by Tobias Thornes
Forgive me if I begin at the end. For the end is near, now: I can feel it in my bones. These my eyes, which looked upon so many of the world’s ancient wonders, have grown dim – like those wonders themselves, which one by one went out, melting like stars before the morning sun into a hazy dream. There is only one wonder left for me to look upon: the dizzy light through a whitewashed sky as a few birds circle the scrubby hills; life clinging on. And it is a wonder indeed that it does cling on, after all that has befallen. Here, where I began a hundred tumultuous years ago, will I end.
I sit and watch these hills every day now, trying to accustom myself to the changed landscape that surrounds me, trying to call it ‘beautiful’. But there is little left of custom or continuity these days: change, wicked and unyielding change, is the only constant, year by year. Of course, you will say that we still have the cycle of the seasons, the lengthening and shortening of days, which even mankind cannot touch until we find a way to move the very Earth in its orbit. But these ‘seasons’ as you call them now are not the seasons I once knew. The trees, you know, used to shed their leaves for the winter. The colours – oh, what colours did I see, in the amber autumns of my youth! Here there was an orchard then, and apples grew – huge, rosy apples – in the open air. The damson trees hung heavy with fruit as their leaves mellowed from the richest summer green into a gorgeous yellow. The forest floor became an orange carpet, and the hedgerows wore garlands of bright red berries, matched for colour only by the dying displays of sycamore and maple. The blackberries alone, now, have survived, where the trees and hedges and the beauty of the autumn’s dying fire have gone. Oh, how I would love to wonder again in the forests of my younger days!
Some of the birds used to fly south in the winter, to avoid the bitter cold. In those days the temperature would fall below the freezing point of water even here, and not just once or twice but for several days or weeks in a year. And there was snow, from time to time – a white blanket! It was already less common than it had been, even when I was young, for the signs of change were already becoming visible. I don’t remember when I last saw snow. Perhaps it was when I travelled to the Arctic Circle, before it became all ocean. But that was more than forty years ago! It is an antiquated word now, ‘snow’. When it melted in the spring, that was when the world really came alive: then there was a chorus of birds! Not like this cackle you get now. No, then the birds used to sing! The dawn chorus would come as a magic melody of voices to rouse us from our sleep – if we were prepared to listen. I wish I had listened more often, when I had the chance. But there was such a din of distractions that used to fill our lives then. Now our lives are quiet and empty, yet though I sit all day with my ears open, there aren’t any songs to hear.
But summer’s coming now. It will be my last, I know it. My aged frame cannot cope with another round of searing heat. And perhaps I can’t bear it, anyway, to see the ground so parched and perished – not again. To think that August was once my favourite time of year! I used to go out walking and exploring – yes, even in August! – to see nature in all its fullest, freshest vitality. Of course, back then a day above thirty degrees was a rarity. It was warm, comfortably warm – not hot, even outside. Not scorching. I don’t recall when it first passed forty degrees. I don’t recall the last August day that failed to reach thirty. Perhaps ’84 had one or two. They say it was a cool year. To me they all muddle into one, these days.
But not so in my youth: I remember those distinct, delicious days still clearly. I remember cool summer breezes and winter nights by the fire to keep warm. I remember daffodils in February and carpets of bluebells in April. I remember big orange pumpkins and squashes in October, and nippy November ‘bonfire nights’ – and how they used to bet on it snowing at Christmas! And I remember the warnings, the slow realisation that things were changing, the sceptics that claimed it wasn’t! You wouldn’t believe it now, but it’s true, there were sceptics who said the whole thing wasn’t real! It must have been thirty years from when they first noticed, before I was even born, that mankind was changing the planet, before at last the world’s leaders were convinced.
And we thought, then, that we’d caught it in time, that we could prevent it. I was young and enthusiastic; I hadn’t seen what I’ve seen now. We thought it wouldn’t happen, that we’d change our society in time, instead of changing the climate. But of course, you know that it was too late. We didn’t know our paradise was disappearing until it was already almost lost. The war got in the way, of course, and in the end we just couldn’t give them up, those luxuries to which we’d become so quickly accustomed. We couldn’t cut the emissions fast enough after all. And so this, I’m afraid, is what we’re left with. We lost all those luxuries anyway, in the end. And so many people too, in the famine and flooding – how many of us are there now? Nobody knows. That’s the war for you – the war in the south that never stops. Nobody knows anything much about the rest of the world, do they, any more?
I did, once. When I was still young and naive, and genuinely scared by the prophesies of climate doom, I set out one day – in the spring of 2018 – to see the world, and the worrying signs of how we were destroying it, for myself. ‘Slow Travel’, I called it, but it was really just travel, as we would know it today: in fact, you might call it fast. For not only by foot did I go, but also by bus and train and boat, when such things were still used. Only I’d stop at every place I passed through, to drink in each culture and to know each unique people, if briefly, that still just about survived back then. I saw London and Paris, Greece before the war destroyed it, Egypt and Saudi Arabia before they were subsumed into the Great Desert and became a wasteland. Iran, India, Bangladesh, Korea. These names mean nothing to you now; then they were great and populous countries. And I went across the wide Pacific Ocean on a slow boat to the island of Hawaii. The Americas: that was where my eyes were truly opened, and my adventures really began.