Thursday, August 4, 2016

What I Learned in the Forests of France: About Humans and Nature

France Part 5.

Our entire July 14 hike (see previous essay) was inside of a national park, the Parc naturel régional des Vosges du Nord (Northern Vosges Regional Natural Park). With a name like that, you would expect such a park, if it were in America, to consist only of natural areas and trails, with limited development, by contractors, to accommodate visitors. In America, a National Park (Department of the Interior) excludes human economic activity as much as possible. National Forests (Department of Agriculture) allow logging and recreation (such as ORVs) other than hiking. In America, you find nature and only nature (for the most part) inside of National Parks.

Meanwhile, outside the National Parks in America, the private land is often being destroyed in an unsustainable fashion. Not only that, but if you trespass on private land, you risk getting shot. This is as true of wolves as of humans. The federal government has re-introduced wolves into federal land, but the moment a wolf strays onto private land it can be, and probably will be, shot dead.

In America, there are usually absolute and hostile lines between the human world and the natural world.

But in France, the Regional Parks (at least this one) embrace humans as a part of nature. First of all, why not? Humans have been farming and ranching and living in villages in France for thousands of years. There is virtually no place left of “unspoiled nature” in France. When you look at the fir forests ear the tops of the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, the trees appear to be lined up: they are not forests, but plantations. The Regional Park area has not only been transformed by human cultivation and habitation, but ravaged by war, as shown by the World War I cemetery in this photo.

Therefore when the French government established this park, they did not drive out the humans. The old farms and pastures for dairy cattle are still there, and they are productive. And I don’t mean just a nominal amount of economic activity. This park is actually the highlands of the Muenster Valley, the place of origin of the famous French cheese, about which I will write more in a later blog essay. And it was beautiful. The small towns, such as Pairis (not Paris!) and Orbey, were as picturesque as any “undisturbed” forest.

This has happened for two reasons. First, it reflects a faith in forest succession. No matter what happens, the forests will grow back. Most of the forests of Europe and North America were destroyed just a few thousand years ago by glaciers. They have all grown back. When Longfellow wrote (in his poem Evangeline) about “the forest primeval,” he was actually referring to a forest that was only about ten thousand years old. If you stop abusing the forest, and instead use it in a sustainable fashion, the forest will grow back into a beautiful, functional entity, even if not entirely natural. As a result, the forests of the Vosges Mountains supports, and has supported for centuries, pastures and villages. Everywhere we went, we found great stacks of firewood that had been harvested from the forests with no apparent damage to it. Timber harvest, but no clear-cutting!

Look, folks, it can be done. Don’t let anyone tell you that the timber companies have to clear-cut. In France, there are plenty of firewood and paper products without clear-cutting. A quick online check will show you that the paper products industry in France is very much alive and profitable. Nor do ranches have to have soil erosion! Look at these pictures—do you see any? But these farms are profitable!

Second, private landowners are required to simply accept the fact that hikers will be walking right past their houses and cutting across their lands. In America, signs may warn that “we shoot first and ask questions later” but in France, private land owners must accept the proximity of hikers on their land. Private driveways are marked as “privée,” and hikers stay away from these places. But if hikers were to trespass (which I never saw them do), there is no danger of them being shot. What I did, by walking right through fields and past houses, crossing private land, is virtually unthinkable in America.

The integration of humans and nature in the regional parks not only works but is a major source of enjoyment and income. There were at least a dozen people in our group, and we encountered lots of other hikers. None of us said, “This place would be beautiful if it weren’t for those ugly pastures.” And one of the major aspects of the local economy is for the farms (les fermes auberges) to host the visitors for sumptuous meals (and/or spartan accommodations). In order to gain the right to call themselves fermes auberges, the farms must raise all of their own milk, meat, and vegetables. (They can import things such as coffee and chocolate that cannot grow in France.) Many people drive to the inns, but we hiked for hours to get to one of these inns, where we spent as much time eating as we had hiking. And then we hiked back down.

Patrick Gennetay led and treated us to a wonderful feast at Le Musmiss, a ferme auberge in Orbey.

Hikers are not supposed to walk into people’s orchards or yards to eat domesticated fruit. But all along the path there were wild (or planted?) fruits for hikers to stop and eat along the trail. Hiking makes those fruits taste so good! We ate lots of wild cherries and raspberries. And right near the top, in the subalpine meadows, the trail was lined with wild blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus, les myrtelles), which are smaller and tastier than the domesticated blueberries (les bleuets). We were a little bit early in the season for the wild hazelnuts, but if they had been ripe we could have munched on them almost the entire time.

Vaccinium myrtillus, a subalpine blueberry in the Vosges Mountains

Humans and nature can live together not only peacefully but enjoyably. I thought about this the entire time I was hiking, and it gave an extra dimension to my joy. It occasionally happens in America, too. Birdwatchers who visit the Arcata (California) bird sanctuary often do not realize that this wetland is the municipal sewage treatment facility for the city of Arcata. But it requires a shift in attitude among private land owners. The land owners have to realize that they are stewards of the beautiful Earth, which they share with nature and with other people. In order to establish such a park in America, private land owners would have to unlearn the little song that Garrison Keillor set to the tune of This Land is Your Land:

This land is my land
It is not your land
I’ve got a shotgun
And you ain’t got one…

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