I am picking my way across the rough and slippery stones of St Mary’s Well Bay and, for the first time in my life, I feel uneasy making the crossing. I live to enjoy this kind of terrain, or by rivers and in woods. Immanent flows, finding life-gems and feeling physically tested makes me feel I am ‘home.’ But today I’m just a bit wobbly. Like jelly, in fact. I berate myself for feeling this way.
I hear the oystercatchers playing their flute-song to Sully Island in bullet-straight lines, whilst the mud-browns of Mor Hafren gently cat-lick the shore. Passerines echo down from woods from which I’ve just walked, and I stop for a moment to enjoy Goddess Harmonia in all her South Wales glory. Again, that curious feeling returns, sneaking into my bloodstream, making my hands tingle. Insecurity and, yes, fear. Then, I remember.
I have just had an unexpected uterine biopsy for cancer, an unpleasant D&C-type procedure, and am awaiting results. It had skipped my mind for the last hour, whilst deeply submerged in sanguimundal presence. Then the memory suddenly returned with a bang. I have been haemorrhaging and suffering anemia. What else could I expect? The unease I am feeling has nothing to do with the beach.
Death seems nearer, even if it is not. I quickly climb a promontory, slamming my boots into barnacle-free cracks and pulling up with my hands on cold ledges. My confidence returns and I reach the top with a smile. I look all around me – 360 degrees. Feels good.
St Mary’s Well Bay is one of my favorite places in South Wales. It’s not traditionally picturesque. There’s a row of caravans and holiday chalets above the cliffs, and human littering around an onlooking ruin of a house is hugely depressing. But secondary succession spills down the hill, rolling straight through the dereliction, reaching over fossil-full layers, as if to touch the water. That’s so rare.
Here, there is a bone bed, with dinosaurs buried for eons of quiet, stillness, and turned into stone. In an overhang, flowstone ~ tufa limestone ~ spills from a temperate spring in the cliffs and forms yellowing stalactites and sinter curtains. Bryophytes thrive here and unseen diatoms live numerously. Wildflowers bloom in patches on the cliffs. Waders and other sea birds float in the shallows or pick along the mud shelves as the huge tides suck in and out. At the far eastern end, Lavernock Point, there is a little nature reserve. It was also the site of a small breakthrough in human history – the first radio signals sent and received over seas, if only to the island of Flatholm and then to Brean Point, Somerset. In the history of events, without that particular moment, I might not be posting this blog for you to read. But the man celebrated for the achievement, I must tell you, was a pre-WW2 fascist. Guglielmo Marconi was a friend to Mussolini, and even Hitler himself was a fan. Despite similar inventions by Tesla, et al., and ensuing court battles over legal patents, it is his poor judgement in friends who brought so much hate and death lingers longest in my mind. A resurgent fascism brings on a wave of goosebumps scampering over my body. There it is again. The fear persists, but I remember the other reason it exists.
Fear is a negative emotion that has evolved for purpose. It is a motivator for caution, escape, safety and change. There are ecologies of fear too, since all is interconnected. Fear can change for good or bad, at all scales, passed down through generations in epigenetic signatures. But as we humans are such complex beings in symbiosis with others in a complex world, fear may be response to events, imagined or otherwise, which aren’t entirely valid. Indeed, fear may feed upon fear itself. I know this as an intermittant sufferer of acute, debilitating anxiety after traumatic bereavement. I have finely evolved traits for survival of life threatening events, but my body responds similarly to things others find simply upsetting. Worse, my damaged limbic system actually seeks out reasons to justify the fear. The brain is trying to make sense of the feelings. Rumination is not a good thing for me. And yet, I am a ecophilosopher and writer.
Acceptance is categorically my best antidote to the severest of anxieties. The limbic system is so primed that any worry about worrying keeps the worry going. I found a book by someone who’d reached the same conclusion – Paul David, At Last a Life and Beyond. Then I attended Acceptance and Commitment therapy lectures offered by Cardiff mental health teams. That the fears we have are better off being carried along under one arm, so we can use the other to get on with life until we forget we are carrying the problem (and can then go back to using both arms).
I sometimes wish I could unknow what I know. Both personally and professionally. But I can’t. Won’t. I’m here on this beach today to record life. Life! The sea snails! Some are bright and very beautiful. They live modestly in the cracks of exposed synclines and under and around loose boulders, interacting, inter-flowing, as coastal fluminists. I pick my spot, reel out the measuring tape, and place my quadrat over the rocks. It’s fiddly and slow ~ I have to search through algae and seaweeds, but I complete my mission. I count and record all the snails I can find, make notes and take photos.
Here I am, no longer with my Ben, but out for the love of communing with my wilder kin. This is who I am, in woods, in water, upon rock, since a child. Happy or sad, relaxed or fearful, this is still ‘home.’ I pack up my things and head for the woods.
I take aim for the first small boulder, but it shifts, and algae morphs it into steep ice. My boot skids out and down into a crumpled heap I go. Laying there, still, staring into the sky, with stones digging sharply into my back, I imagine a tide racing in, swallowing me whole, a tide that would take hundreds of thousands of years to go back out.
Rising sea levels are already happening. This fear I have for the future is legitimate. Many of us who study climate change and biodiversity loss are feeling it. It’s going to be a huge problem. It already is for many.
All life-forms here on this beach will either have to move or die out. Multiply this by billions of miles of global coastline. Entire cities will need to move inland. Territorial struggles and resource conflicts will be high in all human minds. For peace, we will need to be reliant on good will ~ love. We need to start cultivating this now. But are we too late? A culture of hate seems pervasive. I start to feel anxious, breathless and a little bit angry. I quickly scramble up to stand, take a few deep breaths and and rub my sore back.
I put all the fear I have today under my arm, and move on. I pick my way back to the path off the beach, meander through the wood and along the road to the welcoming thrum of a busy pub. A cool glass of lemonade, ice and slice goes in and I feel temporarily at ease. Despite my fears, both real and imagined, I counter ~ this has been a good day! It really has. I have completed my mission and I am glad for it. I found beautiful interconnected life. I did it despite ongoing health worries, temporary disabilities and an increasing anxiety for our biosphere.
Sometimes, I need to be reminded to put that fear under my arm and carry on. It’s a recalibration. And I urge all who feel they are sometimes plagued by such fears to think consciously about how to deal with it. Please don’t avoid it. Accept, carry it forward, in whatever you are doing. Finally, you’ll move through space and time and find love again (or lemonade). At least, until the next test, slip or fast, rising tide.