When people think of Landes, they imagine a place completely covered in beautiful forest that backs onto Frances longest stretch of golden sand beaches. But before the immensity of the Landes Forest existed, the landscape told a very different tale.
Once upon a time this vast forest was but a harsh wasteland that attracted neither immigration or commercial traffic. Great lonely sand dunes bordered the wild Atlantic coastline, beyond which stretched out a seemingly endless expanse of flat marsh lands or moors. These moors which translates to “Landes” where encroached upon by the unstable sand dunes and had very poor drainage. In the harsher months, storms flooded the landscape into boggy marshlands, and buried entire villages in sea sand.
Stagnant water, eerie bogs, and strange hot springs created a sickly district that doomed its inhabitants to poor health and early deaths. Crossing the moor was dreaded by pilgrams who struggled to find food or water or let alone a path to walk along. The moors became known as the “bad lands” or French Sahara, with its sea-like immensity and devastating treachery.
There were very few ways to make a living in these inhospitable lands. Keeping flocks of sheep was by far the most popular. It was by no means easy, with land so infertile, one hectare would only support one animal. This meant that shepard’s would have to travel up to 20 kms per day to provide sufficient grazing for their flock.
The Landes shepard’s famously used wooden stilts when tending to their sheep. They wore these for a number of reasons; it helped them navigate paths over the long distances they had to travel each day, kept their feet dry, and also enabled them to supervise their sheep from afar. Today the tradition still lives on with troops of stilt dancers that perform festivals across the region.
The turning point for Landes came about in 1857 when a law was passed for the sanitation and culturalisation of the area by Emperor Napoleon III. The law ordered all communes of the region to build drainage canals and to plant the expanse with maritime pines. Over the next few decades the once baron wasteland was planted with 10,000 square kilometres of maritime pines making it the largest man-made pine forest in Western Europe.
The pine trees stabilised the once inoperative land and sparked a new wave of industry. There were two main ways to exploit the timer forests; lumber production and resin extraction. The resin of the pine trees was extracted manually and exported for products such as turpentine and rosin that were used for varnishes, paints and road surfaces. The industry became obsolete in 1992 when petrochemicals such as white spirit and tarmac came about. The lumber industry is still operation today and transforms the trees into products ranging from paper to building frameworks. Because maritime pine is so resinous it is very waterproof and resistant to rotting making it suitable for use on boats and other marine practises.
While the Landes forest accomplished its intended uses, some believe it had another unexpected, yet fortunate consequence. Bordeaux, famous for its winemaking borders the Landes forest, which inherently protects its many grape vines from strong salt laden winds off the Atlantic. This consistently warm, and reliable climate benefits especially sweeter wines which are often hailed as the regions show stoppers.
pics; abelard.org, https://woolallianceforsocialagency.blog