Friday, March 14, 2008

Man of trees

In my contacts with exceptional human beings, I've often been struck by their respective affinities with grand domains of the Cosmos: either living, inanimate or the fuzzy in-between. I've often found that individuals who announce clearly at the outset that they're primarily concerned with their fellow-humans can in fact turn out to be the least interesting of all, particularly if their alleged interest in others is merely a disguised form of self-centeredness. Enough of Fascist monsters patting little boys on the head, kissing little girls on the cheek, and attending church on Sunday to display their concern for the souls of their brethren. At the other extremity, individuals who are preoccupied by the purely mineral worlds of geology and astronomy, not to mention cosmology at large, are often genuinely warm and compassionate friends, with an extraordinary sensitivity towards all that is human, too-human. These days, I've grown to admire individuals such as Brigitte Bardot who are alarmed by the distress of animals. When Brigitte expresses her love or concern for a dog or a horse, or even an Antarctic whale, she's talking directly to me... just as surely as when she used to wiggle her attractive backside in movies. When a musician is impassioned by the presence of wolves, for example, she is on the same wavelength as the Cosmos at large, including my humble being. A woman who loves wolves loves me too, in a way... not because I'm a wolf, but because I feel capable of sharing her passion. Let's jump to the opposite pole: that of a person who abandons their dog on the roadside, because they are no longer concerned by their animal. People like that make me vomit with disgust. I could kill them. Let's change the subject.

Jacques Brosse, who died in January at the age of 86, loved trees, and he was considered as a world expert in this domain. There are people like that. Exceptional individuals with vegetal sensitivity. I recall the image of Christine Mafart weeping when she witnessed the destruction wrought by the tempest at the family domain of Le Rufflet in her native Brittany. I believe that my neighbor Tineke Bot, the Dutch sculptress, is endowed with a strong degree of vegetal sensitivity, but I'm personally rather dull in this domain, and I have trouble trying to comprehend the nature of this capacity.

The reason I've been thinking of Jacques Brosse is that he happens to be the author of one of the finest books that exists on the fascinating subject of great exploratory voyages in the Pacific during the 18th and 19th centuries. The English translation, entitled Great Voyages of Exploration, with rich illustrations, was brought out in Australia in 1983. To my mind, this book is a must for all Australians interested in the history of their Pacific universe at around the epoch of the arrival of James Cook. [My old friend Harvey Cohen has just informed me that the Australian scholar and writer Danielle Clode has tackled this subject in her Voyages to the South Seas: In Search of Terres Australes. I am looking forward to reading her book, in the hope that she has built upon the great work of Jacques Brosse.]

Jacques Brosse describes a man who might almost be his namesake: the great 18th-century French writer Charles de Brosses, whose History of Navigation to the Southern Lands, published in 1756, can be considered as the primordial expression of European interest in the future continent of Australia, eagerly absorbed by his friend the Scotsman Alexander Dalrymple [1737-1808], whose enthusiasm gave rise directly to the adventures of Cook. Truly, if ever my native land were seeking to identify an authentic founding father, I would discern the title to this Frenchman known as Président de Brosses.

Getting back to Jacques Brosse, the Man of Trees who has just left us (former associate of the intellectual giants Albert Camus and Claude Lévi-Strauss), I should point out that this laureate of the highest literary award of the French Academy was acclaimed primarily in France through his 30-year-old status as an authentic Zen Buddhist monk. Jacques Brosse wrote about navigators who searched for a legendary southern land, and his imagination was stirred by the vision and aromas of vegetation in this mythical continent. He finally found that land in his inner being, in the quiet contemplation of Zen.

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