A historian interpreting the broader significance of these events is in the position of a passer-by on a lane in Montmartre, looking up at the twitching arms of the telegraph as it transmits the coded news to the city below. Should they be construed as acts of state violence perpetrated against colonial populations that might otherwise have lived in peace? Or were they a political expression of deep divisions in the population? Were the provinces of France unable to coexist without domestic enemies? Citizens of modern France who have suffered official persecution may find it significant that, after the Vendée uprising, both sides agreed that the true villain was the converted Jew who betrayed the Duchesse de Berry.
Perhaps it was simply that the centralization of power made the nation vulnerable to invasion. France was repeatedly reconquered by French forces. French governments crushed revolutions in 1832, 1848, 1871 and 1968. They conducted coups d'état or, euphemistically, enacted emergency legislation, in 1851 and 1940. The Duchesse de Berry's small invasion was not unique. It seemed ridiculous only because it failed. Eight years later, in August 1840, Napoleon's nephew also made himself a laughing-stock by chartering a pleasure boat in London and sailing to Boulogne-sur-Mer with sixty men and a caged vulture masquerading as an imperial eagle. He proclaimed himself the new head of state, was arrested after accidentally shooting a man in the face and sent to prison at Ham, in the swampy part of the Somme. Yet two years after escaping from prison disguised as a labourer with a plank of wood to hide his face, Louis-Napoléon was elected President of France. Three years after that, he conducted a coup d'état and, as Emperor Napoleon III, founded the Second Empire, thus proving, according to Baudelaire, that 'the first person to come along can, by seizing control of the telegraph and the national printing works, govern a great nation'.
The most dramatic act of colonization in the west - the uprooting and flattening of the bocage - was ecological vandalism on a grand scale, but just a hint of things to come. The towering banks and interminable green tunnels of the bocage survive today only in a few parts of western France, not because of military recolonization, but because the population and its patchwork fields were commandeered and regimented by large-scale farming. By the mid-nineteenth century, the cosy but inconvenient hedgerows were giving way to a fertile desert of wheat. Winter had become a season of work. Old people sadly remembered the days when they had stayed up to talk into the night instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour.
The most spectacular example of the railways' power to drain the population of a town was Beaucaire on the Rhône. Since the early Middle Ages, Beaucaire's enormous international fair (21-28 July) had been France's main commercial link with Turkey, Greece and the Middle East. The fair was said to make as much money in a week as the port of Marseille did in a year. By the mid-nineteenth century, this capital of the commercial Mediterranean was in decline. The railway connected it to Lyon, Paris, Marseille and the silk-producing Cévennes and leached away its trade. Beaucaire suffered the paradoxical fate of the twenty other large towns whose population stagnated or shrank during the nineteenth century: eleven of those towns were joined to the railway in the 1850s and all but three had stations before the mid-1860s. The Beaucaire fair was still held every July, but the huge encampment of traders, buyers and entertainers, who had once numbered a hundred thousand, grew noticeably smaller by the year. Soon, the fair was more picturesque than profitable. The broad, brown Rhône itself seemed to become narrower and more sluggish. In Lou Pouèmo dóu Rose (The Poem of the Rhône, 1896), the poet Mistral looked back a generation as though to ancient times and compared the grooves cut by the barges' cables on the stone embankments to the ruts of chariot wheels on Roman roads. The fairgrounds of Beaucaire are now a long, flat riverbank of weeds and rubbish haunted by dog-walkers and bored teenagers.
These factories should not be imagined suddenly implanting themselves on a pristine landscape. The thumping cotton mills of Sotteville and Saint-Sever on the outskirts of Rouen and the blast furnaces and silhouette-black villages along the Belgian river Meuse concentrated earlier scatterings of local industries. The countryside in many parts of France became 'unspoilt' only as a result of government- funded conservation projects in the twentieth century. A typical pre-industrial landscape in Picardy or the Ardennes was a mess of smoky forges, stinky black fields where the hemp was laid out to dry and slum colonies of wobbly windmills, compared to which modern wind turbines that seem to cartwheel across the hilltops are an exhilarating sight. Workers in these traditional industries were more likely to die young. For various reasons, it was unusual to find elderly people in the following trades: hemp-carding (stagnant, freezing water), weaving (damp cellars, smoky lamps and long hours), threshing and winnowing (dust), woodcutting (accidents and sweating in the cold) and charcoal-burning (malnutrition and lack of light).
The mulberry trees that brighten the countryside all over Provence, the Cévennes and Corsica are picturesque memorials of the agricultural gold rush of the mid-nineteenth century when better communications and the availability of credit made it possible for a peasant to grow a single crop for cash instead of a variety of plants for food and fertilizer. The mulberry trees were stripped of their shiny green leaves every spring to feed the silkworms; the second, tougher growth was fed to goats. The effect, apparently, was hideous: acres of leafless trees that looked like shaggy brooms stuck in the ground. Apart from the overgrown, collapsing terraces that were cut into the hillsides and the almost windowless tenements where the heated silkworms munched the leaves and made the sound of heavy rain, there is nothing in the verdant scenery on either side of the Rhône to show that life in the land of industrial vegetation was just as hard and unpredictable as it was in the foundries and coalfields.
In 1852, a disease called pébrine began to spread among the silkworms. By the time Louis Pasteur discovered the cause and a cure in 1869, the industry had collapsed, the Suez Canal had opened and cheaper silk was being imported from the East. A worm had brought prosperity and a micro-organism took it away. At about the same time, the vines that smallholders had rushed to plant on their plots of rye and wheat were attacked by a peppery mildew called oidium. American vines were imported to replace the diseased stock. Then, in 1863, some wine growers in the Gard noticed the leaves and roots of the new vines turning brown and black. The phylloxera aphid eventually destroyed more than six million acres of vineyard from Nice to Burgundy and from Narbonne to the Loire. For many peasants, it confirmed their belief that they should never have abandoned the old ways. This imported parasite did more than anything else to speed up the French colonization of Algeria. Thousands of people left the country or threw themselves on the mercy of northern industry, leaving behind a stony land that was greener and more pleasant to the eye than ever before.
The biggest intentional change was the creation of a new geographical zone in the south-west. Less than two centuries ago, most of the Landes was a two-million-acre heath, five days long and three days wide. Almost nothing grew there but gorse, broom, heather, moor grass, helianthemums and lichens. On a clear, dry day, the white line of the Pyrenees could be seen a hundred miles away. In winter, the reflections of clouds sailed over vast stagnant pools of rainwater. With its impermeable layer of sandstone, the Landes was like a flower-pot without a hole, tilted very slightly towards the great barrier of dunes on the Atlantic coast. It took about ten sheep on thirty acres of land to fertilize a single acre of oily black soil. With a hundred sheep, a family of ten could live like castaways in their low wooden houses.
Not a single patch of the original Landes remains. The beautifully preserved village of Marquèze, which stands at the end of a small railway line near Sabres, is an exact, reverse image of the original settlement. Once, it was an oasis of trees in a boundless moor; now, the village is a clearing in the largest artificial forest in Europe. In 1857, a law on 'the Purification and Cultivation of the Landes of Gascony' accelerated the draining and tree-planting that had been carried out in a desultory fashion since prehistory. The bill was championed by Napoleon III, who bought twenty thousand acres of the Landes and created an experimental farming community called Solférino, in honour of his victory over the Austrians. A hundred and sixty-two communes in the Landes and Gironde départements were forced to turn their common land into pine plantations or, failing that, to sell it to developers. Thousands of acres were sold at auction. All but 7 per cent of the Landes is still in private hands. In the time that it takes for a seed to become a sapling, the agro-pastoral way of life was dealt a fatal blow. Iron foundries, refineries and paper factories sprang up in the forest.
...In 1889, a traveller arriving in Biarritz on the train from Bordeaux was asked by an old man if it was true that the Landes had changed since he last saw them forty years before:
'You ask how I found the Landes? . . . Well, I didn't. Shortly after leaving Bordeaux, the train entered an interminable forest of pine and oak with an occasional cultivated clearing grazed by some remarkably fine animals. Yet I knew that I hadn't forgotten my geography: "The Landes: a vast plateau of barren sand, waterlogged in winter and scorched by the sun in summer. Wretched population, debilitated by fevers and pellagra (a disease peculiar to this region). Breeding of a small race of sheep."'
The empty landscapes of the Landes are now known only through the photographs of Félix Arnaudin, a shy ethnologist who gave up a career in the Highways and Bridges to walk and cycle through the Grande Lande (the area north and west of Mont-de-Marsan) from the 1870s to 1921 with his heavy German camera, recording a disappearing way of life.
The scale of the disaster is obvious in photographs taken by the Restoration of Mountain Terrains service of the Forestry Department between 1885 and the First World War. Many of these photographs are unrecognizable as scenes of Provence. Mountains that had once marked the frontiers of France as though the frontiers would never change seem to have been smashed to pieces by a million road-menders. The bleached, lunar summit of Mont Ventoux and the sharp black stones that trickle down from the summit of the Bonette Pass on Europe's highest road are just tiny remnants of the desert that once covered much of south-eastern France. The tidy little pyramids of northern coalfields are picturesque monuments compared to the titanic slag heaps of the Alps and their foothills.
...SOME OF THE MOST tenacious inhabitants of 'the ruins' lived in the heart of the Dévoluy massif. Two cols west of the 4,000-foot Col Bayard on the road from Gap to Grenoble, where Napoleon had passed on his return from Elba, the village of Chaudun was home to more than a hundred people. It had a fifteenth-century church, a small school and a few over-farmed acres of pasture and beech wood. In 1860, when the state had decided to 'restore' the mountains, the Forestry Department offered to buy the badly eroded territory of Chaudun, but the people refused. They stayed on in the shadeless village of their ancestors, watching the face of the mountains age and their soil turn to stone.
One day, they found themselves without a furrow. The fields of oats and rye had been carried off by torrents; most of the forest had gone; a few potatoes grew in earth that had been lugged up from the valleys. When they saw their birthright reduced to rubble, they wrote to the government, begging it to buy their useless acres. The deed of sale was signed in August 1895 and the people of Chaudun left their last, inadequate harvest to the weather. According to the last surviving inhabitant, 'when the people left the village, they all cried. At that moment, they understood the act of betrayal they had just committed'.
Perhaps this was the inevitable end of several millennia of human occupation. But not long after the people had left, the stubble of a new forest began to appear. Millions of seeds sprouted on slopes that had been stabilized by dykes, terraces and drainage tunnels. This time, the colonizing power was the French state and the plants and animals it protected. The homes of the previous occupants fell before the advance of the larches planted by the Forestry Department. Something resembling a virgin forest, complete with deer and mouflons, covered the Cirque de Chaudun. The area is now a ZNIEFF (Zone Naturelle d'Intérêt Écologique, Faunistique et Floristique)