A small path disappears into the woods nearby, unremarkable and seemingly forgotten. Across France, parks, forests and beaches are closed to pedestrians, as authorities enforce some of Europe’s toughest coronavirus restrictions. But here in the nondescript Paris suburb of Neuilly Plaisance where I’m staying, the trail has become my escape route from a lockdown now in its sixth week.
We found our way accidentally, trailing a dog walker during our allowed hour-long daily exercise. He turned a corner, and we found a tiny biodiversity hotspot amid a tangle of neighborhoods.
Several weeks later, we are discovering much more. These woods track the history of a region once covered with vineyards and forests—with a surprising American connection. They testify to how nature is slowly reasserting itself while we are inside our homes.
A marker sits at the trailhead, bearing the name of Montgomery, Ohio -- this town’s sister city. The relationship was forged in 1989 and has seen school and sports exchanges, according to Neuilly Plaisance’s official website.
On July 4, 2015—a year when Paris suffered two major terrorist attacks—Neuilly Plaisance hosted Independence Day celebrations for a delegation of Montgomery officials.
Now, I wonder how their post-coronavirus sisterhood will evolve.
COVID-19 statistics for Neuilly Plaisance are wrapped into the broader Seine-Saint-Denis region, and the regional toll is grim, with hundreds of hospital deaths in just a few weeks. So far, Montgomery has fewer than 250 cases and eight deaths, according to Ohio’s Department of Health website.
Will the towns’ next transatlantic exchange commemorate them?
Birds, amphibians and much more
The wood’s main trail winds past exercise and picnic stops. Weeds sprout in untended community gardens.
Along the way, signs offer helpful background on the locals. These include the red-backed shrike and lesser whitethroat—two birds I’d never heard of before. Both are tiny, one is threatened. We’re still trying to spot them.
The park is also home to a motley group of amphibians, a raft of different tree species, a dozen beehives and—grazing placidly in the distance—a flock of Brittany sheep, practicing ‘ecological management.’
It wasn’t always this way.
A century ago, gypsum quarries sat here. A trash-strewn rail line linked them to an equally insalubrious Marne River, a few kilometers away. Barges transported the stone to factories, where it was transformed into material for construction and medical plasters.
Today, cycling paths (now mostly out of bounds) abut a Marne teeming with swans, cormorants and herons. The quarries, shuttered decades ago, were reopened as a park in the late ‘90s.
Lessons from the woods?
As the lockdown continues, nature is taking back its rights elsewhere as well. There are reports of deer sightings west of Paris, and weasels in the capital. Birdsong has won out over the din of traffic.
And we’ve realized others know about our secret trail. There are furtive dog walkers and runners. A group of teens loudly flouts the distancing guidelines. Earlier this week, we barely avoided a police patrol.
On May 11, France slowly begins unwinding from its coronavirus lockdown, if things go according to government plan. Authorities warn our lives will not be the same as before.
And that may not be such a bad thing—if we’ve learned some lessons from the woods, and the nature that surrounds us.