Category Archives: ecology

Endings and Beginnings | Beginnings and Endings

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

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

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

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

Time

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

Hope

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

Challenge

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

Transformation

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

Joy

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

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

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

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

Stay with the ragged joy of ordinary living and dying.

Donna Haraway

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Sound & Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can take a look at the TED Countdown here.

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

The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation, Dark Mountain

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

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

Dried flowers from Verde Flowers, Burnhopeside Hall

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

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, On Seemliness (1902)

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

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

Quotation: Luce Irigaray

Stay well.

L

X

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SOME THINGS I’VE NOTICED

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Threshold

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Tightrope

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Stepping Up   

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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About Time

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

Be well

L

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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February

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Without thinking too much about it beforehand, I decided on Shrove Tuesday to give up Instagram for Lent, along with a few other things.  I wanted a chance to practise restraint, hoping that freeing up some space might leave more room for things I’d rather prioritise.

I’m still keeping my ‘year renga’ but have appreciated the change in pace that not filtering it through social media seems to have brought.  Perhaps I’ll always be primarily a pencil and paper kind of writer, thinking at the speed of graphite.  But here is the next instalment in digital form – February’s verses to look back on as we enter March and whatever it might bring.

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February

 

hibernating tortoiseshell

waking up too soon

 

for Imbolc

for Brigid

endings and beginnings

 

to explain grace requires

            a curious hand                                                                        (Marianne Moore)

 

in late light

pruning the apple tree

figuring it out as we go

 

fractal mosaic

of a dragonfly’s wing

 

in this dream

we are all at once hero

and enemy and saviour

 

flock of redwings

a shook tablecloth

 

life never speaks simply

it shows itself in its flower

it hides itself in its roots                                                                    (Luce Irigaray)

 

writing in my hut

calling itself Atlas

 

storm moon and hailstones

I warm myself

at your fire

 

the year’s first snow

settles on the trees’ north

 

in the city

a few hours of spring

petals peel back

 

in the market

for tomorrows

 

do not stand

in a place of danger

trusting in miracles                                                                             (Moroccan proverb)

 

curled against the world

a small white ibis

 

my driver knows

hardly any English but says

‘We need more water’

 

the charcoal seller

in his infernal cave

 

a city lost

between its past

and its future

 

the best thing about going away

is coming home

 

50 million years old

seedpod souvenir

from the flame tree                                                                           (Brachychiton acerifolius)

 

I admire his blackboard and chalk

keeping track of the bins

 

as if we were out at sea

the wind’s waves

gusting and toppling us

 

however far you walk

the road stretches on

 

I open the front door

onto a wall

of compacted snow

 

mandala of wood

atlas of the imperilled world

 

a dead man’s tattoos –

fail we may

sail we must                                                                                       (RIP Andrew Weatherall)

 

dressed in ceremonial kimonos

they look back from the future

 

how to translate

all these words

into acts of love?

 

alone and walking

against the weather

 

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Writing the Climate

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Last week my new post as Climate Writer with New Writing North and Newcastle University was officially announced and I have been very touched by all the warm messages and gestures of encouragement and support I’ve received.  I am often taken by surprise to be reminded of the invisible strands of connection between us when it looks like nothing is happening.  Living in a culture of appearances casts mists over all our eyes.

It seems to me one of the difficulties of tackling Climate Change (both in the world and on the page) arises because here in the UK we can’t properly see it.  Those people badly affected by the floods of recent years have had to shift into survival mode, without the luxury of any distance to consider the influence and implications of Climate Change on their wrecked homes and lost and ruined possessions.  [Clare Shaw’s Flood (Bloodaxe 2018) is a powerful book of poems on the subject of floods in the world and floods in the psyche. See also Brian and Mary Talbot’s fascinating graphic novel Rain (Cape 2019).]  If we can’t see a thing (or hear, touch, smell or taste it), it’s hard to know what we’re faced with and how to respond.  Because we can’t quite pin it down, the words for it elude us and because the words elude us, we can’t quite pin it down.  A vicious circle.

The fact that Climate Change is being ignored by governments capable of introducing new initiatives and renewable systems, that already exist, in order to address our runaway carbon emissions adds to the sense of unreality.  Climate Change can feel like a collective dream, the way Cocteau thought of cinema.  Like a dream, the meaning is hard to interpret – things aren’t what they seem, there are many layers, characters and objects often symbolic rather than actual. There are those who say that everyone in a dream is some aspect of ourselves.  And so it is with Climate Change – we are each (and together) the protagonist of this story, and we are also the antagonist, our own worst enemy.  It’s no good waiting to be rescued for we are our own saviours too.  This hall of mirrors makes the subject even more tricky to write about.  The language itself is not designed to cross the subject-object divide, let alone accommodate the disruption of verb tense to triangulate time and allow past, present and future to co-exist.

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These are some of the first principles – the origin myth of Climate Change, if you like – I’ve been trying to get back to in these initial weeks of acclimatisation.  My head a little dizzy with all the reading and thinking and puzzling, I’ve felt a bit like Sisyphus doomed to keep rolling an enormous rock up a hill over and over again when it’s always tumbling back down.  In an effort to create some physical boundaries and foundations for my work, and a sense of progress, I’ve created a dedicated space in my little hut some friends kindly passed on to me a few years ago.  Always declared an academia-free zone and my very own medicine hut, I used it to regather and recharge while I was working on my PhD.  Now it can come into its own to accommodate (literally) my musings on the elusive, unwieldly subject of Climate Change.  As if it always knew this was going to be its purpose in life, its manufacturer’s mark has gained new significance.  I’m hoping my hut will carry the weight of this work so I don’t need to.  Better Atlas than Sisyphus.

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Apart from establishing a conducive physical space, I’ve also been experimenting with a virtual container for my process.  Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with digital platforms and the only social media space I feel remotely comfortable in is Instagram.  I appreciate the focus on visual images and lack of clutter, its capacity to connect and inform.  Since the beginning of the year I have been posting daily images and short texts arising from an awareness of the natural world and climate issues.  The form I am following is an adaptation of the ‘year renga’ I used (in a notebook, privately, never intended for publication) that ended up becoming book of days (Smokestack 2009).  Renga is an old Japanese collaborative form I’ve been working with for the past two decades, alongside others and alone.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this but as a daily practice it keeps the subject at the front of my mind and every day is another door, a chance to refocus and begin again.  Which is perhaps another first principle for tackling Climate Change, living with it and writing about it.

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Here are my renga verses for January.  You can see the images on IG @lindafrancebooksandplants (also via my website).  You can also read more about my post on the New Writing North website.

January

Weather forecast –

new * things *

under * the * sun

 

black coal and butterfly wings

both out of their element

 

bearded lichen

knows where time lives

and grows there

 

less knowledge

more attention

 

using my car

as a salt lick, the sheep

make a monograph

 

high water

Leith

 

raindrops on the windowpane –

the lamp stays lit

all day

 

January’s muses

Beauty, Prudence and Folly

 

five hundred years old

the Spanish chestnut tree

still bearing fruit

 

of earthly joy

            thou art my choice

 

keepsake –

something hidden

inside something else

 

clouds and crocodiles

a three-umbrella day

 

before we leave:

peace

to this place

 

crossing the border

windmills! windmills! windmills!

 

white pencil points

of snowdrops

about to write their name

 

the room is full

of all the lost creatures

 

on the windowsill

a bowl

of borrowed time

 

I resort to poetry

            like I resort to tears

 

four of us

not quite on top of the world

but nearly

 

walking into

the wind’s sighs

 

the unknown becomes known

the outcasts come inside

the strange becomes ordinary

 

our molehills

are mountains

 

we need new words

for what we don’t know

honest and kind

 

invisible birds singing

dusksongs in the birches

 

year of the rat

new moon – second chance

at starting over

 

Sunday morning

a tangle of light and dark

 

in the corner of the room

a shopping trolley

a very British rebellion

 

her black cat called Maya

watches my every move

 

a head-scratching sort of day –

out among other people’s voices

to hear my own better

 

my car still proud

to be European

 

one day gone missing –

next month

come find me

 

 

One of the things I want to do with this work is to connect with others and find ways for writers to come together and discover what they might be able to do to help find the words we need to see our way into what this time is asking of us.  So please do chip in here with comments, suggestions and anything at all you think I should be looking at.  The post is only part-time but I’m keen to cover as much ground as possible over the year.

Many thanks.

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A Hundred Years of Pangolin

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1911

These animals, which might be taken for reptiles rather than mammals,

are found in the warmer parts of Asia and throughout Africa.

Pangolins range from 1 to 3 ft. in length, exclusive of the tail,

which may be much shorter than or nearly twice the length of the rest of the animal.

Their legs are short, so that the body is only a few inches off the ground; the ears

are very small; and the tongue is long and worm-like, and used to capture ants.

Their most striking character, however, is the coat of broad overlapping horny scales,

which cover the whole animal, with the exception of the undersurface of the body,

and in some species, the lower part of the tip of the tail.

Besides the scales, there are generally, especially in the Indian species,

a number of isolated hairs, which grow between the scales, and are scattered

over the soft and flexible skin of the belly.

There are five toes on each foot, the claws on the first toe rudimentary,

but the others, especially the third of the forefoot, long, curved, and laterally compressed.

In walking, the fore-claws are turned backwards and inwards, so that the weight

of the animal rests on the back and outer surfaces, and the points

are thus kept from becoming blunted.

The skull is long, smooth and rounded, with imperfect zygomatic arches,

no teeth of any sort, and, as in other ant-eating mammals, with the bony palate

extending unusually far backwards towards the throat.

The lower jaw consists of a pair of thin rod-like bones, welded to each other at the chin,

and rather loosely attached to the skull by a joint which, instead of being horizontal,

is tilted up at an angle of 45°, the outwardly-twisted condyles articulating

with the inner surfaces of the long glenoid processes

in a manner unique among mammals.

 

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1936

Another armored animal – scale

lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity until they

form the uninterrupted central

tail-row! This near artichoke with head and legs and grit-equipped gizzard,

the night miniature artist engineer is,

yes, Leonardo da Vinci’s replica –

impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear.

Armor seems extra. But for him,

the closing ear-ridge –

or bare ear lacking even this small

eminence and similarly safe

 

contracting nose and eye apertures

impenetrably closable, are not; a true ant-eater,

not cockroach eater, who endures

exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night,

returning before sunrise, stepping in the moonlight,

on the moonlight peculiarly, that the outside

edges of his hands may bear the weight and save the claws

for digging. Serpentined about

the tree, he draws

away from danger unpugnaciously,

with no sound but a harmless hiss; keeping

 

the fragile grace of the Thomas-

of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine, or

rolls himself into a ball that has

power to defy all effort to unroll it; strongly intailed, neat

head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in-feet.

Nevertheless he has sting-proof scales; and nest

of rocks closed with earth from inside, which can thus darken.

Pangolin_scale_burn_in_Cameroon._Credit-_Kenneth_Cameron_-_USFWS_(2)_(32575640450)

 

2017

The true scale of the slaughter of pangolins in Africa has been revealed

by new research showing that millions of the scaly mammals are being hunted and killed.

Pangolins were already known to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammal,

with at least a million being traded in the last decade to supply the demand

for its meat and scales in Asian markets.

Populations of Asian pangolins have been decimated,

leaving the creatures highly endangered

and sharply shifting the focus of exploitation to Africa’s four species.

 

Pangolins are secretive, nocturnal and some species live in trees,

making them very hard to count and the total size of the populations in Africa is unknown. But the new analysis, based on data collected by hundreds of local researchers

at scores of hunting sites and bushmeat markets across central and west Africa,

found up to 2.7m are being killed every year,

with the most conservative estimate being 400,000 a year.

 

Pangolins curl up into a scaly ball when threatened, which defeats natural predators

like lions but is no defence against human hunters.

The researchers found half the animals had been snared or trapped,

despite wire snares being illegal in most of the 14 central African nations

analysed in the research.

 

Almost half of the pangolins killed were juveniles,

an indicator that the populations are being dangerously overexploited

as animals are being caught before they can reproduce.

This is particularly harmful as pangolins are slow breeding

and produce only a single pup every year or two.

 

 

 

 

Extracts from Encyclopedia Britannica 1911, Marianne Moore’s The Pangolin and Other Verse 1936 (layout with indents unfortunately lost in translation) and The Guardian 2017.  Wiki Commons images.

 

World Pangolin Day 15th February 2020

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How do you write about Climate Change?

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The only way I can begin to think about the question of how to write about Climate Change is to do it – start writing and see if I can spin a thread for myself, and maybe others, to follow.  This will be the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to track my spinning.

In September I submitted my Creative Practice-based PhD – Women on the Edge of Landscape – investigating place and ecology, poetry and biography.  I’ve written a collection of poems called ‘The Knucklebone Floor’, set at Allen Banks in Northumberland, imagining the 19th century widow who intervened in the landscape there – Susan Davidson (1796-1877) – as well as other women who have lived, worked and walked there before and since.  I tried to find a voice for them all, acknowledging points of difference while testing the possibility of commonality, a collective vision of an authentic good, dwelling alongside the constantly changing beyond-human.

I called my critical reflective essay ‘Flower Album’ because I wanted it to be a place where I could assemble my ideas, process and reading, using another Victorian woman, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson’s (1821-1918) beautiful watercolours of native wild flowers as touchstones.  These two very different northern women held a love of, and intimacy with, the natural world in common.

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After over three years of looking at the macro-perspective of this particular landscape and the micro-view of the plantlife that grows there – all at a time of increasing urgency about Global Warming and Mass Extinction – I felt my own sense of intimacy with the land at Allen Banks deepen and grow.  I became one of its creatures as much as the dormice, dippers and dragonflies who’ve made their homes in the woods and along the river.  My essay’s ‘conclusion’ culminated in a call for tenderness, a conscious love for the earth that stands in the way of any harm being done to it, just as you would protect your own (or anyone else’s) children.  Not on my watch.

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If ‘Climate Change’ is portrayed as our enemy, if the phrase ‘Climate Emergency’ is intended to summon up associations of wartime solidarity, I am concerned that the dynamic evoked, the story conveyed, is an unhelpful one, leaning more into conflict than healing.  Such attitudes tend to demonise Climate Change as just another ‘other’, to be hated and eradicated.  When will we learn there is no such place as ‘away’?

If we know ourselves to be truly part of nature, inextricable from it, inside and out, isn’t it more fruitful to examine the part of ourselves that needs to affirm the polarity of Self and Other?  What if we tried to come to terms with that part of ourselves that has contributed to Climate Change, allowed it to happen without doing anything to prevent it or radically alter the political structures that perpetuate our current crisis?  Surely Climate Change is less the cause of our current crisis than the effect of what Naomi Klein calls ‘the deep stories about the right of certain people to dominate land and the people living closest to it, stories that underpin western culture’.  I admire the way she has ‘investigated the kinds of responses that might succeed in toppling those narratives, ideologies and economic interests, responses that weave seemingly disparate crises (economic, social, ecological and democratic) into a common story of civilisational transformation.’

It’s important to be pragmatic and vote for the party you can trust to take action to protect the environment, but in the longer term, the system itself needs to change to ensure greater equity and justice – not just in this country but on a global level.  How to achieve that is another question we will be struggling with in the years ahead.

Tenderness is not really a word that comes to mind listening to the politicians making the case for their party’s extravagant promises.  But reading Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is maybe the nearest I’ve got to it.  Telling stories of women around the world directly affected by Climate Change, she makes politics personal.  She remembers one woman in drought-stricken Honduras saying to her: ‘We have no water.  How do you live without water?’  Worrying about flying and driving and our various western consumer dilemmas, we really have no idea.  These women trying to look after their children in the face of unimaginable deprivation and disruption are, as Robinson says, ‘the least responsible for the pollution warming our planet, yet are the most affected.  They are often overlooked in the abstract, jargon-filled policy discussions about how to address the problem […] the fight against climate change is fundamentally about human rights and securing justice for those suffering from its impact – vulnerable countries and communities that are the least culpable for the problem.’

On the day that Mary Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, Seamus Heaney wrote to her saying: ‘Take hold of it boldly and duly.’  That is what she is doing on the subject of climate and its impact on human rights.  What would it look like if contemporary writers took hold of our current task ‘boldly and duly’?  How would Seamus Heaney write about Climate Change?  In what form would he express his grief for everything we have already lost?  What are the words we might start hearing in unexpected places that could help us adapt and thrive?

Isn’t it the writer’s job to write so that people want to read or listen, so that what they’ve read or heard stays with them, strengthening their relationship with themselves, the world and each other?  How do you write about Climate Change so that people want to keep on reading, not flick past in search of something more entertaining or distracting?  For me, Voice usually matters more than Story – a form of words shared in passing that gives a sense of the writer’s pulse, the thrum of their beating heart, the intimacy with their conspirators I saw in the work of Susan Davidson and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson and have tried to translate into my own words.

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Still inclined to spend some time in the 19th century, I’m currently listening to Samuel West’s reading of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders and although the story is beguiling, fateful and compelling, it’s the atmosphere I love best, the sense of place, particularly as it’s evoked by Hardy’s own intimacy with those trees growing in Little Hintock, characterised almost as vividly as Giles Winterborne, Grace Melbury and Marty Short.  If we knew trees in their natural habitat as well as this, perhaps we’d care for them better.

            Although the time of bare boughs had now set in, there were sheltered hollows amid      the Hintock plantations and copses in which a more tardy leave-taking than on windy          summits was the rule with the foliage. This caused here and there an apparent mixture of the seasons; so that in some of the dells that they passed by holly-berries in full red were found growing beside oak and hazel whose leaves were as yet not far removed from green, and brambles whose verdure was rich and deep as in the month of August. To Grace these well-known peculiarities were as an old painting restored.

            Now could be beheld that change from the handsome to the curious which the     features of a wood undergo at the ingress of the winter months. Angles were taking the place of curves, and reticulations of surfaces – a change constituting a sudden lapse from the ornate to the primitive on Nature’s canvas…

We can only write from a sense of who we are, the wild landscape of our hearts and minds.  The writing process depends upon our own unruly growth, the ways we choose to cultivate and nourish our imaginations and fill our days.  Seamus Heaney said that too – that it’s what we do when we’re not writing that matters.  Spending time with trees, observing their changes through the seasons, planting and protecting them – this too is the writer’s task and will send roots down into the thirsty soil of our collective imagination.

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Naomi Klein has been encouraging people to read Richard Powers’s The Overstory.  I’m late to the party but it’s next on my reading list.  She says:

            It’s been incredibly important to me and I’m happy that so many people have  written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we’ve been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It’s the same conversation we’re having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It’s also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

This weekend the Woodland Trust’s Big Climate Fightback aims to encourage a million people in the UK to pledge to plant a native tree.  They have a target to plant a tree for every person in the UK by 2025.  We have a small oak seedling from a friend’s garden we’ll be adding to the recent replanting of the woodland behind our house. While you’re considering how a writer might write about Climate Change, what you need to read about it or who you’re going to vote for, you can pledge to plant a tree or support the Woodland Trust here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Lichen

There are still a few places left on my Writing Workshop – out in the field and at the Sill – next Saturday 10th August – looking at lichen.  Bring botanical lenses and magnifying glasses!  And cross fingers for fine weather.

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Iain’s photographs are stunning.  They beautifully capture these strange life forms that do so well in Northumberland – a testament to our clean air and fresh elements.  We’ll be moving between the real thing and samples of his images to write our own poems and short pieces in appreciation of lichen.  Even the word itself is mysterious and exciting – whichever way you say it – lichen!

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Poetry & Ecology

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In the Physic Garden

 

Andrew asks if spiritistically is a word

it is now I say

how do you spell it he says

and we sound out the letters together

him way ahead of me

written down they’re ghosts

of the evening primrose

throwing up its arms behind us

MOTH’S MOON FLOWER

says the sign and we lean in

to yellow like thunderbugs

drinking from wilting cups

spiritistically we are yellow

and black when they are the same

night and day – me and Andrew

his words I want to save

and the flowers I can’t

and it’s okay

what does kill or cure mean he says

 

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Just back from the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival where I was delighted to be awarded the Bronze in this year’s Ginkgo Prize for my poem sparked by a summer’s day at Dilston Physic Garden, working with a group of vulnerable adults from Haltwhistle on one of their Zig-Zag outings.

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The Prize was judged by poet Mimi Khalvati and gardener and writer Alys Fowler and organised by the Poetry School, following Resurgence’s initiation of a Poetry Competition specifically for ‘eco-poems’ a few years ago.  This year the newly-named Prize was generously supported by the Goldsmith Trust, which promotes the work of ecologist Edward Goldsmith (1928-2009). It was fascinating meeting everyone involved (including one dog – Pekingese – and one baby – North American) and all the other winning poets: a real live chain of interconnection – ecology in action.

There is a beautifully designed and produced pamphlet of all the winning and commended poems.  You can read it online here.  Our wonderful certificates were designed and hand-made by Charles Gouldsbrough.

Part of the award for winners and the runners-up is a 10-day residency in Ireland next Spring at Cill Rillaig Arts Centre, County Kerry.  The chain of interbeing continues and will grow…

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At Allen Banks

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I’m spending a lot of time at Allen Banks these days – stepping out of the garden into the wild.  It’s the site for my current PhD research at Newcastle University and I’m looking at its history as well as its ecology towards writing a book-length sequence of poems.

As part of my endeavour to consider it as a collective site, it seemed natural to invite a group of folk to participate in a walking renga at the end of the summer, on the brink of my starting my second year of study.  We walked on the East side of the river, up through Moralee Woods to the tarn, stopping along the way to write and share our verses.

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Here is the renga we made together:

The Landscape, Ourselves

 

Today’s truth –

the seventh month is our ninth

white river brown

 

a startled heron

wingbeat of silence

 

what is that sumptuous smell?

she only knows it

as ‘country’

 

a choice is made

to keep to the middle way

 

uphill

tripping on roots

my breathing quickens

 

through the ghost of a window

we gaze over the valley

 

mirror tarnished

by pondweed

waterlily

 

layer upon layer

memories settle

 

my companions are painting light

collecting earth

gathering pollen

 

by the water

a stack of wooden bones

 

and so we lean

into the landscape

ourselves

 

picture the moonlight

shadowing these branches

 

in a wild grove

between two fields

with all that’s unspoken

 

Allen

muttering, meandering.

 

A 14-verse Renga at Allen Banks,

Morralee Wood,

on 6th September 2017.

 

Participants:

Jo Aris

Matilda Bevan

Holly Clay

Martin Eccles

Linda France

Malcolm Green

Sharon Higginson

Alex Reed

Eileen Ridley

Christine Taylor

 

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Sound artist and fellow PhD student, Martin Eccles recorded the day and you can read his own renga here.  As well as writing our collaborative version, this time I encouraged everyone to keep all their verses and make their own individual renga, imagining them all as parallel shadows of our shared experience.

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