And how devotion can inspire sustainable development…
Over the summer, I was blessed with the opportunity to do a magnificent journey across France in wonderful company. Of these three weeks of travel, two moments of insight and inspiration stand out.
The first was contemplating the majesty of the Mont Blanc. I hiked up the Mont Joly, a rounded mountain that rises 2,525m above the valley of the Contamines Montjoie, facing the Mont Blanc chain. The Contamines has been the site of our family vacations for 5 generations and my childhood memories are populated with hikes to lakes, passes, and peeks in the surrounding mountains. Contemplating the Mont Blanc and the glaciers of this mountain chain was once again uplifting; and yet, my heart also cringed at the sight of the melted ice, which I remember plunged much lower in the valley just a decade ago. As a child, alarms about the melting glaciers had already been ringing for years but to see this reality unfolding at an accelerated pace, amongst reports of drought and heatwaves across Europe, not to mention fires and storms across the globe, was harrowing.
But how much have these mountains seen? I wondered. Isn’t humanity a mere speck when compared to the millions of years of weathering these proud peeks have undergone. Who do we think we are, proclaiming ourselves the destroyers and potential saviors of the planet? And yet, the damage our consumerism is doing is undeniable. But another feature of the landscape warmed my cringing heart: the overwhelming biodiversity of flowers, grasses, butterflies and other insects that swarmed all around us as we walked through the prairies of the Mont Joly. OK, we could have done without the horseflies, but the vibrant nature made me appreciate all the more the preciousness of the nearby Nature Reserve of the Contamines Montjoie, which was established in 1979. It reminded me that when man decides to respect nature, give it its space, it thrives, expanding its nurturing energy back to us.
As we panted up the steep, flower-covered hills, delighting in the occasional sight of rare orchids, my partner and I debated about “nature-based solutions” to climate change. Looking down at the pylons of the nearby ski lifts along grassy invisible ski slopes, I thought of the winter mayhem. “Humans have become mere consumers of nature… but if we could embrace a role of devoted custodians” – now looking at the nature reserve across the valley – “we could rebuild a mutually nurturing relationship between man and nature…”
Another mount, further North, in a very contrasted setting, gave me yet another perspective: the Mont St Michel. This abbey, situated on a small island off the coast of Normandy and initially accessible only at low tide until a dike was built in the 19thcentury, was erected on the small Mont Tombe between the 9thto the 19thcentury. A mind-blowing constellation of roman and gothic architecture envelopes the small granite island that used to culminate at 92m. The golden statue of the Archangel St Michael at the top of the abbey now towers 150m above the bay. In this case, nature is sublimed by man’s creativity. Contemplating the 35m high walls of the gothic monastery rightly called “La Merveille” (the marvel), one is stunned at the audaciousness of those who erected this gem of architecture at the beginning of the 13thcentury. The mass of the stone is balanced with the elegance of the vaults and refinement of the cloister that is poised in mid-air, high above the sea. How could man be capable of such beauty? Such prowess?
The awe and question transport me to memories of the Blue Mosque in Herat, the Taj Mahal in India, the fortress of Saksayhuaman in Peru… What drove humans to create these masterpieces that fascinate the crowds to this day? What gave them the power to surpass themselves, I wonder, if not a deep reverence for something that transcends us?
Such are the lessons that these mounts whispered to me: man is small, in the greater scheme of things. Our excessive consumerism may end up destroying the nature-nourished foundations of our society, but the planet has seen worse before and life on earth would reinvent itself. But man can also nurture nature, accompany it in the expression of its greatness. And he can even sublime it when inspired, transported by its mysterious creative force. Man rises, when he “bows down” in humility to something greater than himself.
The word devotion comes to mind. This subtle mix of reverence, commitment, and love. Maybe that is what the Mont Blanc and Mont St Michel inspired in me. And maybe the energy of devotion is what can make our attempts to make this world a more beautiful and more welcoming home for all rise above the challenges that lie in our way.
Words inspired by Robin Alfred’s Ted Talk “Activists Anonymists – a 5 step recovery programme”