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Bullish on spring

'Tis the season for running the ring

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

Spring is about nothing if it's not about anticipation. And if you live in the far south of France, it calls to mind ripening fields of canola blooming yellow as a noonday sun, or white blossoms promising a summer harvest of dark cherries. Everywhere the season of expectation is unfolding. For the French it's a sensorial time to remember they still lead Europe in agricultural production. They are poised to take over the presidency of the European Union this summer. But most important of all: It is time to run the bulls.

Commencing on Easter weekend in the Camargue, the river delta region where the Rhone meets the Mediterranean, cattlemen (the French actually refer to them as cowboys, or manadiers) haul the Camargue bulls from marshlands where they feed on saltwort and reeds. The Camargue bulls are sinewy, tough, and tall, their horns bowed but ending in straight-up points. Handlers slick their coats then fasten rosettes and red ribbons between each bull's pair of horns. Then the games begin.

Bull games are the prelude to bull running and to championship bullfights, Spanish style, in the ancient Roman arena at Arles. They are a play on anticipation wrapped in antiquity. At the seaside arena in Ste. Marie de la Mer, spectators shove euros through a tiny hole in the fading gypsum wall of the stadium to sit for hours on concrete slabs watching the bulls in the hot afternoon sun. This is a high-spirited but bloodless sport that begins with bands and a cavalcade of horses. Young boys (one wearing a T-shirt reading "Born 2 Kill") run the railings that form a barrier between beasts and spectators, waiting for the bulls. A few blocks away at the city cathedral teenagers too cheap to buy tickets climb its steep roof to win a birds-eye view into the arena. The rooftop seats, though treacherous, are filled to capacity.

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Soon appear the razeteurs, or bullfighters, men in white muscle shirts and white pants who compete against the bulls. These are not the ponderous, death-stalking Spanish matadors lionized by Ernest Hemingway. These bullfighters work like athletes, jockeying for position as the bulls burst into the ring, taunting and agitating the animals to a frenzy until they chase their tormentors up onto-or over-the wooden railings. Sometimes the bullfighters miss the railings altogether and land in the first deck of bleachers. The goal is to come close enough to the bulls to actually clip the rosette and ribbons between their horns, while staying far enough away to avoid a near-lethal spike from those same horns. It's a test of speed, skill, and endurance for bull and bullfighter.

Hemingway said people may be divided into two groups: those who side with the animals and those who side with the humans. His point: "those people who identify themselves with animals . . . are capable of greater cruelty to human beings" (Death in the Afternoon).

I say he but glimpsed the larger drama. What unfolds in the arena is a contest between adversity and hope. It is the place where winter meets spring. "If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome," wrote American poet Anne Bradstreet. And it is at the intersection of prosperity and adversity where we journalists find the stories we most like to tell (think 1980 U.S. hockey team, the battle of Tora Bora, or Mike Huckabee taking Iowa). But it's a place most of us, if we're honest, personally like to avoid. We are drawn to the arena in anticipation of the contest, even as we cling to our hard seats above the fray.

After centuries of making sport down in the arena dirt, perhaps Camargue's rural residents acquired grit not often associated with the French. After World War II, Europe was starving, and the Marshall Planners asked the Camarguais to drain their marshlands, set aside their cattle, their very traditions-and plant a much-needed staple, namely rice. So the cattlemen for a time planted rice paddies-and fed the nation. The high promises of spring, it turns out, remain elusive unless fitted to a little risk-taking and, dare I say, bull-headedness?

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