COP 26: Unfinished Business

Glasgow Climate Clock – COP26 https://climateclock.world

GLASGOW

A Poem

Unfinished

Are we racing to the brink of an abyss, or are we just gathering speed for a take-off to a wonderful future?  The crystal ball is clouded, the human condition baffles all the more because it is both unprecedented and bizarre, almost beyond understanding.

E.O. Wilson (1929 – 2021)

Train to Glasgow Central delayed

due to an object caught in overhead electric wires

–  ‘object’ or person

inconvenience or tragedy

MIND THE GAP

sun plummets through a filleted glass roof

where do I start

where end

Hope Street

use caution: walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions

she tells me she borrowed her sister’s jacket 

stitched on the back in white and black

WHEN INJUSTICE BECOMES LAW

RESISTANCE BECOMES DUTY

we plant prayers on lollysticks 

sow seeds of calendula  

I follow the ‘Coat of Hopes’ women walking through the city 

the piper in his swishy kilt leading the grey-suited out-of-tune world leaders

two old men in the chip shop facing the wall to pray

more police than I’ve ever seen

whole squadrons encased in black rubber

join the raggle taggle carnival

but hi-vis           spiked metal

you can’t come in here

and so we are divided, ruled

go slowly all the way round the outside

where all the little solar-powered suns shine:

END THE OIL AGE

SALVAGE PARADISE

NOW WE MUST LIVE IN

THE GRACE OF THE SUN

Tom Goldtooth – he’s heard it all before

wants humanity to learn earth 

is sacred

keep fossil fuels in the ground

Potus and PoW, Boris and Bezos 

flown in by private jet

Africa and Bolivia dropped off the agenda

the bravado of first pledges condenses

evaporates

mist

inside and outside

we should         we must

who says we will

today 

not in three decades

how will the next ten years succeed

when the last sixty years has failed

a praxis

place-based wisdom

I’m a Glaswegian and I’m proud of my city

rhetoric alliterates

decolonise, democratise, detoxify, decentralise, diversify 

not the cost of workers but the value of workers

not building a wall but making a brick

it’s the kids’ placards that make me hurt

protect our planet

save our oceans

I don’t want to live on a spaceship

crossing the flyover

untethered

what if I jumped

the French woman in beautiful boots

meeting her son for lunch

all our beautiful sons

their rackety futures

their unborn children

the things we most fear (and therefore deny)

the things we most need (and therefore deny)

what if we started listening to our dreams

to our children’s dreams

and I said to myself

what a wonderful world

– join in he says

everyone join in

trying to make business with the Amazon

without taking into account the rights of the Amazon

so much greenwash

if I could plant a tree 

for every time I hear someone utter that word

drummers march us into battle

the snare in my solar plexus

makes me want to cry

and laugh and cry and dance

if you’re happy it’s easy to be happy

if you’re sad it’s harder

sings Liam the worldwide Welshman

without words I don’t know who I am

or what I’m for

every day this is not to be forgotten

every day honour the Palauan minister:

either we drown in words

or we drown

bottleneck, hoodwink

the truth neither interesting nor appealing

everyone looks at their phones

while she’s talking

most people ignore climate change talk

because most climate change talk

ignores most people

8 FOOT LONG LOCH NESS DEBT MONSTER ARRESTED

#freenessie

how to live on $5.50 a day

while we only pay one-fifteenth of what we owe

LOSS & DAMAGE

a game of dominoes

not everyone can play

join the dots

stakes too high

rules impenetrable

outside Buchanan Galleries

the lone ranger and his megaphone

either the time we took hold of the reins

or the time we let the horses run wild

tearfully, truthfully, tenderly

a young lad on the bus

can’t stop talking

scavenged by chemicals

later outside Greggs

with one of their paper cups

begging

police bussed in from the Met, Essex, Devon, Norfolk, Wales

line up for team photos

buy postcards to send home

go back each night to their Premier Inns

I carry a card

in case I’m arrested 

Human Rights Act 1998

in line with Cadder v HM Advocate Criminal Procedure 

(Legal Assistance, Detention and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 2010)

DO NOT ENGAGE

Remain silent

over 100,000 souls

a two mile long river

I hear

your here‘s different

she’s talking about my hair

time

achilles heels

all wounds

MIND THE GAP

government by PR         by press conference

hypocrisy          hypothesis

                 diversionary tactics      carbon capture, hydrogen

HS2

Cambo, Cumbria, Mozambique

bitter wisps

of autumn

all human

KEEP 1.5 ALIVE

rhymes lodge inside us

blocking our airways

inside out briefing every morning

outside in briefing every evening

Jess sings us a love song for the apocalypse

someone pretending to be a policeman clambers into my dreams

I wake up paralysed, ache all over

why are your words so pedestrian

because they are made out of walking

from the Kelvin to the Clyde

walking

this is what it feels like embarking on a task and not knowing what to do

painting the world pictures by which we live

word pictures

thinned to slogans 

I! I! a terrible thing

run from it if you can

there is no one

we are everyone

now and tomorrow

tomorrow’s tomorrow

start with your body – then your home – 

then the land around you

your community – the world

make a spiral

we say these things to remind us

losing our so-called freedom

not knowing if we succeed or fail

who will tell you what is right

how to have no regrets

let your breath be a refuge

plant a garden

hold language dear

farm the city 

a forest of sentient beings

say this to remind yourself

(is remembering too a kind of hoarding

when do you decide to leave everything behind)

MIND THE GAP

the train’s too full

a reduced service

how long will it take

who knows where 

beyond recognition

we will find ourselves

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Try Something Different

Be ground, be crumbled,

so wild flowers will spring up where you are.

You’ve been stony for too many years.

Try something different.

Surrender.

Rumi

Our world goes to pieces, we have to rebuild our world. We investigate and worry and analyse and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency. We have to find our strengths and not our weakness. Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting: we still have our ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the absolute of our inner voice – we still know beauty, freedom, happiness…unexplained and unquestioned.

Anni Albers

One Aspect of Art Work (1944)

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The Song of Our Species

‘I think as an ecologist. But I feel as a member of a great family – one that includes the elephant and the wheat stalk as well as the schoolteacher and the industrialist. This is not a mental condition, but a spiritual condition. Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world. Now, of course, in the hives and dungeons of the cities, poetry cannot console, it carries no weight, for the pact between the natural world and the individual has been broken. There is no more working for harvest – only hunting, for profit. Lives are no longer exercises in pleasure and valor, but only the means to the amassment of worldly goods. If poetry is ever to become meaningful to such persons, they must take the first step – away from their materially bound and self-interested lives, toward the trees, and the waterfall. It is not poetry’s fault that it has so small an audience, so little effect upon the frightened, money-loving world. Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.’

Mary Oliver

A few wintry verses from this past year’s renga

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Gwen carries her own placard

I don’t want to live

on a spaceship

            what you give the forest

            the forest gives you back

I plant eight buddleia

hoping for a summer

astonished by butterflies

            defrosting the freezer

            is today’s weather

all the little suns

on my glasses

are rain

            more a question

            of when not if

our culture 

written in snow

and the planet’s on fire

            everything racing 

            wily coyote legs

a raw stillness

in the house

Arwen’s blessing

            on the short day’s back

            the long night

trailer load of logs –

alder, Matt says,

burns hot

            this will end

            this will carry on

[Quotations from Eugenio Montale, Laurie Anderson, Moshe Feldenkrais, Octavia Butler, Henrik Blind.]

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I’m not coming to the revolution unless there’s dancing

On Sunday it was a joy to come together with the Brothers Gillespie and a room (not just any room – a room that could have been a ballroom in a Tolstoy novel…) full of lovely people for our Earthwords poetry and music event.  I only realised just before we took the floor that it was the first time I’d done a live reading since February 2020. It took me a while to warm up, but I soon settled in and remembered why I do what I do – and love it.

Many of us are feeling such sorrow and grief, guilt and shame, loss and disappointment at the state of the world that it’s easy to feel broken and powerless.  Coming together to listen and reflect in a space of music, sung and spoken, creates stillness enough to reconnect with our own agency and creativity, as well as with each other.  The work of staying with the trouble, trying to be open to what the climate and ecological crisis is asking of us, is demanding and exhausting at whatever scale we choose to be involved.  Even simple day-to-day living can put more pressure on us than we feel we can bear.

Sunday night was a chance for regeneration and reconnection via the traditional pleasures of poetry and song.  There was a vivid sense of community and I had a feeling that everyone there together created a healthy mycelium network, intent on planetary survival and ecological well-being.  This has the power to spread beyond Tolstoy’s ballroom – into all the nooks and crevices and conversations and exchanges of our lives.

For me, the event was an important celebration of work done so far – my own small efforts and what I witnessed in Glasgow.  Although the final agreement was disappointing – needing to be much bolder and more urgent – progress was made.  The powerful presence and persistence of the coalition of protesters percolated through the security barriers into the negotiations.  Their demands, though not addressed, were at least acknowledged: that sort of energy and sheer numbers are impossible to ignore.  The coordinated network of movements are intent upon keeping up the pressure between now and the next UNFCCC Summit in Egypt in 2022.  We must all do whatever we can to support them – practically and financially.  The climate emergency can’t be addressed by good intentions alone.

Listening to James and Sam’s beautiful music so rooted in the land I love affirmed my wish to do whatever is necessary to protect it from harm.  Isn’t that what humans do?  Why we take care of babies and young children – because we love them?  Those stories of people who find remarkable strength and capacity inside themselves when faced with an emergency and someone needs saving – isn’t it that sort of wild buried energy that we need to tap into now?

A crisis is also an opportunity.  Transformation is never easy – change and evolution involves pain and confusion.  Aren’t we all familiar with that jangly energy that’s in the air all around us and inside us just now?  I certainly am – especially after a couple of years of deep immersion in this radical process.  Maybe we can try to breathe it in, not brace ourselves against it.  This chaos is also part of us and part of a moving towards a new way of being that we’re having to learn – and can also find pleasure in.

At certain points on Sunday night I was reminded of the marches in Glasgow.  On the Saturday Global Day of Action march and rally there were lots of wonderful musicians – brass bands, salsa bands and drummers.  Their playing kept everyone moving forward in rhythm, warmed and encouraged by the vibrant sound.  You could feel it in your whole body.  Every now and again the bands would have to stop because people started dancing amid the crowds – a spontaneous, freeform, joyful surrender to the music, their companions and the crowds that was incredibly moving to witness.  I watched from the sidelines but I was dancing inside.

Emma Goldman said ‘I’m not coming to the revolution unless there’s dancing’ – a quote I used as an epigraph for my first collection, Red, in 1992.  Didn’t the soldiers in the trenches in WW1 sing together?  Which reminds me of another quote, from Martin Luther King Junior: ‘Those who love peace need to learn to mobilise as effectively as those who love war.’  As we gird ourselves for the long haul that is facing transition, risk and chaos and supporting those in other parts of the world as they face greater suffering, we must remember what we love and what music we want playing while we love it and as we march, dig, plant, sign petitions, make banners, lobby parliament, write poetry, knit blankets or dance – whatever your body feels moved to do

There’s more to say about where poetry and music touch and maybe I’ll try to say it sometime.  One of the places is silence – they both join opposites and make it possible to be more ourselves, capable of more than we sometimes think.  Immense gratitude and appreciation to all the musicians who played for us in Glasgow and to the Brothers Gillespie for where they took us on Sunday night.

The Brothers Gillespie are currently crowdfunding for their third album The Merciful Road.  If you would like to support them and be part of another healthy mycelium network, you can find the details here.  There are lots of very affordable pledges offering the chance to be one of the first to receive a copy of the album, either downloadable, on CD or vinyl – or, for a little more, have your very own song written for you or a whole ceilidh band to play for a special occasion. Meanwhile you can hear more from them on their website.

  

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Sentences on Ecological Awareness

Ecological awareness consists of infinite ongoing strands.  These include close looking, close listening, close touching, close smelling, close tasting – close sensing between and beyond all the conventional senses familiar to human bodies.  Close might also be slow or deep.  

Ecological awareness is an art, a creative act, a commitment to being alive, and therefore dynamic, transformative.

Walk outdoors and after half an hour point to the place where you end and the weather begins.

Nowhere are any of us alone, nowhere are we not part of the biosphere, or abandoned by the imagination.

In our climate, why would you not begin each day checking your own internal weather and preparing for what the coming hours might bring?

What we call Nature is a fiction, a wild and muddy one that won’t stay flat or still.  It will not be contained on a neatly labelled shelf in the bookshop.

Left to the wind, the dried pods of honesty (Lunaria annua) shed their skins and spread their seeds before glowing with the light of many moons, true to their word.  Bring the night sky indoors to remember the year’s passing.

Being in Nature suggests you were sometime out of it, perhaps in that mythical place Away.

Not looking at the clock involves not looking at your phone, your computer, all those other contrivances that divide your attention and devour your time.

The art of ecological awareness asks you to let there be a space between things and sensing and language – and to choose to live in that space.

A day without a tree in it is no day at all.

Whitman asks you to come, speak; says if you are large, if you contain multitudes, you will contradict yourself: will you prove already too late?

The space outside our walls is ready to give us what we have been waiting for; whatever time of day or night, a special kind of light.

Thinking with Timothy Morton and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

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Inside/Outside

Early last week I wrote an initial dispatch from Glasgow for New Writing North’s Climate Newsletter and you can read it here.  I’m trying to catch up with my impressions and experiences and will post instalments as and when I have time.  

The first three lines are a quotation from Thomas A. Clark’s work included in Dislocations:Territories, Landscapes and Other Spaces, an exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery.

places are not as

they appear, but as

they are imagined

Wiser than all the government delegates at COP26, the Eco-cab driver who took me to the station could see there’s a gap between words and deeds, promises and action.

I met a friend on the train who is working flat out to keep his business afloat – where does he find the time to protest, campaign or the money to retrofit renewable energy options in his home?  I hear this again and again – people not having the space or resources to transform their lives in a way that would radically help the planet, despite doing everything they can day-to-day to reuse, recycle and reduce.  Of course governments need to intervene with guidance and support.

Happy to reconnect with the Coat of Hopes – with my own little patch added.  It’s been out and about in Glasgow all week and worn by lots of different folk, including some COP delegates.  So, a circle has been stitched together.

I keep coming across another powerful sewing project embellishing the city – Collective ZurciendoDarning the Planet – beautiful embroidered ‘Trees for Life’ initiated by a women’s artivist collective from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru.  

use caution – walking directions

may not always reflect

real-world conditions

In the fish and chip shop two men pray to Allah.  Roma women are selling single red roses. You can hardly see the pavement for rubbish, plastic and polystyrene, stinking tumbleweed.  The Council are going to sow wildflower meadows across the city.  

I am offered a slice of vegan sausage roll in Sauchiehall Street and they ask if they can film me eating it.  They want to know why no one’s talking about veganism at COP26.

Everybody wants to know why they are aren’t talking about what they aren’t talking about.  The streets ring with them asking and singing and dancing and shouting.  The police – many more police than are needed – look confused but stand where they’re instructed and occasionally gather for group photos and selfies.  Some of them wear knuckleduster gloves and carry tazers which prove entirely unnecessary and therefore appear ridiculous, not to mention a waste of our taxes.

The COP26 Main Event Armadillo and Hydro (Blue Zone) and the Science Centre (Green Zone) are cordoned off by stout steel railings and heavily policed.  Despite the blue and green banners claiming that we’re doing this ‘together for our planet’, there is limited access and the message is one of exclusion, cumbersome and ugly.  Another example of more being spent on defending territory rather than sharing and regenerating it.  More than twice the amount the UK government spend on helping poorer countries in the global south deal with the consequences of climate change we in the so-called developed world have created with colonialism, extractivism and over-consumption is dedicated to keeping climate refugees from crossing our borders.

It’s as if Glasgow is populated by three tribes – those who are here to do their bit on the fringes of COP  and happy to announce it with a badge or a flag, a t-shirt or a hat with horns, and those who are going about their business with a mixture of bewilderment and pride that their city has been chosen to host this historic occasion, and then the police, drafted in from all over the country – with vanloads from the Met, Norfolk, Wales, Cornwall etc.  

Oh, yes, and the first few days of the Leaders’ Summit, those other shadowy presences at the centre of it all, invisible behind the blacked-out windows of their limousines gliding down Stobcross Road beside the River Cyde, protected from everything going on, ‘the real-world conditions’ on the streets.  And isn’t it true that democracy dies in darkness?

a dawn raid – police

arrest an inflatable

Loch Ness Debt Monster

As part of the fringe events, Tom Goldtooth from the US Indigenous Environmental Network kicks off the first Coalition Movement Assembly.  Humanity must learn its spiritual connection with the earth, he says, know that it is sacred, and then it will be clear that fossil fuels must stay in the ground.  It will be clear that the patriarchal system has caused so much damage with violence, rape and exploitation.  I saw mostly men coming and going down at the main site.  It is mostly women in this gathering.  

Cage (2015), Jade Montserrat and Webb-Ellis, Hunterian Art Gallery

What is outside?  What is inside?  How do they interpenetrate?  How come into dialogue with each other?  How can ‘we should’ and ‘we must’ realign into ‘we will’?  Where might diversity, solidarity and unity meet?  These questions recur all week and these investigations and conversations will carry on beyond November 12th when COP26 is over.  I look forward to seeing where it leads.  

the artists make hearts

with hands and earth, dolerite

quartz sand, granite, peat

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YOU ARE HER(E)

Next week on Thursday 4th November I’ll be joining fellow-Northumbrian poets Katrina Porteous and Anne Ryland for an online reading dedicated to the spirit of place. It’s a free event, hosted by Northumberland Libraries, 7 – 8 pm – everyone is welcome and you can register here.

Episodes 5 & 6 of In Our Element are available now – Air and Wood. Do listen in and if you like what you hear, please spread the word. Apparently that’s how podcasts tend to find their audience – through word of mouth. We made the series to air in the run-up to COP26 but the scope of all our conversations extends well beyond whatever happens in Glasgow over the coming weeks.

The Air and Wood episodes include poetry from Colette Bryce and Pascale Petit and a tour of a wind farm with wind engineer Anabel Gammidge and a spot of wood-bathing with woodland conservationist Sian Atkinson. That was my favourite part of making these podcasts – when we were able to record outdoors and actually be in the elements we were talking about.

As we move through the fire of Samhain into the dark months before the shortest day, take good care and send your thoughts to all those gathering in Glasgow intent on calling a halt to climate recklessness and working towards regeneration and justice. Like ecologist Timothy Morton, we might be aware of ‘pessimism of the intellect’, but we can act from ‘optimism of the will’.

May all beings be well.

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On Fire!

Episode 4 – Fire of In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change is now available. This one includes a wonderful poem called ‘The Gate’ from the Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn about a shockingly recent mining disaster and the memories and associations it evoked for her. I really enjoyed my conversation with Menna, a longtime activist and force to be reckoned with.

We also hear from local folk band the Brothers Gillespie. They came up to my place one Sunday this summer to play and sing in my garden – attracting the vocal attention and admiration of the field full of cows. ‘Tina’s Song’ tells the story of Tina Rothery, co-founder of the Nanas, a campaigning group of concerned grandmothers protesting against fracking in Preston New Road, Lancashire several years ago. She was taken to court and fined £55,000 by mining firm Cuadrilla for simply taking part in a peaceful protest and finally found not culpable and released with no charge.

On November 21st The Brothers Gillespie and I will be back together for an event called Earthwords for Hexham Book Festival’s outreach programme. They’ll be singing some more of their beautiful songs rooted in the Northumbrian landscape and I’ll be reading some recent poems, inspired by a new relationship with my local patch during last year’s lockdown – work in progress from my Writing the Climate residency. You can find more details and book a ticket here.

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It’s been very exciting to see these podcasts rippling out after such a long period in production, broadcast by Resonance FM and several other community radio stations and also available on most podcast platforms. Each episode takes an element as a starting point to explore the complexity and challenges of this critical time: Earth, Water, Fire and Air; with, from the Chinese tradition, Wood and Metal; as well as Space and Consciousness, elements that feature in some Buddhist practices.  Investigating these help all the contributors – activists, engineers, conservationists, academics, thinkers, poets and musicians from around the world – find common ground to deal with difficult subjects arising from the Climate Crisis.

We’ve already heard from organic gardener and compost expert Andrew Davenport in the Earth Episode, alongside US poet Jorie Graham and Canadian Climate Justice professor Deborah McGregor. And in the Water episode Nancy Campbell, Charmaine Papertalk Green and Suzanne Dhaliwal. All the contributors pop back in later episodes with more to add on some other element. I’ll say more about the contributors to Air, Wood, Metal, Space and Consciousness – and our final episode Regeneration – later. This is still all quite fresh and certainly a very new medium for me so I’m still assimilating and figuring out what this many-headed creature is that I’ve made, working with the talented audio producer Philippa Geering of Sonderbug Productions in York.

As protest or praise, music is almost another element in itself, with contributions not just from the Brothers Gillespie but also from Joshua Green, with his specially commissioned signature song and a gorgeous setting of my cuckoo poem (look out for it in Episode 9 – Consciousness), as well as Una and Freya, two small girls who added their own big voices to the Fridays for the Future School Climate Strike in September 2019.

Talking with all these thoughtful and engaged people left me with a sense of faith in humanity’s capacity to transform our current suffering into a more sustainable future. It’s important to remember there is great power in what we make together – active hope – whether that’s an engineering system, a protest against so-called development or a song or a poem dedicated to a bird or a tree – or even a United Nations summit.

Do listen in – and let me know in the comments below what you think, what these poems, thoughts and music stir in you.

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The Shared Music of What Happens

Momentum is gathering as people prepare for the COP26 Summit in Glasgow (31st October – 12th November). Lots of rallies and actions and conversations are happening as eyes turn northwards. The Camino to COP pilgrims stopped off in Carlisle and it was inspiring to hear their stories and to get a chance to wear the Coat of Hopes that will be placed on the shoulders of world leaders to feel the warmth and the weight of the prayers and wishes stitched into this beautiful garment, worn all the way from Newhaven on the south coast, up the country and across the border to Glasgow.

Tynedale XR made their own splash today with a march and a rally in Hexham, led by the rousing Dead Canaries samba band and a poignant rising and falling wave of blue. People are finding their own creative ways to add their voices to the unfolding climate story and I was pleased to be able to share our collective Dawn Chorus as part of Durham Book Festival last week.

This article is intended to give a sense of the background to Dawn Chorus and the process of making it. I hope you find it a useful complement to watching and listening. All responses much appreciated – and please do share it with anyone you think might be interested.

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Poetry saves the world every day. It is how we declare our love for things and for other animals. It is how we remember… Poetry is how we give shape to our griefs, the better to see and measure and, in time, heal them… folding each individual experience of place and time into the shared music of what happens.  

John Burnside (The Music of Time, 2019)

Dawn Chorus is an ode to new beginnings.  Every day the sun rises once more – enacting a miracle powerful enough for it to be worshipped by ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians and the Aztecs.  The sunlight brings everything back to life after the long dark night.  The first to wake are the birds, who sleep with lidless eyes open.  Their song welcomes the returning light and sings the day in.  At its peak around springtime, the traditional mating and nesting time, the dawn chorus will start at around 4am and the waking birds will carry on singing together for several hours.  A few years ago, out recording with Chris Watson, we identified calls of tawny owl, robin, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, wood pigeon, pheasant, wagtail, great tit, chiff chaff, goldcrest, wren and redstart.  The sound and the light that morning did indeed feel like a miracle.  But we forget to notice a miracle that happens every day.

It’s hard to think about new beginnings when we’re witnessing so many endings.  In his wonderful book Songs of Place and Time (co-edited with Bennett Hogg and John Strachan, Gaia Project Press, 2020), artist Mike Collier tells us that ‘during the past 500 years about 187 of the world’s 11,147 bird species are estimated to have gone extinct.  But it is projected that during the next 500 years three times as many – 471 – species may go extinct.’  This alarming prediction sits alongside everything else we know and fear about Climate Change, happening now and forecast for the future.  I was disturbed to discover that studies have shown birdsong is changing in response to increasing noise levels in urban areas.  Lower tones have disappeared, replaced by higher noises that are able to compete with human interference.  It’s harder for these birds to attract a mate, so fewer eggs are laid and fewer birds hatch.  Something else that goes beyond our notice.

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Our Dawn Chorus project is part of my Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University, supported by Arts Council England.  Working with Christo Wallers, artist and film-maker, I wanted to capture the energy of the waking birds in ‘a collective sound poem for the beginning of the world’.  In my mind’s ear, many different voices melded in a polyphonic audio piece, a kind of ear-mosaic to wake us all up to the climate and ecological crisis we are facing.

Tackling the challenges of changing an archaic carbon-heavy system into a sustainable and fair one, we need to begin again every single day, with renewed commitment.  This very human endeavour will never be perfect – we will try and fail many times – personally and politically.  But no matter, we must keep going forward with our net-zero, low-impact destination in mind.

An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.

Rebecca Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009)

I wonder if most young people see the situation more clearly than most older people, worn down by years of struggle or clinging to the status quo.  The younger generations deserve better – lives ahead of them of abundance, opportunity and freedom.  This can only happen if we keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees C.  Already, at around 1.2 degrees, we are seeing wildfires and floods and life-threatening extreme weather events creating chaos and displacement.  The concerted effort required to respond to the ‘Code Red for Humanity’ signalled by the most recent IPCC Report is waiting to be more broadly harnessed.  There still seems to be a massive gap between what people need and want and what governments and corporations are choosing to make possible.  The carbon emissions of the world’s richest 1% are more than double those of the poorest half of the world and 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  

There are hopeful signs of people working for change all over the world.  Every day we have a chance to begin again.  Every day we ignore this opportunity intensifies the crisis, making it harder to address.  The COP26 summit in Glasgow in November is an important date in the Climate Calendar.  Will we hear a chorus of voices raised to commit to lowering emissions and consumption to safe levels as soon as possible, or will what we see be another missed chance, ‘a circus of corporate corruption’?

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The Dawn Chorus is a symbol of community – grass roots, non-hierarchical – with space for everyone to be heard.  In response to an open call, 115 people all over the world sent in their recordings – short and longer pieces of poetry, often with birdsong (especially the blackbird’s, flying in and out of so many lines), sometimes water, or other ambient sounds: one church clock, one cock crow, one full-blown song, complete with piano accompaniment.  The sound quality was variable, but every single crackle and blur spoke of a human being making the effort to add their voice to the call for change and starting over.  As well as their words, close up to the microphone, we could hear the sound of their breathing, the nuances of accent and intonation, against the background of noises off.  Although we asked for no more than 30 seconds, in a very human fashion, quite a lot of people ignored our ‘guidelines’ and just did what they felt was right and sent in whole poems.

My task as curator/editor was to listen carefully and hear what was being sung in all the contributions, amounting to hours of audio, to catch the flavour and intention of the piece, and then to tune in to the individual voices and the shaped breath of their words.  I approached the orchestration of the piece collage-style (not unlike with our previous collective project Murmuration, 2020), first transcribing all the submissions so I’d have a text to work with and refer to.  The initial document ran to 20 pages (5,540 words) and by the end the poem was distilled into 1571 words.  Ten people sent in their lines via email rather than as audio and we recorded those with family and friends.

I made a page of notes of the themes and images that kept recurring, using the touchstone of the prompts I’d offered in the initial invitation – I am…, I want…, Today…, We are… .  The lines fell naturally into a pattern of time – the course of a single day from night to dawn to dusk and back to night again, as well as incorporating the wider sense of past, present and future, whole generations who’d shared the gift of the dawn chorus.  I kept that as a loose template for the ordering of the extracts.

It was important to me to use all 115 voices, though we hear more of some than others.  I hoped to give a sense of the immense richness and variety in the readings.  There is real freshness and surprise – the true spirit of the dawn chorus, and the courage, innocence and optimism needed to broach the thorny tangle of the climate crisis.  All 115 people from all corners of the globe are singing their hearts out – along with the birds summoned by their words.  You only have to listen to be persuaded that, despite some appearances to the contrary, humanity has plenty going for it, enough to make the trajectory towards positive climate action manageable and creative.  

This soundpoem is in the long tradition of oral poetry, spoken word, uttered with the ear, the imagination and the heart in mind.  Continuity and survival are contained in it.  After the long dark night, we can begin again.  

Why add more words?  To whisper for that which has been lost.  Not out of nostalgia, but because it is on the site of loss that hopes are born.

John Berger (And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, 2005)

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In the studio with Christo, 115 people’s diverse voices filled the room.  There was much listening, discussing, rearranging and listening again.  Initially we spent full days together, with both of us working and reflecting in between.  The pace matched the process, careful, attentive, minutely focussed.  Reflecting on the editing process, Christo adds: ‘I think of the notion of the People’s Assembly as a dawn chorus for our times. Each voice steps forward in the sound piece with conviction and clarity of mind. The difference in recording quality is mainly controlled by the technology people have to hand, and we expected a variation considering the open call welcomed everything from Whatsapp voice messages to studio-recorded audio files. Softening the difference was important to erase a hierarchy between voices, but we didn’t want to do so much that the specificity of each person’s contribution was diminished. My mind is so steeped in video conferencing imagery as a new democratic forum that it felt very natural to hear this type of sonic variation.’ 

We incorporated some of Chris Watson’s dawn chorus recordings at certain points to complement the various background and foreground sounds from the submitted audio pieces and this added to the sense of creating a community of human and beyond-human contributions.  Before all the recordings came in, I’d imagined using an existing abstract artwork as a backdrop.  We knew we didn’t want anything too illustrative that would distract from the listening experience.  As we became more familiar with the atmosphere of the piece, it became clear that something else was called for, something created especially for the words.  Christo also had ideas about integrating the text as ‘subtitles’ as the words were spoken.  

He set up his camera to film the North Pennines landscape early in the morning as the light changed and the mist lifted in the valley.  The ash tree with its signs of dieback is our protagonist, muse, bird-shelter and shadow-keeper.  ‘The visual element of the tree, which plays daily host to the dawn chorus, stands also as an open object onto which listener-viewers can project their thoughts and hopes as they hear the poem. It forms a passage between thinking as a human and as non-human. The single take is purposefully ‘slow’, like James Benning’s films or Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970). In that slower present, different thoughts and possibilities are more available’, adds Christo.

Another day together in the studio brought sound, image and subtitles in sync.  Then further refining and adjusting before we finally settled on a version we were happy with.  Watch and listen – watch or listen: your choice.  We hope Dawn Chorus works with your eyes open and with your eyes closed – try both for a different experience.  We hope too that it bears repeated listening so its rhythms percolate into your own dreams and plans for a kinder future.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought… For poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architect of our lives.

Audre Lorde (Poetry is Not a Luxury, 1977)

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birds courtesy of wikipedia

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Giving Ourselves Away

‘striped and golden for her own glory…’
Self-Protection 

When science starts to be interpretive
It is more unscientific even than mysticism. 
To make self-preservation and self-protection the first law of existence
Is about as scientific as making suicide the first law of existence,
And amounts to very much the same thing. 

A nightingale singing at the top of his voice
Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species;
He is giving himself away in every sense of the word;
And obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence. 

A tiger is striped and golden for his own glory.
He would certainly be much more invisible if he were grey-green.
And I don’t suppose the ichthyosaurus sparkled like the humming-bird,
No doubt he was khaki-coloured with muddy protective colouration,
So why didn’t he survive? 

As a matter of fact, the only creatures that seem to survive
Are those that give themselves away in flash and sparkle
And gay flicker of joyful life;
Those that go glittering abroad
With a bit of splendour. 

Even mice play quite beautifully at shadows,
And some of them are brilliantly piebald. 

I expect the dodo looked like a clod,
A drab and dingy bird.   


D.H. Lawrence

thanks to the poet Mark Nepo for pointing me in the direction of this poem

with his concept of ‘exquisite risk’

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