Tag Archives: ecology

Endings and Beginnings | Beginnings and Endings

After over ten months of thinking, reading and writing, my Climate Residency has officially come to an end.  In the spirit of honouring endings to make space for new beginnings, I wanted to spend some time here reflecting on where I’ve been with it.  Some of this you’ll know already – pandemic, lockdown, pandemic, lockdown: a jagged rhythm we probably haven’t seen the last of.  It changed the form and energy of the way I had to work early enough in the Residency that I can’t quite imagine what it would have been like under pre-Covid conditions.  I was glad I managed to squeeze in a couple of Climate-related gatherings right at the start – one with North East Culture Partnership in Sunderland and one with Julie’s Bicycle in London.  Both were wonderfully sociable events, packed with stimulating and provoking ideas about the role and potential of culture in response to the Climate Crisis.  Ironic, that culture-as-we-knew-it came to an abrupt halt just a few weeks later when the first lockdown was announced.

All my research and networking shifted online and I’ve lost count of all the webinars, gatherings and talks I’ve attended on various platforms.  I’ve absorbed an enormous amount of information, and no doubt forgotten just as much.  I’ve filled five notebooks with notes that started quite neatly but have become more and more erratic, teetering on the illegible.  I tell myself that I’m in revolt after the strictures of the PhD process, but I’m still not entirely sure what it’s ‘useful’ to keep a record of, never knowing where my own writing will come from.  Sometimes the origin of a poem is traceable, sometimes it stays hidden in the tangle of accumulated thoughts.  I probably need to be aware that in my notebooks I’m writing notes to my future self and I could try to make it a little clearer for her sake.  My process has always been gloriously messy, arcane, archive-unfriendly, untranslatable, and I can’t see that changing at this late stage.

I’ve missed the regular face-to-face human interactions that used to form the backdrop and compost of my writing, but feel even more deeply enmeshed in my patch of scruffy, windswept land held fast between the River and the Wall.  Although I’m thankful that I do still seem able to write, I don’t find writing ‘about’ Climate any easier.  Every single time I return to the blank page I have to start all over again trying to say something truthful, vaguely original, worth saying, possibly helpful.  I spoke a little about the process and read some of the poems in progress for Newcastle University’s Inside Writing Festival in the summer.  The poems are accruing slowly and all being well there’ll be enough of them to form a collection at some point.  I’ve noticed I’m using the ‘I’ voice more than I expected, needing the ballast of close subjective observation (Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’) to help cast them off into the vastness of the troposphere.  There seem to be quite a few poems about trees and unsurprisingly the weather comes up a lot, the consolations of place in the face of grief, sadness and longing.  I’m interested in the poetics of ethical dilemmas and solutions, energy and power, the confounding tangle of it all.

Alongside working on my own writing, I enjoyed curating the collective Murmuration project, and collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film for Durham Book Festival.  It was extremely heartening to hear so many positive responses filling the social void.  The Residency has been beautifully managed and supported by Anna Disley at New Writing North, who’s been a helpful and encouraging presence throughout.  Our Climate Book Group (open to all) read five books and has proved a satisfying, strong way to stay connected.  We’re hoping that these will continue in the New Year – there’s already a growing list of potential novels, poetry books and non-fiction titles.  This was one place where proper conversations could happen.  I had others in various online forums or one-to-one in the open air, but mostly, it has to be said, with myself.  Overarching themes which recurred in these conversations include:

Time

I talked about my preoccupation with Time on the Inside Writing podcast.  It’s key to the subject of Climate in multiple ways, not least the pressure of the fast-approaching deadlines for reaching carbon zero.  The concept of Time encapsulates the conundrum that the only moment we can actually change is this one now.  Albert Camus resolved it, saying ‘Real generosity to the future lies in giving all to the present’.  The blessing (and the curse) of Covid has been to remind us to stay in the moment – the future even more uncertain and contingent than usual.  Uncertainty is a fact of nature and, like death, one our culture would prefer us to deny or ignore.  Beginning afresh over and over again, staying present, staying patient, is something we must learn, like circus skills, tightrope walking or juggling.  If it has to be so, we may as well make it exhilarating, entertaining.

Hope

When the Residency started I was concerned the burden of focussing so thoroughly on the Climate Crisis might be too much to bear.  You have to become slightly obsessed with a subject, immersed in it, to write about it at all.  Is that what I wanted to spend all my time thinking about?  I doubted my capacity for scientific information, my resilience, my energy levels, my ability to transform what I learned into poetry.  It’s been a stretch, tiring and boggling, but, eleven months on, I’m feeling more hopeful about our potential for radical transformation.  Because of my reading and all the online gatherings I’ve attended, I’m now much better informed.  Knowledge brings power and hope.  The story portrayed in the media tends to be on the dark side because that is the language of the ‘news’, however it’s clear that we have all the resources we need to take us into a carbon zero society.  What we are lacking is unambiguous backing from governments and legal systems to keep the fossil fuel industry in check.  The steady work of countless inspiring individuals and projects goes unreported in the mainstream news.  We have heard about the US election result and that has brought more hope, an immense relief after months of fearing the worst.

Challenge

Although there is occasion for hope, many obstacles remain and much work still needs to be done to fundamentally rethink how we live in the world and create a new ecological civilisation.  Reducing emissions will help stabilise the impact of mass migration, resulting from drought, floods, poor crop yields and political instability.  Even a 2 degree rise in global temperatures will create around 30 million migrants each year; if it rises by 4 degrees, that figure will increase to around 150 million.  Open up any topic that needs political attention and Climate is an inextricable strand in the tangle – energy, ‘the environment’, transport, housing, finance.  Although attention has been, understandably, diverted towards the challenges of the pandemic (itself adding considerably to plastic waste, a downturn in public transport and adversely affecting people’s mental health and well-being), Climate Crisis is still the biggest existential threat on the planet, as Greta Thunberg so valiantly keeps reminding us.  The story needs changing to help us replace all coal-fired power stations with renewable energy.  The law and human pressure can make this happen, if we open our hearts and minds to the damage we’ve caused, feel the grief of it and step beyond it into the practicalities of what needs to be done. 

Transformation

Black Lives Matter has shown us deep-rooted change starts with ourselves if we don’t want to be complicit in systems that perpetuate racism and injustice, intolerance for all diversities and the destruction of nonhuman species and habitats.  This is a personal as well as a political dialogue.  To do any deep work, we need to be capable of concentration, not constantly distracted by the digital world. I’m fiercely dedicated to my practice and process as a way of harnessing my own power in relation to Climate action, staying in tune with my responsibilities as a citizen of my small republic in the North and of the world.  This finds expression in my work as a writer, inseparable from my commitment to an engaged Buddhist perspective on the ethics and ecology of what is real.  Thai Forest Tradition teacher Ajahn Sucitto, in his book Buddha Nature, Human Nature (available for free distribution), says we can ‘choose not to look away, keep our eyes open so we can make clearer choices about what to eat, buy, who to associate with, how to occupy ourselves and who to vote for.  Meet and share and help each other and participate in a positive spiral.’  We can choose to stay informed and make small adjustments every day.  Seamus Heaney always used to say it’s what you do, how you live, in between the poems you write that matters.  That is where all the potential lies.

Joy

A stray entry found in my orange notebook, undated but from earlier in the year, provoked by some (now forgotten) brick wall of joylessness:

Why is joy a dirty word?  Why does it make most of us cringe?  Do we think we don’t deserve it?  Are we superstitious, imagining we might jinx it if we say it out loud?  Is it just not British?  Not polite?  Or modest?

For a while in this work I kept on safe territory talking about hope (encouraged by Rebecca Solnit), while privately thinking about faith and my own idiosyncratic relationship with my ‘spiritual practice’ (too grand a term – basically how I consciously choose to live my life).  The collision of idealism and imperfection has given me many opportunities to unlock a felt sense of compassion (another more dangerous word might be love).  At the bottom of that, and on top of it too, is a palpable awareness of joy.  I can’t live or love, do anything without it.  It’s the positive energy I need to get out of bed in the morning and stay in touch with myself and have faith in my own creative fire.  This is what Christiana Figueres calls ‘stubborn optimism’ – the rebellion or resistance in staying true to your deepest values – not giving way to the doomsayers, the whirl of the world where everyone talks and no one listens.  There is joy in listening, as there’s joy in sometimes turning the volume not just down but off.

Sometimes there is an implication in environmental messages that human beings are the problem – the best solution stripping right back to zero, eradicating our footprint, our actions, our basic wayward energies.  This is an anti-life philosophy, promulgating old burdens of guilt and despair, associated with systemic ideas about dominance, violence and the myth of perpetual growth.  It is capitalism’s shadow played out in materialistic skin-deep environmentalism.  The truth is we are part of nature too.  We have a place among everything else on this planet.  All of us.

Stay with the ragged joy of ordinary living and dying.

Donna Haraway

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Murmuration

 

One of the projects I’ve initiated as part of my Climate Writer Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University has just launched online.  I’m hoping that Murmuration will bring people together in a far-reaching creative collaboration.  The poem that arises from it will serve as a collective inventory of what really matters, celebrating our love for the natural world at a time of Climate Crisis and Coronavirus.

 

 

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The concept is inspired by murmurations, those astonishing displays of aerial acrobatics we see in the air in autumn and winter, when great flocks of starlings gather. Flying together, but never colliding, starlings know there is safety in numbers.  In a murmuration the birds are protected from predators and cooling temperatures, while they share news and information and enjoy each other’s company, arcing, folding and singing together.

In the human realm, creative climate action requires both an individual and a collective response and the starlings’ murmuration offers a symbol of what can be achieved through community, collaboration and co-operation.

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The first thing people ask when I tell them about my post as Climate Writer is ‘What can I do?’  The words we use, think with and live by, are vitally important for sharing information and telling new stories of creative resilience, developing alternative ways of living together at a time of crisis.  We’ve already seen this happening since the restrictions imposed as a consequence of the global pandemic.  There are many new demands for our attention online and unanticipated distractions from the continuing crisis around climate and related imbalances.

With this project we might learn from the starlings, raise our wings and our voices in a powerful accumulating murmur, remembering to stay in touch with what we love about this miraculous world where we live.  It is a chance to share our observations, feelings, dreams and wishes. Together, we can make something spectacular, far greater than the sum of its parts, an ensemble work of art.

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You can contribute to the poem by writing between one and three lines of any length celebrating the natural world, beginning with either the phrase ‘Because I love…’ or ‘What if…’. I will distil and curate all the thoughts and impressions sent in into a single long poem, expressing the collective imagination of all the people who have contributed. Artist Kate Sweeney, who created the wonderful animation on our invitation trailer, will bring the lines to life, making an animated filmpoem, which will reflect our connection with this earth, the natural world and each other at this extraordinary moment in time.

You can read more details and instructions for how to contribute here.

Encouraging comments from Sinéad Morrissey at Newcastle University: “The really exciting thing about this project is that it’s all about the audience – a reaching out to anyone who would like to take part. An ironic consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is that, even in physical isolation, we can now connect with so many people digitally, without the limitations of time or distance. In other words, a whole new kind of conversation can take place. Be part of it. The launch of Murmuration will form part of Inside Writing: a digital poetry festival running through May, June and July, hosted by NCLA and featuring some of today’s most exciting poets responding directly to COVID-19.”

And Anna Disley at New Writing North: “At this stressful and uncertain time, one of the positive things that many people have reported is a new appreciation of the natural world; we are looking more closely at what is on our doorstep, noticing more.  This initiative aims to capture that appreciation, to use our collective voice to ensure our natural world is cherished and protected. Added to that, we hope it’s also an impetus not to revert to pre-lockdown climate damaging practices.”

Please think about writing your own ‘Because I love …’ or ‘What if…’ lines and send them in to the New Writing North website or using #writeoutside on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram by 1 August 2020.

Many thanks.  I’ll look forward to reading, flocking, flying.

 

 

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Neither Lion nor Lamb

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March

 

what light there is

filtered through the fan

of their feathers

 

the spine, pale and articulate,

of a fox or a hare

 

punctuated equilibrium

how earth evolves

in sudden ruptures

 

the sputnik graphic

alarmingly crimson

 

someone gets there

before me – liberating

the abandoned bicycle

 

in the open field of the day

plovers calling

 

the room full

of winter

it’s never been as warm

 

neat white flowers

of the barren strawberry

 

if a thousand people

look at the moon

there are a thousand moons

 

what I tell the bees

is between me and the bees

 

everyone stockpiling

against worst-case-scenario pain:

paracetamol, ibuprofen, codeine

 

the colour of persimmons

a new charity shop jumper

 

bags packed

last minute change of plan

staying put

 

the swift narrow rowboat

Truant Muse in cursive script

 

half going one way, half another,

trying to give myself away

to inexactitude

 

stay in touch

she says, not touching

 

bringing home snowdrops

a small handful

of lingering hope

 

a woman in a mask comes

to measure my per cubic foot energy

 

wild garlic tart

as much for the soothe of making

as the savour of eating

 

Spring Equinox: I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

warcabinetspeak

lockdown, self-isolation

linguistic distancing

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

the pilgrimage

of these days

becoming the path

 

two long-tailed tits

among the apple buds

 

my son comes home

we dance around each other

nothing is familiar

 

clapping the NHS

under a canopy of stars

 

a hedgehog emerges

from hibernation

leaves its traces

 

our prayer flags unfurl

as the chill wind blows

 

two pine logs and a plank

a new bench

for absent friends

 

in my sleep I steal back

yesterday’s lost hour

 

star of Bethlehem

hiding its pale light

among what the flood washed up

 

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The first image is a gogotte – a natural rock formation from the Paris Basin, 33 – 28 million years old (Natural History Museum).  The second, ancient and new, frogspawn in our pond.

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February

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Without thinking too much about it beforehand, I decided on Shrove Tuesday to give up Instagram for Lent, along with a few other things.  I wanted a chance to practise restraint, hoping that freeing up some space might leave more room for things I’d rather prioritise.

I’m still keeping my ‘year renga’ but have appreciated the change in pace that not filtering it through social media seems to have brought.  Perhaps I’ll always be primarily a pencil and paper kind of writer, thinking at the speed of graphite.  But here is the next instalment in digital form – February’s verses to look back on as we enter March and whatever it might bring.

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February

 

hibernating tortoiseshell

waking up too soon

 

for Imbolc

for Brigid

endings and beginnings

 

to explain grace requires

            a curious hand                                                                        (Marianne Moore)

 

in late light

pruning the apple tree

figuring it out as we go

 

fractal mosaic

of a dragonfly’s wing

 

in this dream

we are all at once hero

and enemy and saviour

 

flock of redwings

a shook tablecloth

 

life never speaks simply

it shows itself in its flower

it hides itself in its roots                                                                    (Luce Irigaray)

 

writing in my hut

calling itself Atlas

 

storm moon and hailstones

I warm myself

at your fire

 

the year’s first snow

settles on the trees’ north

 

in the city

a few hours of spring

petals peel back

 

in the market

for tomorrows

 

do not stand

in a place of danger

trusting in miracles                                                                             (Moroccan proverb)

 

curled against the world

a small white ibis

 

my driver knows

hardly any English but says

‘We need more water’

 

the charcoal seller

in his infernal cave

 

a city lost

between its past

and its future

 

the best thing about going away

is coming home

 

50 million years old

seedpod souvenir

from the flame tree                                                                           (Brachychiton acerifolius)

 

I admire his blackboard and chalk

keeping track of the bins

 

as if we were out at sea

the wind’s waves

gusting and toppling us

 

however far you walk

the road stretches on

 

I open the front door

onto a wall

of compacted snow

 

mandala of wood

atlas of the imperilled world

 

a dead man’s tattoos –

fail we may

sail we must                                                                                       (RIP Andrew Weatherall)

 

dressed in ceremonial kimonos

they look back from the future

 

how to translate

all these words

into acts of love?

 

alone and walking

against the weather

 

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THRIVING AND BALANCE

 

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It’s the last day of the year.  I wake up to frost on the fields and mist in the valley, my head still thick with a Christmas cold.  First thing, I listen to yesterday’s Today programme edited by Greta Thunberg.  It’s twenty past eight when they announce the news at six o’clock: ‘The time is out of joint’.

Top news is that ‘the coming year is the last chance for us to take action against Climate Change’ (according to Natural England and the Environment Agency).  It is already too late for those affected by the wild fires in Australia.  In Victoria, some are trapped, unable now to evacuate.  The images that rise in my mind are something out of a disaster movie – unreal, at a distance.  Another consequence of our collective blindness flickering inside my brain, not knowing where to settle.

Greta herself is introduced by several clips from her past speeches and, at the sound of her voice, I find myself weeping – the passion and urgency in it, its purity of focus and simple sanity.  A great wave of emotion sweeps through me – sadness, confusion, love and gratitude all tumbled together: everything we don’t usually hear in the news – how people truly feel – what passes through our hearts and minds right from when we wake up in the morning and switch on our radios.  Especially when we hear, as I do now, so many contradictions and disjointed switches of attention.

‘Individuals can make a difference but are not responsible for Climate Change…they can’t solve it on their own but individual action and what people choose to do in their lives is really important’.  (Steve Westlake, Researcher in Environmental Leadership at Cardiff University).  According to Steve, ‘every big helps’ – flying, car use, how we grow, buy and eat our food, how we heat our homes.  Governments and legislation have the power to reduce carbon emissions and the individual (theoretically) has the power to influence politicians.

Then, Kevin Anderson, who I heard speak so persuasively at Newcastle University in October, insists that across the globe we are still failing, ignoring the Paris agreements so that our emissions are continuing to rise to around 1%, and heading in the direction of a 3 or 4% rise by the end of the century, rather than the 1.5/2% cap we’re supposed to be aiming for.  He’s traced a lot of ‘imaginative accounting’: no one including aviation and shipping and the import of consumer items (all hidden in that little word ‘net’).  We have known the facts for 30 years and yet are still prevaricating, leaving a shameful legacy for the next generation and certainly not considering the impact on poorer parts of the world – those who consume and emit the least.  Cassandra-like, his predictions barely have room to land: this section ironically cut short because they are running out of time…

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The same happens with the next item – on ladybirds and bees, particularly the recent rise in the harlequin ladybird population, who are steadily eating our native 7-, 8- and 10-spot ladybirds.  The bees don’t really get a mention before it’s ‘time for the weather…’

‘It’s 7 am on Monday 30th December and the BBC News is read by Diana Speed.’  It’s Tuesday 31st December and the clock on my bedside table says 9.43; the frost still white out of the window, the sun shining, while the glaciers, even in the Antarctic – previously thought relatively stable, are melting.  One, called Thwaites, like a naughty public schoolboy, alone is responsible for 4% of the rising sea level.  One of the scientists says there is no going back: ‘we can’t regrow the ice sheet.’

Meanwhile, in the UK, wildlife species have declined by two-fifths, that is, nearly halved.  A much balder picture than the clinical ‘41%’ they use on the radio – more graspable, but more devastating.  Bathed in sunlight, the whole day ahead, I am sitting listening, the whole world alive and trembling inside me.

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I sit up a little straighter, heartened by economist Kate Raworth’s upbeat tone as she exposes the problems created by thinking only in terms of GDP and expecting endless growth – like having just one dial on your car’s dashboard to cover petrol, mileage, air and oil etc: it simply doesn’t work.  What she recommends instead is economies that promote ‘thriving and balance – something we understand in our own bodies’ – that meet the needs of all people while meeting the needs of the planet, taking into account health, education, housing, water, politics, reinvesting in soils, regenerating landscapes.  New metrics for the 21st century.  Officially the new decade doesn’t actually start until 2021 but everyone seems so keen to see the back of the old one, we’re ushering it in already.  The softer side of ‘imaginative accounting’ perhaps?

The positivity continues with an interview with Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja.  The band has been working with the Tyndall Centre and Liverpool City Council on creating a carbon neutral model for an upcoming concert and plan to travel by train when they go on tour next year.  In the background, they play a track I haven’t heard for nearly twenty years that takes me back to another life and does something strange to my stomach – not unpleasant-strange, just time-travelling-strange.  Because of music’s emotional resonance and social influence, del Naja says they have something to contribute to addressing Climate Change and they are committed to changing their way of doing business.

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What would it look like if we all changed our way of ‘doing business’?  Wouldn’t that be the best New Year’s Resolution?  For me, it’s something to do with Time – how we use it and how we think about it, straddling the Now of our daily choices and the invisible future of the complex, unanticipated consequences of our actions; holding both in our bodies at the same time, remembering Kate Raworth’s ‘thriving and balance’.  In the coming year I want to find out how to walk that edge.

When Greta Thunberg’s father Svante is interviewed, he talks about how all he wants is his daughter to be happy and so he and her mother ‘took time to listen’.  His wife stopped flying and he became vegan not to save the planet but to save their daughter, who had been distraught to the point of starvation and silence with the state of the environment.

In another report, Joanna Sustento from the Philippines, tells how she lost her entire family apart from her brother in the 2013 Super Typhoon Heiyan, and now dedicates her life to campaigning against fossil fuels.  It’s hard not to feel angry when the presenter Sarah Smith still insists on suggesting that there is no definitive evidence that extreme weather events were caused by Climate Change and still uses the term ‘net zero’ so carefully unpicked by both Kevin Anderson and Greta Thunberg.  Typhoon Heiyan was responsible for more than 6,300 lost lives and over 4 million displaced citizens.  The Philippines is listed as the country most affected by Climate Change in the Global Climate Risk Index 2015.

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The programme properly comes into flower in a Skype conversation between Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough.  Their shared openness and humility is inspiring.  When Greta says she is honoured to be talking with the man whose films she watched when she was 9 or 10, that showed her what was really happening in the natural world, David assures her he is very flattered.  But he says she has achieved in a very short time, what people like him have been trying to get across for the past twenty years.  She is ‘keeping the issue on the front line… Every day we delay changing things we are missing an opportunity.  In history no one has ever agreed but now we need some sort of consensus…some kind of electric shock to bring them to their senses.’

And then, again, the disjunction after this, with the shift to the Sports News and whatever’s happening just now between Celtic and Rangers (football, of course, more important than life or death).

Interviewed at the end of the programme, Greta Thunberg (less like ‘a brat’ than anyone I’ve ever met) admits it’s been ‘a very strange year’.  And wouldn’t we all agree with that?  She’s glad she’s being listened to but concerned that it isn’t being translated into action, seeing a huge lack of awareness in politics, finance and the media.  Pragmatic and realistic beyond her years, she knows that the campaign must continue whatever the crucial outcome of November’s UN Climate Conference 26 in Glasgow.  No single solution will solve everything but what she’s trying to do is change the conversation.  ‘Once we start to act, hope will be everywhere.’  Her phrase ripples out in the air, filling my room with the sweetness of what is possible.

She wants to go back to school and be educated like any normal teenager.  But, she says, ‘this isn’t a normal situation and we all have to step outside of our comfort zones’.  Climate Change is only going to become more urgent.  The medicine is to become active, says Dr Greta.  Inform yourself about the science, the actual situation, what is being done and what is not.  Be an active democratic citizen and make our governments change their policies.

If you do everything you can, there is no reason to be sad and depressed.  It gives you a meaning, makes you feel as if you have an impact.  It is an amazing feeling to be part of something bigger, she says: ‘I wish all people could feel like that.’

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As a sort of coda to the past three out-of-joint hours, the next news bulletin leads with Mark Carney, outgoing Head of the Bank of England, talking about Climate Change as a ‘tragedy on the horizon’ and asking ‘at what speed are we going to change?’

Festina lente – make haste slowly.  Take a fortnight to cross the Atlantic and raise the tempo. If we let go of everything we think we know about Time, maybe we will have a chance to thrive.  I come downstairs to start the day, hours and minutes already falling into a new balance as the light begins its slow annual return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Writing Lichen

There are still a few places left on my Writing Workshop – out in the field and at the Sill – next Saturday 10th August – looking at lichen.  Bring botanical lenses and magnifying glasses!  And cross fingers for fine weather.

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Iain’s photographs are stunning.  They beautifully capture these strange life forms that do so well in Northumberland – a testament to our clean air and fresh elements.  We’ll be moving between the real thing and samples of his images to write our own poems and short pieces in appreciation of lichen.  Even the word itself is mysterious and exciting – whichever way you say it – lichen!

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Poetry & Ecology

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In the Physic Garden

 

Andrew asks if spiritistically is a word

it is now I say

how do you spell it he says

and we sound out the letters together

him way ahead of me

written down they’re ghosts

of the evening primrose

throwing up its arms behind us

MOTH’S MOON FLOWER

says the sign and we lean in

to yellow like thunderbugs

drinking from wilting cups

spiritistically we are yellow

and black when they are the same

night and day – me and Andrew

his words I want to save

and the flowers I can’t

and it’s okay

what does kill or cure mean he says

 

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Just back from the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival where I was delighted to be awarded the Bronze in this year’s Ginkgo Prize for my poem sparked by a summer’s day at Dilston Physic Garden, working with a group of vulnerable adults from Haltwhistle on one of their Zig-Zag outings.

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The Prize was judged by poet Mimi Khalvati and gardener and writer Alys Fowler and organised by the Poetry School, following Resurgence’s initiation of a Poetry Competition specifically for ‘eco-poems’ a few years ago.  This year the newly-named Prize was generously supported by the Goldsmith Trust, which promotes the work of ecologist Edward Goldsmith (1928-2009). It was fascinating meeting everyone involved (including one dog – Pekingese – and one baby – North American) and all the other winning poets: a real live chain of interconnection – ecology in action.

There is a beautifully designed and produced pamphlet of all the winning and commended poems.  You can read it online here.  Our wonderful certificates were designed and hand-made by Charles Gouldsbrough.

Part of the award for winners and the runners-up is a 10-day residency in Ireland next Spring at Cill Rillaig Arts Centre, County Kerry.  The chain of interbeing continues and will grow…

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Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

centaurea

Medicinal Herbarium

*

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.

 

animals

*

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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