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Book Review: Mistral: The Legendary Wind of Provence by Rachel Cobb

Mistral Wedding

It’s been years since I’ve last been to Provence but glancing through the pages of this exquisitely done tome I feel immediately transported back in time. Not only because of what the photos show but also because I know (for I see only what I know) that they were taken in Southern France where I had spent some time in my younger years.

How does one photograph the wind? Photographer Rachel Cobb, writes Bill Buford in his excellent introduction, “wasn’t actually photographing the wind as such, but its effects. She was looking for images so aerodynamically impacted that we, like onlookers sheltered nearby, could feel the invisible force, just as her subjects felt it. She wanted us to shiver and sink our heads into our necks and hold ourselves in our own arms.”

I could indeed feel “the invisible force, just as her subjects felt it.” And, I was once again awe-struck that photographs can make visible what can’t be seen. Also, I could clearly sense that I’m not a wind-lover – there is way too much foehn where I live.

Mistral Birds:
Devino-vent is a Provençal word that means a wind diviner. These forecasters were dead birds, usually martins, that had been dried and hung on strings in the kitchens of farmhouses.

I especially loved how Buford describes Cobb’s failed attempt to capture the moment when a hat was leaving the head of a man or how she, “the photographer of discomfort” (what a brilliant way to put it!), missed the mistral ruining a wedding.

Also, I felt most intrigued that Rachel Cobb opted for still images in lieu of video for catching the wind. Although the moving picture records motion, it is the still photograph that makes us aware of time. In the words of Bill Buford: “This book’s uniqueness for me, is in the achievement of its still images: still images of a subject in accelerated motion. It seems more like memory. It seems more like the way our brain understands disorder. I don’t have videos in my head. I have cognitive pictures. And now I have these.”

The photos come without captions but Rachel Cobb added notes on some of the images. And, there are also short texts, all of them relating to the wind, by Émile Zola, Jean Giono, René Char, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Auster, Allen S. Weiss and Frédéric Mistral. Included is also the “Beaufort Scale of Wind Force for Land Areas” from which I learn that “Gale” stands for 39-46mph as well as “Twigs break off trees, walking difficult, progress generally impeded” and that “Hurricane” means >73 mph as well as “Devastation”.

Our lives depend on our environment. People living in the desert will be living differently from people living in the mountains; cold climates require another lifestyle than warm climates. And, needless to say, the wind has an impact on how we live. The mistral, for instance, shapes the landscape. “It is a mosaic of vineyards, olive groves, wheat fields and other plots separated by rows of cypress or poplars planted closely together as windbreaks.” And. last but not least, the mistral is blamed “for anything from migraines to crimes of passion.”

Mistral MtVentoux:
9. February 2013, 3:42 P.M., Col des Tempêtes, Mont Ventoux: gusts of 100 kilometers per hour, 11 on the Beaufort Scale. The mistral barrels down the Rhône Valley, slams into Mont Ventoux, and rushes through this opening, hence the name, Stormy Pass.

“Mistral. The Legendary Wind of Provence” also taught me fundamentally important things about nature (and life) in general. “Wind flows freely over borders, It cannot be harnessed like a river, depriving one country of a resource.”

In sum: “Mistral. The Legendary Wind of Provence” is a very instructive book, poetic, beautiful, with a nice sense of humour (her attempt as an eight-year old to photograph God in the clouds is heart-warming), and somewhat French (yes, I know that Rachel Cobb is American, but nevertheless).

 

Mistral: The Legendary Wind of Provence
by Rachel Cobb
Introduction by Bill Buford
Damiani, Bologna 2018
www.damianieditore.com


Also published on Medium.


About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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