The Landes of Gascony

THE Breton “Cornwall” has been called by a popular French writer, “the Arabia Petrea of Brittany.” But we might, perhaps, with greater justice apply to this sombre region, peopled as it is with fantastic visions, the name of “Land of Fear,” which the Arabs bestow on the Great Desert. Less vivid, it may be, but graver and more profound is the impression produced by the Landes and Dunes of Gascony. These deserts of the south, which Michelet terms “the vestibule and threshold of the Ocean,” appeal less powerfully to the imagination. They are haunted by no historical memories, no traditions or marvellous legends in which man has rudely embodied his dim conceptions of the mysteries of nature; they are crowded with no monuments of antiquity to revive the shadows of the heroes and priests of ancient Gaul; and when these are wanting, what shall supply their place? But ample scope exists for the assiduous labours of the naturalist, who here may see at work those unresting forces which have inspired every revolution of the globe's surface; who may contemplate here the phenomena that occur with the same regularity as in the days when man had not been fashioned after his Maker's image—

“Him framing like himself, all shining bright;
A little living sun, son of the living light.”[7]

These despoiled plains, these inhospitable wilds, alternately dry and marshy; these sullen pools, these mountains of shifting sand, speak forcibly to his mind of their past history, which is not one of the least curious episodes of the history of the physical world.

The department which borrows its name from the Landes of Gascony is divided by the Adour into two wholly dissimilar parts.


To the south of the river lies a rich, undulating, vine-bearing country, rich in pasturage and harvest, sown with pleasant villages and smiling country houses, and watered by full streams and little rivers. To the north, the appearance of the country changes abruptly. When the traveller has crossed the alluvial zone of the Adour he sees before him a thin, dry, sandy level of a comparatively recent marine formation. Its only products are rye, millet, and maize; its only vegetation, forests of pines and scattered coppices of oaks; beyond these, and they do not extend far, all cultivation ceases, and the soil is stripped of verdure; you enter upon the Landes—seemingly vast as a sea—occupied by permanent or periodical swamps; and where, over a space of several square leagues, in an horizon apparently boundless, you perceive nothing but heaths, sheepfolds or steadings for the flocks of sheep that traverse these deserts, and shepherds keeping mute watch over their animals, living wholly among them, and having no intercourse with the rest of humanity, except when once a week they seek their masters' houses to procure their supply of provisions. It is these shepherds only (Landescots  and Aouillys ), and not, as is generally supposed, all the peasants of the Landes, who are perched upon stilts, so as to survey from afar their wandering flocks, and to traverse more safely the marshes which frequently lie across their path.

Wild and uncouth are the figures which these stilt-walkers present, as they move rapidly over the country, often at the rate of six or seven miles an hour; occasionally indulging in an interval of rest, by the aid of a third wooden support at the back (curved at the top, so as to fit the hollow of the body), while they pursue their favourite pastime of knitting. The dress of the Landescot is singularly rude. His coat or paletôt is a fleece; cuisses and greaves of the same material protect his legs and thighs; his feet are thrust into sabots and coarse woollen socks, which cover only the heels and instep. Over his shoulder hangs the gourd which contains his week's store of provisions: some mouldy rye-bread, a few sardines, some onions and cloves of garlic, and a flask of thin sour wine. From sunrise to sunset  he lives upon the stilts, never touching the ground. Sometimes he drives his flock home at eventide; sometimes he bivouacs sub jove frigido, under the cold heaven of night. Unbuckling his stilts, and producing his flint and steel, he soon kindles a cheery fire of fir-branches, and gathering his sheepskins round him, composes himself to sleep; his only annoyances being the musquitoes, and his fears of the evil tricks of wizard or witch, who may peradventure catch a glimpse of him in the moonlight, as they ride past on their besom to some unholy gathering or demon-dance.

An English traveller has sketched in vivid colours the landscape of the Landes. Over all its gloom and barrenness, he remarks, over all its “blasted heaths,” its monotonous pine-woods, its sudden morasses, its glaring sand-heaps, prevails a strong sense of loneliness, a grandeur and intensity of desolation, which invests the scene with a sad, solemn poetry peculiar to itself. Emerging from the black shadows of the forest, the pilgrim treads a plain, “flat as a billiard-table,” apparently boundless as the ocean, clad in one unvaried, unbroken garb of dusky heath. Sometimes stripes and ridges, or great ragged patches of sand, glisten in the fervid sunshine; sometimes belts of scraggy young fir trees appear rising from the horizon on the right, and sinking into it again on the left. Occasionally a brighter shade of green, with jungles of willows and water weeds, giant rushes, and “clustered marish mosses,” will tell of the “blackened waters” beneath—

“Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarlèd bark;
For leagues no other tree doth mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.”[8]

The dwellings which stud this dreary, yet not wholly unpoetic landscape, are generally mere isolated huts, separated oftentimes by many miles. Round them spreads a miserable field or two, planted with such crops as might be expected on a poor soil and from deficient cultivation. The cottages are mouldering heaps of sod and  unhewn and unmortared stones, clustered round with ragged sheds composed of masses of tangled bushes, pine-stakes and broad-leaved reeds, beneath which the meagrest looking cattle conceivable find a precarious shelter.[9]

The Landes are divided into the Little Landes, near Mont-de-Marsan; and the Great Landes, stretching to the north and west of the department of which that town is the capital, and uniting uninterruptedly with those that occupy the vast country situated south of the Gironde. The total superficial area of these plains is estimated at upwards of 2,400,000 acres, of which two-thirds belong to the department of the Landes, and the remainder to that of the Gironde.

Yet the reader must not believe this country to be a desert in the popular acceptation of the word; it has its forests of pines, where the extraction and preparation of resinous matter are carried on with considerable activity. It has its small towns, its pretty villages, its factories, and even its handsome villas. Finally, modern industry has cut the Landes in two by the Bordeaux railway, which traverses them from north to south, and bifurcates at Morans to throw off a line to Bayonne, and another to Tarbes.

In shape, the Great Landes may be compared to an immense rectangular triangle, having for its base the coast, which, from the mouth of the Gironde to Bayonne, or for a length of more than sixty leagues, is almost rectilineal. But they are separated from the sea by a long parallel chain of lakes and water-courses—a waste of shallow pools—a labyrinth of gulfs and morasses, and then by the continuous chain of the Dunes, of which we shall speak in the following chapter.

That which is commonly called the Great Lande is bounded on the north by the étang, or lake, of Cazau. It is a sandy, treeless plain, and upon which, for a traject of several leagues from east to west, not one habitation worthy of the name is perceptible until the traveller arrives at Mimizan, near the southern point of the lake of Aureilhan. This lake on the south-west pours its waters into the sea. To the north it communicates, through the canal of St. Eulalie, with the lake of Biscarosse, which is itself connected with that of Cazau. East of this chain of lakes lies the Lande; west of it stretches the range of Dunes, or sand-hills.

The lake or pool of Cazau is a small sea of fresh water, perfectly clear, profoundly deep, and fourteen to fifteen thousand acres in extent. It has its whirlwinds and its tempests, so that in certain seasons it is perilous to embark on its surface. And were its banks clothed with rich woods, or raised aloft in irregular or precipitous cliffs, it would surely attract as great a throng of tourists as the mountain-tarns and lochs of Scotland or Cumberland, or the Arcadian waters of Northern Italy. The lake of Biscarosse, in form a triangle, with one side formed by the Dunes, covers about twelve thousand acres. It derives its name from a village situated at its northern angle, on the bank of the canal which connects it with the lake of Cazau. The lake of Aureilhan is the smallest of the three; the St. Eulalie canal, which links it to the preceding, traverses a series of peat-bogs bounded eastward by gloomy pine-forests, and westward by the interminable Dunes, which, by arresting the flow of the rain-waters, have really created these so-called lakes and extensive swamps. Enormous quantities of rain fall every year in the Landes,—which district the Romans would certainly have dedicated to Jupiter Pluvius,—and find beneath the thin superficial stratum or crust of sand and earth, a sub-soil of tufa  and allios —in other words, of compact chalk and sand agglutinated by a ferruginous sediment. Frequently this tufa  possesses all the hardness of stone, and its imperviousness is its fundamental property. Hence it follows, that a portion of the heavy annual rainfall remains in the receptacles provided by the hollows and depressions of the soil, and in due time accumulates into marshes and lagoons, until gradually evaporated by the heat of spring.

When of old the scared peasants beheld the irresistible advance of these strange ministers of destruction, they had no other resource than to fell their woods, abandon their dwellings, and surrender their “little all” to the pitiless sand and devouring sea. What could avail against such a scourge? Efforts were made to repel it. It is  said that Charlemagne, during a brief residence in the Landes, on his return from his expedition against the Saracens, employed his veterans, and expended large sums of money in preserving the cities of the coast from imminent ruin; but whether the means employed were insufficient, or whether the imperial resources failed, and other urgent needs diverted the population and their leaders from this struggle against nature, the works were wholly abandoned.

Of late years they have been resumed, and with greater success, by a skilful agriculturist, M. Desbiey, of Bordeaux, and an able engineer, M. Bremontier, who have called in nature herself to assist man in his war against nature. Their system consists of sowing in the driest sand the seeds of the sea-pine, mixed with those of the broom (genista scoparia ), and the psamma arenaria. The spaces thus sown are then closely covered with branches to protect them from the action of the winds. These seeds germinate spontaneously. The brooms, which spring up rapidly, restrain the sand, while sheltering the young pines, and thenceforth the Dune ceases to move, because the wind can no longer unsettle its substance, and the grains are held together by the roots of the young plants. The work is always begun on the inland side, in order to protect the farmer and the peasant, and to withdraw the infant forest from the unwholesome influence of the ocean-winds. And, in order that the sown spaces shall not themselves be buried under the sands blown up from the shore, a palisade of wicker-work is raised at a suitable distance, which, reinforced by young plants of sandwort (psamma arenaria ), check the moving sands for a sufficiently long time to favour the development of the seeds. Finally, the work is completed by the construction of a substantial wall, or rather an artificial cliff, which effectually prevents the further progress of the flood, or directs it seaward, to be arrested on its course by the barrier of the sand-hills. Unable to force a passage through these natural ramparts, they have excavated certain basins, more or less extensive, more or less deep, which have formed into inland seas, communicating with the Atlantic by one narrow issue.

It is a noteworthy fact that, owing to the encroachment of the Dunes, these lakes have been constantly forced back upon the inland country. Fortunately, this menacing invasion of the sands has been checked by the great engineering works executed a few years ago; which, on the one hand, have fixed, and, as it were, solidified the Dunes, and, on the other, have provided for the regular outflow of the waters. The Landes have thus been opened to the persevering labours of the cultivator. The culture of the pine, and the manufacture of resinous substances, have largely extended, and the time, perhaps, is not far distant when these deserts will almost completely disappear; when these desolate and unproductive plains will pleasantly bloom, transformed into shadowy woods or verdurous meadows.[10]

To so fortunate a result nothing will more powerfully contribute than the embankment of the Dunes. These have been, in reality, the true scourge of this country; these were the moving desert, the constantly ascending sea, which had already engulfed forests, villages, even towns, under its billows of sand, and driven before it the terrified inhabitants of the coast.

[7] P. Fletcher, “The Purple Island,” canto i. 45.

[8] Tennyson, Poems: “Mariana.”

[9] Angus Reach, “Claret and Olives.”

[10] The fir plantations, which are so numerous in the Landes, were first formed in 1789, under the direction of the minister, M. Necker (father of Madame de Stael). In 1862, the department had a population of 300,859. Acreage, 2,434,752.