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March 9, 2021

From Byron to Paris, history comes alive

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From Byron Bay to Notre Dame, Paris! At the entrance, police openly tout heavy machine guns, casually monitoring the swarm of idle visitors and devout churchgoers in the great stone plaza. The metropolitan tension rises with the arrival of another group of thirty tourists. Moving against this flow of people, my husband Jim and I make our way to the far end where solitary steps lead into the dark underground museum.

At the bottom, we arrive 2,000 years back in time. It seems strangely familiar. Archaeological diggings reveal that this place on the Seine River was once an extensive swamp. In 300 BC, the Parisii tribe settled here to fish and farm. Who would have expected such a parallel between this place and the Bundjalung people of subtropical Cavanbah?

As we make our way through the crypt museum, the plot thickens. The history comes alive with the evocative light show. Digital reconstructions shimmer over the stone remains of buildings, archways and roads. During the 1 st century, Romans invade and overwhelm the Celt Parisii, as would the British centuries later in Byron Bay. The Latin conquerors build a town in their usual style, complete with a civic forum, bath houses and amphitheatre. Their temple to Jupiter, now under the Cathedral, is built in the Celts’ sacred grove. The population is under 10,000 people.

The business side of town is dominated by all the trappings of a busy port: piers, docks and warehouses. This is a variant of the British and Australian works familiar in Byron Bay’s history. In the shadows, the archaeologists mark the old shoreline, metres inland from the present day river. Thanks to the evocative use of sound technology, the calls of the boatmen and the clamour of the workday still haunt the ruins of this dock.

The French history now diverges from the Australian one. The Roman power declined, followed by French monarchies, revolutions and five different Republics. All the while, Paris grows as a city. By 2008, the port has developed into a network with 34 locations from central city out to the sea, 780 kilometres away. In 2016, Ile-de- France Ports handle 20 million tons of goods and transport 7 million visitors.

For centuries, the Seine was known as an open sewer. Since 1990, its water quality has changed for the better. Guided by the European Framework Directive, the French government invested heavily in sewage and storm-water treatment. According to researchers Azimi and Rocher, the water quality has improved so much that the numbers of once rare fish are growing. Unfortunately, the concentrations of heavy metal pollutants in the water are still high and show up in fish tissues.

‘What about the shellfish of the Seine in Paris?’ Jim asks. He shares my passion for freshwater clams and mussels. They filter water, process toxins and nutrients as well as create habitat for fish. The staff hadn’t heard about any shellfish restoration but the idea catches their imagination.

New York City has several shellfish restorations projects under way. The French could install gabion baskets of clean shells and live animals at strategic points along the banks of the metropolitan Seine. Around Notre Dame, these river banks are steep rock walls with broad quays near the water level. In some spots, barges tie up. In others, small parks offer garden havens.

Since 2002, every summer some of the quays and roads along the Seine are transformed with truckloads of sand. Millions of people with their towels and swimsuits visit to sunbathe at these Paris-Plages (pop-up beaches). They dance, enjoy concerts and even swim in floating pools.

When we emerge from below, we are hit with a full sun and a mid-day temperature of 30°C. Paris in May is typically only 20°C and rainy. When we meet with new friends, all scientists, they agree that the seasons are greatly changed in the past couple of years.

Barely a year ago, the Seine flooded and thousands were evacuated. Its peak at 6.7 metres above normal was the worst for three decades. The new Chief Resilience Officer Sebastien Maire is preparing the city now for the anticipated flood at the 1910 level of 8 metres. ‘What happened recently shows we are not entirely ready. If we are to become resilient the first thing we need to do is to recognise we are not.’

I look back at the Cathedral. Half dreaming, I picture the trees in the gardens around it as part of an ever-resilient sacred grove. I gaze over what the Romans called Lutetia (‘luto-’ meaning swamp). On floodplains, the fates of Paris and Byron Bay converge.

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