The morning after the most powerful winds in recorded European history blew down much of his forest, Herve de Talhouet-Roy went out to survey the awesome damage: thousands of poplar, cedar, chestnut and fir trees bent or broken or felled as far as he could see, the growth of a century or more laid waste, the work of the rest of his life laid out before him.
"The world came to a standstill 10 days ago," de Talhouet-Roy said as he returned Friday to the scenes of devastation. Standing amid once tall, slender firs mowed down in the 100-125 mph winds of Dec. 28, he said, "What really bothers me is that these were the trees my kids were supposed to harvest."
But the morning-after image that stuck with him is the one of three deer standing on the side of one of the muddy tracks that crisscross his 1,480 acres of forest here, 150 miles southwest of Paris. As he approached them slowly in his car, the deer didn't move. As he got close, he could see they were paralyzed by the two-hour ordeal.
"I could have reached out the window and touched them," he said. "They were traumatized. Their eyes were glazed over. I'll never forget it."
Much of France remains just as stunned by the cataclysms of the week after Christmas: Not just one savage storm on Dec. 26, that swept from west to east across northern France and into Belgium and Germany, but another, just as fierce, that plowed across southern France two days later.
More than 300 million trees were lost in the storms, as well as 91 lives. More than 100,000 French homes were still without electricity or telephone service this weekend, and nearly 400 schools failed to reopen last week. The financial cost is still impossible to reckon.
And that was only part of the punishment dealt to France in the the space of just a few days. Even as the storms were lashing the countryside, 2.8 million gallons of crude oil that spewed from a tanker sunk on Dec. 12 were beginning to wash up on a stretch of Atlantic coastline, from the tip of Brittany southward to La Rochelle, 225 miles away. France's most destructive oil spill in more than two decades is still rolling in.
Environmental groups estimate at least 100,000 birds will die. Tourism in the region is a total loss for 2000. The local oyster industry was also hard hit, and on Thursday the French equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration shut down the sale of shellfish.
Ankle-deep in the oily muck, French army Cpl. Matthieu Pilorget bent over to dredge up another hunk of congealed fuel oil from the rocky beach at Port du Bec and dump it in a garbage can. He is among 12,000 military personnel deployed to the disaster zones, mostly on the blackened coast but also in the shattered forests.
"There's months of work to do here," said Pilorget, surveying the sodden mass of oil the consistency and color of chocolate fudge. "They have us for 10 months," said fellow conscript Frederic Brient. "We might as well do something useful for the country."
As many a French commentator has observed, the two catastrophes are hardly on the scale of last month's flooding and mudslides in Venezuela that killed tens of thousands of people. But the French were literally struck by the disasters because they have had the good fortune of a temperate climate with generally manageable extremes. France is not accustomed to suffering nature's wrath. As the most rural country in Western Europe, France is proud of its natural assets, especially for having tamed them.
"We're not used to this in France," said Didier Dupuis, manager of the Chateau de Curzay inn not far from here. Great chestnut trees more than 200 years old, some 12 feet around and weighing 10 tons, were pulled from the earth by the storm and slammed to the ground around the chateau.
"These were tornadoes. I know we don't have tornadoes in France, but the big trees were pivoting in the wind, and then broken like pencils," Dupuis said.
Many of the storm's witnesses and damage surveyors describe swaths through forests that look as if a huge lawn mower had made them, chewing up everything in its path and leaving nearby stands of trees untouched.
"These were not normal European winds; the effect was more like tropical cyclones," said Mathieu Formery, director of the Poitou-Charentes region's association of private forest owners, who control 70 percent of French forest land.
The news media have made of these two calamities a collective national adversity. A day does not pass that a prominent public official doesn't fly to a disaster zone. Actor Gerard Depardieu invited children who hadn't had electricity since Christmas to visit a set near Paris to watch him play Jean Valjean in a French TV production of "Les Miserables." SOS Racisme, an anti-racism group, marshaled a few busloads of children from the hardened suburban housing blocks to lend a hand with the oil cleanup.
There was an initial burst of volunteerism, mostly from students and retirees, to clean up the soiled beaches. "The spirit of generosity has been remarkable," said civil rescue official Yvonnick Tard as he watched the soldiers work at Port du Bec. "There is no social hierarchy when you're tested like this. Everyone is equal."
But since the holidays ended and people went back to school or work, it's been hard to find volunteers among a population known for only a modest spirit of volunteerism and philanthropy. The French government is due to announce next week how much and what kind of disaster relief and redevelopment assistance it can provide.
More unusual has been the response of business executives. TotalFina, the Franco-Belgian company whose oil was being carried in the sunken tanker Erika, has repeatedly upped its promised contribution to the cleanup. Thierry Demarest, TotalFina's chief executive officer, raised eyebrows in the aloof world of Paris corporate chieftains by touring the sticky beaches himself.
Likewise Michel Bon, the head of France Telecom, went to the scene of telephone lines downed by the storms and announced that anyone who lost service would get free calling privileges.
Formery recalled a conversation with a forester who told him his post-storm strategy: make the best of three years of too much wood at depressed prices, then lock up for 40 years and wait for the trees to grow back.
"You look at the speed of the Internet, and you look at what a forester does," Formery said, "and you have to ask if it's crazy to keep growing trees."
CAPTION: Hundreds of trees were uprooted in the Haye forest, near Nancy,
CAPTION: An oil-soaked grebe is rescued from a beach on the island of Noirmoutier,
CAPTION: Workers attempt to clean oil from the beach at Le Croisic.