Life Plus 2M
It comes, as it always has, to its peak near the autumn equinox. Experts predict that, after a summer of incessant rainfall on top of already record water levels, it will be catastrophic. Catastrophic. This is not a word that has ever been applied to the Severn Bore in all the thousands of times man has watched water surge and roll along the river’s course. In years gone by it was a popular tourist attraction; they walked the banks and viewed the bore as it hissed and crashed its way upstream. It’s been years since anyone dared stand on the banks; not that the banks are where they were before the water rose, or we sank, depending on your perspective.
My perspective is a hillside, across the valley from my retirement home. The house was once a pleasant rural retreat. In the sticks, as my wife used to say, In the arse end of nowhere, I would counter. We bought it to retire to. In our late 50’s, good luck and good decisions left us still young enough to have our health, to be in love, and wealthy enough to enjoy our retirement.
At that time the ramshackle property, nestled in woodland several metres from the river bank, seemed an ideal place to spend our days. My wife wanted to set up a small business, growing Bonsai trees, and I was going to write the novel I’d been promising myself all these years. The kids were grown and on their own way, we had been good, responsible citizens for decades and now was the time to reap the rewards.
Then the water rose; not slowly as we’d thought but with alarming quickness. One minute remote sounding scientists were portending ‘tipping point’, the latest in a long line of terrifying prophecies that had failed to come true; AIDS, the Millennium Bug, Bird Flu, Zika… They shouted loud enough but the media had been using the tactics of hysteria to sell news for years. We were immune.
The Totten Iceberg in East Antarctica had never read the news, and it was indifferent to the reception its inevitable melting would receive; it didn’t do it for attention, it did it because it was ice, and when ice gets warm enough, it melts.
Within weeks the water that had run, benignly brown along the floor of the valley below us swelled with the melt water from a broad strip to a swollen, angry torrent. A vicious snake that had swallowed something large; distended, struggling, angry.
We sat on the balcony, where we had envisaged enjoying afternoon tea, or pre dinner drinks in the summer evenings, and watched the water become a steady stream of bloated animal corpses; not all the farmers had higher ground to take their beasts too. The turgid, turbulent water snatched up anything in its path, the weight of it enough to pull trees from the earth or gather up buildings and send them, flotsam and jetsam, on their way. It was as if the Gods were playing poo sticks, my wife noted on the day before she left.
Don’t worry, it isn’t the end of our marriage. It was just the end of our time here; We had the official warning and knew that our house would likely be swept away with the next bore. Our insurance company stated their refusal to pay; we are at fault for not having the prescience to sell before we knew there would be a disaster, it seems. I don’t know if we would have done that, even if we had known. This was our dream, if it is to sink without a trace, then we should watch it do so, the captain and his ship and all that. We couldn’t have slept at night, if we’d sold inevitable disaster in place of a dream.
We live with my son and his wife now, it’s a squeeze but we get along. There’s no space for Bonsai trees, no quiet for writing, but there is the joy of Grandchildren. You have to make the best of what you’ve got. My wife didn’t understand why I wanted to come and watch, she called it morbid. Her eyes brimmed with tears that only abated when I made the poor joke, ‘Don’t add to the water level, old girl.’ She’s at home.
I’ve found myself a spot, high and dry, sitting on a tree stump. I have a flask; the bitterly aromatic tea is clouding the air before me. The cup warms the chill in my hands but it doesn’t touch the chill in my guts, or overwhelm the musky dampness of falling leaves and rotting timbers. They seem appropriate for today, not the day of the dead, but the day of dying dreams.
Somewhere, out in the wide ocean, a wave has formed; larger than they ever were, swollen with melt from good old Totten and not just the tip; the whole nine yards. The wave crashes angrily to shore, the force of it loosening cliffs, stealing shale. But there is a weak point, the estuary; here the water finds a place to run.
Imagine a funnel, loyally taking the water you pour in and directing it to a single point. Now imagine throwing a bucket full of water into the funnel; imagine the force that it sprays from the end.
The water throws itself, unknowing, unfeeling, into the Severn. The estuary roils. Near Avonmouth the swell is terrifying but it is just the beginning. The bore itself forms past Sharpness when the weight of the water hits the rocks at Hock Cliff. Now the Bore has its head, and it races towards the narrowing at Langney Sands where even with the risen water level the channel is just a few hundred yards across. Crashing, hissing, vicious and unstoppable, this is nature’s lesson. We are not masters here; we are not even students. We are expendable. It is catastrophic.
The bore is coming.
A collective gasp travels around the courtroom, and the judge’s gavel comes down like the final nail in my coffin.
I hear the words but I can’t process them. There are fingers clutching painfully at my arm, and I look down into the despairing eyes of my mother.
“We’ll fight this,” she says, trying to sound confident, but failing by several degrees.
The likelihood that any appeal will go through before the worst part of the sentence is carried out is vanishingly small. And, once that part is done, there’s no going back, no matter what may be decided later.
I’m still finding it difficult to understand what’s going on. I realise I’ve stopped breathing, and I force myself to take in a strained lungful of air. Suddenly, my knees feel weak and I slump down onto the wooden bench, utterly defeated.
For a crime I didn’t commit, I have been given the heaviest sentence possible. I will have to serve a lifetime of indentured servitude, working the hardest tasks in the most inhospitable and dangerous environments. It’s no consolation that the other part of my sentence will equip me better for such work than I am now. It is not an equipping I want or will be able to endure without great suffering.
Sooner than I can imagine at this moment, I will be taken from this place and delivered to the Department of Transmogrification. There, my bones will be broken and extended, and my body stretched almost beyond its capacity, adding a full two metres to my height. Then, I will be provided with acclimatisation training, to teach me how to live and move in my new body, and how to use it to the benefit of the establishment that has forced it upon me.
I have heard tell that everything slows down when the two metres are added. Having such reach and such mass may be useful in undertaking certain types of manual labour and military tasks, but it necessarily results in a slowing of all movements and accompanying thought processes. It is not possible to utilise the familiar speed and flexibility of the human body on a grander scale.
I will no longer be able to meet the gaze of my friends and family eye to eye, even if I get the opportunity to see them at all. I will no longer even be able to relate to them on a level playing field. They will never be able to comprehend my new existence, and I will quickly forget what it is like to be one of the small and hasty beings that will soon be scurrying beneath my notice.
It may be a life sentence, but it will be the end of the life I have known up until now. The person I am now will cease to exist as surely as if I was to be executed. A new being will take up my newly assigned role in society, with different abilities, a different perspective, and different companions in my servitude.
My mind shies away from the implications of what has just happened, and I retreat into the oblivion of unconsciousness, hoping I will awake to discover it has all been a dream. More likely, I will awake to a nightmare of a new existence I will have to endure for the rest of my life.
So the whole idea of rising ocean levels is hard for me to imagine, even now, and even after I’ve lived on the coast for ten years and been on a ship a sea. I’ve walked the seawalls of major cities that border oceans, and I’m sensitive to the power of rising tides, but it’s an intellectual rather than an emotional perception. I am still, I guess, emotionally on dry land.
I saw a documentary years ago about divers exploring the drowned remains of some ancient city. The presumption was that an earthquake had opened the entire city to the bay that wrapped around it, submerging it suddenly and completely to a depth of twenty or thirty feet. The cameras showed divers swimming into and out of doorways and around columns of ancient, forgotten buildings, once home to an active and large population. The sensation of watching this film stayed with me. It was more than the ghostly exploration of a dead city, more than the speculation of what happened to the people who once walked these streets and lived in these sunken structures. It reminded me that Nature has little regard for the pitiful etchings of mankind. When Atlas, so to speak, more or less shifts his weight, just a little, the world shifts with it, and prairies buckle, mountains crumble, oceans rise.
The two-meter rise of the oceans forecast by the dark prophets of science is not something, though, to be casually regarded. Man’s refusal to respect and preserve the planet/garden where he exists is the cause of this, they say and I believe. I have seen reports of soot-covered glaciers, of the diminished ice-packs in Greenland, Antarctica, and I’ve felt desperately sad, even a little bit afraid. I note that recently, a cruise ship traversed the previously impenetrable Northwest Passage, which, triumphant an achievement as that may be, signals a crisis with polar ice. I worry about that, and I worry about polar bears and penguins and whales and other creatures of the sea that rely on the stability of oceans to survive.
Water rising two meters doesn’t sound like much. In American terms, that’s a couple of yards. But the global impact of that on low-lying cities such as New York or San Francisco, Boston and Charleston, Miami and Mobile, and most certainly New Orleans and Corpus Christi would be horrific. And that’s just in the U.S. In more than a minor way such a rise would remap the coastlines of all the continents. And while it might not sink entire cities, it could change their perimeters, force them to face ruination and disappearance of their most precious icons and landmarks.
The focus of the media when they deign to talk about this in serious terms is the economic impact, of course. Loss of property would be one—oceanfront is prime real estate almost anywhere—and certainly loss of business from shipping, fishing, and other seaside enterprises. Tourism would be affected; the famous beaches where people go to frolic and take the sun and surf would be altered in dynamic ways.
But apart from the grim and somewhat temporal realities, there is the emotional impact of all of this. It’s our fault. It’s our problem to fix, and we do nothing about it, not really.
When I was a boy in my drought-stricken homeland, I remember that some people came “to town,” which is how it was phrased, driving animal-drawn conveyances. Mules and horses pulled carriages and wagons into the “wagon-park” that was behind the main buildings of Main Street and across from the depot. I was five or six at the time, but it seemed perfectly normal to me. I understood that they weren’t doing this to be quaint; this was their principal form of transportation. I’m not that old. This was only sixty years ago in rural West Texas. But we have moved from that to automobiles so entirely, I’d speculate that in that same county today, no more than a fraction of the population has ever ridden in, let alone driven, a mule or horse-drawn wagon. We’ve come that far.
As I sit here and compose this on an electronic machine, comfortably cooled by air conditioning, knowing that in a while, I’ll fire up my vehicle and drive into the city where I will teach a class in a comfortably chilled classroom bathed in electric light and enhanced by electronic devices, I don’t pause and marvel at the progress that has been made in the past six decades. But I do worry that maybe the price of that progress may be measured in meters, the measurement of the rise of the oceans.
I think there are two truths here: High tide is coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop it, as we lack the collective will to truly assess our carelessness and count the cost or to try, even, to reverse the slide toward submersion. And in time, I suspect, divers will be exploring the drowned ruins of our civilization. The question then, is if there will still be people high enough and dry enough to care.