There is no mercy in insurance

News that Tower Insurance and other insurance companies are considering refusing to insure houses in flood-prone areas reminded me of “Written Off”, a poem from my 2016 collection New Sea Land.

The set of climate change consequences outlined in this poem were not difficult to come up with. Perhaps, if our “leaders” had spent more time thinking about consequences and less time bowing and scraping to vested interests, we wouldn’t be in quite such a deep hole seven years after this poem was first published.

Written Off

They had insured

and re-insured,

still it was not enough.

They hunched over maps,

consulted climate science.

Beachfront property

went with the stroke of a pen:

no possible premium

could insure that level of risk.

And floodplains:

why do people choose to build on them?

Bigger floods, more often: gone.

East coast farmers, eyeball-deep

in debt, haunted by drought,

desperate to irrigate:

you backed the wrong horse.

Low-lying suburbs, factories

built next to streams:

there is no mercy

in insurance. The numbers speak,

and then there is no mercy.

The Last Days of the Coastal Property Boom – now closer than ever

With a new analysis showing that rapid sea level rise is going to hit Aotearoa earlier and harder than expected – with Wellington one of the areas to be worst hit – this feels like a good, or at least appropriate, time to bring back my poem “The Last Days of the Coastal Property Boom”, first published in my 2016 collection New Sea Land and then republished on the excellent Talk Wellington blog.

We need to reduce emissions, massively and urgently, but we also need to deal as best we can with the climate effects that are already coming – worse floods, worse droughts, more sea level rise. Check out the draft National Adaptation Plan and have your say by 3 June.

The Last Days of the Coastal Property Boom

Lights on, curtains drawn, ‘Ode to Joy’

turned up loud to drown the pounding sea —

habits of prosperity surviving awareness of its end.

But uncurtained morning shows the ocean

nearer by a day, the last remaining dune

barely a memory of marram grass and halophytes.

High tide casts driftwood to the bottom step,

spume splits paint flakes from seaward-facing walls,

decking warps and peels as foundations wash away.

This was prime property when they saw it first,

the retirees’ dream of a quiet cottage, snug

between tarmac’s end and the start of the dunes.

They saw the waves and wondered, paced

the reassuring distance from high tide to front gate.

The LIM report should have warned them  

but lawyers hired by those with most value to lose

had overturned the Council’s plans

and the LIM report said nothing.

The estate agent’s hectic glibness, the bank’s eagerness to lend,

lulled their fears to a vague and distant concern.

They found an insurer who would cover them,

cocooned themselves in pensions and furnishings,

paid no attention as Greenland and West Antarctica

spritzed meltwater into the rising sea.

That was the stuff of one-minute world news roundups,

helicopter shots of nameless, faceless, drowning refugees

in lands a reassuring hemisphere away.

Until the coastal defences failed, until first-world cities

were sent scrambling backwards from the beaches,

a planet-wide Dunkirk unfolding in reverse.

Now the children call them daily, desperate

for them to make the move inland. Now the house

rises and falls to the rhythm of the tide.

Now the last of their furniture vanishes,

hand-carried down the narrow strip of land

to the sympathetic darkness of the moving van.

They emerge defeated, encircled by cameras,

the human-interest story of the moment,

the last of this rich coastline’s climate refugees.

The van departs for the hinterland, where tent towns

sprawl cold across a wind-assailed plateau.

The coast reverts to sea wrack and bird call.

Waves take all but their house’s foundations, latest

and most miniature of reefs. What remains

is memory, that widest, all-consuming sea.

From Tim Jones’s poetry collection New Sea Land (Mākaro Press, 2016)

Down in the Flood (1): Going Under

Well it’s sugar for sugar and it’s salt for salt
If you go down in the flood it’s going to be your own fault (Bob Dylan)

As a writer, I spend quite a lot of time flooding things. In my poem First Light, I flooded a fair chunk of the Manawatu. (I read this poem in Palmerston North, and it didn’t prompt undue alarm.) Several stories in my recent collection Transported feature the rising, or risen, sea:

I cut the engine in the shadow of the motorway pillars and let the dinghy drift in to the Wadestown shore. The quiet of late afternoon was broken only by the squawking of parakeets. After locking the boat away in the old garage I now used as a boatshed, I stood for a moment to soak in the view. The setting sun was winking off the windows of drowned office blocks. To the left lay Miramar Island, and beyond it the open sea. (The Wadestown Shore)

He started to walk towards the headland at the northern end of the beach, wondering whether the stream was still there. It was, but it now flowed out through a stop-bank that protected the fields behind. Someone – maybe the farming family that used to live here – had put a lot of work into that bank, but it had not been maintained lately, and the cracks were beginning to show. Soon the abandoned fields would become swamp and then lagoon. Mangroves would grow here for a while, until the sea rose too high even for them. (Going Under)

I think there are several reasons why flooding features so prominently in my work. One is that I spent a lot of time on or near the water as a child. My family emigrated to New Zealand when I was two, and later on, my dad got a job as a fisheries inspector. While he chased after paua poachers and the like, I would dam streams on the beach, a vocation commemorated in this little prose poem:

Bluecliffs Beach

The boy plays in the sand. His father, the inspector, has been gone for two hours, checking paua, checking crayfish, checking for bad men sifting the tide.

The boy is damming streams. They flow down from the blue cliffs, over the road, and into Te WaeWae Bay. Except for one: the stream the boy has dammed. The water pools, goes wide, searches for a way. The boy is ready. He has driftwood, he has sand. One day he will be the greatest hydro engineer the world has ever seen. The Waiau, the mighty Clutha: none will flow free of his reach for long.

His dad returns. No bad men today. They drink coffee from a thermos, taking turns with the single cup, then walk back to the van. The boy looks back. The wind, the sun, the tide, the stream, the sand.
(from Southern Ocean Review 43)

Next, there’s my interest in climate change. Writing creatively about climate change in general isn’t easy – something I’ll talk about more in the second part of this post, when I’ve figured out why! – but the rising sea can be powerful in a story, both as an actor in itself and because it stands in so well for fate. “No fate but what we make,” says the Terminator franchise, but the sea is ever-present, inescapable. It’s coming for you.

The third reason is, again, personal. In 1989, I nearly drowned when swept off my feet at Smaills Beach, near Dunedin. I was saved by good fortune and the swift action of friends, to whom I am very grateful. That near-drowning has turned up several times in my work, most recently in “Going Under” in Transported. So, if you’d prefer to avoid the trouble and inconvenience of such an experience, this is what it felt like to a thinly-disguised me.

From “Going Under”

Martin lay on the beach for a while, talking with his new flatmate Chris. But the sea looked inviting, and he dragged himself out of the sandhills and down to the water’s edge. He dipped his toe in, and decided the water was getting warmer by the year. Of course, seasonal fluctuations were always — Stop thinking, Martin, he told himself, and get in there! He advanced to calf-deep, to thigh- and hip-deep (postponing the inevitable shock when the water first touched his balls); he savoured the ebb and surge of the streaming water.

When the troughs of the swells were reaching his chest and the crests were lifting the hair from his neck as he turned to let them pass, he decided that he’d come far enough, and started back. Turning, he was caught off-balance by an incoming wave approaching the beach on an angle, warped by the longshore current. It washed him off the sandy hummock on which he had been standing and deposited him on the floor of a pit almost a metre deeper. The water climbed above his shoulders and his head. Only his frantically waving arm broke the surface.

He had a couple of minutes to live. He leapt upwards; his head breached the surface, and he took a mouthful of foam and air. No-one was nearby. He yelled, but the water swallowed his cry and surged into his lungs. Another jump, a half-breath, then a wave broke over his head and he was submerged again. A third jump; this time, he barely broke the surface before falling back.

Martin was well under this time, and his legs were tiring. He tried to make the air in his lungs last and even had time to look about him. Despite his panic, he noticed the colour of the light – Steinlager green – and the hummocks on the sea floor. I’m going to die here, he thought. Water and bubbles flashed before his eyes. He could feel himself fading. Well, one last jump for old times’ sake …

The current was an impartial thing. It had prowled that shore for ages, carving out headlands at the northern end of each beach, working with the waves to scour the bottom. It had swept him out of his depth, and with his life some thirty seconds from its end, as he tried one last jump for air, it swept him out of the pit and back onto higher ground. His head rose above water; he breathed raggedly, coughed up a specimen of the brine that had nearly claimed him, and staggered towards the shore.

Stories excerpted in this post are from Transported: Short Stories (Vintage, 2008). You can buy Transported online from New Zealand Books Abroad or Fishpond.