Thursday, June 16, 2011

Age? What's that, then?

Our last house had a very large garden with an added orchard. There was a venerable chestnut tree which, after some 300 years standing in the hedgeline above the sunken lane, produced good fruit, though the top part had no leaves or bark, and stood out against the sky on late summer evenings like a thunderbolt. In the same orchard were walnuts, hazelnuts, old apples, plums, a special variety of hedge-pear, a medlar, and vines. There was also a pear which was so hard we had to wear protective headgear when passing the tree, for fear of being smote down as though by the jawbone of an ass. Most of these trees required annual  care and attention, which we couldn't always manage, having plenty of other trees to be going on with, not to mention several hundred metres of laurel hedging which was doing its best to turn our house into Sleeping Beauty's castle. The original owner of the orchard had given it up when it got a little bit too much for him: he was 92.

There is a lady in the Calvados area who has lived on the same farm since 1936, keeping cows and pigs, and making the best butter in the whole of the region - by hand. Every week she made 35-80 kilos of butter, depending on the season, exactly the same way as her mother used to make it. The only concession to modern life was to buy a car in 1954 which she still drives to market once a week. Now, aged 87, she is retiring. The house is unmodernised, the production of butter the same. She has never asked for any other way of life.

Now, the idea of retiring at 66 is hard enough, when you have been working all your life towards something a little earlier; but that's rather like going for a long walk through what you remember as familiar territory, only to find that you haven't recalled it properly, and the last ten miles are in fact fifteen. It wears you out mentally, as well as physically. Life in our crazy hi-tech world is hard and fast, and you really want to stop and have a rest. Rural France goes at a different pace. Our old neighbour, a sheep farmer, never rushed anywhere. I don't think he knew how. What was the point? The sheep would go at their own speed; and if you have ever tried to herd sheep, you will know that there is no use trying to force them to go any faster (or indeed in any direction other than where they want to go).

Wherever you go in the countryside, you will pass ancient men and women on bicycles, pottering back from the market or more likely from their vegetable plot, with leeks or lettuces or chard tied on to the back. Or you will pass some wizened old person with a wheelbarrow, sauntering up the road with turnips fresh from the soil. They dig their gardens, they plant them, they reap the rewards, all at the gentle rhythm of the growing year. The life is as complicated as it needs to be, and as frugal as need and habit has dictated.

And as for cars, old Renault or Citroen vans (always white) never die: they go on to happy new lives as chicken houses. It may not be up to the original use, but a faithful car can still carry on providing a service for its owner.

If you go for a hike anywhere in France, you can take one of the GR routes which criss-cross the country, and in theory you could actually walk round, and zig-zag across, the whole of the Hexagon, if you had the time, without using proper roads at all. We have walked along some of these routes, and without fail we have been lapped by octogenarians, all five feet tall, carrying walking poles, and smiling as they go by. Nobody has said, watch out for your knees, be careful not to fall, you shouldn't be doing that at your time of life. It's habit. It's what they do, and they will go on doing it until the day they die.

That will happen in their old age, which will come in about the last three minutes of their very long lives.

Maybe the problem for us modern types is that we believe what we are told. When the experts tell us we are getting old at 40, or 50, we start seeing the signs of ageing all over our bodies. If you think about it, middle age is unquantifiable, because unless you know how long you are going to live, how do you know when the middle is? Perhaps it is time to stop listening to all the latest medical ideas, and just go on living as we want to live - right up until the time we stop. Anticipating the end is such a waste of time. There is a whole industry out there aimed at making us believe we are decrepit, that we have a sell-by date. Block your ears, cover your eyes, and ignore them. Get out your bike, your wheelbarrow, your walking shoes. Age? It's just another number, when all's said and done.


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