Good adventure stories may be hard to come by these days, but forget the genre and go for this wonderful book. Dive headlong into the mill race of this revealing account of a couple who took on restoring an abandoned mill made of stone on the very steep banks of a river in rural France.
It was from the outset an adventure beyond what most career changers manage. It was to be a year in France experiencing the place and a new language, which was seemingly less demanding than circumambulating the globe in a sailboat.
But as their lives become enfolded in the Aveyron section of France and they confront the crumbling structure of stone that had captured their hearts, there begins a series of episodes through which the scope of the project advances and the depth of their involvement thickens into an ongoing saga of commitment.
Judy O’ Shea, whose letters to her sister and notes to her journal are the texts that transcribe these developments, has an uncanny way of finding adventure in every dimension of their lives; some sought, some imposed by nature or unfamiliar customs, some simply the result of her probing curiosity and the unflagging determination of Mike, her husband and co-conspirator. That term lacks sharpness, though, since so much of what they encountered had not been originally intended: backhoes in the living room, flash floods, stones falling from the roof, deep glimpses into both troubling and inspiring rural lives filled with grit and tenacity.
The troubles, strengths, personal complications and steady, sometimes brilliant competence of the craftsmen who brought the place back into shape become essential parts of the story. Witnessing and cherishing the emotions and advice of Germaine who lives up the hill, and who had been born and grew up in the mill as his father had owned and operated it through the second world war and who had not visited it since it had been sold after his father’s death. His wife, Marthe offers astute country tutelage in the ways of making do on a subsistence farm with barely any amenities; she is a woman to whom complaint seems, at first, to be unknown.
The O’Sheas, however, were not just passive observers of the world churning around them. What makes these writings so real, so special and their multiple adventures so engaging and challenging is that through all the works being done the O’Sheas worked along, engaging fully in everything going on around them and earning the respect and camaraderie of their neighbors, contractors and workers. Later the artists whom they invited to join them in working residencies at the Mill become equally a part of the ongoing explorations. Always the O’Sheas turn insightful attention and reflection to the tasks and foibles and triumphs of everyday encounters.
The letters and journal entries are written by Judy O’Shea with perfect clarity, wit and depth; an ongoing rush of observation and reflection. The pace never falters, even as major mishaps and tragedies enter their lives as the years evolve. Integral to the tale are descriptions of the equally demanding and inspiring processes that result from their shared dedication to making innovative art works, each in their own way, while also fostering others in their artistic searches. Insights roam fearlessly across paper and through stone, coursing not like water, but like blood in the veins of imagination.
Graced with a few telling photos and sharply observed line drawings, it’s a compelling read that will provoke you to venture forth and to pay attention. This book demonstrates that to pay with attention is the most valuable of all investments.
Eva Li Professor Emeritus of Architecture and Urban Design
College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley
Mike and Judy O’Shea, Alice Wingwall and Donlyn Lyndon