Art Photography — Emotional Response to Global Crisis

Photographer Veronica Worrall explores how art can offer an important emotional response to global pandemic and climate crises, sharing her ‘lockdown’ project to generate images where photography partners with natural processes to produce a visual essay of optimism.


1,560 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


In the early months of Covid-19 lockdown I found an escape in an azure canopy. I mentally soared over my garden, taking refuge in the exquisite beauty of the empty skies. I found solace from the devastating pandemic. The budding leaves and blossoms showed themselves with exuberance against a royal blue which dimmed elegantly to the horizon. An occasional wisp of cloud offered a sense of distance — a dream hovering. Humanity was facing disaster and yet my garden was thriving. I was being torn between relief that nature was being given a chance and the tragedy that was unfolding across the globe. Like many I turned to capturing images of my garden’s beauty whilst I confronted human mortality.

I was reminded of the very first photographs which were taken to convey a state of mind, the work of Alfred Stieglitz. In 1922 and again 1923 to 1934 Stieglitz made photographic series initially called Songs of the Sky and later Equivalents. Stieglitz had a tumultuous affair through these years with the artist Georgia O’Keefe. He pointed his camera skywards “purposely disorientating”, purposely seeking to take his viewer to his own emotional state. The resultant images of clouds, more than 200, were Stieglitz’s equivalent of his emotions, what Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais has described — in his book accompanying the 2018 ‘Shape of Light Exhibition’ at the Tate Modern London — as “his inner resonance of the chaos in (his) world and his relationship to that chaos”. De l’Ecotais goes on to discuss the exhibited samples of the Equivalent images, suggesting that Stieglitz’s work, although not strictly abstract, was the forerunner of photography moving out from being a purely representative medium. This led the way for photographers to experiment with their own ‘equivalents’. They worked to convey creatively their own emotion following other artists of that time, such as O’Keefe, who were exploring how visual art might evoke the same emotional response as music.

So it is no surprise that many photographers during our 21st-century global pandemic have looked to portray their own psychological state. I was drawn to the skies to express both my joy and fear.

Emotional response and global crisis

This is not the first time in stressful moments that I have used the sky as a haven from my extreme emotions. For example, I took photographs following a Force 10 storm in the Arctic Sea after the boat on which I travelled responded to a Mayday callout. Eventually the other boat was found tucked into a safe anchorage and no one was lost, but the relief was short.

Showing Veronica Worrall's arctic photograph, 'Storm Passing'
Figure 1 – Storm Passing
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2017
Showing Veronica Worrall's arctic photograph, 'Storm Over'
Figure 2 – Storm Over
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2017

During this trip, I personally witnessed the extent of climate change. These photographs taken after the storm hold both my relief but also my fear of imminent danger. They spoke to me of a unique moment of time and space, when disaster can be averted. And so it was, one evening three years later, in the early days of our global pandemic, the sky outside my front door symbolised both my dread and my hope. My photograph I called Optimistic Outlook

Emotional response to climate crisis: Showing Veronica Worrall's photograph, 'Optimistic Outlook'
Figure 3 – Optimistic Outlook
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020

The image responds

This was a moment when my photography became an ‘art’ aesthetic. The importance of the image was the philosophy involved and my eye’s attempt (quoting George Clarke’s book, The Photograph) “to transform the most obvious of things into its unique potential” — an art equivalent. This image captured my passionate hope that we come through this global chaos with a deeper understanding of how humanity needs to change radically to avoid the predicted tipping point that would result in global chaos, set out in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report, Impacts of 1.5ºC of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems.  

Two months later, May’s warmth filtered into my garden, I was taking refuge in the blossom against perfect blue. I became mesmerised by the delicate beauty. I was not the only one. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram evidenced a burgeoning re-connection between people and the natural world. How could this be sustained? How could we stay reconnected?

Showing Veronica Worrall's photograph, 'Images Return'
Figure 4 – Images Return
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020

This thought seeded my ‘lockdown project’, a continuation of my earlier exploration of partnering with natural processes to make art, in ‘Project Unseen’. My photographs of blue skies and blossom were returned to the trees and left for months, as shown in the image above. Nature’s elements and creatures traced over my images. Whilst monitoring my images attached to the trees a few months later, I noticed the skies overhead were becoming crisscrossed with vapour trails as lockdown relaxed. The sky was symbolising my concern that lessons were not being learnt in a rush to return to unsustainable travel and consumer trading.

Showing Veronica Worrall's arctic photograph, 'Harbinger'
Figure 5 – Harbinger
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020

Reconnected in hope

Nevertheless, I was determined to continue with my ‘lockdown’ project. My ‘strung up’ photographs were taking a battering in a gale and many images had been significantly degraded — a layer of metaphor. I retrieved them and, although feeling despondent, I decided for this project I would not dwell on dark messaging but use these images as a visual essay of optimism — semi abstracts, my ‘Equivalents’ of hope. I would strive to stay positive in a time of chaos. The images Hope 1 to 5 are part of my project ‘Stay Reconnected’.

Emotional response to climate crisis: Showing Veronica Worrall's photograph, 'Hope'
Figure 6 – Hope
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020
Emotional response to climate crisis: Showing Veronica Worrall's photograph, 'Hope 2'
Figure 7 – Hope
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020
Emotional response to climate crisis: Showing Veronica Worrall's photograph, 'Hope 3 Passing'
Figure 8 – Hope 3 Passing
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020
Emotional response to climate crisis: Showing Veronica Worrall's photograph, 'Hope 4'
Figure 9 – Hope 4
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020
Emotional response to climate crisis: Showing Veronica Worrall's photograph, 'Hope 5'
Figure 10 – Hope 5
Photograph: Worrall, V.M. © 2020

Together Nature and I created colourful art pieces, symbolic of the much-needed partnership. We convey the joyful reconnection many had found in our gardens, parks and wayside walks. The images hold my hope for the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill presented to the UK Parliament on 2nd September. This is the direction needed to preserve nature’s systems and diversity for future generations.

In past weeks the youngsters have returned to their studies preparing for their futures. Holidays are over and across the world Covid-19 cases are surging upwards again. Chaos is reported across trade and travel industries subjected to a conflicting renewal of government restrictions. The sky has returned to a dome of deep blue, wearing again its symbolic robe — asking us to revisit what is important. More than ever cooperative wisdom is required. Is it possible for our world leaders to collaborate on strategies, policies and practices that allow humanity to stay re-connected to the essence of our existence — the essence captured on cameras as trees blossomed under clear blue skies? 


Find out more

There is more on Veronica’s ‘Stay Connected‘ project and her earlier ‘Project Unseen‘ at her website.

You can see some of Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents series at the Met Museum’s online collection. As the note there explains, “In these purposely disorienting and nearly abstract images, Stieglitz sought to arouse in the viewer the emotional equivalent of his own state of mind at the time he took the picture and to show that the content of a photograph was different from its subject. The Equivalents trace Stieglitz’s emotional response to nature through periods of ecstasy and darkness, romantic engagement, and confronting mortality.”

Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography & Abstract Art, by Simon Baker, Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais and Shoair Mavlian, is published by Tate Publishing (2018).

The Photograph, by George Clarke, is published by Oxford University Press (1997), in their Oxford History of Art series.

Impacts of 1.5oC of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems is published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2018).  Michael Marshall’s recent piece in The Guardian (19/9/20) discusses The tipping points at the heart of the climate crisis.

You can follow progress (hopefully) on the UK Parliament’s Climate and Ecology Bill 2019-21, in the Parliamentary Business Progress. It is a Private Members’ Bill, presented by Green MP Caroline Lucas, “to require the Prime Minister to achieve climate and ecology objectives; to give the Secretary of State a duty to create and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives; to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to work with the Secretary of State in creating that strategy; to give duties to the Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and strategy”, and is due to be debated in its Second Reading in Parliament in March 2021.

You might also explore other artistic examples of emotional response to the climate crisis, for example in Deborah Tomkins’s ClimateCultures post Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change. And in an interesting ‘working document’, Belonging and Imagination in the Anthropocene: A Social Action Art Therapy Response to Climate Crisis, Jamie Bird of the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at Derby University, addresses cognitive and emotional responses to climate crisis. He draws on experiences using “imagination and the concept of belonging in work with those who have experienced political and domestic violence” to propose how social action art therapy can offer a way of meeting the “intersecting forces that flow into and out of climate crisis”. He has also written about this research approach in a post for the university website (23/01/20), Climate anxiety: How can we process our emotional responses to climate crisis?

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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A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #12

Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.


1,670 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions aA History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Necessary baggage

A sling made from dry grass. A basket, woven from cut saplings. A sack, sewn from the skin of a caught animal. A pair of cupped hands. A leaf a shell a gourd a pot. A womb. A story.

Showing a basket as a universal carrier
Universal carrier
Photograph: เอกลักษณ์ มะลิซ้อน  (Pixabay)

In her essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin explores the idea of the bag being the oldest human tool. In doing so, she is able to show how the stories we’ve been told our entire lives have deceived and misled us.

You know the stories I mean, the ones stuffed end-to-end with guns, knives, sharp-hard-phallic things and blood. The ones that sell well in the box-office. The ones with a handsome hero and an ugly, linear plot. Begin at point A, then proceed straight and with maximum force to point B. WHAM. Somewhere in there there will be conflict, and inevitably, death. But what if there was another way? What if we could cradle our narratives? Not slashing or throwing, but holding.

Le Guin writes that “before the weapon, a late, luxurious, superfluous tool; long before the useful knife and axe; right along with the indispensable whacker, grinder, and digger (…) with or before we made the tool that forces energy outward, we made a tool to bring energy home.” That ‘bringing home’ is something I’m intensely interested in, both from a storytelling and a human sapiens perspective. I find myself coming back, again and again, to the idea of necessary baggage.

Bags surround and shape our lives and society. Without them we would be a very different species, for better or worse. They have carried us, both physically and metaphorically, out of the empty-handed dark and into the world we now inhabit. A world of boxes within boxes. And sometimes these boxes look like progress and sometimes they just look like a cage.

Recently I was moving house. And part-way through I became increasingly aware of the things I was moving. With arms full of bags — full of books — I reflected that books were just bags full of words, and words were just further containers for narrative. And that perhaps the ideas and lessons held within these narratives were just another kind of vessel for holding perspectives on an existence that is too huge to ever be properly perceived from any angle? And would we be better without any bags at all? Maybe the spirit is the only thing that can never be bagged? But then, what is the body if not a bag full guts and bones, possibly accompanied by a soul?

My point, I think, is that necessary baggage is something we need to accept and embrace if we wish to remain human and sane. Whether it’s pent-up ideology, miss-spent emotion or simply too many possessions, we must all learn the subtle art of holding.

Perfect coffee pettiness

It began with goats — so the story goes — who ate the little red cherries and danced in the trees in the hills of Ethiopia, over a thousand years ago.

Showing coffee beans and cup - search for perfection
Perfect beans
Photograph: S. Hermann & F. Richter (Pixabay)

The shepherd took these seeds to his local holy man, who chastised him and threw the seeds in the fire. Before long both shepherd and holy man noticed a particularly delicious aroma coming from the embers and decided to investigate.

Thus, coffee was born.

Another story tells that coffee came from a Sufi mystic who, while travelling through Ethiopia, observed the energetic behaviour of birds after feasting from a certain bush. A third story tells of an exiled Yemeni healer, who chewed the raw berries while in a state of starvation and desperation.

Whatever origin myth you choose to believe, coffee has been around for a long time, and has played an interesting part in the development and progression of human history. From the Middle Eastern qahveh khaneh or ‘schools of the wise’, where coffee (quahwa) would be consumed and venerated amid poetry, performance and passionate conversation, to the first European coffee houses in the 17th and 18th centuries, which helped to steer and fuel the Age of Enlightenment. However, it all pales to the shade of a weak flat white when you compare it to the role of coffee today.

A lot has changed since the days of the dancing goats. The narrative of coffee in the modern world is one of the most telling cues of the capitalist system. We fill ourselves with fuel to achieve as much as possible in the shortest span of time. We sacrifice sleep while in the worship and pursuit of our dreams.

This fuel is bitter and strong, or sweet and smooth. It comes in dozens of different styles and countless combinations. Crafted, blend, single-origin, filter, espresso, Java, Arabica, etc, etc. It’s a poison that’s been analysed and romanticised to such a degree that it now exists as a status symbol for the millennial generation.

For me it sits atop a trifactor of emblematic substances, together with hummus and avocados, that mark the pettiness of the Anthropocene generation. It has become the addiction of the 21st century, except that junkies have never before obsessed about the perfect pattern of a fern leaf in the smoke of their crack pipes. And that’s what gets to me. Somehow, there is a snobbery here which tastes bitterly of middle-class elitism and pretentiousness.

I wonder, in the world that is to come, when seas are rising and jungles burning, will we still care about the nominal difference between a macchiato and a manchado?

Search engine unconsciousness

We live in curious times. That much is certain. With Covid-19 making immense and frightening changes to all our lives and behaviours, it seems like a good time to talk about internet use and dependence. Apparently before the pandemic hit, in a seven-day period we would spend an average of 24 hours online. That’s a whole day every week looking at screens, clicking, typing and scrolling; existing in a space that is neither physical nor abstract, where attention spans are ephemeral, all knowledge seems available and very little wisdom is on offer.

Showing question marks in our search for truth
Search?
Photograph: Arek Socha (Pixabay).

There is a reason all cultures throughout history have a tradition of venerating their elders. Someone who has lived and survived longer than you, whether they be your relative or not, deserves your implicit respect because they retain the influence of wisdom.

Sure, you might be faster, stronger or healthier. But they can tell you which direction to run, which berries to pick; which fungus gets you close to the sky and which sends you deep into the earth. In the days when we were a tribe, our elders had something that was stronger than any human muscle. They had stories. Stories that would be told at important moments, ceremonies and rites of passage. Narratives that could guide us through life, and even a few that could guide us through death.

These days, we have search engines. Grandfather Google.

Most of us are blissfully unaware of the power that search engines have over our experience of the internet (and thus our experience of modern life). Usually, we think that they are one and the same. This is a mistake. They are very much not the same.

Let’s try this with a metaphor. If the internet is a safari park, crammed to the brim with ferocious animals, exotic plant life and all manner of interesting biodiversity, then your search engine is the little guy in a jeep driving you through the savanna, pointing your binoculars in the right direction and deciding which paths are unsafe to go down.

It’s a role not unlike the one once held by our elders. Except that it is inhuman, dominated by capitalism and driven by a specific set of data targets and an agenda. We all know that the same search made on two different computers will bring up very different results. Like everything these days, our search engines are highly customised to our experience.

In this, they function a little bit like the unconscious, and the whole internet itself can be compared to Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious — a worldwide conversation. A massive, never-ending, semi-incoherent, often very important but usually very banal, conversation between one box of data and the next. There is certainly poetry in that, and great terror also.

For me, there’s a beautiful irony in the way we use the internet these days. In one sense it’s the repository of all human knowledge, art and experience — and has the very real potential to elevate anyone with a wifi connection to near-demigod status. But of course, we squander it on cat videos and pornography.

It’s a sad and wonderfully human reality. And I for one am curious, terrified and a little bit hopeful for whatever the future holds for us bag-wielding, poison drinking, unconscious apes.


Find out More

Ursula Le Guin’s essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, is published by Ignota Books (2019) with an introduction by Donna Haraway. And you can read this article from August 2019, where Siobhan Leddy argues convincingly that We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin.

You can explore coffee’s mysterious origins in this 2010 piece for The Atlantic by Giorgio Milos. And dip your toes into the more accessible waters of the collective unconscious via the collective consciousness that is Wikipiedia. Searchenginehistory.com has this … history of search engines (from 1945 to just before tomorrow).

Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of fiction and non-fiction, focusing primarily on storytelling and eco-criticism to explore the complexities of nature in conflict with the human condition.
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I Am Purpose

Writer Indigo Moon shares a short story exploring one person’s sense of purpose. Evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis, Indiana reflects on the presence of signals from within.


1,300 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Indigo’s post is the third in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of creating a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

***

 

universe and purpose, showing moon in the sky
Photograph: Indigo Moon © 2020

I am purpose

Hello.

We are the universe.

We have chosen to present ourselves to you as language because we feel it is the simplest and easiest way to communicate with you.

We have heard whispers from the minds of you. It is of the assumption that we have caused humanity’s current state of … Isolation. Destruction. Vulnerability.

Of course, humans love to cast blame. Even when that blame cannot reach time or form or space.

We can only observe. Humanity is in control of its own fate. Where did the first infection begin?

“Um.”

This is a rhetorical question.

“Oh.”

Digestion of a diseased animal.

Humanity’s consumption of non-human animals. Ah, yes, the origin is confirmed.

What you call ‘zoonotic’ is the isolation between the human and the animal. But what you cease to understand is the thread between every living being. A hum. A heartbeat.

Weaves us together in a tangle of chaotic uncertainty.

We have not the capacity to scribble you out. What a crisis permits is the human spirit to blaze until it burns the light —

“Sorry, hi, sorry to interrupt but why are you telling me? Am I supposed to do something with this?” The voice is coarse, dry, awkward.

That is for you to decide.

“But, why me? You could have picked anyone.”

We did not pick you, as you call it. You were randomly chosen.

A pout. “Oh, okay, well, thanks, I guess.”

Don’t thank us. We do not require praise.

“Then what do you require?”

Nothing.

A pause. Then a whisper. “You’re a barrel of laughs.”

Your attempt at sarcasm has not succeeded.

“Hey! Excuse me, you may be the almighty bloody universe but there is still such a thing as … as respect. Even from a formless … being, such as yourself. Selves. Sorry. Pronouns.”

We admire your strength.

But we do not require anything. We are communicating with you to offer you a purpose.

“Purpose?”

An echo of a voice. High-pitched and loud. “Saph, dinner’s ready!”

“Alright, Mum, be down in a sec.”

Do you consume animals, as those who were first infected?

“No. I used to but then realised it was stupid of me to think I had the right to eat them just because they’re a different species. And don’t even get me started on how eating animals is destroying the planet –”

But you’re going to tell us, we presume?

“Yes. I can be selfish sometimes but I don’t want to be a god. I’m not even sure I believe gods should exist. But it seems we’re acting as if we’re gods. Unpredictable weather patterns. Increase in carbon dioxide levels. The planet is roasting like a potato. And all you ever see on the news is the football results and lengthy discussions on what the Queen is wearing.”

You are wise, child.

Gurgles. “Wha? Really? I couldn’t even get a C on my GCSE maths exam.”

Yet you were able to see what so many of your kind cannot. The purpose we offer you is something you already recognise. A hum. A heartbeat. Made of stardust. You feel it within yourself but can never quite reach it.

“This sounds … familiar. And it’s kind of freaking me out.”

As it should.

The high-pitched and loud voice returns. “Saph! It will get cold. It’s your favourite.”

“Yes, coming, sorry. Just talking to my … girlfriend. Be right down!”

Listen to the hum of us. The vibration of us. Of you. There, you will learn of your purpose.

“I think I already know it.”

Then you have won.

***

signal and purpose - showing the sun above rooftop with aerial
Photograph: Indigo Moon © 2020

I am purpose — context

I decided to focus on connectedness because being an optimist I find focusing on the positives of any situation is the most beneficial way to learn and develop.

I had the idea to write a conversation between the universe and a teenager because I wanted to draw upon the relationship we have with each other and how collectives of union are forming because of this crisis.

More so, I wished to look at the origins of the virus and question our consumption of animals. Even though I was primarily focused on the consequence of viruses being passed from animal to human because of this consumption, I also wanted to bring attention to how climate change has been influenced by animal agriculture.

I decided a teenager would be a comedic and authentic partner to the universe character because it is a time in our lives where I believe we are truly ourselves. On the verge between child and adult. That balance is what makes us who we are, I believe. And what is the universe if not us? We are its stardust.

At first, I didn’t know how the conversation would go. I knew the Signals from the Edge series focused on signals and messages. I thought a signal from the universe, in this context: sending a human being a message that they can be offered a purpose. In reality, by telling someone they have a purpose means they already know it. They just need to recognise it.

The piece also made me think about how I interpret the word ‘edge’. Before writing this, I had always seen the word as an ending, something that reaches a wall where there is nothing left. Now, I am accustomed to seeing the word as a place unknown. Somewhere that holds knowledge and a beingness we believe we cannot reach.

I also wanted to keep the reader guessing as to whether this is a dream sequence or some form of reality. Of course, the universe could never have a voice that we could understand but humans do and we are biologically part of the universe so … paradox?
Essentially, I wanted this conversation to highlight the signals found within us and how we can access them during times of unprecedented events. I hope Saph can bring hope to anyone of any age and teach us that the messages we send ourselves can guide us to the light.


Find out more

You can explore some of the issues around the origins of coronavirus diseases such as Covid-19 in human exploitation of animals in this report from the international NGO Traffic: Wildlife trade, COVID-19 and zoonotic disease risks: shaping the response (April 2020).

From bats to human lungs, the evolution of a coronavirus, by Carolyn Corman in the New Yorker (27th March 2020), looks at how such diseases are transmitted, and the latest research into understanding them.

And Transmission of diseases from humans to apes: why extra vigilance is now needed, by Arend de Haas at The Conversation (24th March 2020) explains how our great ape relatives are also vulnerable to coronavirus diseases — with the risk being transmission from humans.

You can find previous Signals from the Edge contributions in the form of a burning forest and the cry of a fox, and a fragment of an alien encyclopedia, cast backwards in time and in space.

Indigo Moon
Indigo Moon
An activist and writer specialising in environmental, LGBTQ+, animal and human rights, whose online platform uses creativity as a tool to influence and encourage positive change.
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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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An Invitation to Act: Letters to the Earth

Poet Clare Crossman was inspired to respond to a public call for Letters to the Earth and her poem is included in the publication — a book which offers “a spelling out that we are interconnected with nature.”


1,700 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


Early in 2019 a call went out on social media, I think I saw it on Facebook. Culture was also proclaiming an emergency. They were looking for ‘letters to the Earth’ from writers all over the country, to be read out loud during an event linking the Globe Theatre to the streets, the protests — anywhere people were gathering during a one-day event in April, when it was planned that everything they had been sent would be read out loud by someone, somewhere for the Earth.

Letters to the Earth book design, showing swallow illustrations by Jackie Morris
Letters to the Earth
Swallow illustrations: Jackie Morris © 2019

I had recently written a poem in the form of a monologue about climate change. It had arisen on a dark winter’s night in 2018 when I found myself in deep discussion with a science journalist, a theatre director and filmmaker at an arts get-together. We were looking at the stars and wondering. It turned out we all had entirely different perspectives. Someone said they believed we were just part of a geological arc of years and that we were facing extinction. The Anthropocene was the Sixth Mass Extinction and it was as predictable as the cycles that had brought the Ice Age. It was a point in history, we as human beings had ruined the natural world and there wasn’t much that could be done about it.

The act of naming

It was such a starry night and we were outside in the dark looking up. This conversation stayed with me in the way certain experiences do if you are a poet. I think it lingered because the landscape of Cumbria and other, southern, landscapes formed my writing. I grew up in a profoundly rural place, close to a farm that still had a field called The Meadow that was left to go wild and filled with buttercups, clover, speedwell and eyebright in what I see now as a deeply held tradition for the dairy farmer who lived opposite us and spoke in Cumbrian dialect.

Earlier, I also was brought up by a countrywoman whose father had been a carter in the depths of undeveloped Kent where she lived on a farm. She knew the names of all the wildflowers I asked about. The rare, the common, the folk, alternative names and some of their herbal properties. I was always walking into stinging nettles, she always supplied a dock leaf. When hot, we sucked the honey out of the bottom of clover petals.

So I have a sense that the natural world was part of me and it is to my great advantage and by luck that I have a connection and can name these things. In the north, an occupation on a summer’s afternoon was to walk or go and swim in the wash pools of the beck at Mungrisdale. So, this is why I wrote the poem, The Night Toby Denied Climate Change, which found its way into Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis. I was delighted and surprised when I received an e-mail asking for permission to publish it. I thought it would become part of the wind, which was good enough for me.

As Simon McBurney writes in his piece included in the book, The Act of Naming: “To be unable to name is to be cut off because we cannot read. If we cannot read, we cannot connect or orientate ourselves or know that story you, our earth is telling”. I am not going to write on this now but, needless to say, if you want to know the recent statistics on the numbers of children who never go into nature and don’t see it as part of them, look no further than Fiona Reynolds’ The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future.

Firepit conversation

The Night Toby Denied Climate Change wasn’t the kind of poem I usually write. I wanted what I had to say to be carried on someone’s voice, so I wrote it as a monologue in the voice of someone who I imagine was sitting around a fire pit with Toby and others. I started my working life in theatre and still love its democratic openness of forms.

Letters to the Earth logo by Jackie Morris
Letters to the Earth logo
Artist: Jackie Morris © 2019

The book of a hundred poems and prose pieces selected from all the letters they received is broad and lovely in scope. As it says on the flyleaf, “The book you are holding contains letters from all of us: parents and children; politicians and poets; actors and activists; songwriters and scientists. They are letters of Love, Loss, Hope and Action to a planet in crisis. They are the beginning of a new story. They are an invitation to act.”

There are some very august writers and thinkers in this book, as well as many young people. In Katie Skiffington’s letter, Procrastination, she begins every paragraph with the word ‘Sorry’, after beginning ‘Dear Future Generations’. Her whole letter is an apology describing all the things we did not do:

Sorry. We didn’t get there in time. We were late. Except we had time.
...
Sorry that instead of seeing trees as graceful homes for now extinct species, we view them as nothing but paper; money. Great big money-making machines.

There are also pieces which create new metaphors and stories for Earth. Peter Owen Jones redefines his relationship with the earth as milk which was given him. Mark Rylance creates a fairy story based on a canoeing excursion he has just made down the Colorado River where he sees cities and skyscrapers fall. There is Yoko Ono’s writing and of course Mary Oliver, Jay Griffiths, and Caroline Lucas. The poet Nick Drake and the novelist Lyndsay Clarke.

Letters to provoke

Even though they are many established famous names, these are all pieces of new writing balanced with each other in tone and ideas from many others and so Letters to the Earth should not be seen as a coffee table book. Oh no. It is a book full of a hundred very different thoughtful pieces which may be of use in teaching or inspiring writing and, of course, thought. The range of all reactions to climate change is there to provoke the reader and all emotions — despair, hope, loss as it says on the flyleaf. In his piece An Apology/A Prayer the playwright Steve Waters says:

OK, In our defence
By way of
Justification
The prospects for the
FOURTH INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
The prospects for
POSTCAPITALISM
The prospects for
FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM
Looked, and on one of the good days still look 
Exciting

And perhaps we found ourselves so gripped by the narrative Of
GLOBALLY ACCELERATED GROWTH
Or the
INTEGRATION OF THE SOUTHERN ECONOMIES
Or the advent of
NANO-TECHNOLOGY

(I mean you have to realise some of us were born in a period when we could use the words
‘the future’
Say them:
‘the future’ 
Entirely without irony or dread)

There is wit, delight and sorrow in every page of this book. It forms a beginning to show what is happening in the world: a response, perhaps even a first base, or a spelling out that we are interconnected with nature. In a world where temperatures are rising, the ice is melting and mass extinction of many species has already happened.


Find out more

Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, with an introduction by Emma Thompson and edited by Anna Hope, Jo McInnes, Kay Michael and Grace Pengelly, is published by Harper Collins UK (2019). All royalties go towards ongoing creative campaigning for environmental justice. 

The wider initiative which led to the book came about in the spring of 2019, when a small group of women came together around a kitchen table to talk. “We’d not even met before. But we had been profoundly shaken by the increasingly dire news of climate and ecological collapse, and inspired by the work of Extinction Rebellion and the Global Youth Strike in bringing that news to the forefront of the public conversation. In our working lives we are theatre makers and writers and we felt strongly that we wanted to find a way to facilitate a creative response to these times of emergency.” As well as Extinction Rebellion, and Global Climate Strike, Letters to the Earth was inspired by and works in sympathy with Culture Declares Emergency

On the Letters to the Earth website you will find a range of resources, including short videos of readings of some of the letters, an open call to write your own letter, suggestions for local events, and further reading. As well as Clare’s poem, The Night Toby Denied Climate Change, the book also includes contributions from two other ClimateCultures members: social scientist Dr Stuart Capstick (Finding Dory) and poet Nick Drake (The Future).

You can read The Night Toby Denied Climate Change and other poems of Clare’s at her website. And do also explore the Waterlight Project, her collaboration with fellow ClimateCultures member James Murray-White and others on the natural and social history of the River Mel in Cambridgeshire. Clare recently wrote some poems for the jazz trio Red Stone about another river, the River Gelt in Cumbria. Entitled Green Shelter, it was premiered at Tullie House in Carlisle on November 30th 2019, with the poems, Red Stone’s music and an accompanying film. You can see a promo for the film, including one of Clare’s poems, Green Shelter.

The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future by Fiona Reynolds is published by Bloomsbury (2017).

Artist and illustrator Jackie Morris — creator with Robert Macfarlane of The Lost Words: A Spell Book (published by Hamish Hamilton at Penguin UK, 2017) created the swallow logo for Letters to the Earth and Culture Declares Emergency. She has written about her experience with the book on her blog: About time: or, Letters to the Earth.

Clare Crossman
Clare Crossman
A poet with a background in theatre, collaborations with an illustrator and a songwriter, and practical and creative engagements with local landscapes and nature.
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