The network of channels and canals that drain the marais encloses a series of fields which are put to various uses by the locals. The water channels are described with some precision by specific words according to their size. Having misplaced my handy reference, I won’t pretend to know the relative sizes but some of the words used are rigole, conche, bief and fosse (which I think is the smallest – a ditch). Here’s a few examples.
The multiplicity of waterways has attracted a multiplicity of ragondins [coypus]. Cute and furry, even when damp, though these critters may be, they undermine the banks of the canals in search of tasty vegetable matter to eat. Two many ragondins = pest. Wandering the length of some of the canals you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a ragondin but, more likely, you will catch a glimpse of one of these floating ragondin traps which are baited with apple in the hope of catching the hapless rodents. Not wishing to be wasteful in a world where recycling is encouraged, once having caught a ragondin you should mince it up with some pork and a few spices and make a tasty pâté.
Many of the fields are used for farming of some kind, such as raising cattle, keeping donkeys or growing vegetables. (The donkey picture also demonstrates very well the French habit of planting trees in very straight lines.) Years ago farmers used to ferry their cattle between fields in small boats but, much as I’d like such a picture, I haven’t found an active example. Other fields are left purely for leisure purposes.
The tracts of land are further divided these days by very minor roads and tracks, many of which form excellent cycle routes. Motorised vehicles also use them, normally when I’m trying to employ maximum stealth to stalk a butterfly or dragonfly. Whoosh! Off goes my quarry chased by a Citroen Deux Chevaux. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a 2CV chug past with a cow sticking out through its sunroof.
The canals spill into the Sèvre Niortaise which is the main river of the region. There are a number of ways to cross the river including, as one might expect, modern bridges. Between Arçais and Damvix is an écluse [lock] providing another type of crossing. Much more interesting, and much harder work, is a chain ferry which works thus:
- Approach the river and curse because the boat is on the opposite bank;
- haul on chain A to pull the boat over to your side of the river;
- load your cow/donkey/bicycle(*) into the boat;
- clamber into the boat yourself forcing your way past your cow/donkey/bicycle(*) to get to chain B at the far end;
- haul on chain B to pull both you and your cow/donkey/bicycle(*) across to the other side;
- carefully maintaining your balance, careful unload both yourself and your cow/donkey/bicycle(*).
(* = delete as applicable.)