We had an interesting discussion in the car last weekend, my wife and I. It almost became a ‘heated debate’, but not quite. We are accommodating adults mainly, who fail to agree sometimes on certain fundamentals.
We were driving up to see our friends, Howard and Lynda, on their organic farm not far from the Gouffre de Padirac, that great hole in the limestone causse that attracts tourists by the apparent millions. It was a beautiful autumnal Sunday morning and Debs was on a mission of mercy.
Howard had been attempting to hold a sheep against his body so that Lynda could clean all four feet to prevent infection and disease. Although they have the most placid flock of sheep in France, the animal writhed and wriggled and twisted until Howard toppled backwards in such an awkward way that the sheep fell against his knee. Sheep aren’t cows, but they weigh more than a fully-grown adult apparently. It’s an occupational hazard of farming that we mortals would never imagine.
So my angel of mercy was going up to see them ostensibly to massage Howard’s swollen knee and keep him roadworthy. Unbeknownst to me, however, she wanted to pick up a picture reserved for my birthday at Lynda’s last exhibition in Carennac. Howard’s a writer and Lynda’s an artist by trade, who paints beautiful icons on found wood using traditional methods. Like many creative artists over here – or everywhere for that matter – neither of them can give up the day job. Lynda sells a few paintings whenever she exhibits her stuff, but supplements her income by making beautiful hand-painted cards to sell via a health food shop in nearby Gramat.!(upload://7Dvwe7NfYu4OhVKHxOiKx8BJCQj.jpg)
I don’t know how we got onto the subject in the car, but Debs and I started discussing good and evil. My wife is a member of the half-full glass club: optimistic and a firm believer in the power of love. My glass tends to be half-empty. I’m usually pessimistic about the future and only too aware of the forces of evil.
We are Mrs. Chalk and Mr. Cheese, who have found a good balance to temper the other’s more extreme tendencies. On probing a little further, we found some common ground. Yes, we agreed, there probably are more good people on earth than there are bad people. I contend, though, that all the good done by the good people is an exercise in damage limitation. In other words, all that accumulated goodness just about keeps the evil under control. Without it, the malignancy would spread like a fungus and contaminate the world.
For me, this seems to be one of the most elementary lessons of history. The evil that the odd tyrant and sociopath contrive to unleash is so tout puissant that goodness seems puny and ineffectual in its face. How many column inches in the history books, for example, are devoted to Hitler’s Final Solution or Stalin’s Gulags as opposed to, say, Jonah Salk’s efforts to cure polio or… or… or? Help me out someone.
Just recently, Pandora’s box seems to have been opened again. It seems that we are hurtling towards hell in a handcart with no brakes. Increasingly, I’m spending more and more time signing on-line petitions: urging the Russian government, for example, to stamp down on a new sick craze in Moscow to poison dogs and post films of their suffering on the internet. It’s reassuring to see all the thousands of other people signing, but you know that someone like dear President Putin is unlikely to give a monkey’s. Even if all these petitions achieve their ends, this propensity for evil doing will never diminish.
Lynda tends probably to ally herself to my wife’s philosophy, while Howard’s is probably nearer mine. No sooner had we got there than they presented us both with the picture that Debs had reserved for me. It turned out that I had reserved the exact same picture – a watercolour of a bee in flight – for her next birthday. Faced with such marital synchronicity, they decided to offer it to both of us as a joint present from both of them.
Howard is reading a book on Young Stalin. Probably to explore the mind of the Adult Stalin, whose story he has also devoured recently. We discussed our in-car debate and Howard contributed the metaphor of building a house. A team of people, united in a common good, can put up a house in a matter of months. But it only takes one bloody-minded bar steward with a sledgehammer to smash it all down in a few hours.
After Debs had anointed the swollen knee with her essential oils, we took their dogs, Beano and Dandy, a pair of Jack Russell brothers, out for a walk around the neighbourhood. Our hound tagged along peacefully while the brothers, who have to be kept straining on a lead to stop them tearing off over the hills and far away, panted around their familiar circuit. We said our goodbyes and drove home to hang our new picture under Lynda’s painting of St. Michael, the sad-eyed patron saint of everlasting lingerie.
I went back in the week to help them dig up some of their potatoes and took Howard The Stalin Epigram, a novel written by an American friend of ours, Robert Littell, who lives in a glorious house near Martel. Just to round off the picture of a megalomaniac, who would probably tie Adolf Hitler in a TV show where viewers had to vote (by telephone for not more than a pound per minute) for the most evil man in history.
It was another beautiful day. Digging potatoes is hard work, but a rewarding change from sitting in front of a computer all day long. Turning soil over to find clusters of fresh white spuds is akin to digging up buried treasure. And it’s rich soil, to be sure. They must have worked very, very hard to create such regular parallel mounds of friable earth. A lot of digging, weeding, natural compost and rigorous crop rotation. Afterwards, I helped wheel their wheelbarrow up to the barn to spread out the potatoes to dry on recycled bed bases.
I only managed half a day of such hard labour, before driving back for a soak in our bath to ward off problems with my lower back. It occurred to me that what Howard and Lynda do – working all hours to tend the soil in the age-old way – is also like an exercise in damage limitation. Are they and others like them fighting a losing battle in the face of the relentless march of factory farms, monoculture, agro-chemicals and scorched earth?
I sincerely hope not.