Friday, 1st May
It’s May Day, a day to celebrate spring and labour. With nature and work much on my mind this 46th day of our confinement, it’s a timely holiday.
The earliest known observation of the day goes back to the 2nd century, with festive vernal events around the Roman gods Flora, Dionysus and Venus. Later the Christians got a hold of it and feted various saints and the Virgin Mary, along with the arrival of spring. In the late 19th century the day was appropriated by trade unions to honour workers, following the 1886 Haymarket affair in my hometown of Chicago. Labour had begun a general strike on May 1st, demanding an eight-hour working day. During a demonstration a bomb went off and many labour leaders were subsequently rounded up and hanged on dubious charges.
Three years later, at the first congress of the Second International in Paris, the May Day holiday was designated. It’s not surprising that the French were behind the effort. With workers' rights considered hallowed territory here, le 1er mai is sacred, the one day in the year where absolutely all shops and businesses are closed. This year those who have kept going to their jobs, thus risking their own health to hugely facilitate our confinement, deserve more than a day off. In healthier times there would be packed parades.
Not to be outdone, the extreme-right National Front (now the Rassemblement National) hold their own parade on le 1er mai, touting Joan of Arc and their xenophobic agenda.
Fortunately some traditions that surround the day in France are less politically fraught.* In 1561 King Charles IX was given lily-of-the-valley for good luck and decided that all the ladies of the court should also receive these talismans. Since then muguets are sold in industrial quantities just before the holiday. In the last few days flower shops have re-opened, thus joining the ranks of commercial enterprises deemed de caractère indispensable by the government during lockdown.
Between the explosion of spring and the lack of other distractions in these confining times, I have been very focused on the season out here in the Perche. The lilacs, hawthorns, elderberry and cherry...
...that have been blooming all around. But I have also been thinking about us humans and our relationship to that nature.
The last couple of weeks we've had two visits (distanciation sociale was dutifully respected on both occasions). Monsieur L, the farmer who sold us the land around the house and who continues cultivate it, stopped by to tell us that he was set to start planting maize. Watching the tractors turn over the soil is a powerfully dramatic process...
...that is strangely beautiful...
The word cultivation for this interaction between man and the land rings just right.
The second visit was from Claire S, landscape architect and Perche eco-expert who will be helping us redesign our property, make the garden flow harmoniously into the fields that Monsieur L will stop farming over the next few years as he eases into retirement. Our region is still a bucolic paradise but it has not been spared industrialisation and misguided EU agricultural policies entirely. Many of the hedgerows for which the area is known and that are home to legions of birds, animals and insects, have been cut down or left untended. Crops unsuited to the terrain - maize for example - are planted and treated with pesticides.
Claire has already done quite a lot of research into the geography and history of the place. Her broad aim is to return our 20 hectares (50 acres) into an area that is more respectful of Perche traditions and its flora and fauna and it is exciting to be part of a project to redress the man-nature balance even in such a tiny way.
The last 46 days have also been a fruitful period for work. Not only are my confinement blog entries beginning to resemble a serialised 19th century novel, I have been overhauling my own work of fiction, the one I was unable to finish when we were constantly hopping back and forth from Paris to Berlin. Yesterday I gave my husband David, always my first reader, the new early pages and I await his reaction anxiously. I hope very much this focused time has got me headed in the right direction.
Our de-confinement will begin shortly, on the 11th of May, and I admit to feelings of trepidation as the end of my cocooned existence approaches. The return to everyday problems and a masked, gloved socially-distanced world reeling from economic collapse is an extremely scary prospect. I also worry about how long the salutary effects of our slower, more reflective, less polluted living will last. We are after all an insatiable species with a short memory.
But hey, it's May Day. Happy spring. And thanks to all the workers who have helped make these confined times so comfortable and fertile.
*This is actually not quite true. See next entry, From Confinement to Confusion for clarification.