Saturday, January 13, 2007

Booming Bassin

Anyone who's been following this blog already knows that we live in a beautiful area, especially if you like sandy beaches, a moderate climate, quaint fishing villages, forested dunes and of course, seafood.
Neither Beth nor I had actually ever heard of the bassin d'Arcachon before learning of our exchange assignment...but among the French it is a poorly kept secret. Practically every oyster eaten in France can trace its origins to the bassin, and the beaches here are every bit as pleasant as those on the Riveria. Indeed, for many French this is a dream place, not just to visit but to live in.
In summer the migration here is intense. The roads and the bike paths and the campgrounds are clogged with daytrippers from Bordeaux and tourists from all corners of France and beyond. When the high season ends and the tide of people ebbs, the bassin regains a certain tranquility and small town feel.
But the trademark signs of high powered development are impossible not to notice. Construction goes on apace. New lotissements are going up in every town along the bassin. Retirees, telecommuters from Paris, and traditional commuters from Bordeaux are buying lots and building new homes. And as they go up, the tress come down.
After our arrival here, as we learned the ropes of driving around, we quickly grew fond of a certain pasture at the exit point from the highway into Lege. Two white horses grazed contentedly against a backdrop of woods. We'd see those horses and know that we were almost home.

Last week, the horses were still there but the trees weren't.
Instead there were logs piled up in orderly fashion along the road.

Everything had been cut down to make room for new homes.
Another couple hundred meters or so down the road, quite close to our house in fact there is this little wooded area, a remaining vestige of what was here before the boom. Neighbors tell us that it will be gone soon too. For anyone who has lived here for two or three decades or more, the changes must be unsettling.

Our neighbor Yannick, who is only 29, tells of how he passed his entire childhood wandering the woods that used to extend in every direction from his house across the street from us. And for Gerard and Cecile who built this house themselves about ten years ago, the once pristine forest view out their kitchen window now give out on to someone's backyard. The character of this place is changing as people come looking for a little piece of heaven.

The new houses and lotissements go up quickly, in six months or so. The wooded areas hover around the edges offering an illusion of sorts. At first the lotissements are pretty bare. Eventually there will be shrubs and lawns surrounding pools in the yards and even some trees will be replanted along some of the streets and in some of the yards. The birth pains of development are not terribly pretty however.

Outside of town one comes pretty quickly to public forests...really they are tree plantations. There's really no such thing as old growth timber in this area. Trees are harvested with mobile saws mounted on bigwheeled tractors (made in Canada). It pulls up to a tree, a boom folds out, it grabs the tree by the trunk, saws it off at almost ground level, delimbs, and sections it on the spot. The logs are stored neatly and eventually taken to paper mill in nearby Biganos. It's almost like shaving, it goes quickly.

These trees are considered "old" which is why they've been harvested. The sign on the roadside by this particular cut is a curious form of furry, smiley-faced propaganda that urges everyone to appreciate the enormous and collective human effort required to maintain what it characterizes as the two primary human interventions against the encroachment of the ocean sands, namely, the dunes and the "forest". In an ironic turn of phrase, it characterizes the environment here as "hostile" to their survival.
In fact, the forest here is a human intervention (see my earlier post Touched by human hands 9/24/06), but it is interesting to see how the forest is now employed as a symbol of both nature and human ingenuity.

It goes on to explain that in order to "protect and nourish" the next generation of trees, the old ones must be cut down. There is a cycle being invoked here, not the life cycle of nature; rather, the crop cycle of agriculture. Just a few meters down the road there is another sign that reads Respectons la nature! It's pretty interesting to see forests invoked both as symbols of nature and of human ingenuity at the same time.

Beth pointed out to me that the growth rings on these logs tell a story. Apparently 30 years is "old" here for a pine tree. Looking at the growth rings you can see that the first 16 years display rapid growth contrasted with the last 16 which are far more densely packed. I'm assuming that there is a cost/benefit ratio at work here in terms of calculating the optimum life expectancy of these trees.

Once the trees are cut down, replanting takes place, the machines move to the next plot and so the cycle goes...


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