Join Hafta-Ichi to find out the article “What I learned from preparing for the end of the world | Books”
It’s a glorious June afternoon and as I dig up turf to make a vegetable bed, I’m listening to extracts from parson-naturalist Gilbert White’s diary. Written on this day in the 1770s and broadcast on Melissa Harrison’s podcast The Stubborn Light of Things, White’s diary reports a month of dry weather; he mentions bees and cucumber frames, nightingales, bats and a great thunderstorm. This litany of the quotidian is comforting; it reminds me of my “place in the family of things” and provides a moment’s relief from present anxieties. As I continue digging, I glance at the desiccated tips of potato plants caught in a late frost, and I settle into more well-worn worries. Time spent in my garden in Lancashire invariably leads to thoughts of ecological collapse and the climate emergency, a phrase that takes me straight back to my childhood.
I was born into a religious community that believed the Second Coming was imminent. In Sunday school lessons and church magazine articles we learned about the signs of the times: disease, pestilence and further calamities would eventually be followed by a final, great war. In preparation for what lay ahead we were instructed to store extra food, and to create a portable emergency pack for every family member. My parents were pragmatic, speaking of our spare baked beans as a bulwark against everyday disruption, but the illustrated children’s scriptures contained cartoonish images of disaster and, in my mind, these looming catastrophes were inextricably linked to our provisions.
The years passed and the Second Coming loomed ever closer. By the time I was 20 I was married, and responsible for creating my own emergency supplies. I bought one extra item each time I shopped for groceries: a tin of tomatoes, a packet of noodles, a bag of rice. I stored them in a kitchen cupboard in our rented flat and then under the stairs in our first rented house.
I didn’t think about making emergency packs until 1999, the year my daughter died. As a novelist, I’m wary of this correlation; it is, I sense, too neat. Still, my daughter died, and I made the emergency packs. Or, my daughter died so I made the emergency packs – I’m not sure. I used a list provided by a friend from church, acquiring items gradually; saving up for some, requesting others as Christmas presents. Though we had a car at the time (an ancient red Lada, bought for £50), the emergencies I imagined had us fleeing on foot while taking it in turns to carry our toddler son (we had a buggy but, like the car, it did not feature in my catastrophising – perhaps I had grown too fond of stories of migrating pioneers pulling handcarts).
Items acquired, I jammed everything into a couple of large rucksacks: first aid supplies, medicines, changes of clothing, torches, batteries, an old tent and our sleeping bags. I tried on the smallest rucksack. I could hardly stand under its weight. My husband wore the other and managed to pick up our son. We stood in our tiny hall, legs spread like power lifters, prepared for any emergency that wouldn’t take us beyond the front gate.
For the rest of our time in that house, the rucksacks sat in the cupboard with the tins. In our scriptures it said: “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.” We were prepared, in theory, but our preparations hadn’t necessarily assuaged fear (I am beginning to wonder whether, if a threat is essentially unfathomable, one remains afraid, no matter what).
A few years later, I stopped believing in God and, for a short while, I imagined I’d orchestrated a great escape for my children who would grow up without the rhetoric of disaster and impending doom. However, no longer occupied by a high-commitment religion, I read and read and was quickly overwhelmed by the realisation that the kitschy apocalyptic illustrations of my childhood were benign when compared with the material images my children would one day see.
Sure enough, in the intervening years, my children have seen graphic images of ecological emergency. These have included, most recently, distressing images associated with fires that, we are told, will soon be the “new normal”, and a catastrophic Arctic Circle oil spill. And, of course, they have had their lives upended – studies interrupted, exams cancelled, habitual visits to their great-grandmother’s house proscribed – by a virus that has been linked to shrinking natural habitats. It’s with great sadness that I find myself firmly back in this world (and without the sometime comfort of an emergency pack). What solace to offer my now grown children?
It can be tempting to think: “There’s nothing I can do, so I’ll do nothing.” In the absence of significant action from governments and multinational corporations, individual undertakings may seem inconsequential and therefore morally irrelevant. When it comes to environmental degradation, I accept that my capacity for mitigation is infinitesimal, but I don’t believe that’s a reason for inaction. I like the economist Paul Romer’s idea of “conditional optimism”. He explains: “Complacent optimism is the feeling of a child waiting for presents. Conditional optimism is the feeling of a child who is thinking about building a treehouse: ‘If I get some wood and nails and persuade some other kids to help do the work, we can end up with something really cool.’”
In recent weeks many of us have enjoyed a daily walk. We have appreciated birdsong and uncut verges, urban wildflowers, and budding trees; and those of us with gardens, yards and balconies have come to treasure our outdoor space. As lockdown eases, and we embark on long-overdue conversations about how to reconfigure our national past, perhaps now is also a good time to reimagine our collective future.
I recently read Dave Goulson’s The Garden Jungle: Or Gardening to Save the Planet, an informative and interesting book, full of practical suggestions to encourage biodiversity in gardens and allotments. It concludes with the following charge: “If you really want to leave your grandchildren a healthy planet to live on, it’s time to get out in the garden and dig.”
So, here I am, spade in hand, digging up my lawn. Here I am, with my leaf compost and my saved seeds, my second-hand wellies and my darned socks. Here I am, phone wedged into my back pocket, the pings of the neighbourhood WhatsApp support group punctuating excerpts from Gilbert White’s nature diary. It may be that my “conditional optimism” is as impractical as the emergency packs I made 20 years ago – a sop, of no use beyond my own garden gate. But I’d like to believe otherwise. There’s something about a childhood steeped in scripture; the words – chiding, intimidating, paternal – run right through you, like the writing in a stick of rock. And here they come now, for once encouraging and consoling: Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
• When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray is published by Hutchinson in eBook and Audiobook. The hardback is published on 12 November.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: What I learned from preparing for the end of the world | Books