This is the time for planting spuds. Here are two websites that should tell you everything you need to know about growing potatoes in a bag on your balcony, or in the earth:
Potatoes in a bag
Midas, hating riches, made his home in the country, in the woods, and worshiped Pan, the god who always dwells in mountain caves, but he remained a foolish person, and his own stupidity was to injure its owner again, as it had done before.
Figure on Rock, Fontainebleau c. 1830
In the 1780s the forests of Fontainebleau no longer played host to the royal hunts. The village of Fontainebleau had become depressed; only a small porcelain factory offered any prospects beyond the fields. In the forest grim-faced charcoal burners, pig-grazers, woodcutters and the unwanted found a type of life for themselves. People from the village still came to collect their sticks and poach game and in May, for the Feast of Pentecost, drinking and feasting went on right under the eyes of the authorities, at the foot of La Roche-Qui-Pleure, ‘the rock which cries’.
As a child Etienne Senancour suffered from dyspepsia, an ailment usually reserved for old men. His mother was indulgent. His father rarely saw him- he was not proud of his son’s sensitivity and waited for the time the boy would be of age to enter the seminary of Saint-Suplice. Every summer, for Etienne’s health, the family went to the forest of Fontainebleau.
Etienne was entranced by the forest. He ranged over the boulders and uneven ground, unfamiliar exertions which filled his young face with a fine red flush. He forgot the paths he took, moved ahead by the feel of the low pine branches scratching at his chest. He stopped at times to hug the girths of centuries old oak trees and inhale their resinous perfume. Clods of soil, needles, leaves and green stains populated his clothes, hair and skin; countless times his mother berated him, though she understood the good value of these unplanned excursions.
One smoke-hazy afternoon he tore his waistcoat on the stump of a branch. That violence gave him powerful new resolve and he felt his way in deeper. At a river he stopped for water and looking about in the clearing he saw a solitary doe. He stared at her heavy, quivering haunches. Further down the river a wolf emerged. Etienne followed them down the river to where a trail of smoke coiled up above the trees, appearing to be part of the river itself. It came from a camp fire in front of a cave. There the doe crashed through the trees. The wolf abandoned her, lolloping off back towards the river.
His mother had told him to stay away from the people in the woods- the brigands, ex-soldiers, lepers. But the interior of a cave was compelling to a young man and Etienne couldn’t see anyone. A collapsed pile of wood was covered with a skin of turf; feathers and animal excrement were scattered on the rocks and dirt at the cave entrance. Etienne smelt meat. A man came out of the cave, his face black with soot and a wing bone in his mouth. He said nothing, just stared at the frightened boy, then threw the bone at him and laughed from his throat. Etienne picked up the bone and ran home.
Ten years later Etienne Senancour wrote his famous work, Oberman.
The book relates, through a series of letters, the reflections of a man who lives alone in a forest clearing. “I have been seeking through all the valleys to acquire some isolated pasturage which will yet be easily accessible, moderately clement in temperature, pleasantly situated, watered by a stream, and within sound of a torrent or the waves of a lake.” He finds what he has sought but, as the letters reveal, he grows into the sickening realisation that he is unable to be and do what he wishes.
Fontainebleau c. 1850
Alexis Durand was born in Fontainbleau in 1795. His father died when he was a child. At fourteen Durand went to Paris to apprentice as a cabinet maker. As an apprentice in the trade he travelled across France. He returned to Fontainebleau after the war in 1814 and set up his own carpentry business. Now, age 20, he immersed himself in books. A complete autodidact he had mastered Latin and Italian within three years and was fond of reading Petrarch’s letters under the Le Bouquet de Roi, the famous oak of Fontainebleau. He told himself many times that one day he, Alexis Durand, would write an epic poem about the forest.
In the summer of 1835 Durand was erecting shelves for the library of the state prosecutor, Clovis Michaux, who had recently moved to Fontainebleau. It was at this time that Senancour’s Oberman was re-published. Michaux never noticed the book go missing from one of the shelves. Nor did he notice when Durand tried to get himself caught reading a small volume of Dante instead of working.
But one day a friend of Michaux’s came into the house with a fragment of verse entitled Le Bouquet de Roi which he had found slipped into one of his books. When Alexis told the two men that he was the author Michaux said, ‘My boy, when and how did you wake up a poet?’
It did not take long to get a list of subscribers for this carpenter-poet. The King himself added his name as sponsor. In 1836 Foret de Fontainbluea: Poeme en quatre chants was published in the local newspaper. It received widespread acclaim. Alexis was becoming the interpreter of the forests as a growing audience listened. In 1837 he showed Chateaubriand Le Bouquet de Roi.
Map with trails, Fontainebleau c. 1860
When the war came to an end Claude Denecourt was stationed in Fonatinebleau. With no money or family, and a badly crippled leg, he found himself drawn to the forest. At the time few people knew about the place- several artists from Paris had begun renting cottages on the edges of the forests but few knew its interior. At night he rambled through the forest not to get lost, but to find new paths.
Denecourt was scared of caves so his home was a covering of cedar branches layered over a frame of supple birch trees. The only possession he had was the book Oberman. He had been given the book by a man he had met, and would later come to know well, called Alexis Durand. They had met when both were out walking. Durand was so astonished at this real life homme de foret that he gave him the volume on the spot.
Resting in Eugene’s café one afternoon Denecourt picked up one of the new guide books which had been written about Fontainebleau. The map on the back page showed scallop-edged green lines denoting impenetrable woods. That same day, in the balmy evening, he stopped to rest on a sandstone ledge not far from his shelter. He soon fell asleep, resting his head on a rock. Whether he moved suddenly, or his weight over time caused it, the ground beneath him crumbled and he fell into a deep cave. Confused and terrified his eyes quickly grew used to the dimness. He found himself aroused, by the fear and the novelty. He edged into the cave feeling with his hands. The soil gave way at the least pressure. When he woke the next morning he resolved to make a guidebook.
He got the pot of blue paint from a woman who lived alone on the far side of the village- her son had died in Austria during the war, now she was committed to all those who had survived. He bound grass to a stick for a brush- he wasn’t making art, at least not with his paint. Every night for nine months he paced the forest with his lantern, daubing trees and rocks with the blue paint. Others came across the strange marks and were puzzled but only for a moment.
The first of his promenades, presented in a neat book, which he called L’indicateur, appeared in 1837. Between ten and fifteen kilometres long the walks were carefully designed to allow the hiker, poet, artist a spectrum of textures: glades, trees, rocks, water, the heights and depths, the open spaces and dense confines. Interrupting the walk were historical and literary sites, trees mostly, named after Charlemagne, Clovis and Voltaire. Stories of druids and bandits, the grotto of the Barbizonnieres, where women and girls hid in terror from the rape-happy Cossacks. His Promenades dans la foret, 1844, included a section entitled ‘Alphabetical Nomenclature of everything contained in the forests that is remarkable or picturesque, such as its rocks, its beautiful spots, its numerous viewpoints, its ancient glades, its extremely curious trees.’ The list included about 175 items.
In 1848 the Second Republic brought violence and tree felling. A year later the Paris-Lyons steam engine train brought Parisians to Fontainebleau in their thousands. Alexis Durand produced a poem called ‘La Legende de Nemerosa’ to go with Denecourt’s Itineraire d’une Charmante Promenade au Debarcadiere for the opening of the train station. Denecourt only gave his name as author. Durand wrote that Denecourt’s guides were full of historical inaccuracies. Denecourt didn’t care. He returned to the cave where he had once fallen and brought with him a pickaxe. He made the cavern deeper and darker. He rubbed the walls with water to create the dankness needed for moss and mushrooms.
By 1860 100,000 tourists passed through the forest each year. They bought juniper wood and bottles of Eau de Diane at the station before departing. They carried petit-indicateur in the pockets of their coats. They stood on the high platform built so if it was too hot to walk one could simply look down on the forest, and the skyline of Paris in the distance. And they listened to Guerigny, the ex-woodcutter with an oily face, who told stories about catching vipers. One story told of a time when he sent a bag full of snakes to Paris for collection and they escaped on the train and slithered around the feet of the passengers.
568 total views, 3 today