Writer Mick Haining discusses the role of stories in helping to bring about change — to mobilise, not paralyse — the XR Wordsmiths group that he’s part of, and their call out for new Solarpunk stories that give us hope.
1,530 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes
Stories form and change the way we think and therefore act. The ‘stories’ we are told as children by our family tell us about our relatives, our neighbours and the place in which we live and we form attitudes and behaviour as a result. Growing older, we read and watch TV — we may not fight in Vietnam or Yemen but the stories we swallow help us decide who the ‘good guys’ are. Reality at times makes us doubt the veracity of some stories but never all. There’s a difference, of course, between stories that constitute our communication of events to one another and stories that are deliberate works of art. It’s the latter I deal with here. (As an ex-teacher, I became used to student excuses that were clearly works of fiction but not intended as works of art…)
Clever stories can shake earlier beliefs — I was OK as a young man with capital punishment until I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Stories may be warnings about what to avoid. The 1966 film War Games by Peter Watkins showed graphically and horrifically what could happen in the event of a nuclear air-strike on the UK — it seems credible that it and two subsequent films, Threads and The Day After, have actually helped the planet avoid a nuclear conflict. Stories, though, can also show us not just what to avoid but a goal to aim at.
Promoting our bond with life
The human race, steadily and somewhat blindly, has been creating the conditions for a future about as bleak for the whole planet as a nuclear war would create. There’s a growing sense of how cataclysmically awful that might be from an increasing number of ‘stories’ in the media and in art. That in itself might prompt some to change their lifestyles — even from a sample of only 100 U.S-based readers, a 2018 Yale study found that climate fiction (‘cli’fi’) nudged readers “in a slightly more progressive direction”. However, the same study concluded: “From the emotions these readers described, it is clear that their affective responses were not only negative but demobilizing.” For us — humanity — to find a way to cope with and maybe mitigate the climate extremes that we have already locked in, we need stories that will not paralyse but mobilise. We need stories that will give us hope, stories that will not just ‘nudge’ but inspire readers to act in ways that show respect for the nature without which we could not possibly exist. We need stories to help us create societies that appreciate and promote our indissoluble bond with life in all its magnificence on the only planet we have.
That’s where Solarpunk comes in. I am a writer with XR Wordsmiths and we are launching a showcase for writing stories in that genre. Some of you may be in the position I was in a few months back — despite shelves full of books and an age full of years, I had never heard of Solarpunk. To save some of you the trouble of looking it up on Wikipedia, their definition is that “Solarpunk is an art movement that envisions how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability problems such as climate change and pollution”.
I’ve personally never written anything myself in a purely Solarpunk style though I did write a series of short stories set in the quite near future where I imagined a small group living on a very small peninsula who were rediscovering skills that instant meals and supermarket shopping had eroded. Their names relate to what they contribute to the community — the central character is ‘Reader’ and there’s Little Crabber, Big Fisher, Cobbler, Wireman, Knotter and a pile of others. It’s a little like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker though set much, much closer to the present day and thus the mutations of cultural conventions are in their infancy — the local bandits are called ‘vikings’ even though they know all about horses and nothing about ships. In the first story, ‘Easter’, the hero’s daughter sings a Christmas carol…
It isn’t that the characters have “succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges” but they have found a way of surviving that doesn’t just bring constant fear — Reader still finds time to read to his daughter and on the extraordinary day when snow falls for the first time in the lives of most of the inhabitants, there’s a snowball fight and a snowman built.
Solarpunk — writing as hope and defiance
For our XR Wordsmiths showcase, we say that: “whether you are totally new to the world of eco-fiction or a seasoned enthusiast, this contest is open to any adult, teenager, or child who wants to combine their passion for writing with getting the message out there about the climate and ecological emergency.”
Maybe, like me, you don’t quite have the nerve — yet — to be arrested at a demonstration. That’s probably why I’m with XR Wordsmiths. There are several dozen of us but only a small core of about half a dozen get together via Zoom every Sunday at 4.00 p.m. to work out ways of welding words that might move people to rise peacefully and effectively against the authorities that seem to move like sloths in relation to the climate and ecological emergency.
We were XR Writers for a while but there’s another group of XR Writers who are actually published authors so we gracefully changed our name to avoid confusion and better match our work — we write letters, slogans and we’re even on the verge of completing a book for publication, a gardening handbook, in fact. If that seems a little odd as a form of rebellion, our intention is not to teach people how but to persuade them to take gardening up as an act of hope and defiance — you don’t plant a seed in the belief that it will never germinate. If any of you reading this want to join us on a Sunday, you’d be most welcome!
But here, then, is your chance to rebel through the Solarpunk Storytelling Showcase. This is your chance to put pen to paper and to put people on the path to a better future than might be the case. You may not find many or even a single, complete answer to all of the problems we have been piling up but, as an Al Jazeera piece in 2014 declared, “this is a life-or-death situation now, one in which even partial solutions matter.” So — tell us a story. Transform our futures, one word at a time…
Find out more
You can submit as many stories as you like to the XR Wordsmith Solarpunk Showcase, there are three age bands and the word limit is 2,500. Submissions do, sadly, have to be in English at present but subsequent years may differ. The submission deadline is 14th September 2021.
The winning entries will be selected by a panel of judges that includes eco-poet, writer and ClimateCultures member Helen Moore (who wrote about her own writing practice in our recent post Wild Writing: Embracing Our Humanimal Nature), children’s climate fiction writer Gregg Kleiner, Ecofiction YouTube vlogger Lovis Geier, and Green Party politician Zack Polanski. Winners will have their stories published in the XR Global blog and on the Rapid Transition Alliance website. Other prizes include three £1000 scholarships to the world’s first global online climate school terra.do.
You can explore XR Wordsmiths via their site and blog (get in touch via xr-writers [at] protonmail [dot] com), and Mick also mentioned XR Writers, whose work is featured on the main Extinction Rebellion site, including a podcast.
There is also XR Creative, an evolving anthology of songs, fiction and poetry that’s inspiring, meaningful and original, and that reflects the principles, concerns and values of the Extinction Rebellion from a global, regional or local perspective. You can read three of Mick’s Tales from the Nab at XR Creative: Easter, The Journey, and The Flare.
Artist Jo Dacombe shares an exercise she developed for students to respond creatively to the sensory nature of woods, and which she’s adapted for online engagement with nature during Covid19 lockdown as part of her Imagining Woodlands project.
1,760 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes + exercise
Each year, in May, I run a workshop for literature students at the University of York, as part of the Imagining Woodlands module, set up as a result of a collaboration between Dr Freya Sierhuis (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature) and me. My workshop would take place in a nearby woodland, at St Nick’s Nature Reserve, where we would tune in on the sensory nature of the woods and how we could respond creatively to this. This year, of course, the module fell under lockdown, and it was impossible to bring the students together, let alone take them for a walk in the woods.
My task, then, was to try to create something of the experience for students who were living far apart, many in other countries, and who were supposed to create something by working in groups, experiencing a woodland environment and a connection with nature. Quite a challenge.
Luckily, I had been working towards creating art installations related to woodland environments, so I already had quite a lot of material that I could use, including imagery made in various ways, video footage and audio recordings from woodland environments. I decided to create a series of online lectures, each followed by a creative task that would respond to some of my material which I could share online with the students.
Entering nature one sense at a time
I am based in Leicester, which, at the time of writing, is still under an extended lockdown. I am sitting in my garden writing this, enjoying the peace of fewer cars and I can hear a bird chirping to the north. The sun warms my skin and a gentle breeze is moving a strand of hair across my cheek. I am distinctly aware of the importance of the senses when outdoors. I am also keenly aware of how much time we are spending indoors and, for us in Leicester, this continues longer than most. With the students, I knew that many of them would not be lucky enough to have a garden.
One of my lectures starts by considering Richard Long’s early work entitled A Line Made by Walking. A beautifully simple gesture he made in 1967, A Line Made by Walking is simply that — the desire line created by the act of walking up and down a meadow in Wiltshire in a straight line, the simple interaction between a human presence and the landscape. I talked with the students of the importance of recognising the mutual impacts of humans in an environment, how it affects us but also how we affect it. I was trying to use Long’s work to break us free from the idea of the natural environment as a place to visit, a pristine place kept for our entertainment and recreation, but rather as a place that we become a part of when we enter and which we respond to and it responds to us.
If you have ever sat in a woodland environment for a long period of time, on your own, without moving, eventually you become part of that environment. The fauna around you will, eventually, begin to resume the activity that it was taking part in before your arrival. I think we forget that what we see is not what is really there, because as soon as a human presence enters the woods, the woods respond and the fauna, and indeed the flora, react to our presence. Animals hide and birds begin their alarm calls. But, if you sit still for long enough, they get used to you and resume their everyday activity. I have often experienced this, as I will sit for long periods in one place in a woodland when I am trying to audio record.
A Line Made by Walking makes us aware of this. I prefer Richard Long’s earlier works, because they are light touch. He only uses what he finds in a landscape, and creates a statement using his own movements or actions, using no more than his own presence and bodily ability; there are no machinery or tools involved, just moving and rearranging. The works are temporary and, once the wind blows, begin to disappear.
We also looked at some of Long’s text pieces, such as One Hour: a sixty-minute circle walk on Dartmoor, 1984. Many of Long’s walks he describes by making lists of words, and arranging those words into shapes or writing them across a map. This method works well to really focus on the things around us that we notice when we take a walk; Long notes the sounds, effects of the wind, smells, textures and weather from his walks.
My group walks are like this, too. Often, I try to get us to focus on one sense at a time; I ask people to walk in silence, show them how to think through their feet or we sit blindfolded in the woods. For my online workshops, then, I tried to create a way of experiencing something of these senses one by one.
The following are instructions for one of the tasks that I set the students, to create a poetry work in response to my video. The task followed the talk on Long and his work One Hour, and we discussed how poetry could be presented visually on a page; how a circle of words has no beginning or end, and how other shapes across a page can change the order in which you read words, and how we could use words visually. Moving and rearranging. The students produced some beautiful works as a result of this workshop, and I reproduce the activity instructions here for you to try yourself. The first part is an individual activity and the second is intended for work in a group; if you can, do share this post with others you can meet up with (at a safe social distance) or work with remotely.
And if you are still unable to go out, like me, then I hope it brings you a little connection to a woodland environment.
Imagining woodlands — an exercise
Individually: Watch the video below, entitled Woodland Canopy, clicking on Full-Screen mode. This is a video taken by looking up at the tree canopy in a wood. It lasts about 5 minutes. There is no sound on this video.
Try to watch the video without introducing your own music or sounds. The idea is that we are isolating one of our senses, just using our eyes, and not influenced by other senses. Try to watch it in a quiet space or use sound-blocking headphones.
Don’t expect the camera to move or much to happen. You need to really watch and focus for five minutes. In fact, quite a lot happens, but it is subtle. Try to tune in and notice every nuance.
As you watch, make a list of words, a little like Richard Long might as he walks. Just write whatever comes into your head. The words might be about what you see, feel or think; they might have imagined connections or spark memories.
You can watch the video more than once, if you like.
In your group: Now arrange to work with your group, virtually. Choose the favourite words or phrases that you wrote from the video. Share them with your group. You could do this with a Google Doc, on Zoom, or on a VLE Whiteboard.
In your group, try to weave all your words together to form one poem or piece of prose. Give it a title.
Think about how you will present this work. How will it look on the page? Or will you record it as an audio reading?
Why not share your poem or prose response to Jo's Imagining Woodlands exercise -- whether working alone or as a group -- in a Comment on this blog? And do share your reflections on this activity or a creative exercise of your that you've found useful during Covid19 lockdown.
Find out more
Jo’s exercise is part of her collaboration with the University of York on their Imagining Woodlands undergraduate module. Jo mentioned that this university activity usually takes place at St Nick’s Nature Reserve in York. St Nicks Centre for Nature and Green Living is a local charity created in the 1990s to transform a former landfill site into a thriving Local Nature Reserve. “The name of the site and the secular charity comes from the middle ages when the area was owned and managed by St Nicholas hospital and church.”
You might enjoy this video from Project Wild Thing, on the science of why engaging with nature is part of being human, and the benefits for our wellbeing. It’s part of the full film, which you can see at the Project Wild Thing website. And The Susurrations of Trees is a recent BBC Radio 4 programme that features recordings of the sounds of leaves on different trees, the words we use to describe these and the poetic and artistic responses to this experience of nature. “To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall…” (Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree).
Jo Dacombe contributed Animal Tropes and Enchanted Woodlands — a piece that originally appeared on her blog in 2015 — for Day 29 of our Quarantine Connection series. Her book, Imagining Woodlands, will be available later this summer. You can keep up to date with that by following her blog — where you can also discover the first issue of Imminent, a new zine Jo has launched with contributions from fellow writers and artists.
Filmmaker James-Murray-White shares his experience of some of the world’s desert places, and what the book Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape offers as a way into explorations of these places, of our sense of connectedness and self.
1,750 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes
“There is no separation between our bodies and the body of the earth.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape
My partner Lucy is a child of the desert — indeed, we met in the Negev eleven years ago on a tour of Nabatean ruins (but that’s another story), and she’s recently returned from a top-up desert visit. Lucy has put me on to an extraordinary collection of writings and drawings: Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and artist Mary Frank. A noted American nature writer, Williams — invoking the sensual lure and drama of the Colorado Plateau — dares to explore “what it might mean to make love to the land”. I’ve not been to the Colorado Desert, but reading this book took me back to the Joshua Tree, the Gobi, the Negev, and my waking dreams of the Sahara…
Desert Quartet is a short, beautifully illustrated hardback book, and probably quite rare: the sort of gem we stumble upon in a second-hand bookstore. Through it, we are taken on a wild journey of erotics — a quartet of them, in fact, connecting with earth, water, fire, and air. Terry Tempest Williams writes in a spare and intense word-by-word engagement with these elements, the place, space, and sensory feeling, and with herself: identifying, touching, and loving landscape and all within it.
It’s a book to read with a lover, or to take alone on a desert hike. If you are in the UK, Dungeness in Kent is our nearest thing to a desert — although not classified as such by the Met Office. It’s certainly a wonderfully wild place, and worth visiting to see the cottage and garden created by visionary artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman. If you’ve not been, do go. This book would be a useful companion: a wild guide to rewilding your soul and yourself.
Desert Quartet — desert life
Rewilding is an opening up: allowing growth, listening and looking deeply — getting to the depths of the soil and loam. As Williams writes, “The wind becomes a wail, a proper lament for all that is hidden. Inhale. Exhale. This is the dreamtime of the desert, the beginning of poetry.” Rewilding is us as humans seeking genuine and open authenticity — and then connecting that with the outer wild!
Desert life is raw, tough, not for the fool-hardy. I identify with the bunch of British travellers and writers who have gone out and lived in, crossed, or tasted in some way the deserts of our world. T.E. Lawrence, famously, ‘became’ a desert dweller, deeply identifying with desert life and its peoples, and then was ultimately caught up in the military wargaming of the First World War (and came back to try to instil the desert culture within himself as a mystic hermit in the New Forest). Wilfred Thesiger crossed the ‘Empty Quarter’. And, most recently, Rory Stewart openly identifies with both these figures and this has shaped his ends politically. Deserts do have an extraordinary impact upon the human psyche, however we taste them, and it is not to be taken lightly. So Desert Quartet is in many ways a primer to know how to take both our psyche and our physicality into such a harsh environment.
My desert time has taken me to the Gobi in Mongolia, the Negev in Israel, and the Mohave in California, and still I crave more. The Gobi opened my eyes to the truly vast — the endless savanna and the liminal changes across a space: from the snowy high tops of the Altai mountain range, to the coarse sand and temperate climes of the middle regions. The Negev seems harsher: it is a six-month no-go region if you can’t stand relentless heat. In both these deserts I was drawn in by the peoples — by the nomads of Mongolia and by the Bedouin of the Negev, also nomadic but now politically forced to settle by political structures and states. It is crucial not to get sucked into romantic notions of indigeneity amongst surviving nomadic peoples: yes, their lineage is long and deep, and there is great wisdom, but there is the harsh reality of everyday life. Such groups can survive and sometimes thrive, but it is against the ever-creeping modernity of capitalism and catastrophic environmental damage: mining and river pollution in Mongolia, and military exclusions, creeping cities, and extremist land laws in Israel are examples that come instantly to my mind.
No ancient, passed-on knowledge equipped nomadic peoples in our current age to deal with the insipid hostility of modernity: theirs is a hard-edged living in present-day reality, wondering how their children will cope with feet in both camps. Most Bedouin and Mongol nomads I’ve met would laugh at the notion of us sensation-seeking Westerners going out to desert spaces to connect with land, to connect with the ‘erotics of nature’, and ultimately with ourselves. For desert-dwellers, this world is already within. Just as many nomads are forced — by the capitalist economy, by bitter harsh weather and changing climatic conditions, or by political threats or force — to move to the cities, imagine if the situation were reversed and we had to flee our urban territories… Like the wandering Mormons off to the brave new lands, we might find our call to desert lands before those external forces might prevail upon us.
My 2012 film Steadfast is an exploration of Bedouin life in the Negev, looking at the pressures these tribal peoples face, and how their interaction with the ‘new world’ cuts many ways.
A desert calling
Deserts are, in essence, the deepest place of our calling. If we are not of that place, the desert, we may — if we are lucky in our human lifetime — feel called there and experience the otherness of the place. Many have gone to deserts to meditate, to be humbled, and even to die. Terry Tempest Williams went there to feel into her most erotic landscape. I’ve been called to deserts to walk and look, and chiefly to meet nomads and desert dwellers. This is an amalgamation of the ecological parts of the entire spirit of a desert.
At Extinction Rebellion Rewilding (gathering on Facebook as the ‘rewilding’ wing of Extinction Rebellion), we have recommended an exercise explored in Mick Collin’s book The Visionary Spirit, of identifying yourself with a tree as a form of life-review and engagement with presence: imagining ‘your’ tree, feeling your roots, trunk and branches — anchored, flexible and spreading out — and noticing your sense of flourishing, connection and resilience. In a similar way, I recommend using Desert Quartet as a total mind/body guide to engagement with place. It maybe offers an opportunity to reflect upon place/self, the wild edges between these, and (if you choose, within a Buddhist dialectic) no self; and an example of how we might want to reflect and record that through words, art, and more.
I’m just starting on another Terry Tempest Williams book, Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, which switches into the politics of land use and land rights in American deserts: after the sensual, deep inner wild, out now into the boxing ring of human ecological scenarios and ego and squalling…
“I strike a match and light the shreds of kindling I have cut with my knife. I fan the incense toward me. The smoke rises, curls, coils around my face. It feels good to be in the desert again. Home — where I can pause, remain silent. There is nothing to explain.” — Terry Tempest Williams, Desert Quartet — an Erotic Landscape.
Find out more
Desert Quartet – an Erotic Landscape, by Terry Tempest Williams and Mary Frank, was published by Pantheon Books, New York (1995). You can read an extract here, and in a piece for High Country News on 3rd June 1991, Williams says “Let us get out and love the land. Let us be intimate. The most radical act we can commit is to live well. There is no defence against an open heart and a supple body in dialogue with wildness. Internal strength is an absorption of the external landscape. We are informed by beauty, raw and sensual. Through an Erotics of Place our sensitivity becomes our sensibility.” (Yellowstone: the Erotics of Place, High Country News, 3rd June 1991, page 16).
You can explore Dungeness, situated next to Romney Marsh in Kent and one of the largest expanses of shingle in Europe, atUnusual Places. And there is more to discover atRomney Marsh – the Fifth Continent. “It has been said that Dungeness is like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. The landscape certainly divides people – a broad, echoing flatness with the nuclear power stations on one side, the shingle dipping into the sea on the other and railway carriages turned into quaint and strange looking dwellings. The stark wild beauty and distinctive character of this shingle desert engenders feelings of awe, wonder and curiosity.”
Extinction Rebellion Rewildingis the Facebook group exploring how rewilding can also be seen as not only the regeneration of natural biodiversity but also as the respect and rediscovery of indigeny and balanced relationship within the diverse ecosystems of the earth. “All acts of rewilding are Rebellion.”
You can watch James’ filmSteadfast, and more of his films, onVimeo. And don’t forget to check outFinding Blake, the website for James’ most recent film project, reimagining William Blake for the 21st Century. In one of his previous ClimateCultures posts,“Summon the bravery!” Encounters at Small Earth, James describes taking part in the Small Earth conference in 2018, where psychotherapists, ecologists, economists, philosophical and spiritual thinkers gathered to address hope for future living within the ecosphere.
Four writers of fiction and nonfiction (all members of Bristol Climate Writers and ClimateCultures) share the ‘Desert Island Books’ they discussed at a recent library event on climate change: Nick Hunt, Caroline New, Peter Reason, and Deborah Tomkins.
3,000 words — approximate reading time 12 minutes
At a time of enormous cuts to library funding all over the UK, Bristol is not an exception — in 2017, seventeen of its 27 libraries were under threat of closure, including Redland Library, the second most used library in the city. The Friends of Redland Library — which campaigns to keep libraries open all over Bristol, initiated a series of evenings — Desert Island Books, in which “a panel of interesting people” discuss a particular topic through books.
On 9th January 2020, four of the Bristol Climate Writers took part in a climate change Desert Island Books event at Redland Library. We were each invited to bring a book to discuss, and also a ‘wild card’, a book which could be on another subject completely, although only one of us took that option, with persuasive reasoning. This was followed by Q&A.
Members of the panel were Nick Hunt (travel writer, freelance journalist and editor of Dark Mountain), Caroline New (fiction writer and Green Party Campaigns co-ordinator), Peter Reason (writer and Emeritus Professor, Bath University), and Deborah Tomkins (fiction writer and founder of the Bristol Climate Writers network).
Climate change — a background hum
Nick Hunt's choice:
- Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin- Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk
Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is not really a novel. It’s a collection of stories, anecdotes, folklore, songs, rituals and even recipes describing the Kesh, a people “who might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. Le Guin herself described it as an ‘archaeology of the future’.
Post-apocalyptic fables mostly fall into two categories: eco-utopias where everyone lives in harmony with nature, and dystopian nightmares prowled by murderous, looting gangs. One is invariably misanthropic, highlighting the savagery into which humans plunge as soon as the veneer of civilisation is stripped away, while the other is often extremely dull (perfection always is). Always Coming Home belongs in the utopian category — although, beyond the valley of the Kesh, there are signs that other societies are falling back into hierarchy, expansionism and misogyny — but there are several qualities that make this book different.
Le Guin’s exceptional skill as a writer is the first. She builds her world so delicately that only halfway through the book does it become apparent that this quasi-Native American society of hunter-gatherers has access to a technology that resembles a god-like internet, which permeates their lives so thoroughly that, like the wind or the rain, it is hardly even mentioned. Another quality is what I can only describe as her honesty, which seems a strange thing to say in relation to a sci-fi/fantasy book.
The daughter of anthropologists, Le Guin does not present herself as the writer or creator, but simply as an archivist whose role it is to record information and pass it to the reader.
In one Kesh folktale, a man steps through a hole in the air to find himself ‘outside the world’, a duplicate version of his own valley that is filled with roads and houses as far as he can see. This shadow-place is populated by monstrous backwards-headed people who smoke tobacco ceaselessly, eat food that is poison and can only say the words “Kill people, kill people, kill people”. The story is a shamanic voyage: the backwards-headed people are us, glimpsed with nightmare clarity by a culture to whom pollution and war are practically incomprehensible. It is an invitation to see ourselves, and the violence of our civilisation, as indigenous cultures might have seen us at first point of contact, or even as non-human creatures might regard us now.
“Stories about climate change don’t need to be about climate change”, writes critic Robert Butler in an essay in the anthology Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. “Stories written before people knew about human-made climate change — Faust, Galileo, King Lear — may now resonate in ways that hadn’t been seen before. Even if climate change is not the subject matter, or the principal theme, its presence may still be detectable. It could be, in Ian McEwan’s evocative phrase, ‘the background hum’.”
Always Coming Home is not a story about climate change, or not directly anyway (an unspecified cataclysmic upheaval is buried so deep in time that the Kesh retain no knowledge whatsoever about its cause). But a ‘background hum’ runs through the book, permeating it as thoroughly as the digital intelligence that invisibly fills Le Guin’s world; not a note of anxiety or despair but of trust in human kindness, and a celebration of our place not at the top of a hierarchy but as one small part of a living, breathing universe. Above all, it is a book about hope… even if that hope lies 20,000 years in the future.
Navigating unbearable things
Caroline New's choice:- The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson
- The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell
I broke the mould in our team presentation of climate fiction by talking about the witty, escapist detective stories by Catriona McPherson, the excellent Dandy Gilver series, rightly called ‘preposterous’ by one reviewer. As a climate activist I read new and terrifying information every day. I don’t go to bed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I go to bed with Dandy Gilver and her ilk. I need to sleep. Maybe the human mind needs a little denial as it needs chocolate.
Set in the 1930s, their upper-class female detective protagonist shares the classism of the period, modified by humour and compassion, but prevails against sexism. She notices poverty, or we could not like her, but the resilience and humour of the poor stop poverty threatening the benign nature of reality. We readers know what is coming, but we let ourselves be rocked along with Dandy in the comforting hammock of interwar privilege. This is high-class denial for the intelligentsia.
As a writer of climate fiction myself, I have to ask: ‘Why would anyone want to read about unbearable things?’ And yet they do. Fiction about the Holocaust, violence and war, the slave trade and other atrocities pulls us straight into the terrifying opposite of love. What makes it readable? I can think of two obvious ways.
Firstly, when the horror is interwoven with stories of love and courage the relief of this truth about human beings lets healing emotions soften the rigid horror of the trauma.
Secondly, fiction can counter the bland numbness of privilege, which can be a relief. By saying ‘This is real! This happened!’ it can afford us the catharsis of grief. Or it may amount to the cry ‘Stop!’ One way or another, these works forbid denial, which in theory should bring us closer to action. If, that is, we have the faintest idea of what to do.
Climate change is perhaps different from the other sorts of unbearable things I have mentioned. The enemies are structures, although worked by human minds. We are all deeply implicated. We all did this. This unpleasant fact may be what made climate fiction slow to take off.
The Ship is actually about denial, but not of climate change. It is metaphorical but entirely to the point, and in that sense more realistic than the US survivalist post-apocalyptic genre where women in cross-gartered trousers peer irresistibly from wattle-and-daub shelters and take aim at small game with home-made crossbows. The Ship is set in an unspecified time when there are no apples left, only ersatz apple juice and wax replicas. Most of the eco-systems that support human life have already broken down, and the government’s only solution is to allow the weakest to die so as to protect a surviving elite. The horrors are mostly off-stage, which makes it possible to contemplate them out of the corner of an eye.
The Ship itself is the ultimate middle-class solution; a floating gated community which tries to create its own truth. In reality it is going nowhere, forever. The on-board leadership (the heroine’s own father) parrots the message of many dictatorships: forget the past, erase it: it never happened and only traitors make us look at it. The teenage heroine has to grow up in the face of this thick denial, and the book charts her adventures up to the point that she sees the clear outlines of her moral dilemma and takes steps to end it.
Closing the species gap
Peter Reason's choice:- Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky- The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Learning to Die, by poet/philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky, is a tiny book of essays, but it explores a huge theme: How should we die at the end of times?
The first essay, by Bringhurst, considers the nature of the wild Earth, “living life to its full… self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us”. Humans are, of course, part of this, but we are ‘liminal creatures’, on the margins of the wild, sometimes tempted to believe the ‘witch tale’ that we can live entirely outside it. The wild world has been pushed by humans beyond its limits, bringing about mass extinction of life on Earth, one that may well include humans. If anything survives, “it will again be the wild… that is responsible for the healing”.
Bringhurst is demanding we look reality in the face, challenging us with the realities of death: “You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today?”
Jan Zwicky picks up this essentially moral question: “What constitutes virtue in such circumstances?” The answer, she tells us, is surprisingly straightforward: it is “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life”. Harking back to Socrates, she explores six core virtues:
Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
Courage: physical, civic, and moral.
Self-control: knowing when enough is enough
Justice as ‘the order of the soul’.
Contemplative practice: attending to the beauty of brokenness
And this must all be approached with a sense of humour, a lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. “We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal to despair. Even in the face of death.”
In contrast, Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a novel that sets out to close the gap between people and other living things, and in particular, trees. It challenges human exceptionalism, so, while there are nine human characters, key protagonists are the trees themselves.
This may sound over-serious and philosophical for a novel, but it is also a gripping read. The lives of the human protagonists become intertwined with each other in the so-called Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s, when activists attempted to stop the logging of the last virgin forests. The narrative builds to a series of thrilling climaxes as the protestors blockade logging machinery, occupy trees, battle with police, and eventually engage in illegal direct action with appalling consequences.
The great achievement of this novel is that it draws the reader into a different worldview in which we know — really know, not just as scientific abstraction — that trees communicate with each other; that forests are not collections of individual trees but living, collaborating organisms; that they can, in their own way, communicate with us. How does this change our attitude toward them and to the plant world in general? It is often said we will not solve the ecological crisis through facts and figures but through good stories that engage our imagination in alternative ways of living. The Overstory is such a story.
Climate change in a realist tradition
Deborah Tomkins' choice:- Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver - Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall - What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is a quieter book than what some may imagine climate fiction (or ‘cli-fi’) to be, with little overt drama, and in the realist tradition. In other words, it’s not shelved in fantasy or science fiction, nor is it a thriller.
I chose this book because I tend to write realist climate fiction, and know therefore just how hard it is to do without breaking into dystopia (current or future), or upping the stakes with some kind of environmental disaster. But I have also written a speculative cli-fi novella, and found it a good deal easier. There is something freeing about putting your story on a different planet or several hundred years in the future.
Flight Behaviour is set in the Appalachian Mountains, in a dirt-poor community, an area that Barbara Kingsolver knows well and writes compassionately about. The people are ill-educated and never travel beyond the nearest town. Climate change means nothing to them in their struggle for existence — except they’ve noticed the weather doesn’t behave as it used to, and constant rain and flooding threatens their farms and livelihoods.
The main character, Dellarobia, has her life upturned when she spots ‘fire’ in the woods — in reality, millions of monarch butterflies which have somehow gone astray from their usual migration route. If they all die in the Appalachian winter, the whole species will become extinct. The local community sees it as a sign from God not to fell the trees — tree-felling is likely to be the only source of income that winter for Dellarobia’s family — and Dellarobia appears on TV, to her dismay, as some kind of mystic figure (the portrayal of the manipulative TV reporter is a joy). Into this confused mix comes Ovid Byron, a black professor of entomology who is passionate about the monarchs; and Dellarobia, bright but uneducated, begins to learn about ecology and climate change.
Flight Behaviour isn’t perfect — it’s a little wordy, and the story could have been told in perhaps half the length, but it’s one of the very few novels that address climate and ecological issues in the realist tradition. It’s worth noting that Kingsolver has been writing fiction exploring these themes for several decades.
I chose two wild cards, both non-fiction, similar but different: George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Per Espen Stoknes’ What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.
They both look at the psychology of denial, all the mental tricks people play on themselves in order not to deal with the reality of climate change. Both are engaging and easy to read, drawing on research. Marshall is a communicator, and approaches the issue from the point of why climate communication so often misses the mark; Stoknes is a psychologist. Of course, none of this is simple, and there are many and multifarious reasons, some overlapping, some wildly incompatible. Both books offer useful insights about how to “retell the story of climate change and embrace strategies that are social, positive and simple” (Stoknes).
I have found both books of immense value, both for my writing and in my campaigning, as I have learned (and am still learning) about how to communicate with people who don’t want to hear. Perhaps the tide has turned in the past two years, with the Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough effect, but we still have a long way to go, and I recommend these two books for insights into communicating effectively.
The Desert Island Books evening — one of torrential rain and floods, incidentally — ended with questions from the audience, who had turned out in good numbers, despite the weather, and the animated discussion showed how much people enjoyed the session.
Find out more
Bristol Climate Writers was founded in 2017 to provide a network for writers in the Bristol area who are writing in any genre about climate change. We consist of fiction writers, poets, science writers, travel writers, journalists, memoirists and more. We meet monthly for discussion, and also provide occasional public workshops. The Desert Island Books event is one of a number of public events Bristol Climate Writers has engaged with.
The Friends of Redland Libraryspun out of the 2015 campaign to save Redland Library from being closed. It must have worked, as only one of Bristol’s 28 Libraries was closed but some other cuts were made. In 2017 there was a new move to close seventeen of the city’s now 27 Libraries. FORL became more active, organising one or two events a month. This included the Desert Island Books format, where a panel of speakers nominated books on the event theme plus a ‘wild card’. The main driver is that the audience wanted intelligent discussion on serious subjects. The city’s libraries now look safe until March 2021.
Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin, is published by Gateway (Orion, 2016; originally published 1985).
A mother, grandmother, activist, environmentalist and writer, currently editing 'Blank Times' - a humorous fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic neo-fascist regime run according to Ten 'Planetary Principles'. Read More
A writer linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources and participatory perspectives. Read More
Writer and historian Sarah Dry shares some of her thinking and the process for her new book, Waters of the World, a history of climate science through the individuals who unravelled the mysteries of seas, glaciers, and atmosphere.
2,400 words: estimated reading time 9.5 minutes
Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole is published today in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA later this month.
I often work best when I have multiple projects on-going. It sometimes happens that one of the projects ends up being finished and the other does not. That is the case with Waters of the World, which became an idea, and then a finished work thanks to a book that remains unfinished. That book is a novel about the physicist John Tyndall. Tyndall was a celebrated, controversial, and ultimately tragic figure of mid-19th century Britain with whom I have been fascinated for a long time. Like love, fascination is hard to parse, but I can try. It has something to do with the way in which Tyndall gives voice — in his copious letters, diaries and published writings — to an internal struggle between his commitment to materialism and the intense feelings that ‘mere’ molecules arouse in him. Tyndall is always living the paradox between believing that the world can be understood on purely physical terms, as the interactions of moving bits of matter, and the mysterious fact of consciousness, which he feels must arise from those molecules but which produces emotions which seem independent of and qualitatively different than them.
To put this in a more general way, what interests me about Tyndall is how clearly his experience of life is both a function of his scientific perspective and an influence on it. In classic Victorian fashion, Tyndall saw himself as an engine, overflowing with energy and subject to abrupt breakdowns caused by over-exertion. His descriptions of his daily activities, full of socializing, work and exercise and a detailed description of his intake of food and drink, are tiring just to read. As sensitive as he was to his own energetic fluxes, he was just as attuned to the flux of energy in the natural world. And the medium in which he most readily witnessed energy moving through nature was water in all its myriad forms. This insight into the transformation of water, via heat, in the atmosphere, oceans and glaciers of the planet, provides the direct inspiration for my book on the pre-history of climate science.
Tyndall’s perception of what he called the continuity of nature seems to have been automatic — he couldn’t help seeing the transformation of one form of energy into another. And he was seemingly just as reflexively driven to share that insight with others. The communicative spirit that animated him and made him such a passionate and successful speaker and popularizer of scientific concepts was, in this sense, a further manifestation of his obsession with connections and transformations.
So it is Tyndall to whom I owe the inspiration for this book. His book, The Forms of Water in Clouds & Rivers, Ice & Glaciers, is a model of the way a writer can use one topic to unite a variety of themes or subtopics, and a model of science communication. As I write in my introduction, I was not interested in reproducing Tyndall’s popular work on physics for a general audience. In Waters of the World, “water traces not the flow of energy but the flow of human activity and thought.” I’ve substituted people and their ideas for the different forms of water in which Tyndall was interested. My big story is not the story of water, per se, but of changing understandings of the dynamic aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, ocean and ice sheets which eventually combined in the post-war period to generate a concept and a science of the global climate.
A multidisciplinary science
I’ve tried to avoid making this history too focused on the present and to convey instead something of the strange and alien quality of the past. At the same time, I have tried to knit these individuals together in a larger fabric of history that can illuminate our present moment. The question I’ve wanted to ask is: how have individual lives mattered in the history of our understanding of global climate? It seems to me that we expect too much (and sometimes too little) of our science and our scientists. We want them to give us certainty and accurate predictions when that may not be reasonable. We want them to be dispassionate in their findings but absolutely committed to their work. We want them to specialize in their subdisciplines, mastering a specific set of techniques, but we want them to produce knowledge (or data) which we can all use. My hope is that by better understanding the situatedness — in both time and place — of the work done by individual scientists, we can better understand the basis of our knowledge today.
This will not weaken the status of science in society but strengthen it by clarifying what kinds of knowledge it can produce and therefore what kinds of answers it can — and cannot — provide.
I began this book with the sense that we have lost an awareness of the multi-disciplinary nature of contemporary climate science. Instead, climate science is often represented as if it were a singular discipline dominated by computer modelling. I wanted to know more about what goes on and into climate science today. As an historian, my natural inclination was to go back into the past to explore ways of knowing with histories that extend before the important watershed of World War II. I wanted to better understand the relationship between observation and theorizing in the past when it came to what can loosely be called the Earth sciences. And I wanted to try to link those longer histories with more recent, post-war episodes to show the continuities as well as the changes that have occurred. Though I mention these figures, I deliberately chose not to re-tell the story of the discovery of global warming as a series of milestone discoveries (often largely unremarked upon by contemporaries) by men such as Joseph Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius and George Callendar, culminating in the work of men like Charles Keeling, Roger Revelle, Wallace Broecker and James Hansen.
What would another history look like, I wondered, one in which the drive for insight into the dynamics of the Earth’s atmosphere, ice and oceans came first and only later became joined with the more specific but existentially vital question of the impact on the Earth’s climate of rising CO2 emissions as a result of human activity? For that is, in fact, what happened. The history of the discovery of global warming is only a small part of a larger and longer history of our understanding of the planet using the changing tools of what can only broadly and carefully be referred to as physics.
A biographical history of climate science
As challenging as it is to write a rip-roaring read about the history of the physical sciences, writing a novel turned out to be harder still. Taking a biographical approach to the history of climate science has allowed me to practice some of the techniques of fiction within the bounds of history. I have not fabricated anything. What I have done is tried to convey something of the inner world of each of the people I have written about, and to capture what made them tick in the textured way we expect from novels.
There are plenty of pitfalls to doing history via biography. The charge of over-simplification, of hero-worship and of neglecting the role of broad social or political factors (such as the Cold War) which may limit or even dwarf the potential for individuals to be agents of their own destiny — all these can be fairly leveled at this sort of history. It is important to always remember the restrictions on individual action, and of our ability to understand history through this lens. Nevertheless, there is a very good reason to try to write history this way. It is almost always more engaging to read about individuals with whom we can identify than institutions or ideas that remain abstract. If biography would seem to reduce the scope for some kinds of historical analysis, it increases the potential for including other forms of nuance. These include a sensitivity to ambiguity or self-contradiction and to change over time — the novelist’s tools. It’s also important, I think, to find a way to understand the past in which human agency remains central. We can appreciate the changing scales of the institutions and practices of science and still seek to understand how it is that individual humans act within these scales.
My answer to how to square the circle of good history and good reading was to choose six important individuals whose lives would enable me to explore how the personal and the scientific were linked. I tried my best to find people who did work that was considered important at the time, even (and perhaps especially) if it has been neglected or forgotten since then. I also looked for people who I could bring to life — who had left rich and interesting enough traces that I could explore their private as well as their public lives. Finally, I wanted to create a coherent overall narrative arc that would make sense of more than 150 years of science and add up to more than six mini-biographies. This was the biggest challenge and the thing I worried the most about.
We often have better evidence for what scientists felt in the 19th than in the 20th centuries. Despite the large amounts of archival material that some 20th-century scientists have left, their published and even their private correspondence do not often portray or convey their emotional lives as richly as the letters and diaries and even the public writings of men like Tyndall and Piazzi Smyth. Joanne Simpson, the sole woman in my group, made a point of preserving some extremely personal journals in the archive she carefully prepared for deposit at the Schlesinger Library. These give great insight into a passionate love affair that was obviously of great personal significance to her. That it was with a colleague who shared with her the experience of flying through clouds in order to study them tells us something about the kind of life she led. This kind of documentation is, in my experience, a rarity in 20th-century physical sciences. And Simpson’s archive itself, despite the evident care with which she prepared it, is far from complete. It contains almost no correspondence, for example, and few pictures from her early married life as a result of tumultuous moves.
In other cases, I had very little with which to reconstruct the inner life of an individual but did the best I could. Gilbert Walker, whose statistical researches on meteorology would seem to be as far from the physical world as possible — reducing weather and climate to a realm of pure number — had a tantalizing episode of ‘breakdown’ in his past, requiring recuperation in Switzerland. It was frustrating not to find more in the record than a few euphemistic references to this episode. But I felt that was enough to suggest the tension that accompanied this sort of work and to imply the toll it could take on a person.
The history of climate science has become very important today. If we are to make good decisions as a society about how to act on imperfect knowledge in the face of dramatic climate change, we need to have as good an understanding as possible of the nature of the knowledge we do have. The history of our understanding of the planet is important both because it shows the length of our investigations into the planet and the extent to which they are reliable or robust. Personal knowledge is, ultimately, the foundation of all the knowledge we have. The great assemblages of technology and people that generate so much climate science today can all too readily obscure the fact that individuals — and individual judgments — ultimately provide the foundation of our knowledge. History of science is important because it can reveal how we came to value the predictive power of a certain kind of physics as much as we do today. Our attraction to climate models that promise to foretell the future has a history that it is important to understand as we address the challenges of climate change. If by writing about individuals I manage to entice more readers to become familiar with the history of this knowledge and the ways in which it is both robust and limited, I think I will have done Tyndall — a man who joyfully embraced complexity even as he searched for order — proud.
Find out more
Sarah’s book, Waters of the World: the story of the scientists who unravelled the mysteries of our seas, glaciers, and atmosphere — and made the planet whole, is published in the UK by Scribe UK and by The University of Chicago Press in the USA. It is described by science writer Philip Ball as “not only timely but also one of the most beautifully written books on science that I have seen in a long time.”
In her previous post for ClimateCultures, as part of our series on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, Sarah discusses Charles Piazzi Smyth — who also features in Waters of the World. Piazzi Smyth travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. An obsessive who spent long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera, he took 144 photographs of clouds from the window of his Yorkshire home and printed a handmade book, Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men.