Updated: Oct 16, 2021
One evening in early spring when we were living in Châteauneuf de Grasse, in the Alpes-Maritimes department of France, my husband and I were walking our dogs on a lane at the edge of the village. An elderly couple was walking toward us, a married couple that had grown to look alike in their sturdy shoes and old clothes. Each carried a plastic grocery bag and, every few feet, they would lean into the grassy verge, cut some sprigs, and place them carefully into the grocery bags. As we came closer, they wished us bon soir. We stopped to chat and to ask what they were finding. It was wild asparagus, they explained in heavy Provençal accents, a delicacy you could only find for a few weeks, in a few places. Hearing our accents, they asked us where we were from: Germany? England? No, we said, we’re Americans.
Really, Americans, here? Their surprise was genuine. You’re so far from home. How did you find yourselves here?
So we explained as simply as we could—work, choices, family—and then they said, laughing, that they weren’t from here, either. They were from Bar sur Loup, a different place entirely. They only came to our village for the wild asparagus.
Bar sur Loup was about 3 miles away.
I have been trying to understand the scale of the world of our story. Historians and curators who have written about Gauguin in Brittany tend to toss place names around as though the locations are of secondary interest. And, if what you're focusing on is how the artist uses paint, then it's less important where he's standing when he opens his paint box, and what he had for breakfast, and with whom, and when he last paid his rent. As we trace our painting, though, the people that Gauguin ate breakfast with, the people who put that breakfast in front of him, and who asked him when, exactly, he was planning to settle up: those characters matter. Our clues to Flowers and Fruit may lie in exactly those conversations and in where they happened.
I have been spending a lot of my research time with maps and censuses. I've been trying to understand how and where Marie Henry and her neighbors lived. Earlier this week I remembered the asparagus gatherers, and their sense of scale: traveling three miles seemed to be, for them, the equivalent of driving a few hours for us. Of course their early-21st century world was much less circumscribed, whether they traveled or not, than the world of their 19th century ancestors. It took them considerably less time and effort, for instance, to drive their car down the hill from Bar sur Loup to Châteauneuf, than it would have taken their great-grandparents to travel by foot or, if they were lucky, by wagon. And, when they got home and were making an omelet with their asperges sauvages, they could listen to the radio, or turn on the television and watch who knew what. The way they measured their daily world, though, had not changed so much. Three miles away was another place.
France is divided into 95 departments. Finistère is département 29—they’re numbered alphabetically; Ain is 01, Val d’Oise is 95—and Finistère is, in turn, divided into four arrondissements. Quimper is the southernmost arrondissement, and it is divided into cantons. The canton of Quimperlé is the southeastern-most canton, and in Quimperlé, the southeastern-most commune is Clohars-Carnoët. Le Pouldu is part of the commune of Clohars-Carnoët.
The place names that anchor this portion of Marie Henry’s story are just that. They are not the names of a village, or a town, or any administrative unit. They are geographic spots. Le Pouldu is a combination of two Breton words: poull, for sea, and du, for dark. Keranquernat and Kersellec are the names of agricultural settlements. A ker, in the Breton language, is “a place where there is an independent, self-supporting farm.” So: Ker-anquernat, Ker-sellec owe their names to being places where there is at least one, and maybe a cluster, of farms. The government land survey carried out in 1823 shows the commune of Clohars-Carnoët divided into seven sections; those sections are subdivided in turn into smaller units. The area that concerns us is Section D 3, called Section de Saint Maudet, after a 16th century chapel dedicated to a local saint. It covers the southeastern corner of the commune, and the map of the section shows us the dimensions of each parcel of land and the location of each building. The buildings are colored in red. The scale is 1:2500 meters. If that's hard for you to picture, try this: the road that stretches along the top edge of the map, reading from left to right? It’s a little less than a mile long. It's half the distance from the White House to the U.S. Capitol.
We have reached the smallest of the nesting dolls.
There’s an index that connects the numbered lots to their owners of record, and in 1823 we see the same names in that index as we see in the censuses of 1886 and 1891. Portiers, Goulvens, and Evens own much of the land. The line that divides the large blank space in the lower center of the map shows us that, in 1823, the Portiers owned part of the grandes sables, the sand dunes, and the Goulvens owned the rest. It was a very small pond, and they were very large fish.
It’s possible—and I know, I’ve done it—to map this 1823 image onto 2021 maps of the area and see that many of the roads still run in the same places. Houses have replaced much of the farmland. There are many more roads to accommodate cars and the type of travel that they make possible. Regular travel at speeds greater than a wagon or workhorse could accomplish was almost unimaginable to the Portiers and Goulvens of this corner of the world in the 1880s: the nearest train station was in Quimper, 37 miles away. A person could live their entire life without traveling that far.
The scale of the world of Marie Henry is hard for us to grasp. In 1886, there were 147 households in the Saint Maudet section, and 746 individuals. I pass that many houses when I take our dogs on a long walk. If 746 people live in an area that’s less than one square mile, then no one is a stranger. Everyone is related to someone, everyone knows who’s expecting, who’s sick, who’s in debt. Grasping the scale in which space is measured not in miles that you sit in a car but in steps that you take, is part of imagining ourselves into that world. That is the world that produced Flowers and Fruit.