At the weekend I read poems about trees in the sweet company of Matilda Bevan‘s Nootka cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis) at her gorgeous exhibition The Common Language of Green in Healey Church. On Bonfire Night and around Samhain it felt right to turn our minds and hearts to trees as we enter the dark time of year – and now COP27 just beginning in Egypt, reminding us how intertwined we humans are with all life on the planet.
If you’d like to spend more time delving into where we find ourselves just now in the biosphere and locate your own place in the mycorrhizal web, there are two events in Newcastle this week you might like to come along to.
On Thursday night (10th November) at 7pm I’ll be reading with Poets of the Climate Crisis at Culture Lab, Newcastle University, alongside Mina Gorji and Togara Muzanenhamo, and in conversation with Jake Polley, as part of this term’s NCLA programme.
It will be a fascinating evening – free to attend and you can find out more and book here.
Any excuse to return to the Villa Borghese Gardens
Then on Saturday (12th November) I’m facilitating a day’s workshop (10-4) called The Classroom of Trees (a title I took from Jason Allen-Paisant’s wonderful Thinking with Trees (Carcanet 2021).
This is the sort of thing we’ll be thinking and writing about:
Why are there so many poems written about trees? And under trees? What more is there to say about trees? What do they teach us about the world and about ourselves? In this generative workshop we will be ‘thinking with trees’ (Jason Allen-Paisant): ‘Trying to be part of the forest, to learn their names by breathing.’
No specific arboreal knowledge is necessary – simply a willingness to explore the ‘tawny grammar’ (Thoreau) and ‘mother-wit’ (Snyder) of our deep connection with these venerable plants that hold the key for a more culturally-rooted sustainable future.
There are still places available and everyone is very welcome. I can’t think of a much better way to spend a Saturday in November – in the company of trees and fellow writers open to exploring what deep changes can happen (in our writing and our lives) when we take time for ‘thinking with trees’. Here’s more information and how to book.
And as a small forward-looking postscript, a cheer of appreciation to Candlestick Press for their new pamphlet of Christmas poems – Christmas Stories (a perfect postable present). When they asked me to contribute, I wasn’t sure what ‘story’ I might be able to tell, but, as often happens, it was trees that showed me the way.
My father – a mischievous man with delusions
of grandeur and Neapolitan charisma,
given to stories – told me his grandparents’ names
were Mary and Joseph. Only nine at the time,
I pencilled them in on our scant family tree
before catching the twinkle in his merry eye.
After that, every Christmas, not knowing
where I belonged, I’d gaze at the nativity,
away in the manger – pastoral, beatific –
wanting the holy family’s story to be mine.
My mother, down to earth, no nonsense, preferred
to blend into the background, almost invisible –
but at Christmas what made her happy was a tree.
Every year we’d trek deep in the wilderness
beyond the railway line, her swinging the big saw
as if it were a handbag. Under cover of dusk,
Mam at one end and me at the other, we’d carry
the chosen one home. Our trees were pine, not bought
spruce – long-needled, rangy, poached – hung
with mottled post-war baubles, paper lanterns.
Short of any other narrative to make sense
of the world we find ourselves in and to venerate
our lost ancestors – émigrés, survivors –
I tell my sons these stories in the dark of winter:
The one other thing I think has been really important for me is about hope. First of all, yes, these are very dangerous times. The problem is big and urgent and things could go really badly. But the future isn’t written yet. The IPCC report recommends that the planet’s usage of fossil fuels peak by 2025, and that usage is cut in half by 2030 with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. WE CAN DO THIS. Not that it will be easy, but it is possible. We need to fight to get there. And the biggest thing we are up against is our own despair. And one of the biggest tools our opposition has is to trigger our hopelessness. In a world with so much trauma and harm, most of us have early experiences that left us feeling alone or terrified or unloved or that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. The climate crisis feels huge and can leave us each feeling overwhelmed when we look straight at it. So many choose to self-distract. But the key is not to avoid looking, the key is to look together. And in order to really face this crisis and win, it often means having to separate the leftover feelings from our childhood defeats.
For me, it’s hard to face the reality of the climate crisis. But it’s unbearable to look at it through the lens of my early childhood trauma. When I feel overwhelmed by what’s happening in the present, I call someone to talk about it, but I also spend time looking at what it is from my early life that it reminds me of. It’s important not to live in the recording of being a small child when other, more powerful people were in charge. I am a grown woman with a lot of personal power. And when people get together, we have infinite collective power.
The inspirational writer and editor Aya de León – you can read more of her interview with Amy Brady of Burning Worlds (Climate Change in Art and Literature) here.
It’s now or never. According to the latest IPCC report, to keep global temperature rise under 1.5C means that carbon emissions from everything that we do, buy, use or eat must peak by 2025, and fall rapidly after that, reaching net-zero by the middle of this century. The total amount of CO2 that the world has emitted in the last decade is the same amount that’s left to us now to stay under this key threshold.
In this third and final collective project of my Writing the Climate residency, we are inviting you to write (and send) a letter about your take on the accelerating climate and ecological crisis. As writers, our superpower is a way with words, and words are energy – they make a difference to the world we live in. Here is a chance to harness your creativity and skill to lift the way we use our energy, to express your feelings and ideas on this crucial subject, affecting all our lives now and looming over our children’s future.
It’s up to you who you choose to write to – your MP, the PM [ I wrote this before the latest developments!…L ], the Dalai Lama or the Pope, the CEO of Exxon, BP or Shell, a wildfire fighter in Australia or a reindeer herder in the Arctic, your best friend, your descendants or your ancestors. When you write, you hold the whole world in your hands.
Send it in whatever format you like – via email, postcard or letter – whatever might help trigger a small change in how you feel about climate change and mass extinction, as you articulate what really matters and clear a space for active orientation and engagement.
This will inevitably make a difference to your letter’s recipient too and, alongside all our participants’ letters, will contribute to the momentum for change and deep shift in our collective awareness and imagination that we need.
As well as sending your letter out into the world, please send a copy to us and we’ll gather them together to be shared more widely. I will choose a selection to form part of an installation at this year’s Durham Book Festival in October, and they will also appear on a special Writing the Climate webpage.
Find words for the inexpressible, what’s on your mind, in your heart, on the tip of your tongue, and shout them to the rooftops or whisper them in a loved one’s ear. Share your voice not just with one other person but with the whole trembling, fragile world… If not now, when?
Please limit your letter to maximum A4 page length in whatever form and font you like – prose, poetry, cartoon, storyboard. You can hand-write it and scan it in, or send us a physical copy or a photograph. You could write it on a postcard or type it up on your computer (or even share it on social media: tag us @newwritingnorth and use the hashtag #TheClimateLetters). Whatever your letter looks like, just make sure it reaches us by Monday 22nd August.
I don’t write prose very often and I read it in public even less but the coming Summer Solstice will see me joining Sean O’Brien and Gail-Nina Anderson for one of their legendary Ghost Story gatherings at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil. I’ll be reading a story I wrote some time ago called Cloud Island. The ghosts in it are all lurking between the lines, although everything is so frightening these days, it’s hard to know where true horror lies. Even the fact that here we are already, almost half way through the year, feels like some macabre trick.
I’m looking forward to this unusual Solstice gathering and hearing Sean and Gail-Nina’s stories – and to seeing those of you who can make it along to what I’m sure will be a skin-tingling evening. Click on the link below to book.
Linda France has published eight full collections, including Red, The Gentleness of the Very Tall, book of days (also published by Smokestack), You are Her and Reading the Flowers. She won the National Poetry Competition in 2013 and received a Cholmondley Award for her contribution to poetry in 2020. She curated the collective poems Murmuration (with Kate Sweeney) and Dawn Chorus (with Christo Wallers) as part of her Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University.
Paul Summers was born in Northumberland. A founding editor of the magazines Billy Liar and Liar Republic, he has written extensively for TV, film, radio and the theatre. His books include Cunawabi, The Rat’s Mirror, The Last Bus, Vermeer’s Dark Parlour, Big Bella’s Dirty Café and Three Men on the Metro (with Andy Croft and Bill Herbert). His most recent books are union, primitive cartography and straya (all published by Smokestack) and arise! He lives in North Shields.
With my new book The Knucklebone Floor just out, I’ve been signing copies people have kindly bought. When they see me reaching for my pencil, many offer me a pen, as if I didn’t have one at hand, implying pencil is somehow inferior, regrettably contingent. It’s reminded me that a few years ago I was asked to write something about stationery. Here it is – in neither pen or pencil – I hope you might enjoy.
Happening upon this very short text again, I was glad also to be reminded of the excellent Lady Mary Montagu and The Toast of the Kit-Cat Club – poetic grandmother to The Knucklebone Floor: both biographies of bold women in verse, unauthorised, experimental. All, of course, written in the shadow of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – probably my favourite book of all time.
Graphite and Rainbow
Nature, who has played so many queer tricks upon us, making us so unequally of clay and diamonds, of rainbow and granite, and stuffed them into a case, often of the most incongruous, for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s…
Virginia Woolf knew the importance of stationery and the complicated conditions that must be fine-tuned to enable a woman to write. When not sitting at her desk, she engineered an arrangement with a plywood board across an armchair, where she could sit comfortably and write and smoke.
…the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind…
Postmarked June 2003, an airmail letter lands from Canada with my name and address on the pale blue envelope written in pencil. I imagine silver feathers, wings of graphite, propellers. The letter (a spidery hand, also in pencil) is about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The points are sharp, proxy for that brave soul who crossed the Alps in a basket, the first woman to travel beyond Christendom and write home of all the wonders she witnessed.
I become a convert to pencil, evangelical. All my favourite ink pens dry up as I trawl the tiered stands of pencils in stationery shops, choosing my favourites (Staedtler HB, Papermate Non-Stop – good quality, nothing fancy, built-in erasers). I start carrying a Swiss Army knife to sharpen them on the hoof. Around this time, I give up smoking my beloved roll-ups and nimbly replace one ritual with another.
I’m reluctant to become dependent on certain conditions in order to be able to write but some things do help. Familiarity. Preparation. Space. Comfort. Pleasure.
Artists I collaborate with use pencil to sign their names on drawings and prints, adding a title here, an edition number there – grey less intrusive and distracting than black. The silvery lead seems to hold some of their images’ lightness. It lifts the words into an acknowledgement – a celebration even – of impermanence, always vulnerable to erasure, open to smudge or fade.
There is something wabi sabi about writing in pencil (a Japanese aesthetic that suggests immense care, work-always-in-progress, constantly flowing, as life does). It recognises doubt, the tentative; freedom to change your mind; a belief in something before and after words on a page – the forever they so briefly interrupt. Although just as human, intimate as a fingertip, it is the opposite of a tattoo, more forgiving than ink, less likely to be regretted. Far from being noncommittal, pencil and writer become one, all their attention poured into the ongoing moment.
A pencil is child’s play, encouraging un-self-conscious abandon, a glorious antidote to unretractable digitalia. A poet’s drafts are made for graphite, allowing a fluid evolution of scribble, crossings through, underlining and furious rubbing out. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. The whole swirling chaotic mess might slowly coalesce into some sort of order, almost geological – subtle shades of lead, gunmetal, ash settling into lines on the white page that, when you get it right, and know when to leave them alone, might, just might, shimmer with the colours of the rainbow.
In the end, non-hierarchical, the earth speaks beseechingly and her listening, although accidental, is hearing – a quality like hot or cold, incontrovertible – sensation first, then words – spoken intimately, as if directly to the ear.
A list of instructions: create the future, cultivate morality, responsibility, presence. A list for more listening: time is just so – hear time differently, breathe in through the ears and out into necessary emptiness, listen for what is asked.
The recurring background sound of darkness – the same silence where presence lives, always broken by the perfectly imperfect, changes in the weather. An inkling not to be detached – exchange shoes – reassemble what has been broken, made separate.
Her slow cadences – listening as lament – tell how much has been shattered and yet her breath doesn’t forget, pays attention, keeps on putting itself back together again, ourselves and the good earth – before going home to silence, the beginning of things.
After Jorie Graham’s ‘Poem’ in Runaway (Carcanet 2020)
‘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.
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.