Nature or nature: Views of the more-than-human in Pagnol’s The Water of the Hills, part 2


This is the second of my two-part blog about this remarkable book. The human narrative in the novel is tackled in the first. Here, I want to talk about Pagnol’s observations of humans relations with the rest of life. The book was published in 1962 and centres on a contest between two parts of one family over the ownership of a farm. At the heart of it all is a gushing fountain of spring water, on which both sides have founded their spiritual, as well as their agricultural, hopes.
It is surely unnecessary to point out that a story fundamentally about H2O has profound implications for our time, especially now that climate chaos confronts us all. And since it’s a book so pre-eminently about water – and given that I have no pics of Provence where the book is set – I have illustrated my posts with aqueous images of many kinds.
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Very early in the story Pagnol sets up opposing views of nature as manifest in the two branches of a family. Jean Cadoret – the ‘Jean de Florette’ of the title – inherits his farm through his mother’s line and arrives in the village of Les Bastides to create a dream home in the country. He, his wife Aimée and daughter Manon are immediately established as what we would call today ‘nature lovers’. The long-neglected land at Les Romarins, with its overgrown thickets of dog rose, brambles and rosemary, is instantly heralded by Jean as a haven: or as he declares, it’s ‘Zola’s Paradise.’
Jean goes on to capture their united sense of enchantment with the farm’s wildness, cracking open a bottle of wine to toast their arrival: “I drink to Mother Nature,’ he says, ‘to the fragrant hills, I drink to the cicadas, to the pine woods, to the breeze, to the rocks of thousands of years, I drink to the blue sky!” What Jean names are precisely the unproductive parts that a peasant farmer like his nemesis Ugolin doesn’t even see, except for their possible implications for agricultural profit.
While Jean is no sandaled hippy I feel you can’t read his story and not see links between his attitudes and those of modern environmentalists (including me), for whom Nature has become an idealised entity. Jean says to Ugolin elsewhere in the story, “I came to the irrefutable conclusion that the only possible happiness was to be a man of Nature. I need air, I need space to crystallize my thoughts. I am more interested in what is true, pure, free – in a word, authentic, I hope you understand me?’ There is a deliciously comic irony here, because later Ugolin recounts the same conversation to his Uncle, Le Papet, where he reveals how completely he had misunderstood Jean’s words. He assumes that authentics are some kind of funny foreign crop Jean is seeking to grow at Les Romarins.
Yare at Rockland Staithe
There is not only idealism in Jean’s attitudes to Nature. There’s also a touch of pride. Like the tax auditor that he had once been, he loves to flourish his black notebook with its detailed statistics of monthly rainfall in that part of France, and quote them at Ugolin as the ultimate authority whenever the latter queries the practicality of his rabbit-breeding plan. These jousts of agricultural know-how pit theoretical book-learning about Nature against a peasant’s rooted experience of it.
Jean is unequivocally more sinned against than sinning, but there is an element of vanity in him. While it can never cancel, nor can it any sense justify, the wickedness of his relatives when they block up the Les Romarins spring, sometimes he seems overly pious. An example comes at the point when he has taken to dousing – pathetically and, ultimately, with fatal consequences – to try to locate a water well for the farm’s needs. He does it barefoot, explaining to Ugolin that:
‘… firstly shoes are very dear. So I want to get used to doing without them and I’m taking my first steps here, to give myself a horny sole, as strong as the best leather, and more supple … On the other hand, since I want to be a man of Nature, these ridiculous covers already seem to me to be perfectly useless. It’s a great pleasure to walk barefoot, and it seems to me that the subterranean currents of our Mother Earth penetrate my body better, to revitalize and rejuvenate it!’
River Wye in Millers Dale
For their part, Ugolin and le Papet embody traditional peasant values. They are steeped in first-hand experience of the soil. They are practical materialists. Ultimately, they relate to nature – not Nature – as a thing to be subdued in order to generate produce or profit, but also to be respected as an adversary and never to be under-estimated.
I’ve just learnt a rather nice word to summarise it. Umwelt. It means the world as experienced by a particular organism. They are both surrounded by the same swirl of life, but Ugolin and Jean take from it different things, they construct separate Umwelten and arrive at different conclusions. However there is a character in Pagnol’s book who combines both versions.
The real figure of nature and of Nature, reconciling all and looming over the whole book is Jean and Amelie’s daughter the eponymous Manon (the second volume is called Manon des Sources). She is an idealised symbol that fuses the human and the more than human parts of life.
She is firstly the daughter of a Caliban-like hunchback, a ‘creature’ of nature if you will, and, once ousted from Les Romarins as a fatherless minor, she is forced to take refuge in humankind’s first home on Earth – a cave. There she lives with her biological mother, Aimée a former opera singer, and her spiritual mother, Baptistine a Piedmontese peasant who has lived in the hills with her woodsman husband for decades. Mothered by both culture and nature, Manon grows up perfectly attuned to these wild montane surroundings.
rain on leaves in Solomon Islands
We find her surrounded by some of most telling classical motifs of the Dionysian. For example, she is a goatherd amidst a troupe of satyrs and fauns, and when alone communing with the elements, Manon delights to play her father’s harmonica, a twentieth-century version perhaps of Dionysus’ pan pipes. Most telling of all, is the moment when Manon bathes naked and dances and music-makes in the stream beneath the hot sun, in the dreaming hills.
This extraordinary scene is, as I noted earlier, one of the two decisive moments on which the whole drama turns. Because thereafter fortunes favour this goddess of the hills, rather than the money-grubbing, flower-growing peasants who would block up another person’s water source for profit. As Manon dances and bathes she is espied by Ugolin, out for a walk to escape the noxious chemicals that he administers to his intensively grown carnation crop at Les Romarins.
In stumbling upon a naked goddess – and Manon is actually described in the text as such – Ugolin is doomed like another Peeping Tom of Greek mythology. In this story the prince Acteon, while out hunting in the woods, stumbles upon Artemis as she disrobes by a secluded pool. His punishment for this transgression is to be turned into a stag, when he is set upon by his own dogs; and if Ugolin is not exactly torn to pieces by his own hunting pack, he is at least undone by the hounds of love. Because he falls into a hopeless infatuation with Manon and moons after her like a love-sick fool, ultimately succumbing to his unrequited passion and killing himself after he has gone mad.
It is worth noting that, until that moment by the stream, the unloved lover has worshipped a very different mistress. Every night Ugolin goes to his hearth to count and to add to the gold pieces that he stores in a tin by the fire. Thereafter, however, he is besotted with another kind of gold: the flowing blond locks on Manon’s beautiful head. Ugolin is, in a real sense, undone by nature or, at least, by one of its most irresistible forces: sex.
All of this complex trading upon classical imagery and ideas is lightly done by Pagnol and it’s easy to overlook his underlying metaphysic. Yet there is another example of it at the story’s other key moment that I must mention. It comes when Manon, following one of her goats into a hidden cave where it has strayed, discovers the aquifer that determines the prosperity and ultimately the well-being of the entire village. That she ventures into the underworld to find the secret source of life, that she acquires there the powers of life or death over Les Bastides and all of her neighbours, strikes me as somehow reminiscent of the myth of Persephone. Yet quite how it functions I am not sure. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me.
There is a secondary element to Manon’s role as hunter goddess in the hills. She is literally a seeker of game and a subplot in the interactions between Ugolin and Manon centres on her daily excursions to check her line of snares and traps for hares and thrushes. It leads to another deliciously ironic moment when Ugolin, desperate to please Manon, catches a hare himself and then places it in her noose as a kind a love token. She then promptly gives the prize to her actual lover, the man who will win her heart and marry her, the teacher Bernard. And if he is not a figure of nature in quite the way that Manon is, he is a geologist, a rock hound who strikes the Earth with a hammer. In this we should perhaps see a glance at Vulcan, the divine partner to the goddess of love Aphrodite. (Incidentally, I suspect for Pagnol, Manon is both representative of the virgin huntress Artemis and of the sexualised goddess of love).
But the key thing to note is that in delineating a female emblem of Nature, Pagnol saw nothing contradictory in presenting her as a killer of the other parts of life. Of course, this is no more than a reflection of the moral code of the author himself. Being ‘lover’ and ‘hunter’ simultaneously is the very order of things in twentieth century France. For me this aspect of Manon is perhaps the most important and most resonant for our times, because it raises questions about how we should understand our relationships and responsibilities to the other parts of life.
I am a devoted environmentalist and shot a magpie once, at my mother’s behest (she hated them!), and have then spent a lifetime of guilt atoning for my crime. This doesn’t mean that I have ever subscribed to the kinds of blanket opposition to blood sports one finds so often associated with my field. Much as I would never do it myself, I am tolerant and, in some ways, celebrating of our hunter past. Who is not awe-struck by the predatory prowess of hunter-gatherers such as the San or the Yanomami?
reed reflected in the embanked medieval Beck at Claxton
Anyone who knows the first thing about the other parts of life is aware that human moral codes have nothing to do with how nature itself functions. Nature is beyond notions of good and evil. There is no issue of ethics entailed in the mosquito infected with a malaria plasmodium. We cannot condemn the cordyceps fungus that grows in the brains of an insect and whose fruiting body sprouts from its head while obliging the victim to die in a posture best suited to the dispersal of fungal spores.  I have no truck with the attitudes of the otherwise great American ornithologist Alexander Skutch who, a vegetarian himself, saw snakes as an expression of a lower morally degraded part of life, compared, say with a frugivorous quetzal.
full moon on puddle at Holkham, Norfolk
Nature is a system entire unto itself and whenever I encounter attempts to lasso human notions of value around our fellow creatures, I find myself resistant to it. Let me qualify that. I despise trophy hunting of anything inedible and even edible – wolves, lions, giraffes, elephants etc. Yet where there is some semblance of the old subsistence hunting and the victim is eaten I really have no problem (theoretically, I should add; I don’t necessarily wish to encounter or see it!). And where there is no conflict with a species’ self-sustaining viability, again, I really don’t think it is an issue. If the target species were in anyway at risk – such as, say, snipe or woodcock in Britain – then I would oppose hunting, but if the prey were abundant and native and shot in numbers that reflected subsistence consumption I can see no obvious problem.
There are many instances where taking life in the interests of species conservation or habitat management is a necessity. Clearing islands of non-native invasive mammals – cats, rodents, goats, monkeys and possums etc – by systematic poisoning and trapping seems to me perfectly acceptable. Culling excessive numbers of grazing herbivores that are not controlled by some wild predators, such as the muntjacs in much of England England, or the red deer that presently help to reduce large swathes of northern Scotland to a wet desert, is not only tolerable, it is to be devoutly wished for.
Yet so often we find people implacably opposed to killing as if it were a matter of universal merit never to take life. One example is the person I met who opposed the conservation of Scottish wild cats on the grounds that one measure, proposed as a necessary prerequisite, is the trapping/killing of feral domestic cats; or their neutering to prevent interbreeding. Their position was to see wild cats go extinct in Britain as a species rather than cross a moral Rubicon and eliminate any of their domestic relatives.
Wild cat neutered male as part of captive breeding programme
We have come a long way from Manon and her slip knots to catch thrushes. But in straying on to this field, which is complex and fascinating, I wanted to illustrate the multiple issues about our relations with nature that are entailed in this wonderful novel sequence. For me, as I said earlier, it is among the most significant nature-centred books I know. It could so easily be the basis for an entire course on nature and the business of writing about it. It is a gloriously funny, desperately sad and brilliant mirror in which we find ourselves reflected over and over again. I hope you will be inspired to read it. 
reed reflected at Claxton