Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Loire

Western France has three major rivers, the Loire in the North and the Garonne and Dordogne in the South. The Garonne is slightly larger than the Dordogne and both flow into the Gironde estuary, a confusing state of affairs if ever there was one.

The character of the Loire and the Dordogne rivers is rather different. The Loire flows across a generally flat landscape and is sourced from low hills so that it carries only sand. The middle reaches of the Loire were flooded three times in the 19th Century with 1500 km² under 1 or 2 meters water. If a disaster of this scale happened today, it would seriously affect around 300,000 inhabitants of the Loire Valley and create damages of an estimated 6 billions Euros. The Dordogne, on the other hand, is sourced from the mountainous Massif Central and so is full of neat, nicely rounded pebbles and cobbles. It is a smaller river than the Loire and does not pose much of a flooding hazard.

Both rivers have this much in common: they have châteaux built at regular intervals along their lengths. The châteaux of the Loire are renowned. They were once the homes of Rennaissance Kings and Queens and they are grand showpieces. The châteaux of the Dordogne are rather more serious in character, such as Castelnaud, a stronghold on an eyrie perch which was occupied by English invaders until it was eventually lost following a seige during the hundred years war of the 15th century.

We visited both rivers last year, canoeing down the Dordogne whose course is neatly cut into a steep sided valley and tramping our way across the dried out bed of the Loire, a river whose character is distinctly flashy, changing dramatically and quickly depending on the rainfall.

Some twenty years ago now, the mother of a boy from my school was unwell and undergoing hospital treatment. My mother offered that the boy come and live with us for a few weeks. He was a quiet boy, we probably played games of monopoly together or else watched TV.

A few years later, he went to France to visit a French penpal. They were having a picnic beside the Loire and, somehow or other, he fell in and was quickly swept away to his death. It took a long while to recover his body. I have thought about this often and have struggled to make sense of it. Death by Nature seem to offer only questions. God is in charge of Nature. Why did God let this happen? That was the question asked all over the world after the Christmas tsunami. With Nature there is no one to blame except God. Nobody can be found guilty except God.

And perhaps also, more uncomfortably, less consolingly, the victim themselves are also guilty. Those who have strayed too close to the jaws of Nature. It is us they hurt by their thoughtlessness. We who have to suffer their loss. The flood subsides, the river dwindles back into a narrow ribbon, sidling along among the chateaus packed with tourists. We walk across the wide sand flats on either side of it. Look at it: hardly a river at all. An innocent trickle.

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