Spring greens in forefront. Eiffel tower in background. Burning cars somewhere in the middle. Guess where I am ? Photo © Val Druguet

Chapter 3: Burn out.

April1, 2006. A short note from another global metropolis and capital of the world, Paris. The one in France, the one with topless simians on billboards, multiple protests, strikes and riots, excellent food, art, wine, burning cars and whose government, Iraq or not, is equally committed to the neoliberal agenda. Hence the ongoing deregulations, environmental and human. Hence the massive protests, the 3 million students in the streets last week.

Val and I arrived last Sunday. Business or pleasure ? Both. It's spring here too so yesterday, we decided to take a walk in Belleville Park, in the north east corner of Paris, heart of blue collar and immigrant Paris, to do some research (photo above). First we walked up the hill, the hill of Belleville, in and out of our favorite bookstores (we used to live here), dodging cafés and tea rooms scented with orange-flavored bong smoke, ambling up cobblestone streets that tinkle with Arabian or African music.

We reach the Park, it is full of daffodils, crocuses, violets, imported rhododendrons, bamboo, apple and cherry trees in blossom. We're lucky, we see one very busy, very early bumblebee. He/she reminds us of an insider joke from the world of nature nerds: bees pollinate by taking plant sperm from male stamen to female pistil, so we nickname all bees 'flying penises'. Urban ecology, version 2.0 - the French edition.

Belleville Park, like any New York Park, is a Park full of people. Like any good public space, it is a place for ordinary people. Some appear to be here with a purpose, others seem to wander aimlessly - itself a noble pursuit, I guess, the one our nomadic ancestors had, freedom of movement.

Closet anthropologists, Val and I look, we gaze, we stare: some Halflings hugging, smooching and slurping - in love; there are also mothers with kids, kids with skateboards, two boozers strumming a guitar, a group of young men on a mission to sell dope, others to buy some, or pinch a tourist's camera (maybe ours !). Or burn a car, even.

Click on a pic for a nature flick!

Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

We weave our way through the Park's gardens, and the sun is shining (sort of), and birdsong is everywhere: Blackbirds and Dunnocks (European passerines) are busy burping up their traditional spring serenades - did you know that birds sing because they are unhappy, at least from an evolutionary standpoint? Constantly arguing with each other over territorial issues, mates, cuckoldry. Another secret: urban birds sing differently from their cousins in the country. They tweak their frequencies and their modulation, adapting it to the ambient white noise of the metropolitan soundscape - something like trying to establish your own frequency on hyper-saturated airwaves. Or shouting in heavy traffic. Or lighting a fire.

Making oneself heard, making oneself seen, making oneself known. Life's tedious agenda. Incidentally, most of these city birds (including great tits, blue tits and other tits), live fast and die young. They have no other option. They sing and reproduce and make babies as much as they can, not only in spring but some do all year round. Idem the rats and the crickets in the subway, and the red foxes and the weasels of suburbs and railway tracks. And the sparrows and pigeons and starlings, too. Understand, amigos, that the urban reality of the wild animal is an immediate mirror for ours - it's fast and its furious, with lots of hanky panky. All studies converge (some of the first research was conducted here, in Paris, then Bristol, then Tokyo, now New York): metropolitan beasts tend not only to stress out big time but to vent accordingly, like all good libertines do. "Cities, the place where sin sets in…"

Btw, the city lights make it easier to reproduce (you can do it at night, under a streetlight). And so does the heat island effect (you can do it in winter). Cities are very hot, indeed.

Biologically speaking, urban behavior is of course a treat to explain. Confer the following chain reaction: first, all animals get pumped on adrenaline in a busy, noisy, brash environment (irregular Police or Fire engine sirens, honking horns, unpredictable proximity of the 'other', of the crowd, etc, etc…you know the routine). Second, they're drowning in stress hormones, non stop. Third, as a consequence, their immune systems wane. Fourth, they fade, they wilt and finally, well, they croak. How to survive? Turns out those birds, crickets and individuals born with a lusty edge and a will to reproduce like mad rabbits can survive. Call it urban natural selection; the metropolitan ethos is to be wired, physically depressed and hyper-libidinous. In scientific circles, we call that 'r-selection' - the fact that critter x 'chooses' to have lots of kids because chances are, few of them will survive anyway, so you invest your 'portfolio' accordingly, as quickly as possible, because you too might soon snuff it…etc. Something us New Yorkers can understand. You live fast, you die young. You burn out.

Which reminds me: France's combusting automobiles, flaming Ferrari's, sizzling SUV's… We have all read or heard the various explanations that have to do with lousy integration in France, the sociologists ranting about burning cars as symbols of mobility…all that media jazz. Most of it has validity. But do any of us know one of these 'villains' ? A friend of mine, a Frenchman, a psychiatrist no less, has given me the best explanation I've heard so far. He deals with human suffering on a regular basis. His name is Hervé. He speaks in parables: "these kids burn more than cars, they burn fire engines, sports' facilities, police infrastructure and right-hand government agencies. Anything they can put their hands on." "
Even hospitals"? I queried
"NO, not hospitals."
"How come ?"
"Mostly because there are no hospitals where these people live, which is one of the reasons they're so angry in the first place. These cars on fire have everything to do with basic human dignity."

May I venture an additional explanation, more to do with the evolutionary and symbolic significance of the flame. Bear with me. Remember how cities are such easy places to light a fire in the first place ? Look closely, you and me we are surrounded by fire. Technically speaking, that's because cities are already on fire. Due to their industrial metabolism (read 'energy requirements'), cities are giant aggregates of controlled fire, controlled combustion. Electricity ! Our metropolises run on huge wads of energy that's been concentrated, channeled, regimented. Turn on a switch, a light bulb, all of Time Square; all these lights started somewhere with some giant fire, a coal plant, an oil rig. Fuel ! The life blood of civilization. To burn it, to usurp its energy is the building block of modern life and cities are the nodes, switchboards (or central furnaces if you will) of our industrial economy.

Lets dig deeper: 'City' is to 'Country' what 'cooked' is to 'raw' what 'culture' is to 'nature'. Controlled combustion is our oldest technology, it is what separates us from the 'other', the 'non-human'. Making fire makes us who we are. 'Humanity' vs. 'wilderness'. We burn fuel on an hourly, coordinated basis; the latter burns itself once in a wild…fire. Us, we can torch coal, put a match to gas, set fire to oil and even emulate the fire of the sun - by splitting atoms. Of course, massive pollution, environmental destruction and global warming ensue. Blame it on who ? The caveman.

The flame business is rooted in the ambers of our incandescent past. Fire, we figured, was the best way to avoid chewing raw meat - a lousy deal if you want to maximize your caloric intake and you don't want to waste it all on…chewing. We're not natural-born carnivores so we can't swallow large steaks whole, in one gulp, like dogs and lions do. We are constrained by mastication. So for us, its far better to masticate less, after a little bit of the old French cuisine and a gas stove. Fire, we discover, is energy saved, thus energy gained. Power, plain and simple. 'Fire-power'..

Wait a minute. That means all our gizmos, lights, toys, iron lungs, coffee grinders, our whole entire shtick is one, hyper-organized, hyper-channeled, permanent power trip… over fire. Wow. In case you're interested, all the burden and/or progress brought on by the marked passage from the raw-eating primordial humans that we once were to the pig-roasting 'civilized' creatures that we are now has been largely and quite cogently elaborated on by French anthropologist Levi Strauss. I won't bore you further with the concept, but to let you know that Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, in 'the new alliance' have also written brilliantly about fire, the science of which, in the middle ages (and its practice my chemists) led rather quickly to the Industrial Revolution. To the City. To the Automobile. To the strip and the Mall. To who we are today: Masters of fire. Homo sapiens ? How about Homo ignis. The full catastrophe.

Thus, to light a fire is to be utterly and profoundly human. Like I've said before, it is what differentiates us from the 'other'. It is our ultimate symbol. To light one in protest is even more powerful; for it is to uphold, to reaffirm, to reclaim our humanity. It is to scream out 'we are human !', when that humanity has been taken away. When life itself has been dehumanized. Fire is to signify - when all other meaning has been lost. The first and last voice - when all others have been silenced.

So when in desperation, start a blaze. Light up. Remind those around you exactly who you are - a human being, the maker of fire. When there's nothing left to lose because there's never been anything to have. When you're on the edge, stretched to the breaking point. Burn out.

Have a nice day !
Dave Rosane

Ps: The problem with global warming is all the carbon atoms. Too many in the atmosphere, when they should be quietly sequestered in the woods, ocean or earth. Too many free floaters. Too many cars, too, releasing free-floaters. So logically, the immediate solution becomes: get rid of cars. Logical joke: Burning cars helps global cooling. Subtitle: Unemployed French take care of climate change. Destroy the automobile.

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