27 June 2019

greetings from the European heatwave

Many years ago, almost in another lifetime, while preparing to disembark from the plane that brought us to Delhi, the pilot warned us to mind our step on the slightly molten tarmac (this was before the invention of passenger bridge tunnels) as the temperature outside was 48° Celsius. My seven year old daughter let out a little yelp of excitement and we walked out hopped onto the soft squishy surface and into the dry Indian heat with all the nonchalance you acquire after living close to equator for several years where seasons are marked by the direction of the wind rather than a drop in humidity of even temperature. 

hazy spuds

We are no way near this, of course. I only mention this family anecdote to show off how we can do heat.

Admittedly, it is hot. Especially in the evenings when the wind drops. AC is not a thing in private homes here. It's all down to keeping the heat out which is not too difficult in these boring proper energy efficiency regulated buildings with triple glazing, brick walls, cool basements and insulated roofs - and blinds. I love the smooth swishing sound of the blinds going down when the sun climbs over the hedge.
We also have a total of three ventilators, which we move from room to room.
herbs gone wild

At night, we open all the windows and wait for the cool night air to arrive while we drift off to sleep. I love open windows at night. For one thing, nightmares can escape so much faster, escaping in a silent whoosh. But also, the birds. They wake me at five and thanks to them I am up and showered and with my first cup of tea on the patio by six, reading the news. And I arrive in my office before eight after cycling through the magic forest. All before the heat starts in earnest.

The office is another story. In theory, the building I am in is top notch energy efficient, designed and built according to the latest renewable whatnot's requiring no CO2 gobbling AC. Unfortunately, inside we are surrounded by gadgets such as computers and scanners and printers and monitors and all their latest offspring, which all produce heat. But - as we all agreed this morning while we were fighting for the best position in front of the one and only stand-alone fan - we cannot cheer the school kids striking for action on climate change one week and demand AC the next. Surely not. Definitely not. Not us. (Occasionally, we sneak into the research lab freezer room - purely for comparison.)

 So far so good. I'll report back when the garden has dried up.

23 June 2019

Singing the dolphin through

Greetings from la-la-lily land, the secret boudoir of the queen of Sheba, aka the garden just after midsummer.

This morning as I hung up the freshly washed sheets to dry in the garden I could feel the wind changing direction and within minutes, the air got hotter and drier. We've been told and warned from all sides about this heat wave, hot winds from the Sahara, possible new temperature records and so on.

The weekend edition of our local newspaper was completely dedicated to climate change, all sections, politics, sport, business, local news, culture, travel, gardening, even the tv critics and the ads were on it. We read it silently, shoving the pages to and fro across the breakfast table on the patio.

A bird flew into the sitting room as we were reading, a young robin. She blended into the carpet so well it took us a while to find her. Come on, sweetheart, we whispered, here, here, this is the way out. I like to think she left reluctantly, that she wasn't quite finished exploring. For some time, she sat in the pear tree just beside us chirping her message we could not understand.

This summer I have seen exactly two butterflies in the garden but the birds are abundant. A woodpecker comes every evening to hammer away at the string of peanuts hanging on the bicycle shed. He is completely unimpressed by our presence and last night, R managed to walk up right next to him. He continued to hack and bang and then he shrugged, at least I like to think that, he shrugged us off and flew away in a long low swooping curve across the garden.

Soon it got too hot for my taste and I sat at my desk editing some manuscripts for a while, whispering encouraging words to my stuck-up intestine (I am on my second round of antibiotics for the year thanks to immune suppression and sneaky E. coli).

Later I cut my fringe - almost expertly - and snuggled up on the bed reading The One Inside by Sam Shepard, laughing and crying a bit and I realised how sad we are, how lonely and sad.

And now it's almost evening. The temperature has soared another few degrees, the wind is hot. The climate activists who had been blocking the coal mines not too far from here have all been arrested and/or removed. R is cooking downstairs listening to Manfred Mann's Earth Band.

20 June 2019

we can fix it

. . . the narrative that has both driven and obstructed the climate change conversation for the past several decades (. . . ) tells us climate change could have been fixed if we had all just ordered less takeout, used fewer plastic bags, turned off some more lights, planted a few trees, or driven an electric car. It says that if those adjustments can’t do the trick, what’s the point? The belief that this enormous, existential problem could have been fixed if all of us had just tweaked our consumptive habits is not only preposterous; it’s dangerous. It turns environmentalism into an individual choice defined as sin or virtue, convicting those who don’t or can’t uphold these ethics.

Climate change is a vast and complicated problem, and that means the answer is complicated too. We need to let go of the idea that it’s all of our individual faults, then take on the collective responsibility of holding the true culprits accountable. In other words, we need to become many Davids against one big, bad Goliath.

We need to broaden our definition of personal action beyond what we buy or use. Start by changing your lightbulb, but don’t stop there. Taking part in a climate strike or showing up to a rally is a personal action. Organizing neighbors to sue a power plant that’s poisoning the community is a personal action.
Voting is a personal action. When choosing your candidate, investigate their environmental policies. If they aren’t strong enough, demand better. Once that person is in office, hold them accountable.
Mary Annaise Heglar

It is important (. . .) to take care of your body. You have to have pleasure, joy and humour in your life, otherwise you just become bitter and full of sadness. Nature is critical, dance is critical, sex is critical.
Pleasure is what fuels us. Sometimes when we are doing this work, it can feel like we are not allowed to feel anything but pain, yet having done this work for a long time, if you want to keep going you need to have joy, as that’s what will keep you motivated to go back.
Eve Ensler

There is no way around this is horrible. There are things to do. Draw together with people you love, work hard at making spaces, times, networks in which our ideals and values prevail, reach out for the vulnerable, and pitch your tents big (. . .). Love is what you have, and generosity, and imagination. What we have.
Rebecca Solnit

19 June 2019

Somewhere along the lines, over the years and so on, I lost the capacity to blame someone, something for the unhealthy mess I am in. 
Auto-immune disease, it spells it out, doesn't it. Especially to someone who had to spend five boring years in secondary school learning ancient Greek. 
Because, auto, that tiny innocent prefix, means "self".

In my younger years I was quite skilled in finding blame elsewhere. My mother taught me. She was the expert in finding blame - there was The War, obviously, then the cruel occupying forces, the lack of decent contraceptives (if only the pill would have been available to me, one of her favourite sentences when we failed to entice her), I could go on. And yet despite her so fervently despising us, her offspring, she taught us that we were beyond blame, much too superior, too intelligent, too gifted to be made responsible for things going wrong on our way to greatness. My mother's children never made mistakes. It was simply impossible.

This indoctrination does something to you when you are a teenager. It makes you despicable, is what it does. Angry, haughty, sarcastic and ultimately, very lonely.

It was the driving instructor who cut me down to size, who stopped the car abruptly after I had once again blamed the driver of the other car for whatever it was that I had missed. If you can't accept your mistakes, get out, he said and waited. For a while. More than 40 years later, I still feel the wave of shame and recognition all the way to the pit of my stomach, while I fight back the tears. 

Anyway, that was a start and years later, I could say to my child, many times and in so many different ways, face your mistakes, go and fix this, you can do it. You will feel so much better afterwards.

And yet, the urge is still with me. If only I could find someone, something to blame. 
But: auto, meaning "self".

Something completely different but nevertheless on my mind requiring urgent answers: swifts, could their swooping and swaying up there in the high cerulean summer sky be happiness, are swifts happy or is it just exercise, feeding, survival?

17 June 2019

a first

The four moons of Jupiter are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
I just spent a good long while staring at them through a set of binoculars. I mean, not just Jupiter, but all four moons of Jupiter. In a neat diagonal line, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa to the left and below, while Io is slightly above to the right.
We are nothing, we are only stardust.

14 June 2019

some as-yet-unimaginable form of future human flourishing

It's a glorious morning and we are sitting outside in the shade waiting for the sun to hit us, it will be a hot day. I am babbling away about my weird dream last night and the bits of headline news that interest me. R is hiding behind sunglasses. I know he is trying to read but occasionally, he looks up and mumbles a polite reply. This is how we do breakfast.

I mention something I read about seaweed and eroding equatorial beaches because we used to live near the most stunning equatorial beaches for a while and he tells me about sea urchins' reaction to a warming ocean (not good) and somehow this exchange happens:

R: What causes population growth?
Me: Poverty.
R: But population growth causes poverty. (Careful. He is testing me, ever the teacher.)
Me: No. People have many children to survive in hard times, not the other way around.
R: But wealthy people also have lots of kids.
Me: Not to that extent.
R: So what causes poverty?
Me: Injustice.
R: What causes injustice? (Careful, he is testing me again.)
Me: Capitalism.
R: What causes capitalism? (Here we go.)
Me: Greed.
R: What causes greed? (That man knows not when to shut up.)
Me: A feeling of superiority, entitlement . . .
R: What is the cause of that?
Me: Religion.
R: (Big sigh.) You mean the institution that condemns birth control?
Me: Touche.

We leave it at that and wander off into the garden. I inspect the blueberries and note that they could be ripe by the time my grandchild will crawl on this lawn later in the summer. We pick raspberries and sweet peas until our hands are overflowing, stuffing them into tshirts and pockets, too lazy to go inside and get a bowl.

I busy myself with the tedious small tasks that keep me from thinking, briefly considering washing some murky looking tiles, but no. Instead, I diligently do my physio exercises and check my inbox and schedule a few assignments but oh heck, eventually I walk back outside and pick up the magazine R was reading, still open at the page where he was before he started his testing spiel.

The next 30 years are likely, instead, to resemble the slow disaster of the present: we will get used to each new shock, each new brutality, each “new normal,” until one day we look up from our screens to find ourselves in a new dark age—unless, of course, we’re already there.
Consider everything we take for granted: perpetual economic growth; endless technological and moral progress; a global marketplace capable of swiftly satisfying a plethora of human desires; easy travel over vast distances; regular trips to foreign countries; year-round agricultural plenty; an abundance of synthetic materials for making cheap, high-quality consumer goods; air-conditioned environments; wilderness preserved for human appreciation; vacations at the beach; vacations in the mountains; skiing; morning coffee; a glass of wine at night; better lives for our children; safety from natural disasters; abundant clean water; private ownership of houses and cars and land; a self that acquires meaning through the accumulation of varied experiences, objects, and feelings; human freedom understood as being able to choose where to live, whom to love, who you are, and what you believe; the belief in a stable climate backdrop against which to play out our human dramas. None of this is sustainable the way we do it now.
Nevertheless, the fact that our situation offers no good prospects does not absolve us of the obligation to find a way forward. Our apocalypse is happening day by day, and our greatest challenge is learning to live with this truth while remaining committed to some as-yet-unimaginable form of future human flourishing—to live with radical hope. Despite decades of failure, a disheartening track record, ongoing paralysis, a social order geared toward consumption and distraction, and the strong possibility that our great-grandchildren may be the last generation of humans ever to live on planet Earth, we must go on. We have no choice.

Roy Scranton in: MIT Technology Review, May/June 2019 
(I urge you to read this essay, free online, it is not all hopeless. Don't be afraid. We need to face reality. We owe it our children. And if you don't have children, think of your best friends' children and if your best friends don't have children, just do it anyway.)

I sit there for a while, catching my breath. For a long long while. Sweat is running down my back, my joints ache. To hell with it, I mutter.  This is only the beginning. I am in.

12 June 2019

gardening as an instrument of patience

eremurus (foxtail lily) is the queen

fennel, we love fennel

fresia, a bit shy this year

the busy greenhouse

lilies getting ready

something South African

onions and carrots love each other

the spuds

the rambling rose

tomato blossoms . . .

. . .  turn into tomatoes

and the zucchini will do the same

07 June 2019

maybe too many links

But what will the world do, ( . . . ) if we can't solve the problem of the millions and millions of people  with no home to go to or whose homes aren't good enough, except by saying go away and building fences and walls? It isn't a good enough answer, that one group of people can be in charge of the destinies of another group of people and choose whether to exclude them or include them. Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous.

Ali Smith

This picture.  I actually took a photo of a page from the weekly colour supplement of our newspaper. (The photographer is Mattia Balsamini, he has the story here on his website.)

What do we see here?  
Again from the photographer's website: "On April 18, 2015, a ship sinks on its way from Libya to Europe. 528 bodies are recovered from the wreck a year later. A team headed by forensic scientist Cristina Cattaneo collected and catalogued all items on the wreck."
You can read about Cattaneo's work here and here.  I hope you will.

So this particular picture shows us the contents recovered from a young man who drowned that day: three crosses (two Coptic) and three small plastic bags of soil. Soil from home. Home soil. Holy soil, maybe. 

It's the small packages of soil that stun me. A feeling of loss almost. And for a moment I cannot speak and need to look around me, listen to familiar sounds to find my bearings again. It seems that all the dear people, the hopes, the dreams, the things that I have lost (throw my health into that bag, too), nothing comes close to the loss this young man may have felt holding these bags of soil close to his body on some godforsaken ship about to capsize. But maybe he didn't know it would capsize, maybe he was just waiting for the awful seasickness to abide, for a shore to be within reach, dreaming of friendly European faces to welcome him. He would have been in for a shock. 
The Coptic crosses identify him as most likely Eritrean or possibly Ethiopian. You can read about the human rights situation in 2015 in Eritrea here and Ethiopia here.

And now I ask you to have a look at this link.  This is the crew of a rescue ship, Iuventa. A ship that was chartered and organised by a youth organisation from Germany, because:
When people were drowning in the Mediterranean we knew we had to act. So we went out to sea and saved 14,000 lives.
Since then, the EU has stopped all rescue mission, whether organised by European navy ships or NGOs. Instead, all the EU allows now is for helicopters and observer planes to spot migrant ships in distress and to watch the people drown. Watch. People. Drown.
The crew of the Iuventa has been accused of aiding and abetting illegal immigration into Italy, their ship has been seized by the authorities in Sicily.

I was 15 when I learned in school about the ancient Greek concept of xenia, (generosity and kindness to anybody far from home) and the god Xenios (aka Philoxenon or Hospites but basically Zeus in yet another disguise), the revered patron of hospitality and protector of guests, the avenger of wrongs committed against strangers.
Some years later, in sociology 101 at university, were given an essay by Hannah Arendt to discuss. The consensus then was, of course, how great and magnanimous the free world has helped the persecuted of WWII. We agreed, of course.
It's worth reading that essay again. "We refugees", she called it. But it's long, so just a quote:
Our optimism, indeed, is admirable, even if we say so ourselves. The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.

Then there is this story by Wade Davis that I wrote about several years ago (here) when he and his team were travelling by Jeep from an outpost in the Sahara desert and met a caravan of six men and 12 camels transporting salt. The men had been forced to stop in the desert to dry out the salt before continuing their journey. They were down to their last quart of water, 150 km from the nearest well with a cargo and animals that represented the entire wealth of their families. They had sent one of their young mates with one camel to find water. Davis continues:
While we waited for their friend to return, the leader of the party kindled a twig fire and with their last reserve of water offered us tea. It is said in the Sahara that if a stranger turns up at your tent, you will slaughter the last goat that provides the only milk for your children to feast your guests. One never knows when you will be that stranger turning up in the night, cold and hungry, thirsty and in need of shelter. As I watched him pour me a cup of tea, I thought to myself, these are the moments that allow us all to hope.

I leave you with this:
But masked gods walk among us as a test
for hospitality’s a sacred duty
binding all who claim morality
 Ian Duhig