Post By RelatedRelated Post
By Bobby Gard-Story.
There’s only half a million of us up in the top left corner. Cumbria is the most northwesterly of English counties, second only to neighbouring Northumberland in blissful lack of population density. The people that live there, like me, appreciate space to breathe, space to walk about in, and our space is a beautiful one. But this week, it’s been getting a bit damp.
341.4mm of rain fell in 24 hours over the Lakeland fells, replacing the previous Cumbrian effort measured six years ago (two floods past) as the UK record. We’re good at rain, but this was extreme. Averages across the county were up to 200mm after a 36 hour downpour; a fact which doesn’t carry much meaning until it’s accompanied by images of cold brown water coursing along roads, collapsing bridges, squatting in ruined houses, and spreading mesmerizingly across the valley fields.
I sat in London and watched, and didn’t panic. I didn’t burst into tears, or rush home. I sighed inwardly, I frowned, and took it all in over a pint in the pub: thousands of homes flooded, hundreds needing rescue. From this distant city, with mild buffeting by strong breezes the only tangible sign of the storm raging further north, I was as cut off from my home as those stranded by impassable roads were from work, school and shops. Transport me there now, and I’d man the proverbial barricades. Take me home in a week (as British Rail has promised me they’ll do) and I’ll help if I can. But the empathy of my northern neighbours is so prevalent that some supply centres are already receiving enough donations to outstrip demand. What can I do for my community, ‘my people’? I’m currently a thinker by occupation (a student), and this thought’s all I have to share. It’s not a sandbag, a higher wall, or a new house for the body, but hopefully it can be a metaphorical cuppa’ for the soul. Sometimes the latter can go a long way, when the damage to property pales in comparison to the damage to our usually indefatigable spirit.
News footage shows in panoramic detail the destruction of our fragile human fortresses, as impregnable as glasshouses in a hurricane. The rivers had expanded to reclaim what they often remind us is within their power to take. Warm, cosy interiors were drowned. But as soon as the destructive waters begin seeping away, the flood of blame slowly rises to take its place, egged on by journalists thirsty for blood, and local politicians keen for points. “There has been criticism of the government because Cumbria’s multimillion-pound flood defences – built… in 2005 – failed to keep the deluge from people’s homes.” Reported the BBC, failing to note that this comment was itself adding to that heap of criticism.
The government did not flood any homes. The water did. And the water came from a storm. Wrangling over council spending and DEFRA policy is not my focus here, because I don’t think that it ought to be at the forefront of our minds in the coming weeks. The knowledge we can regain here runs deeper than ‘building better flood defences’ and ‘not building on flood plains’, important though they may be. What I propose instead is that in the wake of the passing surge, what we should remind ourselves of isn’t the politics, or the science, but the emotional history. The dormant mentality of our past. The lesson we can learn is one of humility, and it’s one that our society, our species ought to heed.
Centuries ago, while we sliced, felled and combed the land into strips and squares to plant, reap and graze on, the whirling gasses above and around our heads remained outside of our controlling grasp. When the first Cumbrians led sheep out on the fells to crop the hillsides, they weathered thousands of lashing storms and torrential rains. Even those of monstrous size- the type that drove them from homes unwisely erected in the path of the water- didn’t force them to leave. The facts of the environment were remorselessly beaten into them; the weather doesn’t care for you. The rain won’t spare you. The wind won’t grant you reprieve if you try and challenge it; it will win. They could see, in sublime detail, that they were nothing but specs, crawling across rough contours that dwarfed them, caught in a maelstrom of energy flows that they could not affect. But today, the steady creep of the anthropogenic changes we make to the environment- from aerosols hanging grey curtains above our cities and con-trails in the blue sky, to absorbent gases blanketing us in the lithosphere and channels cut to tame flows- permeates our reality like a spectre. Each flood seems to smirk that “this might have been so much less if not for what you’re doing”.
But of course, floods do not smirk. They do not laugh at our misery. They do not intend to harm, or intend anything at all. They have no purpose, no motive. For all our geophysical impacts, the weather is still wild, and its personification (which the Met office has done nothing to alleviate with its new naming policy) confuses and misdirects the reaction we ought to have in the face of these events. We can’t be angry with Desmond; he doesn’t exist. It’s just a mass of chemicals, mixing and falling. We shouldn’t blame, or be bitter towards the wind and the rain. The storm is just an occurrence. It doesn’t do. It just is. Unfortunately for us, we were in the way.
Media headlines that ‘Desmond has caused misery’ fail to acknowledge that the storm did not bring misery across the Atlantic to cast it merrily down on us. The misery is our own, and we cannot blame the chemistry of precipitation for it. Our society chose where to lay the foundations, and our society constructed the attitude of invincibility. Storms kill, to be sure. And the hills kill many every year too. It’s a harsh thing, but reality kills, and our environment is real. The Prime Minister described the flooding as ‘horrific’, but horrors are what humans make for each other; torture and killings. This is not a horror- this is a documentary on the power of nature. Flooding is only ‘bad’ for us, not bad in itself, and our second task, when faced with the power of our environment, is to respect that we are nought but lodgers here, and often there is absolutely nothing we can do to prevent being dislodged. Our first task, of course, is to get out of the way.
Easy for me to say, I know, without my worldly belongings piled up in the yard.
Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org
‘Acceptance’ is often subject to the criticism of being nothing more than passivity- cowardliness even- but in circumstances like these, to argue that point misunderstands the situation we must face. Cowardliness is a failure to act when we face other people. Against the forces of the physical world, absolute bravery in our convictions is nothing but ignorance. Acceptance in the face of the underlying wilderness of the environment is acknowledgement that regardless of how much we may want to lock the door, close the curtains and keep the world out, we need to ultimately respect the reality of our human situation: that even the fittest of us are just fragile leafs in the storm, easily ripped apart by the wind, easily drowned in the water.
While Londoners watch in mild shock, incredulous that the images come from British soil, Cumbrians should look to the subtle difference between our own cultural heritage and the wider ‘civilised’ one, dominated as the latter has become by urban influence. Generations of Cumbrians have felt more deeply than some others in our country that acceptance is not passivity; that the destructiveness of the weather is not something we can fight against. Our landscape presents us with this truth daily, but in this regard we are far from unique. The world is full of peoples living face to face with this reality. Our neighbours in northern Scotland and northern Wales- to take two of the closest examples- have roots in the same ethos.
How is this ethos manifest? I’ll call it reet fettle, because no existing term seems to capture it quite right. It’s all about the gander, folk, thrang and crack. In the cosmic-pub-discussion of Cumbrian emotional thought, I make the call for an embodiment of reet fettle, as our best response. Carrying it out requires nothing more than the embracing of those four parts of our emotional culture we already know well: having a gander, relying on folk, being thrang wi’out twinin’, and good crack. Or, for those not familiar with northern dialects: canny observation, community, diligence and humour. Reet fettle is knowing that the water is rising so quickly there’s nowt be done. It’s asking neighbours for help to salvage what can be saved, and being ready to be asked in return. It is the diligence to rebuild in a better place, in a better way, when everything is ruined. And it is the ability to laugh about it all when we survive.
The shock and sympathy of the outside nation eggs on our despair, and looks for signs of irretrievable damage. It encourages us to watch the TV, to find out who we can blame. But instead, we need to look to the village, where we’ll find folk who know what we know. A friend asked me how ‘my people’ were. With a hint of pride, I told him everybody would be fine. Not that they weren’t struggling, or crying, or feeling the loss of their livelihoods. But that they would be fine. When the lights go off we get candles out. When we can’t use the car we walk (/bike/paddle). When it snows, we put the fire on. And when it’s all swept away, we don’t abandon our dangerous, beautiful place. We appreciate it all the more.
I needn’t launch a campaign, or jump up on a soapbox. I need do nothing more than remind us of what we already know from years spent living in valleys and on coasts, watching rivers and hills, water and wind. We get out of the way, together. We watch it pass, together, and pick up the pieces, trying to fit them back together in a better way, together, knowing that this power we can’t control will be back before too long. Instead of blaming and sniping, we find the stoicism to smile wryly at our precariousness. If it feels like I’m preach to the choir, then maybe that’s right, but sometimes the choir needs reminding which hymn to sing. It’s wary acceptance- it’s reet fettle- and we can be proud to have built it into our northwestern narrative for centuries. It’s part of our history, but it’s never more valuable in the present than on days like today, when respect for the wilderness of the weather is a matter of home and homeless, life and death.