“You think that you have time. And then, all at once, you don’t.” (Jessie Greengrass)

bouquet

It’s the middle of May and it’s hardly stopped raining for weeks. The winter was colder than I remember it, apart from 2008 when there was so much snow everything sort of stopped. We couldn’t drive out. We couldn’t pick up Forrest who was returning from Ontario for Christmas by train (a story in itself, with frozen waterlines and delays) and had to wait for him at the bottom of the driveway, holding up a lantern so the Malaspina bus driver would know where to stop because all the usual familiar landmarks were whited out. Someone said the other day that the rain was better than last June’s heat dome but has it come to this, that one extreme is preferable to another?

At the library, I keep reaching for the books that offer not solace but a sense of doom. Last night when John came to bed, I was reading Carys Bray’s When the Lights Go Out, and I told him a little about it. A couple who are facing the climate emergency in different ways, one of them by standing in the town with placards, food stockpiling, and acquiring a breeding pair of rabbits for meat, the other knitting (to supplement the lost income of her husband whose landscaping job has gone sideways because of the sempiternal rain), collecting plastic on beaches, counting bees, and even planning a quilt:

A fabric map made of time and geography: nine blocks, beginning with this land as it was eighteen thousand years ago when a vast ice sheet receded, and water filled a depression in the glacial drift. She has started work on the central piece: the Moss, as it looks in present-day aerial photographs. An appliqued Tetris jumble of triangles and rectangles, parallelograms and squares, in a variety of earthy colours and corrugations.

At first I felt a kind of optimism, reading about the purposefulness of Emma, even as her husband stood with his signs in the town, his jacket forgotten as the rain poured down, but then I kept hearing their dehumidifier whirring non-stop, thought of the former lake, now a wetlands, that their land bordered on, reclaiming its old identity, and I had to put the book aside. I don’t sleep well anyway and I knew the night ahead would be difficult.

But maybe not as hard as the nights following my reading of The High House, by Jessie Greengrass, a really extraordinary novel of the coming of the end of the world as we know it. There’s water, yes, and preparations have been made, and a house high above the sea and the rivers emptying into it. There’s a man who remembers the last great flood and has knowledge of weather, tides. One of the characters remembers,

the beginning of things, when we were still uncertain, and it was still possible to believe that nothing whatever was wrong, barring an unusual run of hot Julys and January storms.”

The characters in this novel are prepared, because one of them, a climate scientist, knows what’s coming. But being prepared and surviving — well, those might be two very different things. We’re not sure in this novel if they are. Because the things the characters are dependent on are the things we’re all dependent on: reliable pollinators, birds, clean water, each other. What do you survive for, if everything has changed, the things you’ve loved have disappeared? You eat the precious but lumpy bread in the years you miraculously have wheat to grind. Is that worth it?

It was a book I wanted to talk about so I recommended it to my older son. He signed a copy out of the library and when we next talked on the phone, he told me he’d begun to read it, agreed it was very good, but he couldn’t continue with it. Too bleak. I felt such remorse for recommending it to someone with small children, having just survived a pandemic, having transitioned to working at home, sporadically home-schooling an older child (when the school closed because of high infection rates), and who needs to hope that the world is still a good place to be. Of course it is. I know that. (My fingers are crossed as I type this.) But when I lie awake in the night, hearing rain on the metal roof, remembering the heat of last summer, the atmospheric rivers that caused catastrophic flooding in November, the wildfires that tore through huge swathes of North America (and which rage still in New Mexico) and which burned an entire town in the blink of an eye, I am searching for a map through it for myself and for those I love. A map detailing routes through a treacherous world, threaded with rising rivers but some with safe crossings, crowded cities, mountain passes with uncertain weather, forests dense with smoke, and oceans marked with hic sunt dracones, potential dangers to be avoided, and perhaps even a terra incognita, a place which none of us have yet damaged with our machines and our greed. In the night I would be grateful for a map, one I could fold under my pillow, and sleep, knowing I could find a safe place if this one sinks or burns.

“the future had slipped into the present” (Jessie Greengrass)

thompson

As I write this on a rainy Monday morning, I am listening to “Become River” by the extraordinary composer John Luther Adams. I’ve written about him before. His composition “Become Ocean” is one of my favourite pieces of music, holding within it both the beauty and power of the world’s oceans but also the dark presence of the climate emergency. Alex Ross, who writes about music for the New Yorker, says this about “Become Ocean”:

The title comes from lines that John Cage wrote in tribute to the music of his colleague Lou Harrison: “Listening to it we become ocean.” There are also environmental implications, as Adams indicates in a brief, bleak note in the score: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” A onetime conservation activist who moved to Alaska in the nineteen-seventies, Adams has witnessed the effects of climate change at close range, and his music often reflects what he has seen. The 2007 orchestral work “Dark Waves,” among others, evokes mighty, natural processes through the accumulation of gradually shifting patterns. “Become Ocean” is his most ambitious effort in this vein: its three huge crescendos, evenly spaced over the three-quarter-hour span, suggest a tidal surge washing over all barriers.

These days I am flooded with fear about the future, what it holds for us as a species but more importantly (because we are only one of the estimated 8.7 million species that call the earth home), for our planet. It might go on. Will we? Do we deserve to? These are things I think about in the night when I can’t sleep. Yesterday I did what I always do this time of year: I planted seeds and transplanted hardy seedlings (begun a month ago, or two) into the garden. Purple sprouting broccoli, volunteers of perennial arugula, some cauliflower. I planted the peas out earlier in the week. I tidied the greenhouse and wondered how on earth to prune the little olive trees, where to plant the hardy pomegranate. Twenty years ago I would not have been thinking about olives or pomegranates but our climate has changed. Who can forget the heat dome last year, the one that claimed the lives of 600 people in British Columbia? Or the weather system known as an atmospheric river that caused extreme flooding, landslides, entire highway systems collapsed, loss of prime agricultural land in the Fraser Valley (along with huge numbers of farm animals who drowned in barns or flooded fields). The king tides. Or the fires: 8,700 square kilometers burned, driving people from their homes. The town of Lytton, at the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, was completely destroyed. Imagine that for a moment. A vital community, one with a long history, Indigenous, settler, Chinese, the setting of Ethel Wilson’s gorgeous Hetty Dorval (and my own novella, The Weight of the Heart), burned to ash.

Over the past few days I read a compelling novel, The High House, by Jessie Greengrass. A small group of people in an isolated house on the edge of England are learning how to survive the unthinkable: the loss of a nearby village due to extreme flooding, with the ripples of climate events moving out into the larger world. These people are resourceful, in part because someone has made preparations for them, and in part because one of them has memory of previous floods, knows how to grow food to supplement what’s been hoarded for them, and provides practical advice and durable wisdom. One of the characters muses that floods had always happened elsewhere, far away, and one could feel sympathy but a kind of illusory confidence that surely it couldn’t come to that on one’s own doorstep.

The whole complicated system of modernity that had held us up, away from the earth, was crumbling, and we were becoming again what we had used to be: cold, and frightened of the weather, and frightened of the dark. Somehow, while we had all been busy, while we had been doing those small things that added up to living, the future had slipped into the present—and despite the fact that we had known that it would come, the overwhelming feeling, now that it was here, was of surprise…

The glaciers are melting, the rivers rising, already a fire in northwestern B.C. has closed a major highway, and what can we do but plant seeds and hope for the best? Try our best? We are waiting for the installation of a heat pump here, in part for its energy efficiency and in part to cope with the high temperatures that we are told to expect again this summer. Reading and thinking into the small hours of the night does no one any good and I can’t recommend it but in daylight, I can recommend the transporting beauty of John Luther Adams, his oceans and rivers and deserts transposed to violins, percussion, harps. Sit in a quiet room and listen. Let your heart slow to the watery sonorities of oceans and rivers, the distant thunder and bells and the dry vibrations of heatwaves. These are stories we might need when the future slips into the present. Listening, I am remembering the Thompson River as it winds below Walhachin, the air redolent with sage and dry earth, a few low junipers, their bark peeling away. Listening in my own high house, rain on the roof, Steller’s jays churring for their breakfast.

If you hear the Mississippi in Become River, I wouldn’t disabuse you of that notion. I’ve been a lifelong river rat; And the river I know best is the great Tanana river in central Alaska that feeds into the mighty Yukon. 
But from time to time, people will ask me, which ocean, which desert, which river, and my answer is always the same. 
Your ocean, your river, your desert. What I hope the music does is invite you into this beautiful, enveloping place, and for you have to your own journey, your own experience, your own float down the river, rather than me telling you a story about mine. (from https://thegreatnorthernfestival.com/blog/winter-walk-with-john-luther-adams)