On Fire!

Episode 4 – Fire of In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change is now available. This one includes a wonderful poem called ‘The Gate’ from the Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn about a shockingly recent mining disaster and the memories and associations it evoked for her. I really enjoyed my conversation with Menna, a longtime activist and force to be reckoned with.

We also hear from local folk band the Brothers Gillespie. They came up to my place one Sunday this summer to play and sing in my garden – attracting the vocal attention and admiration of the field full of cows. ‘Tina’s Song’ tells the story of Tina Rothery, co-founder of the Nanas, a campaigning group of concerned grandmothers protesting against fracking in Preston New Road, Lancashire several years ago. She was taken to court and fined £55,000 by mining firm Cuadrilla for simply taking part in a peaceful protest and finally found not culpable and released with no charge.

On November 21st The Brothers Gillespie and I will be back together for an event called Earthwords for Hexham Book Festival’s outreach programme. They’ll be singing some more of their beautiful songs rooted in the Northumbrian landscape and I’ll be reading some recent poems, inspired by a new relationship with my local patch during last year’s lockdown – work in progress from my Writing the Climate residency. You can find more details and book a ticket here.

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It’s been very exciting to see these podcasts rippling out after such a long period in production, broadcast by Resonance FM and several other community radio stations and also available on most podcast platforms. Each episode takes an element as a starting point to explore the complexity and challenges of this critical time: Earth, Water, Fire and Air; with, from the Chinese tradition, Wood and Metal; as well as Space and Consciousness, elements that feature in some Buddhist practices.  Investigating these help all the contributors – activists, engineers, conservationists, academics, thinkers, poets and musicians from around the world – find common ground to deal with difficult subjects arising from the Climate Crisis.

We’ve already heard from organic gardener and compost expert Andrew Davenport in the Earth Episode, alongside US poet Jorie Graham and Canadian Climate Justice professor Deborah McGregor. And in the Water episode Nancy Campbell, Charmaine Papertalk Green and Suzanne Dhaliwal. All the contributors pop back in later episodes with more to add on some other element. I’ll say more about the contributors to Air, Wood, Metal, Space and Consciousness – and our final episode Regeneration – later. This is still all quite fresh and certainly a very new medium for me so I’m still assimilating and figuring out what this many-headed creature is that I’ve made, working with the talented audio producer Philippa Geering of Sonderbug Productions in York.

As protest or praise, music is almost another element in itself, with contributions not just from the Brothers Gillespie but also from Joshua Green, with his specially commissioned signature song and a gorgeous setting of my cuckoo poem (look out for it in Episode 9 – Consciousness), as well as Una and Freya, two small girls who added their own big voices to the Fridays for the Future School Climate Strike in September 2019.

Talking with all these thoughtful and engaged people left me with a sense of faith in humanity’s capacity to transform our current suffering into a more sustainable future. It’s important to remember there is great power in what we make together – active hope – whether that’s an engineering system, a protest against so-called development or a song or a poem dedicated to a bird or a tree – or even a United Nations summit.

Do listen in – and let me know in the comments below what you think, what these poems, thoughts and music stir in you.

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The Shared Music of What Happens

Momentum is gathering as people prepare for the COP26 Summit in Glasgow (31st October – 12th November). Lots of rallies and actions and conversations are happening as eyes turn northwards. The Camino to COP pilgrims stopped off in Carlisle and it was inspiring to hear their stories and to get a chance to wear the Coat of Hopes that will be placed on the shoulders of world leaders to feel the warmth and the weight of the prayers and wishes stitched into this beautiful garment, worn all the way from Newhaven on the south coast, up the country and across the border to Glasgow.

Tynedale XR made their own splash today with a march and a rally in Hexham, led by the rousing Dead Canaries samba band and a poignant rising and falling wave of blue. People are finding their own creative ways to add their voices to the unfolding climate story and I was pleased to be able to share our collective Dawn Chorus as part of Durham Book Festival last week.

This article is intended to give a sense of the background to Dawn Chorus and the process of making it. I hope you find it a useful complement to watching and listening. All responses much appreciated – and please do share it with anyone you think might be interested.

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Poetry saves the world every day. It is how we declare our love for things and for other animals. It is how we remember… Poetry is how we give shape to our griefs, the better to see and measure and, in time, heal them… folding each individual experience of place and time into the shared music of what happens.  

John Burnside (The Music of Time, 2019)

Dawn Chorus is an ode to new beginnings.  Every day the sun rises once more – enacting a miracle powerful enough for it to be worshipped by ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians and the Aztecs.  The sunlight brings everything back to life after the long dark night.  The first to wake are the birds, who sleep with lidless eyes open.  Their song welcomes the returning light and sings the day in.  At its peak around springtime, the traditional mating and nesting time, the dawn chorus will start at around 4am and the waking birds will carry on singing together for several hours.  A few years ago, out recording with Chris Watson, we identified calls of tawny owl, robin, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, wood pigeon, pheasant, wagtail, great tit, chiff chaff, goldcrest, wren and redstart.  The sound and the light that morning did indeed feel like a miracle.  But we forget to notice a miracle that happens every day.

It’s hard to think about new beginnings when we’re witnessing so many endings.  In his wonderful book Songs of Place and Time (co-edited with Bennett Hogg and John Strachan, Gaia Project Press, 2020), artist Mike Collier tells us that ‘during the past 500 years about 187 of the world’s 11,147 bird species are estimated to have gone extinct.  But it is projected that during the next 500 years three times as many – 471 – species may go extinct.’  This alarming prediction sits alongside everything else we know and fear about Climate Change, happening now and forecast for the future.  I was disturbed to discover that studies have shown birdsong is changing in response to increasing noise levels in urban areas.  Lower tones have disappeared, replaced by higher noises that are able to compete with human interference.  It’s harder for these birds to attract a mate, so fewer eggs are laid and fewer birds hatch.  Something else that goes beyond our notice.

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Our Dawn Chorus project is part of my Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University, supported by Arts Council England.  Working with Christo Wallers, artist and film-maker, I wanted to capture the energy of the waking birds in ‘a collective sound poem for the beginning of the world’.  In my mind’s ear, many different voices melded in a polyphonic audio piece, a kind of ear-mosaic to wake us all up to the climate and ecological crisis we are facing.

Tackling the challenges of changing an archaic carbon-heavy system into a sustainable and fair one, we need to begin again every single day, with renewed commitment.  This very human endeavour will never be perfect – we will try and fail many times – personally and politically.  But no matter, we must keep going forward with our net-zero, low-impact destination in mind.

An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.

Rebecca Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009)

I wonder if most young people see the situation more clearly than most older people, worn down by years of struggle or clinging to the status quo.  The younger generations deserve better – lives ahead of them of abundance, opportunity and freedom.  This can only happen if we keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees C.  Already, at around 1.2 degrees, we are seeing wildfires and floods and life-threatening extreme weather events creating chaos and displacement.  The concerted effort required to respond to the ‘Code Red for Humanity’ signalled by the most recent IPCC Report is waiting to be more broadly harnessed.  There still seems to be a massive gap between what people need and want and what governments and corporations are choosing to make possible.  The carbon emissions of the world’s richest 1% are more than double those of the poorest half of the world and 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  

There are hopeful signs of people working for change all over the world.  Every day we have a chance to begin again.  Every day we ignore this opportunity intensifies the crisis, making it harder to address.  The COP26 summit in Glasgow in November is an important date in the Climate Calendar.  Will we hear a chorus of voices raised to commit to lowering emissions and consumption to safe levels as soon as possible, or will what we see be another missed chance, ‘a circus of corporate corruption’?

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The Dawn Chorus is a symbol of community – grass roots, non-hierarchical – with space for everyone to be heard.  In response to an open call, 115 people all over the world sent in their recordings – short and longer pieces of poetry, often with birdsong (especially the blackbird’s, flying in and out of so many lines), sometimes water, or other ambient sounds: one church clock, one cock crow, one full-blown song, complete with piano accompaniment.  The sound quality was variable, but every single crackle and blur spoke of a human being making the effort to add their voice to the call for change and starting over.  As well as their words, close up to the microphone, we could hear the sound of their breathing, the nuances of accent and intonation, against the background of noises off.  Although we asked for no more than 30 seconds, in a very human fashion, quite a lot of people ignored our ‘guidelines’ and just did what they felt was right and sent in whole poems.

My task as curator/editor was to listen carefully and hear what was being sung in all the contributions, amounting to hours of audio, to catch the flavour and intention of the piece, and then to tune in to the individual voices and the shaped breath of their words.  I approached the orchestration of the piece collage-style (not unlike with our previous collective project Murmuration, 2020), first transcribing all the submissions so I’d have a text to work with and refer to.  The initial document ran to 20 pages (5,540 words) and by the end the poem was distilled into 1571 words.  Ten people sent in their lines via email rather than as audio and we recorded those with family and friends.

I made a page of notes of the themes and images that kept recurring, using the touchstone of the prompts I’d offered in the initial invitation – I am…, I want…, Today…, We are… .  The lines fell naturally into a pattern of time – the course of a single day from night to dawn to dusk and back to night again, as well as incorporating the wider sense of past, present and future, whole generations who’d shared the gift of the dawn chorus.  I kept that as a loose template for the ordering of the extracts.

It was important to me to use all 115 voices, though we hear more of some than others.  I hoped to give a sense of the immense richness and variety in the readings.  There is real freshness and surprise – the true spirit of the dawn chorus, and the courage, innocence and optimism needed to broach the thorny tangle of the climate crisis.  All 115 people from all corners of the globe are singing their hearts out – along with the birds summoned by their words.  You only have to listen to be persuaded that, despite some appearances to the contrary, humanity has plenty going for it, enough to make the trajectory towards positive climate action manageable and creative.  

This soundpoem is in the long tradition of oral poetry, spoken word, uttered with the ear, the imagination and the heart in mind.  Continuity and survival are contained in it.  After the long dark night, we can begin again.  

Why add more words?  To whisper for that which has been lost.  Not out of nostalgia, but because it is on the site of loss that hopes are born.

John Berger (And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, 2005)

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In the studio with Christo, 115 people’s diverse voices filled the room.  There was much listening, discussing, rearranging and listening again.  Initially we spent full days together, with both of us working and reflecting in between.  The pace matched the process, careful, attentive, minutely focussed.  Reflecting on the editing process, Christo adds: ‘I think of the notion of the People’s Assembly as a dawn chorus for our times. Each voice steps forward in the sound piece with conviction and clarity of mind. The difference in recording quality is mainly controlled by the technology people have to hand, and we expected a variation considering the open call welcomed everything from Whatsapp voice messages to studio-recorded audio files. Softening the difference was important to erase a hierarchy between voices, but we didn’t want to do so much that the specificity of each person’s contribution was diminished. My mind is so steeped in video conferencing imagery as a new democratic forum that it felt very natural to hear this type of sonic variation.’ 

We incorporated some of Chris Watson’s dawn chorus recordings at certain points to complement the various background and foreground sounds from the submitted audio pieces and this added to the sense of creating a community of human and beyond-human contributions.  Before all the recordings came in, I’d imagined using an existing abstract artwork as a backdrop.  We knew we didn’t want anything too illustrative that would distract from the listening experience.  As we became more familiar with the atmosphere of the piece, it became clear that something else was called for, something created especially for the words.  Christo also had ideas about integrating the text as ‘subtitles’ as the words were spoken.  

He set up his camera to film the North Pennines landscape early in the morning as the light changed and the mist lifted in the valley.  The ash tree with its signs of dieback is our protagonist, muse, bird-shelter and shadow-keeper.  ‘The visual element of the tree, which plays daily host to the dawn chorus, stands also as an open object onto which listener-viewers can project their thoughts and hopes as they hear the poem. It forms a passage between thinking as a human and as non-human. The single take is purposefully ‘slow’, like James Benning’s films or Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970). In that slower present, different thoughts and possibilities are more available’, adds Christo.

Another day together in the studio brought sound, image and subtitles in sync.  Then further refining and adjusting before we finally settled on a version we were happy with.  Watch and listen – watch or listen: your choice.  We hope Dawn Chorus works with your eyes open and with your eyes closed – try both for a different experience.  We hope too that it bears repeated listening so its rhythms percolate into your own dreams and plans for a kinder future.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought… For poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architect of our lives.

Audre Lorde (Poetry is Not a Luxury, 1977)

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birds courtesy of wikipedia

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Giving Ourselves Away

‘striped and golden for her own glory…’
Self-Protection 

When science starts to be interpretive
It is more unscientific even than mysticism. 
To make self-preservation and self-protection the first law of existence
Is about as scientific as making suicide the first law of existence,
And amounts to very much the same thing. 

A nightingale singing at the top of his voice
Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species;
He is giving himself away in every sense of the word;
And obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence. 

A tiger is striped and golden for his own glory.
He would certainly be much more invisible if he were grey-green.
And I don’t suppose the ichthyosaurus sparkled like the humming-bird,
No doubt he was khaki-coloured with muddy protective colouration,
So why didn’t he survive? 

As a matter of fact, the only creatures that seem to survive
Are those that give themselves away in flash and sparkle
And gay flicker of joyful life;
Those that go glittering abroad
With a bit of splendour. 

Even mice play quite beautifully at shadows,
And some of them are brilliantly piebald. 

I expect the dodo looked like a clod,
A drab and dingy bird.   


D.H. Lawrence

thanks to the poet Mark Nepo for pointing me in the direction of this poem

with his concept of ‘exquisite risk’

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Autumnal


Just past the Autumn Equinox and there’s that beginning of term feeling in the air, a quickening as the seasons slip down and along, a new coolness in the air.  It’s been a strange not-quite-there summer with more work in it than play.  But the fruits are ripening with a number of events connected with my Writing the Climate residency coming up I hope you might have time, space and inclination to check out.


At Durham Book Festival on October 12th at 7pm you’ll be able to tune into Dawn Chorus, this year’s collective poem project I’ve curated and orchestrated with artist and film-maker Christo Wallers. 115 people from all over the world sent in their audio clips in response to our open call and we’ve gathered all of them together in a very special collaboration that captures the spirit of the birds’ waking up to renew our commitment to positive climate action, however that may play out in our individual and collective lives.  You can find the details here – and there’ll also be an essay available soon about the making of the piece. I look forward to hearing how you find it in the comments box in the online space on the night – especially all those who contributed.  Thank you for your inspiring words.

Straight after the premiere of Dawn Chorus, you’ll be able to stay and watch a conversation between myself and Kate Simpson, editor extraordinaire of the powerful new anthology Out of Time – Poems from the Climate Emergency (Valley Press, 2021).  We’ve called it Beginning Again and, as well as discussing Dawn Chorus, we’ll be putting our heads together to think about what poetry can bring to a climate crisis that it’s hard to find the right words for Full Stop.  You can see all the details here.  Both events are free, and a link will be available soon.  

Once Dawn Chorus is launched, our podcast series In Our Element will also start airing.  As well as being broadcast on Resonance FM and several other local radio stations nationwide, two episodes will be released on New Writing North’s sound platform every week leading up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November.  Produced by Sonderbug, there are ten altogether and each one focuses on a particular element as a way of exploring different perspectives on the climate and ecological crisis.  I’ll write more about this and all our wonderful contributors in more detail later, but for now I just wanted to let you know it’s on its way.

There’s also a chance for the over-50s to take part in an online reflective writing workshop, offered on Friday October 8th (1 – 2.30pm), as one strand of the Older and Greener initiative from Newcastle Elders Council, Newcastle City Council and Equal Arts.  It’s called Waking Up to Climate and you can find out more about it here.  Again this event is free, but booking is required as numbers are limited.

I’d also like to say thank you to the Journal Culture Awards for voting me Writer of the Year. It was strange and very moving to back among the region’s cultural community for the first time in 18 months at the prize-giving event in Durham Cathedral. A bat flying between the pillars all night was a memorable highlight. Congratulations to all the shortlisted artists, performers and organisations.

This sounds like enough to be going on with – but do join me for one or all of these various events, nicely timed for the growing dark and this beautiful wild time of year.

Be well.

L

x

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The Collective Endeavour

Currently working on Dawn Chorus, our new ‘collective sound poem for the beginning of the world’, I’ve been revisiting the process of making last year’s Murmuration. Although a lot has changed in the wider world, many of my aspirations and intentions still apply. And in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow in November, raising awareness about the Climate Crisis and mobilising as much personal and political positive action as possible is more and more crucial. This is not an ‘issue’ – it is a collective endeavour to ensure the balance of the planet and its ability to support life.

I came across this unabridged version of an interview about Murmuration for Durham Book Festival 2020 (with Reviewer in Residence Heather Craddock) and thought it might be worth reproducing in full here. I’ll write more about the making of Dawn Chorus once it’s finished.

Look out for news of the launch at Durham Book Festival 2021, when I will also be in conversation with Kate Simpson, editor of the powerful new anthology Out of Time, Poems from the Climate Emergency (Valley Press 2021).

Heather Craddock: Murmuration takes on the challenge of engaging with the vast issue of the climate crisis through hundreds of individual perspectives. In what ways do you find poetry to be an effective form for depicting the scale of climate change? 

Linda France: That’s an interesting question. On the face of it, poetry is a miniature form, dealing with detail, the particular, so it might not have the reach to convey the scale of Climate Change, a creature with many entangled tentacles. But poetry’s secret weapon is a depth charge into the emotions, a place of immense power and capacity to connect. Poetry embodies ‘Less is More’. Highly compressed, working with silence and white space, everything it doesn’t say has the potential to ignite the reader’s imagination, which is a vast unquantifiable space. Think of Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’ and ‘universe in a grain of sand’: that’s the sort of scale poetry operates on. 

HC: How do you view the role of creative writing in the climate crisis? 

LF: Rebecca Solnit has written: ‘An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.’ (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009). One of the things creative writing can do is help us ‘rise to the occasion’. From a practitioner’s point of view, it has the capacity to play a part in the cultivation of a sense of presence, qualities like clarity and courage. Taking time and space to write creates an atmosphere of self-care and discipline in our lives at a time when we all feel under extra pressure. Dealing with the technical demands of grammar, syntax, focus and style keeps our communication skills honed and helps remind us what really needs saying and what might be better left unsaid. Taking a reader into account is a way of staying connected with others, remembering our common humanity. T.S. Eliot Prize-winner Roger Robinson says ‘Poetry is an empathy machine’! To write well you need a critical and appreciative awareness and this in turn helps you look beyond yourself, gain perspective and stay orientated. And it’s important to remember writing is a real pleasure – it’s not all hard work and worthiness. There is joy and delight, a freshness in staying awake enough to play with language and rhythm, metaphor and form and share it with others. Again, hugely important in times of stress and uncertainty. So, on an individual level, I’d definitely recommend it. 

From a wider cultural viewpoint, I think writers have an important contribution to make at this time, not least in offering a corrective to the slanted, superficial and divisive perspective created by the media. Neither simply a doomsayer or a cheerleader, a writer thinks longer, deeper, harder and their work will present different angles on climate justice and environmental challenges that will expand a reader’s awareness and suggest new ways to engage, politically and personally, with the situation we find ourselves in. 

The Climate Crisis is not happening ‘out there’. This is our lives now and, in the face of what is an existential threat, everyone is required to reflect on the part they play in the interconnected ecosystem of life on our planet. We’ve already seen how our current crisis involves issues of race, gender, class and poverty and we can all examine our own relationship with these and do what we can to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Reading is an excellent starting point in educating yourself and staying open to positive change. Books transform the way people think and that transforms how they act. In a place of accelerating and often confusing change, they are helpful touchstones and guides, connecting us with readers across the world. 

HC: What do you hope contributors might feel when reading and watching Murmuration

LF: American poet Mary Oliver said ‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’ – I always wanted it to be a celebration of the natural word. People only protect what they love and I wanted the project to be a reminder of what we appreciate about the world, what we’re in danger of losing if we don’t take the necessary steps. I want everyone reading and watching Murmuration, whether they contributed any lines or not, to feel implicated, part of something bigger than themselves alone, and for the work to be open enough that they can find their own ‘story’ in it, make a personal, as well as a shared connection. 

HC: Do you consider the final piece to be primarily a celebration, or a warning, about human relationships with nature? 

LF: I don’t think you can separate the two – isn’t that the point of the Crisis we find ourselves in? We celebrate it because we know the dangers, the risk of losing it. There’s no room any more for nature as simply a recreational activity, solely for the enjoyment of human beings. We are nature too and there’s nowhere else to go, as one of the lines in the poem says, nowhere else to escape to, no ‘away’ where we can throw our rubbish. What happens on the farthest side of the world affects us all. 

Murmuration walks the tightrope between hope and despair, establishing the tricky ‘edge’ we must negotiate now, where we must all take responsibility for our choices and our systems. Many experts have proved that a future free from dependence on fossil fuels and a new focus on global justice, rather than the dystopic nightmare promulgated by most news and social media, would actually be a much improved version of what we’re enduring now. We are living in a time of immense opportunity, as activist Joanna Macy says, a Great Turning. 

HC: Did the experience of curating the hundreds of contributions to Murmuration reshape your own perspective on climate change and the current global health crisis? 

LF: I felt very touched reading all the ways people appreciate the natural world – most of which I resonate with. Stepping inside all the lines was like looking up at a spinning mirror ball – magical, exciting. So, even though it was a challenge to make the poem, distilling 11,296 words down to 1000 (with only a couple of handfuls of my own used as glue), I felt energised and encouraged by the response. I think people’s contributions and the poem and film we made together encapsulates a lot of real active hope for the future, intense and meaningful care and concern. This is the sort of momentum that makes change happen. 

It was very satisfying collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film. We managed to work together to bring it to fruition without meeting face to face, which feels almost miraculous. The whole process underlines for me how collective action and partnership is necessary in our response to Climate Change. Culture is inherently contagious and spreads goodwill, triggers change. I’d like to see people talk about Climate more, make it part of our lives, not some shadowy demon, a repository for our worst fears. My experience of ‘Murmuration’ won’t be quite complete until it is launched and I start to hear people’s responses – those who submitted lines and others who didn’t. Then I’ll be able to see the bigger picture and understand better the impact of such an ambitious undertaking and where it might lead. 

At the moment, working on my own ‘Climate poems’, I notice my thinking about ‘it’ (by which I mean Life, Death and Everything) changes if not daily then certainly week by week. Every time there’s a new report or I have an enlightening conversation with a friend or listen to an expert online, my ideas and attitudes shift slightly. This is entirely appropriate – the last thing we need is to take up a fixed position. We have to stay nimble and respond and adapt to all the changes that will undoubtedly continue to evolve around us. What will help us do that best is telling the truth about what’s going on for us and making sure we keep as well- informed as possible. For me, writing things down is vital and meditation is helpful, but everyone will have their own strategies. I’ve recently found the resources at Climate Psychology Alliance useful and the TED Global Countdown heartening. My Climate Residency is just about to come to an end but I’m very aware there’s still loads more that needs to be done so I’m looking to extend it. Murmuration has shown what is possible when lots of us flock together and I’d really like the chance to explore new ways of doing that, harnessing the power of the word. 

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First Song / Last Call

Posting a few things here related to our Writing the Climate Dawn Chorus collective sound poem project as the closing date for submission’s creeping up. You have until 2nd August to send in your 30 seconds of poetry, thoughts, dreams and songs for the finished soundscape that will air as part of this year’s Durham Book Festival.

It would be wonderful to hear from as many people as possible – imagining what words you’d want to land at the beginning of a new day or even a new world. Every day we get a chance to start again. What would it feel like if we brought that freshness and creativity to how we’re approaching the climate crisis? Every day realigning ourselves with a vision of a fair sustainable future and renewing our efforts to make it possible, in our individual lives and within our local and global communities.

I hope that our Dawn Chorus will catch a sense of wonder and appreciation and remind us of what’s at stake if we ignore carbon emissions continuing to rise and the all too evident dangers of escalating temperatures across the globe. Last week in the UK the Met Office issued its first ever extreme heat warning. This is a tipping point. so our Dawn Chorus is also an alarm call – a cry for protection and an unshakeable commitment to mitigation. Singing ourselves awake includes the whole spectrum of feelings and responses. Everyone’s voice is welcome – all languages and accents.

You can find details of how to enter here

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An essay of mine that touches on the idea of the Dawn Chorus and poetry more generally is now available online as part of David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s wonderful NCLA project New Defences of Poetry. Do have a read – the whole site is full of delights and provocations.

Another place for delight is a new book edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan – Songs of Place and Time, Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts. It’s ‘a celebration of what it is to be alive and share our much more-than-human world with birds in their sheer exuberance of life at the dawn of day’.

This from the introduction:

Most of us accept that the climate emergency threatens the survival of our planet. One of the things we can do to raise awareness of this existential threat is to rekindle our imagination about what we have and what we stand to lose. we have the ability to imagine, and to develop a new narrative; it’s what we’re good at; good at imagining; good at telling stories. It’s our strength as creative people; and this is one way we may also discover our power to act.

The creative people in Songs of Place and Time include artists, writers, poets, academics, sound recordists, musicians and photographers. I’m very happy to be among their company. The assembled chorus of voices sings sweetly and gives rise to a sense of practical hope.

…an onomatopoeia of feathered things

that Emily Dickinson, dressed all in white,

heard as ‘Hope’, vowel and plosive, a gesture,

a giving of lips and throat –

how we learned

to talk after all, by imitating

these birds, borrowing their beauty, bringing

our very selves to light. And so we hear the compass

of our own hearts – tinsel and workshop, too many

messes to count; according to Emily, find ecstasy

in life, the mere sense of living joy enough –

turning it up, turning it up, us all, ratchet and caw.

(from Dawn Chorus, written for Compass, installation with sound artist Chris Watson at Cheeseburn, 2015)

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The Bravery of the Staircase

‘We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the Earth.  Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.’

Donna Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (2016)

Last night was the final session of How to Start Writing the Climate, a course for ‘early career writers’ I’ve been facilitating as part of my Writing the Climate residency.  Even though I tried to draw together the threads of what has been a fascinating few months with a wonderfully engaged group, I woke up this morning with all the things I wish I’d said bullet-pointing in my brain.  

My default setting is SLOW (and getting slower) so l’esprit d’escalier is familiar to me.  [‘Borrowed from French, the expression esprit de l’escalier, or esprit d’escalier, literally wit of (thestaircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed.  It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering.’*] 

Like my faltering rural broadband, I always take at least a day to download significant emotions or get to the bottom of what I’ve read, heard or seen.  Perhaps it’s a consequence of trying to live with in-the-moment judgement-free awareness.  Staying open to Everything simply can’t happen all at once: perception and processing need to catch up with each other and come into some sort of alignment.  This slow but not always sure rhythm is part of the way I try to make sense of the world and understand my place in it.  That’s fine when it comes to simple day to day living but it’s more problematic when being congruent with the climate crisis demands more immediate, vigorous action.  Now is not the time to leave things unsaid or your deepest values not acted upon.

In my thinking and writing about climate, I keep coming back to the concept of time – how we balance planning and preparing for an unknowable future and living well in the now, informed by the best lessons of the past (that largely didn’t know what it was doing either).  We’ve made provision that the Course participants can continue meeting in a self-programming capacity.  All hail to New Writing North for offering to support this.  It is an excellent model, grass roots and empowering – it works for community and climate activism so I’m sure it will for assisting writers.

When one member of the group said it was a new beginning, not an ending, I felt very moved.  I was saying goodbye but they would be carrying on, staying connected, developing their ideas and their work, which I could already see gaining power and focus as the four sessions progressed.  Environmental activist Joanna Macy has said we don’t know if our task now is sitting with a planet in the throes of dying or as midwives at the birth of a new era.  Another reason I struggled to say everything I wanted to in my concluding remarks is lately I’ve been living in more of a deathbed scene than a joyful birth.  Carrying a lot of grief for the world, I’m often tender to the point of tears.  There is no place for this in most human interactions, although I know it’s there just below the surface in whatever I say or do.  And I see others carrying something they have no words for, or none they are able to share.  And so we continue, with the most important things unspoken.

As a writer and a facilitator, I have a responsibility to be clear, active and, to a certain extent, upbeat.  It’s been hard to stay positive and hopeful these past few months, witnessing the failure to act by governments and corporations across the world, while carbon emissions continue to rise and flora and fauna species to decline.  We’ve all watched the alarming reports of the heat-related deaths in Canada and the Pacific North West of America.  Isn’t this a sort of l’esprit d’escalier too – a pervasive reliance on hindsight, when it will be too late – all those words, just empty promises, and meanwhile everything carries on as *normal*?  

The Suffragettes’ slogan was Deeds not Words.  We need both.  Words do not achieve the same effects as deeds but they can hold a ladder up to the moon, towards a more sustainable life founded on principles of fairness and kindness.  This is what I set out to do as a teacher – help and encourage people to find their own way to their own moon, asking their own questions as they go, rather than offer the lie of easy formulas.  

I know I’m not the only one to feel sadness, anger and despair at the state we’re in.  If I’d been able to tell the group about my grief, it might have broken a spell of silence.  North American poet and editor, Camille T. Dungy quotes that we need ‘tearleaders not cheerleaders to teach us how to mourn’.  I’m not a politician or a rhetorician.  I’m not always even capable of joined-up talking.  The place I find my words is on the page.  Reviewing my own work-in-progress, many of my recent poems are sparked by immense grief for the world, as I take note of the potential and actual loss of so much of our planet’s beauty and biodiversity.  This earth is where we live, our home.  It’s hard right now not to feel as if your house is crumbling around you.  Words can make the future feel less shaky, keep you steady, but they’re not enough on their own and we need to act while we still can.  

So, what should have been my parting shot?  What can we do, as citizens and as writers?  A useful strategy in writing workshops to get ideas started is to make a list.  Here’s mine, a mixture of things I already do and things I need to remember to do:

  • Put your own house in order.  Switch to green electricity, ethical banking, a meat-less, dairy-free or less-meat, less-dairy diet.  Recycle paper.  Buy secondhand books and pass them on.  Manage with less.
  • Cultivate words and deeds.  Match thought with action.  Speak truth to power.  
  • Find an environmental campaign you can engage with and support wholeheartedly.
  • When you come across something you don’t understand, do some research – not to confirm your own opinion, but to extend your knowledge.
  • Write from and with your body – the primary source of all perception, what we share as humans. 
  • Write to connect, not to escape.  Stay engaged with the world around you.
  • ‘Bear witness.  Hold uncertainty.  Love the world.’  (Charlotte du Cann)
  • Read widely and inquisitively, critically.  Balance the work of contemporary and classic writers, poetry and prose.
  • ‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.’ (Czeslaw Milosz)
  • Make space for a daily reflective practice – silent meditation, mindful walking, journalling, yoga etc.  Pause and process your experience.
  • Appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have.  Notice beauty and express wonder.
  • Connect with others – know you are not alone.
  • Attune to interdependence, reciprocity, the spirit of exchange, the gift economy.
  • Beware of righteousness or too much humility.  You are neither better nor worse than anyone else.
  • Be kind.  ‘What will survive of us is love’. (Larkin)
  • Stay open to new ways of writing and living.  Listen to what’s in the air and catch only what is helpful and authentic.  Live a creative rather than a reactive life.
  • ‘Be the change you want to see.’  (Mahatma Gandhi)
  • Argue with this list.  Make your own manifesto.

*

The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) used the expression in English Traits (Boston, 1856):

A slow temperament makes them less rapid and ready than other countrymen, and has given occasion to the observation, that English wit comes afterwards, — which the French denote as esprit d’escalier. This dullness makes their attachment to home, and their adherence in all foreign countries to home habits. The Englishman who visits Mount Etna, will carry his teakettle to the top.

American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (1905-84) gave a variation on the phrase, recollecting what she failed to say to the House Committee on Un-American Activities: ‘ Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it’s all over, the bravery of the staircase’.

[With thanks to wordhistories.net]

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earthsong : birdsong

Summer Solstice fell at 4.30 this morning. As if sensing it in the air, I woke up and listened to the birds greeting the day.

As part of Writing the Climate, after last year’s gathering of words in Murmuration, I’ve chosen another bird-related analogy for this year’s version. We’ll be making a collective sound poem for the beginning of the world, a Dawn Chorus that you can add your voice to – literally. This time we’re asking for short recordings of texts that catch your sense of what it’s like to begin again, to wake up to a new day – as if you’d never seen or heard it before. What would take you by surprise? What is your dream of a better future? How might you choose to express wonder or gratitude? What is your morning song for the world?

If recording isn’t your idea of fun, then you can just send an email with your words and we’ll ask someone else to read it for you.

All the details are here. Do send something in! We’d love to hear voices from all over the world. All languages more than welcome.

*

I was very happy recently to be introduced to Orpine (Sedum telephium), a wild succulent, relative of the garden ice plant or butterfly stonecrop here in the UK. Richard Mabey calls it ‘something of a recluse in shady hedge-banks and woodland edges…nowhere common.’ Known also as Midsummer Men, Livelong, or Lovelong, or Livelong-lovelong, and, in some southern places, Vazey Flower ‘because of the squeaky noise the leaves made if you rubbed them together.’

Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996)

In one of the tracts printed about 1800 at the Cheap Repository, was one entitled Tawney Rachel, or the Fortune-Teller, said to have been written by Hannah More.  Among many other superstitious practices of poor Sally Evans, one of the heroines of the piece, we learn that ‘she would never go to bed on Midsummer Eve without sticking up in her room the well-known plant called Midsummer Men, as the bending of the leaves to the right, or to the left, would never fail to tell her whether her lover was true or false…(1853)

When we were young we made Midsummer Men.  These were two pieces of orpine, known to us as ‘Live-long-love-long’.  These we pushed through two empty cotton reels and took them to bed with us.  One reel was given the name of our particular boy friend and the other was ourself.  In the morning we looked at the reels.  If the plants had fallen towards each other, all was well.  If they had fallen one in one direction and the other in the opposite direction, then our love would not be true.(1973)

The Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore, Roy Vickery (OUP, 1995)

Orpine (Sedum telephium)

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Bringing Death to Life

It’s Demystifying Death Week in Scotland and Larry Butler and Sheila Templeton, editors of a new anthology in progress Living Our Dying, chose the moment to launch their crowdfunder appeal to make the book happen.

Dying is part of life. How we live our dying is fundamentally important. What do we do when someone we know has died? How do we make our own dying part of our lives? Living Our Dying offers a fuller engagement with death, so that life can be rich; it offers ways to engage with pain, fear, anxiety, and loss of dreams. Dying is part of life. How we live our dying is fundamentally important.

The book’s all ready to be printed – here’s the cover with artwork by Pauline McGee. If this is something you’d be interested in supporting or receiving an early copy, please do visit the kickstarter page here.

I have a few poems in the book about ageing, loss and turning towards dying, all with a botanical theme, including this one:

Tattoo

When news came of her death

there was a breach in the weather,

east wind’s salt breath.

All the garden’s roses

lost their petals as roses

do when summer does

what summers do without

looking back. Not so the poet –

what else to write about?

Love, death, how we react.

I choose a single rose, black,

inked petals, scentless, intact.

Spring might be here but death is still in the air after such a long difficult winter. I’m pleased to have a piece in the latest Dark Mountain Journal, which in its beautiful shroud wrapped cover (by Graeme Walker) ‘revolves around themes of death, loss and renewal’, with a particular emphasis on grief for the world. The collection is a requiem, a memorial, a cairn of many voices.

You can find out more and order a copy here. My piece called Incunabula is reproduced here.

C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed:

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history…There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.

The Living Our Dying kickstarter launch ended with a beautiful video of Sandy Hutchinson reading his poem, Everything. Sandy is no longer with us but his poem will stand as a coda to the book. You can watch it here.

And so we go on.

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WRITING AS AN ECOLOGICAL ATTITUDE

Some thoughts arising from past Climate Writing workshops and thinking about more on the horizon… You can apply for a free mini-course ‘How to Start Writing about Climate’ here.  There’s also a Creative Saturday at NCLA on ‘Writing Like Weather’ here.  And a chance to come together and write in ‘The Writing Hour’ here.

Writing about Climate, keeping ecological balance in mind, alongside others is a way of bringing our relationship with the powerful time we are living through into greater awareness.  It helps to articulate half-buried thoughts and feelings and propel us into further research that will deepen our knowledge, which we can then share or use in more politically active ways to move towards establishing more sustainable and equitable systems.  The accumulated effect on us is wholesome and energising – on the side of life and active strong-rooted hope.

It sounds a bit like an advertising slogan but if writing is good for you, it can be good for the planet too.  

…staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.

                                                                                                            Donna Haraway

If we don’t act until we feel the crisis that we rather curiously call ‘environmental’ – as if the destruction of our planet were merely a context – everyone will be committed to solving a problem that can no longer be solved.

                                                                                                                     Jonathan Safran Foer

The process and techniques of writing poetry in particular help cultivate qualities that keep us in balance, moving forward in a positive direction.  I came up with this figuring of causes and effects (– formatting a bit wayward, but hopefully you’ll be able to get the gist).  You might be able to think of more things you’d include – and I’d be delighted to hear about them.  It’s all work in progress.

THE POETICS OF PRESENCE & RESILIENCE

Writing as an Ecological Attitude

Taking space to write, cultivating                           A sense of commitment,

a practice, honouring the process          . . .           discipline & self-care

Grammar & syntax, inherent logic          . . .          Clarity, communication skills

Economy & focus                                    . . .           Simplicity

Truth-telling, managing register              . . .           Authenticity, a common humanity

& tone                                                                       

Taking reader into account                     . . .          Connectedness, empathy, solidarity

Having something to say, breaking           . . .            Courage, speaking out

silences

Making choices about place/character/      . . .           Gaining perspective, looking beyond 

details/flora/fauna etc – based on close                    yourself, orientation

observation                                   

Playing with language & sound – rhyme     . . .         Delight, pleasure, staying fresh, positive,

rhythm, voice, tense, lexicon etc                             awake

One obvious thing writing poetry does is to make you stop.  Stopping is a radical act.  Even in lockdown, we are all trying to do too much, overstimulating our bodies and minds at a time when there is so much to process.  Done in a calm way, with no goal in mind, writing can touch you in similar ways to meditation, offering a space for in-the-moment, judgement-free presence and enquiry.  Yes, we need action on Climate, but action arising from clear thinking and a careful consideration of the consequences. 

I may have posted this quote from Cistercian monk Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) before – but every year/month/week/day it seems to become more and more relevant:

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. 

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. 

The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

                                                                                                                        Thomas Merton

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