As the Cévennes national park celebrates its 50th anniversary, Adam Thorpe reflects on how the ‘intricate hills’ of the Massif Central protect its wildlife – and way of life
I sometimes think of the Cévennes as the massive knuckles of a sleeping green giant. Insular, tough-minded and Protestant, our home for the last 30 years has sharp granite and limestone hills that here and there stretch up out of deep valleys into proper mountains. Much of it is felted in dwarf holm oak, the evergreen and often impenetrable stuff of southern Europe, which turns metallic grey in poor weather, yet glitters beautifully under clear skies, simultaneously dark and resplendent, as difficult for a painter to capture as olive trees.
There are Alpine touches, despite its closeness to the Mediterranean: pine and spruce in dark green swathes on the higher slopes, tumbling streams among the great boulders, and the odd solitary eagle eyeing you from the level of the peaks. Beech and chestnut thrive on certain slopes, the latter providing an important income and a source of vital nourishment to the peasant Cévenol over the centuries. We gather chestnuts in season, careful to stick to those tumbled on to the paths, heeling open their spiky hulls to the nuts nestling inside like glossy cubs.