Sunday, March 21, 2010

Megafun (Monteneuf Redux)

I don't think that I'll ever forget this day. Four hours amongst the megaliths with the kids (commemorated here, at its end, by my discovery of the self-timer on the camera!) - romping, playing, imagining, talking, laughing, romping some more. It's the freest I've ever felt. This site actually gets more and more amazing to me each time I go. I can hardly believe, for instance, that it's so open, so completely accessible. We were there completely alone for most of the time, with hikers picking up the trails that are all around every once in a while. I just let the kids go - we left only when they were ready for hot chocolate and some rest.

But first, we fortified ourselves with a picnic. Oliver professed being tired of the same picnic all the time (ham and butter on baguette, boiled egg, cheese, fruit) but the girls and I don't ever tire of it. Those super simple meals are just the best sometimes. But how are you going to keep them liking simple picnics after they've tasted of the restaurant scolaire? :-)

I loved watching the kids enter the megaliths area - slowly walking around them at first, and then landing on two or three around which they staged games (or ate apples). The art historian in me was hyper aware of the "don't touch the art!" feeling inside - but, really, these are a(n art) world apart. The kids could do no harm to these wonderful stones - they could, in fact, touch the art.

The entire time we were there, I just could not believe that there I was, watching my children amongst 5000 year old stones arrangements. The ubiquity of their play (they'll play at home, on equipment at school, in parks) and the utter uniqueness of this site made for quite the stunning combination. They knew it was something special, too, and actually, I'd want to know more about what makes it special for them: it's not the neolithic street cred that the site has (that's for grown-ups mostly) - there must be something deeper (the arrangements themselves? the size? the scale?) that calls out to them.

Watching Eleanor play was like watching the earliest chapters of the history of art unfold before my eyes. First she found the rock, then she played in the puddles of water left by yesterday's rain, then she started making hand imprints. Calling Peche-Merle! I'm always wary of "infantilizing" the past (they were like children! if we watch children (and, more sinisterly, other "primitives") today, we can understand the Neolithic (sometimes people even say the medieval) past). So what Eleanor did does not "explain" Peche-Merle (and its incredible "hand signature" - you see it right there are the top of the website linked above). Rather, it has me turn to the late German Romantics, to their idea of the Kunstwollen - the, as I translate it to my students, "will to art" that is in all of us. But even more interesting to me, is that I've never seen Eleanor do this anywhere else. What was it about the stone that called out for her touch? There is something about the sheer size of that open surface (an existentially open representation field elicits a horror vacui response?) that is irresistible. Or maybe it's the textures: the sleek wetness of the water satisfyingly slapping against the unmoveable solidity of the stone. Whatever it was, Eleanor was at it for a really long time. When Oliver and Iris came over to play, it was like another chapter: possession. Within minutes, Oliver had put his wet handprint on the stone and said "This stone shall be mine." (Part of his taking the site seriously was his using Olde English speak, and no longer using contractions - love that). Incredible!

Oliver indeed had one game after another. Watching him, watching all of them, made me realize how much I talk dear Mac's ears off when we're out with the kids. Must learn to just be quiet and watch - and listen. Here, Oliver was explaining his found weapon to me. It looked like a slim branch that had been pruned (the French prune trees like I've never seen - there are branches everywhere all around all the time as spring approaches), but to him, it was a fearsome spear. "Look," he said, "It's even been cut the way the Neos would have done it." The Neos? This must be how I refer to Neolithic Peoples from now on.

The pedagogical site here is awesome. Unintrusive, and truly instructive! There's a Neolithic house to your left, and three stages in the movement of megaliths (from supine to transported to hoisted). I found completely amazing things about how the site itself was rediscovered in the 1980s, too. Apparently, a series of forest fires uncovered enough of the underbrush to reveal the buried stones. There were only 3 stones standing at the time, but when archaeologists were brought in, 420 (420!) were eventually found. The incredible work that went on here from 1989-1997 uncovered more of the stones, raised 42 of them again (what a labor of love!), cleared the area and created hiking trails (where you can see some of the other standing stones in the 7 acre area) and set up the pedagogical area. I want to know more about the kind of archaeologists they brought in, because apparently they obtained a great deal of historical information from the ground itself (is there such a thing as a geo-archaeoligst?) (cool!) (really cool!) - for instance, the (still and ever astounding fact) that hundreds of stones were laid down (can't really say knocked over) around the year 1000. If I were a creative writer, I'd write that unwritten chapter of history - all the fear and power and will involved in deciding to take down hundreds of great stones like these...

I could envision using the kids for several re-enactment shots of Neolithic life, but settled for asking Oliver to pose as a to-scale model for the stones. The sword is, arhum, anachronistic, but I'll deal. This site is definitely expanding my section on Stonehenge in the art history survey. There's nothing like Stonehenge, of course, but students need to know more about other, less structured sites. Stonehenge's post-Neo-lithic history is a heavy burden upon the site as well (all of the expectations that it carries as a British monument - I could go on). Here, we have this site discovered only 30 years ago, after lying dormant (all too literally) for hundreds of years.

I spent a lot of the afternoon musing about all of this - one slow, winding thought at a time (haven't thought that way in forever - it's mesmerizing). The kids' games wove in and out of thinking through all of this, and somehow we whiled away four hours amongst the standing stones. Towards the end, not seeing Eleanor, I called out for her and heard a giggle. I ran around to find her here, "napping" in a crevasse of a megalith. That girl really communed with those stones!

We made it home for that hot chocolate and finished Asterix in Switzerland (which seemed vaguely appropriate somehow). Then, I heated up the lasagna from the cute butcher (Iris has already vowed to make him a card thanking him for his lasagna, which we eat weekly) and "made" (assembled is more the word) one of my favorite desserts: a petit suisse (petit suisse in English, too!), drizzled with honey. Oliver decorated his own in what I find to be a rather lovely and appetizing pattern. Each kid got a (huge!) date that Iris had picked out at the fruit seller's yesterday, and that was the end of a great day! (P.S. I know that you are all following the health care votes - just wanted you to know that the second round of regional elections happened here yesterday: the Socialists cleaned up in Brittany and everywhere else. Perhaps that leftist breeze will blow west to America and we'll see some progressive social change!)

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