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.


Notes

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.

Changeling

“I always feel uneasy placing the self at the centre of a piece – the planet doesn’t and shouldn’t care a jot about my own views.”

Julian Bishop‘s poem asks how would the climate feel being messed around in this way – drawing on myths of an evil fairy child substituted for a human baby.

sceptics rubbished me      
labelled me a myth        ignored the trickle          
of microbeads        
into basins where I washed

Julian Bishop is a former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.

 

One challenge I consistently come up against as an eco-poet is the use of the first-person ‘I’. Given man is entirely responsible for our predicament, I always feel uneasy placing the self at the centre of a piece – the planet doesn’t and shouldn’t care a jot about my own views.

Coupled to and at odds with this dilemma is the lack of voice for any of the creatures and geographies impacted by our recklessness. Some of the most powerful poetry I’ve read tries to give a voice to the voiceless, e.g. Sue Riley’s fabulous winner of the Ginkgo Prize a couple of years ago, ‘A Polar Bear In Norilsk’Nobel Prize winner Louise Gluck also writes a nice line from the point of view of plants and inanimate objects, e.g. ‘The Red Poppy’. 

My biggest influence though is Alice Oswald, whose 2017 Griffin Prize-winning collection Falling Awake is written almost entirely in the ‘divorced first person’. Oswald shapeshifts changeling-like into dew at dawn (‘A Rushed Account Of The Dew’), a dead body (‘Body’), a shadow (‘Shadow’) and Orpheus’s head floating in a river (‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’). I immersed myself (excuse the pun) in her book before writing ‘Changeling’ to try and decouple from the ego – how would the climate feel being messed around in this way?

Which brings me to the poem itself, which was actually born out of a workshop exploring myth and fairy tales. During a bizarre discussion on types of fae, the changeling cropped up and immediately screamed POEM! at me before vanishing up a chimney flue (that’s what they do best, apparently). Of course the link to climate change was obvious and I began imagining how I could personify it in changeling form.

According to the myth, the changeling is an evil fairy child substituted for a human baby just after birth. Putting a changeling in a fire would cause it to jump up the chimney and return the human child – tales of ways to uncover the true identity of changelings vary from country to country but all were horribly cruel.

I decided to give my ‘climate changeling’ plenty of ugly features –

my moods monsooned        I cast spells of rain
wept ice melt
swept by tropical depressions    
my skin was fracked        organs fragmented

and the chimney flue obviously beckoned for the end of the poem which ensured an unintentionally apocalyptic end. This wasn’t quite the note I hoped to end on but as so often the poem knows where it’s going better than the poet. I can only hope it’s wrong.

I hadn’t heard about Green Ink Poetry until I came across a call-out on Twitter for poems for an issue on Pyres. It’s a two-year-old press with high production values. I looked at their website which has the strapline “We welcome chaos, calamity and the natural world”. My ‘Changeling’ appeared to have found a home.


You can read Julian’s poem Changeling at Green Ink Poetry – and do explore more of his poems and reflections on his experiences of recent times in the pandemic in his On Green Verges, contribution to our special Quarantine Connection series, in September 2020. You can follow Julian on Twitter: @julianbpoet.

Julian mentions Sue Riley’s ‘A Polar Bear In Norilsk‘, which you can find in the free Ecopoetry Anthology from the 2019 Gingko Prize. And Louise Gluck’s ‘The Red Poppy was published as The Guardian’s poem of the week (23/8/2021). Alice Oswald’s collection Falling Awake is published by Penguin, and you can read a poem from it at the link.

Melt & The Hispering

“Both books speak to my ongoing need for connection and intra-veloping with the growing world. They explore how I experience what I breathe, how water, soil and grasses unfold from me and I from them.”

In melt and the hispering, Sarah Hymas encourages us to rethink, blur, mix up, remake the stories we’ve been told.

In the unfathomable dark
of my closed eyes
microscopic life surfaces
to feed on digested sunlight

(‘Moist’ from melt)

Sarah Hymas is a poet, performer and artistbook maker focusing on the sea, its ecosystems and its interdependence with people, and the impacts of climate change and pollution.

In the first lockdown of 2020 I was one of many writers wondering how publishing a book was going to work in a pandemic. melt was originally due to be published in the spring of 2020. Eventually appearing in December, it is the outcome of four years of reading, living and writing around my encounters with the ocean, its currents, ice melt, plastic debris and many other of its upwellings. the hispering, by contrast, popped out over four weeks in April / May 2020. Rising from a thirty-year-old experience, it demanded my attention during the world’s rupture, an almost obsessive revisiting, retracing and retelling of what had happened to my twentysomething-year-old self in West Sussex, Donegal and some strange netherbridge strung between the two.

In part the books seem quite different: one poetry, exploring how line, space and image can fold and unfold across oceanic movement; the other a pamphlet of prose-poetry-like glimpses of a dreamt / dream-like meadow. Still, they both speak to my ongoing need for connection and intra-veloping with the growing world. They explore how I experience what I breathe, how water, soil and grasses unfold from me and I from them. Both books play with folklore, social history, a desire for belonging, a fear of disconnection and strive to embrace what is unknown or weird or threatening with an open spirit.

They both play with form, restless in the flat page conventions of a book. As a maker of artistbooks I’ve been playing with how text can break from the dimensions of a page, how it can stretch across pages, and how pages and folds can ask unexpected things from readers. Both books ask for reciprocity: between book as object and reader as subject, or vice versa.

They reflect a life-long fascination with how imagination upholds our worlds, how what we dream, in waking or in sleep, feeds and enriches thinking, doing, seeing. I’d hope that anyone who opens their pages also finds new worlds opening up to them, within and without of themselves; and is encouraged to rethink the stories they’ve been told over the years: the true and imagined ones, the scientific and historical ones, the personal and collective ones, and to remake them, to blur them a bit, mix them up and shake out new possibilities for what might be to come.


More about the processes and obsessions that informed melt and the hispering can be found at Sarah Hymas – writer and maker

melt (2020) is published by Waterloo Press and the hispering (2021) is published by Black Sunflowers Poetry.

You can follow Sarah on Twitter and Facebook