Episode 4 – Fire of In Our Element – a poet’s inquiry into climate change is now available. This one includes a wonderful poem called ‘The Gate’ from the Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn about a shockingly recent mining disaster and the memories and associations it evoked for her. I really enjoyed my conversation with Menna, a longtime activist and force to be reckoned with.
We also hear from local folk band the Brothers Gillespie. They came up to my place one Sunday this summer to play and sing in my garden – attracting the vocal attention and admiration of the field full of cows. ‘Tina’s Song’ tells the story of Tina Rothery, co-founder of the Nanas, a campaigning group of concerned grandmothers protesting against fracking in Preston New Road, Lancashire several years ago. She was taken to court and fined £55,000 by mining firm Cuadrilla for simply taking part in a peaceful protest and finally found not culpable and released with no charge.
On November 21st The Brothers Gillespie and I will be back together for an event called Earthwords for Hexham Book Festival’s outreach programme. They’ll be singing some more of their beautiful songs rooted in the Northumbrian landscape and I’ll be reading some recent poems, inspired by a new relationship with my local patch during last year’s lockdown – work in progress from my Writing the Climate residency. You can find more details and book a tickethere.
It’s been very exciting to see these podcasts rippling out after such a long period in production, broadcast by Resonance FM and several other community radio stations and also available on most podcast platforms. Each episode takes an element as a starting point to explore the complexity and challenges of this critical time: Earth, Water, Fire and Air; with, from the Chinese tradition, Wood and Metal; as well as Space and Consciousness, elements that feature in some Buddhist practices. Investigating these help all the contributors – activists, engineers, conservationists, academics, thinkers, poets and musicians from around the world – find common ground to deal with difficult subjects arising from the Climate Crisis.
We’ve already heard from organic gardener and compost expert Andrew Davenport in the Earth Episode, alongside US poet Jorie Graham and Canadian Climate Justice professor Deborah McGregor. And in the Water episode Nancy Campbell, Charmaine Papertalk Green and Suzanne Dhaliwal. All the contributors pop back in later episodes with more to add on some other element. I’ll say more about the contributors to Air, Wood, Metal, Space and Consciousness – and our final episode Regeneration – later. This is still all quite fresh and certainly a very new medium for me so I’m still assimilating and figuring out what this many-headed creature is that I’ve made, working with the talented audio producer Philippa Geering of Sonderbug Productions in York.
As protest or praise, music is almost another element in itself, with contributions not just from the Brothers Gillespie but also from Joshua Green, with his specially commissioned signature song and a gorgeous setting of my cuckoo poem (look out for it in Episode 9 – Consciousness), as well as Una and Freya, two small girls who added their own big voices to the Fridays for the Future School Climate Strike in September 2019.
Talking with all these thoughtful and engaged people left me with a sense of faith in humanity’s capacity to transform our current suffering into a more sustainable future. It’s important to remember there is great power in what we make together – active hope – whether that’s an engineering system, a protest against so-called development or a song or a poem dedicated to a bird or a tree – or even a United Nations summit.
Do listen in – and let me know in the comments below what you think, what these poems, thoughts and music stir in you.
When science starts to be interpretive It is more unscientific even than mysticism. To make self-preservation and self-protection the first law of existence Is about as scientific as making suicide the first law of existence, And amounts to very much the same thing.
A nightingale singing at the top of his voice Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species; He is giving himself away in every sense of the word; And obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence.
A tiger is striped and golden for his own glory. He would certainly be much more invisible if he were grey-green. And I don’t suppose the ichthyosaurus sparkled like the humming-bird, No doubt he was khaki-coloured with muddy protective colouration, So why didn’t he survive?
As a matter of fact, the only creatures that seem to survive Are those that give themselves away in flash and sparkle And gay flicker of joyful life; Those that go glittering abroad With a bit of splendour.
Even mice play quite beautifully at shadows, And some of them are brilliantly piebald.
I expect the dodo looked like a clod, A drab and dingy bird.
thanks to the poet Mark Nepo for pointing me in the direction of this poem
Just past the Autumn Equinox and there’s that beginning of term feeling in the air, a quickening as the seasons slip down and along, a new coolness in the air. It’s been a strange not-quite-there summer with more work in it than play. But the fruits are ripening with a number of events connected with my Writing the Climate residency coming up I hope you might have time, space and inclination to check out.
At Durham Book Festival on October 12th at 7pm you’ll be able to tune into Dawn Chorus, this year’s collective poem project I’ve curated and orchestrated with artist and film-maker Christo Wallers. 115 people from all over the world sent in their audio clips in response to our open call and we’ve gathered all of them together in a very special collaboration that captures the spirit of the birds’ waking up to renew our commitment to positive climate action, however that may play out in our individual and collective lives. You can find the details here – and there’ll also be an essay available soon about the making of the piece. I look forward to hearing how you find it in the comments box in the online space on the night – especially all those who contributed. Thank you for your inspiring words.
Straight after the premiere of Dawn Chorus, you’ll be able to stay and watch a conversation between myself and Kate Simpson, editor extraordinaire of the powerful new anthology Out of Time – Poems from the Climate Emergency(Valley Press, 2021). We’ve called it Beginning Again and, as well as discussing Dawn Chorus, we’ll be putting our heads together to think about what poetry can bring to a climate crisis that it’s hard to find the right words for Full Stop. You can see all the details here. Both events are free, and a link will be available soon.
Once Dawn Chorus is launched, our podcast series In Our Element will also start airing. As well as being broadcast on Resonance FM and several other local radio stations nationwide, two episodes will be released on New Writing North’s sound platform every week leading up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November. Produced by Sonderbug, there are ten altogether and each one focuses on a particular element as a way of exploring different perspectives on the climate and ecological crisis. I’ll write more about this and all our wonderful contributors in more detail later, but for now I just wanted to let you know it’s on its way.
There’s also a chance for the over-50s to take part in an online reflective writing workshop, offered on Friday October 8th (1 – 2.30pm), as one strand of the Older and Greener initiative from Newcastle Elders Council, Newcastle City Council and Equal Arts. It’s called Waking Up to Climate and you can find out more about it here. Again this event is free, but booking is required as numbers are limited.
I’d also like to say thank you to the Journal Culture Awards for voting me Writer of the Year. It was strange and very moving to back among the region’s cultural community for the first time in 18 months at the prize-giving event in Durham Cathedral. A bat flying between the pillars all night was a memorable highlight. Congratulations to all the shortlisted artists, performers and organisations.
This sounds like enough to be going on with – but do join me for one or all of these various events, nicely timed for the growing dark and this beautiful wild time of year.
Currently working on Dawn Chorus, our new ‘collective sound poem for the beginning of the world’, I’ve been revisiting the process of making last year’s Murmuration. Although a lot has changed in the wider world, many of my aspirations and intentions still apply. And in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow in November, raising awareness about the Climate Crisis and mobilising as much personal and political positive action as possible is more and more crucial. This is not an ‘issue’ – it is a collective endeavour to ensure the balance of the planet and its ability to support life.
I came across this unabridged version of an interview about Murmuration for Durham Book Festival 2020 (with Reviewer in Residence Heather Craddock) and thought it might be worth reproducing in full here. I’ll write more about the making of Dawn Chorus once it’s finished.
Heather Craddock: Murmuration takes on the challenge of engaging with the vast issue of the climate crisis through hundreds of individual perspectives. In what ways do you find poetry to be an effective form for depicting the scale of climate change?
Linda France: That’s an interesting question. On the face of it, poetry is a miniature form, dealing with detail, the particular, so it might not have the reach to convey the scale of Climate Change, a creature with many entangled tentacles. But poetry’s secret weapon is a depth charge into the emotions, a place of immense power and capacity to connect. Poetry embodies ‘Less is More’. Highly compressed, working with silence and white space, everything it doesn’t say has the potential to ignite the reader’s imagination, which is a vast unquantifiable space. Think of Blake’s ‘heaven in a wild flower’ and ‘universe in a grain of sand’: that’s the sort of scale poetry operates on.
HC: How do you view the role of creative writing in the climate crisis?
LF: Rebecca Solnit has written: ‘An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.’ (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009). One of the things creative writing can do is help us ‘rise to the occasion’. From a practitioner’s point of view, it has the capacity to play a part in the cultivation of a sense of presence, qualities like clarity and courage. Taking time and space to write creates an atmosphere of self-care and discipline in our lives at a time when we all feel under extra pressure. Dealing with the technical demands of grammar, syntax, focus and style keeps our communication skills honed and helps remind us what really needs saying and what might be better left unsaid. Taking a reader into account is a way of staying connected with others, remembering our common humanity. T.S. Eliot Prize-winner Roger Robinson says ‘Poetry is an empathy machine’! To write well you need a critical and appreciative awareness and this in turn helps you look beyond yourself, gain perspective and stay orientated. And it’s important to remember writing is a real pleasure – it’s not all hard work and worthiness. There is joy and delight, a freshness in staying awake enough to play with language and rhythm, metaphor and form and share it with others. Again, hugely important in times of stress and uncertainty. So, on an individual level, I’d definitely recommend it.
From a wider cultural viewpoint, I think writers have an important contribution to make at this time, not least in offering a corrective to the slanted, superficial and divisive perspective created by the media. Neither simply a doomsayer or a cheerleader, a writer thinks longer, deeper, harder and their work will present different angles on climate justice and environmental challenges that will expand a reader’s awareness and suggest new ways to engage, politically and personally, with the situation we find ourselves in.
The Climate Crisis is not happening ‘out there’. This is our lives now and, in the face of what is an existential threat, everyone is required to reflect on the part they play in the interconnected ecosystem of life on our planet. We’ve already seen how our current crisis involves issues of race, gender, class and poverty and we can all examine our own relationship with these and do what we can to be part of the solution rather than the problem. Reading is an excellent starting point in educating yourself and staying open to positive change. Books transform the way people think and that transforms how they act. In a place of accelerating and often confusing change, they are helpful touchstones and guides, connecting us with readers across the world.
HC: What do you hope contributors might feel when reading and watching Murmuration?
LF: American poet Mary Oliver said ‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’ – I always wanted it to be a celebration of the natural word. People only protect what they love and I wanted the project to be a reminder of what we appreciate about the world, what we’re in danger of losing if we don’t take the necessary steps. I want everyone reading and watching Murmuration, whether they contributed any lines or not, to feel implicated, part of something bigger than themselves alone, and for the work to be open enough that they can find their own ‘story’ in it, make a personal, as well as a shared connection.
HC: Do you consider the final piece to be primarily a celebration, or a warning, about human relationships with nature?
LF: I don’t think you can separate the two – isn’t that the point of the Crisis we find ourselves in? We celebrate it because we know the dangers, the risk of losing it. There’s no room any more for nature as simply a recreational activity, solely for the enjoyment of human beings. We are nature too and there’s nowhere else to go, as one of the lines in the poem says, nowhere else to escape to, no ‘away’ where we can throw our rubbish. What happens on the farthest side of the world affects us all.
Murmuration walks the tightrope between hope and despair, establishing the tricky ‘edge’ we must negotiate now, where we must all take responsibility for our choices and our systems. Many experts have proved that a future free from dependence on fossil fuels and a new focus on global justice, rather than the dystopic nightmare promulgated by most news and social media, would actually be a much improved version of what we’re enduring now. We are living in a time of immense opportunity, as activist Joanna Macy says, a Great Turning.
HC: Did the experience of curating the hundreds of contributions to Murmuration reshape your own perspective on climate change and the current global health crisis?
LF: I felt very touched reading all the ways people appreciate the natural world – most of which I resonate with. Stepping inside all the lines was like looking up at a spinning mirror ball – magical, exciting. So, even though it was a challenge to make the poem, distilling 11,296 words down to 1000 (with only a couple of handfuls of my own used as glue), I felt energised and encouraged by the response. I think people’s contributions and the poem and film we made together encapsulates a lot of real active hope for the future, intense and meaningful care and concern. This is the sort of momentum that makes change happen.
It was very satisfying collaborating with Kate Sweeney on the film. We managed to work together to bring it to fruition without meeting face to face, which feels almost miraculous. The whole process underlines for me how collective action and partnership is necessary in our response to Climate Change. Culture is inherently contagious and spreads goodwill, triggers change. I’d like to see people talk about Climate more, make it part of our lives, not some shadowy demon, a repository for our worst fears. My experience of ‘Murmuration’ won’t be quite complete until it is launched and I start to hear people’s responses – those who submitted lines and others who didn’t. Then I’ll be able to see the bigger picture and understand better the impact of such an ambitious undertaking and where it might lead.
At the moment, working on my own ‘Climate poems’, I notice my thinking about ‘it’ (by which I mean Life, Death and Everything) changes if not daily then certainly week by week. Every time there’s a new report or I have an enlightening conversation with a friend or listen to an expert online, my ideas and attitudes shift slightly. This is entirely appropriate – the last thing we need is to take up a fixed position. We have to stay nimble and respond and adapt to all the changes that will undoubtedly continue to evolve around us. What will help us do that best is telling the truth about what’s going on for us and making sure we keep as well- informed as possible. For me, writing things down is vital and meditation is helpful, but everyone will have their own strategies. I’ve recently found the resources at Climate Psychology Alliance useful and the TED Global Countdown heartening. My Climate Residency is just about to come to an end but I’m very aware there’s still loads more that needs to be done so I’m looking to extend it. Murmuration has shown what is possible when lots of us flock together and I’d really like the chance to explore new ways of doing that, harnessing the power of the word.
Posting a few things here related to our Writing the Climate Dawn Chorus collective sound poem project as the closing date for submission’s creeping up. You have until 2nd August to send in your 30 seconds of poetry, thoughts, dreams and songs for the finished soundscape that will air as part of this year’s Durham Book Festival.
It would be wonderful to hear from as many people as possible – imagining what words you’d want to land at the beginning of a new day or even a new world. Every day we get a chance to start again. What would it feel like if we brought that freshness and creativity to how we’re approaching the climate crisis? Every day realigning ourselves with a vision of a fair sustainable future and renewing our efforts to make it possible, in our individual lives and within our local and global communities.
I hope that our Dawn Chorus will catch a sense of wonder and appreciation and remind us of what’s at stake if we ignore carbon emissions continuing to rise and the all too evident dangers of escalating temperatures across the globe. Last week in the UK the Met Office issued its first ever extreme heat warning. This is a tipping point. so our Dawn Chorus is also an alarm call – a cry for protection and an unshakeable commitment to mitigation. Singing ourselves awake includes the whole spectrum of feelings and responses. Everyone’s voice is welcome – all languages and accents.
An essay of mine that touches on the idea of the Dawn Chorus and poetry more generally is now available online as part of David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s wonderful NCLA project New Defences of Poetry. Do have a read – the whole site is full of delights and provocations.
Another place for delight is a new book edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan – Songs of Place and Time, Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts. It’s ‘a celebration of what it is to be alive and share our much more-than-human world with birds in their sheer exuberance of life at the dawn of day’.
This from the introduction:
Most of us accept that the climate emergency threatens the survival of our planet. One of the things we can do to raise awareness of this existential threat is to rekindle our imagination about what we have and what we stand to lose. we have the ability to imagine, and to develop a new narrative; it’s what we’re good at; good at imagining; good at telling stories. It’s our strength as creative people; and this is one way we may also discover our power to act.
The creative people in Songs of Place and Time include artists, writers, poets, academics, sound recordists, musicians and photographers. I’m very happy to be among their company. The assembled chorus of voices sings sweetly and gives rise to a sense of practical hope.
…an onomatopoeia of feathered things
that Emily Dickinson, dressed all in white,
heard as ‘Hope’, vowel and plosive, a gesture,
a giving of lips and throat –
how we learned
to talk after all, by imitating
these birds, borrowing their beauty, bringing
our very selves to light. And so we hear the compass
of our own hearts – tinsel and workshop, too many
messes to count; according to Emily, find ecstasy
in life, the mere sense of living joy enough –
turning it up, turning it up, us all, ratchet and caw.
(from Dawn Chorus, written for Compass, installation with sound artist Chris Watson at Cheeseburn, 2015)
Some thoughts arising from past Climate Writing workshops and thinking about more on the horizon… You can apply for a free mini-course ‘How to Start Writing about Climate’ here. There’s also a Creative Saturday at NCLA on ‘Writing Like Weather’ here. And a chance to come together and write in ‘The Writing Hour’ here.
Writing about Climate, keeping ecological balance in mind, alongside others is a way of bringing our relationship with the powerful time we are living through into greater awareness. It helps to articulate half-buried thoughts and feelings and propel us into further research that will deepen our knowledge, which we can then share or use in more politically active ways to move towards establishing more sustainable and equitable systems. The accumulated effect on us is wholesome and energising – on the side of life and active strong-rooted hope.
It sounds a bit like an advertising slogan but if writing is good for you, it can be good for the planet too.
…staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.
If we don’t act until we feel the crisis that we rather curiously call ‘environmental’ – as if the destruction of our planet were merely a context – everyone will be committed to solving a problem that can no longer be solved.
Jonathan Safran Foer
The process and techniques of writing poetry in particular help cultivate qualities that keep us in balance, moving forward in a positive direction. I came up with this figuring of causes and effects (– formatting a bit wayward, but hopefully you’ll be able to get the gist). You might be able to think of more things you’d include – and I’d be delighted to hear about them. It’s all work in progress.
THE POETICS OF PRESENCE & RESILIENCE
Writing as an Ecological Attitude
Taking space to write, cultivating A sense of commitment,
a practice, honouring the process . . . discipline & self-care
Truth-telling, managing register . . . Authenticity, a common humanity
Taking reader into account . . . Connectedness, empathy, solidarity
Having something to say, breaking . . . Courage, speaking out
Making choices about place/character/ . . . Gaining perspective, looking beyond
details/flora/fauna etc – based on close yourself, orientation
Playing with language & sound – rhyme . . . Delight, pleasure, staying fresh, positive,
rhythm, voice, tense, lexicon etc awake
One obvious thing writing poetry does is to make you stop. Stopping is a radical act. Even in lockdown, we are all trying to do too much, overstimulating our bodies and minds at a time when there is so much to process. Done in a calm way, with no goal in mind, writing can touch you in similar ways to meditation, offering a space for in-the-moment, judgement-free presence and enquiry. Yes, we need action on Climate, but action arising from clear thinking and a careful consideration of the consequences.
I may have posted this quote from Cistercian monk Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) before – but every year/month/week/day it seems to become more and more relevant:
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.
To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.
The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
Wishing you and your world a year of kindness and simplicity.
Here’s a reverse renga made from a selection of verses from the year renga I kept in 2020. It’s a good touchstone practice for days that make strange demands – a river to swim in and carry you along.
There should be a little more space between the verses which I can’t quite make happen in this format, so best take a breath as they unfold. Hope’s there’s something among or behind the lines for you to ponder and take with you into the new year.
Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.
You give me a word
for the heart’s weather
driving into Newcastle
as if we were travelling
how to feel sad
without being sad
spiked with caffeine
dreaming yourself into existence
bars of rain
on the sitting room window
one more winter
the same larches
an untranslatable decade
the flowers don’t know
remembers his birthday
out at sea
all night long
a blue moon
two hours lost
in charcoal, pencil, ink
our first visit back
to the cinema
it’s 1968, Chicago
light the fire
burn the day away
how to begin
sunlight you want
to call miraculous
filling the day from end
to end so there’s no room
a spell for overwintering
slow Sunday afternoon
you weep on the sofa
2.30 pm around the brazier
a moment knows
something’s almost over
but not what it is
pale lines of rain
against the ploughed field
I paint the stone rise
in the kitchen
a colour called Thunder
listening to Meredith Monk’s book of days
stay with the ragged joy
of ordinary living
your birthday: balancing
pebbles on a burnt tree
rain all day
the garden rises up
to meet it
the longest day
stripped back to nothing
the only yellow flower
on the gorse bush
the here and now
and the mental there and elsewhere
the yard white
a sudden shower
of sky stones
on top of the Iron Age fort
we see beyond ourselves
without water in the taps
your mind full of nothing
distilling time impossible
I try anyway
good thinking always happens
at the moment of speechlessness
jellyfish swim behind her
you are still here
a few seconds lag
between our chat
connects || separates
the first swallow
and tears come
storm moon and hailstones
I warm myself
at your fire
the rowan’s shadow
how earth evolves
in sudden ruptures
every day the same
every day different
I am a tilting cup
a tremulous star
in ceremonial kimonos
they look back from the future
do not stand
in a place of danger
trusting in miracles
my driver knows
hardly any English but says
we need more water
a dead man’s tattoos –
fail we may, sail we must
on the windowsill
of borrowed time
[Quotations from: Jane Hirshfield, Donna Haraway, Siri Hustvedt, Moroccan proverb, Andrew Weatherall.]
My longtime collaborator Birtley Aris and I are delighted to have finished work on a new publication Dwelling Place, set at the National Trust site Allen Banks in Northumberland. It features four poems and pen and ink drawings prompted by work I did for my PhD looking at Susan Davidson, a Victorian descendant of the Bowes Lyon family, who landscaped the grounds of Ridley Hall where she lived after her marriage to John Davidson, extending into the gorge and woodland at Allen Banks after his death in 1842. As part of her vision, she created the tarn in Moralee Wood, bridges across the river, a network of footpaths and various summerhouses across her estate. The Cedar Hut above Raven’s Crag on the cover is a modern reconstruction of one of these.
All of the poems in Dwelling Place are sparked by ideas of home and belonging, what we do to create spaces of shelter and sanctuary. Birtley and I started work on it long before the pandemic but it seems to have accrued new layers of meaning in the light of this past year.
As we can’t launch the pamphlet in real life, we’re offering it here for sale at £8 (£10 including p + p). Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity to gather together for a reading in Hexham and Newcastle at some point next year. There are many things I’m missing at the moment but poetry events are among the top of my list.
Taking stock of The Bookshop under the Bed, there are also some copies of other pamphlets and books – some quite old and rare – that I can also send in the post for anyone who’s interested or looking for an unusual Christmas present. The best thing, if you’d like any of these or Dwelling Place (or want to enquire about any other of my books), would be to email me at email@example.com, send me your postal address and we can sort out how you’d like to pay.
Acts of Love (Echo Room Press, 1990)
Aerogramme (Talking Pen, 2004)
Heartwork (Playspace Publications 2012)
Through the Garden Gate (NCLA 2011)
Border Song (Hareshaw Press, 2012)
another wild (Hareshaw Press, 2014)
All of the above are £6 each (+ £2 UK p+p) or any 3 copies for £20 (inclusive of UK p+p). I can look into international postage costs, if necessary.
I have unearthed one remaining copy of Acknowledged Land (Northumberland County Libraries, 1993) – an early collaboration with Birtley Aris, now extremely rare and much sought after – and am happy to consider offers.
I am offering these books as part of the Artist Support Pledge, where if I make £1000 (unlikely I know, but these are unprecedented straitened times…), I pledge to buy another artist’s work for £200.
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.
Leonardo da Vinci, Star of Bethlehem and other plants, c.1506-12
Shantideva wrote in chapter eight, verse ninety-nine (VIII:99) of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that if someone is suffering and we refuse to help, it would be like our hand refusing to remove a thorn from our foot. If the foot is pierced by a thorn, our hand naturally pulls the thorn out of the foot. The hand doesn’t ask the foot if it needs help. The hand doesn’t say to the foot, ‘This is not my pain.’ Nor does the hand need to be thanked by the foot. They are part of one body, one heart.
Joan Halifax, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet (Flatiron Books, 2018)
The idea of ‘one body, one heart’ has been on my mind lately as I’ve been working on our collective poem Murmuration, as part of my Climate Residency, collaborating with artist Kate Sweeney on the filmpoem for Durham Book Festival. Murmuration is one thing – as the starlings’ flock is one thing – but made up of five hundred different voices. There is unity in diversity, similarity and difference – and I’ve worked hard to try and catch the sense of that: bearing with contradiction and not trying to look for answers, just staying with all the questions the lines and the poem itself throws up.
You can book a place to watch its launch at Durham Book Festival, right after an event with Jenny Offill, talking about her Climate Change novel Weather (Granta, 2020) – highly recommended. I’ve also written an essay on the making of Murmuration, which will be available during the Festival.
I’m very aware there’s an excess of things to watch and listen to online at the moment, but in the absence of human-to-human conversations and gatherings in the wild, it seems important to stay connected and be proactive in accessing alternative perspectives on how much is happening in the world that runs contrary to the news in the mainstream media, that insists on highlighting stories that communicate divisiveness, alienation and blame.
I recently discovered, we have 86,400 seconds every day to fill. And sometimes I do nothing but listen to them ticking away.
The people at TED Talks have created Countdown – a programme with a coalition of voices addressing different aspects of the Climate Crisis. Nothing is more important than the sharing of clear factual information. One thing we can do – even though we might often feel powerless – is to stay well-informed. How we take in and pass on what we know (and feel) is what makes society and culture. The imagination is powerful – it’s where the future resides.
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation,Dark Mountain
And so we enter the dark of autumn and winter. One of my favourite times of year. We could do with a bit more darkness – that place where we can be with what we don’t know and just love each other. ‘Night is the mother of life’ says Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuna. ‘Light is born from darkness’.
So many thresholds and edges just now – happening on a level I won’t see the end of or understand in my lifetime. But I’m curious, interested to see what’s waiting in, what Joan Halifax calls, ‘the fruitful dark’. One of the things I’ve been doing lately thinking about hope in the dark is planting bulbs, burying them in the cooling earth so they can do their own magic and emerge in their own time next year. Next year…even that sounds like an unknown world.
Art is the flower – Life is the green leaf. Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing – something that will convince the world there may be – there are – things more precious – more beautiful – more lasting than life…you must offer real, living – beautifully coloured flowers – flowers that grow from but above the green leaf – flowers that are not dead – are not dying – not artificial – real flowers – you must offer the flowers of the art that is in you – the symbols of all that is noble – and beautiful and inspiring – flowers that will often change a colourless leaf – into an estimated and thoughtful thing.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh, On Seemliness (1902)
I’m doing a couple of linked afternoon workshops online for Lapidus Scotland (Words for Wellbeing) in October (17th & 24th), called Climate Crisis: Looking our Demons in the Eye. I was experimenting with ways of tackling the subject with groups right at the beginning of my Residency and then the pandemic arrived. I’m very glad to have this chance to work with others now, looking at how we might find words for an experience that can so often feel beyond the reach of words.
Places are free, open to all, and you can book here.