Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together.Chief Seattle
The mornings this week have been truly stunning. Granted, they have been truly cold, too, but it has been well worth the effort of wrapping up warm and venturing out early to enjoy their beauty. As a gardener, I would much prefer to see the back of this arctic chill, the heavy frosts gone, the soil warmed, the wind in the south . . . but as ever, nature has its own ideas and I just have to accept that. Better to go with the flow instead of chafe and moan; warmer days and nights will come, I simply have to be patient.
It’s fascinating how different these frosty starts feel compared to the ones we had when we moved here, soon after the winter solstice when everything was enfolded in the deepest darkness; with the sun rising ever closer to the north and sketching a wider arc across the sky now, it is most definitely spring, despite the ice. The light is soft and eager, rosy almost, as it sweeps long shadows across the grass and backlights the fuzzy new growth in hedge and tree. It’s all about contrasts: the cold of the shade and warmth of the sun; the crystalline frost-encrusted blades of grass and pearls of shining water droplets caught in a spider’s web; the constant noise and bustle of the birds and statuesque silent stillness of the deer.
There’s a contrast in scale, too, which I am drawn to. I love the sense of space and freedom in the wide skies here, so open and arching and full of larks who seem to exult in the infinite room to breathe as much as I do. The landscape is far from flat, though; it rolls and dips into the distance, folded gently into hills and valleys that are cloaked in woodland now alight with the haze of fresh growth, sweeps of greens, yellows, reds, browns and wide brushstrokes of white blossom. It’s the small things around me that catch my eye, too: the glossy shine of new hawthorn leaves, the slow stretching of a sleepy, cold-kissed bumble bee, the first delicate buds on a young pear tree we planted several weeks ago.
I’ve recently come across the idea of ‘heartfulness’ as opposed to ‘mindfulness’ (thank you, James!) and it’s a concept that appeals to me, the thought that those quiet moments of complete focus and concentration, awareness, absorption and attention should be imbued with a sense of compassion. (As an aside, I’d like to point out that in my case, this doesn’t mean meditation: I have tried, really tried, over the years to cultivate the ability to sit in perfect focused stillness and I have failed completely. When we lived in this area before, I went to yoga classes for two years which was hugely beneficial socially and linguistically, as well as for the yoga itself, of course. I loved it except for the last 30 minutes which were spent in yoga nidra, or guided meditation; as the rest of the group lay in perfect silence and stillness, sinking into a relaxation so deep that some of them fell asleep, I would be making plans for what needed doing in the garden the next day. Hopeless. I am simply too restless.) Heartfulness for me seems like an opportunity to let the thinking brain be quiet and simply to enjoy the moment literally from the heart, the way that small children often do. To feel, rather than think about or analyse, my connection with everything around me, my own personal thread within the vast web of life. I like that very much.
This idea was still fresh in my mind when Roger suggested a walk this week, starting at the Mont des Avaloirs, the highest point in western France which I mentioned in an earlier post. He has been running to that area from home several times lately and wanted to share a few discoveries. The first was a stretch of roadside verge completely carpeted with wildflowers: primroses, cowslips, violets, stitchwort, bluebells, Solomon’s seal, selfheal, orchids . . . it was a riot of colour and scent, indescribably beautiful and impossible to capture properly with the camera.
At the summit of the Mont des Avaloirs (417m) is a viewing point which doesn’t fill me with much joy for two reasons. First, I think it’s something of an ugly concrete blot on an otherwise picturesque landscape; second, the viewing platform is eighteen metres above ground, which to my mind is at least seventeen too many. While Roger, who has no fear of heights, climbed up to enjoy the view, I was happy to wander around at ground level and read the new information boards that have appeared since my last visit several years ago.
The boards are part of an impressive makeover but also a five-year ecological project, something else Roger had wanted me to see. The idea is to remove forestry (the wood all being used locally) and swathes of bracken to restore 120 hectares of les landes (moorland) and 8 hectares of les tourbières (dark, peaty bogs) by 2023. The hope is that this will help support several threatened species whose numbers have fallen rapidly over the last few decades as their natural habitat has dwindled. These include l’engoulevent d’Europe (European nightjar), le lérot (garden dormouse) and le busard Saint-Martin (hen harrier). We have been lucky enough to see the latter a number of times – well, the male of the species at least; decked out in pale grey and white with striking black wingtips, they are easily recognised. They are an unusual bird of prey, roosting communally with other species, hunting low and nesting on the ground, so open moorland with its shrubby growth of heather and bilberries suits them perfectly.
I applaud projects like this. Where environmental issues are concerned, it is so easy for the arguments to become completely polarised, not to mention politicised. Mankind versus nature. People versus the planet. Progress versus extinction. Like the hen harrier, though, it’s not all clear-cut black and white; there are many shades of grey that call for a sense of balance from both sides. Human beings are a huge part of the problem but we can be a huge part of the solution, too, fixing and strengthening those fragile threads in the web. The regeneration of this area of land is being done sensitively and with great transparency, the information boards reassuring the public that the forest is not being ruthlessly destroyed and encouraging people to tell others about the project, to get involved with working parties and connected activities, to walk and observe, to be a part of something positive. The huge photos of local wildlife are stunning and I salute the balance of choices, so that amongst the showy headturners like hoopoe, great-crested grebe and wild boar are more modest moths and moorhens. Everything is connected, everything counts. Yes, I like that, too.
We continued our walk on the Corniche de Pail, a long ridge of Amorican sandstone which creates a rich environment said to be unique in Europe and of particular importance to migratory birds. Roger has been mixing his road running with plenty of trails and forest tracks and thought I might enjoy following one of the woodland paths; well, he’s known me long enough to get that one right! As always, there was a free (and very empty) car park and information board with several clearly marked routes, many of them interlinked so that it is possible to swap and change paths depending on how you feel. No long list of Dos and Don’ts, just a gentle reminder to respect the countryside. There was a definite need to respect the weather, too; the sunshine was lovely and had us stripping off layers later on but, blimey, that wind was bitter to start with. Definitely time for a hat and coat.
Here is a walk that will be lovely to do throughout the seasons, such a beautiful mix of trees and undergrowth and a wealth of noisy birdlife. Shadier than the verges, the bluebells were lagging a little behind, some in full bloom but many just on the cusp; what a picture they will be beneath the fresh new green of beech trees. It was fascinating to see the different stages of spring in each variety of tree, some in full leaf, others with buds still tightly furled and many in between, their new growth lit up in the sunlight like candles.
I love hawthorn at this time of year, the vibrant leaves opening so quickly to fatten out the hedges; no wonder they were traditionally the countryman’s ‘bread and cheese’, such fresh, nutrient-rich greenstuff after the thin times of winter. Hawthorn has long been associated symbolically and medicinally with the heart, very apt company for a bit of heartfulness in the spring sunshine, I think.
When the path wound its way to the edge of the woodland, glimpses of the fields beyond reminded us of the mixed nature of this landscape. Mayenne, with its rich, fertile soil, is farming country and like so many other areas of France there is – quite rightly – an immense pride in the food that is produced locally. The countryside is a patchwork of colours that changes through the seasons: pasture, plough, cereals, sunflowers, maize and now bright daubs of an almost fluorescent yellow as the oilseed rape comes into flower. Love it or loathe it, it never fails to make an impression.
Others were making an impression, too. No doubting who was king of this paddock . . .
Back into the woodlands again and we found ourselves wandering along what felt like an ancient trackway, the moss-bound trees suggesting a long history of hedging and coppicing. The myth that there are no hedges in France is simply not true; we live in a typical bocage landscape (from the Old French bosc meaning ‘wood’), classically described as mixed woodland and pasture bounded by hedgerows, a manmade landscape to be sure but one that some believe dates back to the Iron Age. In this area, hedges of mixed native trees are planted on top of an earth bank above a water-filled ditch (see the middle photo of wild flowers earlier in this post); to my mind, it creates three separate habitats inextricably woven into mile upon mile of species-rich habitat, where for example yellowhammers, yellow brimstones and yellow iris all flourish companionably in the same space. It’s a precious thing indeed.
During our walk, we followed lines of newly-planted hedging in several places, hundreds of metres and thousands of saplings each within a protective netting guard and deeply mulched with straw. Having recently planted a bundle of around 100 mixed natives to plug gaps in our hedges at home – hawthorn, hornbeam, beech, birch, ash, holly and honeysuckle – we could only imagine what a marathon job those new hedges must have been. How wonderful, though, to be creating such new habitats in an age old tradition: landes, tourbières and bocage all in safe hands, so that the generations of the future – human and otherwise – can enjoy their unique qualities, seasonal beauty and abundant gifts. It’s enough to make a heart sing.