Pic « du Plastique » de Bigorre

Pic du Midi de Bigorre, as seen from the Boulevard des Pyrenees in Pau. A late summer afternoon in July 1965.

I seem to return again and again to Pic du Midi de Bigorre, a pole around which some of my memories rotate, collect, and coalesce like the dust of a primordial solar system or galaxy, perhaps to come to life again.

Just recently, an article in The Guardian with readers’ recommendations for out-of-the-way European travel spots suggested visiting the Pyrenees and highlighted the mountain range’s clean air. The Pyrenees have been somewhat ignored by foreigners, except for eccentric Englishmen like Count Henry Russell.

The Spanish frontier lies along the crest of the range, and is never far. On a school trip to the Col d’Aubisque. August 1965.

The fact that for a third of the twentieth century the mountains were a land frontier with a country under a dictatorship did not encourage drop-in visitors and was a factor, though in the south many British pensioners stretched their incomes by moving to the Costa del Sol.

A customs post at the Col du Pourtalet about 6,000 feet in elevation (1,794 m). The tiny figures on the hill were border guards armed with submachine guns. Years after the Civil War, in 1965, the Spanish government still felt that it needed to show its strength along the border. I remember the guards as members of the Guardia Civil, but I might be wrong.

As for mountain scenery, the Alps are much higher, have big glaciers, are closer to large population centers, have more snow and longer lasting snow, and were an early center for climbing for the French and the English.

A view of Mont Blanc after a fresh snow, above Le Tour in the Chamonix valley. 1970.
Le Petit Pèlerin among the Aiguilles de Chamonix. This summit is easily accessible and an easy ascent.
The Aiguilles de Chamonix are legendary for European climbers. One of the highest cable cars in the world will take one to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, and, if one wishes, over the Vallée Blanche and down to Courmayeur in Val d’Aosta in Italy. WikiCommons: Topo camptocamp.org.
At the summit of the Petit Pèlerin, Pierre, a Chamonix guide and climbing instructor. Below, the valley of Chamonix looking up the valley toward Switzerland.

The Pyrenees are much more wild, and far less developed, particularly in the eastern part of the range, where French government and European environmental groups have been trying to reestablish a self-sustainable bear population. That effort has met vocal and vigorous opposition from pastoralists who must deal with occasional depredations on livestock. Transhumance in the Pyrenees has been an important part of the local economy from at least the Middle Ages.

One of the towers in the National Park of Ordesa. Spain, 1969. The Pyrenees have several national parks on both sides of the frontier.

Hitchhiking through the Pyrenees in the mid-sixties, I seldom encountered cars with foreign license plates, and all the rides that I received were with French drivers.

More recently, however, British writers have produced some excellent guide books in the Ciceron series of mountaineering and climbing guides.

The observatory complex from just below the summit of Pic du Midi. August 1965.

Recently, French newspapers have reported on the discovery of micro plastics in the thin air of that Pic du Midi. This should come as no surprise since plastic particles have been found from pole to pole. Plastics have contaminated the food that we eat, and through food, our bodies. A huge mass of plastics floats in the Pacific, while I, myself, cannot go down to the shingle beach behind my house without seeing all varieties of plastic items, the flotsam and jetsam of life in our modern age.

What did come as a surprise to some scientists studying the plastic nanoparticules on the summit of Pic du Midi was their origin: the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, suggesting vast transport mechanisms.

Plastics are ubiquitous on earth, to the extent that some have suggested that a new geological age be created and named the Plastocene. We don’t have to search for irony in the scene from the movie, The Graduate, where an adult friend of the protagonist’s father approaches young Benjamin, and shares his important life secret: the future is in plastics.

The Graduate was released in 1967, the same year I trained for the Peace Corps. At that time in Morocco, grocers used old newspapers and bags made of cheap and coarse blue paper to wrap beans, rice, and other bulk items. In Tangier, an expatriate Englishman, who offered fish and chips from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the medina, served up his take-out food wrapped in newsprint as was the custom in Britain. Still, change was on the horizon. In the short four years of my first stay in Morocco, thin plastic bags slowly replaced the old paper ones and newspaper wrappings became ever less common.

In those days, municipal dump sites consisted largely of organic waste materials. Tin cans, glass, and plastic bottles were picked out of the waste sites by scavengers. Rather than a mound, waste sites in Morocco were often flat empty places, picked clean by people and animals. As in the account of life in a Mumbai slum, All the Beautiful Forevers, where some of the book’s characters earned their living by scavenging trash, so did some Moroccans. I have a photo somewhere of the municipal dump site of Chauen, from the mid-nineteen seventies, that shows a strikingly flat and barren place, picked clean of everything.

In the States and Canada, the term waste management is somewhat of an oxymoron, and now manifests itself as an industry with a few very giant players. Recycling is common, encouraged by environmental interests as well as governments hoping to preserve landfill space and perhaps make a bit of money. Much waste is shipped abroad where it ends up burned or otherwise inappropriately disposed of. Better waste management would include reducing the amount generated in addition to recycling and various disposal solutions.

Not too long ago, a U.S. forest services employee, who had tested the Colorado air for years for certain predetermined substances, decided out of curiosity to look at his samples under a microscope one day, and, to his surprise, saw tiny black particles. Need I tell you what they were?

Today Morocco has joined other nations of the world in the fight to reduce and manage waste and keep it out of the environment. The effort is expensive and Morocco’s progress has been slow. Perhaps, if Peace Corps returns to the country after the pandemic, it will bring young waste management experts. More likely is that giant waste management firms will eventfully find the Moroccan market profitable and move in with their own people.

The chemical giant DuPont used to have an advertising slogan, “Better living through chemistry.” While there is no doubt that the modern world is dependent on plastics, there is also little doubt that non-recyclable plastics, used indiscriminately and disposed of improperly, are ruining the planet. Yes, a Moroccan farmer in Taounate can produce cheaper tomatoes using drip irrigation from plastic tubes, but there always remains the question of where the plastic goes after it is used, not to mention the environmental cost of producing it.

Modern life is unimaginable without plastics, but we might all be better served by their more judicious and less frivolous use.

Sunset from below the summit of Pic du Midi. As noted in an earlier post, the cost of taking this photo was a long, cold descent to La Mongie.