Above the Verdon River, Provence
It’s summer solstice. The sun is high, the light is at its longest and brightest. The world is fruiting and blossoming under the soaring sun.
Today I’m on a train from Paris to London, to visit friends and family before heading home after four weeks of writing in Italy and Provence. The countryside I’ve inhabited for the last few weeks is hot and fertile. Everywhere something is in bloom. The insect life is abundant, endlessly varied and musical. The goats and sheep have made the transhumance to high summer pastures, accompanied by their shepherds and patou, imposing pyrenean mountain dogs. And the villages buzz with festivals, art, activities and feasts.
In the midst of summer, spending time with friends and living in a culture where the food is wholesome and delicious, the world is a succession of miracles. Water flows from natural streams and gushes from fountains in village squares. The tomatoes are plump and smell of sun and ripe goodness, not of supermarkets and cold storage. The trees are heavy with cherries, wild strawberries grow in high valleys and walnuts are visibly ripening, ready to be stored for the autumn.
Abundance and Scarcity
All this is true. The world is fertile and giving. The abundance of foods in every season, the pure water and the grapes ripening for wine are rich and nurturing gifts of the planet we live on. All this is true and we have so much cause for optimism, so many reasons to celebrate the light and the season of summer.
Al this is true, but what is also true is how fragile all of this is. The Var region of Provence is beautiful. The woods in June are green and lush; alive with flowers and insects, strawberries and mushrooms. Wild boar, deer, foxes, wolves and vultures thrive here among the many other local animal species.
But it can be arid and in many villages water is an urgent and constant issue, something that will only become more complex as the earth warms. And the problems of water here are minuscule in comparison to the most water stressed nations.
So much cause for optimism, so many reasons to celebrate the light and the season of summer, but what is also true is how fragile all of this is.
France and the UK are in regions where 20–40% of the available water is used, though the figures are rising fast. In the Middle East more than 80% of the supply is routinely used and rising. Not only are water resources dwindling, but they are often mismanaged.
Before the 2011 war in Syria 1.5 million people, mostly farmers and herders, were forced to leave their land due to lack of water. They ended up in towns and cities, adding to the country’s instability. Water is a major factor in the conflict between Israel and Palestine and Saudi Arabia now imports 100% of its grain due to water scarcity.
Big population countries like India, the US and China all have problems with water that are worsening, with particular areas suffering especially high stress. In Cape Town, after three years of drought, water is rationed to 13 gallons per person each day (as compared to average use of 100 gallons per person in the US). In 2012 the city of São Paulo in Brazil turned off its water supply for 12 hours each day.
Climate change is one of the drivers of this stress, but this change is exacerbated by human activity. We constantly demand more and more products that are ‘thirsty’. The processes that go into producing half of litre of a fizzy drink like coke require 175 litres of water.
Deforestation also has a huge impact on the world’s water cycles. From 1990 to 2016, 502,000 square miles of the world’s forests disappeared. This is despite the fact that trees not only stabalise water but could also mitigate the current effects of climate change by up to 23% of the goals set in the Paris Agreement in 2015.
Those who reconstitute the world
It’s all too easy to feel powerless and despondent in the face of the kind of political insanity and mass corporate greed that only worsens the plight of a world that should be a place of abundance and thriving.
But summer, of all times, is a time of hope. While staying with my friend Isabelle in Provence, she showed us a beautiful film based on an allegory for children aged 8 (or much younger) to 80, The Man Who Planted Trees, by the local writer and pacifist, Jean Giorno.
In his lifetime, Giorno distributed the book for free. The award-winning Canadian film based on it is beautifully drawn and completely captivating. Simply told and poignant, it is the fictional (yet utterly beleivable) tale of Elzéard Bouffier, a man who dedicates his life to planting trees.
The story spans a time from just before the First World War to after the Second World War, set in an area that is initially so arid that the villages have been deserted for lack of water and those that are inhabited are so dry that the Mistral winds drives people to insanity and violence.
When the narrator runs out of water walking through this wilderness a shepherd, Bouffier, shows him to a spring and then takes him to his home. The visitor realises that single-handedly, Bouffier is planting an oak forest, planning to introduce beech and, gradually, birch lower down where there is a little moisture.
The traveller returns in 1920, shell-shocked and in need of healing, to find a landscape of saplings and new water sources. Bouffier has given up his flock, worried about the effect of sheep on the young forest, and become a bee keeper and he is still planting trees.
This goes on decade after decade until the area is transformed, becoming rich, fertile and joyful, supporting more than 10,000 people, none of whom have any idea who they owe their good fortune to.
(You can see the film here)
It’s the kind of fiction that is no less a ‘true story’ for having been imagined. Story changes the world.
The story was so powerful and effective that Giorno had to tell people in 1957 that it is, in fact, fiction. But this doesn’t reduce it’s power. It’s the kind of fiction that could certainly be ‘real’ and is undoubtedly no less a ‘true story’ for having been imagined.
Story changes the world. Many people reading Giorno’s story or seeing the exquisite, hand-drawn film that took five years to make, have gone on to make their own difference, small or large.
Those who destroy
Ruined village, Brovès, Provence
Stories change the world and not all stories are edifying or resonate with the deep truths of Giorno’s man who who planted trees. A few years ago Isabelle Llasera, with whom we were staying in Provence, wrote the title story in a short story collection, Ruins.
Based on the village of Broves not far from her home it documents the taking over of a working, thriving village on the edge of a huge military reserve used for training. Without the grazing land, sequestered for manoeuvres, the villagers would have had trouble continuing their lives there. But the village was also ‘useful’ for training for guerilla warfare.
Forty years after the villagers were displaced, we visited with Isabelle. It was Pentecost, the annual memorial when the families of the original villagers meet for Mass in a nearby chapel and then picnic together.
Isabelle took us into the village, officially closed to visitors even on this day. It was alive with the songs of birds and crickets. Beautiful red and black beetles scuttled around and poppies bloomed. The well in the village still runs with clear, fresh water. But everywhere there was decay and dereliction.
A house that was standing last time Isabelle visited, five years ago, had completely collapsed. The church had been stripped of its tiled roof on the bell tower and was in a state of complete ruin and dilapidation inside. Staircases, some with traces of the painted decorations they’d borne when in daily use, led nowhere.
Humanity has the capacity to create so much and to destroy so much. What stories do we want to tell?
Broves is a place beyond help. Any future settlement would require this one to be levelled and begun again. We destroy places to practice for war before moving on to inhabited places to destroy them in actual wars.
Humanity has the capacity to create so much and to destroy so much. And both impulses — the urge to subjugate or conquer others, the urge to plant trees and nurture life — so often begin in the stories we tell.
Giorno’s little book has been responsible for thousands of trees planted al over the world. A story of hatred of those who seem to be strangers to us can be responsible for genocide.
What stories do we want to tell?
What stories do we want to become?
To destroy or reconstitute the world?
Sculpture in wood, Cristel Schlierkamp, Trigance, Provence
Summer Solstice. Stone circles like Wiltshire’s Stonehenge mark the sun rise and for a brief time the sun stands still. This is the zenith of the sun’s power, its heat and warmth bestowing fertility, inspiring feasts and community. The sun is a powerful symbol of the ability to both nurture or ravage. Without sun, there would be no life on Earth. But without water to mitigate its heat, this would be an uninhabited, arid ghost planet.
We can’t save what is already lost, but we can save hope, save the future.
Now is the time to tell those stories that heal and save and nurture. We can’t save what is already lost, but we can save hope, save the future. In the words of Adrienne Rich:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
An invitation to the transformative power of your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Midsummer is the zenith of the sun’s transformative power and a great time for creativity, I have a special offer on my major journalling course (Becoming Your Story) plus a series of 8 seasonal courses, to take as online mini-retreats through a 12 month cycle (Diving Deeply into Your Story), which I’m adding for free for everyone who signs up by August 2. You’ll find a video about the courses here
You’ll also find free courses on my site, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story or sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life.
marina sanchez says
Thank you, Jan, for being so affirming and positive.
Happy Solstice to you and yours, bestest wishes for health, love, joy, peace and creativity.
Linda Visman says
This is a wonderful article, Jan. Let us all write a better future for the world.