Bétou – an Epitaph
When we arrived there nearly thirty* years ago Bétou was – apart from one house still lived in by an elderly Polish couple – the semi-ruined remnants of an ancient hamlet. It was in a remote, rural district of south-western France. Almost the whole of it, including its eighteen or so acres of neglected land, was spread down a valley slope. There was a wood of small oaks and, protected by briars too thick for a sickle, the blurred outlines of terraces carved out of the hillside a century earlier when more than twenty people had lived there and tried to be self-sufficient. It took us time to discover among the jungle of bushes the ruins of three other houses which had been left to crumble.
The two houses, which cried out for attention, had not been lived in for a generation and the place had not been a working farm for longer than that. But it had something of the feel of having been abandoned suddenly in time of war or plague. The well could still be worked, some of the baking-oven tools were still where they had been left, the huge conical millstones were still where they were when the last pair of draught cows had been unshackled, there was still straw in the lovingly carved cow-stalls, one hearth was still guarded by its two fire-dogs.
But, in the small wood and down the valley slope, there was something which I had known from many years before and which had always been difficult to put into words. It was as if something very old, far older than farming, had come back to reclaim what had been interrupted. For me it was memories of lying on my back under trees and looking at leaves between me and the sun. It seemed to (and perhaps genetically did) have to do with my roots, but was both seduction and rejection. Something held me there, but also excluded me from where I belonged. (Clumsy words like these will make sense only to those who don’t need them. All I can say is that what they are hopelessly aimed at is as real a feeling as any I’ve ever had.)
Then, over our thirty years, there were two slow but sure changes, both of them good and not so good.
First, we began the unavoidable business of renewing roofs, walls, floors, windows, doors and stairs. For the first time ever, Betou got water-closets, a bathroom and a telephone. Barn floors were levelled and made usable. For the first time, the open hearth was not the only source of heat. We thought we did well, but I’ll never forget one vote. It was made by a huge snowy owl, poised on the new roof of his home. He gave one look and one cry, and then flew off down the valley.
Getting to grips with the neglected acres took longer. Dealing with bushes and briars called for tough machines and professionals who knew how to use them. It took time and the trust of neighbours and friends to bring fields back into use. From necessity – or possibly from good instinct – we left the wood and some of the valley slope untouched.
Second, the district itself at last began to climb out of age-old poverty and claim some of the advances of the late 20th century, that is, both advances and losses. Tractors, running water, better irrigation, radio followed by television, cheaper and more reliable cars; but at the price of noisier more dangerous roads, fewer shops in small villages, less contact between people.
What was the joint impact of these two changes on Bétou? Mostly good. It was, according to the old maps and records, always too small to be a viable farm. It is good that the usable fields are now used again. It had its full share of back-breaking work, disease, infant mortality and hunger. There is no doubt what the verdict would be of those who had to endure all these. And it cannot have been bad to save intact two houses built of that special local limestone.
It seems – and probably is – selfish to talk of one further loss. This, among all the efficiency and improvements, is the slow leakage of the love-at-first-sight magic, and this now demands a less sentimental view of those intimations which I clumsily tried to describe earlier. I still can’t deny the reality of those feelings, but at least I can be wary of their setting.
In human terms, they thrive on failure and decay. They come alive in the ruined mansion, the overgrown estate, the failure of a family or dynasty. They hate and retreat from the well-run house or farm. They like our untouched and inefficient wood, but they can’t stand a new, well-planned plantation. They are dead against success.
I thought that their siren voices reached only a crazy few of us, but I do notice that others, including some of our apparently prosaic French farmer neighbours, feel some of the magic in their genes and what is involved in its loss.
I’m talking here of the setting and being wary of it. But I don’t think I’m wrong about the authenticity of what I suppose is an utterly pagan feeling. It would best be tested not where humankind has tried and failed, but in places on earth where it has never yet dared to try.
*Written in 2001 – so now nearly FORTY years!