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The Roots of Heaven: the world’s first environmental novel

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I was reading an article about Romain Gary in the New Statesman, when a sentence gave me pause:

Along the way, he wrote a significant œuvre in French, including what may be the world’s first ecological novel, The Roots of Heaven, which won the Goncourt Prize in 1956.

Really?  Gary was a celebrity, a controversial writer, a Lithuanian-born French diplomat jet-setting with actress Jean Seberg.  But for all his controversial public profile, and his reputation for lying, he was a winner of the most prestigious French literary award, the Prix Goncourt, not once but twice (the unprecedented second winning was awarded to Gary under a pseudonym, Emile Ajar, the august Goncourt jury having had no idea that it was one and the same person).  I had to read it for myself.

And what a beautiful, remarkable book. It’s a little Rashomon-like, the whole story being mostly told from the recollections of friends, foes and witnesses, of what they know – or think they know – about the main protagonist, Morel.  Fifty years before Captain Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd, Morel has made his calling the protection of wildlife – African elephants, to be specific.  Like his modern counterpart, Morel is moved above all by moral and ethical considerations, and doesn’t hesitate to break the law to stop the trophy hunters.  (Morel is trying to get a hunting ban enacted, whereas Watson is trying to get the whaling ban already in place enforced; different eras.  But the parallels are clear; compare the quote below about journalists with Watson’s quip that “if the oceans die, we die”)

The novel was written over sixty years ago, about a very specific place and era, colonial west Africa, yet there is something oddly contemporary and urgent about it.  Why save wild animals when there is dire poverty and disease among humans – should that not be the first priority?  Isn’t the concept of humans saving nature itself utopian, arrogant and ultimately a blasphemy?  For that matter, aren’t white Europeans saving African wildlife themselves guilty of patronizing colonialism?  Isn’t hunting itself natural for humans, a natural expression of the fundamental nature of all predators?  Replace elephants with orcas, grizzlies and salmon, replace missionaries with Indian Affairs agents, replace the African tribes with coastal BC First Nations, and the story could be set here and now.  The only key difference is that The Roots of Heaven takes place right after World War II, and all the main characters carry deep wounds to their psyche.  But, a bit like Captain Watson nowadays, the main character, Morel, is charismatic, gets help from unsuspected quarters, but he remains somehow fuzzy, hard to understand – precisely because it is so hard to fathom that someone could be so single-mindedly driven to his task.

Here are a few excerpts to give an idea. (I read the novel in French, and the translations are mine – clunky at times, sorry; I don’t have the published translation.  The original text is at bottom of this post.)

Morel, speaking about the elephants:

He knew full well that the herds were not threatened only by the hunters – there was also deforestation, the growth of farmed lands, progress, in other words!  But hunting, that was what was most repellent and this is where one had to start.

Romain Gary

One secondary character is the elderly but still active Danish naturalist Peer Qvist (who be called an ecologist nowadays).  In a surprisingly contemporary portrait, Qvist is described as having worked early in his career in (then Russian occupied) Finland, attempting to protect the forest from abusive logging only to be accused of being a secret Finn nationalist agent sent to deprive the Tsar of paper pulp.  Ironically, this false accusation pushed Qvist to work for Finnish liberation, as he concluded that the health of the forests and liberation were two parts of the same struggle.

In Finland, when I was fighting to preserve the forests and the Russian civil servants would patiently explain to me that paper pulp is more important than a forest…they finally understood only when there was almost no forest left.  And the whalers would explain that whale oil is necessary for the market and much more important than the whales themselves…”  Later, Qvist found himself fighting “against death camps and forced labour camps, against the hydrogen bomb and the already foreseeable menace of atomic waste slowly building up on land, in the air and at the bottom of oceans…coral reefs, erosion, soils destroyed by intensive agriculture – expelled from here, unwanted there, removed from membership from this or that institute…[he would see] the face of his friend the pastor Kai Munk, shot by the nazis because he had protected against its enemies one of the most tenacious roots that heaven had ever planted in the hearts of mankind…

A high level bureaucrat speaking:

He believed that it would suffice to bring our attention to the plight of the last elephants for us to immediately take the necessary measures that would ensure their survival.  What was most obscene is that he seemed quietly convinced that we could actually do something, that our own destiny, and that of the elephants, was in our own hands, that protecting nature was a task for human hands…he clearly was a jerk, a brutal reactionary, a rationalist…

Robert, an inmate in a nazi concentration camp, comes up with a scheme to raise morale, one that attests to the spiritual value of nature:

When you think you can’t go on anymore, do this: think of the great herds of free elephants running across Africa, hundreds and hundreds of magnificent animals, against which nothing can resist, not a wall, not a barbed wire, imagine them racing through wide open spaces, breaking and upsetting everything along their way, and as long as they are alive, nothing can stop them – freedom, in a word!  So, when you start to suffer from claustrophobia, from the barbed wires, reinforced concrete, integral materialism, just picture that, herds of elephants, in complete freedom, follow them with your eyes, hang on to them, follow their run, you’ll see, you’ll feel much better right away…

A character comments on journalists who praise

“the heroism and selflessness of this handful of men, deep in the jungle, who can prove that in the middle of the worst problems we remain capable of looking after other species, willing to protect nature…” Except that the guy who wrote this is quietly sitting on his ass, leaving to others the trouble of doing the work…and notice, to boot, that he sees in the fact that these are risking everything to defend nature a proof of selflessness; which just shows that, in this guys’ mind, there is a distinction to be made between nature and the human race, and that he has even taken the time to notice that when you defend one, you defend the other – in other words, he just hasn’t understood anything about what Morel is doing.

Let’s not forget Orsini; he would never forgive us.  All his life had been little but a long protest against his own insignificance; it must be that, of course, that led him to kill so many magnificent beasts, among the most beautiful, the most powerful of all creation.

In French, the word Ciel translates either as heaven, with its religious connotation, or simply as sky.  While heaven, the moral element, was chosen for the title translation, The Roots of the Sky also embody something else in the novel: the overwhelming presence of the African sky, untouched, unmoving, a proxy for nature herself, indifferent and unreachable.  Some of the more poetic parts of the novel can be found in Gary’s descriptions; below is my attempt at a translation.

The sky looked, as always, impossible to travel through, vaporous and luminous, obscured by all the sweats of the African soil.

[at dusk] …soon all that remained of Africa was a sky that seemed to sink, to get nearer as if to better look at you, to get a better look at the source of all this [human] noise …above the river, Minna was watching a vulture soaring in slow turns.  Every evening, the bird seemed intent on providing a signature to the sky, as if to better turn the page.

…a few trees, three huts from the fishermen’s village, a few canoes, a horizon line made fuzzy by the tall grass, the mouth of the Chari flowing into the Longone and further, towards the east, the single palm tree of Fort-Foureau, and once again the sky, immense, as an absence of someone.

Gary, Romain 1956.  Les racines du ciel.  Paris: Gallimard

 

Original quotes:

Le ciel était, comme toujours, infranchissable, vaporeux et lumineux, obstrué par toutes les sueurs de la terre africaine (pg 14).

…quelques arbres, trois cabanes d’un village de pêcheurs, quelques pirogues, une ligne d’horizon brouillée par les herbes, la bouche du Chari vers le Logone et plus loin, à l’est, le palmier solitaire de Fort-Foureau, et de nouveau le ciel immense, comme une absence de quelqu’un. (pg 35)

il ne restait bientot de l’Afrique qu’un ciel qui semblait descendre, se rapprocher comme pour mieux vous regarder, pour mieux voir d’où venait tout ce bruit…au-dessus du fleuve, Minna regardait un vautour tournoyer lentement.  Chaque soir, il semblait signer ainsi le ciel, comme pour lui permettre de tourner la page. (pg 35)

[Morel] savait bien que les troupeaux n’étaient pas menacés uniquement par les chasseurs – il y avait aussi la déforestation, l’avance des terres cultivées, le progrès quoi!  Mais la chasse était évidemment ce qu’il y avait de plus ignoble et c’est par là qu’il fallait commencer. (pg 45)

Il croyait qu’il suffirait d’attirer notre attention sur le sort des derniers grands elephants pour que nous prenions immédiatement les mesures nécessaires à garantir leur immortalité.  Ce qu’il y avait de plus révoltant, c’est qu’il paraissait tranquillement convaincu que nous y pouvions quelque chose, que nous avions notre destinée et celle des élephants entre nos propres mains, que la protection de la nature était une tache pour des mains humaines…c’était clairement un salaud, une brute ariérrée et rationaliste…pg 117

Quand vous n’en pouvez plus, faites comme moi: pensez à des troupeaux d’éléphants en liberté en train de courir à travers l’Afrique, des centaines et des centaines de bêtes magnifiques auxquelles rien ne résiste, pas un mur, pas un barbelé, qui foncent à travers de grands espaces ouverts et qui cassent tout sur leur passage, qui renversent tout et tant qu’ils sont vivants, rien ne peut les arrêter – la liberté, quoi!…donc, quand vous commencez à souffrir de claustrophobie, des barbelés, du béton armé, du matérialisme intégral, imaginez vous ça, des troupeaux d’éléphants, en pleine liberté, suivez-les du regard, accrochez-vous à eux, dans leur course, vous verrez, ça ira tout de suite mieux…(pg 188)

Pg 227 – Forsythe commenting on journalists, who vaunt “l’héroisme et le désintéressement de cette poignée d’hommes, seuls au fond de la jungle qui avaient prouvés qu’au milieu des pires difficultés qui nous assaillent, nous demeurons encore capables de nous occuper des autres espèces et de la protection de la nature…”  Ce qui n’empèche pas le gars qui a écrit ça de rester tranquillement assis sur son derrière, en laissant aux autres le soin de faire le boulot…et remarquez encore qu’il voit une preuve de désintéressement dans le fait que les hommes se décarcassent pour défendre la nature, ce qui prouve bien que dans l’esprit de ce brave, il y a une distinction digne d’être soulignée entre l’espèce humaine et la nature, et qu’il n’a pas encore eu le temps de s’apercevoir que lorsque qu’on défend l’un, l’on défend l’autre – bref, il n’a rien compris à ce que Morel faisait. (pg 227)

ll vint un temps où Peer Qvist eût à faire appel à tout son mauvais charactère pour lutter contre les camps de la mort et les camps de travail forcé, contre la bombe à hydrogène et la menace sournoise et déjà prévisible des déchets des piles atomiques lentement accumulées sur la terre, dans l’air et au fond des mers…barrières de corail, luttes contre l’érosion,  terres tuées par l’exploitation intensive – expulsé d’ici, indésirable là, radié de tel institut…Visage de son ami le pasteur Kai Munk, fusillé par les nazis parce qu’il avait défendu contre ses ennemis une des plus tenaces racines que le ciel eût jamais plantées dans le coeur des hommes…(pg 235)

“J’ai voulu faire quelque chose pour l’aider [Morel]”; “Peer Qvist, avec sa petite bible dans la main, reaffirmant…qu’il n’allait jamais renoncer a defendre toute la variete infinie des racines que le ciel avait plante dans la terre et aussi dans la profondeur des ames humaines qu’elles aggrippaient comme un pressentiment, une aspiration, un besoin de justice, de dignite, de liberte et d’amour infini.”  N’oublions pas Orsini; il ne nous le pardonnerait pas. Toute sa vie n’a été qu’une longue protestation contre son manque d’importance; c’était cela, sans doute, qui l’avait poussé à tuer tant de bêtes magnifiques, parmi les plus belles et les plus puissantes de la création. (pg 255)

 

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Written by enviropaul

July 29, 2018 at 3:48 pm

Some disorganised thoughts about Site C

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I was just reading a new book on renewable energy when the sentence below caught my eye:

In Germany, the value of utilities has collapsed as renewables have begun to drive down the price of electricity. The decrease of wholesale electricity prices due to German investments in renewable energy has killed new hydroelectric projects in Switzerland.

Ah yes.  Site CD dam, here we go again.  This was another reminder of why the Christy Clark liberal government decided to by-pass a review by the BC Utilities commission: there is no way that the project would have got the green light. It was already clear that the project was not needed and that its costs would raise electricity rates or sink BC Hydro’s finances.  One has to wonder, though, why is it that a government that disregards its own laws and policies is not considered to commit an illegal act.

At the same time, news broke out that a hydro-electric dam under construction in Laos collapsed, leaving, at last count, 20 dead, 100 missing, and 6600 people made homeless.  Heavy rains caused fractures in the soil and stone dam.  A reminder, maybe, that Site C is built on unstable soils, especially the side slopes of the future reservoir.  The Vajont Dam in Italy saw its side walls collapse, causing a tsunami that overtopped the dam, killing over 2000 people downstream.  A few years earlier, while the dam was under construction, the Italian government had sued a journalist who had reported the safety risks associated with the project.   On the Site C worksite,

In 2017, two massive tension cracks, one 400 metres and the other 250 metres, opened in the north bank of the Peace River. The cracks delayed plans to divert the river by a year.

Get a stake in the Peace – on the Boon farm (Jeremy Simes photo)

But never mind the technology.  Just a few days ago, Alex Neve of Amnesty International wrote:

The B.C. government’s legal submissions, which are available to be read online, explicitly recognize that “construction and operation of Site C will result in adverse impact to the exercise of treaty rights.” But rather than committing to work with First Nations to ensure that those rights are protected in a meaningful and lasting way, the province is trying to persuade the court to interpret these rights so narrowly that they would render not only the treaty, but also the province’s wider human-rights obligations toward Indigenous peoples, all but meaningless.

And these various bits of news are coming, fast and furious, just I happened to be reading Sarah Cox’s new book, Breaching the Peace.  A great book and a great resource, that; I thought I was reasonably well informed about the issue, but there is so much more to learn from this book.  For instance, I was aghast at the extent to which BC Hydro, our very own crown corporation, is ready to use dirty tactics against the citizens of this very province.  The tactics have included repeatedly harassing the occupants of Camp Cloud, tracking messages on social media (breaking through privacy settings), and laying out a SLAPP suit (a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).  SLAPP suits are designed to intimidate and silence critics; they used to be banned in BC, because of the threat they represent to democracy, until recently. This particular suit threatened damage claims in the millions using deceitfully collected evidence.  The fact that is has been mounted by a crown corporation is without precedent, according to UVic expert Chris Tollefson.

I used to think, in the 80s, that big crown corporations like Hydro Quebec or BC Hydro were shining examples of nationalization done right, a set of collective jewels; and that anyone suggesting breaking them up had to be greedy right-wing radicals.  Hmm, I have learned to rethink this through.

 

Aklin, Michael & Johannes Urpelainen 2018. Renewables: the politics of a global energy transition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Cox, Sarah 2018.  Breaching the Peace: the Site C dam and a valley’s stand against big hydro.  Vancouver: UBC Press.

 

Written by enviropaul

July 28, 2018 at 8:21 pm