In praise of Ardèche

Ardèche is still so beautiful that many people would prefer to stay young here rather than grow old anywhere else.

As in the case of love, those who have succumbed to its charm have great difficulty in explaining, even to themselves, the good it does them, just by being here.

It is a porous universe which resembles our human body, so familiar yet at the same time unknown, with its innumerable caves, gorges and springs which often never dry up, even the invisible river underneath the River Ardèche.

Ardèche has a double attraction: so pleasant to the eyes of the walker, it reveals an inner life, intense and historic.

When I adventured here, shortly after May 1968, I was immensely relieved to discover that those who come here to start a new life do not have to reinvent, reconstruct or recapture everything. What you have to do is transplant yourself onto what is already there.

Indeed, this "most cultivated, best loved" of lands, as described by the historian Patrick Cabanel, lends itself wonderfully to live life as well we can.

This territory of a hundred thousand gardens, built on terraces, linked by irrigation channels, formed a density of existence where the children could go from one hamlet to another to play and have fun.

When one sees everywhere traces of the genius and perseverance of thirty generations who have striven, over a thousand years, not to produce, or for one power or another, but for an authentic existence, one senses the vital strength of the human being. And is inspired in one's own personal quest for a 'handmade' life.

Ardèche cannot be categorised. There are no industries here, nor any notable commercial interest. There is no expressway across it. So it is easy, and even recommended, to get lost. Then to find your way thanks to numerous psycho-geographic landmarks which remind us that it is possible to take one's destiny into one's own hands in a concrete fashion.

What a friendly people. They say hello and shake your hand, and are ready to joke. Coming from a rather inhospitable region, at first I was very intrigued that I was always given a searching look when I drove past in my car, which I thought would be the more worthy of attention. It was only several years later that I understood that the Ardéchois, when they saw a car going past, wanted to know if it had passengers they should greet.

When I was a young man I realised that life neither ends nor begins when you retire. After a first period of happiness as a raspberry grower, I came to a more built-up area of Ardèche to provide accommodation for people like me, who came from afar. I will never forget the visit of a very pleasant American who found her way here, in search of orientation. Recently retired, she was a novice in her personal life. And yet she had had an active and complete professional life, being in charge of three hundred thousand men and women, the civilian body of the army of the United States worldwide.

I was guided by intuition to find in the human body and its well-being the theme which seemed to correspond best to Ardèche: organic, manual. It was an easy choice to make because Anna was surrounded by women who with their background of discovery in well-being, often picturesque, made Ardèche the most cosmopolitan part of France at that time. They were experts on the subject and were generous. So they knew how to give. And they were available. Three centuries ago, the women here were, in their own way, carriers of riches by incubating, between their breasts and their thighs, the precious eggs which would become silkworms, thus ushering in what is nowadays amiably called the golden age of Ardèche.

One day in our massage room I saw a woman in her fifties, in a flood of tears which would not dry up. She had spent her life looking after her family, and for the very first time felt herself touched by caring and loving hands. An irrefutable proof that the body does not forget the life of which we are made.

Ardèche is made of, and allows, a sensitive human experience. I know of few other places so favourable to the development of our sensitivity; to nurture or to consolidate, always maturing.

When you leave the road for vegetation-covered paths, you can make astonishing discoveries. Sophisticated water irrigation systems made of cut stones or hewn in the rock, magnificent huge terraces built at right-angles at the bottom of a ravine or on a ridge - let's say from the 19th century, and probably by one man alone. Splendid pieces of work with a strong poetic aura. Here you are not in the Retz forest, no resemblance to works of art, but the eternal presence of remarkable achievements inseparable from a life which has been fully lived.

Recently I met a former inhabitant of the hamlet where I live. All her family originated from there. I asked her if there was happiness in yesterday's world, with the hard living conditions, and without hesitation she said yes: "We had two cows, and we were rich".

In today's turbulent world, we see proof that the desire for liberty is shared by everyone. So everyone is well advised to place himself on the right side of history: his own. Do what we enjoy and find pleasure in doing what needs to be done.

From the heart of Ardèche our attentive ear can capture the echo of a vital force. Happy is he who finds means to give substance to his sensitive vitality. That which is able to carry on freedom and to create a relationship between human beings.

In Ardèche this vitality is of pure origin. A true human resource.

Holger Stephan, Le Mas Bleu, 11 February 2011.

For Florian, Malte, Marco, Aline, Pascal.

Pictures taken from the series "The nature of the Ardèche" by Pascal Schluter,

Les 300 prochaines années.

La configuration de l'Ardèche liée à ce que les gens en ont fait de magnifique,
laisse apparaître une corporalité qui sans doute nous fascine tant, parce que
c'est à travers elle que nous recherchons la nôtre.

La corporalité de l'existence est inséparable de l'aventure de la vie. Nous le
savons que nous ayons  17  ou 71 ans.
Entre ces deux âges, c'est hélas l'esprit qui gouverne avec sa volonté de dominer
et de se mêler de tout. Il parvient à nous habituer d'assigner à notre corps une
fonction utile.
C'est ainsi que nous nous plions au temps qui passe.

L'Ardèche constitue, grâce à son immense jardin tout en terrasses et son histoire
humaine réussie, un fond de résonance pour tous ceux qui sont en quête d'une
existence authentique. Nature et culture y sont melées. Un tissu de parcelles,
de ressources en eau partagées, de corps de ferme d'une époque de cohabitation
d'hommes et d'animaux, densité et chaleur d'un espace vecu.
En y vagabondant, la propriété privée nous paraît dépassée.

Alors que la rentabilisation de la planète entière, incluant la nôtre, 
ramène sans fin à elle toute attention et tout effort,
 il y a contradictoirement dans le petit espace que nous habitons,
de la place pour développer des attitudes susceptibles de nous satisfaire au delà de notre temps.
En Ardèche, cette tache blanche sur la carte des occupations modernes,
 préserver et développer ne font qu'un.

Ce pays si peu économique et totalement non-rentable, qui jouit toutefois d'une
excellente santé, ne représente  certainement aucune menace immédiate pour la
marche de l'économie mondiale.
 Mais ses habitants l'aiment, surtout les jeunes.
 De sorte qu'aucune promesse de marchés lointains ne saurait les séduire.
Tout est déjà là.

Il ne  faut donc  pas s'étonner que des passions y fleurissent  portées par
une détermination qui fait cruellement défaut un peu partout ailleurs.

La passion de vous accueillir semble reposer sur l'intime conviction
 que le monde serait  en bien meilleur état si la moitié de la population rendait visite à l'autre.
Nombreux sont ceux parmi  nous qui connaissent le désir
d'ajouter à l'endroit où nous habitons, un autre, plus beau encore,
un petit palais de la découverte pour l'hôte inconnu que nous ne pouvons pas être à nous-mêmes.

Un phénomène lié est l'émergence d'une passion qui vise plus profondément notre

Comme beaucoup de choses perdent en importance, pendant que d'autres en gagnent,
dès que notre peau sent le souffle du printemps,
les mains des masseurs savent rendre à nos corps l'entièreté qu'il avait perdue.
Le toucher humain, donné et reçu,  stimule et met au monde un trésor caché.
Pour ces bienfaits qui ramènent le corps à la conscience, les êtres humains sont
différemment prêts, mais également sensibles.

Dans les deux cas, l'intention n'est pas de reconstituer dans le domaine de la vie
privée ce qui a été sacrifié ailleurs. Le toucher et son émerveillement sont
essentiels à la vie, sinon elle resterait étrangement abstraite. Il ne s'agit pas de
simplement améliorer la vie, mais de trouver une approche créative afin de la rendre la meilleure possible.

Dans ce contexte, il n'est pas anodin de remarquer l'apparition, à la fin de l'hiver,
de formations sillonant routes et rivières sinueuses en vélos ou en kayaks.
A travers le contact direct avec la nature, ils cherchent la plénitude de la corporalité.

Et  enfin il y a de la place ici - et non la moindre -  pour les grands amants de toujours et leur très vieux rêve:
Les hommes bâtissent et protègent un royaume construit en pierres.
Les femmes s'y mettent dans le plus vivant contraste.

Souvenons-nous, de ce moment arrivé ne serait-ce qu'une fois dans la vie,
où notre corps s'est mis à vibrer au contact d'un autre.

Qu'est ce qui nous importe précisément dans une perspective
à très long terme?

L'Ardèche est un monde corporel pour une pratique sensuelle.

Elle libère des illusions et rend intelligent.

Elle est le territoire d'un temps lent,

le laboratoire d'une vie longue.

Aucune image n'a su l'abolir.

Holger Stephan, avril 2013. 

Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Ardèche Pascal and Aline Stonemason


Holger Stéphan
Born the 11th of May 1942
Died the 12th March 2018

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