From calligrapher to shepherdess, a capital conversion

To change life. Who hasn’t dreamed of it. The act rarely follows the petted thought. Florence Robert became a calligrapher and became a shepherdess. And not anywhere: she dreamed from a very young age of living in these Corbières wedged between sea and plain. The meeting with a beekeeper near Lagrasse (Aude), Jean Poudou, convinced her of this place of election. The decision has become concrete to take a sharp turn, you have to relearn humility and start learning again. This is how the ex-calligrapher once checked the “Sheep-meat” box on the agricultural training registration form. Why this box? The images that we cultivate in ourselves sometimes push the act, and she wanted “Large expanses of solitude, a little harsh, but which confirm the gesture with animals and the wind”. She wanted to raise sheep in the Corbières to reopen the scrub scrub for the benefit of biodiversity.

We could have a slight moment of retreat. The recycling stories in perpendicular mode are like pleasant bluettes, built in a chronology without surprise. Their possible strength consists in tickling the empathy of the reader, who is inhabited by similar desires for retraining and moving happy ends. The shepherdess or shepherdess participates in addition to the iconic pastoral, the townspeople in reverse rural exodus from a militant and ecological return to the land. But there is no desire here to convince, nor self-aggrandizement. Beyond the progressive knowledge of the profession, a form of struggle against the elements, fatigue and discouragement, Florence Robert brings to her journey a reflection on space and time, on the poetry of these harsh landscapes and the exaltation of the senses (1).

Livestock. After eight weeks of training spread over eight months on the farm of Denis and Françoise Callamand, a few kilometers from Lagrasse, the time has come to take the plunge: that of finding a spot to anchor. It will be the small village of Albas, interested in a herd and his talent as a natural brushcutter. This terroir, renowned for its wines, olive oil and onions, had nearly a million sheep’s heads a hundred and fifty years ago. The animals disappeared in the 70s, in favor of the vine. They are a dozen breeders today in the dry Corbières, goats and sheep combined. It’s a “A little crazy adventure” than installing sheep “Where they disappeared forty years ago, in a viticultural landscape in the midst of a crisis, in one of the driest areas of France”. And there is no one left to ask questions about the secrets of the trade. Where to graze and when? How to promote the aphyllante, the small blue flower that promotes fattening of sheep?

We feel a little lonely, the apprentice shepherdess, in front of the magnitude of the task. Before the arrival of the woolly faces, it is necessary to consolidate the frame, find a source of water, bank guarantees, build an investment plan, recruit border collies dogs, then also patous … Fourteen months after having checked “Sheep -meat ”, on August 30, the bleating of lacaune, gregarious race accustomed to be kept every day, arrive at the Garrigues farm. “A hundred sheep to start with, it’s a small flock.” Small, but one should not lose a crumb in the wild and thorny nature, rich in lavender, thyme, rosemary, sarsaparilla, but also in poisonous essences (common ferrule, daphné garou, cameleon with red fruits). The herd is a wave to be channeled constantly, using dogs led by an inexperienced mistress whose attention is still not sharp enough to anticipate the speed of going to graze elsewhere.

Protrusion period. “Denis said to me once:” The most beautiful is the guard. It is for the guard that one is a shepherd. “” The maxims of the one who formed it punctuate his initiation like mantras. When the others are enjoying the holidays, you have to get up before dawn to move the herd at 6 am and not finish the day until 10 pm. Daily, imperatively, the sheep must eat and drink. The old needs, relaxation, leisure, consumption, then seem very secondary. It’s another mode, another way of looking at time, space, and another way of feeding those many inner chicks who keep crying out. The assignment is clear, deprivation goes without saying, what would we be burdened with? The shepherd is an elementary being. “ The question of time, again and again. That of the garrigue flows differently, without the tyranny of needles. In tune with animals and nature. “I learn to read the shape of the clouds, to read the time there. I learn that the hill is precise up to the blade of grass, and from far away I recognize the stone that serves as my seat, the frame where the hare was hiding the day before yesterday. “

The breeding cycle has its culminating events: the mating period in November (two rams are left five weeks with these ladies), the gestation of five months, births from the end of March. The first lambing (“What I do best”) will bring an additional 160 heads. “What is going on is neither sweet, beautiful, nor violent. It is inexpressible, it is beyond, quite close to the mystery without doubt. “ A kind of in-between, between life and death, between joy and urgency, patience and despair. Learn on the job to plaster a broken leg, to prick in the muscles of the neck, to leave the affective on the edge.

Ten years later, the voice has grown stronger. And she also took on a sober tone. The first faithful dogs are dead. He had to stop looking after his flock after three years and make up his mind to employ someone to do it, then switch to mountain pasture during the hot season. But isn’t that the best lesson of knowing how to welcome your own renunciations after having struggled? Shape her personality as a shepherdess. “By changing your life, you have to rebuild your head, and for months, the fatigue will have been that one, that of regularly reworking the arrangement of well-established beliefs, to cross out some of them, to weigh all the others to the yardstick of another inventory, of a new world, earthly, absolutely solid, horribly demanding. ”

(1) Also just published: He was a shepherdess by Yves Deloison and Stéphanie Maubé, ed. Rouergue, 256 pp., € 18.80 (ebook: € 13.99).

Frédérique Roussel

Florence Robert Shepherdess of the hills Corti “Biophilia”, 200 pp., € 18.


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