Snow Moon

There are more things in heaven and earth…….’

……than you can shake a stick at, thank you Shakespeare. I went mountain bike riding on Sunday and I sucked. I was already tired from a heavy week of work, my legs ached, my lungs ached, I was the last of the group and never really caught up. It was just one of  those days, and as every mountain biker knows, we all have our turn. Insignificant too in terms of any other problem or issue you could possibly think of, but we all know how we pressure ourselves and let things get out of perspective.

It’s good to look up sometimes, towards the lofty firmament so to speak. I love the night sky – it’s one of the pleasures of camping, to be able to get away from any light pollution and star gaze until you’re too tired to keep your eyes open or too cold to stay out of a cosy sleeping bag any longer –  and had been idly looking up the next full moon. It was to be the next evening, the day after my lowly ride, and not only that, it was going to be the first clear night after days of rain. Suddenly I was fired up to try to take a picture of the moon, even with all the street and building lights around. Adding fuel to the fire was the evocative description of the February full moon by several Native American tribes as a Snow Moon, so-called because the snow is piled high (also called the Hunger Moon due to the difficult hunting conditions). It’s humbling and comforting to think of the moon looking down on all of us.

The only reason I could even take any pictures of the moon without it being a tiny,  blurry dot on the screen is due to a great lens that a childhood friend of Scott’s left him when he passed away three years ago. Sean was  an avid photographer and knew how much Scott appreciated photography. So thank you Sean. (click on the photos for full size gallery)

 

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Lavender Revisited

In my previous post The Sweet Smell Of Lavender I mentioned I was in the midst of writing an article about Provençal lavender for the British Columbia Association of Practicing Aromatherapists (BCAPA). The article will be published in the spring newsletter but as the latter isn’t available to the general public it’s been agreed that I publish it on my blog. Hope you enjoy it and if anyone has any comments, corrections or observations to add, it’d be great to hear from you.

Cycling the Fragrant Road: Perfumed Provence Under Threat

Lavender is the soul of Provence

So said Jean Giono (1895-1970), a beloved French author who lived and wrote in Provence and whose love of the natural world, reflected in his mini novel The Man Who Planted Trees, made him an early precursor to the modern ecological movement. René-Maurice Gattefossé (1881-1950), the so-called father of Aromatherapy and the man who coined the term itself with his seminal work Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles Hormones Végétales, held Provence and the lavender it produced close to his heart.

While undertaking a cycling tour of rural France in the summer of 2014, noting the haze of purply blue flowers that swept to the horizon, there was no doubt in my mind that the intertwined relationship of lavender and France was an indelible part of the cultural and economic landscape. But the bucolic scenes of lavender fields stretching into the distance under a blazing sun belies a furious battle on two fronts to preserve a way of life that has its roots in the Middle Ages.

rural France

Whilst aromatherapists here in Canada have felt the bite of Health regulations in recent years – with the implementation of Natural Health Product Regulations, natural product numbers and product licences – spare a thought for the embattled growers of herbs and distillers of essential oils in France for a moment. The focus of an intense regulatory spotlight is amply personified by the lavender growers of Provence as they seek to resist an attempt to have lavender oil (along with other essential oils) labelled as chemical toxins under the European Unions REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) program to be implemented by 2018. It is an unthinkable development given the long history of the herb as an alternative therapeutic addition to home and garden and a dollop of salt added to an open wound. Lavender and lavandin – the latter a massive provider of essence for the cosmetic and perfume industry – have been struggling against climate change over the last two decades. A blight has destroyed almost fifty percent of the lavender crop in recent years in the region. A mini cicada has thrived in unusually hot weather, transmitting the micro-bacteria stolbus phytoplasma, which drought-weakened plants have trouble resisting. The disease is contagious, and in the early stages the plants fail to show signs of infection. There is real concern that lavender could disappear from the landscape in twenty or thirty years time.

harvesting lavender

The regulatory struggle farmers face emerged later the same year that I had been travelling in France; news stories featured photos of signs posted in fields we either hadn’t spotted at the time, or went up after we’d left: ‘lavender is not a chemical.’* Concerns that such a designation would mislead the general public with its bold black and red ‘hazardous’ labelling are matched by the troubling fact that the cost of chemical analysis and classification would be a significant difficulty for smaller farmers and producers. Classifying a product that is dependent on the sun, soil, altitude and a myriad of other natural conditions would be challenging in itself. As such a real economic blow to the industry looms on the horizon. At present the blue-gold of Provence is worth over 100 euros a kilogram; according to the French association APAL (Association des Producteurs d’huile essentielle de Lavande AOC de Haute Provence) approximately 50,000 acres of land is cultivated for lavender, with 2000 producers and 120 distilleries. The lavender industry provides 25,000 related jobs that include a tourist industry comprising thousands of visitors to the south of France who come for the panoramic views of the lavender fields in bloom. Draconian regulations and a blight; the potential impact to the region could be incalculable.

lavender fields

Revered for its perfume and therapeutic qualities, lavender has a powerful place in history thanks to its healing and aromatic properties; it is a versatile oil that blends well with almost any other essence. Kurt Schnaubelt noted that the French lavenders are characterized by a high ester content (i), esteemed by perfumers worldwide. Therapeutically lavender has been found to have a marked sedative activity (ii), and the true or ‘fine’ lavender grown from seed, the Lavandula Angustifolia P. Miller that APAL protects so rigorously, is calming and balancing. Recommended for respiratory ailments, asthma, spasmodic cough, influenza, bronchitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia (iii), lavender is often used directly on the skin to treat anything from cuts and scrapes to insect bites and burns. This was famously demonstrated by Gattefossé after an explosion in his laboratory resulted in burns that became infected. Applying lavender oil to his burns Gattefossé was astounded at the antiseptic and healing properties of the essence.

In France the seriousness and scale of lavender essential oil production, and the use of oils in the therapeutic and perfume industries in general is tangible. In the last three years Bulgaria has overtaken France in its production of lavender oil and as the challenges besetting French lavender growers have intensified and production has exponentially decreased, Bulgaria has profited, although ultimately the EU regulations will affect Bulgaria as a member country in the same way. Yet even a Bulgarian producer acknowledges the superiority of true French lavender: ‘At the same time we can’t praise with better quality, though, as French lavender oil remains the standard.’ Only four areas of France produce the highly sought after AOC (now AOP) labelled lavender oils, the departments of Drôme, Vaucluse, Alpes de Haute Provence, and the Hautes Alpes. The AOC designation – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – can only be used for Lavandula Angustifolia and is the standard against which lavender oil is still assessed. The fine or true oil must come from plants grown at a minimum altitude of 800 meters.The product must pass a double series of tests both analytical and olfactory and the individual batches are sampled and examined under anonymity. The standard is high, the tests for quality rigorous.

For our cycling tour of the Vaucluse – the heart of Provence – we opted to stay in the charming town of Sault, situated like so many other villages in the area on a rocky promontory on the Albion plateau. It was an ideal spot for not only the cycle friendly accommodation and scenic roads but for access to the local lavender growers and businesses that make up a large part of the economy of the region. The Albion region is the top producer of lavender, yielding 40% of the country’s production, the majority of which is dedicated to creating perfumes, supplying therapists with high quality oil and manufactures of lavender products with raw materials. A local sign describes the region a little: ‘The landscape here is structured around a large north-south depression from Aurel to Monieux between Mont Ventoux and the plateau of Albion. Villages and towns are strategically built on rocky spurs, offering them good views as well as protection. The scent of lavender, golden fields of cereal crops and flocks of sheep have been part of the lives of Sault inhabitants for several centuries’. Cutters or ‘coupeurs’ of lavender supplied the flowers to the Apothecaries of Carpentras in the 19th century and distilleries were later installed to produce the essence of lavender. Lavandula Angustifolia began to be seriously cultivated at the beginning of the 20th century at the request of the perfumers of nearby Grasse – world capital of perfume production – and by the beginning of the 21st century was established as the centre of fine lavender cultivation. In 2008 lavender growers signed a joint charter with the national Minister of Agriculture dedicated to the sustainable development of lavender, countering the trend towards mass production with its potential side effects of reduced quality and increased pollution.

The scent of lavender even relatively early in the growing season is omnipresent in the area. The day we cycled into Sault was midway into the second week of June and midway through an unexpected heatwave. By early afternoon the temperature had climbed to nearly 40c with no sign of abatement and the feeling of being utterly parched had become the overwhelming sensation. On the climb up the last of what had been many hills that day into town we were happily distracted from our aching limbs and dry throats by the smell of lavender. It was barely in bloom, really only just in the first blush of flowering, but the aroma was tangible. We found this over the entire region; combined with the heat, the quantity of the crop let alone the local shops selling soaps, oils, bouquets and other related products, the fragrant air was imbued with lavender. In the town centre we found delicious lavender ice cream (made using the flowers) at a local crêperie that we fell on with the desperation that only the overheated can appreciate; the weekly market sold bulk lavender and we were presented with a bar of lavender soap by our hotel patrons on our departure.We reciprocated with a local lavender infused honey found at a farm stand by the side of the road the day we rode back from a monumental climb up nearby Mont Ventoux.

lavender ice cream

Leaning over one of the walls overlooking the valley below Sault, it becomes quickly apparent the entire area is filled with lavender fields, interspersed with pockets of spelt, photogenically arranged in opposing directions and angles. The more popular routes to Mont Ventoux and into the surrounding countryside were well marked with signs for following a lavender trail. We were lucky one day to choose a quieter road in the quest for a few hours of relaxed riding with a good meal at the midpoint. We circled around the valley and back up into the hills to a high point over the plateau to earn our delicious ‘cyclists lunch’ (meaning substantial and reasonable) at a local restaurant. A wonderfully scenic route past fields on tree shaded roads led us to stumble across a gem of a local lavender farm. In the village of Ferrassières in the adjoining Drôme department we met a farmer called Natalie who was putting together bunches of lavender flowers to sell at local markets. Sacks of lavender flowers were stacked against the walls of her shed, and from her shop I bought a bottle of oil that had been distilled from the previous years crop. Answering the question I’d posed in broken French, she nodded that ‘oui’ the oil was the fine lavender, or true lavender found at higher altitudes in Provence, the angustifolia family that is considered the ‘nobler’ plant. On arriving back in Canada I opened up the coveted bottle of lavender oil and it smelt wonderful; subtle and rich, not overpowering, fully meeting the high expectations I had for a true French lavender.

As our holiday in France was to end with a couple of days in Paris, it made sense to visit the Fragonard Museum – the Fragonard perfumery is one of the oldest perfumeries in Grasse – to sample some of the end results of the work in Provence, and to place in historical context the growers and producers of plants and their essences in the region. The museum is small, private and no cameras are allowed inside, but it gives a fascinating insight into the story of perfumery. Numbered vials of solid perfumes tempt you to test your smell perception to detect more unusual scents: strawberries, pineapple, sandalwood or perhaps sweet pea. Lavender, rose, jasmine, orange blossom and mimosa are just a few of the flowers supplied by Grasse and its surrounding areas for perfume making, the art of cultivation culminating in the exquisite art of perfumery.

Fragonard museum

There is perhaps some hope on the horizon for the lavender producers of Provence. A collaborative three-pronged effort is underway between the local growers cooperative France Lavande, a French fragrant plants research organization (CRIEPPAM) and Givaudan, a major company in the fragrance and flavour industry. Givaudan is financing the supply of healthy lavender plants from CRIEPPAM to the cooperative members in the hope that the decimation of lavender plants can be mitigated and production increased. At the time of writing there is no further news on the EU regulations, although there has been vigorous opposition to the proposed rulings and concerns aired in discussions with EU officials. An online petition challenging the regulations had at last count garnered 22,429 signatures. The hope remains that lavender can perhaps be designated as an agricultural product and thus bypass the complexities of chemical classification.

Exploring what remains at present, despite the struggles, a dynamic and thriving region on exquisite country roads made riding a delight and an ideal way to experience first hand the artisanal lavender farms and the scenic surrounds at a pace that allows full appreciation of the area. As it was France we of course felt obliged to indulge our gustratory senses (sublime cherry clafoutis anyone?!) whilst learning more about an exceptional plant and the commitment of the people who grow it to achieve the highest quality possible. There is great pride in lavender, the economic support it provides and the identity that comes with this beautiful blue flower. Hope that this way of life continues is tinged with disbelief at the thought that lavender might one day disappear from the horizon. Lavender is, after all, the soul of Provence.

* It should be noted that whilst the belief is essential oils should not be classified as ‘chemicals’ and are wonderful substances to have in your home, they are highly concentrated products and should be treated with respect. Keep out of the reach of children and pets, do not ingest, do not use undiluted and use as directed on the label or by a qualified practitioner.

Bibliography:

(i) Advanced Aromatherapy, Kurt Schnaubelt (1995)
(ii) Essential Oil Safety, A Guide for Health Care Professionals. Robert Tisserand, Tony Balacs (1995)
(iii) Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, Shirley Price, Len Price (second edition, 1999)

Sources:

APAL
France Lavande
Givaudan
CTV News, Canada
The Guardian, UK
BHP Radio Bulgaria
CRIEPPAM

© On A Small Blue Planet by Amanda 2016

The Wild West Coast

Recently we hopped onto a ferry and drove for three hours on a low-key, beautifully scenic route (once out of any major cities or towns) past stately Cathedral Grove – location of towering old growth trees – to Tofino on Vancouver Island’s Pacific coast. I’d booked us three nights at a local hotel so that we could enjoy a small break from our busy schedules and listen to the uninterrupted sound of the ocean, the wind and the rain. We went with books (no bikes this time) our cameras and with the intention of long walks on the beaches and in the forest. Tofino is renowned for its rainfall but as it turned out we caught it at a time of lovely balmy temperatures and some gorgeous sun that intermittently made an appearance.

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Mackenzie beach

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the sky is blue or a moody shade of grey, every incarnation seems to suit the environment. The surfers didn’t seem to mind either as they made their way in and out of the frigid waters. Perhaps the most popular beach with tourists and surfers alike is Long Beach, located in Pacific Rim National Park itself (the town of Tofino is outside the border of the park). The always cold ocean means wearing a wetsuit year round….

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Every night we heard the ocean crashing on the beach below our open bedroom window. One of those nights I woke up to light edging around the curtains and quietly got out of bed to look out at the moon reflecting perfectly off the waves. Each day we walked and walked, ate, drank some wine and read.

We roamed from the openness of the beaches to the confinement of the rainforest walks with their remnants of ancient old growth cedar and Douglas fir trees. The forest is full of seen and unseen life amidst the decaying mulch, yet unlike the constant roar of the ocean the forest is eerily quiet, interrupted by the occasional sound of birds, a singular rather lonely sounding frog (it’s not the mating and breeding season when they’re usually in full croak) and the dripping of water from leaves after a night of pouring rain.

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Boardwalks protect the delicate forest floor.

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Glistening, preternatural fungi

Glistening, preternatural fungi

It’s a beautiful area, and still wild in places. Bears, cougars, wolves, a variety of birds, orcas, fish and sea lions are some of the species that make the area home…. we saw evidence of a bear on one of the forest walks near the water. Fishy-smelling droppings (very fresh) and further on another pile, this time full of berries. We left the bear to his or her peace and moved on to a totally deserted bog walk, completely different, just a few minutes from the forest. Acidic soil and a lack of nutrients means that the only trees that grow here are Shore Pines, stunted and gnarled….

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The start of the West Coast Trail begins in the region, a trail that sounds fantastically challenging and which seems to produce many injured hikers every season. It passes through First Nations territories that have been occupied for thousands of years and has a fascinating past as a life saving trail for shipwreck survivors and rescuers.

For the first time I did consciously think of the dangers of tsunamis, with local sirens and notices along the highway advising when you are ‘now entering’ and ‘now leaving’ the tsunami hazard zones (i.e down hills and up again). It didn’t detract from our enjoyment, rather it enhanced the sense of how vulnerable this low-lying region is, and how truly wild the west coast could be, even when it looks so benign.

Long Beach

Long Beach

 

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