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.
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.
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?
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
The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.
…I want to propose an existential creativity. How do I define it? It is the creativity wherein nothing should be wasted. As a writer, it means everything I write should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species. It means that the writing must have no frills. It should speak only truth. In it, the truth must be also beauty. It calls for the highest economy. It means that everything I do must have a singular purpose.
It also means that I must write now as if these are the last things I will write, that any of us will write. If you knew you were at the last days of the human story, what would you write? How would you write? What would your aesthetics be? Would you use more words than necessary? What form would poetry truly take? And what would happen to humour? Would we be able to laugh, with the sense of the last days onus?
Sometimes I think we must be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine. Of the things that trouble me most, the human inability to imagine its end ranks very high. It means that there is something in the human makeupresistant to terminal contemplation. How else can one explain the refusal of ordinary, good-hearted citizens to face the realities of climate change? If we don’t face them, we won’t change them. And if we don’t change them, we will not put things in motion that would prevent them. And so our refusal to face them will make happen the very thing we don’t want to happen.
We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive. We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it.
We can only make a future from the depth of the truth we face now.
Our world goes to pieces, we have to rebuild our world. We investigate and worry and analyse and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency. We have to find our strengths and not our weakness. Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting: we still have our ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the absolute of our inner voice – we still know beauty, freedom, happiness…unexplained and unquestioned.
Momentum is gathering as people prepare for the COP26 Summit in Glasgow (31st October – 12th November). Lots of rallies and actions and conversations are happening as eyes turn northwards. The Camino to COP pilgrims stopped off in Carlisle and it was inspiring to hear their stories and to get a chance to wear the Coat of Hopes that will be placed on the shoulders of world leaders to feel the warmth and the weight of the prayers and wishes stitched into this beautiful garment, worn all the way from Newhaven on the south coast, up the country and across the border to Glasgow.
Tynedale XR made their own splash today with a march and a rally in Hexham, led by the rousing Dead Canaries samba band and a poignant rising and falling wave of blue. People are finding their own creative ways to add their voices to the unfolding climate story and I was pleased to be able to share our collective Dawn Chorus as part of Durham Book Festival last week.
This article is intended to give a sense of the background to Dawn Chorus and the process of making it. I hope you find it a useful complement to watching and listening. All responses much appreciated – and please do share it with anyone you think might be interested.
Poetry saves the world every day. It is how we declare our love for things and for other animals. It is how we remember… Poetry is how we give shape to our griefs, the better to see and measure and, in time, heal them… folding each individual experience of place and time into the shared music of what happens.
John Burnside (The Music of Time, 2019)
Dawn Chorus is an ode to new beginnings. Every day the sun rises once more – enacting a miracle powerful enough for it to be worshipped by ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians and the Aztecs. The sunlight brings everything back to life after the long dark night. The first to wake are the birds, who sleep with lidless eyes open. Their song welcomes the returning light and sings the day in. At its peak around springtime, the traditional mating and nesting time, the dawn chorus will start at around 4am and the waking birds will carry on singing together for several hours. A few years ago, out recording with Chris Watson, we identified calls of tawny owl, robin, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, wood pigeon, pheasant, wagtail, great tit, chiff chaff, goldcrest, wren and redstart. The sound and the light that morning did indeed feel like a miracle. But we forget to notice a miracle that happens every day.
It’s hard to think about new beginnings when we’re witnessing so many endings. In his wonderful book Songs of Place and Time (co-edited with Bennett Hogg and John Strachan, Gaia Project Press, 2020), artist Mike Collier tells us that ‘during the past 500 years about 187 of the world’s 11,147 bird species are estimated to have gone extinct. But it is projected that during the next 500 years three times as many – 471 – species may go extinct.’ This alarming prediction sits alongside everything else we know and fear about Climate Change, happening now and forecast for the future. I was disturbed to discover that studies have shown birdsong is changing in response to increasing noise levels in urban areas. Lower tones have disappeared, replaced by higher noises that are able to compete with human interference. It’s harder for these birds to attract a mate, so fewer eggs are laid and fewer birds hatch. Something else that goes beyond our notice.
Our Dawn Chorus project is part of my Writing the Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University, supported by Arts Council England. Working with Christo Wallers, artist and film-maker, I wanted to capture the energy of the waking birds in ‘a collective sound poem for the beginning of the world’. In my mind’s ear, many different voices melded in a polyphonic audio piece, a kind of ear-mosaic to wake us all up to the climate and ecological crisis we are facing.
Tackling the challenges of changing an archaic carbon-heavy system into a sustainable and fair one, we need to begin again every single day, with renewed commitment. This very human endeavour will never be perfect – we will try and fail many times – personally and politically. But no matter, we must keep going forward with our net-zero, low-impact destination in mind.
An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.
Rebecca Solnit (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009)
I wonder if most young people see the situation more clearly than most older people, worn down by years of struggle or clinging to the status quo. The younger generations deserve better – lives ahead of them of abundance, opportunity and freedom. This can only happen if we keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees C. Already, at around 1.2 degrees, we are seeing wildfires and floods and life-threatening extreme weather events creating chaos and displacement. The concerted effort required to respond to the ‘Code Red for Humanity’ signalled by the most recent IPCC Report is waiting to be more broadly harnessed. There still seems to be a massive gap between what people need and want and what governments and corporations are choosing to make possible. The carbon emissions of the world’s richest 1% are more than double those of the poorest half of the world and 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There are hopeful signs of people working for change all over the world. Every day we have a chance to begin again. Every day we ignore this opportunity intensifies the crisis, making it harder to address. The COP26 summit in Glasgow in November is an important date in the Climate Calendar. Will we hear a chorus of voices raised to commit to lowering emissions and consumption to safe levels as soon as possible, or will what we see be another missed chance, ‘a circus of corporate corruption’?
The Dawn Chorus is a symbol of community – grass roots, non-hierarchical – with space for everyone to be heard. In response to an open call, 115 people all over the world sent in their recordings – short and longer pieces of poetry, often with birdsong (especially the blackbird’s, flying in and out of so many lines), sometimes water, or other ambient sounds: one church clock, one cock crow, one full-blown song, complete with piano accompaniment. The sound quality was variable, but every single crackle and blur spoke of a human being making the effort to add their voice to the call for change and starting over. As well as their words, close up to the microphone, we could hear the sound of their breathing, the nuances of accent and intonation, against the background of noises off. Although we asked for no more than 30 seconds, in a very human fashion, quite a lot of people ignored our ‘guidelines’ and just did what they felt was right and sent in whole poems.
My task as curator/editor was to listen carefully and hear what was being sung in all the contributions, amounting to hours of audio, to catch the flavour and intention of the piece, and then to tune in to the individual voices and the shaped breath of their words. I approached the orchestration of the piece collage-style (not unlike with our previous collective project Murmuration, 2020), first transcribing all the submissions so I’d have a text to work with and refer to. The initial document ran to 20 pages (5,540 words) and by the end the poem was distilled into 1571 words. Ten people sent in their lines via email rather than as audio and we recorded those with family and friends.
I made a page of notes of the themes and images that kept recurring, using the touchstone of the prompts I’d offered in the initial invitation – I am…, I want…, Today…, We are… . The lines fell naturally into a pattern of time – the course of a single day from night to dawn to dusk and back to night again, as well as incorporating the wider sense of past, present and future, whole generations who’d shared the gift of the dawn chorus. I kept that as a loose template for the ordering of the extracts.
It was important to me to use all 115 voices, though we hear more of some than others. I hoped to give a sense of the immense richness and variety in the readings. There is real freshness and surprise – the true spirit of the dawn chorus, and the courage, innocence and optimism needed to broach the thorny tangle of the climate crisis. All 115 people from all corners of the globe are singing their hearts out – along with the birds summoned by their words. You only have to listen to be persuaded that, despite some appearances to the contrary, humanity has plenty going for it, enough to make the trajectory towards positive climate action manageable and creative.
This soundpoem is in the long tradition of oral poetry, spoken word, uttered with the ear, the imagination and the heart in mind. Continuity and survival are contained in it. After the long dark night, we can begin again.
Why add more words? To whisper for that which has been lost. Not out of nostalgia, but because it is on the site of loss that hopes are born.
John Berger (And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, 2005)
In the studio with Christo, 115 people’s diverse voices filled the room. There was much listening, discussing, rearranging and listening again. Initially we spent full days together, with both of us working and reflecting in between. The pace matched the process, careful, attentive, minutely focussed. Reflecting on the editing process, Christo adds: ‘I think of the notion of the People’s Assembly as a dawn chorus for our times. Each voice steps forward in the sound piece with conviction and clarity of mind. The difference in recording quality is mainly controlled by the technology people have to hand, and we expected a variation considering the open call welcomed everything from Whatsapp voice messages to studio-recorded audio files. Softening the difference was important to erase a hierarchy between voices, but we didn’t want to do so much that the specificity of each person’s contribution was diminished. My mind is so steeped in video conferencing imagery as a new democratic forum that it felt very natural to hear this type of sonic variation.’
We incorporated some of Chris Watson’s dawn chorus recordings at certain points to complement the various background and foreground sounds from the submitted audio pieces and this added to the sense of creating a community of human and beyond-human contributions. Before all the recordings came in, I’d imagined using an existing abstract artwork as a backdrop. We knew we didn’t want anything too illustrative that would distract from the listening experience. As we became more familiar with the atmosphere of the piece, it became clear that something else was called for, something created especially for the words. Christo also had ideas about integrating the text as ‘subtitles’ as the words were spoken.
He set up his camera to film the North Pennines landscape early in the morning as the light changed and the mist lifted in the valley. The ash tree with its signs of dieback is our protagonist, muse, bird-shelter and shadow-keeper. ‘The visual element of the tree, which plays daily host to the dawn chorus, stands also as an open object onto which listener-viewers can project their thoughts and hopes as they hear the poem. It forms a passage between thinking as a human and as non-human. The single take is purposefully ‘slow’, like James Benning’s films or Larry Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970). In that slower present, different thoughts and possibilities are more available’, adds Christo.
Another day together in the studio brought sound, image and subtitles in sync. Then further refining and adjusting before we finally settled on a version we were happy with. Watch and listen – watch or listen: your choice. We hope Dawn Chorus works with your eyes open and with your eyes closed – try both for a different experience. We hope too that it bears repeated listening so its rhythms percolate into your own dreams and plans for a kinder future.
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so that it can be thought… For poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architect of our lives.
A new month always feels like a clean page, full of promise and possibility. The start of February coincides with Imbolc and Candlemas and is all about new beginnings. Halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, this traditional Celtic festival marks the beginning of spring and asks us to celebrate Brigid (‘the goddess whom poets adored’) with fire, food, candles and song. The snowdrops are in bloom and no other flower embodies the sense of hope more than these flowers, usually the first to appear in our gardens and woodlands, lighting the way at the end of a long dark winter. In our current situation, kept close to home, peering out at an uncertain future, we feel the need to welcome the light more than ever.
This cross-quarter day feels an auspicious beginning for the next phase of Writing the Climate, an extension to my Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University. I am delighted (and relieved) to have been awarded an Arts Council Heritage Lottery Grant to help support another two years of work in the community and on my own writing. Last year we initiated various heartwarming and fruitful projects, laying the foundations for more ways to connect around writing about the Climate Crisis and telling the truth about where we find ourselves. This year, all being well, the postponed COP 26 meeting will be held in Glasgow in November, providing us all with an opportunity to raise awareness of the pressing need to keep climate adaptation and mitigation on the agenda, at the front of our hearts and minds.
Soon after my Residency began last January I was invited to read at a Festival in Casablanca. Despite my intention not to fly that year, I found it very difficult to say no. Like so many of us, I love to travel and longed to spend some time in that fabled city. It was hard to live with my own torn feelings of ambivalence and guilt. As it’s turned out, the pandemic has helped me keep my compact not to fly and has tainted its appeal in all sorts of ways. Still, it’s strange to think there are some places I may never now see or return to in my lifetime.
I wrote about my flight shame – the Swedish term Flygskam, perhaps better translated as flight conscience – in one of the first poems I wrote while thinking about how to approach writing about Climate. Whether we choose to fly or not, most of us in the West are deeply implicated in damaging and escalating fossil-fuel related carbon emissions.
At the bottom of my itinerary it says
FLIGHT(S) CALCULATED AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS
IS 546.44 KG/PERSON.
I am that PERSON
and I don’t know what 546.44 KG AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS are.
I envisage them as a toxic cloud, speckled with charcoal dust,
sense the sky-wide weight of it on my back.
I carry the burden of Atlas, hero, victim, martyr.
If I touched it, it would be cold,
smelling faintly of gas, as if I’d forgotten to turn the cooker off
after boiling milk for my morning coffee.
The milk spills.
The blue flame gutters and goes out.
The gas leaks.
The coffee’s travelled from South America.
I sit and drink it in my kitchen in Northumberland.
The gas is syphoned from a tank in my garden
I’m trying to disguise by growing a hedge of hawthorn
and willow, the grass in front frilled with snowdrops.
Three times a year a tanker comes to fill it up.
The pipe makes a sound between humming and hissing,
a long black poisonous snake
slithering through the gate across the lawn.
A few weeks later I get a bill for more than I can afford.
It’s February. The old stone house is freezing
with the heating turned off.
I sip my coffee, read my flight itinerary and look it up:
546.44kg of CO2 is more than half of all the emissions
the worker on a coffee plantation in Colombia
would produce in a year.
A white winged thing thrashes
through the cloud in my chest,
struggles to fly free.
I’m still thinking about how to approach writing about climate. I’m not sure I’ll ever come up with any definitive answers – writing about climate is writing about the very fact of life itself – but the work is in the doing, the living, and watching it all unfold. Active hope plays an important part – what poet Adrienne Rich called the ‘art of the possible’. Tomorrow, for Imbolc, I’m leading a workshop for Hexham Book Festival – Writing into the Light – where we’ll be exploring how to make hope realistic but bright in our poetry. There may still be a few places left if that’s something you like the sound of.
Creative imagination’s promise is that resilience is always available. We turn toward poems in loss or despair, toward their writing or their reading, because even poems that face darkness carry the beauty and resilience of original seeing. A good poem is possibility’s presence made visible. That restoration of faith in continuance is something we need.
Jane Hirshfield, Interview in Columbia Journal, March 2020
In Paris in 1968 protesters held up placards saying
Forget everything you’ve been taught. Start by dreaming.
Imagination is not a luxury!
Be realistic, demand the impossible.
In the wintriest winter for many years, February begins with a real sense of possibility – as I write this the light is streaming in through the window and that always helps. I feel very encouraged by a mood in the air that people have had enough, they know change is necessary and are ready for it. The page is not exactly ‘clean’ but we can write over it and make a new stratigraphy, a palimpsest (like artist Edmund de Waal in his library of exileand on Radio 4’s Front Row).
All our intentions and voices together will help create the tipping point, the critical mass we need to make the future more sustainable. This is the spirit of Murmuration, the collective poem project I initiated as part of my Residency last year – so happy to see it highlighted by Maria Popova on her always illuminating Brainpickingssite. Kate Sweeney’s beautiful animated filmpoem has already had over four and a half thousand views on YouTube and that’s apart from those who’ve watched it via Durham Book Festival, and now on Maria’s ‘inventory of the meaningful life’ and shares on Facebook. There are many more than we can count. Poetry, like hope, is contagious – it flies long distances. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year’s flocking brings.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several years ago I visited Cheeseburn in Northumberland on the Solstices and Equinoxes and Cross Quarter days, spending time in the gardens and grounds. It was a sanctuary for me after Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, had closed. I struggle with my own semi-wild garden, high and wind-ravaged, with a very short growing season, wedged between a field of sheep and a strip of woodland, never quite managing the sense of luxuriance I long for. So I enjoy visiting other gardens and luxuriate there.
Cheeseburn was a perfect place to witness the changes that happen over the course of the seasons – a mixture of the natural, the elemental, and the man-made. It was also going through major changes in preparation for housing more sculptures and opening to the public on a more regular, formal basis. I was privileged to be there, on the sidelines, able to watch this transformation. Since then, as a result of the dedicated and enthusiastic work of Joanna Riddell and Matthew Jarratt, the place has become very popular, much-loved, and an important site in the region for supporting new artists.
The knowledge I’d gained of the setting at Cheeseburn informed Compass, a sound installation with Chris Watson, commissioned by Cheeseburn in 2015, and shown in 2016. Because Cheeseburn’s early summer opening this year has been curtailed, a new version of Compass is being released online over the next five weeks. As well as the original four pieces set in different parts of the garden, reflecting the points of the compass and the seasons of the year, Chris and I have created a new compilation piece, A Year and a Day, spanning the entire year. You can listen to these works on Cheeseburn’s Facebook page, YouTube and Sound Cloud.
Revisiting my various notes for this piece, I came across the earlier monthly blog pieces I wrote for Cheeseburn from my initial visits as Poet in Residence. I’ve added them here, in a new Archive space on this site, for those who’d like to read them alongside listening to the recordings as they are released. It’s good to be reminded of the long arc of history as well as the passage of the seasons at this particular time. This too shall pass. But some things, the important things, we hope, will endure.
Last night I attended the Opening of Susan William’s Exhibition ‘From Dust’ in the Constantine Gallery at Teeside University, Middlesbrough. In February, Sue asked if she could commission me to write a poem to accompany her suite of ceramic sculptures as she was reluctant to ‘put any words in front of the work’. We’d both seen an escalation in the emphasis on critical theory in the creative arts in recent years and, in our respective practices, prefer a more embodied, intuitive approach. Apart from thoughts along these lines and a brief discussion of the word imago and the metamorphic cycle, we didn’t talk about her work directly, keen that any writing that might come out of the process wouldn’t be illustrative or attempt to ‘explain’ the sculptures, but rather set up a new dynamic between three-dimensional form and text. In this way, it felt more than a commission but not quite a collaboration, existing itself in some liminal space between the two. I very much appreciate her making the space to invite a wild card element into this presentation of her work and for trusting my response. There is the sense that it’s taken us both somewhere new, beyond the limitations of self-generated and -focussed activity into a multi-layered exchange.
Let’s start here: at the end,
when you lay me to rest,
according to my wishes,
in the mother’s milk
of snowdrop flowers
– this hollow between seasons –
slow, green hyphens.
In a final negotiation
of wet and dry, I’ll pierce
the snow with my bones.
Won’t there be hope in my going?
For hope’s own sake.
For the snowdrops.
May their petal blades
helicopter my ashes
gusts of that first breath
a sudden cry – my name
in blue air, stir the silt
of what we must learn
about earth, this clay
we’re born from,
about how to love it.
Even as we burn.
If you’re down that way, do call by to see the show. Sue’s work is both strong and delicate, quiet but powerful, and deserves a large appreciative audience.