20 May 2011

(B)Rambling On (Part 2)

Roll forward 17 months and migrate almost a thousand miles South East of South Manchester. I've now spent enough time in a totally different countryside league to venture a disillusioned sigh before rolling up my sleeves. For this is no domesticated rambling countryside as in the Cheshire set playgrounds, nor is it the Cheshire countryside from the farming communities that spread beyond the aforementioned playgrounds.

'Autumn view of Shutlinsloe' (Cheshire) by © Ed Rhodes Photography
Here in this part of Southern Europe where I now reside, farming, agriculture, peasantry, cottage industries (where I would be tempted to include small-scale family fisheries and the likes), and the foundations of the pastoral lifestyle that they all support, are dying a sure death and falling prey to the trappings of the all mod-con urban lifestyle, real estate speculators  and the pressure of tourism. The sort of countryside I am personally faced with is the result of decades of utter neglect.

Society is changing and it would be extremely tempting for someone like I to point the finger, lament and criticise. Family elders like Claire (my grandma's auntie who I have mentioned a few times in this blog), did their absolute best in their day to work the land, in harsh conditions and with very little financial reward in return. Who can blame the next generation for giving up altogether on agriculture and land management, and instead move to the towns and cities, where they would embrace a modern lifestyle, with prospects of a 'real' job and a regular wage?


In France like elsewhere, and for centuries and centuries agriculture has suffered cyclical ups and downs, not only in tune with the economy, but also as a result from other factors like disease or weather; the 19th century Irish potato famine is a fitting example. Small farming concerns are often first to pay the price and go bust, but larger farms are not exempt: John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath describes it in 1930s depression-hit Oklahoma farming belt.

In a strange paradox, despite the fact that worldwide population is growing exponentially, new markets emerging and existing ones expanding, the malaise is set to carry on across the farming industry. This is an industry that has become heavily reliant upon government subsidies in order for the farmers to survive. Add to that the law of supply and demand which puts tremendous pressure upon the farmers, further emphasised by supermarkets driving costs down en masse, in turn weakening whatever's left of the supply base bargaining powers. Those who feed the world are not necessarily the best fed.


Against this far-from-joyful overall land context, I have set myself a challenge over the last few months, involving two land management projects that I have been tackling single-handedly, this giving me a tiny insight into the challenges that await whoever tackles land with minimum equipment, support, knowledge and physical preparation... Oh and no cash. One project involves a former vineyard gone wild (so wild that oak trees and maquis are thriving in there). You get the picture: this is no Château Margaux... I have been clearing brambles, cutting wild grasses, sawing down small diseased trees and generally working towards rehabilitating the land's ecosystem, with the unwitting contribution from some existing wild plants and bushes for the landscaping bit: green oaks, asphodels, honeysuckle, cistus, boxwood, etc. Alongside this rather ambitious project, I am trying to save a small 19th century stone shed from further decay (see picture above).

Apart from the tight scrub (maquis), you are also faced with a rampant case of brambles known to take over a whole one-storey house in less than twenty years if left unleashed. Other pests of the vegetal order involve a variety of parasitic ivy that creeps up trees, lives off them, suffocates them till they die. Right, left and centre, high and low, I have been battling all sorts of invasive plants like bramble, thistle and co. They seem to grow back even more vigorously after they have been hacked or pulled. I could pretend to be clever and use radical chemical methods, but that would be cheating and anyway that just wouldn't be me. There is enough pollution in the world as it is.

So guys, be ready to rock, and welcome to the jungle! All in all, since living in this part of the world, I have never seen so much bramble around. It is even encouraged by locals who allow it to thrive unchecked around land strips as some makeshift hedge/ land boundary. We are as far away from those charmingly romantic hedgerows from England as can be! Another reason for despair when you like your countryside upkept, not unkempt. Here the wilderness from the abandonned countryside is spreading upon your doorstep if left unchecked. That wilderness is unforgiving to whoever tackles it. You end up covered in scratches, nicks, blisters, cuts and you can also say bye-bye to that flawless complexion...

Friends and relatives from across the shore who imagine that my Corsican stoppover is a life of leisure in the sun, where I have no other worry than unpack my designer purchases, before sipping frappé Mint Juleps poolside with Paris Hilton en route for Portofino, couldn't be further from the truth. Enough rambling on, someone's got 'brambling' to do!

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