Where We Are

The city of Paris is dotted with fountains, usually fashioned from bronze (or look alike plexi-blend) in varying shapes of women baring pitchers, dolphins spouting from the mouth, or just plain-old faucets. These fountains are marked “Eau Potable,” Drinkable Water, and on hot summer days they draw small crowds of tourists (especially the one near the snaking line that stretches from Notre Dame). The water that pours from these fountains to fill water bottles, dog bowls and many thirsty mouths has a slight calcareous taste (the lime in it will make your underwear stiff in the wash) and travels over 150km through more than 2000km of underground canals and aqueducts to find its way here.

Where does our water come from? That depends where in Paris you are. The 16th, 14th, 13th arrondissements and half of the 15th drink water from the Seine brought over by aqueduct from the valley of the Vanne. The entire center including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 7th, 8th, and parts of the 6th, 5th, and 12th (these are the areas you are likely to visit as a tourist, including all the famous monuments, museums, and squares — the historic center of Paris) drink ground water from Loing and Voulzie. The Northeast of the city is fed by the treated waters of the Marne and Seine rivers, and finally the water for the 17th, 18th, and 9th arrondissements of the Northwest, comes from Verneuil-sur-Avre and is stored in a reservoir at Saint-Cloud.

Water originating from groundwater sources arrives as rain-water, which sprinkles the fields and then begins the journey down to the subterranean world. It filters slowly, drop by drop, through layers of sediment, gravel and sand and collects in giant natural aquifers underground. River-water has to be filtered in man-made processes that imitate this natural filtration. Before entering the city, the water of Paris is stored in five huge reservoirs at the different “portes de Paris” — Montsouris, Saint-Cloud, L’Hay-les-Roses, Les Lilas, and Menilmontant. From there, the 1.1 million m3 of water is distributed to public fountains and private dwellings. All this water, to be consumed by Parisians in just 2 days.

Now. Why on earth would you need to know all this?

The Danger of Disconnect

While I was at University in Edinburgh, I decided to run an experiment that earned me many-a-dirty look. I asked people to identify basic aspects of Edinburgh’s geography (where is North, what two rivers run through the city, where does our water come from, etc.). Only a handful could locate the north and no one knew the names of the rivers, the mountains, or the geology of that belt of eastern Scotland. And the questions exposed this — hence the dirty looks. But to me, they exposed something much more deep-rooted — a sprawling disconnect, like a crevasse in the ice, between the daily lives my fellow students were living, and their direct, natural environment.

It may not seem immediately relevant (at least for us, urban-dwellers) to know the natural features of where we are. After all, the water arrives from our faucets. The food — from the supermarkets. Our daily needs are seen to, and, whether in Paris or in Edinburgh, the rivers are managed and dammed, the geological landmarks overbuilt with human constructions. To many city-dwellers “where does our water come from?” has become a superfluous question.

Water arrives from our faucets — but what if it stopped one day? What if a turn of the cold-water tap produced a jet of rust-colored liquid contaminated with lead, like in Flint, MI? If you are a lunatic like me, obsessed with survival skills (or if you remember events like Hurricane Sandy when NYC supermarkets ran out of batteries and bottled water), you may ask yourself these questions. A water crisis like the one in Flint produces localized panic, a call for the resignation of legislators, and a peak in interest in local natural resource-management. But even the lead-poisoning of an American city’s water source facilitated mostly local action. And I was among the many New Yorkers who read with horror about affliction in Flint without ever wondering what went into my morning cup of coffee.

But our vulnerability in the case of technological meltdown is not the only reason for us to want to know where we are in our direct environment. The danger of our detachment transcends local conflict — it has put us where we are as a species — hovering on the brink (or, as some scientific journals write, way past it) of climatic crisis and widespread collapse.

I have noticed that detachment from our environment produces two different reactions in people. What is funny is that they are almost completely opposed to each other. The first is apathy and the second — extremism. Both can be seen as a result of a person not finding their place where they are: in the first scenario this disconnect inhibits feelings of reliance and responsibility, in the second, produces a violent reaction which overshoots, because it is grounded more in abstract thought than in experienced reality. Both reactions are harmful, as they create further imbalance in a biosphere already overexploited, over-polluted, and over-drilled.

To put what I mean into context, I would consider myself largely guilty of both. Like many people I know, I read about climate change in books and articles, try to consume no plastic, and go to protests… but I am yet to throw my body in front of a tank for a cause that remains mostly an idea. Climate change does not enter my direct experience — the summers get hotter but my life remains comfortably insulated and it becomes too easy to relegate the global conflict to a distant threat to areas not-where-I-am. At the same time, I experience frequent stabs of anxiety and fear about apocalyptic scenarios that rush through my head, a global destruction that I feel powerless to fix. Both of these reactions are characteristic of a person disconnected and detached from their environment, and neither produce sustainable action.

Communities on the Front Lines

It is no coincidence that the movement that became Standing Rock — a huge wave of protest against the DAPL petroleum pipeline that swept the US last year — began from a small community living on the front-lines of climate injustice. A people, pushed into a corner, threatened to have their last water-source polluted in the name of big-oil, have little choice left but to make a stand. These people did not relent under a rain of freezing water, pepper spray, and rubber-bullets because they knew their very livelihoods were at stake. I was among many others who sent money and solar blankets to Standing Rock and contemplated booking my ticket to Bismarck … but stopped myself.

I am volunteering my own example here to demonstrate exactly the sort of disconnect I explained above. It is difficult to experience the effects of climate change as a direct threat to your own home when you grew up in Manhattan. Birds in NY are mainly pigeons and invasive-starlings that do not migrate out in the winter. The parks are planted with many non-native species. The only visible change I have experienced growing up in the city was the termination of a school tradition called Senior Walk-Out, (a day when seniors skipped school on the first day of major snowfall to bombard the rest of the school with snowballs), when the major snowfalls stopped happening — hardly life-threatening. In wanting to go to Standing Rock, I had, quite erroneously, assumed that to stand up to battle corporate injustice and climate change I had to travel to the Great Plains. My disconnect here is all the more ironic, as NYC enacts plans for the Big-U, a 3-billion dollar wall that is meant to hypothetically prevent Lower Manhattan from inundation within the century.

As the US stands poised to withdraw from the Paris Accord and chances to cut emissions seem increasingly far-fetched, a realization is driven in hard: everywhere will be a front-line community. Many communities have suffered these injustices for years already, but, as for the rest of us, there is only so much that privilege, wealth, and political influence can do to insulate us from this reality. And therefore it is of utmost importance that we find our places within that local community (whether urban or rural). And this process starts when we begin to introduce ourselves to its non-human elements: the bugs, the birds, the trees, the water. Even in cities, “Where does our water come from?” becomes a critical question. If we do not ask, nature may find a way to remind us. Last year in Paris, the flooding Seine surprised officials by overrunning its banks after all the measures employed to prevent this from happening. Drowning sailors rarely suffer from either apathy or abstraction — the time has come to reconnect to where we are.

Becoming Local

The man standing in front of me was not what you’d immediately imagine if I told you he was indigenous. White, in his 60s, with a face turned red by decades of sun and wine, he was an ex-military man, conservative Catholic, and 16th generation Bourguignon. “16, at least!” He told me proudly.

“My father lived in the house we live in now. He was also in the military. And his father did before. We lose track — but we’ve always lived in this town. I’m 100% Bourguignon.” I had met this man by accident in one of the tiny stone towns I passed as I walked along the Seine River, looking for its source, learning its stories and thus trying to get a bit more grounded after moving to Paris. From the busy streets of the capital, to the suburbs and developments surrounding it, I had found no one who knew any stories about the Seine (or Sequana, as she was originally named by the Celtic people who used to live on her shores). Only 300km out, in a little town of stone many-century-old houses, did I run into Bernard (name has been changed) who could tell me a bit of local lore. This, about a river that fed and supported every human community and agricultural field along its course, including the famous vineyards of Champagne where France makes its celebrated champagnes.

Bernard’s stories were peppered with the kind of commentary that would make your average liberal blanche. But I was struck by his relationship to the land around him, his intimate knowledge of it and his pride at being a true local — a true Bourguignon. In the end, I believe that it is far more likely for a person like Bernard to make a true stand to protect their land, than your average city-based environmental activist. His life was intimately bound up in his environment which was no land of ideas, but the physical ground beneath his feet, his daily, felt experience.

Becoming local is not impossible for us city-dwellers and constant travelers, and I don’t even believe you need 16 generations to do it. It begins with admitting that the problem we face is a global one and we might as well start where we are. Taking that plane-ride to the protest happening on the other side of the country, may in fact be part of the problem. We must discover what we can do where-we-are, and that means getting ingrained — finding the grain of the place, the political and social atmosphere, the biota. That means slowly discovering our own bodies and minds bending with the rhythms of the place, the anxious energy before its storms, the ennui of its endless rains. Learning the flowers and the insects, learning the trees. These may all seem the trivial pursuits of the naturalist-with-too-much-time-on-her-hands, but they are part of a crucial ingraining, of becoming local. Only knowing the local weather patterns, can we notice them change. Only knowing local wildlife species, can we begin to notice the disappearances. And only after letting the place where-we-are become an integral part of our identity, can we make a true stand to protect it, as one would protect his family — with relentless, stubborn determination.

300 kilometers out of Paris I stood in a forest of native hardwoods — oak, beech and ash all shimmering light — and the Seine, now just a stone-throws wide, burbling beside me in a series of small falls. Scattered along the forest floor and the riverbed were myriads of small, white pebbles.

“Know what Lutetian Limestone is?” asked Bernard. I shook my head.

“How about Paris Stone? Ever seen the Louvre? All those great buildings? Know where that comes from? Here!” he made a dramatic pause. “We have a quarry 5km out of town. All over the valley. It’s what they built Paris out of — that light, creamy rock. Paris used to be called Lutèce before it was Paris. That’s why. Lutetian Limestone.” His pride was tangible. All those fragments we built our civilization from — the pebbles right underfoot.