Tag Archives: climate change

How do you write about Climate Change?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

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Medicinal Herbarium

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On the fourth floor of the National Museum

of Natural History, leaves and stems and dried

flower heads of native plants are arranged with pins,

coded and labelled, on painted boards – Verbena

officinalis, Adonis vernalis. Some

are as old as I am, all colour drained out of them

as they dessicate and curl. But there is beauty

in their withering, as if these were the bones

of Bulgaria’s flowers, their skeletons. Inside

their glass cases, they tell of loss – and what heals,

what’s worth preserving. Many I recognise, stirred by

a ghost of blue or an elegant thorn, old friends –

Centaurea cyanus, our cornflower,

and Leonurus cardiaca, motherwort.

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*

Frosted panes diffuse the brunt of the sun. Silence

plays across the chessboard floor. Other visitors

prefer the drama downstairs of bats and bears,

tigers and eagles, in stricken poses stilled

according to a taxidermist’s whim. Pilgrim

here, I’m more moved by this room of flowers than

the Russian church next door, for all the almond-eyed saints

blessing its walls. I’ve come to ask not for my own soul

to be saved but these tissue refugees, precious

plants – their natural physick, an esperanto

of seed, rib, heart and vein – Laburnum vulgare,

Carlina acanthifolia. Hear my confession,

my sins: irredeemable gravity, this passion

for what can’t be bought or sold, a faith in silence.

 

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Another display, devoted to mountain plants,

shows four Vitosha tulips clinging to what’s left

of their green and gold. A recent addition – faint

sign someone still thinks they’re worth saving: more

hope in a speck of pollen than our whole poisoned

anthropocene world. Trollius europaeus.

Today they can’t help looking like an epitaph.

 

As I leave, descend, all the creatures in the ark

follow me, eyes black with hunger, blame. Beneath

my feet, great cracks in the marble floor are spreading;

a deep fault that can only widen and slide right

open, taking us all down with it – animal,

vegetable and mineral, the country’s biggest

ammonite and its tiniest flake of stolen moon.

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9th July 2016

 

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Dear March –

Dear March – Come in –

How glad I am –

I hoped for you before –

Put down your Hat –

You must have walked –

How out of Breath you are –

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –

Did you leave Nature well –

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –

I have so much to tell –

 

I got your Letter, and the Birds –

The Maples never knew that you were coming –

I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But March, forgive me –

And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –

There was no Purple suitable –

You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April –

Lock the Door –

I will not be pursued –

He stayed away a Year to call

When I am occupied –

But trifles look so trivial

As soon as you have come

 

That blame is just as dear as Praise

And Praise as mere as Blame –

 

Emily Dickinson

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Word search

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Niels Bohr

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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.

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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.

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The Scale of Change

On Saturday I visited Transition Tynedale’s Community Garden (in the grounds of Hexham Middle School) for the first time.  Despite the freezing temperatures and snow on the hills, a few sturdy souls had turned out for their regular twice-monthly garden session.

Garlic and onions were planted, fruit bushes pruned and leaves cleared.  Matty was even able to take her supper home with her.

My contribution was mostly admiration.  I particularly appreciated the ancient cherry tree and the grass sofas and willow den.  And the super-organised shed…

Really it’s the ‘wrong’ time of year to be immersed in a poetry project all about growing food.  In our workshop sessions in the Library on Monday tea-times we’ve tended to concentrate on the eating side of things.  which, along with reading gardening books, is what’s meant to happen in winter surely?

But, fair weather gardener that I am, after Saturday, I was shamed into doing a bit of tidying of my own patch – currently an uneasy limbo of snow and geraniums.  In the Community Garden too there were a few spots of colour and I found myself drawn to them like a starving bee.

Professor Stephen Blackmore (the Queen’s Botanist in Scotland) says that gardening can save the planet.  If everyone looks after their own bit of green, be it a garden or a hanging basket, the cumulative effect will make a difference.

‘…so much of the state of our planet hinges on the state of our plants and vegetation.  Often we are overwhelmed by the scale of change to the planet, and we think ‘What can we do to change anything?’, but your little patch of garden is part of the processes of nature, supporting wildlife and replenishing the atmosphere.’

 

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An Open Door

My friend and collaborator the artist Birtley Aris has just finished making some new drawings to illustrate a small pamphlet of work from the Rutland Friends of the Earth Earthwords 2 Writing Competition I helped judge with Clive Anderson and Jon Canter. They’d asked me if I might contribute a couple of poems of my own. These two seemed to fit with the theme and, as usual, Birtley’s images have added a fresh dimension. The whole business of collaboration, the conversation between poet and artist, word and image, an endlessly fascinating one. Where does one end and the other begin? How to describe that third element, what happens in between?

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Talking About the Weather

The gardener sat on the old wicker chair,

hands wrapped round a mug of nettle tea –

and even though the room was warm, curtains

drawn against the night, the way we hold

our breath between winter and what might follow –

snowmelt, rainfall, lambing storm, the words

she spoke flung open the door on water, a river

in spate, rushing and roaring between us –

her worst fears of flood and disaster,

an unstoppable lostness sweeping her away,

tossed in the current of truth, lies, testing

the strength of this earth we cling to – as if our lives

were leaves, whispering North, North, North.

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Parachutists

After Guiseppe Bartolini’s lithograph, Pisa

Jellyfish fall through the heavens above

the viridescent night of the Orto Botanico.

Count their drifting moons, skullcaps

for the duomo, just visible over the wall – 7, 8,

9.  In fact, they’re all parachutists: cumulative grace

at odds with their singular mission; that history

still untold. Let’s say today they wear the ruched silk

of angels, landing within the garden’s jurisdiction.

Watch them unhook their spent umbrellas and pick up

a spade to dig fresh beds or a rake to sweep paths

clear. They’ll unravel the hose to revive parched myrtle

or pelargoniums; reinstate tumbled ceramic, fix

cracked signs and screw the last bolt in new glasshouses.

As the city sleeps, they’ll delve till the trees toll

their boughs in exaltation, each one seen so hard

the people will wake up to the world’s first day.

 

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Climate Change

It’s clearly in the air.  Today I listened to an interesting programme on Radio 4 – Beyond Belief, about the Papal Encyclical on the Environment and Climate Change.  You can listen again here.

I’d already read this comment from Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos. Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy that uplifts living standards for all. One way leads deeper into a culture of death; the other leads to a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.

More from him here.

Then this popped in my inbox.  I can’t go as I’ll be away on retreat but if you’re down that way, it might be worth taking a look and supporting them.  There’s no more pressing issue.

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And this eery poem by Alice Oswald from The Guardian:

Vertigo

May I shuffle forward and tell you the two minute life of rain

Starting right now lips open and lidless-cold all-seeing gaze

When something not yet anything changes its mind like me

And begins to fall

In the small hours

And the light is still a flying carpet

Only a little white between worlds like an eye opening after an operation

No turning back

each drop is a snap decision

A suicide from the tower-block of heaven

And for the next ten seconds

The rain stares at the ground

Sees me stirring here

As if sculpted in porridge

Sees the garden in the green of its mind already drinking

And the grass lengthening

Stalls …

Maybe a thousand feet above me

A kind of yellowness or levity

Like those tiny alterations that brush the legs of swimmers

Lifts the rain a little to the left

No more than a flash of free-will

Until the clouds close their options and the whole melancholy air surrenders to pure fear and … falls

And I who live in the basement

one level down from the world

with my eyes to the insects with my ears to the roots listening

I feel them in my bones these dead straight lines

Coming closer and closer to my core

This is the sound this is the very floor

Where Grief and his Wife are living looking up

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Oxygen

IMG_7320Today this article by one of my heroines, Joanna Macy, environmentalist and systems theory analyst, popped into my inbox and as the old year comes to an end – amid storms, flood warnings and power cuts – and we start thinking about our intentions for the 365 or so days ahead (all being well), it seems a good place to start.  The oxygen of truth-telling.

How do we live with the fact that we are destroying our world? Because of social taboos, despair at the state of our world and fear for our future are rarely acknowledged or expressed directly. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurring response, contributes to the numbing of the psyche. Expressions of anguish or outrage are muted, deadened as if a nerve had been cut. This refusal to feel impoverishes our emotional and sensory life. We create diversions for ourselves as individuals and as nations in the fights we pick, the aims we pursue, and the stuff we buy.

Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to permanent war, none is so great as this deadening of our response. For psychic numbing impedes our capacity to process and respond to information. The energy expended in pushing down despair is diverted from more crucial uses, depleting the resilience and imagination needed for fresh visions and strategies.

The Zen teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh was asked, “What do we most need to do to save our world?” His answer was this: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

IMG_7342How to confront what we scarcely dare to think? How to face our grief and fear and rage without going to pieces? 

It is good to realize that falling apart is not such a bad thing. Indeed, it is essential to transformation. Anxieties and doubts can be healthy and creative, not only for the person but for the society, because they permit new and original approaches to reality. 

What disintegrates in periods of rapid transformation is not the self, but its defenses and assumptions. Self-protection restricts vision and movement like a suit of armor, making it harder to adapt.

Going to pieces, however uncomfortable, can open us up to new perceptions, new data, and new responses. 

In our culture, despair is feared and resisted because it represents a loss of control. We’re ashamed of it and dodge it by demanding instant solutions to problems. We seek the quick fix. This cultural habit obscures our perceptions and fosters a dangerous innocence of the real world. 

Acknowledging despair, on the other hand, involves nothing more mysterious than telling the truth about what we see and know and feel is happening to our world.

When corporate-controlled media keep the public in the dark, and power holders manipulate events to create a climate of fear and obedience, truthtelling is like oxygen. It enlivens and returns us to health and vigor.

IMG_7308Sharing what is in our heartmind brings a welcome shift in identity, as we recognize that the anger, grief, and fear we feel for our world are not reducible to concerns for our individual welfare or even survival. Our concerns are far larger than our own private needs and wants. Pain for the world—the outrage and the sorrow— breaks us open to a larger sense of who we are. It is a doorway to the realization of our mutual belonging in the web of life. 

Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation. On the contrary, in letting go of old defenses we find truer community. And in community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.

Let’s drop the notion that we can manage our planet for our own comfort and profit—or even that we can now be its ultimate redeemers. It is a delusion. Let’s accept, in its place, the radical uncertainty of our time, even the uncertainty of survival.

Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.

IMG_7349When we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true dimensions, for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe. We discover how speaking the truth of our anguish for the world brings down the walls between us, drawing us into deep solidarity. And that solidarity with our neighbors and all that lives is all the more real for the uncertainty we face.

When we stop distracting ourselves, trying to figure the chances of ultimate success or failure, our minds and hearts are liberated into the present moment. And this moment together is alive and charged with possibilities.

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An edited version of an article first published as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of Yes! Magazine and then reproduced in Tricycle.

The photos are from Hadrian’s Wall at Housesteads on Christmas Day.

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Save The Reef

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Rainbow Warrior is currently docked in Sydney Harbour as part of Greenpeace’s campaign to stop the building of nine coal terminals in Queensland. The resulting shipping traffic (I per hour) would seriously damage the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site, which is supposed to be protected.

Apparently there are more different species of animals and plants in a cubic metre of the Great Barrier Reef than in any other environment in the world – including tropical rain forests.

I had a great tour of the boat (with wonderful views of the Bridge and Opera House) and learnt more about Australia’s plans to more than double coal production from Queensland and New South Wales in the next decade. Already the world’s largest coal exporter, this would add an extra 900 million tonnes of carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

One academic reportedly said ‘If you’re not angry, you’re not listening.’

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Rain Watch

My time at Harnham was bookended with rain.  So much fell at the beginning of the week that the hill was cut off from all directions and the retreat cooks couldn’t get through to make our dinner!  With nothing else to think about and against the background of our shared silence, the experience of the rain was much more intense than usual – hearing it, seeing it, getting soaked in it whilst out doing our walking meditation.  Everything was very visibly moving and changing – a great teaching.

The burn where I walk was so swollen later in the week you could see whole chunks of earth had been worn away by the current.  It felt like a relief when the rain stopped, as if we could all emerge into a place of greater equilibrium, less braced against the elements.

Driving home I passed lots of temporary flood signs on the road and realised that the rain must have caused lots of problems, most of which we’d been oblivious to in our small sanctuary, the monastery like an ark stranded on the hill top.  At the weekend it was reported that around 300 homes were flooded in Yorkshire and the North East in the worst autumn storms in three decades.

Not yet having become Buddha

this ancient pine tree

dreaming

 Issa (1763-1827)

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