What we talk about when we talk about climate is pretty much Everything. Which is what makes it so hard to talk about – and in particular to write about. But rather than deter us, we could let that encourage us to be curious and inspire us to be creative, allowing our imaginations to wander, on and off the page.
That’s what naturally happens, if you’re lucky, when you’re able to start writing freely and follow the thread of your intuitions. In my experience it seems to require you to be as present as possible, rooted in your own body and its sensations and suggestions. ‘Thinking about climate’ is just that – thinking, with the tendency to spin around in ever-widening circles of doom, catapulting you further and further away from where you are. Come back…Don’t get lost!
Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Do what you can.
Last week the excellent Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry published this year’s anthology and I’m happy to have a couple included. One of them – ‘Stone Curlew’ – speaks to that impulse to lose touch with yourself and loop off anywhere but here.
I watch the way you want to reach the end
before you’ve begun. Here there is only this
egg and our sitting in shifts to keep it warm, at the mercy of weather, another bird’s hunger.
Trust me, you must go to unknown places and stay inside your body while you try. Look at me
being bird. Why is being human so hard? I see you – fragile and fierce. What if every single day
were your only chance of incubating what wants to be born and that was all you had to do – be there –
what you were made for, enough to make a stone sing?
Having some sort of focus or structure is helpful as we face up to the challenges of living with climate collapse, ecological extinctions and an uncertain future so I very much welcome a new essay that’s starting to circulate, written by two medical ethicists calling for a new system of bioethics, taking the planet and all its species into account, and proposing six ‘Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Inhabitable Planet’.
According to Pierre Hadot (1995), who they quote:
when the time comes, they [maxims] can help us accept such [catastrophic] events, which are, after all, part of the course of nature; we will thus have these maxims and sentences ‘at hand’. What we need are persuasive formulae . . . which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness. The exercise of meditation [on maxims] is an attempt to control inner discourse, in an effort to render it coherent.
Aren’t poems a little like maxims, ‘persuasive formulae’, distilled experience, concentrated insight into what it is to be human that someone might carry around to help them see in the dark?
In essence, David Schenck and Larry Churchill’s Six Maxims are:
1. Work hard to grasp the immensity of the situation.
2. Cultivate radical hope.
3. Have a line in the sand.
4. Appreciate the astonishing opportunity of life at this time.
5. Train your body and mind.
6. Act for the future generations of all species.
This is important and immensely useful guidance, chiming beautifully with Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope Training. I’d definitely recommend you read the whole article here. If you find it at all helpful, please pass it around among your family, friends and colleagues.
As the authors say, from their long-time experience working in hospitals with patients in extremis, responding to unexpected transitions is a difficult ongoing process, involving the emotions and the body, as well as the mind – all of our selves that the climate and ecological emergencies (i.e. everything right now) is asking us to bring. And the great thing is we don’t need to do it alone – we’re all in this together and can help each other simply by admitting how we feel, sharing our fears as well as our dreams, and listening – really listening – to each other. That’s where radical hope lives – uncomfortable, urgent and open to action.
Which brings us back to the fundamental questions addressed by the maxims: what kind of person will you be, and what will you teach and model for your colleagues, your students, your families?
We ourselves find this list of maxims daunting. But this is how maxims work. Maxims have to do with how we do everything we do – a tone and style of living – as well as with the implementation of certain practices. Maxims are, in significant part, about keeping morality itself alive in a catastrophe. They demand of us that which we have difficulty demanding from ourselves.
Schenck & Churchill
What else to do but be there – like a bird on an egg
and start where you are.
And keep beginning over and over again.
Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like many of us, I’m looking forward to this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, Crossings2nd – 5th May. A sweet little taster came in the form of an interview with Sasha Dugdale on the Festival blog. She will be chairing a session at the Translation-themed Symposium at the Sage (3rdMay) and also give the Royal Literary Fund Lecture on Pushkin at Northern Stage (Saturday 5thMay). It will be an exciting few days with lots to think about. Do come along to listen and enjoy – and spread the word to folk who may be interested.
Further excitement in the Translation Dept – the cover of my new Selected Poems from Bulgaria – blue and beautiful. For those of you whose Bulgarian is a touch rusty, it is called Simultaneous Dress and translated by the wonderful poet Nadya Radulova. The book is now published but I have yet to hold a copy in my hands. They are itching.
When I stayed in Sofia a couple of years ago I wrote several new poems. This is one of them – seen from the balcony of my apartment on Kyril and Methodii Street.
The Screaming Party
Every evening they come darting across
the skyline dots and dashes of high-pitched morse.
Who knows what they’re screaming for static
in their throats white noise plucked from the day’s havoc
know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds,
so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it,
that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.
‘Compass’, a new sound installation, created especially for Cheeseburn Grange in Stamfordham, Northumberland, is a new collaboration with Chris Watson, one of our leading wildlife recordists. On Google Earth, Cheeseburn sits at just a few minutes past the noon of North. As well as North, South, East and West, ‘Compass’ also refers to other concepts that come in fours – the seasons, the elements and the four quarters of the day. So, in four separate locations around Cheesnburn’s grounds this Bank Holiday weekend, visitors can listen to an orchestrated soundscape of birdsong, wildlife, weather and original poems composed for each setting, time of day and season.
As Cheeseburn’s first Writer in Residence, I visited over the span of a single year, on solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days, to create a calendar of the place, based on simple observation and reflection (You can read the ‘notes’ of this experience here). The intimate awareness gained from this research informed both the concept of Compass and the poems I wrote to accompany Chris’s recordings.
The two of us spent time at Cheeseburn together over another year to create this exciting new installation, where a world riven with migration and change finds a compass in the sense of sound itself, the poetry of everyday listening. Filtered through the ears and the imagination, visitors are invited to travel across time and space, through light and darkness, life and death, home and away, whilst also being able to experience the wonderful gardens and grounds at Cheeseburn in ‘real time’ on a summer afternoon.
As well as ‘Compass’, there will also be new work from Mike Collier and Sarah Dunn, also referencing the natural world and its winged creatures.
Hoping the sun shines for us and looking forward to seeing you there – Saturday, Sunday, Monday 11 – 4.
Love is a wildness that has been falsely domesticated.
I thought of the bypass patient’s chest being closed, the message being: You can’t see this wild place again, you can’t witness this beauty. But the moon was hidden in there, and the sun, and neither of these would rise or set, and the birds that flew up out of it were planets and constellations because the chest was really an aviary, too full of fluttering, and when it was closed no avian life would be seen again.
The thoracic cavity must have been the place where human music began, the first rhythm was the beat of the heart, and after that initial thump, waltzes and nocturnes, preludes and tangos rang out, straight through flesh and capillary, nerve ganglion and epidermal layer, resonating in sternum bone: it wasn’t light that created the world but sound. And the sewing up of the man’s chest was like the closing in of a house with a roof and walls: where would passion erupt? How could the spirit fly free?
Extract from Gretel Ehrlich’s ‘A Match to the Heart’ (Penguin 1994)
As a counterpoint to Christmas I’m very happy to post this piece and accompanying video by Malcolm Green, bird lover and storyteller. His captivating collaboration with Tim Dalling, Shearwater, has this year toured the length and breadth of the country and will be returning to Orkney for next year’s Festival.
I like the idea that the starlings are putting on a show for those with time to stand and look in North America too.
Reed (Phragmites australis) is the species in the Celtic Tree Calendar for October 28th – November 23rd.
Starlings at Lambley
I first noticed the starlings on a walk with Pat on November 10th (2013). They were in the reed beds of the Lambley water treatment plant; the reeds alive with their pre-sleep twitter as they found their best perch for the night. Sometimes five or six excited birds clung to one stalk so many had collapsed.
Then another night from a distance, a ball of them flew through the sky – in turn visible and invisible, expanding and contracting, like a breath. Breath-taking.
Again on December 8th, I went to the same spot with Paul and we stood beside the reed bed from three o’clock in the afternoon. We watched them assemble; one little flock after the next joining the gathering cloud – a ballet of birds that whipped and whooped through the sky, round and round our heads. How many were there? Perhaps 20,000 or so individuals that joined together to become a single gyrating organism.
I read on Google that it is possible to understand the movement of the flock mathematically. It’s also easy to project all sorts of meanings onto this extraordinary dance. But the experience seems to defy rational explanation and this, in a way, is its power. The sight and sound transcends our mental murmurings and busy calculations to simply set our cells aflutter with excitement and awe. A reminder that there is a real, living world away from the desk and the screen.
I believe they have left the little reed bed now. Perhaps they flattened all the available stalks and it is no longer a refuge. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
Starlings in Winter
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind.
And now, in the theater of air,
they swing over buildings,
dipping and rising;
they float like one stippled star
becomes for a moment fragmented,
then closes again;
and you watch
and you try
but you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing,
this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin
over and over again,
full of gorgeous life.
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart pumping hard, I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing,