On the hills just above Verdun, in France, took place one of the deadliest battles of all time. It lasted for around 300 days in 1916, during the 1st World War. During this iconic and terrible battle more then 700’000 causalities were recorded on these small hills. And more then 53 million shells – that’s an average of 100’000 shells every day – blasted the hills and the forest. Beyond measures. The land has been deeply damaged, in blood and metal. The landscape still carries deep wounds almost 100 years later, and so are the lasting traces in the stories and collective memory.
A little river, L’Orne, springs right there, in the middle of the wounded land. It runs through the landscape, to join La Moselle, and will flow to the Rhine river in Germany, up to the North Sea. It continues to flow, in the midst of this land.
The pilgrimage would include spending 3 days and 3 nights in the hills of Verdun, in walk and prayer. To start at the place of the spring, collect some of the water and find the places which calls for ceremony and healing with the water. To be in Council, in the spirit of Ho’oponopono, generational healing, and the connection between trauma in the psyche and trauma in the land. We will walk in connection with Walking Water.
What: A Pilgrimage with water in the hills of Verdun
Who: Marie de Beauvoir, Tina Kansy and Yvan Rytz.
Location: Verdun, France
Date: 11-13 September
Verdun, a pilgrimage for peace
We were three Europeans. Three people with ancestry from Germany, Belgium, France and Switzerland: Marie de Beauvoir, Tina Kansy and Yvan Rytz. Three of us and a dog, Fari. We embarked in a pilgrimage for peace, in connection with Walking Water. A pilgrimage at the heart of one of the most iconic battlefield of World War I: Verdun, in France.
We walked to honour the water that has continued to spring in the middle of the sheer violence, which blasted this land some 100 years ago. We walked to the spring of L’Orne, a tiny river right at the heart of the battlefield. We had our basecamp on a little piece of land, granted to us by the mayor of the village, Vaux-devant-Damloup, totally destroyed during the war. We were on these hills for 3 days and 2 nights, between the 11. and the 13. of September 2015.
You can find three different echoes, three stories of our pilgrimage in Verdun below.
The voice of Yvan
Verdun, Verdun. A word, a name that has grown into me for years. In secondary school, my history teacher was absolutely passionate about World War I. That time of alliances, war and trenches. We spent countless hours in his classes to see pictures of devastated landscapes, of the wounded soldiers, of the sheer violence which took place in many battlefields during those four years. And Verdun was the pinnacle of such unfathomable times.
Part of my family has been heavily involved with the French army, having lost many in the wars and two of my uncles became general 4 stars, the highest rank one can achieve in such carrier.
An exploration of my ancestry, a song line that has called me. And an on-going question around the relationship between trauma and land. How trauma can be embedded within the human lineage and the physical place on which it took place.
In March 2015, I was laying down on a sofa in Italy during an Introduction to Council training I was giving. There, on the bookshelf, I picked up a random book: The 10 most scenic drives in France. I browsed it and suddenly my heart jumped when I saw a map of Verdun. I realised that the town was right on the bank of the Meuse river. The water had experienced that war. The blood, the tears, the sweat have washed down slowly to the river, and to the sea, for the last 100 years.
Back then, I had the question of what kind of pilgrimage or action we could do in parallel to Walking -Water, to be with the water. This immediately felt like a contribution I could do.
When I got back home I looked online and realised that there was a few springs emerging right there in the middle of that wounded land.
And that the water was there too, springing in the middle of the bombs and the devastation, again and again.
In particular the little river L’Orne caught my attention.
Verdun in a few numbers: over an area of around 2000 hectares, it’s roughly 900’000 casualties and around 60 millions shells, that is 400 shells or 9000 pounds of steel per square inch. Mind blowing.
The forested hills became like a moonscape, made of countless holes, body parts or nature parts.
I knew then I wanted to go during the same days as the Walking Water pilgrimage in September. And I had the intuition to ask both Marie and Tina to join. For their understanding of Council and ceremonies. Marie also has French ancestry, and Tina has German ones, holding between the three of us part of the historical and cultural stories.
After some Skypes and clarifying of intentions, we were ready !
On the way to Verdun
On my way up to Verdun, I stopped by Romainmôtier in Switzerland. One of the oldest churchs around, as it was built in 500 A.D. A place of healing and prayer. A place of ceremonies, where I did spend many nights in the woods and where we had a meeting of the European Council Network trainers back in 2014.
At Romainmôtier, there is a spring – Source de la Diaz – from which I collected some water. The forest was very welcoming and buzzing with bird life. A gentle morning light was finding its way through the canopy, down to a soft ground. The spring usually abundant and bubbly was barely visible. The big drought of the summer (one of the biggest in recent Swiss history) was very apparent. Water was scarce, but still so much vigour in it. I filled a little glass bottle and made my way up north.
On the way to Verdun, I also stopped at Pont-à-Mousson (a few miles away from Verdun) where my great-grand father died during World War I. There was his military grave in one of the many large graveyards around. It took me some time to spot his cross. Jacques Marie Joseph Genest. I sat by his grave and had a long conversation with him. It struck me that he died at exactly my age, 32. I always imagined him as an old man, one that was a seasoned traveller. But no, war took him as a young man. A whisper fell on me: “Live your life. Enjoy. I am with you”. Very moving for me.
I met with Marie in Metz and we drove the last stretch to Verdun, and to our campground for that night. We enjoyed a walk by night in the old part of Verdun, where the monuments for the war are everywhere. A sense of history, and the Meuse flowing continuously.
Meeting with the landscape
The following morning, with Marie, we visited the World Center for Peace in Verdun in the old episcopal palace, before heading to the battlefield on the hills. We stopped first at the Ossuary of Douaumont, where a large building houses more then 130 000 bodies of unknown dead soldiers in front of a large field of 16’000 individual crosses. We took time to walk the place in silence, lightning each a candle in prayer.
And we visited more places, forts, even an exhibition about the use of animals during World War I. Nearly 8 millions horses were killed and many dogs, pigeons, and much more.
A difficult afternoon. Many times, I felt my breath getting dimmer and a bit nauseous in this gigantic open cemetery that are all the hills of Verdun. I read a lot of accounts of soldiers prior to this visit. And each name of place, gullies or mounds was dubbed for me with stories, echoes from the past. Intense.
We eventually made our way to our basecamp, a spot that was offered to us via the tourism office. It was a little green patch in a town, Vaux-devant-Damloup, that was razed to the ground during the battles. Nowadays a few houses are rebuilt and human life is finding its way again. On the edge of this little field was the village water tower, clicking every now and then to fill itself up. What a synchronicity to be able to sleep right at the heart of the battlefield, on a field housing the water tower.
Tina arrived in the night. Our camp was set. The mayor, Armand, came to greet us four, Marie, Tina, myself and Fari (Tina’s dog).
I slept outside. The night was very peaceful, its dark silence being nourished by the recurrent hooting of a couple of owls.
On the way to the spring
At dawn, the mayor came quietly to offer us some croissants. As we woke up with the morning, we exchanged more with Armand about the history of the village, the land, the water. And about our intention, our pilgrimage for peace and water. Very moving connection.
We wanted to go to the old ruins of the village, but the forest has overgrown it and a tiny river going through was making the land like a vast marsh. We found a place by the river that called us and had a Council. A very peaceful feeling was with us. There is nothing to do. Being present, bearing witness, listening to the land, this is “enough”.
The light of our Council travelled to the little chapel right by our basecamp and stayed there for our whole time. The ceremony was on.
We left the village, walking towards the spring of L’Orne. A sinuous walk up the hill, and down, and up, and down again. The many small mounds left by the impacts of the millions of shells were partly taken over by the growing trees. We walked, and from time to time we dropped some of the water we each collected to the places that called one of us. Old casemates (sort of shelter built in the tranches) were found. A piece of leather belonging to a soldier shoes. Unexploded shells. We were walking in the middle of land that was in a continuous healing process. Pushing out everything which didn’t serve anymore, like the skin pushing a splinter out. Very powerful feeling of a living landscape. Tending for its wounds, taking the time needed.
After some time, we arrived in Boncevaux, another wiped out village. Some ruins sit at the bottom of the many holes, the memories are partly swollen by time and still calling forth our awareness and our willingness to witness.
From there, the land started to change. From a fairly wild forest, we walked along rows of planted trees, in order, like a parade. The land was quite mutilated here and there by the heavy machinery that had cut, drag, pruned and uprooted trees all around. The mood was becoming also a little heavier. The tiredness started to kick in. Fari seemed to endure the long walk; he was using every small break or stop to lay down. The clouds were closing the sky. It was grey.
We eventually reached a paved road and walked a little more to get to the spring. It was right there. Behind a fence. The wooden main gate was forced once before, and we managed to take it down and get in. The spring itself was sealed in a concrete structure, under a large metal plate, closed with a big padlock. Impossible to open it. We could hear the constant flow of water under the platform. We all laid down on the platform, and listen, and listen, and listen, falling partly asleep and listen more. Listen to the water springing out and back into metal tubes. I remember to this day the continuous flow. I remember to this day a sound of bells and music that was carried with the water. A sound so clear and so loud to my ears, like if I was inside a church.
Then four of us found our relationship to the place. Using more of the water we each carried. Some danced and sang, sat by the tree, or walked along the edges of the spring. Cars passed by, even the police passed by, and they all looked at us.
We stayed there for some more time and we continued our way to the (razed to ground) village of Ornes. On the way, we stopped by the ruins of the church. As soon as we entered the ground, everything became total silence. The wind had dropped, the birds were quiet. There was like a vortex in this place. A connection through time and space. The prayers that we placed in each of those rocks were still permeating the land. Really powerful. A sacred place.
A few minutes later, we arrived at a fountain with four lions head. Only one was giving out water. The one on the north side, remembering that the memories of such events and stories should not only comess from the place of structures, numbers and narratives, but embrace all aspects of our bodies, emotions, psyche and sense of purpose, vision and mystery.
Right in front of that fountain, there was a church with St-Michael slaying the dragon. Of the light over the darkness, but also of a belief system over the old knowing. On the church door, there was a poster displaying information about a Christian pilgrimage for peace in the region.
We sat under a tree there to have Council. The rain started to come down. We shared our impressions. A feeling of completion and confusion. Of being fenced out of the spring. Connection to California and Owen’s Valley. Water being taken away, diverted through pipes.
Even though we took about three hours through the hills, we all felt worn out. I offered to get the car and pick them up. I could probably get faster back by the road and could try to hitch-hike. And so I left, and was walking really fast. For almost the whole way back, I was singing marching songs that came to me. I was feeling like being part of a division of soldiers going to the front and singing to give each other courage before ending in “Verdun’s Hell”.
About four cars drove past me before I was able to reach basecamp a little more then an hour later and get the car to pick the rest of the party up.
The last hours
That evening we cooked a yummy dinner and laughed a lot. Life was rushing back after the somehow heaviness of the walk. Relieved to find basecamp again, back from the frontlines.
At some point during the evening Marie, Tina and Fari went to bed. I headed to the wood in the pitch darkness. There was some mist around and I got quite scared. I tried to breathe deep and not fall for the fear. I relaxed and could hear the night whispering with many voices.
I headed back to the chapel, and sat there in silence. Feeling the air was very dense. I wasn’t alone. Our ceremonial candle was still burning and projecting the dancing shadow of the Lady of Lourdes against the wall. I paid tribute to the people who died, the people who grieved. I prayed for peace and for re-membering our common history and common future.
A couple of cars drove past the chapel. Their lights illuminated the chapel and looked suddenly like the flares that often were shot over the battlefields to indicate positions for the artillery.
In the darkness of this chapel I started to sing. And I sang for a long time. A very long time in the night. Singing my fears, singing my throat, singing my tears. Singing my gratitude to water. Singing my acknowledgment to place, to war, to humans, to spirit, to the flying ones, the crawling ones, the seen and unseen.
I went back to sleep in my bivvy bag, as some drops gently embraced our basecamp that night.
The following morning, after our breakfast, we sat by the Vaux-devant-Damloup monument to the dead to have our closing Council. To end in gratitude. We had The Box with us in the Council, to connect with the many pilgrims around the globe in their prayers for peace and healing.
We then each took some time to close with the land. With the running little river which used to be the main artery of the village. We met a last time in the small chapel to blow our candle out.
It was done.
We left the place and returned to our respective homes.
Verdun. A name that has grown into me.
Verdun. A land that will forever be a testimony of the healing forces of nature.
Verdun. Water has never stopped, in the midst of horror and despair. Everything flows and changes.
The voice of Tina
Being asked to join a pilgrimage to Verdun in connection with Walking Water, there is immediately a strong YES inside of me.
Later there come questions like „What for?“ „What is it about“?
I start to think, feel, listen into it.
The call to do a pilgrimage to different water places/springs I heard already for two years. But why now Verdun?
Water – Healing – Verdun
Verdun, the european icone for war and the giving up of humanity in favor of power play of political leaders.
And what is the connection to water?
Water, the element of reconciliation.
Water connects everything, water is life, we are mostly water, nearly all processes of life work on the base of water.
An image comes to me: If people can heal themself by sending supporting energy to weak or ill parts of the body, maybe it serves to bring prayers, good intentions and water of lightful places to the water and springs of Verdun.
This idea feels good to all of us three and we decide to bring water of different places with us to Verdun.
My pilgrimage to Verdun takes me first to a spring in Germany near my way, known for healing qualities and an old place of pilgrimage, dedicated to St. Mary, a symbol of hope for many pilgrims every year.
At the place of the spring I find a little chapelle. The modern building has got windows designed as the four elements, the altar is a tree trunk. Mother earth seems to be present. I have three candles with me, and light them, one as thanksgiving for mother water, one with a prayer for peace and a third with prayers for my wider family in past, present and future. My mother as a woman deeply connected with St. Mary comes into my mind.
The water of the spring I don´t find in a natural place but on the yard in front of the chapelle captured in a beautiful way. I fill three bottles with the water of the spring. The light of the sunset is magical. Somehow I feel blessed and now well prepared to continue my journey.
During traveling I sometimes wondered what this pilgrimage has to do with the actual situation in Europe. The mayor of the little village in the middle of the old battlefield gives me an answer: He invites us to camp there…and he cares for us like we were his private guests in his house.
He tells us about his conscious decision to live here, about the dimensions of destruction and trauma, this battle and the First World War brought to this land and I ask him a question: If he had the possibility to teach young people something about all that, what would it be? He answers, he would tell them that it is an illusion that we are different because of our nationality, that we were more the same than different. And that people had to decide if they play the games of their political leaders around power in europe like sheep following its herd, or if they decide that their truth is a different one, especially in these times.
For me the healing power of personal encounters and personal exchange between people of different countries/nationalities becomes obvious.
Verdun tells this story about the consequences of nationalism, arrogance and powerplays of leaders in Europe a century ago and seems more actual than I thought.
We decide to have a walk cross the old battefield to a spring within it.
An exhausting walk, unexpectedly exhausting.
Nature seems to tell that the healing of the place already happens . Life took over on the burned and destroyed land, 200.000 killed people, many of them „burried“ in this beautiful woods, I am walking through. I find an old piece of leather of a shoe, short time later a shell. Yes, it´s real, here happened a human tragedy. Again and again, how the mayor told us, the soil of the land is giving back pieces of this battle.
Arrived at the spring, we have to accept that the water is captured in concrete, a heavy covering, locked by a padlock, the place fenced, but the door of the fence already broken therefore open.
We enter the place and one by one are falling immediately asleep on top of the covering, the sound of the water, flowing below us as a melody in our dreams.
The walk has been totally exhausting, not because of time or length….
Our plan had been to bring the water we brought with us to this spring here in the middle of the battlefield, and now? No possibility to reach the water right here.
I pour some of the water onto the land around the spring. Water is connecting everything, water is able to change form and ways to flow, water gets in resonance with the intentions, thoughts, prayers and songs we offer.
We spend some time everyone in his/her own ceremony/meditation, when a car passed several times, watching us, followed by a police car! A short moment it feels like a crime to sit at the spring and pray.
On the way back the silent ruins of a church in the woods. A atmosphere of deep peace.
The place where the spring was captured for people to be able to drink is not the place to sit in council, there seems to be a lack of energy and safety and we decide to return to our camp.
Back „home“ we prepare a wonderful soup and dinner, again on the top of a covering of water at the water-tower beside our tents, which is our table in these days, enjoying our time together. I nearly forget where I am, again the feeling of life, that has already taken over.
A thought that came to me in the forest: I perceived the difference between the official huge cemetaries and the woods where also many people are buried., the one a memorial against war that shows impressively the amount of people who died, looking like a military zone, and the other a beautiful forest, with birds singing in the trees, that tells today as well a message of life and hope.
Do we as humans repeat or create again the patterns of conflict and war by building memorials with an military architecture? Or is it important to be reminded to it?
The message of the forest was one of hope and the power of life. Do we have to visualize stronger the future we dream and give thanks for the beauty whereever we find it?
Thankyou mother water for the gift of life and beauty
Thankyou mother earth that carries us.
Healing is about gratefulness.
In the little chapelle at our camp we find a statue of St. Mary of Lourdes. Lourdes is one of the most famous places of healing water and pilgrimage in Europe
On this journey I became more aware of the power of water as an element with abilities of connection, resonance and healing. and of the power of pilgrimage, being on road with an intention, connecting places, people and stories.
The voice of Marie
The paradoxes of the time we spent together in Verdun echoes in some ways my experience of the paradoxes of our times.
There was a great joy in spending time with beloved friends, sitting in circle, laughing and sharing tea. Such lightness and ease. And yet there was such depth in allowing the place to tell itself to us through the whisper of the wind, the hooting of the owl, the shooting of the hunters. Such power in letting those poignant stories slide like a cold blade on my warm skin. The landscapes spoke for themselves. Trenches like open veins. A land bruised by the thousands gun shells. Bones and boots like splinters in the body of the earth. And still a thousand birds singing to the top of their lungs bringing such life to the luxuriant forests. People like you and I, hosting us with such warmth and openheartedness. The horror and the beauty. The living and the dying. As if the balance was arising from the intimacy between those extremes.
During that time I couldn’t help but feel connected to the bigger story. I felt deeply shaken by the many migrants coming from Syria, shaken by the state of agriculture today, shaken by hate. I was taken over by a feeling of hopelessness. And at the same time I felt deeply touched by the many grassroots initiatives. Inspired by people collecting food and clothing for the immigrants. Inspired by young people committing to respectful farming. Inspired by people investing their money with care for the earth.
The past reflected in the present. Big story within small story. Small story within big story. Micro-macro mishmash.
What was this all about for me?
A time to bear witness. Bear witness to a common history. A time to go beyond the comfort of ignorance and the balm of oblivion. To let the stories penetrate the pores of my heritage, the pores of my heart. A time to face death and the madness of our species. Walking with water. Sleeping next to a water tower. Water power. Asking myself what it means to be walking that land with a prayer for water. And as I sat under a tree and combed the grass with my fingers I realized once again how much water is a synonym for life. I was walking for life. Walking with life. Celebrating and giving thanks for the living.
As we walked to the spring of l’Orne we stumbled upon and old church. Only a few stones remained, some arches and a wall. Like a chapel within a natural cathedral. Such peace emanated from that place. Like a breath, a rest after a walk on a battle field. And there it became clear that the same way each bomb marks the land, every prayer has an imprint on our world.