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Hommage: Adieu Mr. Farjon "The Plant Whisperer"

Robert Farjon peugeot bike
Robert Farjon leaving Domaine Rouge-Bleu, where my family once lived. The hollyhocks seem to be hugging his vintage Peugeot bicycle. Find out why plants love this dearly departed Frenchman in the following tribute. 

TODAY'S WORD: amour-en-cage

    : love in a cage

Amour-en-cage is a synonym for Chinese lantern, or physalis. I loved the term the moment Robert Farjon shared it, and today it is especially meaningful.  

ADIEU, ROBERT
France has lost a national treasure. Plant & Provence historian Robert Farjon has passed away. I learned of Monsieur Farjon's passing from Caroline, winemaker/owner, with Thomas, at Domaine Rouge-Bleu vineyard and B&B in Sainte Cécile-les-Vignes. The following story, written years ago, is in hommage to Mr. Farjon. Thank you for reading and for sharing today's remembrance far and wide. 

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse

August 14, 2012 - I had an unexpected visit from Mr Farjon the other day. It was such a coincidence, as I had been thinking of him recently—nostalgically remembering all the visits he paid me a several years back.

Just like old times, Mr Farjon parked his ancient Peugeot (a bicycle) outside our portail, leaning it against a giant wine barrel, one of two that flank the entrance to our courtyard. Running up to the gate to greet him, I noticed how stiff his legs were as he walked, slightly hunched over. Instead of leading him to the picnic table, beneath the old mulberry tree, I offered him a seat on the steps beside it.

I was eager to point out our new friends in the garden.... Four years ago, there wouldn't have been any mirabilis jalapa, or marvel of Peru, growing here—and forget about the lily of Spain, or valerian, which now shot up throughout the courtyard, in splashes of raspberry red! Today our garden is home to many a drought-tolerant flower, thanks to those who have sown the love of plants in my heart.

Despite the drought (read: we did not water our grass this year, and parts of the garden suffered the pinch), there were a few plants I wanted to show Mr Farjon, now that the plant whisperer had re-appeared after a 4-year absence.  

But it was difficult to concentrate on my guest, what with Smokey hovering between us. Like a gawky, attention-vying sibling who wants to join in, Smokey wagged his entire body, inching between my friend and me. His full body wag said I'm so happy to see you!, never mind the two had never met before. Indeed, it had been that long—my dog's lifetime—since Mr Farjon last came to visit.

Despite the giant four-pawed fly buzzing between us, I managed to speak to Mr Farjon.

"What have you got there?" I asked Monsieur. Waiting for the answer, I casually pushed Smokey aside, but my dog just wiggled right back in again, so I gave in.  

Smokey and I watched as Mr Farjon selected a long and thorny stem from the pile of just-picked weeds beside him.
"It's a chardon. We call it chausse-trappe," Farjon explained. With that, my venerable visitor told the story of how the plant got its name: the roman army dug ditches and filled them with this needle-sharp weed. And the poor stacked it on rooftops....

"To keep away thieves?" I guessed. 

Mr Farjon shook his head, repeating, simply, that the dried plant was piled on housetops. (I guessed again: for insulation?) As I tried to picture the thorny rooftops, Monsieur Farjon presented the next specimen, aigre-moine .

"Sour-monk" I mumbled, trying to translate the term.

As with each plant he brings, Monsieur took pains to point out where he had uprooted it. "Next to the telephone line. Beside the ditch—just up the street, after the fork in the road."

If I made the mistake of showing a blank look, Monsieur repeated himself, in addition to his usual stuttering, until I nodded convincingly: "Yes, beside the telephone line, up the street--just after the fork in the road!" It seemed important to Monsieur that the plant's location was understood, and he insisted certain plants were very rare these days. When new vineyards are planted, many of these rare plants are torn out. "You can find this plant by the telephone pole," Monsieur repeated, sending an unmistakable order that I should pull over and observe the weed the next time I drove by.

"It contains tanin..." Monsieur spoke a bit about the aigre-moine. "It was used to color wine." Just as I began to wonder whether or not to run and get Jean-Marc from the wine-cellar (wouldn't he love to know about this one?!), Mr Farjon set down yet another specimen.

"Epine du Christ."

"I remember that one," I said, softly. Mr Farjon had once showed me the thorny weed, otherwise known as "Christ's crown". It was this weed—found here in our neighborhood, that was used to torture Jesus.

We paused in time to move to the picnic table, where I asked Mr Farjon if he would note the names of the plants in today's lesson.

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As he wrote, I noticed his hands--the hands of a plant man! Long nails, perfect for pinching or cutting weed samples, and dirt beneath the tips--evidence of the morning's plant harvest!

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To some people, long soil-stained nails equal unkempt.  Others might notice the beauty of these nails, with their hard, smooth surface and elegant curve--perfect for scooping out a plant's delicate racine. As I stared at Mr Farjon's nails, I was unexpectedly envious. I wished my own nails were as healthy looking (though, admittedly, I couldn't own up to the caked dirt part--but that is only because I have not earned the right to wear dirt on my person--or under my nails. But a plant genius may sport soil wherever he pleases and the world would do well to respect him for it!)

As for Mr Farjon, he was oblivious to all the thoughts bubbling up in my head, thoughts about how and how not to appear to society. Thankfully, Monsieur's attention was focused on the task before him.
Farjon handwriting
Watching him write, I had a hunch that the moment was something to capture. It may not have been history in the making, and this may not have been an historical figure, but the moment and the person were just as fascinating. I ran to get my camara.

It occured to me to try and capture a shot of the two of us, by using the automatic timer.... 

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Notice Mr Farjon's concentration. He would eventually look up, to question what all my running back and forth was about.

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"Now look into the lens," I said, coaching my subject.

 "I'm not photogenic," Mr Farjon demured.

"You are beautiful!" I assured him.

"My birthday is tomorrow," he confided. 

(He was turning 83.)


Farjon bike market

The trusty Peugeot... I took a photo of the two when I first moved to Sainte Cécile. I didn't know Monsieur at the time, but thought I'd spotted an unforgettable character, and wrote about it here.

I sent Mr Farjon off with some samples from my own garden (see photo at the top of this post, and the mysterious package in his hand). He very much wanted the two kinds of chamomile growing there, gifts from the Dirt Divas. I tucked several dates inside the bag, for a sweet surprise--nourishment a plant genius needs while burning the midnight oil, poring over plantasauruses or thesauruses or dictionaries, rather. 

Then I watched as he rode off into the endless blue and green horizon.

     *    *    * 

DSC_0349
Mr Farjon departing on his Peugeot. What a chance it was to spend time with you, Monsieur Farjon. Adieu, merci, and please say hello to Smokey who passed away one day after you. He was the very same age, too (in dog years): 92

Here is darling Smokey, as a young lad, when he first met Mr Farjon. In this picture he is showing his respect for the plant man the only way he knew how: getting tangled up in some leafy subject matter:

Smokey loves gardening

 
Farjon book cover
Mr Farjon and his Peugeot bike on the cover of First French "Essais". The last chapter, about meeting Farjon, is online (scroll down the page until you see the title "The Plant Man". 
Finally, do not miss Mireille Besnardeau's (Robert Farjon's niece) excellent hommage in FrenchView the printed article .

Robert Farjon portrait
Reposez en paix, Robert Farjon (August 9, 1929-July 15, 2022)

A Message from KristiFor twenty years now, support from readers like you has been an encouragement and a means to carve out a career in writing. If my work has touched you in any way, please consider a donation. Your gift keeps me going! Thank you very much.

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety

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