Nature of Things | Life in a Painting

By Kimberly Mayer, Journal contributor

I am just back from France and all about food. At the Master Gardener Demo Garden this week, we took down the scarlet runner bean vines over the arbor and harvested what we could for the Friday Harbor Food Bank. Even in the half-light of November, our harvest included cherry tomatoes, tomatillos, broccoli and the last of the scarlet runner beans, nearly one foot long.

Come spring, we’ll plant seeds from some of these pods, as it made a vigorous flowering display over the arbor all summer, and edible to boot. The countryside in the Burgundy region of France is not unlike the San Juan Islands. Harvested hay is rolled, as it is here. The cows in Burgundy are white. Cows near my home on San Juan Island are brown and black. But all in all, here or there, it’s much like living in a landscape painting. Islanders often liken it to an Andrew Wyeth or Edward Hopper painting, but I have always turned to the French Impressionists in my description. Most notably, Monet, who studied the light on haystacks near Giverny. Bale is a French word for “rolled up bundle.” As hay bales were squared when I grew up in New England, I’ve always seen this island as a little bit French.

Now imagine my ex-pat friend, ensconced in the medieval village Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, coming home from the farmers market in Beaune each week and artfully arranging her fruit on platters. I like to think she once lived another life in France. Yes, I’m certain of it. But how did it happen that two friends from California would be so at home with each other again in France? Twenty-five years ago, we were all over Laguna Beach in long linen dresses and wide-brimmed straw hats. Perhaps our romance with France started then, for didn’t we look like French country girls or fille in old masters’ paintings? Pissaro, Sisley or Van Gogh.

Today the two of us wear Breton striped shirts and sweaters, mariniere. First designed for sailors in the French Navy in the mid-19th century for visibility in the event of being thrown overboard, the blue and white striped shirt was instantly popular among the working class in France. Later, in the early 20th century, artists and intellectuals such as Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre proudly wore the stripes. Today the look is timeless and classic.

From our shores to theirs, we’re all in the French Navy now.