house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

350: "The Devastating Number"

The title is not mine. It's from an article on the significance of the number 350 to the 6.793 billion humans inhabiting planet Earth on 24 October 2009. I won't make it easy by posting a link that you will, in all likelihood, ignore. If you're not the ignoring type, then a) you already know about 350 or b) you will google it and find all the science explained by people far more clever than I. I know: at this point some have already clicked and sailed away from this blog. For the others, the rest of the story. Here goes.

On October 24th 2009, about 15 people (out of the above mentioned 6.793 billion) met on the old bridge between Valenca do Minho (Portugal) and Tui (Spain) to participate in the “biggest climate action ever”, known in short as “350”.

Let me say this now: I believe “350' is a flawed slogan – too obscure and unfathomable. Many of us don't know what it is. Most of us can't even begin to understand it. I try and fail to find a good comparison. Putting “Smoking Kills” onto cigarette packs comes to mind, and 350 is way worse than that.

At least, “Smoking Kills” means something. Two easy words. “Smoking” equals “pleasurable and pointless – and hazardous in the long term - activity involving rolled up tobacco and a source of fire, sometimes involving friends and family similarly engaged”. “Kills” ... Hollywood amply fills in the gap here. And yet, should any smoker actually read or think about the message, will his next logical step be: “oh – I MUST NEVER touch the stuff”? No. His reaction will somehow be along the lines of “not ME it won't” or, at best, “LAST one, I swear” before lighting up.

But “350”? It refers to the concentration of CO2 in the planet's atmosphere. It's not a random number. Below 350 we are OK. Above 350, “you couldn't have a planet 'similar to the one on which civilisation developed and to which life on earth is adapted” (Bill McKibben/James Hansen).

On 24 October 2009, we are at 390, yet everything around us seems the same. 350, or 390 or 400... just numbers, maths, all cryptic and impenetrable. They have no hope of reaching the warm familiarity of words, the reassurance of stories, the certainty of physical phenomena. They don't translate to dark spots on the face of the sun, a funny smell or a spectacular disease that befell the neighbour's husband.

What is required is a leap of faith. We – the 15 on the bridge in Galicia and the thousands who woke up this morning and joined over 5,000 actions in 181 countries – are asking the remaining billions to remember 350:

350 – the harbour, full of lights and laughter, seen as you sail out and straight into a storm
350 – the cliff where you stand and look at howling black waves below and, what-the-hell, you jump
350 – that serene moment you hit black ice, gliding like a god before you start to spin
350 – the cigarette that does it, the one that plants the first cancerous cell on the charred inside of your lung

So we stand on the bridge on the 24th of October and these thoughts are far from our minds. We talk instead about cats and children, tomato seeds and stonemasonry tools, as you do. It rains and rains, we are drenched and our banner is drenched and our leaflets are drenched. One old man crosses the bridge on foot and asks in passing “what Saint instructed us to leave our homes on a day like this”. He gets a sodden leaflet.

It says "350"!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Galo Desaparecido

One line: We had a rooster, now we don't.

Two lines: A friend decided our four hens needed a rooster, and somehow got us one. It stayed in the coop for half an hour, then fled. We couldn't catch it, then it was gone.

More lines: It was a beautiful rooster, burgundy feathers and a shiny black tail, bald neck and fiery eye. He arrived in a very undignified package, a white linen sack sent over by an old woman in a nearby village. Once let out, he took over the chicken enclosure with an arrogant gait and low, lofty clucking. Three of our four ugly hens fell silent and got out of the way. One of the harem stood up to him feebly, which made us consider the possibility that it might not be a hen after all. The big guy didn't appear to notice, just ruffled his glorious feathers and sang.

We sighed with pleasure and left them to it. As soon as our backs were turned the red rooster flew out and sauntered to freedom. For the first couple of days he still hung about the land. We tried to catch him, twice, with terror in our hearts because he was fast and fierce. On the whole we were running around, making insane sounds, wading through bramble patches, climbing rocks, waving sticks, sweating and swearing – while he just turned tail and ambled grandly to some other remote part of the garden. Easy.

Once we had him cornered in the outdoor shower. He turned slowly and glared, before flying right over our heads and, I swear, clucking something obscene over his wing while he disappeared round the corner. One late evening we found him asleep in the sink, and still he evaded us. It was almost dark, pouring rain, there were five on our side, all giving chase, none coming within miles of him.

At this point, thoroughly disgusted, he marched off the land and was gone for good. There were sightings somewhere down the valley, perhaps on someone's dinner table? I wonder sometimes. In any case, I don't hold any hope that he'll be back to rule his kingdom-of-four any time soon.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Holiday in Galicia

Beginning of September: one week of holidays left, after a month in Scotland and a month on the land. We are exhausted, but one week of sleep is too much to ask. A holiday, especially our particular brand (no planning, no destination, pure chaos, something between the frantic and the sublime) sounds so much like hard work... Still, since change could be great and chaos might be instructive, we pack all Monday and drive off into the sunset.

We have a vague starting point half way up the Galician coast, where some friends of friends happen to live and where there may be WAVES. We are off, listening to Lian Hearn's beautiful Otori trilogy, eating cream cheese and smoked salmon, stopping every five miles to pay more road tolls. As you do in Spain.

The friends of friends had been informed of our visit. Being half-Sicilian, half-Galician and incredibly welcoming, they do not bat an eyelid at being invaded by an unknown family of four. Instead, they buy a bucketful of mussels, wax their surfboards, uncork the wine and wait. And wait. And then wait just a little more. Having invited ourselves for lunch, we arrive just before nightfall and call the awaiting feast late supper. No time for surf, but time for a walk to the famed beach and a quick swim. Marinated mussels don't mind.

The sea is warmer here, but the coastline makes you groan. On the map a sinuous line of deep bays, vast beaches and tongues of dark blue sea. Get any closer and you find dry and lifeless geography. It features those squat cubes of cement we are taught to call home. It is criss-crossed by lines of dark grey proudly labelled motorways. It is powdered with soot. There are fish farms in every estuary, and noxious looking workshops on street corners. We pass a small port where every square inch is covered in mounds of coal and every building is black.

The local youth drives about in quad bikes. Kids find green beetles on walls and squash them with glee. Am I being too harsh? Is there another side I fail to see?

Oh yes. We hear of a famous waterfall, the only in Europe that dives directly into the sea from a mind-blowing height. Post script: the waterfall is only open on Sundays from 2pm. At all other times it flows straight into pipes that “channel and harness the energy of the water”. You look at the cliff and see scars of black plastic, lashes of grey tubing all the way down. No waterfall. It's only Monday.

For the next three days we play out the adapted story of Goldilocks and the three Waves. The first wave is too small. We camp between a hill and a hotel and play Settlers into the night. The wind almost takes the tent for a trip to Oz. The second wave is too big. We watch Moona paddle out and pray for him to be heaved back onto the beach in one piece. Eventually, a wave spits him out and he staggers back to the van muttering crazy stuff and leaking sea water.

The third wave has to be just right. The story says so, and why not? We drive about until we find it. What follows is an afternoon of such perfection – there at the very edge of summer, all warm sand and playful ocean and a soft, glowing sunset... No wonder we leave all reason behind and casually adopt a kitten from a litter spotted under a surfer's camper van. We later discover it's a tom, and name it after the surfer, Charlie.

We spend the night on the beach, wrapped in our blankets, and I wake up a hundred times. As always when camping, it's the lower back that wakes me, but tonight it's the stars that keep me awake. I spend the whole night gazing at a skyful of exuberant planets, feeling the wind circle the tip of my nose and a few exposed toes. Every now and again a deep sigh and another small nap.

Then it's daylight and the last day of this holiday. We go back to the beach-of-legend. Another dizzy session, and guess what? For symmetry's sake (and perhaps to prove that we are consistently insane), we drive home with Charlie AND his little sister. She looks like a grey-and-yellow tigress with black-rimmed glasses. We call her Lira. On the way home, we coo hysterically and squash the cats into cardigan sleeves and spare socks. They miaow for food like a couple of public mourners, then purr like industrial generators, and finally pee everywhere.

Of course, at this stage I wouldn't mind for the holiday to stretch on into next week, next month, next decade. It happens like this every time. Is it the magic of our journeys? The dread of unpacking? The certainty of hard work ahead? A first shiver of winter?

Your guess.