Hamlet of Camp de la Suyere

October 13, 2011 in Postings from the Mountain

(manuscript extract from “The Extraordinary Course of my Unaccomplished Dream”)

Chapter : 15 Building Paradise Found

View from the south east end of the hamlet, left Mayke’s studio with its enclosed rose garden, center main house constituted of two buildings, to the right behind the tall green oaks the “cabanon”, a stand alone stone building I use as a woodshed until … the Pigeonnier


It felt like my landing in the Canebiers Bay ten years earlier after my first solo atlantic crossing, a safe haven. We were free at last from the Auberge, the toil had taken its toll and it would take a while for this new reality to sink in.
Mayke had left early that morning to manage the arrival of he movers while I stayed behind to close out the last details with the new owning innkeepers, fill the trailer and car with loose ends and catch up. Mayke had assumed many more moves in her previous lives than I, but perhaps not movers almost as apprehensive of reaching destination as managing their way home after delivery. It was the same team had moved us from the house in Port Grimaud to Saignon so somewhere they imagined a similar scenario. I had told them to take small trucks as negotiating the passage through Val Daubert, the hamlet before ours would be difficult, but it never dawned upon me they would panic with the precipice and single carriage dirt road. If they had found a place to turn about they may not have delivered, luckily they were beyond the point of no return and would accomplish their mission. It was April and the days were still short, they wanted to finish and clear our road in full daylight.

The house had been closed for at least two years and emerging out of winter its three foot walls bore the cold of a bare igloo. Radiators could not fight the cold dampness and the fireplaces refused to draw. I dare say if the closing of the Auberge had been in the fall we would have moved elsewhere until summer. Of the three levels only the living was bearable, the upstairs bedrooms were too small to accommodate our own bed, the downstairs too cold; we would use those left behind until I would tear out the partitions. But if the nights were hardly bearable the sight of morning would erase their pain.

The barn soon to become Mayke’s studio

Mayke calls it our castle. From the road ten foot stone retaining walls keep intruders at bay, above it the house dominates from the height of its three levels; before it another wall of tall evergreen oaks hides us from the outside world. Behind the house sprawling up the slope of the mountain that protects us from the northerlies lays an orchard of centuries old chestnut trees and cork oaks. Out of the east flows a stream that emerges out the ground close to the top of our mountain at two thousand feet, as it flows down beside the house it reaches the waterfall by our fortification wall.

The Suyere Torrent flowing from under the bridge

From there it drops towards the valley flowing successively through the green oaks, a forest of black bamboo a local smuggled back from Viet Nam half a century before, then to a nearby pasture where our deep well captures from below its source.

The stream continues down the mountain to feed the Giscle river flowing into our favorite harbor, ferrying the soils that will silt Seanee’ future berth, her absence like the song of Bonnie, the lone dark star of our Paradise Found.

The hamlet is the end of the road, beyond is the heart of the wild Massif des Maures mountain range hiding centuries of history past to the Sarasin and before. Now it is the wild domain of the boar that creeps close at night in quest of chestnuts from the grove and acorns from our green oaks. The history of our almost abandoned hamlet is still to be revealed. The only marker found in our house is the sealed cast iron plate of the hearth, founded in 1781, likely from a past rehabilitation as the structures predate the marker.

The Chartreuse de la Verne, once a flourishing monastery before the revolution may have created the hamlet; as in much of medieval Europe, when the monk populations grew during the middle ages they would establish peripheral farms and grazing areas where they found fertile grounds with water, protected from the most aggressive forces of nature.

First a Home for Mayke’s Passion

With the closing on the sale of the Auberge occupying my mind until mid April I had little time to prepare any plans for our paradise found. I knew building Mayke’ future studio would be my first priority. It was a stone garage that in a previous life had been a barn. It would need to be fully built out, openings created.

It did not need to be oriented north as it was smothered under the green oaks towering above. I needed help here to build the iron beam grid supporting a mezzanine, Jean Marie, the mason who had finished the Le Bourget extension came for two months as we labored to build out the two levels I had planned. Only once I had provided Mayke a haven  away from the hammers and dust could I start to renovate the house.

The Mezzanine

With quicklime and fine sand we jointed the stones for centuries assembled with clay, insulated the ceiling and built the mezzanine, opened the windows to the soft shade of the green oak umbrella. A lighting engineer designed the array of different colors of fluorescent light ramps to recreate a constant daylight environment for Mayke to work in. The wood stove, last piece of the puzzle, would await the summer months and my first forays into the forest for firewood. It was time. A storm brewing from her frustration was about to explode; she needed to get back to work, to organize her private world where only Bastine, our not quite Flanders Bouvier, now christened Bouvier Fraxinois would have permanent access.

Summer was advancing and I needed to capture its warmth in our old walls before fall would drain it away. All the windows needed replacing as wood rot has set it. My Masonic lodge carpenter Patrick who had done all the Auberge had come the winter before to measure the existent and help me imagine the new perspectives. He would be on time with double glazing everywhere while saving the old fasioned “espagnolette” fixtures and inner shutters I will later learn were pitchpine.

Meanwhile I had gutted the third floor spewing rubble out the windows; here I would be building out our bedroom, bath and a smaller bedroom. There had been almost as much space dedicated to halls as there was for rooms, the old flow meandered around the forged steel railing of the circular staircase that continued up to the attic. Mayke loved the empty volume, the rounded flow of the staircase coming and going. There were two windows on each side of the house, oak forest to port and chestnut grove to starboard, and off the bow a half circle window as lighthouse dominating the staircase. I would suspect she preferred to suspend this image in time and avoid the irritation of further handiwork. She would take refuge in her studio and I would build the volume out to her final joy.

Mayke's domain

Mayke before her domain, the broom to drive away…

Winter was now around the corner and I had three wood stoves to feed as our chosen means of warmth. I was a year behind amassing the seasoned wood I would need, but the forest was also in need of cure. For that first year I would find enough to complement the natural insulation of our walls. I was to discover that the uniqueness of our green oasis, lost in the midst of lower growth traditional “garrigue”, was not solely due to the water resurgences. The early inhabitants had also chosen this location for the protection provided by the southern slope of our mountain.

Birdseye of the hamlet

It lies under the dominant winds that carry the cold of winter and fan the cauterizing forest fires of summer. Both these factors contributed to creating a microclimate that mellows the temperature amplitudes. On the coldest mornings near freezing beside the house, I would walk the dog up the eastern slope in quest of a few pine cones; there I would soon encounter frost and ice. In summer after a scorching day with our shutters closed, at dusk all would be opened and a cool breeze would drop down the mountain, flowing through the house to the valley below. The elders knew.

I had years of work ahead of me, the essentials had been accomplished for our everyday comfort. With winter upon us I needed to take advantage of the dormant season for pruning and planting. Jean, our predecessor gone to heaven had a passion for roses but in the absence of his caretaking they had become wild and overabundant. Cutting them back and composing with other essences to provide diversity for all seasons was another challenge. I would ferry up from the nursery trees, shrubs, plants and different soils to meet their needs; creating diversity that enables us to watch as the gardens change through the seasons.

But we were still in winter and through the leafless branches the call of the sea stretching below reminds me that the missing link to this was Seanee. It was also a call to reality for tuition bills abounded at a regular pace. In our new life perspective, one in which the dream of circumnavigation had been set aside, we had decided to sell Sean Seamour II and downsize to a smaller boat. I had bought my freedom from the Auberge and the Family clan by the abandon of a substantial share of my assets in the sale of the Auberge. With the ten years invested totaling less than a year of revenue in my prior life, Marie’s tuition was to be found in my share of Seanee, by now we knew she would not sell down in Florida. It was time for her to come back to France.

Bringing SSII back to France was to be my last great adventure before disarming her and finding a new owner to take up his or her dream. We had secured her berth in Port Cogolin in the same slip where Sean Seamour I made her début many years prior, I now needed to get back into the preparation fever, a state kept alive in me through the trials and travails of the past three years.

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