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Friday, August 30, 2013


We live on the outskirts of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 12 miles west of Paris, on the edge of what was once a region of small farms and fruit orchards. The farms are largely gone now, eaten up by suburban expansion, but a five minute walk from our house takes us to the remnants of the orchards. When we moved to this area in 2000, a number of them were still active, producing raspberries, apples, pears and peaches for sale in local markets. Today, sadly, most of them are no longer cultivated. They lie fallow and overgrown as their owners presumably wait for land prices to rise so they can sell their fields to housing developers for a tidy profit. We are witnessing the end of an era that goes back to pre-Roman times.
The nearby village of Mareil-Marly, first populated during the Celtic period, was for centuries surrounded by prosperous vineyards. Like most of the vines in France, they were killed off by the Phylloxera virus in the mid-19th century. Those around Mareil-Marly were never replaced, but the fruit orchards survived. One of our great pleasures when we moved here was to walk through the picturesque village and follow a narrow path, surrounded by ancient stone walls, that led to a pear and peach orchard on the edge of town. The neat rows of trees had been pruned and shaped for more than a century,  their branches curving out and upwards until they resembled candelabras. From early summer on, the pears would appear on the branches, grow bigger, and finally ripen in September.
Another of our favorite walks, often with our German shepherd Tasha, took us down a narrow country road lined with plum, hazelnut, and walnut trees. Off the road, behind a thicket of bushes, there was a big field enclosed by hedges. On its periphery, there were regular rows of apple trees bearing tons of fruit that no one bothered to collect anymore. They weren't much good to eat, but my son Julian and I used them to play a game we invented called "apple baseball." As soon as one was hit with a bat, it exploded into a spray of pulp, soon to be replaced by another pitched apple, then another.
Tasha would run around in frantic circles trying to catch the apples in midair. In the center of the field there was a double row of raspberry bushes that were tended and harvested by people we never saw. We would help ourselves liberally to the berries, as we did to the plums, hazelnuts and walnuts we encountered on our walks.
    Tempus edax rerum, as the Romans used to say. Time devours all things—including our beautiful orchards. The other day, Sylvaine and I tried to return to that field (without Tasha, long since devoured by time) and see what remained. The bushes and trees around it had grown so thick that we almost needed a machete to get through. The owners (whoever they are) had piled brushwood and branches across the path to block the entrance. But we persisted and finally penetrated into the field. It was much the same as we remembered it. The apple trees were still there, and so were the raspberry bushes, but no one cultivated them anymore; they were overgrown and infested with weeds. We helped ourselves to a few stray berries then left our field of dreams with no intention of returning. We knew what the future held for this idyllic place.
  It is the same future that is in store for the ancient pear and peach orchards nearby. On a recent walk, we saw a sign announcing that the fields would be cleared this fall and construction would begin on 60 housing units. This ancient land where vintners and fruit farmers tended their plants for more than two thousand years will soon be covered by concrete and cinderblocks. When we return to France next summer, we won't be walking this way.

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