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How COVID Sparked A Search For Roots In The French Countryside

Nils Aucante has returned to his family's farm
Nils Aucante has returned to his family's farm
Romane Groleau

ORLÉANS — Along the road in France's central region of Sologne, patches of the forest stretch one after the other as far as the eye can see. The region, dotted with 3,000 ponds and smack-dab in the middle of France, is also home to the Saint-Marc farm, where dozens of ewes stand guard as bees buzz around 400 hives. It's a beautiful place, built more than a century ago, with a long family tradition. And yet, until recently, nearly all agricultural activity had ceased.

Right now, though, the land is getting a second wind, thanks in large part to Nils Aucante, 33. Leaning against the counter of his store, this tall, blond-haired man with a kind smile offers me homemade honey candy before beginning to tell the story of his return to the Sologne region.

A few years ago, when the globe-trotting journalist was based in New York, he found himself dreaming of wide open spaces and sedentary life. He even thought of buying a farm ... in Wyoming. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Saint-Marc farm was falling into ruins. Aucante's grandfather, the owner of the farm, had resigned himself to the fact that, in his mind, farming has no future and that no one would ever want to buy Saint-Marc.

Faced with the decision between Wyoming and Sologne, Nils Aucante did not have to think long: "My attachment to this place built by my ancestors was very strong, I would have found it hard to live with myself knowing that I had watched our farm collapse." In early 2015, he made his decision: He would return to the fold. The goal? Rehabilitate the place by installing beehives and raising sheep. His grandfather tried to advise him to transform the building into a holiday cottage, but Nils Aucante was determined. But when he saw the flock arrive a year later, Aucante's grandfather was hopeful again: The Saint-Marc farm would not die out.

When you live with a Breton man or woman, there usually comes a time when they raise their sails and head west to go home.

Jean Viard, sociologist and associate director of research at Cevipof/CNRS, has observed a trend of people placing emphasis on "defining themselves by place and location. People have moved to places in the hopes of rediscovering their identity ... which can be seen in the body of research about localized belonging. Today, many people try to give themselves a dominant identity by the place they live. And when this place is inherited and has a family connection, that is even more reinforced."

Like Aucante, many others have chosen to return to the region where they have a personal or familial connection to carry out some type of project related to the land. Patrice Le Cain was born in Finistère, in Brittany. His parents learned French at school because at home they spoke Breton. When talking to him face-to-face, you can see the way he feels connected to the Brittany region.

"I have always been extremely proud of being Breton and of the history of Brittany. I feel like I'm going back to my roots," he said. For 20 years, Le Cain worked for a refrigerated transport company in Paris and then in Lille, before the opportunity to be transferred closer to home arose three years ago. He smiles and says, "when you live with a Breton man or woman, there usually comes a time when they raise their sails and head west to go home."

But the story does not end there. What Le Cain loves more than anything is to go out to sea with the local oyster farmers, whom he has befriended. "I love oysters, I love seafood. The seawater runs in my veins." When he is on a boat, Le Cain falls back into memories of his childhood, 30 years ago when he accompanied his father and grandfather on their fishing excursions. "I became stronger in ways that a landlubber cannot understand," he says. A year and a half after relocating to Pornic, a town on the Atlantic, he quit his job to become an oyster farmer.

"I have more of a social life here than I did in New York," says Nils Aucante — Photo: Les Ruchers de Saint Marc via Facebook

According to Jean Viard, one never settles somewhere by chance. For some, they are brought to a place by family. For others, it's love at first sight, a vacation memory that you want to revive and make last. This was the story for Emma de Soumagnat. At the age of 25, having secured a master's degree in ecology, biology and environment, she never would have thought about leaving the capital to one day to settle in (what remains of) the family farm in Limoges, which had been abandoned for 30 years. The farm is nestled in the heart of the aptly named hamlet Soumagnat, and each time she writes her name, she is reminded of her own heritage.

The catalyst for her was the announcement of the first COVID-19 lockdown. "We told ourselves that it would only be for a month, so it didn't matter that there was no water or electricity … we would get through it!" But one month turned into many more, and de Soumagnat did not return to Paris.

"It was as if we had no choice," she says. It was the same kind of love at first sight that Le Cain experienced when he met the oyster farmers.

The destinies of Nils Aucante, Patrice Le Cain and Emma de Soumagnat were far from anticipated. Their reasons for returning to these places, steeped in history and memories, were varied. However, one thing unites them: the desire to find more meaning in their lives, just like Mathieu and Clémence Maisons.

"There is something very profound happening that is in many ways in response to the ecological crisis we are going through. We have been disassociated from the physical, real resources for existence and now we must return to the earth to be able to find them."

"Sometimes you need to stop hesitating," says Mathieu. He grew up on the family farm in Beauce, where he helped his parents harvest potatoes on weekends. After graduating from engineering school, he started his career as a market analyst for a major food company. Five years and hundreds of predictions and analyses later, he still struggled to picture himself doing the same job in the long term. Matthieu met with Clémence, his wife, and discussed his dream project: to start producing homemade chips.

"It brings more meaning to our work," he says. "Today we are going to plant potatoes, and in a few months, we will harvest them. Then, we transform them into chips and sell them. It's very concrete and simple."

Without the help of his wife and parents though, Mathieu Maisons could not have developed his project. He gave his family's 17th-century farm a "new lease on life," widening old walls that were too small to accommodate modern agricultural machinery and to adapt the farm for potato processing.

Gaspard d'Allens, the author of the 2016 book Les Néopaysans (The Neo-Farmers), wrote that "people following these paths to return to their roots challenge our current model of society: urban and overly career-centered. We're going to value manual labor again. It is not so much a return to the land but rather a renewed value for the land, as it helps us reclaim our lives and begin learning to work with living creatures and natural elements. There is something very profound happening that is in many ways in response to the ecological crisis we are going through. We have been disassociated from the physical, real resources for existence and now we must return to the earth to be able to find them, to understand how they grow. These are the little things that our grandparents had, but that we have lost."

When Patrice Le Cain thinks back to his former profession, which consisted of "buying a service as cheaply as possible in order to resell it for as much as possible," he wonders how he was able to last 20 years.

Mathieu Maisons makes homemade potato chips inspired by his grandmother's recipe. — Photo: Belsia via Facebook

Emma de Soumagnat's goal is to learn how to cultivate the land, live according to the rhythm of the seasons and rediscover ancestral knowledge: "We want to create a place where we can find the knowledge that has been lost for generations: cultivating the land on small plots, making bread, kneading it by hand. My grandfather understood it, but for him, it was still something intrinsic."

This is also what Mathieu Maisons was looking to accomplish when he marketed his homemade potato chips: to rediscover the taste of those that his grandmother used to prepare.

According to Jean Viard, this explains the return of "do-it-yourself" professions. For a long time, we searched for anonymity at work, hoping to find personal fulfillment in other spheres — love, leisure, travel. But in recent years, the focus has shifted.

Socialist Jean Viard says, "It used to be that people wanted to do neat and tidy jobs — they went to work in suits and ties. Mothers pushed their daughters to go to the city where there was cleanliness and running water. Today, we are seeing a return of crafts. People want to work with wood, soil, iron and flour. The rise of these trades is happening because people want to show what they have built."

Patrice Le Cain says that "The quest for meaning also involves the rebirth of foundational values such as "courage, hard work, generosity and strength. When the winds blow strong, you have to dare yourself to go to sea. There is always a sense of danger. But, you have to take responsibility and face adversity." The oyster farmer has lost 10 kilos (22 pounds) in six months. But when he thinks back to his office job, sitting under the fluorescent lights, he has no regrets: "I no longer found meaning in what I was doing, I found that it was no longer ethical."

We are seeing a return of crafts. People want to work with wood, soil, iron and flour.

In our ultra-connected lives, our relationship with nature has withered and we feel the need to reconnect with it. Gaspardd'Allens says, "It is also a crisis resulting from our failure to pay attention, our lack of sensitivity to the living world around us. By leaving the city to become a farmer, we discover another way of living in and relating to this world." For Emma de Soumagnat, this reconnection with nature is vital, even carnal: "In Paris, you are in a cocoon. You see the seasons go by, but you don't realize how fragile we are to the elements. Here, our roof is not insulated so we hear the wind, the rain, and we know the elements are there."

Contrary to popular belief, changing one's life and reconnecting with nature does not mean living in isolation. De Soumagnat says they are not looking to be in a vacuum far from others. But she also recognizes that there are shifts in the world that are going to happen, like climatic changes, societal changes, pandemics.

"Things are moving faster and faster," she says. "If one day there is a real problem, we want to be a space for resilience in the village, to be a rock for the people around us."

And the social link often starts at the next door, says Gaspard d'Allens: "Feeding the world was the task given to farmers in the 1950s. Today, it's no longer about feeding the world but about feeding your neighbors [...] You see their faces, their smiles. You see people around you who are happy to have good products. It's a form of making politics local again, the politics of everyday life."

Our relationship with nature has withered and we feel the need to reconnect with it.

For some, their social lives have been more active since leaving the city. While we were talking about bees and sheep, Nils Aucante was interrupted three times by visitors. "I have more of a social life here than I did in New York," he says, amused. So, who said that in the countryside one lives in isolation? Jean Viard says that by leaving the city behind, these newcomers create a strong connection to their network: "We are a society of links, and we sell links. People are looking for a link with their origins, a link with the land through what we do and then a link with the people we sell to. We are building a network-based society. These people coming to nature already have a network-minded culture, which they just bring into these rural spaces."

The neo-farmers prefer to focus on social ties, as well as the meaning they give to their work and to their lives. They will earn less, own less, perhaps work less, but they will be much more socially involved, holding onto interpersonal exchanges. Though, at the end of the day, to each their own.

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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