Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Exploring the Flora in the Cévennes

the orange is called bacon and eggs by the British

une campanule

This past weekend I was whisked away by bus to a women's retreat high up in the Cévennes hills. The retreat was hosted and organized by the Nîmes CIBC (Centre Inter-Institutionnel des Bilan des Compétences) and its PAC (special women's programs) team. When the he Nîmois and Montpellierains want to get away from the city air, they head to the Cévennes. In my past incarnation as an Arlesienne we used to get away to the Alpilles hills to the east, or to the Mediterranean coast by Cassis. My neighbors in the Vaucluse, and around the city of Avignon go up to the plateaux surrounding the Mont Ventoux. To each his little corner of paradise. Since dating a vintner in the Gard (Vauvert is just 20 minutes south of Nîmes) this world of hills and hamlets to the west has been opened up to me.

la scabieuse et la silène enflée

The weekend dangled me in many worlds: from a workshop in vowels and breathing, to a short half-hour of laying on of hands, to a session consecrated to visualizing myself as a child, where I see myself today, how others see me and where I'd like to be tomorrow. It was a time to breath, to share experiences with other women, to wonder at where I've come from, and where I'd like to go (at least in the next year or so, I'm not looking too far ahead at this point). It was also a time to compare notes, to offer advice and assistance amongst ourselves, and perhaps, to plan projects many of us can participate in. Having all received the counseling sessions, workshops and excursions free due to very generous local government and private assistance, what can we give back? How can we combine our many forces and create -- while also coping individually on our often complicated or rather 'complex' lives?

A last excursion before Sunday lunch and our departure took me away from the center (and out of my head) into the fields and woods with a naturalist/hiking guide. I brought my camera along -- it rarely leaves my side now, which is rather marvelous as once, in a past life, I was a photographer. I photographed people far more than natural surroundings... but, simply aiming the small silver object at the world helps me to see it more clearly, and capture a tiny detail to bring home.

The guide was a man who's lived in the Cévenne hills for nearly thirty years. He told of as well of the years he lived in Northern Africa, and his general biography as a man passionate for the outdoors, and perhaps a simpler way of living on this earth. As we did a tour of the center, and then walked gently down the winding road leading away from it, he told us about the vegetal history of these hills. He pointed out and emphasized the many ways it has been altered by man. There are no virgin forests, and what is there by a very large majority, was replanted after 1850. Between 1750 and 1850, the region was far more populated than it is now. The industries of silk and silkworm raising, coal mining, and glass blowing brought wealth to the region, but also presented a need for heat. The cheapest and most available source was to be found in the surrounding woods. A concurrent rise of sheep herding and animal husbandry, helped along by fierce winds and frequent rain storms helped keep the hills bare of trees, brought erosion and indirectly caused devastating mudslides and floods in the cities of the valleys below.

the vaulted stone arch from a former sheep house, or bergerie

The tree planting programs favored quick growing trees, and did not necessarily involve careful attention to local varieties. Thus, there is now a wide range of pines that are not indigenous to the region. However, these are interspersed with a variety of acacia called the Robinier (wonderful for the bees as it has early flowering blossoms), chestnut (appreciated both for its fruit and for the beauty of the wood in furniture making), elm (regularly used for re-foresting, its bark has anti-fever qualities), weeping willow (in humid land, its bark is the source for aspirin, and its berries and leaves can be simmered to make a sedative), hickory (amongst the preferred woods for burning) green oak (a Mediterranean variety), and a tree I hadn't known before, the frêne or European Ash. This latter was as still is very useful to the sheep herders and dairy farmers as its branches and leaves can be fed to the animals -- a useful stop-gap when the supply of hay ran low. It is currently still used for pharmaceutical purposes, the leaves having anti-rheumatism, diuretic and laxative qualities, the bark is a tonic and anti-fever, the berries are eaten by many a bird in winter.

At our altitude (under 1000 meters) we were in a zone on the cusp -- trees which range from 500-1000 meters in altitude were alongside those that grow in 900-1500 meters altitude. There is a point as well, when the tree line stops and the open hill tops are barren, with just the small shale covered paths along the crests (the French love using the word "crêtes" to describe the hill top paths that take you along the tops, giving you options to descend, but continuing on the heights).

le myosotis (blue) et les carrotes sauvages

While my guide discussed trees, bugs, schist and granite stones (thus the ease of making schist slate roofs, flat rock stacked walls, and heavy granite lintels above doorways), the return of otters and wolves to the area, and more, I focused my camera on the local flora. I was very interested in the discussion, and tried to follow it, but was often distracted by what I saw at my feet. However, I do remember that he stressed that the Cévennes actually encourage and seek to maintain a certain number of sheep and goat herds in the area as pasteurage, i.e. open fields with a multitude of species, are slowly disappearing as the once small forests are expanding daily into the open land. With the growth of the trees, the undergrowth dies away, and a completely different eco-system is put in place.

Where possible, I'll name the flowers below... but the tour focused on trees and animals, far more than on the lovely and colorful gifts at my feet.

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