Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hillbilly

I've always been aware that, here at Gamone, I'm basically a lawless hillbilly. And if I don't respect many laws, it's often because I ignore whether the laws really exist, and how they're formulated and enforced. If there were an old-fashioned sheriff in charge, he would surely arrest me and hang me from a tree.

Take the case of my former flock of sheep, for example. When I arrived at Gamone, there was an unwritten law (which I learned from local folk, including the veterinarian) according to which a neo-rural resident such as me, who wasn't a professional grazier, could maintain a flock of up to a dozen or so sheep, to keep the weeds down, and to provide him with lamb meat. But this tolerance ended in the aftermath of a European outbreak, in 2001, of foot and mouth disease. So, before I left for a short vacation in Australia in 2006, I called upon a butcher friend to slaughter most of my sheep. However we left a young ewe and three tiny lambs. Well, to cut a long story short, these animals were frightened by a dog, and they escaped from my place and finally set up a new home on the slopes of a neighbor's mountain property, where they have proliferated in a feral state. Recently, the veterinarian confirmed that, if I were intent upon eliminating these sheep (which is not exactly the case), the only plausible solution would consist of organizing a posse of friends armed with rifles. Unfortunately, I don't have enough armed friends to carry out such an operation.

Meanwhile, there's another subtly different approach. At the annual luncheon of the senior citizens of Choranche and Chatelus, I found myself seated alongside a neighbor who, with his sons, is one of the last surviving hunters. (My children and I have always referred to his property, strewn with decrepit vehicles and rusty machinery, as Tortilla Flat.) He seemed to suggest that, if I felt that these sheep were capable of provoking accidents by wandering onto the road (which has always appeared most unlikely), then I should simply write a letter to the president of the local hunting association informing him that I would refrain from reacting in any way whatsoever if ever stray bullets happened to hit the sheep. The general idea is that such a letter would normally have no visible existence, and the president wouldn't even reply in any way whatsoever. But I could expect the sheep to start to disappear quietly and mysteriously. In these circumstances, my letter would only reappear publicly if ever I decided to take the hunters to court (a theoretical possibility) because I had the impression that they were shooting my sheep. As you can see, it's a murky approach to problem-solving.

Another example of my hillbilly behavior concerns the burning-off of dead grass and weeds in spring. At Gamone, I decide personally to perform these operations at appropriate moments of the year, and I operate section by section, in such a way that there's never a wide wall of flames. By "appropriate", I mean that I judge that there's not enough wind to cause the flames to escape, and there's still enough dampness in the vegetation to prevent it from reacting like explosive tinder.

The reason I'm talking about rural laws in France, written and unwritten, is that I've been learning a lot, over the last few days, about astonishing rural laws in Australia. More precisely, in the wake of the sickening fire tragedies that are still unfolding in my native land, I've been trying to comprehend what went so terribly wrong, and why. Obviously, for countless reasons, there's little in common between my tiny property on the slopes at Gamone and the vast bushlands of Australia. But I've been making an effort to grasp the nature of the situation in Australia.

If I understand correctly, hillbilly behavior such as mine would be unthinkable in modern Australia, where rural laws of all kinds are abundant and rigorously enforced. On the other hand, I've discovered that not everybody in Australia considers that all these laws are "good".

In rural Australia, the vegetation that could be consumed by fire in a particular zone is referred to technically as fuel. And the process of eliminating excess fuel is referred to as prescribed burning, shown in this photo:

One of Australia's leading specialists in the domain of bushfires is David Packham, of Monash University. In one of his websites, he shows an Australian country property in which excess trees and other fuel have been removed in such a way that the house would be almost 100% survivable, as he puts it, in the case of a bushfire.

In the following photo, on the other hand, there's a house, hidden behind the vegetation, which would have a survivability near zero in the case of a bushfire:

In my eyes, the first photo looks like any old property that could be found in France, whereas the second photo is that of a strictly Australian situation, unthinkable here in France.

Packham is particularly outspoken concerning the bushfire tragedies that have just hit Victoria: "Absolute irresponsible mismanagement has been the environment in which a lot of Australia has been operating for the last thirty or forty years, and we just cannot go along like this unless we're happy to accept the sorts of disasters we've had." He has accused environmentalists of behaving like "eco-terrorists waging a jihad" against prescribed burning. It's a fact that future legislation will stigmatize controlled burning as a key national threat to biodiversity. If this draconian legislation were to go into action, as planned for 2010, then controlled burning would be considered henceforth, from an ecological and environmental viewpoint, as a "key threatening process" whose nasty effects are to be likened to those of global warming, land clearing and feral cats, pigs and foxes.

In fuel-filled landscapes where Australia's indigenous flora and fauna are encouraged to thrive in luxurious liberty, we have seen that homes and their human occupants can be wiped out by flames in less time than it takes to race outside and get into the family automobile. It will take me some time to acquire an informed opinion on this weird situation in Australia. Meanwhile, even if I were capable of uprooting myself and moving to the Antipodes, I must admit that I'm quite happy to remain a Gamone hillbilly.

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