The Rain of Terroir
The word would be French.
Terroir. Like connoisseur. Meaning, of course, earth. A patch of earth. A very particular patch of earth. With its very particular rainfall, its particular winters, its sunshine. Its acidity. And yes, its people, whereby a local ethnic trait such as, well, say obsessive humming transmutes into a subtle note in the wine produced from that patch of earth year after year after year. And some hallowed patches just happen to produce the most rarified wine or sauerkraut or tobacco or chocolate on the face of the earth. Lucky the heir to the worldís supreme sauerkraut acre. Or a tiny celestial vineyard in Burgundy or Bordeaux. That 53 Sschrunk Flossentuth Bongomme Graffitte is worth its weight in gold. For the snootiest chocolate snoot, only chocolate from a small plantation in Madagascar will do. And for the poetry snob, only a few small farms in New Hampshire in a dry summer can give rise to the most lucid American plainsong, and one or two streets in the East Village can ever hope to match the abstruse sonorities of the great Mallarmť.
The earth is flat; no, itís a village in Bolivia.
See, weíre a funny mix. On one hand Thomas Friedmanís book, The Earth is Flat, says it all. In the cybernetic age, old distinctions are being levelled out into one global uniformity. My Inbox presents every letter I receive in exactly the same format, whether from Japan or from Argentina; alas, how I loved the old stamps. On the other hand, the struggle for distinction has never been stronger: in fact I got a fantastic stamp from Switzerland today. You can tick off the list as well as I can. Politics, religion, economics, sports. In Bolivia, you have the first indigenous leader. In Houston you have your own proud brand of rap music, very different from either coast. And in luxuries, you have this new fad, terroir. The discriminating woman just knows her Madagascars from her Venezuelas. Mon Dieu. Perhaps the most literal instance of terroir that I know of was a college student my wife and I both knew who brought a jar of earth from her home garden to allay her homesickness.
The Easter egg hunt and Solzhenitsyn.
Where does paper come into all this? Well, right here, right where we, in the electronic cascade toward uniformity, choose to assert our distinction. Choose to say that thereís a little patch of Godís good earth that has a small woods where the townís firefighters disperse thousands of chocolate Easter eggs each Easter for the children of the town to find. Where every Easter morning every soul in the town is happily and, especially the tikes, squealingly tramping through the woods. Where singing wafts through the trees. See, places that we love, where we belong, even if itís a recently adopted habitat, rise into our speech like spring moisture. Any handwriting analyst will confirm that they inscribe themselves into our handwriting and into the nonsense of our doodles, the laments of our letters, the rich distinction of our thoughts. Thatís why writers are so often writers of place. What happened to the great Solzhenitsyn when he left Russia? He wilted. Got downright cranky. Thatís why footsore literary pilgrims like myself have hitchhiked half way across Europe just to see the place, the room, the desk where Jung or Yeats wrote, or the ruins of the house where El Greco was born. Terroir.
So think of yourself as a grape.
Writing is, implicitly, an act of claiming, of belonging. Isnít that, at least in part, what post cards are all about? Declaring that for a week, a day, an hour, I was here. Beside the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But canít we say as much about every occasion that we grab a napkin and jot down a sudden, wacky idea--itís a post card from there, full of pizza smudges, full of terroir? Just think of yourself as a grape.
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