Wednesday, August 12, 2015

All fall down


What is this...a European beech? That would be my guess. A shallow, spreading root system, multiple trunks with scaly red-grey bark. It's been growing here a long time and each tree is unique, making it hard to say for sure.

It is an old tree, from the roots and bark and height. Its genus and species may be uncertain but its origins are not. This tree and all its neighbors were planted and cultivated by human beings starting around the year 1670. Which means it can't be more than 350 years old.

If it is a European beech, it has found the perfect spot: a steep slope overlooking a humid valley. While individual trees have lasted for 300 years, their normal lifespan is more like 150-200 years. It's likely a descendant of an original tree that was a seedling in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Happily for me, traveling the shady paths on a summer afternoon, the trees of Marly-le-Roi are flourishing. Of the human beings who used to live and visit here there is barely a trace.
Dans les années 1670 Louis XIV a fait construire un château non loin de Versailles à Marly-le-Roi. Son intention était d'avoir une demeure où il pourrait se détendre entouré seulement de quelques courtisans loin du faste de Versailles. Bien sûr, comme à Versailles le château était entouré de bassins, de statues et de fontaines majestueuses. Aujourd'hui il ne reste plus que le parc et quelques statues, le château et les bâtiments annexes ont été entièrement détruits. 
It was the private bolt hole of Louis XIV, the seventeenth century monarch who did not share my socialist worldview. He built a luxurious, exclusive theme park full of statues, pools, and sculptures. Not to mention a small chateau.

Louis discovered Marly and bought the estate in 1676. Work began the following year. He was tired of Versailles, which was full of noblemen and official French values. He wanted a retreat for himself and a select few whom he favored with an invitation.

Originally, it was a deep valley and a swamp. There was an abundance of ground water, even drinking water for the royal table, something that Versailles lacked. The location was secluded, and the estate as it took shape was on a modest scale compared with Versailles. Buildings and pavilions and pools and gardens were distributed across the property, not concentrated in one area as a display of wealth and power. The bald patches I saw in the clearings are the footprints of former buildings.

If you want to read more about what Marly was like, check out this blog post from a boutique architecture firm in Paris. If you want just a quick snapshot, in 1724 the estate looked something like this:

You can imagine the size of the crew tasked with maintaining the grounds and buildings! So many projects were going on day and night that visitors imagined fairies must be roaming the estate, transforming it:
Where I left a lake, I find a grove and a bosquet; where I left a forest, I find a large basin, into which some thirty admirably beautiful carp will be released this evening.
   -Madame de Maintenon
Some of the trees and plants were grown on site but many were transplants, brought in from elsewhere. Almost everything, including the carp, was imported (except water). There must have been a steady procession of delivery vehicles coming through the gates.

Louis spent copious amounts of money; Marly cost at least as much as Versailles. The complete reworking of a landscape was costly and complicated to maintain. The method of selecting guests was complicated. The custom machine for moving water around was complicated. At the end of the day, it could not be sustained.

Ruines d'une terrasse dans le parc de Marly, c. 1780 Hubert Robert
During the summer and fall of 1789, instead of fairies it was starving, angry peasants who were roaming the countryside near Paris. Versailles was heavily guarded, Marly was more vulnerable and already in decline. The buildings were pillaged and left to ruin. Many of the statues were removed to Paris as a defensive measure (where they ended up in the Louvre). A few years later the chateau was sold to an industrialist. He turned it into a cotton mill and then a factory for making bedsheets.

When the factory failed, the entire chateau was demolished and its stones and lead from the roof and any other materials of value were sold. The following year, Napoleon Bonaparte bought the property on behalf of the state. When that empire dissolved in 1815, Marly was abandoned to the elements. Nature transformed it from a fabulous retreat to a set of ruins to a walled garden to a wall. Only the trees were equipped to survive.

The workers who planted them and changed the bulbs in the flower beds daily and swapped the giant carp from one pond to another at the whim of the Sun King, do you think they knew this was coming?

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