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The Burning Cathedral and the Dead Turtle

Like many people, I was shocked when I first heard the news that the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire and saw the photos of smoke pouring out of the iconic structure. Though I’ve never been to Paris, I can imagine something of what was lost, since I have visited other architectural wonders in Europe including St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City and the Duomo di Siracusa in Sicily, which incorporates columns from the fifth-century BC, Greek doric temple that it replaced on the same site.

Such places undeniably have a power when experienced in person. They are at once both monumental, with their soaring roofs and larger-than-life scale; and intricate, in their detailed ornamentation in stone, glass and wood. A palpable sense of history also inhabits these spaces. Certainly, damage to them is a real thing. But how real? And compared to what? In a world on the brink of multiple planetary-scale disasters, it is fair to ask such questions.

Writer Shiv Malik was one of many commentators who waxed poetic throughout the day. When the blaze first started: “Notre Dame, Paris, is on fire and it feels like the end of the world.” Later: “It’s past midnight here. The brave firefighters are still dousing Notre-Dame in the water from the Seine. But this feels like a baptism. With fire, comes rebirth. Let the morning bring new hope [to] my cathedral on the river.” I don’t doubt Malik’s sincerity for a second, and he certainly has a way with words.

And as one would expect, there were plenty of sentiments such as this, from Henri Astier of the BBC Online: “Watching such an embodiment of the permanence of a nation burn and its spire collapse is profoundly shocking to any French person.”

One might assume that such florid sentiments reflect a) an unspoiled history and b) a long-held respect for the monument, but one would be wrong. Many modifications, both well-meaning and malicious, have occurred over the last eight centuries. While certain elements, such as the amazing stained glass rose windows, date back to the 1200’s, other features like the famous flying buttresses were reconstructed later when the originals proved inadequate to the task. During the French Revolution of the late 18th century, much of the sculpture was vandalized or stripped out and destroyed, and the building used unceremoniously as a warehouse. By the early 19th century, the structure was half-ruined inside and battered throughout.” Apparently it was the popularity of the novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, that brought renewed appreciation and attendant care. It was during those renovations that the spire lost during this fire was constructed, the original, shorter one having been taken down in the late 18th century due to wind damage. So much for “permanence.”

Notre Dame did not age well into this century. Writes Lauren Collins in the New Yorker: “The façade of the cathedral was cleaned up in 2000, but the rest of its exterior was in dire shape. Flying buttresses were giving way; erosion had blunted the pinnacles into melting candles. In some places, the limestone was so friable that you brushed a finger against it and it ran like sand through an hourglass. In others, missing elements had been replaced by plywood and PVC pipe. The spire’s lead covering was cracked, and water had damaged the wooden structure that underlaid it.”

The cause of the fire is currently unknown, but it has been assumed that it’s related to current refurbishing work. Wrote Jeffrey St. Clair: “For the last 18 years or so, Notre Dame has been encircled by automatic rifle carrying French security services, trying to protect the Cathedral from ‘terrorists,’ ignorant that the real threat came from cost-cutting private contractors.” That is, Notre Dame as victim of neoliberalism.

Craig Murray connected the event to imperialism: “France is a country which has spent hundreds of billions of euros on nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction, and hundreds of billions of euros on other military capabilities. France possesses the technological capability to utterly flatten a city the size of Paris in minutes. Yet it does not possess the technological capability to prevent one of its greatest buildings from being destroyed by fire.”

And speaking of imperialism, Westerners have immense double standards about which sacred sites they mourn and which they destroy.

But the day’s quote that resonated with me the most was this tweet from Vox.com blogger David Roberts: “Watching something that took centuries to develop, something that can never entirely be recreated, disappear in the comparative blink of an eye — that, in slow motion is going to be the dominant feeling of the 21st century. Only instead of buildings: glaciers, forests, species.”

Intriguingly, Roberts followed this up with a link to another story of the day that I had previously seen and was already associating with the Notre Dame fire myself, and that was an item about the death of a turtle in China.

Not just any turtle, but the last known female Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle, of which only three other individuals are known to exist. She died under anesthesia during a procedure to attempt artificial insemination. According to the Turtle Conservancy, efforts at increasing the species’ numbers through natural breeding had not worked, and this was the fifth unsuccessful surgical attempt. Though the sex of two of the surviving specimens of Rafetus swinhoei is unknown, extinction is surely the fate of this species.

Turtles in general are in trouble. Of all vertebrate animals, they are the most endangered, with over half of turtle species being threatened with extinction. They are dying out due to habitat loss, hunting, pollution and the pet trade. A paper released in December 2018 announced that 100% of all the sea turtles in its study had plastic in their bellies. As one campaigner put it: “Turtles have survived for 220 million years, but may not survive us.”

By the end of the news day, it was clear that the damage to Notre Dame was not as bad as was feared early on. But unlike the Cathedral, which can be repaired, the Yangtze Giant Softshell Turtle is beyond rescue. Sooner or later, the last ones will die and the planet will be forever bereft of their presence. It will literally, not figuratively, be “the end of the world” for them; nothing that could be termed a “baptism.”

With the loss of the turtles, something will die inside all of us humans too, with real “permanence.” Perhaps more people have heard of the French cathedral than the Chinese turtle, but I would posit that the way of Gaian interrelatedness is such that we are more intimately linked to the reptile than to the building, as an intrinsic aspect of our shared natures, even if we are not consciously aware of it.

Any monument, no matter how grand or storied, is less important than other life on earth, any other life on earth. The forcefulness of human culture, perhaps especially one in decline like that of France or the USA, might assert otherwise, but that is mere conceit, and human supremacy in a big way.

So for me, an 850 year old pile of stones might be impressive in some way, but it’s not much compared to any real, living, breathing creature. My shock at the burning building was short-lived, but my sadness for the soon-to-be-extinct turtle has just begun.