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.
A new month always feels like a clean page, full of promise and possibility. The start of February coincides with Imbolc and Candlemas and is all about new beginnings. Halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, this traditional Celtic festival marks the beginning of spring and asks us to celebrate Brigid (‘the goddess whom poets adored’) with fire, food, candles and song. The snowdrops are in bloom and no other flower embodies the sense of hope more than these flowers, usually the first to appear in our gardens and woodlands, lighting the way at the end of a long dark winter. In our current situation, kept close to home, peering out at an uncertain future, we feel the need to welcome the light more than ever.
This cross-quarter day feels an auspicious beginning for the next phase of Writing the Climate, an extension to my Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University. I am delighted (and relieved) to have been awarded an Arts Council Heritage Lottery Grant to help support another two years of work in the community and on my own writing. Last year we initiated various heartwarming and fruitful projects, laying the foundations for more ways to connect around writing about the Climate Crisis and telling the truth about where we find ourselves. This year, all being well, the postponed COP 26 meeting will be held in Glasgow in November, providing us all with an opportunity to raise awareness of the pressing need to keep climate adaptation and mitigation on the agenda, at the front of our hearts and minds.
Soon after my Residency began last January I was invited to read at a Festival in Casablanca. Despite my intention not to fly that year, I found it very difficult to say no. Like so many of us, I love to travel and longed to spend some time in that fabled city. It was hard to live with my own torn feelings of ambivalence and guilt. As it’s turned out, the pandemic has helped me keep my compact not to fly and has tainted its appeal in all sorts of ways. Still, it’s strange to think there are some places I may never now see or return to in my lifetime.
I wrote about my flight shame – the Swedish term Flygskam, perhaps better translated as flight conscience – in one of the first poems I wrote while thinking about how to approach writing about Climate. Whether we choose to fly or not, most of us in the West are deeply implicated in damaging and escalating fossil-fuel related carbon emissions.
At the bottom of my itinerary it says
FLIGHT(S) CALCULATED AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS
IS 546.44 KG/PERSON.
I am that PERSON
and I don’t know what 546.44 KG AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS are.
I envisage them as a toxic cloud, speckled with charcoal dust,
sense the sky-wide weight of it on my back.
I carry the burden of Atlas, hero, victim, martyr.
If I touched it, it would be cold,
smelling faintly of gas, as if I’d forgotten to turn the cooker off
after boiling milk for my morning coffee.
The milk spills.
The blue flame gutters and goes out.
The gas leaks.
The coffee’s travelled from South America.
I sit and drink it in my kitchen in Northumberland.
The gas is syphoned from a tank in my garden
I’m trying to disguise by growing a hedge of hawthorn
and willow, the grass in front frilled with snowdrops.
Three times a year a tanker comes to fill it up.
The pipe makes a sound between humming and hissing,
a long black poisonous snake
slithering through the gate across the lawn.
A few weeks later I get a bill for more than I can afford.
It’s February. The old stone house is freezing
with the heating turned off.
I sip my coffee, read my flight itinerary and look it up:
546.44kg of CO2 is more than half of all the emissions
the worker on a coffee plantation in Colombia
would produce in a year.
A white winged thing thrashes
through the cloud in my chest,
struggles to fly free.
I’m still thinking about how to approach writing about climate. I’m not sure I’ll ever come up with any definitive answers – writing about climate is writing about the very fact of life itself – but the work is in the doing, the living, and watching it all unfold. Active hope plays an important part – what poet Adrienne Rich called the ‘art of the possible’. Tomorrow, for Imbolc, I’m leading a workshop for Hexham Book Festival – Writing into the Light – where we’ll be exploring how to make hope realistic but bright in our poetry. There may still be a few places left if that’s something you like the sound of.
Creative imagination’s promise is that resilience is always available. We turn toward poems in loss or despair, toward their writing or their reading, because even poems that face darkness carry the beauty and resilience of original seeing. A good poem is possibility’s presence made visible. That restoration of faith in continuance is something we need.
Jane Hirshfield, Interview in Columbia Journal, March 2020
In Paris in 1968 protesters held up placards saying
Forget everything you’ve been taught. Start by dreaming.
Imagination is not a luxury!
Be realistic, demand the impossible.
In the wintriest winter for many years, February begins with a real sense of possibility – as I write this the light is streaming in through the window and that always helps. I feel very encouraged by a mood in the air that people have had enough, they know change is necessary and are ready for it. The page is not exactly ‘clean’ but we can write over it and make a new stratigraphy, a palimpsest (like artist Edmund de Waal in his library of exileand on Radio 4’s Front Row).
All our intentions and voices together will help create the tipping point, the critical mass we need to make the future more sustainable. This is the spirit of Murmuration, the collective poem project I initiated as part of my Residency last year – so happy to see it highlighted by Maria Popova on her always illuminating Brainpickingssite. Kate Sweeney’s beautiful animated filmpoem has already had over four and a half thousand views on YouTube and that’s apart from those who’ve watched it via Durham Book Festival, and now on Maria’s ‘inventory of the meaningful life’ and shares on Facebook. There are many more than we can count. Poetry, like hope, is contagious – it flies long distances. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year’s flocking brings.
Last week we were supposed to be holding our first Climate Reading Group at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle – a prelude to Rebecca Solnit’s visit. This, like every other cultural gathering, had to be cancelled and, in our shift to connecting online, you can read my brief report of Solnit’s book of essays Whose Story is This? on New Writing North’s blog. I hope it persuades you to read the book, if you haven’t already.
We are working to make it possible that our next group – reading Karen Solie’s poetry collection The Caiplie Caves – will take place online via Zoom.
Last night I gave a reading of some of my new poems at the Lindisfarne Centre, St Aidan’s, Durham University, where I am currently Fellow at the IAS. This year’s theme is ‘Light’ and it felt ironic to be revisiting Moorbank which has been so illuminating for me while the gardeners are preparing to clear out the glasshouses in readiness for the Freemen taking back ownership at the end of the month.
The deadlock continues in terms of any possibility of creative dialogue between the Friends and the Freemen so it remains to be seen what will transpire. Meanwhile here are some updates from Moorbank’s Facebook posts. Yet more irony – all this happening when it’s just won a much deserved Award…
We are thrilled to announce that Moorbank Botanic Garden has been awarded an Outstanding rating in the RHS – Royal Horticultural Society ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ Awards. We were presented this award last night at the ceremony and we’d like to thank the BBC’s Marian Foster for nominating us for this award. You can read all the information about how we were marked in the photos, but we’re thrilled with this news!!
This week marks the date when Newcastle University are starting to rehome plants from Moorbank Botanic Gardens. They are being forced to do this as the Freemen have not revealed their plans for what will happen to Moorbank once the University depart. The University offered to leave the entire collection, minus the research plants, but the Freemen have not suggested how they will care for Moorbank once the University leave, so the concerns were with the tropical and desert plants. There were no suggestions that the heating and watering systems would continue, which would mean that there would be total loss of plants in these glasshouses. Homes have been found for the most important plants in our glasshouses with other botanic gardens across the UK, including Sunderland Winter Gardens, Ventnor Botanic Garden, Glasgow Botanic Garden and Cambridge University Botanic Garden. However, many mature plants cannot be moved due to their size or intermingled roots. Cuttings are being taken from these plants, but there will still be significant numbers of plants left in the glasshouses after the University departs. We still haven’t been given any information about whether the Freemen will care for these appropriately, or whether they will switch off the heating and water.
Check Moorbank out on Look North from last night. You can scroll to about 11 1/2 minutes in to see the article about Moorbank and hear what the Freemen have to say. Not that we’re biased, but our independent survey of the site told us we needed to find £120k over 5 years to restore Moorbank. The Freemen haven’t yet mentioned to us what they think will cost “several hundred thousand pounds” to fix let alone the “million” that they are now claiming.
There was also a good summary of the situation in The Journal – you can read it here.
On my last visit to Moorbank a few weeks ago I was delighted to see the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo), that had suffered so badly in the heavy snowfall of 2010, springing back into life. Surviving against the odds, reflecting the cyclical nature of things, it’s always been a strong symbol of the spirit of Moorbank for me. Let’s hope its strong new shoot is a good sign for what the future may yet bring.
How many cities have I flown into at night – full of expectation and delight, already dazzled by the sense of otherness? Those particular patterns and colours nothing like the ones I left behind in that place for want of a better word I call home.
There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact, that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, art by art, contemplating with fascination their own absence.
From Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities
Steeped in history and beauty, it was easy to forget that Padua is a city. After a week the wonder hadn’t worn off. As a country dweller, I’m interested in the fact that Botanic Gardens through their traditional connections with Universities tend to be based in cities, where what they offer simply in terms of green space is particularly vital. Antonella Moila showed me a passage underlined in one of her books – a quote she likes to share with her students from Marco Guazzo’s description of the garden in Padua written in 1546, just one year after it was first established:
Scolari & altri sign. possano da ogni hora venir nell’orto & ridursi co i loro libri a ragionar all’ombra, delle piante dottamente; & alla peripatetica sotto quella passeggiare investigando le loro nature…
(Scholars and others can at any hour be found in the garden, considering their books in the shade, and the plants intelligently; walking through, investigating their nature…)
Today in Newcastle Padua felt a million miles away – the idea of the need for shade a cruel joke. I went to a meeting of Moorbank volunteers to discuss the future of the garden. It seems to be clear that the University no longer has the will or finances to maintain Moorbank and so the gardening volunteers who keep the wheels turning are stepping up their efforts to try and make it viable as some sort of community venture. I was impressed, not for the first time, by their redoubtable practicality and endless resourcefulness. There will be an initial meeting to garner practical assistance of any kind that folk feel they might be able to offer (not necessarily gardening – admin, fundraising, business acumen, publicity, legal expertise etc) on Sunday 25th November at 2.30 and the garden will be open from 1pm. All welcome.
On my way out of the city I called into the wonderful Amnesty International Bookshop on Westgate Road and couldn’t resist buying far too many books – a mixture of gardening and poetry. Amongst which: a copy of Ida Affleck Graves’s A Kind Husband (Oxford 1994) – a magnificent book I’ve been hunting for in my house for years but suspect I lent it to someone and it never came home; and one by a Canadian poet called Lorna Crozier I’d not heard of before – The Garden Going On Without Us (McClelland and Stewart 1985) – this inscribed by the author ‘For Tom Paulin – words and best wishes from Saskatoon’.
Driving west, leaving the city behind, I stopped off at Bywell where the trees were looking stunning in the afternoon light. Typically, just when I wanted to take some pictures, my batteries were ‘exhausted’ as my camera tells me with such a sigh I can’t help feeling sorry for it. My friend John, man of many cameras, came to the rescue and took these quick and lovely shots. I drove home up the valley in the dark and through snow, all the gold turned to silver – the first of the year; the dream that was Padua receding further and further.