|"Vincent van Gogh: Wheat Field with Cypresses (1993.132)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.|
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
Chaparral, she says, reading from her notes while sitting near her mother in the king sized bed, is a small tree or shrub that grows densely in a Mediterranean-like climate.
Chaparraaaal, her mother repeats, extending the last breathy syllable in windy, treble swells like the mistral that blows cold over the Rhone Valley in the spring and fall, piercing ancient, ochre-colored hilltop villages, sweeping through the lowlands of Provence, over the sparkling lights of Marseilles and out to the Mediterranean Sea.
The girl laughs, Mother, it’s scrub. You say it like it’s some exotic plant. Chaparral is all over California.
Not just California, my dear. It’s found in any Mediterranean climate, like in southern France, where sage, fragrant juniper, and pretty white petals of myrtle cover the countryside. The mother remembers a certain half-year or so in Provence and the Riviera, the man she'd rode her bike with for a time, and her mind trails off to a different season and place while her voice tells the girl an automated story of Mediterranean vegetation.
After college she’d gone off to France with a pension from her father and a notion that she’d train for the women's version of the renowned Tour de France. Instead, she spent most of her time in two towns that flanked Cavaillon, where she kept an apartment. She'd take the bus or bike north, to L'Isle sur la Sorgue, and browse the antique shops or stroll the canals. On warm, sunny days, of which there were many that summer, she’d ride her bike south to Saint-Rémy, often stopping at the Saint-Paul asylum to doze beneath rows of aged olive trees that wreathed the hospital.
It was there, in St. Remy, while quietly walking the halls of Saint-Paul, where Van Gogh had taken residence for a year of respite, that she met a man she was to ride with. This is where he painted the Wheat Field, tu sais? He whispered to her as she gazed at a small Van Gogh etching hung in a shaded hall. Yes, the Wheat Field. She knew the Wheat Field, the dark Cypress trees, the swirling wind of a mistral, and she looked at this man, flaxen hair, sea-blue eyes, the muscular arms and legs of a triathlete, dressed in a tight yellow cycling jersey and black shorts, and felt a chilly breeze from the northwest, its whistle cascading from the mountains, almost flattening her to the stone ground.
Oui, je sais, she whispered back, he was living here at the time, but I believe he painted his wheat fields in Auvers. She looked at him, almost apologetically, I was an art student once.
Now? Oh, now, I’m training for the Grande Boucle Feminine, she smiled.
Here? He laughed. You need to go up to the hills. North to Mt. Ventoux. Or better, the Pyrénées! You can’t train down here. This terrain is not challenging enough.
I prefer Provence, and I've been up Mt. Ventoux. Besides, I don’t think I’ll actually do it. I’ve gotten a bit, well, lost. In things here, you know?
Ah, I see. It is easy to be lost in Provence. It's the good life. Suddenly, you don't want to go anywhere else. What you need is someone to ride with. Someone to give you a little push. A partner. Non?
A push up the mountain?
D'accord! Where's your bike?
They left the building and went out back to a small pebble-covered parking area, where she had locked her red Raleigh against a tree. When she saw the man's smoky Campagnolo leaning against a stone wall she knew that he'd be a formidable partner. Maybe too formidable, and she began to feel that she was not prepared for this man, for this moment.
The air is clear in Provence, the man said, moving closer to her. It is the wind, the mistral, it dries up the mud and muck, cleanses the atmosphere. And the soul, too. It's good for the soul. And it makes for a good ride. You will ride with me today, non? I know a wine cave, the best olives, too. I'll take you there, it's not far from the Rhone.
The man's thick hair glinted in the sunlight, and she noticed a shadow of light stubble along his jawline. He was handsome and confident, and she didn't want to fall for him. Yet, there he was, offering a push.
I need to be back to Cavaillon by dark, she said. Can I be back by then?
He shook his head, Oui, absolutement. And if it gets too late, there are buses back, along D99.
She unlocked her bike, put the cord in a pouch under her seat, and they rode down the long drive, out to the main road. Suddenly she wondered. Had he? Had Van Gogh painted the Wheat Field with Cypresses at Saint-Paul? Were they even thinking about the same painting? Or was this stranger, with whom she was now wheeling the roads of Provence, thinking of another wheat field? The wheat field with crows?
But she was following him now. His golden locks flapping in the breeze, his wide shoulders low to the handlebars. The mistral at their backs. She was going. Going, going. Between here and the Rhone, and the mountains and the sea. Falling. Falling, falling.
Mum, that's good, I get it. The girl pushes her mother's shoulder with hers. Hey, Mom, you can stop now.
Oh, good then, the mother shakes her head, unsure of what she's been saying. You're ready for the test? You know there's yucca and agave in California?
Yup, ready as I'll ever be. It's howling out there now. You hear that?
Hmm, I hear it now. Oh, I feel it, she says as she rises to lower the partially opened bedroom window.
It's got a bit of a sting. Maybe a spring storm is coming in.
It's got a bit of a sting. Maybe a spring storm is coming in.
You alright, Ma? You look a little sad.
No, just tired. All this Mediterranean climate talk. You get going now.
I'm going to ace it.
Ah, lofty thoughts. Good then, go get 'em girl. Nite, nite.
Nite, Ma, the girl says, and before she's fully out the bedroom door she turns and blows her mother a long, airy kiss that trails off in a soft trill, following her down the hall.
* * *
Husband and wife team, Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, are Tennis. Their debut album, Cape Dory (2011), a compilation of retro-pop/surf music, was put together after spending a year touring the eastern seacoast on board their 30-foot sail boat.
From NPR Music:
Riley and Moore released Cape Dory under the self-aware name Tennis, poking fun at the fact that, "from an outsider's perspective, [they] might look very WASPy." The finished collection of songs not only retraces their route along the coast, but also follows the relationship between the then-unmarried couple, which was tested and strengthened over the course of the trip.In "Long Boat Pass," they find themselves anchoring away from their marina for the first time and rocked by powerful gales. Moore says the song is her telling Riley, "I'm going to trust you that this is not the worst idea that we've ever had, and hope we make it through." They did make it through, emerging from the experience a stronger couple.
This year they've returned with their sophomore album, Young and Old, a new band member, drummer James Barone,more mature collection of songs, and a more confident and evolved sound.
You can read more about Tennis here at Fat Possum Records.