Category Archives: nature

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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Knowing Our Place

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I had no idea that the Barbican had a Conservatory  – or a Library until a few weeks ago when I found myself there, reading at a launch of Issue 18 of Long Poem Magazine.  It was a friendly affair, surprising and happily sprawling like the unsung long poems and sequences the magazine does a wonderful job in drawing attention to.  We were tucked away in the Music Section, a niche of hidden delights.

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I particularly enjoyed hearing Katharine Pierpoint read her poem Camelopard, trying (and succeeding) to catch the giraffeness of the giraffe and Anna Reckin’s graceful evocation of various emanations of Jade.  Also Alex Bell’s epistolary Dearest, lurking in the shadows of Victoriana, as did my own contribution – A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place.

When I was younger and a touch adrift I often read self-help books to check my bearings.  Most of them have migrated from my shelves now (apart from a few classics like Dorothy Rowe on depression and Buddhist angles on anxiety) but I was interested to trace a clear line of connection between those and the beginnings of the genre in the 19th century.

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A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place is part of new work I’m writing for my PhD, an overture to a book-length piece.  If you’re interested in reading it and other longer poems and sequences, I’d point you in the direction of Long Poem Magazine, edited with passion and insight by Linda Black and Rose Hamilton.

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Etiquette books also fascinate me.  It’s hard not to be braced by their arbitrary sharpness, like eating a particularly arcane olive.  Possibly after a long soak in a dirty martini.  Some Russian visitors I had once called that sort of snifter a ‘walking stick’, to be taken before leaving the house for any reason.  And in the right quantity (although this is hard to gauge) it can rinse the senses wonderfully.  Isn’t that what we want reading a poem to feel like?  To ‘take reality by surprise’, in Francoise Sagan’s phrase.

And so back to music (always)…My senses didn’t know what had hit them watching and listening to Ukrainian ensemble Dhaka Brakha perform at the Sage last week.   And it was a performance, highly choreographed and styled with stunning costumes riffing on traditional styles, as did the music that playfully transforms folk songs from their beleaguered motherland into something almost miraculous.  I was transported, utterly enchanted, and continue to be so listening to their latest CD the road.  Dhaka Brakha ‘know their place’ and invite us to spend some time there.  Foolish to refuse.

Down in London, I can sometimes feel like a bit of a country cousin.  Walking from the Tube station to the Barbican, I was very excited to see a plant breaking up the clean lines of the long tunnel of the Bridgewater Highwalk.  It wasn’t going to be told where it could grow and where it couldn’t, what freedom means.

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Knowing our place is no easy matter – fierce, transgressive, and extremely quiet, it must take the risk of being there, doing it for ourselves.

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Installing ‘Compass’

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Despite the rain, it was good to be up at Cheeseburn today helping install our sound piece, ‘Compass’.  Hearing it for the first time in the place it was created in and for was immensely satisfying.  The Formal Garden (above) is where the Dawn Chorus happens (and where we heard it in the Spring), coming from four concealed speakers arranged around the central space.  Hard to tell what’s ‘real’ and what’s not.

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Outside the Potting Shed, an ancient sundial of unknown provenance (possibly Scottish?) was an early inspiration for the 4 x 4 concept of the piece.

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Inside the Potting Shed are some of Paul Scott’s beautiful ceramic ‘cuttings’ in old Cheeseburn pots.  For sale over the weekend.  I’m very very tempted…

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Over a year’s work for three days – like a plant that only blooms once in its lifetime or an exotic insect’s short span on the wing – even more precious for being ephemeral – like the sounds themselves.

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Magic Mountain 

Today we had a tour of Vitosha Nature Park by the Director and an expert botanist called Toni.  A massive pick-up truck transported us 2000 metres up within sight of the Black Peak.


The plants (and the views) were wonderful- rare species endemic to Bulgaria I’d never seen before, flowers I’d only ever seen grown as garden  varieties and some familiar from our hedgerows.

1489 plants have been recorded at Vitosha – about half of the native Bulgarian flora and one third more than the whole of the U.K. flora.

Ten occur only in Bulgaria; many more are Balkan endemics.  59 of these mountain plants are in the country’s endangered Red Book.

Even at the highest point it was still hot but up there, the land was boggy, disguising the ever-diminishing reserves of peat. Small blue butterflies and big orange ones, bees and crickets were busy feeding on the nectar.  We saw a couple of incredibly graceful kestrel practically floating in the enormous blue sky.


I have problems with scale in places like this, ricocheting between a focus on the miniature and expanding to fill the space, paradoxically leaving no room for familiar thought processes.

  It’s not a problem untilI try to articulate my experience and find it impossible – words inadequate, the wrong medium.  Birdsong might do it or some Scandinavian yoiking.  All I know is when we came down my ears were full up and the city appeared too soon, also full, intoxicated with its own cacophony.

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What Is Is?

Lately I have been enjoying dipping into Michael Donaghy’s delightful anthology 101 Poems about Childhood (Faber, 2005).  His brief introduction is full of insight and provocation.

In one sense, all poetry is kids’ stuff.  What makes us recognise a piece of writing as a poem is often a ‘technique’ whereby poets imitate children’s thinking.

…Perhaps poetry is our way of using the power of language against itself so that, however briefly, we see and feel the world afresh, with all the intensity of infancy.

…we expect wisdom from poets, as we expect it from philosophers and cosmologists.  In fact, we expect them all to pose the very same questions children ask:  What is is?  Why is there anything?  And why doesn’t it all happen at once?  Like children’s art, children’s speculative thought shows a resourcefulness and curiosity missing from most adults.

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The anthology is arranged chronologically and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end reading Alexander der Wilde’s poem from the 13th century When We Were Children.  In David Ferry’s elegant translation, it is beguilingly fresh.  I am fascinated by what people remember of the natural world from childhood, how those memories lay down a blueprint for our relationship with the earth and what grows and lives on it (including ourselves and others).  There is often an aura of innocence, nostalgia, paradise lost.  This poem, nearly eight centuries old, captures the sorrow of our fall into adulthood, its default, though illusory, certainty; all of us ‘left standing in the field’, ‘stripped naked’.  A better fate perhaps than being shut inside the castle with the king?  At least outside we have the chance to learn how to enjoy the art of toiling and spinning, asking and living our questions.

When We Were Children

I remember how, at that time, in this meadow,

We used to run up and down, playing our games,

Tag and games of that sort; and looked for wild flowers,

Violets and such. A long time ago.

Now there are only these cows, bothered by flies,

Only these cows, wandering about in the meadow.

I remember us sitting down in the field of flowers,

Surrounded by flowers, and playing she loves me not,

She loves me; plucking the flower petals.

My memory of childhood is full of those flowers,

Bright with the colors of garlands we wore in our dancing

And playing. So time went by among the wildflowers.

Look over there near those trees at the edge of the woods.

Right over there is where we used to find

Blueberry bushes, blackberry bushes, wild strawberries.

We had to climb over rocks and old walls to get them.

One day a man called out to us: ‘Children, go home.’

He had been watching from somewhere in the woods.

We used to feast on the berries we found in that place

Till our hands and mouths were stained with the colors of all

The berries, the blackberries, strawberries, and the blueberries.

It was all fun to us, in the days of our childhood.

One day a man called out, in a doleful voice:

‘Go home, children, go home, there are snakes in that place.’

One day one of the children went into the grass

That grows high near the woods, among the bushes.

We heard him scream and cry out. He came back weeping.

‘Our little horse is lying down and bleeding.

Our pony is lying down. Our pony is dying.

I saw a snake go crawling off in the grass.’

Children, go home, before it gets too dark.

If you don’t go home before the light has gone,

If you don’t get home before the night has come,

Listen to me, you will be lost in the dark,

Listen to me, your joy will turn into sorrow.

Children, go home, before it gets to be dark.

There were five virgins lingered in the field.

The king went in with his bride and shut the doors.

The palace doors were shut against the virgins.

The virgins wept left standing in the field.

The servants came and stripped the virgins naked.

The virgins wept, stripped naked, in the field.

 

Alexander Der Wilde

Translated from the German by David Ferry

(from Dwelling Places, University of Chicago Press, 1993)

N.B. The poem is divided into six-line stanzas but the formatting has eluded me here.

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