Monday, October 24, 2011

The world in a grain of sand

It starts in a low-ceilinged workman's cottage in a Cumbrian village; a truckle bed by the door, the air pungent with the stench of tallow candles. Or before that, it starts when George Fox comes to preach on Pardshaw Crags, his nasal Leicestershire accent dragged away by the westerly winds, his apothecary's stare over slim spectacles offering a judgement on them all, a judgement more kindly, more theirs than any offered by the purple-cassocked parsons in their oak-lined vicarages. John's parents heard Fox preach and were convinced; they knew that the old religions had had their day.

As Friends, they could move in a different social orbit; not one normally open to a linen weaver and his wife. They could pass the time of day with the likes of Elihu Robinson, a great flaneur of the village with his buckled shoes and silver-topped cane. Here was a man who was a seeker in more than one sense of the word; open to new ideas, open to the new science. He was one of a group of local amateur astronomers who had observed the transit of Venus in 1761; he was willing to debate the way in which the world was made, to question its natural laws.
And he saw something special in young John, too; a boy with an agile brain, a natural thirst for knowledge. It was Robinson who took him to the Quaker school in Pardshaw, who prompted his learning with questions and experiences, who stirred the idea that the weather was something that could be studied and understood, not something we endured in our gruff Cumbrian way. Before his mid-teens, John had opened his own impromptu school in the family home, was teaching the boys and girls of the village to read and write, propped on his knee.
John Dalton was another who saw the world in different ways; he questioned the way in which things were. He is best known for his postulation of the existence of atoms; a piece of wild supposing that could not be proved for over a hundred years. From John Dalton's colour-blind grapplings to explain why water vapour and gas could co-exist, we have Roentgen and Mendeleev, from them, we have Albert Einstein, and from Einstein, Niels Bohr and the structure of the atom. From Bohr, the causal chaos of history brings us, via Rutherford and Thomson, to Robert Oppenheimer, to the Manhattan project and New Mexico desert, from the unleashing of the power we would never learn to control.
And thus, eventually, to the 1.3 tonnes of Plutonium stored in open ponds at the Sellafield site, twenty miles upwind from the low-ceilinged cottage in Eaglesfield. I watch the long queues of traffic streaming towards Sellafield each morning, and I am haunted by Robert Oppenheimer's comments on the first nuclear test carried out in New Mexico in 1945:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another”

Monday, October 10, 2011

Water, water everywhere

In the spring of 1798, the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge was walking in the Quantock Hills with his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth. We can imagine their long hair flowing over their shoulders, their frock coats tugged open by the breeze.
As they walked, they talked; of books they had read of adventures on the southern seas, of a tale of a ship followed by a mysterious black albatross, of tutelary spirits and our relationship with the animal world. A poem began to take shape, its rhythm measured by the tempo of walking feet: di-dum, di-dum, di-dum-dum-dum/di-dum, di-dum, di-dum. By the end of the walk, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was born.
It is a strange poem, almost mythological in its imagery. It was not received well critically on first publication, yet seems to speak to us now across the centuries; of our estrangement from the natural world, of the mysteries of the seas and an imperitive sense of atonement. It prefigured the sins we were yet to commit.

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”

John Keats, like all youg poets of his generation, came to the Lake District to pay homage. In the summer of 1818, he and his friend, Charles Brown, began a walking tour from Kendal. He wanted to see landscape; the magnificent, the sublime. And he wanted to call on William Wordsworth, by now the grand old man of letters.
The scenery left him awestruck. Never had he seen such waterfalls, such grand hills diappearing into the dizzying damp mist: “ but the waterfall itself, which I came suddenly upon, gave me a pleasant twinge. First we stood a little below the head about halfway down the first fall, buried deep in trees, and saw it streaming down two more descents to the depth of near fifty feet. Then we went on a jut of rock nearly level with the second fall-head, where the first fall was above us, and the third below our feet still. At the same time we saw that the water was divided by a sort of cataract island on whose other side burst out a glorious stream — then the thunder and the freshness” he wrote of Stock Ghyll Force in a letter to his brother. He went on to view the fall at Rydal, where a small cabin had already been built to frame the view, as though landscape was already a captured thing, pinned on the drawing-room walls of famous poets.
Within three years, Keats was dead. Charles Brown was with him in Italy as he faded into illness, racked by the bloody pains of tuberculosis. The bright star extinguished by one of the most virulent diseases of the day, the one for which fresh mountain air was prescribed as a cure. Ever the poet, he composed his own epitaph during those final days. He wanted no name, no dates, only the words: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water"

'The other was a softer voice, 
As soft as honey-dew: 
Quoth he, "The man hath penance done,  
And penance more will do."'
One hundred years after Keats' birth, after the publication of the Ancient Mariner, in October 1894, the Aldermen and engineers of the Manchester Water Corporation gathered for a municipal ceremony at Heaton park reservoir, in Prestwich. They were celebrating the arrival of the first water by aqueduct from the Lake District, its inexorable gravity-fed trickle, descending at twenty inches per mile, the hundred miles from Thirlmere to Manchester. No doubt Alderman Sir John James Harwood was there, his round belly and heavy gold chain lost to memory, his name preserved in the slate plaque on the dam at Thirlmere, its crisp Trajan capitals lending respectibility and purpose to his contribution. Water had become the lubricant for the industrial revolution; for mills and factories, for the rapidly increasing population, as a weapon in the battle for urban sanitation.
The damming of Thirlmere in 1890 had been strongly resisted by the people of the valley. It was seen as an act of urban enslavement of the countryside, driven by the desire for profit rather than respect for the land. The two former lakes which had occupied the valley, Leathe Water and Wythburn Water, had become ghosts; relics to a preindustrial age like the village of Mardale, sunk beneath Haweswater fifty years later. The reach of capitalism knew no boundaries. The Peak District, the Lake District; these were merely suppliers for the voracious monster of the city, the mythical beast that must consume all before it merely to live.

But tell me, tell me! speak again,
Thy soft response renewing—
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the OCEAN doing?” 

In November 2009, the heaviest rains ever recorded in Cumbria caused widespread flooding in the western part of the Lake District. The catchment of the Derwent river was most heavily affected, fed by a large, upland area of hills from Skiddaw to Helvellyn and Scafell. Thirlmere, already brim-full from a damp autumn, and kept at high levels for the needs of Manchester, could absorb no more; millions of cubic metres of water overflowed from the dam's spillway on the night of the 19th November. Downstream, Wordsworth's childhood home in Cockermouth was wrecked; over two metres of filthy water charging through the walled garden like a bulldozer.
The flooding was more terrifying, nore extreme than anyone could remember. One-in-a-thousand-years, we were told, but these measures become meaningless. In a distorted parody of the water cycle, the reservoir which had been built to drive the needs of industrialisation and urbanisation, to power the incessant rise of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, was now awash with unnatural volumes of water.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach”

It is autumn in Cumbria. It rains again, heavy downpours which sough from the gutters and leave trails of pebbles across the road like the traces of a former civilisation. Like the Ancient Mariner, I feel compelled to accost the guest at the wedding feast, grasping them with an urgency to tell the same message over and over again. It may spoil the party, but, like the Ancient Mariner, I know that once we have shot the albatross, an awful toil of penance will follow.