Last autumn I spent a couple of months working on chestnut orchards in the South of France. I became interested to find out more about the peasant culture that was built around these trees, many of which are now well over 100 years old. The following was written after my first stay on a farm in the Ardèche uplands with a couple in their 50s, Gérard and Barbara (not their real names), doing maintenance work in preparation for the harvest after a hot, dry summer.
Barbara said she loved these old trees, thought them beautiful and felt it a tragedy that they were dying off at such a frightening rate. The emotions came to me as an almost foreign invitation, so long have I been immersed in the manly head space of economics and utility. But I know that other part of me is still down there somewhere and I’m grateful for the opportunity to feed it again. Some day another shoot will spring forth and I will have to decide what to do with it: cut it back to the ground, leave it to grow as it pleases, or culture it, prune, train, graft, encourage, urge the best form for Production…
Chestnut trees have grown in these places for centuries, maybe millennia. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers ate the wild nuts and there’s evidence suggesting fire-managed orchards in Neolithic Italy around 6,300 years ago, associated with the arrival of agricultural crops and weeds. Similarly, Native Americans were known to regularly burn groves of American chestnut and other fruit and nut trees around their villages. This resulted in a better crop, easier harvesting, fewer pests, and also stimulated new understorey growth to attract game animals.
Back in Europe it was the ancient Greeks and Romans who mastered grafting and spread plantations. The so-called ‘Chestnut Civilisations’ emerged around the 11th and 12th centuries in upland regions of southern Europe that were unsuitable for grains or other field crops. In the Cévennes, Ardèche and Limousin (Massif Central) regions of France, the Northern Apennines of Italy, the island of Corsica and other areas people took the nut for their caloric staple. For hundreds of years they managed the orchards, built miles of terrace walls to hold the soil on the slopes, and special buildings in which they dried the nuts over a slow-burning fire. They would thrash the skins off with sticks and mill the nuts to make flour, from which they made a dense bread and many different kinds of cakes and pastries.
To the animals went the leaves, burrs (Gérard joked that ‘they had a daily course of acupuncture!’) and leftover nuts, especially good for fattening pigs. The best marrons would go off to market where they were considered a delicacy by bourgeois city-folk who viewed the smaller châtaignes as unfit for human consumption. Apart from this and occasional wage labour during the quiet months it was a fairly self-contained subsistence economy.
Most of the written records from the time bitterly denounced this way of life. Supposedly it resulted in a lack of innovation, poverty and repli sur soi (‘folding in on oneself’). Extreme prejudices arose about laziness, backwardness, even rebelliousness among dull-minded peasants allegedly too stupid or stubbornly conservative to see the benefits of agricultural ‘improvements’ or full engagement in the market economy. Even as late as 1966 the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie wrote of ‘une terre sans pain, carencée, membre de cette Internationale de la misère et du châtaigner’ (‘land without bread, deficient, a member of this Internationale of poverty and chestnut trees’) which prevailed in the Cévennes between the renaissance and the reformation.
For hundreds of years they managed the orchards, built miles of terrace walls to hold the soil on the slopes, and special buildings in which they dried the nuts over a slow-burning fire
The prejudice served a purpose, with contemporary writers prescribing a move towards wheat, potatoes, or mulberry trees – anything to increase tax revenues, industry and dependence on monetary income. And it succeeded, combining with other material factors. The decline was well in motion by the mid-late 18th century. Depopulation, ‘development’, incorporation of men into transient workforces, ‘l’arbre à pain’ gave way to ‘l’arbre d’or’ – the name given to the mulberry tree for the money that could be made from the silk worms that fed on its leaves. Perhaps most destructive was the leather-tanning industry which encouraged the cutting down of chestnut trees to extract tannin from the bark and wood. Five factories were opened in the Ardèche region from 1890 and it became seven times more profitable to fell the trees than to take the nuts to market. Around a million trees were cut down over the course of 50 years, with 20,000 hectares or about a third lost from the high of 60,000 hectares under cultivation in 1870.
Imagine the mind-set required to go along with that, cutting down trees that had fed your family for generations, even keeping you alive while others starved to death in the famines after the wheat harvests failed. Do we put it down to greed, opportunism, short-sightedness or just to a lack of sentimentality and simple cost/benefit analysis during a tough time when it looked like the best option? One way or another, it seems, commerce penetrates, transport facilitates, nationalism and duty to la patrie dull and harden outlooks, turn inhabitants into coldhearted quislings, enabling the exploitation of the land that was their home on behalf of the abstract, alienated interests of city, industry, capital…
Ink disease, blight and war provided the last heavy blows in the 20th century. There wasn’t the energy or manpower anymore for replanting or even maintenance. I’ve seen the memorial stones: so many men and boys taken and killed, especially in the First World War, and the low employment rates meant that soldiers were drawn in higher proportions from the highland regions. After that the inevitable drift towards the towns and cities. Final, complete dependence on jobs, money, and the commodification which we all know well.
But the trees are still here. Even ‘exploitations’ continue to succeed, albeit using modern methods – machines and petrol replacing unpaid human labour to supply a product for modern marketplaces. Even with an ‘AOP’ designation, premium status sought for organic produce, official recognition of the historic landscape, the way of life isn’t the same – isolated farmers and their small family groups, the occasional festival, markets, people brought together in the roles of traders and consumers. My time with Gérard and Barbara was quite lonely, the bus service being inadequate and the work schedule of feeding and watering the animals demanding a 7 day /52 week presence.
But the trees are still here. The varieties too, 65 of them named in the Ardèche region alone: Aguyane, Précoce des Vans, Pourette, Sardonne, Bouche Rouge, Comballe, Garinche, Bouche de Clos, Merle, with many more names known only to locals or forgotten entirely. Newer disease-resistant hybrids in the South-West, requiring irrigation and pest control; older varieties to the East favoured for their resilience and superior flavour even if they don’t produce every year. The die-off, neglect, rural flight and other factors continue to result in an overall decline, and few new trees are planted because of the long time it takes for any significant yield and the uncertainty that any will survive that long. But … the trees are still here.
And so are the possibilities if we look for them. Romanticising the ‘castanéiculture’ and other old peasant ways of life is a pitfall and visions of an easy life fade when you think about picking, sorting and processing nuts by the thousand, or working only with hand tools. But if you’re looking for future-proof food production with no need for artificial fertilisers, pesticides, GMOs or all the energy that has to go into ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting and processing field monocrops, then arboriculture of this kind has a lot to recommend it.
It also generates many opportunities for ‘closing the loop’ in permaculture parlance, as in the above example where sheep are drawn to the base of the trees for shade and to eat the suckers, preparing the ground for harvesting while fertilising the soil with their manure. The wood of course has multiple uses too, from the use of the suckers in basketry to larger pieces of timber in furniture building, tool handles, construction, charcoal manufacture etc. Even the leaves found a use as a stuffing for pillows and blankets. Further in the future, the trees might provide the support for a truly indigenous way of life beyond the coming failures of the oil economy and the growth-addicted globalised capitalism and chemical-dependent agriculture it has made possible. Because there’s nothing wrong with living hand to mouth like every other species on this planet, providing for your own needs mainly from the fruits of the land around you, at whatever level of cultivation you consider appropriate.
Towards the end of my stay in the Ardèche that October I walked through a few orchards which hadn’t been touched for maybe 40 years, judging by the size of the suckers and self-sown pine, ash, sycamore, hazel and others beginning to overstand the chestnuts. It was quite eerie seeing the thickness of the old trunks emerging behind the bristly riot of new growth; the occasional terrace wall showing through mosses and lichens. Barbara assured me it would still be possible to bring them back into cultivation — she and Gérard have devoted huge amounts of time and effort to doing this over the decades they’ve been here — but it’s a daunting task, getting harder with every year that passes. ‘Olive tree of your forefather, chestnut tree of your father, only the mulberry tree is yours’ as the saying goes (or went) here. Any calculations of return on investment have to look way into the future and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a reward. Trees stand up to drought better than annual grains, but two or three hot, dry summers in a row and even 150 years of root growth isn’t enough to keep them alive, so climate change adds to the uncertainty, just as it will with everything else.
Wildfires too will grow in frequency and intensity in untended orchards and forests, just as they have done in the drier parts of the Americas partly due to the discontinuation of regular burning and other cultivation practices by the native peoples there. I saw the Canadairs (flying boats) go overhead a number of times during the drought in the summer, a situation which might be ameliorated by greater cultivation of orchards and possibly small scale burns of leaf litter as the peasants used to do.
I think these land use traditions point to a potential middle way through the polarised debate between ecological rewilding (with humans excluded) at one extreme and the ‘working landscape’ which farmers have traditionally demanded (with wildlife excluded) at the other. Working with the process of ecological succession, which in temperate regions moves towards closed-canopy forest, rather than against it as agriculture does means less energy has to be expended in resisting this spontaneous tendency in the land. Incidentally, this might explain the accusation of laziness directed towards hunter-gatherer and horticultural peoples the world over: agriculturists see that they’re not spending all their time fighting ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’ (aka native wildlife) and they hate them for it, eventually trying to destroy them as part of the same process.
Chestnuts and other tree crops have the potential to lead us back to a place in the ecology that doesn’t demand a constant war-footing and quasi totalitarian control
Gérard bemoaned the wild boar eating his chestnuts and thought my suggestion of letting wolves and bears back in to predate them would merely compound the problem (no doubt he was also thinking about his sheep!) Nevertheless it seemed clear to me that chestnuts and other tree crops have the potential to lead us back to a place in the ecology that doesn’t demand a constant war-footing and quasi totalitarian control, and leaves respectful space for other species to live and thrive in the same landscape as equals. How about instead of a ‘working landscape’, apparently being worked to death for no good reason, we try to move towards a ‘living landscape’, with human beings as just another species in the web of self-perpetuating diversity?
After a while I found myself relating directly to these chestnut trees and the land as I saw it. During my stay I read a quote from a man called John Laurence in 1726:
The luxuriancy and vigour of most healthful trees is like the extravagant sallies of youth, who are apt to live too fast, if not kept within due bounds and restrained by seasonable corrections. [Regular pruning keeps] all in order, which would otherwise be perfect anarchy and confusion’ – quoted by Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World
How much energy has been expended in our cultivation by the pruners, trainers and ‘correctors’ of our – human – culture? From the lessons our parents taught us to the cold discipline enforced by schools, churches, workplaces and other institutions, and now to the psychological manipulation of media, advertising and consumerism, our spontaneous natural growth has been ruthlessly, invasively tailored towards maximum production at every turn, and always for fruits which somebody else will then appropriate. Then, when fashions change or market forces pull the rug out beneath us or for some reason we’re deemed more trouble than we’re worth, overnight we’re hung out to dry, abandoned, left to our own devices.
There’s a huge sense of relief in the ‘anarchy and confusion’ which follows the release of that relentless pressure and a joy in being free to grow as you please, but soon enough the wild growth begins to take over and even your own suckers begin to outgrow and overstand you… Like it or not you were planted and tended for a reason and in relationship with others, and that is built into the core of your being. When that relationship ends all of the responsibilities of maintenance and care disappear with it, and you probably won’t last long without those interventions which you now can’t do without. Maybe that’s OK – there’s nothing wrong with a wild wood, tended only by animals, birds, insects and micro-organisms. Or maybe there’s a way to breathe new life into the old relationship, setting down different, mutual purposes and goals.
Tuscan chestnut flour cake recipe
250g chestnut flour
3 tbsp olive oil
Fresh rosemary leaves
stripped from 2 sprigs
30g each of raisins, pine nuts, walnuts, almonds or other dried fruit and nuts
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp honey (optional)
Soak the raisins and rosemary in a bowl of warm water. Preheat the oven to 180°C / Gas Mark 4. Drain the infused water and gradually mix it into the flour, adding enough to form a smooth, not too runny batter. Add the olive oil, salt and honey if you’re using it (the chestnuts bring most of the sweetness to the recipe), then stir in half the raisins, walnuts, pine nuts and other fruit or nut stand-ins. Pour into a shallow dish lined with greaseproof paper. Place the remaining fruit, nuts and rosemary on the surface. Bake in the oven for around 45 minutes or until the surface browns and begins to crack like a dry lake-bottom, taking care not to char the raisins or rosemary. Serve hot or cold.
(A longer, referenced version of this article is available here)
All images by Ian M