A new month always feels like a clean page, full of promise and possibility. The start of February coincides with Imbolc and Candlemas and is all about new beginnings. Halfway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox, this traditional Celtic festival marks the beginning of spring and asks us to celebrate Brigid (‘the goddess whom poets adored’) with fire, food, candles and song. The snowdrops are in bloom and no other flower embodies the sense of hope more than these flowers, usually the first to appear in our gardens and woodlands, lighting the way at the end of a long dark winter. In our current situation, kept close to home, peering out at an uncertain future, we feel the need to welcome the light more than ever.
This cross-quarter day feels an auspicious beginning for the next phase of Writing the Climate, an extension to my Climate Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University. I am delighted (and relieved) to have been awarded an Arts Council Heritage Lottery Grant to help support another two years of work in the community and on my own writing. Last year we initiated various heartwarming and fruitful projects, laying the foundations for more ways to connect around writing about the Climate Crisis and telling the truth about where we find ourselves. This year, all being well, the postponed COP 26 meeting will be held in Glasgow in November, providing us all with an opportunity to raise awareness of the pressing need to keep climate adaptation and mitigation on the agenda, at the front of our hearts and minds.
Soon after my Residency began last January I was invited to read at a Festival in Casablanca. Despite my intention not to fly that year, I found it very difficult to say no. Like so many of us, I love to travel and longed to spend some time in that fabled city. It was hard to live with my own torn feelings of ambivalence and guilt. As it’s turned out, the pandemic has helped me keep my compact not to fly and has tainted its appeal in all sorts of ways. Still, it’s strange to think there are some places I may never now see or return to in my lifetime.
I wrote about my flight shame – the Swedish term Flygskam, perhaps better translated as flight conscience – in one of the first poems I wrote while thinking about how to approach writing about Climate. Whether we choose to fly or not, most of us in the West are deeply implicated in damaging and escalating fossil-fuel related carbon emissions.
At the bottom of my itinerary it says
FLIGHT(S) CALCULATED AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS
IS 546.44 KG/PERSON.
I am that PERSON
and I don’t know what 546.44 KG AVERAGE CO2 EMISSIONS are.
I envisage them as a toxic cloud, speckled with charcoal dust,
sense the sky-wide weight of it on my back.
I carry the burden of Atlas, hero, victim, martyr.
If I touched it, it would be cold,
smelling faintly of gas, as if I’d forgotten to turn the cooker off
after boiling milk for my morning coffee.
The milk spills.
The blue flame gutters and goes out.
The gas leaks.
The coffee’s travelled from South America.
I sit and drink it in my kitchen in Northumberland.
The gas is syphoned from a tank in my garden
I’m trying to disguise by growing a hedge of hawthorn
and willow, the grass in front frilled with snowdrops.
Three times a year a tanker comes to fill it up.
The pipe makes a sound between humming and hissing,
a long black poisonous snake
slithering through the gate across the lawn.
A few weeks later I get a bill for more than I can afford.
It’s February. The old stone house is freezing
with the heating turned off.
I sip my coffee, read my flight itinerary and look it up:
546.44kg of CO2 is more than half of all the emissions
the worker on a coffee plantation in Colombia
would produce in a year.
A white winged thing thrashes
through the cloud in my chest,
struggles to fly free.
I’m still thinking about how to approach writing about climate. I’m not sure I’ll ever come up with any definitive answers – writing about climate is writing about the very fact of life itself – but the work is in the doing, the living, and watching it all unfold. Active hope plays an important part – what poet Adrienne Rich called the ‘art of the possible’. Tomorrow, for Imbolc, I’m leading a workshop for Hexham Book Festival – Writing into the Light – where we’ll be exploring how to make hope realistic but bright in our poetry. There may still be a few places left if that’s something you like the sound of.
Creative imagination’s promise is that resilience is always available. We turn toward poems in loss or despair, toward their writing or their reading, because even poems that face darkness carry the beauty and resilience of original seeing. A good poem is possibility’s presence made visible. That restoration of faith in continuance is something we need.
Jane Hirshfield, Interview in Columbia Journal, March 2020
In Paris in 1968 protesters held up placards saying
Forget everything you’ve been taught. Start by dreaming.
Imagination is not a luxury!
Be realistic, demand the impossible.
In the wintriest winter for many years, February begins with a real sense of possibility – as I write this the light is streaming in through the window and that always helps. I feel very encouraged by a mood in the air that people have had enough, they know change is necessary and are ready for it. The page is not exactly ‘clean’ but we can write over it and make a new stratigraphy, a palimpsest (like artist Edmund de Waal in his library of exile and on Radio 4’s Front Row).
All our intentions and voices together will help create the tipping point, the critical mass we need to make the future more sustainable. This is the spirit of Murmuration, the collective poem project I initiated as part of my Residency last year – so happy to see it highlighted by Maria Popova on her always illuminating Brainpickings site. Kate Sweeney’s beautiful animated filmpoem has already had over four and a half thousand views on YouTube and that’s apart from those who’ve watched it via Durham Book Festival, and now on Maria’s ‘inventory of the meaningful life’ and shares on Facebook. There are many more than we can count. Poetry, like hope, is contagious – it flies long distances. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year’s flocking brings.