Bristol Climate Writers Presents … ‘Desert Island Books’

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’.

Desert Island Books - 1, Always Coming Home
Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin

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.

Desert Island Books - 2 The Ship
The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell

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:

  1. Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
  2. Courage: physical, civic, and moral.
  3. Self-control: knowing when enough is enough
  4. Justice as ‘the order of the soul’.
  5. Contemplative practice: attending to the beauty of brokenness
  6. Compassion.

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.

Desert Island Books - 3 The Overstory
The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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.

Desert Island Books - 4 Flight Behaviour
Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

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.

Bristol Climate Writers panel at Redland Library
Bristol Climate Writers panel at Redland Library
Photograph: Friends of Redland Library ©
2020

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 Library spun 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).

Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk, is published by Shed (2014) and available as a free download.

The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson (Orion, 2015).

The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2019).

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, is published by University of Regina Press (2018). You can read James Murray-White‘s February 2019 review for ClimateCultures: Attending to the World’s Extraordinary Surprise.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is published by Penguin (2018).

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver, is published by Faber & Faber (2012).

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall, is published by Bloomsbury (2014).

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes, is published by Chelsea Green Publishing (2015).

Caroline New
Caroline New
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'.
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Deborah Tomkins
Deborah Tomkins
A writer of long and short fiction and articles, who started writing about climate change to answer the question – ‘How, really, will it be?’
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Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
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Peter Reason
Peter Reason
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.
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Climate Emergency – a New Culture of Conversation

Photograph showing Lola Perrin at the piano for ClimateKeys at Sheffield Festival of Debate in 2019Independent 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

Climate emergency - underwater signing: Maldives Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Ibrahim Didi signs the declaration of an underwater cabinet meeting, 2009. Photograph by Mohamed Seeneen
Underwater signing: Maldives Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Dr Ibrahim Didi signs the declaration of an underwater cabinet meeting, 2009. Photographer Mohamed Seeneen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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

Showing Tessa Gordziekjo, ClimateKeys guest speaker on climate emergency, Heptonstall 2019. Photograph by Lola Perrin
Tessa Gordziekjo, ClimateKeys guest speaker, Heptonstall 2019
Photograph: Rob La Frenais © 2019

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!

Photograph showing Lola Perrin at the piano for ClimateKeys at Sheffield Festival of Debate in 2019
Lola Perrin: ClimateKeys at Sheffield Festival of Debate, 2019
Photograph: Rob La Frenais © 2019

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.

Transformation emerging

Showing audience discussing climate emergency at a ClimateKeys concert in Heptonstall in 2019. Photograph by Lola Perrin
Audience discussing climate emergency at ClimateKeys in Heptonstall, 2019
Photograph: Lola Perrin © 2019

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.


Find out more

You can find more of Rob’s writing on cultural and climate change issues at the Makery website: She can see land! Cross the Atlantic Like Greta; COP24: how artists commit to the climate; In London, scientists, artists and activists surge to save the Humans ; and Traincamp, or why go by train to Green Culture festival in Montenegro

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.”

Culture Declares Emergency, Music Declares Emergency and Business Declares Emergency are among the new wave of initiatives bringing people and organisations together around declaration as a means to bring about transformation.

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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A Dance with Defensiveness

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019Artist Scarlet Hall reflects on defensiveness as an embodied response to being implicated in patterns of oppression. Using movement improvisation to decentre habitual narratives and open space to attend to relationships, Scarlet is seeking ecological perspectives on defensiveness.


1,980 words: estimated reading time 8 minutes 


This blog is a conversation piece midway through a short practice-based research inquiry. I am using dance improvisation to explore the affective and sensate aspects of defensiveness. Different definitions of defensiveness circulate and mingle in society. For example, in psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a set of mechanisms through which we protect ourselves; in neurobiology is it an expression of a threat state in which the nervous system is activated; and in popular articles on overcoming defensiveness, it is a cognitive verbal strategy in response to a self‐perceived flaw being brought to light by another person.

Defensiveness circulates as a concept and as a thing in social movements — my main research focus. For example, recent responses to decolonial critiques of Extinction Rebellion and responses to critiques of transphobia have both been described as defensive. In this context, defensiveness is used to describe an unwillingness to engage with how we might be implicated in patterns of oppression. What all these different approaches share is a tendency to locate defensiveness in the individual. The individual is taken as the starting point, and then defensiveness is located. Following Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions — in which she looks at how emotions work to create the very boundaries and borders that constitute subjects — I want to turn this around and take defensiveness as my starting point, and then look at how it shapes bodies and spaces.

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
On the floor
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

To do this, I am working with a small group of participants in a movement improvisation research practice. I chose movement improvisation to decentre the narratives which people are critiquing or defending and to make space to relate to how defensiveness ‘impresses’ and changes bodies. I worked with improvisation scores; sets of precise short instructions to focus movement.

Thinking ecologically

Through attending to how defensiveness moves in and across bodies, we bring an ecological perspective into view. My hunch is that an ecological perspective changes both our concept and experience of defensiveness. As we look in more detail at the happening of defensiveness, the happening becomes livelier, richer. This happening takes place across bodies and is as ecological as the local nature reserve. As with other ecologies, it can be more or less diverse, more or less homogenous. As we attend to this felt experience of defensiveness in our bodies, as part of a wider ecology, perhaps this richness becomes more visible, and the discomfort more interesting and even creative.

These creative speculations need to be kept in step with the problem of defensiveness as it arises in social movements trying to transform oppression. Defensiveness, and what to do with it, is a recurring problem in transformative anti-oppression work. People of colour and white anti-racist activists know how cautiously they must navigate conversations about racism with white friends if they are to avoid defensiveness. Trans folks and trans allies know sharply how people arrive to a conversation already defensive to the idea that they might be transphobic.

Avoiding or soothing the mainstream’s defensiveness is full-time work for people in the margins wishing to try and transform oppression as it manifests. An affect of defensiveness is to exhaust people who constantly face it whenever they attempt to push back against their marginalisation or ‘invisibilising’. There is much good reason to criticise defensiveness and demand that those in the mainstream transform their defensiveness.

I have tried to change this in myself for many years. And I still fail repeatedly. I have tried telling myself repeatedly to not be defensive, to extract from myself a more open response. But it is a stubborn creature. The mere whiff of wrongness and it starts to gather force in me. It will not be changed by reason, by will or the mind. Descartes’ philosophy, which splits mind and body and then valorises the mind over the body, is redundant for this task. I turn to his contemporary Spinoza, and more recent process philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Erin Manning and Hasana Sharp as more hopeful and practical philosophies which might assist in transforming defensiveness.

Process philosophy, or process ontology, suggests that bodies are always being made through relations. There is no body that can choose to enter into relation or not, rather we are constituted through a complex array of affects which are always jostling with each other. Affects, or simply the capacity to be affected and to affect, is how bodies are composed. These affects are sensate, organic, inorganic, cognitive, emotional, or ideal. Affect refuses the binary dualisms of nature/culture and body/mind and instead sees life constantly in the process of emerging through these intensities.

A trio: two humans and a ball of defensiveness

Dancing with process philosophy, I notice that how this research approaches defensiveness is already to affect and be affected by it. My choice to explore it through movement was in part to avoid it manifesting in violent intellectual ideas. And once in the studio, there was no escaping it. In one score I marked out in small steps a five-metre large circle in the studio and introduced this as a ball of defensiveness. I noticed that once its edges were marked out and its inner force noticed, there was no way to not be affected by it.

In the studio, participants were guided in their movement by improvisation scores. My writing in the studio describes one score in which dancers were asked to move in relation to each other and to an imagined large ball of defensiveness filling a third of the dance space.

Two bodies circle it slowly, touching and recoiling from its edge. They face each other across this affect of defensiveness. One steps in and the other hides a face under the arm. She steps in again, head dips and hips swing, she turns, faster and faster, head lifts upwards, upturned lips. The other shifts back and forth along the edge, jolts and shakes as they rub up with the ball. Suddenly she is gone across the room, legs pull her outward and she ducks down frozen. The turner carries on turning but her gaze momentarily searches out the other. She steps out the circle and kneels hands outstretched towards defensiveness. Fingers bend backwards under the weight of it. The frozen one is alive again, creeping forward, feet shuffle with the floor and the ball of defensiveness is at her shins. She bends and outstretches her hands and fingers fall back under the weight. They make eye contact and fingers curl upwards followed by palms slowly lifting.

Defensiveness - moving away Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving away
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

In my writing later, remembering the dance, I have different noticings, or movements of thought:

The intensity of defensiveness was surprising and strong. Participants’ movement pathways were affected by the suggestion of its presence. The sensations and intensity are not only felt during reactive habitual moments of daily life — it can also be felt in the safety of the studio.

The sensations and intensity differ depending on one’s relation to it. When participants were inside the ball of defensiveness there was more dynamic movement, more energy. When movers were on the outside of the ball of defensiveness, there was shrinking, hiding, cowering and aversion. It was more disabling.

“Going inside it — having thought it was [a] horrible, awful thing and sticky emotion to be in it, and then being in it, it actually felt exciting and dynamic and joyful, and there was something about, like it’s  sticky in the shadows but letting it go all around you, being in it it was very different to what I imagined it to be.” (Lucia)

There was uncertainty about how to approach it, what it would do. Being outside the ball of defensiveness was also moving with defensiveness. The sensate experience of defensiveness is habitual, with sensations following familiar pathways. In psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a refusal to acknowledge feelings. I consider this refusal as still ecological. And this refusal manifesting as movement and as felt sensation. When one was invited into this movement of refusal there was an intentionality and creativity. When one was on the outside of the ball, there seemed to be more doubt and uncertainty.

It all changed when participants attended to each other as well as the ball.

“It was something in common, some sort of complicity, we both know this thing is here. I am learning something about you, from seeing how you interact with this thing that we both know is there. It drew me into more intimacy with her as I felt feelings about how she felt towards that thing.” (Participant B)

These affects between the ball and between the movers was always shifting. While defensiveness is a sedimented and habituated pattern of sensations and relations to sensations, the event around defensiveness always exceeds these habits. There is always more going on than that which is recognisable and categorisable. 

Staying in relations

These movements of thought are uncomfortable. They are not what I hoped to say. They are not my argument. And yet I am trying to think between and with three distinct spheres: the problem of defensiveness in anti-oppression work; a curiosity towards concepts emerging from process philosophy; and a desire to research through movement in order to bring the body into conversations about transforming defensiveness.

Defensiveness - moving towards Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving towards
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

If we are to approach both thought and emotions as ecological, as always in dynamic relation with what they come into contact with, this seems to require us to stay in the relations and get quite messy. It seems to be suggesting loosening a focus on clarity, structure and argument and moving from the middle of the unknown of things.

Madelanne Rust D’Eye, a somatics trauma therapist, suggests that defensiveness, or the refusal to be curious about new ideas, is a fear of unfamiliar intensities in the body. Indeed, this seems to map across to what I witness in defensive thought — a turn to stable conceptual ideas, such as man/woman or black/white, or right/wrong. Defensiveness is a means by which we restrict and control the sensate experiences of our bodies to ones that are more familiar. Defensiveness in one body has a capacity to affect other bodies, such as marginalised folks being exhausted by meeting defensiveness when they talk about oppression.

While there are different modes of being affected by difference and uncertainty, defensiveness is a particularly common affect at present. This affect usually feels like a blocking of relation, a separation and pushing away between two bodies. When defensiveness gets characterised as a refusal this can tend to reinforce humanist ideas of the individual. Instead by dancing with defensiveness I am reminded of just how relational this separation is. Furthermore, dancing is a means to actively attend to it, to get in the middle of it with our moving responsive bodies rather than rushing to transform it. A means to attend with care and curiosity. Through attending to the experience of defensiveness, new possibilities of sensate experience and relationality become possible.

I am back in the studio with my participants shortly and intend to return to the noticings and see what movement has to say to them.


Find out more

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions is explored in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Psychology Press, 2004). 

You can read work by Madelanne Rust D’Eye on somatics and whiteness in her blog article, Body-Informed Leadership: A Somatic Allyship Practice.

Scarlet’s previous ClimateCultures post, You, Familiar, was a video presentation of her poem narrated over photos of clay sculptures used in a Coal Action Network action outside a government department in London, and accompanied by text from fellow CAN activist Isobel Tarr.

Scarlet Hall
Scarlet Hall
An artist who co-creates spaces of naming, questioning, healing and desiring in dedication to humans and non-humans who experience intimately the violent consequences of our disconnect.
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Dancing with Darkness

'I wonder what darkness means now?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the DarkArtist and writer Jennifer Leach recalls the journey from a sharing of darkness at a climate conference for artists and scientists, and the year-long festival she created in its honour, to her new book, Dancing in the Dark.


1,440 words: estimated reading time 6 minutes 


In 2016, Festival of the Dark was born on Winter Solstice in Reading, and ran for a full year. It had bloomed remarkably quickly from a seed planted at the TippingPoint climate conference — Doing Nothing Is Not An Option — that had been held in Warwick in June of that year. These TippingPoint conferences had for many years brought together scientists and artists, in the context of climate change; the scientists brought the facts, the artists the imagination to creatively take these facts along with their work and out into the world. The 2016 conference could not, initially, shake off a persistent sentiment of doom. Many scientists said they had little new to say, many artists felt they had tried and failed to effect change. Many delegates felt we were still hooked on looking for solutions, rather than extricating ourselves from that singular goal and extending our sight over a wider terrain.

What is it that we fear?

Yet something developed over that weekend that was unpremeditated, and I believe it was the presence of a coterie of particularly feisty women who may have had something to do with it. They began talking about the heart, rather than the head. One delegate counted the number of times the men said, ‘I think’, and the number of times the women said, ‘I feel’. One delegate humorously objected to being told, ‘Doing Nothing Is Not An Option’ and she set up a break-out group called ‘Doing Nothing IS An Option’. I was too busy lying under a yew tree doing nothing to go, but I hear a remarkable rainbow appeared from nowhere and spread across the wall of the small unprepossessing room in which they sat. By the end of the weekend we were talking of a new spiritual paradigm, a shift of focus from the head to the heart. There was no point, many of us agreed, in trying to find solutions until we had fully explored why and how we had arrived in this place of self-motivated disaster. Why are we acting as we are? What is it that we fear? What is it that we are resisting?

It is a much longer story than I can tell here, but in the course of the conference, someone suggested that there could be a day set aside for all theatres in the UK to turn off their lights and play in darkness, or by candlelight. This throwaway suggestion, one of many in a series of brainstorming sessions, brought about such extreme reactions that a small group of us attended to the energy generated and set up a breakout group to explore the darkness. Why was the darkness seen as Luddite, why was turning off the lights seen as a reactionary action, an action that contained within it all that people loathe about the ‘environmental lobby’? Why is darkness seen as non-progressive, as negative?

Showing Jennifer Leach's suggestion for Learning to Love the Dark - a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option. Photograph by Mark Goldthorpe
Learning to Love the Dark – a discussion at Doing Nothing Is Not an Option, June 2016
Photograph: Mark Goldthorpe

I recall feeding back from our group to the plenary session, and slightly tongue in cheek saying we’d hold a festival in Reading, at the end of which we’d turn off the lights across the town. ‘If it can happen in Reading [which it didn’t quite!], it can happen anywhere.’ So was born Festival of the Dark, which opened around four months later, with full Arts Council funding.

Darkness honoured

I did not know where the Festival came from, it surprised me, and I did not know what it wanted. It was perhaps conceived as being grand; it ended up sweet, subtle, subterranean, dancing beneath the streets of Reading like the Holy Brook whose waters do likewise. It did not end with the sweeping gesture of a great Lights Off ceremony (in a corporate town at the height of the Christmas shopping season?!), yet soft candles, and faces lit by campfire stories, and even darkness, came to be its keynotes. It softened as the year progressed, and the steely imperatives of its inception transformed into a more mellow weave. Yet what it held was radical, daring, brave, and those who chose to participate showed courage. The festival ended in darkness on 21 December 2017. After a night of food, music and reminiscence, as we watched snatches of video from each of the Festival’s 21 events, we stood unable to see one another, arms around each other, and sang. A quite glorious community anthem slipped out from the darkened windows of a generous venue, now boarded up, and escaped into the night.

Darkness - the gathering for The Night Breathes Us In, part of Festival of the Dark, . Photograph by Georgia Wingfield-Hayes
The Night Breathes Us In – part of Festival of the Dark, March 2017
Photograph: Georgia Wingfield-Hayes © 2017 georgiawingfieldhayes.org

I wrote Dancing in the Dark for the Opening Ceremony and in many ways it became a signifier for me, for the Festival itself. Its unknown origin, its uncanny form, its darings and challenges, and its unswerving message of quiet assurance that ‘all shall be well’ came in from outside my self. The work, I am sure, bubbled up from our sharp ancestral past, when death, hunger and danger were ever-present and the skull was a bed-fellow for the living. It wove through the starry heavens of Galileo who unhooked us from the secure centre of a human-anchored universe, and flung us out into orbit around a foreign star. It took me deep into my own heart, to a place of fear, and asked me to jump, into the racing pulse of the unknowable, and the unknown. And it led back out into the weightless universe where, divesting of the small and false securities that keep us tied to fear, there is to be found a joyful liberation in our magnificent insignificance.

'I do not know what darkness meant then' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘I do not know what darkness meant then.’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Freed from the tyranny of our dread

I worked with a dear friend on presenting the piece. She brought music to it. On four long nights we found ourselves in a back garden multifaith temple, in midwinter, breathing the words over candles and a calorgas heater, cold but entranced. The magic happened here. Strong ancestral stirrings were at work, and we felt perhaps that we and our ancestors were clumsily mapping out a new way to work with these crazy descendants who don’t, to misquote Hamlet, know a hawk from a chainsaw.

The ‘performance’ itself was imperfect. A childcare crisis arose minutes before we began, we broke a microphone in the dark, and we could not see. It mattered not. The power was in the process, in the imprecise nature of the very real exploration of imagination that began with the words, the music, and later the images, and which are now loosely harnassed in the pages of a book.

A conference cannot avert a crisis. A Festival cannot. A book cannot. We do not, in fact, know whether anything can, not even the accumulation of every great head initiative and every great heart initiative focused right now on the calamity of climate emergency. What I do know is that the courage to make tangible our rightful fear, to acknowledge it, and to launch ourselves into it, will profoundly change us, and liberate us from the tyranny of our dread. And in this, every small creative contribution adds one more small stone to place upon the communal cairns of our courage. Welcome waymarkers on unknown paths. 

Darkness - 'Is this not so?' is an image from Jennifer Leach's book, Dancing in the Dark
‘Is this not so?’
Artist: Jennifer Leach © 2019

Find out more

Dancing in the Dark is available to order for a very limited time — and in a limited edition print run. This Kickstarter campaign — which has already ensured that the 48-page, richly painted story-poem will be printed and delivered to its backers — closes early on the morning of this coming Sunday — 18th August. On the project page, as well as examples of words and images in the book, you can hear Jennifer give a short reading from it.

Jennifer’s recent post, Earth Living — Now, Facing the Storm, explores some of the ‘questioning tales for a world’s ending’ she told at the recent Earth Living Festival in Reading, and the relaunch of her Outrider Anthems enterprise as a sanctuary of creativity. 

You can read On Night in the Daytime, my ClimateCultures review of Night Breathes Us In, which was an event from Dark Mountain Project as part of the Festival of the Dark. The Dark Mountain website features two other accounts from members of that organisation’s team who took part: Charlotte du Cann, and ClimateCultures Member Sarah Thomas.

Jennifer Leach
Jennifer Leach
A poet, writer, performer and storyteller whose wild work, forged in the fantastical reaches of deep imagination, brings to life new stories for our strange times.
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Coastline Project — Sailing Under Wolf Island’s Baleful Gaze

Coastline Project: The Alcuin’s route round Mull Writer and photographer Mike Hembury spent a week on an Inner Hebridean sailing trip as part of Sail Britain’s multidisciplinary Coastline Project. He recalls this small group’s ecological encounters and shares poems and photographs they inspired in him.


2,510 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes 


The West Coast of Scotland offers some of the most spectacular seascapes to be found anywhere in the British Isles. So I was particularly excited to be given the chance to join in with Sail Britain’s Coastline Project for a week in May. Part oceanographic research project, part artist’s residency, part hands-on experience for budding and seasoned sailors alike, the Coastline Project provides a unique way of coming to grips with some of the ecological issues facing Britain’s marine environment, in a manner that is interdisciplinary, unconventional and infused with an all-pervasive love of the sea.

Map showing the Coastline Project route of The Alcuin round Mull
Coastline Project: The Alcuin’s route round Mull
Source: OpenSeaMap www.openseamap.org

Our focus for the week was to be plastic pollution, and our itinerary was to be counter-clockwise around Mull, taking in the Inner Hebrides islands of Coll, Lunga, Ulva and Staffa along the way, together with a host of hidden and sometimes nigh-on inaccessible anchorages.

My own personal focus on our little expedition was threefold: I had set myself the task of producing a poetic and photographic record of the journey, and was keen to receive some up-to-date and first-hand information on the current ecological plight of Britain’s Atlantic shores. On top of that, for some time now I had been looking out for an opportunity to improve my sailing skills in tidal waters, and the West Coast of Scotland was high on my list.

I joined up with the Alcuin — a Westerly Oceanranger 38 — on May 18th in the bustling port town of Oban, where I was greeted by our skipper, and Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon, an easy-going and affable chap in his mid-thirties, who would probably not look out of place on a late 19th-century British polar expedition.

Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon, leading the Coastline Project trip
Sail Britain’s director, Oliver Beardon
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

We’re the new crew
With our how-do-you-dos
Our uncertainties
And our good-to-meet-yous.
We’ve thrown ourselves together
Voluntarily
Here in Oban.

— from Oban

After introductions to the rest of the crew — a postgraduate researcher in fluid dynamics from Cambridge, a married couple with a passion for sailing and the environment, and the wandering CEO of a bespoke mapmaking company — we left immediately for our first anchorage, on the western side of the Island of Kerrera, just out of sight of Oban harbour.

Rituals and realisation

Name me the weed
On the shores of Kerrera,
The wracks:
Bladder, spiral, channel
And more.
And the spongy stuff
Consistency of cooked spinach
But fluorescent green
Or occasionally
Beach-bleached white,
As yet unnamed.
But I will get there.

— from Kerrera

Next morning we rendezvoused with Janie and Russ, two local plastic pollution activists. They guided us to a beach on Kerrera’s northern headland, and we began what would become a daily ritual: beach-cleaning. We combed the high-water line, extracting netting, stretches of rope and pieces of plastic packaging out from among the wracks slowly drying in the weak northern sun.

Further up the shore, tufts of blue plastic seemed to grow among the grass, remnants of seemingly ubiquitous plastic rope that had become embedded in the soil. After an hour or so, we gathered together to view and sift through our findings — buckets and buckets of detritus, in many different shapes and forms. Our guide Janie was heartened. Apparently this was a ‘good’ haul. Good, as in relatively small. By contrast, those of us who are new to the game were flabbergasted by the amount of non-biodegradable and totally unnecessary waste that we had just dug out of a seemingly pristine shoreline.

Ubiquitous blue plastic rope embedded in the soil
Ubiquitous blue plastic rope
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

It’s a story that was repeated throughout our week with the Coastline Project: stunningly beautiful islands, inlets and lochs, all far away from the nearest human habitation, but not one of them unaffected by the careless wastefulness of the Anthropocene. The wild shorelines of Western Scotland are saturated in plastic, suffocating in a stream of waste that can only be cured by turning it off at the source.

A lot of the debris that we found could easily be traced to the local fishing industry, and more specifically, to fish farms. Such finds included thirty-foot pieces of bright blue tubing, and grey flotation containers as large as a fridge. But it was something else — a much smaller find — that started to bring fish farming into the focus of my attention during the course of the trip.

Perhaps subliminally at first, I had started to notice that there are unusual numbers of dead crabs on Scottish beaches. Having grown up on the Jurassic Coast in Southern England, I know that it’s common enough to find a dead crab or two, belly-up on the beach. But this wasn’t one or two. By the time we had arrived at the windswept and wonderful island of Ulva — the Wolf Island — the evidence was starting to pile up. Something seemed to be seriously wrong here.

Dead crabs on Ulva
Dead crabs on Ulva
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

On invisibility

Wolf Island sits and watches us
With a baleful gaze
That says
You will be next.
You are on the path now
And that path is loss.

— from On Ulva

I had no explanation at the time, but I took pictures of what I found, pictures that prompted me, back on dry land, to do a little research into possible causes of crab fatalities.

One cause often cited is lack of oxygen in the water, due for example to algal blooms or sudden changes in temperature.

Other possible causes are the toxic effects of fish farming. Salmon farms, it seems, use chemicals such as teflubenzuron to combat the infestations of sea lice that literally eat the tightly-packed fish alive. Sea lice are crustaceans. The chemicals used to kill them do not differentiate between the various types of crustacean that live in the ocean, and are equally toxic to lobsters, shrimps and crabs.

The beach at Ulva, with the striking numbers of dead crabs, was the site of two now-defunct fish farms, with two more active farms still in operation nearby. More than enough evidence, in my mind, for poisoning to be a plausible cause of death.

Of course, I am not a marine biologist, so ultimately I can do little more than speculate on issues of crustacean fatalities and fish farm toxicity.

Yet this is precisely where multidisciplinary projects such as Sail Britain are turning into an invaluable resource for marine ecology. Although our crew was sadly not equipped to deal with my belated findings, I did pass the information on to Oliver, who promised to incorporate fish farming more closely into his ecological itinerary. And my hope is that a member of some future crew, or interested marine biologist, will feel inclined to pick up where my own photographic and poetic efforts fall short.

Even so, my own limited research into the subject has shown me that the fish farming industry is not only highly unsustainable, but also massively toxic to the marine environment within which it operates.

Our ship tilts and yaws
Ours is a spiralling
Downward path and
We are in the maelstrom now.
Perhaps 


With a supreme effort
We can strain our sinews
Focus all the will we have
To break free, but
Perhaps
Is a pretty weak force now
In the greater scheme of things.

— from The Corrie Breàchain

Our week of sailing around Mull was, coincidentally, the week in which over 8 million farmed salmon were killed by algal blooms in Norway. This followed a similar incident in Loch Fyne earlier in the year, in which ‘hundreds of tonnes’ of dead fish had to be removed from farms.

The waste from fish farms coats the seabed with a poisonous sludge that extinguishes all life below it — one of the reasons perhaps why the Scottish government is now considering the approval of deep-sea ‘superfarms’, in the hope that the combination of depth and currents will help dilute the waste before it hits the bottom.

On the other hand, one might be forgiven for assuming a more cynical motive: Out of sight, out of mind, anyone?

Salmon farms are also vectors for disease, and are having a hugely negative impact on wild salmon populations. And of course there is another, even more problematic aspect to keeping thousands, or even millions of fish together in a confined space, and that is that they need to be fed. And what they need to be fed on, largely, is fishmeal. That is to say, in order for beautifully packaged, and tastefully marketed Scottish salmon to arrive on the average fish eater’s plate, huge numbers of ‘lesser’ species — i.e. those not fit for human consumption — need to be industrially hoovered out of the sea. It has been estimated that nearly one-fifth of global sea fish catch is currently being used to produce fishmeal and oil for fish farms. One species particularly affected in the waters around Britain is the sandeel — tiny slivers of silver that also happen to be the favourite food of all manner of seabirds.

Which brings me to Lunga, part of a small chain of islands known as the Treshnish Isles. We cast anchor before Lunga with one particular purpose in mind: to catch a close-up view of the puffins that breed in underground burrows in the soft soil of the cliff tops. Puffins have no natural predators on the island but, nevertheless, their numbers are plummeting. On the Shetland Islands, for example, 33,000 puffins were recorded in the spring of 2000. By 2018, those numbers had dropped to 570. And while environmental factors may be playing a role in the plight of the puffins, the decimation of their primary food source has to be high on the list of possible causes.

Puffin on the island of Lunga
Puffin island
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

What can I say? Lunga, like so much of our trip, was a poignant reminder of the fragile beauty of the sea’s web of life. Our daily rituals of beach-cleaning, sailing, and witnessing the incredible natural heritage of the Inner Hebrides, had become familiarly, depressingly, marvellously, gut-wrenching and awe-inspiring in equal parts.

Where are we
In all of this,
And what is it exactly,
What disappearance
What soon-never-to-be-seen-again
Are we witnessing?

— from Lunga

Coastline project: our haul of pollution

To be honest, I had no idea what could come out of a trip such as this. As it was, I found the words pouring out of me, the sorrow welling up inside me, my heart and senses expanding as they always do when I’m near the sea. Whilst the others were exploring or pulling yet more rope out of the high-water wrack-line, I found myself staring at the patterns in the weed, or the dew on the grass, and feeling the need to preserve it all in some way, however inadequately.

Watching the dew on the grass
Watching the grass
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

Leaving Ulva in particular, I remember feeling almost overwhelmed by the unforgivably tragic consequences of what it was that we — humanity — have collectively unleashed.

As if in answer, that was the very moment when we were visited by a pod of inquisitive bottlenose dolphins, spiralling beneath the bow of our ship and leaping out of the water. Absolutely impossible to let depression and seeming futility win in such a moment! It’s certainly easy enough though, in these harrowing times, to let oneself be pulled into a focus on death and destruction. But how much more inspiring to consider the beauty of life, in all its exuberance, unbidden and joyful.

Leaving Ulva, with dolphins
Leaving Ulva, with dolphins
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

But strapped like a tumour
To the aft rail
Crammed into
The starboard locker
Like some Pandora’s
Puppet on a spring
Our haul of pollution:
Plastic, in every shape and form
Gleaned, beach-cleaned and hand-picked,
Sacks and sacks
Of the stuff.
Items from the everyday
To the unidentifiably arcane.
We’re heading back now
Full of impressions
Drunk on sea and sky
Yet sobered
With the realization
Of what our
Presence in the world
Is doing to the world.

— from Return to Oban

Alcuin
Alcuin
Photograph: Mike Hembury © 2019

In our brief week of exploring the wonders of the Scottish shores with the Coastline Project, we were struck repeatedly by the wild majesty of the scenery, the richness of the wildlife, even in the face of impending extinction, and the urgency of acting now, in order to turn the tide, and save what remains.

It’s not too late. But it will be soon, unless we start taking drastic action now.

For me personally, in addition to writing and participating in this autumn’s European-wide wave of environmental protests, I’m looking forward in particular to seeing my crewmates and skipper again in London in November, when Sail Britain will be organising a symposium and exhibition on the Coastline Project. My own contribution to the exhibition will be the series of photographs and poems that have emerged from that inspiring week in May. I am also hoping to publish both in book form — Sailing With Alcuin — if I can find a publisher brave enough to publish a photopoetic journal by a sailing environmentalist. 

I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to Oliver Beardon and Sail Britain for their Coastline Project and the opportunity to take part. Ever since I was I child, I have been fascinated and awed by the sea, and thought I knew a thing or two about the state of the ocean. But in the space of a week, I had my love of the ocean renewed, and received fresh motivation to dedicating myself to saving the source of all life on our planet.


Find out more

For more on the Coastline Project programme exploring the coasts of the British Isles, visit the Sail Britain website: “While the boat, our team, and the idea forms a common narrative, each stage is be crewed by a different group of people from as varied a background as possible. Along each stage these groups develop as a coherent team, something which sailing is a wonderful catalyst for, to explore the people, identity, history and ecological importance of the places they visit and to develop individual research and responses.” The symposium and exhibition Mike mentioned is the Sail Britain End of Year Show from 21st – 24th November, in London.

If you have suggestions for publishers for Mike’s photopoetry book of his expedition, Sailing With Alcuin, do email him at writing[at]mikehembury[dot]org

To follow up on some of the environmental issues Mike discusses, see these recent news stories in The Independent and The Guardian:

Mike Hembury
Mike Hembury
A writer, musician and photographer, with a regular column on climate change, whose novel, New Clone City (2018), features environmental themes in an urban setting.
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