Holly Gillibrand

Nikki weaved her way among the groups of people, searching for her Mum. Even though it was cooler than usual, she still felt her white t-shirt stick to her back and her tanned forehead was gleaming with sweat. In an effort to avoid the sun, she made a beeline for the left side of the street, which was protected by a small woodland. One of the trees here was her favourite. This was an ancient oak with flaking, weathered bark and bowed branches that brushed the ground. She often wondered what this silent guardian had seen over the years. What stories it would tell if only she could understand it.

Leaning against the old oak, Nikki gazed at the people milling on the street. The town, as on most evenings, was alive with chatter. A few adults with bubbling drinks in hand were grouped around a weekly crossword and some young children were waiting in line to  have a go on a skipping rope. Chalk drawings dotted the ground. A group of kids Nikki knew from school came past on skateboards. They recognised Nikki’s thin frame standing in the shadow cast by the trees. A few of them grinned and waved and Nikki waved back, before they turned onto the road and were gone.

On the right side of the street was a second-hand bookshop, a small library with groups of children reading outside the entrance, a food garden full of growing vegetables, fruits and flowers, two shops, and a few packed cafes with the words ‘vegan’, ‘organic’ and ‘plastic-free’ plastered on the front in bold lettering. At the far end of the street was a road reserved for cyclists and the other paths crisscrossing the street were for people travelling by foot. Cars were not allowed in this part of town and Nikki had only visited car-roads twice. Her parents said they were dangerous and she felt no desire to go there anyway.

The left side of the street where Nikki stood was very different. Oak, ash and beech trees grew, with benches and splashes of uncut wildflowers beneath. Tracks led down to the river and joined up with a wide footpath that followed the meandering water course. At some points, the airy, spacious forest gave way to deep vegetation that blocked out the little noise resonating from the busy town.

Nikki still couldn’t see her Mum. She turned to make her way back down through town, and nearly jumped out of her skin. Her Mum stood leaning against the tree beside her.

“Hello honey,” her Mum said.

“Please don’t do that! You made me jump,” said Nikki, glaring up into her Mum’s lined face.

Her Mum laughed. “How was your day?”

“It was good,” Nikki replied, settling back against the tree. “I helped out with Callum at the food garden – the one by the square – before meeting up with Ava and Cat.”

“Remind me who Callum is? He teaches you at school, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah. He’s alright; nice but a bit boring. The things he teaches us are really interesting though, so he makes up for it” said Nikki, picking at the clumsily darned patches in her skirt.

“Well, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself, Nikki,” said her Mum, smiling at her thirteen year old daughter. Nikki was tall for her age, with long, ginger hair that had been subdued into a thick plait down her back. Her face was lightly freckled with a small scar across her cheek that shone white against her skin. She was wearing a green t-shirt, a flamboyant, knee length skirt that had been mended in several places and worn, black boots.

“Hey Mum, let’s go down by the river. It’s cooler down there and the otter might be out,” she said.

Her Mum nodded in agreement. They veered away from the street and walked down a narrow track through the trees until they reached the river. A slight breeze fanned Nikki’s face and the outstretched branches above them provided relief from the midsummer heat.

Nikki scanned the river. An electric blue streak flashed across the water and around the bend, out of sight. A kingfisher, Nikki noted. She would have to tell Ava and Cat tomorrow. A fish pirouetted out of the depths, snapping for an insect, breaking the shimmering glass-like surface. Finally, she saw what she was searching for. A brown, streamlined shape cut through the water, leaving a V-shaped trail behind it. It clambered out on the far side, about twenty metres away. The animal lazily shook the water from it’s pelt and settled down under the shade of the trees.

“Mum, look! There’s the otter.”

Her Mum quickly turned to stare across to the opposite bank and smiled when her eyes rested on the otter.

Both sides of the river were lined with trees; old, leaning Grannies and thin, bendy youngsters. Birdsong rang in the air. The different melodies moulded together, creating a forest symphony. A woman with a baby strapped to her front walked past, a young boy running in front of her. Apart from them, the smooth, dirt walkway was empty of people. The street was completely blocked from view, so that all they could see was the river, the shaded path that ran beside it and the towering trees on either bank.

“You would never know we were in the middle of town.” She said it so quietly that Nikki wasn’t sure if she had misheard, but her Mum’s lips had definitely moved.

“How come?” Nikki asked. She was puzzled. This was the town she had grown up in and, as far as she was aware, it had always been like this. There were always trees and walkways where you could withdraw into the serenity of nature and then return, just as quickly, to the centre of human civilisation.

Her Mum stared down the river, taking in everything and, at the same time, seeing nothing.

“When I was young, everyone had an individual car. They clogged up the streets so that nobody could get anywhere and humans and animals were pushed right to the edge. We had planes constantly flying in from all around the world – the sound of them drove you mad and the pollution was terrible. Sometimes the air was so bad that people had to wear face masks and avoid going outside for weeks at a time.”

Nikki listened intently. Her Mum rarely talked about life before The Great Transformation. She continued speaking. Her low murmur was difficult to hear over the cacophony of bird song and Nikki found herself inching closer.

“There was a great loneliness and a new phenomenon: ecoanxiety. People, especially children, were getting more desperate for action on environmental crises: climate breakdown, deforestation, pollution, the sixth mass extinction… it’s just all so different now.”

Her  green eyes turned to look into Nikki’s hazel ones, and she smiled. “I was living in Edinburgh at the time of the international school strike movement. In September 2019, when I was sixteen, over forty thousand people striked from school and work in Scotland alone. It was extraordinary. They were extraordinary times.”

“Did you go on strike too?” Nikki asked. But to her surprise, her Mum’s face became downcast and she turned to stare towards a place Nikki couldn’t see. A place deep inside herself, the key to which only she had.

“No, and it has been my everlasting regret that I didn’t.”

At school, Nikki had learnt about the school strike movement, and the rebels, then labelled as terrorists and extremists, who were arrested, and she had been deeply moved. People she never knew had put their bodies on the line for her and her generation. But her Mum wasn’t one of them and for reasons she didn’t fully understand, she was disappointed.

“Why not?!” She came out angrier than she meant to. “Sorry. But why not?” She asked again.

“I don’t know,” replied her Mum. “All the hate and the destruction and the ecocide was right there in front of me. I knew it was happening. I guess I just had more important things, or at least things that seemed more important to me at the time, going on.”

“What could be more important than the Earth, Mum?”

“Things were different back then, Nikki. It wasn’t like it is now, where our priority is caring for and protecting people and nature, because we understand that that is what we must do to survive. Back then, money and profit were put before everything. It was perfectly legal, if you were rich enough, to do what you wanted, regardless of the ecological costs. Most people were blind to it all and it was just easier to carry on as if nothing was happening. I am ashamed to say that I was one of them.”

Her Mum turned to look at her again, her face full of sadness. Nikki nodded.

“I get it. We learnt about this at school. People didn’t want to act and change their lifestyles to save future generations – people like me,” Nikki added as an afterthought. “It was just easier to pretend that either it wasn’t that serious, or that there was nothing they could do anyway.”

“Exactly,” said her Mum.

“But you did change. Everything changed.”

“Yes, we did. It was a long struggle though. As more and more people began to understand the urgency of what was happening, they joined movements like the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion and other rebel organisations. Tens of millions were rising up and the leaders just couldn’t ignore them anymore.”

Her Mum paused. The otter was still snoozing on the opposite bank. It’s brown stomach rose and fell rhythmically with each passing breath. Leaves hanging from drooping branches trailed in the water, caressing the smooth surface like fingers on a piano. The peace of the riverside was intoxicating. Nikki and her Mum were alone, with just the birds and the otter for company.

“And then there was the Coronavirus. That was a massive social tipping point. It was scary, but incredible too, because the leaders, who spent all their time saying how they couldn’t act quickly on environmental breakdown, put countries in lockdown within weeks, days even! It made people realise that we couldn’t go back to business-as-usual after it was all over and that we can act in a crisis, as long as we have the willpower.”

Nikki reached for her Mum’s hand. Her Mum squeezed it. Together they watched the water slide past. A goosander bobbed along, letting the river carry her slowly downstream. Her elegant, maroon head and long, narrow bill sat atop a curved neck and her delicate, grey body was transported easily by the water. Nikki watched the goosander silently, a small smile playing on her lips. Suddenly, what appeared to be five fuzzy, little tennis balls scurried from the bank to join their mother. A united family, they continued down the river until they were lost from sight.

Nikki leaned gently against the steadfast figure beside her and rested her head against her Mum’s arm.

“You know,” Nikki said, “The people who lived back then were pretty cool. Facing the climate and ecological crisis, and then changing everything because everything was at stake, was amazing.”

“Yes,” said her Mum, nodding, “it was amazing.”

{ Holly Gillibrand } Bio

I live on the West coast of the Scottish Highlands, but I have spent many years of my childhood living in other places around the world, from Australia to the northernmost tip of Scotland. For as long as I can remember, I have been passionate about the natural world and I have turned that passion into action. I am involved in the school climate strikes, I write environmental columns for my local paper and I'm a young rewilding ambassador for Scotland: The Big Picture.