Tracing the Roots of Environmentalism

Posted: Jun 26, 2008 12:00 AM
Tracing the Roots of Environmentalism

SARLAT, France -- I have journeyed to the south of France to continue my research into the earliest ancestors of America's present-day political exotics. The American scene abounds with bizarre creatures: feminists, militant advocates of identity politics, environmentalist wackos (as Rush Limbaugh's millions call them). I came here to investigate the life of the 12th-century troubadour Bertran de Born, as early an intellectual precursor to the environmentalist wackos as I have discovered yet.

First, however, you will want me to declare where exactly I am. Well, I am in the valley of the Dordogne River in south central France, an area where huge medieval castles sprout out of mountaintops and give the lovely verdant valley a feel of genuine medieval fantasy, somewhat like Disneyland. The locals seem friendly, betraying none of the odious anti-Americanism that I had been led to anticipate. But then possibly, they perceive me as a serious professorial type. My queries are always very learned, about the folkways and mores of the 12th century and the life of de Born and his knightly pals.

They lived in these very castles and spent most of their time singing romantic songs (after all, that is what troubadours were supposed to do) and killing each other. They also killed as many farmers and merchants as they could spot -- at least, de Born did. Today's wackos are equally argumentative, though in place of romantic song, they compose bumper stickers about rain forests and whales and so forth. Old Bertran, if he were alive today, would be on their side. From what I can tell, he would be particularly irritated by one of the wackos' most intense concerns: the automobile. Bertran favored horses, usually war horses.

Back in the 12th century, when there was very little pollution and no hygiene to speak of, Bertran spent most of his time composing songs and engaged in violent altercations. Things were changing in the valley, and he doubted that any of the change was for the good.

The specific sources of his concern were farmlands and the spread of farmlands, villages and the spread of villages, and commerce in all its primitive forms. If you have listened to the rants of today's wackos with care, you will recognize that this 12th-century troubadour's initial concerns remain their concerns, though our wackos have acquired many more.

From his castle high atop a mountain, he looked down into the valley, saw the hated farmers chopping down his beloved forests, and sent out his warriors to suppress them -- the bloodier the better. (One cannot but be impressed by the instruments of torture preserved in the museums in these parts.) I have yet to estimate the number of villages that spread throughout this valley during the 12th century, but from the historical accounts I have read, whenever a handful of merchants, artisans and perhaps a priest or palm reader got together to set up a village and engage in the transport and marketing of local goods, Bertran would react as furiously against them as he did against the farmers.

Bertran de Born, like his fellow nobles, had a romantic sense of the forest and the hunt. They would ride their horses into these darkened cathedrals of trees and hunt or make love or compose their idiotic songs. Their knowledge of the environment was defective, possibly even more defective than our wackos' environmental knowledge is. Certainly, I would like to think that our wackos have a better grasp of today's environment and its needs, for they have a lot of power in our society, and if they are as ignorant as Bertran, we are in trouble.

Given Bertran's love of hunting, his brutal efforts to preserve the forests were actually counterproductive. The boars and deer and lesser creatures that attracted his venatic enthusiasm were much reduced in numbers because of his early efforts against farmlands. The simple fact is that wildlife does not thrive in the darkness of the forest, but on the edges of the forest where there is more to eat. The small animals eat the vegetation; larger animals eat the smaller animals; and the largest eat just about everything. If Bertran had left the farmers and the villagers alone, he would have had an abundance of targets for his primitive weapons. Moreover, the farmers would have provided him with a more balanced diet and would have provided the villagers with warm socks.

I urge you to think of Bertran de Born's energetic initiatives against farmlands and villages the next time you hear an environmentalist wacko harangue about carbon initiatives and global warming. The fact is that we have not had much global warming for a decade, and what we had before that, during the last quarter of the 20th century, was often good for the crops -- certainly in these parts.