Earth, wind and fire

by James Alexander-Sinclair

There is a fine stretch of coastline near St Tropez that I have visited quite a few times. In July the hillside above the beach had been completely consumed by fire.

Coastline near Saint TropezThere is a fine stretch of coastline near St Tropez that I have visited quite a few times. Little sandy inlets and smooth rocks overlook crystal clear sea populated by shoals of fish, the odd octopus and a fair smattering of completely naked nut brown Germans.

In July the hillside above the beach had been completely consumed by fire. Many underdressed tourists had to be rescued and sturdy French firemen (or Pompiers) battled, successfully, to keep the flames away from nearby houses. Nothing compared to the infernos in Greece but probably quite scary if you were there. Two months later and although the hillside is still blackened and sooty the first signs of regeneration were on the way as strands of tough dune grass were already forcing their way through the ashes.

Fire has always been a good way to regenerate a landscape, some seeds (Sequoia for example) cannot germinate until they have been burnt and a swift blaze can burn away leaf litter and detritus that might stop new plants from sprouting. It was not that long ago that farmers burnt the stubble from their fields as it was a convenient way to get rid of excess straw and the ash added goodness to the soil. The secret is always not to allow the fire to last too long or get too hot as that can damage the soil structure. (The fact that clouds of dense smoke tended to roll across A roads whenever the wind changed meant that the practice was outlawed.) It is a dramatic change to a landscape.

I mention all this because soon it is the 20th anniversary of the great storm of 1987. I was living in London at the time and spent many (profitable) weeks thereafter working very hard chopping up trees and rebuilding flattened fences. It has been fascinating to see how quickly nature has recovered: the desolation and heartbreak are soon forgotten.

A large copper beech in my mother-in-law's garden fell over in February: this was a tree under which my children had crawled and we had eaten many, many Sunday lunches. It seemed that life would never be the same again. Six months later there was no evidence of its ever being there: new views had opened up and light was reaching parts of the garden that has always been shaded. Every gardening disaster is also an opportunity to try something new.

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Gardeners' World Web User 09/10/2007 at 09:52

I loved the way you brought these topics together in a piece (not sure about the nudists)& remember the great fires of Yellow Stone some years ago. I visited the park some 2-3 years later & the transformation was incredible. New tree growth was strong but the wild flowers were spectacular & the wild animals had benfited too & what's more you could see them. However, I worry greatly that areas of very old deciduous growth will not recover so well. In Greece in the Mount Pellion region ancient oaks & maples etc. will be many years in rcovering & in the meantime unscrupulous developers can take advantage of the newly cleared areas as in places like Borneo.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:29

Not the old "spying on nudists, whilst pretending to study local flora" routine? James, I am ashamed of you!