He was born in 1844 in the town of Labouheyre, south-west France, in the last days of the great moorlands of Gascony. These were vast stretches of sandy, heather-strewn dunes that ran along the Atlantic coast and far inland, and were mainly inhabited by flocks of sheep. The shepherds would herd them from one fold to the next, walking on stilts to allow them to see as far as possible, helped by extra-long shepherd's crooks. The land was held in common, open to all to come and go as they wished. However, all this changed when in 1857 Napoleon began a great project to transform what many people considered to be a wasteland into an immense industrial pine forest, dividing it up into private property and ending the days of freedom for the shepherds and their flocks.
After some time away at school, Félix returned home to find that the beautiful land he loved was gone. It was more than he could bear, and he started to shut himself away from the world, spending his days reading, walking and daydreaming until he eventually decided to make it his life work to collect every trace he could find of the land as it had been before. Unsurprisingly his reputation soon went from eccentric to madman as he crossed and re-crossed the countryside in search of shepherds and old women to talk to or scenes that echoed the past to photograph. He didn't always find this easy and for a long time only took pictures of landscapes, using a heavy three-legged German camera that he took everywhere on his bike. Eventually, though, he started to take photographs of the peasants of the Landes, cementing his strange reputation by asking to cover the walls of their houses with white sheets while he did so in order to get better photographs in the dark, soot-covered rooms.
He collected hundreds of stories, songs and memories from the people he met for miles around, writing them down in their original landais patois and then translating them into standard French. The stories tell of the fairies that lived beneath the dune of Boumbét in a beautiful, shining-clean house full of laughter and the shepherd who fell in love with one of them, the young prince double-crossed and abandoned by his brother moments after winning the hand of the most beautiful girl in the world, common sense being rewarded with beauty and ugly behaviour with ugliness. One particularly deranged and gruesome tale recounts the adventures of Grain-de-Mil, a tiny boy who spreads bloodshed and mayhem after an unforeseen trip to an ox's stomach (all in an attempt to get home and help his parents, or so we're led to believe).
Félix's private life wasn't the happiest as he fell in love with the family's maid, Marie, but his parents wouldn't tolerate the prospect of him marrying 'beneath' him, and when she died he lost all interest in anything other than his work for the rest of a very long life (he died in 1921).
He may not have been highly regarded in his lifetime but his obsession saved an entire culture from extinction and the vast record he compiled is a remarkable glimpse into the lost world of the moors, rich in myths, proverbs, unique landscapes and strange tales.
Eric Audinet's introduction to Contes des Landes de Gascogne - Les fées de la dune (Tales from the Moors of Gascony - The Fairies of the Dune) by Félix Arnaudin
An interview with his great-niece, Mme Gonzalez: