A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Here’s what you give up in a heat wave here in southern France. You don’t leave the house much, since the paved streets can reach well above one hundred degrees and melt your shoe lasts. You don’t linger in the full sun very long; you keep an eye out for shade, and when you find it, you sit down on a bench and pretend to be hypnotized by the skill of old men playing boules in a dusty pitch. Boules games are boring for the most part, so to keep your seat and keep away poachers of your little shady space, you lean on your knees and crane your neck and applaud politely when someone’s ball comes close enough to the little cochonet,the wooden target ball that is the point of the game. Even your shady oasis begins to lose its charm after an hour so you move on, and hear the shuffle of sandals as others stake out their claims to the wooden slats of the bench.
You flop down onto a chair at the nearest cafe and order a bottle of Perrier and a slice of lemon, with plenty of ice cubes. You slurp down the ice-cold, lip numbing fizzy water and savor the faint taste of citrus on your tongue. The city street has a few stragglers wandering by with a bag of fruit or some baguettes, with weary faces gazing down at you and wondering how you could afford such pleasant idleness. My white hair says I’m retired by now, and I’m forgiven with an ephemeral little smile. Soon enough, I’ll have to stand up and move on again, into the shiveringly hot sunlight, making my way aimlessy past the clothing stores, the newsstand, the butcher who specializes in horse meat, a wine store with overpriced wines from the north. Drinking red wine, thick rich wine from a colder part of the country, is not exactly my wish at the moment. I can only think of a crisp, well-chilled white wine or rose as a possible refreshment. But I move on, untempted.
Nobody’s here in the streets that you know. The world is populated by unhappy strangers who have to return to the dull heat of their apartments, even with the shutters closed. A shower will bring comfort for about a half hour; tap water may work for the moment, but hardly calms the pulse in your arms and legs. It’s hot. Deadly hot. No tennis court could imagine some guests showing up with rackets and a can of balls to play on this boiling Martian landscape. The sky is made of faded silk, hanging loosely from the tacks someone absentmindedly sunk into the empty space to hold it up. A dog whimpers and sniffs for moisture in the damp remains where someone washed his car. A restaurant is empty, but the door hangs ajar and allows for a trickle of airconditioned air to leak out onto the sidewalk.
The farmers used to say that Provence was “cold country with a warm sun.” The brown fields are singed to their roots, the wheat looks thin and droopy; grape vines are still green, but they’re suffering like everything else. It’s warm country with a brutal sun. I used to wander off up the hills in the nearby oak forest just to smell the tangy air of these stout old trees, and to enjoy the sound of rustling leaves in a breeze. Not even the magpies are out in such torpid weather. They hang out by some swimming pool and swoop down for a gulp of chlorinated water now and then. The owners have a broom to wave at them, but what’s the use? The wasps are skillful aviators who hang their long ballerina-like legs down inches above the water and snorkle up a few drops before heading back to their nests. Lots of wasps, enough to keep the kids staring warily at them as they sink down up to their lips in the pool. I’ve never heard of a wasp stinging anyone, just scaring them so they can get some relief of their own. We’re all miserable in the heat; but human beings are unlikely to share in anything that might be comfort to them. So they take out aerosol cans and spray some toxin at the wasps and go back to paddling around.
When asked what I make of the heat, which has lingered over us for the past month or longer, I say it’s the price tag given to us after three centuries of self-indulgence on coal and oil to make some people rich. No amount of warnings was sufficient to make nations prepare for this day when California’s vast forest lands would erupt in flames, and when France would turn off some of its nuclear plants to keep from overheating the rivers nearby. Fish kills are common in such weather, so now the power plants ration out the available energy and try to spare nature as best they can. Everyone’s still driving guzzler cars and sitting with engines idling to keep the airconditioning on while waiting for a wife or husband to come out of work. No one seems to think we owe much to nature even after all this time wasting resources to make our lives as comfortable as possible.
Back at the village, the houses were built by peasants who erected thick walls against the winter frost. They were out in the fields all day so they didn’t want to have big windows filling the rooms with sunshine. They liked their rooms dark and cave-like, with low ceilings to keep in the heat in their living spaces. They weren’t thinking about the future. The future is here, and we are trying to figure out the next step in our survival as the heat rises and fails to recede like it used to. “England’s green and pleasant land” is now as brown as a west Texas pasture. Germany has no plan for how to cope with the heat in its dense cities; Spain had three deaths from the heat this week alone.
Heat is not like cold weather. You can’t just sit down and let your mind drift down strange new streams of thought while the fire crackles and warms your knees. Heat makes you fidget and worry, and pass a rag over your face to mop up the sweat. Heat makes it hard to breathe, or enjoy a stretch or a yawn in your chair. A yawn simply drags more heat into your chest and leaves you feeling baffled what to do next. Sweden says this summer is the hottest in 250 years of keeping records on the weather. That scares me. Who is bringing the bears sacks of ice cubes to cool their long fur? Where do the squirrels go to escape the dead heat that makes them pant in their burrows? Spiders cope but the insects are no longer as plentiful in this siege. Everyone pays the price for the Industrial Revolution. And to air condition Europe will, according to climate scientists, simply heat up the planet even more.
Dante called hell a place of “heat without light,” suffering without any understanding. I’m afraid that’s what we have now, a summer that one can barely get through without anxiety and pain, and yet solutions are so far off that only dreamers can come up with fantasies about giant solar farms and vast fields of wind turbines churning juice. The rest of us are cynical, and make jokes of our dilemma. We see the dark side, but it’s hard not to. When rain comes, it leaves us feeling foolish at the sound of water thudding on the roofs, rushing down the gutters, blowing a cool wind in our faces. We’re grinning and beholding a miracle of comfort from nowhere. If only one could implore the great forces of the sky to bring more, we say. If only we could find some forgiveness for our past sins, and not have to pay the tab our ancestors racked up without guilt.
But the heat goes on, day after day, week after week. My fellow villagers are resilient, and can laugh at the half-moon sweat stains under our arms and point us to the bar down the street. Ice cubes are like manna, and a tall drink of frosty water is absolution for our immediate sins. I think all of us are optimists down deep in our hearts. We don’t believe we will be betrayed by the sadistic mind of fire. We think that if we each live humbly perhaps some conscience in the air will take notice and pull the fire away from the land and send it out to sea. It does happen now and then, and what keeps us going is the faith that some morality, some principle of nature is out there listening, observing, and taking pity on us.
Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and Provence, France.
Copyright 2018 Paul Christensen