Once the grape harvest is over, the landscape in the Tarn département in south western France becomes an autumnal patchwork of vineyards – veined leaves glowing fiery red and burnt orange, bathed in soft, tired sunlight.
When the autumn mists surround the foot of the Puech de Mortagne peak here, the pretty Medieval town of Cordes-sur-Ciel that perches precariously high on the rocks above appears to be floating on the clouds – hence its name: ‘Cordes in the sky’.
It is here that I saw my first Cardabelle, ‘twixt land and sky – a faded wreath that stopped me in my tracks. It was a huge wheel of a flower, nailed to a grey, barn door. The thistle’s leaves – splayed like sunrays – were dried and summer-bleached, but the centre was still a rich yolk yellow, as golden as the day it was picked. I brushed the seeds gently with my fingertips, conscious that this flower had some purpose or power I could not fathom.
Later, once the foie gras and figs had been finished and the moths were dancing in the lantern light, I learnt that the elusive Cardabelle grows high up and, despite being a protected plant, it is picked and kept as a weather forecasting tool and known as le Barometre du Berger (the Shepherd’s Barometer) – the leaves open up in sunshine and close just before rain. Some say Cardabelles ward off evil. For me, perhaps because I saw one in autumn, the season when thoughts turn to decay, rebirth and renewal, they seem somehow to represent the cyclical nature of life energy itself.
The next day, I became a bit obsessed. I searched for ‘Cardabelle’ on my laptop and let a plethora of beautiful thistles wash over me, admiring the flaked-paint patinas of the rustic doors these mysterious ‘jagged wheels’ were nailed to almost as much as the flowers themselves.
I tried to find more Cardabelles, too. On every stroll or excursion, much to the chagrin of my companions, I darted down side streets and peeped up cobbled alleys, hoping to catch a glimpse of another. But I never did. Strangely, a few days later, when I returned to the barn where I had seen my original Cardabelle, it had vanished without trace – perhaps blown away overnight in a storm – and the door looked bare.
But the leaves and seeds, wheeling away on the winds, had returned to the ground.
‘Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…’
- from Los Suames de la Nuoch (‘The Psalms of the Night’) by Occitan writer Max Rouquette.