the art of saving our world

Olivier Pitras was 12 years old when he had a horrific dream in which he was drowning in the frigid and stormy North Atlantic.

Olivier Pitras was 12 years old when he had a horrific dream in which he was drowning in the frigid and stormy North Atlantic.

He was thrown overboard along with his father and two other fishermen late at night in a sea as black as hell. There was no moon and no sound. The water was like oil. Heavy and slick, it had a taste he has never been able to forget.

The next morning as he walked to school along a narrow country road, which paralleled the Lot River near his hometown of Mende, France, Olivier made the decision to become a sailor.

He thought to himself if only he could become an expert sailor he could read the sea well enough to avoid being washed overboard.

In sailing he would find courage.

This not only became a metaphor for his life, it became his life.

Sitting in a small Parisian coffee house overlooking the Seine near Notre-Dame, Olivier’s eyes light up when he talks of sailing.

At 15 he began a course of study to become a sailor. Now, 48, he talks of little else.

He has invited me to become a crew member on a sailing expedition leaving Tromso, Norway, circumnavigating North America via the Panama Canal and the Bering Strait, then through the Northwest Passage returning to Tromso.

Pitras wants to use his expertise as a sailor to call attention to global warming and its affects on the North.

If he can secure the $2.5 million he believes it will take, we will leave Tromso on Norway’s Constitution Day, May 17, in 2008.

The trip would take 18 months and include “educational session” ports of call in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Central America.

During these sessions, writers, singers, painters, filmmakers, dancers and musicians would enlist their skills to “change our level of thinking and acting on climate change.”

This would not be the first time Pitras has navigated the Northwest Passage.

In fact, in 1999 he became the first Frenchman and only the third skipper since Amundsen to do so.

His training at the Nautical and Oceanographic Institute in Paris and his interest in marine architecture affords him the skills to navigate difficult seas. But it is his passion for art that motivates him to tackle the difficult and politically charged issue of climate change.

In addition to his native language, Pitras speaks Spanish, Italian, English and Norwegian, and when he talks about the crisis of global warming he darts between them all.

“When people look back on this mess we have created for ourselves, they will be able to see the effects it has had on nature and on our different cultures but they will not know what it really meant to us,” he says.

“Where,” he says, now in Spanish, “are the stories, the music and the songs through which we can begin to understand where we went wrong?”

Pitras throws back his second espresso and waves his arms when he talks about art as being the only real way in which we can begin to “digest the enormous difficulties we are all about to face.”

“Lets walk,” he insists.

But we literally run down Rue des Saint Péres, through Passage Richelieu and onto the grand cobbled courtyard in front of the Louvre Museum.

Catching our breath near the huge reflecting pond in front of the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre, he rolls a cigarette and takes a few minutes to smoke it.

It is raining again, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I struggle to keep my notes dry and I take a moment to watch two ducks bob up and down in the water.

Once inside the Louvre, he immediately takes me to see Édouard Manet’s painting Music in the Tuileries.

Manet’s work is important he tells me because, “He took on one critic after another and created a new future for art: Impressionism.

“Manet stood up to the entire French artistic establishment and painted his own thoughts.

“If we are going to survive global collapse many of us have to thumb our noses at the establishment and go it alone. We need many more Manets.”

Climate change is happening so fast Pitras predicts there is little likelihood of a happy ending.

“But,” he says, “like Manet, some of us have to try to find new ways to tell the story.”

Pointing to Music in the Tuileries he tells me he likes the painting because, “you get the feeling all the people in the picture are working together like the crew of a sailboat.

“All of the people are doing their own thing, but Manet gives us the sense they are really a unit, connected to each other.”

Two women in the picture are in identical yellow dresses, their heads covered by identical pale blue bonnets.

“You see, these two women and their two children there are dressed alike but their faces tell us they are individuals.

“Manet makes it clear to us that people are more powerful as a collective.”

From the Louvre we walk again in the rain. Down along Ave des Champs Elysées I catch a very distant view of the Eiffel Tower. On our right is Parc Monceau, captured so impressionistically by another rebel, Claude Monet.

But it is Pitras who has my attention. I am drawn to him for what he is about to do — sail 18,000 nautical miles in a 24-metre boat on nine oceans around nine countries.

It will be his way of painting a new picture, tackling the old establishment.

And now there is no doubt he’s taking me with him.