Pays des Dombes

Biographial details of the famous botanist, Philibert Commerson (1727-1773), provide a window on an immemorial boggy way of life which disappeared in the mid-19th century because of drainage. He "was a true Bourguignon, born in the Dombes, then an independent state lying between the rivers Ain and Salône....[a] place outside any legal authority. There was no security for life or property except under 'the ancient habits and customs of the Dombes'....the country was reputed to be an unhealthy seat of agues, rhumatism and a species of malarial fever [sic: "agues" are understood to be malarial fever]. Though a plateau, it lay so low that it was perpetually dank, and, being a desolate, uninviting, unwanted tract of shallow valleys, coppices and stagnant pools, it was a refuge for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl (some of them extremely rare), and the habitat, as well, of many unusual plants....His first love was for fishes, which in such a sodden environment was barely to be wondered at, and particularly as the Dombists practiced an unusual fish husbandry. Over roughly twenty thousand acres they rotated fish and corn as commercial crops. Lakes and ponds were drained, the fish taken, and grain sown on the muddy bottoms. After harvest they were refilled and restocked with fish. These fattened on the gleanings of grain, provided ready food for the Dombists and manured the mud which, in two years' time, would once more be a field of growing corn. This extraordinary rotation of carp, tench and other fishes with oats and barley gave young Philibert a special interest in fishes....[but] the plant world stole his heart away." Tyler Whittle, The Plant Hunters (NY: Lyons & Burford, 1997), pp. 58-9. (Perfect place for a Poodle--or proto-Poodle--to vary diet between fish and waterfowl!)

Whittle refers to a biography of Commerson published in 1909: "Pays des Dombes....lies close to, but a little north of, Lyons, and can be discovered at once on an ordinary atlas by an irregular cluster of small lakes. Roughly speaking, it is the plateau which separates the rivers Ain and Salône, and lies at an average height of some 150 feet above their valleys.

"Yet it is not really a plateau, for the surface is undulating: rounded hillocks or "poypes" alternate with little valleys or small depressions wherein lie a variety of lakes, pools, and more or less extensive marsh lands. The soil is, almost everywhere, a stiff grey or bluish clay generally saturated with water, and so tenaciously resisting drainage that the natural vegetation is swampy grass, marshes, or coarse sedge. It is only upon the hills and rising ground that patches of trees exist, or a well-grown forest can maintain itself.

"Even today [1909] it is a wild, thinly peopled district, with an utterly abominable climate. It is that known in France as the Climat Rhodanien (or Burgundian), which is markedly Continental in character; for, being at a long distance from the sea and at an altitude of 1,000 feet, there are severe cold in winter and fierce heat in summer-time. That is not all, for it is the depressing nature of this melancholy land which seems to have affected most observers. The sky is generally covered by a heavy, sombre canopy of dull grey clouds; it is but rarely that the sun shines brightly, lighting up glittering sheets of water and green forests, and it is only then that the distant Alpine summits, with their snow peaks and jagged rocks, are sharply outlined against the blue sky....

"This desolate land, full of lonely woods and stagnant pools, with the grey mist steaming from their surfaces, still remains a safe refuge for innumerable wildfowl. Rare birds and unusual plants find in its recesses such a sanctuary as perhaps may still persist in the most secluded of our Lincolnshire Fens.

"Moreover, just as Hereward's Saxons retreated to the shelter of Crowland and other fen-islands, so La Dombes seems to have been, and from the very earliest times, a favorite hiding place for the weaker races of mankind when flying from fierce and formidable invaders.

"No one would select such a place for a permanent residence. It is neither fertile nor even healthy; it is cursed with ague and rheumatism; its sodden valleys and moist, humid climate favour a low malarial fever, which clings continually to the whole plateau. The Dombists are said, even now to be a taciturn, melancholy people, suffering from depression of spirits and from pessimism.... [Discussion of political organization of the region, which was annexed--through purchase--by France in 1762; during the Middle Ages, robber chiefs or leaders of brigands built keeps or fortalices in this district and several were placed not on rising ground but on artificial islands in the midst of lakes or marshes.]

"One very ancient custom, in particular, should be noticed here. According to some authorities it was regularly practiced even in the year 1247.... The culture of fish and the regular stocking of lakes and ponds were quite familiar to the Dombists; they also understood the value as an agricultural manure of lake and river silt....

"The Dombists regularly drained their lakes and ponds; on the muddy surface so exposed, which was, of course, untroubled by ordinary weeds and rich in decaying organic material, they sowed down their crops of barley and of corn [wheat]. After the harvest water was again let in, and in March or April the pond was carefully stocked with carp, tench, or other fishes. During this and the next year it was fished (deep holes were prepared in which the fish could be readily collected; the water was drawn off by a special channel--"le by d'étang"). Then it was again drained, and a crop was grown on the muddy bottom.

"This practice was regularly carried on from 1247 to 1850 (when many of the lakes were permanently drained); the right of fishing ("l'éfolage")and that of growing crops ("l'assec") often belonged to different individuals. Some twenty thousand acres of land were subject to this extraordinary rotation of crops, in which carp or tench alternated with oats and barley, or cattle and sheep! [Cattle are certain; however sheep cannot tolerate wet.]" S. Pasfield Oliver, The Life of Philibert Commerson [1727-1773] (London: Murray, 1909), pp. 1-11.

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