Where does this passion for French natural heritage come from?
After a year of medical studies in Paris, I realized that I did not want to be a doctor. I then moved on to my second year at the Faculty of Sciences to learn about chemistry, biology and geology. During field placements, I admired the knowledge of the academic assistants. I then dreamed of knowing as much as them and I immersed myself in the study of flora, birds, rocks and mushrooms.
Having obtained the CAPES then the aggregation, I taught natural sciences. From the start of this teaching period, I developed a real bulimia regarding this discipline: I wanted to “know everything” about nature! I then delved into all areas of natural sciences: geology, ornithology, botany, zoology. I first focused on birds, then orchids. The passion for the landscapes of France came with it: I set out in search of unusual sites, then remarkable trees, in particular with the ARBRES association that I created with Robert Bourdu and Yves-Marie Allain in 1994.
You still give lessons. But sharing your knowledge goes far beyond this university teaching!
By guiding discovery trips in France and writing books (for adults, but also for children), I indeed have the joy of sharing this knowledge. At the same time, I enrich them and reinforce my observations.
Our country is blessed with an incredible diversity of landscapes, inseparable from an exceptional cultural heritage. Discovering them and making them discover are, for me, part of the same passion.
What would be your “Top 5” wildlife on this route?
Difficult to rank, but I’ll try! The Allier gorges are a paradise for birds of prey while the lentil fields of Velay are flown over by sublime red kites, whose orange tail serves as a rudder. And since we are talking about birds of prey, crossing the Pyrenees is an opportunity to admire griffon vultures and, with great luck, the bearded vulture. Finally, Aubrac can be an opportunity to see steppe species that we are trying to reintroduce such as Prejwalski’s horses and European bison.
And what about the flora?
I have a (big) weakness for Ophrys orchids, whose main petal, the labellum, imitates an insect. These orchids are found in spring, on the limestone soils of Quercy. I would also mention the high-altitude beech forests and the riparian forests (waterside forests) on the banks of the Lot.
Would you like to point out some little-known natural treasures on this route?
Several geological sites (for example around Conques or Espalion) highlight red rocks, rich in iron oxide. Beautiful meadows rich in orchids are well preserved, such as in Pimbo (Landes), with a nature reserve. And we will appreciate the flora and fauna of numerous ponds as we approach the Béarn lands.
Built heritage, toponymy, natural spaces: correlations to decipher?
In this book, I actually emphasize the links between the nature of the subsoil and the stones of the old houses or chapels, which are numerous on this route. Each stone of the built heritage tells the geological history of the region crossed. We enjoy, for example, walking along the stone walls, witnesses of an ancestral tradition! As for place names, they often have a link with trees: chassan for oak, castan for chestnut, verne for alder or frayssine for ash.
Are there any remarkable trees on this route or on other Saint-Jacques routes in France?
I point out some beautiful trees like the large beeches near the village of Faux (Lozère) or the large lime tree near a bridge over the Gave, in Béarn. Remarkable trees also have their place on the other paths of Saint-Jacques: the best known is the large plane tree of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert.
In what season do you recommend doing the Puy-en-Velay route to make the most of this nature?
All seasons have their interest, their surprises and their revelations. The fall colors are sublime, but getting later and later. For me, the ideal season is spring. Crossing Aubrac and Margeride at the end of May is enchanting, when millions of daffodils are in flower!
When we walk, we are sometimes absorbed by material questions: the markers to find, the evening stop to reach, the backpack that is too heavy, tendonitis that causes pain. How can we then observe the fauna, flora and geology?
Only one solution: take the time, if possible! This book should also help the walker prepare his route, by noting the places he does not want to miss. I take this opportunity to point out that it is too heavy to be carried. It is designed to be read before departure; and also on the way back, as a complementary happiness, to relive the good moments of the trip.
What advice would you give to preserve this fauna and flora, to be an “ecopilgrim”?
To stay on the path to avoid excessive trampling and disturbance of wildlife, particularly birds. For the flora, avoid unnecessary picking. As for the basic tips regarding waste, everyone knows them. In summary, three verbs to apply: look, admire, respect!
What can nature teach the walker?
Looking at the flora, admiring the birds, we marvel, we reflect on the millions of years of evolution that preceded us, but we also think about the fragility of all species. By looking at the stones, by thinking about their history, we put our place on our planet into perspective.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of nature in France? On this Puy-en-Velay route, will pilgrims see the treasures presented in this book… in 20 years or in 50 years?
I tend to be more proactive and optimistic: I want to hope that these wonders will always accompany the pilgrims’ path. Climate change is perhaps the main threat, but we can also imagine that the vast steppes traversed will welcome large mammals that have been reintroduced and become wild. Bison, horses and wolves could then be there. Who knows?
A last wish?
Through this book, I hope to contribute to offering small moments of happiness to all walkers of the paths of Saint-Jacques, by encouraging them to open their eyes wide to the wonders that present themselves to them!