The western Upland of Brittany, Normandy, and the Vendée shows a slightly rolling relief, while the drowned coast is bordered by rocky islands, once parts of the mainland. The largest of these, the Channel Islands, belong to England, but are French in climate and in many other ways. The fact that three famous breeds of cattle--Jersey, Guernsey, and Alderney--have originated here shows how the dairy industry dominates them.
The agriculture of the mainland shows two contrasting phases. Along the coasts, especially in Brittany, the mild winter temperature, as we have seen, is suitable for early vegetables and also for grain. The moist, storm-beaten uplands, on the other hand, are mainly devoted to cattle-raising. Farther east the more continental climate and the correspondingly small development of moorland, as well as the neighborhood of the great Paris market, cause dairying to become more intensive. So far as the uplands are concerned, the crops are almost limited to the poorer types of grain-barley, rye, and buckwheat--for the climate is too wet and the soil too leached for wheat. Appletrees are numerous, and cider is the main drink.
The Central Plateau is more complex than the Western Upland in its structure, relief, and land utilization. Volcanic cones, called "Puys," rift valleys such as those used by the Loire and the Allier, and other signs of volcanic action such as dikes and hot springs, afford evidence of pressure and disturbance during the Alpine period of uplift. In the southern part horizontal limestone layers have been uplifted together with older rocks and form a karst plateau, les Causses, while the sharp southern break of the Cevennes occurs in this same material. Finally the Morvan forms an offshoot toward the northeast. The Central Plateau has been denuded of most of its forests, and the use of the land is much the same as in the western uplands. On the lower slopes an area where rye is the predominant crop forms a highly irregular band clear around the plateau. On the more rainy higher parts stock-raising prevails, intensive in the east where the soils are volcanic and fertile, but extensive in the west where the soils are leached.
A very different rural picture is seen in the valleys with their protected climate and alluvial soils. The Limagne, or Allier rift valley, is used for wheat. In summer this forms a broad zone of yellow bordered by the green of the steep forested slopes. In the cañonshaped valleys of les Causses, fruit and vegetables occupy what little space is available, while above, on the dry karst plateau, sheep-raising is responsible for the famous Roquefort cheese.
The Vosges, the next unit in the ring of old uplands, has a forest cover similar to that of the Central German mountains, but high above the conifers cattle graze on luscious meadows and make dairying the main activity aside from lumbering. The Ardennes, farther north, has been treated in the chapter on Belgium.
The Outer Lowland Ring
While the Paris Basin represents the inside of the upland circle, an almost continuous zone of lowlands forms a kind of outer circle between the Uplands and the Alpine ranges. Three different units can here be recognized: the Aquitaine Basin between the Central Plateau and the Pyrenees, the RhoneSaône Valley, and finally the Rhine rift valley which separates the Vosges from the Black Forest. The Aquitaine Basin, often also called the Garonne Basin after the principal river, extends northwards to include the Charente region and by way of the Gate of Poitou merges with the Paris Basin. It almost equals the Paris Basin in agricultural importance. The rolling lowlands and river valleys, profiting by the climatic advantages mentioned above, are under intensive cultivation. Wheat and also corn are the main cereals, and early vegetables and fruits like peaches, apricots, and cherries are abundant, but vineyards dominate the rural picture. Unfortunately, the yield of crops per acre, as illustrated by wheat, declines as one goes toward the south. This is partly a reflection of the summer decrease in precipitation which occurs as we approach the Mediterranean type of climate, but it is also due to the general decline of energy and culture which is evident in France as one goes southward away from the main track of cyclonic storms. The coastal zone of the Aquitaine Basin, "les Landes", is the most extensive forest area in France. It lies south of the Gironde, as the drowned outlet of the Garonne River is called. Here two and a half million acres are covered with pines which form the major source of French timber and naval stores. Sheep are abundant here.
Along the foot of the Pyrenees, the Gascogne section of the Aquitaine Basin consists of a tremendous alluvial fan. In this, the upper Garonne, the Adour, and their southern tributaries have eroded deep valleys separated by uplands which suffer because of the dryness of the porous soils. Hence, rye replaces wheat and corn as the major crop. Through the low gap of Carcassone and the narrow coastal plain of Languedoc along the Mediterranean coast, the Garonne Basin is connected with the long Rhone-Saône Valley. In Languedoc the environment is thoroughly Mediterranean. The very name langue (tongue or language) d'oc (of oc) suggests a contrast between north and south. It arose from the fact that here in the thirteenth century people said oc for yes instead of oil (the present oui) as they did in central and northern France.
Here in Languedoc Mediterranean scrub or maquis covers the lower slopes of the coastal ranges, while higher up the chestnuts form an almost continuous zone along the side of the Cevennes. In the valleys and in the plain the olive tree is conspicuous, but, as in the Bordeaux section of the Garonne Basin, vineyards dominate the use of the land, although vegetables and wheat also abound. Along the coast a series of étangs, or closed lagoons, has been formed through the building of broad sandbars by the waves and currents of the Mediterranean.
The Rhone-Saône Valley enjoys the combination of a favorable climate and fertile alluvial soils. A358 shows the sequence of uses to which the land is put. Starting in the south the swampy Rhone delta is used for stock-raising, but on both sides vineyards, orchards, and fields of early vegetables continue up the valley which narrows considerably between the high wall of the Cevennes and the point range of the Alps. Among the cultivated trees walnuts are equally prominent. North of Lyon, in its circle of horticulture, the valley widens and increases in agricultural importance. Bordered by the high forested edge of the Paris Basin on the west and by the Jura ranges on the east the wide river valley is admirably suited for wheat, while grapes ripen on the lower slopes roundabout. Chickens are fattened here and sent to the Paris market.
The Gap of Belfort between the Jura and Vosges leads to the last section of this outer circle of lowlands, the Rhine rift valley or graben. The French part of this contains not only a rather narrow river plain on which wheat once more predominates, but the Vosges foothills where Alsatian wine-growers produce wine for a country already well provided with that commodity.