Monday, 6 August 2012

The High Fens

The highest point in Belgium  is surrounded by forestry plantations. The site at Botrange is marked by a stone tower at 694 m above sea level, a café and a car park.

View of Botrange, courtesy of Google Maps.
A hinterland of sprawling moorland and forestry known as the Hautes Fagnes-Eifel or Hohes Venn-Eifel lies beyond it, some 950 square miles of upland straddling the German-Belgian border. Clouds rolling in from the west are forced to rise and spend their water on this plateau of impermeable Cambrian quartzite. Thick snow drifts accumulate in winter; impenetrable fogs may descend at all seasons. Unable to drain away easily, the water ponds here, and decaying vegetation turns to peat and mor in the acidic soils. The Hautes-Fagnes are literally the 'High Bogs'; the word 'fagnes' has deep north-west European linguistic roots, being related to French 'fange' (mire), Old German 'venn' and English 'fen'(1). Maybe it was originally pronounced 'fenyes' by the early Franks. The creature Grendel would have felt at home in this landscape:
'a famous boundary-stepper, who held the moors, the fen and the fastness'.(2)
I have been staying with my friends Corinna Whatley and Mario Paquet. Our trip to the Hautes-Fagnes took place on a day which threatened rain, but never quite succeeded in delivering it. Had it rained, there would just have been more water to swell the sphagnum. We parked at the Mont-Rigi café and took a walk around. I cast about for British parallels for this distinctive landscape: the Galloway moors, the Cambrian hills, the peat bogs of Dartmoor? The patchwork of heath and pine forest of Breckland, perhaps? Elements of these places were present, but disconcerting elements obtruded, such as the stands of bog asphodel and the spruce standing like Christmas trees.

Fagne de la Polleur
Grey stone pillars engraved with 'B' and 'P' on opposite sides mark the former boundary between Belgium and Germany (Prussia). Local people speak both French and German dialects. What was it like here in August 1914 - did the Infanterie Regiment Lützow (1. Rheinisches) No 25, brigaded at Aachen, do their first boundary-stepping here? How did the 12ème Régiment de Ligne, garrisoned at nearby Verviers, respond? The border is not linked with any apparent feature in the landscape - it is an arbitrary line on a map. I wonder if anyone died defending it.

The Fagne des Deux Séries, looking towards Germany
Boarded footpaths led us conveniently and safely out into the protected landscape; we visited a variety of ecotypes and the degraded scarps left by peat extraction. According to historian Serge Nekrassoff, the Hautes-Fagnes was mostly forested until the Middle Ages, after which the surrounding villages began to exploit it for grazing and peat and a source of timber. By the 18th century the landscape had become predominantly open, and had gained a reputation as a hostile and forbidding landscape, perilous for travellers. This made it a source of fascination as well as sinister stories. Nekrassoff has gathered and analysed historical information about perceptions of the area, and has organised it around the metaphor of a mirrored human face. He distinguishes perceptions which have given rise to deforming 'images' of the Fagnes from those which have yielded a true 'visage' or realistic portrait 'without make-up', although admitting that many documents relate to both categories.(3) 

What is the face of the Hautes Fagnes for a visitor today - what is 'image' and what is 'visage'? 

My view is a fresh reading without benefit of any prior information, shared with friends. There will be as many discourses of the Fagnes as there are geographies: 'image' dissolves into 'visage' as various users and polities perceive the face of the land in their own way, be they bird-watchers, cyclists, dog-walkers, foresters, ice-cream sellers, motorists or planning authorities. Their thoughts and perceptions of the area build mythic material slowly, like peat - and some of it eventually gets shared. 

Stages in peat extraction and processing, from an interpretive panel on the Fagne de la Polleur.
My recent visit to the Hautes-Fagnes was a brief, boardwalk tour of a singular and lonely landscape. I have carried away some memorable impressions. With further information from leaflets, books and photos, I have been able to think about this material in a more detailed way than my three-hour visit could ever allow. My plan is to return one day for a guided walk led by Serge Nekrassoff, and get the benefit of his steadily accumulated knowledge and experience.

Meanwhile, rain keeps falling on the Fagnes, the sphagnum keep growing, and rivulets continue to trickle over the ancient Cambrian rocks; trees and bushes continue to invade the moorland. The High Fens remains a sparsely settled area, and for this reason alone it will continue to attract fascinated visitors and unsettled perceptions. 

(1) - J. Lechanteur: 'Le mot fagne et sa famille', in: Quenon, J., Schumacker, R. and Streel, M.: 'Les Hommes et les Hautes-Fagnes' (Université de Liege; 1994).

(2) - From the Old English epic 'Beowulf' 2, lines 104-5 - mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold, / fen ond fæsten. A mearcstapa is literally a stepper of the marches, a walker of boundaries, a border riever.

(3) - S. Nekrassoff: 'Images et visages des Hautes-Fagnes - Evolution d'un paysage et de sa perception' (Serge Nekrassoff, 2007)

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