Heart of Oak by Dexter Petley

1 Family Trees

One September morning, I woke to find that most of the trees in the forest around me had been spray-painted with those dreaded red rings of the oak hunter, the woodman’s warrant.  My neighbour, an absent proprietor, is a reasonable man whose vast property is an obligation, a deep rooted family tie of land and soul.  The Perche region of Normandy is a designated parc naturel régional, once the great hunting ground of nobles, fiefdoms and the tapestries of kings.  Land is hallowed ground to those who work it, jealously hoarded through all the bitter dramas of inheritance. Even blackberries in a roadside hedgerow are guarded fiercely by remnants of a dying peasantry; the wild crop of birth-right which strangers pick at their peril.  The Perche is twenty-four per cent forest, its oak trees sacred in name, monumental in stature, historically revered. Coming home at midnight down sunken lanes, I still encounter candle-lit processions on their way to twelfth-century oaks.  Christian pilgrims of the equinox, Druidic phantoms of the summer solstice.  As timber, Norman oak is prized, the highest quality in France.  The Perche has been my home for five years, the longest term of settlement in my life so far.  I have built my yurt under one of these trees, protected on three sides by sessile oak, beech, hornbeam, birch and hazel; rich habitat for the mushrooms I hunt, the firewood I scavenge and the boar, deer, foxes, badgers, red squirrel, hares, bats, salamanders and owls dependent on the way it remains, or falls.


My neighbour had shown me over his domaine.  An old stone breaker’s track of smooth flint runs a kilometre through the forest to emerge in a shaft of golden light, dipping into the valley where his father’s old farm, invisible from anywhere but close, now stands empty.  The old man is still alive, weaker than his walking canes, bungalowed in an ugly town.  His son’s other life is far from stewardship.  He drives a Mercedes in the Pas de Calais, an executive accountant.  At quarterly weekends he swaps the Mercedes for his dad’s 1980s Peugeot, a chainsaw, a torn Barbour and a 50s Massey-Fergusson. The Verney-Carron hunting jacket is for the drive home.  In my father’s day, he said, there were twenty-seven men working full time in this forest.


The dreaded word rentabilité, which used in naked form is unscrupulous profit, is now applied to all once valued habitat.  The hedges have already gone for that extra yard of maize.  The untidy lowlands or ragged outcrops are suddenly embarrassing eyesores to the second homers and their treeless lawns of swimming pools.  The man who has a garage full of two-stroke petrol engines and concrete patios around his bungalow is out there on his Monday off, ridding us of wetland scrub, neglected thicket and anywhere he regards not proper, not rentable.  I was surprised to hear my neighbour utter the word himself.  I think he knew the red paint was blood on his hands.  He’d crept around my boundary with his spray can while I slept.  We stood beside the largest oak as he uttered it, the oak whose roots I live upon, its red ring scorched through the moss. It is my morning shade, the oak which holds the sky above my head.  Do you really want to fell it? I asked.  I have to mind its rentabilité, he said.  We looked upwards simultaneously, to its crown like curved antlers, the outlines of bowls and vaults.  It has been there 300 years.  It looks good for another 300.  They grew them for boats, he said.  My grandfather did. You can see old ships in them all, look.  I saw them; the beams and knees, the stringers and sisters, chines and planks.


2 The Forêt du Perche

Sixty-six per cent of the Forêt du Perche is sessile oak.  I spend similar percentages of my time in these forests.  There are 1100 species of mushroom.  There is deadwood for the stove.  Sixty-eight species of birds.  The forest is the be-all-and-end-all of my life here.  As it once was for those twenty-seven men.  A forest was the plastic of its day.  It’s easy to forget that until the 1950s almost everything was made of wood.  Forests were tended as gardens.  The forests of the Perche sit upon giant raised beds, with intricate systems of ditching and drainage.  It was once a perfect symmetry, organic, local and homogeneous.  The forests filtered water through gravel and sand, purifying source or well.  The ditching fed the streams and races for the mills. The mills ground the good wheat of the Perche, grown on the gentle slopes between the forests. Each mill had a shallow lake for fish farming, the carp a staple food among the country poor.  All these integrated elements of forestry practice were built into the natural logic of landscape, drainage and the movement of water.  Those twenty-seven men kept the water flowing, clearing the channels of silt and fallen leaves.  Today, though the Perche is renowned for its forests, it is one of the least wooded regions of France.


The Perche takes its name from the pre-Gaul pertica, meaning forest of huge trees.  This forest, which covered almost the entire region in the Roman-Gaul period, had been largely cleared by the Middle Ages.  France overall had been reduced from 50 million hectares of forest to 25 million.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, only 6.5 million hectares remained.  The use of coal, then oil, limited the decline and allowed for more successful replanting.  Today, a quarter of France is forest, at 14 million hectares.  Latest Forestry Commission figures give the UK 3.17 million hectares, 13% of the total land area.


Until the 1950s, the forests of the Perche supported the villages, railway network, the rural economy with its primary schools, artisans and cottage industry.  Those twenty-seven men in my neighbour’s tiny forest would have been 127 men around the villages.  Loggers, charcoal makers, transporters (longshoremen) and all manner of woodworkers down the line.  My village in 1885 had fourteen charcoal merchants, thirty-one loggers, fifty-nine clog makers and so on.  Today, virtually nobody, anywhere that I can see, has any meaningful connection to these forests.  Oak has passed out of the hands of the poor.  As a luxury item, it is now vulnerable, there to be purchased by the highest bidder.


3 Mont Saint-Michel

Sadly, my neighbour’s red rings were mere doodles.  Unable to see the wood for the trees, he is merely following in the wake of events; the decision in 2011 to use the equivalent of 3.4 kilometres of oak trees end to end to construct less than a kilometre of boardwalk at Mont Saint-Michel, made exclusively of oak from the Perche.  This emptied the Norman merchants’ yards of stock, which has had to be replaced by the intensive felling of an unusually high number of local trees.  A kind of unregulated prospecting was inevitable, an oak rush with all the ugliness this implies.  Lanes blocked by white vans stuck in mud, the perpetual snarl of chainsaws dawn to dusk, the unsightly litter of the hired hand.  The wild life has fled into the crops.  Wild boar on maize breed twice a year instead of once.  A cull is granted, and the hunters freeload.  Petty theft has arrived as smartly as the trees disappear.  The hired chainsaws are from outside the village boundary, men of no remorse from Eure et Loire, a department of thieves and millers once notorious for cutting flour with sand.  My wheelbarrow and handcart were stolen on successive Saturdays.  The apples from my orchard, the logs from my pile.  At Christmas, a dwarf pine growing beside my gateway, chain-sawed in a trice.  Electric fencing disappears at night, the cows left wandering the lanes and copses for days.  Until the felling, I had no gates, no locks on doors, no fear of footsteps on my yurt veranda.  The galloping hare, the scratching mouse, the talking wind at night.  The heart set racing against imaginings.  The nearest dwelling is a kilometre across the fields.


The man behind Mont Saint-Michel is Luc Weizmann, a beneficiary of elitist political favour, a state architect with no affinity or connection to my forest. Exploiting the appointment for personal ambition, his justification for using Norman oak was always philosophically tenuous; a weak symmetry of marine tradition and the Medieval monks using oak to build their abbey.  Quantity was not an issue, he said, because stocks were available following the great storm of 1999.  I doubt he ever stood beneath these trees, or felt the mossy floor with the back of his hand.  The Parisian speeds through the Perche in a Porsche on Friday lunchtimes, to the country cottage which has put some widow in a home.  The Parisian keeps the street lamps on at night and cuts down apple trees because the fruit rots on his lawn.  The Parisian has put the Perche beyond the reach of the poor, turning every village into a second home graveyard.  A Parisian architect who builds dams for a living looks no further than the quantity retained.  In France, the greater good is always in the moment; the future never exists.  To him, cause and effect is no equation.  After all, crimes of passion run deeply through those historical seams of France.  They cover their mistakes well.  Intellectual justification is often all that matters once the crime has been exposed.  And the philosophical space created for Mr Weizmann’s ego is replete with meaningless gesture; meeting with the monks of Mont Saint-Michel in the dead of night, to reveal his plans and seek permission from the Abbot to play God.  This myth-making, created around oak and water, projected him into the public eye as a romantic.  Predictably, the project won a coveted national award for construction in wood, 2015.  His dam and wooden road, dominating a UNESCO World Heritage site, has made him famous.  One of the unique places in the world now looks like a steampunk cartoon city.  The first monitor reports are not flattering. The practical workings of the whole system suggest that while it might be an aesthetic success, the cost of maintaining the dam’s hydraulic purpose is cripplingly high because of continuing dysfunction. The anticipated removal of silt has not occurred.  The oak road has already been submerged under high tides.  The ecological profile of the transport system has been compromised.  Not to mention litter, gutter cats, blocked roads around the new car park and its exorbitant fees. Visitor dissatisfaction over the price and quality of hospitality is at breaking point.  The aesthetic element is, of course, the oak.  2300 cubic metres of oak was delivered for the project.  Thousands of trees.  Only 550 cubic metres met the required quality.  Basse-Normandie produces 7.1% of French national output, even though it is one of the least wooded regions of France.  Its premium quality is reflected in the end price: around 4000 euros a cubic metre, being one centennial tree.


4 The Fall

In storms, I watch the trees sway like pensioners at a tea dance.  Rooted to the forest floor, the tips come and go, open and close.  At night they fall like drunken giants.  Like inside an eye of storm, the crack and thump is a hair’s breadth apart.  It’s an untidy view, a wood of walking wounded.  Most come down in southerlies, and point the same way.  Only the ship oaks, ever standfast, hold them up.  Once gone, the rest will fall unprotected.  After the skidders and loaders have gouged out the forest floor, the leaf mould will disappear, the clay will bake, the moss will shrivel and die and within two years, where once there were ferns, cèpes, chanterelles, girolles, trompettes de mort, there will be brambles, foxgloves and thousands of trembling poplar saplings which will leaf and die within a year.  My neighbour’s ship’s oak might earn him 150 euros.  He plans to cut them all down, devil take nature.  He will have taken my shade, privacy, livelihood, spirit, the outer skin off my heart.  I’m not one to hang around, to identify loved trees at roadside mortuaries.  The lanes of my daily round have been piled high with oak trunks these last five years, and I’m sick at the sight of them.  The plundering of mature timber from the inner sanctuaries of habitat untouched for centuries is Mr Weizmann’s legacy, not his pretentious works of art, his hydraulic intervention against the course of nature.  Hypocrisy is also art in Paris.  His reputation is that of a humble super-hero who fights city pollution.  Water Man, he speaks of things in the manner of Cantona, all that “sardines follow the trawler”. That which undoes us, he said in a recent interview, like the white spirit we flush down the toilet, leaves our conscience but doesn’t disappear for all that.  We often evaluate the consequences of our acts very badly.  His own evaluation of those consequences in the Perche are here for all to see.  Hearts torn out of precious forest, the mark of hired chainsaws left behind: discarded plastic jerry cans of chain oil, broken flasks, bottles, sandwich wrappers.  I spend my days on litter patrol instead of mushroom hunting, as forlorn stumps crack and turn grey, thousands of dung beetles are stranded in a desert. Sawmill propaganda has cashed in, out touting for trees.  It has transformed traditional meadows, once dotted with ancient oaks, into bare fields of maize.  Word is out that the oaks are coming down; I’ve seen Chinese timber lorries down my lane, loading up thirty trunks and driving straight to the port at Le Havre. Oak tree owners have been bamboozled into letting go. A humble acre or a lone tree in a garden. A stately row beside a driveway, the covered ridges of mossy embankments.  Cash for an empty sky.


5 Rubbish Dumps

By November, the yurt is a slime green outpost in a moat of liquid bog.  The daily hauling of my hand cart, supplies to the back line, is a gauntlet of stuck boots. The clay opens up. Armies of salamanders in their bitter lemon camouflage seek high ground in the forest salients.  Even the cèpes have nowhere left to go, all skittled out after one mass push.

Without this forest, where will any of us go?  Me, the beasts, fungi, even the water.  How many of the 2.5 million visitors a year to Mont Saint-Michel stop to wonder where the oak road they spit their chewing gum upon actually came from.  Like milkshake-drinking schoolboys who’ve never seen a cow.  As the Forêt du Perche is redefined under leisure and tourism, the gangs of quads and the fly tippers are no longer local.  Militant forums encourage it – there are no coppers in the forest, they say.  Of those twenty-seven men, two would have been the Gardes Champêtres, the rural police established after the revolution to curb similar abuse of the countryside.  Their existence is invisible today, dismantled under bureaucratic subdividing, dwindled since the late 50s from 50,000 to 900.  Today’s rural police are just as likely to throw their cigarette packets from the car window.  Though in twenty-three years I’ve never seen a garde champêtre.  The French have other, peculiar ways of solving a problem.  Brush it under the carpet.


Rubbish disposal is still a personal affair.  Local mayors are levied by the ton, and remaining in power is often a case of merely balancing the budget.  It’s simply cheaper to dispose of communal waste in the forest.  In the Perche they use the landslide method.  This consists of converting an accessible plateau into the dumping ground, usually a clearing on the edge of the forest, one which drops into a ravine or any slope among the trees.  When the rubbish has accumulated into a ten foot pile, diesel is sloshed over it.  A day or two of poisonous smoke from farmer’s plastic, builder’s polystyrene, plant pots, plastic bags of clothes and toys, broken watering cans, rubble, brick, barbed wire, bicycles and anything else the locals care to add.  The surrounding trees are scorched half dead, asphyxiated. Every village in my area has one of these toxic pits, shamelessly visible from the road.  When the rubbish is partially burned and the fire is out, the municipal cantonnier brings his tractor and shovels the pile over the ridge.  It tumbles into the hollow, among the trees, rocks, wild garlic, filtering into streams.  A final scrape of earth, a half burial, leaves a scarred bald patch with rusty metal sticking out, ready for the next round.  The forest is a traditional dumping ground, of course.  The farmers are dab hands.  I once found a human foetus in a rusty bucket among the barn clutter, blue string and barbed wire. Attitudes engraved upon the landscape. The gardes champêtres or police rurale, are answerable to the mayor.  Old mayors with their fingers in their ears, squandering Brussels millions on urbanizing villages for the Parisian second-homers.  Old brick pathways gone for concrete slabs.  Steel bollards and car parks, as boulangeries close and the peasants are forced to build cheap bungalows if they wish to remain on their native soil.  A mayor’s reward is a cul-de-sac named after him, (it’s still a patriarchal system) and some petty political angel waving beside their death bed.  In the meantime old habits die so hard. Ecology is a fad for soixante-huitards, the hippies of 1968.


6 La Gros Fouteau

Former President François Hollande inaugurated the Mont Saint-Michel project, developed mostly under his watch.  In a nearby corner of the woods, close to where I live, where I look for chanterelles in November, where I go for life support, those moments of growing old and breathing with trees, is the ruin of a house, La Gros Fouteau.  Beside the house is a smashed up caravan.  Beside the caravan, in which was probably once the house duck pond, is the worst “official” fly tip I have ever seen. Lorry loads of plastic, polystyrene, builders’ rubbish, car seats, melamine furniture, bottles, tins, everything you’d expect from the rural cross section.  The house is eighteenth-century stone, the roof caved in, ivy clad, consumed by ash trees.  Marie-Louise Thieulin was born into a farming family on this spot on the 25th June, 1830.  She married Jean-Désiré Patrice in 1853.  Their son, Patrice Victor, married Marie-Louise Lauquin in 1891.  Their daughter, Antoinette, married Gustave Hollande in 1919.  Their son Georges is the father of François Hollande, once married to a minister for the environment.


7 Chanel

The House of Chanel launched their Autumn-Winter collection of 2018-19 in March by recreating an autumnal forest setting.  In a communiqué entitled The Disenchanted Forest: when Chanel cut down trees for several hours of fashion parade, the FNE, the French Federation of Associations for the Protection of Nature and the Environment, called it a heresy which illustrates the lack of consideration for the environment in the luxury industry.

Chanel, already indicted for cutting a chunk off the polar ice cap, its taste in animal fur and using real lions, this time took living oak and beech trees, branches intact, along with the forest floor, from my neck of the woods in the Perche, and transported them to the crystal nave of the Grand Palais in Paris.  They laid the moss and dead leaves by the ton, then stood the trees upright in a parody of nature.  Like court jesters, or Royal fools, our oaks are mere amusement for the woodentops of haut couture. After stupefied applause for stick-models dressed like Halloween fairies in a pantomime, the forest was dismantled and thrown in the bin.




DEXTER PETLEY was born in the Weald, Kent, in 1955. He is the author several acclaimed novels, including Little Nineveh, Joyride and White Lies, which was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. He is also the author of a memoir, Love, Madness, Fishing, published by Little Toller. Since leaving Britain over twenty years ago he has lived wild all over France, in sheds, barns, tents, caravans, ambulances and currently a yurt in Normandy, where he keeps chickens and grows vegetables, living off rainwater and editing fiction.

Photography by Dexter Petley.



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