The Camargue is an island in Provence, a territory of earth, salt and water, born from the vagaries of the Rhône River, of a fascinating beauty and an extreme fragility. This bit of land south of Arles, gripped between the river’s two branches, is for many, synonymous with sandy beaches, stretches of water shimmering in the sun, and landscapes sheltering a wild and colorful fauna.
The white horses, the jet-black bulls and the pink flamingos are emblematic of this corner of Provence, and in summer the tourists are many who come to discover these vast expanses… The gaze stretches far over these flat lands, and you can choose to laze around by the Mediterranean, or visit the villages Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer, Salin de Giraud, and Aigues Mortes.
There’s also a less traditional Camargue, far from the beauties of Arles and the Camargue herdsmen perched on their horses, far from their bullfights and their festivals… It’s this more secret Camargue that we ask you to discover, the one where live men tied to the marshes by their ancient, tough and beautiful trade, that of the “sagneur”.
Because these vast spaces that make up of the Camargue are everything except wild… They result from the different activities that man has practiced there for centuries: fishing, hunting, breeding bulls and horses, cultivating rice and grapes, collecting salt and cutting reeds… All that coexists, as best it can, between fresh and salt water, the “little” and “big” Camargue…
The reeds, they’re a little like the blood of the marshes, which host so many different protected species, and the reed-cutters are those who, each year, cut down the fields of reeds. In the past, there were two cuts, green in summer for the animal beds and food, and dry in winter, for covering the roofs of the traditional houses.
Since the advent of mechanization, only the winter cut continues. A few decades ago, the reed harvest was done on a boat with a low draft, the “Partègue”, or “Portège”, with the help of a sickle known as the “Sagnadou”. Today, the reeds are cut from on top of homemade contraptions, tractors, or tanks…
Some protest the degradation of the environment from the passage of these machines, which crush nests, others see in this operation the crucial renewal of the reeds, which alone maintains the wildlife’s habitat. But the “sagneurs” are above all in love with their region, which they intend to preserve, just like their profession. This land is their future, and they respect it.
If many families lived from this agriculture last century, today only four companies working the reeds remain, over some 2,000 hectares. The Camargue is nevertheless the premier French growing region and it continues to export, especially to the Netherlands. The economic importance of this activity is real, the cutting of these reeds generates 1.5 to 2.5 million Euros in sales each year.
A lovely book on this subject has just been published by Rouergue Editions and is marvelously illustrated with photos by José Nicolas.
Les hommes des Roseaux
by Colette Gouvion Editions Le Rouergue