The dining room at Crillon le Brave
Walking outside this morning, I noticed the car windows had a dew cover, and the wind was slightly chilly, almost as if its source was a glacier high up in the Cascades. I was put in mind immediately of the south of France, where there is a wind called Le Mistral, which blows from the north down the Rhine, sometimes originating in Siberia. The wind is believed to possess almost magical qualities, and has inspired as many writers of the region as it has surprised guests! It is a north wind, full of the ancient lore of that harbinger of change, no sweet feminine zephyr of the west. It is a funny thing: there is an eerie stillness before such a wind, at least on the few occasions I have experienced its passion. In the beautiful Norwegian fable East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the north wind was the only wind capable of flying a woman to its head in order that she might find her husband. In the Song of Solomon, the bride is calling for the North Wind to blow on her garden (an interesting suggestion!). More recently, I remember the movie Chocolat, in which the main character, a woman, is sensitive to the call of the north wind, and roams at its beckoning, similarly as in the Norwegian fable, until she finds her home.
By far, however, my favorite association originates from the name Mistral itself: in the Langue d'oc, or ancient dialect of Provence, the native language, the word Mistral means "masterly." I have to admit to a long-standing affinity for that interpretation, as it seems fitting to me for a such a land rich in the heritage of poetry and love (a feminine grace), that the masterly (or masculine) wind which comes from the north should have the reputation of bringing good health, since the dry air dries stagnant water and the mud, giving the mistral the local name mange-fange (Eng. "mud-eater"). It also blows away pollution from the skies over the large cities and industrial areas and clears both the sky and air, giving it a fresh and renewed quality long admired by painters and artists, particularly the French impressionist and post impressionist painters. When other parts of France have clouds and storms, Provence is rarely affected for long, since the mistral quickly clears the sky. In less than two hours, the sky can change from completely covered to completely clear. The mistral also blows away the dust, and makes the air particularly clear, so that during the mistral it is possible to see mountains 150 kilometers and farther away.
The word often employed to refer to the Provencal soul is "felibre", by which the great poet Frederick Mistral proposed to refer to the poets of that region, true descendants of the ancient troubadours who presided over their birthright of spirit in the Courts of Love in the middle ages, led by the illustrious Eleanor of Acquitaine, whom I have long admired. This organization of Felibrige sought to preserve both this ancient tongue as well as provided "a rendezvous for high poetry and high sentiment," in the words of Lawrence Durell, in his wonderful book Aspects of Provence: Caesar's Vast Ghost. Thinking about this on my walk this morning, I remembered once, in the autumn, when I was staying in a splendid village in Provence called "Crillon le Brave", at the foot of Mount Ventoux, a mistral blew in to that "Village Perche", or village perched on a hill. I had come once again to this beloved place in late September to enjoy the "Vendange", the grape harvest, from which all of my favorite Rhone Wines are fashioned: Sablet, Seguret, Gigondas, Vacqueras, Chateauneuf des Papes. (The cellar at Unnamed House is unusually partial to these wines, and when I drink them at home, the merest sip can transport me, so redolent are they of that terroir, where the land and sky and air all seem to conspire to seduce the heart, or at least mine.) In almost an instant, the late summer afternoon, full of warmth and welcome, became the chill and wind of late autumn. I remember thinking distinctly at the time that I had traded my lovely terrace bistro table near the fountain (after which one of my terraces is designed), where I sat with my watercolors and journal, for the Salon, where I quickly repaired to enjoy my aperitif. That night, too, dinner, which had been planned for a terrace overlooking the vallee, was instead enjoyed by the roaring hearth. Even the menu and my choices changed rather dramatically, but not necessarily for the worse.
For several weeks now I have been noticing the change in the quality of light, as I do each year in late August and early September: the shadows are harsher, the light more pungeant, without its mid-summer softness. It is a more masculine air which begins to blow in the autumn, and I often find myself musing as to whether this air will bring with it fresh perspectives and clarity of vision to balance the soft impressions and sensual delights of the summer loveliness. Though I mourn the loss of summer, which is easily my favorite season, I do look with relish to the season of braises, and Sunday roasts, and bubbling gratins taken from the oven and served with crusty bread and salad. I wonder that these comforts and pleasures are not the attempt of women, or woman, for that matter, to bring some feminine quality to the blowing in of this stark clarity and the health born of cooler air, however beneficial. It is as if she knows, in her heart, that with the mistral comes the need for an almost critical evaluation, and the mistral, while short lived in the scheme of the seasons, can be difficult to weather. Like the great ladies of those Courts of Love, playing their Courtly games and singing the love poems of the troubadours, perhaps we, as women, are busy trying to insist on an approach, within which love, the finest of sentiments, could find its own way in the midst of the clarifying storm. Love and War, the great musician Monteverdi argued, were two sides of the same coin.
Nor is the word love used frivolously. Eleanor of Acquitaine and her companions in these courts of love were walking in pathways traced by Plato, in which Love was a form of metaphysical inquiry. But this heritage was also the heritage of the Athenian mind, which Plato reflected, and which had a splendid interplay of masculine objectivity and feminine delight in the beautiful: the ability to look clear-eyed at reality, without the cloud of sentiment, a key to health, and yet, the capacity to find the world lovely, full of wonder and delight, and at the same time lovely to live in: mind and spirit. The little pleasures, too, the everyday keepings, were also felt with keen enjoyment: "Dear to us as ever," says Homer, "is the banquet and the harp and the dance and changes of raiment and the warm bath and love and sleep." Never since has eating and drinking seemed so delightful as in the early Greek lyrics, argues Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way, "nor a meeting with friends, nor a warm fire on a winter's night--'the stormy season of winter, the soft couch after dinner by the fire, honey-sweet wine in your glass and nuts and beans at your elbow.'" Yes, Love was a form of metaphysical inquiry to these Courts of Love, and through their poetical thinking, the future, as their children would experience it, was greatly enriched, beginning with Petrarch, the great poet and student, and the opening of lines of inquiry that hearkened these early Greeks and led to a renaissance of learning. And the poets and troubadours and gallants also shared in this influence, such that the notion of femininity and womanhood was rendered rich and multi-faceted, even as the north wind blew in a new clarity of vision.
For now, for a few delicious weeks, it seems, we sit on this precipice, perched, like my village perche, on the crest of the feminine and the masculine, on heart and head, mind and spirit, on the axis of poetic and masterful. Summer to Autumn. Is there an eerie stillness in the face of the masterful? It puts me in mind of some "mistrals" of the spirit I have weathered of late, and how in their aftermath, they have brought to me a clarity of mind and a heart more open to the Spirit of God, who is the true Source, the head of all winds. I think this is what Love is, the love that died on the Cross and gave his life for us. The Love that redeems our hearts with each new mistral given to bring us clarity: it has both aspects. It is clarity and grace. It is clear-eyed and full of mercy. But for now, I plan to enjoy the transition of the seasons, and will add these two seasons from Vivald's Four Seasons to my dinner concert this night. However, I'm not quite ready for a braise: I think, instead, I will eat en plein aire, and marinate and grill some chicken, threaded on rosemary stalks cut for me last evening from my parterre garden by my son and his friend Peter, and brought to me in a beautiful, autumnal bouquet. I might even dance.