Before I can stomach that punch of reality, I must have coffee. I flick the switch for the pump that carries water from the little well behind the house. The tap sputters and groans as it usually does, splashing water down my shirt. But today, something is different. It sputters and splashes, filling the kettle a couple of inches, and then…stops.
Stops? That’s never happened before. I quickly switch the pump on and off (the default solution for those of us who are technologically challenged).
My heart sinks and I prepare myself for the worst. The worst is also, unfortunately, the most likely: the well has run dry.
It’s the very first day of what is meant to be a year-long stay in our cabin in the mountains. You’ll find it about a mile from the road, just at the tree line. Birches, juniper bushes and heather are scattered around the building, with a mountain heath just beyond. The swallows and thrushes, and often the crows, hang about – even the occasional capercaillie is startled from its perch when I come out in the morning. A gurgling brook tumbles down on the far side of the house, and beyond it the open heath unfurls until it reaches rounded mountains in the distance.
My partner’s grandparents built this house in the 1950s, after falling in love with the light and colour of the mountains in this remote part of northern Sweden. His grandfather was a budding artist at the time and the cabin doubled as his studio; the mountain light inspired hundreds of the paintings that sprang from his brush.
Much is the same as it was then. The wood-burning stove, bookcases filled with art books and classics, the tiny kitchen, most of the well-worn furnishings, the favourite chess pieces, and even the oil paints and brushes, still in the cupboard. But much has also changed. The cabin used to be out in the open, but the tree line has crept higher up the mountainside with the rising temperatures, so that the little house is now nestled in a sparse forest of birch.
Why move up here, to this remote, roadless, storm-ridden and wind-worn piece of moor, fairly close to the local village of ski resorts and mountain bike trails but pretty far from anything else? When people ask, I hastily run through the list of semi-acceptable answers:
‘I want to see what it’s like to live more rurally.’
‘I want to be outside every day.’
‘I want to work less, live more.’
‘I grew up in the mountains and want to live there again.’
The truth is, I don’t really know. Somehow it just seemed to be one of the few things that it made sense to do. Maybe by being here, I’ll find out why I needed to come.
I spend the day on the phone with my mother- and aunt-in-law, and they help me call the plumber, two well-drilling companies and the Swedish Geological Survey. Most of them agree: likely there is nothing wrong with the pump – the well is probably empty. The drought of the summer has left groundwater levels at a record low, and the drillers say they are overrun with calls from owners of empty wells.
For now, I can get water from the brook. There’s even a hose with a funnel at the top, that carries water down the hill and straight to the tap. If there happens to be a dead animal or dogshit further up the creek, that could be an issue. And once the brook freezes over in winter, things may get tough. But for now, it will do.
With some reluctance I check the election results. The far-right party – the nationalist and essentially racist Swedish Democrats – have not done as well as expected, but still garnered 18% of the votes. That means over one million Swedes voted for them, and they are now the third-largest party. The Green Party, which had been in a minority government with the leftish Social Democrats, were completely demolished and barely made the election threshold.
The results are disturbing. But I can’t escape the feeling that these are just ripples in the wake of a much greater, shifting tide. What do we expect when the ecological world is unravelling at the seams, our economic-growth machine fuelled by cheap fossil energy is sputtering, and climatic changes are happening faster than we could have imagined? The symptoms of these ailments, such as unemployment or refugee crises, will predictably induce many people to seek simple answers motivated by fear: ‘us-and-them’, nationalism, conservatism, maybe fascism.
Their response is a superficial one. But so is ours. We have been blindsided by hateful rhetoric, getting ourselves tangled up in reactive debates on symptomatic issues. We work towards ‘sustainability’, but without questioning the underlying logic of progress.
As I fill a bucket of fresh water from the brook I can’t help but marvel at the irony: fleeing north to the wilderness during election day, only to wake up to an empty well and a dangerous party rising to a very powerful position. A poignant reminder of what I already know: we are all part of the same big story, and there is no getting away. We are all inextricably linked in this web of creation and destruction.
I consider what I think I know: we are faced with changes on a planetary scale that will rock and possibly topple the foundations of our societies. The question I ask myself is this: as this great tide rolls in, what work does it make sense to be doing?
Another morning, two months earlier: we’re at the cabin for a summer visit, and I wake early to the sharp smell of fire. I step outside and see the haze creeping up between the trees. A yellowish fog, murky, obscuring the valley from view.
Fires have already been raging for a couple of weeks. The one closest to our cabin is over 100 kilometres away, but it is close in mind.
We’re all walking around with a sense of unease, as if waiting for something. For the rain, I realise. For the haze to dissolve and blow away.
The heat would be bearable if the brook was alive and flowing. But it’s been standing still the past few days, reduced to puddles of muddy water flecked with floating clumps of moss and dead insects. There’s water in the well, but we constantly worry it will run dry. We use the water sparingly, washing the dishes with frugal care.
There is nothing else to be done. So, we wait.
The haze doesn’t go away. Instead it settles down in the valley like a noxious blanket, lingering for days and days. The scent is disorienting: it smells of cosy evenings around the fire. But there is no comforting crackle, only distant, rolling thunder, without the release of rain.
I should be enjoying the warm weather, being able to sit outside without a jumper every evening. But the dazzling weather unsettles me. I can’t even truly appreciate the absence of mosquitoes, knowing it’s because of the lack of moist hatching places. It’s all so urgent, but so placid. A warm breeze is gently blowing, the sun beaming benevolently. But instead of the playful song of the brook, there is the scent of scorched birch and pine. Such a slow-moving, beautiful catastrophe.
There are special reports on the radio. A woman speaks quietly about packing, evacuating their home. Putting the chickens and rabbits in cages on the truck, before rushing back to the house to pack the most necessary items. She tells the reporter, ‘It’s hard to know, in a situation like this, what to bring with you.’
Yes, I wonder. What do we bring with us, when things fall apart?
I’m at a climate conference. The weather is spectacular – unusually warm for Sweden in early May – leaving the participants sweating during sun-drenched coffee breaks. The heat has also unleashed a pollen explosion, leaving a sizeable group of conference-goers red-eyed, sniffling and drowsy. In a matter of weeks, fires will be spreading across the country, but of this we are blissfully unaware.
As happens almost every time I really engage with the numbers on climate change, I am left deeply depressed. At our current rate of emissions, we will have spent our remaining global budget of carbon in less than fifteen years. Within the next few years we will know whether two degrees of warming is likely or inevitable.
What are our possible responses to this kind of despair? My first reaction is always an overwhelming urge to try to ‘fix’ the problem. If there is a wrong, can’t it be righted? This approach has led to a life of activism in which I have moved between various causes, guided by the hope of making a meaningful impact. I’ve pondered strategy, theories of change and leverage points. Those chapters have been invaluable, and in large part made me who I am. But the upcoming move to the mountains seems to signify a shift. Am I withdrawing, abandoning the struggle? I fret. Is this what giving up looks like?
The question of hope drifted in and out of the conference sessions. Or rather, the question of how we fill the hope-shaped hole in our souls, now that our chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change are fading fast.
One researcher, Vanessa Andreotti, shared a Brazilian saying that stayed with me: ‘In a situation of a flood,’ she said, ‘it is only once the water reaches your bum that you can actually swim.’ Could it be, that while the water is still at our ankles, we are incapable of imagining what swimming would be like? Could it be we might even learn to breathe underwater?
If we decide the current system is not ‘fixable’, what paths are then open to us? Andreotti offers some clues. We might try hacking the system – using the system’s resources to create something which undermines or defies its logic. But when attempting to play the system, you always run the risk of being played instead. Another possibility is to leave altogether and try to set up a new, separate alternative, simply walking out (think eco-villages). In both cases, you will risk ‘reproducing modernity’s violence’, inadvertently bringing with you the very evils you hoped to escape.
But Andreotti also proposes a third path – that of hospicing. We think of hospicing as caring for the dying, and that is exactly how Andreotti and her colleagues intend it. They describe hospicing as sitting with a system in decline, learning from its history, offering palliative care, seeing oneself in that which is dying, attending to the integrity of the process, dealing with tantrums, incontinence, anger and hopelessness, ‘cleaning up’, and clearing the space for something new. This is unlikely to be a glamorous process; it will entail many frustrations, an uncertain timeline, and unforeseeable outcomes without guarantees.
Here is, I thought, some piece of the puzzle. Modernity has us caught in the straitjacket of our own thinking, and even as we try to extricate ourselves we are inadvertently tightening our bonds. Perhaps we can’t learn to free ourselves, to swim, until the water is up to our bums. So what do we do, as the waters are rising? Perhaps we hospice, and try to see what can be composted from the waste this society leaves behind.
Autumn storms have snatched most of the leaves from their branches. Now only a few tattered hangers-on in umber and orange still remain. The distant mountains are white with the first dustings of snow; winter comes early here.
I’ve got used to the water situation now. The hose from the brook has become clogged with wads of fallen leaves, so I just get the water using the white enamel bucket from the kitchen. Approximately two buckets a day is enough, if it’s just me. Some part of me doesn’t mind the hassle. Here, at last, is something tangible I can do in the face of global warming: I can go to the river with my bucket. This is climate change adaptation in practice, I grimace to myself.
A dear friend comes to visit, and we talk of the times we find ourselves in. She tells me about working at a climate information booth during an election: ‘Plenty of people would come up to talk, saying, yes, we are “screwed” and therefore we might as well enjoy ourselves. Take the kids to Thailand for Christmas, or fly to Antarctica to see the glaciers before they melt.’
I find myself asking: How is moving (albeit temporarily) to a remote cabin in beautiful surroundings different from that kind of blatant escapism? Perhaps in some ways it’s not. There is much solace to be found in the rustle of birch leaves, in the shifting textures of the seasons, or in the simple joy of wood-burning stoves and shorter to-do lists.
Yes, in that way this is a retreat from the fray. But in others, I hope, it is an advance. Perhaps, in the best of cases, withdrawal can mean seeing more clearly what it is we should bring with us when things fall apart. Instead of burying my despair beneath a ‘can-do’ attitude, I could try to honour it. I could allow it to nestle in my heart and rest quietly there. That might free my modern mind enough to discern what new seedlings can be found growing in the muck of the mess we’re in – delicate shoots that we should take care not to inadvertently trample in our scramble to fix the unfixable.
I try to take stock of my situation.
What don’t I have? Solutions, fixes, answers or bullets of silver.
What do I have? One empty well. Two buckets, maybe three. A deepened resolve to not turn away from the pain of a dying world; if I can, to carry with me some treasures we cannot bear to lose and honour what new sprouts are making themselves known.
Where to begin or how this could happen, I do not know. I have a suspicion that I can’t think my way out of this one. I might as well start with taking the buckets to the brook and chopping firewood for tomorrow.
As I write these last lines, another storm of wind and snow rages outside, and it has already knocked the power out. I don’t know how long it will be gone, but I make sure to keep the wood-stove burning so the temperature won’t drop too much while the electric heaters are out, and so that I have some way of heating my dinner.
Living up here does make some things crystal clear:
Without the water in the brook, there can be no blood in my veins.
Without power from distant windmills, the sunlight that the birch has captured and stored for me is my only source of heat.
The wind and the sky and the mountains are so very big, and I am so very, very small.
Image: Wildfire by Annie Bissett
Watercolour woodblock (mokuhanga)
2017 was a record-setting year for wildfires in California and other parts of the western USA. Climate change deniers continue to argue that we’ve always had fires and that weather is just weather. The Trump administration continues to dismantle federal actions that address both the causes and the effects of climate change, and California continues to burn. From the series ‘Playing with Fire’ created during the first year of the Trump presidency.
Annie Bissett is an artist whose primary medium is mokuhanga, a traditional Japanese printmaking technique that utilises wood, water, horsehair brushes and pure pigments. She works in a home studio in Providence, Rhode Island, where she lives with her wife and their companion dog.
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Sources & inspirations
Andreotti, V., Stein, S., Ahenakew, C., & Hunt, D. ‘Mapping interpretations of decolonization in the context of higher education’ Decolonization: Indigeneity,
Education & Society 4(1), 2015, pp.21–40.
Kingsnorth, P., ‘Dark Ecology’, in Dark Mountain: Issue 3, 2012.