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The Spirit of Place in Les monts de Sarcelles

Eric Malhere

Malhere is a systems technician for the French Railways’ Automatic Train Protection System. He lived the first thirty years of his life in Groslay, the changing French village he describes here. He is interested in conceptual ways to describe systems holistically, including the approach of Goethean science. He is also interested in ways whereby the lived nature of places, both natural and humanly made, can be described and understood. © 2002, 2003 Eric Malhere.

Each particular place is the continuously evolving expression of a highly complex set of forces–inanimate and living–which become integrated  into an organic whole. [Human beings are] one of these forces, and probably the most influential; [their] interventions can be creative and lastingly successful if the changes [they] introduce are compatible with the intrinsic attributes of the natural system [they try] to shape. The reason we are now desecrating nature is not because we use it to our ends, but because we commonly manipulate it without respect for the spirit of place—René Dubos, A God Within (1972).

 In the last two decades, there have been many factors that have changed the identities of living places in the periphery of French cities and towns—for example, urban development, highway construction, and agricultural lands becoming suburbs.

The example on which I focus is my childhood village of Groslay, now a suburban town of some 8,000 inhabitants, about 10 miles north of Paris. Thirty years ago Groslay was still a village surrounded by pear and apple trees and peony fields. These cultivations were the heart of the village economy and the pride of its inhabitants. Today, most of the cultivation has disappeared, replaced by suburban development. The former farmers are retired or deceased. The last bits of testimony to this place’s past are street names—for example, Pear Tree Street—and a festival name—the annual Feast of the Peony.

Here, I want to describe one particular pear orchard that was for me a very important childhood place—Les monts de Sarcelles. From the vast local area of pear orchards composed of Les Glaisières, Les champs St Denis and Les monts de Sarcelles, only the last remains, still partly cultivated. Les Glaisières has been totally destroyed by massive building, and Les champs St Denis will be developed soon. I played in Les monts de Sarcelles as a child, and the place was a teenage refuge. Today, when I return to Groslay, this orchard is still a place where I go to ponder life.

Les monts de Sarcelles covers approximately 25 hectares and is surrounded by a railway to the north and a highway—the N1—to the west, on the other side of which is the main portion of Groslay. To the south is a local road and to the east is 1970s public housing. The geographical particularity of Les monts de Sarcelles is its hilltop placement, though, from inside the orchard, the pear trees hide the surrounding railway and roads.

The immediate and important thing you notice during a walk in Les monts de Sarcelles is the tranquility of the place in contrast to the activity of Groslay. The peace of the orchard provides a time to slow down, to take a breath, to look out toward the distant hills of La Chataigneraie in Montmorency or, in the opposite direction, to the hills of La Butte Pinçon in Montmagny. You can approach the pear trees, see the form of their branches, and touch their bark. If you really take time to slow down and forget yourself, you feel a sense of wholeness.

One of my most pleasant experiences is to move in the orchard with my eyes closed and to feel the spatial structure of the place as an extension of my own body. The more I know the orchard, the more I can focus my feelings towards qualities of color, light, smell, and season. In these moments, I am sometimes able to feel a total and indivisible connection between the place and me.

When you enter Les monts de Sarcelles today, it is sad to see the orchards lying fallow. I recently met Mr. Gerard, a retired farmer; and Mr. Séguin, Groslay’s deputy mayor.

Mr. Gerard is one of the witnesses from a time when the link between natural resources and the work of people was strong. The professional solidarity and the work of the soil with one’s hands made this time the richest and the most shared for the local people. Mechanization, difficulties attracting farm labor, European Common Market rules, pollution from the nearby Charles De Gaulle airport, a dramatic increase in fruit stolen just before the harvest—these are some of the many factors upsetting the symbiosis between people and this place.

Mr Séguin welcomed me to explain his views about les monts de Sarcelles, which he hates to see lost but knows no alternative. Money, he says, is the key factor: the expansion of the economic life of the town keeps taxes down and attracts new residents.

I remember reading political arguments regarding moderate expansion during the last local political campaign, which may be true from year to year but not over the long term. What about maintaining place character? In the last fifteen years, three of the four fields around my parents’ house have disappeared, replaced by one school, two supermarkets and accompanying car parks. Groslay is now a dormitory town.

Though Les monts de Sarcelles is far from what it used to be, I still feel a powerful sense of place there when I visit. That sense of place is dying but is still persistent. I’m sure others can feel this sense of place—some set of experienced qualities that directly emanates from the place itself and is received by us human beings.  The problem is making this sense of place real for outsiders and getting more insiders, especially politicians and policy-makers, willing to stand up for and to protect this sense of place.

Of course, Deputy Mayor Séguin is proud to speak of the idea of a park in some corner of Groslay but devoted to walking and gardening and not to the pear orchards. But this idea is part of the problem. Rather, the need is to protect living identities of places like Les monts de Sarcelles—places little remembered by anyone except the oldest inhabitants who know the real needs and possibilities of such places.

When I make a list of the qualities that describe Les monts de Sarcelles, I write: earth, soil, mud, pear trees, path, vegetables, breath, open field, green, light, seasonal, arboriculturist, walkers, runners, painters, dreamers, poets, children, family, dogs, rabbits, flowers, colors, parcel, silence, life, part of local history, fruit, wind in the leaves, herbs….

This list demonstrates the loss already of many of the attributes that make Les monts de Sarcelles what it is. The list also points to the place’s  complete elimination if the orchard is replaced by yet more supermarkets, car parks, and other development.

I’m not against the idea of change but somehow there must be a better way to balance what we have with what we might have. Today, we fail to convince people like the Deputy Mayor to protect Les monts de Sarcelles because we fail to find an alternative to the destruction of place.

It would be a wrong and impossible to relive the past, but the alternative is to maintain some potential of a place’s living system. In the most predictable scenario, we would keep a small portion of the place somewhere as a kind of living conservatory, but this probably can’t happen to Les monts de Sarcelles, which is too much a strategic location for large-scale development in the next ten years.

For sure, the global economy has a profound impact on local scale. It is pitiful to see locally the exponential increase in traffic, pollution, waste, especially with something so small scale and fragile as Les monts de Sarcelles. A lot of energy disappeared with the destruction of local systems, and now we fill that gap through intensifying globalization.

Last spring I left my Paris region to live in Burgundy with my girlfriend who comes from Lyon. No great homesickness in my case, partly because the pain of losing my home place had been constant for the last ten years because of the creeping development. In a way, I had already lost my place. I still love Les monts de Sarcelles, which I see like a much-loved elderly person: Our relationship is rich but it is hard to admit the beloved’s suffering.

Spirit of place symbolizes the living ecological relationship between a particular location and the persons who have derived from it and added to it the various aspects of their humanness. No landscape, however grandiose or fertile, can express its full potential richness until it has been given its myth by the love, works and arts of [human beings]—René Dubos (1972).