Commissioned article for the Free Word Centre
What happens when flooding hits home? Rachel McCarthy, a climatologist and poet, writes about her experience of the French floods in 2016 and how we must act now - together - to adapt for the future.
Beaulieu-les-Loches, Centre Val de Loire, France
5am, May 29th 2016,
I wake to thunderous rain. My two cats sit uncharacteristically side-by-side, bolt-upright on the dresser to peer out of the window. I turn my head left. My husband’s awake too, lying on his back looking at the ceiling.
‘It’s been like this for half an hour now.’
I get up, pull on a dressing gown and draw back the curtain. We’re not the only ones awake. Lights are on in all the neighbouring houses. The rain’s so heavy that the rectangles of light blur into long yellow streams, like car headlights on a long exposure film. I count the dark gaps between lightning strikes on my fingers. For ten minutes I barely get to three, each strike illuminating a rippled sky, ripe olive-green.
The next morning while I’m in the garden surveying the damage from rain and hail, there’s a knock on the door. A man dressed in utility blues tells my husband to move our vehicle from the street. My husband, on a work call, nods distractedly and splays his fingers to indicate five minutes. The man stands for a moment then shakes his head and beckons him to follow through the gate. In five minutes we wouldn’t had been able to move our van. Water was gushing down the street, visibly rising, already shin deep.
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Commissioned essay for The London Magazine
This January I moved from a flat in central Exeter to a wooden house in the Loire Valley. I’ve replaced the urban sprawl with a neat patchwork of farmlands and woods but there is one constancy of a now not-so-peculiarly-English persuasion occupying me, the weather. As I write this, Storm Imogen is dancing across the sky, whipping her outer skirts of rain against my study window. The storm has battered southern Britain, with waves as high as Gormley’s Angel of the North recorded off of St Ives. Back in Devon my former colleagues at the Met Office will be fielding questions as to whether the succession of storms in Britain this autumn and winter, nine so far, is within our understanding of how the planet naturally works, or if these storms have been super-powered by climate change. I know as this is the exact question two British poetry friends asked me over breakfast this morning. As they finished their croissants and donned raincoats I explained what we know. That, in short, it’s too early to tell, but basic physics suggests that this type of behaviour is consistent with what we should expect in our warming world.
My visitors tightened their boots and struck out for the nearest deer-laden wood, talking of how to poetically engage with climate change. To address this issue it’s natural to examine how poets have engaged with climate and nature, starting with the Romantics. So today I stayed home, not because I’m adverse to a soaking (such an attitude is impossible when you’ve grown up in the North West of England) but part of my time here is much needed rest after a prolonged period of ill-health. I watched the outlines of my friends blur and assimilate with the rain and, thinking about my state and their discussion, found my companionship in Coleridge’s poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. Coleridge injured himself on the morning of the arrival of his friends Charles Lamb and Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Unable to walk, he sat and composed this poem to them while they went on their evening stroll. He imagines in detail what his friends may see ‘to whom / No sound is dissonant which tells of life’. Over the next two years Coleridge wrote some of his most famous poems and with Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads (1802), widely recognised as marking the advent of the Romantic movement. As Seamus Heaney pointed out in his introduction to the Selected Wordsworth (Faber and Faber, 1988), Wordsworth’s youth, nestled in Cumberland beneath the elemental majesty of the mountains, meant he had ‘grown up visited by sensations of immensity . . . communing with a reality he apprehended as a world beyond the senses’.
In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth speaks of composition as ‘emotion recalled in tranquillity’ until ‘by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation is gradually produced and does not actually exist in the mind’. Representation of the natural world was not metaphor, but a method of transcendence. The transcendence rooted in contemplation of the linkage between the land at its most majestic and man at his most humble and rural, ‘because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity. . . and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’.
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