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.

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.

 

 

An Irrational Appeal to Your Power

There are times when, in order to succeed, we must suspend rational thought.

I say this in response to a word that has come up a lot with people I’ve talked to about climate change: ‘Powerless’. Now, this is not a Nike ad – I am not a lifestyle guru. But I need to explain why we should remove the word ‘powerless’ from any further discussion about climate change.

Okay, so we live within limits. For a start, even those of us living in democratic societies are not actually free to do whatever we want . . . and in truth, the vast majority of us wouldn’t want complete freedom and what comes with it. We are not free to live as we like because, as social creatures, we have chosen to accept responsibility by placing constraints on our behaviour. We live our lives according to sets of values and rules of escalating severity. Social skills, traditions, notions of respectability, maintenance of reputation, honour, the rule of law and ultimately, physical capability. We accept these restraints because they protect us from extremes of behaviour and channel our efforts into maintaining and improving society.

And our society, despite frequent claims to the contrary, is improving. Progress is, at times, excruciatingly slow and sometimes events occur that seem to pull us so far back that you think your heart would break with the injustice of it, but mankind is dragging itself forward. As a race, we should not allow ourselves to be deluded by nostalgia for a better time that never was.

Ask yourself where and at what point in history you would rather live. Pick a time when things were more just, more fair, more enlightened. A time when government was more democratic, when there was more equality, when you had a better chance in most countries of a fair trial, a decent meal, access to life-saving medical expertise or relatively painless dental treatment. The cost of this progress to our planet and many of its people has been almost unfathomable and we are still capable of horrific acts, but our tolerance of such things is far less than it used to be. Our awareness is greater than it has ever been before. Our empathy has a far wider reach. On the whole, our world is a better place (for humans at least) than it has ever been.

While the constraints our society places upon us may limit many of the things we could or would do, they also enable us to do far more together than we could do individually. Money TalksBut this structure has also resulted in our granting a great deal of importance to political, religious and business leaders and, in doing so, we have given them a large degree of influence over our lives.

We are prone to thinking in terms of those who have power, and those who have none. Given the way power is distributed, this is a very rational way to think. It is easy to believe that those in ‘authority’ make all the important decisions – and that those who have neither power nor money in abundance are excluded from those decisions. It is a very reasonable assumption to make.

As the other writers and I on the Weather Stations project seek out the knowledge, opinions and viewpoints of the experts, the word ‘powerless’ keeps arising in our conversations. Because this is seen as the greatest obstacle to making the changes that will help us overcome the challenges that face us as our climate transforms our world. It’s not the lack of power, but the inertia this belief instills.

Where our weather, our environment is concerned, most people believe themselves to be powerless. It is too big, too much to take, too overwhelming. Higher tides drown coastlines, storms uproot giant trees, dry heat triggers bush-fires and rain-swollen rivers flood farmland. And it would be a mistake to consider this attitude to be an ignorant position. Many of the people who know the hard facts of our situation, who have fought  for years against the causes of climate change, are oppressed by this belief. Powerless-1You know an environmental campaigner has descended into despair when they start looking to nuclear power in the hope of reducing the amount of carbon we’re spewing into our atmosphere.

Something else that kept coming up in our discussions was the idea of ‘being positive’. I think this very phrase is problematic. ‘Being positive’ can suggest that you’re merely looking on the bright side, putting a brave face on it . . . turning that frown upside-down. Those who have a good understanding of the facts, but have little hope, regard the phrase as a superficial attitude to a crippling problem. Many of those who have little comprehension of the facts, but feel even more powerless as a result, have even less regard for the notion.

As far as our response to our changing environment is concerned, ‘being positive’ is not a facile attitude. It’s the only one we can have. Either we take action to meet this challenge or we accept our fate. And given that we’re looking at events that will inevitably lead to mankind having less land to farm, less food and therefore experiencing more conflict; given that some pretty sober, intelligent and well informed people are now talking about the possible collapse of our civilization within the lifetimes of our children, then accepting our fate isn’t really an option, is it?

Any rational person would be right to feel overwhelmed by the scale of this problem . . . Which is why I need to make an argument against rational thought.

The progress of our society has, from the outset, been driven by people who defied reasonable expectations of failure. Humans have a proven history of attempting things that reason suggested could not succeed . . . and confounding this belief by succeeding.

This kind of irrational ambition is something I – along with almost every other professional artist – have a bit of experience in.

If you want to make a living as a writer in Ireland, statistics would suggest that you have more chance of winning the lottery. And if you want to devote your life to an art form, it takes a lot of time and effort to develop the skills you need – diverting you from investing in other careers that offer far more chance of success, and certainly security. PowerlessnessAnd yes, your chances of becoming a full-time writer are very slim . . . but the statistics are a bit misleading.

For a start, you have to count all the people who tried, but didn’t try hard enough; who failed to put in the work, or develop their technique, or their thought processes. All the people who didn’t try enough different approaches, who took too narrow a view. All the people who simply didn’t persist long enough. If you can crack all of that, you’ve substantially increased your odds, though there’s still a good deal of luck involved.

It is extraordinarily difficult to become a professional artist of any kind, but people still go for it all the time . . . and every now and then, someone actually makes it through. But nobody who took a completely rational view of it would ever try in the first place, because in terms of time, money and emotional trauma, the risks don’t make sense. And imagine a world without people who have the passion to defy those odds.

It is the very definition of truly historic achievement that some succeed where others think it impossible. Whether it’s in exploration, science or medicine, in sport or the arts, engineering or humanitarian work or social justice, ignoring good sense is part of what makes us what we are.

The apathy, this lack of belief that we can rise to the challenge of climate change, is not a fact, it is an attitude. And attitudes can be changed.

And I don’t accept that it’s just the powerful people who are in the position to take action. Even those who are driven by greed and self-preservation can, despite sometimes enormous power, be forced to change their path. They may be determined that we burn every last crumb of coal, or drop of oil or breath of gas (and there’s every chance we’ll do just that), but when you get right down to it, these people are small-minded giants who will go with the tide in order to follow the flow of money and protect their positions. Because tides do turn, and I have faith in these giants’ dedication to self-preservation.

Ireland has its fair share of corrupt, greedy and small-minded leaders – though like any country, we do have some people in power who look at the bigger picture too. And the writing of new laws to make change concrete has as much to do with what the majority of people will refuse to tolerate any longer, as it has with the demands of the powerful.

Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental changes that have happened in Ireland, just within my lifetime:

We no longer tolerate beating children in schools, or drink driving, or secondhand smoke. Religion has a steadily decreasing influence over our politics. Where the environment is concerned, we have made huge improvements to the levels of pollution in our rivers, around our coastline and in the quality of our air. Powerless-3-Black Banks Wind FarmWe dealt with the plastic bags that littered our country. We cut our use of CFCs because of the damage to the ozone layer. Solar power is becoming a practical option for home-owners (this in a country not known for its levels of sunlight) and we are setting standards for wind-power, with nearly 20% of our electricity now coming from wind, with occasional levels capable of supplying 50%. The target for 2020 is to be able to produce 40% of our electricity with wind farms.

All this in a country that, despite a lot of economic growth, is not wealthy by the standards of many of its neighbours. And each of these things has been achieved often because of changes in legislation, not because one person in power decided it was necessary, but because ordinary people who cared enough campaigned for it until attitudes changed, the public began demanding it and the law-makers judged the time was right and carried it through to the legislation that finally provided the tipping point.

Each time, because of a change in public attitudes, the new law became desirable, then necessary, then inevitable. We need to, we can, we will do the same to tackle the changes in our environment, because we have no real choice in the matter. This has to get done.

Even the world of business is coming round, with investors looking increasingly towards renewable sources of energy because fossil fuels are seen for what they are: a dead end. They are a resource we are completely certain will run out, while the alternatives are, effectively, limitless. The prices of oil, gas and coal have nowhere to go but up. It is absolutely clear to those who are crunching the long-term numbers that we have to end our reliance on these dwindling resources, because scarcity will lead to conflict, conflict makes for an unstable market and markets don’t like instability. It gets in the way of making money.

But beyond all of this, there is one utterly compelling and persuasive fact that makes me believe that we can meet the challenge of climate change, that we can reduce the damage we’re doing and adapt to the changes past damage has caused. There is a reason we should stop referring to ourselves as ‘powerless’, a reason we should have hope and be forthright and energetic in the action we take. A reason why we should promote a positive attitude among ordinary people, and even an expectation of success. And is it this:

Human beings are so powerful that we fundamentally changed the weather on our world . . . and we did it by accident.

Imagine what we could do if we actually put our minds to it.