In the heart of the once-impoverished Landes region in southwestern France, where flat and marshy terrain stretched as far as the eye could see, a remarkable tradition emerged in the 19th century that defied the odds of navigation in this challenging landscape. Landes, with its lack of proper roads, posed an arduous challenge for its shepherds tasked with tending to their flocks. But they didn’t let adversity stymie their determination; instead, they turned to a unique solution – stilt-walking.
Locally known as “tchangues,” or “big legs,” these five-foot wooden stilts were an essential tool for Landes shepherds. Strapped securely to a person’s legs and complemented with a long staff, these stilts served a dual purpose: to guide their sheep and provide support for resting. Perched gracefully atop this tripod configuration, a shepherd gained a vantage point that allowed them to oversee their flock’s safety and remain vigilant against potential threats like wolves.
Stilt-walking wasn’t just a skill; it was a way of life in Landes. From a young age, the people of this region were trained in the art of stilt walking, honing their dexterity and balance to perfection. They could effortlessly run, hop, and even bend down to pluck flowers, all while maintaining their precarious footing high above the ground.
The significance of stilt-walking in Landes was highlighted when Empress Josephine herself visited the region in 1808. She was greeted by an escort of stilt walkers whose long strides allowed them to effortlessly keep pace with her trotting carriage horses. Their ability to match the speed of the royal procession left a lasting impression.
The remarkable tradition of stilt-walking shepherds from Landes even found its way into the pages of history. In the Scientific American Supplement, No. 821, dated September 26, 1891, it was written, “The shepherds of Landes … acquire an extraordinary freedom and skill … knows very well how to preserve his equilibrium; he walks with great strides, stands upright, runs with agility, or executes a few feats of true acrobatism, such as picking up a pebble from the ground, plucking a flower, simulating a fall and quickly rising, running on one foot, etc.”
As the 19th century progressed and the marshes of Landes began to dry up, the shepherds’ need for stilt-walking diminished. However, an unexpected twist in the tale saw the tradition gaining a resurgence of sorts in the early 20th century. Among the eccentric aristocrats of French society, stilt-walking became a peculiar and fashionable pastime.
In the bustling streets of Paris, stilt marathons were held, celebrating this unique facet of French agricultural tradition. The city’s elite, often regarded for their extravagant tastes, embraced the art of stilt-walking with enthusiasm, bringing a touch of Landes’ elegance and grace to the urban landscape.
The legacy of the stilt-walking shepherds of Landes, born out of necessity, transformed into an art form and even a symbol of aristocratic eccentricity, remains etched in the annals of history. Their extraordinary dexterity and unwavering balance not only helped them thrive in a challenging environment but also left an indelible mark on the cultural tapestry of France.