Sunday, 8 July 2012

Rotsblog walking GR5 (3): Jura landscapes

Day 2: Métabief - Mouthe

June 14, 2012
22 km

Métabief is a well-known skiing destination. There is a number of ski lifts and pistes in the immediate vicinity. In the village itself, there are several shops selling sports gear. There is only one small grocery store, though, inconveniently located on the wrong side of the village, away from our trail. But we do have to go there, as we need to get some food and drinks. By the time we finally leave the village it is already getting late. It is a warm and sunny day, completely unlike yesterday.

We start the day with a long and serious climb: the first mountain of the week, Le Morond (1420 m). The first part of the climb goes through forest. Later, we pass half-open grassland. In winter, this mountain is popular among downhill skiers; in summer, it is used by hikers and mountainbikers. It takes about one hour to walk from Métabief to the summit of Le Morond, and the last part of the climb is very steep. When we arrive, we are surrounded by beautiful views; green mountains and valleys, as far as we can see. In the south, snow-covered Alps are floating in the air.

Climbing Le Morond
We continue our walk along a high mountain edge, towards Le Mont d'Or, the gold mountain. The views are absolutely stunning, and we enjoy our walk to the fullest. We are not the only ones walking here - during the summer holidays, this place probably gets very crowded, but fortunately we are early this year. Our trail does not lead us to the summit of Le Mont d'Or; in stead, we turn right, away from the popular mountain edge. The landscape changes. We now walk through hilly grass fields, surrounded by woodland, populated by big cows wearing bells around their necks. Every now and then, we pass a dilapidated old farm building. There is no human being to be seen.

Le Mont d'Or
We get a cup of coffee at the Chalet la Boissaude, a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, then enjoy a late lunch out in the field. Next, we continue our path through the rolling semi-rural, semi-wild landscapes. The grass fields give way to forest, which give way to fields, which give way to forest, and so on. The fields are filled with colourful flowers. The road is uneven, long, and has many holes, caused by the cows walking around here. Our feet hurt, and we play quiz games to get a bit of distraction. Fortunately, the last kilometres go through more dense forest, on easier terrain. At the end of the afternoon, we descend to the source of the river Doubs, and walk into a lovely green valley. We follow the river to the charming village of Mouthe, where we are going to spend the night.

The river Doubs, near Mouthe

Review: Chambres d'hôtes La Chaumière, Mouthe

€25,- per night per person (including breakfast; dormitory-style, no sheets or towels).
** (2/5)

Once upon a time (i.e., ten years ago), many French villages had a so-called gîte d'étape, where walkers and cyclists could spend the night in a bunk bed for around 8 euros per person, and use the kitchen. Today, many of these places have disappeared, while others have been transformed into hostel-type group accommodation, or bed & breakfasts. Mouthe still has a gîte d'étape, but we cannot stay there, as the entire place has been rented by a school class - an annoying practice, that happens all-too-often these days. So we stay in a bed & breakfast, called La Chaumière, that offers a 'special deal' for walkers - a bed in a small dormitory room (four beds), where you are supposed to use your own sleeping bag and towel. However, at €25,- per person, this can hardly be called economical. The room looks pretty, and the shower is hot. Unfortunately, though, the mattresses are old and uncomfortable - for that money, one would at least expect a decent mattress. Breakfast is included in the price - it is basic but OK, except for a disgusting frozen kiwi. In addition, it is quite odd, to say the least, that check-out time is as early as 9am - something we were not informed about when we made the reservation.

Nature-culture landscapes

One of the fundamental myths of modernity is that there is a thing called 'nature' - a category encompassing most non-human animal species, plants and trees, as well as landscapes that do not show obvious signs of human involvement - which is diametrically opposed to things called 'society' and 'culture'. The former is seen as the origin of life, not influenced by human action but preceding it, as 'pure' and 'wild'. The latter is seen as shaped by human action, and antithetical to the former. Forests are generally perceived as 'nature', as they are composed of trees and plants; even though they may have been planted, and even though they may have taken shape in interaction with human farming and foraging practices. Buildings are generally perceived as culture, as they were built by human beings; even though the materials with which they were built were taken from the soil or the forest, and even though they are inhabited by a variety of organisms interacting with each other (humans, dogs, cats, plants, germs, mice, cockroaches and so on).

The distinction between nature and culture has significant consequences for our perception of reality, and for the ways in which we imagine and shape societies and landscapes. It is reproduced by academia (the institutions that produce, sanction and discredit truth narratives in modern society), where the study of 'nature' is carefully separated - by means of institutional, linguistic and subcultural boundaries - from the study of 'culture' (including literature, religion, politics and so on). It is also reflected in landscape production. Planners, policy-makers and politicians have divided space into areas used for 'human population' (culture), industry (culture), agriculture (culture), and 'nature'. Following nineteenth-century American conservationist ideology, 'pure' nature is perceived (by planners and environmentalists alike) as being 'wild' and 'untouched' by human hands. Hence the forced displacement of native communities after the construction of 'national parks', for example in Africa (and the subsequent forestation of savanna landscapes, when there is no more cattle to eat small trees). And hence the lack of interest in rural, agricultural landscapes on the part of most environmentalists, despite their ecological significance.

Recently, the paradigmatic nature-culture dichotomy has been questioned by a number of scholars. They have challenged structures for academic knowledge production, landscape divisions based on a strict nature-culture dichotomy, as well as the anthropocentric bias in the humanities and social sciences. In stead, they have drawn attention to ways in which human societies interact with and are shaped by a variety of non-human (animal, material, microbial) actors. On the other hand, they have also pointed out that many supposedly 'natural' landscapes are 'cultured', have histories, and are co-produced by human actors. Well-known scholars who have contributed to this paradigm shift include Donna Haraway, Tim Ingold, Bruno Latour and Anna Tsing. Their work is intriguing, as it challenges well-established categories. I am currently in the process of reading Anna Tsing's masterpiece Friction, based on ethnographic research in Borneo, in which she looks at the interplay between globalisation, deforestation, environmentalism and spatial practices. Highly recommended.

One of the things I like about walking is that it always makes me realise that landscapes do not obey maps. On the map, space is clearly divided: human settlement is red, roads are yellow, industry is grey, agriculture is light-green, forest is dark-green, water is blue. In reality, though, the boundaries between fields and forests are fluid, as are the boundaries between human settlements and surrounding 'nature'. Cows leave their 'agricultural' land, and walk in the forest, where they change the ecosystem by eating certain plants. Fields are forgotten, give way to trees, and become forest. Other forests shrink, as villages grow and push them away. Meanwhile, however, some houses are abandoned by human beings, and claimed by bats and birds. 'Natural' forests are used by people, who come to log and replace certain tree species by others. Fields used for agriculture, on the other hand, house a variety of species not controlled by human actors; they are inhabited by flowers, insects and 'weeds', who do not care about spatial divisions. In Europe, there are hardly any 'untouched', primeval natural landscapes. Every landscape is historically and culturally shaped, as much as it is shaped by environmental factors. Meanwhile, 'cultural' landscapes - not only those used for agriculture, but also cities - are full of non-human actors that exercise influence on places and their historical development.

When you walk in the Jura, you realise that there is no such thing as a distinction between 'natural' and 'cultural' landscapes. It is not even easy to divide between forest and field, let alone between nature and culture. Nature and culture are intertwined, and take shape in continuous interaction. The landscape has a social history, as much as it is part of a natural environment.

1 comment:

  1. Heerlijk om de dagen nogmaals te beleven. Ze verdwijnen te gemakkelijk uit je herinnering.
    Leuke opdeling met review en iets beschouwelijks.