On the second weekend in May Alcoutim hosts a walking festival. I pick up a brochure and read the details of short and easy walks, long and difficult walks, night time walks, and a walk that has something to do with a pig farm and the sampling of pork products at the end of the walk – although my Portuguese is limited so I may have got this one all wrong. We walk lots anyway and the walks that I am most interested in are noted to be not suitable for children and they all start very early in the morning. The problem with early morning starts is that I either have to take the dinghy ashore alone, leaving Julian and the girls without shore access until I come home, or wake the girls at an absurdly early hour so I can be ferried ashore in the dinghy. I decide to forego the walks.
But there are other events taking place during the three-day festival that catch my eye. There’s a walking stick making workshop on the quay on Saturday afternoon and a concert by a classical guitar quartet on Saturday evening. On Friday night there’s an outdoor screening of Baraka, a movie that blew me away and cemented my environmental consciousness when I first saw it as an impressionable 20-year old back in 1993. I hope I’m still as impressionable to brilliant ideas today. So we make our plans to participate in some of these elements of the festival.
The first event I want to attend is something called My Fukushima. I’m not sure what it’s all about as I can’t understand the Portuguese description, but it’s taking place at 7pm on Friday on the quay. Shortly before 5pm we take the dinghy ashore and as we walk past the quay I see a woman painting ‘Mi/Minha Fukushima’ on the concrete, surrounded by painted hearts and flowers. I stop to talk to her and she tells me this is where the event will start. She invites Lily and Katie to add to her painting, with something appropriate to the story of Fukushima. I say maybe I should explain something of Fukushima to the girls first and they can paint when we come back.
So off we walk down to the beach and along the way I attempt to explain what happened at Fukushima and the effect it had and continues to have on the lives of people there. They know Japan, of course, because I’ve told them a lot about when I used to live there, and they vaguely remember my friends Takako and Mayu who visited us in Devon a few years ago. And they love the Japanese food parcels and origami paper that Takako sends us.
But, boy, this is hard to explain. Earthquakes and tsunamis are relatively easy to talk about, even if the girls (or, indeed, I) can’t imagine the size of the wave of the scale of the devastation. But I can talk about the dynamic Earth, tectonic plates, and the shock waves of the earthquake that caused the tsunami that caused the devastation.
Explaining what happened at the nuclear power plant is more difficult. Partly it comes from my own lack of understanding of nuclear processes, so I am unable to clearly explain how a nuclear power station works. And I realise I have to go back before that – I have to explain electricity, why we need it, why we want it, where and how it’s produced. I point to the huge wind turbines on a hill far away upriver on the Spanish side and I get the girls to think about our solar panel aboard Carina, and I try to explain how energy from the wind or sun are transformed into the electricity that powers our computers, house and street lights, and is needed to produce our clothes, toys, and pretty much everything we have. And then I talk about other ways of making electricity – at power stations that use coal or (in Ireland) peat or, in the case of Fukushima, nuclear energy.
It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand this stuff about electricity. I barely understand it myself. We need Julian to explain it simply and clearly. What I want them to try to get their heads around is that Fukushima is a human-made disaster. The earthquake and tsunami didn’t cause this abomination. Humans caused it, in their belief that nuclear energy can be clean and safe; in their short-sighted short cuts and budget-driven corner cutting; in their inability to see into the future by looking back into the past; and in their hubris that flimsy human-made technology can withstand the power of the Earth. Heady stuff for six and four year olds. But Richard Williams started Venus and Serena early in his quest to create tennis champions. Why shouldn’t we grow environmental warriors in the same way?
We return to the quay for the start of the My Fukushima event. The woman we have spoken to earlier has laid out tins of paint and paintbrushes and she invites everyone to add to her painting. Lily and Katie don’t need to be asked twice and soon they are covering the concrete with hearts, bunny rabbits and angels. Other children join in, adding more hearts, flowers, Portuguese flags and more besides. In a moment of inspiration I paint a Japanese flag on the ground, but replace the red sun with a red heart.
The mayors of Alcoutim (Portugal) and Sanlucar (Spain) make brief speeches and a Japanese woman who lives in Sanlucar translates the inscription on the book My Fukushima by Taro Aizu, which is the inspiration for this whole project. We are then all invited to cross the river from Portugal to Spain. The small ferry makes three crossings to bring us all to Spain. From the riverbank we slowly walk through Sanlucar. The village has been transformed into an art gallery (as has Alcoutim), displaying copies of paintings by artists from around the world, inspired by Aizu’s haiku and gogyoshi poetry. The poignancy of fields bearing crops of cesium 137, of a crawling baby in a nuclear fall-out mask, of an old man on his deathbed, is palpable.
We proceed to the cultural centre, next to the school, where original artworks form the same collection are on display, together with a display of artefacts recovered from the devastation of the tsunami – a child’s shoe, a suitcase, photographs.
The paintings are moving, but what moves me even more are Taro Aizu’s poems. Here’s a short selection:
To protect them
I’ll never let them eat
I can’t believe
They are contaminated
By the cesium winds
These green, green
We’ll sing a song
And dance again
Around the blossoms
In our hometown
‘No nuclear plants!’
I shout, I shout
May my prayer
To the universe
Give me not only consolation
But the power to abolish
All atomic power stations!
The genetic heritage
Is a precious gift
In my dark cell
We slowly make our way back to the river where the ferry awaits. We are transported across to Portugal once more where the other half of the exhibition is hung in the Alcoutim cultural centre.
Why do the people along this river (and elsewhere, where the exhibition has toured) care so much and are so moved by something that happened four years ago in a country on the other side of the world? I can see the similarities. Elderly and middle-aged farmers, self-sufficient on their small-holdings, in lands that are beautiful and precious. Loss as a result of the tsunami is devastating, but it’s happened before and amidst the loss and the sorrow, it can be understood. But the invisible and insidious devastation wrought by the breakdown of the nuclear power plant cannot be so easily made sense of. This is a human-made monster whose repercussions will reverberate through the generations.
This is a sorrow and a horror that could be visited on any of us at any time, whether we live in Japan or Spain or Portugal or Louisiana or Ukraine. The people who live close to the land – the farmers, the fishers, the hunters – have never forgotten the power of the Earth. Those who have the audacity to build nuclear power stations, or drill for oil under our oceans, or frack for gas under our homes – have forgotten the Earth’s power. And because of their forgetfulness any one of our communities could be the next Fukushima waiting to happen.