On Sunday it was a joy to come together with the Brothers Gillespie and a room (not just any room – a room that could have been a ballroom in a Tolstoy novel…) full of lovely people for our Earthwords poetry and music event. I only realised just before we took the floor that it was the first time I’d done a live reading since February 2020. It took me a while to warm up, but I soon settled in and remembered why I do what I do – and love it.
Many of us are feeling such sorrow and grief, guilt and shame, loss and disappointment at the state of the world that it’s easy to feel broken and powerless. Coming together to listen and reflect in a space of music, sung and spoken, creates stillness enough to reconnect with our own agency and creativity, as well as with each other. The work of staying with the trouble, trying to be open to what the climate and ecological crisis is asking of us, is demanding and exhausting at whatever scale we choose to be involved. Even simple day-to-day living can put more pressure on us than we feel we can bear.
Sunday night was a chance for regeneration and reconnection via the traditional pleasures of poetry and song. There was a vivid sense of community and I had a feeling that everyone there together created a healthy mycelium network, intent on planetary survival and ecological well-being. This has the power to spread beyond Tolstoy’s ballroom – into all the nooks and crevices and conversations and exchanges of our lives.
For me, the event was an important celebration of work done so far – my own small efforts and what I witnessed in Glasgow. Although the final agreement was disappointing – needing to be much bolder and more urgent – progress was made. The powerful presence and persistence of the coalition of protesters percolated through the security barriers into the negotiations. Their demands, though not addressed, were at least acknowledged: that sort of energy and sheer numbers are impossible to ignore. The coordinated network of movements are intent upon keeping up the pressure between now and the next UNFCCC Summit in Egypt in 2022. We must all do whatever we can to support them – practically and financially. The climate emergency can’t be addressed by good intentions alone.
Listening to James and Sam’s beautiful music so rooted in the land I love affirmed my wish to do whatever is necessary to protect it from harm. Isn’t that what humans do? Why we take care of babies and young children – because we love them? Those stories of people who find remarkable strength and capacity inside themselves when faced with an emergency and someone needs saving – isn’t it that sort of wild buried energy that we need to tap into now?
A crisis is also an opportunity. Transformation is never easy – change and evolution involves pain and confusion. Aren’t we all familiar with that jangly energy that’s in the air all around us and inside us just now? I certainly am – especially after a couple of years of deep immersion in this radical process. Maybe we can try to breathe it in, not brace ourselves against it. This chaos is also part of us and part of a moving towards a new way of being that we’re having to learn – and can also find pleasure in.
At certain points on Sunday night I was reminded of the marches in Glasgow. On the Saturday Global Day of Action march and rally there were lots of wonderful musicians – brass bands, salsa bands and drummers. Their playing kept everyone moving forward in rhythm, warmed and encouraged by the vibrant sound. You could feel it in your whole body. Every now and again the bands would have to stop because people started dancing amid the crowds – a spontaneous, freeform, joyful surrender to the music, their companions and the crowds that was incredibly moving to witness. I watched from the sidelines but I was dancing inside.
Emma Goldman said ‘I’m not coming to the revolution unless there’s dancing’ – a quote I used as an epigraph for my first collection, Red, in 1992. Didn’t the soldiers in the trenches in WW1 sing together? Which reminds me of another quote, from Martin Luther King Junior: ‘Those who love peace need to learn to mobilise as effectively as those who love war.’ As we gird ourselves for the long haul that is facing transition, risk and chaos and supporting those in other parts of the world as they face greater suffering, we must remember what we love and what music we want playing while we love it and as we march, dig, plant, sign petitions, make banners, lobby parliament, write poetry, knit blankets or dance – whatever your body feels moved to do
There’s more to say about where poetry and music touch and maybe I’ll try to say it sometime. One of the places is silence – they both join opposites and make it possible to be more ourselves, capable of more than we sometimes think. Immense gratitude and appreciation to all the musicians who played for us in Glasgow and to the Brothers Gillespie for where they took us on Sunday night.
The Brothers Gillespie are currently crowdfunding for their third album The Merciful Road. If you would like to support them and be part of another healthy mycelium network, you can find the details here. There are lots of very affordable pledges offering the chance to be one of the first to receive a copy of the album, either downloadable, on CD or vinyl – or, for a little more, have your very own song written for you or a whole ceilidh band to play for a special occasion. Meanwhile you can hear more from them on their website.
Ecological awareness consists of infinite ongoing strands. These include close looking, close listening, close touching, close smelling, close tasting – close sensing between and beyond all the conventional senses familiar to human bodies. Close might also be slow or deep.
Ecological awareness is an art, a creative act, a commitment to being alive, and therefore dynamic, transformative.
Walk outdoors and after half an hour point to the place where you end and the weather begins.
Nowhere are any of us alone, nowhere are we not part of the biosphere, or abandoned by the imagination.
In our climate, why would you not begin each day checking your own internal weather and preparing for what the coming hours might bring?
What we call Nature is a fiction, a wild and muddy one that won’t stay flat or still. It will not be contained on a neatly labelled shelf in the bookshop.
Left to the wind, the dried pods of honesty (Lunaria annua) shed their skins and spread their seeds before glowing with the light of many moons, true to their word. Bring the night sky indoors to remember the year’s passing.
Being in Nature suggests you were sometime out of it, perhaps in that mythical place Away.
Not looking at the clock involves not looking at your phone, your computer, all those other contrivances that divide your attention and devour your time.
The art of ecological awareness asks you to let there be a space between things and sensing and language – and to choose to live in that space.
A day without a tree in it is no day at all.
Whitman asks you to come, speak; says if you are large, if you contain multitudes, you will contradict yourself: will you prove already too late?
The space outside our walls is ready to give us what we have been waiting for; whatever time of day or night, a special kind of light.
Early last week I wrote an initial dispatch from Glasgow for New Writing North’s Climate Newsletter and you can read it here. I’m trying to catch up with my impressions and experiences and will post instalments as and when I have time.
Wiser than all the government delegates at COP26, the Eco-cab driver who took me to the station could see there’s a gap between words and deeds, promises and action.
I met a friend on the train who is working flat out to keep his business afloat – where does he find the time to protest, campaign or the money to retrofit renewable energy options in his home? I hear this again and again – people not having the space or resources to transform their lives in a way that would radically help the planet, despite doing everything they can day-to-day to reuse, recycle and reduce. Of course governments need to intervene with guidance and support.
Happy to reconnect with the Coat of Hopes – with my own little patch added. It’s been out and about in Glasgow all week and worn by lots of different folk, including some COP delegates. So, a circle has been stitched together.
I keep coming across another powerful sewing project embellishing the city – Collective Zurciendo – Darning the Planet – beautiful embroidered ‘Trees for Life’ initiated by a women’s artivist collective from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru.
use caution – walking directions
may not always reflect
In the fish and chip shop two men pray to Allah. Roma women are selling single red roses. You can hardly see the pavement for rubbish, plastic and polystyrene, stinking tumbleweed. The Council are going to sow wildflower meadows across the city.
I am offered a slice of vegan sausage roll in Sauchiehall Street and they ask if they can film me eating it. They want to know why no one’s talking about veganism at COP26.
Everybody wants to know why they are aren’t talking about what they aren’t talking about. The streets ring with them asking and singing and dancing and shouting. The police – many more police than are needed – look confused but stand where they’re instructed and occasionally gather for group photos and selfies. Some of them wear knuckleduster gloves and carry tazers which prove entirely unnecessary and therefore appear ridiculous, not to mention a waste of our taxes.
The COP26 Main Event Armadillo and Hydro (Blue Zone) and the Science Centre (Green Zone) are cordoned off by stout steel railings and heavily policed. Despite the blue and green banners claiming that we’re doing this ‘together for our planet’, there is limited access and the message is one of exclusion, cumbersome and ugly. Another example of more being spent on defending territory rather than sharing and regenerating it. More than twice the amount the UK government spend on helping poorer countries in the global south deal with the consequences of climate change we in the so-called developed world have created with colonialism, extractivism and over-consumption is dedicated to keeping climate refugees from crossing our borders.
It’s as if Glasgow is populated by three tribes – those who are here to do their bit on the fringes of COP and happy to announce it with a badge or a flag, a t-shirt or a hat with horns, and those who are going about their business with a mixture of bewilderment and pride that their city has been chosen to host this historic occasion, and then the police, drafted in from all over the country – with vanloads from the Met, Norfolk, Wales, Cornwall etc.
Oh, yes, and the first few days of the Leaders’ Summit, those other shadowy presences at the centre of it all, invisible behind the blacked-out windows of their limousines gliding down Stobcross Road beside the River Cyde, protected from everything going on, ‘the real-world conditions’ on the streets. And isn’t it true that democracy dies in darkness?
a dawn raid – police
arrest an inflatable
Loch Ness Debt Monster
As part of the fringe events, Tom Goldtooth from the US Indigenous Environmental Network kicks off the first Coalition Movement Assembly. Humanity must learn its spiritual connection with the earth, he says, know that it is sacred, and then it will be clear that fossil fuels must stay in the ground. It will be clear that the patriarchal system has caused so much damage with violence, rape and exploitation. I saw mostly men coming and going down at the main site. It is mostly women in this gathering.
What is outside? What is inside? How do they interpenetrate? How come into dialogue with each other? How can ‘we should’ and ‘we must’ realign into ‘we will’? Where might diversity, solidarity and unity meet? These questions recur all week and these investigations and conversations will carry on beyond November 12th when COP26 is over. I look forward to seeing where it leads.
Next week on Thursday 4th November I’ll be joining fellow-Northumbrian poets Katrina Porteous and Anne Ryland for an online reading dedicated to the spirit of place. It’s a free event, hosted by Northumberland Libraries, 7 – 8 pm – everyone is welcome and you can register here.
Episodes 5 & 6 of In Our Element are available now – Air and Wood. Do listen in and if you like what you hear, please spread the word. Apparently that’s how podcasts tend to find their audience – through word of mouth. We made the series to air in the run-up to COP26 but the scope of all our conversations extends well beyond whatever happens in Glasgow over the coming weeks.
The Air and Wood episodes include poetry from Colette Bryce and Pascale Petit and a tour of a wind farm with wind engineer Anabel Gammidge and a spot of wood-bathing with woodland conservationist Sian Atkinson. That was my favourite part of making these podcasts – when we were able to record outdoors and actually be in the elements we were talking about.
As we move through the fire of Samhain into the dark months before the shortest day, take good care and send your thoughts to all those gathering in Glasgow intent on calling a halt to climate recklessness and working towards regeneration and justice. Like ecologist Timothy Morton, we might be aware of ‘pessimism of the intellect’, but we can act from ‘optimism of the will’.
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 tickethere.
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.
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.
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.
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’?
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)
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.
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.
thanks to the poet Mark Nepo for pointing me in the direction of this poem
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)