We met Dave and Heather a few weeks ago. They were aspiring motorhome owners searching for advice about motorhomes, their running costs and the logistics of living in one for extended periods. The married couple offers French cookery lessons from their home on the Canal du Midi close to Trebes. They were delighted to discover that we were spending the winter an hour’s drive from their home. They took advantage of a local Pilote dealer’s ‘Try Before You Buy’ long weekend deal and met us on a stony beach at Leucate.
Dave and Heather agreed to buy a new Pilote from the dealer as soon as they returned their hire vehicle, despite being thrashed severely by a gale force wind howling across Leucate’s exposed lagoon the night before. They invited us to dinner at their canalside home to celebrate future winters filled with opportunity and future nights filled with violent motion.
Their food was exquisite, their company divine, but the abiding memory of a wonderful weekend was the opportunity to experience a landscape which may soon change forever.
We walked along the Canal du Midi on a warm spring morning. We’ve often thought about cruising from the Netherlands through Belgium to France and then south to this iconic waterway. The Canal du Midi became a World Heritage Site in 1996. Because of the natural disaster it faces, the canal may soon lose its status and its appeal to the estimated fifty thousand boaters who cruise the canal each year.
A fungus is killing its plane trees. It was introduced during the second world war by American troops carrying ammunition boxes constructed from United States plane tree timber. The fungus is spread by contact, either through leaves and roots or from passing boaters. More than a third of the Canal’s 42,000 plane trees have already been removed. Not only are the trees lining the canal considered a work of art, but they offer essential shade from the Midi’s 40°F summer sun. Cruising the canal without shade is unpleasant. Trying to live in a moored steel boat under the scorching sun is dangerous, especially for two thick coated dogs.
The Voies Navigables de France (VNF) manages the canal. They plan to replace all the felled plane trees with disease-resistant species such as poplar, pine and oak. The existing tall and majestic planes were planted in 1830. Many years will pass before the new trees offer as much shade as the original towering planes.
VNF tree surgeons have done all they can to reduce the chance of the fungus spreading. They lay matting beneath trees marked for felling. Every leaf, each branch and each flake of sawdust is collected and burned in nearby pits. If a plane tree is infected and felled, so too are two healthy planes either side of it. Stumps and roots are removed too. All that is left after the contractors have gone are neatly landscaped stretches of shade free canal bank.
Despite careful measures to eliminate fungus spread, fifteen thousand diseased planes have been removed so far. The Canal du Midi near Trebes is typical. A few plane trees stand alone like the remaining teeth in an old man’s mouth. It’s a sad sight.
I can only find accounts of plane tree disease on the Canal du Midi. However, if the fungus can be spread by ropes tied to the trees by passing boaters, can’t it also be spread by the clothes of visitors brushing against diseased trunks? These visitors can quickly and easily take the fungus by car to any other part of France. Plane trees are as prominent in France as oak and ash are in England. Perhaps more so. They form stately avenues outside many towns and villages and pollarded planes create dense shade above village squares and pavement cafes.
France without plane trees would be like England without green fields or America without an unhinged president (Just kidding Cynthia).