We accidentally found our way, dragging a dog walker during our authorized hour-long daily exercise. He turned a corner and we found a little biodiversity hotspot in the middle of a tangle of neighborhoods.
A few weeks later, we discover much more. These woods trace the history of a region once covered with vines and forests, with a surprising American connection. They testify to the way in which nature slowly reaffirms itself while we are inside our homes.
A marker is located at the start of the trail, named Montgomery, Ohio – the city’s sister city. The relationship was forged in 1989 and has known academic and sporting exchanges, according to the official website of Neuilly Plaisance.
On July 4, 2015 – a year in which Paris suffered two major terrorist attacks – Neuilly Plaisance hosted the Independence Day celebrations for a delegation of officials from Montgomery.
Now I wonder how their post-coronavirus brotherhood will evolve.
COVID-19 statistics for Neuilly Plaisance are encompassed in the Seine-Saint-Denis region, and the regional record 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 the Ohio Department of Health website.
Will the next transatlantic exchange of cities commemorate them?
Birds, amphibians and more
The main woodland path winds after exercises and picnics. Weeds grow in unmanaged community gardens.
Along the way, signs offer useful information about the locals. These include the red-backed shrike and the white throat, two birds I have never heard of before. Both are tiny, one is threatened. We are still trying to spot them.
The park is also home to a diverse group of amphibians, a raft of different tree species, a dozen beehives and – grazing peacefully in the distance – a herd of Breton sheep practicing “ecological management”.
It has not always been so.
A century ago, gypsum quarries were found here. A railway line strewn with trash linked them to an equally unhealthy Marne, a few kilometers away. Barges transported the stone to the factories, where it was transformed into building material and medical plaster.
Today, cycle paths (today mostly prohibited) line a Marne teeming with swans, cormorants and herons. The quarries, which were closed decades ago, were reopened as a park in the late 1990s.
Lessons from the woods?
As the lockdown continues, nature also takes over elsewhere. There are reports of deer sightings west of Paris and weasels in the capital. Birdsong has overcome the din of traffic.
And we realized that others know our secret track. There are walkers and stealthy runners. A group of teenagers loudly flouts distance guidelines. Earlier this week, we barely avoided a police patrol.
On May 11, France slowly begins to undo its lockout against coronaviruses, if things go according to the government’s plan. Authorities warn that our lives will not be the same as before.
And it may not be such a bad thing – if we have learned from the woods and the nature around us.