The Lies in the Air

The two detectives stood over the autopsy table, regarding the remains. The dead man had been Caucasian, middle-aged, overweight and balding. The body had a flattened, burst look, the flesh of the torso split in a number of areas. The intestines had already been removed, most of them having to be brought in separate from the body. The left arm was connected only by tendons and strands of muscle. As the coroner sprayed the corpse, cleaning it down, the water ran red with blood onto the stainless steel table and down the drains set into its surface. There were ligature marks on his wrists that indicated they’d been tied, and the man had a strange blood-bruise that circled most of his face, the face itself misshapen as if something had tried to suck it into a hole.

The coroner was a lean man with African features and a bass voice that sounded suitably sombre as he spoke into a recorder about the each step of the post-mortem. He spoke in German, his diction clipped and precise. The room was chilly, its surfaces all white tile, steel work units and painted concrete walls. The coroner said something to his assistant, a sallow, pinch-faced young woman, who handed him a scalpel. He began to make a Y-shaped incision down the torso, preparing to open up the chest cavity.

Unlike scenes in so many films, when a body falls from a great height, it rarely lands intact. It is, after all, a soft container of flesh whose shape is reinforced with rather brittle bone that tends to break on impact. The overall effect is that of dropping a meat balloon full of blood. The two detectives watched with detached interest, as a customer might watch a butcher prepare joints of meat. This was not their first autopsy.

Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were part of an international unit attached to Interpol, tasked with investigating crimes with far-reaching consequences. They were in this room in Berlin today because the dead man might have a connection with two open, and possibly connected, cases. Lies-5Blowfly was neat and trim in dress and looks, his Oriental features stretched over fine bone structure, his manner still and relaxed, a faint Irish lilt to his voice. Jerm had a more neutral English accent, was more restless, and taller and more angular, with cropped dark brown hair which was never quite brushed into place. Her face had a subdued, dour expression without seeming cold, though whether that was from her job or because of her character was anyone’s guess.

‘So this guy fell from this building, TV Tower,’ Blowfly said.

He’d only arrived half an hour ago, having come in on a different plane to Jerm. He was still catching up.

‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘The Fernsehturm. One of their most famous buildings, overlooks Alexanderplatz. His name’s Erich Ulbricht. He was a broadcaster, but he didn’t work in the tower himself.’

‘What’s with the mark on his face?’ Blowfly asked.

‘Oh, you’ll love this. When he hit the ground, he was wearing a gas mask.’

‘What?’

‘You heard me. A gas mask. The guy was wearing it when he was thrown off.’

‘We sure he was thrown?’

Jerm had a picture of TV Tower ready on her phone to show him.

‘Oh yeah, I know it,’ he said, nodding.

It was straight and thin, tapering to a point like a needle. About two thirds of the way up was a sphere, with another, rectangular structure above it. Most of the rest above that was an antenna.

‘See the glass ball?’ Jerm said. ‘That’s where the restaurant and viewing gallery are. Usual deal with these things, great view of all the big stuff nearby, you know; the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz . . . And it turns too. These restaurant places always have to turn now. Anyway, whoever did this to the guy, hung him by his feet down over the ball bit here. He was hanging right down in front of the windows of the restaurant.’

‘Kind of like . . .’

‘. . . A public hanging? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. There’s a definite punishment vibe coming off this thing. So he’s let hang there, his wrists tied behind him, wearing this gas mask and he’s thrashing around . . . Some of the staff think to run upstairs to see if they can pull him up. But when they get to the office he’s hanging from, they throw open the door and it’s . . .’ She paused. ‘The door was rigged. WhLies-6en they opened it, it released the end of the rope.’

Blowfly looked back at the corpse on the stainless steel table.

‘How high?’

‘Two hundred and ten metres, give or take.’

‘That’d do it all right.’

Neither of them spoke for a minute. Blowfly already knew why Jerm had taken an interest in the case. Erich Ulbricht worked for Hewbrys Holdings, or at least, the radio station he worked for was owned by the company. Hewbrys Holdings was connected to two of their other cases; a bush-fire in Australia and a terrorist attack on the Thames Barrier in London. And now this.

‘Different M.O.’ Jerm commented. ‘Completely different situation. Again. But it’s got the same stink off it. Someone’s playing games.’

‘Yeah, I’m having a theory,’ Blowfly said.

‘Great, I’ll call the press.’

Blowfly didn’t rise to the jibe. He was well used to his partner’s sarcasm. They were both about to say something else, when the coroner lifted his head and pulled down his mask for a moment.

‘I just thought you’d be interested to know,’ he said to them, his English spoken with a trace of American twang. ‘The gas mask had its breathing tube sealed. He wouldn’t have been able to breathe while he was wearing it. My preliminary examination of the lungs confirms it. He was asphyxiated. Even if he hadn’t fallen, he would have been dead within a minute or two.’

‘Any idea why?’ Jerm asked.

‘I believe that would be your job,’ the coroner replied. ‘Though I’m sure the Berliner Polizei will already have a long list of suspects. Mister Ulbricht was a divisive figure in Germany.’

‘How so?’ Blowfly said.

‘He was what you’d call a “shock jock”. Paid to spout offensive opinions. Even the name of the radio station, “Schutzwall“, is intended to get a rise out of people. Strictly translated, it means “rampart” or “protective wall”, but you would just call it, “the Wall”.’

‘That was the name of the Berlin Wall in German,’ Jerm told Blowfly. ‘Der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall. The Anti-Fascism Rampart.’

‘Yes,’ the coroner said.  ‘Though, perhaps it’s intended to be ironic, given Ulbricht’s politics and those of the station generally. He was the poster boy for every right-wing, reactionary campaign over the last few years. Lies-3He would have had plenty of enemies already, but after the guest he interviewed last week, well . . . there are probably thousands more.’

‘Why’s that?’ Blowfly asked.

‘The living aren’t my problem,’ the coroner said. ‘They’re yours. The interview got posted everywhere online. You should hear it for yourselves. You’ll understand.’

Giving them a grim smile, he pulled up his mask and returned to his work.

 

Erich Ulbricht’s fateful interview had been with a Polish woman named Dominika O’Reilly. She was an environmentalist who had been brought on to talk about the pollution in China’s cities; she had written an article about it in one of Germany’s newspapers, comparing it with the pollution Berlin faced in the seventies and eighties. She was thirty-six years old; a lean, active looking, slightly unkempt woman, her straight blonde hair cut in a bob just below the jaw-line, the features of her face blocky but strong and attractive, prematurely lined by what appeared to some underlying anger or frustration. Her eyes had the intensity of a campaigner.

‘Ulbricht brought me on to his show to make a point,’ she told the two detectives, her accent a light-sharp, chirping mix of Polish and Irish. ‘I was there to talk about climate change, but he wasn’t really interested in anything I had to say. He just wanted an excuse to go off on a rant about China.’

They were sitting down at a wooden table and benches outside a café beside the Documentation Centre at the Berlin Wall Memorial. O’Reilly had chosen the location, saying she did not want to be interviewed in a police station. She had had bad experiences with the police in the past. Blowfly and Jerm were inclined to agree. They had already checked out her criminal record, which listed a series of arrests for various extreme protests, ranging from chaining herself to mining machinery in Australia, to hanging off a bridge in the path of a container ship carrying toxic waste down a river in the US. She was now a German citizen; seemingly the only country she’d lived in where she’d never been arrested. Blowfly had a latte in front of him, Jerm had a black coffee and was lighting a cigarette. O’Reilly had only asked for tap water. She didn’t look too happy about the cigarette smoke, but she didn’t say anything.

‘When we talked on the phone,’ Blowfly began, ‘you said you weren’t surprised to hear Ulbricht died wearing a gas mask. Hearing that someone’s been thrown off a building with a gas mask on would be pretty surprising to most people.’

‘I’m not most people,’ O’Reilly replied. ‘Perhaps I was being insensitive about someone who’d just been murdered. I don’t particularly care that he’s dead, but it’s horrible how he died. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. The reason I said I wasn’t surprised was because of his background. You said you’d listened to the interview?’

‘Yes,’ Jerm said, exhaling smoke, ‘but we’d like to hear the story straight from you.’

O’Reilly sipped her water, tilting her head back to look at the sky. Across from them was one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, complete with one of the old watch-towers. It was there as a monument now, a reminder. But Berlin had moved on, consigning that part of itself to history.

‘It’s funny, how different things are normal in different places,’ the young woman said. ‘Fifty years ago, that wall dividing the city was normal. Stasi surveillance and all its informers, the horrible paranoia, was normal. Life recovering from the world’s worst war was normal. City streets obscured by a choking smog was normal. Now we think this is normal, what we have now. And yet this has only existed for such a very short time. I like this normal – here, now, in Berlin. The environment is taken seriously.’ Lies-7She gestured over her shoulder at a billboard on the wall. It was for an organization called Naturschutzbund Deutschland, and showed a boat passing through water whose surface was carpeted in garbage. ‘It’s part of normal conversation. People don’t consider you a nut for talking about conservation, climate change, that kind of thing.’

Jerm thought about the other two cases they were still working on; one that concerned bush-fires in the Australian state of Victoria, the other the Thames Barrier in London. Both had an environmental facet to them, though she and Blowfly had been unable to establish that as a solid connection.

‘You very worried about climate change?’ she asked.

‘I should be,’ O’Reilly answered. ‘But I mustn’t be worried enough.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because it’s so serious, I should be out planting bombs to stop all this coal mining and oil drilling. I should be helping to blow up these mines and oil rigs. That’s how serious it is. It’s going to bring down civilization as we know it, so I should be doing anything possible to stop it. But I don’t. I should be willing to go to prison to make change happen, but I’m not. I don’t go far enough.’

‘You’re not going to do anyone any good in prison,’ Jerm remarked bluntly. ‘Tell us about the circumstances leading up to the interview.’

‘Yes, the interview,’ O’Reilly said, grimacing. ‘Not that it was an interview at all. I’d been asked to talk about my article on air pollution in China. In some cities, on some days, they have to wear masks when they go out on the streets. That was what I wanted to talk about. I mean, it’s only a symptom of the level of carbon in the air. You know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached four hundred parts per million?’

‘I’ve heard it,’ Jerm said, ‘but . . . well . . . I don’t really know what it means.’

‘It hasn’t been that high in the last three to five million years!’ O’Reilly exclaimed, her voice taking on the tone of an evangelist, her hands clasped in the air. ‘Back then, sea levels could have been thirty metres higher than today. The atmosphere’s been doing its thing, changing ever so slowly over all this time and then the industrial revolution comes along and suddenly the carbon levels start rocketing . . . It’s not just a few shifts in the weather we’re talking about here. Lies-2We’ve affected the air and the seas so much, we’ve changed the Earth’s future capacity to support the world as we know it. That’s how big a deal this is. That’s what I wanted to talk about . . .’

Pausing, she lowered her hands, giving the two detectives a sheepish, but bitter smile.

‘You see how I get. Anyway, I knew Ulbricht would ambush me, turn it into a chance for him to launch into some tirade against China. I’ve been caught out by people like him before. They don’t want real discussion or debate, they’re not trying to draw out the truth. This time, I thought I’d take a different approach. I’d employ some of his own tactics. I’d dig up some dirt on him. I knew he’d grown up in East Berlin, so when I was invited on the show, I contacted someone I know at the Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde, the Stasi Records Agency, who hold all the old files from the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.’ She rolled the German words off her tongue, as if tasting them. ‘My friend was surprised nobody had done a search on Ulbricht before, given the number of people who hate him, but there you are. Anyone can apply – the MfS files are all open to the public. Or perhaps nobody had dug far enough down. The Germans are keen to let it all lie, I suppose. It’s taken a lot of tolerance for Berliners, living together in the same city, to get past the suspicion, the paranoia that existed back then. Imagine how you’d feel if you found out that your neighbour had informed on you to the Stasi – or even one of your own family? If its people had looked for revenge on one another, Berlin would have descended into chaos. Instead, they had to forgive and forget, to get on with their lives. It’s so complex, so fascinating. And it’s extraordinary, what you can still find in the Stasi files from that time. Did you know they have an archive of sweat and body odour samples? I think it was for when they needed to use tracker dogs. The bastards even recorded your smells . . .

‘Whatever. I learned that Ulbricht had worked for the Stasi. He was an informer first, in university, then an operative, then an interrogator. The last references to him in the Stasi material were in connection with the South African Police. I kept digging and found mention of him in a report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. Apparently, when the wall fell, he moved to South Africa, where he continued to practise his trade.’

She paused once again, for effect this time, to ensure she had the full attention of her audience.

‘Ulbricht’s method of choice was the gas mask. He would put it on the prisoner and, if the victim didn’t talk, he’d block the air tube so they couldn’t breathe. He would do this until they passed out, then open the tube again. When the prisoner regained consciousness, he told them he would do it again, but this time he’d let them suffocate. Lies-8He claimed they never failed to tell him everything he wanted to know. After the fall of apartheid in ’94, he ran back to Germany. No charges were ever brought against him in either country. He managed to successfully build a new life in the media, covering up his past.’

Blowfly and Jerm had already heard the story, and Ulbricht’s apoplectic reaction to it during the interview, which had resulted in the show going off the air while O’Reilly was escorted from the building. Ulbricht had been placed on a leave of absence until the issue was resolved. Even a controversy-courting station like Schutzwall FM couldn’t employ someone who might have once been a torturer.

‘So a guy whose job it was to torture information out of people became an interviewer on the radio,’ Jerm sniffed. ‘Nice.’

‘He polluted the airwaves with his filthy arguments and accusations,’ O’Reilly said, scowling. ‘He used his position to humiliate others, to inspire fear and hatred and to denounce decent people with his propaganda and to undermine scientists who were warning against climate change, which was one of his pet hates.’

‘As I said, I’d never wish that kind of death on anyone, but I’m not sorry he’s dead. Whoever did this, they’re making a point. A bit heavy-handed, I’ll grant you . . . and unlike me, they’re not compromising. To be honest, I’m surprised someone hasn’t already claimed credit for it. This isn’t a normal murder, I think it’s the act of a terrorist. And terrorists want publicity.’

The three talked for a little while longer and then Blowfly and Jerm thanked Dominika O’Reilly for her time and she left. The two detectives regarded each other for a moment.

‘Definite pattern around this climate change thing,’ Jerm observed. ‘They’re all aspects of global warming, aren’t they? You get more bush-fires in Victoria, more storm surges along the Thames. And now this: a climate change denier who’s also a torturer, outed by an environmentalist.’

‘There’s something else,’ Blowfly added. ‘I think there’s something here about the classical elements.’

‘The what?’

‘The classical elements, the four states of matter . . . y’know; earth, air, fire and water. Earth is solid, air is gas, fire is plasma and water is liquid. Although sometimes there’s five, if you include the quintessence, or aether.’

‘Oh, sure. Right.’

‘No, listen,’ Blowfly persisted. ‘The first victim, Cameron Davis, burned to death. The second, Antonia Abbot, drowned. This guy, who “polluted the airwaves”, fell through the air while suffocating . . .’

‘Yeah, yeah, I get it. But . . . so what?’

‘So it’s symbolism of some kind. Like O’Reilly said, someone’s making a point. Yes, it looks like the work of terrorists, but where are the claims of responsibility? She’s right; terrorists want publicity – that’s what it’s all about. I’m betting there’s going to be another victim, possibly two. And the next one’s likely to be something to do with earth.’

Jerm slapped the table and blasted smoke from her mouth.

‘Goddammit, Blow! You’ve cracked the case! We just have to stop someone dying of earth and we’ll nail the bastards who are behind this.’

‘You’re such a piss-taker,’ Blowfly sighed.

‘You’re such a bullshitter,’ she retorted.

‘It’s why we make such a good team,’ he replied, grinning.

She smiled back, picking up her case and taking out her tablet. Opening a window, she typed in Ulbricht’s name and the words ‘climate change’.

‘Let’s see if he pissed off anyone special with this denial stuff,’ she said, tapping the screen. ‘The violence against the victims has all been up close; it feels more personal than your average terrorist. I’m betting it’s someone who actually met him – maybe someone who featured on his show . . .’ A photo caught her eye and she stared at what had appeared on the screen. She spread her fingers over it, zooming in on the picture. ‘Well, I’ll be damned.’

‘No question o’ that,’ Blowfly murmured.

‘Smart-arse. Look at this.’

The photo was only tagged with Ulbricht’s name, but the image showed four people. The detectives recognized three of them. The image was a scan of a newspaper article about a group that had been assembled by the CEO of Hewbrys Holdings to ‘investigate the possible effects of climate change on air quality in Central Europe’. The people standing next to Erich Ulbricht in the picture were named in the newspaper’s caption, but it was just part of the image; the words wouldn’t show up on a search of the web. Next to the radio presenter was Hewbrys’ ‘Environmental Affairs Spokesperson’, Antonia Abbot and ‘Atmospheric Chemist’, Cameron Davis. The fourth person was a ‘prominent environmentalist’ named Michal Jánošík. Jerm went on to do a search for Michal Jánošík online, while Blowfly opened his laptop and checked him out on the Interpol database.

‘He’s got a record,’ Blowfly said. ‘Numerous arrests; most seem to be for protests of one sort or another. He’s got a sheet longer – and more extreme – than O’Reilly.’

‘He’s also dead,’ Jerm declared. ‘Murdered last year. Looks like we’re going to Poland.’

Yes, Yes, YES!

It might seem a bit of a stretch, but bear with me for a few minutes and I’ll explain why the recent decision by the Irish people to include same-sex marriage in our constitution gives me hope that we possess the capacity for a much greater public appreciation of climate change.

And no, it’s not just because climate change has long been viewed as bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberal issue and the referendum was a victory for bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberals everywhere. Though there is that too. For me, the most heartening aspects of the campaign for the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples were its sheer positivity and how visible it made the more enlightened views of the Irish towards LGBT people. Yes-Pic 3The new law recognized that change of attitudes, and it’s the difference between laws and attitudes that I want to talk about.

Let’s put things in perspective: Ireland’s laws, and the attitudes they originally reflected, specifically concerning homosexuality, date back to the Victorian era. The 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act outlawed: ‘the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal’. So homosexuality was aligned with bestiality, under the heading, ‘Unnatural Offences’. The state’s official position on this remained unchallenged until about 1970, when David Norris, lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin, spearheaded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, trying to get it decriminalised.

It wasn’t until March 1983 that Ireland had its first Gay Pride Festival. In 1988, Norris, by then a member of the senate, won a case in the European Court of Human Rights over the criminalisation of homosexuality in the Irish Constitution. It was a legal process he had started in 1977, that was beaten down in both the Irish High Court and the Supreme Court.

The law declaring that homosexuality was illegal was eventually changed in 1993, with the future Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore (who had campaigned on this since his student union days), declaring: ‘The sexual activities of consenting adults in the privacy of their home are a matter for the people concerned and should not be the business of the Dáil, the Garda or anybody else, including the peeping Toms of the self-appointed moral police from whom we hear a great deal nowadays.’

That was in 1993. Think about that for a second. A little over twenty years ago, according to Irish law, you could still be put in prison for making love to an adult, consenting partner. It was written into the same statute that included: ‘Causing bodily injury by gunpowder.’ and ‘Impeding a person endeavouring to save himself or another from ship-wreck.’ And it was included in the same sentence as bestiality. By 1993, however, nobody in their right mind would have attempted to try someone for the ‘crime’ of gay sex. That law is a reflection of the establishment’s position back in the nineteenth century, but it also reflects the attitudes at the time when, we must assume, Ireland’s population had the same proportion of homosexuals as it does now. People who had to live their whole lives suppressing their emotions, hiding their loves and denying their true natures for fear of arrest and imprisonment. Yes-Pic 2If they were in any way religious, then, by the teachings at the time (and still for some religious nuts now) they would have been assured by their religious leaders that God himself condemned their ‘abominable’ kind.

And though society evolved after that law was passed in 1861, those damning words remained there, a fixed point in a tide of slowly shifting public opinion. Strong, vocal, passionate activists started arguing for this law to be changed, but for a long time, the Irish conservative, predominantly-religious public opinion wasn’t ready to accept it. With growing numbers of people starting to take an interest, however, and looking beyond religion for their moral principles, the campaign began to gain momentum. Women’s rights were, slowly, gaining ground and this, in turn, contributed to other civil rights causes. The conversation on gay rights spread from being one held solely among strident activists fighting for a cause; to people interested in civil rights in a more general way; to people who just wanted to see others treated decently; to people who didn’t have strong feelings about it but figured, ‘Well, why not?’. As we became more aware of the need to distinguish betwYes-Pic 6een them, everyday discussions expanded from just ‘gay’ rights to ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’.

It took over a hundred years, but the weight of public opinion swung from steadfast resistance to the idea of LGBT rights, to a recognition and common acceptance of it.

By which time, the 1861 law was looking more and more absurd, along with many of the Victorian values it reflected.

So in 1993, homosexual sex was made legal. Which was an improvement, but, given how long it had taken, not what you’d call a giant leap for mankind. Looking back at that change in law now, to a time when I had just left college, even I feel a sense of embarrassment about how backwards my country must have seemed to anyone attracted to the same sex. I can imagine what it would be like if someone told me, after years of having to conceal it, that I could no longer be put in prison for having consensual sex with a woman. Would I be relieved? Yes. Grateful? Not a whole lot. But then what could you expect? The Irish were screwed up enough about straight sex. Despite the emerging crisis of AIDS, condoms had only recently become widely available, after bitter opposition – once again – by the church. Only a few years before, it had still been legal for a man to rape his wife. To use the term often trotted out by the ‘No’-siders in the referendum, marriage was ‘redefined’ when the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, was passed in 1990, so a woman could legally refuse to have sex with her husband. Yes-Pic 1Even if the Irish were slowly accepting how unjust our society still was, laws don’t change quickly. And constitutions, by their nature, change even slower.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the Civil Partnership Bill was passed, not allowing marriage, but giving the relationships of homosexuals and transgender people some rights under the law, including the right to adopt children. LGBT couples still didn’t have equal rights, but it was considered a victory nonetheless. The bill went a long way towards helping the public get its collective head around the idea of LGBT marriage.

In 2011, the first openly homosexual TDs were elected to the Dáil. Jerry Buttimer, John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan took their seats, representing Cork South-Central, Dublin North-West and Meath East respectively. Here was proof of public acceptance forging ahead of legal recognition. In legal terms, it had taken nearly twenty years, to go from homosexuality being illegal, to it being so accepted that you could be open about your sexual preferences and be voted into government. And help write new laws. But the Irish people had been changing for a lot longer than that – it just took the plodding system of government a long time to catch up.

In January 2015, Leo Varadkar became the first openly gay government minister when he came out publicly. At this point, Ireland was recovering from a crippling recession and a regime of harsh austerity. There were, and still are, huge protests over the move to start charging for the domestic water supply. The country was suffering and morale was low – but one thing was lifting our spirits. The referendum was looming and the country was clamouring for same-sex marriage to be recognized. It had gone beyond a gay rights issue. This was Ireland wanting to move on from its reactionary, conservatively religious roots.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was, at times, marred by negative terms and imagery, but it was overwhelmingly positive, not just about homosexuality and transgender people, but about our society, about Irish identity itself. The campaign was marked by joy, colour, humour and good will. Yes-Pic8We wanted to be better, more open-minded, more inclusive. We wanted tangible proof that we had changed for the better and were ready to spread the love. And what’s more, we wanted the world to know it. We had a pretty straightforward decision to make. We were voting on adding the following words to our constitution:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

That’s it. You wouldn’t think it was such a big deal, except there were a couple of million opinions to take into account. I remember walking into the polling station with mixed feelings. On one hand, it seemed bizarre that I should be voting on someone else’s right to get married. I didn’t believe in asking my wife’s parents for their permission to marry her – why should somebody have to ask the whole country? But I also walked in with a sense of excitement about voting that I hadn’t experienced in years. And it wasn’t just me. The country was buzzing with anticipation.

We still weren’t sure of a win. Progressive amendments to the constitution had been defeated many times before by the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church and the conservative element in Ireland, one that might be less vocal these days, but still had a strong foundation and, vitally, had a better record of voting. Ireland’s youth, in particular, had long shown a disconnected cynicism about the political process.

But not this time. The young voted in record numbers. The old came out in support. People from a range of religious backgrounds. There was no urban/rural divide, no division between classes. This was bigger than just an issue over LGBT rights; Irish people were making a statement about the kind of society we wanted. And for a whole lot of straight people, it felt good. Yes-Pic 7When the referendum was passed by a margin of two to one – the biggest margin of any referendum in Irish history – journalist and commentator, Fintan O’Toole said it simply: ‘This moment is not a gift from Ireland to the LGBT community. It’s the other way round. Thanks for making us proud of ourselves again.’

So here’s the thing: Ireland had already changed by the time the law caught up and made it official. That new law will not end discrimination; the world will never run out of assholes – they’re a renewable resource. But it has been made clear that discrimination will no longer be tolerated by society or the law.

That wouldn’t have been possible if public attitudes hadn’t changed dramatically long before that. The law didn’t lead the people, it was the other way round, but making it official marks the end of a process where the idea went from radical, to progressive, to accepted, to just plain . . . normal. And though the change in the constitution will now ensure LGBT couples will have equal rights, it has also made it possible for society to do much more beyond that.

In the campaign to raise awareness about our climate, to promote a more environmentally conscientious way of life, passionate activists have swum against the tide for years, calling for change. Unlike the ultimately personal question of equality and marriage, climate change is a difficult, theoretical, complicated and bewildering issue, but in more recent years, discussion about it has become more mainstream, with those in power now including it in their manifestos, wanting to appear progressive, forward-looking. As they so often do, our elected leaders are watching public opinion, gauging its direction. They want to show they have an eye on the big picture. Cross That Bridge-Low ResClimate change has now become the stuff of day-to-day conversations, a part of the small picture, as people accept that it is happening, that we are past the point of preventing it, that its effects are being felt already and it is becoming a part of all our lives.

It is now largely accepted (at least in Ireland) but our official position on the matter still has to catch up – and this time it’s going to take more than one shift in the law to achieve it and to motivate people. But those changes won’t just bring a solution to one problem. As modern life has drifted farther and farther from nature, it has caused all kinds of problems whose solutions lie in the very practices that will help our environment. Getting outside more, getting more exercise, taking the time to reconnect with nature; thinking more about what we’re eating and where our food comes from; making better use of our water; questioning the cost of convenience, reducing our waste; harnessing nature rather than fighting against it; demanding technology that does things better instead of doing more things unreliably; making sure it’s in a business’s interest to be ethical as well as profitable . . . These are changes that will have long term effects, but also offer immediate improvements in our lives – and they can be used to instil the kind of infectious positivity in the campaign against global warming that won the referendum campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.

A lot is going to have to change and, as we’ve seen with LGBT rights, with women’s rights, children’s rights and so many other advances in our country, society is slow to accept a new direction – but it can and it does. As far as climate change is concerned, public opinion is almost there, but to recognize that new reality and to really turn things around, it needs the structure that only new laws can provide.

And we’ll get there. It won’t be easy, but some of it might actually be fun and in the end, maybe we’ll feel good about ourselves for making the world a better place.

The Things On My Skin

For younger kids, or primary school teachers, here’s a little poem about Earth and the daft life that lives on it.

 

AAAGH!

These things on my skin!

These things on my skin!

I’m all that they’ve got,

I’m the world they live in.

 

Flowing waves, blowing winds,

Move like hands round a clock,

I’m a thin living skin,

Round a hard ball of rock.

 

Just look what they’re doing!

Can’t they smell the bad air?

I was fine with the poo and

The farts that’s all fair.

 

They’re all living creatures,

They have to let rip,

It’s part of their nature,

But I’m ready to flip!

 

AAAGH!

They’re drilling my skin!

They’re drilling my skin!

They’ve oil rigs and diggers,

They’re jabbing them in.

 

It’s the smoke that’s the thing,

That drives me insane.

That and the digging,

The drilling . . . the pain!

 

I’ve got land, I’ve got seas,

There’s enough to go round,

But stop cutting down trees!

Don’t dig up ALL my ground!

 

They crawl on my surface,

They’re making me itch,

The smell makes me nervous,

Makes my atmosphere twitch.

 

AAAGH!

They’re eating my skin!

They’re eating my skin!

Machines in their billions,

Gulping it in!

 

Watch them poison my soil,

Watch them making a mess,

Burning coal, burning oil,

Liquid dinosaur flesh.

 

It took so long to make,

It took millions of years,

But they’re so quick to take it,

They have me in tears.

 

My whole body’s ruined,

I mean, sure, it’ll mend,

If these slobs, these buffoons,

See some sense in the end.

 

They put stuff in the air,

That should stay in the land,

What’s that doing up there?

I’ve had all I can stand!

 

AAAGH!

They’re burning my skin!

They’re burning my skin!

Their fires like cigarettes,

I’m breathing in!

 

The air and the oceans,

Are losing their cool,

It’s got me emotional,

Feeling the fool.

 

The smoke’s like a blanket,

All itchy and hot,

It’s warming this planet,

When I’d just rather not.

 

My weather’s mutating,

And not for the better,

The bits they all hate,

Will get hotter or wetter.

 

AAAGH!

These things on my skin!

These things on my skin!

They’re changing my weather,

With new waves and winds.

 

The heat whips up storms,

Churns up the sea’s flow,

From the whales to the worms,

Nature’s hit with cruel blows.

 

But there’s still hope for me,

There’s still all those kids,

Who are starting to see,

What the grown-ups did.

 

To that thin layer of air,

The air they all breathe,

Now they’re starting to care,

About where this all leads.

 

Flowing waves, blowing winds,

Move like hands round a clock,

I’m a thin living skin,

Round a hard ball of rock.

 

I’m all that you’ve got,

I’m all that you need.

Before I get too hot,

You should stop and just . . . breathe.

The Giants in the Water

The huge machines jutted up out of the water like the bowed backs of giant armoured warriors, their shoulders hunched, as if ready to link arms to withstand the coming surge of the tide. Most of the gates they held between them were still invisible below the water. It remained to be seen if they could be lifted in time to stop what was coming. Giants-1Spanning the five-hundred-and-twenty-metre width of the river, and standing as high as a five-storey building, the Thames Barrier was the second biggest flood defence barrier in the world – and in economic terms at least, the world’s most important barrier. If it failed to work today, everyone would find out why.

‘They’re like giant warriors,’ Blowfly said. ‘Jutting up out of the water like that, their backs hunched, ready to lift those gates.’

‘What are you talking about?’ His partner frowned, taking a drag on her cigarette and blowing some smoke.

‘The machines – they’re like giants,’ he repeated.

Jerm threw him a quizzical glance and then turned her gaze to the massive engineering works in front of them. The two investigators were standing about fifty metres upstream on the north bank of the Thames. Behind them was a park, across the river from them, the barrier’s information centre and a car park. From their vantage point, they could see the police divers pulling the dead body out of the water and into their rigid inflatable boat. Jerm squinted at one of the steel and concrete towers. They were topped by what she thought looked like an armadillo’s shell with a big section cut out of the middle. But even that didn’t describe them properly.

How are they like giants, exactly?’ she asked. ‘They’re big, bloody . . . I dunno, machine islands.’

‘It’s just a metaphor,’ Blowfly sighed. ‘Never mind.’

‘That help you much when you’re investigating a terrorist act?’ she inquired. ‘Making up metaphors? Helps to get the synapses firing, does it?’

‘Never mind,’ he growled.

Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were part of an international unit attached to Interpol, that investigated crimes with far-reaching consequences. The dead body wasn’t the reason they were here, but they expected it would tie in soon enough. They had been called because a gang of well-organized criminals had broken into the control centre of the Thames Barrier in the dark hours of the morning and destroyed the main computer. Giants-2They hadn’t stopped there – they obviously knew that each of the ten gates that stretched between the towers could be closed using its own controls and the gang had succeeded in breaking through to the access tunnels and damaging most of individual controls as well. Several workers and security guards had been injured in the attack.

‘This must be what it feels like to be on the subs’ bench in the Premiership,’ Blowfly commented.

‘Mm,’ Jerm agreed.

They were only one of a number of units represented at the scene and Blowfly and Jerm were having to step back and wait their turn to look around. As well as the Met’s Marine Policing Unit, there were officers from Counter Terrorism Command and, Jerm suspected, but couldn’t be sure, a few spooks from MI5. She and her partner were here to study the big picture, to investigate the potential repercussions of the crime beyond London, or even Britain. But there was a pecking order here and Counter Terrorism Command were the ones with the biggest, sharpest beaks. In the UK, terrorism trumped every other crime and this was CTC’s turf.

Jerm was tall, with cropped, untidy dark brown hair. She had a face that was attractive in a hard-bitten type of way, but looked designed to deliver bad news. Blowfly was a few inches shorter, a tidy, trimly built man with fine-boned, Chinese features, a gentle manner and an Irish accent. Jerm chewed her lip as she flicked her cigarette butt out into the river.

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that,’ Blowfly said.

‘Yeah, I know. Sorry.’

This case was already getting messy and she wondered if being here was a waste of their time. A few metres away from Jerm was another man, by the name of Brunel. A thickset, sallow-skinned man with dark bushy hair and beard, he was one of the engineers from the Environment Agency, who managed the barrier. He was here to liaise with the police, but they were all waiting for the body to be brought ashore now, so he had time to fret about the gigantic machines out in the river. Giants-4Brunel had a pair of binoculars pressed to his eyes and was anxiously watching the gates. The attack on the barrier had been carefully timed. There was a storm surge expected from the North Sea, a colossal rush of water that would flow right up the river towards London. If the gates were not closed in time, a huge area of the city could be flooded. Millions of people and billions of pounds in property lay in the path of the surge. If the river flooded the city, the damage, and possible death toll, would be catastrophic.

‘So they’re having to crank those gates closed by hand?’ Blowfly asked the engineer.

‘Yes,’ Brunel answered tersely. ‘The outer gates, the ones closest to the banks, are smaller. You can see they’ve already been shut. But it’s the big ones under the water we have to get closed. And it’s taking too damned long.’

‘And they have to be raised up?’ Blowfly grimaced. ‘How heavy are these gates?’

‘About three thousand three hundred tonnes each.’

‘Oookay,’ Blowfly breathed. ‘That should be easy enough, then. You’ve done this before, right?’

‘Only in tests,’ Brunel replied. ‘We’ve never had to do it while facing down a storm surge like this one. You have to prepare for the worst, but . . . you hope that it’ll never actually happen.’

‘And how much of London is on the floodplain?’ Jerm prompted him.

‘About a hundred and twenty five square kilometres,’ Brunel told her.

‘That’s . . . that’s a lot of it.’

‘Yes. And my house is slap bang in the middle of it.’

They all turned to stare at the barrier. The gates were being raised in pairs – the ones nearest the banks first, then the next ones in and so on. The progress was painfully slow. The first two main gates were just rising above the water’s surface. Each gate was like a lengthwise slice of a cylinder, normally lying underwater, flush with the concrete base in the riverbed to keep it out of the way of boat traffic. When the huge hydraulic arms on the towers rotated the axles, the steel slab rotated up from its base, and swung into place to stand on its edge and block the path of the water. With the oncoming combination of a storm surge and the river already at high tide, the gates should have been shut over an hour ago. Even now, the level of the river was noticeably higher than normal.

The police boat had reached the riverbank and now the dead body was being lifted up to the assortment of investigators waiting to examine it. Blowfly and Jerm walked over, joining the huddle of men and women who crowded round the drenched corpse. It was a young white woman, small and of slight build, with shoulder-length brown hair, a narrow, pinched face and blue eyes. She was wearing grey suit trousers, a matching jacket, still buttoned, and a light green shirt.

‘Doesn’t look like she came dressed for sabotage, does it?’ Blowfly muttered.

‘She didn’t work here, so what else was she doing out on that tower?’ Jerm said.

Her skin had a tinge of blue and was marked by post-mortem gouges and abrasions – they had probably occurred where her body had been pinned by the current against the base of the tower wall where she’d been found. A detective inspector from CTC was already looking for any obvious cause of death.

‘Looks like a head injury, here on the back of the skull, but I’d say she drowned,’ he declared. ‘Hit, knocked out and thrown in, maybe?’

Nobody answered. He was only saying what they were all thinking anyway. He started going through the pockets. He found a wallet and opened it to reveal a typical collection of credit cards, loyalty cards, sodden receipts and some banknotes. There was also a driver’s licence and an ID card of some kind.

‘Antonia Abbot,’ the CTC guy said. ‘The ID is for the PR department of a company called Hewbrys Holdings.’

‘We know them,’ Jerm spoke up. ‘They’re the parent company for a few different businesses that have been investigated for environmental offences. Nobody’s ever got anything to stick against Hewbrys themselves though. Funny that she’s one of their people; Hewbrys has their headquarters in the Docklands. If the river floods, they’ll be one of the worst hit.’

‘Maybe she had some grudge against the company?’ one of the other detectives said.

‘And decided to take out half of London along with her own firm?’ Jerm snorted. ‘Hell of a grudge.’

Giants-8‘The video footage from the security cameras showed the terrorists dressed up all commando style,’ the CTC guy said. ‘She’s in a business suit. Maybe she was a hostage. But why her?’

‘And why did the kill her, if they managed to get in and do what they wanted to do?’ Blowfly asked. ‘Maybe she knew something, was involved in some way and they couldn’t leave her as a witness.’

‘It’s all conjecture at the moment,’ the CTC officer said, waving over the medical examiner, who was waiting to take a look at the body. ‘We’re analysing all the video now, but the gang destroyed the cameras as they came through. Let’s move back, let the SOCOs do their work. We’ll contact you when we have any more information.’

It wasn’t quite a dismissal, but it was close enough. The CTC were already marking their territory. The scene of crime officers were hovering, dressed in their disposable white suits, waiting to join the medical examiner at the body. More of them were already visible on the structures out on the river. Jerm caught Blowfly’s eye and tilted her head toward the railing where Brunel was still standing with his binoculars. They walked over together, leaving the others behind.

‘Remember the case with the bushfire in Australia last year?’ she asked her partner.

‘What, in Victoria?’ Blowfly replied. ‘The dead guy in the creek?’

‘Yeah. Guy named Cameron Davis. You remember where he worked? It was one of the places that burned down during the fire.’

Blowfly thought for a moment, searching his prodigious memory for the information.

‘It was a chemical plant – Osborne Solutions,’ he said. He paused, then added: ‘Jesus. That was owned by Hewbrys as well. Davis was hit on the head and left to die too, in the fire. He woke up and tried to put it out, but he burned up anyway. We thought that was just a bunch of git-faced firebugs. You reckon there could be a link?’

‘You think it could be a coincidence?’

‘You know how I feel about coincidences.’

‘Yeah, but sometimes stuff happens that’s really like other stuff,’ Jerm replied. ‘Or it seems connected and we make more of it than we should, simply because there was this random connection when, actually, random stuff happens every day that we don’t make a big thing out of because it’s mostly about stuff that doesn’t matter to us.’

Blowfly threw her a glance.

‘What, you’re a philosopher now?’ he sniffed. ‘So we gonna check it out?’

‘Bloody right we are.’

They both gazed out at the river for a moment.

‘Where are the heads, then?’ Jerm demanded.

‘What?’

‘If those things are giants, y’know, like giant warriors, where are the heads?’

‘Why do you have to be so literal?’ he snapped.

‘You mean, accurate?’

‘Oh, bugger off. Go smoke another cigarette.’

‘What, you like my smoking now?’ she grunted. ‘Or are you just trying to get me to die a little faster?’

‘The thought had crossed my mind,’ he murmured. They both grinned.

‘I think they look more like broken armadillos – the top bits anyway,’ Jerm added.

‘Oh, sure. That works,’ Blowfly said.

Brunel’s shoulders were hunched, his posture tense. The outer pair of gates had been raised and the next ones were closing, but it was like watching the minute hand on a clock. Slower, actually. Even so, the two investigators couldn’t help being impressed.

‘It’s pretty incredible, when you think about it,’ Blowfly commented. ‘Gates that can close off a river this size, hold back the ocean. It’s some piece of work.’

‘Some day soon, it won’t be enough,’ Brunel rasped. ‘Engineering like this, you have to think tens of decades ahead – longer. And this thing certainly won’t last until the end of this century. Giants-6Sea levels are rising, you know? Most people in London don’t pay any attention to what we do here, but every year, the North Sea comes surging in further, harder than before. In the eighties, the barrier was closed four times. In the nineties, it closed thirty-five times. In the noughties, seventy-five times. We can only guess what this decade will be like, but we’re less than halfway through and by March last year, it had been closed sixty-five times. And closing it doesn’t solve all our problems; you can’t block that amount of water and expect it to stay put. Block it here, it floods out in other places.’

He pressed the binoculars to his eyes again, and what he saw seemed to release some of the tension from his body. He ran his gaze from one side of the barrier to the other.

‘We’re going to do it,’ he rasped. ‘The scumbags might have wrecked the computers, but the hydraulics are still sound. I think we’ll close the gates in time . . . to stop the worst of it, anyway.’

Jerm looked out off the riverbank at the water flowing past their feet.

‘Is it me, or has the river risen a bit?’ she asked.

‘Yes, it can happen pretty fast, once it starts. We’ll have to go in a while,’ Brunel said. ‘The water level will come up over this bank before long. Like I said, you can’t block a river and expect it to stay put.’

Blowfly gazed down at the rising water. Then he raised his head and looked around. The city didn’t just stop downstream from the barrier. In every direction, he could see buildings; homes and businesses, stretching to the horizon.

‘You said the barrier won’t last forever – they’ll have to build something bigger. Giants-5The sea’s just going to keep on coming. So . . . where’s all that extra water going to go, when you block it off?’

Brunel looked over at him, but didn’t answer, dropping his eyes to the ground instead.

‘If the sea wants in, there’s only so much you can do,’ he said softly. ‘We won’t need terrorists to do us damage. You stop the sea here, it pushes in somewhere else. If we want to keep living on our rivers, on the coast . . .’ He shrugged and looked through his binoculars again. ‘We can’t protect everyone. We have to prioritize – we’re talking massive cost here, so that usually means taking care of the money-makers first. For everyone else, well . . . somebody’s going to get their feet wet.’

As he said that, he stepped back from the riverbank. Blowfly and Jerm did the same. The water was starting to lap over the lip of concrete. It was time to put some distance between them and the river.

Cremation

I’m not sure when I first noticed that the tree was dead. I wasn’t even sure what kind of tree it was – a poplar or maybe a birch. Before this, my main concern about it had been that it was close to the garage, which stands separate from the house, in the corner of the garden. There were traces of cracks in the concrete around the base of the wall, where it looked like the roots might eventually undermine the foundations. Cremation-1Like so many things in life, I didn’t pay much attention to that tree until it became a problem. It was in a blind spot in my consciousness; there, but unnoticed. There was this thing towering over the back of the garden, at least as high as the house, and I hadn’t even looked at the leaves to see what type of tree it was.

I was certainly paying attention to it now.

It hadn’t reached maturity – the trunk was less than a foot in diameter at the base and it was about thirty feet tall. A thin, lanky adolescent, yet to find its bulky strength but already high enough to make an unwieldy corpse. I had noticed that the bark had started cracking and lifting away from the wood, no doubt due to a disease of some kind. With a baby, a toddler, a budding teenager and all the work I still had to do on the house, we had a lot of other things going on, having a disease in a tree treated was way down on my list of priorities. But soon the bark was peeling away in heavy leathery strips, exposing the pale bare wood of the trunk. Woodlice took up residence in busy clumps in the gaps and cracks of the sloughing skin. When the leaves didn’t come back in the spring, I knew we had a problem. A dead tree, big enough and close enough to damage the roof and even the wall of our garage if it fell.

This wasn’t the first tree to threaten our home. On the day we’d picked up the keys for our new house, we arrived to find a heavy bough had fallen from an ancient horse chestnut at the back of the garden, in the other corner – one of a line of gnarled and ancient trees that ran behind the row of houses and had been there long before anything had been built on the land. Cremation-2The branch had narrowly missed our neighbour’s garage and could have done thousands of euros worth of damage. There we were with a house in need of renovation, an empty shell, still waiting for a heating system, a kitchen, bathrooms and even doors – so much of our money was bound into this place for the next few years and now the first thing we had to do was pay six hundred euros to chop down a dead chestnut tree. Apart from the fact that I hated having to cut down such a beautiful old beast, it was money we simply couldn’t spare, but there was no avoiding it. If the tree fell, it could demolish our neighbour’s garage or crash through the back of our house.

That job took a full day, with three men, a cherry-picker and a tractor and trailer. The house was showered in sawdust that floated into the air in gritty clouds as the tree surgeons started high and worked their way down in a roar of chainsaws, lopping off a piece at a time and either dropping them or lowering them on ropes. That old chestnut ended up spread out across our garden in its component parts, as if waiting to be assembled again.

I watched as much as I could, trying to learn how they did it. I figured, I never knew when I might need to cut down a tree myself. They wouldn’t take the logs in part payment and I couldn’t keep them in the garden – they’d take up too much space and wreck our back lawn. Something else we wouldn’t have money to fix for a few years. I didn’t have the chainsaw, or the skills, to chop the huge logs into pieces I could burn. So I kept a few chunks, let a friend of mine take as much as his car could hold, and let the tree surgeons drive off with a large tractor trailer full of logs from our tree.

That was in 2010, just before we had the worst winter Ireland had seen in decades, when I ended up burning logs almost every day for about four months. Logs I had to buy. I was well bruised from kicking myself over that winter.

And then the other tree died. I could appreciate the irony. One of the things I’d looked forward to about finally owning my own property was planting a few trees with the kids. Instead, there would be two less trees in the world because of me. We were hit with several weeks of windy weather and I anchored the brittle mast of dead wood as best I could with a couple of ropes, worried that it would fall before I had a chance to control that fall. In the meantime, I started to do a bit of research online, learning how to cut down a tree. There were a number of helpful demo videos on YouTube – and many, many more that showed the accidents that could happen when idiots with no expertise or experience tried some DIY lumberjacking. Smashed roofs, walls, cars, cut and crush injuries . . . there seemed to be no end to the damage you could do with relatively little effort.

I also found out that it was impossible to hire a chainsaw in Ireland. Presumably because of the aforementioned idiots and the amputated limbs that resulted. But I was still confident. This wasn’t a huge tree and as long as I could get it to fall diagonally across the garden, it wouldn’t do any damage. I wouldn’t even need a chainsaw. I had a couple of bow saws I figured would do the job.

I love wood in all its forms. I love walking in forests, I love working with wood with my hands, I love the colours and textures, the feel of cutting and shaping it. I like to burn it too – I prefer a wood fire to a peat fire. There may be less heat and it does burn out faster – depending on how well the wood is seasoned – but it also burns out almost completely, leaving hardly any ash, compared with the mounds left over when you burn peat. I hate the powdery grey clouds that ash makes when you have to clear out the fireplace.

It’s better for the environment too. The managed forests replace trees as they’re felled. Young trees absorb carbon as they grow and hold onto it, so using wood as fuel is, theoretically, carbon neutral. As long as we’re replacing them, they’re not adding any new carbon to the atmosphere. Cremation-3Ireland’s peat bogs, on the other hand, would take hundreds, if not thousands of years to form again, if it was even possible. And in the meantime, we’re releasing all the carbon trapped for thousands of years in that peat. The oil, coal and gas we’ve based most of our civilization upon have taken even longer to form and there’s no question that they’ll eventually run out.

A wood fire sounds better than peat too. That whuff, the crackling is the sound of a comfortable home. Every couple of months we get sacks of logs delivered. They’re always too big for the fireplace, too chunky to get a fire going, and for someone who works at a desk a lot of the time, there’s no better stress relief than getting the axe out and spending an hour splitting logs and chopping some kindling.

The weather was getting cold again, there were new storms coming and the tree had been standing dead for too long. So one Saturday, I went out, and tied two new ropes to branches halfway up to help steer it as it fell. The other end of one rope was anchored to a heavy stake in the ground, the second tied to the trunk of another tree. The dog was safe in her dog-run, watching with pensive curiosity, the cat was off on a hunt somewhere. Our teenage son was too cool to be interested, but our two daughters, three and four-and-a-half years old, were fascinated. They were under strict instructions to wait inside out of the way, but they pressed their faces against the back window, waiting for Daddy to amuse them – which, of course, was my most important role in life.

The key thing was making sure the tree fell across the lawn, not towards the house, not onto the hedge and fence that bordered the back of the garden and definitely not onto the garage. And obviously I had to be careful not to be flattened by it too. A lot of the YouTube videos went through my mind as I started sawing. Climbing a stepladder, I cut off a couple of the bigger branches on the garage side, hoping the loss of weight on that side would help persuade it to fall the other way.

Then I started on the trunk. I cut two wedges out, one on the front and then one slightly higher up on the back, leaving it standing on a ‘hinge’ of wood just a couple of inches thick, which should, in theory, dictate the direction of the fall. The wood was taut, but lifeless and dry. I had assumed the tree was unstable, unbalanced and brittle, just waiting to topple at the first bite of the saw. Cremation-4Instead, it just stayed standing there after I cut out the second wedge, attached to its stump by no more than two inches of wood across the trunk. I gazed up into its branches, wary of its weight, but surprised and struck by a newfound respect for how well formed this thing was. Thirty feet high, with asymmetrical branches and yet so precisely balanced that it stayed upright on a base little thicker than the edge of my hand. It had taken decades to get to this size, through all manner of weather and even now that the life was gone from it, it was still stronger than I’d given it credit for.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my two little girls at the window, waiting. Putting a hand against the trunk, I pushed. And the tree came toppling down, hitting the marshy lawn with a soft crunching thump. I couldn’t hear my daughters from outside, but my wife later told me she’d never heard the girls laugh so loud.

Daddy pushed a tree down with one hand.

I untied the ropes, then set about cutting the tree up into logs and sticks. I left them along the wall of the garage to season for a while, stacking the thinner branches into a rack I’d made by the fence and tossing the bundles of twigs into a pile to be used as kindling.

We only light a fire in the evenings, so it might burn for three or four hours before we let it go out. That tree took over ten years to grow and we used up all the wood from it in about two weeks. I thought a lot about that – the whole idea of burning stuff for heat and energy. And that’s what we do; despite having other, limitless sources of energy at our disposal, we continue to burn in hours something that takes years, centuries or millennia to form.

As a species, we are setting fire to our house to keep warm. We are, ever so slowly, cremating the earth we live on. I love a good fire, but I miss the tree.