The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.
…I want to propose an existential creativity. How do I define it? It is the creativity wherein nothing should be wasted. As a writer, it means everything I write should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species. It means that the writing must have no frills. It should speak only truth. In it, the truth must be also beauty. It calls for the highest economy. It means that everything I do must have a singular purpose.
It also means that I must write now as if these are the last things I will write, that any of us will write. If you knew you were at the last days of the human story, what would you write? How would you write? What would your aesthetics be? Would you use more words than necessary? What form would poetry truly take? And what would happen to humour? Would we be able to laugh, with the sense of the last days onus?
Sometimes I think we must be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine. Of the things that trouble me most, the human inability to imagine its end ranks very high. It means that there is something in the human makeupresistant to terminal contemplation. How else can one explain the refusal of ordinary, good-hearted citizens to face the realities of climate change? If we don’t face them, we won’t change them. And if we don’t change them, we will not put things in motion that would prevent them. And so our refusal to face them will make happen the very thing we don’t want to happen.
We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive. We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it.
We can only make a future from the depth of the truth we face now.
‘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’.
Some thoughts arising from past Climate Writing workshops and thinking about more on the horizon… You can apply for a free mini-course ‘How to Start Writing about Climate’ here. There’s also a Creative Saturday at NCLA on ‘Writing Like Weather’ here. And a chance to come together and write in ‘The Writing Hour’ here.
Writing about Climate, keeping ecological balance in mind, alongside others is a way of bringing our relationship with the powerful time we are living through into greater awareness. It helps to articulate half-buried thoughts and feelings and propel us into further research that will deepen our knowledge, which we can then share or use in more politically active ways to move towards establishing more sustainable and equitable systems. The accumulated effect on us is wholesome and energising – on the side of life and active strong-rooted hope.
It sounds a bit like an advertising slogan but if writing is good for you, it can be good for the planet too.
…staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.
If we don’t act until we feel the crisis that we rather curiously call ‘environmental’ – as if the destruction of our planet were merely a context – everyone will be committed to solving a problem that can no longer be solved.
Jonathan Safran Foer
The process and techniques of writing poetry in particular help cultivate qualities that keep us in balance, moving forward in a positive direction. I came up with this figuring of causes and effects (– formatting a bit wayward, but hopefully you’ll be able to get the gist). You might be able to think of more things you’d include – and I’d be delighted to hear about them. It’s all work in progress.
THE POETICS OF PRESENCE & RESILIENCE
Writing as an Ecological Attitude
Taking space to write, cultivating A sense of commitment,
a practice, honouring the process . . . discipline & self-care
Truth-telling, managing register . . . Authenticity, a common humanity
Taking reader into account . . . Connectedness, empathy, solidarity
Having something to say, breaking . . . Courage, speaking out
Making choices about place/character/ . . . Gaining perspective, looking beyond
details/flora/fauna etc – based on close yourself, orientation
Playing with language & sound – rhyme . . . Delight, pleasure, staying fresh, positive,
rhythm, voice, tense, lexicon etc awake
One obvious thing writing poetry does is to make you stop. Stopping is a radical act. Even in lockdown, we are all trying to do too much, overstimulating our bodies and minds at a time when there is so much to process. Done in a calm way, with no goal in mind, writing can touch you in similar ways to meditation, offering a space for in-the-moment, judgement-free presence and enquiry. Yes, we need action on Climate, but action arising from clear thinking and a careful consideration of the consequences.
I may have posted this quote from Cistercian monk Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) before – but every year/month/week/day it seems to become more and more relevant:
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.
The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
A new month always feels like a clean page, full of promise and possibility. The start of February coincides with Imbolc and Candlemas and is all about new beginnings. Halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, this traditional Celtic festival marks the beginning of spring and asks us to celebrate Brigid (‘the goddess whom poets adored’) with fire, food, candles and song. The snowdrops are in bloom and no other flower embodies the sense of hope more than these flowers, usually the first to appear in our gardens and woodlands, lighting the way at the end of a long dark winter. In our current situation, kept close to home, peering out at an uncertain future, we feel the need to welcome the light more than ever.
This cross-quarter day feels an auspicious beginning for the next phase of Writing the Climate, an extension to my Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University. I am delighted (and relieved) to have been awarded an Arts Council Heritage Lottery Grant to help support another two years of work in the community and on my own writing. Last year we initiated various heartwarming and fruitful projects, laying the foundations for more ways to connect around writing about the Climate Crisis and telling the truth about where we find ourselves. This year, all being well, the postponed COP 26 meeting will be held in Glasgow in November, providing us all with an opportunity to raise awareness of the pressing need to keep climate adaptation and mitigation on the agenda, at the front of our hearts and minds.
Soon after my Residency began last January I was invited to read at a Festival in Casablanca. Despite my intention not to fly that year, I found it very difficult to say no. Like so many of us, I love to travel and longed to spend some time in that fabled city. It was hard to live with my own torn feelings of ambivalence and guilt. As it’s turned out, the pandemic has helped me keep my compact not to fly and has tainted its appeal in all sorts of ways. Still, it’s strange to think there are some places I may never now see or return to in my lifetime.
I wrote about my flight shame – the Swedish term Flygskam, perhaps better translated as flight conscience – in one of the first poems I wrote while thinking about how to approach writing about Climate. Whether we choose to fly or not, most of us in the West are deeply implicated in damaging and escalating fossil-fuel related carbon emissions.
At the bottom of my itinerary it says
FLIGHT(S) CALCULATED AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS
IS 546.44 KG/PERSON.
I am that PERSON
and I don’t know what 546.44 KG AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS are.
I envisage them as a toxic cloud, speckled with charcoal dust,
sense the sky-wide weight of it on my back.
I carry the burden of Atlas, hero, victim, martyr.
If I touched it, it would be cold,
smelling faintly of gas, as if I’d forgotten to turn the cooker off
after boiling milk for my morning coffee.
The milk spills.
The blue flame gutters and goes out.
The gas leaks.
The coffee’s travelled from South America.
I sit and drink it in my kitchen in Northumberland.
The gas is syphoned from a tank in my garden
I’m trying to disguise by growing a hedge of hawthorn
and willow, the grass in front frilled with snowdrops.
Three times a year a tanker comes to fill it up.
The pipe makes a sound between humming and hissing,
a long black poisonous snake
slithering through the gate across the lawn.
A few weeks later I get a bill for more than I can afford.
It’s February. The old stone house is freezing
with the heating turned off.
I sip my coffee, read my flight itinerary and look it up:
546.44kg of CO2 is more than half of all the emissions
the worker on a coffee plantation in Colombia
would produce in a year.
A white winged thing thrashes
through the cloud in my chest,
struggles to fly free.
I’m still thinking about how to approach writing about climate. I’m not sure I’ll ever come up with any definitive answers – writing about climate is writing about the very fact of life itself – but the work is in the doing, the living, and watching it all unfold. Active hope plays an important part – what poet Adrienne Rich called the ‘art of the possible’. Tomorrow, for Imbolc, I’m leading a workshop for Hexham Book Festival – Writing into the Light – where we’ll be exploring how to make hope realistic but bright in our poetry. There may still be a few places left if that’s something you like the sound of.
Creative imagination’s promise is that resilience is always available. We turn toward poems in loss or despair, toward their writing or their reading, because even poems that face darkness carry the beauty and resilience of original seeing. A good poem is possibility’s presence made visible. That restoration of faith in continuance is something we need.
Jane Hirshfield, Interview in Columbia Journal, March 2020
In Paris in 1968 protesters held up placards saying
Forget everything you’ve been taught. Start by dreaming.
Imagination is not a luxury!
Be realistic, demand the impossible.
In the wintriest winter for many years, February begins with a real sense of possibility – as I write this the light is streaming in through the window and that always helps. I feel very encouraged by a mood in the air that people have had enough, they know change is necessary and are ready for it. The page is not exactly ‘clean’ but we can write over it and make a new stratigraphy, a palimpsest (like artist Edmund de Waal in his library of exileand on Radio 4’s Front Row).
All our intentions and voices together will help create the tipping point, the critical mass we need to make the future more sustainable. This is the spirit of Murmuration, the collective poem project I initiated as part of my Residency last year – so happy to see it highlighted by Maria Popova on her always illuminating Brainpickingssite. Kate Sweeney’s beautiful animated filmpoem has already had over four and a half thousand views on YouTube and that’s apart from those who’ve watched it via Durham Book Festival, and now on Maria’s ‘inventory of the meaningful life’ and shares on Facebook. There are many more than we can count. Poetry, like hope, is contagious – it flies long distances. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year’s flocking brings.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Yesterday I received an email from Friends of the Earth about the ‘Bee Action Plan’. Unsurprisingly, even through it’s great that it’s on the political agenda at all, things do need to go further. Please check it out on their website and sign the petition and share it as widely as possible with your friends and contacts. As the flowers come back into bloom, there isn’t much that’s more important than the health of their pollinators…
It’s almost three years since the Bee Cause launched. In that time I’ve seen you take action to save bees in so many ways. You’ve signed petitions, planted wildflowers all over the country, built bee hotels, added your name to newspaper adverts and even organised Bee Teas with your MP.
Now I need your help again.
It’s your last chance to call for a brilliant Bee Action Plan
Lord de Mauley, the Bees Minister, wants to hear what you think of his Bee Action Plan. But time is short. In one week the door on his consultation will close.
I’ve seen the Bees Minister’s plan for bees and it’s a good start. But to truly reverse bee decline I think it needs to be much better. Almost 20,000 people have already signed the petition for a Bee Action Plan that will do the job.
Will you join me and help make it 25,000 signatures?
It’s crunch time for bees. Please take a moment and add your name.
Today this article by one of my heroines, Joanna Macy, environmentalist and systems theory analyst, popped into my inbox and as the old year comes to an end – amid storms, flood warnings and power cuts – and we start thinking about our intentions for the 365 or so days ahead (all being well), it seems a good place to start. The oxygen of truth-telling.
How do we live with the fact that we are destroying our world? Because of social taboos, despair at the state of our world and fear for our future are rarely acknowledged or expressed directly. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurring response, contributes to the numbing of the psyche. Expressions of anguish or outrage are muted, deadened as if a nerve had been cut. This refusal to feel impoverishes our emotional and sensory life. We create diversions for ourselves as individuals and as nations in the fights we pick, the aims we pursue, and the stuff we buy.
Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to permanent war, none is so great as this deadening of our response. For psychic numbing impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more crucial uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.
The Zen teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh was asked, “What do we most need to do to save our world?” His answer was this: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”
How to confront what we scarcely dare to think? How to face our grief and fear and rage without going to pieces? It is good to realize that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is essential to transformation. Anxieties and doubts can be healthy and creative, not only for the person but for the society, because they permit new and original approaches to reality. What disintegrates in periods of rapid transformation is not the self, but its defenses and assumptions. Self-protection restricts vision and movement like a suit of armor, making it harder to adapt.
Going to pieces, however uncomfortable, can open us up to new perceptions, new data, and new responses. In our culture, despair is feared and resisted because it represents a loss of control. We’re ashamed of it and dodge it by demanding instant solutions to problems. We seek the quick fix. This cultural habit obscures our perceptions and fosters a dangerous innocence of the real world. Acknowledging despair, on the other hand, involves nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see and know and feel is happening to our world.
When corporate-controlled media keep the public in the dark, and power holders manipulate events to create a climate of fear and obedience, truthtelling is like oxygen. It enlivens and returns us to health and vigor.
Sharing what is in our heartmind brings a welcome shift in identity, as we recognize that the anger, grief, and fear we feel for our world are not reducible to concerns for our individual welfare or even survival. Our concerns are far larger than our own private needs and wants. Pain for the world—the outrage and the sorrow— breaks us open to a larger sense of who we are. It is a doorway to the realization of our mutual belonging in the web of life. Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation. On the contrary, in letting go of old defenses we find truer community. And in community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.
Let’s drop the notion that we can manage our planet for our own comfort and profit—or even that we can now be its ultimate redeemers. It is a delusion. Let’s accept, in its place, the radical uncertainty of our time, even the uncertainty of survival.
Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.
When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe. We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. And that solidarity with our neighbors and all that lives is all the more real for the uncertainty we face.
When we stop distracting ourselves, trying to figure the chances of ultimate success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. And this moment together is alive and charged with possibilities.
An edited version of an article first published as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of Yes! Magazine and then reproduced in Tricycle.
The photos are from Hadrian’s Wall at Housesteads on Christmas Day.
Today, while my car was in the garage, I picnicked among the long grass on the riverbank at Corbridge and caught up with Saturday’s Guardian Review. As well as enjoying watching a very hairy caterpillar add the flourish of its own signature to the page, I found myself initially pleased, then provoked by Steven Poole’s consideration of the current ‘fashion’ for ‘nature writing’ – a category of creative non-fiction he suggests is ‘a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, offering an idealised and xenophobic view of the countryside and what grows and roams there. His tone rings with familiar critical one-upmanship – just another aspect perhaps of old ideas about power and hierarchy contemporary authors are attempting to unravel? Environmental challenges have opened a door onto the exciting possibility of radically re-interpreting historical narratives about class and gender. Poole asks ‘who should really be in charge?’ This is surely the wrong question, which can only lead to yet another unhelpful answer.
In his article Poole imagines a largely urban readership seduced and distracted from their usual concerns by these books – the texts themselves substitutes for nature. People who live in the countryside like to read about it too! And aren’t we all in this together, asking questions about what constitutes ‘the natural’ and where we fit in amongst it? Trying to figure out how to limit the damage for ourselves and future generations? Surely the time for looking at things in terms of male/female, working/middle/upper class, urban/rural is past – such divisions a luxury we can no longer afford?
By now we’ve seen enough evidence to acknowledge the interdependence of living organisms. This is simply pragmatic, rather than what Poole, rather sneerily, calls a ‘flirt with panpsychism’. Whatever happens from hereon in, whether we live in the city or the country, there is no doubt that we are implicated. On Radio 4, Monty Don’s Shared Planet has been offering a very balanced consideration of where things currently stand with regard to the pressures on species and space. I’ve really appreciated his calm, measured tones – a pointed contrast to the quickfire delivery of most presenters.
Poole picks up on the implications of Otherness in relation to plant and animal species – seen as either ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ – and gives it a political spin, as if nature writers were no better than fascists, intent on keeping out ‘illegal immigrants’; his critique tending to be more rhetoric than fact. In another enlightening radio series, looking at trees in particular, Richard Mabey made an attempt to redress the bad reputation of the sycamore, suggesting we should be grateful that such a robust, well-adapted species exists to fill up the gaps left by our failing elm and ash. Landscape is not static.
The impulse towards a Thoreau-type immersion in natural environments that Poole criticises as romantic and elitist is so widespread it seems to reflect a deeper need in society than one reserved for a privileged few. As the population approaches the 9/10 billion mark, it’s hardly surprising it’s not just writers who have an inkling for more silence, solitude and spaciousness, a corrective to the clamour of so much indiscriminate social and media input. However the writer concerning herself with ‘Nature’ has the potential to unearth welcome and necessary insights out in the field that will benefit us all in the midst of our current ‘transition’ conversations and choices.
And like the caterpillar making itself present to the argument, the contribution of the writer seemed to be made clear on the next page – where the poet David Constantine introduces his ‘Hero’ Albert Camus by saying:
I suppose most writers believe, with Camus, that ‘saying things badly increases the unhappiness of the world’. And that they are duty-bound, therefore, to say things accurately; that is, to tell the truth.
Fiction and poetry will help in this struggle (against the ‘hell’ of the world) by dis-illusioning; but also…by embodying a love of the earth and the enjoyment of its gifts and by making works which are fit to be seen in it; which is to say, by making and asserting beauty in the teeth of ‘a world that insults it’ (Camus)…an assertion of individual freedom…brings you into a recognition of common human suffering and of the common need to lessen it and enliven the lives of all.
This isn’t a definitive ‘answer’ but it is a way of living and working that does no harm – saying things well, saying things true – one I am profoundly appreciative of my fellow writers’ risking and sharing.
In searching for the links for this post, I found a very long thread of comments taking issue with Poole’s article online and a particularly persuasive counter-article from today’s Guardian by George Monbiot (who came in for a lot of stick on Saturday). He reminds us of the dangers of upsetting the delicate balance of the ecosystem:
Exotic invasive species are a straightforward ecological problem, wearily familiar to anyone trying to protect biodiversity. Some introduced creatures – such as brown hare, little owl, field poppy, corncockle and pheasant’s eye in Britain – do no harm to their new homes, and are cherished and defended by nature lovers. Others, such as cane toads, mink, rats, rhododendron, kudzu vine or tree-killing fungi, can quickly simplify a complex ecosystem, wiping out many of its endemic animals and plants. They have characteristics (for example, being omnivorous, light-excluding, toxic or inedible to any native carnivore or herbivore) that allow them to tear an ecosystem to shreds. These aren’t cultural constructions. They are biological facts.