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France’s Biggest Forest Was Planted by People

A million square meters of artificial forest has saved the country's marshlands.

At the southern end of France’s Atlantic coast lies the vast Landes de Gascogne forest and its seemingly infinite sea of maritime pines.

That’s one million square meters of forest planted by humans with the goal of halting the progression of the dunes, moderating the cold-front influence on Bordeaux vineyards, and creating farmland where there were only marshlands and swamps. The project began in the 19th century, with planting continuing through the 1950s, when half of the forest had to be resown after a devastating fire. Landes de Gascogne is now the largest forest in France and the largest "artificial" forest in Western Europe.

The mid-century approach to planting was remarkable insofar as it was a rational take on forest-building, with trees perfectly aligned in alleyways allotted to keep future fires contained.

That’s how the landscape as it is today was born, from pines that weren’t supposed to be there, arranged in a way that nature surely hadn’t intended.

Landes may not sound like a dreamlike place, but its beauty is undeniably striking.

The slim and spaced out silhouettes of the trees make the forest surprisingly luminous. Dark trunks contrast against feathery ferns on the ground.

At the end of summer, near the village of Castets, the southern end of the forest has surprises at every turn, like carpets of pink and violet heather over white sand.

A bike lane built in 2010 takes cyclists as far as the ocean. The 23-kilometer path — called Lo Camin de Hé from the Gascon term for train tracks — indeed runs along old locomotive tracks from Vielle-Saint-Girons to Taller by the sea.

Blackberries, pine nuts, and other edibles can be found and foraged along the way.

Photos by Pauline Chardin.

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