Summer has well and truly arrived, and I trust you are all taking advantage of this week’s gorgeous weather, venturing outdoors into the wilderness, dining ‘al fresco’, sunbathing in the park. I am, however, located in Stalybridge, at the edge of the Pennines where the 7-mile square Saddleworth Moor fire has been raging all week long. I have been advised to keep windows and doors closed against the infiltration of smoke. I am grateful today, to at last be able to venture out into the garden, at least for a short while until the wind changes. It feels amazing and refreshing to get some air after being cooped up in a very hot house, except for the frequent scream of sirens as fire engines continue to rush past even now.
I first became aware of something being wrong on Monday evening as I was on my way home from the Manchester city centre. I’d checked the weather forecast for the day and it is usually accurate, but I could see great black foreboding storm clouds forming in the distance. I wanted to get home quickly before the heavens opened and drenched the artwork and cushions I had left outside. I soon smelt the smoke as I descended into a blanket of thick smog, making visibility poor. I had no cause for alarm as we get wildfires every year, and so even though it appeared bad, I was confident the services would subdue it promptly.
The next morning I took my breakfast out onto the patio, as I like to do on such beautiful, warm days, and was surprised the air was still as thick as the previous evening. The sun soon became obliterated by the blur of smoke, turning it a bright blood-red orange by mid-afternoon. It seemed like an eery, day-long eclipse. Sirens were sounding throughout the day and local news was relaying the extent and severity of the fire.
I adore the smell of burning wood (or peat and bracken in this case). It’s a smell that triggers memories for me of ‘living wild’ as a child. When I was a Brownie Guide in the Seventies, I used to wander down to the derelict train track near my estate to cook baked potatoes and ‘dampers’ on a campfire, feeling rather proud of myself. It was a feeling of being self-sufficient, independent and able to survive anything life throws at me. A proper little pyromaniac! … albeit a very responsible one, the fire was always carefully built and surrounded by stones to contain it.
My senses were confused by this smell (comforting) and the sounds of sirens (danger). The brain processes such information in the amygdala preparing the body for fight or flight mode. The amygdala likes tranquility, clarity, and predictability … survival necessities. But fear sets off the alarm inside us. I suppose firefighters are trained to channel their adrenalin response, but we have less need of it in our relatively safe lives. Norepinephrine another stress hormone, and ‘next in command’ to adrenalin, helps us to react appropriately to danger. It is slightly slower responding, a backup system readying us for fight or flight. It would be ridiculous to actually fight the fire myself, I could only relinquish control to the emergency services.
Warped fascination and genuine concern, soon turned to fear that evening as people were starting to be evacuated as the fire began to encroach upon one residential area, not far up the road! I struggled to find the calm in the chaos, as panic grew around the area for fear of the worst. I sought information with a logical brain, rather than reacting to it with the emotional, overwhelmed brain. I needed acknowledgment and acceptance of the situation. Trusting others to fight the elements of fire and wind, over which I had no control.
It is not so easy for me to flee either, having limited mobility as a wheelchair-user. I was alone and felt trapped in this time of danger. The logistics of the possible evacuation added to my feeling of powerlessness.
Unrestrained and repeated increases in norepinephrine can create chronic anxiety and physical responses to stress, affecting cortisol levels, ‘the third in line’ of chemical responses. It’s necessary for my long-term health to not worry or panic. A rush of adrenalin is enough to send me into a ragdoll-like state, too weak to sit upright. It’s vital to be positive in order to remain as healthy as possible. Dopamine and serotonin, the ‘feel good’ chemicals, help us to cope in difficult situations, when we accept what we can or cannot do. It was back to basics. It was about breathing, one breath at a time whilst I drifted off to sleep, with a little prayer in surrender to the universe.
By Wednesday, the effect of the smoke had begun to really take it’s toll physically, despite being shut away indoors. Within four walls it felt as hot as hell, with so little air. My eyes were sore, my asthma was playing up, I had fatigue from tolerating the high temperatures.
As dark descended, the fire was burning brightly again. My imagination tends to burn a little more brightly at night too, but I could not let it run away with me. The wind changed and the advice was to leave, so I began to prepare for evacuation if it became necessary. It was a major incident, headline news now and friends were reaching out with offers of support and accommodation. We are never alone, even if we sometimes feel we are.
As I prepared, my thoughts were concentrated on what my home means to me. What should I take with me? What should I not leave behind? What would it be like to lose everything and have to start again? Photos had to come with me. They were my memories.
I made the decision to stay, despite urges from friends to leave. To wait it out seemed preferable to leaving the scene and not knowing what was happening. My imagination would have more of a free-reign to fear the worst. I needed logic and reality.
When training as an architect, I read about the poetic symbolism of house and home. We say “home is where the heart is”, derived from the old English of ‘the hearth’, and deemed the focal point of the home. The fire was the comforting place that people slept by, cooked on and sat down beside to eat. Now it was a fire that was threatening mine and my heart.
A house is also a container of things, the clutter we accumulate throughout our lives. To me, as an artist, it is also a form of self-expression: full of colour and personality, eclectic in style and maybe a little bit bonkers! It is my sanctuary. A place to rest where I can be fully authentic. My many books are ‘my friends’ and unfortunately, also very fire-friendly!
I awoke on Thursday morning to hear the news that the Army and even more fire crews across the country had arrived to help. I felt a great sense of relief, now I had faith. I could relax, feel more secure and hopeful. Tension was released.
This week has been a test though. In Finland, there is a word, “sisu” meaning that when things are unbearable you reach inside yourself and find a way of carrying on with stoicism, perseverance, and a renewed sense of freedom. You may experience a surge of courage in the worst of moments when the unthinkable has happened. Our perceived strength ends…. but we then find sisu just when we thought there was no other way out of the present circumstances.
We can’t control everything in life, shit happens. We can fight fires, but it’s exhausting, as is a testimony to the amazing crews still up on the moors. We alone cannot sustain that effort for the long-term. Once we have had sisu, we have survived the worst; it is time to build resilience. Resilience is the ability to constructively harness the stress response. Survive first, then start to move forwards gradually but productively.
If you feel you have a fire to fight this week, just press ‘pause’, and take a moment to reflect. Be calm by being present, and centre yourself. Silence all the superfluous noise around you, declutter your mind. Take care of your immediate needs: cool drinks, healthy food, sleep and rest, meditation to relax and soothe the mind and body.
Only then can we have the clarity to find the right answers to our problems, our ‘fires’. To build our powers of resilience. Breath through the smoke. It’s going to be a long hot smoky summer here for a while to come.
But we are resourceful, we have sisu…more than we know.
Painting: Saddleworth Moor fire, acrylic paint and mixed media (by myself).