Masterpieces on Hooves: A Visit with the World’s Greatest Livestock Photographer
(Paris, France, Salon International de l’Agriculture, 2002)
by Sally Eckhoff of Stuyvesant Falls, NY
photos by Majorie Van Helternen of France
When I decided I was going to write a book on working animals, I never realized how much fun it would be trying to convince the skeptics. If a good story is worth anything, there’s no better subject anywhere in the world. I’ve got the characters to keep tables full of dinnertime listeners entertained — like my one about the New England dairy science professor learning Swahili in order to go to Tanzania and drive oxen with the Masai. (That’s Drew Conroy working with Tillers International, for those of you who follow oxen). I also love to talk about the ultra-polite 2300- lb. Belgian horse in Short Tract, NY who tried to help me put his collar on when I had trouble lifting it. I personally know a mule who has an advice column, published in The Brayer. He has his own website. It’s all great material. You can feel it already. And the best part is, I never have to exaggerate.
That draft animals are odd and magnetic is easy enough to put across. But that they’re beautiful — that’s another story, one I sometimes need help to tell. My favorite idea interpreter right now is a doomed early 19th-century poet who I think is best known for having tried to take a lobster for a walk around Paris. Gerard de Nerval supposedly said that “there is another world somewhere, but it is in this one.” Well, anybody who follows the draft animal movement in the US knows this already — the other world of working animals that hovers so close to the surface of the rest of American life is still invisible, or nearly so. But we can still live there, or try to. It happens that France has another animal poet, a contemporary one whose work feeds the draft animal fan’s appetite for beautiful images in a whole new way. If anybody ever needed proof that a beast in its everyday fur suit can be as ravishing as a queen in satin, this guy is it.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s work is easy to find, but first you have to know it’s there. For starters, he’s the most famous photographer in France. His book of aerial photographs, La Terre Vue du Ciel (Earth from Above), which he called his valentine to the world on the eve of the millennium, was the Christmas gift there last year. His photo of a mangrove swamp shaped like a big green heart was made into a Valentine’s Day stamp in 2002. Arthus-Bertrand’s animal pictures, however, are much less well known than his other work, even in France. Calendars of his animal photos have cropped up in bookstores around the U.S. from time to time, but not enough to put Arthus-Bertrand on the map. Lucky for me, I tripped over a bound collection of postcards called “Beasts and their Keepers” (now out of print) in my favorite store in Chatham, NY, and made myself a promise then and there that I’d find the person who made those pictures. Searching the web, I discovered there was a big book called “Des Betes et des Hommes” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand that contained the photographs the postcards were made from. The book was also out in English, under the title Good Breeding.
Arthus-Bertrand photographs farm animals. He’s not hipped on working beasts per se — that would be awfully hard to do in France — so you’ll find a lot of unemployed sheep and pigs frolicking through the book. Right off the bat, though, you see that there are more and stranger varieties of every kind of hoofed animal in Europe than here — some so weird they don’t seem real. Arthus-Bertrand keeps the presentation simple: he poses the animal, maybe with its keeper, on a rough brown cloth backdrop, and lights it so the forms pop out in detail. Presto: living sculpture. His close-ups are monumental: a cow’s udder with its fantastic milk veins, a Percheron’s rump with a checkerboard brushed onto it. I look at his work, I see topographical maps of a mammal landscape — the ‘other world’ I long to show people. And here, I saw for the first time what a marvelous artistic medium an animal’s coat can be. The inexhaustible field for touching and stroking Jane Smiley referred to in her book about Thoroughbreds looks even more inexhaustible on a ton horse. Good Breeding introduced me to breeds I’d never heard of, with wilder and wilder presentations. A Pyrenees pack mule had a pattern clipped onto it that could have been an aerial view of a vineyard. The halters on some of the bulls looked like hockey masks.
But where were these animals, and how did this elegant photographer find them? The book’s captions simply cited “Agriculture Show, Paris” as the venue. From there, it was just a couple of steps to Arthus-Bertrand’s website and the Salon Internationale de l’Agriculture, the show where he’s been setting up his traveling studio for the past twelve years. So that’s how I wound up muscling my way through the biggest — not to mention most crowded — livestock fair in the Western world at the end of a Paris subway line last spring, on my way to meet the most famous livestock photographer alive.
The Salon de l’Agriculture, or SIA, runs for a week and a half each year, starting in late February. The drab convention center that houses it is so close to the Bohemian heart of Paris that there are homey cafes and crepe places right across the street. This was the France of February, 2002, a place lightly wrapped up in a kind of worried tension, yet trying to celebrate itself. Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal photographer, was in the hands of the Taliban: the hotel TV’s CNN broadcasts tracked his fate every night. It was also the France where candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen was to rock the presidential election with his significant showing (but ultimate failure) in the polls. Milosevic was sandbagging up at the Peace Palace in the Hague, in Holland, claiming an illness that would stymie his trial for months. Europe was worried. You could feel it on the street, in the movement of the passing crowds, the nervousness of lines outside museums and concert halls. The giant convention center was no more immune.
Directly across the street from the journalists’ entrance to the show, I stared absently into a café window and saw something of the Paris I hoped would always be there: a woman of a certain age all done up in ratty fur and Belle Epoque makeup, balancing a Yorkie on her lap while she smoked her Gauloises and drank her wine. France is a contradiction, but Paris acknowledges its human appetites. Nothing like the SIA could ever take place in America, I thought, and I would soon find out I was right. I got the light, crossed the boulevard, showed my press pass at the Salon’s gate, and I was in.
Urban as the SIA is, it’s a farm fair all the way. Walk in the glass doors of the livestock rotunda and the first thing you get hit with is the tangy smell of cow. Just like in Fryeburg, Maine, the cattle are lined up in spotless beds (straw) with signs announcing their names and individual ancestry. Here was a typical livestock show, but on a global scale, and with a global message: to hell with the breaking down of agricultural borders, the homogenization of breeds, the mass-production of food. We have more kinds of animals than you even knew existed.
Were there bio-engineering booths? It’s hard to imagine something this big and modern without them. Well, I couldn’t find them. Instead, I continually tripped over the gnarly roots of France’s identity: individualistic, handmade food from regions that must not ever be taken for granted. Bretagne is not Franche-Comte is an Alsace; the raw, unpasteurized, stinky nature of the country was the real subject of the show, and, judging from the thickness and determination of the crowd, it’s something worth fighting for. (Or going to jail for, as renegade farmer Jose Bove actually did on June 19th. Bove is president of the Farmers’ Federation, which had a booth at SIA. As you might have read, he was convicted of ransacking a McDonald’s and sentenced to three months behind bars. He rode his tractor to prison. It took him eight hours to get there.)
I wasn’t after any kind of deep, inner message from the experience. Not right off the bat, anyway. I wanted to see those weird cattle from Good Breeding, and here they were. Magnificent and wary in the photographs, they were downright bizarre in person. I counted 25 varieties, including the Bazadais, Aubrac, the Salers that looked like vegetarian bears, and a Tarentaise cow with a classic and virginal profile like a face on a cameo. I finally got a good look at the grotesquely engineered Belgian Blanc-Bleu cattle, whose rumps are so curvily packed with meat that they look like human buttocks. (Calves have to be born by caesarian; a cow can have around five before she too is sent to the rail.) Guaranteed, you’ve never seen a cow like the Breton Pie-Noir: they’re tiny and bowlegged, with vertical horns that make it seem like their only defense against anything would be to spindle people who sit on them. Cool enough, I thought as I shoved my way (politely) up and down the aisles. There was no way to get anywhere fast. The crowd wouldn’t allow it, and I wasn’t going to argue with half a million French men and women. (Actually, the week I was there, the number of visitors climbed above 600,000.)
Firmly lodged in the lava-like flow of the crowd, I slowly swirled past a display of Basque sausages where the wares were hanging like sleeping bats from the eaves of a barn: I tasted several and bought a ‘sec’ and a garlic one, plus a pot of paprika, before being carried away by the human tide. Then I sampled three kinds of the fabled Roquefort — * “Le roi des fromages! Le fromage des rois!” — in delicate, daily necessity, and tear-the-roof-off strengths. One dairy was handing out samples of Confiture du Lait, a gooey caramel that I figured would taste good eaten off fingers, or pavement. I bought two jars. There were cheeses whose origins I didn’t quite understand, but a woman talked me into buying one anyway — Le Grain d’Orge, cured in Calvados. It tasted mild and nutty but with an incredibly intense overtone. I swear the smell got stronger and stronger as the thing reached room temperature in my backpack that afternoon. On I went, sampling delicacies, my shoulders aching from the merchandise I was carrying. I wasn’t even in the food building yet.
* “The king of cheeses! The cheese of kings!”
This atmosphere isn’t ideal for animals. In the exhibit of Auxois horses from Bourgogne, a mountainous mare (name: Kelly) was being hydrated by two vets with an IV. At least the cattle had the presence of mind, or whatever you want to call it, to lie down and tune out. But I noticed one thing right away: the French, by and large, aren’t quiet as idiotic as people are here when it comes to proximity with beasts. Sure, they wheel their baby strollers too close sometimes, and make annoying clicking noises, trying to get a rise out of some poor blasé ram. What I didn’t see, though, was grownups going apoplectic at the sight of a pile of manure, or anybody trying to scare the animals to make them run. I had to wonder what kind of society could produce those big-butt Blanc-Bleu cattle, though. (Actually, the Belgians did. I bet the French would always be happy to point that out.)
Squeezing onto an up-escalator and down a few highway-sized corridors, I realized that thousands, probably tens of thousands of people were all going to the same place I was. The great fat serpent of the crowd crawled right into the donkey and mule pavilion, and I went along for the ride. We circled the display stalls, which were built in a radially-symmetrical pattern so you could see everything by oozing your way around the outside. I had no idea the French were so crazy about donkeys, but really, it takes a country with three different kinds of Roquefort to preserve the tiny populations of animals so modest and obscure, and yet so pungent.
As a regional band struck up giggly hurdy-gurdy music in the corner of the building, I found myself face-to-face with a silky brown monster whose luxurious mossy ears looked like tropical plants. Here was a Baudet de Poitou jack — I’d never seen one before — named Jolicoeur. While he was being introduced to me by his pretty breeder, he was trying to eat my pocketbook. I wrested it out of his mouth and rolled around the wheel a little further, passing by some extremely fine, Thoroughbred-y Pyrenees mules whose chocolate coats had a fine metallic sheen. The photographer hadn’t been making it up — I saw delicate designs clipped into their rumps, plus a vine pattern on their shoulders, and some odd triangular patches of fur that had been left on both sides of their ribs.
Only another minute or two of playing sardine in this shoal of people would lead me to the great mystery beast that so enchanted me in Good Breeding: a genuine Poitevin mule. There are precious few of them in existence, owing to the scarcity of both the jack side (Poitevin) and the mare side (Mulassier, a breed of heavy horse rather like a Friesian, exclusively created for making mules). Because of the difficulty the French are having in reconstituting the Mulassier, a mare is allowed to have only one mule foal in her lifetime, her first. This works toward the Mulassier’s precarious preservation, and also the mare’s health: mule foals of this variety tend to be small. Here at last is my biological curiousity: Dolly, a very tall girl, with tiny (for a mule) ears that were open to the point of being oval, like pastry boats trimmed in black fringe. Her face with its very large eyes registered a broad-browed look of mild surprise, like a barn owl. She was exquisite.
Ogling and wondering would have been a fine fulfillment for this trip, but I still hadn’t met my photographer, and I was expected in a half hour at his temporary studio. But naturally, outside the donkey building, I tripped over one of those alleyway scenarios I can never pass up. The donkey parade was scheduled to start in a few minutes, and I got to watch the teamsters hitching up their animals and chatting together. First I saw the deer-like and small (around 14 hands) Pyrenees mules in their work harness, led by a man in a traditional collarless carmagnole jacket and a huge black beret. The teams were hitched abreast in pairs, held together by a ladder-shaped yoke padded with wild-looking long black fur. The mystery triangles of unclipped hair I had wondered about before were little rub pads to keep the crossbuck pack saddle from chafing. A man in sabots and a railroad cap was leading a large brown donkey fully laden with large, shiny brass urns, for oil or wine, two to a side. Then there was a four-up of cool gray donks — Contentins, maybe — pulling a funereal-looking cart, driven by a smiling man in a plain black suit. A woman whose tight green dress and enormous starched hat were straight out of van Gogh’s weirder countryside portraits sat in a market cart behind a large, shaggy brown donkey in a brown working collar.
All the way back to the cattle pavilion, where the studio was supposed to be, the crowd and noise were mind-bending. I wondered how long I or any of the animals could take it. But then I arrived at the back of Building 1, behind the makeshift offices, and at once on my left a dark quiet space opened up behind a galvanized police barrier, where a mere handful of onlookers were gathered. The industrial pan lamps high overhead had been covered. Black-draped tripods held up large, square photographers’ lights. A makeshift office with glowing iMacs was laid out along the wall. Battery boxes on the floor blinked, a small army of cameras waited on a table. A quiet hush pervaded; I felt like I was in church. Two huge armatures that reached almost all the way up to the industrial ceiling held an outstretched bolt of brown canvas that must have been 30 feet long. This was my modern parallel to staring at Rembrandt’s easel, something I’ve always dreamed of doing. And standing on the canvas where it draped along the floor being distracted and smooched at by several black-clad assistants, stood the most exquisite red-and-white fluffy Anjou cow.
I counted five assistants, including a valet whose sole function seemed to be wielding a bucket to catch manure before it stained the backdrop. The slender, gray-haired man photographing the cow was rather tall and slim, wearing black Carhartts. Neat and elegant as he was, he had tied his glasses on his head with a piece of twine. Yann Arthus-Bertrand was coaching the farmer and the young woman who was with him. “That’s a young cow, isn’t it?” he asked the couple, who giggled nervously as the photographer squinted at them through the lens. Now I could see the white map of India on the cow’s forehead. She kept trying to walk away, making her farmer steer her in a circle. Quiet, obstinate, and very strong, she cast a shadow in front of her, which seemed impossible, though in this cave-like setting it was devilishly hard to tell where the light was really coming from. The cow stretched her curious nose and her entire capacious body (the Maine-Anjou are Loire Valley animals, bred for milk and beef), sighed, and let a long string of crystalline saliva swing from her mouth. Her ears swiveled as if she were trying to receive a radio signal from space.
There must have been something missing from this beguiling tableau. I couldn’t see it, but Arthus-Bertrand suddenly called out, “Embrassez-vous” — kiss each other — to the couple. “Sur la bouche,” he added, which made the girl look embarrassed. “Un peu d’amour, un peu de tendresse!” (I could tell you this in English, but its so much better in French: “A little love, a little tenderness!”) “Now look at your cow!” With farmer, woman, and coquette cow in blushing détente, Arthus-Bertrand snapped the picture, and then looked up. A tall young man in a backpack beckoned me through the police barrier. (They knew I was the American writer. How?) “You’re my favorite artist,” I told Arthus-Bertrand, trying to stuff my pen and notebook somewhere so I could nervously shake his hand. “I’m not an artist,” returned my idol warily. “I’m a photographer.”
Did you really cross the Atlantic just to see horses and cows? That’s what he wanted to know. I explained my mission about working animals, about the different ways of doing things becoming increasingly essential where I come from. I mentioned the working animal renaissance in the US, the increasing interest in horse-drawn forestry. “It would be great if that happened here,” he said. “We’re still… eating them. Even the horses. Yes, the horses.” But I knew that. Strolling through the Marais the day before, I passed a butcher shop with a gorgeous gold horse head over the door. The signs in the window advertised other meats, but I knew that was just camouflage. I know I’ve eaten the stuff, but only by accident. (Some people I spoke to swear that the French appetite for horsemeat has diminished but I was unable to determine if it’s true.) Anyway, it’s the showing and selling that helps revitalize the ‘meat breeds’ such as the Boulonnais in France. The Boulonnais are an interesting case. They’re big, like Percherons; Julius Caesar used them. They traditionally brought fresh fish to Paris along “la route Poissoniere,” a ritual that has turned into a yearly cross-country draft horse road rally in which 300 horses get from coastal Boulogne to Paris in 24 hours. Arthus-Bertrand scheduled our interview for the following morning, and then I stepped back to watch him work.
His staff led me to the side of the room, with an invitation: “Leave your things there, come have a coffee, eat our food, drink our wine,” they said — or pretty much; it was in French, so some of the message came out sideways. Thus comforted, I could watch the scene unfold. A man who looked like he’d spent his entire life out in the sun brought in a pure white Camarguais stallion, who clip-clopped carefully across the slippery floor. The horse was like something out of Lord of the Rings — a close-coupled unicorn without a horn, about 15 hands tall, with a neck that would be good on a dressage horse. I couldn’t believe how well he was behaving, and then I realized he had a bicycle chain across his nose, which explained a great deal. There was a lot of compressed power in that animal. Arthus-Bertrand tried shooting him sitting down, standing up, crouching. The process of capturing the look he wanted took about a half-hour (I was later to observe that this is about his average). Satisfied with the proofs his assistants showed him, he called for his next subject. I ducked out. Tomorrow was going to be saturation day. I figured it was okay to get out from underfoot and go get something to eat.
Ten minutes later I was having a personality crisis. Why the heck hadn’t I read the SIA maps? Building 3 was the food market of the gods; it was crammed with booths handing out or selling slices and sips of divine articles from everywhere in France. Carhartt should make a special suit for visiting Building 3 of the SIA, something with lots of pockets and a wine proof bib. First I ate some “porc noir de Gascon,” a mellow, dense ham made from the small-farm-raised, outdoor black pigs of Gascony. I took the slices off the knife and wanted more. Then I had wonderful hard cider from Normandy, one of the three on offer. (Brut is the one I like best.) At a few minutes to 12, and on vacation, I figured, ‘Oh, why not’, and so I continued — on to a bit of bread, a small ham sandwich, and a glass of Riesling. There was a snack made of ham with some kind of cassis sauce on it that utterly blew my mind. It was kind of sour and salty and purple, the most delicious thing I think I’ve had in years. Luckily, my path redirected me past the Ciders of Normandy, twice. Cider is good for you. I then walked back to my hotel to fight with my bread and awakening Calvados cheese. I slept fitfully. I thought my cheese might leap out of its box and strangle me, so it spent the rest of the night outside on the windowsill. I awoke ready for something a little sour and smelly, like maybe the goaty yogurt (with grainy honey) they gave me along with my breakfast coffee. Off to the SIA again, to discover the secret of making livestock glow.
But first I had to meet with an American sound engineer who was going to take digital pictures and record the interview for public radio back home. We arrived to find Arthus-Bertrand cajoling Jolie, the biggest Percheron in France, into a pose. Jolie’s a ton horse, maybe heavier — not a hitchy mare; she’d never win in the US. She’s shorter in the leg and extremely massive in body, though to me, she was so well-proportioned she could have been molded out of plastilene. She had sly decorations of red yarn in her full mane and tail.
Draft horse grooming is a touchy subject in France. The European Union has just outlawed docking; the Belgians, with their habit of cutting Brabants’ tails down to just one vertebra, aren’t all going to be happy about this. I have to admit that the Belgian method of presenting a virtually tailless draft horse is eye-catching, rather overwhelmingly butch, though for sure the horses aren’t going to miss it. A breeder told me he turned his one warm blood jumper out in a field with his Brabants on a summer day and “they were all standing behind the saddle horse, trying to get near his tail.” The interesting thing is that in the Low Countries, their heavy breeds are deliberately wet-combed and sometimes patted all over with mud to look dirty on purpose. Not in France. Many of the French Auxois horse, Ardennais, and Trait du Nords were raised with full tails well before the new law was made, and they were presented washed and clean, though rather bucolically furry.
And so here we have this fine Percheron mare, moonshine-gray and glowing like an enormous sea creature, her tail flowing but her forelock shaved off. She’s going to be immortalized, probably for Arthus-Bertrand’s next book, which is to be on horses. His horse-wrangler assistant, Francois, hid behind a drape, shaking a bucket of feed over her head. Jolie swiveled her ears that looked, no two ways about it, like enormous peapods. When it was time for her to leave, she was ushered out the rear of the building and, in what I call an enormous glitch in judgment, out the people door. Halfway through, she slipped and bonked her head. Arthus-Bertrand grimaced. Then my friend and I turned on the tape recorder and started talking.
First we wanted to know where he’s from (near Rambouillet, about 40 km from here) and how much time he spends on the road (he’s gone about half of every month.) Mostly he spends time on those aerial photos — he and his crew just came back from Caracas, and are on to Chicago for a gallery show as soon as the SIA is over. Arthus-Bertrand plans to go to Montana to photograph horses, he said. My friend with the recording equipment was dying to know how someone who takes thousands of pictures of domestic animals a year could endow each one with some kind of individuality. Uncomfortable with his English, Yann began to explain:
“You have to understand that all these animals are born and raised for meat. I’m not eating a lot of meat now, I have to say… I’m near-vegetarian.” (He echoed the thoughts of most people I know, including me. They’d have a heck of a time, though, resisting the Gascon ham.) He paused, grappled for words. Then he switched back to French, and his thoughts began to flow.
“I’ve been doing this work [referring to the animal show] now for twelve years, and in the beginning, the only thing I was trying to do was show the animals. After fifteen minutes of shooting we saw that we have to put the animals and people together. It was better for the farmers, and better for the animals.
“It’s a strange scene at the Salon now. There are all these animals lined up, children coming to see them, and under the same roof there’s also all this meat on display. Ultimately, people don’t make the connection. It’s almost like it’s not the same thing. Everybody comes to pet the animals, and they don’t notice what’s right next to them, hanging in refrigerator cases. It always shocks me a little bit.”
Americans, though, are the people most likely not to know where their food comes from, my friend put in. The French, by and large, seem relatively informed. It’s the tradition, right?
“Well, the French get it less and less these days,” he told us. “And right now, what I’m doing with my work is giving an image of an animal that’s not about meat. There’s a rapport between people and animals. Even if it’s utopian, I think that today, the relationship between people and animals is totally changing.
“I’m certain there’s going to be a reevaluation of animals that’s going to get stronger and stronger. For example, I don’t eat Foie Gras any more” — this gets a laugh over here, but it’s an unusual admission for someone French. “Never. I figure it’s something we shouldn’t do because we’re eating suffering. Animals are raised to be eaten, but they still should have a happy life, a normal life. So maybe my work is going to help in this a little. Anyway, I’m very proactive.”
Asked about the work he’s most famous for, and how it relates to what he’s doing in the livestock pavilion, he went on —
“Photographers are people who show life around them at a specific moment. I’ve decided to describe two things — to do my aerial photography in such a way that explains that you don’t have man existing on one plane and nature on another, that man is nature. All of it — cities, forests, people — are made of the same substance. And here, in this work, these are portraits, but there’s not a big difference. I try to show things in a manner that’s simple and authentic, always with the idea of working deeper and deeper. The more you work, the deeper you go.”
Back in English, he said:
“We were wrong for so many years, thinking that animals have no soul. I think animals are like us. We are a little bit clever, that’s all. So we can eat meat if that’s the way we live, but we have to respect life. Today, industrialists speak about animals as a commodity: head count, weight… I hate it. People from the cities, they eat a sandwich, they don’t know how this pig was raised. [Belgium is talking about building factory farms; I saw a puff piece on this in the railroad’s magazine on the way here.] And I think it’s awful how they live.
“So we have a very romantic idea about animals, like that Australian movie, I love it, Babe. When you buy a chicken in a supermarket, it can be labeled as farm-raised, but it’s not at all from a farm, it’s from a factory. So we have to work on our whole attitude a little bit, and it’s going to change, slowly, slowly. Even when I was in America on holidays last year and I saw this organic market you have in New York, I knew that things are changing. I don’t think in one hundred years we are still eating meat. I’m not sure at all.”
Lunch was over, and his next models arrived: a big blonde pair of Aubrac oxen. The teamster was a rather artistic-looking young man in a long ponytail. Aha, the hockey-mask cattle: these are pretty big guys, the bulls weighing up to 2,400 pounds. And yes, they’re a meat breed. There were a lot of Aubracs at SIA; the pavilion was alive with the sound of their heavy brass bells. The factory that makes them (in all different sizes) had a wonderful booth where you could price the merchandise and ring it. This quiet team was wearing a head yoke, as I knew they would be — a plain one, with unadorned head pads. The assistants lined up to get the action rolling, but the trying-to-get-the-attention thing didn’t work at all. (Sometimes it doesn’t with oxen.) “Allez! Allez!”, someone yelled, but the oxen looked up, their noses dripped, and that was it. Arthus-Bertrand, sitting on a red plastic milk box, got his image, and the bucket man, relieved, went to pour himself a coffee, or probably by now a great big glass of wine.
Over the days I was in the Salon, the only thing that changed much was the deteriorating state of the carpet, while the cows mooed and slept and the horses sweated. Across the street, the belles dandled their toy dogs and drank their café wine, and though there was tight security at the museums, it was basically business as usually. The pile of flowers outside the tunnel where Princess Diana crashed had withered and shrunk. The Seine rose high enough to cover the lovers’ walkways, and it glittered like silver foil at night with the lights of the bridges bouncing off its wrinkled skin. Even though it was snowing a few mornings later, a man stood on the corner of the market street near my tiny hotel, a violin tucked under his chin, and played Ravel with a sweetness that seemed nearly angelic. I bid for sandwiches at a crowded stall, bought bottles of cider, and stumbled around the city as best I could. Alternating between cheap student eats and the kinds of bistros I would kill for back home. Crepes on street corners, a glass of heavy, velvety Cotes de Rhone from a wine bar that only sat three, and an eyeful of the rose window at Notre Dame accumulated into a feeling of elation that was almost like flight.
But somehow I couldn’t add everything up. I thought of the lustrous cattle and horses lined up in their beds at the SIA, and how each one that stepped before Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s camera would achieve a kind of immortality. I saw the red carcasses in the refrigerator cases — bisected steers, schooner ropes of tempting sausages, whole boiled calves’ heads with the tongues sticking out and a tree of parsley in each nostril. Contradictions dog me all the time, but here they were unusually persistent. I chewed on thoughts of rows of animals more beautiful than any animals I know, on the exhausting inevitability of their death, as I prepared to go out to eat.
Another one of my favorite past masters, Sigfried Sassoon, who wrote during the First World War, said that it is in the innermost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us. This was a particularly strong and important thought that I took with me to dinner that night and tried to drown in a big earthenware bowl of “Cidre du Fermier” — farmer’s cider — in a lace-curtained creperie. The food was cheap, and the lady slaving away over the steaming pan near the door of the restaurant gave me a conspiratorial smile as I walked in. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It’s in the mouth, too. The French genius for exalting the quieter, stranger aspects of everyday life would go great with our American insistence on hanging on to the things we love, the way the right wine compliments a meal. With our cultish obsessiveness and brashness, their artistic perception, and their strong regard for their own difficult culture, we could really get something going. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s pictures make good signposts for that trip we keep trying to take, deep into that world that’s in this open. The animals in there are unbelievable, and they’re ours.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand on the web: www.yannarthusbertrand.com
The American Donkey and Mule Society (ADMS): www.lovelongears.com