Poet Julian Bishop uses his collection We Saw It All Happen to witness signs of the climate crisis with the immediacy of news coverage of war and conflict, and to find hope in nature’s ability to hang on.
1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes
Back in the days when I was a cub reporter on the South Wales Echo I thought words could change the world. And to an extent they did. I’d write a piece about a family with a damp flat and as if by magic the landlord would quickly fix it, shamed by a Page Five lead.
Later I was made the BBC’s first environment reporter in Wales, at a time when climate change was barely on the news agenda. I seem to remember the position was prompted by a series of terrible floods in North and West Wales. And because they were “great pictures”, I often had the top story in bulletins. When the weather was ok, I used to cover any rural issue. Once I reported on a new pesto factory opening in Powys.
Ambition took me to ITN’s News At Ten in London where I switched to more of a production role, eventually being in charge of deciding the running order of news stories. I frequently elevated environmental stories only to have them knocked down to the bottom of the list. Those were the days of ‘climate change’ rather than ‘climate crisis’ but, even so, I’ve noticed that most TV news programmes only lead on it when there are “great pictures” — the recent US wildfires come to mind.
And here’s the problem — war and famine are huge human catastrophes with an immediacy that the climate crisis doesn’t have, except when it manifests itself (increasingly) in fire or flood.
Visualising five degrees
Which is where my idea for We Saw It All Happen came in. Is it enough to bear witness to such events and move on or do we have a greater responsibility than that? Is the media necessarily underplaying climate change because of huge unfolding disasters like the conflict in Gaza? There’s a separate blog to be written about the climate factor in this conflict, although probably for another day.
For me, the attack on our natural world is also a form of warfare but one that isn’t on our TV screens daily, if you discount Sir David Attenborough’s increasingly outspoken Planet series. Don’t forget such programmes fall under the general tag of ‘entertainment’ at the BBC.
That said, I wanted to create something engaging to read but that also made a forceful point. For inspiration, I reached back to some of the now hugely out-of-fashion Augustan poets of the 18th Century, for example Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Generally thought of as satirists, they were also masters of poetic form, another approach I was keen to adopt. So my book contains many sonnets, a specular, sestina, Golden Shovel and riffs on other forms. It’s also very political. I learnt about many of these forms during a year-long poetry course at City Lit in London, an adult education centre just off Covent Garden.
I wrote the ‘anchor poem’ for the book, Five Degrees, after reading a report from scientists at Stanford University which looked at the impact of each extra degree of warming on the planet. I remember I was on the Eurostar going to Brussels for some media event and it made me wonder whether dull-sounding data might somehow be translated into poetry, especially given that many poetic forms depend on various numbers of lines or syllables. ‘Five’ immediately suggested a villanelle, a tricky form with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. I knew instantly that the refrain had to be: “too late”. And then with not a little poetic licence I began to fill in the detail, tethering each degree to one of the scientific findings in the Stanford paper.
This is what it looked like:
Five Degrees Take one – another atoll gone, droughts, faster rate of ice melt. Sweltering taxis. A few mortuaries fail to cope in The Pyrenees. Chin up, it’s not too late. Two degrees - forget the Med. Instead, investigate Aberystwyth for a tan. Gozo is a no-go. You can sail across London in a skiff! Maybe Donald’s heart-rate skips a beat. Three degrees. Now the floodgates open. Holland (and the coral) gone. A large-scale exodus from Africa. Geo-engineers arrive too late. Work hard for a degree at Oxford-by-the-Sea, wait for a Balliol boat. Bail out - Cambridge is a folktale. At four, methane leaks from the sea floor, the rate accelerates. Mangrove swamps, sapodillas recreate the tropics in Paris. Bananas on a boulevard; so shale had an upside after all! Take the fifth – way too late to keep the lid on oceanic gas explosions so great Hiroshima is but a flicker. Then the final coffin nail: supercharged fireballs banging into cities at a rate of knots. The lid lowers by degrees. Sorry: too late.
Five Degrees was eventually printed by Magma Poetry magazine in their Schools issue — after Trump lost the election, so “Donald” was changed to “the Earth” which was an extremely satisfying edit! Sadly the poem is proving horribly prophetic…
I say it was an anchor poem because I wanted a central section of the book to deal with current affairs, seen through a poetic eye. I divided the poems into Starters, Mains and Afters, not least because after trying to order the poems I noticed food was a pervasive presence (weird, because I’m skinny, although I do love cooking).
We Saw It All Happen – hope and trauma
My plan was to try and release the strongest poems in a pamphlet and then focus later on a full collection. I sent off a selection to a pamphlet competition run by a small press in Manchester called Fly On The Wall, who caught my eye as one of the few publishers to claim everything they do is with the environment in mind and actually mean it. To my shock, Isabelle Kenyon, who runs the press, asked if I’d like to go ahead with a full collection straight away. Of course the answer was yes!
Then began the terrible process of sifting through several years of poems to work out which ones fitted my chosen framework. I soon realised they were quite a gloomy bunch — and who wants to read a book of poems about the climate emergency without a few notes of hope?
This led to some research on efforts being made to save endangered species from extinction and the birth of poems such as Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail, one of a sequence of poems inspired by the Back From The Brink project, a collaboration between several different UK wildlife agencies to save some 20 species from extinction. The poem was also published in an issue of Magma Poetry:
Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail A name twenty times its length, curled on a page indexing threatened species - smaller even than a waterboatman's oar pushed out to the fringes of extinction. These water specks, scaled-down ammonites, translucent on the edge of a British ditch, crawl among the marginals, dodging carp to clamp onto reeds they still call home. Despite the incursion, the plucky Ramshorns cling on, skim ditches for scraps of algae, flattened whorls spiralling ever further down through the ferny fringes of a marshy nook. Small coils that spin in a run-down clock, man's hands have been moving against them, conchologists wading in to their rescue, trying to wind the miniature cogs back.
And I needed a title poem for the book. I eventually decided to re-work a draft of a poem I’d called ‘That Scene With The Walruses’ which was about watching an episode of David Attenborough’s Netflix documentary series Our Planet where walruses appeared to be climbing cliffs in search of food only to throw themselves off. It now appears they may have been fleeing from polar bears but whatever the reason, I found the film extremely traumatic and wrote the poem straight after watching the programme.
So it seemed most fitting to re-title the poem We Saw It All Happen, given that an important function of the book was to examine the role of the media — for better or worse — in how we formulate perceptions about the climate emergency.
Rather gratifyingly, some poems have taken on a life beyond the book. One called Lobster was runner-up in the international Ginkgo Prize, a major international award for ecopoetry, in 2018, where the prize was a week’s residency at a retreat near Ballinskelligs in southern Ireland. I used the time to put together a first draft for the book and the residency inspired a few new poems as well. But the poem was picked up by several other publications, most recently an anthology of poetry and short stories from Guts Publishing called The Transformative Power Of Tattoo. In case you’re wondering what the connection is, here’s the poem:
Relating to the natural world
We Saw It All Happen has been out nearly a year now and I’ve been concentrating on promoting it. Most bizarrely, I was asked to give a talk to a group of City types with offices near The Gherkin in London. They’re a firm of environmental consultants and I tried to convince them that maybe there’s a place for poetry in corporate boardrooms or at least as part of a distinctive pitch. I’m not sure how the message landed but I managed to sell quite a few books.
And of course I’m planning a possible follow-up, this time with more of a focus on plants and trees and how humans relate to them. I’ve been greatly inspired by Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard and her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, (Penguin, 2022). Her work explores the symbiosis between fungi and trees and how trees use fungi to communicate with one another.
Another mini project has been what I’m calling Shakespeare Shovels – using lines about the natural world from Shakespeare plays as the basis for climate-related poems. I’m convinced that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a climate protester!
To finish with, here’s a sneak preview based on a quote from Macbeth Act II, Scene 3 (“some say the Earth was fev’rous and did shake”):
Find out more
We Saw It All Happen is available from Fly on the Wall Press (2023).
The Ginkgo Prize is a major international award for ecopoetry, funded by the Edward Goldsmith Foundation and organised by the Poetry School. You can download each year’s anthology of winners and runners up — including the 2018 anthology featuring Julian’s poem, Lobster.
Suzanne Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest is published by Penguin (2022).