Endings and Beginnings | Beginnings and Endings

After over ten months of thinking, reading and writing, my Climate Residency has officially come to an end.  In the spirit of honouring endings to make space for new beginnings, I wanted to spend some time here reflecting on where I’ve been with it.  Some of this you’ll know already – pandemic, lockdown, pandemic, lockdown: a jagged rhythm we probably haven’t seen the last of.  It changed the form and energy of the way I had to work early enough in the Residency that I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like under pre-Covid conditions.  I was glad I managed to squeeze in a couple of Climate-related gatherings right at the start – one with North East Culture Partnership in Sunderland and one with Julie’s Bicycle in London.  Both were wonderfully sociable events, packed with stimulating and provoking ideas about the role and potential of culture in response to the Climate Crisis.  Ironic, that culture-as-we-knew-it came to an abrupt halt just a few weeks later when the first lockdown was announced.

All my research and networking shifted online and I’ve lost count of all the webinars, gatherings and talks I’ve attended on various platforms.  I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of information, and no doubt forgotten just as much.  I’ve filled five notebooks with notes that started quite neatly but have become more and more erratic, teetering on the illegible.  I tell myself that I’m in revolt after the strictures of the PhD process, but I’m still not entirely sure what it’s ‘useful’ to keep a record of, never knowing where my own writing will come from.  Sometimes the origin of a poem is traceable, sometimes it stays hidden in the tangle of accumulated thoughts.  I probably need to be aware that in my notebooks I’m writing notes to my future self and I could try to make it a little clearer for her sake.  My process has always been gloriously messy, arcane, archive-unfriendly, untranslatable, and I can’t see that changing at this late stage.

I’ve missed the regular face-to-face human interactions that used to form the backdrop and compost of my writing, but feel even more deeply enmeshed in my patch of scruffy, windswept land held fast between the River and the Wall.  Although I’m thankful that I do still seem able to write, I don’t find writing ‘about’ Climate any easier.  Every single time I return to the blank page I have to start all over again trying to say something truthful, vaguely original, worth saying, possibly helpful.  I spoke a little about the process and read some of the poems in progress for Newcastle University’s Inside Writing Festival in the summer.  The poems are accruing slowly and all being well there’ll be enough of them to form a collection at some point.  I’ve noticed I’m using the ‘I’ voice more than I expected, needing the ballast of close subjective observation (Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’) to help cast them off into the vastness of the troposphere.  There seem to be quite a few poems about trees and unsurprisingly the weather comes up a lot, the consolations of place in the face of grief, sadness and longing.  I’m interested in the poetics of ethical dilemmas and solutions, energy and power, the confounding tangle of it all.

Alongside working on my own writing, I enjoyed curating the collective Murmuration project, and collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film for Durham Book Festival.  It was extremely heartening to hear so many positive responses filling the social void.  The Residency has been beautifully managed and supported by Anna Disley at New Writing North, who’s been a helpful and encouraging presence throughout.  Our Climate Book Group (open to all) read five books and has proved a satisfying, strong way to stay connected.  We’re hoping that these will continue in the New Year – there’s already a growing list of potential novels, poetry books and non-fiction titles.  This was one place where proper conversations could happen.  I had others in various online forums or one-to-one in the open air, but mostly, it has to be said, with myself.  Overarching themes which recurred in these conversations include:

Time

I talked about my preoccupation with Time on the Inside Writing podcast.  It’s key to the subject of Climate in multiple ways, not least the pressure of the fast-approaching deadlines for reaching carbon zero.  The concept of Time encapsulates the conundrum that the only moment we can actually change is this one now.  Albert Camus resolved it, saying ‘Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present’.  The blessing (and the curse) of Covid has been to remind us to stay in the moment – the future even more uncertain and contingent than usual.  Uncertainty is a fact of nature and, like death, one our culture would prefer us to deny or ignore.  Beginning afresh over and over again, staying present, staying patient, is something we must learn, like circus skills, tightrope walking or juggling.  If it has to be so, we may as well make it exhilarating, entertaining.

Hope

When the Residency started I was concerned the burden of focussing so thoroughly on the Climate Crisis might be too much to bear.  You have to become slightly obsessed with a subject, immersed in it, to write about it at all.  Is that what I wanted to spend all my time thinking about?  I doubted my capacity for scientific information, my resilience, my energy levels, my ability to transform what I learned into poetry.  It’s been a stretch, tiring and boggling, but, eleven months on, I’m feeling more hopeful about our potential for radical transformation.  Because of my reading and all the online gatherings I’ve attended, I’m now much better informed.  Knowledge brings power and hope.  The story portrayed in the media tends to be on the dark side because that is the language of the ‘news’, however it’s clear that we have all the resources we need to take us into a carbon zero society.  What we are lacking is unambiguous backing from governments and legal systems to keep the fossil fuel industry in check.  The steady work of countless inspiring individuals and projects goes unreported in the mainstream news.  We have heard about the US election result and that has brought more hope, an immense relief after months of fearing the worst.

Challenge

Although there is occasion for hope, many obstacles remain and much work still needs to be done to fundamentally rethink how we live in the world and create a new ecological civilisation.  Reducing emissions will help stabilise the impact of mass migration, resulting from drought, floods, poor crop yields and political instability.  Even a 2 degree rise in global temperatures will create around 30 million migrants each year; if it rises by 4 degrees, that figure will increase to around 150 million.  Open up any topic that needs political attention and Climate is an inextricable strand in the tangle – energy, ‘the environment’, transport, housing, finance.  Although attention has been, understandably, diverted towards the challenges of the pandemic (itself adding considerably to plastic waste, a downturn in public transport and adversely affecting people’s mental health and well-being), Climate Crisis is still the biggest existential threat on the planet, as Greta Thunberg so valiantly keeps reminding us.  The story needs changing to help us replace all coal-fired power stations with renewable energy.  The law and human pressure can make this happen, if we open our hearts and minds to the damage we’ve caused, feel the grief of it and step beyond it into the practicalities of what needs to be done. 

Transformation

Black Lives Matter has shown us deep-rooted change starts with ourselves if we don’t want to be complicit in systems that perpetuate racism and injustice, intolerance for all diversities and the destruction of nonhuman species and habitats.  This is a personal as well as a political dialogue.  To do any deep work, we need to be capable of concentration, not constantly distracted by the digital world. I’m fiercely dedicated to my practice and process as a way of harnessing my own power in relation to Climate action, staying in tune with my responsibilities as a citizen of my small republic in the North and of the world.  This finds expression in my work as a writer, inseparable from my commitment to an engaged Buddhist perspective on the ethics and ecology of what is real.  Thai Forest Tradition teacher Ajahn Sucitto, in his book Buddha Nature, Human Nature (available for free distribution), says we can ‘choose not to look away, keep our eyes open so we can make clearer choices about what to eat, buy, who to associate with, how to occupy ourselves and who to vote for.  Meet and share and help each other and participate in a positive spiral.’  We can choose to stay informed and make small adjustments every day.  Seamus Heaney always used to say it’s what you do, how you live, in between the poems you write that matters.  That is where all the potential lies.

Joy

A stray entry found in my orange notebook, undated but from earlier in the year, provoked by some (now forgotten) brick wall of joylessness:

Why is joy a dirty word?  Why does it make most of us cringe?  Do we think we don’t deserve it?  Are we superstitious, imagining we might jinx it if we say it out loud?  Is it just not British?  Not polite?  Or modest?

For a while in this work I kept on safe territory talking about hope (encouraged by Rebecca Solnit), while privately thinking about faith and my own idiosyncratic relationship with my ‘spiritual practice’ (too grand a term – basically how I consciously choose to live my life).  The collision of idealism and imperfection has given me many opportunities to unlock a felt sense of compassion (another more dangerous word might be love).  At the bottom of that, and on top of it too, is a palpable awareness of joy.  I can’t live or love, do anything without it.  It’s the positive energy I need to get out of bed in the morning and stay in touch with myself and have faith in my own creative fire.  This is what Christiana Figueres calls ‘stubborn optimism’ – the rebellion or resistance in staying true to your deepest values – not giving way to the doomsayers, the whirl of the world where everyone talks and no one listens.  There is joy in listening, as there’s joy in sometimes turning the volume not just down but off.

Sometimes there is an implication in environmental messages that human beings are the problem – the best solution stripping right back to zero, eradicating our footprint, our actions, our basic wayward energies.  This is an anti-life philosophy, promulgating old burdens of guilt and despair, associated with systemic ideas about dominance, violence and the myth of perpetual growth.  It is capitalism’s shadow played out in materialistic skin-deep environmentalism.  The truth is we are part of nature too.  We have a place among everything else on this planet.  All of us.

Stay with the ragged joy of ordinary living and dying.

Donna Haraway

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sound & Vision

Leonardo da Vinci, Star of Bethlehem and other plants, c.1506-12

Shantideva wrote in chapter eight, verse ninety-nine (VIII:99) of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that if someone is suffering and we refuse to help, it would be like our hand refusing to remove a thorn from our foot. If the foot is pierced by a thorn, our hand naturally pulls the thorn out of the foot. The hand doesn’t ask the foot if it needs help. The hand doesn’t say to the foot, ‘This is not my pain.’ Nor does the hand need to be thanked by the foot. They are part of one body, one heart.

Joan Halifax, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet (Flatiron Books, 2018)

The idea of ‘one body, one heart’ has been on my mind lately as I’ve been working on our collective poem Murmuration, as part of my Climate Residency, collaborating with artist Kate Sweeney on the filmpoem for Durham Book Festival.  Murmuration is one thing – as the starlings’ flock is one thing – but made up of five hundred different voices.  There is unity in diversity, similarity and difference – and I’ve worked hard to try and catch the sense of that: bearing with contradiction and not trying to look for answers, just staying with all the questions the lines and the poem itself throws up.

You can book a place to watch its launch at Durham Book Festival, right after an event with Jenny Offill, talking about her Climate Change novel Weather (Granta, 2020) – highly recommended.  I’ve also written an essay on the making of Murmuration, which will be available during the Festival.

I’m very aware there’s an excess of things to watch and listen to online at the moment, but in the absence of human-to-human conversations and gatherings in the wild, it seems important to stay connected and be proactive in accessing alternative perspectives on how much is happening in the world that runs contrary to the news in the mainstream media, that insists on highlighting stories that communicate divisiveness, alienation and blame.  

I recently discovered, we have 86,400 seconds every day to fill. And sometimes I do nothing but listen to them ticking away.

The people at TED Talks have created Countdown – a programme with a coalition of voices addressing different aspects of the Climate Crisis.  Nothing is more important than the sharing of clear factual information.  One thing we can do – even though we might often feel powerless –  is to stay well-informed.  How we take in and pass on what we know (and feel) is what makes society and culture.  The imagination is powerful – it’s where the future resides.

You can take a look at the TED Countdown here.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.  Together, we will find hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation, Dark Mountain

And so we enter the dark of autumn and winter. One of my favourite times of year. We could do with a bit more darkness – that place where we can be with what we don’t know and just love each other.  ‘Night is the mother of life’ says Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuna. ‘Light is born from darkness’.  

So many thresholds and edges just now – happening on a level I won’t see the end of or understand in my lifetime.  But I’m curious, interested to see what’s waiting in, what Joan Halifax calls, ‘the fruitful dark’.  One of the things I’ve been doing lately thinking about hope in the dark is planting bulbs, burying them in the cooling earth so they can do their own magic and emerge in their own time next year.  Next year…even that sounds like an unknown world.

Dried flowers from Verde Flowers, Burnhopeside Hall

Art is the flower – Life is the green leaf.  Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing – something that will convince the world there may be – there are – things more precious – more beautiful – more lasting than life…you must offer real, living – beautifully coloured flowers – flowers that grow from but above the green leaf – flowers that are not dead – are not dying – not artificial – real flowers – you must offer the flowers of the art that is in you – the symbols of all that is noble – and beautiful  and inspiring – flowers that will often change a colourless leaf – into an estimated and thoughtful thing.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, On Seemliness (1902)

I’m doing a couple of linked afternoon workshops online for Lapidus Scotland (Words for Wellbeing) in October (17th & 24th), called Climate Crisis: Looking our Demons in the Eye.  I was experimenting with ways of tackling the subject with groups right at the beginning of my Residency and then the pandemic arrived.  I’m very glad to have this chance to work with others now, looking at how we might find words for an experience that can so often feel beyond the reach of words.  

Places are free, open to all, and you can book here.

Quotation: Luce Irigaray

Stay well.

L

X

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

August

IMG_7777

August is a yellow month – hypericum, mullein, alchemilla, ragwort, oilseed rape.  A small black beetle is inexorably drawn to all that yellow and the promise of protein-rich pollen, hence its generic name ‘pollen beetle’.  August is also the month for an insect less visible to the eye – the berry bug or harvest mite, in the Trombiculidae family, relative of the tick.

Every August the wily, indiscriminate berry bug (that the French call aoûtat after the wily, indiscrimate month) comes to my garden – and me – to feed, enjoying what sweetness I have left.  With its precise and persistent mandibles, the larva punctures my skin, injects a digestive enzyme, chews a hole called a stylostome and leaves raised red itchy spots on my arms, legs, torso, neck.  Without realising what’s in the air, I start scratching and then, it dawns – the hypericum’s in bloom, and I remember it’s that time of year again: August, the difficult month.

IMG_7778.jpg

Looking back, the long summer holidays stretched out into an infinity of sunshine and sand and no school – an exciting, dangerous mixture of freedom and boredom.  Where we lived, on the south coast, most of that happened near water, either salt or chlorinated, but sunny days that weren’t beach or pool days would be spent either ‘down the lane’ or ‘over the railway line’.  These were lonelier places and therefore potent with risk, though no one spoke of that; the taboo carrying a terrible weight of darkness.

‘Down the lane’ there was water, a trickling stream and a flat wooden bridge, and sometimes boys, precocious with leer and innuendo.  It was where I learned what an oak tree was, saw my first celandine and picked blackberries, scratched much worse than a hundred berry bug bites.  It was where a girl called Hazel from ‘up the road’ fell out of a tree and got spiked on a piece of metal jutting out of an abandoned van.  The drama – screams, blood, sirens, uniforms – hushed us all for days.

‘Over the railway line’ there were pigs that squealed and grunted and boys on scramble bikes that whined like giant insects.  Hidden by trees, there was a circuit they would ride around in pointless ovals on Sunday afternoons, a ritual of speed and petrol.  This was the place where every December Mum and I would go in search of a Christmas tree.  My mother trying to carry her saw nonchalantly, as if it were a handbag or umbrella.  Again, this was dangerous, forbidden but necessary, some ancient feudal right.  No one else used to have Christmas trees like ours, long-needled straggly pines, sticky with resin, rather than compact, domesticated, garage-bought spruce.  We’d spend a long time choosing ‘the best one’ – the right size (no taller than the ceiling), a good branching shape – and carry it back, Mum at one end, me at the other, like a comedy double act.

We’d also collect cones that my mother would paint white or scatter with glitter to make Christmas decorations, miniature worlds that confounded scale, where a tiny Santa Claus sat on his sleigh in a forest of enormous pinecones and a tall red candle that year after year was never lit.  We’d find holly and cut a carrier bagful to prop sprigs behind pictures or on the mantelpiece in odd little pots that only appeared at Christmas out of one of the big brown cardboard boxes Mum kept on top of her wardrobe.  The holly also scratched and prickled but it was easier to bear then because we were all wrapped up in coats and scarves.

Version 2

I grew up thinking that was what ‘Nature’ did to you – cut through your skin, made you itch, sometimes drew blood.  It wasn’t clear to whom it belonged, whether we were entitled to it or not.  It was all somewhere else, prepositional – ‘down’, ‘over’, ‘across’, ‘beyond’.  Entering it meant crossing a threshold into another world, transgressive, full of menace. Our occasional forays to find something we needed, according to the season – brambles or greenery – involved taking something that both was and wasn’t ours.  The house was changed by it, more and less itself.  It made me feel the gnaw of adrenalin, cortisol, that sense of a bigger, unknown world beyond our street, my school, the town.

My mother had a phase of making arrangements out of dried grasses and ornamental seedheads – arid affairs that gathered dust on the radiogram and windowsills.  I’d keep going back to look at them, touch them, puzzled by this bit of outside brought indoors, not knowing if they were dead or alive.

Because we lived in a flat we didn’t have a garden.  There was a small patch of green in front of our block planted with bland shrubs that never flowered, mostly waxy laurels, a single oak tree, with thin grass in between.  My mother was the self-elected custodian of this contingent green space, requiring her to go out with shears and saw at regular intervals to keep everything in check.  The job was really housework outdoors, a stay against chaos and doom, the shame of untidiness.

IMG_0215.jpg

A bookish child, I recoiled from anything with a whiff of animals.  The nearest I got to the countryside was Anne of Green Gables, and later Wuthering Heights – an unhealthy bipolar map of the world.  When we read The Wind in the Willows at school, I sulked and tuned out, listening to my own thoughts instead.  What had a talking toad to say to me?  I have great caverns in my imagination full of trapped rabbits and lost otters, caged bears and dark horses.

One reliable zone of fascination however was the wildflower series of Brooke Bond Tea cards.  It was incredibly exciting when my mother opened a new packet and I could slip my fingers between the green paper and the lining to fish out a new card and see what it was.  I learnt everything I know about flags of the world, the history of cars and costume from them.  And wildflowers.  That’s how I knew that the yellow flower that grew down the lane in the spring was lesser celandine, and recognized others from C.F. Tunnicliffe’s blurry paintings:  cowslip, sweet violet, foxglove, ragged robin. 

 Their names were enchanting – the sound of them like snatches of song, a spell, the sort of thing you might call someone you loved.  These flowers might have been printed on small rectangular pieces of card tucked inside packets of tea but I recognized them.  Naturally they became part of me, my story, an almost whispered, immensely seductive invitation to explore one corner of the natural world that didn’t bite and mostly didn’t scratch, that stayed still, didn’t run away and abandon you.  Flowers made no noise.  Among them there was no sense of trouble.  I knew I could go there because I was there already – I was ‘of’ it – a lesson in the genitive case.

Another geometric world I shared with my mother was more arcane – even the name sounded mysterious, like a flower itself.  Philately.  Around the age of ten I became interested in stamps and, with my junior kit (album, hinges, starter set and magnifying glass) bought from Woolworths in the town a bus ride away, I began collecting.  I soon graduated to being a specialist – having ascertained that a proper philatelist concentrated on stamps from one country, or illustrated with a chosen theme.  More for pragmatic reasons than patriotic ones, I decided to collect stamps from what everyone in those Commonwealth days called Great Britain.  I pounced on all the letters that arrived through our letterbox and soaked the stamps off their envelopes in saucers of water; big commemorative ones, a special prize.  As with the tea cards, this is where I extended my education and learned about the world’s currencies and capitals, British bridges, the origins of antiseptics and the Red Cross.  My mother and I would go to stamp fairs and look at thousands and thousands of stamps in an afternoon.  I’d buy a few sets or first day covers to add to my collection and when we got home we’d consult the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, amazed how much each scrap of coloured paper was worth.  Whenever a new set of stamps was issued, my middle sister, who still lived at home, would post me a first day cover.  Although the anniversaries they commemorate have long past, I still have them – Votes for Women (50 years), TUC (100 years), Captain Cook’s First Voyage (200 years); my sister’s rounded capitals in thick blue biro, my name and our address, before postcodes were invented.

Turning the musty yellowing pages of my home-made loose-leaf folder, which I still have, I discover the threepenny Spring Gentian issued in 1964 to mark the Tenth International Botanical Congress in Edinburgh.  There’s a smudge and a space where both the hinge and stamp have been lost above my note recording the ‘1/3d Fringed Water Lily’.  By the time I was nearly nine in April 1967, the price of a second-class stamp had risen to 4d.  There were four different ones in the British Wildflowers series – Hawthorn and Bramble; Larger Bindweed and Viper’s Bugloss; Ox-Eye Daisy, Colstfoot and Buttercup; Bluebell, Red Campion and Wood Anemone – all taken from Keble Martin’s classic Concise British Flora.  The 9d Dog Violet and the 1/9d Primrose were drawn by the distinguished botanical artist Mary Grierson.  Both their names in tiny capitals at the bottom of each stamp; I had no idea who they were, or what many of these flowers looked like in Real Life.  But I was touched in a place that stamps celebrating National Productivity Year or British Technology, or even the First Flight of Concorde, could never reach.

Despite my focus on British stamps, I also had a soft spot for stamps from other countries emblazoned with flowers, intriguing as book covers in a foreign language – lilies from Hungary (Magyar), cacti from Brazil (40 pesetas), waterlilies from Viet Nam, tulips from Afghanistan (‘Queen of Sheba’ and ‘Jewel of Spring’).  When I went to the Grammar School and started to learn it, I began to understand the usefulness of botanical Latin – all those different countries, alphabets and painting styles, using the same way of describing their flowers.

And for all their bright extravagance, it was comforting that they were contained in squares and rectangles.  Sometimes even triangles, from countries I’d never heard of.  The shapes were like flowerbeds, small pieces of garden you could hold in your hand, carry in your pocket or pencil case, put in a special book to look at on rainy days or lonely nights.

IMG_0051

Edna O’Brien called August ‘a wicked month’.  It is a difficult month for us all, I think, but especially for gardeners.  The big story about growth is past, fewer plants are in flower and things are starting to get blousy, set seed.  Hungry caterpillars and insects leave their perforated calling cards in petals, leaves and stalks.  Green is starting to fade and dry.  Karel Capek, in his curious and wonderful book The Gardener’s Year, published in 1929, says ‘a real gardener feels it in his bones that August is already a turning point.’

Those achingly long summer holidays.  Nights still short, showered with meteors, petals falling from the heavens. Postcards landing on the mat, pictures of faraway places and exotic stamps.  Tanned skin freckled with bites.  A big fat book to disappear inside.  My mother’s birthday, Lily – named after a flower – who showed me all she could of Nature, in that strange, tight world, the working-class garden of the 1960s.

 

I wrote this for Durham Book Festival nearly a decade ago when I began the botanical journey that led to my poetry collection ‘Reading the Flowers’, published by Arc in 2016.  To celebrate it being on this year’s new Laurel Prize longlist, initiated by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and the Poetry School, Arc have a special offer throughout August.  You can buy the hardback for the price of the paperback (the offer also applies to my previous collection ‘You are Her’) via their website.  In these difficult times for small presses (and poets), buying poetry books is a great way to support literature and culture and keep us all thriving.  

Enjoy your August and stay well.

 

IMG_0500

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

SOME THINGS I’VE NOTICED

IMG_7272.jpg

Threshold

There’s been so much to assimilate – on an individual and collective level – since Covid 19 grew to pandemic proportions and affected all of our lives, I’ve not written anything reflective about where I am with my work for some time on my blog.  The coronacoaster has necessarily distracted vital attention and action from the Climate Emergency, while holding a mirror up to it and giving us in the global South a small taste of what living with disaster and deprivation is like.  A recent Mori poll indicated that two-thirds of the global population believe Climate Change is as dangerous as Covid 19.  The inadequacies of our support systems laid bare a chilling lack of preparedness and resilience.  If we were in any doubt before, we are witnessing the old order unravelling and no one really knows what will come next.

 

As lockdown is beginning to ease, there is a chance to take stock and look closely at the threshold we’re now desperately trying to keep steady on, before deciding what threads we want to renew and carry across for life on the other side.  We could jettison denial for a start.  Not speaking truthfully about Climate Change, the pandemic and death itself – the pressure to always be positive and partisan – perpetuates an unbalanced, insecure system and an essentially dishonest culture.  We are seeing many people choosing not to participate in it – a more welcome contagion.

 

Although it’s a vulnerable and dangerous place/time, this threshold is also one of great openness and possibility.  Change – newly aware, informed and inclusive –  needs to happen at a quicker pace than previously thought.  We’ve all seen the alarming news from Siberia rapidly overheating, the Amazonian Rainforest continuing to be razed by fire and Arctic ice melting, creating a warmer, bluer ocean that reflects back the sun’s rays, disrupting whole weather systems and melting yet more ice.  The UK government’s strategy to revive the pre-existing moribund, toxic economy, reinvesting in fossil fuels and harmful food supply chains, is a fatally lost opportunity when healthier, fairer and environmentally friendly enterprises and pathways are at hand, ready to be implemented.

 

I’m not the only one who sometimes feels angry, disappointed, fearful, confused and full of sadness.  While it is important to feel those feelings and continue to work with our millennia-old twisted and tangled karma, we can decide what we want to take into our shared future.   I hope our fears and wounds from the past might spark radical transformation rather than knee-jerk reaction and further injustice.  Carved in stone in the Canongate Wall of quotations outside the Scottish Parliament, one from Canadian poet Dennis Lee makes a good, practical suggestion: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’.

IMG_7165.jpg

Tightrope

The threshold can feel like a tightrope between hope and despair, pessimism and optimism, and transformation too much to ask.  Perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s sense of cultivating hope as a ‘mode of resistance’ might be more within our grasp:

‘I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful.  I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily       optimistic.  Here’s how I would describe it.  The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a    terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’  The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I        don’t think it’ll be that bad. The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still        be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’    …Hope is…a mode of resistance…a gift I can try to cultivate.’

 

Every day I walk my own tightrope between different weathers in my heart and mind in response to whatever inner and outer work, interactions with others, physical well-being, reading, viewing, listening etc is acting upon my imagination and the space I occupy in the world from moment to moment.  I’ve noticed how much I’ve been conditioned to polarise – to choose a position between two opposites – like the hope v. despair antithesis.  The same binary dynamic skews any new thinking about other ways of framing the Climate Emergency.  I’ve often found myself on a seesaw juddering between the need to digest the science, confront the ramifications of difficult-to-absorb data, and my default intuitive approach (via poetry and Buddhism as an interwoven practice) of cultivating judgement-free embodied awareness.  As if these approaches were mutually exclusive, at odds with each other.  I hope to expand my own capacity to integrate both, bring a sense of deep and kind presence to my reading of the distressing facts and let those facts in turn percolate into my more open, creative awareness.  I don’t want to find myself paralysed and numb, ceasing to engage.  One of my favourite Susan Sontag quotations (of which there are many) is ‘Writing well is the best revenge.’

 

I’ve noticed how much highs and lows have been magnified under lockdown, every small triumph or failure, ache and pain, gaining out-of-proportion purchase with none of my usual escape routes.  This effect is triggered by the fight or flight response to stress or trauma – a primitive, reactive, self-protective mode, necessary for survival.  I’m more contented and function better when I can go beyond simply surviving to an expansive, creative, sustainable thriving, taking others as well as myself into account.  There’ll be a lot more fight or flight in the air if measures are not taken to mitigate and adapt to global warming and related environmental catastrophes.  I know in my own body that I’d prefer to avoid that scenario.  What would it look like if we could all adjust our moral compasses and find our True North, to help navigate our way through the times ahead?  How can we expect integrity from our governments if we don’t commit to it in our own lives?

IMG_4599.JPG

Stepping Up   

Lockdown has been an entirely different experience for everyone – even those in the same household.  Across the world we’ve been united in dealing with a threat to our existence but major inequalities and discrepancies around poverty, race, age, class, gender and geography have been exposed.  We all need to work with that, live from it at a personal and political level and redress what needs to be redressed.  This requires a radical new culture of empathy and kindness.  The Dalai Lama tells us: ‘Compassion is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.’

 

The regenerative power of multiplicity and diversity revealed itself in the way local action and mutual aid has worked so heartwarmingly in respect to the Covid crisis.  Communities have shown their strengths and grown more tentacles.  Everyone matters in the exchange between what is needed and what is offered at a local level.  There have also been important lessons and new opportunities in terms of the local economy, particularly when it comes to food production and supply.  Act local, think global is not just a clever slogan.

 

I’ve always felt a strong need to connect, collaborate and cross-fertilise around my work.  I really appreciate the way I am changed by my interaction with others, enlarged and enriched by creative exchange.  Post-Covid I’ve had more inklings of that dynamic simply being around others, strangers as well as friends, in the supermarket, on local walks, in Zoom conversations, over cups of tea in my garden (and I’m very aware of my great good fortune in having a garden at all, as well as plenty of outdoor space on my doorstep).  Strangely, despite isolation and physical distancing, I have felt less of a solitary being, more sensitive to and appreciative of my dependence on others.  My work requires great swathes of time spent alone – sometimes I feel that might be why I chose to be a writer, simply to ensure I have enough of the solitude I need.  However, the Climate Emergency (of which Covid is only one symptom) is calling on me to override my preference for a quiet life.  That ship has finally sailed.  My deeply rooted needs and values around connection and community have risen to the surface, asking me to overcome any resistance to pushing myself out of my comfort zone and find ways of being real and creative with frustrating online platforms, challenge myself more (I’ve taken up running for goodness sake), have more faith in what I might have to offer and accept imperfection.  That old number from Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better…’.

 

I tell myself that most of the time it’s enough just to be present and honest, open to what a particular person or situation demands.  I want to give what I can where it’s needed.  And I don’t doubt it is.  More reflective, contemplative strengths, usually associated with introverts, are crucial as we gather on this threshold, awake to ‘the wild beauty of the invisible world’ (John O’Donoghue, ‘For Belonging’).  It’s time to hear more from quieter voices and less of louder ones.  Going deeper might help us get to the roots of the problems we face.  A new radicalism is already on the rise and that is something worth carrying forward.

Roshi Joan Halifax talks about Zen Master Dogen’s encouragement ‘“to give life to life,” even if it’s just one dying person at a time, one caregiver at a time, one child at a time, one life at a time’.  I’ve also been pondering what she has to say about not-knowing and surprise:

‘…what I call “wise hope” requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to being surprised, perpetually   surprised. And I think that wise hope emerges from deep inside the preconscious only     through the spaciousness of radical uncertainty, of surprise.’

IMG_7358.jpg

About Time

Recently I’ve had a chance to take stock of the poems I’ve been writing during my residency as Climate Writer.  For my ten-minute slot on NCLA’s Inside Writing, I chose to take a snapshot of some of my thoughts about Time.  You can listen to the podcast here, along with lots of other interesting work from these interesting times.  How are you dealing with them?  What do you want to carry with you across the threshold?  You might be interested to see a wordcloud from the London Climate Action Week webinar on Post-Covid Climate Resilience I attended last week.

Be well

L

X

 

IMG_7456

 

*

The jellyfish are from Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival, a wonderful film by Fabrizio Terranova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Murmuration

 

One of the projects I’ve initiated as part of my Climate Writer Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University has just launched online.  I’m hoping that Murmuration will bring people together in a far-reaching creative collaboration.  The poem that arises from it will serve as a collective inventory of what really matters, celebrating our love for the natural world at a time of Climate Crisis and Coronavirus.

 

 

IMG_7288

The concept is inspired by murmurations, those astonishing displays of aerial acrobatics we see in the air in autumn and winter, when great flocks of starlings gather. Flying together, but never colliding, starlings know there is safety in numbers.  In a murmuration the birds are protected from predators and cooling temperatures, while they share news and information and enjoy each other’s company, arcing, folding and singing together.

In the human realm, creative climate action requires both an individual and a collective response and the starlings’ murmuration offers a symbol of what can be achieved through community, collaboration and co-operation.

Unknown-2

 

The first thing people ask when I tell them about my post as Climate Writer is ‘What can I do?’  The words we use, think with and live by, are vitally important for sharing information and telling new stories of creative resilience, developing alternative ways of living together at a time of crisis.  We’ve already seen this happening since the restrictions imposed as a consequence of the global pandemic.  There are many new demands for our attention online and unanticipated distractions from the continuing crisis around climate and related imbalances.

With this project we might learn from the starlings, raise our wings and our voices in a powerful accumulating murmur, remembering to stay in touch with what we love about this miraculous world where we live.  It is a chance to share our observations, feelings, dreams and wishes. Together, we can make something spectacular, far greater than the sum of its parts, an ensemble work of art.

IMG_7289

You can contribute to the poem by writing between one and three lines of any length celebrating the natural world, beginning with either the phrase ‘Because I love…’ or ‘What if…’. I will distil and curate all the thoughts and impressions sent in into a single long poem, expressing the collective imagination of all the people who have contributed. Artist Kate Sweeney, who created the wonderful animation on our invitation trailer, will bring the lines to life, making an animated filmpoem, which will reflect our connection with this earth, the natural world and each other at this extraordinary moment in time.

You can read more details and instructions for how to contribute here.

Encouraging comments from Sinéad Morrissey at Newcastle University: “The really exciting thing about this project is that it’s all about the audience – a reaching out to anyone who would like to take part. An ironic consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is that, even in physical isolation, we can now connect with so many people digitally, without the limitations of time or distance. In other words, a whole new kind of conversation can take place. Be part of it. The launch of Murmuration will form part of Inside Writing: a digital poetry festival running through May, June and July, hosted by NCLA and featuring some of today’s most exciting poets responding directly to COVID-19.”

And Anna Disley at New Writing North: “At this stressful and uncertain time, one of the positive things that many people have reported is a new appreciation of the natural world; we are looking more closely at what is on our doorstep, noticing more.  This initiative aims to capture that appreciation, to use our collective voice to ensure our natural world is cherished and protected. Added to that, we hope it’s also an impetus not to revert to pre-lockdown climate damaging practices.”

Please think about writing your own ‘Because I love …’ or ‘What if…’ lines and send them in to the New Writing North website or using #writeoutside on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram by 1 August 2020.

Many thanks.  I’ll look forward to reading, flocking, flying.

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Year and a Day

IMG_7265

Several years ago I visited Cheeseburn in Northumberland on the Solstices and Equinoxes and Cross Quarter days, spending time in the gardens and grounds.  It was a sanctuary for me after Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, had closed.  I struggle with my own semi-wild garden, high and wind-ravaged, with a very short growing season, wedged between a field of sheep and a strip of woodland, never quite managing the sense of luxuriance I long for.  So I enjoy visiting other gardens and luxuriate there.

Cheeseburn was a perfect place to witness the changes that happen over the course of the seasons – a mixture of the natural, the elemental, and the man-made.  It was also going through major changes in preparation for housing more sculptures and opening to the public on a more regular, formal basis.  I was privileged to be there, on the sidelines, able to watch this transformation.  Since then, as a result of the dedicated and enthusiastic work of Joanna Riddell and Matthew Jarratt, the place has become very popular, much-loved, and an important site in the region for supporting new artists.

The knowledge I’d gained of the setting at Cheeseburn informed Compass, a sound installation with Chris Watson, commissioned by Cheeseburn in 2015, and shown in 2016.  Because Cheeseburn’s early summer opening this year has been curtailed, a new version of Compass is being released online over the next five weeks.  As well as the original four pieces set in different parts of the garden, reflecting the points of the compass and the seasons of the year, Chris and I have created a new compilation piece, A Year and a Day, spanning the entire year.  You can listen to these works on Cheeseburn’s Facebook page, YouTube and Sound Cloud.

Revisiting my various notes for this piece, I came across the earlier monthly blog pieces I wrote for Cheeseburn from my initial visits as Poet in Residence.  I’ve added them here, in a new Archive space on this site, for those who’d like to read them alongside listening to the recordings as they are released.  It’s good to be reminded of the long arc of history as well as the passage of the seasons at this particular time.  This too shall pass.  But some things, the important things, we hope, will endure.

IMG_7271

Sculpture by Joe Hillier

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

May Day Gathering

 

IMG_6735.jpg

The festival of Beltane marked the time when cattle were moved from winter shelter to summer pastures and the community came together in rituals of protection and blessing.  Over May Day weekend a group of us celebrated by writing renga verses in our own spaces.  I gathered a selection of the verses together to make this special Beltane Renga.  It captures a sense of this uncertain time – with thoughts from Derbyshire to Glasgow, city and countryside – and creates a space to look in and look out.  A monument for remembrance, as well as blessing and protection.

 

On Beltane Street

 

May’s not out yet

so we fill the house

with honesty, forget-me-nots

 

watering the compost

waiting for the bean shoots

 

drawn in windows

chalked on pavements

rainbows for our better angels

 

the curlew’s call follows its flight

sky mapped in sound

 

thought she was away with the fairies

Grandma May

but now I also chat to them

 

stilled streets

where wild creatures roam

 

after the rain

trees groan and stretch

their greening fingers

 

a circle not a line

this deadlinelessness

 

rinse until clear

gently reshape

allow to dry naturally

 

she hits the bottle

it hits her back

 

I miss waves

long to float

to be held by sea

 

wasp sawing last year’s lovage

harvesting timber

 

her children are suspicious

of the new smells

bleach, soap, fear

 

smoke has no discernible edge

it’s all shadow

                                   

let the fern unfurl your grieving 

let the heron still your breathing 

let the selkie swim you deeper 

 

raising glasses on Zoom

all our wrinkles show

 

over-heated plate

(earth-coloured)

broken into two half moons

 

under the blaze of gorse, wild pansies

purple petals, yellow hearts

 

days like this

begin and end

in fullness

 

we walk paths from here

to who knows where

 

 

 

 

 

*

two robins a branch apart

no need for song

proximity language enough

 

it is my heart I hear

growling with longing

 

we walk around an island

built from the acts

of our own containment

 

five hares in a line – lope

leap – whoooa and they’re gone

 

pink side down

magnolia petals

dangle and twist

 

every day now

like three in the afternoon

 

 

 

 

 

*

I drive my herd out

[locked down]

between two fires

 

marsh marigolds crowd the ditch

cups of gaudy gold

 

she holds up her Thursday pan

to the evening sky

flash and clang and shimmer

 

mouse-chewed chocolate

a Post Office apology

 

wands of ash

Venus of the Woods

protect us

 

reflected light ripples

dissolves a branch, a leaping fish

 

fresh mown lawn

lungfuls

of torn chlorophyll

 

ants crawl over the garlic

put down to repel them

 

aching for the day

when this

is a memory

 

rosemary in the blue pot

rubbed between thumb and forefinger

 

at the nature reserve

a police notice asks

Why are you here?

 

down the desire path

through the puzzled wood

 

if you knew Time as well as I do

said the Hatter

you wouldn’t talk about wasting it

 

early morning quiet

kisses the ancient spinney

 

in the gloaming

they raise a glass

tie Beltane ribbons

 

            whir whir wit whir woo

the pigeon insists

 

striking a match

in the darkness of stars

flickering in cupped palms

 

tomorrow’s home-ed

making dandelion honey

 

this Year of the Great Reckoning

unpunctuated by the dash

of vapour trails.

 

 

 

A Distance/Presence Renga

over Beltane weekend

1st – 3rd May 2020

 

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Adrian Brewster

Larry Butler

Holly Clay

John Cobb

Martin Eccles

Linda France

Lilly Fylypczyk

Susan Gibb

Malcolm Green

Jackie Hardy

Sharon Higginson

Geoff Jackson

Virginia Kennedy

Liz Kirsopp

Bernadette McAloon

Karen Melvin

Lesley Mountain

Ellen Phethean

Ruth Quinn

Ratnadevi

Alex Reed

Linda Thake

Maria Venditozzi

Mandy Wilkinson

 

IMG_6658.jpg

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Neither Lion nor Lamb

IMG_6373.jpg

March

 

what light there is

filtered through the fan

of their feathers

 

the spine, pale and articulate,

of a fox or a hare

 

punctuated equilibrium

how earth evolves

in sudden ruptures

 

the sputnik graphic

alarmingly crimson

 

someone gets there

before me – liberating

the abandoned bicycle

 

in the open field of the day

plovers calling

 

the room full

of winter

it’s never been as warm

 

neat white flowers

of the barren strawberry

 

if a thousand people

look at the moon

there are a thousand moons

 

what I tell the bees

is between me and the bees

 

everyone stockpiling

against worst-case-scenario pain:

paracetamol, ibuprofen, codeine

 

the colour of persimmons

a new charity shop jumper

 

bags packed

last minute change of plan

staying put

 

the swift narrow rowboat

Truant Muse in cursive script

 

half going one way, half another,

trying to give myself away

to inexactitude

 

stay in touch

she says, not touching

 

bringing home snowdrops

a small handful

of lingering hope

 

a woman in a mask comes

to measure my per cubic foot energy

 

wild garlic tart

as much for the soothe of making

as the savour of eating

 

Spring Equinox: I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

warcabinetspeak

lockdown, self-isolation

linguistic distancing

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

the pilgrimage

of these days

becoming the path

 

two long-tailed tits

among the apple buds

 

my son comes home

we dance around each other

nothing is familiar

 

clapping the NHS

under a canopy of stars

 

a hedgehog emerges

from hibernation

leaves its traces

 

our prayer flags unfurl

as the chill wind blows

 

two pine logs and a plank

a new bench

for absent friends

 

in my sleep I steal back

yesterday’s lost hour

 

star of Bethlehem

hiding its pale light

among what the flood washed up

 

IMG_6460.JPG

 

The first image is a gogotte – a natural rock formation from the Paris Basin, 33 – 28 million years old (Natural History Museum).  The second, ancient and new, frogspawn in our pond.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Just to say…

 

IMG_6534.JPG

Last week we were supposed to be holding our first Climate Reading Group at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle – a prelude to Rebecca Solnit’s visit.  This, like every other cultural gathering, had to be cancelled and, in our shift to connecting online, you can read my brief report of Solnit’s book of essays Whose Story is This?  on New Writing North’s blog.  I hope it persuades you to read the book, if you haven’t already.

We are working to make it possible that our next group – reading Karen Solie’s poetry collection The Caiplie Caves – will take place online via Zoom.

Wishing everyone well.

L

x

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Presence/Absence

3EDC719A-4362-4F6B-9154-D8E575E5FB22

A group of us were intending to meet on Monday at the Burnlaw Centre in Northumberland for a Spring Equinox Renga – part of our cycle through the year since last Summer Solstice at Bywell.  In the light of everyone’s changed circumstances, I invited a wider group of people to write and share a few renga verses – single haiku-like three liners and two liners – as they tuned into Spring’s return over the weekend.

It was an experiment in connecting creatively across the new spaces between us and I didn’t know what would happen.

I felt very touched by all the verses people sent.  There was a real sense of presence across the distance.  Maybe not quite as much as if we were all in sitting in the Beautiful Room at Burnlaw together or on the benches round the fire pit in the field, with the curlews calling above our heads, but the form and focus of the renga held us all in a beautiful space of our own making – inside and out at the same time – at a safe distance – over the course of several days.

Several people mentioned that it was helpful at this strange time to open the senses to the world around them and be more aware of what was going on.  It’s something anyone can do.  Even just one verse a day works as a good gauge of your state of mind and a record of your activities, thoughts and feelings.  The renga we made in this way, it seems to me, is an important document of what this unprecedented time has been like for twelve people in the North of England, alone and together, this past weekend.

As often happens when we sit together for a renga, it was interesting to see ideas and phrases shared, overlapping.  I wanted to honour this very different context and way of working, as well as the sheer abundance of verses, and so created a new, longer than usual form, doubling the schema in a specular fashion – where the themes are mirrored around the silence between the two parts.  I wanted to suggest a sense of flow, back and forth, like a wave, from the various links and shifts, and occasional repeats.  I had to do a bit of cutting and stitching here and there to keep it supple, and as with traditional rengas not every verse I was sent appears.

Even remotely, a renga is greater than the sum of its parts, a strange alchemy occurs, sending out ripples of authentic connection.  I hope that in reading it, as much as in the writing, people might feel the warmth and clarity of being brought in touch – with ourselves and each other – across our physical distance.

IMG_6487

Landscape Without a Map

I

Spring Equinox:

I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

frost bites land

slow to warm

 

beyond the garden hedge

the silence

of the empty playing field

 

some branches bear leaves

some are sticks against the sky

 

a lone runner, two dog walkers

woodpecker’s insistent tap

we move in a landscape without a map

 

a careful two metres apart

the neighbours share their stories

 

beneath the bay

melon seeds all taken by the mouse

green-petalled tulips

 

I stream old songs for comfort

            dance me to the end of love

 

close the curtains

light the candles

evening begins

 

how quiet the air is

as we count our breaths

 

not so much

for what they say

just their voices

 

pearly strands of frog spawn

in the tractor ruts

 

our hectic decadence

more evident

as the pause lengthens

 

the sun is shining

on apple buds

 

a shower of blessings

over and over

the curlew weeps her song

 

sheets spread and billow

sweetening in the open

 

the moon

waning

follows the train

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

show me the point where

before ends

and after begins

 

I sow pea seeds in the earth

imagine tendrils twining

 

 

II

listen for what remains

when everything we rely on

is gone

 

in the old orchard

a haze of honey

 

along the verges

blackthorn and celandine

plastic bags

 

behind the wallflowers

a saucepan lid moon

 

across the rough fell

of our hands

the call of a new corvid

 

doing nothing

takes such a long time

 

underneath this map

ancient tracks whisper

bid you tread and seek

 

dead wood alive with lichen

white, yellow, red

 

on the Sele a girl hurries by

shouting into her mobile

BASICALLY, IT’S A FUCKING NIGHTMARE

 

before we were sandpaper to each other

we were silk

 

on me your voice falls

as they say love should

(Bechet’s ‘Black and Blue’)

 

a bumble bee, heavy, dozy

bangs on the sunlit window

 

scent of silage and cow dung

as we pass Peepy Farm

all lowing and milking inside

 

we are living and dying

through history

 

it is the song thrush

at dusk

that unstops her tears

 

if this is the first unknown

why is everything the same?

 

there are breaks here and there

but still a place to sit and feel

the vibrations of your voice

 

Venus suspended – a gift

for Mothering Sunday

 

frosted air polishes my skin

I walk in the small waking hours

a hushed world

 

in the silence you hear sunlight

unfurling leaves in the hedges.

 

 

A 20/20 Distance/Presence Renga

conducted remotely over the Spring Equinox

20th– 23rd March 2020

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Deborah Buchan

Holly Clay

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Geoff Jackson

Liz Kirsopp

Lesley Mountain

Ruth Quinn

Alex Reed

Tim Rubidge

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,