Saturday, December 11, 2010

Unexpected cultural links

I've mentioned already—in my articles entitled History of wine at Choranche [display] and Wine of a kind [display]—my interest in the almost-forgotten history of the vineyards of Choranche. My article on this subject (in French) is due to appear in the forthcoming issue of a Vercors historical journal. This activity as a local historian has led to my being invited, this afternoon, to the annual get-together of the Vercors cultural-heritage authorities. The assembly took place in the ancient convent of the Carmelite monks at Beauvoir-en-Royans, inside the domain of Humbert II [1312-1355], the last prince of the Dauphiné.

The proceedings started with a brilliant 20-minute exposé of the history of the Carmelites by my friend Michel Wullschleger, who's a professor of history and geography at the university of Lyon. Once we were all reminded of the historical background of the splendid building in which we were seated, it was time to tackle the true subject of the day: namely, the genesis and spirit of an entity such as the PNRV [Parc naturel et régional du Vercors: Vercors regional nature park], which is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I heard that the guest speaker—a young academic from the university of Saint-Etienne—was going to explain to us how the origins of the concept of our celebrated regional park were profoundly geared to the ideas of Henry David Thoreau [1817-1862]. For me, retrospectively, it's natural that my adolescent fascination for the magnificent story of Thoreau's Walden Pond—which I used to read, fascinated, in Sydney's Mitchell Library, when I would have been better off brushing up on my mathematics—should have led me to my present solitary existence in the mountainous wilderness of the Vercors.

I was elated that a bright young French historian might give a lecture on such links. He explained that, in former British conquests and colonies (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc), the creation of nature parks usually meant that remnants of indigenous populations were chased away (like Red Indians), so that they wouldn't interfere with environmental issues and tourists (not necessarily in that order of priorities). When I dared suggest that maybe we Australians had created nature parks in which the Aborigines were welcome (to say the least), I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the French speaker mastered all the fine details of the Down Under dossier. He thanked me kindly for bringing up this interesting and pertinent question (about which he knew a lot, following research visits to Australia), then he summarized the Australian Aborigine affair in a brilliant five-minute résumé (typical of French-educated intellectuals, who've been taught to aim at essentials)… and we became instant soul friends. I wondered, for a moment, whether a young Australian academic might be able to summarize in the same style, say, the complex relationship between the French Republic and Corsican autonomists. Meanwhile, I must admit that my neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier are vastly more "Walden Pond" than me, for the simple reason that they've actually installed several artificial ponds (now vibrant with life, including frogs) on their splendid property, Rochemuse.

Towards the end of the afternoon assembly in the ancient convent, speakers turned to contemporary creative writing about the Vercors. This talk was so stupidly superficial, absurdly urban and artistically empty (from a literary viewpoint) that I got up and left. I had to return to my Vercors wilderness to feed Sophia and Fitzroy.

AFTERTHOUGHTS: Frankly, I'm not at all sure that Thoreau had anything whatsoever to do with the inspiration of nature parks in France. I hardly need to say that, when talking about a return to Nature and such matters, we cannot forget an all-important Geneva-born philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712-1778].

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