Gens de Garonne : People of Garonne

” Garonne, elle est comme nous, elle a une grande gueule mais elle donne tout ce qu’elle a.”

” Garonne, she is like us, she has a big mouth but she gives us all that she has.”

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The people of Couthures-sur-Garonne, love their river. They call her Garonne, and she is one of them. She provides their livelihood, driftwood for fuel and construction, fish to eat, and much pleasure. But she is also demanding, for attention and land when her waters swell. Her people have lived with her force of nature for many years. They have learned to adapt, and to be prepared for her ‘floods’.

Film frame.
Film frame.

Garonne springs in the Spanish Pyrenees, and falls northward through the Garonne valley of south west France. She flows through Toulouse, and on to Bordeaux, where she merges with the Dordogne, before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Her tributaries come from the south west, bringing floods known as Oceanic Pyreneen, when in spring and early summer, rainclouds rise from the Ocean, and fall on the Pyrenees mountains, or when spring melts their snows. Tributaries also come from the Massif Central and Pyrenees-Oriental, where warm Mediterranean floodrains fall during autumn. And then through winter, the floods of the Classic Oceanic  bring yet more water from the west, the Atlantic Ocean.

For ten months of the year, Garonne is at risk of overflowing, and this happens with regularity. Her great floods are called ‘Aïgats’. When they arrive, they are violent, rising and receding rapidly. And so Garonnes people need to be prepared.

In the past, fresh water and storable food was kept in the attic at all times. Clothes and bedding were wrapped in hessian sacks, and hung from the timbers. Downstairs, hooks and pulleys were fixed to the ceilings, and rope was ready to tie around the legs of furniture to be hoisted above flood levels.

Dams were built alongside the river to hold back water. At various points, it was allowed to spill over fields, even hamlets. It was considered preferable to divert flood waters this way, than have the dam destroyed. Then the bridge, and highly populated town would also be protected.

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 A river flood swelled,
Her banks surrender, give way,
To lay
Over fields submerged,
Then urged,
Yon house, this night,

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The Great Flood of 1875

From time to time, Garonnes floods have been devastating. In the summer of 1875, it rained nonstop for two weeks. Garonne burst her banks, rising twelve metres. She destroyed bridges, submerged towns and villages, and killed thousands of people, leaving thousands more without food or drinking water. This tragedy inspired Emile Zola (1840-1902) to write his famous novelette, ‘L’Inondation’, (The Flood).

‘ Meanwhile I had returned to the centre of the room. The girls were chattering. We listened to them, smiling. Suddenly across the serenity of the country, a terrible cry sounded, a cry of distress and death: “The Garonne! The Garonne!” Emile Zola

Today,  Garonnes waters are well monitered. Weather reports forewarn heavy rainfall, and rising waters are measured. Importantly, inhabitants are regularly brought together as a community, to remind each other of the territory on which they live, its potential flood hazards, and crisis management.

As I witness the ingenuity and resilience of our elders, I am filled with admiration. I see the value of taking inspiration from their example in our times, and I understand their words:

“Garonne, she is like us, she has a big mouth, but she gives us all that she has.”

Film frame.
Film frame.

References : Maison des Gens de Garonne.

Water reflections

I walked around a swelling lake, and found a place of reflections..

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Tranquil trees reflect
in mists of blue liquid
where heaven and earth meet.

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Rippling illusions, the light wind casts confusion,
slivers of thought, and broken dreams,
drop into swirling water, where senses scatter
in reflections lost.

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  Sparkling reflections of light are everywhere,
on the waters, in the air, in life.

A village called Dieulivol : God wants it

Oral tradition tells a story dating to the early centuries of the last millenium, when Richard the Lionheart and his knights rode through the Drot valley on their way to the Crusades of Jerusalem, resting and watering their horses at a fortified castle on a precipice. Among them was a priest, Pierre L’Hermite preaching, “God wants it!”, “Dieu li volt.”

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As the millenium passed, the castle crumbled, but its chapel remained as the communal Church, and the small village was known as ‘Dieulivol’.

In 1940, a young Curé was sent to the Church of Dieulivol to become the village pastor. On hearing the story of ‘God wants it’, his heart resonated, and he decreed that God wanted a new war, to chase away sin, and bring peace.

Two years later, a small statue of ‘Our Lady’ was carried from Lourdes by pilgrims of Dieulivol, to find her place in a grotto behind the Church. The sanctuary was solemnised on St Marie’s day, 15th of August 1942.


In his speech that same year, the Pope invited christians to crusade for peace by conversion of their heart, for “God wants it”.  Dieulivol christians took these words for themselves, and in August of 1943, they began a pilgrimage, carrying the little statue of Our Lady, from village to village, for five years, converting many to the peace of God, despite or because of, the sufferance of World War Two.

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Today, Dieulivol is a most beloved and peaceful village in southwest France.