La Min-sú de Terrasson

retreat, reflect, refresh

Introduction to the landscape

As this area is easily accessible from Terrasson it allows for in depth exploration of the landscape through one of the many hiking trails. The landscape is shaped by the interaction of the underlying geology, topography, biology, contemporary culture and deep historic factors. Celtic people build their ‘oppodia’ (large earthworks), castles like that of Montmège were later build on them. The Roman empire left its traces in roads and villas with mosaic floors as displayed in the Patrimony House of Terrasson.

The Merovigian and Caroligian ages left fewer marks as they lacked the political organisation and largely build in wood, though some sarcophagi can be seen of Place de Genouillac in Terrasson. And the VIth century hermits: Amand, Cyprien and Sour left their marks by founding monasteries. But a lot of what is visible in the landscape today finds its origins in the XIIth century renaissance.

From the XIth century onward new hamlets and the extension of agricultural land began changing the countryside. This population growth was accompanied by large social changes, were in the Xth century slaves were still common, the practice had practically disappeared in the XIth. The emergence of feudal system replaced the legal inferiority of the non-free with the economic dependence of the peasant.

The peasant gained an interest in the management of ‘his farm’ as he could transfer improvements to his children (though the land was not yet legally his to sell). Relative autonomy and autarky (ability to survive and function without external assistance) shaped a ‘peasant mindset’, still shaping to landscape today (see below).

Though; ‘what the lord gives with the one hand, he takes with the other’. No longer ‘hands-on’, the feudal lordship starts taxation through the exploitation of banalities; the banal press, the market hall and the banal oven…etc., that can still be found scattering the landscape. Water mills start multiplying on the watercourses milling flour, oil, tannin, malt, powering forges, crushing fibres for textile or beating iron.

Because these activities are easily taxable, they increase the income of the lordship, opening new social perspectives to the aristocracy, as well as new investment opportunities ‘for the benefit of all’. It contributes to the resurrection of a monetary economy, neglected in the times of village self-sufficiency since the fall of the Roman Empire.

In Aquitaine, castles build in local natural stone become the focal point of a lordships: Prestige, profit and protection go hand in hand, as dungeons, pigeon towers, bridges and large stone enclosures circling the ‘bourgs’ are constructed. Far from the old cities, ‘bourgs’ (big villages) are created at the foot of a castle or monastery, attracting and protecting activities that could further enrich the lordship. However, the ‘free people’ of the bourg (the bourgeois), taking advantage of the rivalries between the local lords and authorities, had to be given various franchises to encourage their settlement.

The same period also sees the growth of pilgrimages to Rome (the tomb of St. Peter), Compostella (the tomb of St. James) and Jerusalem (the Holy land). The ideal lord, the knight of chivalry, goes on a pilgrimage (or crusade metaphorical or for real) for his eternal salvation.

The orders of chivalry; the order of the Temple and the order of St. John of Jerusalem (better know as Knights Hospitalier or Hospitallers for short) emerge in the aftermath of the first crusade. Their support networks of commanderies become effective land exploitations and important actors of economic development. Condat-sur-Vézère was the seat of the principal commanderie of the Hospitallers which had authority over the network of commanderies of the Périgord.

Fortress-like churches in the Romanesque style appear with their massive walls, round arches, small windows and arch framed portals. Exterior decoration of Romanesque churches is relatively simple, inside walls often adorned with frescoes, but few survived as stucco pealed-off and was removed. The bare natural stone walls, clean lines of the arches and domes resonate with the contemporary mindset.

The Romanesque style is a diverse expression of the vernacular, sometimes divided into regional schools of architecture. The Ecole du Périgord typically has a line of cupolas/domes and often a steeple-wall (Un clocher-mur; vertical flat architectural element constructed at the front containing the main entrance and church bells). The most impressive among the Romanesque churches of Périgord is the abbey church of Saint Amand de Coly.

Geology and topography

The Coly watershed is divided by the La Cassagne fault that separates the Jurassic formations to the north (the Causses) and Cretaceous to the south (the Sarladais).

The diversity of the landscape is a reflection of this geological diversity, as different types of soil support characteristic vegetation and land-uses. This is amplified by the dramatic changes in solar-exposure and hydrology resulting from the topography, creating a mosaic of micro-climates. You can hike-up the north face of a hill in a beech forest, cross dry grassland, and go down the southern side through a pubescent oak forest.

The Causse, with its Jurassic limestone, is an extension of the larger Causse of Quercy with its limestone plateaus. The Périgordian Causse is divided into the Causse of Cubjac-Thenon, the Terrassonnais hillsides and the Causse of Terrasson. Causses are characterized by alternating arid plateaus and hills with stony soils, the aridity combined with the exposure to the sun, generate micro-climates favourable to thermophile vegetation with Mediterranean affinities. To the east the Causse of Terrasson connects to Corrézian Causse, to the south to the Causse of Martel and on to the larger Causse of Quercy.

Cultural factors: a peasant landscape

Humans have shaped the landscape for centuries to suit their needs and way of life. As late as 2001 an author caricatured the Périgordian forest as: ‘Une forêt privée, morcelée, essentiellement paysanne.’, resonating 1970’s concerns about the ‘lack of a forestry spirit’. ‘Peasants hardly think to maintain forests’, ‘bear little interest in it’, see it as ‘part of landscape’ but do not tread it like a ‘real resource’.

The forest continued to provided the litter and nourishment for a flocks of pigs (acorns), firewood, lumber and materials for building and agricultural uses like fencing poles and stakes. It continues to support hunter-gather attitudes: hunting for deer and wild boar, picking mushrooms, gathering truffles. It is a relatively liquid source of cash: wood harvested or the sale of a parcel allows for the purchase of agricultural equipment and helps to keep afloat deficit agricultural holdings.

The Dordogne department might be characterized as ‘forested’ (about half the land area is under forest cover), but hardly supports any ‘forestry’. With over a 100,000 forest owners, 99% of the forest of the department belongs to natural persons (not corporations), resulting in an average size of less than four hectares per owner. There are only 3 very large properties (> 400 ha). This fragmentation is the result of sharing inheritances and the sale of small plots to city dwellers for whom it is a ‘privileged natural environment’.

The Périgord landscape is now more forested (thicker and more closed) than ever in recorded history. This closure occurred at the expense of marginal spaces that are not productive and neglected by their managers or fell prey to the utilitarian productivity drive of the 1960s/70s, to give ‘marginal’ or ‘wastelands’ new uses (‘waste’ as in ‘wasted’ because not optimally used). Compartmentalization of management (specialized forestry and agriculture departments), and even within agriculture a move away of ‘mixed holdings’ combining animal husbandry and cultivation. Paradoxically this increase in forest cover supports lesser biodiversity, as the diversity of forest structures decreased.

Historic factors

As seen earlier, the peasant’s mindset goes back a 1000 years and is hard to change. Whiles the utilitarian mindset of the 60s and 70s caused friction, the Washington consensuses of the 80s and 90s simply no longer tolerated relatively autonomous groups and transformed peasants into citizens, producers and entrepreneurs (de-peasantisation).

If we accept that the ‘professional’ society is based on a radical separation of business and family, division of labor, amassing of capital, rational calculation and the concentration of workers in the workplace. It is not hard to see why the ‘European museum of Agriculture’ was such a mismatch.

Between 1885 and 1890, vineyards were decimated by the Grape phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae), an insect pest of the vine. The term phylloxera is also used for the disease of the vine spread by this insect. Where possible winegrowers replanted their vineyards by grafting local varieties onto resistant grape varieties. But the new root-stocks did not like dry soils, resulting in the relocation of vineyards to the plains and foothills. As the dry lands that did not support any other cultivation. Farmers abandoned them, and little by little, the lands were recolonised by forest.

Following the development of farm bookkeeping in the 1950s, Centres de Comptabilité Agricoles (Agricultural Accounting Centres) were set up in France to guide the peasant to become ‘efficient agricultural exploiters’. But what a shock; ‘on the books, nearly all farms were running a perpetual deficit. Despite this, and to the amazement of the economic advisers, those farms continued to function and provide livelihoods to entire families. Following good capitalist logic, the farmers should have been made to declare bankruptcy, or at least to sell their landed property and invest the capital elsewhere, to make it more profitable.’

As the rural population steadily declined (the rural exodus), the need for cash forces the peasant to ‘pork-chop’ his land. Selling for housing development became a real ‘alternative cost’. Gradually, by the end of the twentieth century the population trend turned. Unprecedented suburban (or neo-rural) development started invading, and changing the countryside.



It is difficult to describe this varied vegetation; variously translated as grassland, savanna, tundra, heath or even lawn. It conjures up pastoral associations of a romantic, bucolic or rustic life that dominated the Périgord Causses till the middle of the 19th century. The pelouse of the Causses consist of a mosaic of exposed rock, lichens, grasses, small shrubs, juniper heaths and thickets of pubescent oak.

To preserve the transitory state of forest succession continuous human interference is needed; grazing, mowing and cutting. The disappearance of traditional managers makes the conservation of these heritage spaces difficult and expensive.

The regional and departmental governments financial support local network building to re-establish management. L’Association Foncière Pastorale Libre, Lo Randal, (a Pastoral Land Association) is a legal entity of local pastoral-, wood- and marginal land owners.

Lo Randal is a ‘free’ or private association constituted with the unanimous consent of the partners (as opposed to the ‘authorized’ association that are public institutions established and controlled by governmental decree). It can solicit, generate and management funds for its maintenance and development, construct and maintain fences, drinking troughs, clearings and, facilitate grazing agreements between animal herders and its members.

The commune of Condat-sur-Vézère entered into a management agreement with the ‘Conservatoire d'Espaces Naturels d'Aquitaine’ (Conservatory of Natural Areas of Aquitaine), an NGO, that provides technical support to public and private managers of natural sites.

Every July, Lo Randal organizes a ‘transhumance’ , reviving an ancient tradition of moving grazing animals to summer pastures. The event provides an opportunity to the public to interact with the landscape and animals through a 7-8 kilometres hike. Better understanding the work of the herders by observing the animals up close and through demonstrations of the sheep herding skills of the dogs. It would not be France if there was no opportunity to taste the fruits of this labor through a shared lunch!

The Coly stream

From its source at the La Douce watermill the Coly drops 40 metres over its 10 kilometres length before it falls into the Vézère river at Condat-sur-Vézère. The natural series of cascades has long providing power to a series of mills. The 1889 annals recommend it for its fish; raving about the trout, salmon and chub (Le chevesne, locally know as le cabot – Squalius cephalus) a kind of carp.

Today fishing is regulated and allowed in season and by permit only. Most common fish species are the minnow (Le vairon), bullhead (Le chabot), gudgeon (Le goujon), brown trout (La truite fario), northern pike (Le brochet). Rare are crayfish and brook lamprey (Le lamproie) a weird primitive 'jawless fish’.

On the waters edge you find water loving tree species like the Alder (Alnus glutinosa), Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Willows (Salix sp.), European oak (Quercus robur), Black poplar (Populus nigra nigra), Lombardy Poplar (Populus nigra italica), other varieties of Poplar introduced for the production of wood (Populus x euramericana) as well as field Elm (Ulmus minor). With an undergrowth of Elder (Sambucus nigra), Hawthorn (Crategus monogyna), Spindle (Euonymus europaeus), Guelder-rose (Viburnum opulus) and common Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). These linear forest form important ecological conduits in the landscape.

'Water is life', and hiking or cycling down the Coly you will be able to enjoy grasslands with Aquitaine and Limousine cattle, observe the dragonflies, damselflies and mayflies (only in may), kingfishers among many kinds of birds, aquatic plants, irises, narcissus and orchids…etc., on the banks.


The hornbeam forest

The lower parts of valleys ('combles') and slopes with little exposure to the sun, are relatively cool and moist. This environment suits the hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) easily identified by its smooth patchy grey bark, often accompanied by European oaks (Quercus robur), the Spanish maple (Acer campestre) and wild cherries (Prunus avium) whose white blossom makes them stand-out around April. The undergrowth has a thick carpet of mosses, many early flowering herbaceous plants spring-up before the leaves of the tree canopy block the sunlight!

Hornbeam has been favoured for its firewood qualities from the 17th century onward and more recently its charcoal fed the appetite of 19th century iron-ore furnaces. The intensive use led to the development of typical coppices of charm ("charmilles") which fed the charbonnières (charcoal makers). Places where charcoal was produced can still be identified on slopes: they are flat areas, round, blackened, covered with moss; sometimes there is a ruin of a little cabanne or hut nearby.

Typically species with bulbs, rhizomes and tubers do well in the undergrowth like the wood anemone (Amemone nemorosa), dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis), yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), wood sanicle (Sanicula europaea: traditional ingredient in so many herbal remedies, it was once believed that "he who has sanicle and self-heal needs neither physician nor surgeon), star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum pyrenaicum), Wild Hyacinth (Hyacinthus non-scripta) as well as its own associated mushrooms like the Le Bolet des Charmes (Leccinum griseum).

The chestnut forests

The chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) is a multifunctional tree, and has offered the Périgordians its many resources. Locally called the 'bread tree', chestnuts have ensured the survival of peasant populations in times of scarcity. The wood, which is rich in tannin, is naturally durable and used in timber, carpentry, for the manufacture of parquet flooring, paneling, barrels, pegs and stakes. In basketry, the young twigs are split into thin strips to make baskets and chairs. The long yellow catkin flowers, provide bees with a nectar that produces a dark honey.

Chestnut trees were widely planted and cultivated over the centuries to produce chestnuts or stakes for the vineyards. In the 19th century, ink disease led to gradual abandonment of the fruit trees giving way to heterogeneous forest that were exploited to meet the strong demand for firewood, stakes for the vines and tannin. Beautiful old chestnut trees have become rare but it is quite possible to find old trees lingering in the forest, their trunks infected, often hollow, with large white dead branches overhead. Remnants of old orchards often shelter a varied fauna with rare species, they thus have a great ecological value. As a result of tree felling and repeated cutting of the vegetative regeneration from the stump (every 20 to 40 years) the most common chestnut woods today are coppices locally know as: ‘Codre’.

The chestnut groves occupy extensive areas, especially in the form of dense coppices, sometimes shadowed by a high forest of oaks and maritime pines (Pinus pinaster). With the poor soil covered with a permanent acid carpet of badly decomposed hard leaves there is little space for herbaceous undergrowth. The coppice growing under oak and maritime pine offers more favourable conditions to the development of acidophilic plants. It is the typical forest to find Cèpes mushrooms (Boletus Edulis, elsewhere known as Porcini). Today, in new spacious orchards with well aligned chestnut trees, chestnuts are harvested by machine.

Forests of the Causses: pubescent oak

The pubescent oak (Quercus pubescens), also known as black oak, downy oak or truffle oak, is distinguished from other oaks by the presence of hair on the underside of leaves and young twigs. The pubescent oak is the most common spontaneous recolonization species of the Périgord limestone plateaus and slopes.

It often forms meager open groves of stunted trees with tortuous and tormented trunks and branches. Whiles exploring these forests, you often stumble upon remnants of ‘lauze’ walls, build with the local stones removed for wine cultivation, that were used to delimit parcels and build vernacular shelters known as ‘Cabannes’.

Often found in a pelouse mosaic, fragmented into small islands, a refuge for many orchids and rare Mediterranean plants. Among the shrubs accompanying the pubescent oak, you finds the Montpellier maple (Acer monspessulanum), the St Lucie cherry (Prunus mahaleb), wayfarer (Viburnum lantana), common juniper (Juniperus communis), dog rose (Rosa canina). Sometimes takes the shape of oak coppices locally known as ‘Garrissades’.

Production forests: Pine

Périgord forest cover decreased until the end of the nineteenth century, by which time the rural exodus, and the use of fossil fuels reversed the trend. The forest became under-exploited and its area and mass continue to grow, doubling in size the last century and a half. After the 1950s, the phenomenon of forest expansion accelerated and under the utilitarian mindset of the 1960s, rational forest management approaches started introducing conifer species, mostly maritime pines (Pinus pinaster).

Large continuous forest blocks were created in the Double and Bessède. The coppices of chestnut trees were also targeted to be replaced with canopies of conifers and hardwoods.

The pine forest have since acquired a bad image as the mono cultures weaken resilience and unbalance ecosystem, acidified the environment, eliminated competitors by sterilizing them, disrupted the flow of water and disfigured the landscape. Its continued association with the now discredited rational forestry approach of the 1960s and 70s did not really help either. Though undeniably an economic resource, by the 1980s and 90s only looking at timber production and smooth management, disregarding ecological and social functions was no longer acceptable, the golden age of pine was over.

Interestingly enough, with 99% of the forest in the private domain, and peasants remaining the principle decision-makers, pine does not seem to have caught on in the area. Outside Ladornac a patch of pine, abandoned after a storm blew most of the trees over, is a reminder of the days the government offered exemption of property taxes for those planting pine. Today only noteworthy for the interesting ‘exotic’ mushrooms.

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