Category Archives: trees

How do you write about Climate Change?

IMG_4717.jpg

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.

IMG_3336.jpg

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.

IMG_2588.jpg

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.

IMG_2840.jpg

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.

IMG_5294.jpg

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Autumn Colour

IMG_4885.jpg

 

Caramel

 

It takes the louche cool

of late summer on the heel

of a long-drawn-out

drought to bring out the best

in a leaf

before it sets free its ghost.

 

When desire isn’t all

that matters, then fall

is the deciduous rise

to the surface

of carotene, anthocyanin

or xanthophyll,

 

silenced till now by the clamour

of chlorophyll.  And even this

sweetness must be lost –

a red lament of abandon,

defiance,

indeed, utterly natural.

 

 

 

From Reading the Flowers (Arc, 2016)

 

Tagged , , , , , ,

In the House of the Wind

IMG_0735

The House the Wind Built

 

This is where we live now

the chimney redbrick roaring

a hollow trunk open to the flow

of the wind a bellowing fall

of wind a bellyful all day long

trying to breathe it in / break free

 

Since the trees were felled

I’ve stayed close to the floor

prone trying not to feel flayed

flaying around so full of flay

and fall all my freckled skins shed

succumbed to floor or flaw

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrating Capability Brown

IMG_1866 (1)

John Cobb as Capability Brown in ‘The Eye Catcher’ at Kirkharle Courtyard

 

Making the Lake

 

This far north

dips and hills

unpredictable as summer

 

outside the tent

tall grass waves westwards

 

making the lake

a long lead time

different machinery

 

capability shifts landscape

in the mind

 

chittering swallows

twist in flight

white-blue-white

 

on the ridge of his horizon

a skeleton tree

 

pegs show contour

banks woodbound

piles driven level

 

bring me a basket of bread

for the road to Cambo

 

moon in his eyes

will he be hunter

gardener or poet?

 

wheelbarrow stands in sunlight

casting a dark green shadow

 

these rattling meadows

our ancestors

our hope

 

a spider runs between cracks

in the dried earth

 

for this place, this day

a necklace of beads

of heat, mud, honey

 

where is the boundary to be drawn –

planned and unplanned?

 

begin with an outline

a structure, a framework

anchor it then overlay

 

Kirkharle – eight hours from Newcastle

on dirt roads

 

harsh edge of roofs

gives way to

serrated larch against the sky

 

the price of a line of beauty –

twanging muscles, calloused hands

 

looking north, new energy

beyond the oil route

wind turbines, wood

 

when the wheel stops

it starts all over again.

 

 

A renga in celebration of Capability Brown

on 17th August 2016

at Kirkharle, his birthplace three hundred years ago.

  

Participants:

 

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Michelle Caulkett

Linda France

Patricia Gillespie

Rosie Hudson

Lesley Mountain

Diana Smith

Tony Smith

Clara May Warden

Liz Wilkinson

Margaret Williams

Tagged , , , , ,

Protected: technica botanica

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Postcard from the Antipodes

image image image

Visiting Logan Botanic Garden in the Rhinns of Galloway was a cheap ticket back to New South Wales.  A stunning collection of eucalypts.  If I could catch the smell for you in these pictures, I would…dusky, soothing, clean.  A beautiful garden, maverick and refreshing.  While I was there I also caught a glimpse of Tasmania and New Zealand, Chile and South Africa.  I didn’t want to leave.

Tagged , , , , ,

The Tulip Tree

Only pale by the evergreen,

hardly distinguished by leaf or color,

it used to slide a little pale from other trees

and – no great effect at our house –

it sustained what really belonged,

but would, if severely doubted,

disappear…

 

from William Stafford’s The Tulip Tree

20140515-215944.jpg

20140515-220032.jpg

 

Tagged , , ,

Night Inks

This week at the NCLA we launched John Halliday’s stirring new anthology on Ageing Don’t Bring Me No Rocking Chair (named from a Maya Angelou poem).  Douglas Dunn came down from Scotland to join us and read some wonderful new poems, as well one of his from the book, Poem for a Birthday.

41kCHzkpopL._SY445_

I have enjoyed being reminded of familiar poems and discovering new ones.  Reading these poems is helping me further rehearse the ageing process and I’m happy to see several with a botanical flavour – plants perfectly reflecting our own cycle of blooming and dying.  Ranunculus Which My Father Called a Poppy by Peter Porter takes us to Australia, where we’re also shown eucalyptus, paw-paw, dahlias, salpiglossis and antirrhinums.  We’re teased with a snatch of Heaven in MacDairmid’s  A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.  Gillian Clarke’s Blue Hydrangeas recalls her mother’s loveliness, the aching intimacy of mortality.  What is it about blue flowers that is so evocative?

th


Blue Hydrangeas

You bring them in, a trug of thundercloud,
neglected in long grass and the sulk
of a wet summer.  Now a weight of wet silk
in my arms like her blue dress, a load

of night-inks shaken from their hair –
her hair a flame, a shadow against light
as long ago she leaned to kiss goodnight
when downstairs was a bright elsewhere

like a lost bush of blue hydrangeas.
You found them, lovely, silky, dangerous,
their lapis lazulis, their indigos

tide-marked and freckled with the rose
of death, beautiful in decline.
I touch my mother’s skin.  Touch mine.

Gillian Clarke

images

Still cold and dark with flurries of snow up this way, we’re not quite ready yet for the short time of Herrick’s Daffodils or for Larkin’s Trees to begin afresh, afresh, afresh.  But soon, soon.

IMG_7547

Tagged , , , ,

In And Out Of The Woods

IMG_7405As yesterday was the anniversary of my arrival in Sydney (for my stint at the Botanic Gardens in 2013), it seemed like the perfect day to receive an email from the folk at Plumwood Mountain (An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics) letting me know their first issue is now available online.

The poem of mine they have included considers the ants I met while I was in Australia.  I like the idea of them being called back home, to the forests where they belong.

IMG_7412

This week I’ve been enjoying listening to Germaine Greer read from her new book White Beech: The Rainforest Years, about her conservation efforts on 60 hectares of an old dairy farm in south eastern Queensland.  It’s a great venture and her narrative is teeming with powerful evocations of the plant, bird and insect life at Cave Creek in the Numinbah Valley.  As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says in The Independent, ‘It really is some story’, written by a woman who is ‘a force of nature and among its most erudite defenders’.

IMG_7418

Closer to home, several of the trees in our woods were perilously near to crashing down in last autumn’s storms so they’ve had to be felled.  They’re such enormous trees, fir and spruce, that their shift from vertical to horizontal makes the space out there feel quite different.  It’s as if something’s been erased, a stretch of time lost.  But I’m sure the ants will be very happy.

IMG_7414

‘How long does it take to make the woods?’

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

What is the way to the woods, how do you get there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness and joy, by passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the straight way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.

Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
Wendell Berry
Tagged , , , , , , , ,