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.
Leonardo da Vinci, Star of Bethlehem and other plants, c.1506-12
Shantideva wrote in chapter eight, verse ninety-nine (VIII:99) of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that if someone is suffering and we refuse to help, it would be like our hand refusing to remove a thorn from our foot. If the foot is pierced by a thorn, our hand naturally pulls the thorn out of the foot. The hand doesn’t ask the foot if it needs help. The hand doesn’t say to the foot, ‘This is not my pain.’ Nor does the hand need to be thanked by the foot. They are part of one body, one heart.
Joan Halifax, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet (Flatiron Books, 2018)
The idea of ‘one body, one heart’ has been on my mind lately as I’ve been working on our collective poem Murmuration, as part of my Climate Residency, collaborating with artist Kate Sweeney on the filmpoem for Durham Book Festival. Murmuration is one thing – as the starlings’ flock is one thing – but made up of five hundred different voices. There is unity in diversity, similarity and difference – and I’ve worked hard to try and catch the sense of that: bearing with contradiction and not trying to look for answers, just staying with all the questions the lines and the poem itself throws up.
You can book a place to watch its launch at Durham Book Festival, right after an event with Jenny Offill, talking about her Climate Change novel Weather (Granta, 2020) – highly recommended. I’ve also written an essay on the making of Murmuration, which will be available during the Festival.
I’m very aware there’s an excess of things to watch and listen to online at the moment, but in the absence of human-to-human conversations and gatherings in the wild, it seems important to stay connected and be proactive in accessing alternative perspectives on how much is happening in the world that runs contrary to the news in the mainstream media, that insists on highlighting stories that communicate divisiveness, alienation and blame.
I recently discovered, we have 86,400 seconds every day to fill. And sometimes I do nothing but listen to them ticking away.
The people at TED Talks have created Countdown – a programme with a coalition of voices addressing different aspects of the Climate Crisis. Nothing is more important than the sharing of clear factual information. One thing we can do – even though we might often feel powerless – is to stay well-informed. How we take in and pass on what we know (and feel) is what makes society and culture. The imagination is powerful – it’s where the future resides.
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation,Dark Mountain
And so we enter the dark of autumn and winter. One of my favourite times of year. We could do with a bit more darkness – that place where we can be with what we don’t know and just love each other. ‘Night is the mother of life’ says Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuna. ‘Light is born from darkness’.
So many thresholds and edges just now – happening on a level I won’t see the end of or understand in my lifetime. But I’m curious, interested to see what’s waiting in, what Joan Halifax calls, ‘the fruitful dark’. One of the things I’ve been doing lately thinking about hope in the dark is planting bulbs, burying them in the cooling earth so they can do their own magic and emerge in their own time next year. Next year…even that sounds like an unknown world.
Art is the flower – Life is the green leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing – something that will convince the world there may be – there are – things more precious – more beautiful – more lasting than life…you must offer real, living – beautifully coloured flowers – flowers that grow from but above the green leaf – flowers that are not dead – are not dying – not artificial – real flowers – you must offer the flowers of the art that is in you – the symbols of all that is noble – and beautiful and inspiring – flowers that will often change a colourless leaf – into an estimated and thoughtful thing.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, On Seemliness (1902)
I’m doing a couple of linked afternoon workshops online for Lapidus Scotland (Words for Wellbeing) in October (17th & 24th), called Climate Crisis: Looking our Demons in the Eye. I was experimenting with ways of tackling the subject with groups right at the beginning of my Residency and then the pandemic arrived. I’m very glad to have this chance to work with others now, looking at how we might find words for an experience that can so often feel beyond the reach of words.
Places are free, open to all, and you can book here.
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.
Without thinking too much about it beforehand, I decided on Shrove Tuesday to give up Instagram for Lent, along with a few other things. I wanted a chance to practise restraint, hoping that freeing up some space might leave more room for things I’d rather prioritise.
I’m still keeping my ‘year renga’ but have appreciated the change in pace that not filtering it through social media seems to have brought. Perhaps I’ll always be primarily a pencil and paper kind of writer, thinking at the speed of graphite. But here is the next instalment in digital form – February’s verses to look back on as we enter March and whatever it might bring.
Last week my new post as Climate Writer with New Writing North and Newcastle University was officially announced and I have been very touched by all the warm messages and gestures of encouragement and support I’ve received. I am often taken by surprise to be reminded of the invisible strands of connection between us when it looks like nothing is happening. Living in a culture of appearances casts mists over all our eyes.
It seems to me one of the difficulties of tackling Climate Change (both in the world and on the page) arises because here in the UK we can’t properly see it. Those people badly affected by the floods of recent years have had to shift into survival mode, without the luxury of any distance to consider the influence and implications of Climate Change on their wrecked homes and lost and ruined possessions. [Clare Shaw’s Flood (Bloodaxe 2018) is a powerful book of poems on the subject of floods in the world and floods in the psyche. See also Brian and Mary Talbot’s fascinating graphic novel Rain (Cape 2019).] If we can’t see a thing (or hear, touch, smell or taste it), it’s hard to know what we’re faced with and how to respond. Because we can’t quite pin it down, the words for it elude us and because the words elude us, we can’t quite pin it down. A vicious circle.
The fact that Climate Change is being ignored by governments capable of introducing new initiatives and renewable systems, that already exist, in order to address our runaway carbon emissions adds to the sense of unreality. Climate Change can feel like a collective dream, the way Cocteau thought of cinema. Like a dream, the meaning is hard to interpret – things aren’t what they seem, there are many layers, characters and objects often symbolic rather than actual. There are those who say that everyone in a dream is some aspect of ourselves. And so it is with Climate Change – we are each (and together) the protagonist of this story, and we are also the antagonist, our own worst enemy. It’s no good waiting to be rescued for we are our own saviours too. This hall of mirrors makes the subject even more tricky to write about. The language itself is not designed to cross the subject-object divide, let alone accommodate the disruption of verb tense to triangulate time and allow past, present and future to co-exist.
These are some of the first principles – the origin myth of Climate Change, if you like – I’ve been trying to get back to in these initial weeks of acclimatisation. My head a little dizzy with all the reading and thinking and puzzling, I’ve felt a bit like Sisyphus doomed to keep rolling an enormous rock up a hill over and over again when it’s always tumbling back down. In an effort to create some physical boundaries and foundations for my work, and a sense of progress, I’ve created a dedicated space in my little hut some friends kindly passed on to me a few years ago. Always declared an academia-free zone and my very own medicine hut, I used it to regather and recharge while I was working on my PhD. Now it can come into its own to accommodate (literally) my musings on the elusive, unwieldly subject of Climate Change. As if it always knew this was going to be its purpose in life, its manufacturer’s mark has gained new significance. I’m hoping my hut will carry the weight of this work so I don’t need to. Better Atlas than Sisyphus.
Apart from establishing a conducive physical space, I’ve also been experimenting with a virtual container for my process. Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with digital platforms and the only social media space I feel remotely comfortable in is Instagram. I appreciate the focus on visual images and lack of clutter, its capacity to connect and inform. Since the beginning of the year I have been posting daily images and short texts arising from an awareness of the natural world and climate issues. The form I am following is an adaptation of the ‘year renga’ I used (in a notebook, privately, never intended for publication) that ended up becoming book of days (Smokestack 2009). Renga is an old Japanese collaborative form I’ve been working with for the past two decades, alongside others and alone. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this but as a daily practice it keeps the subject at the front of my mind and every day is another door, a chance to refocus and begin again. Which is perhaps another first principle for tackling Climate Change, living with it and writing about it.
Here are my renga verses for January. You can see the images on IG @lindafrancebooksandplants (also via my website). You can also read more about my post on the New Writing North website.
Weather forecast –
new * things *
under * the * sun
black coal and butterfly wings
both out of their element
knows where time lives
and grows there
using my car
as a salt lick, the sheep
make a monograph
raindrops on the windowpane –
the lamp stays lit
Beauty, Prudence and Folly
five hundred years old
the Spanish chestnut tree
still bearing fruit
of earthly joy
thou art my choice
inside something else
clouds and crocodiles
a three-umbrella day
before we leave:
to this place
crossing the border
windmills! windmills! windmills!
white pencil points
about to write their name
the room is full
of all the lost creatures
on the windowsill
of borrowed time
I resort to poetry
like I resort to tears
four of us
not quite on top of the world
the wind’s sighs
the unknown becomes known
the outcasts come inside
the strange becomes ordinary
we need new words
for what we don’t know
honest and kind
invisible birds singing
dusksongs in the birches
year of the rat
new moon – second chance
at starting over
a tangle of light and dark
in the corner of the room
a shopping trolley
a very British rebellion
her black cat called Maya
watches my every move
a head-scratching sort of day –
out among other people’s voices
to hear my own better
my car still proud
to be European
one day gone missing –
come find me
One of the things I want to do with this work is to connect with others and find ways for writers to come together and discover what they might be able to do to help find the words we need to see our way into what this time is asking of us. So please do chip in here with comments, suggestions and anything at all you think I should be looking at. The post is only part-time but I’m keen to cover as much ground as possible over the year.
The only way I can begin to think about the question of how to write about Climate Change is to do it – start writing and see if I can spin a thread for myself, and maybe others, to follow. This will be the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to track my spinning.
In September I submitted my Creative Practice-based PhD – Women on the Edge of Landscape – investigating place and ecology, poetry and biography. I’ve written a collection of poems called ‘The Knucklebone Floor’, set at Allen Banks in Northumberland, imagining the 19th century widow who intervened in the landscape there – Susan Davidson (1796-1877) – as well as other women who have lived, worked and walked there before and since. I tried to find a voice for them all, acknowledging points of difference while testing the possibility of commonality, a collective vision of an authentic good, dwelling alongside the constantly changing beyond-human.
I called my critical reflective essay ‘Flower Album’ because I wanted it to be a place where I could assemble my ideas, process and reading, using another Victorian woman, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson’s (1821-1918) beautiful watercolours of native wild flowers as touchstones. These two very different northern women held a love of, and intimacy with, the natural world in common.
After over three years of looking at the macro-perspective of this particular landscape and the micro-view of the plantlife that grows there – all at a time of increasing urgency about Global Warming and Mass Extinction – I felt my own sense of intimacy with the land at Allen Banks deepen and grow. I became one of its creatures as much as the dormice, dippers and dragonflies who’ve made their homes in the woods and along the river. My essay’s ‘conclusion’ culminated in a call for tenderness, a conscious love for the earth that stands in the way of any harm being done to it, just as you would protect your own (or anyone else’s) children. Not on my watch.
If ‘Climate Change’ is portrayed as our enemy, if the phrase ‘Climate Emergency’ is intended to summon up associations of wartime solidarity, I am concerned that the dynamic evoked, the story conveyed, is an unhelpful one, leaning more into conflict than healing. Such attitudes tend to demonise Climate Change as just another ‘other’, to be hated and eradicated. When will we learn there is no such place as ‘away’?
If we know ourselves to be truly part of nature, inextricable from it, inside and out, isn’t it more fruitful to examine the part of ourselves that needs to affirm the polarity of Self and Other? What if we tried to come to terms with that part of ourselves that has contributed to Climate Change, allowed it to happen without doing anything to prevent it or radically alter the political structures that perpetuate our current crisis? Surely Climate Change is less the cause of our current crisis than the effect of what Naomi Klein calls ‘the deep stories about the right of certain people to dominate land and the people living closest to it, stories that underpin western culture’. I admire the way she has ‘investigated the kinds of responses that might succeed in toppling those narratives, ideologies and economic interests, responses that weave seemingly disparate crises (economic, social, ecological and democratic) into a common story of civilisational transformation.’
It’s important to be pragmatic and vote for the party you can trust to take action to protect the environment, but in the longer term, the system itself needs to change to ensure greater equity and justice – not just in this country but on a global level. How to achieve that is another question we will be struggling with in the years ahead.
Tenderness is not really a word that comes to mind listening to the politicians making the case for their party’s extravagant promises. But reading Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is maybe the nearest I’ve got to it. Telling stories of women around the world directly affected by Climate Change, she makes politics personal. She remembers one woman in drought-stricken Honduras saying to her: ‘We have no water. How do you live without water?’ Worrying about flying and driving and our various western consumer dilemmas, we really have no idea. These women trying to look after their children in the face of unimaginable deprivation and disruption are, as Robinson says, ‘the least responsible for the pollution warming our planet, yet are the most affected. They are often overlooked in the abstract, jargon-filled policy discussions about how to address the problem […] the fight against climate change is fundamentally about human rights and securing justice for those suffering from its impact – vulnerable countries and communities that are the least culpable for the problem.’
On the day that Mary Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, Seamus Heaney wrote to her saying: ‘Take hold of it boldly and duly.’ That is what she is doing on the subject of climate and its impact on human rights. What would it look like if contemporary writers took hold of our current task ‘boldly and duly’? How would Seamus Heaney write about Climate Change? In what form would he express his grief for everything we have already lost? What are the words we might start hearing in unexpected places that could help us adapt and thrive?
Isn’t it the writer’s job to write so that people want to read or listen, so that what they’ve read or heard stays with them, strengthening their relationship with themselves, the world and each other? How do you write about Climate Change so that people want to keep on reading, not flick past in search of something more entertaining or distracting? For me, Voice usually matters more than Story – a form of words shared in passing that gives a sense of the writer’s pulse, the thrum of their beating heart, the intimacy with their conspirators I saw in the work of Susan Davidson and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson and have tried to translate into my own words.
Still inclined to spend some time in the 19th century, I’m currently listening to Samuel West’s reading of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders and although the story is beguiling, fateful and compelling, it’s the atmosphere I love best, the sense of place, particularly as it’s evoked by Hardy’s own intimacy with those trees growing in Little Hintock, characterised almost as vividly as Giles Winterborne, Grace Melbury and Marty Short. If we knew trees in their natural habitat as well as this, perhaps we’d care for them better.
Although the time of bare boughs had now set in, there were sheltered hollows amid the Hintock plantations and copses in which a more tardy leave-taking than on windy summits was the rule with the foliage. This caused here and there an apparent mixture of the seasons; so that in some of the dells that they passed by holly-berries in full red were found growing beside oak and hazel whose leaves were as yet not far removed from green, and brambles whose verdure was rich and deep as in the month of August. To Grace these well-known peculiarities were as an old painting restored.
Now could be beheld that change from the handsome to the curious which the features of a wood undergo at the ingress of the winter months. Angles were taking the place of curves, and reticulations of surfaces – a change constituting a sudden lapse from the ornate to the primitive on Nature’s canvas…
We can only write from a sense of who we are, the wild landscape of our hearts and minds. The writing process depends upon our own unruly growth, the ways we choose to cultivate and nourish our imaginations and fill our days. Seamus Heaney said that too – that it’s what we do when we’re not writing that matters. Spending time with trees, observing their changes through the seasons, planting and protecting them – this too is the writer’s task and will send roots down into the thirsty soil of our collective imagination.
Naomi Klein has been encouraging people to read Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I’m late to the party but it’s next on my reading list. She says:
It’s been incredibly important to me and I’m happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we’ve been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It’s the same conversation we’re having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It’s also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
This weekend the Woodland Trust’s Big Climate Fightback aims to encourage a million people in the UK to pledge to plant a native tree. They have a target to plant a tree for every person in the UK by 2025. We have a small oak seedling from a friend’s garden we’ll be adding to the recent replanting of the woodland behind our house. While you’re considering how a writer might write about Climate Change, what you need to read about it or who you’re going to vote for, you can pledge to plant a tree or support the Woodland Trust here.
After two days thinking about Poetry, Creativity and Environment at last weekend’s symposium in the School of English at Leeds University, the idea that my mind keeps returning to is one suggested by Zoë Skoulding – ecological writing (and thinking) should always engage with the possibility of imagining something different, a radically altered viewpoint.
Her own practice enacts that process by taking ‘a deliberately skewed perspective’ to both time and place, walking in urban spaces and re-imagining them as if all the accretions of man-made city life were not there, acknowledging historical disjunctions and the impossibility of ‘accuracy’. She read from her wonderful sequence Teint, which charts the Biévre, one of Paris’s underground water courses.
Harriet Tarlo also spoke about her ‘writing outside’, the notion of fieldwork, both alone and in collaboration with artist Judith Tucker – their different disciplines coming together like Bunting’s ‘lines of sound drawn in the air’. Going out in a state of attentive awareness in search of ‘particulars’ and then undertaking a process of ‘condensation’ and ‘selection’, preferring to bypass ‘the lyrical I’ in any resulting text. It was good to hear Harriet quote her mentor in Durham, Ric Caddell: ‘To live here is not to escape’.
I was particularly happy to meet Madeleine Lee, a Leeds alumna like myself. She is a poet and an economist and recently Writer in Residence at Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I spent a fascinating and fruitful week en route to Sydney in 2013. She noticed that people were tending to sleepwalk through the gardens and wanted to draw attention to the environmental implications of their colonial history through poems about native ‘economic plants’ like rubber, nutmeg, clove and other spices, traditionally grown along Orchard Road, now the main shopping avenue. Through her writing she has become an ‘accidental advocate’ of green spaces, the remaining 5% of tropical rainforest on the island of Singapore.
No one was particularly interested in either the didactic/rhetorical or the elegiac/mourning modes of writing about the natural world. Generally these poets are bearing witness to land, place, plants and creatures, dismantling assumptions, risking ambiguity and uncertainty, taking a modernist, experimental stance. A lucid, appreciative interpretation of Jorie Graham’s Prayer(by post-graduate researcher Julia Tanner) reflected the weighing up of moral and ethical predicaments with ‘something instinctive’ in order to transform and ‘re-singularise’ that ‘problematic’ ‘I’ everyone was tiptoeing around so nervously. Although it was heartening to see it for a change, I wondered if the mood and emphasis would have been different if the panel were all-male rather than all-female, or a mixture? Another poet with a strong Leeds connection, Jon Silkin (as you can see from the photo) was also with us in spirit – and in Emma Trott’s paper on his Flower Poems.
Yesterday I walked out of the School of English onto Clarendon Road after my classes, delighted to see the magnolia buds stretching to release their deep pinks and to hear a lone great tit playing the xylophone of its throat – notes going up, notes going down. Encountering poetry and creativity at its most vivid, spontaneous and inescapable out of doors.
Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
On Saturday I went to the first in this year’s Hexham Debates on Justice, Peace & Democracy. Chris Kilsby, Professor of Hydrology and Climate Change at Newcastle University, gave an excellent presentation called Climate Change: What’s the Hurry? He very clearly showed that the question was entirely rhetorical. Even I (someone who struggles with graphs and jargon and ‘science’) was left in no doubt that the evidence of a serious acceleration in global warming – particularly since the 1960s – was undeniable. I ‘knew’ this on a deep, intuitive level but was glad of the chance to let my head catch up with my heart. Despite the knife edge sensation of this expanded awareness.
There aren’t actually words to express it – awkward, inconvenient, uncomfortable, terrifying. What do we do with these feelings while life is expected to continue as ‘normal’? As a society we are being coerced into living a lie. The individual lifestyle choices we might make are not enough without government endorsement of mitigating policies. I’m not sure poetry is in a position to effect the change that is necessary, but it is a resource to help us find the right words and at least share them with each other, as we walk the knife edge together.