‘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.’
A few wintry verses from this past year’s renga
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
more a question
of when not if
written in snow
and the planet’s on fire
wily coyote legs
a raw stillness
in the house
on the short day’s back
the long night
trailer load of logs –
alder, Matt says,
this will end
this will carry on
[Quotations from Eugenio Montale, Laurie Anderson, Moshe Feldenkrais, Octavia Butler, Henrik Blind.]
Ecological awareness consists of infinite ongoing strands. These include close looking, close listening, close touching, close smelling, close tasting – close sensing between and beyond all the conventional senses familiar to human bodies. Close might also be slow or deep.
Ecological awareness is an art, a creative act, a commitment to being alive, and therefore dynamic, transformative.
Walk outdoors and after half an hour point to the place where you end and the weather begins.
Nowhere are any of us alone, nowhere are we not part of the biosphere, or abandoned by the imagination.
In our climate, why would you not begin each day checking your own internal weather and preparing for what the coming hours might bring?
What we call Nature is a fiction, a wild and muddy one that won’t stay flat or still. It will not be contained on a neatly labelled shelf in the bookshop.
Left to the wind, the dried pods of honesty (Lunaria annua) shed their skins and spread their seeds before glowing with the light of many moons, true to their word. Bring the night sky indoors to remember the year’s passing.
Being in Nature suggests you were sometime out of it, perhaps in that mythical place Away.
Not looking at the clock involves not looking at your phone, your computer, all those other contrivances that divide your attention and devour your time.
The art of ecological awareness asks you to let there be a space between things and sensing and language – and to choose to live in that space.
A day without a tree in it is no day at all.
Whitman asks you to come, speak; says if you are large, if you contain multitudes, you will contradict yourself: will you prove already too late?
The space outside our walls is ready to give us what we have been waiting for; whatever time of day or night, a special kind of light.
Thinking with Timothy Morton and Ian Hamilton Finlay.
‘We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the Earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.’
Donna Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (2016)
Last night was the final session of How to Start Writing the Climate, a course for ‘early career writers’ I’ve been facilitating as part of my Writing the Climate residency. Even though I tried to draw together the threads of what has been a fascinating few months with a wonderfully engaged group, I woke up this morning with all the things I wish I’d said bullet-pointing in my brain.
My default setting is SLOW (and getting slower) so l’esprit d’escalier is familiar to me. [‘Borrowed from French, the expression esprit de l’escalier, or esprit d’escalier, literally wit of (the) staircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed. It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering.’*]
Like my faltering rural broadband, I always take at least a day to download significant emotions or get to the bottom of what I’ve read, heard or seen. Perhaps it’s a consequence of trying to live with in-the-moment judgement-free awareness. Staying open to Everything simply can’t happen all at once: perception and processing need to catch up with each other and come into some sort of alignment. This slow but not always sure rhythm is part of the way I try to make sense of the world and understand my place in it. That’s fine when it comes to simple day to day living but it’s more problematic when being congruent with the climate crisis demands more immediate, vigorous action. Now is not the time to leave things unsaid or your deepest values not acted upon.
In my thinking and writing about climate, I keep coming back to the concept of time – how we balance planning and preparing for an unknowable future and living well in the now, informed by the best lessons of the past (that largely didn’t know what it was doing either). We’ve made provision that the Course participants can continue meeting in a self-programming capacity. All hail to New Writing North for offering to support this. It is an excellent model, grass roots and empowering – it works for community and climate activism so I’m sure it will for assisting writers.
When one member of the group said it was a new beginning, not an ending, I felt very moved. I was saying goodbye but they would be carrying on, staying connected, developing their ideas and their work, which I could already see gaining power and focus as the four sessions progressed. Environmental activist Joanna Macy has said we don’t know if our task now is sitting with a planet in the throes of dying or as midwives at the birth of a new era. Another reason I struggled to say everything I wanted to in my concluding remarks is lately I’ve been living in more of a deathbed scene than a joyful birth. Carrying a lot of grief for the world, I’m often tender to the point of tears. There is no place for this in most human interactions, although I know it’s there just below the surface in whatever I say or do. And I see others carrying something they have no words for, or none they are able to share. And so we continue, with the most important things unspoken.
As a writer and a facilitator, I have a responsibility to be clear, active and, to a certain extent, upbeat. It’s been hard to stay positive and hopeful these past few months, witnessing the failure to act by governments and corporations across the world, while carbon emissions continue to rise and flora and fauna species to decline. We’ve all watched the alarming reports of the heat-related deaths in Canada and the Pacific North West of America. Isn’t this a sort of l’esprit d’escalier too – a pervasive reliance on hindsight, when it will be too late – all those words, just empty promises, and meanwhile everything carries on as *normal*?
The Suffragettes’ slogan was Deeds not Words. We need both. Words do not achieve the same effects as deeds but they can hold a ladder up to the moon, towards a more sustainable life founded on principles of fairness and kindness. This is what I set out to do as a teacher – help and encourage people to find their own way to their own moon, asking their own questions as they go, rather than offer the lie of easy formulas.
I know I’m not the only one to feel sadness, anger and despair at the state we’re in. If I’d been able to tell the group about my grief, it might have broken a spell of silence. North American poet and editor, Camille T. Dungy quotes that we need ‘tearleaders not cheerleaders to teach us how to mourn’. I’m not a politician or a rhetorician. I’m not always even capable of joined-up talking. The place I find my words is on the page. Reviewing my own work-in-progress, many of my recent poems are sparked by immense grief for the world, as I take note of the potential and actual loss of so much of our planet’s beauty and biodiversity. This earth is where we live, our home. It’s hard right now not to feel as if your house is crumbling around you. Words can make the future feel less shaky, keep you steady, but they’re not enough on their own and we need to act while we still can.
So, what should have been my parting shot? What can we do, as citizens and as writers? A useful strategy in writing workshops to get ideas started is to make a list. Here’s mine, a mixture of things I already do and things I need to remember to do:
Put your own house in order. Switch to green electricity, ethical banking, a meat-less, dairy-free or less-meat, less-dairy diet. Recycle paper. Buy secondhand books and pass them on. Manage with less.
Cultivate words and deeds. Match thought with action. Speak truth to power.
Find an environmental campaign you can engage with and support wholeheartedly.
When you come across something you don’t understand, do some research – not to confirm your own opinion, but to extend your knowledge.
Write from and with your body – the primary source of all perception, what we share as humans.
Write to connect, not to escape. Stay engaged with the world around you.
‘Bear witness. Hold uncertainty. Love the world.’ (Charlotte du Cann)
Read widely and inquisitively, critically. Balance the work of contemporary and classic writers, poetry and prose.
‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.’ (Czeslaw Milosz)
Make space for a daily reflective practice – silent meditation, mindful walking, journalling, yoga etc. Pause and process your experience.
Appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have. Notice beauty and express wonder.
Connect with others – know you are not alone.
Attune to interdependence, reciprocity, the spirit of exchange, the gift economy.
Beware of righteousness or too much humility. You are neither better nor worse than anyone else.
Be kind. ‘What will survive of us is love’. (Larkin)
Stay open to new ways of writing and living. Listen to what’s in the air and catch only what is helpful and authentic. Live a creative rather than a reactive life.
‘Be the change you want to see.’ (Mahatma Gandhi)
Argue with this list. Make your own manifesto.
The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) used the expression in English Traits (Boston, 1856):
A slow temperament makes them less rapid and ready than other countrymen, and has given occasion to the observation, that English wit comes afterwards, — which the French denote as esprit d’escalier. This dullness makes their attachment to home, and their adherence in all foreign countries to home habits. The Englishman who visits Mount Etna, will carry his teakettle to the top.
American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (1905-84) gave a variation on the phrase, recollecting what she failed to say to the House Committee on Un-American Activities: ‘ Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it’s all over, the bravery of the staircase’.
One of the projects I’ve initiated as part of my Climate Writer Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University has just launched online. I’m hoping that Murmuration will bring people together in a far-reaching creative collaboration. The poem that arises from it will serve as a collective inventory of what really matters, celebrating our love for the natural world at a time of Climate Crisis and Coronavirus.
The concept is inspired by murmurations, those astonishing displays of aerial acrobatics we see in the air in autumn and winter, when great flocks of starlings gather. Flying together, but never colliding, starlings know there is safety in numbers. In a murmuration the birds are protected from predators and cooling temperatures, while they share news and information and enjoy each other’s company, arcing, folding and singing together.
In the human realm, creative climate action requires both an individual and a collective response and the starlings’ murmuration offers a symbol of what can be achieved through community, collaboration and co-operation.
The first thing people ask when I tell them about my post as Climate Writer is ‘What can I do?’ The words we use, think with and live by, are vitally important for sharing information and telling new stories of creative resilience, developing alternative ways of living together at a time of crisis. We’ve already seen this happening since the restrictions imposed as a consequence of the global pandemic. There are many new demands for our attention online and unanticipated distractions from the continuing crisis around climate and related imbalances.
With this project we might learn from the starlings, raise our wings and our voices in a powerful accumulating murmur, remembering to stay in touch with what we love about this miraculous world where we live. It is a chance to share our observations, feelings, dreams and wishes. Together, we can make something spectacular, far greater than the sum of its parts, an ensemble work of art.
You can contribute to the poem by writing between one and three lines of any length celebrating the natural world, beginning with either the phrase ‘Because I love…’ or ‘What if…’. I will distil and curate all the thoughts and impressions sent in into a single long poem, expressing the collective imagination of all the people who have contributed. Artist Kate Sweeney, who created the wonderful animation on our invitation trailer, will bring the lines to life, making an animated filmpoem, which will reflect our connection with this earth, the natural world and each other at this extraordinary moment in time.
You can read more details and instructions for how to contribute here.
Encouraging comments from Sinéad Morrissey at Newcastle University: “The really exciting thing about this project is that it’s all about the audience – a reaching out to anyone who would like to take part. An ironic consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is that, even in physical isolation, we can now connect with so many people digitally, without the limitations of time or distance. In other words, a whole new kind of conversation can take place. Be part of it. The launch of Murmuration will form part of Inside Writing: a digital poetry festival running through May, June and July, hosted by NCLA and featuring some of today’s most exciting poets responding directly to COVID-19.”
And Anna Disley at New Writing North: “At this stressful and uncertain time, one of the positive things that many people have reported is a new appreciation of the natural world; we are looking more closely at what is on our doorstep, noticing more. This initiative aims to capture that appreciation, to use our collective voice to ensure our natural world is cherished and protected. Added to that, we hope it’s also an impetus not to revert to pre-lockdown climate damaging practices.”
Please think about writing your own ‘Because I love …’ or ‘What if…’ lines and send them in to the New Writing North website or using #writeoutside on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram by 1 August 2020.
Many thanks. I’ll look forward to reading, flocking, flying.
Several years ago I visited Cheeseburn in Northumberland on the Solstices and Equinoxes and Cross Quarter days, spending time in the gardens and grounds. It was a sanctuary for me after Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, had closed. I struggle with my own semi-wild garden, high and wind-ravaged, with a very short growing season, wedged between a field of sheep and a strip of woodland, never quite managing the sense of luxuriance I long for. So I enjoy visiting other gardens and luxuriate there.
Cheeseburn was a perfect place to witness the changes that happen over the course of the seasons – a mixture of the natural, the elemental, and the man-made. It was also going through major changes in preparation for housing more sculptures and opening to the public on a more regular, formal basis. I was privileged to be there, on the sidelines, able to watch this transformation. Since then, as a result of the dedicated and enthusiastic work of Joanna Riddell and Matthew Jarratt, the place has become very popular, much-loved, and an important site in the region for supporting new artists.
The knowledge I’d gained of the setting at Cheeseburn informed Compass, a sound installation with Chris Watson, commissioned by Cheeseburn in 2015, and shown in 2016. Because Cheeseburn’s early summer opening this year has been curtailed, a new version of Compass is being released online over the next five weeks. As well as the original four pieces set in different parts of the garden, reflecting the points of the compass and the seasons of the year, Chris and I have created a new compilation piece, A Year and a Day, spanning the entire year. You can listen to these works on Cheeseburn’s Facebook page, YouTube and Sound Cloud.
Revisiting my various notes for this piece, I came across the earlier monthly blog pieces I wrote for Cheeseburn from my initial visits as Poet in Residence. I’ve added them here, in a new Archive space on this site, for those who’d like to read them alongside listening to the recordings as they are released. It’s good to be reminded of the long arc of history as well as the passage of the seasons at this particular time. This too shall pass. But some things, the important things, we hope, will endure.
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.
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.
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!
I started reading Muriel Spark’s The Public Image (1968, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), set in Rome, on the flight over. She mentions that Time tends to go anti-clockwise there. I was interested to see how that played out during my fortnight’s stay at the Accademia Brittanica, The British School at Rome.
A fortnight is too short and too long for a writer – enough time to relax and be complacent, whilst staying open, searching for what stirs you; and not enough time, once you’ve found your hook, to stay there and excavate, experiment, understand and deepen.
All the city’s clocks were full moons, electrical storms, a partial eclipse. Rome – Eternal City, Dead City – is bigger than you are. You might as well submit. I went to see a friend read from a book he’d written about the moon. He wasn’t there – just a ring of people talking about it. In Italian.
‘Go thou to Rome,’ said Shelley, ‘the paradise, the city, the wilderness.’ For me, lingering in gardens, it was more paradise than wilderness. Although the often 30 degree heat felt like a small lick of inferno.
Inevitably in the heat, I was drawn to the city’s many fountains – particularly the forty in the Villa Borghese Gardens – one per two hectares. And there was a memorable outing to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, where the fountain is god and goddess and my mouth stayed wide open all day long. A big O, clock, water spout, moon.
Now I’m home, I’m not sure what day it is. Whatever direction Time is going in, I will pluck the day and eat it. Carpe Diem. A hundred thousand fridge magnets can’t be ignored.
Last night I attended the Opening of Susan William’s Exhibition ‘From Dust’ in the Constantine Gallery at Teeside University, Middlesbrough. In February, Sue asked if she could commission me to write a poem to accompany her suite of ceramic sculptures as she was reluctant to ‘put any words in front of the work’. We’d both seen an escalation in the emphasis on critical theory in the creative arts in recent years and, in our respective practices, prefer a more embodied, intuitive approach. Apart from thoughts along these lines and a brief discussion of the word imago and the metamorphic cycle, we didn’t talk about her work directly, keen that any writing that might come out of the process wouldn’t be illustrative or attempt to ‘explain’ the sculptures, but rather set up a new dynamic between three-dimensional form and text. In this way, it felt more than a commission but not quite a collaboration, existing itself in some liminal space between the two. I very much appreciate her making the space to invite a wild card element into this presentation of her work and for trusting my response. There is the sense that it’s taken us both somewhere new, beyond the limitations of self-generated and -focussed activity into a multi-layered exchange.
Let’s start here: at the end,
when you lay me to rest,
according to my wishes,
in the mother’s milk
of snowdrop flowers
– this hollow between seasons –
slow, green hyphens.
In a final negotiation
of wet and dry, I’ll pierce
the snow with my bones.
Won’t there be hope in my going?
For hope’s own sake.
For the snowdrops.
May their petal blades
helicopter my ashes
gusts of that first breath
a sudden cry – my name
in blue air, stir the silt
of what we must learn
about earth, this clay
we’re born from,
about how to love it.
Even as we burn.
If you’re down that way, do call by to see the show. Sue’s work is both strong and delicate, quiet but powerful, and deserves a large appreciative audience.