France – Through A French Forest

Afterward we rode through more green and lovely country, and picturesque villages, and over great cool uplands, with too poor a soil to produce the greatest horses, for horses grow best from pastures rich in lime. The roads seemed to prefer to climb to the high ridges and keep there, and there also we found many little villages. We noted the smiling valleys stretched out below us, far as the eye could reach, all dotted with trees and picturesque gables of farms. In the poorer soil of the highlands grew beeches and birches, and all the vegetation was unlike that of the rich valleys. Gorse, broom and even heather appeared along the way, with all manner of blossoming things. The farms grew rye and oats, and colts were not much seen in the pastures. At last, with no warning, we wound about through a sleepy little village where men had an old sawmill; just beyond we entered a forest, vast, deep, solemn, ancient and honorable forest—a dim, shady, mysterious, temple-like forest, where one could look afar between straight and lofty stems of oak and beech. Not a fallen branch lay on the earth. It was a forest that one felt had always been there, made by the very spirit of the hills, of magic, compelling wonder, love and half-fear, where to clear or despoil would indeed be sacrilege. At first, I dreaded lest we should, with our swift-running machine, dash hastily through and be done; but no fear; we sped on and on through the dim, silent aisle of the white road, straight as an arrow, little traversed yet perfect as a city street. Here and there we passed narrow intersecting wood roads that went into the further depths. We met teams coming out laden with spoil of logs and of wood, but for mile after mile the road stretched. In the very heart of the forest we came to a greater national highway, finer than one of our good park roads, with green and close-cropped grass along its edges. It was a wide, straight, white highway; along it streamed an endless procession of wagons and carriages, donkey carts and people on foot. There was a great spring in the green depths; walled ages ago with stone, and near by was a summer house where picnickers loitered, but did not mar nor deface. We drank at the fount and then passed on, as one passes from a dream into waking life again. We had seen a forest, a state forest, a well-managed, profitable, eternal forest that belonged to all the people of France—such, let us hope, as we may see in our own land some day. This was the forest of Belleme. I hope that it will endure for thousands of years, growing trees and silences and cool places and emotions that touch the heart of man and make him reverent and grateful and happy.

My friends went back to their work in Paris, and with Mr. Fletcher and Ernest Perriot I went from farm to farm, looking at the colts at the sides of farmers’ mares—one at this farm, two there,. three at another place. Each colt had been sired by one of M. Perriot’s horses; he therefore felt a special interest in it, as it was his right to purchase it if the colt showed quality. We saw the mares usually at work, some of them at hard work, and in thin flesh; more often they were gently worked, and were in fine order. The better the pastures the better the mares and their colts. At one farm a lad above a barn on a hillside was plowing. I went to turn a furrow for him. The soil was a stiff clay, like the soils of limestone in central Ohio, but so well manured that it was filled with earthworms. In an adjoining field was alfalfa. The mares took their work steadily and easily, and were never hurried. .The land had already had one plowing, and this was the second, so often given in France. I observed the tranquil manners of the great mares and knew that they were quite unused to blows or sharp cries. Just below us in the stable the colts were munching green clovers and sound, dry oats. The men never forget their charges. At every opportunity there is a kind word, a rubbing of noses, a patting and caressing that the colts enjoyed. One could put one’s hand on any part of the little animal, and it showed neither resentment nor fear.

There, that was written five years ago ; it introduces us to France and to my friends, the Hopkinses.

We will go afield with them presently. I think the French farmer of the best type is the most successful in the world. He is close to his work, his soil, his animals and his men. Rich he may be, and highly educated, yet he never seems to leave off his personal touch with the soil itself. The British farmer is more or less of a “gentleman;” he delegates the work to foremen and himself goes driving off to the market, where he may spend many hours at the inn, while a bailiff wrestles feebly with the problem of pushing the farm work. It is not so with the French farmer; he is “on the job” all the time, sternly practical, and a devout lover of fertility, good crops and good animals. Usually, however, the Englishman excels in adorning the home grounds, planting lawns and parks and all that; the Frenchman is too sternly practical to do much along that line. The French farmer is a pastmaster of soils and leguminous crops.