One of the great things about Provence is that the seasons are clearly demarcated and tend to arrive bang on time each year. Now that it's spring, the region is opening out just as you feel it should. For one thing, it's suddenly warm and sunny and the air has that strange uplifting scent that's a mix of optimism, blossom, flowering plants and fertility. There are songbirds everywhere. Leaves have appeared on the vines. The cherry blossom opened for a week and has now gently drifted off into oblivion leaving the very beginnings of fruit behind. My forest garden is suddenly sprouting yards of tangled asparagus, poppies, white and pink thyme and garrigue-y grass. The vines by the terrace are unfolding leaves that I'll use for stuffed vine leave dishes in a few weeks. And the honeysuckle, lazy and dormant all winter, is suddenly rampant and climbing all over the place. It's been desperately in need of pruning.
Yesterday evening I stopped to look at the dozen or so sheep which the local shepherd, Antoine, has stationed next to the canal nearby. They've just given birth so there are about 16 little brown lambs, with white tails and white flashes on their foreheads, jumping around among the olive trees.
Their bodyguard, a large white dog (Pyrenean mountain, I think) was lounging in the long grass, just keeping an eye out as he dozed. I watched the lambs gambolling around for a while as their mothers lay panting with exhaustion. Antoine turned up in his van to fill a tub of water for them and check the lambs. He hopped over the flimsy, temporary fence he'd put up and greeted his dog. I asked what the dog would do if I crossed the fence. "Nothing" he said. "You're with me." "What would he do if I crossed once you've gone?" I asked.
He started laughing. "He'd tear your leg off" he replied.
Hard to imagine, since the dog looks like a great big softie but I didn't test the claim. And I suppose the sheep dogs are capable of aggression since they do need to confront sheep stealers. I have friends in Le Thor, a local village, who recently had two sheep stolen and then a lamb. In their case they have two Dobermans but both dogs were in the house that night.
I asked Antoine if he can bring the sheep up to my place to graze in a few days and he agreed. He'll lead them and their bodyguard up the white limestone track when the grass runs out by the canal. I've only cut the lawn twice in the last 4 years because I seem to have a lawnmower made for men. You need to pull a stiff cord out very quickly for some reason and I don't have the strength to do it. The sheep are a much nicer lawnmower, pleasant to watch, don't make a horrible noise, don't require petrol and fertilise the land as they mow.
Since everyone in Provence is now outside for the next six months and leaf, bud and flower are breaking out everywhere I decided to get outside too and prune the honeysuckle. Yesterday a neighbour gently reminded me that it was high time. So this morning I took the secateurs and made a start. I have a general idea that I need to remove the dead wood and select the branches that I want to retain. But mostly I tried to cut confidently and decisively, as if somehow that would help. Clearly it didn't because another neighbour, out for a stroll in the forest, trundled over to give an opinion. With a rueful smile he said: "You haven't really got green fingers have you?" (The French use the same phrase.)
Never mind. I stopped for a coffee and we watched riders go by on horses, followed by a couple of fit-looking guys on bikes. There was that spring scent again, the one that brings just about every Provencal man, woman and child outside. We'll live outside now, mostly, until around the end of September. And just as the leaves and buds and flowers appear, so do the the bare arms and legs. Summer clothes are suddenly everywhere. People are flirting outside bars and in the street. Pretty young girls drift past the village boys, casting a backward glance or striking up conversation. There's a kind of pulse beating that beats here every spring. And everyone and everything feels it, from the honeysuckle and the cherry trees to the horseriders and cyclists to the new lambs jumping blissfully around in the long grass. Finally, after the long cold winter, the beaux jours are here.