I wake up suddenly. Yellow light pours through the cabin window, casting a golden glow on the roof. My first reaction is that there is a forest fire on the island. I jump to my feet and poke my head out of the companionway. It’s just the sunrise, but what a sunrise! The sun hangs heavy in the sky like the Eye of Sauron. The water lies still, glowing like lava. A solitary ketch lies at anchor, its reflection dancing gently in the ripples from the slight breeze. It’s primordial.
I make a cup of tea, and sit out on the deck. The boat next to us swings gently at anchor, the occasional wave lapping against her hull. There is an autumn tinge to the air and I draw my fleece tighter around my shoulders.
“You know what they say, don’t you?”, says a familiar voice. “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in the morning, sailors’ warning. The red colour is due to all the moisture in the air. It bends the light into the red part of the spectrum. There’ll likely be rain today. I’d be prepared for it if I was you.”
It’s Spencer the know-all. Who else?
“You know”, he continues. “I overheard your conversation last night about energy, and it reminded me of quite an interesting book I read over the winter called ‘The Upside of Down’, by a chap called Thomas Homer-Dixon.”
“I am sure you are going to tell me about it?”, I say.
“Well”, he responds. “His argument is that as societies get more complex, they consume more and more energy, but that this also makes them rigid to change. The Roman Empire, for example, maintained a large army and constructed magnificent buildings designed to project power, but these required huge amounts of energy to build and sustain. Complex social organisation was required to generate and channel this energy. Not all that dissimilar to your modern-day civilisation in many ways. But in the end, the Roman Empire just couldn’t generate enough energy to sustain itself, so it went into decline.”
“You would think people might have seen what was happening, and tried to do something about it”, I say.
“Well, this is the thing”, responds Spencer. “Often you humans can see the warning signs and know all about the risks and their causal factors, but you just tend to ignore them, thinking the world will carry on just as it has always has. These days these signs include climate flips, energy price jumps, pandemics, and global financial crises, but you find it difficult to give up your cherished worldview that the Earth was created for your benefit, so you try to contort difficult facts to fit that view, particularly when those facts are ‘slow-creep’ ones. Then stresses slowly build up in your societies to breaking point and suddenly breakdown and collapse occur. That’s when social revolutions happen. You have probably noticed that you have already had two of the four warning signs since the book was written in 2006.”
“It all sounds a bit dire”, I say. “Does Homer-Dixon think anything can be done to stop it?”
“Well, he argues that there will have to be a massive shift in the trajectory of modern civilisation”, says Spencer. “People will have to adopt new mental tools through which they see, understand and deal with problems. It will be a bit like the so-called Axial Age from about 900 to 200 BCE when there was a similar change in thinking – people then started using reason and reflection to understand their world, they realised that societies are not static but develop and change over time, they learnt that individuals had the capacity to determine their own fate, and they began to see that their physical and spiritual worlds were separate. You still think more-or-less along those lines today.”
“Yes, I know about the Axial Age”, I say. “But what sort of things does he think will need to change these days?”.
“Well, it’s like you said last night”, says Spencer. “You need to move to a steady-state economy rather than one based on growth. But the question is what such a steady-state economy would look like. What economic and ethical values might it be based on? Would it be compatible with political and personal liberty? How would political and social conflicts be dealt with if there is no growth?”
“Big questions indeed”, I say. “But don’t you think that some of that change might start to happen after COVID? The global economy slowed down last year because of all the lockdowns, and people changed their lifestyles by working from home and travelling and consuming less. They realised that there were other values besides just constant work and making lots of money. Now that the vaccines have checked the impact of the virus, will life just go back to pre-COVID patterns or will people maintain those changed lifestyles and newly-acquired values?”
“My guess is that things won’t change that much”, replies Spencer. “The problem is that a lot of people saved their money by not travelling and consuming, so what will happen to all that pent-up spending power when it is released? It might even be worse than before. Industrial production may increase to meet its demand, and along with it, energy consumption. What do you think will happen with prices of fossil fuels?”.
“Probably increase? They always do. But I suppose we will just have to wait and see”, I say, somewhat glumly.
“You might not have long to wait”, says Spencer. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have to dash. There’s a nice fly over there waiting to join me for breakfast.”
It begins to cloud over. The sun disappears and the brilliant red and oranges are replaced by a dull grey. The breeze stops, as though nature is holding its breath in anticipation. I hear the First Mate moving about down below. The aromas of toast and fresh coffee waft out from the cabin. It’s time for breakfast.
“I think that there is going to be rain today”, I say to the First Mate. “We should get going as soon as possible.”
“Just finish your toast then, and we can be off”, she says. “We can wash up later. If you don’t mind, I would like to get a bit of helming practice in this morning.”
We weigh anchor and set off towards the next destination, the island of Årø. The cloud morphs into a dense mist so that we can barely make out the land. There is almost no wind, and the little that there is is directly on our nose. We motor until we are clear of Fænø and enter the Lille Bælt, then try to sail by tacking into the wind. We move, but progress is slow. Porpoises appear and disappear periodically.
“Come on”, I imagine them saying. “Surely you can go a bit faster than that? Look at us!”
It starts to rain. There’s truth in these old sayings. Fed up, we decide to resume motoring.
“That’s more like it”, say the porpoises. “It won’t take long now. Have a good trip. Bye!”
We arrive in Årø in the early afternoon. The ferry to Årøsund is leaving, so we slow down to give it time to leave the tiny harbour. Most of the box berths for our width are already full, but there is one left. There is a fresh cross wind blowing, but after a couple of attempts we manage to squeeze into it.
The harbour consists of the ferry terminal, a small café, and a self-help Tourist Information Office. ‘Cupboard’ would probably be a better description, as only two people can squeeze into it at any one time. Another couple are already in there.
“Never mind”, says the First Mate. “Here’s a seat we can sit on while we are waiting. I wonder what this word means?”
“Her sidder de, de der altid sidder her” I say, consulting Mr Google. “It means ‘Here they sit, those who always sit always here’. Very profound. We could be in for a long wait.”
Luckily, the other couple leave after a couple of minutes, clutching a collection of guides and maps.
“They must have heard you”, says the First Mate. “Anyway, it’s our turn now.”
We collect a guidebook and a few maps, and sit down in the café for a coffee and cake.
“The guidebook says there are 150 people who live on the island”, says the First Mate, tucking into her cake. “Most of them live in the small village of Årø, which is about half a kilometre from here. It has a church and there is a farm there called Brummer’s Gård. Gård means ‘farm’ in Danish. The farmhouse is a protected building. There’s another small settlement on the southern part of the island. The whole island is less than 6 km2.”
“All very useful”, I say. “Let’s go and explore.”
We set off towards the lighthouse we can see from the harbour.
From there, the path takes us onto a stony beach that extends across most of the south coast of the island.
Eventually, we join the road leading to the east of the island.
“Look”, says the First Mate. “There are loads and loads of rose-hips along here. I’ll pick some and make some jam out of them.”
The road eventually gives way to a rough track leading to the Årø Kalv bird reserve on the east side of the Årø. The guidebook tells us that the area was formed about 6000 years ago out of eroded material swept around from the south part of the island, and consists of shingle and sand ridges interspersed with shallow marsh areas. It is a Ramsar site, with access prohibited in the breeding season from April to July.
“What’s a Ramsar site?” asks the First Mate.
“It’s an international treaty to do with protection and conservation of wetlands throughout the world”, I say. “But I forget the details. I’ll have a look at Google.”
“The treaty was signed in 1971 in the city of Ramsar in Iran”, I read. “The Convention maintains a list of more than 2,300 sites of international importance covering more than two million square kilometres, with the UK having the greatest number of sites and Bolivia having the greatest area of sites. The committee meets every three years to review their objectives and update their policies – the next meeting was to be held in November of this year in China, but because of COVID they are having an online meeting at the end of October instead. It’s actually the whole of the Lillebælt which we have just come through that is the Ramsar site, so Årø Kalv reserve is part of that.”
“Interesting”, says the First Mate. “It’s good they are doing something about preserving these wild places.”
We pass a cycling couple, each with a dog trailer attached to the back of their bikes. The dogs peer morosely out of the mesh on the sides of the trailers.
“I suppose it is one way to take your dog for a walk”, I say. “Although I don’t think the dogs do much walking.”
“They’d probably chase the birds anyway”, says the First Mate. “Better that they are under control.”
We turn left and take the path along the top of a dyke separating the bird reserve from farmland. The path is rough, and eventually we find ourselves alone, the cyclists left far behind. Waders, ducks and gulls of various kinds swim in the shallow lakes. Overhead a raptor of some kind suddenly swoops and snatches something from the stony shore of one of the lakes and flaps off into the distance. It is too far to see what it has caught.
The sun comes out. We find a place sheltered from the wind and sun ourselves. In the distance we can see the two islands in the reserve, Småholme and Bastholm. Beyond them, the orange-tiled roofs of the town of Assens on the island of Funen glow in the sunlight. I lie back and close my eyes, switching from seeing to hearing. Behind us, the trees rustle in the slight breeze. A pigeon takes to the air, its wings flapping wildly as it tries to gain height. Cows in the field beyond low sporadically. A rooster crows in the farmyard in the distance. It is a rural idyll, broken only by the staccato shrieks of oystercatchers piercing the air above us.
We continue on along the dyke. In front of us, we see a large bird feeding on something. It is the same raptor that we had spotted earlier. Seeing us, it flaps off lazily, leaving its prey behind. As we get closer, we see that it is a water rat, its black fur still wet and glistening.
We eventually come to the observation tower overlooking the Lillebælt. In front of us is a small beach with a few boats tied up. The cyclists with their dog-trailers are already there, having come by the road from where we saw them last. We nod in recognition. The dogs bark back. “Let us out of these ridiculous trailers”, they seem to say.
Eventually we find ourselves back in Årø village. We stop at the Christmas Church, so-called because the first service was held on Christmas Eve in 1906. The story goes that the land for the church and cemetery was provided by one of the local farm-owners on the condition that he was buried on one side of the entrance and his best friend on the other.
“Look, here’s a memorial plaque for soldiers who were killed in the First World War”, says the First Mate. “Believe it or not, Årø was part of North Schleswig in Germany at that time, so they fought for the German Army. After the war, the island became part of Denmark again, which it has been ever since.”
“It must be weird for the inhabitants here being shunted backwards and forwards between two countries”, I say. “Especially in times of war. Imagine having to fight against a country you used to be part of for a country that once was your enemy.”
The houses in the village are cute, with traditional thatched roofs.
Further on we come to the Fire Station. It must be one of the smallest in the world – just a garage on the edge of a field.
“It can’t be a very big fire engine that fits in there!”, says the First Mate.
“Probably just a couple of bicycles and a job lot of expired fire extinguishers”, I say.
“I love these islands”, says the First Mate.