Sandy Winterbottom

Sandy Winterbottom


The wind is wild, but the drift of the stars around Polaris feels steadying; the night sky is too big for anxiety. The shelter’s timbers groan in the gale – easterly, judging by the whip of the windsock – a bite of Nordic chill. The moon sets west in the shooting-star pre-dawn. I relax, slow my breath, let the cold sink in, fight the urge to stiffen my body in the icy air.  

The beauty of midwinter is that time slips. Half the day is dark, so sleep skips in and out. I sneak outside whenever I’m awake. Dark or light. Days ago, as the dregs of a previous storm smeared the sky in nacreous clouds, refracting the last threads of daylight into a rainbow of ice crystals, the next storm lay crouched in the Atlantic like a sheepdog, ready to herd us inside again. I’d woken in the early hours in the middle of this second storm, dreaming a tilt to the ground, feeling as though I was slipping from my bed, sleet pelting the slanted window above me. Now, in a brief lull, the skies have cleared, but there’s more to come. Homes are without electricity in the west, floods and rail networks severed in the east, a small tornado to the south. In the north, they’re still spitting the word, Babet, and shovelling silt after the new flood defences failed. The rest of us have moved on to Gerrit already.

It was hurricane Bawbag that strafed through our glen, December 2011, trashing rooftops and gardens, sending trampolines rolling along suburban streets. The forest that nudged up to our house was lashed by hurricane force winds, gunshot cracks rang out as girthy trunks snapped, trees took flight and landed three times their length away. The air reeked of sap. We had a close call that night. Even now, the scent of pines makes my pulse race. A great tree-munching machine was brought in to clear the debris, the thin green line of sturdier trees at our edge felled for safety. Years later, Arwen snuck in from the north to topple the pines below us. They blocked the road for days. In Stirling, it’s the summer floods folk remember, when unnamed storm cells collided. Within an hour, cars were cast adrift, and students swam backstroke along the high street. Smaller businesses never reopened. Storms sink deep into the memory of people who’ve seen the imaginary safety around them dissolve. 

Those of us who thought ourselves immune by age, location or privilege are beginning glimpse what approaches. In February 2022, the IPCC released its Sixth Assessment Report, AR6: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Running at over 3,000 pages, it reflected a shift. Impacts were in the past tense. Global changes had unfolded faster than expected, especially for those living the most precarious lives: subsistence farmers, shore-dwellers, communities reliant on threatened ecosystems, those on the margins, who once thought themselves safe from floods, drought, landslides, hurricanes or wildfires, now subjected to shifting climate zones and the ever more unstable jet stream oscillating hot and cold further up and down continents. We are underprepared, the report tells us. We are unaware of the risks and cascading effects unfolding. We have a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future. And can you feel the pace of it? This shrill drift of baselines in words that slip ever more easily from our tongues: unprecedented, new normal, extreme rainfall, storm surge, ice storm, thunder-snow, snownado, fire tornado, weather bomb, drone attack.

Days before the publication of AR6, news erupted of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a country poised to lead the green revolution with its substantial lithium deposits and a good deal of prime farmland. In 2023, COP28, perhaps the most defining of our era, was held in Dubai and overshadowed by war in Palestine. There is always plenty to drown out the background whine of climate change. 

The wind stirs the shelter into a creaking ballad. The ground is gunwale-full, seeping water from every pore, sodden and ripe for landslides in the west. We are on safer territory here now that the trees within reach have been felled. We are lashed down, self-sufficient, and the new woodlands on the hillside above us, bind soil and stem runoff. It’s the summers I hate most these days. Weeks slipping by without rain. The heat drawing moisture from the storm-trashed pines below the house, turning them to tinder. 

I once heard that your life flashes before your eyes in times of crisis because your brain is scrambling for answers. Others think it’s because time ceases to exist, and all moments become simultaneous. Either way, I take in the collected ballast of my life, rocks, pebbles, skulls and feathers, sitting on ledges around the shelter. A great chunk of fossil club moss from local coal seams, desert roses from Qatar, ammonites from the Jurassic coast, volcanic lavas from the Lake District, a boulder pulled out of a Perthshire river. Half a billion years of Earth history, 58 of mine. 

The solidified umber lump of Reading clay threaded with ochre, I dug up as a child from the claggy Thames Valley floor. This is where I was born, quiet and confused, jaundiced and yellow as the blankets I was wrapped in. At a time of Motown, Hendrix, Joplin, The Doors and free love, English suburbia was a surprisingly bland part of the world to fall into. Post-war revival dreams disappeared into New Towns and concrete subways. The day I joined the 3.4 billion people on this planet, my first breath held 321 parts per million of carbon dioxide. The invisible poison, scientists called it back then. Oil company bosses already knew what it would do.  

The glinting chunks of iron pyrite – fool’s gold – I pulled from the cliffs below the rambling school I stayed at, while my parents chased oil money in the Middle East. The school lay at the heart of the Jurassic Coast, where Keith Moore, our geology teacher, told us stories from its rocks – big, brilliant, Earth-sized stories spanning billions of years: how continents drift, crumpling into each other like train wrecks; how sea levels rise and fall; and how the earth wobbles on a variety of different axes to cause ice ages to come and go. He told us stories of how our planet changes, how our climate changes. And then we’d put on our boots and clamber down to the undercliff in search of fossils. He would wait patiently on the beach with the rest of the class as I slid down some cliff, awkward and breathless. I wasn’t built for a rugged life but I couldn’t miss those stories. 

In 1989, I graduated with a geology degree that qualified me for a good career in the oil industry; I had the family connections to match, but I saw no future in it, assumed it would all stop. My old uni pal still drills for new oil. I don’t blame him, but I let him pay for lunch whenever we meet up. 

Our global CO2 emissions continue to rise, now at 421ppm. Oil companies, ever more brazen, celebrate profits in billions. The ecosystems we inherited will be crippled in decades, unable to adapt as millions of years of stored carbon leaks back into the atmosphere. We humans, self-branded as the most adaptable species on the planet, are fast becoming vulnerable. Persistent droughts, wildfires and heatwaves in southern Europe and Africa, are pushing people north into more habitable areas, away from the conflicts of scarcity, exactly as predicted in the decade I was born. The response meeting that migration is turning hostile. Borders are hardening. How hardened will we need to be, when we have to look this all square in the face? 

I shut my eyes and lean in to the shelter conjuring the roar of an ocean from the rush of the wind through the pines above us. I used to love the land for its solidity, the sea for its pitch and yaw. But now the land feels unsteady too. Change used to arrive with the slow creeping of seasons, dependably. You could settle into a rhythm on land. But now, it feels like the mental aftermath of an earthquake that leaves you tremulous, untrusting of the ground. 

A strong gust rips at the strings of Tibetan flags tied to the rafters. They shed their threads of prayers to the storm as I take in the ballast of my life; time slips by so fast.  

Sandy Winterbottom
Sandy Winterbottom

Sandy Winterbottom spent most of her career as an academic, teaching and researching in the Environmental Sciences and working in the renewables industry. She completed the Creative Writing Masters Programme at Stirling University. Her first book, The Two-Headed Whale is published by Birlinn and Greystone.