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the forest as seen by francois mauriac, and today
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in les landes

The département of Les Landes in south-western France is a surreal, other-worldly place. Formerly nicknamed the French Sahara, Les Landes has been settled by friendly French people who take the fun part of living very seriously. Much of this ‘other world’ centres on the ever-present forest.

Les Landes is a place of change. Once unsalubrious marshes and dunes, it was then covered by pine forest, much exploited for the resins as well as the timber.

For a long time, well into the second half of the twentieth century, much of Les Landes, including the world of the forest, was poor.

Now, today’s Les Landes has come into the modern world, developing a vibrant, mixed economy - from timber and timber products to its role as a major holiday destination, with empty countryside and extensive beaches, surf and seaside towns.

the forest: in the eyes of françois mauriac’s thérèse desqueyroux

Thérèse Desqueyroux, a novel written by Francois Mauriac and published in 1927, is set in the depths of the Landais forest and heathland in the early 20th century. Although the story is rather emotional and dark, even depressive, the descriptions of the forest and heath landscapes, forest fires, and life relating to life in an industrial forest, provide useful and interesting glimpses into the world of the Landes forest that was so different to that in which most other town and rural French people lived.

This difference continues, with the tranquillity, the emptiness, the stark beauty. What has changed, however, is that Les Landes is much wealthier than the society of which François Mauriac wrote.

Here we present various excerpts that give the feel of the quiet, of the whispering trees, the emptiness and isolation, the strong weather. Note that Mauriac was writing to provide gloomy atmosphere to a rather gloomy book. We at abelard.org have added some up-to-date additional commentary. The excerpts are taken from the translation by Gerard Hopkins ( the page numbers refer to the edition listed in end note 1).

Track through the Landais forest in summer.

p.21 DESCRIPTION
… she saw in imagination bicycling through those mornings of the long ago upon the road that led from Saint-Clair to Argelouse, about nine o’clock, before the heat of the day had grown intolerable: not him, but his sister Anne. She had a vision of the girl with her face aglow, while all around the cicadas were kindling into little flickers of flame on each successive pine, and the great furnace of the heath was beginning to roar beneath the sky. Millions of flies rose in a cloud above the blazing ling. "Put on your coat before you come indoors; it's like an ice-house." Aunt Clara would say, adding, "Wait till you've cooled down before you have a drink." …

The summers in the forest can be baking hot, ever more so as global warming clocks in, but the tall pines provide a welcome, dappled shade. As for flies, well now they are no problem here in Les Landes. The two insects that have annoyed at times have been mosquitoes and ticks.

Mosquitoes are effectively dissuaded with a mosquito repellent. Ticks come from the many roe deer (Bambi) living in and near the forest. These often have ticks, that transfer from deer to undergrowth to people walking in the forest (this not usually a problem in towns and on the beach). Ticks are a carrier of Lyme’s disease, related to and similar to syphilis. If you go in the forest or nearby during the summer, take sensible precautions: do not have bare legs.

Pine trunks reddened with the light of the setting sun

p.22 - 23 Even at dusk, when the sun had come so near its setting that only the very lowest sections of the pine trunks were reddened with its light, and a belated cicada was still scraping away for dear life almost at ground-level, there was still an airless heat beneath the oaks.

Landes forest in the dry hot summerWhen September came they could venture out after luncheon and wander through the parched land. No tiniest stream of water flowed at Argelouse. Only by walking a long way over the sandy heath could they hope to reach the head-waters of the rivulet which went by the name of La Hure. It carved a myriad courses through low-lying meadows laced with alder-roots. Their feet turned numb in the ice-cold current, and then, no sooner dry, were burning hot again. They would seek the shelter of one of the huts set up in October for the guns who went out after duck. It served them as the shuttered drawing-room had done earlier in the year.

There may have been no running water at Argelouse, but Les Landes has many rivers - large like the Adour, medium like the Midouze, and many smaller rivers and streams. Because the department has a low population, the forest, its paths, the river and stream-sides, and the roads are mostly empty. There is no-one to be seen and almost no cars, so you can often have a picnic by a roadside, or a little way off, as comfortably as going down by a river bank. And people when you do come across them are friendly, “B’jour, m’sieur-dame”, and “Bon appetit!” if you are sitting with your picnic as they pass by.

p.26 BUSINESS, FIRE
[...] she had stayed behind with the men, held there by the talk of farm matters and pit-props, of mineral deposits and turpentine. She took a passionate delight in estimating the value of land. There could be little doubt that the idea of controlling so great a stretch of forest territory had exercised over her an irresistible fascination. ‘He, too, was in love with my trees ...’young bracken in a Landes forest
[...] they had once walked together down the sandy track which led from Argelouse to Vilméja. The shrivelled oak-leaves were still showing as dirty patches against the blue. The dried tangle of last year's bracken was thick upon the ground, the tender stalks of new growth striking a note of bright and acid green. Bernard said: "Be careful of your cigarette. Even at this time of year it might start a fire. The heath is already without water."

p.36 UNSALUBRIOUSNESS OF LES LANDES
"The Azévédos were somebody when our ancestors were a miserable lot of shepherds shaking with fever in the marshes."

Of course, with the widespread draining of the marshes, disease and fevers are now thankfully something from history, and this was so even in Mauriac’s time .

p.51 PROPERTY
The tragedy of the class war was never really forced on her attention in a countryside where even the poorest have some property, and are for ever striving to amass more; where a common love of the soil, of shooting, of food and of drink, creates between all-middle and labouring class alike-a close bond of brotherhood. But Bernard had, in addition, some degree of education. The neighbours said of him that he had got out of his rut, and even Thérèse took pleasure in the thought that he was the kind of man with whom it was possible to carry on some sort of rational conversation, a man who had "risen superior to his environment ." or so she regarded him until she met Jean Azévédo.

53 WALKING
… I had decided to go to the lonely hut where Anne and I used to eat our little snacks, and where I knew she had later loved to meet young Azévédo. I didn't regard it in the light of a sentimental pilgrimage. What took me there was the knowledge that the trees had grown too big to make bird-watching easy, and that, consequently, I ran little risk of disturbing the guns. The hut was no longer used for shooting because the forest all around blotted out the horizon. There were no long, open drives in which it was possible to follow the movement of the coveys. The October sun was still hot. The sandy path hurt my feet, the flies plagued me.

Roe deer [le chevreuil] have become very numerous in Les Landes (over 14,000 animals in 2001-2), so much of hunting here concentrates on reducing the deer population. In the forest during the summer, roe deer have a liking for eating tree leaves; in winter they eat ivy, brambles , heather and tree seeds. The hunting season is generally from September to January. You may go down a quiet forest road and have deer leap across the road. Be careful, a baby Bambi may come scampering after its beautiful mother.

61 SILENCE
All around us was the silence: the silence of Argelouse! People who have never lived in that lost corner of the heath-country can have no idea what silence means. It stands like a wall about the house, and the house itself seems as though it were set solid in the dense mass of the forest, whence comes no sign of life, save occasionally the hooting of an owl. (At night I could almost believe that I heard the sob I was at such pains to stifle.)

'It was after Azévédo had gone that I got to know that silence. So long as I was sure that he would come to me with the new day the thought of his presence robbed the smothering dark of all its terrors. The fact that he was lying asleep nearby gave me a feeling that the night and all the sweep of moorland was rich with life […] I have an impression that, being a bred-in-the-bone Parisian, he could not bear the silence, the particular silence of Argelouse, any longer,[…]

70 LOVE OF PINES/ FIRE
Week followed week without so much as a drop of rain.

Bernard lived in constant terror of fire. He was suffering from his heart again. More than a thousand acres had been burned over at Louchats. "If the wind had been from the north I should have lost my Balisac pines." Thérèse was in a state of waiting for she knew not what to fall from the immutable sky. It would never rain again. One day the whole surrounding forest would crackle into flame, even the town itself would not be spared. Why was it that the heath villages never caught fire? It seemed to her unjust that it should always be the trees that the flames chose, never the human beings. In the family circle there was a never-ending discussion about what caused these disasters. Was it a discarded cigarette, or was it deliberate mischief? Thérèse liked to imagine that one of these nights she would get up, leave the house, reach the most inflammable part of the forest, throw away her cigarette, and watch the great column of smoke stain the dawn sky . . . But she drove the thought from her, for the love of pine-trees was in her blood. It was not them that she hated.

There are strict regulations about fires in the environs of the Landes forest. Roughly, from March through to October, no open fires such as bonfires or camp fires may be lit. At other times, permission has to be obtained from the local Mairie (town hall). Fire is a real danger amongst the resin-rich pines. Visitors and residents alike have to be vigilant against starting a fire in the forest. Even a glowing match-end could start an extensive forest fire during the hot, tinder-dry summer.

A thunderstorm sweeping through the pines.91 TORMENTED TREE TOPS
On the last night of October a wild wind from the Atlantic tossed the tormented tree-tops for hours together. In a half-sleep, Thérèse lay and listened to the thunder of the sea. But when she woke at dawn it was to a different sound. She opened the shutters, but the darkness of the room was unrelieved. A thin, dense rain was falling on the cobbles of the yard and pattering between the still thick foliage of the oaks.

The rain comes gently, softly, or in torrents, clouding your view through the trees. When the sun shines through the rain haze, the beauty of the atmospherics and colours is breath-taking. And this happens again and again. Despite all the rain, with ground that is essentially sand, even large puddles last at most twenty or thirty minutes before being absorbed.

Often the rain is brought by spectacular shows of son et lumiere - sound and light - given by the enormous thunderstorms that happen every three or four days, especially during summer. The house shakes with the thunder, the lightening comes as jagged spears streaking down the sky, or sheets spreading light in the night darkness, or pulsing glows in the distance. And if you’re staying in the forest depths, there may be a further excitment, of power cuts - but these are usually repaired swiftly, whatever the time of day or night.

97 DEEP MURMUR
A gust of wind blew it open, and the chill night air filled the room. Thérèse could not muster sufficient energy to throw back the bedclothes, to get up and cross the room on bare feet to shut it. She lay curled in the bed, the sheet drawn halfway over her face, so that only on her eyes and forehead did she feel the icy blast. The deep murmur of the pines filled Argelouse, but, despite this sound, as of a fretting sea, the silence of the place was there.

The chattering amongt the pines increases as the wind picks up, becoming a rushing roar, as Mauriac says, like the sea but a wild sea of breaking rollers. Afterwards, there are pine needles and branches everywhere, pulled off the pines by the wind and cast about on road, path and field.

109
She played in imagination with the idea of going back to the sad and secret land-of spending a lifetime of meditation and self-discipline in the silence of Argelouse, there to set forth on the great adventure of the human soul, the search for God....

If you believe in higher beings, this place must be proof of their existence. If you do not, here is a place to make one wonder how such beauty appeared by chance.

FIRE
"There was-it was on the day of the great fire at Mano."

[...] She found it odd to conjure up the picture of that oppressive afternoon with its pall of smoke through which the blue looked dimmed and sooty, to smell again the acrid scent as of torches which comes from burning pines.

115 LOVE OF PLACE / MOANING PINES
[...] she had been longing to drive with Bernard along the road to Villandraut in the evening light between the ominous pines! What did it matter-the sort of country one was fond of, pines or maples, sea or plain? Life alone was interesting, people of flesh and blood. 'It is not the bricks and mortar that I love, nor even the lectures and museums, but the living human forest that fills the streets, the creatures torn by passions more violent than any storm. The moaning of the pines at Argelouse in the darkness of the night thrilled me only because it had an almost human sound!'

For descriptions of work in the Landes forest, look at these associated pages:
before the forest
, working in the forest: lumber,
the forestry industry: resinous and other forest products

end notes

  1. Thérèse Desqueyroux [TD] by François Mauriac, first published in 1927.

    Thérèse by François Mauriac (Author),
    Gerard Hopkins
    (Translator)

    Penguin Books Ltd (Penguin Modern Classics), 2002
    ISBN-10: 0141186224
    ISBN-13: 978-0141186221

    £11.69 [amazon.co.uk]
    $18.00 [amazon.com]

    Shape and structure


    Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac (Author),
    Raymond N. Mackenzie (Translator)

    Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005
    ISBN-10: 0742548651
    ISBN-13: 978-0742548657

    $17.95 [amazon.com]
    £9.31 [amazon.co.uk]

    Therese Desqueyroux by François Mauriac

    [edition in French]

    Livre de Poche, 1995
    ISBN-10: 2253004219
    ISBN-13: 978-2253004219

    £3.51 [amazon.co.uk]

    RTherese Desqueyroux by Francois Mauriac (in original French)

    The translation by Gerard Hopkins (1892-1961, novelist and translator) was published by Eyre and Spottiswood in 1947, and since has been republished by Penguin Books under the title, Thérèse. This is the translation to find and read, either if you have problems reading TD in French, or you wish to verify your own translation. This version is bound with further Hopkins translations of stories by Mauriac on TD’s life. The other stories included are Thérèse chez le docteur, Thérèse à la hôtel and La fin de la nuit. They are not so interesting or well written as the first book.

    Thérèse Desqueyroux, published by Rowman and Littlefield and translated by Raymond N. Mackenzie, is a much more recent translation. As such, some readers may find it more accessible, while others (being ‘purists’) may prefer the Hopkins version that tends to reflect the original French text more closely.

    François Mauriac, born in Bordeaux in 1885, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1952. He died in 1970. Living in occupied France during WW2, Mauriac worked with the Resistance, writing against the Nazi occupiers and was forced to go into hiding. Maurice also spoke out against the French occupation of Algeria, and was a devout catholic. He owned an estate at Malagar. His heirs donated the Malagar estate to the Regional Council of Aquitaine in 1985.

    The wine-producing property of Malagar, situated not far from Bordeaux, was a haven of peace for the novelist. There, he rediscovered his roots and found a source of inspiration for his writing. Malagar is an estate in a wine-making region, with a family mansion, vines, two wine storehouses, outbuildings and a beautiful terrace overlooking the Garonne valley. An excellent restoration has made it also a cultural, research and meeting centre: the François-Mauriac Centre.

    The demarcation line between the occupied and free French zones ran right through Mauriac’s property at Malagar and by autumn 1940, a German officer and his subordinates were billeted on the first floor of his home. Mauriac and his wife, the four children and the maid, all moved to the ground floor where they would remain until 1944.
    Centre François Mauriac de Malagar
    Domaine de Malagar - 33490 Saint-Maixant
    Information: +33 (0) 5 57 98 17 17 - Fax: +33 (0) 5 57 98 17 19 Visits: +33 (0) 5 57 98 17 16
    Contact: cfmm@cr-aquitaine.fr

  2. Gerard Hopkins, 1892–1961, can be confused with Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1844–1889, an English poet, convert to Roman Catholism and Jesuit priest.

  3. Mosquito repellent active ingredients in order of efficacy (listed with effective ingredient percentages):
    1. DEET - 30-50%
    2. IR3535 - 20-30%
    3. KBR3023 - 20%+ (also called picaidin or icaridine)
    4. citriodiol
    You may find it hard work finding an effective mosquito repellent that has an appropriate ingredient in the French chemist. During 2006, we found the following brands:
    • Insect Écran Spécial Tropiques - 10hr (KBR3023)
    • Cinq sur Cinq - 8hr (IR3535)
    Note that repellent with added geranium oil is also effective (and smells good too.)
4. We are not experts, but have dealt with Lyme’s disease, and photographed ticks. I have been surprised at how little authoritative sources I can find.
A deer tick, enlarged
A deer tick, enlarged
Ixodes scapularis, adult female
[for further comment]
Ixodes ricinus, castor bean or sheep tick
castor bean or sheep tick enlarged
Ixodes ricinus, not fully gorged with blood
[for further comment]

Landes has a strong population of roe deer [chevreuil] that inhabits the forest and neighbouring fields. These deer commonly have parasites - deer ticks. A tick bite must be taken seriously, as the tick may be a carrier of the spirochete bacterium that causes Lyme’s disease (similar to syphilis). Not all tick bites cause Lyme's disease, but infected tick bites can have serious consequences if not treated rapidly and effectively. If bitten, it is best to be checked by a local doctor or a pharmacist. Both are well versed in recognising tick and other local occuring bites, such as those from the small spiders that lurk in longer grass. Ticks are prevalent much of the year, they are arachnids and, hence, you see that they have eight legs.

Forty-one species of tick have been identified in France, of these at least three species can transmit disease, in particular spirochetal bacteria that cause Lyme's disease. In the USA, the main deer tick is the black-legged tick, Ixodes scapularis; while in Europe the main tick is Ixodes ricinus, the castor bean tick. abelard.org yaks and cats have been mainly the target of Ixodes scapularis, which would mean that I. scapularis has migrated continents.

About 1% of tick bites transfer Lyme’s disease (borreliosis), which is caused by the spirochaete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Generally, the longer a tick continues to bite, the more likely is the transfer of disease. It appears to take over 24 hours for disease transmission.

Note that ticks are not confined to Les Landes or France, but are to be found throughout the world, so be careful wherever you are.

 

Typical Lyme's disease tick bite, 
		like a bull's eye - red border with a light interior and a red centre
Above: Typical Lyme’s disease tick bite, like a bull's eye - red border with a light interior and a red centre.

Right: Bite from a small, grass-lurking spider.
Here is a particularly impressive reaction.
The bite is usually not dangerous, being more like a bee sting.

Bite from a small, grass-lurking spider. 
		  Here is a particularly impressive reaction.
   

Protection against ticks means covering at least the lower half of your body. So, tuck trousers into socks; socks are a must in the forest. Wear trousers, not shorts nor skirt. Mind you, current fashion easily allows slacks or leggings under the skirt. For children, they should not have a bare torso. All this can be rather annoying during the hot summer days, but having a blood-sucking tick attach itself is far more annoying.

Also wear light coloured clothes - the black-looking ticks are more visible. (When enlarged, the image of a tick shows that they are not just black - see above.) If you can, wear clothes of close-woven material. This is smoother, the ticks cannot hang on so easily, nor can they pass through gaps on the fabric’s weave. If you are walking in the countryside, wear enclosed shoes, not sandals, or even better boots. Wearing two pairs of socks is also a good idea - ticks have been known to bite through the relatively open weave of socks.

The essential added extra in tick country is “tucking in” - trousers into socks, top into trousers - thereby closing off gaps in clothing. The ticks are not very mobile, and so they have developed a practice of crawling up to the top of undergrowth, such as grass or bracken, and waiting for a victim to brush against them.

Do not use alcohol, ether, oils, lighter fluid or freezing agents to anaesthetise the tick, sending it to sleep. This was previously the advised method of starting the removal process, but it has been observed that the tick then regurgitates its bacteria-saturated saliva onto the area where it had broken the skin as it bit. Another often suggested method to remove a tick is using tweezers. This has two problems: the tick’s jaws and head can be left behind, and the blood-filled body can be compressed to release its infected contents.

tick-removing tool
tick-removing tool

Instead, to remove a tick using a small specialist tool that looks a bit like a small two-pronged, L-shaped fork. The fork is slid round the tick, and the fork then twiddled round and round until the tick can no longer hang on to the skin.

Such tools are sold in pet stores, at the vets, some pharmacies. Note, if you have a cut on your hand, make sure to wear rubber gloves so to avoid transferring infection into your bloodstream.

After dealing with the tick, dispose of it by sluicing it down a drain, wash your hands thoroughly and clean the bite area with antiseptic.

Tick trapped in tick removal tool
Tick trapped in tick removal tool.
(The white hairs belong to the cat from whom the tick was removed.)

Keep an eye on the bite area during the next few days. If the area becomes red and angry, growing in size, go to the doctor. If you are unsure of your first aid abilities, then go to the doc first of all. Just don’t leave the tick alone, though it should drop off in due course after many hours or days when it decides that it’s sucked enough blood.

The treatment for tick bite infection is antibiotics. The doctor will give antibiotics prophylactically if it is not clear that the bite has resulted in Lyme’s disease.

Marker at abelard.org

the fierce southern sun
It is also important to protect yourself, and children, from the fierce southern sun. The Australians, for example, are teaching their children forcefully and persistently to put on a hat, a top and sun protection cream (Slip, slap, slop!).


on first arriving in France - driving Les Pyrénées, A64
motorway aires, introduction Pech Loubat, A61
Mas d’Agenais, A62 Les Bréguières, A8
Lozay, A10 Hastingues, A64
Catalan village, A61 Port-Lauragais, A61
aires on the A75 autoroute from clermont-ferrand to béziers Tavel, A9

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