How do you live with change?
I lived over twenty-one years in the Sultanate of Oman. I loved the consistency of the weather. Every day I would wake up and the sun was shining. If it wasn’t, it was still warm or hot. That was the extent of the seasons: warm, hot or very hot, with a dollop of humid thrown in. Occasionally, very occasionally, there was rain, which disrupted life much as snow does in colder climes. The only change in clothing was the possible addition of a light jacket or cardigan in the winter months. Shoes were sandals or hiking boots. Life in Oman was predictable… until it wasn’t; until, for example, Cyclone Gonu in 2007 – the first cyclone in 85 years – and Cyclone Phet, just three years later.
Last year, I moved to mainland Europe. It was then that the concept of change hit me full force. First of all, the weather changed, often on a daily, if not hourly basis. This meant thinking about clothes appropriate for the weather, taking extra garments with me in case the weather changed, shoes, which I had not had to worry about for years. The weather here is less predictable.
From weather to seasons: Oman had two and they slid easily from one to the next. Europe has four, at least. This began to fascinate me towards the end of last year. I became more aware of the cycle of life: the wilting, the drooping, the dying. Flowers faded and fell. Foliage turned from green to brown to mulch on the forest floor. Fields became barren and often water-logged. Tiny streams became foaming rivers. What struck me most was the greenness. I had expected everything to become brown with stark, bare black trees. The trees did become leafless but they were set against the vibrant greens of grass and leaves of the plants that did not die off. This was a delight.
Then, as we moved into the new year, tiny buds started to appear: first the yellows, pale and tentative, then the whites in all their forms, followed by blues in all their hues and then pinks to crimson until now there is a rainbow of colour in the hedgerows.
In Oman flowers, particularly garden flowers, didn’t change. They lost their blooms and more replaced them. The tree outside my window had leaves and rattling seed pods all year round. In two weeks in April, it shed its leaves while sprouting new ones and occasionally threw off a seed pod or two: rebirth in fourteen days. I was comforted by the consistency of it all. I am surprised and thrown by the incessant changes here. I am also delighted. Each day I spot something new in the forest or hedge; more life.
Reflecting on this the other day, I realised that the stability of nature in Oman went further. The mountains are exposed rock, barren of vegetation apart for an occasional valiant, stocky little tree or grey-green shrub. They are stunning in their configurations, their strata telling the story of their composition and creation over millennia. They change in the light, the colours of the minerals creating candy-striped facades in the evening sunshine. But they don’t change – or rather not that I can see – on a daily basis. Here in Europe the vegetation which clothes the rock alters with the seasons and gives them quite different aspects at different times of the year.
While nature in Oman seems unchanging, the landscape created by humans is not. In the two decades I lived there buildings and roads spread like wildfire, covering and connecting what were rocky deserts and wasteland when I arrived and even filling wadis (dried water courses). A quick look at Google Earth over the last ten years is testimony to the breath-taking pace of construction in the country. In Europe, a few houses go up but much of the continent has been lived in for hundreds of years and the core of settlements changes little.
Coming to terms with change has been hard for me. I like stability. I like the heat. I like not having to think about clothing contingencies, umbrellas (they are a whole other challenge!), shoes. I like that predictability.
Where is this taking me? Change can be perceptible and predictable, as in the seasons and the landscape, or unsurprising, as in the growth of conurbations. On the whole, we know what to expect. Even if there seems to be more change in mainland Europe on a daily basis than in Oman, it is still largely predictable.
When a dramatic weather event comes to somewhere predictable like Oman it is unpredictable, sudden and chaotic. Cyclone Gonu caught everyone unprepared. Similarly, the recent plague of locusts in many parts of Africa was unpredicted and has been devastating.
The developed world likes to think it can control or predict change. We have forecasts and projections, computer simulations and mathematical modelling and are on top of things… yet nobody was prepared for this pandemic. Our world can still be unpredictable.
Can we make the world more predictable and controllable? Should we be trying to? Surely better to prepare ourselves and the future generations for life in a volatile world; develop in young people the inner strength and sense of meaning and purpose that will guide them through crises and unpredictability. The unpredictable can and will happen again tomorrow.