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.