Tag Archives: photography

August

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August is a yellow month – hypericum, mullein, alchemilla, ragwort, oilseed rape.  A small black beetle is inexorably drawn to all that yellow and the promise of protein-rich pollen, hence its generic name ‘pollen beetle’.  August is also the month for an insect less visible to the eye – the berry bug or harvest mite, in the Trombiculidae family, relative of the tick.

Every August the wily, indiscriminate berry bug (that the French call aoûtat after the wily, indiscrimate month) comes to my garden – and me – to feed, enjoying what sweetness I have left.  With its precise and persistent mandibles, the larva punctures my skin, injects a digestive enzyme, chews a hole called a stylostome and leaves raised red itchy spots on my arms, legs, torso, neck.  Without realising what’s in the air, I start scratching and then, it dawns – the hypericum’s in bloom, and I remember it’s that time of year again: August, the difficult month.

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Looking back, the long summer holidays stretched out into an infinity of sunshine and sand and no school – an exciting, dangerous mixture of freedom and boredom.  Where we lived, on the south coast, most of that happened near water, either salt or chlorinated, but sunny days that weren’t beach or pool days would be spent either ‘down the lane’ or ‘over the railway line’.  These were lonelier places and therefore potent with risk, though no one spoke of that; the taboo carrying a terrible weight of darkness.

‘Down the lane’ there was water, a trickling stream and a flat wooden bridge, and sometimes boys, precocious with leer and innuendo.  It was where I learned what an oak tree was, saw my first celandine and picked blackberries, scratched much worse than a hundred berry bug bites.  It was where a girl called Hazel from ‘up the road’ fell out of a tree and got spiked on a piece of metal jutting out of an abandoned van.  The drama – screams, blood, sirens, uniforms – hushed us all for days.

‘Over the railway line’ there were pigs that squealed and grunted and boys on scramble bikes that whined like giant insects.  Hidden by trees, there was a circuit they would ride around in pointless ovals on Sunday afternoons, a ritual of speed and petrol.  This was the place where every December Mum and I would go in search of a Christmas tree.  My mother trying to carry her saw nonchalantly, as if it were a handbag or umbrella.  Again, this was dangerous, forbidden but necessary, some ancient feudal right.  No one else used to have Christmas trees like ours, long-needled straggly pines, sticky with resin, rather than compact, domesticated, garage-bought spruce.  We’d spend a long time choosing ‘the best one’ – the right size (no taller than the ceiling), a good branching shape – and carry it back, Mum at one end, me at the other, like a comedy double act.

We’d also collect cones that my mother would paint white or scatter with glitter to make Christmas decorations, miniature worlds that confounded scale, where a tiny Santa Claus sat on his sleigh in a forest of enormous pinecones and a tall red candle that year after year was never lit.  We’d find holly and cut a carrier bagful to prop sprigs behind pictures or on the mantelpiece in odd little pots that only appeared at Christmas out of one of the big brown cardboard boxes Mum kept on top of her wardrobe.  The holly also scratched and prickled but it was easier to bear then because we were all wrapped up in coats and scarves.

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I grew up thinking that was what ‘Nature’ did to you – cut through your skin, made you itch, sometimes drew blood.  It wasn’t clear to whom it belonged, whether we were entitled to it or not.  It was all somewhere else, prepositional – ‘down’, ‘over’, ‘across’, ‘beyond’.  Entering it meant crossing a threshold into another world, transgressive, full of menace. Our occasional forays to find something we needed, according to the season – brambles or greenery – involved taking something that both was and wasn’t ours.  The house was changed by it, more and less itself.  It made me feel the gnaw of adrenalin, cortisol, that sense of a bigger, unknown world beyond our street, my school, the town.

My mother had a phase of making arrangements out of dried grasses and ornamental seedheads – arid affairs that gathered dust on the radiogram and windowsills.  I’d keep going back to look at them, touch them, puzzled by this bit of outside brought indoors, not knowing if they were dead or alive.

Because we lived in a flat we didn’t have a garden.  There was a small patch of green in front of our block planted with bland shrubs that never flowered, mostly waxy laurels, a single oak tree, with thin grass in between.  My mother was the self-elected custodian of this contingent green space, requiring her to go out with shears and saw at regular intervals to keep everything in check.  The job was really housework outdoors, a stay against chaos and doom, the shame of untidiness.

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A bookish child, I recoiled from anything with a whiff of animals.  The nearest I got to the countryside was Anne of Green Gables, and later Wuthering Heights – an unhealthy bipolar map of the world.  When we read The Wind in the Willows at school, I sulked and tuned out, listening to my own thoughts instead.  What had a talking toad to say to me?  I have great caverns in my imagination full of trapped rabbits and lost otters, caged bears and dark horses.

One reliable zone of fascination however was the wildflower series of Brooke Bond Tea cards.  It was incredibly exciting when my mother opened a new packet and I could slip my fingers between the green paper and the lining to fish out a new card and see what it was.  I learnt everything I know about flags of the world, the history of cars and costume from them.  And wildflowers.  That’s how I knew that the yellow flower that grew down the lane in the spring was lesser celandine, and recognized others from C.F. Tunnicliffe’s blurry paintings:  cowslip, sweet violet, foxglove, ragged robin. 

 Their names were enchanting – the sound of them like snatches of song, a spell, the sort of thing you might call someone you loved.  These flowers might have been printed on small rectangular pieces of card tucked inside packets of tea but I recognized them.  Naturally they became part of me, my story, an almost whispered, immensely seductive invitation to explore one corner of the natural world that didn’t bite and mostly didn’t scratch, that stayed still, didn’t run away and abandon you.  Flowers made no noise.  Among them there was no sense of trouble.  I knew I could go there because I was there already – I was ‘of’ it – a lesson in the genitive case.

Another geometric world I shared with my mother was more arcane – even the name sounded mysterious, like a flower itself.  Philately.  Around the age of ten I became interested in stamps and, with my junior kit (album, hinges, starter set and magnifying glass) bought from Woolworths in the town a bus ride away, I began collecting.  I soon graduated to being a specialist – having ascertained that a proper philatelist concentrated on stamps from one country, or illustrated with a chosen theme.  More for pragmatic reasons than patriotic ones, I decided to collect stamps from what everyone in those Commonwealth days called Great Britain.  I pounced on all the letters that arrived through our letterbox and soaked the stamps off their envelopes in saucers of water; big commemorative ones, a special prize.  As with the tea cards, this is where I extended my education and learned about the world’s currencies and capitals, British bridges, the origins of antiseptics and the Red Cross.  My mother and I would go to stamp fairs and look at thousands and thousands of stamps in an afternoon.  I’d buy a few sets or first day covers to add to my collection and when we got home we’d consult the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, amazed how much each scrap of coloured paper was worth.  Whenever a new set of stamps was issued, my middle sister, who still lived at home, would post me a first day cover.  Although the anniversaries they commemorate have long past, I still have them – Votes for Women (50 years), TUC (100 years), Captain Cook’s First Voyage (200 years); my sister’s rounded capitals in thick blue biro, my name and our address, before postcodes were invented.

Turning the musty yellowing pages of my home-made loose-leaf folder, which I still have, I discover the threepenny Spring Gentian issued in 1964 to mark the Tenth International Botanical Congress in Edinburgh.  There’s a smudge and a space where both the hinge and stamp have been lost above my note recording the ‘1/3d Fringed Water Lily’.  By the time I was nearly nine in April 1967, the price of a second-class stamp had risen to 4d.  There were four different ones in the British Wildflowers series – Hawthorn and Bramble; Larger Bindweed and Viper’s Bugloss; Ox-Eye Daisy, Colstfoot and Buttercup; Bluebell, Red Campion and Wood Anemone – all taken from Keble Martin’s classic Concise British Flora.  The 9d Dog Violet and the 1/9d Primrose were drawn by the distinguished botanical artist Mary Grierson.  Both their names in tiny capitals at the bottom of each stamp; I had no idea who they were, or what many of these flowers looked like in Real Life.  But I was touched in a place that stamps celebrating National Productivity Year or British Technology, or even the First Flight of Concorde, could never reach.

Despite my focus on British stamps, I also had a soft spot for stamps from other countries emblazoned with flowers, intriguing as book covers in a foreign language – lilies from Hungary (Magyar), cacti from Brazil (40 pesetas), waterlilies from Viet Nam, tulips from Afghanistan (‘Queen of Sheba’ and ‘Jewel of Spring’).  When I went to the Grammar School and started to learn it, I began to understand the usefulness of botanical Latin – all those different countries, alphabets and painting styles, using the same way of describing their flowers.

And for all their bright extravagance, it was comforting that they were contained in squares and rectangles.  Sometimes even triangles, from countries I’d never heard of.  The shapes were like flowerbeds, small pieces of garden you could hold in your hand, carry in your pocket or pencil case, put in a special book to look at on rainy days or lonely nights.

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Edna O’Brien called August ‘a wicked month’.  It is a difficult month for us all, I think, but especially for gardeners.  The big story about growth is past, fewer plants are in flower and things are starting to get blousy, set seed.  Hungry caterpillars and insects leave their perforated calling cards in petals, leaves and stalks.  Green is starting to fade and dry.  Karel Capek, in his curious and wonderful book The Gardener’s Year, published in 1929, says ‘a real gardener feels it in his bones that August is already a turning point.’

Those achingly long summer holidays.  Nights still short, showered with meteors, petals falling from the heavens. Postcards landing on the mat, pictures of faraway places and exotic stamps.  Tanned skin freckled with bites.  A big fat book to disappear inside.  My mother’s birthday, Lily – named after a flower – who showed me all she could of Nature, in that strange, tight world, the working-class garden of the 1960s.

 

I wrote this for Durham Book Festival nearly a decade ago when I began the botanical journey that led to my poetry collection ‘Reading the Flowers’, published by Arc in 2016.  To celebrate it being on this year’s new Laurel Prize longlist, initiated by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and the Poetry School, Arc have a special offer throughout August.  You can buy the hardback for the price of the paperback (the offer also applies to my previous collection ‘You are Her’) via their website.  In these difficult times for small presses (and poets), buying poetry books is a great way to support literature and culture and keep us all thriving.  

Enjoy your August and stay well.

 

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SOME THINGS I’VE NOTICED

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Threshold

There’s been so much to assimilate – on an individual and collective level – since Covid 19 grew to pandemic proportions and affected all of our lives, I’ve not written anything reflective about where I am with my work for some time on my blog.  The coronacoaster has necessarily distracted vital attention and action from the Climate Emergency, while holding a mirror up to it and giving us in the global South a small taste of what living with disaster and deprivation is like.  A recent Mori poll indicated that two-thirds of the global population believe Climate Change is as dangerous as Covid 19.  The inadequacies of our support systems laid bare a chilling lack of preparedness and resilience.  If we were in any doubt before, we are witnessing the old order unravelling and no one really knows what will come next.

 

As lockdown is beginning to ease, there is a chance to take stock and look closely at the threshold we’re now desperately trying to keep steady on, before deciding what threads we want to renew and carry across for life on the other side.  We could jettison denial for a start.  Not speaking truthfully about Climate Change, the pandemic and death itself – the pressure to always be positive and partisan – perpetuates an unbalanced, insecure system and an essentially dishonest culture.  We are seeing many people choosing not to participate in it – a more welcome contagion.

 

Although it’s a vulnerable and dangerous place/time, this threshold is also one of great openness and possibility.  Change – newly aware, informed and inclusive –  needs to happen at a quicker pace than previously thought.  We’ve all seen the alarming news from Siberia rapidly overheating, the Amazonian Rainforest continuing to be razed by fire and Arctic ice melting, creating a warmer, bluer ocean that reflects back the sun’s rays, disrupting whole weather systems and melting yet more ice.  The UK government’s strategy to revive the pre-existing moribund, toxic economy, reinvesting in fossil fuels and harmful food supply chains, is a fatally lost opportunity when healthier, fairer and environmentally friendly enterprises and pathways are at hand, ready to be implemented.

 

I’m not the only one who sometimes feels angry, disappointed, fearful, confused and full of sadness.  While it is important to feel those feelings and continue to work with our millennia-old twisted and tangled karma, we can decide what we want to take into our shared future.   I hope our fears and wounds from the past might spark radical transformation rather than knee-jerk reaction and further injustice.  Carved in stone in the Canongate Wall of quotations outside the Scottish Parliament, one from Canadian poet Dennis Lee makes a good, practical suggestion: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’.

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Tightrope

The threshold can feel like a tightrope between hope and despair, pessimism and optimism, and transformation too much to ask.  Perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s sense of cultivating hope as a ‘mode of resistance’ might be more within our grasp:

‘I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful.  I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily       optimistic.  Here’s how I would describe it.  The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a    terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’  The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I        don’t think it’ll be that bad. The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still        be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’    …Hope is…a mode of resistance…a gift I can try to cultivate.’

 

Every day I walk my own tightrope between different weathers in my heart and mind in response to whatever inner and outer work, interactions with others, physical well-being, reading, viewing, listening etc is acting upon my imagination and the space I occupy in the world from moment to moment.  I’ve noticed how much I’ve been conditioned to polarise – to choose a position between two opposites – like the hope v. despair antithesis.  The same binary dynamic skews any new thinking about other ways of framing the Climate Emergency.  I’ve often found myself on a seesaw juddering between the need to digest the science, confront the ramifications of difficult-to-absorb data, and my default intuitive approach (via poetry and Buddhism as an interwoven practice) of cultivating judgement-free embodied awareness.  As if these approaches were mutually exclusive, at odds with each other.  I hope to expand my own capacity to integrate both, bring a sense of deep and kind presence to my reading of the distressing facts and let those facts in turn percolate into my more open, creative awareness.  I don’t want to find myself paralysed and numb, ceasing to engage.  One of my favourite Susan Sontag quotations (of which there are many) is ‘Writing well is the best revenge.’

 

I’ve noticed how much highs and lows have been magnified under lockdown, every small triumph or failure, ache and pain, gaining out-of-proportion purchase with none of my usual escape routes.  This effect is triggered by the fight or flight response to stress or trauma – a primitive, reactive, self-protective mode, necessary for survival.  I’m more contented and function better when I can go beyond simply surviving to an expansive, creative, sustainable thriving, taking others as well as myself into account.  There’ll be a lot more fight or flight in the air if measures are not taken to mitigate and adapt to global warming and related environmental catastrophes.  I know in my own body that I’d prefer to avoid that scenario.  What would it look like if we could all adjust our moral compasses and find our True North, to help navigate our way through the times ahead?  How can we expect integrity from our governments if we don’t commit to it in our own lives?

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Stepping Up   

Lockdown has been an entirely different experience for everyone – even those in the same household.  Across the world we’ve been united in dealing with a threat to our existence but major inequalities and discrepancies around poverty, race, age, class, gender and geography have been exposed.  We all need to work with that, live from it at a personal and political level and redress what needs to be redressed.  This requires a radical new culture of empathy and kindness.  The Dalai Lama tells us: ‘Compassion is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.’

 

The regenerative power of multiplicity and diversity revealed itself in the way local action and mutual aid has worked so heartwarmingly in respect to the Covid crisis.  Communities have shown their strengths and grown more tentacles.  Everyone matters in the exchange between what is needed and what is offered at a local level.  There have also been important lessons and new opportunities in terms of the local economy, particularly when it comes to food production and supply.  Act local, think global is not just a clever slogan.

 

I’ve always felt a strong need to connect, collaborate and cross-fertilise around my work.  I really appreciate the way I am changed by my interaction with others, enlarged and enriched by creative exchange.  Post-Covid I’ve had more inklings of that dynamic simply being around others, strangers as well as friends, in the supermarket, on local walks, in Zoom conversations, over cups of tea in my garden (and I’m very aware of my great good fortune in having a garden at all, as well as plenty of outdoor space on my doorstep).  Strangely, despite isolation and physical distancing, I have felt less of a solitary being, more sensitive to and appreciative of my dependence on others.  My work requires great swathes of time spent alone – sometimes I feel that might be why I chose to be a writer, simply to ensure I have enough of the solitude I need.  However, the Climate Emergency (of which Covid is only one symptom) is calling on me to override my preference for a quiet life.  That ship has finally sailed.  My deeply rooted needs and values around connection and community have risen to the surface, asking me to overcome any resistance to pushing myself out of my comfort zone and find ways of being real and creative with frustrating online platforms, challenge myself more (I’ve taken up running for goodness sake), have more faith in what I might have to offer and accept imperfection.  That old number from Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better…’.

 

I tell myself that most of the time it’s enough just to be present and honest, open to what a particular person or situation demands.  I want to give what I can where it’s needed.  And I don’t doubt it is.  More reflective, contemplative strengths, usually associated with introverts, are crucial as we gather on this threshold, awake to ‘the wild beauty of the invisible world’ (John O’Donoghue, ‘For Belonging’).  It’s time to hear more from quieter voices and less of louder ones.  Going deeper might help us get to the roots of the problems we face.  A new radicalism is already on the rise and that is something worth carrying forward.

Roshi Joan Halifax talks about Zen Master Dogen’s encouragement ‘“to give life to life,” even if it’s just one dying person at a time, one caregiver at a time, one child at a time, one life at a time’.  I’ve also been pondering what she has to say about not-knowing and surprise:

‘…what I call “wise hope” requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to being surprised, perpetually   surprised. And I think that wise hope emerges from deep inside the preconscious only     through the spaciousness of radical uncertainty, of surprise.’

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About Time

Recently I’ve had a chance to take stock of the poems I’ve been writing during my residency as Climate Writer.  For my ten-minute slot on NCLA’s Inside Writing, I chose to take a snapshot of some of my thoughts about Time.  You can listen to the podcast here, along with lots of other interesting work from these interesting times.  How are you dealing with them?  What do you want to carry with you across the threshold?  You might be interested to see a wordcloud from the London Climate Action Week webinar on Post-Covid Climate Resilience I attended last week.

Be well

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The jellyfish are from Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival, a wonderful film by Fabrizio Terranova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Autumn Colour

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Caramel

 

It takes the louche cool

of late summer on the heel

of a long-drawn-out

drought to bring out the best

in a leaf

before it sets free its ghost.

 

When desire isn’t all

that matters, then fall

is the deciduous rise

to the surface

of carotene, anthocyanin

or xanthophyll,

 

silenced till now by the clamour

of chlorophyll.  And even this

sweetness must be lost –

a red lament of abandon,

defiance,

indeed, utterly natural.

 

 

 

From Reading the Flowers (Arc, 2016)

 

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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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Roma

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I started reading Muriel Spark’s The Public Image (1968, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), set in Rome, on the flight over.  She mentions that Time tends to go anti-clockwise there.  I was interested to see how that played out during my fortnight’s stay at the Accademia Brittanica, The British School at Rome.

 

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A fortnight is too short and too long for a writer – enough time to relax and be complacent, whilst staying open, searching for what stirs you; and not enough time, once you’ve found your hook, to stay there and excavate, experiment, understand and deepen.

 

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All the city’s clocks were full moons, electrical storms, a partial eclipse.  Rome – Eternal City, Dead City – is bigger than you are.  You might as well submit.  I went to see a friend read from a book he’d written about the moon.  He wasn’t there – just a ring of people talking about it.  In Italian.

 

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‘Go thou to Rome,’ said Shelley, ‘the paradise, the city, the wilderness.’  For me, lingering in gardens, it was more paradise than wilderness.  Although the often 30 degree heat felt like a small lick of inferno.

 

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Inevitably in the heat, I was drawn to the city’s many fountains – particularly the forty in the Villa Borghese Gardens – one per two hectares.  And there was a memorable outing to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, where the fountain is god and goddess and my mouth stayed wide open all day long.  A big O, clock, water spout, moon.

 

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Now I’m home, I’m not sure what day it is.  Whatever direction Time is going in, I will pluck the day and eat it.  Carpe Diem.  A hundred thousand fridge magnets can’t be ignored.

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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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In the House of the Wind

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The House the Wind Built

 

This is where we live now

the chimney redbrick roaring

a hollow trunk open to the flow

of the wind a bellowing fall

of wind a bellyful all day long

trying to breathe it in / break free

 

Since the trees were felled

I’ve stayed close to the floor

prone trying not to feel flayed

flaying around so full of flay

and fall all my freckled skins shed

succumbed to floor or flaw

 

 

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Windows on Jordan

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Before I travelled to Jordan I became slightly obsessed with Lee Miller’s Portrait of Space, taken when she was in Egypt in 1937.  I pinned a copy on my kitchen wall and later, after visiting her exhibition at the Hepworth, propped a postcard on my mantelpiece.  It was thrilling to discover my very own version in the bathroom of my flat at the CBRL – the same torn fly screen and sense of an unknowable beyond (literally in my case, with the opaque glass and shadowy Islamic curves) – uncanny as well as affirming to find this significant view had travelled east with me.  I took it as a good sign.

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One of the events I participated in in Amman was a session with English Literature students from Jordan University – all wonderfully well-read, enthusiastic and attentive young people. In the Q & A after my reading, one of them enquired about my position as observer in my poems – always looking rather than doing.  We’d already discussed Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ and Keats’s ‘negative capability’ so I was sorry that I perhaps hadn’t expressed clearly enough how active I believe looking and listening are, how much they demand of us – often far harder than talking or doing.

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It was a reminder of the risk that looking and listening, both happening in silence, won’t be seen, acknowledged or valued in our hectic, cacophonous world.  What is slow and reflective must be as important and transformative as more visible engaged energy.  Don’t we need both – as individuals and collectively?

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Spending time in Jordan gave me plenty of opportunities for observation – spiced with the exciting freshness of surprise – but also to connect, communicate and play.  Moving between being alone and with others, I was able yet again to interrogate my ideas about folk (of all tribes) who appear different from me – how we might occupy the space together.  It also took me to a place where I could re-acquaint myself with all the ‘others’ I carry inside me, my own warring factions and scapegoats.  There is never simply looking or listening: alone or all-one, we are always thoroughly implicated – and knowing that, changes the quality of our various modes of perception.  This is the space a writer (or an artist, like Lee Miller) must climb through and create from, making something invisible visible.

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So that is my task now – assimilating and tentatively transforming my experience, notes, reading and images into some new writing, mindful of 19thcentury traveller to the Levant, Isabella Romer’s warning that trying to find anything new to say is ‘like squeezing a squeezed lemon’ (1846).  I think maybe she was guarding her own threshold too jealously.  Better to keep in mind the TLS’s review of Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown, her compelling (though not unproblematic) account of a journey through Syria, published in 1907:

Women perhaps make the best travellers, for when they have the true wanderer’s spirit they are more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men.  They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions.  Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily.

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I stayed in Amman during September as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr Fadia Faqir and the British Council.  

You can read an earlier post from Amman on the Durham Book Festival blog.  There will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with my Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan chaired by Fadia Faqir on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm.  All are very welcome.

 

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