The final decades of the 16th century were a terrible time in France, with the catholics and protestants fighting for control of the country. Many bloody battles were fought across the country and many thousands of people were slaughtered.
Perhaps it was while Catherine de Medici was ordering the Saint Bartholomew Day Massacre of the Protestants that our story begins, with an acorn falling to earth deep in the forests of south-west France.
1600 – 1715
This was a period of (relative) calm in France, marked in part by the growth in power of the monarchy and the terrible poverty that was suffered by much of the population that was to lead eventually to the revolution.
While the population struggled to survive and to pay the ever increasing taxes imposed by local lords, our acorn slowly grew into a mighty oak, undisturbed by the passage of time and far from human activity as its branches provided shelter to generations of wildlife.
By the 18th century the slave trade was flourishing in France, with many cities along the coast of western France becoming wealthy from the trade. Ships left from towns such as La Rochelle, Nantes and Bordeaux to reach Senegal and western Africa, where they were loaded with their human cargo before sailing on to the Caribbean.
Each ‘voyage’ took perhaps a year and a half to complete, depending on the time spent trading for slaves in Africa.
Building ships for this trade required large amounts of wood, and the shipbuilders headed deep into the forest to find the oak that was needed, felling ancient trees and transporting the wood downstream along the rivers to the ports.
The life of our oak tree was at an end, and by 1750 it was perhaps part of a ship that had sailed several times, a typical journey perhaps passing from Bordeaux to Mozambique and French Guyana before returning to Bordeaux.
Late 18th century
When ships became too old to repair or were no longer needed they were dismantled. The ancient wood from the ships was often transported back into the countryside to be used for building, providing beams as solid as any modern steel.
The wood used in many old buildings in the region still bears the traces of this earlier use – notches, grooves and carvings that bear witness to this earlier use as part of a ship.
The wood used for our house and barn bears these marks, and a person could speculate for hours on the possible history of each solid beam and rafter.
From 1900 – 2000 the oak perhaps simply provided somewhere for generations of ‘paysans’ toiling in the fields to take shelter – farmers had a very hard life before modern machinery made their lives much easier.
However during renovation work we discovered a hand grenade, so perhaps our oak saw further action during the 20th century. The romantically inclined might wonder whether the oak roof of our barn could have provided shelter and a hiding place to resistance fighters during the war…
By 2000 the front of our barn had become unsafe. The family of the previous owner had lived here for 140 years and told us that repairs on the barn had been started in 1914 but then all the young men had been called away to war, many of them never to return, and the repair work was never completed.
As a result of 100 years of neglect during the 20th century, several of the beams had been exposed to the elements for too long and needed to be replaced. Even 500 year old wood suffers when left exposed for years to the sun, the rain and the frost.
The ancient wood – our oak tree – that was removed from the barn was left in a pile to one side and new wood took its place, wood from recent plantations that has no history.
A freezing cold spell in February 2012 leaves us short of dry wood and my thoughts turn to the old beams. Although no longer suitable for building with they will make excellent firewood so I cut them up and, one by one, they get burned in the wood stove.
The 500 year story of our acorn falling in a forest has at last reached an end.
On every piece of wood that I put in the fire I can see the grooves and scratches that remain from the long journey taken by our tree, the remains of wooden pegs and the plane marks left by the tools of shipbuilders and carpenters over the centuries.
I can almost hear the distant echo of the slave ships, and I feel guilty because I am not burning wood I am burning history…