Broken Geometry

Broken Geometry
Last year's look

Friday, 16 February

Any regular reader of this publication or anyone who follows me on Instagram will have seen variations of the above photo, the perfect triangle of my morning dog walk with Tasha in the Perche. Even in February, its geometry evokes peace and harmony, a fleeting glimpse of the sublime.

At the end of last week, we drove out from Paris and as we came over the rise on the lane that leads to the house, instead of this stretching before us…

…we saw this…

…and instead of this…


The machine was still at it…

...and had not finished the next morning...

What the...?

Beyond this red monster, what had been a grassy path was now a muddy, rutted mess of tank-tread tracks and broken branches. The perfect triangle lay in a deconstructed heap to the side.

The farmer had performed une coupe à blanc, a clearcut, whereby the trees and bushes are indiscriminately hewn close to the base, in this case along a stretch of lane and footpath totalling about 300 metres/yards.

Oops - missed a bit

Hedgerows are a defining feature of the Perche. They are the stitching in its bocage, the patchwork landscape of farm- and woodland dotted with ponds and etched with streams. Until the 1960s, they were also part of the farming business. Trees were trimmed regularly to trognes, a method whereby the top branches are cut to the trunk. The wood was used for fuel or, in the case of ash or willow, to feed the cattle.


People often got from place to place via chemins creux, sunken footpaths between two rows of hedge.


The industrialisation of agriculture in the 60s brought destruction on a massive scale. In the new mechanised economics of farming, hedgerows were considered a nuisance that limited the size of fields and the the ability to manoeuvre large vehicles. The authorities didn't help: farmers got reduced subsidies for land that fell in the hedgerow's shadow.

The pendulum began to swing back in the 1990s, when environmentalists pointed out their value (see below). Today coupes à blancs are permitted but uprooting (if discovered) is fined. A new national 100m€ scheme offers aid for replanting hedges, even if 20,000 kms/12,425 m (out of a total 750,000 kms/466,000 m) are still destroyed per year (only a fifth by farmers, it should be noted).

But the unsuspecting hedgerows continue to divide. One of the reasons given by the farmers for blockading the country a few weeks ago was overregulation. They homed in on the 14 different rules at the EU, national and communal level that govern the treatment of hedgerows. The new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal has promised simplification.

Frosty times

I have written about my love of trees, about the fact that I consider certain individuals friends. No surprise then at my distress over the farmer's Reduction Act. It kept me awake the night of our arrival and had me in tears during the first post-trauma morning walk. Every day since I have left the house with a heavy step, knowing the desecration will pain and unnerve me all over again.

Broken heart

In an attempt to get a grip, I consulted my inner devil's advocate (IDA):

IDA: You're just being an urban Romantic who expects a pretty vista everywhere you look. No, I'm not, argued my inner God's advocate (IGA). Hedgerows are also extremely functional (see below). I am being a realist, looking at the bigger picture.

IDA: Think of all the horror in the world, where entire countries are being destroyed, where people are dying from war and starvation. These are just a few stupid trees. Yes, IGA countered, but what is happening here is a microcosm of how we are massacring our planet, an example, albeit tiny, of our lack of respect for the hand that feeds us.

IDA: Think of all the hedgerows you never knew - you don't miss them - you'll get used to the stumps. But, IGA shouted back, past mistakes are no excuse for current ones. Do we human beings never learn anything?

IDA: Farmers have been cutting hedges forever; they will grow back. Trying not to lose patience completely, IGA answered: It was different, in the old days. Shorter stretches (50 metres/yards, say) were cut more often and less indiscriminately. Bigger trees were trognés, not buzz-sawed at the base. Whatever foliage does return will not do so significantly in my lifetime and certainly not in the lifespan of all the birds and insects who have just lost their home.

Support system, no more

The bottom line in this debate is that hedgerows are important members of our community and actually offer something for everyone, farmers and tree huggers alike. They:

  1. inhibit erosion (farmers)
  2. protect crops from wind (farmers)
  3. retain water that helps during droughts (farmers)
  4. shelter and provide homes for innumerable insects and birds that eat crop pests (farmers) and promote biodiversity (tree huggers)
  5. filter water and regulate its distribution into the earth and water tables (farmers and tree huggers)
  6. maintain landscape diversity (tree huggers)
  7. stock carbon (the entire planet)

In the spirit of keeping dialogue open, of continuing efforts to understand the other side, we invited Monsieur C, the farmer, to coffee yesterday morning. We had already met him and Madame C, when we invited them for coffee last summer. Just because he brutalises hedgerows and sprays his crops wantonly with pesticides and herbicides...

Glyphosates in action

...doesn't mean he is an ogre. He is in fact a pleasant, modest man with a warm smile.

It started, he said, with the order to cut hedgerows on the lane at least a metre below the phone cables that will soon be providing us with fibre optic service. Once he'd hired the machine and the labour, he said, it made sense to keep going and sell the wood to make the pellets that are replacing oil in many of the new furnaces and the wood chips that now blanket everyone's gardens. You can't believe how much time we spend every year respecting all those hedgerow regulations and with no monetary return whatsoever.

Did this personal meeting and explanation change my mind, make me feel better? After all, the man is just trying to make a living. And we're the ones who have been waiting eagerly for the fibre optic to improve our slow, spotty service; we are wanton users of wood chips in our garden.

No, it just reinforced my belief that there are too many of us with too many diverging interests, vying for too little, with reconciliation nowhere in sight. And I am still inconsolable about those hedgerows.

Before he left, Mr C announced his Reduction Act will resume in September, in part right here (also along my morning walk)...

Objection overruled

Geometry, one of the oldest branches of mathematics, comes from the Greek and means "to measure the land". According to Dr Wikipedia, it "began as the art of surveying land so that it could be shared fairly between people."

More is broken than my perfect triangle.

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