It is winter now in Provence. The grapes have been harvested, last year’s vintage (le vin noveau) released and judged, the various village fairs are over for the year, and now the mistral begins to blow in earnest.

If you live in Provence in the south of France, you live with the mistral. It is a north-northwest wind blowing continuously for periods of either three, seven or seventeen days at any time of the year. This is the wind that supposedly drove Vincent Van Gogh mad, pushing him to the point where he cut off his own ear.

The mistral is welcomed when it blows during the summer months. Provence is hot and dry; the mistral offers a respite in July and August. And it is pleasant to have a gusty wind blowing on a fresh Spring day when the sun is shining and roadside flowers are blooming. The mistral during the winter is another matter.

Once the soaking rains of November and early December have finished the weather will be dry until the showers of April. January may bring several inches of wet snowfall, remaining on the ground for a few days. The children will be taught to make snowmen. But it rarely snows in Provence; a blustery mistral is the form that winter generally takes.

The valley of the Rhône River, forming the western boundry of Provence, is a natural funnel for the mistral. The first atomic energy plant in France, Tricastan, was built in the Rhône Valley. This location was not chosen because the waters of the Rhône were needed for the vast cooling towers – after all, France has many large rivers – but because placing it in the path of the mistral created a safety factor.

The land begins to rise on the east bank of the Rhône, forming the foothills of the Alps. Tricastan is located on the west bank at the juncture of four departments: Drôme, Ardèche, Gard and Vaucluse. Vaucluse, the only one of the four in Provence, is mountainous and sparsely populated at that point except for a few villages in the rich bottom land along the river. The engineers planning Tricastan believed that if there was an accident the mistral would rapidly carry polluted air to the relatively empty land to the south-southeast of the plant.

Fortunately, this theory has never had to be tested. There was an alarm in the late 1970's when a forklift operator somehow managed to crack a large waste pipe. The entire area was cordoned off for a week. Local residents were told not to eat produce from their vegetable gardens; most ignored this warning.

Vauclusiens and other Provençals have been living with the mistral for a very long time. Their architecture and their agriculture reflect this force in their lives.

Most homes built in the area have no or few windows facing north. Roofs are tiled. Often the heavy tiles on the north slope of the roof are weighed down with stones or other heavy objects. The mistral can – and does – lift clay tiles from a roof, as well as chimney pots and the occasional TV antenna. On the ground the same fate awaits garbage can lids, stone flowerpots, plastic lawn furniture, patio umbrellas, and other lightweight items.

If possible, houses are snuggled into a hillside, or sheltered with a stand of trees to the north. Cypress hedges are another defense against this cruel and violent wind. Forces up to 50 kilometers per hour are normal, and sustained gusts of up to 80 or 100 kilometers are common.

The mistral was both a curse and a blessing for the housewife before clothes dryers became popular. Linens dried beautifully in a light mistral, having few wrinkles and smelling fresh. But a strong mistral would wrap sheets and towels around and around the clothesline. Anything hung outdoors during a mistral must be anchored between two clothes lines.

For the farmer, the mistral presents other problems. Fields need windbreaks; quick-growing rows of poplar or larch are the most popular. The mistral quickly dries out the soil; extra irrigation is necessary during long periods of mistral.

The Rhône Valley produces not only wine but also orchard fruit. This creates a rather unique problem. Ever since supermarkets and other retail outlets began using plastic shopping bags, the vineyards and orchards are often plastered with blown-away plastic. It travels many miles by mistral until it reaches a vineyard or an orchard. Then the plastic snags on tree or vine branches and stays there. A producer with a ten hectares of cherry trees routinely collects up to a dump truck load of baled plastic every winter. If left on the trees, the plastic would prevent the trees from blossoming in the Spring.

Nursery stock must be anchored in three directions when it is set out. These anchors are generally left in place for several years. If not, the young trees will grown with a distinct slant.

I have a picture taken at a family party in the Vaucluse. In the photo, a group of 25 people are standing at the edge of a pine forest. Although I had never noticed that the trees were slanted until I saw the photo, the pines are very definitely leaning toward the south-southeast in contrast to the upright humans standing in front of them.

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