A Nature More Resilient

Responding to our Environmental Keywords post on ‘Resilience’, psychotherapist Susan Holliday uses a story from her book Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart to seek a more resilient nature, finding signs that collective stresses need not overwhelm us.


1,870 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Ralph tells me he has come to therapy to learn how to be more resilient. His broad frame perches awkwardly, as though the softness of the chair threatens to emasculate him. Arms heavy with a calligraphy of tattoos — serpents, skulls, a bird of prey — every inch of his body communicates toughness. Only his eyes give him away. His look is haunted, as though a ghost stalks through the inner chambers of his being.

The record company Ralph works for operates in a competitive market. Its staff are rewarded for high-octane performance and long hours. Like his colleagues, Ralph works hard and plays hard. In recent months his sleep has been disturbed by night terrors, which can no longer be assuaged through drinking. He feels he has reached a breaking point. Ralph blames himself for not being tougher. This brings us to the heart of the matter, for Ralph is always trying to be tougher. The only alternative he can see to being tough is to give in to being weak.

“What might it look like to be more resilient?” I ask. Perplexed by the question, Ralph replies “I’d be able to take the heat, like everyone else.” I feel him bristle with irritation. He wants solutions from me, not daft questions. “How do you take the heat at the moment?” I persist. Looking me straight in the eye he replies, “I just keep going. I try harder.”

Taking the heat

Ralph is like a moon unable to turn away from the sun. It simply hasn’t occurred to him that there might be a natural limit to the amount of heat he can take. Competition in the marketplace keeps getting hotter. Everyone is stressed. They just have to deal with it. Resilience in this relentlessly ratcheted environment begins to fail. Under the skin, beneath the protective totems of toughness, Ralph is beginning to crack. His intimate anguish unfolds out of sight. The face he presents to the world is indestructible.

Ralph’s tattoos intrigue me. What might these sentinels be guarding, I wonder. What treasure might warrant this level of protection? We begin by exploring the qualities of his shield — tough, hard, impenetrable, deflecting, protecting. Then, looking for the concealed aspect, I suggest we reverse the tattoo qualities (like a negative in the darkroom). Together we begin to discern the inverse faces of his toughness — soft, tender, yielding, revealing, allowing. Risking everything, I ask Ralph if there might be something he secretly wishes to reveal, something he longs to allow, something he might want to feel. His face flushes. He looks away.

Ralph does not show up for his next session. Nor the one after that. I fear I have lost him. To my surprise, he returns the following week carrying a battered old shoe box covered in faded stickers. Opening the lid Ralph shows me a roughly packaged pile of cassette tapes. A secret hoard of songs, written and recorded when he was just fifteen. This is the first time he has opened the box in twenty years.

Ralph recalls the morning he woke to find his father missing from the breakfast table. A neatly written note explained that he had left them to be with a woman he had met the year before at a conference in Germany. Ralph’s mother said his father was ‘a lousy piece of shit’ and they were better off without him. He would get over it. In the months that followed she soldiered on, modelling a kind of stoic fortitude. Bewildered and bereft, Ralph found himself being the ‘man around the house’, looking out for his mother and three sisters. He had to be strong, for all their sakes.

In the concealed safety of his bedroom the tender adolescent survived — for a while. Wrapped around his guitar he wrote songs about anger and fear, about love and loss. Music stopped him dying inside. No one listened. Hollowed out with forbidden grief for his father, Ralph’s emotional world remained hidden. Shameful evidence of his ‘weakness’. Increasingly he found himself in trouble at school. He got into fights and began taking drugs. They helped block out his vulnerability, his yearning, his grief. In the years since then he has walked through life as a shadow artist, toughing it out organising gigs and record deals for musicians with half his raw talent.

Ralph asks me if I would like to hear one of his songs. He has brought an old cassette player. Slowly, tentatively, he presses the red button to ‘play’. A rough and tender voice pierces the space between us. It is shot through with the raw edge of adolescent loss. Ralph observes me intently. He sees that I’m moved. He knows then that something about his expression of vulnerability is good.

Listening to these songs together in the weeks that follow, Ralph and I begin to discern that sensitivity (not weakness) is the hidden aspect which lies on the other side of his armoured strength. In time he is able to acknowledge that he has never stopped loving his father. He misses him every day. Connected once more to the vulnerability of his heart, he is surprised to discover that love is a power. It stirs in him now with a force that feels unbreakable.

A more resilient nature

It seems that ‘toughness’ has become the exclusive aspect to which we aspire. We admire ‘nerves of steel’ and ‘rock-hard determination’. We ‘hammer out’ and ‘battle through’ our problems. We spin the promise that through therapy and mindfulness we can withstand the intolerable ratcheting up of societal stresses. This confounding of resilience with a limitless capacity to absorb pressure masks the structural problems behind so much of our suffering. It locates the cause of our distress in failures of individual resilience. Worse still perhaps, in our quest to mask our vulnerability, to override our sensitivity and ultimately to deny the inconvenient truth of human limitation, we stuff ourselves with things. Mountains of things.

This compulsive consumption is costing us the earth.

In her highly influential TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, Brené Brown challenges the way we understand our relationship to vulnerability, arguing that our sensitivity to feeling lies at the very heart of our ability to survive and to thrive: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

Author of The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron suggests that heightened sensitivity manifests in a certain proportion of all higher species, because it is essential for the survival, expression and evolution of the whole group. As a community of beings we are in effect all aspects of one indivisible skin, which needs to be both tough enough to protect and sensitive enough to feel.

Showing bleached coral

We can see this intimate correlation between sensitivity and toughness throughout the natural world. Reef-building corals for example survive for millennia in a continual cycle of impact and renewal. The living polyps may only be a few years old, but they rely on an underlying skeleton that can live for thousands of years. These corals can adapt to withstand short periods of elevated seawater temperatures. Sensing the warming waters, they expel the microscopic marine algae that live in their tissues exposing the white exoskeleton beneath and losing their vibrant colours. This coral bleaching is a natural process combining sensitivity and strength. It enables the reef to adapt to summer months when the ocean temperatures are warmer.

In recent years sustained marine heatwaves have led to mass coral bleaching events. The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, has already suffered five mass bleaching events since 1998. The events in 2016 and 2017 alone led to the death of 50% of the iconic reef. This unspeakable tragedy points to a condition of nature, concerning which we are increasingly in denial: Nature, including human nature, operates within limits.

Like coral reefs, we too are deformed under excessive stress. The damage begins at the more vulnerable margins, with those of us who are by nature, or through poverty, or by age or youth, more sensitive. But in the end the unbound stresses will affect us all.

Increasingly I see the people who courageously step into the therapy room as equivalents to canaries in the coalmine. Their sensitivity alerts the wider community to psychological toxins and rising temperatures in our collective environment which threaten to overwhelm the balance and limits of resilience in our human ecology as a whole. If we could begin to listen to these more tender voices, rather than medicating them into dumb silence, if we could stop urging people like Ralph to toughen up, we might recover qualities of sensitivity that makes us more resilient as a community.

Could it be that the explosion in mental health problems in people of all ages and backgrounds is not a straightforward failure of individual resilience, but a sign that collective stresses are overwhelming the inherent limits of our shared nature? Ralph’s story reminds us that the waters of our human ecology are overheating. At this point it seems we have two choices. We calcify. Through medication, consumption and addiction we numb the sentient organs of perception that feel. Or we crack, as the colour bleaches out of our lives. The people I worry most about are those who choose to calcify. They are often the ones who head up our corporate organisations and lead our nations. Shorn of their capacity to feel they become a danger to themselves and to others. Increasingly they lead us into war and to the irreparable despoiling of our planet.

A Nature More resilient: showing healthy coral

Of course, there is a third choice. We could hold the reciprocal qualities of strength and sensitivity in equal regard. We could understand that resilience depends on their intimate correlation.


Find out more

Susan Holliday’s book Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart (2021) is published by Matador. You can read fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White’s review for us, Seeing Nature’s Wonders in the Human Heart. Lucy Jones, author of Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild, says of the book: “A wonderful book. Reminded me of The Examined Life or Love’s Executioner, but with an added ecological perspective I’d been thirsting for.”

Susan mentions Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead (Penguin, 2015). You can view Brené’s TED talk ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ at her website.

Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person (2017) is published by Harper Collins.

Susan contributed this piece in response to an earlier post in our series on Environmental Keywords, Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’, which offers reflections on that word from participants at a recent workshop at the University of Bristol. Environmental Keywords is part of a short project led by Dr Paul Merchant of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities.

Susan Holliday

Susan Holliday

A psychotherapist and writer committed to the rewilding of human nature, exploring the correlation between despoiling our natural world and the desolation of the human spirit ...
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“Time to Act” — Failure & Success at COP26

Composer Lola Perrin and curator Rob La Frenais invited three artists and organisers to talk about their creative work for COP26 and their feelings about the global conference’s failure to match the warm rhetoric of its first day.


2,570 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


For many, in the days and weeks after COP26, along came a new wave of grief. Friends privately confessed to fits of uncontrollable sobbing from pure rage at international politicians still ignoring the science, otherwise they’d be in full emergency mode. The conference began with pretty speeches with presenters including David Attenborough and the Prince of Wales repeating each other’s words; “the time has come to act”. But just over two weeks later when COP26 ended, scores of new fossil fuel licences were signed, sanctioning production well into at least the 2040s.

Compare those pretty speeches to the dignitaries and the world’s media with the actions by global citizens who do indeed act — in any way they can to put a stop to the killing machine, but who are increasingly criminalised and imprisoned for doing just that. Also what of other acts, for example, birth strikes among women and some men who withhold reproduction as protest in the face of extinction, and hunger strikes that regularly appear across the world in which people decide to act by withholding food in protest at genocidal government policies? These acts rarely make mainstream news but they are there. So turning back to those pretty words on the first day of COP26 when all and sundry appealed for action, what kind of action were they talking about when it’s so hugely controversial to even mention ending fossil fuels in any final COP agreement? No wonder we cry and rage in frustration.

For this ClimateCultures post we wanted to see what three artists/organisers who took part in COP26 with creative work felt about the failure of the COP and where they will go next.

Miranda Whall is a performance artist based in Wales who crawled through the pouring rain as delegates met indoors, eventually to no avail. She expresses her frustrations powerfully in her performance and here.

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice which organised music events during COP26, both live in Glasgow and virtually in nine online concerts featuring 350 global musicians. Warren and Music for Climate Justice were focused on using culture to bring an indigenous voice to COP26. The concerts repeatedly broadcast this message; “Planetary Climate Change threatens our civilisation and therefore, all human art and music, there is No Time to Waste”.

Mike Stubbs is the former Director of FACT, Liverpool and has now returned to his artistic practice as well as directing ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster. His early work was based on young people’s fascination with car culture. His latest work questions this early fascination, in ‘Climate Emergency Services’ a van spray-painted in hot rod style with images from the Australian bush fires which he took to Glasgow for COP26.

We asked each artist/organiser four questions.

What did you do at COP26?

Miranda Whall

Heading to COP26 - showing artist Miranda Whall's crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Miranda Whall’s crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

“On Saturday 6th November I crawled with a six-year-old potted Scots Pine on my back through the centre of Glasgow, from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios on Dawson Road to the COP26 Green Zone in the Science Centre on the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration area. Passers-by ignored, laughed, stared, cheered and filmed as the tree and I silently and determinedly made our way through heavy rain and high winds to reach our destination. The intention of my heroic/tragic/comic slow and gentle art activism was an expression of my grief, my despair and my outrage with a world dominated by corporate and personal greed, and an insistence that non–human nature, and in this case trees, be put at the centre of discussions on how to mitigate the climate emergency and ecological crisis. Animals, plants, trees, air, earth and oceans should be, metaphorically, sitting at the discussion table with heads of government and delegates.

“My hope was that crawling to the COP26 United Nations climate change conference carrying a tree that was equal in size to my body might inspire human beings to re-think and re-align their relationship to trees, seeing them not only as a resource to use and abuse but as an ally and a vital source of knowledge. We all literally need to get down from our human-centric, two-legged, dominant and hierarchical position and start recognising our non-human vegetal others as equals, and as sentient beings with a voice that we crucially need to listen to if we are to find a way out of our human-made catastrophe.”

Warren Senders

Music4ClimateJustice performance, November 6th 2021: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ Terje Isungset composer and musicians performing on instruments carved from ice.

“To be clear, I was not ‘at’ COP26. I stayed in my small house in Medford, MA. Other people from the M4CJ (Music for Climate Justice) organisation were in Glasgow. I organised and produced eight days of streamed video content: music, profiles, and interviews addressing the intersectionalities of climate activism and the performing arts. This worked out to 4.5 – 5 hours of music a day, from the 5th to the 12th of November (with a live opening event in Glasgow that I did not work on). The artists and activists we presented came from all over the world; the M4CJ ‘Festival’ was almost certainly the most diverse musical event in human history.

“Participating artists contributed a video performance and added a short spoken statement about climate change. Some of the performances were created for this event; others were archival. In several cases, the estate or trust for a major artist who was no longer alive agreed to contribute material. Interviews and panel discussions included profiles of artists, activists, musicians/composers working with climate data, ethnomusicologists & eco-musicologists, and artists & thinkers in related fields.”

Mike Stubbs

Climate Emergency Services at COP26, Glasgow November 2021. Showing Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people
Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

“I presented Climate Emergency Services (CES) outside the Glasgow Transport Museum on the opening weekend of COP26 and then spent four days in Glasgow at the end. The artwork was hosted by the Coventry Biennale and Govan Project Space. Activities included the artwork appearing as a confounding, confused hot-rod/emergency vehicle to stimulate conversations on cars and climate emergency. I drove around Glasgow and managed to become part of a strange parade with other (police) emergency vehicles tagging along on the back of an organised pedestrian protest march. I was the only vehicle other than three cop cars.”

How has the failure of COP26 directed your intentions towards future actions?

Miranda Whall

“The failures of COP26 have enraged me and so empowered my determination and commitment to take this performative work much further. Up until the crawl in Glasgow I had crawled in isolated and rural locations, so my audience was mostly an infrequent passer-by. Crawling in a busy urban centre took the performance directly to a bigger and wider engaged and non-engaged public. Both on the streets of Glasgow and on the politically polarised and de-humanised highways of social media I felt simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. Down there on my hands and knees, I began to more fully realise the performance’s potential to aggravate and alleviate, to provoke and heal. And I more fully realised that this human/animal/vegetal/technological hybrid that I have created is a new ‘thing’; an alliance, a symbiotic union, a co-creating community, an interconnected future.”

Showing Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

Warren Senders

“I don’t think terms like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are applicable to COP26, or any such conference. Lacking the ability to set policy, the conference is not describable in those terms. It succeeded in conveying the current state of climate-change research to policy-makers. It succeeded in forcing climate change into the forefront of worldwide media coverage for a few days. It gave activists something to do, a way to connect … and gave the climate movement a lot to think about going forward (issues of intersectionality, of indigenous representation, of systemic discrimination, economic models, etc). It failed to generate hard policy outcomes … but to expect COP26 to result in systemic transformation was to expect that (in a hopefully soon-to-be-obsolete metaphor) the airport bus would grow wings and take off down the runway.

“Such expectations represent a popular (and entirely understandable) need for a deus ex machina which would magically solve our problems. I was not immune to that feeling; none of us were.

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' with Aparna Sindhoor Dance Company
Music4ClimateJustice performance on 6th November: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ with Aparna Sindhoor’s Encounter, dance theatre Inspired by indigenous people’s fight for their forest.

Mike Stubbs

“It makes me want to want to continue to mingle and discuss these issues with members of the unconverted members of society, i.e. car nuts, pissed people, street dwellers, middle-class shoppers, kids and anyone not into COP26 or the environment. Climate Emergency Services is a hot rod with a gun on the roof playing extra loud birdsong, flashing lights and a sci-fi plant glowing/growing inside. It’s not a bad way of sparking up a conversation.”

What ideas do you have for your next climate-engaged work?

Miranda Whall

“I am now planning further solo urban tree crawls and collective urban tree crawls. I am also preparing to crawl in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt with a palm tree on my back for COP27 from the 7th – 18th November 2022. I will crawl for longer and further and hopefully up to, if not into, the conference and negotiation centre. In Glasgow, I reached the entrance of the Green Zone. This was ineffectual, next time I need to crawl to the entrance of the Blue Zone or its equivalent in Sharm El- Sheikh.”

Warren Senders

“I’ll go on doing what I’ve been doing all along. Daily vigils, a daily quota of political activity, intermittent public activism (marches, sit-ins, possible NVCD), and intermittent benefit concerts as part of an ongoing collaboration with M4CJ. I hope to present the first such event in May or June 2022 (I’ve organised 21 previous benefit concerts since 2009).”

Mike Stubbs

“I am trying to find a sustainable model with Creative Folkestone on how to continue the work of Climate Emergency Services and am planning to tour to festivals, motor shows and schools, integrating practical workshops on air quality monitoring and growing. Additionally, in Doncaster I am going to be announcing an open call for a new artists residency scheme on sustainability and water and a lab which will develop new critical work on climate for ArtBomb Festival 22 in August next year.”

COP26: Showing Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

Many people feel dismayed at business since COP26. What must happen so we’re happy in 2025?

Miranda Whall

“The wind is gusting its terrifying gusts outside my window as I write this. The wind terrified me as a child because it blew down walls and trees and shook my window, I would crawl into my parents’ bed and stick my fingers into my ears until it blew itself out. I remember loving the peace and quiet that followed. But now the wind terrifies me more than ever, because I know what it means and I know there is no peace and quiet to follow. What we must do could not be more clear — leaders must lead and businesses, corporations and citizens must follow. Simple. I am on my hands and knees pleading. I cannot articulate this better or differently.”

Warren Senders

“What would make us happy would be the governments of the world taking climate change seriously and engaging in concerted and robust collective action. Is there a mechanism to make this happen? No. The systemic inability of our governance to cope with climate change is a diagnostic indicator pointing to a structural problem in our governing mechanisms themselves. In geopolitics, hasty actions between nations are likely to be harbingers of war. The UN was developed specifically to reduce both the likelihood and the severity of such hasty actions — providing a place where disputes between nations can be discussed instead of leading to armed hostilities. That is to say: the UN was created in order to make international relations slower, more measured, more reflective. Which is a structural problem in light of the fact that what the climate crisis demands is that we all act very quickly. The UN isn’t equipped to direct concerted and robust collective international action any more than that airport bus is equipped to be an airplane.

“At this stage in the crisis, our happiness must come in the successful resolution of short-term problems. We live in ‘interesting times’, and our responsibility is to the future.”

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26, 6th November 2021: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group
Music4ClimateJustice performance 6/11/21: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group. Most musicians in Zimbabwe are subsistence farmers. They are already suffering from extreme climate change.

Mike Stubbs

“We will never be happy. Continue to engage the disenchanted, talk to your family, collaborate with like minds, write to MPs, become councillors, be artists, make art and protest when you can.”


Find out more

Lola Perrin adds: I was interviewed by Warren as part of M4CJ at COP26 and appeared in the concert on November 11th. I found I became gradually more and more addicted to the concerts once they started streaming on November 5th — they’re quite deeply emotional and the breadth of work gathered together from 350 engaged musicians across the world is really powerful. Here are links to the M4CJ COP26 streamed concerts on YouTube:

5th November 2021 Journey Around the World in Space and Time  
6th November Rhythms, Words, and … Ice! 
7th November Strings and Threads That Tie Us Together 
8th November Music Beyond Boundaries 
8th November M4CJ Global Launch Show 
9th November Our Island Home 
10th November Turning Art Into Activism Part I 
11th November Turning Art Into Activism Part II 
12th November From the Ancient to the Future 

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice. You can read about him in this 2018 piece at the Climate Disobedience Center, in a 2011 Arts Fuse feature Playing For the Planet, and a 2019 piece for The Indian Express, This Hindustani singer does his riyaz on streets and warns people about climate change. You can hear Warren in this Radio Boston interview and performance from 2010: Boston-Area Percussionists Drum For The Planet. “When Medford resident Warren Senders first learned about the effects of climate change, he felt helpless. ‘I’m no scientist,’ Senders thought. ‘What can I possibly do to help?'”

Miranda Whall is an interdisciplinary and performance artist based in Wales. She says of her crawling works, “My crawling projects are titled Crossed Paths. So far for Crossed Paths – Animals I have crawled as a sheep, badger, almost otter and I have carried out extensive research for mountain hare. For Crossed Paths – Trees I have crawled with an Oak tree, Birch tree and May tree. Other crawling projects are in development. Crossed Paths is a project about going deeply into the living landscape, ecosystems and interspecies dynamics to explore animal, plant, land and human narratives.” On Miranda’s Vimeo channel, you can watch her Showreel for COP26 Glasgow.

Mike Stubbs is an artist, curator and consultant, Director of ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster and former Director of FACT Liverpool. You can read more about Climate Emergency Services, which was commissioned for Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021.

Lola Perrin 
Lola Perrin 
A composer, pianist and collaborator on keyboard conversations about climate change with economists, lawyers, scientists, artists and other thinkers across the world.
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Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
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.
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Seasons of Nature’s Gift and Natures Lost

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Gifts of Gravity and Light, an anthology of diverse writings on our seasons, and explores how, as we disrupt the living world, our relationship with it shifts, and with it ideas of ‘nature’.


2,980 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


“Rites of passage are — and should be — about an individual loss of innocence in order to learn the fuller knowledge of the next stage of life, but the young today are having to learn that the very world around them is in passage, a seasick kind of instability. For them, the correct maps are not the OS maps detailing ancient pathways, but rather future maps, showing coastal erosion as the seas rise and where all the horizons are bleak and every melting is an anxiety.” Jay Griffiths captures here part of how it’s not just the natural world around us that is changing with the climate and ecological crisis we have brought it — a whole world shifting into something that’s a nature/artifice hybrid — but our relationship with nature. And as that relationship distorts, so does our idea of it, the emotional register in which we experience seemingly ‘natural’ things. As our seasons change, so do their meanings within us.

A problem in reviewing an anthology is capturing its diversity of voices. And with Gifts of Gravity and Light, diversity is key. Editors Anita Roy and Pippa Marland have brought together a range of writers that’s rarely seen in so-called ‘nature writing’, speaking to a refreshing spectrum of experiences and engagements with the subject. More than simply a break from the genre’s white, middle-class, male traditions, it’s also a broadening of the professionalised model of what such a writer is. As well as Jay Griffiths — who has of course written much on nature and the wild over the years — we have essays from writers of fiction, of dance and theatre criticism, or poetry and plays, and more. The contributors are also artists, dancers, gardeners or rappers, and their personal and family stories include Cambodian, Caribbean, Ghanaian, Indian, Indonesian, Maltese, Romany and Zimbabwean experience or heritage, as well as urban and rural life around the British Isles. These, and the mix of sexuality and gender identities the contributors write from, all inform a rich array of texts. The collection’s subtitle, A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, suggests this break but also the renewed, more complex view of nature and of being in it that we need now more than ever. There’s a sense of both being at home in the natural world and of being displaced within it, and it displaced within us. And this even before we consider the disorientating fragmentation brought by Covid, as some of the writers do: pandemic, lockdown, isolation. But there’s also much celebration of nature and humanity here — patterns, encounters, instances and experiences, small and large.

The dozen essays are reflections on the UK’s seasons, taking us through the annual cycle while revealing some of humanity’s fingerprints on it. Even the seemingly least threatening disruptions can be experienced as displacement. Griffiths writes on summer and on fear — fear experienced as a woman walking alone in the countryside, fear of the violence being done to the living world, our home, our seasons: “Summer itself is overshadowed now.” And each season overshadows the next, the sense of progression and endless cycling becoming unmoored.

Seasons of change - Gifts of Gravity and Light front cover
Gifts of Gravity and Light
Cover design Natalie Chen, images Jack McLaughlin © 2021

Spring – unseasonable seasons

Kaliane Bradley writes about spring and its rituals, but speaks from what is meant to be winter: a January that’s forgotten how to be a January. “When the blossoms are unseasonable, it engenders a feeling of dread in me similar to sensing the first hot and morbid congestions of a nosebleed. … It is four months early, and is yet to endure the January frosts. I hate living through unprecedented times, with all the rituals that hold us coming unstuck.”

Our personal experience of the seasons is perhaps a laboratory in which to investigate changing relationships with the rest of the living world. Seasons offer a complicated kind of stability as we navigate our lifepaths through multiple, entangled flows of time: an ebb and flood through successive years’ more-or-less predictable patterns of light and dark, heat and cold, colour advancing and retreating; the infinite daily variations of weather (‘if you don’t like this, wait an hour and you’ll get something different’); the slow-quick flow of lived experience that forms our personal biographies; the eddies of anticipation and memory that at once draw us forward and backward. Seasons evoke, capture and complicate them all, even in the ‘normal’ times we carry ahead within us as we move beyond normal times.

Pippa Marland reminds us that “When we think of ‘Time’ it sounds monolithic, uniform, the thing that takes us inexorably from the cradle to the grave in an unbroken line, straight as a Roman road. It stretches unimaginably far behind and ahead of us, framing our brief appearance. But when you look more closely, you see how complex it is — how its many strands weave together and sometimes fray apart. The linear and the cyclical are always moving through and across each other.”

This folding of time, of its different directions and speeds and associations, is also a feature of each biography. Testament looks back on his urban childhood as something where “for us, ‘nature’ didn’t come naturally. We got in a car and went somewhere. Middle-class aspirations, perhaps. The same reason my parents took me to plays that none of us understood.” In the city, constantly building and rebuilding on itself, “any little green had to squeeze between cracks, creep up the sides of drainpipes, the smallest flowers finding ledges to cling to in the brickwork of the abandoned alleyways I cycled through.”

But on those family trips to the countryside, “once out in an old pair of trainers in a field or woodland, the pleasures were all 3D. It was more than leisure, or even family bonding. It was a new landscape. My parents had allowed me to be part of an image which, as a person of colour, society had often not painted me into.”

Summer – long memory and the arm of return

Michael Malay feels his own displacement on Severn Beach, with memories of his younger self seeing it for the first time on his arrival in the UK, homesick but “excited by this place called England, by the world at his nose.” He wonders at the pull the estuary has on him, its unknowable nature: “Though we come to its edges, to wonder at the bright flowing unstillness of it all, the estuary is its own place, with its own wild mind, and has no regard for what we think… But my head is whirring, a thought-flock of words, and I cannot step out of my mind, which is where I know the estuary begins.”

In contrast, Jay Griffiths writes powerfully of the experience of unfreedom out-of-doors: “frightened of being alone on the dusty lanes and paths … No amount of experience of the vast majority of good-hearted men-o’-th’-woods can ever quell the fear. When I want to get right inside summer like a seed in a sunflower, I find there is a grubby Perspex shield between me and the full experience I crave. I can see it the bridleway, the campfire, the tavern — but I cannot inhabit it as I wish. … I have been planted not out in the commons but in a pot where my roots cannot spread properly. I have been bonsaied. And I hate it.”

Summer for Tishani Doshi “is the long stretch. The arm of return. After the perseverance of winter and the breakthrough of spring, we are finally here again.” ‘Here’ is another multilayered thing: in her case, a village in North Wales experienced over decades’ of summers, her aim to “net over them all, until they are layered one over the other, a palimpsest of time, of summers.” It is also the memory of her mother’s time in the small village after wartime, on into post-industrial reshapings of the landscape. “I think about how we are made up of the generations before us and how nothing is thrown away. How when we meet it is always in the season of summer.” And how these holiday encounters with Welsh relatives informed and shaped her childhood in India. “I remember returning from summer back to life in Madras, desperate to reveal my new self to my old friends, wondering how their summers had altered them. Summer can be generous, an unending field interrupted by apertures, so it is possible to hitch your load of memories to someone else’s.”

Seasons of continuity - Gifts of Gravity ands Light back cover
Gifts of Gravity and Light – contributors

Autumn – a full-body experience

Like memories, life persists and shapes the emerging future, the new normal. Luke Turner says: “It can take a century after a tree’s death for its skeleton to rot away.” The last decaying remains of a copse in Belgium hosts not just new generations of birch and beech but broken stumps and the loops of barbed wire from the Ypres Salient of the First World War. For him as a teenager, it was the site of a school trip to the battlefields of a lost generation, when “in Britain alone, as many as 250,000 boys under the age of nineteen were caught up in the wave of patriotic optimism that swept the country in the autumn of 1914.” That autumn was not dry, as the military planners had predicted and therefore deemed suitable for the Allied offensive, but one of the wettest in decades. The ground conditions, exacerbated by the destruction of the drainage systems, meant that “the battlefield became a quagmire that swallowed, according to some estimates, half a million lives.”

War artist Paul Nash wrote home of a hellish landscape at Ypres, where “sunrise and sunset are blasphemous … mockeries to man … The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.” And, as Turner writes, poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “pen captures the dead, the machines, the insanity, the weather, the structure of the trenches, the surrounding natural world … a blurring between corpses of men and trees.”

Anita Roy writes of a very different autumn day in southwest England’s Blackdown Hills: “Autumn on a day like this is a full-body experience. The lane is thick with fallen leaves and they look like they feel — crisp and biscuity; and they sound like they smell — like crushed chestnuts and bonfire smoke. It’s a nostalgic hit to all five senses…” The field she’s visiting — a private place, cared for by a friend — “is one of the very few places on Earth where the balance is right. It’s not wild — not really — but neither is it cultivated.” In an eery balance with Turner’s battlefield, this English treescape is fundamentally shaped by humans: “the timber chopped for logs, and smaller batches and twigs are fed through the noisy shredder … There’s no shortage of signs of human activity — but all this is poised, counterposed, or rather harmonised with the natural ebbs and flows, urges and surges of nature.” Where poppies rise from battle-torn soils and stand for remembrance of what should have never been, here wildflowers are now “allowed to emerge from the fallow soil” and speak to what could still be. 

Although this visit is in autumn, Roy recalls an earlier visit in the spring of our first covid year, when she fled to the field “pursued by general anxiety fuelled by the news of the pandemic and accelerated by upward spiking graphs. Alarming, horrifying, overwhelming as these were, you’d have thought by now we’d be used to it, given the similar infographics on climate change.” But, as unlearned lessons from the carnage of warfare also show, although we’re good at seeing patterns we’re not skilled at heeding them, of understanding connections between those things we find more convenient to treat as separate — in fact, prefer to actively disconnect in our imaginations. “Tree? Leaf? Wind? Stalk? Where does one end or the other begin? Humans! So busy trying to make sense of things, so good at not trusting what their senses do say. I give up trying to quieten my metaphor-making monkey mind. All those imaginary lines, axes and degrees, … tipping points and see-saw seasons, of life and death, summer and winter, future and past, and the impossible task of pinning down where is ‘here’ and when is ‘now’.”

As Raine Geoghegan remarks, “There’s something about autumn that is conducive to reflections and introspection. Perhaps it’s a time when the earth shifts into a gentler gear, where Nature calls us to be attentive, to notice the movements of wind and water and to wake up, open our eyes to the deep beauty that is all around us.” It is, as she says, an invitation to calm the mind and ask “What gifts are we given at this time of the year?” Her poems here are sprinkled with Romany words, or ‘jib’: Koring Chiriclo, the cuckoo; grai, horses; drom, road; vardos, wagons; atchin tan, stopping place. 

Raine sits surrounded by Herefordshire’s trees — oaks, willows, silver birch, spruce and beech that “all seem to be reaching for the sky” — and watches a nearby stream. “I find myself singing for the trees, an old song. The river she is flowing, flowing and growing, the river she is flowing, down to the sea. Oh mother carry me, a child I will always be. Oh mother carry me, down to the sea.

Like Raine’s Romany heritage, her personal experience of the disabling effects of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia feeds her relationship with the natural world — a ‘Deep Living’ as she calls it. “I rest in the mornings and I take my time to do each task. I see more of what is around me, noticing the little things: the sky changing colour; a blackbird swooping onto the lawn and peeking at the grass; the way the moon glows in the night sky; small wildflowers bursting through a crack in the pavement. For me, everything comes back to Nature.”

Winter – the yield of the year

Writing this review in the cold spell brought in by Storm Arwen, I find that Zakiya McKenzie’s introduction to winter has a special bite: “My mother first came to England during one of the coldest winters that country had ever seen. Months and months where the days were inky and nights were frigid with lonely unfamiliarity … It was colder still to a child who had spent all her life in a place where the sun watched over her every move. That Jamaican countryside sun was her companion… In the new country, the sun held itself back leaving a murky array of shades of black, white and grey. The trees stood naked and stark … My mother did not know that the leaves returned with haste in the spring…”

Familiar seasonal companions become less constant and predictable when it’s the climate itself that’s shifting; winters we might have expected in past decades become rare — but can still catch us out. Winter’s “ability to replenish and renew, to be entirely different in one place from the next, reflects a thing recreating itself,” McKenzie suggests. “If we too spring and grow and then wither and die, can we not refresh and replenish too? In winter lies the assurance that, though the tether of our hearts is long and twisted, time is longer still.”

Amanda Thomson shares Scottish words associated with winter: Yield is the influence of the sun on frost, Waller a confused crowd in a state of quick motion (a waller of birds — and maybe of Michael Malay’s ‘thought-flock of words’), Snell the severe, sharp quality of the air. “On blue days when the air is snell, or in anticipation of it becoming so, ten, twenty coal tits, blue tits and great tits gather at the feeders, along with occasional woodpeckers, siskin and finches — gold, green, bull, chaff. When I go out to replace the fatballs, they fly behind, in front, overhead with a

                 Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
                                                                                Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
                                                   Thrrrrrrrrrrrr

                                                                                   (say it)

so close and in stereo, ruffling the air like an express train speeding through a smaller Highland station on its way south to Glasgow or Edinburgh.”

As Alys Fowler walks and slips along clay-mud paths in a park near Birmingham — paths that feel “wounded … hardening in the summer from the previous winter’s damage, like scar tissue, reopening in the winter, rotting and foetid” —  she brings ideas of displacement down to ground level. “Whereas soil wants to be firmly rooted, mud wants to go places, it oozes out of its home. It sticks, coats and clings to all that it touches. It wants to move on … because its particles are no longer knitted together by gossamer-thin threads of fungi and the microbiology of billions of small lives that make up the structure of the soil.” Our foothold on the surfaces of a world that’s in unaccustomed motion itself becomes uneasy and unstable, as we slip and stick and come unstuck.

This is a generous book, offering the small stories — of childhood, family, place, of growth and falling away and regrowth — that enable the big connections with the flow of the world. And maybe, in its multiple, diverse encounters and imaginative layerings, it helps point to ways we might yet adapt, adjust ourselves to shifting realities, by paying the world the attention that repays us with yet more to see and sense.


Find out more

Gifts of Gravity and Light, edited by Anita Roy and Pippa Marland, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2021). The title is taken from a poem by Simon Armitage, who provides an extract from his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an epilogue; fellow poet Jackie Kay’s Promise provides the epigraph, with a foreword by Bernadine Evaristo.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Unseen, Seen: My Eco-art Travels the World

Experimental artist Veronica Worrall offers a story of shared hope in students’ reactions to her photographic series ‘Unseen’, and how young people’s actions and art in the USA, China and around the world provide examples ahead of COP26.


2,150 words: estimated reading time = 8.5 minutes


“Advocacy by young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg and Isra Hirsi show that youth are anxious about their collective futures. … Youth might be more likely than adults to experience ill-effects associated with climate anxiety. … Young people are agents of change, our future leaders, and most likely to succeed in improving planetary health.”
Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action – Judy Wu, Gaelen Snell, Hasina Samji (published online in The Lancet, September 2020).

Climate crisis, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, threatened ecologies, mass extinction, and tipping points — attention-grabbing, anxiety-raising phrases employed in ever-increasing numbers by news reporters, environmental activists and corporate marketeers. Climate change awareness levels rise as we approach 2021’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). As a prelude to the discussions more and more scientists — as in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR6, 2021) — confirm the urgency for humanity to reduce its impact on our planetary systems. Global unsustainable drilling and destruction and 21st-century consumption and convenience all need urgent re-evaluation.

I shall follow the COP26 discussions and sincerely hope that wisdom and leadership are shown by those holding the power to recalibrate how we do business. Will they have the courage to make the right decisions? Decisions that may be unpopular; u-turn decisions that may be humiliating and power threatening. This is the time for world leaders to demonstrate they have understood the science and recognise their responsibilities to alleviate global environmental disasters and offer a future to our next geneation.

Nevertheless, we at home have our part to play. As artists, many of us harness our creativity to express our concerns and share our work with a hope to raise awareness and stimulate conversation.

Veronica Worrall - 'Unseen' series of photographs

Veronica Worrall - text for EnviroArt Gallery
A selection of images and the front piece from ‘The EnviroArt Gallery’, a virtual exhibition curated by Undergraduate Environmental Alliance – Duke University, USA (2021). https://www.enviroartgallery2021.com

My recent photographic series ‘Unseen’ focussed on the undervalued habitats and overlooked ecologies locally under threat in Suffolk. An edit of my images was featured in The Enviroart Gallery, the Undergraduate Environmental Alliance virtual gallery from Duke University, USA, in April 2021. The gallery takes visitors on a journey through a series of 600+ artworks created by practitioners, students, and children, sharing artistic inspiration and nature sentiments from across China, Australia, the UK, South Africa, Latin America, Canada and the USA.

Eco-art photography: ‘Unvalued No 1’

I was pleased to be one of the environmental artists selected. Each contributing artist had the opportunity to write an insight into their interpretations, to sit alongside their work. Beside my image ‘Unvalued No 1’ I cite Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, acknowledging her foresight and reflecting on our subsequent lack of understanding of where our western lifestyle was leading.

Unseen series - showing 'Unvalued No 1' by Veronica Worrall
‘Unvalued No 1’., featured in ‘The EnviroArt Gallery’ (2021)
Artist: V.M. Worrall © 2021
Series: 'Elemental Expressionism' 
by Veronica M Worrall, Art Photographer

'We stand now where two roads diverge...The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster.' (Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962)

For a year I journeyed over my own home landscape in Suffolk. I found threatened wild places, vestiges of salt marsh and pockets of woodland being squeezed out by human activity. As an artist I wanted to renew connection to these fragile places. I pondered how to portray their unseen, undervalued essential ecosystems.

I spent time reflecting on our living world. I became immersed in the natural flux and slower rhythms of a coastal biosphere. I buried my photographs back where they had been taken as an antidote to the acceleration of human power over nature. I learnt to slow my image making from 1/80th second to 80 days. Time, water, weather and creatures painted over my digital images leaving traces of elemental activity. The altered images were my dialogue with nature -- no longer representing a particular moment more an evolving enquiry. What is our relationship with ecosystems? How do we replace our anthropocentric ways of thinking, of valuing and of acting? Nature was my new partner in art. The photographs represented an aesthetic partnership of expressionism. 

This series, emulating a famous expressionistic painter of the past, is simply one art photographer's reaction to overwhelming environmental reports of the global degradation and the socio-cultural challenges we now face as humans. I reflected on the losses within my lifetime and contemplated how much we are taking from the next generation? Will these children thank us for beautiful pictures of lost wilderness and creatures, which we could have saved?

However, it is not only as artists that we can respond to our global environmental crisis. Along with everyone on the planet, there are mitigating steps we can take. Together we can help the planet retreat from the brink.

I believe there are two significant ways. First, we can take time to understand the global implications of the crisis and support the leaders who take the necessary tough decisions. Secondly, we can realign our own lifestyles to be less environmentally costly. This may well mean life becomes a little less convenient and less comfortable but together our actions will accumulate and become significant. Our collective action can not only lead to a decrease in CO2 emissions but will influence corporate policy and government decision-making. For instance, we can learn about the true cost of flying and eliminate unnecessary trips. We can move to non-plastic containers, tools and toys and to non-synthetic textiles. We can consider food miles and adapt to local seasonal foods. We can check whether our banks and search engines support a sustainable Earth and ensure our investments are moved out of damaging mining, petrochemicals and harmful pharmaceutical stocks into companies supporting green initiatives. We can encourage species-rich natural areas — gardens, window boxes and community parks.

These are a few of the ways. I personally know how difficult the changes can be. In our busy lives, these changes require time, effort and are often less convenient. In conversations I find I need to stay positive when the poor environmental records of large countries such as the USA and China are quoted back to me. Our global environmental problem can seem so huge and my colleagues’ counterarguments can suggest that it is not worth the effort for an individual to change their lifestyle. Hence, I share this one small story linking the young people of these two huge continents. I demonstrate how across the globe concerned undergraduates are determined to make a difference.

Unseen — from USA to China

When my ‘Unseen’ environmental photographic series was selected by students in the USA for their virtual exhibition, these pictures came to the attention of another group of students, this time in China. And out of the blue, I had an exceedingly polite email from a Chinese undergraduate asking my permission to show one or two of my art pieces in an exhibition his team were curating in Shanghai. The exhibition was to be called ‘Breathing’.

Unfortunately, a second wave of Covid meant the exhibition could not go ahead but they persevered and later I learned they were to have an outdoor show in Mixc City, Muse Mart, at an art festival. I sent a digital file and we discussed the best ways to print. They kept me informed throughout and eventually sent me photographs and a video of their stall, including my image, at the Shanghai Art Festival — a stall communicating their concern for the planet.

Showing Veronica Worrall's Unseen images as part of the 'Breathing' outdoor festival, Shanghai 2021
‘Breathing’ Outdoor Art Festival, Mixc City, Muse Mart, Shanghai (2021)

These environmentally aware Chinese students call themselves the ‘Beauty and Beast’ Team. They are dedicated to challenging environmental understanding and policies both locally and across the world. I am so proud they asked for my work to be displayed in China, the country which is frequently given as a reason that it is not worth making changes to our Western lifestyles. These youngsters tell us we are part of a global movement that recognises the importance of individual action. They believe we can join forces across the globe. Below I share an extract from their email thanking me for participating. These beautiful words demonstrate their deep reflection and determination to make a difference.

Dear Artist

With what gesture do we touch the muscle of the world? The hunter cuts the flesh with a sharp blade, the fisherman stops the struggle with his nets, the steel that comes from the soil is tearing it apart and the earth gushes black blood. Is it that the breath of man is a curse imposed on the land? Or is it time for us to take a few steps back and release the repressed and suffocated creatures into the wild?

In this special exhibition, artists from around the world focus on themes such as over-hunting, over-deforestation, resource depletion, excessive carbon emissions and ocean pollution through painting, poetry, and photography, demonstrating a cross-over awareness and care, and through this special exhibition, the B&B curatorial team hopes to evoke the world's thoughts on the environment and development, and how we should live with everything.

Beauty And Beast (Student Team) 24.9.21 
Duke Kunshan University, Kunshan, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China | 昆山杜克大学

Altered images — an art photographic philosophy

“Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable period of time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.”
— Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005)

A few years ago I reflected upon my own environmental footprint both generally and specifically for my art. Photography can take a heavy environmental toll — flying to exotic places, continually updating equipment, and production costs. As a consequence, my art practice became local and my creativity focussed on threatened ecologies.

I learned about my local diminishing wild landscape and the threats to natural habitat by human activity. I took pictures of this terrain and its beautiful biodiversity but this was not the creative exploration nor the expression of my concerns which I was seeking. However, I did become immersed in nature’s wonder and felt its deep concern.

I contemplated the philosophy of ‘Deep Ecology’ — the interrelationships of life and time. I decided to give my prints back to the natural world in order to trace its struggling systems. I buried my photographs for 80 days back where they had been taken. I waited patiently.

Unseen - showing the process of burying photographic prints to reveal slow changes.
V M Worrall – retrieving prints after 80 days from salt marsh, Suffolk.
Artist: Veronica Worrall © 2019

Together, nature and I were demonstrating an ecological philosophy of partnering and we produced my original series ‘Project Unseen’. The resultant images were my dialogue with nature. They have since been printed on sustainable fabric and filmed as ‘banners for nature’ back in their original location. My photography no longer represents a particular moment but, I hope, asks questions.

And so, I write this reflecting how I had originally worked in partnership with natural processes in coastal Suffolk in the UK to produce my eco-art photographs — and now I find I am partnering across nations, helping to build awareness and instill an appetite for change. I believe as artists we can share our visions. We can contribute to the pressure for environmentally friendly decisions from our world leaders. I am encouraged by young artists across the globe, who care and are willing to work across cultures, and I find there is hope for our planet’s future.


Find out more

You can explore Veronica’s ‘Unseen’ series, and more, at her website — including a one-minute film of the images in experimentation, transformation and presentation. And you can read more about her approach to partnering with nature in her art in her previous ClimateCultures post, Art Photography — Emotional Response to Global Crisis.

The EnviroArt Gallery exhibition from the Undergraduate Environmental Alliance at Duke University, USA features over 600 images. Veronica’s featured ‘Unseen’ images are: Unvalued No 1, Unvalued No 2, Unvalued No 3, Unvalued No 4, and Unvalued No 5. The Beauty and The Beast team’s Breathing popup exhibition was held at Muse Mart in MixC, Shanghai in September 2021.

Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action, by Judy Wu, Gaelen Snell, and Hasina Samji, was published online in The Lancet on 9th September 2020.

The IPCC published The Physical Science Basis for the AR6 Climate Change Report in August 2021.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first published in 1962, is published by Penguin.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported in March 2005: “The bottom line of the MA findings is that human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. At the same time, the assessment shows that with appropriate actions it is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently underway.”

Veronica Worrall
Veronica Worrall
An experimental artist using photography to capture movement, time and natural processes, working with nature and traditional alternative photography in attempts to reduce her artist footprint ...
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Bringing It All Back Home

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home. 


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, celebrating the natural world.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, USA (2021). Cover illustration: Barry Falls

Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.

For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.

The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.

A gentle force

Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’

 

Dara McAnulty - celebrating the natural world
Dara McAnulty, Young Naturalist
Photograph: Little Toller Books

He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”

In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.

Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.

Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Small pieces of hope

“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”

This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.

The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.

Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.” 

In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.” 

This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”

Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.

“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”

The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.

Rebellion for the natural world

A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”

And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”

“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.” 

Dara McAnulty - Protecting the natural world
Dara at Youth Strike for Climate
From ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’

As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:

“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”

It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”

Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”

Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes. 


Find out more

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.

You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.

The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.