Monday, November 21, 2022
For just as the flora has left its ghostly imprint embedded in so much fossilized matter, so, too, its memory has been sprinkled across the surface of innumerable church cartularies, bullaria, monastic records; been buried within the archival wealth of countless wills and testaments, marriage contracts, notarized deeds; or, occasionally, been inscribed across the surface of cadastral survey maps, outlining the limits of given properties. Within such documents, a stray phytotoponym—an oblique reference, say, to some olive grove offered up as part of a medieval dowry—gives researchers, on occasion, an invaluable aperçu of the floral environment of a particular locale at a given historical moment.
Fagus sylvatica, or common beech, is a perfect example in point. For the expanse that that tree once occupied can still be measured today, either by the lingering presence of ancient place-names in current usage or by the detection of such names in medieval records. In toponymic form, the tree appears under a variety of synonyms: Fage, Fau, Fagette, Fageas, Fayard, and so on. In each and every case, these place-names testify to a vanished environment. Infallibly, they indicate the exact location of forests that—in retracting—have left nothing for memento but their own estranged vocables. Among the many eloquent examples cited by Aline Durand, one in particular—drawn from a medieval cartulary— refers to a certain Faja oscura located in the Causse du Larzac. Faja signifies the tree itself, with all the nutritive oils inherent in its woody fruit, whereas oscura evokes the darkness, and thus the density, of those once-flourishing beeches. Long since converted into pastureland, that arboreal stand endures in a lone microtoponym: Lou Fagals. Mnemonic marker, it designates little more than a tiny ramshackle hamlet in the commune of Les Rives (Hérault).
The word—along with its residual counterpart, the fossil—bears witness to those vanished landscapes. Properly interpreted, its seemingly inconsequential particles, buried in so much somnolent documentation, allow one a glimpse—at least—of that lost ecology. It's as if the word, as a token of human consciousness, had withstood the retraction and ultimate disappearance of that dense sylvatic canopy—that Faja oscura—in order to preserve the wood's very memory. Even more, it serves to preserve our very own. For in that retraction and ultimate disappearance, the interface between culture and nature—cultum and incultum—has vanished as well. Only the word, it would seem, has withstood that spoliation. Having done so, it reminds us of a time in which the woods—the earth itself—hadn't yet been sacrificed, alas, for the sake of ourselves alone.