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.
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.
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.
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.
I very much enjoyed being taken back to Jordan this week via Durham Book Festival’s podcast from our event last October. You can listen to Fadia Faquir, Mofleh Al Adwan and myself in conversation about the Alta’ir Exchange, first impressions and the seeds of new work, here.
The photos are from Umm Quais, the ancient site of Biblical Gadara, in the North of Jordan, looking across to Lake Tiberia and the Golan Heights – and the Sea Squill in bloom, with foraging beetle.
It’s not easy being a flaneuse in Amman – the city’s built on a series of hills and steep valleys. Dusty red limestone is never far away and pavements are consistently unreliable – often not there at all, and if so, broken and disconcertingly high, planted with trees right down the middle. The dry heat and constant traffic adds to travelling by foot’s lack of appeal. But after four days here, getting around by car, I feel the need to know where I am from the ground up, so this morning the air’s a little cooler and I venture out for a gentle stroll round the neighbourhood where I’m staying.
It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when no one else is out walking. Taxis keep tooting at me – a signal they’re available. I try looking both nonchalant and purposeful but probably just appear more and more strange as I keep stopping to inspect plants growing in the front gardens and along the roadside. While I’m photographing a mat of tiny red daisies creeping beneath a decapitated palm, a man who looks like he might be a gardener comes to see what I’m doing. He talks away to me in Arabic and I talk back at him in English, asking questions about the flowers of course he can’t answer. After a while, we part with smiles and nods, making peace with our mutual incomprehension.
Not far down Uhod Street the land to the west falls away and right there in the heart of this densely populated suburb I can see a flock of sheep – brown-wooled, semi-somnolent and fat – although it’s not clear what they might find to eat with not a blade of grass in sight. They really couldn’t be any more different from the sheep I see every day back on Stagshaw Fair – making me feel closer to home and impossibly distant at the same time. An encampment of cardboard shacks is perhaps where the shepherds live – urban bedouins. Another sort of flock – of construction workers – are perched on one of the many half-finished or abandoned buildings, clambering over great blocks of concrete, sprouting rusty iron rods, without the aid of scaffolding. ‘Luxury Homes’ says the sign.
Pretty flowers spill out from the railings of those luxury homes that are finished – plumbago, jasmine, bougainvillea. Hollyhocks, native here, have seeded themselves beneath olive trees and telegraph poles. Some of the grander houses have topiaried cypresses dissecting their stretch of pavement. The ‘pavement’, private rather than public space, speaks in many languages.
On the rougher patches of ground between housing lots the involucrate carline thistle and other prickly plants I’ve still to identify are well-adapted to take their chances with the rubbish, cigarette butts and random building materials. My feet get dustier and dustier and the coolness quickly dissipates giving way to more familiar relentless heat. Even though this part of Amman, Tla Al Ali, is one of the highest spots in the city (nearly 1000 metres – the same altitude as Scafell Pike) only the occasional breeze relieves the weight of the sunlight so close to the land here.
Over the course of an hour, I pass only one other person on foot – a man carrying a yoke on his shoulders strung with clusters of shocking pink candyfloss bagged in plastic. Later, back in my room, I hear him blowing a whistle like the Pied Piper to announce his presence and tempt the children. Today, Saturday, is the equivalent of our Sunday – the weekend, traditional family time, after Friday afternoon prayers. I lean over my balcony watching him climb the hill again with his vivid featherlight load, still whistling, but no one comes to buy. High as a bird, my arms are cooled by the smooth red-veined limestone beneath them. I have landed at last in this wondrous city of many layers.
I am staying in Amman as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North (co-founder), the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) (co-founder), St Mary’s College, Durham University (co-founder) and Dr Fadia Faqir (initiator and co-founder) and the British Council.
There’ll also be posts on the Durham Book Festival blog and an event with my fellow Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm. See Durham Book Festival website for booking details.
At Durham Botanic Garden last weekend a group of us gathered in the glasshouses for a writing workshop while the rain fell outside. It was a perfect spot for letting the eye and the imagination take a walk together.
I was very aware we were not alone – a fine assortment of creatures keeping us company, thankfully behind another layer of glass. I liked the proximity of human, plant and animal – just part of the way we’re all tangled up together.
Brazilian Birdeater Tarantula
Great African Land Snail
Cockroaches – Death’s Head, Madagascar Hissing and Mottled Leaf
Even the cafe couldn’t escape its share of creeping things – the outside attempting to come in from the cold…
I thought my daily commute from Marrickville into the Botanic Gardens in Sydney was impressive and enchanting but walking down from St Aidan’s College on Windmill Hill to the Institute of Advanced Study on Palace Green, where I am currently a Fellow, is a stunning way to begin the day. Getting to know any city on foot is the best way to do it and here, in Durham, an absolute delight – so many short cuts that are simply invitations to make your journey longer.
In Bishop Cosin’s Library – part of Palace Green Library, where the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition has just come to a close, notching up over 100,000 visitors. We were lucky enough to catch some of the researchers still in action down in the basement examining the pigments used in the illuminations.
This weekend the Durham Book Festival gets properly underway and I’m looking forward to being on the spot while it all happens. The Debate in the Great Hall of the Castle on Wednesday that This House believes great science is great science fiction got proceedings off to a good start. For a few brief moments I was able to see what it might look like if the old distinctions between Art and Science could dissolve. I don’t imagine this will be the last time I change my mind about something during this exciting Michaelmas Term of interdisciplinarity.