Tag Archives: climate change

A Year of Two Books

There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so very busy elsewhere, online and IRL.  Not long back from co-leading a retreat in the Trossachs, by Loch Voil, at Dhanakosa – a perfect place to step out of the hurtle of the digital and into moment-by-moment presence, with spring unfolding before our eyes.  I love spending time up there and it was wonderful to be back after three years’ absence.  You can find out more about their retreat programme here, if you’re interested.

As well as work continuing on my Writing the Climate Residency and various groups meeting regularly, I have a new book to celebrate.  The Knucklebone Floor is the story of Allen Banks and Susan Davidson, the Victorian widow who helped shape the landscape there with her wilderness walks, a tarn, bridges and summerhouses.  This is the sequence of poems I wrote as part of my PhD Women on the Edge of Landscape and it’s very exciting to see it about to spring out into the world.  Many thanks to Andy Croft at Smokestack for suggesting he publish it. And much appreciation to Matilda Bevan for the section of her Study of a Stream gracing the cover.

The first reading from The Knucklebone Floor will take place at this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 6th May, at 2.30pm.  I’ll be joined by Anne Ryland and Dave Spittle, who’ll also be reading from their new collections (Unruled Journal and Rubbles).  The day before I’m chairing a panel on Climate at the Emergency-themed Symposium (NCLA in conjunction with the Poetry Book Society) – with Jason Allen-Paisant, Polly Atkin and Sylvia Legris, whose new books I’ve really enjoyed:  Thinking with Trees, Much With Body and Garden Physic, respectively.  There’ll be plenty to talk about.  You can see the Symposium and Festival programme here – lots of unmissable events,  and I’m really looking forward to the chance for us all to gather as a community again.

More Knucklebone Floor events follow this opening splash – at Hexham Library, with Matthew Kelly, launching his book The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, as part of Local History Month, on May 12th, 7pm.  Then at Inpress‘s pop-up shop in Ouseburn, Newcastle (8 Riverside Walk, between the Cluny and the Tyne Bar) on May 18th, 7pm, with Paul Summers (reading from his new book billy casper’s tears, also from Smokestack).  I’ll also be at Allendale’s Forge in July and Ripon Poetry Festival in September – more of those nearer the time.

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In the midst of all this fizz, I’m currently editing another book, to be published in the Autumn, when my Residency winds down, and launched at Durham Book Festival.  This one’s called Startling and is an attempt to capture some sense of the vulnerability many of us feel in the face of our climate and ecological emergencies.  As Margaret Atwood has said: it’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change.   

Spring speeds everything up, like a time-lapse film and here we all are trying our best to find our place among it all and a way through, helping each other where we can.  A deeply challenging, unpredictable time but I’m with Leonard Cohen, hoping that the cracks will let the light shine through.

…we are always in free fall.  It’s not like we will find some moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us.  It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life, and we learn to become stable in flight, and to support others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored.  The final resting place is not the ground at all but rather the freedom that arises from knowing there will never be a ground, and yet here we are, together, navigating the boundless space of life, not attached, yet intimate.

Roshi Joan Halifax

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Easter, a stone rolled away

The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.

Woody Guthrie

…I want to propose an existential creativity. How do I define it? It is the creativity wherein nothing should be wasted. As a writer, it means everything I write should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species. It means that the writing must have no frills. It should speak only truth. In it, the truth must be also beauty. It calls for the highest economy. It means that everything I do must have a singular purpose. 

It also means that I must write now as if these are the last things I will write, that any of us will write. If you knew you were at the last days of the human story, what would you write? How would you write? What would your aesthetics be? Would you use more words than necessary? What form would poetry truly take? And what would happen to humour? Would we be able to laugh, with the sense of the last days on us?

Sometimes I think we must be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine. Of the things that trouble me most, the human inability to imagine its end ranks very high. It means that there is something in the human makeup resistant to terminal contemplation. How else can one explain the refusal of ordinary, good-hearted citizens to face the realities of climate change? If we don’t face them, we won’t change them. And if we don’t change them, we will not put things in motion that would prevent them. And so our refusal to face them will make happen the very thing we don’t want to happen.

We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive. We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it.

We can only make a future from the depth of the truth we face now.

Ben Okri

staying in the blood beat

of the don’t know

faciebat

(I am still making)

Scourings from an old notebook

April 2022

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Some Things You Might Like To Know About

Tonight we’re having our very first podcast discussion group Listening to the Climate. Everyone is very welcome to come along. We’ll be reading and discussing the poems in my podcast series In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change. The introduction in the first episode includes Jorie Graham’s Why and my sestina, Elementary. You can listen again to the podcasts here and also find transcripts of the poems and the conversations.

If you’re interested in the discussion group (which I envisage as a sort of book group for the ears), you can register for a free place via Eventbrite. Look forward to seeing those of you who can make it at 6 – 7.30pm (Tuesday 8th February 2022). We’ll be meeting on the second Tuesday of each month at the same time, talking about each subsequent episode and the poems therein. I also hope people might point us all in the direction of climate and ecology related podcasts they’ve found interesting or helpful.

Our monthly Writing Hour will continue – on the last Tuesday of each month, between 1 and 2pm. All are welcome for a dedicated session of shared writing time. These seem to have become inspiring touchstones for a lot of people – in this country and all over the world. The next one coming up is on Tuesday 22nd February 1 – 2 pm.

Tomorrow night at 7pm (Wednesday 9th February) you have a chance to join the online launch of Candlestick Press’s new pamphletsTen Poems about History and Ten Poems about Roses. The event will be hosted by the Lit & Phil and readers include Sean O’Brien, David Constantine, Catriona O’Reilly, Kathy Towers, Tamar Yoseloff and myself. There’s also an open mike slot. You can find more details and book your free place here.

Next week I’ll be reading some poems at the Sonic Valentine gathering at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham 12 – 1.30 pm (Monday 14th February). Expect gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, music and poetry. A drop-in sound lounge for the healing of the world. See you there!

I’m a little late posting these various news items – lots of things suddenly emerging after the quiet dark of winter. Already nearly two hours more daylight since the Winter Solstice. And more to come.

May your sap gently rise.

L

x

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2/2/22: Trees and Time

I used to live on the edge of woodland but now I live in the middle of agricultural land, pasture for sheep, sometimes cattle, and increasingly used by pheasant shooters.  A little house not on the prairie, but a wind-blasted field.  An ideal spot for a poet, who needs solitude and spaciousness to think and write.  It is by both accident and design that the trees have disappeared: a wholesale felling in 2018, that felt like an invasion of absence, an amputation; and successive storm damage, particularly evident ever since Storm Desmond in 2015/16 and, at the end of 2021, Arwen’s devastation, which left me, like many others, without power or water for seven days. 

Fortunately, there are still trees marking the garden’s loose, uncertain perimeter – holly, yew, rowan, laburnum, cypress, birch.  I couldn’t live here without them.  They are my companions, kinfolk, fellow conspirators in the arts of living on a damaged planet.  Their assembled company softens the sense of bare exposure and the force of the wind. They also act as its instruments, roaring like the sea on more days than not, a leafy ocean, audible on the other side of my thick stone walls.  The chimney is the wind’s chanter, funnelling great breaths into the room where I sit and listen, half-listen, try not to listen.  It sounds like sobbing, the heave and fall of someone’s heart breaking.  I pretend it isn’t mine.

Who am I kidding?  Why would I rather not admit it?  This pain and loss that shakes the ground under my feet and slams doors shut, always a cold draught at the back of my neck.  It’s hard to find the words, stand upright, walk around with all that grief inside.

On this high ground where I live we have lost many trees since Arwen and Malik – conifers, hardwoods, immature and venerable.  Their limbs have been torn off, root plates up-ended, forced out of the soil by the trees’ crashing descent.  All the roadsides and hedgerows are scattered with their broken branches.  On my daily walks I bring some home for firewood, carrying them in my arms like a loved one I must prepare for consignment to the flames. 

And it’s not only single trees that have left an empty space behind them – although I’ll sorely miss the Scots pine behind my house and the two enormous oaks I’d pass by the farm gate – the whole landscape is affected: the old horizons, contours and pathways, their special character, the habitat for wildlife, the shelter they provide.  It’ll take many years before we regain a sense of lushness and canopy and can experience the benefits of the mature trees’ capacity for carbon capture, the development of their complex interspecies relationships, above and below ground. In mourning for the trees, we also mourn for the loss of everything in the trees’ ecosystem – which is our own.  Whenever we lose anything or anyone, we lose part of ourselves.

Imbolc or Candlemas is associated with the slow stirrings, still mostly beneath the ground, of Spring.  It’ll stay cold, and probably get even colder, until we reach the Equinox later in March.  Some days it requires a leap of the imagination to believe in sap rising and the earth greening.  This ancient fire festival has always been a pivot point between life and death – a tender and powerful threshold between the fierce Cailleach and sweet Brigid, mother Demeter and daughter Persephone.  

Our tears show we care, that we suffer with the world.  We water the earth with our tears and, beyond the scope of our understanding, it will do what it will in its own good time.  This Imbolc, it is raining here and the sky is heavy and full while we collect our seeds, actual and intentional, and prepare for sowing.  What will you plant?

As we give our attention to the old-growth forest and the beloved backyard shade tree, we recognise that paying attention to trees is only the beginning.  Attention generates wonder, which generates more attention and more joy.  Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgement of pain.  Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine.  Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond.  To be responsible.  This, too, is a gift, for when we fall in love with the living world, we cannot be bystanders to its destruction.  Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Foreword to Old Growth (The best writing about trees from Orion magazine), 2021

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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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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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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)

*

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)

*

birds courtesy of wikipedia

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Autumnal


Just past the Autumn Equinox and there’s that beginning of term feeling in the air, a quickening as the seasons slip down and along, a new coolness in the air.  It’s been a strange not-quite-there summer with more work in it than play.  But the fruits are ripening with a number of events connected with my Writing the Climate residency coming up I hope you might have time, space and inclination to check out.


At Durham Book Festival on October 12th at 7pm you’ll be able to tune into Dawn Chorus, this year’s collective poem project I’ve curated and orchestrated with artist and film-maker Christo Wallers. 115 people from all over the world sent in their audio clips in response to our open call and we’ve gathered all of them together in a very special collaboration that captures the spirit of the birds’ waking up to renew our commitment to positive climate action, however that may play out in our individual and collective lives.  You can find the details here – and there’ll also be an essay available soon about the making of the piece. I look forward to hearing how you find it in the comments box in the online space on the night – especially all those who contributed.  Thank you for your inspiring words.

Straight after the premiere of Dawn Chorus, you’ll be able to stay and watch a conversation between myself and Kate Simpson, editor extraordinaire of the powerful new anthology Out of Time – Poems from the Climate Emergency (Valley Press, 2021).  We’ve called it Beginning Again and, as well as discussing Dawn Chorus, we’ll be putting our heads together to think about what poetry can bring to a climate crisis that it’s hard to find the right words for Full Stop.  You can see all the details here.  Both events are free, and a link will be available soon.  

Once Dawn Chorus is launched, our podcast series In Our Element will also start airing.  As well as being broadcast on Resonance FM and several other local radio stations nationwide, two episodes will be released on New Writing North’s sound platform every week leading up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November.  Produced by Sonderbug, there are ten altogether and each one focuses on a particular element as a way of exploring different perspectives on the climate and ecological crisis.  I’ll write more about this and all our wonderful contributors in more detail later, but for now I just wanted to let you know it’s on its way.

There’s also a chance for the over-50s to take part in an online reflective writing workshop, offered on Friday October 8th (1 – 2.30pm), as one strand of the Older and Greener initiative from Newcastle Elders Council, Newcastle City Council and Equal Arts.  It’s called Waking Up to Climate and you can find out more about it here.  Again this event is free, but booking is required as numbers are limited.

I’d also like to say thank you to the Journal Culture Awards for voting me Writer of the Year. It was strange and very moving to back among the region’s cultural community for the first time in 18 months at the prize-giving event in Durham Cathedral. A bat flying between the pillars all night was a memorable highlight. Congratulations to all the shortlisted artists, performers and organisations.

This sounds like enough to be going on with – but do join me for one or all of these various events, nicely timed for the growing dark and this beautiful wild time of year.

Be well.

L

x

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The Collective Endeavour

Currently working on Dawn Chorus, our new ‘collective sound poem for the beginning of the world’, I’ve been revisiting the process of making last year’s Murmuration. Although a lot has changed in the wider world, many of my aspirations and intentions still apply. And in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow in November, raising awareness about the Climate Crisis and mobilising as much personal and political positive action as possible is more and more crucial. This is not an ‘issue’ – it is a collective endeavour to ensure the balance of the planet and its ability to support life.

I came across this unabridged version of an interview about Murmuration for Durham Book Festival 2020 (with Reviewer in Residence Heather Craddock) and thought it might be worth reproducing in full here. I’ll write more about the making of Dawn Chorus once it’s finished.

Look out for news of the launch at Durham Book Festival 2021, when I will also be in conversation with Kate Simpson, editor of the powerful new anthology Out of Time, Poems from the Climate Emergency (Valley Press 2021).

Heather Craddock: Murmuration takes on the challenge of engaging with the vast issue of the climate crisis through hundreds of individual perspectives. In what ways do you find poetry to be an effective form for depicting the scale of climate change? 

Linda France: That’s an interesting question. On the face of it, poetry is a miniature form, dealing with detail, the particular, so it might not have the reach to convey the scale of Climate Change, a creature with many entangled tentacles. But poetry’s secret weapon is a depth charge into the emotions, a place of immense power and capacity to connect. Poetry embodies ‘Less is More’. Highly compressed, working with silence and white space, everything it doesn’t say has the potential to ignite the reader’s imagination, which is a vast unquantifiable space. Think of Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’ and ‘universe in a grain of sand’: that’s the sort of scale poetry operates on. 

HC: How do you view the role of creative writing in the climate crisis? 

LF: Rebecca Solnit has written: ‘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.’ (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009). One of the things creative writing can do is help us ‘rise to the occasion’. From a practitioner’s point of view, it has the capacity to play a part in the cultivation of a sense of presence, qualities like clarity and courage. Taking time and space to write creates an atmosphere of self-care and discipline in our lives at a time when we all feel under extra pressure. Dealing with the technical demands of grammar, syntax, focus and style keeps our communication skills honed and helps remind us what really needs saying and what might be better left unsaid. Taking a reader into account is a way of staying connected with others, remembering our common humanity. T.S. Eliot Prize-winner Roger Robinson says ‘Poetry is an empathy machine’! To write well you need a critical and appreciative awareness and this in turn helps you look beyond yourself, gain perspective and stay orientated. And it’s important to remember writing is a real pleasure – it’s not all hard work and worthiness. There is joy and delight, a freshness in staying awake enough to play with language and rhythm, metaphor and form and share it with others. Again, hugely important in times of stress and uncertainty. So, on an individual level, I’d definitely recommend it. 

From a wider cultural viewpoint, I think writers have an important contribution to make at this time, not least in offering a corrective to the slanted, superficial and divisive perspective created by the media. Neither simply a doomsayer or a cheerleader, a writer thinks longer, deeper, harder and their work will present different angles on climate justice and environmental challenges that will expand a reader’s awareness and suggest new ways to engage, politically and personally, with the situation we find ourselves in. 

The Climate Crisis is not happening ‘out there’. This is our lives now and, in the face of what is an existential threat, everyone is required to reflect on the part they play in the interconnected ecosystem of life on our planet. We’ve already seen how our current crisis involves issues of race, gender, class and poverty and we can all examine our own relationship with these and do what we can to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Reading is an excellent starting point in educating yourself and staying open to positive change. Books transform the way people think and that transforms how they act. In a place of accelerating and often confusing change, they are helpful touchstones and guides, connecting us with readers across the world. 

HC: What do you hope contributors might feel when reading and watching Murmuration

LF: American poet Mary Oliver said ‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’ – I always wanted it to be a celebration of the natural word. People only protect what they love and I wanted the project to be a reminder of what we appreciate about the world, what we’re in danger of losing if we don’t take the necessary steps. I want everyone reading and watching Murmuration, whether they contributed any lines or not, to feel implicated, part of something bigger than themselves alone, and for the work to be open enough that they can find their own ‘story’ in it, make a personal, as well as a shared connection. 

HC: Do you consider the final piece to be primarily a celebration, or a warning, about human relationships with nature? 

LF: I don’t think you can separate the two – isn’t that the point of the Crisis we find ourselves in? We celebrate it because we know the dangers, the risk of losing it. There’s no room any more for nature as simply a recreational activity, solely for the enjoyment of human beings. We are nature too and there’s nowhere else to go, as one of the lines in the poem says, nowhere else to escape to, no ‘away’ where we can throw our rubbish. What happens on the farthest side of the world affects us all. 

Murmuration walks the tightrope between hope and despair, establishing the tricky ‘edge’ we must negotiate now, where we must all take responsibility for our choices and our systems. Many experts have proved that a future free from dependence on fossil fuels and a new focus on global justice, rather than the dystopic nightmare promulgated by most news and social media, would actually be a much improved version of what we’re enduring now. We are living in a time of immense opportunity, as activist Joanna Macy says, a Great Turning. 

HC: Did the experience of curating the hundreds of contributions to Murmuration reshape your own perspective on climate change and the current global health crisis? 

LF: I felt very touched reading all the ways people appreciate the natural world – most of which I resonate with. Stepping inside all the lines was like looking up at a spinning mirror ball – magical, exciting. So, even though it was a challenge to make the poem, distilling 11,296 words down to 1000 (with only a couple of handfuls of my own used as glue), I felt energised and encouraged by the response. I think people’s contributions and the poem and film we made together encapsulates a lot of real active hope for the future, intense and meaningful care and concern. This is the sort of momentum that makes change happen. 

It was very satisfying collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film. We managed to work together to bring it to fruition without meeting face to face, which feels almost miraculous. The whole process underlines for me how collective action and partnership is necessary in our response to Climate Change. Culture is inherently contagious and spreads goodwill, triggers change. I’d like to see people talk about Climate more, make it part of our lives, not some shadowy demon, a repository for our worst fears. My experience of ‘Murmuration’ won’t be quite complete until it is launched and I start to hear people’s responses – those who submitted lines and others who didn’t. Then I’ll be able to see the bigger picture and understand better the impact of such an ambitious undertaking and where it might lead. 

At the moment, working on my own ‘Climate poems’, I notice my thinking about ‘it’ (by which I mean Life, Death and Everything) changes if not daily then certainly week by week. Every time there’s a new report or I have an enlightening conversation with a friend or listen to an expert online, my ideas and attitudes shift slightly. This is entirely appropriate – the last thing we need is to take up a fixed position. We have to stay nimble and respond and adapt to all the changes that will undoubtedly continue to evolve around us. What will help us do that best is telling the truth about what’s going on for us and making sure we keep as well- informed as possible. For me, writing things down is vital and meditation is helpful, but everyone will have their own strategies. I’ve recently found the resources at Climate Psychology Alliance useful and the TED Global Countdown heartening. My Climate Residency is just about to come to an end but I’m very aware there’s still loads more that needs to be done so I’m looking to extend it. Murmuration has shown what is possible when lots of us flock together and I’d really like the chance to explore new ways of doing that, harnessing the power of the word. 

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The Bravery of the Staircase

‘We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the Earth.  Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.’

Donna Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (2016)

Last night was the final session of How to Start Writing the Climate, a course for ‘early career writers’ I’ve been facilitating as part of my Writing the Climate residency.  Even though I tried to draw together the threads of what has been a fascinating few months with a wonderfully engaged group, I woke up this morning with all the things I wish I’d said bullet-pointing in my brain.  

My default setting is SLOW (and getting slower) so l’esprit d’escalier is familiar to me.  [‘Borrowed from French, the expression esprit de l’escalier, or esprit d’escalier, literally wit of (thestaircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed.  It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering.’*] 

Like my faltering rural broadband, I always take at least a day to download significant emotions or get to the bottom of what I’ve read, heard or seen.  Perhaps it’s a consequence of trying to live with in-the-moment judgement-free awareness.  Staying open to Everything simply can’t happen all at once: perception and processing need to catch up with each other and come into some sort of alignment.  This slow but not always sure rhythm is part of the way I try to make sense of the world and understand my place in it.  That’s fine when it comes to simple day to day living but it’s more problematic when being congruent with the climate crisis demands more immediate, vigorous action.  Now is not the time to leave things unsaid or your deepest values not acted upon.

In my thinking and writing about climate, I keep coming back to the concept of time – how we balance planning and preparing for an unknowable future and living well in the now, informed by the best lessons of the past (that largely didn’t know what it was doing either).  We’ve made provision that the Course participants can continue meeting in a self-programming capacity.  All hail to New Writing North for offering to support this.  It is an excellent model, grass roots and empowering – it works for community and climate activism so I’m sure it will for assisting writers.

When one member of the group said it was a new beginning, not an ending, I felt very moved.  I was saying goodbye but they would be carrying on, staying connected, developing their ideas and their work, which I could already see gaining power and focus as the four sessions progressed.  Environmental activist Joanna Macy has said we don’t know if our task now is sitting with a planet in the throes of dying or as midwives at the birth of a new era.  Another reason I struggled to say everything I wanted to in my concluding remarks is lately I’ve been living in more of a deathbed scene than a joyful birth.  Carrying a lot of grief for the world, I’m often tender to the point of tears.  There is no place for this in most human interactions, although I know it’s there just below the surface in whatever I say or do.  And I see others carrying something they have no words for, or none they are able to share.  And so we continue, with the most important things unspoken.

As a writer and a facilitator, I have a responsibility to be clear, active and, to a certain extent, upbeat.  It’s been hard to stay positive and hopeful these past few months, witnessing the failure to act by governments and corporations across the world, while carbon emissions continue to rise and flora and fauna species to decline.  We’ve all watched the alarming reports of the heat-related deaths in Canada and the Pacific North West of America.  Isn’t this a sort of l’esprit d’escalier too – a pervasive reliance on hindsight, when it will be too late – all those words, just empty promises, and meanwhile everything carries on as *normal*?  

The Suffragettes’ slogan was Deeds not Words.  We need both.  Words do not achieve the same effects as deeds but they can hold a ladder up to the moon, towards a more sustainable life founded on principles of fairness and kindness.  This is what I set out to do as a teacher – help and encourage people to find their own way to their own moon, asking their own questions as they go, rather than offer the lie of easy formulas.  

I know I’m not the only one to feel sadness, anger and despair at the state we’re in.  If I’d been able to tell the group about my grief, it might have broken a spell of silence.  North American poet and editor, Camille T. Dungy quotes that we need ‘tearleaders not cheerleaders to teach us how to mourn’.  I’m not a politician or a rhetorician.  I’m not always even capable of joined-up talking.  The place I find my words is on the page.  Reviewing my own work-in-progress, many of my recent poems are sparked by immense grief for the world, as I take note of the potential and actual loss of so much of our planet’s beauty and biodiversity.  This earth is where we live, our home.  It’s hard right now not to feel as if your house is crumbling around you.  Words can make the future feel less shaky, keep you steady, but they’re not enough on their own and we need to act while we still can.  

So, what should have been my parting shot?  What can we do, as citizens and as writers?  A useful strategy in writing workshops to get ideas started is to make a list.  Here’s mine, a mixture of things I already do and things I need to remember to do:

  • Put your own house in order.  Switch to green electricity, ethical banking, a meat-less, dairy-free or less-meat, less-dairy diet.  Recycle paper.  Buy secondhand books and pass them on.  Manage with less.
  • Cultivate words and deeds.  Match thought with action.  Speak truth to power.  
  • Find an environmental campaign you can engage with and support wholeheartedly.
  • When you come across something you don’t understand, do some research – not to confirm your own opinion, but to extend your knowledge.
  • Write from and with your body – the primary source of all perception, what we share as humans. 
  • Write to connect, not to escape.  Stay engaged with the world around you.
  • ‘Bear witness.  Hold uncertainty.  Love the world.’  (Charlotte du Cann)
  • Read widely and inquisitively, critically.  Balance the work of contemporary and classic writers, poetry and prose.
  • ‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.’ (Czeslaw Milosz)
  • Make space for a daily reflective practice – silent meditation, mindful walking, journalling, yoga etc.  Pause and process your experience.
  • Appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have.  Notice beauty and express wonder.
  • Connect with others – know you are not alone.
  • Attune to interdependence, reciprocity, the spirit of exchange, the gift economy.
  • Beware of righteousness or too much humility.  You are neither better nor worse than anyone else.
  • Be kind.  ‘What will survive of us is love’. (Larkin)
  • Stay open to new ways of writing and living.  Listen to what’s in the air and catch only what is helpful and authentic.  Live a creative rather than a reactive life.
  • ‘Be the change you want to see.’  (Mahatma Gandhi)
  • Argue with this list.  Make your own manifesto.

*

The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) used the expression in English Traits (Boston, 1856):

A slow temperament makes them less rapid and ready than other countrymen, and has given occasion to the observation, that English wit comes afterwards, — which the French denote as esprit d’escalier. This dullness makes their attachment to home, and their adherence in all foreign countries to home habits. The Englishman who visits Mount Etna, will carry his teakettle to the top.

American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (1905-84) gave a variation on the phrase, recollecting what she failed to say to the House Committee on Un-American Activities: ‘ Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it’s all over, the bravery of the staircase’.

[With thanks to wordhistories.net]

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