Blog Archives

Escaping the City

Though the rains have returned, it’s still kinda nice enough to get out of the city these days.

And it’s so nice to do so.

The orchids are up in the Valdorba, and the thyme blooming.

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Unfortunately, the rains have increased the erosion in many places where there’s not enough vegetation to hold the soil. This bunch of thyme is clinging on, but you can see the rocks breaking away from the side of the gully behind it.

And yes, that is recently burnt vegetation behind the orchid… some farmers just don’t get that scrub serves to hold their soil from washing away down to the Ebro and silt it up, which they complain about later when the farms on the floodplain… flood.

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Hopefully the other plants can grow and help slow down further breaks.

 

Here’s a poem I wrote recently about getting into the countryside.

 

Birdsong Outside the City

 

Something calls, unseen, to me

Hidden in a willow tree of a copse

Alongside a swift river tugging

Tangled dangling fronds and

Flooding islands, a place

Providing people only invitation,

 

Unheard above the cars of

The city where blackbirds scream,

 

A small, soft, birdsong twittering

Like a signal, reverberating in

This stillness, resonating

 

As far as childhood; deeper,

Into bones, birth, bringing

Relief like a lost boy seeing

Family, safety, a memory.

 

A song saying stay, for whenever

Could one return?

 

 

 

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Climate Breakdown: explaining it is easy when the examples abound

I’m teaching Climate Change in my first-year classes at the moment.

No matter what the topic, I always like to use examples to make things clearer to the kids – references to things in their own lives. I often refer to TV programs, movies, songs.

However, some of my references are dated – movies made before they were born, which, while classics, haven’t always been seen. In my English SL class last week, when describing the meaning of “a the height of one’s career,” I used a TV presenter, who first shot to prominence on the Spanish equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The show was called 50 for 15, referring to 50Million Pesetas – a currency that disappeared when the kids were toddlers.

But teaching Climate Change, I was struck by the fact that I don’t have to reach back very far to come up with an example of what I mean when I talk about the changes that are happening/ could happen in the future.

For example, California – it was burning a few weeks ago; latest news out of there is a terrible mudslide. Opposite types of natural disasters in a short timeframe.

 

Even here in this very city, though, the oscillations are becoming ever more obvious. And rapid.

I described how Spain was experiencing a drought late last year. Reservoirs were down to 10 or 20%. On the 3rd of January, I was in a jeans and a sweater, enjoying the sunshine. I was sent a video of a snake the same week.

This poor frog was squashed by a car just outside the village that night – what the hell was a frog doing out on Jan 3?

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On the 5th, it started raining, then snowing.

I posted this photo on my facebook page, joking how I’d always wanted a garden with a little river flowing through it.

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It was gushing out of the gully under the rocks you can see behind the fence in this photo.

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And some of it was filling the groundwater so much that I’d springs popping up in the grass.

This looks like a cowpat, but it’s actually mud pushed out of the ground by the water flow.

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Pamplona was covered in snow.

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The aqueduct of Noain outside Pamplona.

The reservoirs refilled past 50% in a few days.

And now it’s mild again.

So the kids get it. They understand Climate Breakdown. They can hardly not when it is staring us in the face like the barrel of a shotgun.

Question is, what can they do about it?

Because the previous generation who knew about it haven’t been able to do very much, yet.

Fire and Water

We’re just about done with possibly the hottest December on record, with heat waves across the northern hemisphere. Simultaneously, there is record flooding in England and Ireland, and huge fires across northern Spain, where I live; seemingly unconnected, but not really.

Both phenomena are either caused by or exacerbated by bad laws.

Today in my email inbox are two mails. One is my automatic notification of George Monbiot’s Guardian article about the predictions of flooding in York because of the actions of farmers (grouse farmers, to be sure) in the watershed upstream, burning and draining peatlands so they don’t hold rainwater as well as they should.

Athlone floodingFlooding in Athlone. Photograph: Harry McGee, from Irish Times

 

The other email is a request to sign a petition to change the new Spanish law, which means people get rich by burning land. 50,000 hectares have burned so far, and most fires have been set on purpose. Forests which have been burned can now be rezoned for building, making a tidy profit for anyone who invests in a forest and a few gallons of petrol.

 

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It seems amazing that we can have such stupid laws when we are faced with such grave global problems. In Ireland, in fact, the minister responsible for environment will change the law to allow field and hedge burning even later than before, in response to the problem of illegal fire setting last spring. Mind boggling, even if we discount the fact that the birds the law is there to protect are breeding even earlier as the climate warms.

Yet, when I talked to a farmer I know about the article I wrote about the illegal fires, she told me she doesn’t get paid for having gorse on her land, so not being able to burn was losing her money – though to date I haven’t seen her burn the patches she has.

Just as we can’t blame corporations for putting their shareholders ahead of the wellbeing of their customers and workers, since the law obliges them to do so, we can’t blame farmers from trying to get the money the law says they are entitled to, as long as their fields are in “agricultural condition.”

Some farmers I know here in Spain are actively digging trenches and putting in plastic drains under fields in far from the wettest part of the world by any stretch of the imagination. These fields have been farmed for centuries, but nowadays the machinery is so heavy it can only be used on dry soil. The state subsidies for starting farmers stipulates that the five-year plan have such modern machinery to be efficient, so staying out of muddy fields after a rain is not an option. And never mind that the water not held in the fields just goes faster to the Ebro, a river notorious for flooding, and which flows through large cities like Logroño and Zaragoza. A whole pig farm was swept away last year, and farmers are asking the river be dredged so the water can flow faster away from them. Which is counterproductive, we know. But farmers are paid to farm, not to mange the environment in a sensible manner. Or to protect other people’s homes from flooding and wildfires.

In Ireland, the town of Athlone on the Shannon is hoping the river won’t inundate it, while politicians suggest paying people to move out of floodplains that should never have been built on in the first place. At the same time, some locals say they never had a flood in 75 years until trees were cut down on the local mountains.

The rules are more than faulty. They’re stupid. Except for those they benefit, of course. Big landowners are making millions off them.

The politicians have thus far, even including the recent Paris agreement, decided it’s supposedly less damaging to their precious economy to deal with the consequences of climate change rather than prevent it.

This is a test of their ideas.

The warming climate will bring much more such fires and floods.

Building flood defences is all well and good, but it’s more wasted money dealing with consequences rather than wisely trying to prevent them. Forests and bogs can absorb a lot of the water destroyed homes from the recent storms, if they aren’t burnt to the ground.

As Monbiot said, flooding fields or towns: which is it going to be?

Common sense says the former, of course. Let’s see if anyone in power got some for Christmas.

 

 

Human evolution: looking back, looking forward

I have said this before, but we really are a strange species.

On the one hand, the Aboriginal Australians have stories that go back ten to fifteen thousand years, describing how their formal lands were flooded when the sea level rose after the last ice age. This made me remember an article about disposal of nuclear waste and the super intelligent nuclear physicists thinking about how to label the area so that future generations will know it’s there. The local Native American tribe told these scientists not to worry – they’d tell the future generations. It made me laugh.

But then, on the other, Yuval Noah Harari writes a book:Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind about how our species of humans becoming so powerful because we can believe stories (including complete bullshit), and thinks that the first really big impact of humans in the world was the arrival of humans in Australia, after which the megafauna of that continent disappeared from the record (a little further back than the sea-level rise in the story). The second big impact he says was when humans arrived in America and destroyed even more species of giant mammals.

In case it’s not clear, the book does not say the rise of humankind was in fact a great thing: for individual humans or for other species. He does speculate about the future, and reckons that humans will quickly evolve into some kind of new human-computer hybrid… But first, there will probably be a speciation event between the poor and the ultra -rich, the latter going on to becoming superhuman and somehow avoiding the coming problems.

One thing he seems to have missed (from the radio show I listened to), is that there are still people who live like our ancestors did, hunting and gathering, and they are, I hope, still as happy as Harari believes (and I agree) our ancestors were. I can only say that the this book is a huge reason to support NGOs like Survival International (to which 10% of the royalties of my second book in the Silver Nights Trilogy will be donated) so these people can be left alone in their happiness, and not made sad just because we are so blind to our own sadness that we think we are helping them. I can only hope that in the future, when the rest of us have evolved into whatever strange stuff will befall us, there will yet be uncontacted tribes living in the forests the way they have since they destroyed the megafauna.

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The Shallow Harbour of Bangladesh: a poem

 

I wrote this poem ten years ago now. I didn’t think it was that long ago. But boy, has a lot happened in those ten years. Well, actually, no. Regarding the subject of the poem, sweet F A has happened. Except that the problem has gotten 10 years worse, and will take us longer than ten years more to fix-slash-reverse the effects of those ten years.

So why am I posting this now? Well, you’ve probably all heard about the new findings showing that the western Antarctic ice sheets are going to melt. Going to. No might, no perhaps, no could or even will, if we…. They are going to melt. And Meghna, the last stretch of the Ganges, will then become the shallow harbour of Bangladesh. And there will plenty of shallow harbours around the world, it seems. And also shallows where once there were islands. There are calls to action. But will we act?

 

 

 

The Shallow Harbour of Bangladesh

 

Standing upon the rise, beard growing icicles in the wind,

Eyes weeping from it and the fields falling frozen before him,

Drifts against dead hedges, reindeer shelter in lees,

Eking out the existence once thriving life with sheep,

When the warm rain came.

 

Crouching on dry gravel, shaking stones in fist,

Scatters, shaking head at emptiness,

Lizard skitters across pebbles, scavenging scarce parched seeds,

Sun beats upon neck back and all before, years,

Used to draw grains and vines once sustained by winter snow,

And spring showers that sprinkled flowers,

Now storms wash out ravines of dust and dried husks.

 

A man stands proud upon a prow, poling into treacherously turbid estuary

Drowned mangroves threaten to mire like the lost tiger,

Channel shallows past the Sundarbans, showing signs of past life,

Here and there stilts stick up that once held houses,

Where one would watch the Ganges disgorge slowly,

Switched around to see the sea swallow,

Several names of river back to the border,

Splitting into a harbour a hungry nation awaiting huddled upon the bank,

The man sailing over rice paddies,

Fishing upon his former fields.