Read CHAPTER VIII of Faces and Places , free online book, by Henry William Lucy, on ReadCentral.com.

OYSTERS AND ARCACHON

If the name had not been appropriated elsewhere, Arcachon might well be called the Salt Lake City. It lies on the south shore of a basin sixty-eight miles in circumference, into which, through a narrow opening, the Bay of Biscay rolls its illimitable waters. Little more than thirty years ago the town was represented by half a dozen huts inhabited by fishermen. It was a terribly lonely place, with the smooth lake in front of it, the Atlantic thundering on the dunes beyond, and in the rear the melancholy desert of sand known as the Landes.

The Landes is peopled by a strange race, of whom the traveller speeding along the railway to-day may catch occasional glimpses. Early in the century the department was literally a sandy plain, about as productive as Sahara, and in the summer time nearly as hot. But folks must live, and they exist on the Landes, picking up a scanty living, and occasionally dying for lack of water. One initial difficulty in the way of getting along in the Landes is the sheer impossibility of walking. When the early settler left his hut to pay a morning call or walk about his daily duties, he sank ankle deep in sand.

But the human mind invariably rises superior to difficulties of this character.

What the “backstay” is to the inhabitant of the district around Lydd, the stilts are to the lonely dwellers in the Landes. The peasants of the department are not exactly born on stilts, but a child learns to walk on them about the age that his British brother is beginning to toddle on foot.

Stilts have the elementary recommendation of overcoming the difficulty of moving about in the Landes. In addition, they raise a man to a commanding altitude, and enable him to go about his daily business at a pace forbidden to ordinary pedestrians. The stilts are, in truth, a modern realisation of the gift of the seven-league boots. They are so much a part of the daily life of the people that, except when he stoops his head to enter his hut, the peasant of the Landes would as soon think of taking off his legs by way of resting himself as of removing his stilts. The shepherds, out all day tending their sheep, might, if they pleased, stretch themselves at full length on the grey sand, making a pillow of the low bushes. But they prefer to stand; and you may see them, reclining against a third pole stuck in the ground at the rear, contentedly knitting stockings, keeping the while one eye upon the flock of sheep anxiously nibbling at the meagre grass.

Next to the shepherds, the most remarkable live stock in the Landes are the sheep. Such a melancholy careworn flock! poor relations of the plump Southdown that grazes on fat Sussex wolds. Long-legged, scraggy-necked, anxious-eyed, the sheep of the Landes bear eloquent testimony to the penury of the place and the difficulty of making both ends meet which in their case implies the burrowing of the nose in tufts of sand-girt grass. To abide among such sheep through the long day should be enough to make any man melancholy. But the peasant of the Landes, who is used to his stilts, also grows accustomed to his sheep, and they all live together more or less happily ever afterwards.

The Landes is quite a prosperous province to-day compared with what it was in the time of Louis XVI. During the First Empire there was what we would call a Minister of Woods and Forests named Bremontier. He looked over the Landes and found it to be nothing more than a waste of shifting sand. Rescued from the sea by a mere freak of nature, it might, for all practical purposes, have been much more usefully employed if covered a few fathoms deep with salt water. To M. Bremontier came the happy idea of planting the waste land with fir trees. Nothing else would grow, the fir tree might. And it did. To-day the vast extent of the Landes is almost entirely covered with dark forests in perpetual verdure.

These have transformed the district, adding not only to the improvement of its sanitary condition, but creating a new source of wealth. Out of the boundless vistas of fir trees there ever flows a constant stream of resin, which brings in large revenues. Passing through the forest by the railway line from La Mothe to Arcachon, one sees every tree marked with a deep cut. It looks as if the woodman had been about, picking out trees ready for the axe, and had come to the conclusion that they might be cut down en bloc. But these marks are indications of the process of milking the forests. It is a very simple affair, to which mankind contributes a mere trifle. In order to get at the resin a piece of bark is cut off from each tree. Out of the wound the resin flows, falling into a hole dug in the ground at the roots. When this is full it is emptied into cans and carried off to the big reservoir: when one wound in the tree is healed another is cut above it, and so the tree is finally drained.

Besides this revenue from resin immense sums are obtained from the sale of timber; and thus the Landes, which a hundred years ago seemed to be an inconvenient freak of nature afflicting complaining France, has been turned into a money-yielding department.

The firs which fringe the seacoast by the long strip of land that lies between the mouth of the Gironde and the town of Bayonne have much to do with the prosperity of Arcachon. The salt lake, with its little cluster of fishermen’s cottages, lies within a couple of hours’ journey by rail from Bordeaux, a toiling, prosperous place, which, seated on the broad Garonne, longed for the sea. Some one discovered that there was excellent bathing at Arcachon, the bed of the salt lake sloping gently upwards in smooth and level sands. Then the doctors took note of the beneficial effects of the fir trees which environed the place. The aromatic scent they distilled was declared to be good for weak chests, and, almost by magic, Arcachon began to grow.

By swift degrees the little cluster of fishermen’s cottages spread till it became a town of one street truly, but the street is a mile and a half long, skirting the seashore and backed by the fir forests. Bordeaux took Arcachon by storm. A railway was made, and all through the summer months the population poured into the long street, filling it beyond all moderate notions of capacity. The rush came so soon, and Arcachon was built in such a hurry, that the houses have a casual appearance, recalling the towns one comes upon in the Far West of America, which yesterday were villages, and to-day have a town-hall, a bank, many grog-shops, a church or two, and four or five daily newspapers.

A vast number of the dwellings are of the proportion of pill-boxes. Some are literally composed of two closets, one called a bedroom and the other a sitting-room; or, oftener still, both used as bedrooms. Others are built in terraces a storey high and a few feet wide, with the name of the proprietor painted over the liliputian trap-door that serves for entrance hall. The idea is that you live at ease and in comfort at Bordeaux, and just run down to Arcachon for a bath. There are no bathing machines or tents; but all along the shore, in supplement of the liliputian houses that serve a double debt to pay being residences at night and bathing-machines by day, stand rows of sentry-boxes, whence the bather emerges arrayed in more or less bewitching attire. The water is very shallow, and enterprising persons of either sex spend hours of the summer day in paddling about in their bathing costumes.

It is a pretty, lively scene. For background the long straggling town; in the foreground the motley groups of bathers, the far-reaching smooth surface of the lake; and, beyond, the broad Atlantic, thundering impotently upon the barricade of sandhills that makes possible the peace of Arcachon.

Like all watering-places, Arcachon lives two lives. In summer-time it springs into active bustle, with house-room at a premium, and the shops and streets filled with a gay crowd. It affects to have a winter season, and is, indeed, ostentatiously divided into two localities, one called the winter-town and the other the summer-town. The former is situated on the higher ground at the back of the town, and consists of villa residences built on plots reclaimed from the fir forest.

This is well enough in the winter-time, many English people flocking thither attracted by the shelter and scent of the fir trees; but Arcachon itself the long unlovely street is in the winter months steeped in the depths of desolation. The shops are deserted, the pill-boxes have their lids put on, and everywhere forlorn signs hang forth announcing that here is a maison or an appartement a louer.

All through the winter months, shut up between sea and sand, Arcachon is A Town to Let.

Deprived in the winter months of the flock of holiday makers, Arcachon makes money in quite another way. Just as suddenly as it bloomed forth a fashionable watering-place, it has grown into an oyster park of world-wide renown. Last year the Arcachon oyster beds produced not less than three hundred million oysters, the cultivators taking in round figures a million francs. The oysters are distributed through various markets, but the greatest customer is London, whither there come every year fifty millions of the dainty bivalve.

“And what do they call your oysters in London?” I asked M. Faure, the energetic gentleman who has established this new trade between the Gironde and the Thames.

“They call them ’Natives’,” he said, with a sly twinkle.

The Arcachon oyster, if properly packed, can live eight days out of the water, a period more than sufficient to allow for its transit by the weekly steamers that trade between Bordeaux and London. A vast quantity go to Marenne in the Charente lnferieure, where they fatten more successfully than in the salt lake, and acquire that green colour which makes them so much esteemed and so costly in the restaurants at Paris.

Oysters have, probably since the time of the Deluge, congregated in the Basin d’Arcachon; but it is only within the last thirty years the industry has been developed and placed on a footing that made possible the growth of today. Up to the year 1860 oysters were left to their own sweet will in the matter of creating a bed. When they settled upon a place it was diligently cultivated, but the lead was absolutely left to the oyster. Dr. Lalanne, in the intervals of a large medical practice at La Teste, a little place on the margin of the Basin, observed that oysters were often found attached to a piece of a wreck floating in the middle of the water far remote from the beds.

This led him to study more closely the reproductive habits of the oyster. He discovered that the eggs after incubation remained suspended in the water for a space of from three to five days. Thus, for some time after the frai season, practically the whole of the water in the Basin d’Arcachon was thick with oysters’ eggs. Dr. Lalanne conceived the idea of providing this vast wealth with other means of establishing itself than were offered by a casual piece of wreck. What was wanted was something to which the eggs, floating in the water, could attach themselves, and remain till they were developed beyond the state of ova. After various experiments Dr. Lalanne adapted to the purpose the hollow roof tile in use everywhere in the South of France.

These are laid in blocks, each containing one hundred and twelve tiles, enclosed in a wooden framework. In June, when the oysters lay their eggs, these blocks of tiles are dropped into the water by the oyster beds. The eggs floating about, find the crusty surface of the tiles a convenient resting-place, and attach themselves by millions. Six months later the tiles, being examined, are found to be covered by oysters grown to the size of a silver sixpence. The tiles are taken up and the little oysters scraped off, a process facilitated by the fact that the tiles have in the first instance been coated with a solution of lime, which rubs off, carrying the tender oyster with it.

The infant oysters are next placed in iron network cases, through which the water freely passes, whilst the young things are protected from crabs and other natural enemies. At the end of a year or eighteen months, they have so far grown as to be trusted out on their own account. They are accordingly strewn on the broad oyster beds, to fatten for another year or eighteen months, when they are ready for the waiting gourmet. Your oyster is fit to eat at eighteen months of age; but there is more of it when it is three years old.

We sailed out from Arcachon across the lake to the oyster park. Here the water is so shallow that the men who tend the beds walk about them in waterproof boots coming up to their knees. This part of the bay is dotted with boats with white canopies. Seen at anchor from Arcachon they look like boats laid up for the winter season; but every one is tenanted night and day. They are the homes of the guardians of the oyster beds, who keep watch and ward through the long winter.

Even more disastrous than possible visits from a male poacher are the incursions of a large flat sea-fish, known at Arcachon as the there, with us the ray. This gentleman has a colossal appetite for oysters. Scorning to deal with them by the dozen, he devours them by the thousand, asking neither for the succulent lemon nor the grosser addition of Chili vinegar. His action with the oyster is exceedingly summary. He breaks the shell with a vigorous blow of his tail, and gobbles up the contents. As it is stated by reputable authorities that the there can dispose of 100,000 oysters in a day, it is clear that the tapping must be pretty persistent.

This selfish brute, regardless of the fact that we pay a minimum three shillings a dozen for oysters in London, is happily circumvented by an exceedingly simple device. Rowing about the oyster beds at Arcachon one notices that they are fringed with small twigs of fir trees. The natural supposition is that these are to mark the boundary of the various oyster beds; but it is in truth designed to keep out the there. This blundering fish, bearing down on the oyster bed in search of luncheon, comes upon the palisade of loosely planted twigs. Nothing in the world would be easier than for him to steer between the openings, of which there are abundance. But though he has stomach enough for a hundred thousand oysters, he has not brains enough to understand that by a little manoeuvring he might get at his meal. Repelled by the open network of twigs, he swims forlornly round and round the beds, so near and yet so far, with what anguish of heart only the lover of oysters can fathom.

The oyster beds at Arcachon belong to the State, and are leased to private persons, the leading company, which has created the British trade, having its headquarters at La Teste. The wholesale price of oysters at Arcachon is from a sovereign to forty shillings a thousand, according to size. In the long street they sell retail at from twopence to eightpence a dozen, thus realising what seems to-day the hopeless dream of the British oyster-eater.