Saturday, 3 May 2008

Woodland, a boy called Ruby and a dilemma

At last the garden is beginning to look like - a garden. To be fair, the previous owners clearly loved it, and have done some fantastic work in it, but you know what it's like when you've decided to move ... So while the garden wasn't quite a jungle, it certainly would have been in another year or two.

Living where we do, the woodland and its undergrowth encroaches at an alarming rate if it's unchecked. Shortly after we moved in, we had a visit from two elderly local women who, it turned out, had grown up at Grillou over 50 years ago when it was still a farm (one of them still lives in the village, the other in St Girons, just 14 kilometres away; they've rarely been even as far as Toulouse ...). It was amazing to discover that most of the woodland around the house was then still pastureland, though I've since learned that much of the estive - the summer pasture -in the high Pyrénées is also disappearing fast into forest, mainly as a result of depopulation but also of the archaic Napoleonic inheritance system under which the land has been compulsorily divided over the years into ever-smaller and useless parcels, now owned by descendants of former inhabitants to whom they're no use at all except to boast to their Parisian workmates about being a landowner.

For the last fifteen years, a Shetland pony called Ruby lived here and took responsibility for the lawn mowing. The problem was that he (yes, he was a boy, and had the bits to prove it) was nothing if not selective, so while he loved clover and grass, he hated buttercups - pretty wisely, really, as they're poisonous to him. Result? An invasion of creeping buttercup, which may look pretty from a distance but when you get close up to it you quickly discover that (a) it's rough to walk on and (b) it's edged out absolutely everything else.

Actually, there's a story to Ruby. When we were buying the house, we'd asked for an inventory of everything that was to be included in the sale, expecting to see normal things like kitchen units, central heating radiators and so on (you may laugh, but it's by no means uncommon for French owners to strip their house of absolutely everything when they sell it). What we didn't expect them to leave behind was Ruby - after all, you can't have an animal for fifteen years and then just expect to abandon it to two people you don't know from Adam, can you? Wrong. 

We swiftly pointed out to the estate agent that not only did we know nothing about ponies, but that the available grazing land was much to small to nourish even a pint sized pony like Ruby, which ideally needs a hectare to itself. Plus we had plans for the land which didn't include hooves - like creating a huge potager, for example (we must have bought the only house in the entire country without one). No probs, said Bruno, but "let's not involve the owners as they'd be devastated; I know lots of people who'll happily give Ruby a home". Were we mad? Deluded? Hopelessly optimistic? Maybe, but we agreed that he would organise Ruby's adoption, to take place as soon as we'd signed the acte de vente and the house was ours. You can guess the rest: we moved in, and a week later Ruby was still here. Sorry sorry sorry sorry, said Bruno, trying to persuade us that all was in hand. By this time we'd realised that Ruby was not happy and not in a good state, and I contacted everyone I knew (plus more than a few that I didn't) here in Ariège with Ruby's sob story. Amazingly, I had an email from a friend of a friend of a friend, who has lots of land, six horses and two donkeys. A couple of days later Ruby was off to join them. He didn't look back. Here he is now:

Bless. Just after he went, I discovered from our neighbour just how much Ruby had craved company: most nights, he would take advantage of the only sporadically working electric fence to sneak onto the track and down to their house to visit their donkey. After an early breakfast of lettuce and celery from her potager, he'd trawl back up the track and into his field before it got light. Apparently he'd been doing this for years ...

Anyway, the upshot of that rather long tale is that we can no longer boast an ecological lawnmower. And that in itself is at the heart of a major dilemma that we've found ourselves faced with here: to live a simple, Slow, rural life, growing our own vegetables and fruit, looking after our land, means relying on a number of hefty, petrol driven machines to help us. That's a tough one for two people who've been trying to live a low carbon life for the last eight years, but I'm not sure that there's a serious alternative. So although we remain, out of choice, a one-car couple, and still make each car journey fulfill several functions, we're also the owners of heavy-duty brushcutter, chainsaw and lawn mower, all of which are in near daily use at the moment as we do our level (actually it's not so level) best to restore the land back to something of its original beauty.

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