An inconspicuous transition – from a clay pit into a mosaic of post-industrial habitats

“To walk attentively through a forest, even a damaged one, is to be caught by the abundance of life: ancient and new; underfoot and reaching into the light. But how does one tell the life of the forest? We might begin by looking for drama and adventure beyond the activities of humans. Yet we are not used to reading stories without human heroes (…). Can I show landscape as the protagonist of an adventure in which humans are only one kind of participant?“

Tsing, 2015, 155

When I first visited The Puy Blanc, a 36 hectare large terrain in the wider periphery of the French town Figeac, I was surprised how few references there are today to the landscape’s past. Up until 1986 The Puy Blanc was one of the largest clay pits of the region and produced tiles of finest quality for the southwest of France.

A left over tile from the factory. The prickly brambles (Rubus fructicosus) are slowly overgrowing the last traces from the age of production. Photo: Anna Lena Hahn

Today, the strongest reminder of that epoch is the strange topography of the site. From a small parking lot I enter into a dense oak forest that used to cover the whole area, but today abruptly ends at a cliff: The crater falls eight metres deep — even though I began walking on ground level. Digging the clay pit altered the site forever and created an unusual mosaic of habitats.

One could look at The Puy Blanc as an example of a novel ecosystem (Hobbs, Higgs & Harris, 2009) that has been described by Collier and Devit (2016, 232) as “ecological assemblages that have emerged in the landscapes of the Anthropocene, where an ecological abiotic or biotic threshold has been passed and can no longer be restored to a previous state.“

I invite you to read-walk with me through the assemblages that grew in the former quarry and to trace the interwovenness of industrial activity, plant’s willingness to grow and people’s ways of appropriating an unusual site.

Descending into the pit crater: Under the clay lies the ocean.

Standing on the cliff, the former quarry looks to me like a giant dried out salt lake. As I walk down a narrow path, the soil slowly changes from brown clay that sticks on the soles of the shoes to a black and bare sludge. Indeed, there are only a few plants that find a way of inhabiting the black bottom. One of them is a tiny Bird’s foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) that I see growing out of the cracks of the soil. First, I don’t even recognize the species: it usually has much larger leaves and better developed yellow blossoms. This exemplar is instead gnarled; a direct expression of the difficult circumstances it grows in. During my studies of post-industrial landscapes, I noticed how plants very precisely tell about the past of a landscape: they are direct expressions of the landscape’s conditions and manifest poor soils, rare minerals or drought in their bodies.

The philosopher Emanuele Coccia (2019, 5) turns for that very reason to plants as guides for metaphysical questions of mixture: “Unlike most higher animals, they have no selective relation to what surrounds them: they are, and cannot be other than, constantly exposed to the world around them. Plant life is life as complete exposure, in absolute continuity and total communion with the environment (…)“.

A broadleaf plantain (Plantago Major) has grown in the cracks of the crater bottom.
A broadleaf plantain (Plantago Major) has grown in the cracks of the crater bottom. This persistent perennial is a master of growing in poor soils, dry and water-logged ground and tolerate extensive treading. Photo: Anna Lena Hahn

I will thus return to plants throughout this article as traces towards the landscape’s recent past stories and its present conditions. To find out about the long history of the Puy Blanc, we have to turn instead away from plants and towards the fossils that lay on the pit’s ground. Jacques Thébaut, a local who has studied the site of The Puy Blanc for many years, explains that during the Jurassic the site was ocean. The ground that was covered by 8 metres of clay soil throughout the centuries was rendered visible again by mining: the fossils of the maritime residents are witnesses of deep time, a scale of history that goes much beyond our human existence (John McPhee, 1981). The association “dcPB“ that formed around the Puy Blanc regularly brings school classes to the pit to look out for traces of this geological epoch. The clay pit as an open air museum of the Jurassic.

A failed attempt to drain the quarry and the pleasure of fishing carp

On the edge of the Puy Blanc one stumbles across two large lakes that are separated by a straight passage covered in grass. Even though in other parts the Puy Blanc looks by now like a ‘natural’ area, it is these straight lines and geometric forms that speak times and again of the huge human intervention that has happened here. The story of how the two neighbouring lakes came into being strikes me as a poignant example of how will, miscalculation and desire were fundamental drivers for the appearance of today’s landscape.

Failed attempt to drain the quarry resulted in two large lakes. Photo: Anna Lena Hahn

The deeper the workers dug, the more they struggled with water that accumulated in the quarry. To drain the site and thus be able to exploit it even more, the engineers of the factory drilled a deep hole in the ground. Their calculation said that the excess water would drain into the earth, like water that flows from a sink into the drain. But, to their surprise, the opposite happened: The drill hole met an underground reservoir of water that, once pierced, flooded parts of the quarry and created two large lakes. Water plants inhabited the new milieu which in turn attracted a range of amphibia and insects, like the yellow-bellied toad that is listed in Europe. Not only animals discovered the new feature of Le Puy Blanc.

It didn‘t take long till the workers from the surrounding settlements began to see the ponds as possible fishing grounds and introduced roach, pike and carps for their amusement. The at times up to 5 m long carps with their characteristic pout are notorious “ecosystem engineers”. As deep swimmers they uproot and disturb submerged vegetation. Together with their sediments that lowers the water quality and increases algae growth (Matsuzaki et al., 2007). I am not writing this account to educate about the pond’s ecology but rather to show how this milieu is born and forming out of the ongoing ping-pong, mingling and struggling of different movements.

The lakes became fishing grounds

Of workers wanting to have fish in the pond and respectively introducing a wild mix of them, of carp stirring the ground and algae growing on their faeces; of perch eating other fish’s progeny; and of purple loosestrife plants trying to gain ground. Every human, animal and plant that inhabits the landscape, leaves its traces and thus shapes it; with or without intention. This ‘shaping by dwelling’ naturally brings up questions of ethics. The fishers for example introduced a wild mix of fish without considering the effects on the local ecology. One of the introduced species, the eye-catching pond perch, is a carnivore that tends to eat other fish’s eggs. The presence of the perch from North America thus reduces the diversity of the milieu and impoverishes it. Another example that illustrates the negligence of the fisher’s interventions are the trimmed water sides: as the fishers continuously cut the vegetation at the edges of the pond to be able to fish better, the soil around the pond is often left bare and exposed. A welcome gap for purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) that spreads quickly and efficiently to the disadvantage of less competitive species like narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia). Both species compete for the same milieu, but the native cattail stands less chance against the fisher’s trimmer and the North-American loosestrife.

When I first heard how the workers began to repurpose the accidentally created pond into fishing grounds, I found their actions imaginative and creative. Now, having looked closer at the consequences of their fishing, I am asking myself, how could the fishers take into account what their actions would entail for the local ecology and are there ways of fishing that are generative not only for their recreational life but also for the wider ecology?

Purple loosestrife can grow both near the water line and in water as here at the pond of Le Puy Blanc. (Photo: Jacques Thébaut)

Delicious invasives: Wild carrots and parsnips at the centre of a post-industrial wilderness

From the ponds, there is a narrow path paved with broken tiles that leads to a large open brownfield site. The area is overgrown with typical pioneer species: an abundance of wild carrots (Daucus carota) and parsnips (Pastinaca sativa), oregano (Origanum vulgare), prickly hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and sloes (Prunus spinosa). The wild parsnips are especially frowned upon: their sap can lower the skin’s natural UV protection and can thus cause severe burns. There are whole almanacs that give instructions how to eradicate them, but the sturdy roots don’t easily leave once they are settled.

Wild carrots
Wild carrots are propagating through the thousands of seeds they produce.
Wild parsnips
Wild parsnips are small in size but delicious in taste. Photos: Anna Lena Hahn

It is the sturdiness of these pioneer species that actually allows them to inhabit the depleted industrial wasteland. Wild carrots and parsnips populate areas even when they are in most hazardous conditions and I sometimes ask myself: Why fight them? Emma Marris (2013, 122) similarly examines critically a romantic perspective on pristine wilderness and asks,

“As the Earth responds to the changes we humans have made, does it make sense to destroy ecosystems that thrive under the new conditions? (…) Novel ecosystems may be our best hope for the future, as their components adapt to the human-dominated world using the time-tested method of natural selection. Could we hope to do any better than nature in managing and arranging our natural world for a warmer, more populous future?”

With that in mind, I wonder, what is a way of looking at these plants less as enemies and more as pioneers that actually regenerated a site that was in a near-death condition? I do not want to glorify the endless fields of the ever same species; as shown above, dominant and non-native species can overshadow native plants, but apart from that reasoning, many studies have shown that post-industrial sites are often incredibly rich in biodiversity and not poor! It might be worth reconsidering the presence of such pioneers as an ecology that is viable in these specific post-industrial circumstances. As it is nevertheless close to impossible to eradicate wild carrots or parsnips once they are established, eventually the question comes up how to relate to their presence. My colleague Titiane Haton showed me that the seeds of the wild carrot are actually edible and taste floral and spicy with a hint of anise. Since I discovered its unusual taste, I feel much more friendly towards their appearance. The root of the wild parsnip is likewise edible — a tiny vegetable that has a much stronger taste than its cultivated fellows. I wouldn’t describe the two plants as serious ‘food alternatives’ but eating them might at least spark a more imaginative relationship to this new kind of wilderness that at first seems intimidating.

During one of my visits to the pit I met a group of mushroom pickers that identified their harvest. On that day, they found 75 different species. Daniel Lacombe, the head of the local mycological society, explains to me that today’s diversity of the site adds to the rich mushroom find. Before the industrial period, there was (only) oak forest present.

Daniel Lacombe identifies the days harvest
Daniel Lacombe identifies the days harvest.
Photo: Anna Lena Hahn

Today, there are oaks, poplars, hawthorns, hazels, willows and many more — all supporting different mushrooms to grow. Could we even consider the clay mining as a diversifying activity?

The struggle for recognition: in the political landscape “Le Puy Blanc” remains unseen

I find it remarkable that only 35 years after the clay exploitation stopped, plants, mushrooms, fish and local residents quietly grew new life on site. Today the Puy Blanc hosts a rich mosaic of habitats and has grown into a landscape that is somehow self-sustaining.

As Humphris & Rauws (2021, 4) point out, edgelands like post-industrial brownfield sites tend to remain “unseen, unregulated and unplanned“ and serve citizens as grounds for experimentation and appropriation. Similarly, the Puy Blanc has received surprisingly little political support or resources. The commune only maintains a main pathway and the parking. Instead, a group of engaged citizens has found the association dcPB and cares for two more pathways, has built a hide, offers regular visits and takes school classes to the fossil grounds to learn about the Jurassic. The signs that inform about the flora, fauna and history of the site have been likewise researched and written by the association and financed by the regional nature park. I was surprised to learn that there is currently no annual budget from the commune for the animation of the site despite its huge potential. As shown in these scenes, the site offers rich learning grounds and is not at last a place where an anthropogenic landscape can be experienced in its full complexity.

In 2017, despite protests of locals, the factory buildings on the north site of the clay pit were demolished. I cannot help but think back to the Ruhr area in Germany, a coal mining region in which the factories and industrial landscapes were not destroyed but developed into theaters, museums and public parks. The Puy Blanc hasn’t yet been seen or recognized as heritage on a political level and is thus in a precarious position. I am curious if the accounts I have written might contribute to the recognition of the unusual mingling of activities that the Puy Blanc hosts today.

References:
Collier, M. J., & Devitt, C. (2016). Novel ecosystems: Challenges and opportunities for the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review, 3(3), 231–242.
Hobbs, R. J., Higgs, E., & Harris, J. A. (2009). Novel ecosystems: Implications for conservation and restoration. Trends in ecology & evolution, 24(11), 599-605.
Humphris, I., & Rauws, W. (2021). Edgelands of practice: Post-industrial landscapes and the conditions of informal spatial appropriation. Landscape Research, 46(5), 589-604.
Marris, E. (2013). Rambunctious garden: Saving nature in a post-wild world. Bloomsbury
Publishing USA.
Matsuzaki, S. I. S., Usio, N., Takamura, N., & Washitani, I. (2007). Effects of common carp on nutrient dynamics and littoral community composition: roles of excretion and
bioturbation. Fundamental and Applied Limnology, 27-38.
McPhee, J. (1981). Basin and range. Macmillan.
Tsing, A. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton University Press.

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