An hour before taking this photograph I was sitting at a café overlooking the tiny market in Chalabre. Reading the local paper while eating my breakfast and preparing for the walk. Front page news was that almost a thousand plane trees are being removed, at the rate of 20 a day, on the admittedly dangerous, or at least accident-ridden, road from Carcassonne to Castelnaudary, the home of the Foreign Legion and Cassoulet.
Several other areas nearer to us, such as Limoux, also have planned tree-removal programmes. This is because, according to the newspaper, trees are involved in 7 out of 10 vehicle accidents.
This has been going on for some time, all over France, and many fear that it will ultimately result in the disappearance of this distinctive feature of the French countryside.
The trees were allegedly planted by Napoleon Bonaparte, or rather at his instigation, to provide shade for his troops as they marched merrily along to invade and subdue all the other countries of Europe. This is very likely a myth as the trees are known to have been prevalent before Napoleon was even a twinkle. Not to mention that, brilliant general though he undoubtedly was, it would have taken extraordinary foresight and planning to have ensured that the trees were up, mature and casting shade in time for his soldiers to benefit. Did he really plan his campaigns 30 or 40 years in advance?
I can confirm that there is a great benefit to the walker from the platanes, especially in the hot months. When I am driving along the same roads, I do not feel threatened by the trees. How can anybody in his right mind think that if a car hits a tree, the tree is to blame?
Of course there are campaigning groups trying to prevent this wholesale destruction of innocent trees. Bodies with names like “Arbres et Routes” and “Amis du Terre” (Friends of the Earth) have had some success in gaining the abandonment of some planned tree removals. Of course these groups claim that the answer should be in changing driver behaviour rather than destroying trees.
But there are other opposing groups, such as one called the Anti-Plane Tree Commando, who one night in recent years sawed down 66 trees on a minor road not too far away from here. The same group, believed to be composed of motorcyclists armed with chain saws, were already believed to be responsible for summarily executing 96 plane trees on another stretch of the same road.