Category Archives: climate

The Mosaic of Culture

The whole earth is a great tablet holding the multiple overlaid new and ancient traces of the swirl of forces. Each place is its own place, forever (eventually) wild.  A place on earth is a mosaic within larger mosaics – the land is all small places, all precise tiny realms replicating  larger and smaller patterns.

Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

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Culture is a mosaic too.  The root of the word ‘culture’ comes from the Latin ‘to till, to worship’, the way we all come together to cultivate the ground of our shared being – we give it our attention as citizens, we want to improve it, refine it, according to our shared values.  Like the farmer, who at the same time must work the land as if they’ll live forever and die tomorrow.

Facing the climate crisis, which is an existential one, a crisis of consciousness, imagination, we have to learn to accept the same paradox – how to live well, not knowing if we’re sitting at the bedside of a dying planet or serving as midwives for the birth of a new cycle of evolution, an unprecedented iteration of human possibility. 

And experiencing this, cultivation has to happen on a personal level too, within our own individual mosaic – always starting where we are and cultivating enough kindly self-awareness to know the difference between a reactive fight, flight or freeze response and a creative one, open to possibility, regeneration and transformation.  This has to be the more hopeful and helpful path to take – so that we can try to be the person in the room who makes being in that room better, not worse – less divisive, more diverse, honest and practically supportive.

Culture is the place where the individual and the collective meet and nature and ecology are not separate from that because it is who we are … and we know it creates a sense of community – where we can find strength and encouragement and the potential for deeper understanding and well-being, so we can make better choices together towards a sustainable present and future.

When we look at the climate and ecological crisis, we are looking at the past, the present and the future and how they all affect each other:  this is the nature of Time, of the physics of cause and effect.  When we know that, really know that, in our own bodies and bones, we see that every choice we make affects what will happen to our children, our grandchildren and their grandchildren and will not hesitate to stand in the way of any harm.  As a representative of the older generation, this is my perspective – we are all mosaics within larger mosaics and, however overwhelming that may be, that’s the only place we can act from, as kin, within the enormous, tangled family of things.

On the edge of many precipices we are living in prophetic times, where the gifts of the ancestors are revealing possibilities for pathways forwards.  But the path forward can only be traversed after reckoning with the past.

Melissa Nelson, Decolonising Conquest Consciousness

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WE CAN DO THIS

The one other thing I think has been really important for me is about hope. First of all, yes, these are very dangerous times. The problem is big and urgent and things could go really badly. But the future isn’t written yet. The IPCC report recommends that the planet’s usage of fossil fuels peak by 2025, and that usage is cut in half by 2030 with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. WE CAN DO THIS. Not that it will be easy, but it is possible. We need to fight to get there. And the biggest thing we are up against is our own despair. And one of the biggest tools our opposition has is to trigger our hopelessness. In a world with so much trauma and harm, most of us have early experiences that left us feeling alone or terrified or unloved or that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. The climate crisis feels huge and can leave us each feeling overwhelmed when we look straight at it. So many choose to self-distract. But the key is not to avoid looking, the key is to look together. And in order to really face this crisis and win, it often means having to separate the leftover feelings from our childhood defeats.
 
For me, it’s hard to face the reality of the climate crisis. But it’s unbearable to look at it through the lens of my early childhood trauma. When I feel overwhelmed by what’s happening in the present, I call someone to talk about it, but I also spend time looking at what it is from my early life that it reminds me of. It’s important not to live in the recording of being a small child when other, more powerful people were in charge. I am a grown woman with a lot of personal power. And when people get together, we have infinite collective power. 

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The inspirational writer and editor Aya de León – you can read more of her interview with Amy Brady of Burning Worlds (Climate Change in Art and Literature) here.

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Yours sincerely

It’s now or never.  According to the latest IPCC report, to keep global temperature rise under 1.5C means that carbon emissions from everything that we do, buy, use or eat must peak by 2025, and fall rapidly after that, reaching net-zero by the middle of this century.  The total amount of CO2 that the world has emitted in the last decade is the same amount that’s left to us now to stay under this key threshold.

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In this third and final collective project of my Writing the Climate residency, we are inviting you to write (and send) a letter about your take on the accelerating climate and ecological crisis.  As writers, our superpower is a way with words, and words are energy – they make a difference to the world we live in.  Here is a chance to harness your creativity and skill to lift the way we use our energy, to express your feelings and ideas on this crucial subject, affecting all our lives now and looming over our children’s future.

It’s up to you who you choose to write to – your MP, the PM [ I wrote this before the latest developments!…L ], the Dalai Lama or the Pope, the CEO of Exxon, BP or Shell, a wildfire fighter in Australia or a reindeer herder in the Arctic, your best friend, your descendants or your ancestors.  When you write, you hold the whole world in your hands.

Hands typing on retro typewriter

Send it in whatever format you like – via email, postcard or letter – whatever might help trigger a small change in how you feel about climate change and mass extinction, as you articulate what really matters and clear a space for active orientation and engagement.

This will inevitably make a difference to your letter’s recipient too and, alongside all our participants’ letters, will contribute to the momentum for change and deep shift in our collective awareness and imagination that we need.

As well as sending your letter out into the world, please send a copy to us and we’ll gather them together to be shared more widely. I will choose a selection to form part of an installation at this year’s Durham Book Festival in October, and they will also appear on a special Writing the Climate webpage.

Find words for the inexpressible, what’s on your mind, in your heart, on the tip of your tongue, and shout them to the rooftops or whisper them in a loved one’s ear.  Share your voice not just with one other person but with the whole trembling, fragile world… If not now, when?

Please limit your letter to maximum A4 page length in whatever form and font you like – prose, poetry, cartoon, storyboard.  You can hand-write it and scan it in, or send us a physical copy or a photograph. You could write it on a postcard or type it up on your computer (or even share it on social media: tag us @newwritingnorth and use the hashtag #TheClimateLetters). Whatever your letter looks like, just make sure it reaches us by Monday 22nd August.

To send us your letter online, fill in this form.

Or send it by post to:

3 Ellison Terrace, Ellison Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8ST (by post).

If you have any questions, please email kathryntann@newwritingnorth.com.

We look forward to reading your letters and setting the power of your words to work in the world.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate

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.

Arthur Ashe

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.

Stone Curlew

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? 

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You can read all the wonderful Gingko poems here.

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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.  

Begin now.  

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.

D.H. Lawrence

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A Year of Two Books

There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so very busy elsewhere, online and IRL.  Not long back from co-leading a retreat in the Trossachs, by Loch Voil, at Dhanakosa – a perfect place to step out of the hurtle of the digital and into moment-by-moment presence, with spring unfolding before our eyes.  I love spending time up there and it was wonderful to be back after three years’ absence.  You can find out more about their retreat programme here, if you’re interested.

As well as work continuing on my Writing the Climate Residency and various groups meeting regularly, I have a new book to celebrate.  The Knucklebone Floor is the story of Allen Banks and Susan Davidson, the Victorian widow who helped shape the landscape there with her wilderness walks, a tarn, bridges and summerhouses.  This is the sequence of poems I wrote as part of my PhD Women on the Edge of Landscape and it’s very exciting to see it about to spring out into the world.  Many thanks to Andy Croft at Smokestack for suggesting he publish it. And much appreciation to Matilda Bevan for the section of her Study of a Stream gracing the cover.

The first reading from The Knucklebone Floor will take place at this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 6th May, at 2.30pm.  I’ll be joined by Anne Ryland and Dave Spittle, who’ll also be reading from their new collections (Unruled Journal and Rubbles).  The day before I’m chairing a panel on Climate at the Emergency-themed Symposium (NCLA in conjunction with the Poetry Book Society) – with Jason Allen-Paisant, Polly Atkin and Sylvia Legris, whose new books I’ve really enjoyed:  Thinking with Trees, Much With Body and Garden Physic, respectively.  There’ll be plenty to talk about.  You can see the Symposium and Festival programme here – lots of unmissable events,  and I’m really looking forward to the chance for us all to gather as a community again.

More Knucklebone Floor events follow this opening splash – at Hexham Library, with Matthew Kelly, launching his book The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, as part of Local History Month, on May 12th, 7pm.  Then at Inpress‘s pop-up shop in Ouseburn, Newcastle (8 Riverside Walk, between the Cluny and the Tyne Bar) on May 18th, 7pm, with Paul Summers (reading from his new book billy casper’s tears, also from Smokestack).  I’ll also be at Allendale’s Forge in July and Ripon Poetry Festival in September – more of those nearer the time.

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In the midst of all this fizz, I’m currently editing another book, to be published in the Autumn, when my Residency winds down, and launched at Durham Book Festival.  This one’s called Startling and is an attempt to capture some sense of the vulnerability many of us feel in the face of our climate and ecological emergencies.  As Margaret Atwood has said: it’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change.   

Spring speeds everything up, like a time-lapse film and here we all are trying our best to find our place among it all and a way through, helping each other where we can.  A deeply challenging, unpredictable time but I’m with Leonard Cohen, hoping that the cracks will let the light shine through.

…we are always in free fall.  It’s not like we will find some moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us.  It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life, and we learn to become stable in flight, and to support others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored.  The final resting place is not the ground at all but rather the freedom that arises from knowing there will never be a ground, and yet here we are, together, navigating the boundless space of life, not attached, yet intimate.

Roshi Joan Halifax

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Some Things You Might Like To Know About

Tonight we’re having our very first podcast discussion group Listening to the Climate. Everyone is very welcome to come along. We’ll be reading and discussing the poems in my podcast series In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change. The introduction in the first episode includes Jorie Graham’s Why and my sestina, Elementary. You can listen again to the podcasts here and also find transcripts of the poems and the conversations.

If you’re interested in the discussion group (which I envisage as a sort of book group for the ears), you can register for a free place via Eventbrite. Look forward to seeing those of you who can make it at 6 – 7.30pm (Tuesday 8th February 2022). We’ll be meeting on the second Tuesday of each month at the same time, talking about each subsequent episode and the poems therein. I also hope people might point us all in the direction of climate and ecology related podcasts they’ve found interesting or helpful.

Our monthly Writing Hour will continue – on the last Tuesday of each month, between 1 and 2pm. All are welcome for a dedicated session of shared writing time. These seem to have become inspiring touchstones for a lot of people – in this country and all over the world. The next one coming up is on Tuesday 22nd February 1 – 2 pm.

Tomorrow night at 7pm (Wednesday 9th February) you have a chance to join the online launch of Candlestick Press’s new pamphletsTen Poems about History and Ten Poems about Roses. The event will be hosted by the Lit & Phil and readers include Sean O’Brien, David Constantine, Catriona O’Reilly, Kathy Towers, Tamar Yoseloff and myself. There’s also an open mike slot. You can find more details and book your free place here.

Next week I’ll be reading some poems at the Sonic Valentine gathering at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham 12 – 1.30 pm (Monday 14th February). Expect gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, music and poetry. A drop-in sound lounge for the healing of the world. See you there!

I’m a little late posting these various news items – lots of things suddenly emerging after the quiet dark of winter. Already nearly two hours more daylight since the Winter Solstice. And more to come.

May your sap gently rise.

L

x

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2/2/22: Trees and Time

I used to live on the edge of woodland but now I live in the middle of agricultural land, pasture for sheep, sometimes cattle, and increasingly used by pheasant shooters.  A little house not on the prairie, but a wind-blasted field.  An ideal spot for a poet, who needs solitude and spaciousness to think and write.  It is by both accident and design that the trees have disappeared: a wholesale felling in 2018, that felt like an invasion of absence, an amputation; and successive storm damage, particularly evident ever since Storm Desmond in 2015/16 and, at the end of 2021, Arwen’s devastation, which left me, like many others, without power or water for seven days. 

Fortunately, there are still trees marking the garden’s loose, uncertain perimeter – holly, yew, rowan, laburnum, cypress, birch.  I couldn’t live here without them.  They are my companions, kinfolk, fellow conspirators in the arts of living on a damaged planet.  Their assembled company softens the sense of bare exposure and the force of the wind. They also act as its instruments, roaring like the sea on more days than not, a leafy ocean, audible on the other side of my thick stone walls.  The chimney is the wind’s chanter, funnelling great breaths into the room where I sit and listen, half-listen, try not to listen.  It sounds like sobbing, the heave and fall of someone’s heart breaking.  I pretend it isn’t mine.

Who am I kidding?  Why would I rather not admit it?  This pain and loss that shakes the ground under my feet and slams doors shut, always a cold draught at the back of my neck.  It’s hard to find the words, stand upright, walk around with all that grief inside.

On this high ground where I live we have lost many trees since Arwen and Malik – conifers, hardwoods, immature and venerable.  Their limbs have been torn off, root plates up-ended, forced out of the soil by the trees’ crashing descent.  All the roadsides and hedgerows are scattered with their broken branches.  On my daily walks I bring some home for firewood, carrying them in my arms like a loved one I must prepare for consignment to the flames. 

And it’s not only single trees that have left an empty space behind them – although I’ll sorely miss the Scots pine behind my house and the two enormous oaks I’d pass by the farm gate – the whole landscape is affected: the old horizons, contours and pathways, their special character, the habitat for wildlife, the shelter they provide.  It’ll take many years before we regain a sense of lushness and canopy and can experience the benefits of the mature trees’ capacity for carbon capture, the development of their complex interspecies relationships, above and below ground. In mourning for the trees, we also mourn for the loss of everything in the trees’ ecosystem – which is our own.  Whenever we lose anything or anyone, we lose part of ourselves.

Imbolc or Candlemas is associated with the slow stirrings, still mostly beneath the ground, of Spring.  It’ll stay cold, and probably get even colder, until we reach the Equinox later in March.  Some days it requires a leap of the imagination to believe in sap rising and the earth greening.  This ancient fire festival has always been a pivot point between life and death – a tender and powerful threshold between the fierce Cailleach and sweet Brigid, mother Demeter and daughter Persephone.  

Our tears show we care, that we suffer with the world.  We water the earth with our tears and, beyond the scope of our understanding, it will do what it will in its own good time.  This Imbolc, it is raining here and the sky is heavy and full while we collect our seeds, actual and intentional, and prepare for sowing.  What will you plant?

As we give our attention to the old-growth forest and the beloved backyard shade tree, we recognise that paying attention to trees is only the beginning.  Attention generates wonder, which generates more attention and more joy.  Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgement of pain.  Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine.  Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond.  To be responsible.  This, too, is a gift, for when we fall in love with the living world, we cannot be bystanders to its destruction.  Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Foreword to Old Growth (The best writing about trees from Orion magazine), 2021

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COP 26: Unfinished Business

Glasgow Climate Clock – COP26 https://climateclock.world

GLASGOW

A Poem

Unfinished

Are we racing to the brink of an abyss, or are we just gathering speed for a take-off to a wonderful future?  The crystal ball is clouded, the human condition baffles all the more because it is both unprecedented and bizarre, almost beyond understanding.

E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021)

Train to Glasgow Central delayed

due to an object caught in overhead electric wires

–  ‘object’ or person

inconvenience or tragedy

MIND THE GAP

sun plummets through a filleted glass roof

where do I start

where end

Hope Street

use caution: walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions

she tells me she borrowed her sister’s jacket 

stitched on the back in white and black

WHEN INJUSTICE BECOMES LAW

RESISTANCE BECOMES DUTY

we plant prayers on lollysticks 

sow seeds of calendula  

I follow the ‘Coat of Hopes’ women walking through the city 

the piper in his swishy kilt leading the grey-suited out-of-tune world leaders

two old men in the chip shop facing the wall to pray

more police than I’ve ever seen

whole squadrons encased in black rubber

join the raggle taggle carnival

but hi-vis           spiked metal

you can’t come in here

and so we are divided, ruled

go slowly all the way round the outside

where all the little solar-powered suns shine:

END THE OIL AGE

SALVAGE PARADISE

NOW WE MUST LIVE IN

THE GRACE OF THE SUN

Tom Goldtooth – he’s heard it all before

wants humanity to learn earth 

is sacred

keep fossil fuels in the ground

Potus and PoW, Boris and Bezos 

flown in by private jet

Africa and Bolivia dropped off the agenda

the bravado of first pledges condenses

evaporates

mist

inside and outside

we should         we must

who says we will

today 

not in three decades

how will the next ten years succeed

when the last sixty years has failed

a praxis

place-based wisdom

I’m a Glaswegian and I’m proud of my city

rhetoric alliterates

decolonise, democratise, detoxify, decentralise, diversify 

not the cost of workers but the value of workers

not building a wall but making a brick

it’s the kids’ placards that make me hurt

protect our planet

save our oceans

I don’t want to live on a spaceship

crossing the flyover

untethered

what if I jumped

the French woman in beautiful boots

meeting her son for lunch

all our beautiful sons

their rackety futures

their unborn children

the things we most fear (and therefore deny)

the things we most need (and therefore deny)

what if we started listening to our dreams

to our children’s dreams

and I said to myself

what a wonderful world

– join in he says

everyone join in

trying to make business with the Amazon

without taking into account the rights of the Amazon

so much greenwash

if I could plant a tree 

for every time I hear someone utter that word

drummers march us into battle

the snare in my solar plexus

makes me want to cry

and laugh and cry and dance

if you’re happy it’s easy to be happy

if you’re sad it’s harder

sings Liam the worldwide Welshman

without words I don’t know who I am

or what I’m for

every day this is not to be forgotten

every day honour the Palauan minister:

either we drown in words

or we drown

bottleneck, hoodwink

the truth neither interesting nor appealing

everyone looks at their phones

while she’s talking

most people ignore climate change talk

because most climate change talk

ignores most people

8 FOOT LONG LOCH NESS DEBT MONSTER ARRESTED

#freenessie

how to live on $5.50 a day

while we only pay one-fifteenth of what we owe

LOSS & DAMAGE

a game of dominoes

not everyone can play

join the dots

stakes too high

rules impenetrable

outside Buchanan Galleries

the lone ranger and his megaphone

either the time we took hold of the reins

or the time we let the horses run wild

tearfully, truthfully, tenderly

a young lad on the bus

can’t stop talking

scavenged by chemicals

later outside Greggs

with one of their paper cups

begging

police bussed in from the Met, Essex, Devon, Norfolk, Wales

line up for team photos

buy postcards to send home

go back each night to their Premier Inns

I carry a card

in case I’m arrested 

Human Rights Act 1998

in line with Cadder v HM Advocate Criminal Procedure 

(Legal Assistance, Detention and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 2010)

DO NOT ENGAGE

Remain silent

over 100,000 souls

a two mile long river

I hear

your here‘s different

she’s talking about my hair

time

achilles heels

all wounds

MIND THE GAP

government by PR         by press conference

hypocrisy          hypothesis

                 diversionary tactics      carbon capture, hydrogen

HS2

Cambo, Cumbria, Mozambique

bitter wisps

of autumn

all human

KEEP 1.5 ALIVE

rhymes lodge inside us

blocking our airways

inside out briefing every morning

outside in briefing every evening

Jess sings us a love song for the apocalypse

someone pretending to be a policeman clambers into my dreams

I wake up paralysed, ache all over

why are your words so pedestrian

because they are made out of walking

from the Kelvin to the Clyde

walking

this is what it feels like embarking on a task and not knowing what to do

painting the world pictures by which we live

word pictures

thinned to slogans 

I! I! a terrible thing

run from it if you can

there is no one

we are everyone

now and tomorrow

tomorrow’s tomorrow

start with your body – then your home – 

then the land around you

your community – the world

make a spiral

we say these things to remind us

losing our so-called freedom

not knowing if we succeed or fail

who will tell you what is right

how to have no regrets

let your breath be a refuge

plant a garden

hold language dear

farm the city 

a forest of sentient beings

say this to remind yourself

(is remembering too a kind of hoarding

when do you decide to leave everything behind)

MIND THE GAP

the train’s too full

a reduced service

how long will it take

who knows where 

beyond recognition

we will find ourselves

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The Song of Our Species

‘I think as an ecologist. But I feel as a member of a great family – one that includes the elephant and the wheat stalk as well as the schoolteacher and the industrialist. This is not a mental condition, but a spiritual condition. Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world. Now, of course, in the hives and dungeons of the cities, poetry cannot console, it carries no weight, for the pact between the natural world and the individual has been broken. There is no more working for harvest – only hunting, for profit. Lives are no longer exercises in pleasure and valor, but only the means to the amassment of worldly goods. If poetry is ever to become meaningful to such persons, they must take the first step – away from their materially bound and self-interested lives, toward the trees, and the waterfall. It is not poetry’s fault that it has so small an audience, so little effect upon the frightened, money-loving world. Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.’

Mary Oliver

A few wintry verses from this past year’s renga

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Gwen carries her own placard

I don’t want to live

on a spaceship

            what you give the forest

            the forest gives you back

I plant eight buddleia

hoping for a summer

astonished by butterflies

            defrosting the freezer

            is today’s weather

all the little suns

on my glasses

are rain

            more a question

            of when not if

our culture 

written in snow

and the planet’s on fire

            everything racing 

            wily coyote legs

a raw stillness

in the house

Arwen’s blessing

            on the short day’s back

            the long night

trailer load of logs –

alder, Matt says,

burns hot

            this will end

            this will carry on

[Quotations from Eugenio Montale, Laurie Anderson, Moshe Feldenkrais, Octavia Butler, Henrik Blind.]

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I’m not coming to the revolution unless there’s dancing

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.

  

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