Talking to the Crisis

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on a follow-up conversation between interviewer Julia Marques, performer Daniel Bye, creative producer Tessa Gordziejko, artist Jennifer Leach and geographer Matt Law on experiences of darkness, attitudes to uncertainty and opportunities for creativity.


2,660 words: estimated reading time 11 minutes + audio


In January, Julia Marques spoke with five fellow ClimateCultures members to explore what art and environmentalism bring to each other, and how they combine the two in their work.

We published Julia’s full-length interviews with Daniel Bye, Andrea Carr, Tessa Gordziejko, Matt Law and Jennifer Leach alongside her own reflections on the exchanges here. Her post also featured short clips from each interview, touching on topics such as: how art can galvanize environmental action or thinking, or simply help us to face the mounting sense of crisis; how collaboration with others in artistic practices can be part of our making sense of climate and ecological crisis, and how an appreciation of the ‘everyday ecology’ of our lives and surroundings — which art can celebrate — serves to shift our consciousness beyond simply the facts and news stories. And, as the interviews also revealed, an artistic mindset rewards attention to those usually very generalized words ‘collaboration’, ‘sustainability’, ‘optimism’ and even ‘creativity’ itself in ways that inform particular approaches to the processes, materials and practices of bringing environmental awareness into the heart of everything we do; and celebrating the small acts and experiences of creativity every bit as valuable as making and marking the large, public works.

Together, those five recordings offer rich insights into the work of different artists and researchers that — although the interviews draw mostly on theatre for their examples and ideas — have value for creative practices in all fields and across many disciplines. And, as Julia said, discussions such as these are part of the much bigger conversation that we’re engaged in and need to expand and develop further. If you haven’t already done so, do take a look at her post and the interviews.

Deepening the dialogue

It was therefore a natural development of those first one-to-one conversations — one that Julia and I discussed early on — that we try and bring together as many of the participants as possible, to see if they could develop some of those individual ideas further. So I was delighted when Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt were able to join Julia in a Zoom call one evening and see where the conversation might take them. We’ve presented this here as three shorter audio clips.

In the first session, Julia, Tessa, Jennifer, Dan and Matt catch up with each other’s work since the initial interviews six months ago, and how these projects and new activities continue to explore the themes they discussed. We find out about recent work, much of which has a shared focus or experience of land: land access and edgelands in song and film; art on the land and creating green woods for future generations; moving into a new personal landscape, listening and waiting to see what comes as work that has to be real and not just noise; engaging with the end of our way of living; working with new artists.

The second session then picks up on a couple of those themes, teasing out some convergences and divergences around ideas and language around darkness and light in our experiences of the world, and around useful distinctions between uncertainty and ambiguity.

Finally, there’s a short discussion around whether we can see the climate and ecological crisis as an opportunity for creativity.

As with all such dialogue — in these times especially — provocations and reflections such as these do not offer definitive responses or an end to the questioning and the circling back to previous ideas and exchanges. Instead, they are a process, feeding off and into all our explorations, sparking new connections and possibilities. In that spirit, we hope these will prompt further conversation, on these pages and beyond.

Conversation is creative

Although I was not part of any of the sessions, on listening to the recordings I certainly felt myself to be in conversation with the ideas and the examples flowing between the participants. One of the joys of sitting in the background of ClimateCultures is receiving the materials that members send in for our blog; whether I experience them initially as offers of ideas, or as first drafts for discussion or as complete pieces, there’s always a point early on where what’s coming to me as fresh perspectives from a creative mind spark off my own associations, questions and conversations — with myself and what I thought I knew beforehand, and with the contributor. Each post is a prompt for to me to think afresh on the issues we’re facing and the ways that I choose to perceive and to act on them. I hope that’s the way they’re received and responded to by others. Creativity is a conversation and conversation is creative, and both open up the world and our place within it.

Listening in on talk of the darkness, of the different ways of understanding what it is and what it offers and requires of us, I was struck by my sympathy both with Dan’s opening response to Julia’s prompt on how we respond to darkness and ending:

“It’s hard isn’t it? There is so much darkness, it’s hard to know which bit to try not to look at! Hard to know where to bring the light. And I think especially this past year, so much of it has been about getting through to the next day with the people nearest.”

and Jennifer’s plea, as “a great fan and protector of the darkness”, that we not always fall into its characterisation as supposedly negative:

“There’s something about that insistent light, that insistent need for the light that I think is part of the reason that we are really at this point of existential crisis. Because, the darkness … there’s great beauty in it, great restfulness in it, there’s a chance for restoration, there’s a chance for quietness, for peace. It’s the fundamental part of regeneration … Without the seeds going underground you wouldn’t get the harvest, and without death in life you wouldn’t have life.”

life in conversation: showing 'bud' by Jennifer Leach
Bud – mixed media on paper
Image: Jennifer Leach © 2021

Tessa reflected on the fact that Julia’s original interviews occurred in the middle of winter and now this conversation was unfolding as the longest day of the year approached, and on the different relationships with darkness that these two midpoints offer:

“I quite enjoy the winter darkness, and wintering as an idea …closing down a bit and being underground… Now we are nearly at the longest day of the year … and a different kind of darkness occurs then. It’s a very short darkness and quite a magical darkness, and it’s late coming … And there’s a different sense of the darkness we are facing as our human narrative, which is nonetheless there but — there can be something quite joyful about it.”

Conversation with the season: Showing a Solstice Firewalk, by Tess Gordziejko
Solstice Firewalk
Photograph: Tessa Gordziejko © 2021

To me, what lies between these personal responses to questions of what the darkness and endings mean, and what it means to live with them, is not so much a disagreement as a web of complementary insights into the complexity of human experience, and — as Matt picked up on from Jennifer’s point on life going underground — the shared cycles of nature that we’re part of and are part of us:

“There’s a really nice image of going from the biosphere, the world of the living, into the lithosphere, the world of the rock, and then back out — what springs out of that again. … If we are thinking about anxiety about an environmentally changed future, and we have this idea of participatory mourning or solastalgia, maybe focusing on these minutiae — well look at the regeneration that comes, the sense that nature finds a way.”

Tending our patch

While one reading of ‘darkness’ feeds into the sense of endings and of loss and of ‘end times’ — feelings that we’ve all experienced or witnessed with great force during these times of global pandemic as much as with the continuing slide into ecological catastrophes around the world — other readings can also bring an appreciation that we can sometimes choose to approach endings, even loss, in more positive ways. For one thing, there can be joy in the beauty that has been experienced and generated along the way, and that is still there or yet to be created. And there’s the opportunity to imagine, anticipate and therefore work to bring about the better ways of surviving the worst and thriving beyond that.

Sometimes the response to changes that can feel overwhelming is to focus on the nearby, the achievable — towards, as Dan puts it, a move where

“people have turned towards tending their own patch of grass … trying to make the practices in the areas over which they have control good practice … That feels to me like an understandable response to a perceived inability to be heard or to make a difference … and a good example to others who might have the wherewithal to do so.”

It’s a metaphor he returns to, suggesting that the arts, while often termed an ‘industry’ is not a monolith but “an ecology. It’s a lot of people’s separate patches of grass which happen to overlap and share root systems and share weather, and that actually tending your own patch well and in an exemplary fashion can be part of effecting systemic change.”

In convreation with the land: showing a still from the film These Hills Are Ours by Bevis Bowden
These Hills Are Ours, by Daniel Bye & Boff Whalley
Film by Bevis Bowden © 2020

The more such patches there are the better the ecology, as Tessa points out, and “art off grid” is part of the way forward. And Jennifer picks up this theme of personal patches of creativity and the possibilities of intimate connection as a place of feasibility, and embracing the home-made — meaning the creative work by the hearth rather than in the public arena — “without losing the sense of quality” may be needed now more than ever: “So, not to feel that what we are doing is a waste of time, not to feel that we need to lose it, but there are ways of making it very real in a very different way.”

This sense of nurturing a personal creativity and embracing that small-scale engagement is perhaps reflected at a larger scale in Tessa’s observation that the word humility has its roots in humus, the living soil, and that maybe seeking a more humble approach is a species-level response too. “We are going to be humbled anyway so maybe a conscious and deliberate humbling of ourselves in the way that we envisage the way we live and the way that we learn…”

The act of leaving that thought hanging in the air is perhaps in its own way a tentative bridge between the personal and the global dimensions, a recognition of the enormous scale of action and consciousness that’s being asked of all of us alongside the creative responses that any one of us might feel able to develop. As later discussion suggested, looking to all this for a creative ‘opportunity’ is perhaps off the mark. Climate change and ecological depletion are what we are immersed in, and while some might choose to continue to not hear the alarm bell — and it’s certainly not possible to listen to it at full volume all the time — the crisis is nevertheless “an insistence rather than an opportunity,” as Dan puts it.

“It’s present in everything I do,” Tessa admits, “whether it’s explicit or implicit. … It’s much more immersive for me. Although not everything I make is about the climate crisis, everything happens in that framework.”

Where the opportunity lies, Matt suggests, is for art

“to sculpt a vision of something to be hopeful about, and also to connect people with stories that when they read about them in the news they don’t relate to at all because it’s happening to people who live on the other side of the planet or who will live 50 years from now. And that’s a really important opportunity.”

in conversation with the past: showing Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change
Matthew Law coring for evidence of past environmental change in Hertfordshire
Photograph: Alice Short

And that space of opportunity is also shaped by our grasp of ambiguity, which Dan identifies as “something being both the case and not the case at the same time” and as “the root of metaphor and faith in whatever, in anything.” As Tessa says, creativity works with ambiguity all the time, not seeking to pin everything down. For Matt, “within scientific process there is a world of uncertainty. A lot of my work is rooted in archaeology and there is so far you can take the evidence before you have to make an inferential leap…”

That sense of grasping both the ‘is’ and the ‘is not’ and not always striving to resolve that ambiguity is also a leap, an imaginative one. And it offers a creative resistance to the urgency that, although very real, can drown out the value of diversity in all we do in the face of existential crisis; a generosity towards diversity, even when it maybe looks like an unwelcome dilution of the singular effort, the struggle to get everyone on board with ‘the answer’. As Jennifer expresses it:

“All of these things are important, all of our ways are important, the fighting is really important, the resistance is really important, the refusal to lie down and just accept it — and the opposite is also true: the people who embrace it, accept it, who move through it in peace and centredness without resisting it, that’s also important. It’s going to be messy and there are no clear answers, there never are. There’s going to be tatters round the edges. That’s life and evolution and who are we to resist it, in a way?”

The interplay of light and dark, of ambiguity and understanding, of ambivalence and ideas of decline and regeneration, and of the small, patchwork acts and the large, singular ones — these make up part of the rich soil in which art, research and all creative work thrive and can inform our activism. There is this and much more in the conversations that Julia, Dan, Tessa, Matt and Jennifer have shared with us here. I hope you enjoy listening in and maybe exploring where their conversation sits with and talks with your own experiences, ideas and work. As Matt observes at one point, there’s an interesting thread through their conversation that’s not the one he thought they’d be talking about at all, and you might find your own threads there too and want to pick at the discussion in different ways…

It’s something we’d like to do more of. ClimateCultures — an initiative that, as Julia expresses it, “brings different worlds together” — welcomes your voice too. If you want to share your own reflections and responses to the conversations, do get leave a comment, and members can get in touch with their own post for the blog.


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Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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You can watch Julia’s earlier interviews with Dan, Tessa, Jennifer, Matt and Andrea in her post Conversations with Work That Connects.

In this new conversation, Tessa mentions that she’s been listening to the podcast The Great Humbling, where futurist Ed Gillespie and writer and co-founder of A School Called HOME Dougald Hine ask “How will they look in hindsight, these strange times we are living through? Is this a midlife crisis on humanity’s road to the Star Trek future – or the point at which that story of the future unravelled and we came to see how much it had left out?” In a series of conversations, they explore whether “our current crises are neither an obstacle to be overcome, nor the end of the world, but a necessary humbling?”

Bringing It All Back Home

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Dara McAnulty’s Diary of Young Naturalist — a remarkable testament to love for the natural world and a key to finding a greater sense of living in and caring for our shared home. 


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


Dara McAnulty is one of the growing number of young people who, over the past few years, have helped transform the landscape of activism and creativity around biodiversity and climate, orientating us to face the crisis head-on. That this is also a crisis of consciousness is borne out by the everyday acts of concealment permeating our lives, erasing the natural world’s erasure; concealments that Dara resists and reveals. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a call to an awakening that draws on and activates powerful imagination, where nature also lives. “All birds live brightly in our imagination, connecting us to the natural world, opening up all kinds of creativity. Is this connection really diminishing to the point of return? I refuse to believe it. … Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!”

Diary of a Young Naturalist, celebrating the natural world.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Milkweed Editions, USA (2021). Cover illustration: Barry Falls

Dara, who is now seventeen, offers clear and powerful insights into the turning of a full year, his fourteenth. He moves family home to another part of Northern Ireland, changes school, and experiences his personal immersion in the natural world becoming also a collaboration with professional conservationists, a forging of friendships with other children as he introduces them to observations of nature, and an exposure to cultural movements and political activity — all the while deepening his own appreciation of his own nature.

“Autism makes me feel everything more intensely. I don’t have a joy filter. When you are different, when you are joyful and exuberant, when you are riding the crest of the everyday, a lot of people just don’t like it. They don’t like me. But I don’t want to tone down my excitement. Why should I?”

We should all tone up our excitement, learn to tune in to our innate connectedness with the rest of nature — experiencing the world as it is rather than the version we manufacture and sell ourselves. A living home rather than our disposable property.

For Dara, the world of people is so often one of overwhelming noise and chaos, without many of the filters the rest of society is accustomed to and orders itself through. But as this year progresses he discovers a changing sense of connection with others through the efforts he makes to bring nature closer to them.

The diary format is a perfect fit to a task that might itself overwhelm other approaches. It takes us forward with him through the seasons and the cycles of the year, while bringing everything back to his immersion in the animal, plant and insect life and to family. And it gives space for his evident understanding of the histories and mythologies of place that tie the personal to the landscape and the wide world, dissolving the distances between them.

A gentle force

Introducing each season with a brief essay gives Dara the opportunity to frame the smaller stories that a diary naturally focuses in on. His recordings, day-to-day, week-to-week, are a place from which he steps back into his own life to recall first experiences and steps out into our wider culture to demonstrate its astonishing ignorance of a nature that’s so immediate and alive to him. ‘If me,’ he seems to ask us, ‘then why not everyone?’

 

Dara McAnulty - celebrating the natural world
Dara McAnulty, Young Naturalist
Photograph: Little Toller Books

He begins with “life springing out everywhere … rippling excitement that never fades.” It’s in the richness of the blackbird’s notes he can always pick out, even in the most crowded springtime soundscapes: “the start of it all, the awakening of so much.” This began when he was three, lying in his parent’s bedroom while they slept, waiting for the dawn light and the birdsong. “It was the start of a fascination with the world outside of walls and windows. Everything in it pushed with a gentle force, it begged me to listen and to understand.” And his understanding grew to take in the world not just through direct experience and prolonged exposure on family trips, but through reading; “books helped bridge my blackbird dream. They connected me to the bird, physically.” The human world, by contrast, is noise and pain: “cars, voices, orders, questions, changes of expression, fast chatter that I couldn’t keep up with.”

In summer, sitting under an oak’s dappled light as ”the leaves whisper ancient incantations”, he understands the tree’s witnessing of long human and other time passing and how it continues to host and harbour abundant life into the future: “If only we could be connected in the way this oak tree is connected with its ecosystem.” Dara’s relationship with the natural world is rich, a joyous intensity leaping, flying and flowering from every page. But other people, as he learned early on, just seem to enjoy nature from a distance rather than to feed direct from the source, its restless energy. For many of us, the wild is lovely in the ‘right place’ but is a nuisance, a danger or an abomination whenever it interferes with the smooth orderliness of the human realm.

Autumn finds life in a “state of slow withering and soft lullaby” above ground, but mycelial interweaving and fruiting bursting up from beneath: “a hidden wonder web of connection” with an intoxicating smell. “And while the land breathes out, I breathe in deeply, covering the incoming dread of the newness to come. New school, new people, new navigations.” Dara’s life — the continual challenges of school and mismatched social expectations, a move away from the known and loved family home to the uncertainty of a new place in another part of the country — is a negotiation both of traumatic loss and the anticipation of loss and of unexpected gain. His growing confidence in the truth of writing, and of bringing his truths to others, powers this diary just as much as his undimmable love of nature and of its eroded but recoverable meanings for humans.

Winter and the clarifying absence of abundance that it brings with “drained days, submerged in grey and brown, a dripping watercolour … reveals contours and shape in the land … spires of bareness.” The season’s beauty is all its own but it shares a sense of change with spring and autumn. “Winter, for me, is now feeling like a time of growth, of contemplation, connection with our ancestors and those that have passed.” The growing darkness means more quietness; “I can hear so much more between … Winter brings it out, the clearness of everything, the seeing without seeking.”

Small pieces of hope

“It isn’t in my personality to go around regurgitating statistics about the horrors inflicted on the natural world, because they are outside of my experience. It fills me with despair and I want to do is bury my head.”

This is a book that offers another way to come to the truth of what is happening. Importantly — crucially — it shows what is possible through small but repeated acts of perfect observation of the here and now. And matches that with an acute sense of what will soon be gone if we don’t at last awaken to what’s at stake, what extinction means and what is required of us to slow and halt the collapse: to let the natural world breathe again and bring us back from the edge. Dara can spot the pattern in any field or wood or street, alert to what’s already hanging on that edge.

The pattern can be in small signs, on the human scale that so often tricks us into thinking that things are ‘not as bad as all that’, into accepting an unquestioning pleasure in the rarity of things that should not be rare at all. A more questioning stance to the small signs all around engages anger, rightly undermining our human-sized complacencies.

Their car stopped at the side of a road, everyone’s ears straining into the still countryside around them, Dara, sister, brother, mum and dad wait in vain for the creature they’ve been seeking. “Dad is about to hit the start button of the engine when the craking begins, clear and quaking as a ratchet. A corncrake. It sizzles against the bleating of lambs and moaning of cows, another wild song sacrificed to the agricultural soundscape.” Intensifying farming has disrupted a seasonal rhythm in the wild, erased it and with it the eggs of this once common bird that once nested amongst the crops. “The future of the species in this place, in any place, is broken. Gone. A human in the driving seat, of course. These days, just the male calls out to infinite skies. He crakes and keens with no mate to return the sound.” Dara experiences a painful division from his family at this point. Everyone else is taking pleasure in the sound “but in that moment their smiles make me want to scream. How can they? I don’t share in the joy.” 

In another season, a winter gone awry, when a sudden warm spell “conjured up a patch of lesser celandine, unbelievably early. I couldn’t celebrate them. Not really. It was as if they were growing in the shadow of a planet that’s out of sync.” And, another season again, when storms topple trees on his street Dara sees that an oak “had fallen to expose its root ball, so tight and tangled that there couldn’t possibly have been any more space for life. It wasn’t the wind that toppled the oak, not really. Being confined in asphalt and under slabs, that’s what did it. When we strolled past on the way to school there were traffic cones all around it, but I stepped inside the space anyway and wondered if anyone saw me touch the bark. ‘Sorry,’ I said.” 

This is a sensitivity to life and its conditions that should be a common trait. But, as Dara observes of the street scene, “the ripped-up human surfaces, all broken and jagged, spoke of people first, nature last.” He collects a handful of the acorns and pockets them to plant at home later, “like small pieces of hope … They may or may not make it, but fifty-fifty is enough and we should always take the chance.”

Hopes are easily crushed too. He watches a boy pick a conker from the earth and ease it from its spiked casing to see the shine on the “tiny globe of red-tinted light” — but when the boy is scolded for picking up something ‘dirty’, Dara sees a light go out. “The things grown-ups do without thinking. The messages they send angrily into the world. The consequences ricochet through time, morph, grow, shapeshift. What’s so wrong with a conker?” When the mother isn’t looking, Dara picks up another one and hands it to the boy.

“’Put it in your pocket,’ I say. ’It’s called a conker. It’s the seed of that horse chestnut tree.’… I hope it gets to stay with him, if not in his pocket then in his memory. I honestly cannot comprehend where this comes from, this fear, this disconnect.”

The disconnect is a result of the taming of land: as the land is unmade, so the people — a decline matching each to the other’s retreat from the wild. In a landscape of square, bright-green, high-yielding fields, “the views are good, yet when you think about what’s inside the view, all the wildlife it squeezes out, what we can see … begins to feel more grim and starts closing in.” He is writing of his own family when he says this is “why we seek wild places — places that aren’t really wild, but feel like wilderness to us” but is speaking also to a truth about how all our tamed natures feel the need to rebel too from time to time, to rattle the cage. That recognition can be the start of resistance, and small acts of rewilding ourselves as well as our surroundings. It’s the refusal of an impoverishment that is falsely packaged as ‘progress’.

Rebellion for the natural world

A family trip to Rathlin Island brings respite from some of the traumas. “A restful night’s sleep is not something I’m familiar with. I find it hard to process and phase out so much of our overwhelming world. The colours on Rathlin are mostly natural and muted in this early spring light, tones that are tolerable to me. Bright colours cause a kind of pain, a physical assault on the senses. Noise can be unbearable. Natural sounds are easier to process, and that’s all we hear on Rathlin. Here, my body and mind are in a kind of balance. I don’t feel like this very often.”

And with the natural world to the fore and all around, it also becomes easier to “start my new challenge of talking to people, interacting. Here, surrounded by this, it’s easier. I’m in my natural habitat, and sharing it all with others feels so good.” Later, on a trip to Scotland, he joins a conservation team to weigh, ring and tag goshawk chicks, “the whole operation mesmerising, this delicate interaction between birds and people.”

“Without realising it, I start talking to the people around me… I feel at ease. This is so rare. They aren’t teasing or confusing me. I ask questions which are given detailed, intelligent answers, and it feels as if I’ve been dipped in a golden light. This is what I want to do … This is who I am. This is who we all could be. I am not like these birds but neither am I separate from them.” 

Dara McAnulty - Protecting the natural world
Dara at Youth Strike for Climate
From ‘Diary of a Young Naturalist’

As the year progresses, Dara starts to taste social media celebrity as his sharing of the naturalist life inspires others and he accepts invitations to speak at gatherings and events, battling with his feelings among other people. As more is asked of him, the sense grows of being an impostor — that his efforts are not enough — alongside anger that adults are taking the easy route of praising him rather than doing what they should for their own children. He asks himself repeatedly if his writing is enough, if awareness is enough, but when he returns to nature itself these questions disappear:

“Under dark skies, I feel completely unburdened of any doubts in my abilities to help our planet. Instead, I feel energised and ready. Sopping wet and cold and with chattering teeth, still giggling madly, I feel hope pouring in the rain. Being myself is enough.”

It’s a mark of his clarity and immediacy with prose; writing also, while never enough in itself, is a twin act of rebellion and celebration that brings writer and reader more access to nature. Writing — the act of writing from observation — is an active remembering, again and again bringing back to him places and experiences, crystallising their intensity and meaning. As he commits memory to paper he re-experiences the physicality of it all: “My hand touches moss, leaves my imprint. It’s as if I am back there still, with the small mass of the experience on my skin. … I feel transformed as I write myself back to the mountain, and every time I feel the vitality and beauty of nature.”

Meanwhile, in the tamed fields, something wild hangs on. It wheels over “one of the luminous fields, that tedious green sea, searching, searching and then suddenly drops, mantling its prey. That field just gave the buzzard food! I bow my head and smile.”

Dara asks himself, and us: “Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion?” Yes. 


Find out more

Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist has won numerous awards since its hardback publication in the UK by Little Toller Books (and in paperback by Penguin – see below). It is published in the USA by Milkweed Editions. I previously reviewed Milkweed’s Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush – see Rising — Endsickness and Adaptive Thinking.

You can find Dara on Twitter @NaturalistDara and read more at Naturalist Dara, where you can also watch his 2017 Springwatch Unsprung film for BBC Springwatch. The Milkweed Editions page includes short films of Dara reading from and talking about the book.

The title for this post? In a nod to Dara’s “Who knows where watching sparrows will lead!” and to Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday, this from ‘Gates of Eden‘ on Dylan’s 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home:

Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden.

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #11

Writer Kelvin Smith‘s three objects — electric lighting, symbolically living money, once-and-future reefs — question what is fundamental to human presence on Earth, what’s been taken from the land and what new creations might arise in future seas.


1,900 words — approximate reading time 7.5 minutes


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

***

The electric Iolanthe

My mother used to tell the story of how electricity came to her village. It must have been some time in the 1920s, when she was a little girl. One day work on the village transformer had been completed and a single light bulb was lit up on the top. Everyone in the village danced around it.

Bear in mind this was not an isolated spot deep in the country, but a village no more than ten miles from the huge mass of mill chimneys in Central Lancashire. This was a major European industrial region, but one in which her village, Woodhouses, had had to wait many years for the ‘new’ power source to be introduced. Not perhaps that anyone felt the need. In the century recently ended the house where she was later born had been built with large windows to let in the daylight for the silk weavers who then lived there. Sunlight and gaslights were good enough for the schools, churches and other aspects of village life. They were not hampered by the lack of electric light and power, and it would be many years until labour saving electric and electronic gadgets entered the home.

electric performance: showing Jessie Bond as Iolanthe in 1882
Jessie Bond as Iolanthe at the Savoy Theatre in 1882

One of the major social cultural activities of the village was the Woodhouses Church Amateur Operatic Society, and its annual staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. My mother was a regular performer and her high point was an appearance as Iolanthe. I later learned that Iolanthe was the first work to premiere at the Savoy Theatre on 25 November 1882, and it was the first new theatre production in the world to be illuminated entirely with electric lights. Radio, films, music performance and recording, television, and all the wonders of the Internet would follow over the next 140 years using the miracle of electricity.

electric heritage: showing the plaque at the Savoy Theatre in London, commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity..
Savoy Theatre, London: Plaque commemorating the first public building in the world to be lit by electricity.
Photograph: Mick Lobb © 2011 (CCL) www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3010211

Electricity has been as the core of our lives since then, and I wonder, even with generation of electricity by solar, wind and other renewables, if it is right to think of electricity as fundamental to the future of the planet. Can the continued generation, transmission, and storage of electricity really be the only option to maintain a human presence on Earth?

The colour of money

Like many people who have travelled I have a stash of unused currency, coins and banknotes, mostly now invalid, but kept for the feel and smell and for the memories they contain.

The coins are brute metal, the same metal that makes bombs and bullets, the metal of shrieking transportation, the metal of blades that cut crops and butcher beasts.

There is metal in the earth and on the earth, in the skies and in the air, in the water and under the water. It is dissolved and discarded, the metal of industry and the metal of war, the metal of sport and the metal of experimentation. It rusts and decays, but slowly, colouring rocks and leaving sediments, making acids and colourful salts, changing appearance and behaviour, causing trouble and making things go off-kilter. The base metals, the precious and workaday minerals come from all continents. Where do we find our iron, copper, nickel, platinum, silver, gold and more; diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and all the parts that decorate bodies and badges of power, crowns and cutting tools? The same places where coal, asbestos, oil is brought forth from the earth.

There are images and icons on the coins, but I am most struck with the images on the notes. There are, of course, leaders and other famous faces, but there are also birds and animals (elephant, water buffalo, armadillo) and crops (tea, tobacco, maize), tractors and people carrying sacks on their heads. All represent what money can buy, but they also hold the secrets of what money can do.

A collection of banknotes left over from my travels
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

In this Earth we have forced living things to come to us for profit or pleasure, living things made dead for commerce: animal skin clothing, nostrums and potions made of teeth, horn, internal organs and sexual parts. People have turned land into plantations of commercial crops: tea and coffee, coca and cacao, tobacco and bananas, flax and sisal. All of this was done with no concern for the people who were there, who were shipped out, enslaved or indentured, beaten and burnt. Now, converted to foreign creeds, they may make a living from folklore and foreigners, smiling and selling to cruise ship crowds and other travelling charlatans.

The metal and paper tokens remind me of what has been taken, what impoverishment has been caused, what degradation of people and place, what stripping of surface soils and deeper sediments. The people, the creatures and the things that have been taken from the earth now lie on its surface, in its waters and in its air. They will not go back into the land they came from.

A new coral reef

The future is in a piece of coral found on a faraway beach, now covered with mould and mosses in a Suffolk garden. It comes from a period when I would regularly fly to that part of the world, passing over the peak of a dead volcano, noticing each time that there was a little less snow. On the way back north, looking into the dark from high above, I would often see flame lines across the wide semi-arid top of the continent.

This coral came from a beach where it had washed up, already dead, but still carrying the delicate marks made by its creators, small repeated patterns discernible now as the matter crumbles under the pressure of green growth and northern weather. The beach where it came from was, we heard, earmarked for development by a foreign hotel company, but at the time it was clean uncluttered sand, and the only sign of human life was what remained of an abandoned sisal plantation on the hills above. This large expanse was crisscrossed with abandoned small-gauge railway tracks, unseen mostly but felt as a judder whenever the vehicle bounced over them. It was a paradise beach, the remains of a colonial exploitation, from which I took a single piece of dead coral.

electric life - showing a piece of dead coral comes alive again
A piece of dead coral found on a beach in Southern Tanzania in the 1990s comes alive again in Suffolk in 2020
Photograph: Kelvin Smith

Why is this a sign for the future? It is a message of the calm before the next storm. This coral’s reef home, the place where it had lived and died, is unrecorded and unregistered. The other sea creatures are unremembered too.

The white rocklike thing that decays in the English winter is a lost thing with no connection to its origins or to the future. But in the future there may be another reef, not coral now (that is all long dead), but made of constructed things, a reef framed on waste and redundant manufactures, artificial, self-evolved or bioengineered, destined to eat plastics, dung and multifarious detritus, taking on a life and a purpose of its own. Covering the flooded foreshores and coastal cities, cleaving to the metal and the concrete, collecting life from oils and plastics, assaying them for edibility, and beginning the long munching and mulching, the centuries-long work of realigning the chemical and biological structures of the planet. I imagine that these creatures will make colours too, and magical shapes, will evolve pattern, and rhythms to support new forms and adaptation of an earthly life.

Some beings may see these wonderful creations but they will not be us. If there are people still, they will not live near these new oceans and estuaries. They will protect themselves from further damage. They will have no memory.

Survivors will stay far inland, on high points, collecting precipitated liquids, adapting to a diet of who-knows-what organic matter. Humans will breed at random but with difficulty. We will not know a past and will stop imagining a future. We will not have stories to tell. We will look down the slopes and valleys and fear the shifting surfaces of the coral’s realm. We will not try to be powerful again for a very long time. We will have lost the world and our souls, but the new reef will carry on growing.

***

To return to my mother. Her appearance as Iolanthe was often spoken of at home and I particularly remember the story of one young village lad who was asked what he thought about the performance. “It were all right,” he said, “until that bugger came up all covered in seaweed.”

So it might be when the first human plucks up courage to go down to the new shoreline, test the waters around the new plasticised reef, enter the liquid morass and come up covered with … what?


Find out more

You can read a short account of the first use of electric lighting in a public building, at the Savoy Theatre in 1881, at the Read the Plaque site: “Sir Joseph Swan, inventor of the incandescent light bulb, supplied about 1,200 Swan incandescent lamps, and the lights were powered by a 120 horsepower generator on open land near the theatre. [Richard D’Oyley] Carte explained why he had introduced electric light: ‘The greatest drawbacks to the enjoyment of the theatrical performances are, undoubtedly, the foul air and heat which pervade all theatres. As everyone knows, each gas-burner consumes as much oxygen as many people, and causes great heat beside. The incandescent lamps consume no oxygen, and cause no perceptible heat.’ … Carte stepped on stage and broke a glowing lightbulb before the audience to demonstrate the safety of the new technology.” Jessie Bond’s own reminiscences include an unexpected reference to another electric innovation at the Savoy: “The improved stage fittings and increased space of the Savoy Theatre made it possible to present ‘Iolanthe’ much more effectively and elaborately than any of the previous operas. There was a great sensation when the fairies tripped in with electric stars shining in their hair – nothing of the sort had ever been seen before …”

As the Engineering Timelines site explains, the public supply and use of electricity was initially quite slow to take off in Britain: Michael Faraday discovered the principles for generating and transforming electricity in the 1830s, but it was several decades before this took over from the established technologies of steam and gas. “It was clear from early on that the investment and infrastructure required for an electrical industry would make electricity a very costly commodity compared with the other well-established technologies. Indeed once it did start, progress was slow.” The first town to have electric street lighting was Godalming in Surrey, also in 1881.

Kelvin Smith
Kelvin Smith
A prose and poetry writer presenting imaginative perspectives on the climate crisis, and encouraging book people to change what they do and how they do it.
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An Invitation to Act: Letters to the Earth

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


1,700 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


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

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

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

The act of naming

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

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

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

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

Firepit conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters to provoke

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sphinx - photography: by Nick HuntWriter Nick Hunt travelled to Scotland’s Cairngorms in search of a once permanent presence that’s becoming another marker of a new transience: enduring snows that serve as scraps of deep of time, now endangered on our warming island.


710 words: estimated reading time 3 minutes 


Garbh Coire Mòr in the Cairngorms is home to two of Scotland’s longest-lying snow patches: Sphinx and Pinnacles (named after nearby climbing routes). They normally endure year-round in this remote, high corrie. But things are not normal any more. In recent years they have melted before the end of the summer, bellwethers of a wider change.

In the last week of September I went to find what was left of them.

Garbh Coire Mòr - Photographby Nick Hunt
Garbh Coire Mòr
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

An Arctic outpost

After catching the sleeper train to Aviemore and walking for around ten miles up the rugged post-glacial valley of the Lairig Ghru, I arrived at the foot of Braeriach in the early afternoon. Cloud hung low over the mountain but in the hollow of Garbh Coire Mòr it lifted for a minute or two, just enough time to give me a glimpse of two pale eyes.

A tundra landscape - photograph by Nick Hunt
A tundra landscape
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

As I approached, leaving the path to walk over a boggy weave of blaeberry, moss and reindeer lichen – the tundra landscape that turns the Cairngorms into an exclave of the Arctic – the shapes of the snow patches became more apparent. It was difficult to guess their size. The final climb was a scramble up wet, sliding scree.

Sphinx - photography: by Nick Hunt
Sphinx
Photography: Nick Hunt © 2019

First I went to Sphinx, the smaller, slightly higher patch. Up close its snow wasn’t smooth, or even particularly white, but blushed pink with the run-off of the mountain’s reddish soil and stained black with darker grime, hairy with pine needles. Its surface was pitted and eroded from ablating and refreezing. It hardly looked like snow at all but a lump of spoiled meat.

Pinnacles - photograph by Nick Hunt
Pinnacles
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

Pinnacles was bigger, perhaps eighteen metres long and a metre tall, though underneath it had lifted off the rock and appeared to be almost floating. I’d brought my ice axe with the idea of attempting a traverse, but I didn’t think it would hold my weight. Besides, it seemed disrespectful.

I laid the axe on top for scale and simply sat for an hour or two in the snow’s company. I put my bottle underneath to catch its dripping water. I felt reluctant to leave its side, as if I was keeping company with a stranger, terminally ill. I didn’t want to leave it alone. But at last I had to.

'Critically endangered' - photograph by Nick Hunt
‘Critically endangered’
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

Endangered snows

When Sphinx first disappeared in 1933, the Scottish Mountaineering Club declared the event to be so unusual that it was ‘unlikely to happen again’. But it did: in 1953, 1959, 1996, 2003, 2006, 2017 and 2018.

In the words of Iain Cameron, a dedicated ‘snow patcher’ who studies these icy anomalies, Sphinx was ‘critically endangered’ in the week I went to find it. For a while it looked like 2019 would be the first time in recorded history that it had disappeared for three years in a row. But it has been lucky. Early October snow prolonged its lifespan slightly, and a recent heavier snowfall has buried it in white again. Against all odds, it looks safe for this winter. But, in the new normal of runaway global heating, no one knows what the coming years will bring.

Scraps of Deep Time - photograph by Nick Hun
Scraps of Deep Time
Photograph: Nick Hunt © 2019

It is easy to understand the appeal of these unlikely snows. They are not only scraps of winter but scraps of history, of deep time. Obvious symbols of endurance, of bloodyminded obstinacy, they are also thermometers that self-destruct as our island warms. When their last crystals have dripped away, the national thaw will be complete and Britain will be entirely free of snow in summer. Bare.

At last it started getting dim, so I turned back down the mountain. The smudged eyes watched me go as the heavy cloud drew in again. When I looked back from further down the slope they were gone.


Find out more

With thanks to Iain Cameron, who co-authored Cool Britannia with Adam Watson (Paragon Publishing, 2010) and who photographs, measures and writes about snows on Britain’s hills. Find him on Twitter at @theiaincameron.

Nick Hunt
Nick Hunt
A fiction and non-fiction writer and editor for the Dark Mountain network of writers, artists and thinkers who've stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.
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