An aerial photo of Burgundy, France, shows fields and houses trimmed in neat hedgerows. Beside the houses are patchworks of green squares. If you zoomed in closer, the green would turn to gardens. In this rural region, most people grow dozens of different vegetables, plus fruit trees, flowers, and herbs.

For twenty years, anthropologists Carole Crumley, Scott Madry, and others have focused closely on southern Burgundy, collecting details about people and land. Then, like the aerial photo, they pull back. They’re looking for patterns—habits of people and animals that have caused crops to flourish, soil to erode, trees to die. By mapping these patterns from the past, they say, we can plan how to preserve the environment in the future.

Crumley, professor of anthropology, is fascinated by Burgundy because, though modern, it retains elements of a simpler time. Moderate-sized towns and villages are dispersed across the landscape, only about six to eight miles apart. And though produce is plentiful in Burgundy’s stores and open-air markets, people continue to grow their own food, a tradition that dates back to at least the first millennium B.C.

The researchers use elements of anthropology, geography, geology, history, and ecology to study a 2,000-year period of Burgundy’s past, from the Celtic Iron Age to the present. In tracing the changing landscape, they pore over any information they can dig up—ancient maps, modern photos and satellite images, and finds from their excavations of Roman defensive hillforts.

To fit all these details into one picture, Madry, research associate professor of anthropology, uses a computerized geographic information system (GIS). Once he’s digitized historic maps, he can compare them to current maps, photos, and satellite images. As Crumley says, the GIS works “like a big Dagwood sandwich,” so Madry can layer current data with information that’s ten or even 100 years old.

Crumley and her graduate students also study the people. Crumley lives next door to her study subjects whenever she can, in a small house she shares with other project members. After interviewing dozens of her neighbors, she’s found that if you’re studying the people of Burgundy, you have to talk about their gardens.

In the past, growing their own food has helped the people of Burgundy “exert their independence from urban markets” and ensure that their families make it through war or environmental disaster, Crumley says. Unlike large single-crop fields, small gardens can shelter many different plants. That diversity helps crops withstand Burgundy’s unpredictable weather. When you grow a little bit of everything, if your tomatoes don’t turn out well, your potatoes might.

This experimentation consumes Crumley’s French next-door neighbor. This summer she gave him several kinds of American squash seeds. “He was just thrilled, because now that he’s retired, his garden is a major part of his life,” she says. “Those squash seeds meant that he had a whole new set of things to experiment with.”

As trial and error teaches what keeps the soil productive, families pass down gardening customs, Crumley says. This gives the land a boost and is part of gardening’s appeal. “Many gardeners told me that they had learned gardening from a parent or an uncle—someone that they cared about,” she says. “And when they were in their gardens, they thought about that person.”

Gardening also gives people something to talk about, Crumley says. Her neighbor is “painfully shy,” she says, but often he’ll drop by with produce from his garden. “He’ll knock on the door and hand me potatoes, lettuce, or onions, and just run away. Later on, it gives me a way to have a conversation with him that he doesn’t have to initiate. I can talk to him about what I prepared with what he brought me.”

The pastime has an “amazing attraction across very different societies,” Crumley says. Gardening has a long tradition in other parts of Europe, and it’s popular in the United States—the April 1997 American Demographics magazine reports that one in four Americans enjoys gardening.

Crumley feels that gardening meets needs often forgotten in today’s world—for beauty, creativity, and self reflection. “I think we really do ourselves an injustice to assume that it’s possible to do without some space for reflections on living.”

People in rural areas seem to know this instinctively. When Crumley lives in her house in France, “The day comes to me, rather than me going out to find the day,” she says. If her neighbors there could see her in Chapel Hill, rushing to appointments, a slave to her day planner, they would probably find it “vaguely amusing.”

They do make appointments, but it’s a bit more relaxed—they follow the natural rhythm of the day,” she says. When scheduling interviews, people would often say, “`well, why don’t you come in the apres midi,’” or afternoon. At first, Crumley had to ask exactly what time they meant. But now she’s come to understand that “afternoon” means about three-thirty or four o’clock—after lunch and a nap.

But Burgundy isn’t all old-time simplicity. It has its growing pains. As production of Charolais beef cattle has moved from a local enterprise to an international one, farmers have abandoned some centuries-old customs, often against their better judgment, Crumley says. To stay competitive, farmers have had to increase the size of their herds, violating the traditional rule of keeping one cow per hectare (about two and a half acres) of pasture. This taxes the soil. And as farmers need more pasture, they’ve begun digging up hedgerows—”natural fences” that are valuable in protecting cattle from the elements, sheltering wildlife, and reducing erosion.

Ignoring time-tested practices has been disastrous for Burgundy before. When the Romans gained control of the region, around 58 B.C., Burgundy had been producing diverse products, such as iron, horses, and wool.

The Romans changed all that, clearing forests so Burgundy could produce grains to feed the Roman Empire’s large cities. This worked fine for several centuries, while Burgundy had an unusually long period of stable climate, with dry summers and mild, rainy winters. But in the third century A.D., a more characteristic, variable climate returned, bringing flooding and erosion. The rural economy was devastated because it was so dependent on one product.

Such stories from Burgundy’s past can reveal how to preserve its land in the days to come, Crumley says. “We’ve crafted scenarios for the future from the past. It’s my argument that we will have to do this for every region of the world.” In her view, you’ve got to look at each region separately, and from many different angles.

But for now, the team continues to focus on Burgundy. They work there as often as they can, even using their own money when grant dollars aren’t available.

A group of us,” Madry says, “have made a commitment to study this area for a very long time.”