Researching the topics of grief and hope under climate change, writer and photographer Mike Hembury read Deborah Tomkins’ ClimateCultures post on how these topics feature in her work and that of fellow Bristol Climate Writers. Here, Mike shares a poem he wrote in response to his reading and his own experience. We’re proud to feature his moving contribution, and other creative responses, as part of the conversation that ClimateCultures aims to nurture and stimulate.
approximate Reading Time: 4minutes
Sweeping the Dust
For so long I have been Searching, Sweeping the dust, Hurting, Hurting, big time, Living alone With you In a world Of wounds.
People Are not who they were, I am not Who I was.
And all the while Blaming Who else but myself, Feeling shame And bitter failure While sweeping the dust.
I’m homesick. But I’m still here.
I understand That I am grieving That we are grieving, As our landscapes Lose their meaning: “Is this how you feel?” Yes.
We are sick now. Sick of watching The world crumble and burn Sick of Sweeping the dust, Witnessing The reduction Of our more-than-human Earth To the smoke and ash, Algae and pollution Of human dominion. Filthy, defiled By greed and lucre.
However I want you to know I am not Submitting to despair.
I am sweeping the dust.
There is much grief work To be done. Much grief work To share. And much of it Will be hard. But we have More than enough To go around.
We are allowed to feel now We give ourselves permission To grieve.
Our depths Are well-springs. Our tears Balm, Co-elixir.
We share the dust, our wounds, Our denuded landscapes And each sharing, A seed: Resilience. Our job now Not hope But becoming hope For worlds to come.
Close the valve Hold the window open Plant the seed Sweep the dust.
Grief and hope
This poem came to me while I was researching the topic of ‘climate grief’ for a longer magazine piece. I must say that it is a recurrent theme for me. I am a great believer in action, and the need to stay motivated, but I also think that it is vitally important for us to feel the immense sadness and loss that is increasingly part of our common experience on our wonderful planet. Despair can be immensely debilitating but, to be honest, I think it is also part of a broader awakening.
I was very heartened to discover a number of very moving articles, particularly:
Hope and Mourning in the Anthropocene– Understanding Ecological Grief, by Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo
How to keep going, by Emily Johnston
The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, by Peter Kalmus
The Road to Resilience, from the American Psychological Association.
Explicit thanks are due here to Neville Ellis and Ashlee Cunsolo, who I hope will forgive me for turning their essay into something of a collage.
Whilst looking into the topic of grief I have also been questioning the role of hope, and am indebted to Emily Johnston’s take on this, which is that our own hope, or lack of it, is almost irrelevant right now. Our job is to be hope, to embody hope, for future generations. A very powerful message.
I have also just discovered Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark, which has been inspirational, to put it mildly. Rebecca distinguishes between the false hope of “it will all turn out alright in the end”, and the need to cast ourselves into the uncertainty of action:
“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”
I was also greatly impressed by Carolyn Baker, in her interview with the Canadian Ecopsychology Network. She stresses the importance of accepting grief, of actually feeling grief, as a precursor to moving forward, and to feeling joy. She essentially posits that to feel grief is far better than its alternative, which is to remain in denial, and feel nothing.
My wild emotional journey this week into the depths of climate grief and the associated search for reasons to continue was rounded off in the most succinct way possible by Greta Thunberg’s speech to a demonstration at COP24 in Katowice. She managed to sum up my thinking in two sentences:
“Once we start to act, hope is everywhere, so instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then and only then, hope will come.”
Find out more
Mike Hembury is a freelance writer, musician and photographer who writes a regular column on climate change and related themes for online literary and political magazine The Wild Word, as well as journalistic pieces for international publications. His first novel, New Clone City, was published this year, and he had a piece included in Dark Mountain’s recent TERRA edition. You can find out more about Mike’s work at his Directory page and at mikehembury.org.
You can explore the various sources that Mike mentions:
And of course, Deborah Tomkins’ post Grief, Hope and Writing Climate Change — where she brings in her own experience as a writer and that of fellow members of Bristol Climate Writers — is here at ClimateCultures. The post is illustrated by artist Perrin Ireland’s images from her graphic story Climate Grief, the emotional reality of global warming.
ClimateCultures welcomes new Member Sally Moss, who brings us her review of fellow Member Nancy Campbell’s new book, The Library of Ice: Readings from a Cold Climate. Nancy has long had an interest in the polar regions and in watery environments; she is currently the UK’s Canal Laureate and has written for ClimateCultures about her Polar Tombola project. Sally is a writer, editor and activist exploring the cultural shift required for regenerative living and creative ways to challenge high-carbon habits. She is currently Social Media and Website Project Coordinator (freelance) for Commonweal, using online platforms to link forms of nonviolence activism and prompt grass-roots action.
approximate Reading Time: 7minutes
Nancy Campbell’s The Library of Ice documents both the realm of ice and humanity’s multifaceted relationship with it.
It was while working for a book and manuscript dealer in London that Campbell came to her decision to tour the ice-related destinations of the world:
“The more archives I catalogued, the more concerned I became about their future readers. Humans had libraries to preserve their fragile records, but the gloomy news headlines put our own survival as a species — and that of the wider world — in doubt.”
A contact of Campbell’s suggested she undertake a residency to concentrate on her own work, and she was persuaded:
“I would find out how other artists were recording this temporal world, and immerse myself in archives that nature itself had devised.”
This direct nature scholarship, and the latent fragility of the ecosystems that support us, are the themes that underpin The Library of Ice’s wandering course. We are presented with manifold landscapes, eras, hubris-driven expeditions, personalities and planetary prognoses, piling up like brash ice.
The poetry of precision
The book is rich in meticulous detail — it’s a microscope and a dictionary, as much as a library. Less familiar words bloom throughout (‘dioptre’, ‘firn’, ‘philtrum’), and it does well to veer only occasionally towards the abstruse. For all the density of scholarship, it’s a readable account, and highly poetic in places.
Vivid imagery is conjured, whether it’s through Campbell’s words (“The [curling] stone makes me think of a child potentate: everyone’s eyes are on it, and its apparently independent movement is cleverly controlled”) or the words of others (Arctic explorer William McKinley: “As I turned round to face the ship, old Karluk seemed to be doing her best to outdo nature. Her deck covering of snow shimmered like tinsel. Every rope and spar was magnified by a fluffy coating of frosted rime”).
The book also internally debates narrative approaches. An example: Robert Boyle was one of the founders of modern chemistry and devoted much of his energy to “the Phaenomena of Cold”. He said of his sources, “to get to the useful matter [the reader] must labour through ‘melancholy Accounts of storms and distresses, and Ice, and Bears, and Foxes'”. Campbell’s response is to smile and admit “My own journals are not free of such accounts”.
But when reading Boyle’s own words I find his personal fascination with his subject far more engaging than his results. And I am anchored and reassured when Campbell shares her rawest perceptions with us. What can be more important for humanity’s prospects right now, I wonder, than examining our subjective responses until we become, one by one, a great deal more self-aware and adaptable?
Whispers of catastrophe
When it comes to raising the climate alarm, the book is relatively measured: mere whispers of catastrophe punctuate the chapters. But while it may be a myth that a whisper can start an avalanche, several in concert can certainly trigger disquiet.
Campbell reflects in the opening pages that
“When the last of the ice has melted … the records of the past will be the least of our concerns.”
And the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, we hear, has predicted that snow cover will disappear from the Alps by 2100, leaving the unprotected glaciers to melt quickly.
In a changing climate, crop and animal husbandry have to change too:
“The flood becomes critical. The waters rise too quickly for [Icelandic] farmers to rescue their sheep. This year, the flock might have been safer up in the hills.”
The Icelandic landscape is regularly used for filming, often because it has the look of an alien planet; Campbell notes that “As the Earth changes, this rocky landscape may hint at humanity’s future, as well as its past”.
And Haukur, one of Campbell’s Icelandic glacier guides, comments that
“Sea-level rise doesn’t worry me so much … I’m more concerned what happens with the tectonic plates. They are going to rise up when the ice melts.”
Against this background, I began to think about the reading process itself, about the pace of life. I read The Library of Ice in snatched quarter-hours on commutes and in queues; reading a book such as this can take time that isn’t always easy to find, or justify, in a frenetic age. There’s the daily grind, which grinds ever harder under neoliberalism, and the fiery panic the climate emergency can induce.
But if a profound book can change a reader’s internal landscape in a matter of days or weeks, then I guess it works fast enough even for 2018. This one slows us down until we can see through the lens of geological time, see in academic detail what is happening to us, and begin to accept and process it. Rapid, society-wide change is certainly needed, but the personal change it rests on requires us to relearn patience.
Talking of the neoliberal grind: we discover that to complete this research and this book, Campbell needed not only the support of a variety of funds and institutions but also a knack for under-consumption of the essentials:
“… I had to live as frugally as I could, which meant moving between house-sits. Sometimes I sofa-surfed for a few nights, or spent the night on a train concourse, or holed up in an airport or bus station toilet cubicle, leaning against the door, ignoring the lock when it was rattled by the cleaner early in the morning.”
It seems that inventorying ecosystems is not yet as lucrative as despoiling them still is. These insights add poignancy to Campbell’s disclosure of her feelings when seeking a base in Greenland for one leg of the journey: “I needed someone who would invite me, tell me I was welcome.”
A possibility of movement?
Through Campbell’s reflections, we encounter a range of perspectives across times and places.
“I understand what has been troubling me about [Edmund A.] Petersen’s paintings: they represent a romantic depiction of the Arctic, from a more innocent time, before icebergs and sea ice had become an indicator of climate change, when convention framed such a view as majestic, rather than temporal or even tragic.”
And in a TV weather forecast in Upernavik, Campbell tells us, “Europe, North America, the rest of the world are off the map, beyond the edges of the screen — out of sight, out of mind” — just as those parts of the world that were ravaged first by climate disruption are often out of mind in Europe and North America. In this journey, she has joined the dots between nations who don’t always recognise their primary interdependence.
Another parallel: for hunters in Qaanaaq, where the ice is retreating, “The changing climate has removed both the possibility of movement, and the promise of rest”. Perhaps we face a corresponding conundrum in the guilty West, with many of us stuck in the chronic busywork of overconsumption yet still lacking a collective sense of the way forward.
Having starkly laid out the current condition of our planetary home, The Library of Ice concludes with an individual act of home-making: Campbell returns from her travels to a new base in the UK.
It strikes me that the book plays it very cool in ending as it does, transporting us to the melting point (and no further) in the settings it explores. This is no bad thing, I think. It leaves us to ponder for ourselves the journey onwards to unbearable temperatures, to drought and death — a journey already completed in the most vulnerably situated countries, and one that many more of us will make, globally, if our nature scholarship is lacking, or if we fail to start living by it in the very near future.
Find out more
Sally Moss is a writer, editor, researcher and activist exploring the cultural shift required to live regeneratively and adapt well to the Anthropocene. She is currently Commonweal’s freelance Social Media and Website Project Coordinator, using online platforms to link forms of nonviolence activism and prompt grass-roots action. You can find out more about Sally’s work in her Directory entry and at sallymoss-editorial.co.uk. Sallyinterviewed ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe for Commonweal in July 2018, published simultaneously here.
It’s a real pleasure to introduce Deborah Tomkins as our latest ClimateCultures author. Deborah chairs Bristol Climate Writers, a group which meets monthly for discussion and critique of their poetry, science or nature writing, short stories or novels, and to plan public workshops. Deborah writes short stories, flash fiction, novels and articles. “I started writing about climate change in an effort to understand it myself and to answer the question – ‘How, really, will it be?’” In her first ClimateCultures post, she shares a discussion with fellow Bristol Climate Writers on ‘climate grief’ and other psychological responses to climate change and how these influence their writing. And I’m grateful to artist Perrin Ireland, who has agreed for us to use drawings from her Climate Grief graphic story to complement Deborah’s text.
approximate Reading Time: 11minutes
This August, I came across The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, an article by climate scientist Peter Kalmus. He writes about the profound climate grief he sometimes experiences, which he says makes sense to him and is helpful in focusing his mind, but also a crippling anxiety, which is less helpful. I forwarded the article to Bristol Climate Writers, inviting comments.
Our online discussion veered off in several different directions, so I’ll try and pull together some of the threads.
Climate grief and hope
First to respond was fellow ClimateCultures member David Thorpe, who didn’t find the article helpful.For him, the important question is why some people care and some don’t — is it down to personality type?“It was common knowledge in the 60s about deforestation, air pollution, antibiotics overprescription — in the Daily Express, for God’s sake. We knew in the 70s about climate change.”Society was supposed to change and adapt to take account of these serious issues, but that never happened. If it’s down to personality, David feels, this makes him angry; that our fate can be sealed by a majority who don’t care.
Peter Sutton agreed: “It’s a fair point about personality types – it’s kind of like knowing that gaining weight is bad for your health but this one cream cake can’t be bad, can it? We are generally, as a society, as a species (?), bad at thinking long-term…”
Later, David asked: “Are certain types more likely to think long-term — and they’re in the minority? Is this behaviour characteristic necessarily connected to what levels in Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Need’ have been satisfied?”
Abraham Maslow states that our most basic needs have to be satisfied first (food, sleep, safety), before the needs for love and companionship, self-esteem, and finally self-actualisation or creativity. The question here is: can certain personality types look beyond these personal needs to global or societal needs, perhaps far in the future (as climate change has been perceived to be)? Some artists work at a perilous level of neglect of at least some of the more fundamental needs, yet still produce great art.
Caroline New was less sure about the robustness of the concepts of personality type and Maslow’s hierarchy, regarding their explanatory power. She preferred to reframe the question in terms of social positions and early experiences.
Caroline agrees that climate disengagement is partly fuelled by the psychological difficulty of taking on the reality of climate change; however, she believes that feelings of climate grief and dread are not inevitable responses, but are re-runs of what we felt as infants, before the age where they could be cognitively recorded as memories. This makes them harder to process and heal from. Climate change brings it all up: the powerlessness, the overwhelm, the impossibility of understanding a massive, out-of-control reality. Caroline mentioned experiencing the same feelings of grief, dread and fear when visiting Auschwitz or Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. Yet these events have already happened.
For Caroline this means that “If we realise that our childhood sufferings make us vulnerable, we can separate today’s reality from those old injuries, and welcome the fact that we have the chance … to join with others … to take action in the present that will affect what happens to humanity for thousands of years.”
Psychologies of change
Others framed the answers in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Peter Barker said: “Some of the psychological reactions described in the article sound like PTSD, which can affect activists who work tirelessly on issues they really care about.”
Peter B believes that while campaigners are encouraged to focus on the important positive benefits of a low carbon economy, this fails to communicate effectively. He believes that humans are programmed to respond to threats and cautionary tales. “News is usually about trouble, danger, threats. Things we need to know about to survive. I think a clear picture is required to say, ‘This is what’s coming unless we get our shit together.’ I know it may turn some people off but the current message simply isn’t working.” He added that to tackle cognitive dissonance — the phenomenon of simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs or ideas — we need to be even clearer about cause and effect.
Emma Turnbull responded with thoughts about cognitive dissonance.The belief that “carrying on business-as-usual is viable; we can act without consequence”, is familiar, comforting, inherited and reinforced through generations.It conflicts with the other belief that “climate change is real and we need to radically change our lives”, which is an invitation to the unknown and to some harsh realisations and shakes our sense of security and societal structures. But she added that although this “second belief is like waking up in hell … it offers personal growth opportunities and collective evolution.”
Emma added: “I think it is useful at some level to acknowledge the potential losses from leaving behind the old systems and beliefs that have served us before now, because it helps to understand what needs to be replaced in new systems and culture e.g. emotional needs, personal purpose and value, and ritual or life course.”
She also mentioned PTSD, but in terms of society rather than the individual. “I think climate issues are deeply related to PTSD on a global level. Having an ambient sense of danger on a daily basis which is so powerful and seemingly beyond the power of an individual to correct, how can that not impact us all? When people are traumatised they have different reactions to it and can freeze when there’s a danger that there are no signs of escape from; dissociation allows them to zone out in a fog of denial. From researching the subject of trauma, I’d say that the way to help people move out of trauma and into a position of healing/action is to help them build emotional resources and a sense of safety. This is where I’d say positive narratives have a helpful role alongside more sobering storytelling.”
For my part, I referred to feelings of climate grief and powerlessness, and the power of communication. “The more people talk about climate change, and admit their feelings of grief and helplessness, maybe this gives permission to other people to acknowledge these feelings too … I think we can draw on other social movements such as civil rights, homosexuality, etc — people talking and writing and acting — for some kind of roadmap … Depression can be a result of knowing something is terrible but not being able to do anything about it. So, in the West we have an epidemic of depression and other mental ill-health … could it have something to do with helplessness in the face of planetary destruction?”
Lesley Richardson quoted Denise Baden at the University of Southampton, who runs greenstories.org. “Denise argues that disaster movies etc haven’t worked — they cause us to bury our heads — while positive stories inspire and help us imagine the future we want via heroes and role models.”
Emma Giffard agreed that “Humans are hardwired to respond to threats but are much more able to respond to short-term immediate threats than distant ones”, recommending an article on the Evolutionary Psychology of Climate Change.
Emma G also recommended Making Sense of Climate Science Denial, a free online course on the psychology. Only about 10% of ‘denialists’ are actually truly denying the science, while behind the other 90% there are other factors which relate to internal values.
David and Caroline also discussed mindsets, which influence expectations and behaviour. David wondered about how to change mindsets, citing placebo and nocebo effects. We know little about these effects, he said, but he’s keen on the use of shame, which has been effective with “paedophilia, drink-driving, smoking and seat-belt wearing, alongside evidence, public discussion/education around the long-term consequences … and legislation. Shame is a powerful peer-group influencer. Shaming frequent fliers, for example, could work in a similar way, but to work it needs a certain critical mass. Reaching that takes a long time. We’re getting there with plastics use.”
Caroline agreed there’s a place for shame, but as a major political mechanism it’s double-edged, since it draws on social disapproval and low self-esteem. She thought concepts of justice — “We have the right to require our government to formulate policies that protect us and future generations — and exemplary hopeful actions — see Plan B Earth” — are a better way forward.
Writing for change
Finally, we touched on how these complex issues inform our writing, particularly in fiction. What is our motivation in writing about climate change, or our approach? How do the responses of hope vs grief play out in character and plot? What do we want to achieve — if anything?
Peter B: “For me, the main motivation to write about climate change is to produce action. To alert, alarm even, people into responding. It may be fiction but it’s a way of engaging your reader’s imagination to the realities we are, or soon will be, facing, to avoid sleepwalking into disaster. If nothing else, at least we can be awake when it all goes tits up. I don’t write about climate change, but a world in which it is happening with my characters living and dealing with disintegrating systems — ecological, economic and social. The central plots revolve around my characters trying, in their own different ways, to survive (grief) or effect major change (hope).”
David: “From a narrative point of view, addressing the issues of feelings of powerlessness or apathy in the face of something as huge as climate change, one must remember that most people do not make a dramatic change in their lives until they have to. A convincing narrative would explore the significance and nature of this tipping point … Additionally, I would wish to explore this idea — for which there is some scientific evidence — that a certain level of stress in an emergency seems to paralyse most people … but there is a significant minority who are energised … and can take charge and try to rescue the situation.”
Emma T: “I want to inspire hope and action through positive visions of sustainable futures. I like to share with others the magic and healing I experience through deeply connecting with nature and contribute stories that reconnect us with the land. I also write to explore the trauma that is at the heart of and driving issues like climate change.”
Peter S: “I’m currently reading You are not human, by Simon Lancaster, which is all about metaphor; and he mentions this study, Metaphors for the War (or Race) against Climate Change, which investigates how language — and specifically the metaphors we use — affects how people perceive climate change. I’ve always drawn inspiration from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and as writers we should be hyperaware of what language we use, especially when our writing is a political act (but then, isn’t all writing a political act?)”
Emma G: “My novel is basically all about the cognitive dissonance required to be fully cognisant of environmental issues and still function as a modern human — it’s basically about the intersection between climate change and ecocide and mental health. Just need someone to publish it, that’s all …”
And I too write in order to explore that cognitive dissonance. My second novel (unpublished) explores the deep climate grief and pain experienced by someone who understands all too clearly what’s happening to the planet, yet is surrounded by people who belittle her anxieties and believe she’s mentally ill because of her ‘extreme’ beliefs. Writing it has helped consolidate my own position, alleviated some of my climate loneliness, and encouraged me to keep campaigning and writing – the only sane response. Seeking publication…
Find out more
Bristol Climate Writers meet monthly in central Bristol, for discussion and critique, and to plan public workshops. There are roughly twenty members, writing poetry, science, nature, short stories or novels. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter, where you can follow @BrisClimWrit and @tomkins_deborah
Bristol Climate Writers is running a writing workshop, Finding the Positive: Dystopias and Utopias in a Changing Climate, on Sunday 28 October 2018 as part of Bristol Festival of Literature – see our Events calendar.
Peter Kalmus’ article, The Best Medicine for My Climate Grief, appeared in Yes! Journalism for people building a better world (9th August 2018): “Sometimes a wave of climate grief breaks over me. It happens unexpectedly, perhaps during a book talk, or while on the phone with a congressional representative. In a millisecond, without warning, I’ll feel my throat clench, my eyes sting, and my stomach drop as though the Earth below me is falling away. During these moments, I feel with excruciating clarity everything that we’re losing — but also connection and love for those things.” You can follow Peter on Twitter: @ClimateHuman and his website: becycling.life
Simon Lancaster’s book, You are not Human, is published by Biteback Publishing (2018).
Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ was described in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. There is a useful guide to the original concept and recent developments, by Saul McLeod at Simply Psychology (updated 2018).
Greenstories.org was a short story competition organised by the University of Southampton in 2018, and the anthology of winning stories, Resurrection Trust, will be published in 2019. The site has a section of useful story ideas and resources.
Finally, you might like to read a couple of other articles and an illustrated story relating to climate grief, which I discovered while bringing Deborah’s post to the site:
Jennifer Atkinson’s article, Addressing climate grief makes you a badass, not a snowflake, which appeared in High Country News (29th May 2018). Atkinson teaches environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, and after watching her students “struggle with the depressing realities of our ecological crisis for nearly 10 years … decided to offer a new seminar on ‘Environmental Grief and Climate Anxiety.’ When registration opened, every seat filled. But after the local media began reporting on the class, a flood of derisive emails and phone calls poured into my office, and the newspaper comment sections filled up with responses mocking today’s ‘absurd. college courses and the students who attend them.” Despite this, “direct engagement with today’s biggest challenges is, nevertheless, the path many of today’s students are choosing to follow.”
Writer Meehan Crist’s Besides, I’ll be deadis her review in London Review of Books (22nd February 2018) of Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilised World. Crist raises a psychological paradigm of ‘ambiguous loss’, introduced in the 1970s by Pauline Boss when studying families of soldiers who had gone missing in action. Boss “coined the term to describe the arrested mourning that follows a loss without closure or understanding. Boss describes two types of ambiguous loss: when the object is physically absent but psychologically present (as with soldiers missing in action), and when the object is physically present but psychologically absent (as with Alzheimer’s disease). The first helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. … Grief is stalled by uncertainty.”
The illustrations throughout this ClimateCultures post come from the graphic story Climate Grief, The emotional reality of global warming, by artist Perrin Ireland. Perrin works with scientists, policy analysts, and environmentalists to tell their science stories through animations, visual essays, and infographics. You can find the full story and more of her work at www.experrinment.com
And the passage from Joanna Macey that Perrin quotes in her story come from Macey’s lifelong activism in The Work that Reconnects, which began in the 1970s as “despair and empowerment” work, evolved in Deep Ecology and has become a network.
What do you think?
Do you experience Climate Grief? Do you have other ways of exploring, explaining or addressing the issues that Deborah and her fellow Bristol Climate Writers have raised here? ClimateCultures would like to publish further accounts and discussions on climate grief and other responses to our environmental and climate predicaments; do use the Contact Form to get in touch!
Filmmaker James Murray-White returns to ClimateCultures with his review of a recent event on ecopoetics and our responses toenvironmental crisis. The one-day meeting was held at GroundWork Gallery in Kings Lynn on 1st September.
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
Groundwork Gallery, run by powerhouse director Veronica Sekules, backs up its exhibitions of work focusing on the environment with events that deepen the discussion. This combination brings us in as participants, helping us to sharpen our understanding and to critically engage with the issues.
Conserve? Restore? Rewild? Arts and Ecopoetics Rise to the Challenge was one such bringing-together — the last of the 2018 season — with poets, academics, and ecological thinkers-and-doers gathering in a wonderful 14th-century building by the edge of the lapping River Ouse. This special event — organised with the British Ecological Society — gave us a day to dive deep, listen and engage with ideas of ecopoetics at the crossroads of conservation, restoration, and re-wilding. An opportunity to question all these options and find the best fit.
Ecopoetics and provocations
Curated by poet Harriet Tarlo and artist Judith Tucker, whose collaborative project on the disused Louth Canal is on display at Groundwork, the day divided into discussions on rewilding and on art or eco-poetic contexts. Andrew Watkinson, Professor of Environmental Sciences at UEA, offered a provocation in his ‘reflections upon a changing environment’, reminding us of the ‘environment as natural capital’ approach that is so favoured by politicians and business leaders. He referred to the schism of thinking on this, as exemplified by leading green writers George Monbiot and Tony Juniper; it reminded me of a debate between the two men that I filmed at the New Networks for Nature conference in 2015.
What was refreshing about this presentation was Professor Watkinson’s deep engagement with poetry as a source of inspiration and knowledge, which he wove through his scientific explanations of the processes of change and the interactions within an ecological framework.
By bringing into his talk Cambridgeshire-poet John Clare, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrew gave a range and breadth to the provocation. And this came after renowned ecocritic and writer Richard Kerridge delivered a polemic on the world of ‘new’ nature writing: “Why is it difficult to write about environmental crisis?” he asked us; and “Where is climate change? Everywhere and tangibly no-where”.
Richard ranged from unpicking ideas of ‘adaptations of scale’ through to exploring the stories of ‘new materialism’, which (to quote Hannes Bergthaller, writing on Limits of Agency) “dissolves the singular figure … into the dense web of material relations.” Skilfully, he both beguiled and shocked his audience in this exploration of a new and uncharted territory and discipline, leaving us with the remark that ‘new nature writing’ “offers a refuge from modernity and the narrow social space.”
Jonathan Skinner, an American poet, ecocritic and academic at Warwick University, sought to find a middle way in his ‘poetics of the third landscape’: a gentle meander into and out of the edgelands. To those of us that walk them, these liminal spaces suggest exciting possibilities and subtleties. His description of the “intelligence of the weedy, where lifeforms, rhizomes or rooting plants exist for co-created futures” resonated with me. And his introduction of the phrase ‘entropology’ brought to mind a recent exploration of the Blackwater estuary in Essex where, alongside the decommissioned nuclear power plant, I discovered the old electricity generating station, now completely overcome with wild nature, trees and scrub of all description topping out above the metal and phantasmagoric shapes.
These three presentations in the morning set the scene for the day. Following on, artist Iain Biggs explored ecopoetics and art as ‘wild conversation’ through his work in deep mapping, and in explorations of the artist as “first and foremost, a deep listener”. This melted beautifully into writer Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s sharing of some of her projects, taking us into deep elemental knowledge, in Swims (2017) — poetry inspired by and written during wild swimming — and The Grassling (2019), a deep mapping memoir of three Devon fields that she and her family are connected with.
Her work — and then the subsequent session with readings from the featured writers — came as a refreshing tide of words that uplifted and delighted the audience. Down with the seals in the depths of the estuary flow, amongst the eco-poetics embodied in this day in Kings Lynn, in the deep county of Norfolk.
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James Murray-White is a writer and filmmaker whose recent work has been in the areas of art and neuroscience, applied anthropology and the lives of poets. You can discover more about his work via his ClimateCultures profile page. You can watch James’ film about John Clare at his Vimeo page. The George Monbiot and Tony Juniper debate he mentions took place at the New Networks for Nature conference at Stamford Arts Centre in 2015; his three-part film of the debate is available at Cambridge TV. James is GroundWork Gallery’s filmmaker in residence and you can see some of his films of artists at the gallery on their People page.
GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. The gallery’s exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The information on their Conserve? Restore? Rewild? event includes links for each of the day’s speakers.
Jonathan Skinner — one of the speakers at the event — has a short piece on What is Ecopoetry? at eco-poetry.org
The event was organised with the British Ecological Society. The Society and Norfolk Wildlife Trust also sponsored Regarding Nature, GroundWork Gallery’s photographic exhibition (23rd June – 16th September 2018). “Regarding Nature is an exhibition which tells some big stories about landscape. Through the eyes of French photographer Chrystel Lebas and her scientist predecessors in the early 20th century, it focusses on the plants and landscapes of the North Norfolk coast.”
Writer and artist Salli Hipkiss returns to ClimateCultures with a second post on her novel, The Riddle of the Trees.In My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis,Salli explored her motivation for setting out to write her creative work on climate change. Here, she shares an extract from the manuscript, and looks further into the development of character and meaning and her inspiration to write this novel for the 'We Generation'.
approximate Reading Time: 10minutes
The Riddle of the Trees
Jeanie left the light and shimmer of the hilltop views behind her. The track curved northwest and soon she was enveloped in the cool, cushioning shade of the forest. Among the trees the sharpness of the light and the edgy whine of insect-sounds softened into a diffused hum.She followed the track through the Treefarm until she reached a junction.She knew the way well.Her route home took the neatly-kept right-hand track south through the Treefarm towards the town, while on the left two crumbling stone pillars were all that remained of an ancient gateway, and an overgrown path led into the heart of the old-growth forest: the wild place known as the Olgro.
The evening humidity was making her breathless and she stopped at the gateway, leaning her bike against one pillar.A large, moss-covered stone had long since fallen from the gateway making an impromptu seat. She sat down, pulling a bottle of water from her rucksack.While she drank she looked back into the Treefarm. The rows of managed pines and beeches stretched sedately into the distance. The trees seemed cool, quiet and orderly; but also quiet in terms of diversity, of life, of spirit.Jeanie turned to look through the gateway into the Olgro.Sitting here at the junction, the contrast between the two parts of the forest could hardly have been greater.
Have you ever been to an Olgro? An old-growth forest? A truly ancient old forest?A forest that has never been cut or cleared: where for thousands of years there have been trees at various stages of growing up, growing old, dying, or slowly sinking back into the earth to become nurseries for new sapling trees?
Have you been to a forest where the numbers of different species of plants and animals and insects and fungi are so great that new species are constantly being discovered even after centuries of scientific study?Where the different life forms have lived alongside one another for so long that insects have begun to look like flowers and flowers like the insects that feed from them?Where the contrasting scents of honeysuckle, damp moss, rotting wood, tang of fox, and a metallic mix of ozone and ore, constantly assault and allay your senses in equal measures?
Have you stood in a forest with your ears full with the fizz and hum of insect flight, the creak and rustle of giant trees in endless movement, and the staccato chatter of numerous birds?Where before long you can’t help but find yourself falling back into the steps of an ancient dance that has been going on, unbroken, for millions of years?
Jeanie let her eyes wander, flickering between the trees, plants and flowers on the other side of the gateway: seeing them tumbling over one another, winding around one another, or even growing up through one another.She measured trees supporting ivies taller than the tree itself; lianas draping themselves between branches; ferns and epiphytes growing in the crooks of trunks high above the moss-dampened forest floor. It looked chaotic but Jeanie knew from Gramps that it represented a harmony of the highest order.
Or it had done… Jeanie scanned the rich texture of the forest again, her eyes narrowing. As she looked more carefully she felt her chest tighten and something shift beneath her ribs. Something was wrong.Her heart began to thump, sounding a warning. Gramps was right. The trees had changed.She closed her eyes to listen to the subtle pulse of the forest, searching for an explanation or even an adequate description. But she couldn’t find one, just a strong intuition that all was not as it should be.Opening her eyes, thoughts began to form. On many trees the leaves had a certain transparency.A frailty.A ghostliness even.
Suddenly she knew what this was.It was what Gramps had feared the most.This was Disintegration.
Following on from my previous post about the writing of my manuscript for the young adult audience, I was encouraged by ClimateCultures to share an excerpt from the story.After deliberating, I decided upon the above passage from near the beginning of the book.I could have ‘cut to the chase’ (for there is a chase of sorts in the story!), but for a story like The Riddle of the Treesit feels more appropriate to give a glimpse into the heart of the story.
In The Guardian in 2015, Patrick Barkham, quoting from Matthew Oates’ book In Pursuit of Butterflies, wrote:
‘Environmentalists desperately need poets and storytellers, Oates contends, because ultimately conservation is concerned with “mending the relationship between people and Nature”. Science may clarify priorities “but the whole show is essentially about Love”.’
This love for the natural world is what motivates me to create work to inspire change, and it is what motivates several of the characters in the story.It is also a reason for creating a novel as a vehicle for exploring environmental issues.This is an art form that allows for a broad expression of emotion: one that can take on love and joy, and also despair, frustration, anger, animosity and other emotions that difficult challenges like climate change can invoke.
I have always been interested in stories that follow several characters with similar, if not equal, weight, and in writing The Riddle of the Trees I gave myself this challenge. Quickly, within a few chapters, the book establishes that we are following not one, or even two, protagonists but several, forming a sort of holistic composite character.In creative work I like messages that run deeply, like the grain through wood, acting at the structural as well as superficial levels, and in my story there is a deeper meaning behind having a number of viewpoints, which is to illustrate this idea of holism: that we need diverse talents and insights from various quarters in order to ‘crack the codes’ to solve many of the world’s environmental and other problems.
A riddle for the many
At the geographical centre of the story are Jeanie, a lonely teenage girl, and Gramps, her forest keeper grandfather, who separately realise that a serious, mysterious ailment has befallen their beloved forest.In his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker argues that most stories fit into one of seven structures.At first encounter The Riddle of the Trees might appear to follow the structure of a Quest, one of the seven plots Booker listed.The fierce love Jeanie and Gramps feel for the forest certainly leads them to undertake a quest to save the trees.However their quest is just one aspect of the story, and actually, if pushed, the plot better resembles a Comedy, not in the sense of a humorous piece, but a comedy in the Greek tradition, or one of Shakespeare’s comedies, in the spirit of A Midsummer’s Night Dream.As the title suggests, The Riddle of the Trees is threaded through with riddles, muddles and misunderstandings that need a combination of wisdom, wit, courage – and love – from a number of characters to reach a resolution.
Thus there isn’t one main ‘celebrity character’. The driving forces are care and compassion, even from the apparent antagonist who rather than being evil is instead mostly misguided and attempting to solve the forest’s disease and its potentially escalating problems by exercising greater and greater control, but at the expense of other freedoms.His power, his inflexibility, and his inability to listen to others’ advice make him dangerous.But he is not evil.
This distinction was important to me.When I first started drafting the story I had a wonderful discussion with a Japanese friend about the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and the sort of films that the house then created.My friend pointed out how the seemingly ‘bad’ characters in Studio Ghibli films were not ‘beaten’ by the good characters as they might be in a Hollywood movie, but instead underwent some process of transformation during which their frightening or dangerous power was dissipated.Often this was through their becoming properly understood where they weren’t before.For example, in Spirited Away, a witch figure returns to being a benign old lady, and a raging river spirit calms to a benevolent one when his polluted water is cleaned and he is called by his rightful name. This process of transformation and the possibility for redemption resonated with me and are further grains that run through the heart of the story.
The Riddle of the Trees is a story for young people about challenging the status quo, about following one’s own path and passions and conscience, and about forming friendships that transcend difference and constraint.
Reading again through the excerpt I have chosen above, I find myself bringing to mind the poem The Road Not Taken, published in 1916 by Robert Frost.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth……I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.
Jeanie in the story starts as ‘one traveller’ in another sense: she is lonely, and soon also carrying a burden of responsibility to solve a difficult mystery.However through the course of the story she and a number of other characters become newly connected and collectively are then able to solve some difficult problems.Although the novel is set in a future where mobile phones and social media are no longer ubiquitous, because young people live in a world dominated by these forces now I feel they will recognise the strong impulse to connect and form community – including globally – that lies at the heart of the book.
Perhaps the ethos of self-reliance and independence that Robert Frost was championing in his poem is no longer the prevailing ethos of the younger generation today.Reflecting on his famous ending line “…I took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference” it seems notable to me that the lines imply the difference made to one life only: the speaker’s own.
Instead, young people today, when asked what they want to achieve in life, will often answer: “I want to make a difference” meaning a difference in society, environmentally or in other altruistic ways.The millennial generation has been named the ‘We Generation’.They are much more aware than previous generations that in order to thrive as a species, as a whole planetary ecosystem, and also as individuals, we need to think in terms of interdependence rather than independence.This ‘We’ rather than just ‘Me’ way of thinking gives me hope for the future.
In Sharon Blackie’s thought-provoking 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, Blackie comes to a similar conclusion about the need for a change from the prevailing myth of many generations, outlined clearly by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1990 book The Hero’s Journey.She writes:
“Campbell’s Hero’s Journey… is entirely focused on an individual’s spiritual growth and personal transformation – the process which Jung called ‘individuation’.But the journey we need to make today is one which rips us out of the confined spaces of our own heads and plants us firmly back in the world where we belong, rooted and ready to rise… We are not separate from this earth; we are a part of it, whether we feel it fully in our bodies yet or not… The Heroine’s Journey we need to make today is, above all, an Eco-Heroine’s Journey.”
In The Riddle of the Trees Jeanie and her various companions’ separate and collective journeys all lead to a common mission: to save the forest and restore harmony.To attempt this, all need to tap, like roots, into the groundwater of their own talents and passions and to offer them to the whole.Blackie continues:
“…And if we rise up rooted, like trees… well then, women might indeed not only save ourselves, but the world.”
In another wonderful book from 2015 The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy affirms:
“We should offer up not just the notion of being sensible and responsible about [nature], which is sustainable development, nor the notion of its mammoth utilitarian and financial value, which is ecosystem services, but a third way, something different entirely: we should offer up what it means to our spirits; the love of it. We should offer up its joy.”
For my part, I would be delighted if The Riddle of the Trees helped inspire a stronger feeling of rootedness, of connection with the natural world, an appreciation of its awe-inspiring beauty and ability to bring joy, and of what we stand to lose if we don’t care for what we have, while also engaging young people in a deliciously complicated but very heartfelt adventure story along the way.
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Our first post from Salli Hipkiss, in which she wrote about the inspiration behind her writing The Riddle of the Trees, was My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis. You can explore Salli’s creative work as artist, writer and educator via her ClimateCultures profile page and her website link there. And Salli’s recent poem, Modest Things — asking how English poet, artist and radical William Blake might have responded to climate change and what examples we might take — is published at Finding Blake.
Joseph Campbell’sThe Hero’s Journey was first published in 1990, with a revised edition published by New World Library in 2003.
The full text of Robert Frost’s classic poem, The Road Not Taken, is available at Poem Hunter, where you can also hear a recording of the poem.
Michael McCarthy’sThe Moth Snowstorm – one of the three books reviewed in the Patrick Barkham article mentioned above – was published in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton, and you can read an extract at their site.