn in perfect precision, the stems heavy with fruit. For an instant my sleep-addled brain found itself in Provence — not the glitzy Côte d'Azur on the French south coast but the rural farmlands and small hilltop villages of the Vaucluse and the Luberon of northern Provence. An instant later the mental fog lifted and I was back in western Colorado but wondering why the Provençal image had not flashed into my mind sooner. My geographer's sense of place — or places in this case — confused the two because they are so similar in an array of ways that were obvious once I really looked at the Hotchkiss landscape and the way people were using their small piece of the earth. That flash of sleepy insight set in motion my desire to chronicle these two complex, intricate, and intimate landscapes or places or milieux and share them with others through a geographer's eye and mind. What started out as a simple comparison of two like places in distant locations turned into a more complex and interesting task — a personal adventure, a phenomenological and experiential association with place. Much is similar between the two regions — the light, the valleys, the climate; and much is less so — the history, the geology, the physical makeup of villages. But the earth-bound feel of the land always comes through in both the North Fork and the Coulon.
* * *
Both of these places are political and cultural outliers. Neither place is central to the life of its society at large. Rural Provence might seem sophisticated to those from the McTowns of the United States, perhaps because we have been conditioned to view everything French as urbane. But to the French the Coulon area is not even a mere afterthought compared with Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, or even the Côte d'Azur on the southern Provençal coast. It is a more blatant snub than a case of just being ignored. As an example, my mother-in-law would bristle whenever she was accused of having even the slightest Provençal accent. Similarly, Delta County, Colorado, is hardly a blip on the radar screen of the state's populous Front Range or in the halls of the legislature in Denver or for those whose image of Colorado is one of high mountains and skiing. Part of each place is wild, uncivilized, and in some cases brutal, at least during winter when the two seem far from the comforts of paved roads and cozy habitation. The highlands of the Vaucluse and the Luberon, as well as their counterparts, the Grand Mesa and the West Elks, can be as rugged and isolated as anyplace in France or the lower forty-eight states.
Many aspects of place affect us on a personal level; most of them are common characteristics geographers use to look at a region's land and people in an attempt to evoke the soul of a place. The first foundation of place, and the one I will start with, is the physical setting and how it influences what people do on the land. In subsequent chapters, villages, food, wine, special characteristics, and other components of place will be covered in turn. As a geographer and a traveler, I have found that my geographer's eye has made my journeys more interesting and arresting.
One of the most peculiar and special similarities between the two places discussed here is the quality of the light. This is especially true in the summer and fall when the sky is clear, when even the distant hills seem near enough to touch if only we reached out. The landscapes are writ large, and the open, hemispheric skies pull in those faraway elements to make expansive and intimate places at once. The quality of the light in Colorado comes from a combination of nearly arid air and high elevation. Very little light is scattered, so haze levels are low and the tones of the "blue" sky are a deep cyan color. This is especially true if we look to the northern sky in the Colorado high country — a searing, deep, unique cobalt blue is a sure sign we are somewhere above 6,000 feet and away from urban pollution.
In Provence, on the other hand, the humidity is higher and the elevations are lower, so there must be an alternative explanation. The famous French impressionist painter Paul Cézanne saw the mix of intense sun and the vibrant patchwork of colors of the land that created intense and warm models for his art.
In fact Provence's brilliant sun was too intense for Cézanne and his contemporaries during the heat of midday. They did most of their work in the early morning and evening light. Light was not the only reason Cézanne came to Provence, though. He purposely chose to move back to this rural, provincial part of France. Author Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmyer talks about Cézanne and many of his contemporaries in the late nineteenth century and their common move away from Paris: "[This self-exile] thus reenacted a practice common among contemporary artists forsaking the capital for one of the many preindustrial, unspoiled 'elsewheres.'" Cézanne was looking for what he and other impressionists felt was the authentic artistic milieu provided by the natural environment (especially the light), as well as wanting to retrieve the traditions and cultures lost in the cosmopolitan world of big cities.
The skies of Provence and Colorado do look remarkably alike when the cold, fresh, and strong mistral wind coming down the Rhône Valley blows the haze away or the strong up-valley/down-valley winds follow the course of the North Fork to clear the air. At those moments Provence has the sharp edges and clean lines found in western Colorado. These skies of brittle blue go a long way toward making these two places examples of the "elsewheres" Athanassoglou-Kallmyer describes.
Another reason I confused the two places on that autumn morning is that, in terms of the land as well as the sky, they look remarkably alike. For example, each valley is drained by a locally important river running from east to west. In the case of Hotchkiss and Paonia, it is the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Although this river is a mere "fork" of another, larger stream, it is a significant waterway for this semiarid western slope of Colorado. The North Fork rises high in the West Elk Mountains, where several modest creeks merge just south of Paonia Reservoir about twenty miles northeast of Hotchkiss. In spring the North Fork roars with water levels up to or above the channel banks. In the late fall, on the other hand, one can wade across the boulder-strewn bed without getting his or her thighs wet. The North Fork merges with the main channel of the Gunnison River at Delta, about twenty miles west of Hotchkiss. The Gunnison itself joins with the famous Colorado River (formerly known as the Grand River) another thirty miles west, at Grand Junction.
The Provençal waterway that mimics this Colorado river has two names, neither of which I have been able to determine as official. East of the market town of Apt, it rises from the eastern end of the Monts de Vaucluse as le Calavan Rivière. After it flows through Apt, the local name changes to le Coulon Rivière. This might be a subtle indication of how the French (and rural Americans) view their landscapes as locally owned and not co-opted by the central government mapping agencies. One might not even notice the Coulon in midsummer because there is so little water in it. During my first crossing, I wondered what small stream this was and where the valley's major river flowed. As I drove farther across the valley bottom, I realized that this little stream was the Coulon. But as in all Mediterranean climate areas, although dry and sandy during the long, hot summer months, the riverbed fills rapidly in the wet winter and following snowmelt in early spring. Le Coulon empties into le Durance Rivière and then into the major river of southern France, the Rhône, just south of Avignon.
The valley floors of both places are vibrant agricultural areas, irrigated in the dry summer seasons by waters from the main rivers and side streams flowing from the higher elevations to the north and south or from wells drilled deep into ancient aquifers. Provence in particular has a mature farming culture that goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years. The landscape reflects this loving and intimate care over the centuries. The North Fork of the Gunnison is also a blossoming agricultural area but with a much shorter farming history that is barely 100 years old, first domesticated by the "Anglos" who settled there in the nineteenth century. The North Fork is a less intensively cropped land with large hay fields intermingled with small farms, orchards, and the more recent burgeoning vineyards. In nearby areas indigenous peoples have grown crops over the last 1,000 years or so, but no one has found much evidence of this ancient farming in the North Fork Valley today. The most famous of these ancient farmlands in western Colorado are now in Mesa Verde National Park, a little over 100 miles to the southwest. Although families have farmed the North Fork Valley for generations, I still see this landscape as a quickly adapting adolescent trying to figure out what it wants to do when it grows up. The Provençal landscape, however, changes just rapidly enough to remain interesting. There are places, for example, where old vines have withered and died from lack of attention, poor land for vineyards, or poor viticultural practices. Other fields have been planted only recently amid cherry trees or apricot groves. But mostly the vines are old, the trees mature, and the fields well tended.
Although the two areas have their share of bucolic landscapes, they are both working family farm regions, with all that entails. In each place I have seen ramshackle buildings, tractors clogging the narrow country roads, cars up on blocks, and rusting farm machinery in the yards — the latter provide storehouses of replacement parts for some future exigency.
* * *
When I am looking at either place, especially in the early morning or late evening light with the sun's slanting rays and long shadows, there are two things I cannot help but notice. Both places are lands of intricate complexity, and they both have the palpable character of land that has been in use for countless generations. In the case of the Coulon, human artifacts litter the land. In the North Fork, people have used the land for thousands of years but have left their human artifacts only during the last 200 years or so. They are both what I might call grounded palimpsests — places where cultures and history are multilayered and superimposed. This is especially true of Provence. The name Provence comes from the Latin word provincia, coined by Caesar as the Roman legions moved up the Rhône Valley from the city the Greeks established at the site of what is now Marseille. There are cultures layered upon other layers from the Greeks, Romans, Goths, Franks, Vandals, Saracens, the Provençal, and the modern French, to name the most well-known.
Excerpted from An American Provence by Thomas P. Huber. Copyright © 2011 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of ContentsContents Acknowledgements Prologue 1. Places 2. The Land 3. Villages 4. Wine 5. Food 6. Signatures 7. Hiking 8. La Cheville (The Ankle) Incident 9. Landscape Miscellanea 10. The Finish/C'est Fini Bibliography