ONE OF THE ADVANTAGES of living in the west of Paris is the proximity of the Bois de Boulogne, a large public park located along the western edge of the 16th arrondissement. Covering an area of 845 hectares (2,090 acres), the Bois de Boulogne is, after the Bois de Vincennes in the east of Paris, the second largest public park in Paris.
From my home it takes me a little over ten minutes to walk to the northern edge of the Bois de Boulogne and the Mere de Saint-James, once a sand and gravel quarry but now a lake with two islands, which are a sanctuary for birds and small animals. The Mere de Saint-James is one of several lakes in the park.
The Mere de Saint-James
Today’s Bois de Boulogne was originally an ancient oak forest, the Forêt de Rouvray, where French monarchs from Dagobert, the King of the Franks in the seventh century, to Louis XVI in the eighteenth century came to hunt bears, deer, and other game.
The landscape of what is now the Bois de Boulogne has changed considerably since the time of Dagobert and Louis XVI. The Hundred Years War ravaged the forest in the fifteenth century and then thousands of trees were cut down for firewood and to build shelters when 40,000 soldiers of the British and Russian armies camped in the forest following the defeat of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1814, leaving an assortment of bleak ruined meadows, tree stumps and dismal stagnant ponds.
When Napoléon III elevated himself from President of the French Republic to Emperor of the French in 1852, one of his schemes was to create two large public parks on the eastern and western edges of the city where both the rich and the ordinary people could enjoy themselves. Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man responsible for executing most of Napoléon III’s schemes, the French engineer, Jean-Charles Alphand was engaged to turn the bleak remains of the military occupation into the Bois de Boulogne, an undulating landscape of lakes, hills, islands, groves, lawns, and grassy slopes – an idealisation of nature.
And Alphand’s Bois de Boulogne might have been what we see today had it not been for the ‘storm of the century’, the memorable hurricane of 1999. I remember it well!
In the early hours of 26th December 1999 hurricane force winds whipped across France causing immense damage. A ten-minute walk from my home, some 40% of the surface of the Bois de Boulogne was completely devastated with the wind felling around ten thousand trees.
Thanks to prompt action by the Paris City Council oak trees now cover about 50% of what was once the Forêt de Rouvray and cedars, plane trees, ginkgo-bilobas and countless other species share the rest.
As for the wildlife: well, the bears, deer and the other game that Dagobert and his successors hunted with such relish no longer wander amidst the present day oaks. Today, if you can set aside the ever-present noise pollution drifting in on the wind, you might be lucky enough to see and hear a variety of birds; woodpeckers, chiffchaffs, nuthatches and goldcrests along with wrens, robins, blackbirds, wood pigeons and thrushes. The keen-eyed might even spot the occasional sparrowhawk or kestrel passing overhead.
Standing beside the lakes in the Bois de Boulogne though one is almost guaranteed to see and hear a variety of waterfowl. When I went to the Mere de Saint-James the other day I was able record the cacophony of mallard ducks, moorhens, geese and mute swans.
Sounds of the waterfowl in the Bois de Boulogne:
Spending as much time as I do recording and archiving the urban soundscapes of Paris, the sounds of the human species in the Parisian streets, I relish the chance to record wildlife sounds in the urban environment when I can. Sadly, the opportunity doesn’t come along all that often so when it does, I make the most of it.