A new year is a good time for change, moving on, isn’t it? So, the plan is I won’t be adding any new posts here. I’m heading across to Substack for a brand new iteration of this blog/notebook/newsletter. It’s a foreign country and I don’t quite speak the language yet. It’s going to take me a while to get used to it but you can subscribe here to read my first trial post. It’s free and everyone is welcome.
Thank you to everybody who’s followed me so faithfully and in such numbers over the past decade or so. I hope some of you might skip over to Substack if you want to stay in touch with what I’m doing. Still committed to working with poetry and ecology, I have lots of interesting new developments in mind and – looking forward to a fresh start.
If you’d like a copy of my new pamphlet Letters to Katlia, it’s now available from the British Library’s site here.
This feels like a bridge for me from one year into the next, while I try to discover what wants to unfold after my Writing the Climate residency – you can read New Writing North’s ‘3.5 per cent’ blog post on our work over the past three years here.
January, February, March are good months for hibernation and dreaming. May we all rest well and emerge renewed.
At Winter Solstice your shadow will be the tallest it’ll be all year. I’ve been thinking about the language we use to communicate with others about ecological awareness for over three years now and I’m still puzzling it out. It’s arisen in a particular way for me currently as I’m participating in an Active Hope Facilitators Training course, using the spiral of Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects. A small group of us from all over Europe are learning new and old ways of reconnecting with ourselves, the planet and each other – it’s powerful, moving work, full of light and shadow.
The spiral is a symbol of a process that is expressed in interconnecting stages – starting with Coming from Gratitude, Honouring Our Pain for the World, Seeing Anew with Ancient Eyes and Going Forth. When I begin trying to explain this in conversations with friends and colleagues, I’ve noticed people’s eyes glaze over – an invisible barrier descends between us. The language, intended to clarify and engage, like any jargon, separates and alienates. I feel the same when academics use endless acronyms. For them, they represent familiar structures and belonging but I can’t help feeling excluded from these enclosed, insider-only spaces. Language is deeply implicated in elitism and accessibility – it can either open, invite and connect or withhold, confuse or keep at a distance.
The interplay of these different possibilities is something you (I) work with semi-consciously when you’re (I’m) writing. A guiding principle for me always used to be: would my mother, who left school at 15 and didn’t read a great deal, be able to enter the world of this poem and have a real sense of it? This has shifted for me lately – my mother died in 1994 and I’m aware the world we live in now would make no sense to her at all so having her as my touchstone no longer feels valid. It was useful for a time, helping me honour my working-class origins and deep commitment to equality and inclusion. But now I’m not sure what my litmus test might be – maybe the Buddhist guidelines on skilful speech: is it true? is it kind? is it helpful? is it necessary? is it the right time?
As a way of testing my understanding and relationship to language, I usually have to translate anything I don’t immediately connect with into my own words, paraphrasing and exploring them from the inside out until ‘the right words in the right order’ for an adequate translation present themselves. It takes a lot of time and effort but it seems to be the way I locate myself in the world and find my own sense of belonging. I can track the same process occurring, perhaps not even consciously, in the writing of others for publication, and more casually in correspondence – figuring out what we want or need to say as we work our way through the words and their shadows. All language is shorthand, a signal of an unfolding process – although it gives the illusion of being fixed once on the page or the screen, a possibly illusory instance of certainty.
I recently went to see the marvellous Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, where all these thoughts and conundrums are represented spectacularly – in the logos of the illuminated gospels, literally illuminated in a dark space at the end of a winding pilgrimage through books, words and stones. Then you enter the section on art and spirituality, full of light – non-verbal and numinous. What words are there are puzzles, fragmented, revealing their power, evidence of absence.
I heard poet Kaveh Akbar, author of Pilgrim Bell, shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Poetry, talking on the radio about poetry as ‘a spiritual technology’ and how he used the image of the bell as a symbol both of the sound and the silence that surrounds it. He called silence ‘an architectural element that allows us to see the subject by what it isn’t’, declaring a poem is a compass pointing you towards whatever action you might need to take, rather than suggesting any certainty or closure.
The Pain of Others (No.2)
Idris Khan, 2017
An Active Hope Circle friend suggested we could change the stages of Coming from Gratitude, Honouring our Pain for the World, Seeing Anew with Ancient Eyes and Going Forth to Appreciation, Challenge, Perspective and Action. I can see the merits of his translations in creating more open access to the concepts and experiences, however they perhaps still fall short. These are abstract nouns and rather vague – so risk being interpreted in many different ways, losing their essential elements. (And I never heard my mother use any one of those words.) As signs though, they’re fine – the beginning of a conversation that might open something in the imagination.
For example, you might inquire what ‘appreciation’ means for you. What does it look like? If it were a sound, what would you hear? And in the silence after it? And so on, using all your senses to help you understand ‘appreciation’ as something that you can feel in your own body. Again, all this takes up a lot of time but learning, unlearning and re-learning is a profound and lifelong process, a better use of our time than many things we might lose ourselves giving our attention to. How quickly even a quarter of a hour passes looking things up online or checking Instagram…
Another collision with the subject of Time – the theme that runs through everything I read, hear and reflect upon around ecological awareness and our current dilemma. It is encapsulated in our use of language: when do the words come? Before what we experienced? Or after? During? Or alongside? The unfolding of being in the world is a messy patchwork, a loose weave of many colours and strands of a vast fabric we’re creating together, unravelling and mending as we go, earthing and unearthing. We are creating structures and spaces we need to trust but must also know them for what they are – not safety blankets or refuges. The only place we can truly trust is our presence in each moment, the connection between each other and our openness and curiosity for simply being here together at this time. Mary Oliver speaks of a faith in what she calls ‘eternity’, which is perhaps simply the other side of ‘the present moment’ – the light or the shadow side depending on where you stand.
In the face of our accelerating polycrisis, Active Hope – in its latest iteration as a new edition of the book and an unfolding network of practitioners – has moved away from an expectation of outcome towards an emphasis on process. This again honours time, recognising how much we need to create space for assimilating and metabolising all the impacts of living in this stressful period in human history. It also points towards the acceptance of our whole lives as a process – one which we have a responsibility to meet in the moment while letting the absorption and transformation take care of themselves, as we go on making haste slowly.
And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening is the real work.
Thrilled that The Knucklebone Floor has been shortlisted for this year’s Laurel Prize. You can learn more about the shortlist and details of the Prize here. If you’re in the vicinity of Birmingham or Yorkshire Sculpture Park on 9th or 16th September, do come along and join in the celebrations.
I dug out a postcard from a few years ago of an earlier version of one of the poems in the collection.
And looking up recently, I discovered a wasp’s nest in the roof of my little shed’s porch – a small beautiful construction – apparently what taught the Chinese how to make paper. Paper – the magical element that so binds and absorbs us.
There hasn’t been much activity here lately because I’ve been so very busy elsewhere, online and IRL. Not long back from co-leading a retreat in the Trossachs, by Loch Voil, at Dhanakosa – a perfect place to step out of the hurtle of the digital and into moment-by-moment presence, with spring unfolding before our eyes. I love spending time up there and it was wonderful to be back after three years’ absence. You can find out more about their retreat programme here, if you’re interested.
As well as work continuing on my Writing the ClimateResidency and various groups meeting regularly, I have a new book to celebrate. The Knucklebone Floor is the story of Allen Banks and Susan Davidson, the Victorian widow who helped shape the landscape there with her wilderness walks, a tarn, bridges and summerhouses. This is the sequence of poems I wrote as part of my PhD Women on the Edge of Landscape and it’s very exciting to see it about to spring out into the world. Many thanks to Andy Croft at Smokestack for suggesting he publish it. And much appreciation to Matilda Bevan for the section of her Study of a Stream gracing the cover.
The first reading from The Knucklebone Floor will take place at this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival on Friday 6th May, at 2.30pm. I’ll be joined by Anne Ryland and Dave Spittle, who’ll also be reading from their new collections (Unruled Journal and Rubbles). The day before I’m chairing a panel on Climate at the Emergency-themed Symposium (NCLA in conjunction with the Poetry Book Society) – with Jason Allen-Paisant, Polly Atkin and Sylvia Legris, whose new books I’ve really enjoyed: Thinking with Trees, Much With Body and Garden Physic, respectively. There’ll be plenty to talk about. You can see the Symposium and Festival programme here – lots of unmissable events, and I’m really looking forward to the chance for us all to gather as a community again.
More Knucklebone Floor events follow this opening splash – at Hexham Library, with Matthew Kelly, launching his book The Women Who Saved the English Countryside, as part of Local History Month, on May 12th, 7pm. Then at Inpress‘s pop-up shop in Ouseburn, Newcastle (8 Riverside Walk, between the Cluny and the Tyne Bar) on May 18th, 7pm, with Paul Summers (reading from his new book billy casper’s tears, also from Smokestack). I’ll also be at Allendale’s Forge in July and Ripon Poetry Festival in September – more of those nearer the time.
In the midst of all this fizz, I’m currently editing another book, to be published in the Autumn, when my Residency winds down, and launched at Durham Book Festival. This one’s called Startling and is an attempt to capture some sense of the vulnerability many of us feel in the face of our climate and ecological emergencies. As Margaret Atwood has said: it’s not Climate Change, it’s Everything Change.
Spring speeds everything up, like a time-lapse film and here we all are trying our best to find our place among it all and a way through, helping each other where we can. A deeply challenging, unpredictable time but I’m with Leonard Cohen, hoping that the cracks will let the light shine through.
…we are always in free fall. It’s not like we will find some moral high ground where we are finally stable and can catch all those falling around us. It’s more like we are all falling above the infinite groundlessness of life, and we learn to become stable in flight, and to support others to become free of the fear that arises from feeling unmoored. The final resting place is not the ground at all but rather the freedom that arises from knowing there will never be a ground, and yet here we are, together, navigating the boundless space of life, not attached, yet intimate.
The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution, because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine.
…I want to propose an existential creativity. How do I define it? It is the creativity wherein nothing should be wasted. As a writer, it means everything I write should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species. It means that the writing must have no frills. It should speak only truth. In it, the truth must be also beauty. It calls for the highest economy. It means that everything I do must have a singular purpose.
It also means that I must write now as if these are the last things I will write, that any of us will write. If you knew you were at the last days of the human story, what would you write? How would you write? What would your aesthetics be? Would you use more words than necessary? What form would poetry truly take? And what would happen to humour? Would we be able to laugh, with the sense of the last days onus?
Sometimes I think we must be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine. Of the things that trouble me most, the human inability to imagine its end ranks very high. It means that there is something in the human makeupresistant to terminal contemplation. How else can one explain the refusal of ordinary, good-hearted citizens to face the realities of climate change? If we don’t face them, we won’t change them. And if we don’t change them, we will not put things in motion that would prevent them. And so our refusal to face them will make happen the very thing we don’t want to happen.
We have to find a new art and a new psychology to penetrate the apathy and the denial that are preventing us making the changes that are inevitable if our world is to survive. We need a new art to waken people both to the enormity of what is looming and the fact that we can still do something about it.
We can only make a future from the depth of the truth we face now.
Ecological awareness consists of infinite ongoing strands. These include close looking, close listening, close touching, close smelling, close tasting – close sensing between and beyond all the conventional senses familiar to human bodies. Close might also be slow or deep.
Ecological awareness is an art, a creative act, a commitment to being alive, and therefore dynamic, transformative.
Walk outdoors and after half an hour point to the place where you end and the weather begins.
Nowhere are any of us alone, nowhere are we not part of the biosphere, or abandoned by the imagination.
In our climate, why would you not begin each day checking your own internal weather and preparing for what the coming hours might bring?
What we call Nature is a fiction, a wild and muddy one that won’t stay flat or still. It will not be contained on a neatly labelled shelf in the bookshop.
Left to the wind, the dried pods of honesty (Lunaria annua) shed their skins and spread their seeds before glowing with the light of many moons, true to their word. Bring the night sky indoors to remember the year’s passing.
Being in Nature suggests you were sometime out of it, perhaps in that mythical place Away.
Not looking at the clock involves not looking at your phone, your computer, all those other contrivances that divide your attention and devour your time.
The art of ecological awareness asks you to let there be a space between things and sensing and language – and to choose to live in that space.
A day without a tree in it is no day at all.
Whitman asks you to come, speak; says if you are large, if you contain multitudes, you will contradict yourself: will you prove already too late?
The space outside our walls is ready to give us what we have been waiting for; whatever time of day or night, a special kind of light.
Thinking with Timothy Morton and Ian Hamilton Finlay.
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)
‘We are all lichens; so we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the Earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.’
Donna Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene (2016)
Last night was the final session of How to Start Writing the Climate, a course for ‘early career writers’ I’ve been facilitating as part of my Writing the Climate residency. Even though I tried to draw together the threads of what has been a fascinating few months with a wonderfully engaged group, I woke up this morning with all the things I wish I’d said bullet-pointing in my brain.
My default setting is SLOW (and getting slower) so l’esprit d’escalier is familiar to me. [‘Borrowed from French, the expression esprit de l’escalier, or esprit d’escalier, literally wit of (the) staircase, denotes a retort or remark that occurs to a person after the opportunity to make it has passed. It originally referred to a witty remark coming to mind on the stairs leading away from a social gathering.’*]
Like my faltering rural broadband, I always take at least a day to download significant emotions or get to the bottom of what I’ve read, heard or seen. Perhaps it’s a consequence of trying to live with in-the-moment judgement-free awareness. Staying open to Everything simply can’t happen all at once: perception and processing need to catch up with each other and come into some sort of alignment. This slow but not always sure rhythm is part of the way I try to make sense of the world and understand my place in it. That’s fine when it comes to simple day to day living but it’s more problematic when being congruent with the climate crisis demands more immediate, vigorous action. Now is not the time to leave things unsaid or your deepest values not acted upon.
In my thinking and writing about climate, I keep coming back to the concept of time – how we balance planning and preparing for an unknowable future and living well in the now, informed by the best lessons of the past (that largely didn’t know what it was doing either). We’ve made provision that the Course participants can continue meeting in a self-programming capacity. All hail to New Writing North for offering to support this. It is an excellent model, grass roots and empowering – it works for community and climate activism so I’m sure it will for assisting writers.
When one member of the group said it was a new beginning, not an ending, I felt very moved. I was saying goodbye but they would be carrying on, staying connected, developing their ideas and their work, which I could already see gaining power and focus as the four sessions progressed. Environmental activist Joanna Macy has said we don’t know if our task now is sitting with a planet in the throes of dying or as midwives at the birth of a new era. Another reason I struggled to say everything I wanted to in my concluding remarks is lately I’ve been living in more of a deathbed scene than a joyful birth. Carrying a lot of grief for the world, I’m often tender to the point of tears. There is no place for this in most human interactions, although I know it’s there just below the surface in whatever I say or do. And I see others carrying something they have no words for, or none they are able to share. And so we continue, with the most important things unspoken.
As a writer and a facilitator, I have a responsibility to be clear, active and, to a certain extent, upbeat. It’s been hard to stay positive and hopeful these past few months, witnessing the failure to act by governments and corporations across the world, while carbon emissions continue to rise and flora and fauna species to decline. We’ve all watched the alarming reports of the heat-related deaths in Canada and the Pacific North West of America. Isn’t this a sort of l’esprit d’escalier too – a pervasive reliance on hindsight, when it will be too late – all those words, just empty promises, and meanwhile everything carries on as *normal*?
The Suffragettes’ slogan was Deeds not Words. We need both. Words do not achieve the same effects as deeds but they can hold a ladder up to the moon, towards a more sustainable life founded on principles of fairness and kindness. This is what I set out to do as a teacher – help and encourage people to find their own way to their own moon, asking their own questions as they go, rather than offer the lie of easy formulas.
I know I’m not the only one to feel sadness, anger and despair at the state we’re in. If I’d been able to tell the group about my grief, it might have broken a spell of silence. North American poet and editor, Camille T. Dungy quotes that we need ‘tearleaders not cheerleaders to teach us how to mourn’. I’m not a politician or a rhetorician. I’m not always even capable of joined-up talking. The place I find my words is on the page. Reviewing my own work-in-progress, many of my recent poems are sparked by immense grief for the world, as I take note of the potential and actual loss of so much of our planet’s beauty and biodiversity. This earth is where we live, our home. It’s hard right now not to feel as if your house is crumbling around you. Words can make the future feel less shaky, keep you steady, but they’re not enough on their own and we need to act while we still can.
So, what should have been my parting shot? What can we do, as citizens and as writers? A useful strategy in writing workshops to get ideas started is to make a list. Here’s mine, a mixture of things I already do and things I need to remember to do:
Put your own house in order. Switch to green electricity, ethical banking, a meat-less, dairy-free or less-meat, less-dairy diet. Recycle paper. Buy secondhand books and pass them on. Manage with less.
Cultivate words and deeds. Match thought with action. Speak truth to power.
Find an environmental campaign you can engage with and support wholeheartedly.
When you come across something you don’t understand, do some research – not to confirm your own opinion, but to extend your knowledge.
Write from and with your body – the primary source of all perception, what we share as humans.
Write to connect, not to escape. Stay engaged with the world around you.
‘Bear witness. Hold uncertainty. Love the world.’ (Charlotte du Cann)
Read widely and inquisitively, critically. Balance the work of contemporary and classic writers, poetry and prose.
‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.’ (Czeslaw Milosz)
Make space for a daily reflective practice – silent meditation, mindful walking, journalling, yoga etc. Pause and process your experience.
Appreciate what you have, not what you don’t have. Notice beauty and express wonder.
Connect with others – know you are not alone.
Attune to interdependence, reciprocity, the spirit of exchange, the gift economy.
Beware of righteousness or too much humility. You are neither better nor worse than anyone else.
Be kind. ‘What will survive of us is love’. (Larkin)
Stay open to new ways of writing and living. Listen to what’s in the air and catch only what is helpful and authentic. Live a creative rather than a reactive life.
‘Be the change you want to see.’ (Mahatma Gandhi)
Argue with this list. Make your own manifesto.
The American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) used the expression in English Traits (Boston, 1856):
A slow temperament makes them less rapid and ready than other countrymen, and has given occasion to the observation, that English wit comes afterwards, — which the French denote as esprit d’escalier. This dullness makes their attachment to home, and their adherence in all foreign countries to home habits. The Englishman who visits Mount Etna, will carry his teakettle to the top.
American dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman (1905-84) gave a variation on the phrase, recollecting what she failed to say to the House Committee on Un-American Activities: ‘ Ah, the bravery you tell yourself was possible when it’s all over, the bravery of the staircase’.