Gilles Clément, the vineyard is a garden

Interview by Vincent Remy


Gilles Clément, the vineyard is a garden


Gilles Clément, the vineyard is a garden

A conversation with the global gardener and fervent defender of biodiversity.

Gilles Clément, the vineyard is a garden

FOR HALF A CENTURY NOW, HE HAS LABOURED WITH THE STUFF OF LIFE. One of the world’s pre-eminent landscape architects, Gilles Clément considers himself first and foremost to be a gardener. Paris has the Parc André-Citroën and the gardens of the Musée du Quai Branly to thank him for. But it was an exhibition called Le Jardin Planétaire (The Planetary Garden), held in 1999 at the Grande Halle de la Villette cultural centre in Paris, with which he truly connected with the masses. In creating this concept, Gilles Clément alerted us all to the daunting responsibility which humankind shoulders: the Earth is a garden which we all must protect. To do so, we need to restore balance between agriculture and uncultivated or “left-behind” spaces ­– what he calls “le tiers-paysage”, or Third Landscape – which constitute the planet’s greatest reservoirs of biodiversity.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : What is your relationship like with wine?

GILLES CLÉMENT : I love Bordeaux! I was born that way. I only drink red, and only in the evening. My mother was from Bordeaux, and I remember how she categorically refused the wine that my father, who was a négociant, bought in Algeria and had sent back to France to blend with Languedoc wines. For her, it was out of the question to drink such a concoction. In 1958, my family settled in Oran, Algeria. Two years earlier, many vineyards in Europe had been destroyed by a bad freeze, and my father was travelling the world to buy wine from outside the Mediterranean basin – from Argentina, Chile and South Africa. One summer, apparently not sure what to do with us, he put my brother and me on a cargo ship, a pinardier or wine tanker, called Le Sahel. We were the only two passengers, though the main cabin was full of rats, and after twenty-one days’ sailing we arrived in Cape Town, where we stayed with a family in the middle of South African wine country. It was a quite an adventure.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : What do think of the Château Palmer estate?

GILLES CLÉMENT : I saw the gravel surrounding the château, and around the neighbouring châteaux, these open spaces, this sea of vines spreading all the way to the edge of the asphalt. In the parcels at Château Palmer I noticed, of course, that the grass has been allowed to grow between the vineyard rows. Now it’s time to move on to the next stage, and to bring some trees and shrubbery into the mix, to balance the ecosystem, and also for landscaping purposes. Château Palmer has such a reputation that if they modified the landscape only a little, others would notice: Hey, they’re letting things grow along the side of the road, now why are they doing that?

CHÂTEAU PALMER : Sounds like the gardener in you talking…

GILLES CLÉMENT : As a gardener, it’s the vineyard site called Boston, a truly unique place, which intrigues and attracts me most. First off because it’s a clearing. All around it are vineyards and woods, the wild part. And then, on the margin, there is an uncultivated area, a kind of buffer zone, where we could imagine an herbaceous third landscape, that is to say a place to welcome a diversity of life which needs sun and light. We could also imagine a space to cultivate vegetables for local use, which could be associated with the work of Château Palmer’s chef, whose cuisine is extraordinary. And then, in the vicinity of the château, towards the Gironde, I saw the estate’s herd of cows. We chatted with them…

CHÂTEAU PALMER : What interests you about the cows?

GILLES CLÉMENT : We’re not used to seeing this type of cow these days, they don’t meet modern criteria for profitability and competitiveness. But thanks to them, Palmer is able to make good compost that isn’t full of antibiotics. Back home in the Creuse, I live in such a secluded area you’d assume there’d be polluters around us. And yet I can’t use the farmer’s manure for my garden any more. The cows are so pumped full of antibiotics that there’s not a single dung beetle in the manure any longer. And they are what help break down the organic matter. Once the bacteria are gone, so is the rest of life. We turn a blind eye to this problem of antibiotic use in livestock farming, but meanwhile it’s all going into our water system, which will lead to a loss of biodiversity in the next few decades which we’re absolutely not prepared for.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : That isn’t so much a problem in the Médoc, though…

GILLES CLÉMENT : No, wine regions have other problems. The grapevine ranks among the most chemically treated crops of all, along with fruit orchards. For apples, I believe there are thirty-five chemical treatments a year. It’s shocking. I was in Mongolia recently, and there you can’t eat apples any more, they’re too dangerous. They come from China, and the Chinese can’t export them anywhere but Mongolia because they are so tainted. We must put an end to this reckless use of chemicals, and in that respect Château Palmer is showing us the way forward.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : What has been your experience with wine estates?

GILLES CLÉMENT : The first time I saw a major winery alter its practices and adopt biodynamics was in Chile. They began by reducing their total vineyard surface; they left the flat lands for the hillsides, and converted the estate over to organic, then biodynamic viticulture. Today they work their slopes with horses. They deliberately made their lives more difficult, because they wanted to return to agriculture that’s heroic!

But why?

GILLES CLÉMENT : Simply because the wine is far better, and it sells better too! I think that’s also what they realized at Château Palmer. What’s marvellous is that the owners have gone along with the team’s approach. Because the struggle today is no longer for recognition of the effectiveness and importance in general of biodynamic or organic viticulture. People have already acknowledged that as fact. The fight now is for a different agricultural model which factors in a degree of risk, which is focused on the medium and long term. In the long term, it is clear that Château Palmer will come out ahead. In the short term, perhaps there will be some mishaps, but what of it? I am a gardener and I know what it is to work with nature. We are not in an industry which reproduces things identically and without limits. We work with the stuff of life; each vine plant comports itself differently. These are living beings. Everyone should understand this.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : How do you convince the greatest number of people? 

GILLES CLÉMENT : We must say again and again that today we are experiencing an evolution in our agricultural and economic model. And that our very survival is at stake! What are our symbols of success? A new car? Another yacht, for the wealthiest among us? But for what? Isn’t it better to desire more silence, less pollution, finer landscapes, less tangible forms of progress? It is clear, for example, that in terms of agriculture, polyculture offers the way forward. It’s the approach of the future.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : How did you develop these ideas?

GILLES CLÉMENT : I have this vision of a planetary garden! The Earth is a garden for three reasons. The first is planetary cross-fertilization. The garden is a space where we place things that we have collected from elsewhere. We bring things back, we cultivate them, and then seek new things further and further away. Planetary cross-fertilization was born in the garden. Eventually, the seeds escape the garden and end up growing all around. Today, plants from all over the world grow in every country, to the extent allowed by the climate of the biome in question, be it a prairie, temperate forest or coastline. The second reason is what we call anthropization. Humankind is everywhere on the planet, and even where it doesn’t go it sends drones and satellites. The last reason is that the Earth is an enclosure, life is limited to within this biosphere. In fact, the word garden means enclosure. So what does all this signify for us? How do we ensure the future of life in this limited space?

CHÂTEAU PALMER : Practically, what can people do?

GILLES CLÉMENT : All actions taken that contribute to maintaining or fostering diversity put us on the right track. Because diversity is something we both exploit and are dependent on. How can we exploit it without destroying it? How do we give back to the environment the energy we take from it? If we can address these two needs, we will be able to continue living here. This brings us back to the question of the long term. But if we remain subject to the tyranny of the financial world, then we’ll have no outlook beyond the short term. The team at Château Palmer has understood the importance of the duration. They know where they are.

“Life constantly reinvents itself. The practice of biodynamics leads us to focus on this invention, this movement of life.”
Gilles Clément — Lanscape Architect

CHÂTEAU PALMER : But it can be difficult to understand the mechanics of biodynamics…

In essence, it deals with rather obvious things. The logic behind the tides, the relationship between these movements and the Moon – no one disputes them. Anyone can understand how the sap in a tree could be influenced by the same lunar forces. It becomes a bit murkier when you start considering the influence of more distant bodies, or of homeopathic treatments diluted in water. We don’t understand everything, but does it matter? Experientially, it works, and if it hasn’t been scientifically proven yet, it’s because it doesn’t interest the market. The market is only concerned with in maintaining the idea of control through the sale of certain products, at the expense of others. Just look at France. In 2006, an agricultural law banned purines of nettle or horsetail, even though they are effective, organic alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pest repellents.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : Nature hasn’t yet revealed all its secrets in your eyes?

GILLES CLÉMENT : Plenty of mystery remains, which is all part of what I call “natural genius”. Over the course of millions of years, plants and animals have developed mechanisms of which we’re not even aware. The intelligence of plants, even if it’s of a sort we’ve yet to fully understand, permits them to escape predation, or to alert other plants to the presence of a predator. They use electric currents, magnetism, ethylene gas… This whole way of functioning is extremely developed, yet we know nothing about it. To discover this unknown world is also to accept the existence of natural genius, and the idea that what nature has perfected is there for us to harness, and could one day be useful to us.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : How, for example?

GILLES CLÉMENT : Somehow we need to stop acting in opposition to nature, but rather in concert with it. For me, biodynamics is like a kind of gardening of the future, when we will have understood the mechanisms of natural genius, so that we can use it without destroying diversity – or humanity, for that matter. After all, we are the first ones who should be concerned, being the predators at the top of the food chain.

CHÂTEAU PALMER : You credit human beings with a lot of power…

GILLES CLÉMENT : On the contrary, I am very uncomfortable with this “anthropocene” notion, championed by numerous geologists, according to which the impact of humans on our biosphere has become the most consequential geological force of all. It’s interesting, and probably not far from the truth, but pretentious. By that logic, the human species could assume that, because it is capable of exercising power on a geological scale over the planet, it can also fix everything. We hold on to this idea of total control, which is detrimental. I think it’s more useful to realize that every living being is linked to others on the opposite end of the Earth. To begin with, by water. When we drink a glass of water, this water, the molecules of which it is composed, has already been drunk by plants, animals and other humans. Water rains on the heads of the rich and poor the same way, polluted or not. Drinking a glass of water binds us to Earth in its entirety. And so does a glass of wine…