Reflections from Travels Abroad

President Emeritus, Gene Duvernoy, takes a much-deserved sabbatical after stepping down as President of Forterra after 29 years. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and musings from his travels.

May 12, 2018—Visiting a French Cousin

A few kilometers from Le Vernoy, I am sitting still jet-lagged in the village of Etoban behind the Lutheran church, while my cousin Daniel talks to a neighbor over its wall. We are related along two different, branching lineages, both remote. At best, I only catch the gist of their conversation, so instead soak in the late afternoon view, sitting on a bench propped against the wall of the church’s apse. (The apse is typically on the east end a church and the shadows here give proof this one is built to plan.)

The scene seems timeless. Looking the same when the oldest gravestone in the foreground was laid down—in 1848—as today. But the tranquil, never-changing sense of these old places may only be a trick of the moment. The forest assuredly has been different ages, both older and younger, since the trees have been harvested over time. Were there also buildings or even small villages once embedded in the view-scape? Questions even Cousin Daniel can’t answer, though his family has claimed ownership of a farmhouse here for five generations, maybe longer.

While Carolyn naps, we take a walk a short way out of the village to the old cemetery where Daniel’s parents are now buried. We visited them on our year-long bicycle trip in 1986, while the grandmother at 102 was still alive. Sitting in an attic room muttering in French, on hearing our voices she snapped to an accented, but perfect American English. She had lived as a governess for a decade in NYC seventy years earlier and knew my father well. She asked after him as if he was still in knickers, which in her mind he still surely was. Proof we are informed, shaped and bounded by our eras.

Next to the cemetery is a dignified, but also heartbreaking memorial to the 44 boys between 18 and 22 executed by a Nazi firing squad in retribution for the resistance killing of a German colonel. That heinous act when WWII was almost over emptied the region of a generation of its young men. There’s also a monument at the village crossroads to the dozen or so local boys killed in WWI. As with most everywhere of long settlement, this out of the way little place is punctuated with acts of stupefying violence.

At the same time, there can be counterbalancing historical moments of courage and camaraderie. Two plaques from the Indian government on the WWII monument’s wall thank the village for its supply of food and silence in the face of interrogations, while the POW British Gurkhas soldiers escaped their Nazi captors. They are small, almost demure compared to the space and architecture devoted to the village’s loss of young men. Maybe it’s human nature to remember the raw sins against us better than the times we rise to a grave challenge.

Down the road from Etoban on a cliff face in Belfort is the famous lion sculpted out of large stone blocks by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the same artist who designed the Statue of Liberty. It commemorates the town’s resistance to the siege of 1870-71 by a Prussian army trying to separate this part of the Alsace from France. A war spoken of by my cousin as if a current memory, and one I vaguely remember from some long musty history class.

Maybe it’s human nature to remember the raw sins against us better than the times we rise to a grave challenge.

The church and homes in Etoban date only from the mid-19th century, so what was here before? I suspect it has been inhabited for eons, like most well situated topography in France. On a nearby hill are a few scattered remnants of a ruined castle from the fourteenth century. Was it a camp for a Roman garrison guarding a frontier post a thousand years before that? And what about 50 thousand years prior? Did Neanderthals encamp here on their way to oblivion, followed by wave on wave of HOMO Homo sapiens?

Today the surrounding forest of not-very-old, mixed deciduous trees is void of wolves and any other of the geologically-modern era’s characteristically large European mammals, but it still holds deer, either roe or red or both, and feral ‘wild’ boar, fox and pine marten. The air hosts swifts shrieking and flying in formation, along with forked swallows, barn owl and buzzards. So maybe the time of aurochs is long past, replaced by herds of almost-as-long domesticated Holstein, but still there is a surprising amount of wildlife if you pay attention.

Here’s where at the last moment I snag this otherwise too-personal post and pivot to home plate for the long throw, hopefully salvaging its relevancy to Forterra’s work.  A region’s sustainability is built on the strengths and challenges of where it currently sits, not on some imagined long-ago Eden. A lesson from a convivial, family visit in France about our work in the Pacific Northwest.

May 14, 2018—L’Harmas de Fabre

France has its Lourdes. It also has l’Harmas de Fabre. While now a museum—a modern day shrine of sorts—until 1915 it was the home and exploratory of Jean-Henri Fabre. Ever hear of  him? I first started to read Fabre about thirty years ago and have made him a “go-to” ever since; whenever I want to visit a more languid and less distracted time. So of course we had to make the pilgrimage to l’Harmas while in the neighborhood. The neighborhood being Serignan-du-Comtat in Provence, France.

An immensely popular poet, watercolor artist and most famously of all, an entomologist whose books are still in print in both French and also English, fortunately for me. Even though he was a Darwin skeptic, they corresponded and visited. In fact, seems like everyone who was anyone, made the pilgrimage. Not bad for a poor boy whose dad made ends meet as a barkeep and who was virtually self-taught (when in France, an autodidact).

Fabre’s most famous experiment whimsically illustrated the rigidity of insect instinct. He collected some caterpillars of a species known for following the leader every morning out of their nest to a breakfast of fresh leaves. He lined the beasts head-to-derrière around the rim of a wine glass—well, actually a bowl—and then he sat back and watched. Each unquestioningly followed the other along the bowl’s rim, never deviating an iota, until they dropped from exhaustion after 7 days of this relentless closed-loop march.

Though I’ve never tried this experiment with any of our local species, I doubt American caterpillars are any smarter. All I think that I would prove is that the instinct to blindly follow the backside of a leader is a global phenomenon. And so conversely, the ability to reason and craft a real sustainability must be highly regionalized by terroir, as the French say.

Which is to say Forterra is on the right track with it’s place-based work to help create a sustainable Pacific Northwest. (Oui, je sais… Yes, I know, I’ve allowed myself a couple of stupendous bounds of logic here. I’ll ask for a pilgrim’s dispensation, since I’m doing my best to draft a relevant blog posting while Carolyn and I are on our walking vacation in Provence these next few weeks.)