Thursday, August 20, 2009

Don't ignore the countryside

Everybody must live in a city. At least that is the impression you get when you see how fast public services are disappearing in rural areas here in France and elsewhere in Europe, and how politicians and activists talk about the, in their eyes, horrible inefficiency of living in a place where everything is far away and you always need a car to get around. The carbon footprint! Terrible!

At the same time, ecologists (the same ecologists who are against the use of personal mobility and want everybody to live in dense cities where you can go everywhere on foot or by bicycle) want us to grow our own food in our yards, keep chickens and generally get our food from nearby farms.

See the contradiction? If you live in a densely populated city, thus in an apartment as opposed to some horrible suburban sprawl, you can maybe grow a fistful of cherry tomatoes and some seasonings on your balcony, but you won’t ever be able to grow even a week’s worth of vegetables. Let alone keep chickens for eggs, or other animals. So you will need to buy all of it, more often than not prepackaged. Bad!
And if you live somewhere with enough space to provide most of your own food, compost your organic wastes and so fourth, you are automatically bad for the planet, because you must live in a detached house or farmstead, and you must be driving a car. And you need to drive a lot, as the post office, the bank, the grocery shop and the school are all many kilometres away from your home.

My perspective on this has become that of a neo-rural dweller. We live in a freestanding house in the French countryside, five kilometers from the nearest small town with essential services. The closest city of any importance is about 40 kilometers away, most of that over winding country roads.

But our area produces some of the best beef in the country. Some farmers grow classic grain varieties, mostly organic, that are milled into flour in a local mill, and bakers in our area and that same faraway city use it to bake one of the best breads in France, officially labeled as a local product.

Herds of sturdy Charolais cattle graze the modestly sized hilly pastures, protected against the wind by hedgerows of beech, birch and oak. Bulls are part of the family herds. Meaning they are happy: they are surrounded by their harem of cows and their offspring. Calves suck the milk directly from their mothers’ teats until they can graze themselves, and stay in the family group all their short lives, typically a year, sometimes two, until they are taken to the slaughterhouse in the city. The local butcher sells meat from animals he hand-picks in the fields.
Almost no ‘power fodder’ is added to the animals’ diet. Nor are they frequently injected with hormones or antibiotics. There is no need. Many cattle farmers grow some clover and maize to supplement the winter stock of hay for their animals, and do it in sensible rotation on fields that are humid enough to avoid artificial irrigation.

People here have vegetable gardens, sometimes greenhouses as well; they compost their wastes, many hold chickens, sometimes rabbits (to eat, not for fun), they fish in the nearby river or have fish ponds. Almost every house has a woodburning stove, some as their principal heat source, some as an addition to some form of central heating. There is so much forest here that even if everybody exclusively used wood as fuel, it would hardly make a dent; in fact the greatest worry here is to combat new-growth forest that tends to intrude on fields left unattended as older farmers retire.
The landscape, painstakingly maintained by pruning the hedgerows, is a paradise for birds of all sizes and colours, particularly predatory birds that have become rare elsewhere, such as red and black kites, buzzards, hawks and eagles. Europe’s largest owl species is endemic here, and beavers build dams in the same river where humans have installed a hydro-electric power plant. That river is highly appreciated by sport anglers and canoers - not anywhere near as many as you’ll find in mass tourist areas, as there are no souvenir shops and fast-food outlets along the river banks - there are virgin forests and steep rock cliffs and that is that.

Members of Birdwatch use a dedicated observation point on a nearby hilltop to count migratory birds. The Sioule river gorge plus part of the surrounding plateaus have been designated by the EU as a Natura 2000 protected habitat.

Beautiful, right? Great for holidays, great for biodiversity, great for the production of good, healthy, non-industrial meat, for organic vegetables, goat cheese and so fourth.
Urban dwellers happily eat the food brought in from areas like ours; they revel about the quality of the organic products in the farmers’ markets, and some like to come up here, strap on their hiking boots and enjoy nature.

But this kind of area can only exist because people live here, who work the land and so maintain this varied countryside, produce the meat, milk, vegetables et cetera. Farmers and ‘paysans’. Many of whom have another day (or night) job in a factory or a shop to make ends meet, as extensive non-industrial farming is not very profitable, and never has been.
Those farmers need to live on their lands, near their herds and crop fields. You can’t expect them to commute from cities. And it would be rather harsh to expect them to live in the rural countryside all by their lonesomes, without any neighbours other than a few colleagues and a handful of lumberjacks; without schools for their children; without a post office, a bank, some shops , a pub or two, a small supermarket, a doctor, a pharmacy, an auto repair shop and a gas station. Plus the specific services they need, like vets, a blacksmith to take care of horses’ hooves, a agricultural supply store. Places that are, in turn, run by people who also have families with basic needs.

This means that if our mostly urban society wants to eat good food and go play in the forests and rural countryside during the weekends and summer holidays, people (and thus politicians) must accept that the rural countryside needs populated villages, connected to the cities by effective public transport, and with a minimum level of public services like schools, post offices and medical care. And as long as those villages exist, city-dwelling ecologists should not begrudge a small number of individuals the right to live there, even if they are not farmers or have a farmer-supporting profession. Someone working from a rural home using the internet may still have a smaller carbon footprint than a suburban office worker who has to commute by car every day. And if rural areas are supposed to cater for urban tourists they also need people to run the tourist businesses, even if only part-time: small hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, camp sites, mountain guides, a kayak rental, horse and donkey handlers, even yoga teachers and balloon pilots. And the tourist offices need friendly hostesses. All these people should preferably live near or at their place of work, thus in the countryside.

Small cities and mid-sized towns (as opposed to megacities) are likely the most efficient places for people to live, as they offer a good balance between density of services and the human scale. But these towns must be surrounded by rural countryside to feed them, and that countryside needs to be populated, too.

Ignore that fact at your peril.

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