A disappearing magic

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
  • Canal du Midi bike ride

    Leia rides her bicycle along the beautiful tree-lined Canal du Midi at Carcassonne in the south of France. The enormous grey barked plane trees make for a verdant and cathedral-like grand pathway that feels like a passage to somewhere magical, and in many ways, that’s exactly what it is.

    The 193 km (120 mi) canal comprises of 99 locks, 130 viaducts, and more than 42,000 plane trees. It was first opened in 1681 and for some 200 years, it served as an important export route connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic before railway services eventually made it obsolete.

    The giant plane trees that line the canal also line many roadways throughout France. They were first planted on the orders of Napoleon. The grandeur of these old trees is awe-inspiring and especially impressive and treasured along the Canal du Midi where their reflection in the water amplifies their magnificence. However, the great plane trees of the canal are losing a battle with a disease that was accidentally introduced into Europe back in the second world war.

    In 1944 American troops disembarking in Provence carried wooden munitions boxes made from trees infected with a fungal disease called Ceratocystis platen. The disease, known as canker stain, spread slowly across France reaching the Canal du Midi a little over ten years ago. Because the trees are planted so close together and their root structures are so heavily intertwined, the disease spread particularly quickly with little hope of halting it.

    After extensive research, the French Institute of Agronomic Research concluded that the disease could not be fought chemically or biologically. As a result plans have been set in motion to cut down and burn all 42,000 trees over the next 15 years. They will be replaced with disease-resistant plane tree saplings which, somewhat ironically, come from Mississippi in the United States. Other types of trees including pine, poplar, and oak, will also be planted to break up the monoculture that contributed to the rapid spread of disease.

    That operation to cut down and replace all of the trees along the canal will cost somewhere in the region of 200 million Euros which will come from both government and fundraising efforts. Already more than 15,000 trees have been felled along the route.

    Whatever happens, be it by trees dying or being cut down, this view of the canal as a magical tree-lined waterway will soon be lost for a generation or more.

    Stand here using Google street view. Though the canal was drained and it was autumn when Google went there, so stand on the other side of the canal instead to get a better idea of this beautiful place.