James Murray-White discovers in ‘Winged’, a new collection of words and images from fellow member James Roberts, a creative expression of the natural world’s ‘being-ness’ and a way for us to deepen our own presence within the more-than-human.
1,000 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes
Very very occasionally — and I really mean rarely — a piece of creativity or an aspect of someone’s inner world made tangible comes into our own perspective and halts us, stops the mental chatter, and becomes a tool to deepen our ways into the real earthly things inherent in our wonderful world.
Winged by James Roberts is such a collection of crafted joy. Words gathered, and images captured: a series of poems on twelve birds in flight, their presence observed and made art by this sensitive recorder and responder, and set loose again in the mind’s eye within this isle’s wild places.
‘Every living thing is just a song in the memory of another’
The kingfisher, in the starting poem, is variously a “little water bee”, a “little fire belly”, and finally a “little dripping dagger”, and is so perfectly matched with an illustration highlighting the downward thrust of its beak — free falling into a river kill, perhaps.
The owl, also focused downward, and yet with both wings outstretched, has
Spent its whole life In preparation for an instant, Learning to fix its being To a needle point flaring lightless
And this sharp-eyed poet journeys into the unknowing knowing of “the cracks of the underworld“ and “that hole in the night which keeps watch / and waits endlessly for us to wake.“
‘Falling always out of absence into open air’
Roberts gets up close and personal with the curlew too, and sparrow, heron, swallow, swan, goshawk, lapwing, kite, golden plover, and the rook. All of them meet him and us on the path, and all become conduits for Roberts’s journey into “rapture-stillness” while we and he become “shapes imagined by a forest”.
We are never told in the work where the artist-poet is wandering the world, and it’s right that those parameters aren’t set: this is work that takes us into both stillness (and observation) and movement. It’s reminiscent of the work of wandering father of geopoetics Kenneth White in its intense focus on the birdness of the bird, the seeing and the beyond seeing.
In-between these depth-flights on winged joy with our bird kin, we are given glimpses back into the human, and specifically the predicament of the pandemic that this work and pamphlet has been created within.
Can we nail the world shut long enough to discover everything
I don’t want to know the name of the colour of this sky
And yet this human world is nothing but a distraction from the simplicity, the presence, and the straight ‘being-ness’ of the world Roberts inhabits and offers to take us within (or as far as he is being taught to tread), and wait.
A presence in the meeting point
The images are graceful, and yet some use the power of the simple line to striking effect: the kite, bold, splayed across a white page; the rook, moving upward in an unhurried dominance, and the swallow, hanging in flight, its hind feathers sharply curved navigation wands. All the birds here have an iridescent blue bleach presence — with us, and yet in-between arriving and leaving, bringing us into Roberts’s meeting point with word and image. Within each bird-body, patterns give way to depth and control: I see a face in one, granulated surfaces in others, and great focus in all. More experienced birdwatchers would enjoy the specifics of their shapes, twists and turns. As a generalist, I’m seeing that these images show birds expressing themselves with their freedoms and choices. They are not conforming to any projected ‘bird qualities’, and that I feel is Roberts’s point — here they all individually are, and Roberts amongst them. And us, vicariously third hand but, with his help, able to dive a little into the shallows and beyond.
I’d like to thank James for the timing of this pamphlet’s arrival both in the world, and in my hands: just as the UK Government is relaxing lockdown (too early in some people’s opinion). I arose early this morning with anxiety about anti-social behaviour and general idiocy upon release from our houses, and the human need for company and alcohol and addictions.
James Roberts is highlighting, in his beautiful, small and yet very precise way, that solitude, close observation and engagement with the more-than-human creates a deeper joy, and a refined aesthetic that creates a wholer human.
Many thanks for your artistry and your presence, birdman.
And I’m wondering if I stand here long enough Will I learn to feel the wind Without wanting to know What it’s saying?
Find out more
Winged by James Roberts (2020) is available from his site, Night River Wood, where you will also find his journal and other works (including A River of Sound, a piece that James contributed to our Quarantine Connection series). James is the founder, arts director and editor of Zoomorphic, a site dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world.
James refers to geopoetics, which the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics describes as “deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world, and proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” The Centre is affiliated to the International Institute of Geopoetics founded by Kenneth White, whom James also mentions.
Writer Philip Webb Gregg shares a new poem exploring rewilding as a sideways step into a stranger world, resisting simplifications of ‘progress’ and the gains and losses of our current model, even as we seek to change it.
1,100 words: estimated reading time 4.5 minutes
we will eat meat still dressed in fur, feather and claw. we will give darkness again a place in our bodies. all sickness shall be cherished, allowed sweat, gland
and pore wherein to thrive. we will run after each other in the dead of night – blood on our tongues. penicillin shall be
crucified upon the hill and forgotten.
our men will wander, blind and bludgeoning, opening debates with bubbling streams and the burnt-out husks of trees, forming conclusions with starlings, finding
answers, as they always have, in the spit of their palms.
our children will die, of course, crushed between their mothers’ thighs. but it won’t matter, because our women will know at last what it means to be free.
our teeth will rot and hang slack in our jaws. we will neither know the names of the stars, nor of each other. but we will hold
each other, nonetheless. nameless and gasping. we will discover again the truth of words that have no place in our hot human skins. and with these words we will say, as we die: this is how
it should be. this death was given by the wind. life shall feast on ash and
the only love shall be the love of dirt and rain.
the air will be clear and the rivers white as our bones and we will breathe. for the first time, in so long. we will breathe. our hearts will be drumsticks in the hands of painted, matted shamans. long dead languages will suddenly spill from our lips like drool, like regurgitated food. like laughter. the wild stones that hold up the sky will kiss and kiss and kiss until they are bent-over bleeding-mouthed and all of a sudden, the clouds shall crash to the ground, heavier than we ever thought they possibly could be. there will be no patterns any more. only perfect, perfect humanity
and disappointed chaos.
Rewilding — neither forward nor backward
This poem started as all good poems do — in a state of agony. I was lying prone in a chair, mouth gaping wide, feeling infinitely fragile as I stared up into the eyes of my torturer cum-saviour who operated without remorse amid my pitiful moans. That’s right, I was at the dentist.
And it struck me, as I walked out with a numb jaw and much lighter wallet, unable to speak or barely think past the painkillers, that humanity had never had it so goddamn good.
All my life I’ve believed, no, I have known, that this society (by which I mean Western, capitalist society) is a lie. A con. A dream of progress, behind which sits the ugly nightmare of perdition. I know this because of my childhood. My mother who is an activist. My father who was a poet. The community I grew up among, and all those I’ve met along the way have only served to intensify my distrust of the current system and the certainty that it must, and shall, change.
Not that you need a hippy childhood to come to this conclusion. The truth of it can be seen by looking out the window, reading a thermometer, or simply watching the waves rise. But maybe it is also true that I have too often overlooked the benefits of progress.
How many lives have been saved by science? How many children born? How much pain averted? And shouldn’t we be grateful for all that we’ve been given? Yes, of course we should. But we should also acknowledge all that we’ve lost. The secret ways. The hidden ways that too easily kindled and charred when the light of logic shone into the wallowing shadows of faith. The idea of ‘not-knowing’ is not a bad thing. In fact, there is salvation there, in the humility and the hugeness of the world.
The idea of rewilding is not to progress by going backwards, but instead to take a step sideways, into a greener, stranger sense of ourselves and the world. This poem is a satire on everything we have gained and everything we have lost. It is an invitation to take that step, neither forward nor backward, but just a little bit slantways.
Find out more
We are grateful to artist, and tutor of art history and drawing, Luisa-Maria MacCormack for the image which accompanies Philip’s poem. It comes from her series ‘And the Beast which I Saw’.
As well as Philip’s previous posts for ClimateCultures, you can also read his contribution to our Quarantine Connection series: his story, What We Find in the Guts of the Bodies that the River Gives Us, appeared on Day 2 of this special 40-day series of new and archive material from ClimateCultures members during Covid-19 lockdown.
In his essay for the Dark Mountain Project, Where the Wild Things Aren’t, Philip reflects on his experiences living in London after a childhood in rural Spain: “If we allow ourselves, we may begin to notice that nature is everywhere, just as it always has been. And it is possible to feel like a part of a wider world, even here. There are birds perched on blackened chimneys and squirrels running across abandoned railways. There is a wound of green cutting across the grey pavement. There are trees which explode with life in spring and then wilt into sleep in autumn. The breeze is still cool in summer. In winter, the cold takes no notice. The rain doesn’t care. And that, to me, is at the core of what the wider world stands for. The lesson we can take home, into ourselves, is that nature is the essence of beautiful indifference. Like gravity. Like the sun. Like the earthquake or the wildfire or the drought. These things are neither cruel nor loving, they merely are. And seeing them, sensing them, should remind us that we are no different. Though we build structures between us and the real world. Though we divide and separate and rift. We should remember that we have the outside within us, regardless of cities or walls. We ourselves are liminal, able to inhabit both worlds at once.”
Fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White is a member of XR Rewilding, which explores and advances rewilding — of the land, of the human — within the context of Extinction Rebellion. You can see a short description and video from James at Campfire Convention, and there is a public XR Rewilding group on Facebook.
Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.
1,670 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes
The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
A sling made from dry grass. A basket, woven from cut saplings. A sack, sewn from the skin of a caught animal. A pair of cupped hands. A leaf a shell a gourd a pot. A womb. A story.
In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.
You know the stories I mean, the ones stuffed end-to-end with guns, knives, sharp-hard-phallic things and blood. The ones that sell well in the box-office. The ones with a handsome hero and an ugly, linear plot. Begin at point A, then proceed straight and with maximum force to point B. WHAM. Somewhere in there there will be conflict, and inevitably, death. But what if there was another way? What if we could cradle our narratives? Not slashing or throwing, but holding.
Le Guin writes that “before the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and axe; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger (…) with or before we made the tool that forces energy outward, we made a tool to bring energy home.” That ‘bringing home’ is something I’m intensely interested in, both from a storytelling and a human sapiens perspective. I find myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of necessary baggage.
Bags surround and shape our lives and society. Without them we would be a very different species, for better or worse. They have carried us, both physically and metaphorically, out of the empty-handed dark and into the world we now inhabit. A world of boxes within boxes. And sometimes these boxes look like progress and sometimes they just look like a cage.
Recently I was moving house. And part-way through I became increasingly aware of the things I was moving. With arms full of bags — full of books — I reflected that books were just bags full of words, and words were just further containers for narrative. And that perhaps the ideas and lessons held within these narratives were just another kind of vessel for holding perspectives on an existence that is too huge to ever be properly perceived from any angle? And would we be better without any bags at all? Maybe the spirit is the only thing that can never be bagged? But then, what is the body if not a bag full guts and bones, possibly accompanied by a soul?
My point, I think, is that necessary baggage is something we need to accept and embrace if we wish to remain human and sane. Whether it’s pent-up ideology, miss-spent emotion or simply too many possessions, we must all learn the subtle art of holding.
Perfect coffee pettiness
It began with goats — so the story goes — who ate the little red cherries and danced in the trees in the hills of Ethiopia, over a thousand years ago.
The shepherd took these seeds to his local holy man, who chastised him and threw the seeds in the fire. Before long both shepherd and holy man noticed a particularly delicious aroma coming from the embers and decided to investigate.
Thus, coffee was born.
Another story tells that coffee came from a Sufi mystic who, while travelling through Ethiopia, observed the energetic behaviour of birds after feasting from a certain bush. A third story tells of an exiled Yemeni healer, who chewed the raw berries while in a state of starvation and desperation.
Whatever origin myth you choose to believe, coffee has been around for a long time, and has played an interesting part in the development and progression of human history. From the Middle Eastern qahveh khaneh or ‘schools of the wise’, where coffee (quahwa) would be consumed and venerated amid poetry, performance and passionate conversation, to the first European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which helped to steer and fuel the Age of Enlightenment. However, it all pales to the shade of a weak flat white when you compare it to the role of coffee today.
A lot has changed since the days of the dancing goats. The narrative of coffee in the modern world is one of the most telling cues of the capitalist system. We fill ourselves with fuel to achieve as much as possible in the shortest span of time. We sacrifice sleep while in the worship and pursuit of our dreams.
This fuel is bitter and strong, or sweet and smooth. It comes in dozens of different styles and countless combinations. Crafted, blend, single-origin, filter, espresso, Java, Arabica, etc, etc. It’s a poison that’s been analysed and romanticised to such a degree that it now exists as a status symbol for the millennial generation.
For me it sits atop a trifactor of emblematic substances, together with hummus and avocados, that mark the pettiness of the Anthropocene generation. It has become the addiction of the 21st century, except that junkies have never before obsessed about the perfect pattern of a fern leaf in the smoke of their crack pipes. And that’s what gets to me. Somehow, there is a snobbery here which tastes bitterly of middle-class elitism and pretentiousness.
I wonder, in the world that is to come, when seas are rising and jungles burning, will we still care about the nominal difference between a macchiato and a manchado?
Search engine unconsciousness
We live in curious times. That much is certain. With Covid-19 making immense and frightening changes to all our lives and behaviours, it seems like a good time to talk about internet use and dependence. Apparently before the pandemic hit, in a seven-day period we would spend an average of 24 hours online. That’s a whole day every week looking at screens, clicking, typing and scrolling; existing in a space that is neither physical nor abstract, where attention spans are ephemeral, all knowledge seems available and very little wisdom is on offer.
There is a reason all cultures throughout history have a tradition of venerating their elders. Someone who has lived and survived longer than you, whether they be your relative or not, deserves your implicit respect because they retain the influence of wisdom.
Sure, you might be faster, stronger or healthier. But they can tell you which direction to run, which berries to pick; which fungus gets you close to the sky and which sends you deep into the earth. In the days when we were a tribe, our elders had something that was stronger than any human muscle. They had stories. Stories that would be told at important moments, ceremonies and rites of passage. Narratives that could guide us through life, and even a few that could guide us through death.
These days, we have search engines. Grandfather Google.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of the power that search engines have over our experience of the internet (and thus our experience of modern life). Usually, we think that they are one and the same. This is a mistake. They are very much not the same.
Let’s try this with a metaphor. If the internet is a safari park, crammed to the brim with ferocious animals, exotic plant life and all manner of interesting biodiversity, then your search engine is the little guy in a jeep driving you through the savanna, pointing your binoculars in the right direction and deciding which paths are unsafe to go down.
It’s a role not unlike the one once held by our elders. Except that it is inhuman, dominated by capitalism and driven by a specific set of data targets and an agenda. We all know that the same search made on two different computers will bring up very different results. Like everything these days, our search engines are highly customised to our experience.
In this, they function a little bit like the unconscious, and the whole internet itself can be compared to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious — a worldwide conversation. A massive, never-ending, semi-incoherent, often very important but usually very banal, conversation between one box of data and the next. There is certainly poetry in that, and great terror also.
For me, there’s a beautiful irony in the way we use the internet these days. In one sense it’s the repository of all human knowledge, art and experience — and has the very real potential to elevate anyone with a wifi connection to near-demigod status. But of course, we squander it on cat videos and pornography.
It’s a sad and wonderfully human reality. And I for one am curious, terrified and a little bit hopeful for whatever the future holds for us bag-wielding, poison drinking, unconscious apes.
Four writers of fiction and nonfiction (all members of Bristol Climate Writers and ClimateCultures) share the ‘Desert Island Books’ they discussed at a recent library event on climate change: Nick Hunt, Caroline New, Peter Reason, and Deborah Tomkins.
3,000 words — approximate reading time 12 minutes
At a time of enormous cuts to library funding all over the UK, Bristol is not an exception — in 2017, seventeen of its 27 libraries were under threat of closure, including Redland Library, the second most used library in the city. The Friends of Redland Library — which campaigns to keep libraries open all over Bristol, initiated a series of evenings — Desert Island Books, in which “a panel of interesting people” discuss a particular topic through books.
On 9th January 2020, four of the Bristol Climate Writers took part in a climate change Desert Island Books event at Redland Library. We were each invited to bring a book to discuss, and also a ‘wild card’, a book which could be on another subject completely, although only one of us took that option, with persuasive reasoning. This was followed by Q&A.
Members of the panel were Nick Hunt (travel writer, freelance journalist and editor of Dark Mountain), Caroline New (fiction writer and Green Party Campaigns co-ordinator), Peter Reason (writer and Emeritus Professor, Bath University), and Deborah Tomkins (fiction writer and founder of the Bristol Climate Writers network).
Climate change — a background hum
Nick Hunt's choice:
- Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin- Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk
Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is not really a novel. It’s a collection of stories, anecdotes, folklore, songs, rituals and even recipes describing the Kesh, a people “who might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. Le Guin herself described it as an ‘archaeology of the future’.
Post-apocalyptic fables mostly fall into two categories: eco-utopias where everyone lives in harmony with nature, and dystopian nightmares prowled by murderous, looting gangs. One is invariably misanthropic, highlighting the savagery into which humans plunge as soon as the veneer of civilisation is stripped away, while the other is often extremely dull (perfection always is). Always Coming Home belongs in the utopian category — although, beyond the valley of the Kesh, there are signs that other societies are falling back into hierarchy, expansionism and misogyny — but there are several qualities that make this book different.
Le Guin’s exceptional skill as a writer is the first. She builds her world so delicately that only halfway through the book does it become apparent that this quasi-Native American society of hunter-gatherers has access to a technology that resembles a god-like internet, which permeates their lives so thoroughly that, like the wind or the rain, it is hardly even mentioned. Another quality is what I can only describe as her honesty, which seems a strange thing to say in relation to a sci-fi/fantasy book.
The daughter of anthropologists, Le Guin does not present herself as the writer or creator, but simply as an archivist whose role it is to record information and pass it to the reader.
In one Kesh folktale, a man steps through a hole in the air to find himself ‘outside the world’, a duplicate version of his own valley that is filled with roads and houses as far as he can see. This shadow-place is populated by monstrous backwards-headed people who smoke tobacco ceaselessly, eat food that is poison and can only say the words “Kill people, kill people, kill people”. The story is a shamanic voyage: the backwards-headed people are us, glimpsed with nightmare clarity by a culture to whom pollution and war are practically incomprehensible. It is an invitation to see ourselves, and the violence of our civilisation, as indigenous cultures might have seen us at first point of contact, or even as non-human creatures might regard us now.
“Stories about climate change don’t need to be about climate change”, writes critic Robert Butler in an essay in the anthology Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. “Stories written before people knew about human-made climate change — Faust, Galileo, King Lear — may now resonate in ways that hadn’t been seen before. Even if climate change is not the subject matter, or the principal theme, its presence may still be detectable. It could be, in Ian McEwan’s evocative phrase, ‘the background hum’.”
Always Coming Home is not a story about climate change, or not directly anyway (an unspecified cataclysmic upheaval is buried so deep in time that the Kesh retain no knowledge whatsoever about its cause). But a ‘background hum’ runs through the book, permeating it as thoroughly as the digital intelligence that invisibly fills Le Guin’s world; not a note of anxiety or despair but of trust in human kindness, and a celebration of our place not at the top of a hierarchy but as one small part of a living, breathing universe. Above all, it is a book about hope… even if that hope lies 20,000 years in the future.
Navigating unbearable things
Caroline New's choice:- The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson
- The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell
I broke the mould in our team presentation of climate fiction by talking about the witty, escapist detective stories by Catriona McPherson, the excellent Dandy Gilver series, rightly called ‘preposterous’ by one reviewer. As a climate activist I read new and terrifying information every day. I don’t go to bed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I go to bed with Dandy Gilver and her ilk. I need to sleep. Maybe the human mind needs a little denial as it needs chocolate.
Set in the 1930s, their upper-class female detective protagonist shares the classism of the period, modified by humour and compassion, but prevails against sexism. She notices poverty, or we could not like her, but the resilience and humour of the poor stop poverty threatening the benign nature of reality. We readers know what is coming, but we let ourselves be rocked along with Dandy in the comforting hammock of interwar privilege. This is high-class denial for the intelligentsia.
As a writer of climate fiction myself, I have to ask: ‘Why would anyone want to read about unbearable things?’ And yet they do. Fiction about the Holocaust, violence and war, the slave trade and other atrocities pulls us straight into the terrifying opposite of love. What makes it readable? I can think of two obvious ways.
Firstly, when the horror is interwoven with stories of love and courage the relief of this truth about human beings lets healing emotions soften the rigid horror of the trauma.
Secondly, fiction can counter the bland numbness of privilege, which can be a relief. By saying ‘This is real! This happened!’ it can afford us the catharsis of grief. Or it may amount to the cry ‘Stop!’ One way or another, these works forbid denial, which in theory should bring us closer to action. If, that is, we have the faintest idea of what to do.
Climate change is perhaps different from the other sorts of unbearable things I have mentioned. The enemies are structures, although worked by human minds. We are all deeply implicated. We all did this. This unpleasant fact may be what made climate fiction slow to take off.
The Ship is actually about denial, but not of climate change. It is metaphorical but entirely to the point, and in that sense more realistic than the US survivalist post-apocalyptic genre where women in cross-gartered trousers peer irresistibly from wattle-and-daub shelters and take aim at small game with home-made crossbows. The Ship is set in an unspecified time when there are no apples left, only ersatz apple juice and wax replicas. Most of the eco-systems that support human life have already broken down, and the government’s only solution is to allow the weakest to die so as to protect a surviving elite. The horrors are mostly off-stage, which makes it possible to contemplate them out of the corner of an eye.
The Ship itself is the ultimate middle-class solution; a floating gated community which tries to create its own truth. In reality it is going nowhere, forever. The on-board leadership (the heroine’s own father) parrots the message of many dictatorships: forget the past, erase it: it never happened and only traitors make us look at it. The teenage heroine has to grow up in the face of this thick denial, and the book charts her adventures up to the point that she sees the clear outlines of her moral dilemma and takes steps to end it.
Closing the species gap
Peter Reason's choice:- Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky- The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Learning to Die, by poet/philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky, is a tiny book of essays, but it explores a huge theme: How should we die at the end of times?
The first essay, by Bringhurst, considers the nature of the wild Earth, “living life to its full… self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us”. Humans are, of course, part of this, but we are ‘liminal creatures’, on the margins of the wild, sometimes tempted to believe the ‘witch tale’ that we can live entirely outside it. The wild world has been pushed by humans beyond its limits, bringing about mass extinction of life on Earth, one that may well include humans. If anything survives, “it will again be the wild… that is responsible for the healing”.
Bringhurst is demanding we look reality in the face, challenging us with the realities of death: “You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today?”
Jan Zwicky picks up this essentially moral question: “What constitutes virtue in such circumstances?” The answer, she tells us, is surprisingly straightforward: it is “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life”. Harking back to Socrates, she explores six core virtues:
Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
Courage: physical, civic, and moral.
Self-control: knowing when enough is enough
Justice as ‘the order of the soul’.
Contemplative practice: attending to the beauty of brokenness
And this must all be approached with a sense of humour, a lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. “We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal to despair. Even in the face of death.”
In contrast, Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a novel that sets out to close the gap between people and other living things, and in particular, trees. It challenges human exceptionalism, so, while there are nine human characters, key protagonists are the trees themselves.
This may sound over-serious and philosophical for a novel, but it is also a gripping read. The lives of the human protagonists become intertwined with each other in the so-called Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s, when activists attempted to stop the logging of the last virgin forests. The narrative builds to a series of thrilling climaxes as the protestors blockade logging machinery, occupy trees, battle with police, and eventually engage in illegal direct action with appalling consequences.
The great achievement of this novel is that it draws the reader into a different worldview in which we know — really know, not just as scientific abstraction — that trees communicate with each other; that forests are not collections of individual trees but living, collaborating organisms; that they can, in their own way, communicate with us. How does this change our attitude toward them and to the plant world in general? It is often said we will not solve the ecological crisis through facts and figures but through good stories that engage our imagination in alternative ways of living. The Overstory is such a story.
Climate change in a realist tradition
Deborah Tomkins' choice:- Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver - Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall - What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is a quieter book than what some may imagine climate fiction (or ‘cli-fi’) to be, with little overt drama, and in the realist tradition. In other words, it’s not shelved in fantasy or science fiction, nor is it a thriller.
I chose this book because I tend to write realist climate fiction, and know therefore just how hard it is to do without breaking into dystopia (current or future), or upping the stakes with some kind of environmental disaster. But I have also written a speculative cli-fi novella, and found it a good deal easier. There is something freeing about putting your story on a different planet or several hundred years in the future.
Flight Behaviour is set in the Appalachian Mountains, in a dirt-poor community, an area that Barbara Kingsolver knows well and writes compassionately about. The people are ill-educated and never travel beyond the nearest town. Climate change means nothing to them in their struggle for existence — except they’ve noticed the weather doesn’t behave as it used to, and constant rain and flooding threatens their farms and livelihoods.
The main character, Dellarobia, has her life upturned when she spots ‘fire’ in the woods — in reality, millions of monarch butterflies which have somehow gone astray from their usual migration route. If they all die in the Appalachian winter, the whole species will become extinct. The local community sees it as a sign from God not to fell the trees — tree-felling is likely to be the only source of income that winter for Dellarobia’s family — and Dellarobia appears on TV, to her dismay, as some kind of mystic figure (the portrayal of the manipulative TV reporter is a joy). Into this confused mix comes Ovid Byron, a black professor of entomology who is passionate about the monarchs; and Dellarobia, bright but uneducated, begins to learn about ecology and climate change.
Flight Behaviour isn’t perfect — it’s a little wordy, and the story could have been told in perhaps half the length, but it’s one of the very few novels that address climate and ecological issues in the realist tradition. It’s worth noting that Kingsolver has been writing fiction exploring these themes for several decades.
I chose two wild cards, both non-fiction, similar but different: George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Per Espen Stoknes’ What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.
They both look at the psychology of denial, all the mental tricks people play on themselves in order not to deal with the reality of climate change. Both are engaging and easy to read, drawing on research. Marshall is a communicator, and approaches the issue from the point of why climate communication so often misses the mark; Stoknes is a psychologist. Of course, none of this is simple, and there are many and multifarious reasons, some overlapping, some wildly incompatible. Both books offer useful insights about how to “retell the story of climate change and embrace strategies that are social, positive and simple” (Stoknes).
I have found both books of immense value, both for my writing and in my campaigning, as I have learned (and am still learning) about how to communicate with people who don’t want to hear. Perhaps the tide has turned in the past two years, with the Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough effect, but we still have a long way to go, and I recommend these two books for insights into communicating effectively.
The Desert Island Books evening — one of torrential rain and floods, incidentally — ended with questions from the audience, who had turned out in good numbers, despite the weather, and the animated discussion showed how much people enjoyed the session.
Find out more
Bristol Climate Writers was founded in 2017 to provide a network for writers in the Bristol area who are writing in any genre about climate change. We consist of fiction writers, poets, science writers, travel writers, journalists, memoirists and more. We meet monthly for discussion, and also provide occasional public workshops. The Desert Island Books event is one of a number of public events Bristol Climate Writers has engaged with.
The Friends of Redland Libraryspun out of the 2015 campaign to save Redland Library from being closed. It must have worked, as only one of Bristol’s 28 Libraries was closed but some other cuts were made. In 2017 there was a new move to close seventeen of the city’s now 27 Libraries. FORL became more active, organising one or two events a month. This included the Desert Island Books format, where a panel of speakers nominated books on the event theme plus a ‘wild card’. The main driver is that the audience wanted intelligent discussion on serious subjects. The city’s libraries now look safe until March 2021.
Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin, is published by Gateway (Orion, 2016; originally published 1985).
A mother, grandmother, activist, environmentalist and writer, currently editing 'Blank Times' - a humorous fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic neo-fascist regime run according to Ten 'Planetary Principles'. Read More
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. Read More
Independent curator and writer Rob La Frenais interviews fellow ClimateCultures member and ClimateKeys founder Lola Perrin about her ground-breaking global initiative to ‘help groups of people tell the truth to each other’ about the ecological and climate emergency.
2,300 words: estimated reading time 9 minutes
Before you founded ClimateKeys you had a long career as a contemporary classical composer and musician. Could you tell me something about the kind of music that you compose and play?
I compose almost exclusively for solo and multiple piano and my sound relates to Debussy and Ravel, but it touches on jazz harmony and also has some kind of processing within it that you get in minimalist composers like Steve Reich. When I was launching myself as a composer I was asked to categorise my sound so I described it as ‘Rave Music for Butterflies’ — that to me was a good description in that it’s imaginative music. I usually seek specific triggers for my works, paintings for example, or correspondence. For example, my sixth suite was composed from emails with a neuroscientist about the speed of thought in the brain — this to me was so interesting, how thought travels at around 200 miles an hour and jumps across spaces between the nerve cells as electrical charges.
So, slowly in the last decade, mentions of references to the coming climate emergency and global heating started to emerge in your titles and content of your work. Can you tell me something about how this took place?
My children were very young and I was becoming aware of something called climate change but I was really too scared of it to look into it much. As they got older I became braver and I started to read a little bit and understand that we were in a very, very serious problem. This was in 2005. I began to wake up to the problem. So gradually, from that point on, I found I was unable to just carry on writing music as if all this great threat wasn’t just all going on around us. Increasingly I was unable to detach my compositional life from the emergency, as we now call it.
Nowhere to talk about Climate Emergency
Can you give me some examples of some of the titles of the work that started being affected by the climate emergency?
One title is quite long, it goes like this. We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves. This is a quote from Chris Rapley, a senior scientist in the climate world. I’ve used other Rapley quotes — We are the crew of a large spaceship for 9 billion. If we were on a smaller spacecraft it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, food and climate. Another title is Imagine better, create — which relates to that well-known saying in climate activism, ‘If we don’t imagine a better world, we won’t create it.’ The title Collective Compulsion was drawn from writing by Paul Allen — it’s about our over-consumption causing our problem. If you look at a map of where the emissions are coming from, they come from the areas of massive consumption, i.e. the rich economies of the world.
And then your feelings about the climate emergency started to actually affect the methodology of your concerts and out of this came this thing called ClimateKeys. Can you tell me about how that happened and how the shift between your titles and content then moved on to actually performing in a format that reflected your activism?
Actually my activism grew out of that shift, it’s not that shift came from activism. It was simply that there was such a silence everywhere. I was picking up what seemed to be just snippets about this terrible thing called climate change but there weren’t major warnings being announced or places to talk — we were all just walking around as if in a dream. I would be doing my daily life, I would be taking my kids to school, I would be going to the bank, going to the shopping centre, walking down the street, going to work, coming back, doing normal day-to-day things and there was nowhere to talk about this existential threat.
This troubled me so, so much, I couldn’t figure out where I could have the conversations I felt we all needed urgently to be having as part of our daily lives. So I thought, OK, I will put this conversation into my own concerts. I will create a piece of music and there will be a space within the music for a climate change expert to give a talk so we could all learn more, and then for the audience to have a conversation. At least I can put the conversation there. So what happened was I started doing these concerts, inviting amazing speakers to join me — economists, futurists, scientists — and then I started to tell other musicians what I was doing.
Several other musicians put their hands up and said they wanted to do the same thing, so I created a format for helping other musicians around the world who also wanted to engage their own audiences in dialogue about action: what we can actually do about our heating world. I realised this was becoming an initiative so I gave it a name — ClimateKeys — and made a website.
An intimate space for deep discussion
The climate emergency is a really serious topic but are ClimateKeys concerts enjoyable?
Yes, it’s serious and a very, very scary subject and it’s really still quite a taboo subject. The majority of the population may now be aware of it and concerned about it, but the majority is still not engaged. Day-to-day life as usual continues. I believe if you use the arts you can draw people into engaging in this emergency through appealing to their emotions. But if you just hold a public meeting or a political meeting no one’s going to come; it’s going to be boring and it’s also going to be quite alienating and quite scary.
But if you have a concert that’s been carefully thought through it eases people into this sort of sense of being together, listening deeply to music that’s been specially chosen by the musician because of how it connects with climate issues. That sense of intimate sharing that the musician has set up extends into the way the audience has its conversation. People talk on an intimate level, it feels non-threatening despite the threatening subject matter. So you make a particular atmosphere that makes facing our threats head-on a little easier and you have a deep discussion — all together. The concerts end with final music as well, symbolic, to show that discussion and action on the emergency need to be at the centre of whatever we do. So, to answer your question, the concerts are emotional, yes — some of that emotion is enjoyment!
So we’ve heard a lot about popular music getting involved in the climate emergency and people like Radiohead or other groups such as Fatboy Slim mixing the lyrics from Greta Thunberg’s speeches, but it’s a bit unusual to find classical musicians getting involved in this. Are you the only one?
I’m definitely not the only one but we are few and far between. We’re not joined up as one movement. I don’t know of any other global initiatives like the one that I’ve established which has triggered literally thousands of new conversations about action. I know of musicians who are definitely as worried as everybody else but I don’t know how many are actually drawing their audiences into these conversations about action and about the climate emergency.
It’s now not just about people protesting is it? It’s people like Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and Christine Lagarde, the CEO of the International Monetary Fund, who are all making these statements, because the economy is going to be profoundly affected by extreme global heating and climate change. So can you comment a little bit about how ClimateKeys can help those in industry who are concerned about this?
I just find it incredible that 11,000 scientists can make a statement like the one that was made in November 2019 saying that we are in a global emergency and we need widespread change to happen to help protect ourselves from the worst threats and then everybody carries on going to work the next day as if this statement hasn’t been made. There have to be devices in place so that we can tell the truth about what’s happening.
What ClimateKeys can do is help groups of people tell the truth to each other, whether it’s a random concert audience or an entire business — help tell the truth about these very disturbing issues. Because yes, the economy, is definitely going to suffer; surely it already is with the massive fires, droughts, floods and wars related to heating. The form of economy we have now has brought us to this place; we have an extractive economy and this has led us to this place of danger. To me, evidently what we need to do, all of us, is to remove the divisions between activism and business and just see us as the same level playing field. And all of us, whatever we do, need to work out how to live within the planetary boundaries.
How can businesses change so that their operations are living within planetary boundaries? How can you persuade these businesses whose bottom line is essentially to make money for their investors that indeed some of the activities that those industries are participating in are actually causing global heating? For example the fossil fuel companies? How can you persuade them that they’re not going to be shooting themselves in the foot if they take on these issues?
We need massive change. Intrinsic within that is the ending of the fossil fuel economy, Urgently. Either we self-elect to enact these changes as a matter of life or death, or collapse will force this change upon us. And collapse means exactly that — collapse of all we know, including the economy. How is that going to happen without a culture of getting people together much, much more regularly — I would say daily — to face all of this head-on?
Because it’s very clear from the science that the changes that elected policymakers think they’re going to bring in are going to be way too late to avoid catastrophic warming. It’s now down to people to gather together, from small community groups right up to major businesses to have these in-house discussions right across the country. The whole world needs to be fully informed and engaged. In ClimateKeys concerts we’ve recently started splitting audiences into small groups after the guest speaker’s talk — and then pulling the strongest ideas from each group together for a group discussion later on. It’s proving to be an immensely powerful sequence of conversation, because agreements and actions are produced and decided upon. A transformation occurs; a couple hours earlier people were less engaged and by the end, they’ve become armed with information and increased agency. What we’re doing is helping to normalise a long-overdue culture of engagement with the emergency that, quite frankly, we just need to get on with dealing with.
Lola Perrin is a ClimateCultures member, and in her first post for us, A Razor-sharp Fragility, she discussed a tension between isolation and creative responses to climate change: to create, we need to be alone (physically or mentally) and this can be an unpleasant process, and yet we carry on creating because suppressing that creativity is even more unpleasant.
You can follow the new programme of activities from ClimateKeys — which exists to “help normalise telling the truth about the planetary emergency” — and access its archive of synopses of talks from a great range of guest speakers at previous concerts. Poet and climate activist Tessa Gordziejko (pictured above) spoke at a 2019 ClimateKeys concert and has published the text on her own site: Why on Earth make art about climate change? You can also find out more about Lola’s work as composer, performer and climate activist at lolaperrin.com.
You can find the full statement signed by 11,000 scientists — World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency — published in the journal BioScience on 5th November 2019. It begins: “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’ On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible. Read More