Once upon a time there was a farmer who had to travel a long way through desolate country to take his grain to the mill; on the left side of the road that he followed – little more than a track, really – a broad plain spread out, with a long ribbon of mist in the middle distance showing the line of a great river, while on the right side, steep green ramparts reared up, the outer edge of the foothills that towered over the valley yet were themselves overshadowed by the mighty mountains beyond.
These hills were cut at intervals by precipitous glens from which powerful streams gushed, fed by the glaciers above and feeding in turn the great river on the plain beyond. The largest of these streams marked the mid-point of the journey to the mill; where all the other streams could be forded, this one was large enough to need a bridge. As the farmer creaked across it with his cart full of grain, he saw how fertile the broad plain below the bridge was, and he mused that if he farmed there, his journey to the mill would only be half what it was now.
The same thought was still running in his mind the next day as he made his way back home with a wagonload of flour, now with the plain on his right and the hills to his left. It had rained in the night, and the plain looked wonderfully green and fertile. ‘That would certainly be better land to farm,’ he thought. Then he rounded a bend and saw that the night’s rain had done other work: the stream had swollen to a tremendous torrent, undercutting its banks and bringing down trees and boulders that bounded along, swept by the current, till they fetched up against the bridge.
There was already a great mass of debris piled against it, and behind that, the water had begun to rise till it was almost level with the bridge. The farmer saw that he had an instant to decide whether to go on or stop, and fearful of being stranded on the wrong side with his load of flour he urged his reluctant horse onto the bridge; he was barely half-way across when an ominous groaning told him that disaster was upon him. With commendable coolness, he sprang onto the horse’s back, cut the traces, and scrambled to the far bank and safety just as the bridge gave way and his wagonload of flour was swept to oblivion.
You can imagine the farmer’s state of mind as he watched his wagon smash to matchwood in the raging flood: there went all the fruit of his labour; but on the other hand, he was lucky to be able to stand and watch its loss – he could very easily have been down there with it.
Yet it was neither of those things that was in the forefront of his mind as he and his horse ambled slowly homeward; rather it was the recollection of the water pent-up behind the bridge in a spreading pool, and the deep groan as the whole structure gave way – such tremendous force! If he could only harness that…
So it was that the farmer undertook to rebuild the bridge in exchange for the right to farm the land in the plain below and to control the waters above; and as well as a bridge, he built a dam and a sluice and a watermill.
Now everyone came to him, from both sides of the river, because his mill was better built and more powerful than any other; and in addition, he had his own grain to mill, grown right on his doorstep. Soon he had built a jetty and had a fleet of boats that carried his flour downstream to the great river and the cities beyond, and he smiled every time he watched them go, thinking of that day long ago when his first load of flour had been swept away in the very same stream, and what had seemed like ruin was the beginning of his good fortune.
The miller’s trade made him so wealthy that soon he was able to let the management of both farm and mill to others and invest his profit in new enterprises – a distillery, and factories with looms to weave wool and linen (he had built flax-dams in the lower reaches of the stream). Soon there was a thriving community: a village, then a town.
The miller would always tell his children the tale of the bridge being swept away and how what seemed like disaster had proved to be the gateway to prosperity. His children grew up straight and tall and his oldest boy went to the city to study and came back with a head full of new ideas: he saw that his father’s mill and factories, splendid and prosperous though they might be, were only a small part of what might be done.
When in the course of time he came into his inheritance, he set to and built a much bigger dam and flooded the glen behind it to create an enormous reservoir; he installed turbines to generate electric power and transformed the town into a great city, the wonder of the world for its modernity. People flocked there, and it prospered; what the children learned in school was not the tale the farmer who became a miller had told his own children; rather it was the story of the great dam, and the reservoir behind it, the source of all their prosperity.
Now you might think that this is a tale of hubris, of over-reaching; you might take a look at that dam, with the huge prosperous city spread out below it on one side, and all that tremendous force pent up behind it on the other; and you might detect a whiff of irony, and think, ‘I see what’s going to happen here – the very source of their prosperity will prove their undoing!’
But you’d be wrong: for one thing, the people knew only to well how important it was to keep the dam in a state of good repair, so they never slacked in maintaining it in prime condition – yet for all that, their city failed.
What they taught in the schools was wrong, you see: it wasn’t the dam that was the source of their prosperity, nor the reservoir behind it; it was the stream that fed it, and that came from the glacier high up in the mountains – but the glacier was in steady retreat (the climate had changed) and one day it was gone altogether: the stream stopped flowing, and every time the reservoir sluices were open, the level dropped, and it was not replenished. The turbines stopped turning, the electricity failed, and the people moved away, leaving the city to fall into ruin and be reclaimed by nature.
Soon only the dam remained, a huge enigmatic wall reared up across a parched and stony gully. It was something of a puzzle and a mystery to the few people who passed that way, who asked themselves what it could mean, and how it could have come to be built in such a desolate spot.
(though this might seem like an ecological fable, it is actually intended to be a story about language – for a cpmanion piece that throws light on the origin of this parable, see The True Source: a companion piece)