She Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore

Winter seems to have passed rather quickly here in Dinard. During our week of snow, ice and frigid temperatures, it was hard to stay warm in the apartment which was built for summer fun, not winter residency. Unlike Rick, who is like a blazing furnace generating heat at all times, my basal temperature is more than a full degree lower than typical humans, which means that the cold is not something I cope with easily. But like a minor miracle, practically over night, we went from -3 to 18º Celsius (in Fahrenheit something like 26 to 65º). This week the sun has been particularly bright and inviting, luring me out of doors and back onto the beach.

I have noticed that the shoreline goes through various rearrangements and tidiness, depending, I suppose, on tidal strength and wind direction. The seaweed can more or less litter our sands, sometimes collecting in front of our house, sometimes piling up further down the beach, sometimes disappearing altogether. Often too I find that there are many shells on the shore, and at other times very few.

Yesterday when we took our afternoon beach stroll, the sands were particularly rich with the empty and broken shells of little sea creatures. Tide pools here are not like ones I’m used to in California, which are full of sea life–brightly colored anemones, hermit crabs, snails, sea stars and small fish. Here you will find mussels clinging to the rock, but not much other visible life. This may have something to do with the number of sea birds that make this shore their home. They are probably ravenous and very efficient. Human scavengers follow right along afterwards, and tend to take what’s left. Rarely, even in the cruelest weather, have we noticed a low tide without people with their buckets and shovels.

We see enormous ferries going back and forth between Ireland or the UK and San Malo, passing a couple of times a week. Each one holds 1500 passengers. I can’t quite understand, under the present circumstances, how so many people would be making this voyage. We have wondered if the ferry boats have been deployed as freighters, hauling equipment. Another curiosity in the world of large vessels is that often at night I see large ships with their bright lights anchored on the horizon, always in the exact same spot. I suppose that they are awaiting clearance to sail into harbor in the morning.

You’ve heard of tangerine skies. Last week we experienced tangerine waters. Our view is due north, so we don’t get the sun setting over the ocean, but with the lengthening of the days we do get some reflected color in the evening. It’s hard to tell in the photograph above where the sand ends and the water begins.

We had a lovely time with our grandchildren over their break. Our daughter spent a few days with us as well, but now they have gone home and we are alone again. It feels like spring, the way spring arrives back home at this time of year, gentle and sweet. There are daffodils everywhere and pink clouds of blossoms on trees. But this is Brittany, northern France. I can’t say that this kind of weather will last. Conventional wisdom states that Jack Frost does not sleep before mid-May, and that is still a long time off.

Winter Vacation

Here in France, February is ski month. This is so important that all the schools close for two weeks so that families can hit the slopes. The schedule for school holidays throughout the country is on a rotating basis so that the chair lift lines won’t be quite so long as they otherwise would be. This year, however, with covid, ski resorts in the country are shut down, therefore where to go instead for the winter vacation? The beach of course! For the first time since Christmas, we are seeing our grandchildren, who are staying with us in St. Enogat for a few more days.

We took a drive to the eastern side of Dinard on Monday. The beach there is very nice and the view of St. Malo is directly across the water. There is a pleasant little park right above the beach and while Quinn and Zinnie played on the sand, we strolled around the little garden. We stopped to read a plaque which revealed that T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, had lived in that section of Dinard for a few years as a child. His father, who was an Irish aristocrat, had three children with his wife in Ireland, but ran off with the nanny to Dinard and the result of their affair was the little T.E. It also turns out that during his adolescence Lawrence moved back to Dinard, this time to a house in St. Enogat, not at all far from where we live. This information made us all very enthusiastic, and caused us to want to watch Lawrence of Arabia. So that’s exactly what we did. I was about Quinn’s age the first time I saw it.

Meanwhile, Jos was teaching in Paris and Emily was in Quimper directing the filming of La Petite Messe Solennelle, an Opera by Rossini that they have been working on for a couple of years. It was broadcast on television on Thursday evening, as all their scheduled performances have had to be cancelled. Speaking completely without prejudice, it is a truly marvelous production with fabulous voices, awesome staging, hilarious bits and a modicum of irreverence. If you would like to watch some of it, you can find it here, under “Le Replay” section. It may not be available for long, so check it out sooner rather than later.

The weather, as always, played a major role in the scheduling of our activities. I noticed that on Thursday it was predicted to rain in the morning but clear up in the afternoon. We planned to take a picnic lunch and go to Cap Fréhel, which we had never visited before, even though it is one of the must-see sites in the area. It is a long peninsula that stretches out into the gulf St. Malo and offers stunning ocean views and pleasant walks. Although close as the crow flies, it is almost an hour by car, as, not being a bird, you must follow a serpentine route along the coast to get there. When we arrived it was gray and foreboding. We took our picnic basket out and tried to find a table. None were in evidence, besides which the temperature was frigid and large drops of rain were falling on our heads. We felt discouraged but also quite hungry. We sat in the car, turned on Bob Marley’s Legend and ate our sandwiches and chips. By the time we got to One Love, we were done eating and every dark cloud had blown away. The sky was a magnificent blue and the sun warmed us up as we jumped out of our vehicle and took a very pleasant stroll along the cliffs. We could look back towards Dinard and make out some of our familiar islands in the distance.

Quinn made a friend at an overlook point. There was some inter-species communication going on there, but I can’t say exactly what was exchanged. I was not privy.

Happy Valentine’s Day

Love can attain that which the intellect can not fathom.

— Meher Baba

Warm Valentine Day wishes from the snowy coast of Brittany, where this week the temperatures plunged and Dinard saw a once in a decade snow storm,

The snow begins to cover up the sandy beach and backyard.
View out the back window.
The tides washed away the snow on the shore, but the islands are covered.

Moods

The last two weeks have flown past, as I have been concentrating on a demanding art project. In many ways it is pleasant to be completely absorbed by something, but it can also be a bit disorienting. I have almost forgotten the world around me. But as it turns out, life goes on, as the Beatles said, within me and without me.

One thing I haven’t been able to ignore completely is the various moods that the sea has displayed as days go by. One morning we awoke to fog so thick we could not see beyond the shoreline. As the day progressed, we had clear gray weather, some light rain, some pouring rain, bright blue and sunny skies and finally a dramatic hail storm that left balls of ice all over the beach and our garden. Brittany is one of the most changeable weather landscapes I have ever lived in.

Rick pointed out to me the difference between an off-shore wind and an on-shore one. Generally the wind blows from the ocean towards the land and of course makes choppy waves with familiar whitecaps. But when the wind blows from the land towards the sea, the surface becomes like velvet. We have had several days like that.

The changing color of the ocean is endlessly entertaining. The sky, of course, sets the tone for the shade of blue or green of the water. We have had a surprising number of moments of glorious sunshine this month. Brittany has a reputation for being very rainy. Some of our friends from inland have written teasingly about how we must be constantly under the weather in our temporary abode. But the truth is the weather has mostly been very pleasant. I think Brittany is often the coolest place in France during the summer, but it is also one of the warmest in the winter.

Our marine adventure is exactly halfway over today. Tempus fugit!

The Sea Around Us

I began the new year by promising myself to learn more about the environment I am living in. I know very little about what hides beneath the surface of the vast ocean we see from our windows. Of course I am not alone in this deficit. It has often been noted that outer space has been more throughly explored than the ocean floor of our own planet.

I started by buying Rachel Carson’s 1951 book, The Sea Around Us. I had just lately been born when it was first published, yet it remains to this day one of the most influential and popular books ever written on the subject. It poetically describes the scientific knowledge available at the time. Of course more is known now, and some of her statements have been proven wrong. For instance she writes that the configuration of the continents hasn’t changed since the formation of the planet, which is now clearly understood to be false and is pretty obvious to any third grader who looks at a world map. Even so, the book offers a mostly accurate picture of our watery environment, and it is a great read.

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal–each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.

From The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson

Apparently we come to our attraction to the ocean naturally.

It’s easy for me to get lost in mundane routines and forget to save time to imagine these big truths. Carson makes it easy with her prose to incorporate some of that impersonal joy I promised myself to pursue. The sweep of history, the magnitude of the universe can certainly be embodied in the mysterious sea that surrounds us. It seems reasonable to spare a few moments of awe for that.

And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.

From The Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson

The River Rance

Foggy view from my art table this morning.

Most of the week was foggy, rainy, windy and cold, just what you would expect in the middle of January. It made it easy to just stay inside and work on some projects at my art table. After several days, however, I began to long for some time out of doors. Around these parts, everyone is focused on the weather and plans are made based on the closely watched forecast. When we lived in California I never thought twice about what to expect in the days ahead, it was very predictable. Living here, however, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking to see what the coming days might hold. A complete change in conditions can be remarkably swift.

At the eastern end of Dinard you get a beautiful view of St. Malo and it’s cathedral steeple.

When the sun icon, with a few clouds around it was displayed next to Friday on my weather app, during a week without any sun icons at all, we decided to spend that afternoon on the Rance, a favorite landscape of mine.

When we drive from our house in Montmirail towards St. Malo and Dinard, the first view of water we have, is the Rance as it flows towards the ocean. It is always a sight that thrills me. There is something about a river, as it meets the ocean, that I find particularly wonderful.

View of the point at which the river Rance meets the sea with the dam built from one bank to the next.

The Rance splits St. Malo from Dinard as it enters La Manche. In 1966 the first tidal power plant was built as a dam connecting the two sides. We drive over this barrage every time we either go to St. Malo or back home. EDF, the French electric company maintains the station which is still the second largest in the world. It supplies 0.012% of all French electricity, or to say it another way, 12 out of every 10,000 French light bulbs could be lit by the power of the Rance Tidal Plant. It is a clean and renewable source of energy, not creating greenhouse gases and is certainly a safer option than nuclear, but of course it does have an ecological impact. The river has seen a loss of biodiversity and suffers from progressive silting. We don’t love dams.

The meandering Rance River.

We have spent a certain amount of time on the Rance, as some of the communities along its banks are favorite haunts of ours. Dinan, a beautiful Medieval town, with charming half timbered houses is at the far end of the estuary, where the Rance becomes narrow. St. Suliac, a Plus Beau Village (labeled one of the 159 prettiest villages in France), is where we spent a week with our family last spring, just after the confinement was lifted.

There are working farms along the banks of the river.

There is less population along the river so it has a countrified feeling as opposed to the rather highbrow atmosphere of Dinard or the very touristy St. Malo. The river itself is quite serpentine, having cut a very interesting path through the land. As we drove along, the river would be on our right at one point and a few meters later on our left. Wooded islands dot the riverscape.

There are boats moored everywhere along the river.

As I stood on the banks of the river at one of our stops, I watched a flock of talkative geese fly past, heading perhaps back towards Dinard. Like them, I find an environment that offers both ocean and river, salt and fresh water to be rich and satisfying.

This overview of the Rance meeting the Sea was borrowed from this site.

Starting Again

On Monday when we left Montmirail, we woke up to a dusting of snow.

We took a rather long holiday break to spend Christmas with our local family at our home in the countryside. Since this blog is dedicated to our experiences on the Brittany coast, I have taken a break from posting as well. We are now back in our little apartment by the sea and it seems that while we were gone the oceanscape didn’t change much. The tides still roll in and out with predictable regularity and the sun still rises and sets on schedule. These certainties have a calming effect.

From my own point of view, this new year offers an opportunity to take another look at my personal life and to use the changing of the calendar as a prompt to make my own alterations. In other words, make some resolutions. Anyone who has known me long probably recalls that the first of January is one of my favorite days. I appreciate signs and portents and I am not at all hesitant to find significance in the human construct of a calendar year. I fully believe that extra energy for my own change accompanies the turning over of the year. And since I feel that way, it tends to work that way for me. The beginning of a new year always brings hopeful expectations.

The glassy sea with swirling “tidal shadows” caused by the water flowing around the rocky outcrops.

I stopped long ago with resolutions about losing weight or exercising more. Mine tend to revolve around art goals, although this year, as explained in a recent post, my art year began when we moved to the sea, and I am in the middle of a project which will go on until we leave again.

I do have some new things I want to explore, including making my own stamps, which I have already begun to do.

I have carved a few images from ordinary erasers I bought at the supermarket.

That’s a simple and fun idea, and the stamps can be used in my journal, in letters, to make package tags or in multi-media illustrations. I will add them to my on-going monthly Sense of Place book project.

I mounted the finished stamps on little logs I brought back from our firewood stash at the Maison

This year I decided that my real resolution is to experience more joy. It is very easy to get swept away by the bad news of the day, I certainly often do, but adding my distress to the general gloomy outlook is probably not helpful in the grand scheme of things, and I feel convinced it does not accomplish much either for myself or the rest of the world.

Standing in a shaft of winter sun, with the wind brushing my cheek, leaning out a window to listen to song birds greet the morning, watching the gold yellow dawn disappear into blue, smelling the rain on bare earth, or tasting the salt in the sea air, all these joys I have experienced, They are available every day. I think of joy as a current that flows unseen through the air. I just need to locate it and stand in the middle of it and allow it to wash over me. It only requires that I forget myself for a moment, because joy really is completely impersonal.

We were surprised to see someone right outside our window sailing past on the day we returned. We could almost touch her, before she floated away.

Happy Holidays

A beautiful December morning in Dinard

We will be at home in our little village of Montmirail until next year. I look forward to talking with you again then. Meanwhile, enjoy your celebrations. I send you all best wishes.

It’s always something, to know you’ve done the most you could. But, don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last.

– Charles Dickens

A Sense of Place

Brush made from pine needles

When we decided to spend several months by the sea in Dinard, I had only one hesitation, and that was giving up my atelier, where I am used to spending most of my days. Our apartment in Dinard is small and is also carpeted and furnished with antiques, neither of which are paint and mess friendly. Doing some kind of art project is important to my well-being, and I was not at all confident that it would be easy for me to find a good artistic rhythm here, although if any environment is going to inspire me, it ought to be this one. I realized immediately that I would have to restrict my art materials and the size of my products. I decided to bring mostly pencils, pens and watercolors.

There is a desk in the dining room under a window with a lovely view, facing St. Malo. It has a leather top, which we have covered with a sheet of plastic so if I spill some water or my watercolor paints drip, no harm is done.

Soon after arriving, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to create a project that would express the unusual place we are living, and comprehensively, through the months, express my experiences here. I wanted to call it A Sense of Place, which is the title of a book in my library that deals with travel writing. I realized that if I made my artistic products all the same size, I could in the end, put them together in a cohesive way, perhaps a book for each month. I chose a rather small format (12 X 16 cm) and began to create pages. I was able to bring some cyanotype supplies and my eco-dyeing kit. I began in October by gathering all the various forms of seaweed I noticed on the beach. I dried it and then made a cyanotype print of each one, that I blanket stitched onto a piece of felt. They became pages in my first book, which I put together at the end of the first month we were here. It also included photos, some watercolors, fabric dyed with pine cones collected from the back yard and even a piece of cloth which was “painted” with soil from our garden. With Rick’s help, I made a kind of folio to contain all the individual “pages.” The paper I used for my outside cover is the bag from the Aigle boots I bought in St. Malo for walking on the beach. The inside cover is a tourist map of Dinard. I wanted all the elements to be from this place.

I was happy with this idea, although I have to work to make each month different from the last and to reflect some aspect of what we are doing during that time. In November I decided to try to use elements collected from our environment for “mark-making,” the concept of exploring and focusing on the actual marks an artist makes, rather than what those marks are meant to represent. I started by taking a pine twig found on the ground outdoors, whittling the tip to make a point and then dipping it into ink. I also made a brush out of pine needles (pictured at the top of this post).

The last was a brush created from gull feathers. It made a pretty one, but I wasn’t too enamored with the marks it made. It was a bit difficult to control.

I also looked on ebay.fr for some old postcards that I could include. I bought several. The one pictured below, from 1900 (just six years before the house we are staying in was built), was the most exciting. I was attracted by the little drawing of St. Enogat, but when it arrived in the mail a week later, I was amazed to see that the woman who wrote it was staying, presumably, at Les Herbiers, which she has indicated on the drawing. That is exactly next door to where we are.

I finished up the folio for November using a marine map of our location and filled it with photos, drawings, artifacts and cyanotypes.

The nice thing about the format is that it allows for many different kinds of images.

The idea is to have a whole coordinated series of “books” which can contain very nice memories of our time here.

I have always wanted to keep a nature journal, so I am trying to do that as well. There’s a wonderful on-line free class offered by a scientist/artist named John Muir Laws, from the San Francisco Bay Area, who gives weekly video lessons/ideas about keeping such a book. I can highly recommend it, suitable for children and adults.