Lessons on Life from a French Mountain Village

September 16, 2020

James Thornton is CEO of the not-for-profit environmental law firm ClientEarth, as well as being a poet and a Zen Buddhist priest. His new collection Notes from a Mountain Village collects poems drawn from twenty-five years of observing French mountain life. In this new era of working-from-home, James shares lessons he learned early on from sharing a confined space.

I learned my lessons about working from home in a small Pyrenean village before the age of budget airlines.

It’s where we found our remote mountain home. A night train from Paris let you wake by the Mediterranean. Flamingos were waking up in the salt pools. From the city of Perpignan a bus took you to a falling-apart town. A school minibus then brought you into the mountains. The village had a daily bread van, and a butcher’s van twice a week, and a goat cheese lady that came by once in a while. That was it for commerce. We were poor, with no car, and happy to be remote.

The house was once a goathouse. Water poured in through its internal walls, for it is built onto the hillside. At dusk, bats stream from the outer walls. It’s tucked into the edge of the village, on a hill with a view down the valley. From the kitchen window we can count the trout in the river below.

In part, coming here is a retreat into Nature. For my day job I represent the Earth as its lawyer, and I see my journey into these hills as a way to visit my client. It’s also where I come to write. The village is called Pézilla de Conflent. Pézilla translates as ‘little place of peace’. When here, I slow down into a pace of life that is measured in seasons. Drip by drip my latest project took shape as Notes from a Mountain Village. Gathered from twenty-five years as a communard in this mountain village, it is a poetry collection that is wedded to these hills.

This valley is where I learned my most important lockdown lessons. Our house is shaped like a boat, thirty-five feet long with a bedroom above and the living space below, connected by a winding staircase. I share it with my husband Martin Goodman. He is inevitably locked into an intense writing project of his own. To get along in the confines of this space, we came up with lockdown rules. They still work for us, so I figured I would share them.

Step one was deciding who would handle all the domestic stuff for the day. One person would be the guest and the other the host, we decided. The guest has the best seat at the table, with the view down the valley. All meals are provided, all washing up done. Plates could stack up if that day’s host wanted: the one rule was that a clean kitchen is handed over at 5.30 pm. So for a whole 24 hour period while you are a guest, you are free of care and treated royally.

5.30 is party-time. That’s where the other set of rules comes in. At 5.30 we are each free to share a drink and chat. Until that point, we have an utter right to silence. If both wish to talk during the day then that’s fine. But if one is nursing a project, steeping an idea, then the other doesn’t interrupt. If you need to ask a question it can wait. Lunch can be eaten without a word spoken. The daily walk in the hills can be separate or shared.

In a house with no walls, this daily round made a wall out of time. It gave each of us privacy, and brought order to the day. At 5pm, at the sound of plates being washed, and party time only a half hour away, excitement grew.

The world’s bigger now. In this pandemic the office is now home and I share it with Martin. It has a few more doors but not many, and only one living space.  He wanders off in the creative space of a new novel, while I peer into different corners of the world through zoom. At 5.30 we’re back together again, set to share news of our day.

James Thornton is the CEO of ClientEarth, and author of Notes from a Mountain Village – twenty-five years of further observations from life in France.