Along the coast of Cornouailles, sometimes the sea and land gently meander together and merge. The sunlight, the tides, the rivers and the land combine and create ever-shifting landscapes, where nature is bewitching. Sometimes called rias after the Galicians (?), these estuaries are abers to the Bretons “bretonnant” (speaking Breton). This name points to the Britons once again; think of the Welsh Aberystwyth. The Scots would call them inver, like Inverness, but personally, I prefer the warmer French abers.
At each rising tide (à marée montante), the sea quietly goes up every river, and its many tributaries, over miles. There are coastal granite boulders and their lichen, invariably black at the bottom, then pale grey, then orange, before the grey “land” lichen. They feel lost far inland, with the sea nowhere to been seen, but everywhere felt. As the sea retreats (à marée descendante), streams and rivers are left to meander in the sand and silt. They seem to blindly pick their way between banks of silt, beached boats at different stages of disrepair, and the odd block of granite that slowly appear from under the water. Algae, bacteria, and fish thrive. Then come the birds. Sandpipers, shell ducks, kingfishers, crows, black-headed gulls, swans, herons, curlews. The misty sunrise is dreamy, as all their songs and calls envelop you. The call of the curlew (courlis, after its call) is particularly atmospheric.
Amongst those birds, I love a little egret (aigrette garzette). It is a very elegant white bird, whose neck feathers were once prised by the elegant ladies. It was almost driven to extinction. A very active fisher, it patrols the banks and stabs at the water. At this time of year, egrets also compete for territories, and regularly dislodge one another from a particular silt bank. Only when they are in flight they show their incongruously bright yellow feet. When an egret catches my attention, as a white dot in the landscape, I stop, observe the bird, share a moment in its life, then take in the whole landscape around me.
At the edge of the primordial mud, tough plants like obione and the delicious salicornia (Once generously rinsed, its taste resembles that of picked gherkins) take a foothold. Then the Atlantic forest asserts itself. It also feels ancient. Oaks, even young, are covered in grey spongy lichen, dull green moss, and their branches carry ferns. Maritime pines and holly provide an ever-green shelter to jays and roe deer. When a tree falls into the estuary, the salt quickly kills it, but sometimes the ferns that remain above the water survive. The rest is covered in silt and soon looks petrified. Around Kerodet, the forest is dotted with huge granite blocks, who, covered in lichen and moss, look like petrified mammoths.
All day, the reflections on the water, the shimmering of the silt in the sunshine, the dip in the light when a cloud passes over, then its sudden return keep shifting the landscape. Walking back and forth on the same path at different times of day are two completely different experiences.
It is a working landscape too. The granite here, particularly hard, used to be extracted to build the nation’s bridges. Some villages still have their old bread ovens. Sometimes you come across a fountain, simply a square of granite, surrounded by primroses. Once essential to the rural economy, tidal mills (moulins à marée) were the last places of pagan cult honouring land, water and wind; they were the point of contact between all these worlds. On the Hénan, a tiny stream South-West of Pont-Aven, there is a restored fifteenth-century tidal mill, which still sometimes produces flour. All these galettes and crêpes need to be made somehow.