The dust has now settled from our hypnotic two weeks in France (and it is in fact rapidly receding into memory, alas), some impressions of which I promised to report. In addition to sleeping late, the pleasure of unhurriedly reading something other than my colleagues’ rough drafts of manuscripts on interesting but arcane subjects, wantonly consuming wine, cheese, baguettes, olives, and so on, I did actually find time to ruminate, like the placid cows surrounding me, on the difference between the French and us Yanks in our relationship, or lack thereof, with the natural environment around us. Which provides my excuse for posting these musings, along with some gratuitous photos of beautiful alpine vistas, on the NP. So (or should I say, “allour”):
26 July 2007. Annecy, France. Hot, still, quiet afternoon on the upper porch of the apartment, overlooking the pastures below and the walled massif above, tinkling of the distant cowbell, a few birds chirping desultorily in the afternoon doldrums. Cloudless but slight haze to the sky. Surrounded by wood shavings from the kids’ new walking sticks. A cup of black coffee, feeling that at any moment I could close my eyes and slip away . . .
A rejuvenating time in the French Alps, almost two weeks. The invigorating clear cool water of the Lac, with breathtaking crags all around, five- and six-century-old stone castles here and there along the shore and slopes, springing seemingly organically from the country rock, the brilliant clear air and intense sun of the high altitudes. And everywhere flowers, verdant vegetation, riotous hedgerows, ivy covering the rough stone and stuccoed facades of buildings. Absence of garbage. Narrow roads. Pastures of grazing cattle everywhere, even immediately outside the city. In Paris, the Metro had lush tropical plantings under grow-lights beside the platform — a striking and wonderfully unnecessary touch of civilization, comforting for exactly that reason. There seems to be an innate appreciation here for the importance of beauty in one’s surroundings, and of natural beauty specifically. There is (or appears to a perhaps naive tourist) a timeless, unhurried quality in the rhythm of life here that is utterly foreign to America. An ease, a vigor. People of all ages walk and swim and throw the windows and doors open to the world. Air conditioning is almost non-existent, even in the center of Paris. Life remains organic. People eat cheese drawn from the local cattle, drink wine born of the vineyards climbing the local hills, grow apples and plums in their little orchard patches, and preserve the fruit to spread on their morning bread.
There are many lessons to be learned here by a global civilization seemingly hell-bent (and in this respect, I’m sorry to say, following America’s lead) on cannibalizing itself at ever-increasing speed. The balance and harmonious integration of agricultural land with other land uses is striking, and again foreign to the eyes of Americans familiar with the alienating blight of suburban sprawl around our own cities. The hyperconsumer-driven “culture” metastasizing over America seems not to be a problem here. France has its own problems, of course, with high unemployment and a festering quagmire of racial and class conflict in the big cities. The perennial agricultural protectionism that gets them roundly beaten up at global trade meetings. But, sitting here in the quiet countryside, I begin to see this protectionism in a different light, as a policy intended to preserve a civilized way of life from the monstrosity of globalized commerce euphemistically labeled as “free trade”. Yes, France has its problems — but what country doesn’t? Is its brand of protectionism a more serious problem than the pathetic state of health care or elementary education in many parts of the world’s richest country? Is its unemployment a worse probelm than the level of infant mortality in Mississippi? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The larger point is that France has been able to preserve some of the ways of life and components of long-term sustainability that are being crushed under the wheels of progress elsewhere, and that are desperately needed in the USA. It strikes me (and I don’t think it’s just the wine) that America could benefit from waking up and taking an objective and constructive look around. Perhaps we should consider the shocking possibility that we might actually learn something from the rest of the world — even the “chocolate makers” as the French were derisively called by this country’s Wise Leaders for not signing on enthusiastically to the Iraq war catastrophe that the latter dumped on us (and then there was the “freedom fries” thing — jeez, what is this: Junior High?).
In the dark times, surrounded by asphalt and the garish paraphernalia of mindless appetite, when we find ourselves exclaiming “Surely, there’s a better way!”, it’s heartening to realize that, yes, in fact. there are better ways. All around the world, and around our own country, there are people from a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions who are finding new ways to live, eat, commute, raise families, and make a living, and — most importantly — doing their best to ensure that those ways will still be available to their grandchildren, and their granchildren’s grandchildren. If we can just open our eyes.