When the disasters come, I never know what to do. There is a vast sense of powerlessness. Sometimes the disaster is so big and so ugly and so destructive that I can hardly listen to the reports or look at the pictures. Then I despise myself for my softness and privilege. If the people who are in it can go through it, I damn well can look. But what good does that do? One can send a paltry extra bit of cash to the Red Cross, but it feels like a plaster on an open wound. Debates fire up, like hares set running, about whether extreme weather is thanks to global warming, and so entirely the fault of rapacious and heedless humans. I’m not sure that does much good either.
I tried, this morning, to imagine what it must be like to find, from one moment to the next, that you have nothing. I tried to imagine what it would be like to come back from the field and find my house gone. All my clothes and books and pieces of paper saying that I exist; every word I ever wrote, every photograph I ever cherished. If the village had gone and my sister’s house had gone and the water was gushing out of broken pipes and there was no electricity, what would we do? How would a person survive even one day in such circumstances. My brain ran into a brick wall. There is no imagining. I had absolutely no idea what I would do. I have no idea what the people of the Eastern Visayas are doing now, with their ten thousand dead and their ravaged land.
At eleven o’clock, as I stood silent for two minutes, I tried to imagine those boys in Flanders field, those waves of young men on the Somme, in mud and terror and death. On Remembrance Sunday, I think of all the wars. On Armistice Day, for some reason, I think only of the First World War. That, too, is beyond imagining. I don’t care how many books you read or how many facts you know or how many pictures you see or how much Wilfred Owen you can recite, the sheer numbers still make it go beyond human comprehension. One may have a sketch of it, but not the whole thing.
I think about the horses of that war, of course I do, as I gentle my red mare in the November sunshine. I think of the bonny hunters who were taken to front almost as a lark, and the work horses who were led from the quiet green fields of home and shipped into an incomprehensible hades of mire and gas and cannon shot.
When the silence is over, I go and do my HorseBack work and look out over the bright hills, lit with the glancing November sun. I speak to a veteran who was twenty-two years on submarines, who joined up when he was twenty and the cold war was still raging, and can remember the eerie sight of Russian boats going silently by, in the days when people really believed that the Soviets might blow up the whole world.
And then I come back and the Philippines is on the news again, and my brain stretches once more in incomprehension, and I hear one sentence, standing out – that the pitiless storm has destroyed a region which was already poor and deprived to start with. They had very little; now they have nothing. Perhaps because I do not know what to do when the disasters come, and impotence often leads to rage, I feel suddenly, shakingly furious. What world has this much sorrow and pity in it?
I do not know what to do when the disasters come, so I write paltry words, because words are all I have. I scratch a mark upon the page. I will go back, steadily, slowly, to the small things, because in the end those are all that humans may hold on to. I will look at the hills and the trees and gaze on the handsome, eager face of Stanley the Dog, and stroke the teddy bear neck of Red the Mare, as she grows warm and woolly for the winter to come. I will think of the small, potent loves which get a person through the day. I will put my feet on the good Scottish earth, one step after the other. I will realise that I shall never, ever know the answer to The Universal Why. The rage will settle and fall.
I want, as always, to find a fine sentence to finish this. There must always be a ringing final line, which neatly gathers the whole and brings a proper full stop. Today, I do not have one.
I’ll just leave you with the hill, which is always there, as blue and eternal as a blue eternal thing.