Monday, March 24, 2014

Under Our Feet

"In the Pyrénées Atlantiques, the subterranean karst springs are an important resource: the town of Pau is supplied by the Néez spring that wells up from one of the alluvial flows in the Ossau river valley at Arudy; Oloron is the tributary of the Ourtau spring which funnels the water from the mountains between Arudy and Lurbe; the uplands at Jaout supply the eastern and northern portions of Béarn from the Aygue Blanque spring; the spring at Ogeu is itself karstic. Spelunkers can help the regional water administration by inventorying and protecting these karst sources. In fact, it is only through geologic study and the explorations of experienced cavers that these underground waterways will be understood. However, sometimes it is possible to add non-polluting dye to a water source and trace the color where it reemerges, to attempt to map its underground route. The underground karstic water sources are very vulnerable to pollution, more so because karst, being full of large holes, cannot act as a natural filter. Hydrological resources must therefore be protected and watched over." - my translation of the informational sign at the beginning of the "karst hike" in the woods outside of Oloron-Sainte-Marie

The trails that lead from one cave opening to the next run much further than we walked that Sunday afternoon, Florence and Michaëla and I. When I heard that we were going to be going to see the gouffres I thought of the Gouffre de Padirac that I visited with Mom and John last year, and made sure I had batteries in my camera for underground flash-lit photos. However, though there might be equally vast underground tunnels honeycombing the hills where we were walking, many of the entrances to the karst caverns are only narrow cracks and body-width holes, only accessible to spelunkers with lines and bolts and hardhats, and much brighter lights. According to the tourist literature on hiking in the Basque-Béarn region, some of the openings are wide enough that they've built footbridges across them, and you can look down into the beginnings of the cave system, but the one we found (after some thrashing through undergrowth) was barely visible among the ferns. Michaëla got a better photo than I did, but she braved the muddy slope down to the stream, while I stayed up on the path.

We kept walking on the main trails instead of searching out other cave openings, following a route that would loop back to the farmhouse where we'd parked the car. Florence and Michaëla kept getting farther and farther ahead, because I stopped so often to try to take artsy photos of things. They're cousins, those two, and see each other at least once a week for hours-long visits, but they always seem to have more to talk about. It reminded me of visiting with Kate, and made me miss her suddenly, wishing that I could be back in Portland - or that Kate could be here with me - so we could take long walks together, and talk and laugh, or just sit comfortably together in silence and love. There are a few drawbacks to the vagabond life ...

Michaëla pointed out the blinds in the trees, set up for dove hunting in the fall. There are wild boar in the woods as well, and deer, the chevreuil and cerf that end up on the plate in puddles of wine-rich sauce. Now that it's officially spring, though, the French palate is moving away from the hearty winter dishes and towards lighter grills à la plancha and more vegetables, finally, thank you. Perhaps it's the millennia of farm-based living that informs the national diet here, and the fact that in most regions non-root vegetables were scarce in winter months, but it's incredibly hard to find anything green (other than chard) between November and February. I've gotten odd looks for making a meal out of a huge mixed salad on a cold January evening, while others tuck into bowls of stew or piles of roasted chicken. Not that I have anything against stew or roasted chicken! But I'm not used to a diet of mainly meat and potatoes - or rather, I am used to it now, but I stuff the refrigerator full of endive and spinach and arugula to balance out the day when I get home.

I kept my eyes open for mushrooms, but didn't see any that I recognized as edible. Hygrophorus marzuolus were out there somewhere, according to a local mycological website, but we didn't go off the path and under the trees to look for them.

As in England, private roads are open for public walks, as long as you respect the property and the signs and make sure to close any gates. When we looped back to the farmhouse, I saw a sign I'd missed on the way out: "Private road - free-roaming bull." I glanced quickly around for the looming horned menace, but he turned out to be not so menacing after all.

There were plenty of free-roaming chickens, but they weren't attack chickens, and the farm dogs were all ferocity and bark until we got up closer, at which point they decided that since we were there already, well, so be it, and how about a scratch behind the ears, please?

According to the tourist bureau, the gouffres were once believed to be the entrances to the land of the lamiak, the "little people" of Basque mythology. Sometimes they're described as dwarves (male), and other legends say they're beautiful golden-haired women with webbed feet who live in the streams. If any of the spelunkers has found one of their underground castles, they haven't brought news back up into the prosaic world of stone farmhouses and naked-neck (cou nu) chickens. We left the silent woods behind, and drove back to Agnos.

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