The Cock Will Crow

 

 

We sigh in bliss outside French patisseries, dab on French parfum, drink French wine, eat cassoulet and coq au vin, wear Parisian couture. We have made French toast, French fries, and French kisses our own. Yet we cannot manage to absorb the French sensibility.

Criticize their politics all you like, the French know how to savor life. Foibles that create delicious little whirls of scandal and drama here, they dismiss with an amused shrug. They save their energy for protecting their culture, their language—and now, their roosters.

People the French call “neo-rurals” began forsaking Paris and other large cities for the French countryside back in the Seventies, but then it was young people swept up in the romance of nature. Lately, the migrants seem to be a bit older and crankier, eager not to give over their souls to inspiration but to impose their own preferences.

Farmers do not welcome such whining.

When city folk set out to slaughter the cicadas at their summer home in Provence because the buzz annoyed them … or sued a neighbor for raising ducks that quacked and shat…or started a seven-year battle in the courts because the frogs in their neighbor’s pond croaked too loudly … or cursed at the gentle sheep who took their time crossing the road…the farmers stood their ground.

One Parisian family actually dared to demand that during their vacation stay, the church bells be silenced. Non, the mayor said firmly. “It’s part of the sounds you hear in the countryside. We aren’t going to turn them off just because you’re here!” Cocks would keep crowing and church bells would continue to peal, even if they did disturb the neurotic interlopers’ slumber.

Other mayors hung signs to warn visitors of the ways of rural life—the noises, smells, and slower pace that might irritate them but would not be erased. “If you can’t handle that,” one sign declared, “you’re in the wrong place.”

When even the roosters’ lives were threatened, politicians took stronger action. Pierre Morel-à-L’Huissier, a member of France’s National Assembly, proposed a law Protecting the Sensory Heritage of the French Countryside. The legislation was without precedent; it would insert a fresh term, “sensory heritage,” as something for the French legal system to reckon with in decades to come. I read that and chuckled, thinking of how many years it would be batted around before it finally faded away, a quixotic and quirky attempt doomed from the start.

The law passed on January 21.

Its practical advantage will be ridding the courts of these petty wrangles. Socially, it gives the officials in small rural towns the full backing of the French government, should they need to shout down some urban fool. Culturally, it continues a trend already reshaping museum exhibits and educational methods: Honor all the senses. If you want to understand a particular time or place, include what you might hear, smell, touch, and taste there.

Here in St. Louis, the Arch museum lets you smell the riverfront as it was more than two centuries ago—a mélange of muddy water, people from many countries, wood crates, and horse dung, with a whiff of cholera. In England, the world’s most avid gardeners have mastered sensory gardens that combine velvety mosses and feathery ferns, edible berries and veg, and fragrant flowers in colors bright enough to intrigue birds, bees, and butterflies.

Odd, how often we have neglected our senses. How sterile the contemporary U.S. can seem, deodorized and monochrome and minimalist. No wonder people spend inordinate amounts of money to soak sticks in perfume and visit spas where the air is infused with lavender. Premium experiences all seem designed to shut out intrusive noises or smells, perhaps because there are too many of them. (Or are we just prissy and persnickety?)

In the Midwestern countryside, the cheerful stench of pig farms mingles with sweet lilac and fresh tilled soil, and there are more creeks than spas—yet another measure of the urban-rural divide. I live in a small town surrounded by corn and soybean fields, and a young farmer grumbled to me about the times he has to drive his tractor a short distance on the road. If someone local is behind him, no problem. But someone newly arrived from the suburbs or just passing through? They swerve around him or blare their horns, and he wants to yell back, “Don’t you like to eat? Because we’re the ones that make that possible!”

What is happening here in southern Illinois, though, is that the fields are disappearing, bought up for suburban-style developments, and the barns are getting razed so that now-fashionable, honestly weathered barn wood can be sold for more money than the barn ever cost to build. We are not preserving and protecting sensory heritage; we are caving to what capitalism makes inevitable.

Still, the values linger. If someone new complains about a dog barking or a rooster crowing, that gets shut down fast. “Dogs bark,” someone will point out with a shrug. And the church bells were the first thing I fell in love with when we moved here. Sitting on the side porch steps, exhausted from schlepping cardboard boxes, I heard those bells enter the unaccustomed silence, and something inside me settled.

Across the river, St. Louis has wildly different sounds and smells. Will there ever be a call to protect an urban sensory heritage, I wonder. I relish the sounds of sirens coming to people’s aid, trucks rumbling or shrieking to a halt, people yelling a greeting or arguing or practicing a trumpet, badly. I even like that hot cloud of bus exhaust on sweaty summer days. But sensory heritage in a city is an ever-changing collage of crowded streets, technology, and motion, and there is neither reason nor reward for freezing it in place. Can you hear someone saying, “We must honor the hot stinky bus exhaust; we cannot possibly move on to cleaner, quieter trains!”? The point of a city, its heritage, is its kaleidoscopic flux.

The point of the country is its sacred, rhythmic, unchanging routine. Rural places are attuned to the Earth, not the power grid.

These two sorts of places need and define each other.

I would love to visit an urban museum that recreated the sounds and smells and feel of Harlem during the Renaissance years, though, or San Francisco’s early Chinatown, or Paris itself, in almost any era. Parisians would honor that sort of preservation, thinking their bistros and boulevards far sexier than roosters.

But why not cherish both?

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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