Preparing for winter

Malachy Tallack muses on the beauty and brutality of a Fair Isle winter


Traditional cultures have always sought, and found, balance within the natural world, and in their relationship to the lands and landscapes that have sustained them. And winter, it seems to me, is the time when we are reminded most forcefully of that balance.

Here in Fair Isle, as in other northern places, winter is the most animate and aggressive of seasons. To imagine it as lifeless or inert is to have failed, somehow, to experience it at all.

Where spring and summer are times of advancing into the world – of planting and tending, and the intrusions of agriculture – autumn and winter are times of retreat.

Many visitors to Fair Isle speak enviously of our lifestyle, and the environment in which we live. A part of them wishes that they too could exist somewhere like this. “But”, they say, “I couldn’t cope with the long winters”.

In some ways this attitude is understandable. The winters here are long: they can last, in practice, up to five or six months. Sometimes it seems much longer. The weather is poor too. Strong winds are the norm, making the cold air feel even colder. And the days are short. At the moment the sun rises around nine o’clock in the morning and sets again about three. There is a lingering twilight for much of the time in between, and it can often feel as though there has been no day at all.

Working outside at this time of year can therefore be difficult. The lack of daylight hours, and the even greater lack of suitable weather, means that opportunities must be grasped whenever they come along. Most of the time is spent inside, sheltered and protected from the world. And with the curtains and doors closed, it can be easy to feel detached or disconnected from what lies outside. But that is misleading.

This rhythm of advance and retreat, of warmth and cold, summer and winter, has been part of the natural cycle of human life since people first migrated beyond the equatorial regions. For those peoples that moved further still, into northern Europe, Asia and America, it is a rhythm that is deeply ingrained into our cultures and our psyche. The ebb and flow of each year affects us in ways that we cannot begin to understand; it balances us within our environment and within ourselves.

While we may shut the doors and block out the darkness, the winter itself does not end outside our homes. It reaches in and touches us, changes us. We must not imagine ourselves immune to the seasons.

Many people find winter a depressing time. It can induce feelings of loneliness, even despair. Others find hope and comfort in the recognition of change and return – of cyclical, seasonal movement. It can be exhilarating as well as exhausting.

This afternoon, as it grew dark, I drew the curtains and lit the fire. The room filled with warmth. Generations of people have done the same thing, within this house, on this island. It was a natural reaction – an interaction with the world outside. And I watched as the flames leapt and danced in the grate.

Photographs by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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