Transbordeur bridges in France and the world 2: focus on Portugalete, Chicago,
The lowly-populated and highly forested French Département of “Les Landes”, Dept. 40, is part of the region of Aquitaine. You can see some factlets on the roundabout art of les landes page.
The Département  of Les Landes, the second largest department in France, with an area of about a million hectares, was created in 1790 by uniting administratively a mosaic of fourteen small local pays - ‘countries’: Grande Lande, Petite Lande, Marsan, Bas-Armagnac, Gabardan, Tursan, Albert, Born, Marensin, Maremne, Chalosse, Seignaux, Gosse and Orthe .
The River Adour is the dividing line between the two very different landscapes that make up Les Landes - moors and forest to its north and hilly farming land to its south. To the north, on a base of consolidated limestone sediment (alios), covered by sand, grows the forest in Born, Marensin, Maremne, Grande Lande and Marsan. To the east, this area is bordered by Bas-Armagnac. To the south, where the land is fertile and hilly, with neither alios nor sand, the local regions are Gosse, Seignaux, Chalosse and Tursan.
following map, ‘hover and click’ for more
The low population in Les Landes, about 300,000 people, has not changed much for the last 150 years, the larger portion being in the regions south of the River Adour, the pays of Chalosse and Tursan.
Before becoming the greatest extent of forest in France during the nineteenth century, this unfertile land of moving sandy ground truly merited the name of moor - la lande in French. It was known as the French Sahara. It attracted neither immigration, nor commercial traffic.
It was a vast, fairly flat landscape of barren moors, becoming marshland in winter when the rivers swelled and flooded.
There were various experiments to control the sogginess and unsalubriousness of the region, together with agricultural experiments - rice, mulberry trees, tobacco, peanuts - which all failed. 
Another description comes from Cloisters and cathedrals of the south of France by Elise Whitlock Rose.
The original forest grew naturally along the rivers and on the coastline. In 1800, it covered 250,000 hectares. The rest of the department’s countryside consisted of moorland, more or less marshy, the uncontested domain of the shepherd. To move around this unhappy landscape, the shepherds had to use stilts.At the sea edge, the moving dunes, eroded by the sea breeze and the ‘currents’ , invaded, suffocated and buried villages and the forest. It was in order to protect themselves from the steadily encroaching sand, that the locals stabilised the sand and channeled the ‘currents’ - the little streams that run down to the Atlantic Ocean.
Here and there, fixing the dunes was done from the eighteenth century, but it was only with the creation by the State of a Commission of Dunes that the works, inspired by those of local Landais proprietors, advanced seriously. In 1817, 4,000 hectares of sand were fixed and in 1825, all the coastline was stabilised. From 1862, the Waters and Forests Service successfully maintained the coastal dune line. (The events of 1914-18 and 1939-45 damaged the dunes, and it was only in 1950 that the dunes’ ideal profile was returned with the work of bulldozers.) Note that this history is somewhat different from what happened further north in Les Landes, near the metropolis of Bordeaux and the Archachon Bassin.
It took many decades before the work to dry the Landais marshes and plant them with forests was finished. An unhealthy place, the marshes were the seat of sicknesses such as malaria, which in 48 hours took the mayor of Lit-et-Mixe and his son. These two were the brother-in-law and nephew of Henri Crouzet, whom Emperor Napoleon III had appointed to clean up Les Landes. As part of his love for the department of Les Landes, Napoleon III bought a 8,000 hectare area of uncultivated land in the “Grande Lande” that he baptised Solférino, and at its head he put Henri Crouzet.
This man, who had an excellent knowledge of the land and the drainage done by the Landais inhabitants, is considered to be the inspiration for the 1857 law. At Solférino, he succeeded so well in his land clean-up that the imperial domain became a first order experimental zone. Crouzet created numerous agricultural roads, established new cultivation and dried the Orx Marsh, to the south of Les Landes. Crouzet had the benefit of marrying a descendant of L.M. Desbiey who did the first works to fix dunes in the 18th century.
The law imposed by Emperor Napoleon III in 1857, ordered all the communes  of Gascogne Landes, not just the coastline, be drained and then planted with maritime pines, making the land useable and rich. Bit by bit, pines covered Les Landes, changing the landscape and reducing the expanse of more than 100,000 hectares of moors. This made room for the young forest that would become one of the largest industrial forests in Europe.
Les Landes - the Moor; before the industrial pine forest was planted systematically from the mid-19th century
Before the forest, there were isolated villages and homestead groupings, with few trees, dotted about the bleak, marshy expanses. The Landes - the marshes - were wet, unhealthy and practically barren of nutriments for plants or animals. Villages developed near rivers where the soil was slightly better and where communication with others was more likely. The inhabitants eaked their living from keeping sheep. Later, the isolated villages on huge stretches of flat moors would change to being isolated open areas enclosed in hectare upon hectare of pine forest.
The amount of space available for organizing the villages and its homesteads determined community relationships. In the Grande Lande, the farm was arranged on an “airial”, an extensive, unenclosed and grassed area centred on a farmhouse, scattered with trees. Each airial could be considerably far away from the next, the population density being very low in this part of the department.
In Chalosse, property organisation was different, as was the architecture and house interiors. Relationships with the ‘Other’ - people not from near by - whoever that might be, were also determined by these factors.
Airials in the Grande Lande followed a plan that included, as well as the main farmhouse and other dwellings for other families and workers, a stable and barn for tools, other outhouses, such as a bread oven, workshops and various further storage buildings. The airial would be a fairly self-contained community, supporting the extended family and other inhabitants by trading labour and produce that they grew or harvested.
Amongst the cash crops and industries were wool, beehive products - honey and beeswax, food products and fertiliser (from the sheep), and above all pine resin. The main food crops were grown on fields extending 3 to 5 hectares, with two different crops grown on the same land by staggering sowing times and using the furrows as well as the ploughed ridges. In autumn, having spread manure collected from the sheep during the summer, the fields were broadcast sown with rye, then ploughed into ridges. In spring, a second crop, such as millet or panis (panic grass, similar to millet) was sown. The crops were harvested in summer, and in autumn the cycle began again - leaving land to rest and lie fallow was not known.
The rye and other harvested cereal was ground into flour and baked into bread using a large communal oven in a separate building.
As well as the many maritme pines for resin and lumber, each airial would have at least one parasol pine [also known as the umbrella pine], a different pine species from the maritime pine, from which pignons, pine seeds are harvested. In the photograph below, the spreading parasol pine in the foreground contrasts with the much narrower maritime pines in the distance.
were regarded as valuable, and even noble, animals and so were
treated with greater respect than the multitudes of sheep. For
instance during the winter, the animals were fed through a special
opening from the living room to the beasts’s quarters -
the estoulis - and everyone benefited from the warmth
of the fire.
At Marqueze, close to Sabres in the heart of the Grande Lande, is one of three parts of the Eco-Museum - the Museum for the history of the local Landes economy. The Marqueze site focuses on living in Les Landes both before and after the coming of the forest. It is a large functioning airial, accessible only by a short train ride, on a train and line classed as a historic monument, through the surrounding pine forest. The airial is a living model of rural society in the Grande Lande during the 19th century. Here, you can visit houses, shepherds’ homes and kitchen gardens. There are people plying their trade: the baker, the weaver, the oxen-wrangler and the resineur, who are guardians of the traditions and the skills, the savoir-faire.
The other two parts of the Eco-Museum are the Resin
Products Factory at Luxey, and the forestry
activities centre nearby at Garein.
Plan of the Marqueze Eco-Museum, near Sabres
There were few ways to earn a living in this unhealthy, temperate desert, keeping flocks of sheep being a major occupation. In 1850, there were 1 million sheep; by 1862, there were 527,000, and by 1890 this had reduced to 295,000 as forest replaced the frugal moor pastures. The land - mostly marsh and sandy moors - was so poor that it would only support one animal per hectare. Thus, the shepherds and their flocks roamed widely over the area, moving up to 20 kilometres a day over communal moorlands to find sufficient grazing for the flock. At night, the sheep were penned in a sheepfold, which ensured that the animals’ manure was not dispersed unnecessarily. The manure was the main crop from the sheep, being used on the fields.
The output of twenty to thirty sheep was required to adequately fertilise one hectare of the poor, acid Landais soil.
Stilts first appeared well before the forest, when Les Landes was an immense marshy country, very flat, with the vegetation primarily consisting of grass and undergrowth. Principally, it was shepherds who lived in this landscape. The shepherds had several reasons for using stilts:
The first records of stilts in Les Landes date from the beginning of the 18th century. However, it is not known whether using stilts was invented locally by the shepherds, or whether they were an import, say from the Flemish region of Belgium, where stilts had been used since the Middle Ages.
Landais stilts were made from two pieces of wood:
The stilt user attaches the stilt to his (or her) leg with two leather thin straps.
Other Landes inhabitants also used stilts to move around the marshy landscape. For example, the postman as shown in this posed postcard.
The use of stilts by the shepherds for work purposes disappeared gradually between the middle of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century with the establishment of the forest, which drained the marshes and eliminated the pastures, and thus the sheep and their shepherds on stilts.
But during this time, the shepherds started to use stilts for games, and they also mixed stilts and dances with the other villagers. In 1889, Sylvain Dornon, a former shepherd turned baker, started the first folk group on stilts in the park of the Moorish Casino at Arcachon The spectacle started with sporting events and races, and continued with dances. The first dance was Lou Quadrilh dous Tchancats - the stilt-users’ quadrille.
Sylvain Dornon also performed various stunts to promote the use of stilts. He went up the Eiffel Tower on his stilts during the World Fair of 1889, and in 1891, walked from Paris to Moscow via Vilno - 1830 miles or 2850 km - in 58 days.
Today, there are 21 Landais folk groups which continue the dances on stilts of their ancestors, and other traditions. Stilt folk group members also take part in the stilt races that are part of the Challenge of the Federation of the Folk Groups Landais. These races include the long-distance race of about 150 km from Arcachon to Capbreton.
Even a few years ago, stilt-dancing groups would often give free displays of their art. Now, it is unusual to find a free stilt-dancing display. The towns that invited stilt-dancers to give a demonstration now will corral the dancers in an enclosed arena or a pelote court, demanding payment for the privilege for sitting on hard benches amongst un-chosen company. [To the right: Stilt-dancing display, at a folk festival.]
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