Filmmaker James Murray-White reviews a recent event with GroundWork Gallery and the British Ecological Society: a gathering of poets, academics, and ecological minds exploring our responses to environmental crisis through a day of ecopoetics, provocations and wild conversations.
approximate Reading Time: 4minutes
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.
Find out more
James Murray-Whiteis 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 shares an extract from her novel’s manuscript — a glimpse into the heart of the story and its forest, and further into the development of character, meaning and writing for the ‘We Generation’.
approximate Reading Time: 10minutes
In her first post in this two-part series, My Voice in the Climate Change Crisis, Salli explored her motivation for setting out to write The Riddle of the Trees as a creative work on climate change.
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.
Forest — 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 both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth… …I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere 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.
Find out more
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. 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.
ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Jim Crace’s imaginative 1988 novel, The Gift of Stones. Set on the cusp of change at the end of the Stone Age, a book could hardly be more relevant to the emerging Anthropocene.
approximate Reading Time: 9minutes
A copy of The Gift of Stonesgoes to Sarah Dry for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.
Set at the end of the Stone Age, on the cusp of change that overtook it and accelerated us headlong into a new world, a book could hardly be more relevant to our Age of Human: the Age of Unintended Consequences. The Gift of Stones is the story of a boy whose entanglement with the shifting world beyond the settled, conservative life of his village turns him into a storyteller. Set at the end of the Stone Age, it’s a parable of unlooked-for consequences as one age morphs into another. And it’s a tribute to the power of story-telling itself: “Salute the liars — they can make the real world disappear and a fresh world take its place.” Story is a technology.
The narration is shared by the man this boy quickly becomes — when disability causes him to find a novel role as outsider-insider within his industry-fixated village — and his adopted daughter. She casts a wary eye back on his choices as a teller of tall tales, and the way he weaves in spurious detail from the natural world around them to add authenticity to his creations.
“As the bully becomes soldier, and the meany becomes merchant, so the liar becomes bard. Where is the shock in that? … He was never lost for words. He had a name for everything — or invented one. He’d out-hoot an owl, they said … The paradox is this — we do love lies. The truth is dull and half-asleep. But lies are nimble, spirited, alive. And lying is a craft.”
She brings her own outsider’s view of the myopic villagers, who remain unaware of or unconcerned at the chaos on their borders. “My father’s ornateness as a story-teller cannot obscure the one plain truth that needs no hawk for decoration — that the village was obsessed with work, with industry, with craft. It made people purposeful, wealthy, strong” — and blind to change.
Truth that offers no escape
This is a society of flint diggers, shapers, traders. Stone is the material basis of their culture, stones are what they fashion:
“What they sought was the undisturbed floorstone of flint at depths unknown to worms. This was the act that underpinned the village … Making flints, that’s all they knew. That’s what gave them heart. That was the ritual that kept them going, that filled their time, that stocked their larders, that gave them pride … It made them feel, We do exist, We are important even, We count. They were the stoneys, heart and mind. They blindly fashioned flints [as] gulls laid top-heavy eggs and the winds blew off the sea. That’s how the world was made and never pause for thought. It wasn’t made for boys with stumps.”
The boy — hardly any of the main characters are named — has been attacked by outsiders looking for flint weapons they’ve no intention of bartering for. The villagers must amputate his damaged arm. Ironically, although these craftsmen can fashion the sharpest blades for the job, none of them is able to actually wield the knife on the boy, and this task is left to the attackers — penance for their crime. But the diggers and makers have no use for a one-armed boy so, having been saved by the act that renders him valueless to them, he’s left to his own devices. He wanders far and wide, and when he sees a ship from cliffs a day’s walk away, his storytelling takes off. “What could I say to make it sound attractive? They wanted something crafted and well turned … The truth would never do. It was too fragile and too glum. It offered no escape … Already, in my mind, I knew the story I could tell that night.”
Through his stories — some true, some invented, most somewhere in between — he brings to the stoneys more of the outside world than they glimpse from their routine trading, but it remains a conservative, closed society. All their food comes in barter, making them completely dependent on the price their flint can fetch. The boy’s stories are entertainments for them, just that. His life on the margins of village life — much of it spent beyond its borders — is mostly a solitary one, and his physical and imaginative wanderings bring self-awareness and an awareness of what society means.
“People on their own do foolish things. They don’t know when to stop. They don’t know how. Now you understand why people live in villages, sniffing at their neighbours’ cooking and their conversations. They fear themselves and what would happen if the leash were cut and they were all alone…”
He travels further, from the cliffs to a saltland heath “sodden and yellowed by the winter … sweating in the sun. It smelled like rotten fruit, like beer, like cow’s breath. The earth was passing wind; it belched at every footfall; its boil had burst; it was brackish and spongy with sap and pus and marsh.” There, he encounters a woman living alone with her daughter and her dog, and so discovers the smallest of communities, but one that needs more of him than simple entertainment saved for when the day’s real work is done:
“She hadn’t cared about my arm. Or knapping flints. Or stone. She’d said, Do this, Do that. Make sure the pot is safe. Here, take the child. And hold the dog. Can’t you kill a chicken? Could you walk down — take this bag — and pull some samphire roots? Before, I’d only ever idly stared through doors to watch the workers shaping stone, to smell their smells, to watch their lives while waiting for the Scram, Get out, We’ve work to do.”
King of the wild world
Further off, other communities make their living through what they create from the land; when our storyteller meets a group of farmers come to camp on the edge of the heath, he hears a new story from them, “of a farming year that was rhythmic as a drum.”
“The first note in the spring was emmer wheat. Then six-row corn. Then beans. Then flax, the last to bed, the hater of the frost. The goats did well all year on fodder mulched from leaves. Their milk and cheese were said to taste of elm or ash depending on the forest where they fed. In autumn there were unearned gifts in mushrooms, nuts and fruit. In winter there were bacon sides and apples wrinkled like a widow’s cheek, and grain from rat-free, stilted stacks.”
It soon becomes clear that the reason these men are on the heath is to exact revenge on flocks of wild geese that have gathered there. “They’d harvested the field, these airborne slugs,” and now the farmers would “show the wild world who was king by wiping out all geese.”
And so, despite its possibilities of plenty, this farming life is seemingly more precarious than an existence built on the steady need for stone tools and weapons, lived at one remove from raising your own food from unpredictable nature. Farming involves a war on the wild world, and the storyteller can spot the farmers’ false confidence in humans’ ultimate power. “If they’d stayed … they would’ve seen who was king of that wild world. When everybody’s dead, there’ll still be crabs and flies and carcass shrubs and weeds to strip and clothe the world.” (And, showing his native prejudice, he adds: “There’ll still be stone.”)
For his widowed heathland companion, however, the geese are an intimate connection between the wild and the human:
“… geese are people who have died. They say my husband and my boys are geese.’ She shrugged. ‘Who knows? I’ve also heard them say that geese bring babies, that geese bring dreams, that geese are blessings to the poor. I’ve heard it all. Myself, I know the truth. I’ve seen it every year. The geese bring summer and take away the frosts. You’ll see.’”
And it’s connections such as these that the storyteller takes back to his stoney community, crafting his gifts of story.
“There was the story of the talking goose. It was snow-white except for a golden bill and feet. It said . . . and here my father could devise a goose-borne message that would tease whatever audience he had assembled at his feet. There was the story of the woman and her magic dog. They lived inside a house made out of hair. The dog could cook and stitch and start a fire. The woman hunted rabbits with her mouth. There was the story of the boy with the gift of flames. He could spit fire. Those people who stayed close to him need never fear the cold.”
Stones, chaos and coma
The storyteller’s experiences beyond the village teach him that “the world was cut in two — one for chaos, one for coma … All the outside world required was the liberty to pound and crush, to hammer and to bruise … It didn’t matter if the blows were rained on geese or huts or dogs or boys, so long as there were blows and careless brawls and sudden ghosts of hardship to blow good fortune down.” But the villagers remain complacent. Within their coma, they cannot imagine an end to the simple laws of tradition and economics that their lives are built on, are completely wedded to.
“This was the lesson they had learned whenever trade had slackened in the past: the outside world was never free from stone. There was no sickling of the corn, no scraping hides, no fishing, hunting, wars, no cutting flesh, no knives, no fires, except for stone and stoneys. Without the stoneys, men would have to fight with sticks. And what would women use to cut the cord when children came? Their teeth? What next? Were people just as mean as wolves?”
Eventually, the outside world — the world of chaos — reaches inside the borders of the village. But it’s a different kind of emergency that befalls the stoneys than the one that cost their boy one arm and their village one useful worker. Rather than simply the violence of weapons, of shaped stone turned back upon the stone shapers, this is an end to stone itself: stone as a subtle technology and staple trade. An end which even the storyteller failed to foresee (“There’ll still be stone”). Human ingenuity can always turn to other materials, fashioning other economies, and the war on the wild can take another turn, tightening as it goes and leaving peoples and places ruined in its wake. All of which is raw material for the storyteller when he spies more ships and men “armed with weapons that were gleaming in the oddest way. The stones that made them were as light as leaves; their arrows sped like swallows. Compared, our arrows were like pigeons, plump and clumsy in the air.”
No one will be wanting arrows like pigeons now that ones like swallows can be had, “this sharp and shiny leaf, this bronze.” And it’s this — more than merely the more efficient violence that this new thing, metal, unleashes — that heralds the end of the stoneys’ world, leaving them “as helpless as a beetle on its back.”
The gift of stones is the gift of all technology, as double-edged as the new bronze swords that will sweep away the age of stone. The gift of stories is also two-faced, with lies and truth intertwined. A novel that leaves to one side the prehistoric beliefs and sites — the megalithic monuments and the mysteries of their ritual uses which so fascinate us looking back and seem (falsely) to separate us from them — The Gift of Stones focuses on the daily ritual of precarious living off the land, living with neighbours and outsiders, centres and margins, and with landscape and nature. Stories that we might come to remember.
The storyteller looks back at his home:
“I knew no sight more sad than that — the sight of that small, kempt place, its walls as ordered and as uniform as ribs laid bare, its life as timorous, fettered and discreet as that enjoyed by barnacles on stone. And all around and all beyond, in blues and greys and greens, and fading far away into the whites of distance and of sky, was all the outside world. It seemed as if the outside world was like a mist and the mist was closing in. And all our world was shrinking, breath by breath. Someone, something, was hovering between our village and the sun.”
Find out more
The Gift of Stones — Jim Crace’s second novel — was first published in 1988 and is published by Pan Macmillan.
In 2015, North Country Theatres toured an adaptation of The Gift of Stones. The Director, Nobby Dimon, said in the production programme that the novel “appealed to me because it is about the origins of storytelling and by extension the origins of theatre, because its language has a poetry which is not found often in contemporary fiction and because its remote setting is both strange yet recognisable. ‘The past is another country, they do things differently there, but Crace reminds us that even our remote ancestors share intellect and feelings with us.”
Poet and artist Salli Hipkiss, in the first of two posts, reflects on how she came to understand the urgent challenges of climate change, and decided to write The Riddle of the Trees, a novel supporting positive change.
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
It all began in 1999 with ‘A Novel Idea’. Not the idea for a book, but a wonderful bookshop of the same name on a dusty peninsular of the East African town of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Living there as a teacher, a weekend treat was to head to ‘A Novel Idea’ where highly contemporary international new books appeared as if magically in a town where other correspondence from the rest of the world often failed to arrive. One particular Saturday a book found its way into my hands, as ‘just the right book’ seems to do from time to time. It was The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett.
I read it in a couple of power-rationing interrupted evenings (the irony was not lost on me) and came away knowing I had been introduced to possibly the most serious issue of our time, and one that would become a greater and greater problem and international focus over years to come. The issue in question was, of course, climate change. My immediate action was to apply for a new additional post at the school where I worked, aiming to become ‘Leader for the Environment’. I was given the post and for two years, in addition to my art teaching duties, I was the Environmental Education coordinator for the secondary school. Over this time I tried to introduce some of the urgency I had sensed through the book, including creating a whole school Environmental Charter.
A meaningful contribution
Jump to September 2006. I had left both Tanzania and full-time teaching in 2002 with the intention to retrain and hopefully carve out a new career in one of my other great passions: music, alongside my arts and sustainability commitments. I was living in Cambridge in the UK as a self-employed arts and sustainability practitioner and educator when An Inconvenient Truth hit the cinemas.
Having read The Carbon War I was very aware of Al Gore and his climate change advocacy work, but most people I knew at that time saw him solely as the former US presidential candidate. An Inconvenient Truth changed all that. I went to see the film three times at the cinema and bought the DVD for friends. My passion was renewed and I wondered once again how I could contribute meaningfully to the conversation around climate change and help to turn things around for the better.
Later that month an opportunity arose to travel to Sierra Leone to help with forest conservation education and my time there helped focus my thoughts. The idea began to form that my personal contribution to the climate change solution could be to write a book that inspired dialogue and change: after all, a book and a bookshop had been my introduction to the issue. Straight away I knew it would be a book for young people, and that the science would be put across through the medium of a magical story. I started to make notes and sketches and by the time I came back from Sierra Leone I had made a firm commitment to write the story.
The advice generally given to writers is to “write what you know”. Although my musical ambitions had suffered many setbacks, music remained a source of great joy and wisdom in my life, and as the idea to write a novel took shape I knew music would be one vital thread through the story. The imperative to help with the climate change challenge formed the other.
I began to read more widely about carbon sequestration and carbon trading and gradually the story began to take shape. It was to be set in a future when ‘carbon balance’ has been achieved through widespread reforestation. A new crisis would then emerge when a mysterious disease befalls one such forest and threatens the others, and therefore puts the carbon balance into peril and the threat of climate change looms again.
My deeper ecological message was to illustrate that in planning for widespread increased sequestration as one solution it is vital that we also keep sight of the need to protect biodiversity and that a healthy planet will only prevail if we seek health on all levels. The other deeper message was that this may only come about if we put aside our cultural differences and work together as one humanity.
The Riddle of the Trees
Characters appeared next: a lonely teenage girl, a shy teenage boy, a Forest Keeper grandfather who is too often absent due to his commitment to the forest, international musicians who carry the sounds of nature and the seeds of culture from all quarters of the world within their music. Other key characters are a heavy-handed Ealdorman who tries to save the forest by imposing greater and greater restrictions, and a reclusive artist living in the forest who provides intuitive wisdom born of her close connection with and immersion in nature. Then the settings emerged: a forest by the sea, a former palace turned cultural centre, a portside town, and a mysterious cottage in the woods with a magical tower and observatory.
I started to write, sitting at a corner desk in my one-bedroom maisonette with a cherry tree just outside the window, or in one of the many cafes in and around Cambridge.
In 2007 I embarked on a Masters degree in Children’s Book Illustration, envisaging, amongst other outcomes, a beautifully illustrated chapter book of my story, or even an interactive ebook with moving illustrations and strains of music at key moments. The course turned out not to be the right place to nurture the story, and a year in I took a break and a part-time job in a shop aptly named ‘One World is Enough’.
I continued to write. Then after focusing on finishing the MA in 2010, I completed the first draft of the story and The Riddle of the Trees was born.
Since then the story has undergone numerous revisions and attempts at publication while I have also been raising a family. Now, almost twenty years after first reading The Carbon War I feel inspired once again to try to get the story out into the wider world where I hope it will inspire young people and others to care more deeply about climate and biodiversity issues and to take individual and collective action. Perhaps when this happens we will be one small step closer to achieving not only carbon balance but also ‘Carbon Peace’.
Jeremy Leggett’s The Carbon War is no longer in print but you can find second-hand copies online, and you can read a download of his follow up book, The Winning of the Carbon War at JeremyLeggett.net
In An Inconvenient Truth, (2006) by Davis Guggenheim, the film follows former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore on the lecture circuit, raising public awareness of the dangers of global warming. Grist has an interesting behind-the-scenes at how the film came about, An oral history of An Inconvenient Truth.
The 2017 ‘sequel’ film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, follows Gore as he speaks with scientists and leaders, and is featured in this Scientific American (28/7/17) article, Al Gore Returns with an Ever-More Inconvenient Truth.
Author Mary Woodbury, who outlined some of the common ground that helps ‘define’ eco-fiction in Part 1, looks at how this super-genre has grown and diversified in recent years. Her story returns to a family trip to Ireland.
approximate Reading Time: 9minutes
You can read part 1 of A History of Eco-fiction here.
Eco-fiction may have become popular decades ago, but it has not gone away. It is evolving. When reviewing the recent novel Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer, for the New York Times, Wai Chee Dimock stated in There’s No Escape From Contamination Above the Toxic Sea,
“This coming-of-age story signals that eco-fiction has come of age as well: wilder, more reckless and more breathtaking than previously thought, a wager and a promise that what emerges from the 21st century will be as good as any from the 20th, or the 19th.”
The Canopy Expands
The world seems less and less hopeful. So many crises exist now that it’s hard to wrap our heads around them. We are reminded in the news, every moment and every day, of school shootings, shaky politics, poverty, starvation, refugee crises, murder, racism, rape, sexual harassment, and hate. Authors take these issues into consideration when building stories, and some of the biggest crises (which don’t necessarily make their way into the news: climate change, extinction, and dwindling wilderness and biodiversity) are subjects making their way into plots, world-building, and tension among characters. We haven’t seen anything like our world before. We imagine the wilderness so that we can hang onto what’s left. We want to write about our world before its best parts are gone. In fiction, there is desperation to cling to unlogged forests, clean oceans, sparkling rivers, vast deserts, and even just backyard ecosystems that mesmerize us. I have sat at a lake in the mountains of British Columbia watching minnows for hours, amazed.
I run a monthly spotlight on authors who explore climate change in fiction, and have had many interesting discussions. One was with John Atcheson, who stated:
“I think fiction still has an important role to play in defining the zeitgeist of an era. What I find fascinating is the plethora of dystopian works in film and fiction. I believe they are both a reflection of the times we’re in, and a creator of them. By which I mean, there’s a vague sense of dread, even among those who don’t acknowledge climate change, and dystopian stories allow them to grapple with their fear. Actually, I think the dread goes beyond climate change. The institutions and the disciplines we used to rely on are in disrepute so there’s an inchoate sense of doom … hence the other phenomena in film, and in graphic novels, The Super Hero.”
Here is the gist: fiction plays an important part in helping readers grasp large concepts that are simply numbers and bytes in the news. Good storytelling, which is not didactic, is an art form that allows the reader to not just escape but reflect, care, and cope. Stephen Siperstein, who contributed poems to Winds of Change, an anthology of stories about climate change that I published in 2015, said that many do not give climate change a thought and that there is rampant denialism, skepticism, and “climato-quietism” (Bruno Latour’s term for that laid-back attitude that somehow, without us acting, things will take care of themselves). According to Stephen, “This is the ‘new normal’ of our cognitive and affective lives, and for us to figure it all out, we need help. We need guides and maps. We need emotional resources. In short, we need the literary and cultural arts.” Bill McKibben preceded this idea in Grist, back in April 2005: “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art.”
A short note on Dystopia and Utopia"Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the yang and yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.Ursula K. Le Guin Explains How to Build a New Kind of UtopiaDystopian literature may be hopeful, and utopian literature may present problems it doesn't imagine.
I have noted often that eco-fiction stories are not just frightening but may offer hope. Often we are the antagonist, but redemption transforms us into the protagonist. We can do good together, even in times of crisis. Despite the dismal forecast for how climate change will continue to affect us and all other species on the planet, the strongest stories seem to happen when we “feed the good wolf” — when we look up, face our mistakes, apologize for them, and fix them … when we do what’s right. And what’s right, in this case, is also becoming what’s cool!
The concept of solarpunk is also a positive for literature; it’s not just a fiction genre but a hopeful aesthetic. I interviewed one of its stewards, Adam Flynn, who said:
“As billions of people in the developing world begin the rise out of poverty, they are looking for a vision of the ‘good life’, and unfortunately the current vision tends to involve fast food, large cars, big houses, and conspicuous consumption. Sustainability at scale means renewable energy, reusable infrastructure, an end to throwaway culture, room for human dignity, and the possibility for continued flourishing (although perhaps in different ways than how we define it currently).”
‘Wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking’
Ecologically oriented fiction is growing, and it’s entirely organic. Nobody says “hey, here’s a cool genre — write in it!” That’s not how fiction works. What is happening is that people naturally worry about the state of our world, and our future — just like people have been doing from the beginning of time — and some people tell stories about these things. When these things include an exploration of ecological systems around us, and how we relate to them, eco-literature is born and also is evolving with the shaky times. Running eco-fiction.com, I have built a database of books posted at the site, and while it is not exhaustive, almost 600 books are listed. The project is nearing its fifth birthday (on August 13th, 2018), and it’s evident that the number of fiction writers who fashion tales from stark realities is growing. This site has turned into a lifetime project, and in continuing with this study, I have grown fond of the diversity of storytelling within eco-fiction — it’s the most important thing to me, because the authors are all unique with their life experiences. They draw from different places, languages, and cultures, enriching this body of literature with fresh voices.
I always think back on Wai Chee Dimock’s words on how eco-fiction is evolving: wilder, more reckless, more breathtaking. This description is so apt. Authors are writing, and thus also documenting, the story of how humans evolve in what seems to be a mass extinction. The Holocene extinction, otherwise referred to as the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction, is the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity. Various modes of literature place ourselves in this epoch, which is full of sorrow, ghosts, dwindling biodiversity, plastic oceans, and death. It’s also full of embracing the wild within us. I chatted with the wise poet Lorna Crozier, who remarked:
“If we’re lucky enough to get into the wilderness, our bodies and our spirits crackle with life. Our legs on a trail feel stronger. They become animal again. Our sense of smell is honed. Raven speaks to us in one of the 200 dialects ornithologists have been able to measure. When a grizzly inhales my scent, I live for a moment inside his body, inside his mind. How can I not be changed? To get inside myself in a deep and meaningful way, where I might, if I’m lucky, find words to say what can’t be said, I have to get outside. I have to be larger than myself. Rain-drenched, I have to breathe in the wolf, the grizzly, breathe in the wild beauty of the world. And I have to figure out what to do to protect it — to stop all those human things that are causing such harm. The most optimistic part of me hopes the poems are one small way to do that.”
And the most optimistic part of me hopes that fiction will accomplish this.
Then there’s Jeff VanderMeer’s body of new weird fiction novels that are perfect examples of wild and breathtaking storytelling. I referenced his work in my three-part series at SFFWorld.com, Exploring the Ecological Weird. When I talked with Jeff about the Southern Reach Trilogy, he said:
“I’ve always explored weird real-life biology in my fiction, especially in the context of fungi, which often seems alien in its details. These are in a sense transitional forms, between animal and plant, that are incredibly complex and which we don’t quite understand all of that complexity just yet. So often it’s not that you go out to explore ecology through weird fiction, but that the weirdness of the real world suggests certain impulses in your fiction. The Southern Reach is just the most personal exploration, and thus the dark ecology content probably is more intense and more front-and-center. This is largely because the setting is highly personal — North Florida wilderness — and certain elements, like the (at the time) seemingly endless spiral of the Gulf Oil Spill that kind of took up residence in my subconscious.”
As we walk along the heavy Fleet Streets of our time — as W B Yeats did in his day, thinking of The Lake Isle of Innisfree — it’s not enough to dream about nine bean rows, linnet’s wings, a bee-hive, and a small cabin made of wattles and clay; though there’s nothing wrong with that, but we are on the global Fleet Street now, one that is being extinguished. Authors are telling our story, and in some way it’s an old story, but in many ways it’s a new one, now that the Anthropocene has been recognized.
The reason we went to Ireland is because my mother’s relatives came from there long ago, and it was her dream to visit the country someday. Dad, unfortunately, had early onset Parkinson’s disease, and he retired early and never was able to travel far. After he died, I relied on my mother more and more for her old mountain ways and advice (she grew up in the Appalachian hills with parents who lived off the land), and my husband and I wanted to take her on a lifelong dream trip to her ancestor’s homeland, a place she had dreamed of visiting since a child.
I still feel Ireland every day, though it’s been two years since we visited. I see tiny orchids and Burnet’s roses and mountain avens poking through rocks in the Burren and vast swamp and peat lands filled with rocky outcrops and hills. We climb one hill, and there’s even a higher one. The further we go, our perspective of the Irish green patched land is wide-ranging, but we never can seem to reach the very top. It’s somewhere up there. Our GPS gets confused and takes us down forgotten country lanes where abundant heather springs up around ruins of centuries-old cottages and barns. I see the big ocean swipe the rocky beaches below my run on the precipitous trail above the Cliffs of Moher, where tall grasses sway in the early June gales. I also feel cold winds slap my face on the boat to the same cliffs, where tens of thousands of seabirds nest in the rock shelves. At first, we didn’t see anything but whitish vague shapes in the rocks, but the closer the boat got to the cliffs and the seastack, it became so clear: puffins, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, and other birds everywhere. I see the blackness in Doolin Cave (Poll an Eidhneáin), home of the longest free-hanging stalactite in Europe. We stand next to its waxy looking body in the dim light set up in there, and feel ancient. Running down a country lane flanked by peat fields and bloody cranesvilles and stinging nettles, I feel like Gandalf will come along in his wagon at any moment. I hear the cottage shutters banging night after night from the strong North Atlantic winds. No matter where we go there are verdant fields and groves of trees and cows. What existed at one time still remains: ancient ruins of old forts and castles and farmhouses, along with dolmens, cairns, and other megaliths. It’s a place where time is not linear, where the past transcends the present, where a faerie may take your hand and take you away to the waters and the wild. Much like the field of literature called eco-fiction.
You can read Part 1 of a History of Eco-fiction here.
You can find out more about the Holocene Extinction — also known as “the Sixth extinction or Anthropocene extinction … the ongoing extinction event of species during the present Holocene epoch, mainly as a result of human activity” — in this Wikipedia article.
You can also read author David Thorpe’s ClimateCultures posts on utopian and dystopian fictions via his profile page in our Members Directory.