Article on Water and Energy in the Languedoc-Roussillon
Water. Solar, Wind and Hydrolic Energy. Burning Wood and other Fuels.
We are not short of water here. It flows from the Pyrenees past our village in the foothills and away to the Mediterranean. Before it leaves the mountains some of its potential energy is tapped by hydro-electric plants. They are modern replacements for the numerous water-mills that have tapped the same source of energy for generations. Some of the water disappears under the earth to re-emerge in unexpected places. The whole region is riddled with underground caverns and dotted with fresh water springs. People here are connoisseurs of water and will drive past a perfectly good spring in their own village to another one several miles away. The drinking water is free at both, but the one further away always seems to taste just that little bit fresher. You may have heard about the man who saved money by walking instead of catching a bus. He found he could save more money by walking instead of hailing a taxi. A similar sort of principal operates here. People flock to springs where water is bottled for sale to outsiders, but still provided free to locals. It somehow seems better value than water from springs that are free to everyone.
A few local springs are different. One near us spouts not fresh but salt water. Because of the salt, the stream it runs into called the Salze. Other springs produce the more usual fresh water, but heated to boiling point during its course under the earth's surface. As throughout the Roman Empire, hot springs were turned into public baths, and several in the area continue as health resorts to this day. Some of them are not well known. Often their hot water is used only by locals. Every village has a lavoir - a public washing places where the women of the village would meet every week to do their washing by hand. Villages with hot springs offered hot and cold running water at their lavoirs. Some still do, and are still used. A few houses tap nearby natural hot water for their central heating.
Solar power is also used here. The French government gives grants to people living in remote places away from the electricity grid. Most people in towns and villages are connected to the electricity grid, but piped gas is still restricted to towns. This doesn't mean that gas isn't used in villages. Many houses have their own gas tanks, usually discreetly hidden from view. A tanker fills them up every year or two. A new way to tap energy, or rather an old one being rediscovered, is the wind-mill. Ours is by far the windiest part of France, so new wind turbines are popping up everywhere around here. They are not particularly attractive - huge, white, noisy but most people prefer them to the numerous nuclear power stations that grace other parts of France.
The other great source of energy here is wood. The importance of trees and water was recognised by the government many centuries ago. An organisation dedicated to looking after the Eaux et ForÍts was an important economic force in the Languedoc for centuries. A friend who works for the Office Nationale des ForÍts has been tracing its history. He's followed it back to the thirteenth century, just a few years after the area was annexed to France. There's no danger of deforestation here - more trees are planted than are cut each year and the annual cropping is not even visible. It's not only the Office Nationale des ForÍts that keeps it like that. Every village maintains its own communal forest. So do many private individuals.
Almost every house, even modern ones, has a wood burning stove and a stack of wood for the winter. A small wood-burning stove will easily heat a whole house. Except for the occasional day of really cold weather these stoves have to be turned down. One of the consequences is that everyone is a wood connoisseur. Most people store their firewood for two years before burning it so that it has the optimum water content, but there's more to it than that. Different types of wood burn differently - quicker or slower, hotter or less hot, giving off more or less smoke, liable to spark or not, leaving much or little ash. Some produce bright flames, other smoulder. Some are easier to cut than others. Some become more difficult to cut with time, others easier. You select the wood according to your requirements. For example wood liable to give off sparks it safe enough in a closed stove. Pine scores badly on most criteria but is good for kindling, and pine cones are better than any commercial fire-lighters. Fruit woods gives off a pleasant smell on open fires. Smoke from vine stumps flavours red-meat, as does the smoke from oak bark. We often burn ash or beach during the day, but oak at night so that the fire will stay in until the morning. It's a bit more complex than relying on the national grid.
According to a local saying, firewood warms you up three times: once when you cut the tree, once when you cut it up, and once when you burn it.
I've thought about lugging my wood to the next village and back. That way I'd get even better value as it would warm me up a fourth time. If only I could find a taxi to follow I could save on travelling expenses at the same time.
JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
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