Tag Archives: ecology

Learn the Flowers

stay together

learn the flowers

go light

Gary Snyder

From Habit, Ability! at the NewBridge Project in Shieldfield, Newcastle – a neighbourhood I have a soft spot for as my father was born and went to school there.

In the final moments when only the most meaningful strands of life remain,

it’s really our human connections that rise to the top.

That’s the clarity that we get at the end of life.

But it was my parents who taught me from the earliest age

that we don’t have to wait until the end of life

in order to recognize and act on the power of connection.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General under Barack Obama

Thinking just now about patient urgency and/or urgent patience. Yes?

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The Knucklebone Floor

Thrilled that The Knucklebone Floor has been shortlisted for this year’s Laurel Prize. You can learn more about the shortlist and details of the Prize here. If you’re in the vicinity of Birmingham or Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 9th or 16th September, do come along and join in the celebrations.

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I dug out a postcard from a few years ago of an earlier version of one of the poems in the collection.

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And looking up recently, I discovered a wasp’s nest in the roof of my little shed’s porch – a small beautiful construction – apparently what taught the Chinese how to make paper. Paper – the magical element that so binds and absorbs us.

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WE CAN DO THIS

The one other thing I think has been really important for me is about hope. First of all, yes, these are very dangerous times. The problem is big and urgent and things could go really badly. But the future isn’t written yet. The IPCC report recommends that the planet’s usage of fossil fuels peak by 2025, and that usage is cut in half by 2030 with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. WE CAN DO THIS. Not that it will be easy, but it is possible. We need to fight to get there. And the biggest thing we are up against is our own despair. And one of the biggest tools our opposition has is to trigger our hopelessness. In a world with so much trauma and harm, most of us have early experiences that left us feeling alone or terrified or unloved or that we shouldn’t get our hopes up. The climate crisis feels huge and can leave us each feeling overwhelmed when we look straight at it. So many choose to self-distract. But the key is not to avoid looking, the key is to look together. And in order to really face this crisis and win, it often means having to separate the leftover feelings from our childhood defeats.
 
For me, it’s hard to face the reality of the climate crisis. But it’s unbearable to look at it through the lens of my early childhood trauma. When I feel overwhelmed by what’s happening in the present, I call someone to talk about it, but I also spend time looking at what it is from my early life that it reminds me of. It’s important not to live in the recording of being a small child when other, more powerful people were in charge. I am a grown woman with a lot of personal power. And when people get together, we have infinite collective power. 

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The inspirational writer and editor Aya de León – you can read more of her interview with Amy Brady of Burning Worlds (Climate Change in Art and Literature) here.

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Yours sincerely

It’s now or never.  According to the latest IPCC report, to keep global temperature rise under 1.5C means that carbon emissions from everything that we do, buy, use or eat must peak by 2025, and fall rapidly after that, reaching net-zero by the middle of this century.  The total amount of CO2 that the world has emitted in the last decade is the same amount that’s left to us now to stay under this key threshold.

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In this third and final collective project of my Writing the Climate residency, we are inviting you to write (and send) a letter about your take on the accelerating climate and ecological crisis.  As writers, our superpower is a way with words, and words are energy – they make a difference to the world we live in.  Here is a chance to harness your creativity and skill to lift the way we use our energy, to express your feelings and ideas on this crucial subject, affecting all our lives now and looming over our children’s future.

It’s up to you who you choose to write to – your MP, the PM [ I wrote this before the latest developments!…L ], the Dalai Lama or the Pope, the CEO of Exxon, BP or Shell, a wildfire fighter in Australia or a reindeer herder in the Arctic, your best friend, your descendants or your ancestors.  When you write, you hold the whole world in your hands.

Hands typing on retro typewriter

Send it in whatever format you like – via email, postcard or letter – whatever might help trigger a small change in how you feel about climate change and mass extinction, as you articulate what really matters and clear a space for active orientation and engagement.

This will inevitably make a difference to your letter’s recipient too and, alongside all our participants’ letters, will contribute to the momentum for change and deep shift in our collective awareness and imagination that we need.

As well as sending your letter out into the world, please send a copy to us and we’ll gather them together to be shared more widely. I will choose a selection to form part of an installation at this year’s Durham Book Festival in October, and they will also appear on a special Writing the Climate webpage.

Find words for the inexpressible, what’s on your mind, in your heart, on the tip of your tongue, and shout them to the rooftops or whisper them in a loved one’s ear.  Share your voice not just with one other person but with the whole trembling, fragile world… If not now, when?

Please limit your letter to maximum A4 page length in whatever form and font you like – prose, poetry, cartoon, storyboard.  You can hand-write it and scan it in, or send us a physical copy or a photograph. You could write it on a postcard or type it up on your computer (or even share it on social media: tag us @newwritingnorth and use the hashtag #TheClimateLetters). Whatever your letter looks like, just make sure it reaches us by Monday 22nd August.

To send us your letter online, fill in this form.

Or send it by post to:

3 Ellison Terrace, Ellison Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8ST (by post).

If you have any questions, please email kathryntann@newwritingnorth.com.

We look forward to reading your letters and setting the power of your words to work in the world.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Climate

What we talk about when we talk about climate is pretty much Everything.  Which is what makes it so hard to talk about – and in particular to write about.  But rather than deter us, we could let that encourage us to be curious and inspire us to be creative, allowing our imaginations to wander, on and off the page.  

That’s what naturally happens, if you’re lucky, when you’re able to start writing freely and follow the thread of your intuitions.  In my experience it seems to require you to be as present as possible, rooted in your own body and its sensations and suggestions.  ‘Thinking about climate’ is just that – thinking, with the tendency to spin around in ever-widening circles of doom, catapulting you further and further away from where you are.  Come back…Don’t get lost!

Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.

Arthur Ashe

Last week the excellent Ginkgo Prize for Ecopoetry published this year’s anthology and I’m happy to have a couple included.  One of them – ‘Stone Curlew’ – speaks to that impulse to lose touch with yourself and loop off anywhere but here.

Stone Curlew

I watch the way you want to reach the end

before you’ve begun. Here there is only this

egg and our sitting in shifts to keep it warm,
at the mercy of weather, another bird’s hunger.

Trust me, you must go to unknown places
and stay inside your body while you try. Look at me

being bird. Why is being human so hard?
I see you – fragile and fierce. What if every single day

were your only chance of incubating what wants
to be born and that was all you had to do – be there 

what you were made for, enough to make a stone sing? 

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You can read all the wonderful Gingko poems here.

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Having some sort of focus or structure is helpful as we face up to the challenges of living with climate collapse, ecological extinctions and an uncertain future so I very much welcome a new essay that’s starting to circulate, written by two medical ethicists calling for a new system of bioethics, taking the planet and all its species into account, and proposing six ‘Ethical Maxims for a Marginally Inhabitable Planet’.

According to Pierre Hadot (1995), who they quote:

when the time comes, they [maxims] can help us accept such [catastrophic] events, which are, after all, part of the course of nature; we will thus have these maxims and sentences ‘at hand’. What we need are persuasive formulae . . . which we can repeat to ourselves in difficult circumstances, so as to check movements of fear, anger, or sadness. The exercise of meditation [on maxims] is an attempt to control inner discourse, in an effort to render it coherent.

Aren’t poems a little like maxims, ‘persuasive formulae’, distilled experience, concentrated insight into what it is to be human that someone might carry around to help them see in the dark?

In essence, David Schenck and Larry Churchill’s Six Maxims are:

1. Work hard to grasp the immensity of the situation.

2. Cultivate radical hope.

3. Have a line in the sand.

4. Appreciate the astonishing opportunity of life at this time.

5. Train your body and mind.

6. Act for the future generations of all species.

This is important and immensely useful guidance, chiming beautifully with Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects and Chris Johnstone’s Active Hope Training. I’d definitely recommend you read the whole article here. If you find it at all helpful, please pass it around among your family, friends and colleagues.

As the authors say, from their long-time experience working in hospitals with patients in extremis, responding to unexpected transitions is a difficult ongoing process, involving the emotions and the body, as well as the mind – all of our selves that the climate and ecological emergencies (i.e. everything right now) is asking us to bring.  And the great thing is we don’t need to do it alone – we’re all in this together and can help each other simply by admitting how we feel, sharing our fears as well as our dreams, and listening – really listening – to each other.  That’s where radical hope lives – uncomfortable, urgent and open to action.

Which brings us back to the fundamental questions addressed by the maxims: what kind of person will you be, and what will you teach and model for your colleagues, your students, your families?

We ourselves find this list of maxims daunting. But this is how maxims work. Maxims have to do with how we do everything we do – a tone and style of living – as well as with the implementation of certain practices. Maxims are, in significant part, about keeping morality itself alive in a catastrophe. They demand of us that which we have difficulty demanding from ourselves.

Schenck & Churchill

What else to do but be there – like a bird on an egg

and start where you are.  

Begin now.  

And keep beginning over and over again.

Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the universe.

D.H. Lawrence

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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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I am because you are

Please Call Me By My True Names





Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow —

even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving

to be a bud on a Spring branch,

to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,

learning to sing in my new nest,

to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,

to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death

of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing

on the surface of the river.

And I am the bird

that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily

in the clear water of a pond.

And I am the grass-snake

that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.

And I am the arms merchant,

selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,

refugee on a small boat,

who throws herself into the ocean

after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am the pirate,

my heart not yet capable

of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,

with plenty of power in my hands.

And I am the man who has to pay

his ‘debt of blood’ to my people

dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm

it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.

My pain is like a river of tears,

so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once,

so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,

so I can wake up,

and so the door of my heart

can be left open,

the door of compassion.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The image is of the Earth Flag proposed by EarthFlag Foundation to symbolise global unity – one peace, one planet.

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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

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The Song of Our Species

‘I think as an ecologist. But I feel as a member of a great family – one that includes the elephant and the wheat stalk as well as the schoolteacher and the industrialist. This is not a mental condition, but a spiritual condition. Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world. Now, of course, in the hives and dungeons of the cities, poetry cannot console, it carries no weight, for the pact between the natural world and the individual has been broken. There is no more working for harvest – only hunting, for profit. Lives are no longer exercises in pleasure and valor, but only the means to the amassment of worldly goods. If poetry is ever to become meaningful to such persons, they must take the first step – away from their materially bound and self-interested lives, toward the trees, and the waterfall. It is not poetry’s fault that it has so small an audience, so little effect upon the frightened, money-loving world. Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.’

Mary Oliver

A few wintry verses from this past year’s renga

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Gwen carries her own placard

I don’t want to live

on a spaceship

            what you give the forest

            the forest gives you back

I plant eight buddleia

hoping for a summer

astonished by butterflies

            defrosting the freezer

            is today’s weather

all the little suns

on my glasses

are rain

            more a question

            of when not if

our culture 

written in snow

and the planet’s on fire

            everything racing 

            wily coyote legs

a raw stillness

in the house

Arwen’s blessing

            on the short day’s back

            the long night

trailer load of logs –

alder, Matt says,

burns hot

            this will end

            this will carry on

[Quotations from Eugenio Montale, Laurie Anderson, Moshe Feldenkrais, Octavia Butler, Henrik Blind.]

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I’m not coming to the revolution unless there’s dancing

On Sunday it was a joy to come together with the Brothers Gillespie and a room (not just any room – a room that could have been a ballroom in a Tolstoy novel…) full of lovely people for our Earthwords poetry and music event.  I only realised just before we took the floor that it was the first time I’d done a live reading since February 2020. It took me a while to warm up, but I soon settled in and remembered why I do what I do – and love it.

Many of us are feeling such sorrow and grief, guilt and shame, loss and disappointment at the state of the world that it’s easy to feel broken and powerless.  Coming together to listen and reflect in a space of music, sung and spoken, creates stillness enough to reconnect with our own agency and creativity, as well as with each other.  The work of staying with the trouble, trying to be open to what the climate and ecological crisis is asking of us, is demanding and exhausting at whatever scale we choose to be involved.  Even simple day-to-day living can put more pressure on us than we feel we can bear.

Sunday night was a chance for regeneration and reconnection via the traditional pleasures of poetry and song.  There was a vivid sense of community and I had a feeling that everyone there together created a healthy mycelium network, intent on planetary survival and ecological well-being.  This has the power to spread beyond Tolstoy’s ballroom – into all the nooks and crevices and conversations and exchanges of our lives.

For me, the event was an important celebration of work done so far – my own small efforts and what I witnessed in Glasgow.  Although the final agreement was disappointing – needing to be much bolder and more urgent – progress was made.  The powerful presence and persistence of the coalition of protesters percolated through the security barriers into the negotiations.  Their demands, though not addressed, were at least acknowledged: that sort of energy and sheer numbers are impossible to ignore.  The coordinated network of movements are intent upon keeping up the pressure between now and the next UNFCCC Summit in Egypt in 2022.  We must all do whatever we can to support them – practically and financially.  The climate emergency can’t be addressed by good intentions alone.

Listening to James and Sam’s beautiful music so rooted in the land I love affirmed my wish to do whatever is necessary to protect it from harm.  Isn’t that what humans do?  Why we take care of babies and young children – because we love them?  Those stories of people who find remarkable strength and capacity inside themselves when faced with an emergency and someone needs saving – isn’t it that sort of wild buried energy that we need to tap into now?

A crisis is also an opportunity.  Transformation is never easy – change and evolution involves pain and confusion.  Aren’t we all familiar with that jangly energy that’s in the air all around us and inside us just now?  I certainly am – especially after a couple of years of deep immersion in this radical process.  Maybe we can try to breathe it in, not brace ourselves against it.  This chaos is also part of us and part of a moving towards a new way of being that we’re having to learn – and can also find pleasure in.

At certain points on Sunday night I was reminded of the marches in Glasgow.  On the Saturday Global Day of Action march and rally there were lots of wonderful musicians – brass bands, salsa bands and drummers.  Their playing kept everyone moving forward in rhythm, warmed and encouraged by the vibrant sound.  You could feel it in your whole body.  Every now and again the bands would have to stop because people started dancing amid the crowds – a spontaneous, freeform, joyful surrender to the music, their companions and the crowds that was incredibly moving to witness.  I watched from the sidelines but I was dancing inside.

Emma Goldman said ‘I’m not coming to the revolution unless there’s dancing’ – a quote I used as an epigraph for my first collection, Red, in 1992.  Didn’t the soldiers in the trenches in WW1 sing together?  Which reminds me of another quote, from Martin Luther King Junior: ‘Those who love peace need to learn to mobilise as effectively as those who love war.’  As we gird ourselves for the long haul that is facing transition, risk and chaos and supporting those in other parts of the world as they face greater suffering, we must remember what we love and what music we want playing while we love it and as we march, dig, plant, sign petitions, make banners, lobby parliament, write poetry, knit blankets or dance – whatever your body feels moved to do

There’s more to say about where poetry and music touch and maybe I’ll try to say it sometime.  One of the places is silence – they both join opposites and make it possible to be more ourselves, capable of more than we sometimes think.  Immense gratitude and appreciation to all the musicians who played for us in Glasgow and to the Brothers Gillespie for where they took us on Sunday night.

The Brothers Gillespie are currently crowdfunding for their third album The Merciful Road.  If you would like to support them and be part of another healthy mycelium network, you can find the details here.  There are lots of very affordable pledges offering the chance to be one of the first to receive a copy of the album, either downloadable, on CD or vinyl – or, for a little more, have your very own song written for you or a whole ceilidh band to play for a special occasion. Meanwhile you can hear more from them on their website.

  

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