Songs for Earth

Through his songs, writer Peter Reason explores many rich themes: grief, rage and despair at our ecological catastrophe; beauty and wonder at the world; deep participation in life on Earth, and taking seriously the panpsychic and animist perspective that the world is alive, sentient and speaks to us, if only we will attend and listen.

How does one sing in the face of the ecological crisis — the disruption of the process of life itself, permanent loss of evolutionary complexity, permanent endings of patterns of being? Songs for Earth are my response: songs of grief and rage; of beauty and blessing; of belonging.

Peter Reason is a writer linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources and participatory perspectives.


‘What can poetry say in a time of catastrophe?’ asks the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, referring to the catastrophe of Palestinian exile, the Nakba. When I quote this, I find people respond with Theodor Adorno’s assertion that it is “impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz”. Both inspire reflections on the place of all creative art at this time of ecological catastrophe: climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, the Sixth Extinction of living beings. I explored these questions with my artist niece Sarah Gillespie in two booklets, On Presence and On Sentience.

A little search on the internet suggested that Adorno did not say that it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz but that it was barbaric; and that later he withdrew his statement, saying “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” Or, as Brecht asked, “In dark times will there also be singing?”

When I started to sing and play guitar again a few years ago, I was confronted with the question of what kind of songs to sing. So many songs are about human relationships of love and loss, which don’t seem quite appropriate for a nearly eighty-year-old with fifty-five years of marriage (although one can learn a lot about song writing from classic love songs like ‘Berkeley Square’). Remembering Rilke’s injunction that “the more looked at world wants to be nourished by love”; and because so much of my attention is bound up with the plight of Earth and the unfolding ecological catastrophe, I realized that, with the poet Mary Oliver, I can say “my work is loving the world”. Most of my songs are poems I like that speak of and to Earth that I set to my own tune and accompaniment; increasingly, I am writing my own lyrics.

These songs seem to reach toward three themes: expressions of grief, rage, and despair; appreciations of beauty and wonder; expressions of deep participation in life on Earth.

The first theme, grief, rage, and despair, is maybe best explored through Berthold Brecht’s question, which lead me to write ‘In dark times’. Responding to the late Polly Higgins and Eradicating Ecocide’s invitation to compose a letter to Earth in the face of the Sixth Extinction, all I could write was ‘Dear Earth, I couldn’t live without you’, which later evolved into a song lyric. ‘Gods and Goddesses’, a setting of a poem by my friend Ama Bolton, takes a look at our predicament from Olympian heights – it is driving the gods to drink; while ‘Quiet Friend’, ‘The Unbroken’ and ‘Lay Down the Path’ remind us of our human capacity to find our way through the darkest of times. Of course, this dark theme is well expressed by Leonard Cohen in ‘The Future’, especially the lines “The blizzard, the blizzard of the world | Has crossed the threshold | And it has overturned | The order of the soul”. There are one or two Cohen songs I attempt (singing ‘Anthem’ can leave me in tears), but ‘The Future’ is not one of them.

However, many more songs are ones of praise and appreciation of the beauty of the wild world. One of my earliest is a setting of Wendell Berry’s much loved ‘The Peace of the Wild Things’, which I later arranged in four parts for Sasspafellas, the men’s choir I am part of (with much help from my teacher Marius Frank). ‘Rocks’ drew on my experience of encountering ancient geology sailing north on the west coast of Scotland. More recently, with some trepidation, I found a way to sing the beautiful ‘Lost Words Blessing’ by Spell Songs. Robert Bly’s translation of Goethe’s poem ‘Wanderer’s Nachtlied II’ drew me to write ‘Wanderer’s Nightsong’; Mary Oliver shows the wonder of ‘Sleeping in the Forest’; and so on.

Over the past four years I have been taking seriously the panpsychic and animist perspective that the world is alive; not just alive, the world is sentient and speaks to us, if only we will attend and listen. I have been involved in a series of co-operative inquiries with Human and River persons and am giving an account of this in Learning How Land Speaks. ‘Suzanne/River Song’ adapts Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ to express my personal experience of how River speaks.

This leads on to the third theme: we are part of this world, not apart from it, as the dualism and anthropocentric assumptions of capitalist growth society teach us. I have written academically about participatory worldview, but it is maybe better expressed poetically. ‘When I Was The Forest’ is based on words by Meister Eckhart in Daniel Ladinsky’s rendering. The second verse is my own words, which I hope remains in the spirit of the original mystic vision of returning to full participation in the Earth and her creatures. ‘State of Grace’ was written by Elizabeth Krasknoff as coursework at California Institute for Integral Studies. Other songs are inspired by Taoist philosophy: ‘The Way’ was inspired by a poem by Wang Wei that features in Richard Powers’ ecological novel The Overstory; ‘The Uses of Not’ is adapted from Ursula LeGuin’s rendering of the Tao te Ching.

I acknowledge the essential influence of my teacher Marius Frank; and also Cindy Stratton, Helen Chadwick, and Ali Burns.


All of these songs can be found on Peter’s website or on SoundCloud.

You can find Peter’s two booklets with Sarah Gillespie here on his website: On Presence and On Sentience. Learning how Land Speaks is Peter’s Substack account of the series of co-operative inquiries he’s working on with Human and River persons. And How to write a love letter to the Earth is Peter’s short essay for EarthLines Issue 4.

Read Poetry After Auschwitz on what Adorno didn’t say… and Living in Dark Times on the poetry of Bertolt Brecht.

My Work is Loving the World is Mary Oliver’s poem (“Let me / keep my mind on what matters, / which is my work, / which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”). And The Peace of Wild Things is Wendell Berry’s poem (“I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars /waiting with their light.”). You can find Robert Bly’s translation of Goethe’s ‘Wanderers Nachtlied II’ in The Slender Sadness and Other Truths, a blog post on Bly by poet Ken Craft.

You can listen to The Lost Words Blessing by Spell Songs, a musical evolution of both The Lost Words and The Lost Spells books by acclaimed author Robert Macfarlane and award-winning illustrator Jackie Morris that features Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter and Jim Molyneux. 

Everyone needs Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, and here he is, singing it in London.


1.8 takes a critical view on the approximately 706 million gallons of waste oil that enter the ocean every year”. Katrin Spranger‘s piece powerfully uses performance with oil itself to bring home the global impact of pollution and waste on our oceans and wildlife, visually depicting how much crude oil we consume and release daily.

Juxtaposing beauty and ugliness, the physical properties of oil and the marks being left on canvas create a metaphor for humanity’s struggle and highlights the tragic awareness of our inability to control the effects of environmental destruction. Whilst some marks quite literally depict a ‘carbon’ footprint, most other marks witness traces of a fight with a slippery liquid material that could not be controlled.

Katrin Spranger is a visual artist working on the intersection of sculpture, jewellery, and performance, exploring dystopian narratives that engage with environmental issues including the depletion of natural resources.


Formed millions of years ago, yet only used for around 200 years, fossil fuel reserves are emptying very quickly. With current and expected future levels of usage, oil reserves are in decline and cannot meet our population’s needs in the long term.

Global consumption of crude oil, based on the 2021 world population breaks it down to 1.8 litres per capita per day with the forecast of an increase.

1.8 takes a critical view on the approximately 706 million gallons of waste oil that enter the ocean every year. With over half coming from land drainage and waste disposal; for example, from the improper disposal of used motor oil, the other remaining parts come from offshore drilling, production operations and spills or leaks from ships or tankers.

Oil spills present enormous harm to deep ocean and coastal fishing. Oil spills at sea can kill large numbers of seabirds and have the potential to wipe out entire populations where these are small or localised. Oil can stick to birds’ feathers, making them lose their water-proofing and potentially leading to hypothermia. When birds try to clean their feathers they ingest oil and are likely to become poisoned. Birds can be cleaned, but this is laborious and expensive. To rehabilitate a single bird takes up to 45 minutes.

Apart from the problems of offshore oil drilling, mining and oil spills, an additional tragedy is that, unfortunately, much of the world’s plastic has ended up in the ocean, where, dispersed by currents, it becomes virtually irretrievable, especially once it has fragmented into microplastics. Computer models suggest that seas hold as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles. Some are the product of larger pieces breaking apart; others, like microbeads added to toothpaste or face scrubs, were designed to be tiny.

To take the viewer on a rigorous journey to visually depict how much crude oil in the form of plastic products and carbon emissions we consume and release on a daily basis, the protagonist of the 1.8 performance wears a feathered jewellery piece with the exact amount of 1.8 litres of oil hidden under their wings. Their performance follows a trajectory, starting from a beautiful, immaculate state of being with slow, majestic movements, onto more struggling gestures and emotions of reluctance to accept loss, to an eventually uncontrollable mess, leading to the inevitable, horrific death. Juxtaposing beauty and ugliness, the physical properties of oil and the marks being left on canvas create a metaphor for humanity’s struggle and it highlights the tragic awareness of our inability to control the effects of environmental destruction. Whilst some marks quite literally depict a ‘carbon’ footprint, most other marks witness traces of a fight with a slippery liquid material that could not be controlled.

1.8 aims to assess and rethink our daily oil consumption in the form of trying to consume fewer plastic products and packaging materials, and ultimately reducing our environmental footprint at scale when traveling and commuting on a daily basis.

Art direction and jewellery: Katrin Spranger
Performance artist: O.K. Norris
Styling and costume: lambdog 1066
Videographer: Louis Thornton

You can explore more of Katrin’s work at her site — and look out for details of the 1.8 Recycle Workshop Series:

“Of all plastics used, worldwide just about 9 % is recycled. As a matter of fact, even when trying to cut down on packaging materials, consumers not always have a choice when shopping, as items usually come wrapped and packaged in non-recyclable materials. Whenever it is not possible to reduce consumption, we may consider re-using and transforming such materials to reduce waste.

“Following my 1.8 performance piece commenting on crude oil consumption, I am going to run a series of workshops in 2023 that inspire action and provide practical solutions to dealing with ‘waste’ products. Each participant will be asked to collect and bring 1.8 kg of plastic and crude oil waste products to the workshop where we’re going to assess and explore those materials. During the workshop we will recycle and transform the materials using various processes including heating, melting, pressing, cutting (for example heating plastic bottle caps) in order to co-create new artworks such as jewellery pieces or objects. The aim is to create work that does not resemble the materials that it was made of.”

There are a limited number of workshop places, so if you would like to take part, please email to express your interest.

To explore some of the issues Katrin addresses in her work, see:

Standing Tall, 2022

“We decided that what we could do was to let the trees and the space know they were not alone … in community, communicate to them how deeply they are loved, and to be with them through their impending violation. Action in this sacred sense transcends human politics, bypasses it.”

With composite photography and video, Jennifer Leach — Director of Outrider Anthems, and supported by eco-scenographer Andrea Carr, Outrider Anthems Associate — documents and witnesses creative community resistance to the corporate felling of 112 trees and the sacrifice of a city’s green lung for more concrete.

‘They say that in time we will forget. We will become accustomed to the new environment. No. We learn to endure. We do not forget.’ An Outrider Anthems community intervention on Reading Golf Course, where 112 numbered trees, and countless smaller others, are to be felled to make way for a profit-motivated housing estate. We gently bound each doomed tree with a tie of white muslin, thus making visible what the developers and Reading Borough Council wish to keep invisible: a mutual community of powerful trees and all their interconnected ecosystems, earmarked for destruction. Our human community, having had our record number of planning protests ignored, stand in solidarity with the trees.

Jennifer LeachJennifer Leach is a poet, writer, performer and storyteller whose wild work, forged in the fantastical reaches of deep imagination, brings to life new stories for our strange times.


This intervention began with a community desperately trying to safeguard its health, three times resisting a merciless building on one of urban Reading’s few green lungs. It was once agricultural land, then a golf course — until the golfing members handed it over to developers for a princely and undisclosed sum. In almost every way it is an inappropriate development, and yet on the third time of presenting it to Reading Borough Council, and with barely an alteration to the previous two applications, it was suddenly supported and passed. The community had objected with a borough-wide record number of objections, and our distress at the Council meeting was in itself distressing.

The meeting, with its clearly preordained conclusion, was a brazen travesty of the democratic process. The required green links — crucial to the bare survival of species — was, the developer suggested, “hypothetical”. The development, with its 223 largely luxury housing, was going to “improve traffic in the area” and the developers, the Council openly stated “are the ones with the money and they can do what they want.”

“It’s called Capitalism.”

This space is local to me, and in the post-golfing period in which it has rewilded, it has become very special, both to myself and to many members of my community. It is so rich in nature, and in magnificence, particularly in the hundreds of specimen trees that grow in the space. 112 trees are to be felled for the building of the houses, and each tree is unique, each is glorious. They have been categorised by the Council as ‘B – of moderate quality’, ‘C – of low quality’, or ‘U – unsuitable for retention’.

The democratic process was stretched as far as it could be, and appeals were made to central government, but the housing development will go ahead.

Andrea Carr, Associate Director of Outrider Anthems, and I as Director asked ourselves what we could do at this point. Andrea brought her ecoscenographic thoughtfulness and experience to the question, and we decided that what we could do — and we felt it was exceptionally important — was to let the trees and the space know they were not alone. We knew we could and should, in community, communicate to them how deeply they are loved, and to be with them through their impending violation. Action in this sacred sense transcends human politics, bypasses it.

I had the privilege of photographing every one of the 112 trees, and each one of them shared something of their intimate selves with me; they became a gift to me. Andrea came down on the weekend of 1st May and we spent two days measuring out and cutting vast reams of plain white muslin. On 1st May — Beltane in the old Celtic calendar, and a day traditionally associated with the great celebration and honouring of nature — we met with many members of the community and, armed with white muslin and site maps, we spent the day binding each one of the 112 trees to be felled. We stood tall beside them and photographed ourselves standing tall, in solidarity with the trees.

We have conjoined the action of this day with excerpts from the Reading Borough Council planning meeting, to create a composite film entitled Standing Tall. It is currently being screened as a part of the Ecostage contribution to World Stage Design 2022 in Calgary. It hurts to watch it, and it moves. We hope it will be widely shared, and that it will contribute to a changing world in which the sacred spaces and elements of nature become honoured and respected as they once were, and in which the hubris of a capitalist economy finally crumbles under its own insatiable greed. We hope it will inspire others to bear public witness to the non-human victims of human violence, and to stand in love and solidarity with them.

Click on an image to see the full-size series of photographs Jennifer took of the 112 trees.

And you can view more of the intervention with Andrea and watch the videos Jennifer made here at the Outrider Anthems website.

Community: Still from film, Standing Tall

You can find more work at the Outrider Anthems website, and sign up to their mailing list to hear about and support their future projects. And you can explore Jennifer’s work as a writer and artist at her own website.