Not that we don’t have green vegetation in Westcliffe, but the number of deciduous trees here in France takes me back East to New York and Pennsylvania. The mistletoe infestation – particularly severe between Never and Sancerre- catches my eye. Nearly every tree along the canal is festooned like some pagan Christmas tree with big 24” balls of mistletoe. This can’t be healthy. I am left to wonder (during these hard economic times… aren’t you tired of hearing that phrase?) if France has the resources to combat the parasites. Pruning is the only answer. Surely the country cares. The number of newly planted trees is evidence to that.
Cruising along the canal, I count the number of mistletoe balls on each tree. I am looking for an average. What is the average number of balls, and how many balls does it take to kill a tree? 15 balls seem to be about average. I begin to wonder if at 15 balls, the mistletoe and the host tree come to an understanding… reach some sort of stasis: the tree tolerates the infestation, but the balls intuitively sense how many of them can derive nutrients without fatally killing the golden goose. Once the balls reach critical mass, do they back off?
All this conjecture is silly, but these random thoughts lead me to think of the health of our planet. If humans are the parasites, how many parasites will it take to kill planet earth? Or… when we parasites hit critical mass, will we be smart enough to back off on our consumption? In the case of the mistletoe, pruning is the only solution; in the case of the planet, pruning is not a solution. Perhaps we should start with an awareness of the problem.
Enough! As I said, the French have been very diligent planting trees. The trees (some variety of poplar, I think) standing straight and erect as sentinels, line the canal and mark our passage. I feel like royalty.
Periodically, we pass woodlots, each tree planted equidistant from the others to allow for maximum growth. As I understand it, every year each community (commune) plants a plot of saplings destined for cutting in 30 years. Planting and harvesting annually, the wood supply is constant and free to those engaged in the process. What a great model.
We drift through white wine country. Even those of us who weren’t keen on drinking whites, have become enamored with the white wines of the Sancerre region. We buy bottles to save, but then we have to buy more bottles because we have drunk the first batch.
Sancerre is hilly country and as the old saw goes, the best wine comes from the sunny side. We write down the names of the vineyards and the wines that we like best, but then we realize that most likely these wines will not make it to the United States. We stop for wine tastings and learn more about viniculture than I’ll ever remember. According to my notes, 280 producers depend on 2,750 acres under cultivation. 80 percent of the land in the Sancerre region is devoted to Sauvignon blanc grapes; 20 to percent Pinot noir.
High wheeled tractors (their wheels running between the rows of vines and the crab-like body of the cab above the vines) have articulated arms that reach over the vines and elbow down to the base. The arms are emitting fungicide to fight Phylloxera, a small sap-sucking insect that feeds on the grapes’ roots. Between 1854 and 1860, the insects came close to killing the wine industry. By the end of the 19th century, 2/3 of the existing vineyards were infected. Heaven forbid! Luckily, phylloxera is at this point under control. Supplying more water during irrigation and adding lighter sandy soil is a help.
As for what I learned… I learned how the soil and the relative layering of the clay, chalk and flint soil affects the taste of the wine. The wine and a wealth of information have my head swimming.
I need to sit down. Rest a bit. Sip a glass of wine.