Post Flood Terrain
The title is a literal and metaphorical one. I am going to make some connections describing the changes to the landscape, urban and rural, my internal post flood terrain, and the post flood terrain of the community as I experience it. All this will be extremely local and of course my particular connections.
So I'll start by walking the dog. I head out onto the towpath and left towards the park. There are sandbags now, they weren't there during the flood but arrived three days after in light of a weather warning. On the aqueduct I look over and see the crumpled remains of a yellow camper van in the river below. Keep walking to the park. There are barricades where the walkway and pavement around the cafe is being rebuilt. The grass is still soggy and I flinch as the dog flings herself upside down in her recently washed fleece coat and rolls vigorously on top of a deceased worm, emerging muddy.
The towpath is closed for the most part where it has been eroded and collapsed by the force of the flood current. I walk up past the station and down onto the footpath. Here a line runs along the bank of the woodland adjacent to the river showing where it ran at its highest level. It is plain soil below and leaf litter and moss above. (see pic below). I would be out of my depth and then some if it were at that level now. The tree roots are also exposed.
There are a couple of potholes in the tarmac where hill streams running under the footpath have been met by the rising water table and taken away subsoil leaving craters beneath where today a little stream trickles away into the now sedate and gently flowing river.
In the patch where I usually sit at the edge of the river I find some fascinating post flood terrain. Huge mats of tree, nettle and other plant root are exposed on the bank where the topsoil has been washed away by the force of the river. At the height of the flood the bank would be near the centre of the river and deep under water. I also see new waste trapped in the roots plastic, cds, and long buried broken pottery and brick is also revealed.
It is amazing to see the root layer in it's full glory and terrible too, to think of all the celandine, ramsons and other plant life that has been carried off, not to mention the soil itself.
Looking up I notice the tree branches are adorned with carefully balanced hangings of plant leaves and natural matter, and plastic bags, old clothes and other human litter. They are quite delicate and strangely festive. Old relics that were hanging from the trees left by previous floods have been washed away and replaced by new and higher examples.
Last but not least for the dog walking episode of this article is this photo of the ransoms which are a feature of the riverbank in early spring. Last year I was investigating and found it very hard to reach down to the bulb even at the edge of the pathway. Three burst banks later and see exposed roots and bulbs below. It makes you realise though what an important job these little plants do of holding soil matter. Looking down the bank you can see that the roots embrace the land and even in extreme cases like this make a difference to how much is eroded by the water.
The next part of my journey is to look a little at the post flood terrain in the town (Urban was a bit of an exaggeration!) and in the community since these two feel important to tell together. The shops were flooded to varying degrees but many up to six feet in water. Sound wise, for three days after the flood we heard a lot of different sirens, drilling, and low flying helicopters and most notably scraping, the scraping up of polluted river deposit. Hundreds of people worked in small groups each attached to a different shop, house or geographic location. Everyone wanted to help. I experienced feelings of disorientation. In the first three days where there was no power I found it hard to be very far from home and concentrated on helping neighbours remove flood damaged things from their cellars. We knocked on each others doors more. We brought each other news. The co-op is giving out food and water, the town hall has cleaning supplies. People are bringing food from all over, local muslim communities from todmorden to bradford and beyond brought hot food and groceries for hundreds of people. Are you warm enough? Here is some bread. Do you need any help? People brought care packages, champagne, chocolate. I became very concerned about chocolate. Where would I get it now? Did I have enough? I'm not helping enough. Who do I help? Where do I help?
As it happened the need sort of emerged on an hour by hour basis. A head light here, a food run there, a sock for a friend who got a foot stuck in a manhole. We need to empty our elderly neighbours cellar now so it can be cleaned. Other people worried about not helping enough, or how to help. Some people went into shock. The experience was very evocative for me and others of past experiences and traumatic in the present too. We're stuck. It's dark. What's happening? Will this happen again? Everything is different now. If you don't have a particular focus or obvious channel into activity and you have no internet access it is hard to orient for a while. The electricity company says 'tomorrow' 'tomorrow' 'the electricity is back on!' The army arrived in green trucks and moved sandbags. Truckloads of pumps and dehumidifiers arrived in the town and were distributed between the shops. People worked and are still working incredibly hard in all sorts of way. Little acts of kindness were everywhere and continue now. It felt like a strong desire to help each other to love and to connect were revealed by the flooding.
There was also fatigue and despair, arguments, tensions around who did what and who didn't, a little bit of who can help the most competition. Tears. I cried.I cried when I walked down market street and saw the people and the shops and the waste. I think I had three meltdowns in the three days after the flood. A lot of people who seemed incredibly stressed were very sure they were fine. Possibly a lot of this was connected to the difficulty of being with the feelings that come when you stop helping. Mine went a bit like this... What the hell has happened? What does this mean? Where did everything go? Will this happen again? Why is everybody helping each other now when nobody helps some people ever? All the places I buy food are gone. I CAN'T PROCESS IT. IT'S TOO MUCH. I can't do anything the way I have been doing it. Even walking the dog means walking through a foot of effluent and then carrying her upstairs and dumping her in the bath. I just wanted it all to go away. There were a couple of examples of looting while the streetlights were off and many of the shops security was compromised but I mean two or three nothing given the scale of the exposure and the desperation some people face on a day to day basis regardless of the flooding. Cafes and pubs that were unaffected gave out free or discount food and drinks. The town hall offered hot food and drink to all volunteers and flood affected people. People shared flood stories. Listening to flood stories was very important. The reasons for the floods ranged from a conspiracy where the weather was controlled by satellite, to climate change to government withholding flood defence spending. There are more factors. Scrub burning by landowners who grouse shoot. Not enough trees. Not enough trees. Not enough trees. I kept recalling a climate action in Manchester where a line of blue was chalked all around the city at about metre from the floor and marked 'sea level rise by 2020.' The flood brought that figure and the connections between rainfall increase and climate change to the forefront of my mind.
As things calmed down a bit it became easier to be with all the different ways I felt about what had happened and how we as a community cope and are coping and how I as an individual respond and continue to respond. I started walking again long walks out of town. Saw kingfisher dancing over the collapsed towpath between here and Todmorden. We had a really lovely New Years Eve in one of our neighbour's sitting room. I didn't stay long but the quiet warmth of the space she offered us and being together in a different way felt healing.
Even with the determined 'bounce back' spirit the shops and business owners are still struggling, none of them were insured, they have to make difficult decisions about staff and premises to mention a few. Many people are still not able to live in their homes or are living in part of their homes. A huge amount of money has been raised. A group of counsellors is setting up to offer free listening to those who need it. Well being, massage and other listening spaces are also being offered on adhoc basis. I struggled to put together the clear need to affect change with the desperate need to put things back and clean things up. People were scrubbing the floors with bleach and other strong chemical cleaners. The amount of furniture, stock, white goods and other electrical equipment that was piled up in the streets was the result of huge amounts of energy, oil and emissions. All this will be replaced. What if it does happen again? How long before we have to reevaluate our way of life at a very different level?
The sewage system between Todmorden and Hebden is situated between the river and the canal. When the river overflows it floods the plant and the effluent is washed into the river and then deposited downstream. Isn't it time we reconsidered the policy of flushing our waste away in good drinking water, to create a toxic solution of urine and faeces which we then pump into the sea poisoning the life cycle. Good quality drinking water is in short supply. It seems sensible to return to dry composting our faeces for use as fertiliser and separating urine out into another benign natural fertiliser. Look at the innovation and enterprise that built this town and consider that same vision and concern for the future applied to developing ecologically sound living practices. A friend said she saw the leader of the green party in one of the first cafes to reopen after the flood and I was interested to hear that. There's no economy beyond ecology and we are finding that out here in Hebden. It was my first flood but for others this is the third time their lives have been turned upside down.
It's some how important to say that while I did not expect to be flooded, or for the town to be flooded - how can you relax if you live with that constant anticipation - on some level I have not really been able to put the possibility of flooding out of mind since I moved here. There is water everywhere. It's happened before. I live by the river I see it rise and fall, it has burst its banks downstream several times in recent weeks. I wrote a short story about a flood only a few weeks ago. The rain is loud and persistent. I am aware of climate change affecting the weather and the separation of economy from ecology that affects land guardianship. Then there's the added baseline - the town is built in a flood plain... you can wrap a river up in stone but that also impacts on natural self- regulation of flow.
In my internal landscape I feel humbled. Humbled by people's determination and kindness. I feel humbled by the river how huge it became in so short a time. How it revealed our shit. How it exposed our basic needs. How it took back the flood plain without consent and without apology and how it then returned quietly to it's managed channel the next day as though it had never left. I feel faced again with the reality that climate change is happening now. I feel loss and sympathy for the people who are suffering here and all over the world. I feel angry and very sad to see so much waste, to imagine the cycle of waste and pollution that feeds into. It got dirty throw it away. It's not that I don't understand the complications around insurance and health and safety and bureaucracy and still it's not a sustainable approach. These things took huge amounts of time and energy to create. How many times can we replace them? Where does the waste go? Into landfill out of site out of mind, until that gets flooded... the cycle goes on. I feel my own responsibility and also my limitations, grief and powerlessness. I think it's a hard cycle to break. I feel reminded again that there are things which are fundamentally interlinked with my life that are out of my control. I sit by the river and feel myself with an old friend - a very old, very wise friend. I ask what can I do in my life, my community? I feel confused, overwhelmed and I feel grateful. Overwhelmingly grateful to live in a town where people turned to each other in love first, to live in a town where friends and neighbours offered us food, shelter, showers, love. To live in a town with rivers and waterways that need space and the guardianship of a people who live in respect and connection with the land. I feel grateful for my dog who always needs something simple and offers something simple. I feel grateful that my house, above the cellar stayed dry. I feel deeply moved and grateful to people from Muslim communities who came to help and gave generously of their time and resources, without being asked in a climate of racism and prejudice. I feel grateful I am not being bombed, that I have the internet and an unusual mind. Grateful to access to relatively safe food, grateful that I am alive and in this moment relatively comfortable, that I can feel angry and afraid and full of grief and ask questions and listen and be confused and wonder who am I in this new place and how am I because we are and we are because the river is ...