This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Some were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. Others were intended to be more general and to have a longer shelf life. I hope an entry here or there may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited —by Jinny Batterson
During my childhood, my most formally religious aunt used to give me books of Bible stories, adapted for children. One of the most difficult stories for me was Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It concerned death, not totally unknown even to small-town American children in the 1950’s, plus a kind of cosmic reckoning:
In a gated estate there lived a rich man, who (revised standard translation, part of Luke’s gospel, chapter 16) “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Outside the rich man’s gate was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.” Sharing was apparently not part of the rich man’s ethos, so Lazarus languished in distress.
After a time, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven, “Abraham’s bosom,” a welcome change. The rich man, by contrast, went to Hades, a realm of fire and brimstone, just near enough to heaven so the rich man could see Lazarus there, hanging out with Abraham in comfort. The rich man cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Nothing doing, Abraham explained. The rich man had had his chance at comfort while alive. Now the chasm between his current locale and Lazarus was deep and impenetrable, allowing for no crossovers.
During the 1990’s, I was briefly exposed to a widening gap in perspectives between rich and not-so-rich. I had a short-term subcontract with a major accounting firm at their downtown office. At the time, I was living in an inner city neighborhood that suffered the side-effects of a worsening epidemic of crack cocaine: robberies, arrests, lengthy prison sentences, even murders. It was a scary time. Occasionally I went out to lunch with my accounting firm colleagues. Once, I asked my supervisor whether the city’s worsening poverty and crime bothered him.
“I don’t have to notice poverty or crime,” he responded. “After work, I ride the elevator down to the guarded basement garage to retrieve my car. Then I drive out the expressway to my home in a gated community in the suburbs. No poor people interact with me at all. It’s not my problem.” For most of the years since that encounter, I’ve lived in relative comfort, while trying with mixed success to learn and practice the discipline of sharing.
Though some quote an incident near the end of Jesus’ ministry as a justification for ignoring those in poverty, saying, without the surrounding context, “you always have the poor with you,” the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings and actions support the view that caring for “the least of these” is a sacred duty.
The year 2018 so far has been filled with more than a little fire and brimstone—volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s big island, huge wildfires in much of the U.S. West. In the part of the country where I live, the major problem has been floods. So far, they have yet to approach Biblical proportions, but the aftermath of Hurricane Florience in eastern North Carolina has been severe enough so that our current equivalent of Noah’s Ark has deployed, in the form of government rescue boats and the “Cajun navy,” a set of volunteers with small boats who first plied their crafts in last year’s major flooding in Houston, Texas. Florence drenched already struggling regions with over two feet of rain. Among the hardest hit were the region’s poor. Relieved to have been spared the worst of the storm, I watched media coverage of a flooded housing project where building maintenance had long been ignored or postponed. Videos showed some of the problems: peeling paint, exposed pipes, stained ceilings. Residents complained of asbestos-laced insulation. The electricity had gone out, and no one knew when it might be restored.
Beyond temporary aid, what could be done to help? Should we as a society put more emphasis on affordable housing, less on high-end real estate? Would rebuilding and/or relocating require higher taxes? Could we somehow craft a renewed ethic of sharing?
As I struggled to make sense of our society, seemingly rather badly out of kilter, I went out for a walk. The days were getting shorter. It occurred to me that our earth was in the period around an equinox—one of two occasions each year when the sun’s rays hit our tilted planet directly over the equator. Around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, all creatures everywhere on earth experience days and nights of roughly equal length.
Instead of a chasm between wealth and poverty that gets harder and harder to cross, maybe we need something approaching a human “equinox.” Maybe we can head toward a narrower “wealth gap,” with adequate basic provisions for all living beings. Getting to a more equitable distribution and use of earth’s resources will take skill, political will, and good character. It IS possible, though. Nature creates equinoxes twice each year. Can we learn from her before flood, fire and brimstone get worse? Happy fall, y’all!
Happy Interdependence Day! —by Jinny Batterson
For a good many years now, I’ve bracketed an insertion into my July 4 Independence Day greetings to friends in the American expatriate community:
“Happy In(ter)dependence Day!” I extol them. It has seemed to me increasingly evident that in an era of global communication and commerce, celebrating “independence” needs a counterweight. We have become more and more dependent on one another across all sorts of boundaries. So I was pleased to find that others more widely known than I am have come up with similar themes. Perhaps the most widely publicized is a September 12 holiday proposed in the years just following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. In 2003, a group met to create a day to celebrate our global interconnectedness, and settled on September 12, the day after the terrorist assault, as a day for an annual celebration. According to Parag Khanna, one of its founders:
“For the event’s organizers (the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland), Interdependence Day is intended to be crucially different from 4 July. Where Americans alone celebrate the latter, the idea of interdependence unites all peoples across national boundaries in a common human destiny. At the same time, there is an element of deep continuity: for Americans in particular will have to struggle as hard to realize the promise of interdependence as they did for independence.” (For a fuller explanation, please check out the following link: https://www.paragkhanna.com/home/americas-interdependence-day.)
I’ve just returned from a cross-country U.S. trip, benefiting from collaborative practices among airline personnel, colleagues, other passengers, and airport employees to adjust schedules and seating to get as many of us as practical back to our homes on the U.S. Atlantic coast in advance of a strong hurricane. My guess is that our skills at interdependence will soon get a good bit of practice, courtesy of Florence and/or other storms later in the season. My best wishes to all for adequate shelter from the storm—Happy Interdependence Day!
Entitled, Endowed, Enabled —by Jinny Batterson
At this year’s Labor Day, I’m likely to be engaged in intense mental labor with friends and former colleagues, trying to make some sense of the somewhat shaky state of civil society in the United States of America in 2018. As the holiday approaches, my sense is that our uneasiness arises partly from confusion about being entitled, endowed, or enabled. Below are some as-yet-unfinished thoughts about how the three might be interrelated:
A decade or so ago, a leader at an educational institution I value complained that students there had “a sense of entitlement.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, and I wasn’t in a position to either validate or refuse his claim. Just now I looked up the definition of the phrase, and this is what a search engine produced:
“If someone has a sense of entitlement, that means the person believes he deserves certain privileges — and he’s arrogant about it. The term “culture of entitlement” suggests that many people now have highly unreasonable expectations about what they are entitled to.” (from www.vocabulary.com)
I suppose the term “entitlement” derives from the honorific and/or hereditary titles that certain members of European nobility were given. Over time, such entitlement does not need to have anything to do with the person’s character or accomplishments. It cannot be revoked.
The most famous phrase about “endowed” comes from one of our founding documents, the U.S. Declaration of Independence: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
A more recent application of “endowment” is the endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion), the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. Someone who has been “endowed” with say, a house, or a job, may feel that this endowment is permanent and react strongly when there is a perceived threat to his/her ownership. Institutions can also be “endowed” materially—we periodically hear figures about the size of Harvard’s endowment, not often paying attention to the variability of such funds over time. In a different sense, we may talk of Dolly Parton’s “endowment,” likewise a not-entirely-permanent trait.
What appeals to me more than either of the previous terms is “enabled.” To me, this term infers more active engagement by the person who’s enabled. Some stories of enablement based on events at Special Olympics competitions and other sporting events give examples of teamwork, in which someone who may fall behind in the traditional sense is enabled by teammates to finish his/her race, enabling all to succeed together. The term is also used for the process of retraining someone who has lost previously available skills due to illness, accident, or other impediment.
Reverting to endowment, though, I quote from the lead article of the constitution of my adoptive state of North Carolina. Borrowing from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the framers of this post-Civil-War constitution added a fourth endowment: the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.
May we all find ways to better balance entitlement, endowment, enablement as we move forward.
Testing the Alarm System —by Jinny Batterson
Wisps of smoke color our East Coast sky
As across our media screens dance
Sheets of flame from West Coast wildfires.
In Miami Beach, tourists get wet feet
Nearly every high tide. In Alaska, melting
Permafrost leaves larger and larger sinkholes.
From time to time, our mid-Atlantic region
Gets buffeted by hurricanes. Summers veer
Between drench and drought. Just now, neither.
I set out on an early morning walk to outpace
The heat and humidity that will settle all too soon,
Once the sun is well up and shade recedes.
Already, morning traffic is picking up along
The commuter artery where my walk begins.
I stay to the shady edge of the sidewalk.
My immediate goal is an off-road greenway;
Its entrance takes off just shy of a big new
Apartment complex. Almost there–relief!
When I’d first started this walking loop several
Years ago, there were no apartments, only acres of
Second-growth woodland with a greenway in the middle.
I’d watched with dismay as the woods to the path’s left were reduced
To a mere comb-over, the rest cleared, gouged, then built over,
Paved or mulched, adorned with small shrubs and spindly saplings.
Just as I turn onto the path, a racket like the quacking
Of the Aflac duck, but amplified to ear-splitting intensity,
Erupts from somewhere within the apartment complex.
Three short blasts, short silence, three more, on and on.
No place to hide from the noise. No sirens, though.
No evidence of smoke or flame. What gives?
Wandering the parking lot in search of an answer,
I eventually find a fellow in a hard hat getting
Out of a pickup. “Is there an emergency?”
“No, ma’am. They’re just testing out the alarm
System to make sure it works, before the next
Phase of the complex is opened for occupancy.”
Mushrooming —by Jinny Batterson
For the past several weeks, the weather near our central North Carolina condo has been steamy, with frequent afternoon and overnight thunderstorms. In many places, the ground has stayed damp. This year’s drenchings have brought out an abundant crop of late-summer mushrooms. Woodlands and fields are full of gilled mushrooms, sponge-bottomed mushrooms, veined mushrooms–the most evident types. Some are deadly poisonous, most are either distasteful or likely to cause digestive distress, a few are edible and choice. Lots of years of looking at and for mushrooms have given me a very basic knowledge plus the confidence to harvest one or two species that are distinctive enough and delicious enough to be worth gathering to eat.
What many of us fail to realize is that what we call mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of plants whose network of nutrition-gathering mycelium can stretch underground for miles. The largest known single organism on earth, it turns out, is a honey mushroom in Oregon discovered during the 1990’s with a mycelium encompassing 2,384 acres, or about four square miles.
Whenever we humans get too taken with our own supposed dominance and power, it’s prudent to remember that mushrooms and their fungal ancestors have been around for way longer than us. They’ve survived many of the climactic cataclysms that occurred before mammalian life even existed. By weight, mushrooms and their mycelium are at least an order of magnitude greater than the combined girth of all seven-plus billion of us humans.
Whenever we are tempted to get hung up on the variations of sexual relations among human adults, we might ponder the reproductive behavior of mushrooms, as described in this entry from the Cornell Mushroom blog (https://blog.mycology.cornell.edu/2010/06/02/a-fungus-walks-into-a-singles-bar/):
“ Among fungi, any individual can donate or receive genetic material–so you can already see we need to let go of the concept of gender. Let’s talk instead in terms of what mycologists call mating types. A fungus simply needs to find a mate of a different mating type. Of the fungi you might be familiar with, hmm, most species have only two mating types (they’re bipolar), and some have four or more possible mating types (they’re tetrapolar). Any particular individual of a species is just one mating type, of course. Most molds have two; many mushrooms and bracket fungi have four or more. A few fungi, like the unassuming split gill, Schizophyllum commune, have more than ten thousand!”
My first recollection of mushrooms came from the Lewis Carroll story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As my parents read to me, I marveled at illustrations of statuesque gilled mushrooms. My parents cautioned me against imitating Alice: “Don’t ever eat a toadstool,” they insisted.
Later, once our family got a television and started watching the evening news, I sometimes saw images of “mushroom clouds”—the kind formed by explosions of the nuclear bombs then being tested above-ground. A history series featured photos and brief videos of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, creating mushroom-shaped clouds miles above their point of impact. My parents told me to be afraid of mushroom clouds, too, but were somewhat at a loss about how to respond. My dad constructed a bomb shelter that might or might not have provided sufficient protection in the area near Washington D.C. where we then lived; my mom discussed with her women’s group whether the milk delivered to our doorstep had dangerous levels of strontium-90, a calcium-like carcinogenic isotope whose presence in milk became elevated during peak nuclear testing years.
Given our current climate, in which both environmental and governmental problems can on some days seem to be mushrooming out of control, paying a bit more attention to real mushrooms can be reassuring. These humble living things have adapted to climates that were previously supposed incapable of supporting life; they can spring up when least expected; their underground support networks are everywhere.
Dog Days Dreaming —by Jinny Batterson
It’s hot and muggy outside, pretty typical for central North Carolina this time of year. I’m used to calling late July and August “dog days,” figuring that even dogs with any sense would spend this part of the year lolling in the shade (or, if available, in an air-conditioned interior). It’s also a time when summer begins to drag a bit. My recollection of “dog days” during my schooling is that by this part of August, I was bored, “dog tired” of school vacation. Going to the swimming pool, attending a fireman’s carnival, getting a root beer float or a hand-dipped ice cream at our local soda fountain—none of these activities had quite the same allure as earlier in the summer. I was beginning to long for the uptick in social life that went with school’s return. Some of my friends probably felt the same way, but we were reluctant to share our views out loud. Instead, we hewed to a teen party line that summer was all fun and school was a drag. Turns out the term “dog days” has less to do with our pet canines than with the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” during a roughly 40-day period in July and August, noted since Greek and Roman times.
Sleep research indicates that most of us dream. Fewer of us remember our dreams on waking, especially during these groggy, hot days of late summer. That’s true for me. More often than dream memories, I’ll awaken with a tune or fragment of a lyric in my head. Recently, I woke up with the first verse of “America the Beautiful” as an ear worm. Why that song? Why this time of year? Going down a rabbit hole via online search engines, I found three additional verses, along with some background about the author and the conditions that prompted the song’s writing.
The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. She began the poem while spending the summer of 1893 teaching English at a school in Colorado Springs. She and several other teachers made a day trip up nearby Pike’s Peak. From its summit, they could see the fertile plains below. Bates scribbled the first lines of what later became “America the Beautiful” into a small notebook she carried with her:
“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”
In 1893, there was a major economic downturn, creating distress for many laboring families and farmers. This became a theme of the second verse, which implores God to help mend America’s flaws:
“America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-countrol, thy liberty in law.”
The poem first appeared in print in a weekly journal around the time of Independence Day in 1895. Bates included a third verse lauding the sacrifices of earlier soldiers:
“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.”
Bates’ final expanded version, published in 1913, contained a fourth verse laying out a vision of an America that lived up to its ideals:
“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”
In 1918, when the armistice ending the first world war was announced, U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe burst out singing “America the Beautiful.” The song, much easier than “The Star Spangled Banner,” has since become an unofficial American anthem. It’s been performed by dozens of American pop idols, including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Although it’s rare to hear all four verses, versions have entertained audiences at Super Bowls, presidential inaugurals, and hosts of Independence Day celebrations. One of the most moving performances was a guitar-accompanied rendition by country singer Willie Nelson and a host of entertainment luminaries in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.
In previous U.S. political cycles, a waking aspect of “dog days” has often been a brief reprieve from political campaigning. Media outlets have provided less news about our government, which sort of “goes on vacation” along with many of the rest of us. Campaign advertising, social media posts, email blasts, robocalls have stayed quiescent until after Labor Day in September. No such luck this year. We’re being subjected to death by a thousand tweets.
Regardless, until after Labor Day, I’ll keep ignoring as much of the political hoopla as I can. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the August 12, 1859 birthday of Katharine Lee Bates. I’m going to relish her lyrics of patriot dreams of an America, with our caring people and stunning nature, that will one day be beautiful again.
American Report Card: An F in the Three C’s —by Jinny Batterson
For much of my formal schooling, several times each school year I’d bring home a report card. In high school and then college, those reports typically evaluated my performance based on a scale from “A” to “F,” where “A” was the best grade possible, and “F” represented failure in a particular course. My grades in all subjects were mostly A’s and B’s—enough to be on the honor roll of students with superior study skills and motivation. I rarely got a C—which counted as the average.
Some of my course names also fell in the A to F range—algebra, biology, chemistry, drama, English, French. Recently I sent a postcard, a low-tech equivalent of a tweet, to a member of our national government, suggesting a set of three C’s as subject matter to measure how we as a nation are doing: curiosity, compassion, and care for nature. I also suggested that these universal human values, long assumed to be part of the American ethos, needed some shoring up on our shores. In the wake of various recent national policy shifts, our country’s reputation for such values has dramatically declined. Curiosity, compassion, and care for nature are in somewhat short supply in United States official policies due to cutbacks in science funding, rollbacks of environmental safeguards and global climate agreements, but especially in the way we are treating recent immigrants.
After I mailed the card, I mused about the letter “F,” signifying failure, but also fear, fear that can produce or compound both personal and systems failures. Certain fears are sensible motivators to prepare for environmental or life challenges: fears of earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards, floods, erratic weather, poisonous snakes and spiders, rabid animals, aging, ill health, losses of loved ones in dangerous situations. Other fears function mainly to divide us, worsening real or perceived unfairness, especially when combined with scapegoating of some convenient “other.” We may be persuaded to be frightened of job losses, loss of income, loss of housing, loss of our ability to pay for needed medical screenings or treatments, loss of property or property value, all because “they” are encroaching on “our” prerogatives. Fear can be the opposite of all three C’s, shutting us off from exploration, from compassionate and thoughtful dialogue, from other meaningful interactions with our fellow humans and other creatures. We may engage in more and more absurd rituals to try to protect our presumed advantages.
Most of the immigrants in my family came to what is now the United States of America before there were immigration quotas or even a U.S.A. I’m not in danger of being deported. Still, I am troubled by many aspects of the current immigration debate. I’ve found recent reports of children taken from their loved ones at border crossings and put into detention away from their parents or close relatives deeply disturbing. Such behavior suggests an absence of curiosity, compassion, or care for nature.
Splitting apart families who cross our borders to seek asylum from violence in their countries of origin is both morally wrong and politically untenable. Tasking our border security agents with taking children from their parents or close relatives and putting these children into separate detention facilities is much more likely to breed future terrorists and thugs than engaging in more proactive, humane procedures. Taking infants, toddlers, and young children from their loved ones is, by almost anyone’s definition, a sign of unfounded fear, an abject policy failure, a huge red “F.” Got any postcards handy?
The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley —by Jinny Batterson
Traveling in Europe produces a different sense of time—my previous benchmarks for “old” settlements, the historic recreations of Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia, become mere youngsters in comparison with the Greek and Roman era ruins that dot much of western Europe. Even the relatively “new” churches and cathedrals of France generally date from centuries earlier than the 1607-or-thereabouts thatched mud huts of the initial European settlers at Jamestown.
While the U.S. Southwest contains mysterious remnants of earlier civilizations—Anasazi settlements that flourished about a thousand years ago before being suddenly abandoned—these ruins are still relative newbies compared with the cave and cliff sites excavated over the past century and a half along the middle reaches of the Vézère valley in southwestern France.
According to the best available methods for establishing rough eras, early humans first appeared in the Vézère Valley nearly half a million years ago. I remember reading earlier about the now famous prehistoric paintings at Lascaux—elaborate depictions of animals from about 20,000 years ago, discovered by accident in 1940 by youngsters exploring a cave.
Though I haven’t yet visited the replica of that cave (the original was closed to visitors during the 1960’s because the crush of tourists with their attendant humidity and CO2 was damaging the paintings), I recently wound up along the Vézère where some even earlier settlements have been discovered—a small village called Les Eyzies. After a morning’s taxi ride through misty weather, our driver let my husband and me out at the small vacation settlement at the edge of town where we’d booked a stay. We dropped our luggage at the front desk, then set out with our umbrellas to explore. The first large building we came across was a welcome center for the area’s prehistory attractions, with some basic exhibits about various Vézère valley sites (over 80 of them have been excavated at least partially so far) and how archeology is conducted.
Because we’d opted not to rent a car and because taxi rates were fairly pricey in this mostly rural area, we limited our explorations to what we could reach on foot. First we visited a hillside complex, l’Abri Pataud, that had been explored from the 1950’s through the 1970’s by a team led by Harvard professor H.L. Movius. Due to periodic freeze/thaw erosion and to the situation and geology of the site, multiple levels of tools and remains were found dating from about 35,000 to about 20,000 years ago, encompassing both an interglacial warm period and an ice age. The earliest relics seem to indicate the recurrent presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers who may have used the site as a short-term hunting camp. Later levels indicate somewhat more settled use of the shelter, which became deeper over time.
The following day, we bought tickets to the National Prehistory Museum, a modern cliffside complex that has been expanded several times. Extensive exhibits of stone tools and of skeletons of prehistoric animals and humans were leavened with videos and graphics of likely tool-making techniques during the various periods. In between visits to the area’s prehistory, we sampled some of the crafts and foods of the modern small town, which provides a hearty welcome to school groups, vacationing families, and older tourists like us.
As contemporary humans continue the sometimes difficult twin transitions in global climate and human consciousness, I’m grateful for increased awareness of these long-enduring prehistoric ancestors. Their progress and evolution may seem glacial to us, but they bequeathed to their modern descendants the basic intelligence to adapt their living styles during drastic shifts in their physical environment. They also gave us a less tangible, but no less important inheritance—a sense of gentle humor and whimsy. May we use all these tools well.
Aubrac’s Flelds of Wild Jonquils —by Jinny Batterson
In late May, as I was walking across a sparsely settled upland French plateau along a stretch of one pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I encountered a delicious fragrance—delicate and sweet and lingering. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Despite, or perhaps because of, a fair amount of rainy weather, the meadows and woodlands abounded in spring blooms, many of them unfamiliar to me. That evening at the small guest house where we had booked a room, I noticed a vase of flowers with the same delicate fragrance. I asked the proprietress what these small white blooms were called. “Jonquils des poètes,” she told me in French.
I’m not sure what the English equivalent is. The internet pictures I’ve found of “Poet’s jonquils” look similar, but not identical to the flowers I remember from my trip. A few days further into my journey, I arrived midmorning at the tiny town of Aubrac, after spending a couple of hours crossing several miles of minimally fenced upland pastures dotted with jonquils des poètes, some being contentedly munched by local cattle. The weather was cool and misty.
At the near edge of town was a forbidding-looking Romanesque structure. A guide was explaining to a group of tourists in a language I could not understand the wonders and historic significance of this church. According to the French signpost I could partly understand, this former Benedictine monastery was at least a thousand years old and likely built on the foundations of an even earlier structure.
Most of the other buildings along the road and edging the upland pastures were hotels, hostels, or small inns. I noticed one small cafe/guest house that seemed to be open. Several of us stopped and picked out an outdoor table under a protective awning. A warm drink seemed a good idea. It took a while for anyone to come to take our orders—after a bit, an elegant young woman showed up, apologizing somewhat for the delay, explaining that she and the other town residents were all still stressed out from the previous weekend’s “transhumance” festival that annually draws thousands to the area. I’d seen pictures and postcards of this celebration of the opening of common upland pastures for the area’s prized cattle. A nearby town square was still littered with floral garlands and signs from the festival. (Find a set of commercial pictures of the 2018 festival here: http://hotel-lion-or.com/aveyron/fete-transhumance-aubrac/)
When our hostess finally brought our coffees and hot chocolates, she stopped to take a smoke break and we began to ask her questions. All of us were curious about the town, whose year-round population has dwindled markedly from a peak over a century ago. Until the late 19th century, our hostess told us, Aubrac had been a traditional farming village, but the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of earning an adequate living caused many farm families to leave the area and seek better lives in French cities. Lots of the adults became small shopkeepers or restaurateurs in and around Paris. However, they retained cottages in Aubrac and continued to bring their families for summer vacations in their former hometown. At about the same time, some area doctors discovered that the clean, cool air in the Aubrac highlands helped tubercular patients. Several tuberculosis sanatoria were opened over the next decades—some have since become hotels or hostels. Most of the local economy now revolves around tourism, compressed into the three or four months of warmer weather. The local cattle, a special hardy breed, supply photo opportunities as well as milk or meat.
Our hostess explained between puffs that she was even busier than she’d expected post-festival: her five rooms were all rented for the week—a group of businessmen from New York City had come to explore the option of buying quantities of jonquils des poètes to use in a new upscale perfume fragrance. She said that this particular type of jonquil only grew in the wild and had not yet been successfully cultivated. Some of each year’s blooms already were collected by locals to supply French perfumeries in the southern city of Grasse, a noted perfume center.
I never got to meet the businessmen, who most probably were jet-lagged and perhaps also technology-deprived in this isolated small town. My current exposure to a former-NYC-businessman-turned-politician has temporarily soured me on the ethics and business practices of some. My hope is that if a deal is struck, the good people of Aubrac will be fairly compensated for their labor and their wild-growing fragrant white blossoms. I also hope that enough flowers will be left in the fields so that cattle, pilgrims, and residents can continue to enjoy their essence in their native habitat.
A Lot About Aligot —by Jinny Batterson
In late spring, I went with my husband Jim to central France for an extended trip. The first part consisted of a scaled-back pilgrimage walk along part of the “Camino Saint Jacques de Compostela.” Jim had contracted with an outfitter to haul our luggage and to reserve private rooms at fairly evenly spaced B&B’s or small inns, about ten miles apart, while we hiked one branch of a pilgrimage route for two weeks.
The particular section we chose to walk went from the small city of Le Puy en Velay, site of a well-known shrine to a black Madonna, to Conques, a tiny village nestled in a steep valley, home to a set of relics of an early French Christian martyr, Sainte Foy. Though much more comfortable than a longer pilgrimage walk Jim had done earlier with young friends, this trek had enough variables and unknowns in trail conditions and weather so it was still something of an adventure. We were lucky with both trail and weather, getting lost only briefly, and thoroughly drenched just once.
Much of our walk was through an upland plateau region generally known as the Massif Central, including the most sparsely populated French department, Lozere, with more cows than people. After we left Le Puy, we were mainly in countryside, dotted here and there with small villages, ruins of old castles, historic churches and shrines, crosses at many trail junctions, plus lots and lots of cows. Early in the trip, several communal suppers with other pilgrims gave us exposure to a local dairy specialty dish, aligot, one with an ancient pedigree.
Variations of a local legend say that in the sixth century, three area bishops were convened by the local ruler to help settle a dispute. As negotiations dragged on, the bishops got hungry. Each took out some special ingredients he’d brought with him and gave them to a local cook to turn into a meal. The bishop of St. Flour had brought lots of potatoes (or, in an earlier version of the story, bread). The bishop of Rodez had brought cheese and milk and butter, while the bishop of Mende had brought salt and garlic.
The cook decided to keep things simple. He first cooked the potatoes, then added the other ingredients to the mix, stirring briskly to blend everything together. The bishops enjoyed the dish so much that they all vied to take any leftovers home, but the remains of the mix were so thoroughly stuck to the bottom of the pot that the dish remained local to the upland plateau where they’d met.
The several iterations of aligot we experienced came with a great deal of ceremony—the cook in charge would appear with a large cauldron which was placed on an equally imposing trivet near the common dining area. The cook would then proceed to lift a big wooden spoon out of the pot to show how smooth and flexible the mixture was, then transfer huge glops of the stuff into serving bowls for us hungry pilgrims. To me, aligot seemed a sort of cross between garlic mashed potatoes and cheese fondue. It congealed quickly as it cooled. Though quite nourishing and warming on chill, rainy evenings, it could sit heavy on the stomach. It digested better if washed down with local wine or beer (or maybe even something stronger).
Once we completed our walk, descending from the plateau into milder weather in other regions, we sometimes had the option of choosing aligot as an accompaniment to our meal, but we usually passed. Aligot, as the bishops surmised, needs a wild, chill setting to reach its full potential.