Old Folks and Tales of Climate Catastrophe

We watched Don’t Look Up last night, which led to some interesting discussions and dreams (nightmares?) at our house.  The movie would seem to be an allegory for the way the world is (or mostly isn’t) dealing with climate change.  Old characters – other than a pathetic old general who runs an abortive mission to save the world – do not have much of a role, but the movie got me thinking about some recent novels about our future and climate change in which the old are integral to the plot.

The character of old Grandy in High House by Jessie Greengrass is a good example.  Grandy is raising his granddaughter in a summer community; Grandy takes care of everyone’s cottages while they are away, knowing how to do almost everything from repairs to gardening. The climate scientist in the book seeks him out because she has a “high house” nearby – a house presumably safe for a while from storms and ocean elevation – and is preparing the property to harbor her young son and teenage stepdaughter when the apocalypse comes.   The scientist knows the house will eventually be surrounded by water, so the huge stockpiles she has amassed will (hopefully) not be stolen or plundered.  The scientist herself intends to stay in the battle until the end; she does not foresee herself surviving to get to the high house.  Close to the beginning of the major devastation, she convinces Grandy, now in a wheelchair from a broken hip, to move into the high house with his granddaughter and help her children survive.  Grandy complies; his house will flood. He has no choice.

So we are left with a high house, two teenage girls, a very young boy, and Grandy – who cannot do much but knows everything about how to get the generator going, feed the chickens, harvest the garden, thresh the wheat.   Grandy is the fountain of both wisdom and knowledge.  He delivers instructions patiently from a chair in the kitchen, as the younger folks tend livestock, plant vegetables, and salt fish.   At first their isolation and wholesome lifestyle at the high house seems idyllic, and then the generator stops working, the storms get worse, and the full impact hits.  It ends with the thoughts of one of the young women.  Caro says “the high house isn’t an ark.  We aren’t really saved.  We are only the last ones, waiting.”  There is no doubt, though, that they would not have lived as long as they had without Grandy.  There is also no doubt that had the world had Grandy’s wisdom, the predicament might have been averted.  I highly recommend The High House.

I do not recommend Joy Williams’ HarrowFirst is a hard book to read – although this in itself is not a reason to avoid it.  Sometimes hard books are needed to address hard topics – but not in this case.  The Atlantic calls Williams “the great prophet of nothingness.” Harrow gives us no such redeeming characters or situations as we have with Grandy and his charges at the high house.  We sometimes empathize, but we do not identify with these people, nor do we admire them.  The main character (Christen, nicknamed Lamb), in a search for her lost mother in a time of civil dissolution and “conservative” politics (meaning in this case actually waging war on what remains of nature), stumbles on a dilapidated resort/conference center full of old people who are, by turns, giving up their lives in what seem to be futile acts of ecoterrorism.  They cannot bear to live without doing something, but there is almost nothing they can do but die with great futility.  They fail to even comfort each other, and their acts of self-immolation are often misdirected.  If Grandy tried to help with his old-fashioned knowledge about how to live a primitive life, these folks are just trying to figure out the best way to die.

These two novels are climate dystopias, but they somehow reminded me of Margaret Drabble’s much more conventional book of a few years ago about ways to be old, The Dark Flood Rises.  Drabble’s book (highly recommended) touches on climate change only incidentally, with the main character being an older woman, Fran, who works on housing issues for the elderly, cares for her ailing ex-husband, and tries to make some sense out of what remains of her life.  Most of the other characters are also old, and we get an array of ways people arrange the ends of their lives – physically (much discussion of old age homes and such) and psychologically.

“Prepare your ship of death” Fran tells herself over and over – which is a phrase from “The Ship of Death” by D.H. Lawrence from whence Drabble got the book’s title:

Piecemeal the body dies, and the timid soul

has her footing washed away, as the dark flood rises.

Lawrence is talking about the “dark flood” of death; these books enable us to also read it as the dark flood of global warming.

I have written about old folks and environmental issues before (see “Failing Bodies and the Failing Planet“).  Our role is an open question that these books address – do we have wisdom to offer?  Should we risk death (so close anyway) to help in some way?  What to do? 

This week’s story, “Three Women,” does not seek to answer these questions, but just to look at some ways we pattern our lives and see (or fail to see) ourselves.


The Gift of Latter Rains – What Old Age Might Give Us

I have written about the rewards of old age from time to time.  It is sometimes hard to remember that – beyond Medicare – there are gifts for which we should be grateful.  T. S. Eliot lists the gifts of old age, but some of the “gifts” seem more like punishments (“the painful recollection of all we have done”).  Saint Benedict says that old age is a truce from God, in that it gives us a chance to “amend our misdeeds.”  These might be dubious gifts. 

But the Bible talks – in both the Old and New Testaments, about the “latter rains.”  There is this from Deuteronomy: “That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.”  And from the Epistle of James: “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.”  The latter rain – in a dry country, rain is a gift; Jeremiah says that the happy soul is like a “watered garden.”   And the latter rain is particularly precious.  Apparently, in Israel, the early or first rains are called the Yoreh.  They soften the land and make it malleable for the plow.  The middle months, the months of summer, are dry, but the late rains, which are called the Malkosh, actually allow the crops to finally ripen for harvest.

What are the latter rains of life? What are the gifts of old age?  Paradoxically, many of them come from giving up on things.  How the relinquishment of ambition frees us!  Fantasies often fall away!  Bertrand Russell, in his wonderful essay “How to Grow Old,” asserts that the greatest gift is the ability to let “the walls of the ego recede.”  He warns, however, against two dangers that inhibit this gift: 1) “undue absorption in the past,” and 2) “Clinging to youth in the hope of sucking vigor from its virility.”  The latter involves his feeling that, while children and grandchildren may be gifts, they should not be emotional crutches.  Here is a quote to ponder:

When your children are grown up they want to live their own lives, and if you continue to be as interested in them as you were when they were young, you are likely to become a burden, unless they are unusually callous.  I do not mean that one should be without interest in them, but one’s interest should be contemplative and, if possible, philanthropic….

Many of us have children who wish we were slightly more contemplative and vastly more philanthropic, I would guess.

There are other gifts.  In old age, we find that much of what we worry about never comes to pass – or, if it does, it is not half as bad as we expected.  (Try making a list of the things you worried about when you were thirty-five!) If we have any sense, this teaches us to worry less.  Sometimes we find in old age, that seeds we planted long ago and had long since given up on, finally come to bud and flower.  Again, if we have any sense, this teaches us to wait, to bide our time.

Bide our time.  Maybe the greatest gift of old age is time.  The latter rain brings time to reflect.  Time to pursue things we did not have space for in our busy lives.  As time until the end shortens, time in the here and now expands.  We have time to water our gardens.

Back to Russell and the gift of descendants, this week’s story, “Boxing Day,” is a meditation of a group of adult children who are for the first time marking a holiday without parental supervision or obligation.  Enjoy.