Chestnuts are special. They are here when the year is falling – promise of sustenance for the months to come. They are beautiful – and so is the tree they grow on. They were a staples for centuries – millenia? – allowing people to survive winter.
I was almost 15 when I first encountered a chestnut tree, fallen fruit littering the ground all around it. Which is about the same time I saw my first snow, frozen, in a few compacted drifts, high up on Mont Lozère, in the southern Massif Central of France.
It was All Saints Day school vacation, in late October/early November. My family was living in Provence at the time and we had been invited to spend a few days in Lozere, a beautifully rugged and austere area of France in the Cevennes mountains, part of the French Massif Central, in southern France. Think of them as similar the Blue Ridge mountains (where I now live) – themselves part of the Appalachian mountains of the Eastern US. Both are old mountains, 500 millions years or so. It’s impossible to fathom such ancientness.
The Cevennes are full of human history too, some of it quite dark, as religious persecutions bloodied the area from the 16 through the 18 Century. The remoteness and ruggedness of the countryside allowing some of its inhabitants to escape wars and persecutions. The name “Cevennes” likely harks back to Gaulish times, before the Roman occupation, more than 2,000 years ago.
Chestnut was a vital part of the Cevennes economy – just like chestnut was critical to Appalachia. By some estimates chestnut trees made up 25% of the Appalachian forest before chestnut blight all but decimated them in the early part of the 20th century. And while the species that’s native to Appalachia (Castanea dentata) is not the same as the one that grows in the Cevennes (Castanea sativa ), the tree provided similarly: rot resistant and long lasting wood for fences and buildings; abundant flowering for honey-producing bees; nuts to feed humans and pigs alike (either as fresh nuts, dried nuts or flour); tannins to tan leather; wood for fuel through the practice of coppicing.
On our trip, I remember crossing the Rhone river at Avignon, and marveling at how big the river was (this was 20 years before I stood on the Northern Bank of the St Lawrence river trying to see the other side…)
I remember driving through vast areas of vineyards, on gravely soil, all picked of course – this was long after the harvest, most of the leaves gone and a few errand bunches still hanging, slowly drying in the sharp air. Grapes for the gleaners. That ancient tradition, with its roots in the Bible (remember Ruth gleaning in the field?) is still alive in France. One can go in the field after the owner has harvested it and pick any left overs. It’s legal. We picked a few bunches that were close to the road.
I remember going up the Uzes road, and then up, and up, in those severe mountains, and down a deep valley where village were nestled – all dark stones and red roofs. It was chilly already in late fall. The days were falling fast, the sun westering early.
I was finally meeting landscapes and places I had only read about. As a child of the tropics I could only dream of snow, chestnuts roasting in the fire, hunting for mushrooms in the autumn. Autumn!… autumn is my favorite season now and I was 15 when I first experienced autumn.
I met chestnut timber again – more than 25 years later – when in a trip to France I went to Cluny Abbey – or rather what remains of it. Most of the abbey is gone dismantled stone by stone after the French revolution to build secular buildings. But the late 13th-century granary at the southeast corner of the abbey complex was left alone – as it was a “useful” building (Today it is a museum displaying artifacts and models of Cluny Abbey).
The original (circa 1275) oak-and-chestnut timber roof is still there – having needed only a very light restoration in the last century. It is breath taking. If this was the granary, one has to wonder: what was the sanctuary like?