Friday, 20 November
Where would we be, I sometimes shudder to think, if my friend Tala, a second-career gardener, hadn't trawled the internet and found Claire, another second-career gardener.
Last year, when we bought Deux Champs, our property in the Perche, it came as two lots: the one hectare (2.5 acre) house and garden and the 20 hectares (50 acres) of surrounding farmland. Quite quickly we found local architects Monsieur and Madame J (also on the internet) to handle the house renovation. As for the land, it was still being farmed by the seller, Monsieur L.
"But what," David kept asking, with greater and greater urgency, "are we going to do about the garden?" The property had been divided since a nasty 1989 divorce. Subsequent owners enclosed the house and garden with fencing and a hedgerow that have grown into substantial trees. In the spirit of newfound unity, we want to open things up again.
"Tala's looking into it," I'd reply, confident that my oldest friend in Paris, previously a journalist with an insatiable investigative interest in anything horticultural, would come through for us.
Indeed she soon had three names of landscape architects in the area. About Claire Tala said: "She seems to do a lot of different things but she might be able to help you."
Help us, she has. An English woman who moved to the Perche 15 years ago with her husband Yvan, Claire retrained as a landscape architect at the prestigious Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Paysage de Versailles after a first career in communications. She has not only built a beautiful garden; she has also turned their 10 hectares (25 acres) into a nature reserve and developed an Airbnb business around two elevated guest houses, one of which is actually perched in a tree. Take a look: Perché dans le Perche.
From our first meeting in March, when I told Claire the farmer would soon be retiring and we were wondering how we might do something useful and environmentally responsible with the land, it has been about more than just the garden. Claire quickly began to imagine a project for the whole property that would help revive the soil and plants and animals that suffer so under intensive farming. She brought in Estéban, a young environmentalist whom she has mentored, to help.
Through Claire we met François R, the most respected ecologist in the Perche, as well as Emmanuel from Natura 2000 and Camille from the Parc Naturel Régional du Perche. Soon they were all out cataloguing the flora and fauna.
Next she introduced us to Patrice W, the most dynamic organic farmer in the area. In July he gave us a tour of their 300 hectares and explained eloquently and enthusiastically how he makes an organic farm work not just philosophically but economically.
He and his wife Dominique have recently bought a 17th century manor house, which they somehow find the time to restore both inside and out themselves.
Meanwhile Claire and Estéban were preparing a study on the feasibility of restoring wetland areas and replanting hedgerows on the property. Early October the four of us presented an agro-eco project to Messieurs B and G, president and director of the Parc du Perche, in the hopes that they will get involved too. In the interim Patrice agreed to sow the fields after Monsieur L's last harvest late October.
At which point in stepped more connections of Claire's: Hannah and Dorian, two young documentary makers who think our project film worthy. They've already shot footage of the farming activity and have interviewed Monsieur L, Eric Y who wrote a history of Deux Champs, Claire, Estéban, David and me as they prepare a trailer to present to possible funding sources.
As for the fields, no sooner was the treated corn out than the untreated wheat, oats, field beans and vetch were going in.
It's been thrilling to watch Patrice and his sons Vincent and Léopold churn up the earth and plant chemical-free crops, to witness the emergence of the delicate shoots. I can almost see the earthworms inching their way back, smell the sweet vetch that will flower in spring, hear the bees, drunk on pollen, buzzing about.
But just as inspiring has been the human side, the meeting of Claire and all the passionate, engaged people in her Perche world. Connecting with them has given us a quick sense of belonging here and offered a ray of light in what can otherwise seem like pretty dark times.
If any of you are now wondering, as David did, what-about-the-garden, don't worry. Chapter One of that story will be coming soon.