- Photo-poem ‘From each tiny twig’ published as an Elbow Room postcard in 2017.
1-44 My glasses need windscreen wipers, my clothes are sopping wet and I’m dripping puddles across the kitchen lino, yet I’ve never seen more clearly or felt more energised than returning from a 25-mile cycle through the rain and Worcestershire countryside.
I’ve always loved the water and swimming but when I took up cycling as a sport in 2015, I never expected to fall in love with pedalling through rain. The buzz I get when battling against hard weather on my bike makes me feel alive, and closer to nature and my surroundings. There’s something vivid and invigorating too about the wet on my skin, the rush of air past my face and coming across badgers, herons and other wildlife for the first time.
Looking back with this new love of the natural world and weather, much of my 42 years of life is rain. This isn’t unsurprising for someone living in Britain, though I’ve not always viewed it as a positive thing.
For the first forty years of my life, mostly the rain runs off glass or seeps into the ground with no real specifics to imprint it in my memory. With nothing striking about it, it’s just a relentless/reassuring constant, though I notice some ironic laughing at plans.
Over these years, I teach myself to run on dry land. But I’m more at home splashing through puddles or swimming underwater. After a few miles jogging, my joints complain about the jolting, muscles yearn for fluidity, thoughts trip. So often, what looks like firm ground turns out to be anything but.
I remember geography – or perhaps it was a science lesson? – when we learned how rain evaporates back to the clouds, ready to fall again in precipitation, to flow in countless rivers, filter through pipes, quench endless thirsts, know mouth after mouth, and then always rise again, upwards. In other words, rain offers a continuous cycle.
I didn’t pay much attention to this at school. Older now, though not necessarily wiser, I realise there’s a comfort in this unending re-turning, each part neatly ordered in a pattern of unchanging changing that suggests some constancy and endurance, as well as cleansing and refreshment. Even as a kid, unthinking about wider significances, I enjoyed the pure and simple joy of standing laughing with my mouth open trying to catch raindrops on my tongue.
Many of my brain’s visual snapshots of Oxford from the days of my degree (studying French and linguistics in the nineties) are borrowed from scenes on the telly or summer revisits: the colours of perfected sunsets, dreaming rooftops or lush grass. This tourist-marketed city is nothing if not seasonal clichés and glossy highlights. However, my most vivid memories are actually kinaesthetic: a linked mind-flesh recall of slow cycling back to my college room or a shared flat on the outskirts of the city – cold whistling through my bones, rain trickling anywhere and everywhere, the feeling of grey, wet, grey.
Rain is of the outdoors though, or windows looking out. For all the jokes about Wales, sheep and wet, living in Cardiff as a post-graduate, I don’t remember a single drop of rain falling. But I live this year within concrete and glass. Whole days in one dry building.
Evenings in one pub/club/room. A different grey feeling. The outside happens outside of me, as if it doesn’t exist when I’m not there to witness it.
Twenty years later, rain tastes different. On my cycle now, the challenge of racing nature, wind howling like a ghost, speed rushing my face, wet on my lips, open road and open space spread out before me – thousands of stalks of grass bending and weaving as one in each green field. The rain’s braille on my skin makes me pay attention, and notice things with eyes that were previously often blind to the natural world around me.
Sometimes a single raindrop will hang on the edge of my red cycle helmet, just above my eyeline – like a bead of light urging me onwards through the dark of tunnelling skies. While I’m pedalling, the sting of pelting rain and the pain of my body’s aches also distil to the sense of alive. And the luck to still feel this.
When the rain eases, I stop to type this note as a draft fragment on my mobile; each small drop of spray turns to a snowflake of rainbowed light on my touch-screen. My text becomes a blizzard of crystallised colours that I don’t want to wipe away. I hesitate, reluctant to turn home but knowing that I need to keep moving before the wet soaks in and I start to get too cold.
After my long drenching ride, I wring out sodden socks – each drop is like weighing out the triumph of survival. Then, the shower’s hot rain, as it pummels skin and heart back to warm softness, every part of me tingling with proof of life.
It’s maybe not surprising that these experiences bring with them a new sense of self as simply a small part of the much bigger natural world.
2. Poem forthcoming in A Restricted View From Under The Hedge.
3. Poem publication on The High Window, spring 2018 <https://thehighwindowpress.com/category/poetry/>.
But the sound of rain can also break through my lethargy, just as cycling does, as if external rhythms stir those within my body. I can’t out-cycle my moments of loneliness, sadness or depression. However, I can cycle them out – both on my bike or using other comforting routines or patterns, such as meditation, time outdoors in nature, or listening to the rain. Despite a recurring edge of bleakness now and then, I love the reassuringly repetitive patter of rain on the roof-tiles. If I give myself a minute to take this in and wake up slowly, I often find I’ve more energy than I realised, enough to get up and pay attention to life around me.
Similarly, after a long day, when I’m inside and rain starts to write its script on windows and tiles, I can relax to its regular beat with eyes closed, knowing the outside world continues. While part of me sleeps, there’s always something that’s aware, something more awake. And, if this something isn’t the essence of ‘me’, it does at least encompass my existence.
For a while this smattering of essence and existing feels enough. Like I’m a well and the water has filled me. Even if I can’t put my finger on exactly how or why, I know this rain means something – that’s a crucial starting point in understanding me, which is a crucial starting point to understanding the wider world. Or, at least, so I think at the time of writing.
After more reflection, I wonder if the inner and outer worlds process might apply better in the reverse…turning first to the environment before attempting to define my small role in it. Either way, I love water and swimming: the refreshing splash on my skin, how my body glides through the water like a needle pulling silk, the clean slice of my arms in a forward crawl, the dance-like lightness of breaststroke curves… But I also like exploring the countryside’s solid ground: idling on a family walk through whispering trees; shuffling autumn leaves; hiking in bluebell, wild garlic and shadow-dappled woods; running on pastel city streets at dawn; mountain-cycling on snaking forest paths or jolting along tow paths not knowing what vista the track might next reveal…
These sensual impressions, the rhythms of rain and pedalling, the plants, animals and weather around me, as well as my own new self-awareness have all written themselves into my work. They’ve also made me think more widely and deeply about my effect on other people, wildlife and the environment.
My importance as a lone individual is perhaps no more or less than a single raindrop. But, like the rain, I’m also part of a much bigger continuing cycle of nature. I want to do my bit as happily and responsibly as I can. And, as I’ve discovered, I need land as much as I need water. So too do millions of animals and plants.
1-44 Even in my own memory, rain has been a bearer of bad news as well as good. My paternal grandparents were farmers and my dad a keen gardener. Rain has always been a blessing in the right amount, a problem when too little or too much comes at the wrong time. It has also been a bringer of disasters not of its own making.
I was 11 when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union) exploded in 1986, too young to grasp the full reality. But the horror around me was so tangible that I can still feel its remnants.
4. Poem first published on Royal Philharmonic Society website in 2014, as part of the society’s Notes into Letters music-inspired project run with Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Although the area around Chernobyl isn’t likely to be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years, it has since become a sanctuary for wildlife.6 But should this be read as a sign of some species’ greater resilience compared to man or is their thriving due in part to the now minimal human presence there?
Nearer to home in the U.K., we’d already had Great Britain’s worst nuclear accident. The 1957 fire at the Windscale facility in Cumberland (now Sellafield, Cumbria) was before my birth. Although this disaster probably entered my awareness after Chernobyl, Sellafield has been in and out of news reports for years. The all-encompassing enduring aftermath of this fire are hinted at in the Guardian headline fifty years after the fire: ‘From Windscale to Sellafield: a history of controversy’. Damage isn’t limited to radioactive and chemical impacts, or even physical changes caused by things like rises and falls in employment levels shaping nearby towns. The landscape is also scarred by emotional connotations that linger in people’s minds, remembering what happened.
Visiting nearby Seascale village for the first time in 2013, my response to the place was inevitably tinged by knowing its past history. My sons collected pebbles, stones and shells from many holidays in their young childhoods, often bringing them home to keep…until forgotten about. Only one is lodged permanently in my memory; this, sadly, because of the significances created by my connotations linking to its originating from Seascale beach.
Even British nursery rhymes and songs are full of wet weather looming, albeit given a happy tune. ‘It’s raining, it’s pouring’, ‘I hear thunder’ and ‘Rain, rain go away, come again another day’ trickle through my childhood like water dripping from roofs, splattering closed windows and smearing my dad’s greenhouse glass.
Statistics not only reinforce this impression but quantify the rain’s increase. In 1975, the year I was born, UK rainfall was around 899.4mm. In 1985, it was 1,074.3mm, rising to 1,025.2mm in 1995, then 1,086.2mm in 2005 and 1,330.7mm in 2012, according to 2012 Met Office figures reported by The Telegraph in 2013. And these are only the figures over my lifetime!
9. First published in Antiphon, 11, spring 2014.
I find it easy to drown in statistics, and individual years vary. But, without going into detail on scientific variation or precisely how these numbers should be interpreted or evaluated, clearly there’s been a change. The 2013 article sums this up as: ‘The long term average over 30 years shows an increase of 5 per cent in annual rainfall when comparing the period from 1961-1990 with 1981-2010.’
Global warming, polar ice melting, rising sea levels and seasonal shifts…rain matters not only to me but the whole world. Some measures to help combat global warming have been put in place. Reducing waste and energy consumption are things we can all do individually by things such as using renewable energy, insulating our homes, reducing waste and power usage, choosing energy-efficient appliances and vehicles and minimising our use of these as much as possible. But the big question remains – will this be enough? At this point in my writing, it may seem pointless to ask whether even a very short essay about me, myself and the rain should be this informal, unstructured and inconclusive. However, these features come with the territory; they’re in the nature of climate change. The rainfall that has fallen has fallen, and the environmental effects that have happened have happened. But there’s no 100% certainty yet of how the world will look 100 years from now. Instead of a conclusive conclusion, we have a plethora of predictions. This only makes being mindful to potential individual impact within mass behaviour even more important.
In 2016, Sarah Kramer spoke to climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, for Business Insider. The year was already looking set to be the hottest on record. Describing global warming as now unstoppable, Schmidt highlighted the importance of slowing down climate change enough to allow us to adapt as painlessly as possible.
The article warns: ‘But in our best-case scenarios, oceans are on track to rise 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 metres) by 2100. Even a sea-level rise below 3 feet (0.9 metres) could displace up to 4 million people.’12 What exactly this would mean and how we’d adapt to it is unknown – that example too is only given as a best-case scenario.
Scientists might try to give us likely endings and probabilities, much as forecasters try to pre-empt the day’s weather. But every time I find myself out in a downpour, and try to take a punt at predicting the slant of each drop’s fall
or when exactly it will
For me, this isn’t should be mistaken though as an argument for giving up, more as motivation to rise to the challenge and try even harder to protect the world’s well-being.
Form-wise, inspiration for the footnote format of this essay was drawn from reading Kristina Marie Darling’s Petrarchan (BlazeVOX, 2013).
Denchak, Melissa, ‘How You Can Stop Global Warming’, 17 July 2017, Natural Resources Defense Council <https://www.nrdc.org/stories/how-you-can-stop-global-warming> [accessed 30 November 2017]
Kramer, Sarah, ‘This Is What Earth Will Look Like in 100 Years’, 17 August 2016, Business Insider <https://www.sciencealert.com/this-is-what-earth-will-look-like-in-100-years> [accessed 12 October 2017]
Lallanilla , Marc, ‘Chernobyl: Facts About the Nuclear Disaster’, 25 September 2013, Live Science <https://www.livescience.com/39961-chernobyl.html> [accessed 16 October 2017]
Quilty-Harper, Conrad, ‘Interactive graphic: UK rainfall in every year since 1910’, 3 Jan 2013, The Telegraph <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/weather/9777749/Interactive-graphic-UK-rainfall-in-every-year-since-1910.html> [accessed 16 October 2017]
Walker, Peter, ‘From Windscale to Sellafield: a history of controversy’, 18 April 2007, Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2007/apr/18/energy.nuclearindustry> [accessed 16 October 2017]
Other Online Resources
‘Chernobyl, 20 Years After the Disaster’, National Geographic News <https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/04/photogalleries/chernobyl/> [accessed 30 October 2017]
‘Windscale fire’, Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windscale_fire> [accessed 16 October 2017]
S.A. Leavesley is a journalist, poet and fiction writer. A farmer’s grandchild, Sarah’s found outdoor exercise and time with nature increasingly important to personal well-being. With this, a greater awareness of the natural world and growing concern for its environmental well-being. She has a masters in creative writing from Manchester Writing School at M.M.U. Some of her eco-inspired poems may be found in/on Shearsman magazine, ZOOMORPHIC, Molly Bloom and Words for the Wild.