Letting the desert in

I know the news may be properly shocking, but there it is: Trees are not our enemies.

Trees are not dirty. Yes, sometimes they produce pollen or fruit, and if you park a car underneath, it may get dirty. Sometimes they are even home to birds, and birds–the horror!–defecate like any other animal. Sometimes they grow roots under the asphalt and bend it a little. It’s not convenient when you carry a wheeled suitcase or pram, I’ll grant you that. Some people even call it dangerous. People could fall and everything. And there’s the shadow, too, it’s not like we can afford to waste an single sunray when we spend our days locked up in offices under artificial lighting, can we? I understand.

Recently, I’ve heard talks to:

Suggest that we destroy the shrubbery around the building we live in to create new parking space.

Suggest cutting trees that ‘threaten to fall any moment’, also around our building (I’ve yet to find out which trees that would be, as they are all perfectly healthy).

Cut off most plane trees in the city centre–as a matter of fact, I had to get up early last Wednesday to protest against their (unadvertised) destruction. The city council argues that they are hopelessly damaged by parasites and could fall off any day. When pressed to prove why trees were so dangerous, they had to produce an example of a tree falling and killing a little girl a few years ago, in a city not our own. If one death every few years makes trees dangerous, I wonder how we can still live around cars.

Cut off the main branch of a venerable pine tree that is guilty of creating a little shadow in the neighbour’s garden. Despite being planted north of said garden, at a respectable distance.

I’ve also learned that the reason why most plants have been left to die in the school yard is that they were too costly to water.

I have news. Something that kills one or two people every few years in a country as large as France cannot be considered a danger, especially since we don’t seem to consider that all the deaths from pollution and road accidents don’t represent a significant danger either. Trees make cars dirty, yes, but… seriously? Have we even paused to wonder how ridiculous we sound when putting forward such arguments? Cutting a tree because then it will be easier to have a nice shiny car, really? I mean… I’m not even sure how I could argue against this one. Unless some people live in a parallel universe where clean cars save lives, I don’t even see what this has to do in actual reality.

Here is what trees do. They provide shade. They cool down the temperature in summer, incidentally helping reduce deaths from heat waves. They provide a home to birds and insects, including pollinisers. They smell good. They make people feel less stressed. They are beautiful and they make people proud. They’re quietly working to clean up our mess by absorbing carbon dioxyde. They prevent soil erosion. They give fruit.

My mother and I recently watched a documentary about the southern end of Patagonia, where, at some point, a man from Punta Arenas thus reffered to his father: ‘He did what any man should do in his life. He planted a tree, raised a child, and took part in social activism. That’s all.’

What anyone should do with their life indeed. As for those who call to destroy trees because they disliked the sight of pollen stains on their cars, how will they make up for it?


Back to school

Summer is over: mornings and late evenings actually feel a little chilly now (lace-shawl-chilly, not jumper-chilly). Also, we’re back to work.

In the first week of school, students are, as a rule, uncharacteristically nice. So far I would be tempted to say that mine are abnormaly so. They are smiling, polite, they raise their hands before speaking, hardly ever speak out of turn, and with the exception of one particularly challenging group, they’ve been making faster progress than I’m used to. If it goes on like this, this year is going to feel like a holiday.

Marseilles is its usual stinky self. The smell of piss in the stairs leading to the bus station is a bit overpowering. At the same time, dirt, eviscerated rats crushed under passing cars and litter dotting the streets are such a normal part of life here that I struggle to imagine it as a clean city. I don’t mean I wouldn’t like it to be clean. ‘Gritty’ is not something I particularly value, and I’m certain Marseilles would manage to remain fascinating even if you could walk through its streets for half an hour without stepping into something nasty, being almost run over by a car or getting cat-called by someone with too much alcohol in his system.

So many things we haven’t tried. I avoid the bakery across from the bus station even if they make delicious, extremely cheap pizzas, and have since I tried eating at the counter and saw sparrows happily feeding off the pizza slices with their little feet firmly planted in their food (has no one ever told them it’s rude to put your feet on the table, I wonder?). Now, however, I’d rather see sparrows defiling my prospective pizza than no sparrows at all, as sparrows slowly disappear from our cities. Maybe we could install pizza counters in the streets with nesting boxes underneath, so sparrows will find shelter and food. I’d love to work in a city with sparrows and redstarts sharing terraces with humans at caf├ęs, and gulls keeping to the port instead of coming to feed off food leftovers tossed on the street by people who don’t care what the city looks like. Although if gulls find themselves out of work cleaning off the streets, they could always be taught to swoop from the sky on people who let their dogs crap in random places and give them the scare of their life. Maybe we could also place buckets in strategic spots so that human waste can be processed for nitrogen fertiliser, instead of, well, going to waste (if people insist on viewing the city as a giant public toilet, why not make the most of it). We can always grow rosemary or mint nearby. As for the cat-calls, perhaps we could train actual cats to respond and come rub themselves frantically in the legs of anyone trying to annoy a woman in the public space, long enough to give the woman time to escape if she wants to (of course we’d have to build extensive cat shelters in every underground station, but I’d love to pet a cat while I wait for public transports).

Didn’t we say we were going to imagine solutions?

Just understood why

At some point around the turn of the 20th century, the Côte d'Azur in France was drained of its marshlands, and people flocked there from all over the world, to spend the winter in a nice climate. Russians, English people, American people, you name it. Some of them are still there, and they even have their dedicated radio, which in between two pop songs plays ads in English for Porsches and investment cabinets and more necessary items for the insanely rich. Expats can have it nice sometimes, it seems.

Yesterday, as I headed to a work meeting in Nice, already somewhat tired from the long car ride and the walk beforehand, I bought a slice of onion pizza in a bakery, and then walke up the hill to the meeting, regretting already that I hadn't thought of buying some fruit to clean the oil an anchovy taste from my tongue. The gardens on the sides of the road were fenced, and dotted with yellow and oranges, the just-ripe citrus fruit people love to plant in their gardens on that part of the coast. Most of the trees carry bitter oranges, however, so I didn't pay close attention until I saw that the fruit on one were much smaller than the rest.

It was a tangerine tree–perfectly ripe, tasty, juicy tangerines, and one had fallen to the ground just in reach. It tasted heady and tart, like those old varieties you don't find on the marketplace anymore because they don't taste sweet enough for the more timid buyers/ It was perfectly ripe and full of seeds, just enough to make one pause to spit and savour the remaining taste. It was, in short, exactly what I would have asked for if that was the kind of day when you expect to have any luck with anything.

So that's why people love Nice so much. Just another dull working day with a stupidly long ride there and back–and it tosses tangerines to you to sweeten your mind.

The summer birds

The swifts are back to their nests above our windows. The last few days have been alternately rainy, windy and somewhat normal, which means that I've only been able to watch them dance in the airs at intervals. Also, I'm still chained to my computer, and haven't got around to indulging in ten minutes of doing nothing except watch the swifts fly. It's annoying, but it will be over soon.

I don't know if there are swifts where you're from. If you've never noticed them, they're a pure joy to watch. They look like large swallows, with long wings shaped like a crossbow. And they're incredibly lithe. They fly haphazardly, like insects, only much faster, and much higher up in the sky, hundreds of metres above the roofs. When they zoom back down to their nests, faster than cars on a motorway, they soar past our windows, so close you can see every little feather on their tail, though only for a fraction of a second. They never seem to miss their aim. They use their tail to navigate, stretching it or bracing it to turn and brake, or so I'm told. How they can dance so beautifully and with such control, using only a few tail feathers, is beyond my imagination.

In France, the cries of the swifts mean summer, although few people realise it anymore. But if you took them away, I'm sure the whole country would find the summer drab and sad. I hope it doesn't happen. Sadly, new buildings are hardly a good ground for swifts to build their nests. There are no holes under the tiles or in the concrete, and architects don't bother to add artificial cavities. It's a real shame–swifts are among the cleanest birds around. They wouldn't be a nuisance, only add a little bit of happiness.

First-world cities were born from an unfortunate combination, I suppose: old rural mentalities still make it common to consider wild living things as a nuisance, and new urban environments often harm them, even when we're not trying to. Wouldn't it be time to start realising that other species are not threatening us anymore, and to give them a little space when we appropriate the ground?

Blossoms and Great Old Ones

A week ago, I came back from a trip to Eastercon and the Popular Culture Association conference in Boston, which left me with a few days to explore New England. Having seen most of Boston in details, I followed a friend's advice and set to spend a day in Providence, Rhode Island.

Lovecraft readers have probably guessed why I was excited to see Providence: you don't always get an oportunity to see the place where your favourite writer spent most of their life, so I decided that Lovecraft would rise to the top of the large pile of My Favourite Writers for a day, climbed in the train, asked for some information at the tourist office (turned out they had a few hand-printed leaflets about landmarks related to Lovecraft, including two houses where he lived, his memorial and the library where a large collection of his manuscripts can still be found), and set out to discover the no doubt grim and forbidding place that had inspired such terrified writing.

Now this April was, I gather, exceptionnally warm in New England. As it happens, the day Iof my trip was as sunny and hot as any summer day. I couldn't have picked a more lovely time for my visit, which was quite extensive–when it comes to evaluate walking distances on a map, I'm incompetent and very optimistic. But the visit was worth the sunburn, dehydration and exertion. I made it to the memorial, an inconspicuous granite slab in a small garden, framed by yellow wooden houses and trees in bloom, saw the two places where Lovecraft had lived, gorgeous little wooden houses both, with flowers and large windows, and the white building of the library where he spent his research time, on top of a hill overlooking the rest of the city, and the countryside.

As I walked there on this beautiful, fragrant, warm spring day, I suddenly felt very sorry for him. It is enough to read his stories to realise that the horror wasn't a mere device–you can feel the anxiety behind the grotesque and stylistically outdated monsters, until it reaches you and turns into horrid nightmares if you're not careful. I had always supposed that Providence must be a very grim and scary place, to inspire that kind of writing. It's not. Sometimes it even looks like paradise. As I walked on Angell Street, I looked down and saw a large rainbow-coloured halo arond my shadow's head, moving with me for a while; I'm not making that up. Then I thought of the marvellous lost city of childhood in "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath", and realised that it probably had never been lost. It had been there all along, but somewhere along the way, he had been unable to see it anymore. Then the Old Ones came, and the Deep Ones, and the Fungi from Yuggoth, and the paradise that was right here at hand was lost forever.

The memorial looks like a tombstone in a very small, private graveyard, as peaceful as you can imagine, blooming with violets and trees I couldn't name. I didn't think I would ever feel sad for Lovecraft, who wasn't the most attractive character around, for all his wonderful writing. For a little while, though, I did.


I thought he'd vanished from the city years ago. In fact, when I was close enough to the door, I noticed a tiny yellow label, with the name of the shop. He'd simply relocated on the first floor of a barely visible building. But then I never got the impression he was particularly interested in attracting clients.

All the houses look the same in the city centre, with lovely old façades, but it's only when you open the door that you figure out what they are really like: some have grand staircases with marble tiles and stucco and gentle light falling from a window in the roof, some are rickety affairs with narrow, slanted steps, walls that haven't been painted in ages and magical permanent dust. This house was the shabby kind–of course it would be. As for the shop, it was situated in an attic-like den on the first floor, encumbered with more computers parts than you'd think is possible, and yes, I know you've seen lots of computer spare parts. Just take my word for it.

"So what's the problem?" he asked. Three words into my explanation about the error message that had been popping on my screen, he cut me short, opened my computer and puffed his cheeks. "Couldn't you get more dust in there?"

As I carried on explaining that I really couldn't afford to lose that computer to a short-circuit and could he tell me for sure whether it was a serious problem or not and yes, I did clean the dust from time to time, he tossed the charger around a bit, unplugged it, plugged it again, turned on my computer and let me watch as no error message appeared and everything looked just fine. I was starting to feel foolish, but he just smiled and shrugged, and told me to come back should anything weird appear. I asked one last time what he thought that was all about. He had no idea.

"But then I'll tell you something," he said. "When people bring computers here, they start working again. I don't know why."

I thought he was joking and it was time to laugh politely, but he went on:

"It's true. Computers that won't work anywhere else–I turn them on, and they just seem to be fixed. Last time, there was a guy who had seen six or seven technicians about his laptop. Everybody told him it was a desperate case. He brought it to me, I pressed the button, and everything worked just fine. He never had a problem again."

I wanted to pay him, but he refused. He didn't charge for thaumaturgy, he said.

"And do something about that dust", he said as I walked out again.

Four ways to craft a beautiful city

There are some travels from which you come back filled with incredible architectural sights. This was not one of them. But in one month I discovered many new ways cities can be beautiful.

Cities can be oases in the desert, or they can have oases mixed with their desert. A river runs across San Antonio, and its banks are covered with flowers. The heat is more bearable near the water, basking in the scent of jasmine. Swallows nest under the bridges and build colonies of mud nests, as other birds squabble higher in the trees. Or when you leave the river, there are gardens stranded among the tall buildings, in the few parts where it is sensible to walk if you don’t have a car. An old Spanish house, a park near the market, surrounded by low houses. There you can rest outside the metal husk of a car, and the desert looks so beautiful, seen from inside an oasis.

Then, cities can hail from an unexpected future. Sometimes they tell you, Hey, did you really thinnk that the future would be faster and that people would never use their own legs anymore? Did you think that the only thing that could happen was to turn streets into roads and roads into motorways? Come on, you can do better than that. Here, let me show you. And then you land in Berlin. It’s dark already, and you realise what surprises you: it’s really dark. Not a glow of street lamps as bright as the sun with a reddish black lid overhead. It’s night and there’s just enough light to see, and it feels so peaceful, all of a sudden. Then it’s day again, and you walk among bikes and quiet streets, not in suburbs but gliding from a centre to another. There are still dauntingly huge streets from another time, museum halls large enough to reconstruct a whole temple in them, underground shelters large as mazes and scary as what hell should look like, but you’re never lost. You just go out and walk in a smiling city that’s no bigger than you.

Other cities can be chaos. It’s a less comforting kind of beauty, because of all the suffering it’s built on. But then it’s built, not in ruins anymore, and there’s comfort in that. Warsaw is made of bits and pieces. One part is as colourful as the Middle Ages of a fantasy novel, and as deceitful: it is less than sixty years old, and was modelled on Renaissance paintings of what the city was like before it was destroyed. Other parts are tall and severe, and stone proletarian glare at you from their seats in the grey facades. Further South, there are gardens, restaurants in orangeries, preening peacocks and cavorting squirrels. Further East, there are malls under wavy domes of glass, hotels and theatres from the last decade. It feels like walking through time, only past centuries are humbled by their own failure to last, and they don’t stand taller and prouder than the present history.

Then some cities are beautiful because everywhere you look, you wonder at the prettiness, the blue sky, the skill of the architects and the harmony of the streets. But you already knew about that kind.