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.