|The other end of the country...calm after the storm|
So, if in the future you should notice a modest volume with just that title peeping out in the travel section of Foyles or Waterstones, or see it at Number 1 in the bestseller charts, you'll know who thought of it first (if it makes number 1 then I may have his lawyer on the phone to ask for a cut of the royalties...I'll have to help him move out of call centres and into publishing...)
Anyway, I thought I'd try it out here first although actually it's a bit inaccurate. It should really be "From Emmerdale to Eastenders and back again" because over the past month I feel as though we've travelled the length and breadth of the country. From our tiny isle in the snowy north of Scotland, to the crashing forty foot waves of Portland Bill, and everywhere in between. Looking back over the past few weeks, it's hard to put it into a narrative - what I see is more a series of events, small and large, marking a long transition from a dark January to hopefully, a kinder and brighter spring.
I felt the first ray of sunshine before leaving Rum, when we finally saw otters! It was a freezing January day, most of us still hung over from Burns Night (which I WILL post on the blog...), hailstorms threatening from the north-west. We were hit by the hail just as we meant to go out, but after we'd cowered behind the post van for 10 minutes in our waterproofs it cleared up and we decided to go for our planned walk after all. "Just to the otter hide, though," we said. But somehow we kept going. We clambered clumsily along the beach with its red, awkward stones slippery and niggly underfoot, making our way onto the even more slippery and awkward path that leads up away from the beach, through undergrowth, trees, streams and bogs eventually to what feels like the far edge of the island, land and rocks gradually thinning out until only the mossy ruins of the blackhouses and the irregular, spiky trees remain against the sea and the snowy mountains beyond. Of course we got lost. But we didn't care, as by then we'd already seen the otters!
We had climbed up a little way to the first "ledge" of the cliff where you can stand and catch your breath, rearrange your clothing etc, which is usually already too hot after the first ten minutes or so, and as we were rearranging (and trying not to fall into the puddles) we heard a weird squeaky, chattering sound that seemed to come from out at sea. It wasn't like any bird we knew. Mel grabbed her binoculars and looked out to sea and "Otters!" Swimming, but not just swimming, curvetting through the waves like dolphins with rounded backs and diving snouts, and much faster than you would imagine - two of them on parallel paths, chatting to each other as they went. Soon they were round the corner and out of sight but we had seen them, for the first time in either of our lives. But more was to come. After we had reached the peninsula and found a freezing cold, but relatively sheltered spot to eat our picnic, I was scanning the waves when - there it was, another otter popped up, on its own this time. We watched breathlessly (and even let our tea get cold) while it came ashore and lay wriggling in the sunshine to dry itself, apparently not worried by our company.
That was a lovely day, and it meant so much to have seen these most elusive of creatures before I left, reminding me just how amazing the island can be. Why does it lift your heart to see creatures in the wild? Two days later I left for the mainland but this time on a beautifully clear day, with no high winds or storms, just a lucid sea and sky with the Cuillins remote and cold-looking as a lunar landscape, no hint of habitation or vegetation anywhere on them, bare and forbidding as a desert. All the way I was sad, although the ferry journey was livened up somewhat by the awesome S., who told me all about her complicated family and the funeral she would be going to on the mainland. She drank two half-bottles of wine on the way over ("Well, we're on holiday now"), knew everyone on the boat and didn't appear even tiddly by the end of the journey...I left her greeting her second ex-husband whom she married too young and to please her mum, her third husband and true love having stayed at home to mind the kids.
The journey to Fort William on the "Harry Potter Train" was incredibly beautiful, that warm sunset light shining across from behind Rum on to the mountains to my left and making them glow orange and red. I'd never seen it like that before. Still less had I expected the journey down to Glasgow the next day to be so amazing, traversing the Highlands with constant glimpses of lakes, waterfalls and snow-laden moors stretching for miles with hardly anything else in sight but deer and occasional lorries. The summit at Corrour was a pure white landscape with dark, bubbling rivers running through it...a featureless landscape one would say if it weren't for the stags starting up amazed at our audacity to drive through their bit of territory.
From Glasgow it was a mildly chaotic journey, with lines down at Penrith meaning I had to get to Edinburgh instead before I could get down to London. But that was only the first and most minor hint at the craziness the weather has caused in England...Rum has got off lightly in comparison. There were floods everywhere we travelled past and even in London the parks were sodden with the constant rain. From London we went on to "As Seen on TV" Weymouth, seizing the one day without rain to travel out to Chesil Beach and Portland Bill. Chesil Beach was impossible to look at....it went on and on, disappearing at the horizon into clouds of spray and a vast grey sky, with the road and cars that run alongside and below it seeming unreal in comparison, like two films running concurrently in different languages and on a different scale. I couldn't get both into my head at the same time, even now it is quite hard to remember, let alone describe. But Portland Bill was even stranger...we stood for ages staring at the awesomely huge waves, how they come in from far off and appear incapable of breaking, until suddenly, at the last minute, they do. Impossible to imagine those waves even bigger, sweeping over the lighthouse, but that is what has been happening.
There were no trains to Exeter of course and none on to Cornwall, so we travelled by the "Jurassic Coaster" double decker bus through Dorset and Devon to Exeter, descending steep and crooked roads into towns where normally the sea is sedate and pretty, but now was a huge uncontrollable creature dashing itself against the harbour defences, walls and beaches, waves driving in at maybe 30 miles per hour (?) to crash against the rocks. While listening to the elderly ladies around us quoting the Daily Mail approvingly ("That Nigel Farage, he does have some good ideas"), we veered between worry and excitement. Would the bus make it down the hill? Would it slip off the road and into the sea? Somehow we couldn't be scared..we felt more awe at the sights around us. It was an exciting journey and we talked about what we could do together on Rum and the good things that the future might hold for us there. And, in a semblance of our former life, we then got to drive a car...all the way down the near-empty A30 to Cornwall, where we spent a week in a strange state of limbo, not able to do most of the walks or trips we would normally do as so many places were "out of bounds" due to the weather.
So now I've been travelling up, down and around this flooded country for nearly a month, and am still not home. Our travels have led us from Scotland to London, Weymouth, Dorset, Cornwall, Kent...everywhere there are wringing wet fields, oceans of water covering farmland and footpaths, undercut cliffs, fallen trees and enormous waves...and even now the waves have settled down a little bit, the sea still holds an undercurrent of threatening energy, you can see it still in the too-high tides, the curling and foaming pools in the harbours and the way in which the normally tranquil English Channel continues to slap at the land as if to say, "Don't forget about me!" As if we could. Travelling back from Exeter to London on a very slow train indeed, we watched how the rivers continue to rise, seeing them churn and overflow banks that are no longer visible. Passengers on the tiny packed train were not stressed out, not even "philosophical"; there was nothing more to say really, so it was quiet, with heads turning in unison whenever we passed a particularly flooded area, such as Romsey where half the town stood half under water. Buzzards sat in the wet fields and waited for...something, we speculate for lost fish!
We have been lucky enough not to be directly affected, so I can't help feeling excited rather than worried or upset, although Mel's aunt, who comes from Somerset, was very sad after visiting her parents there: "It's like looking out to sea," she said. Perhaps it is quite sobering, after all. I've noticed a kind of rootless feeling, like the trees you see lying devastated by the water...and through it an increasing sense of how peculiar our civilisation is. On Rum there has been non-stop rain (so I hear), but no floods of course, as all the rivers run straight down the mountains to the sea and out! There are no flood plains, no over-crowding with new housing developments, no neglected flood defences or concreted-over gardens. There is a place for the rain to go even if humans find it slightly more difficult to identify a home.
I still have my home, so I am very very lucky. But just like everyone else I need to deal with the question of how to live with, rather than in conflict with nature. Some people who are concerned about climate change would like everyone to live like we do on Rum. That might be ecologically better but doesn't solve the problem of how humans and nature exist together. We build cities for a reason, the joys of civilisation are just as real as the joys of the natural world, and when it's cold, dark and dreary outside then the joys of a DVD are not to be underestimated! The raw unmediated experience of "nature" in its least amenable form is something more than a "survival challenge" a la Bear Grylls or an RSPB "Date with Nature". Yeah...it's not so much a date with nature as full-on, non-negotiable Getting-married-to-nature-and-having-its-children, I-wish-I'd-sorted-out-that-prenup-earlier emotional rollercoaster. It's not a survival challenge in the sense that you go there, gleefully relish whatever it throws at you for six weeks and then leave to tell your tale to idealistic, if less hardy, TV audiences. (Though I wouldn't say no!) It's a survival challenge in that it challenges everything you think you know about normal life, your identity, your relationships with others, your concept of what "society" is for, and your ability to influence where you are. I wonder if this is how other people feel who have been isolated in tiny communities with seas of water surrounding them...
Now down in Kent, I've been talking to a Scottish doctor who comes from "up there", but is married to a Whitstable lass. I wasn't expecting anyone to understand what on earth I was talking about but to my amazement it turns out he is from Lochaber. "I took the wife up there for a year...she couldn't cope. We were in the Cairngorms, not on an island so the social life was fine...it was the weather that broke her, the darkness, the cold..." He doesn't need to go on. I nod, understandingly. I ask him if it's common to have an anxiety reaction to living in such an isolated community. He replies vigorously, "It is! Of course it is! The west coast of Scotland is notorious for it..." I feel a little bit better - and also fascinated. My anthropological interest is bearing fruit! I ask him why that is. He says, and I find this really interesting, that it's to do with a culture clash. People from down south, English people, city Scots looking for a lifestyle change, looking to live the dream, turn up in places where "the dream" is everyday reality and they don't know how to fit in. Some places they start to define the culture, as on Skye, which, catering for mass tourism, has also attracted so many new people to live there that it no longer feels like a Scottish island (not to me anyway), beautiful as it is. But in other places like on Rum the communities are so small that the clash remains obvious and tricky to negotiate.
This isn't a complaint. (No, honestly!) I'm trying and trying to understand what it means to live somewhere so different. Do you have to change your own needs? Do you change the island, so that it meets your needs? What is the compromise? Or do you just adapt and let Rum change you, let the island itself guide what you need to become? What does it say about me, and Rum, that I can write there more than anywhere I've ever lived before, yet can't go for more than a few weeks without becoming massively anxious? Can living in such a crazy state of closeness to nature actually provoke crises in people, in both a good and a bad sense...can it in fact have even a quasi-medical effect, a kind of physical intervention that changes you for either good or bad?
I know that the answer for me is yes, and it's only just begun. I think that just the fact of living somewhere so silent, so hugely un-human and with proper air, water and space, makes us breathe, think and feel differently. It shows you sides of yourself you never knew you had. It forces you to behave in ways you might never have behaved otherwise. It shows you what matters to you, what you can do without and what you really cherish. It can make you feel. As we went through Britain and saw the flooding and slept through weeks of gales and storms we also saw the fascination of nature. We saw how people crowded to the sea to watch the crazy waves, sometimes at risk to their own lives. We saw how despite the sadness and horribleness of losing your home to a flood people were awed by the rivers and their power. We share that power - we are natural too, and we see our emotions, passions and physical needs mirrored in the "other" nature around us. What would it mean if we really took that seriously?
|What I cherish. Close to nature...|
|and even closer.|
Mel's uncle is a marine biologist and he recently attended a massive climate change conference where he and his colleagues came to the consensus that basically, the world has 20 years before "this" - floods, hurricanes, states of emergency - starts to look normal. There is a massive challenge in that, one that I don't think people will know how to meet. I certainly have no idea. But looking at the challenges people are facing on the mainland right now, I feel privileged to be somewhere where I can experience a "different" civilisation without it being a "ruined" civilisation. Rum is not at the end but at the beginning of a transformation. It feels new, even though the island of course is old. We are putting a community right in the middle of something totally un-communal, and I want to know how it works out.