Captain Polo in Brazil – A Sneak Peek

Polo in Brazil_cover Image Alan HesseAuthor-illustrator and conservation biologist Alan J Hesse exclusively previews his latest ‘The Adventures of Captain Polo’ graphic novel, showing his creative process as this savvy climate action ambassador explores Brazil’s threatened biodiversity and climate issues and solutions there.


2,380 words: estimated reading time = 9.5 minutes


I am honoured to have been invited to submit an article for ClimateCultures featuring my artistic and cultural work promoting climate literacy. I have chosen to do this by contributing a ‘sneak peek’ into the next book in the Adventures of Captain Polo, an ongoing series of educational graphic novels about climate change. This article refers to the fifth book, titled Polo in Brazil, a work in progress of which I will be sharing a few preliminary page extracts.

Showing the cover of 'Polo in Brazil' Image by Alan J Hesse © 2024
‘Polo in Brazil’ Image by Alan J Hesse © 2024

Educational storytelling: finding the edutainment sweet spot

Contrary to the earliest Polo books, much of the content in Book 5 is purely there for fun, to make the story compelling and a good read. At the end of the day, I want the book to sell. It has to have commercial value beyond classrooms and special donations to schools and climate education projects. After all, the more people ‘outside the choir’, so to speak, who learn something useful about climate change, the better.

If Captain Polo were all work and no play, reading his books would in fact be too much like hard work: fewer people would read them, and this would be an opportunity lost. The need to give Captain Polo commercial value, in this case through fun and funny madcap graphic storytelling thus aligns to the mission of the Captain Polo Academy, which is to “help all those working on biodiversity conservation, climate change and education achieve greater impact”.

When writing a climate road (sea) trip story that includes a stopover in Brazil the obvious content that comes to mind is the Amazon. This region is famous all over the world as a place of high biodiversity that is also highly threatened. This fragile balance is important to portray at length, which is the main reason why I decided to make Book 5 all about Brazil, rather than pursue my original plan to have Captain Polo and Penguin merely pass through on their way to the Antarctic.

The story goes to some length to show the major issues threatening not only Amazon biodiversity and ecosystems but also the well-being and integrity of its indigenous people, who are notoriously abused in Brazil by powerful and usually criminal groups bent upon seizing land to develop yet more agroindustry and mining operations (p. 8).

Climate heroes & villains — character development

Every writer knows that one of the pillars of good storytelling is character development. A good character is seldom static. There are exceptions – Tintin and Asterix come to mind (both major influences of mine I have to add), but a character with a mission does need to evolve to at least discover and own that mission.

Although Cap’n Polo will never be too serious in his adventures, he is a bear on a mission. Ever since through his own travels (see books 1 – 3) it eventually dawned on him that his tangible melting ice problem in the Arctic was actually also the problem of a lot of people and other animals around the world, he has to deliver on his promise to educate his readers about the critical issue of climate change.

Polo’s mission is really the chief force that transforms the original ‘Polo the bear’ trying to get back home to hunt a walrus (if he can) into Captain Polo the seasoned globe trotter and savvy climate action ambassador, honoured guest of governments around the world (championed by the prestigious likes of President Barack Obama, a badly drawn Leonardo DiCaprio and a better drawn Ed Norton – see Book 3, Polo in East Africa) and a celebrity in his own right.

To be honest I’m not sure how to make Polo evolve any further, which partly explains the growing presence of supporting cast characters such as Penguin along with villains Conor O’Connor and Tex Greedyman.

These two archetypal villains first appear as such in ‘Pole to Pole’, the fourth book in the series. Every good story needs a villain of course, but Tex and Conor are actually very different from each other. Whereas Conor is portrayed as a bumbling idiot, a permanent liability to himself and others (largely inspired by Loony Tunes characters Wile E. Coyote, and to some degree Samity Sam), Tex Greedyman as his name indicates is of quite a different ilk. Tex of course personifies oil and gas, the fortress of the fossil fuel industry. He is stereotypically and delightfully Texan, Republican, brash, overweight, bejeweled, hairy-chested, and filthily wealthy.

The eastern Amazon holds bountiful oil reserves, providing a good way to insert Tex into the Amazon-related plot (p.26).

However, even the likes of Tex Greedyman are not beyond redemption, which is another theme I aim to develop further in this series in the spirit of portraying a positive outlook for climate action rather than too much doom and gloom. Readers of Book 5 will see the beginnings of a transformation as Tex, marooned on an island after a helicopter crash, is set up to experience a future epiphany: with nothing to eat or drink but coconuts, this credit card-toting, Havana cigar-smoking, Scotch-drinking oil and gas tycoon begins to reconsider his priorities in life (p.28-29). My plan is to portray a full transformation of Tex in the next book, turning him into a reformed man who uses his wealth and power to promote renewable energy over fossil fuels! The caveat of this plan of course is that I will be left without a proper villain (poor Conor doesn’t really count). But more about this in a future article.

The involvement of criminal groups in illegal logging and land-grabbing devastating the Amazon provided me with a perfect opportunity to have some fun with caricatural ‘baddies’, who both Polo and Penguin get to beat up. Conor being Conor blunders into these characters, an extra opportunity for fun and humour, hopefully making this whole section of the comic come to life (p.16). But Polo’s human encounters in the Amazon are not limited to stereotypical bad guys: he and Penguin also meet and learn from Carla the conservationist and an unnamed indigenous shaman, both strong female characters that allow me to address the crucial role of women in leading climate solutions. 

But Brazil of course is more than just the famous Amazon. There is so much to say about this wonderful country that I couldn’t possibly fit it all in, so I opted to continue the logical geographical progress of our heroes trying to get to Antarctica by having them drop in on the fabled Rio de Janeiro and its Atlantic Forest to later make a final stop in Rio Grande do Sul, where there is an interesting and controversial initiative in place to grow ‘climate friendly cattle’. Many have warned me to stay away from this tricky subject, but I disagree. One of the principles of the Captain Polo adventures is precisely to explore such controversies in order to let my readers make up their own minds. As Captain Polo will find out, there is an argument (that not everyone agrees with) supporting the case that natural grasslands maintaining free range and well managed cattle is actually positive for biodiversity and the climate. I haven’t got to drawing that part yet so it will have to be for a future article.

Storytelling and political messages

At this point I ran into a hitch: it has taken me so long to work on this book that a couple of years have passed since writing the plot, and in that time Brazil’s political landscape has happily changed. The current government is by all accounts making strides in reversing deforestation and many other threats in the Brazilian Amazon.

My original plan was to have Polo beat some sense into the previous president, notorious for promoting the interests of agroindustry, fossil fuel giants and even the thinly veiled criminality in the Amazon and being single-handedly accountable for a devastating return to massive deforestation rates. Given the huge improvements in this regard I had to slightly tweak the plot. Of course, it’s never a good idea to date a book like this, so I have opted to not get Polo too closely involved with any Brazilian government or political figure in particular. He now makes his way to the Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio to have a chat with the current president, who will happen to be there (unrealistically, I grant you), to “discuss Amazon matters”, without necessarily throwing the president off the cliff (as was the original plan).

This leads us back to an important storytelling element omnipresent in my books: the use of stereotype.

The Rio de Janeiro scenes include quite a few stereotypes. One of these is the cable car fight on the way up to the iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain, where Polo is hoping to have a chat with the President of Brazil. The cable car scene tellingly divulges my age: it is of course inspired by James Bond’s rooftop struggles with bad guy Jaws in Moonraker, starring Roger Moore. However, it also provides a good way of weaving in a bit of extra information about the extent to which indigenous groups get embroiled in the notorious exploitation of the Amazon and its inhabitants. I was surprised to find out from my research that not all indigenous groups are quite as innocent as world media like to make out, and in the interest of providing my readers with truthful food for thought I wanted to include this (p.35).

The other stereotype in Rio is with the beach football game in which Penguin, wearing a No.10 Brazil shirt no less (he must have nicked it), manages to become top goal scorer and is celebrated amid much Samba dancing and carnivalesque merriment. Anyone who knows their football history may also notice a subtle nod to recently departed Pelé in the form of the shoeshine boy on page 38 (Pelé famously started his football career after himself having been a shoeshine boy living in poverty). Penguin benevolently bestows both his shirt and trophy upon this Pelé reincarnation and this was also a neat ploy to quickly get rid of both items as soon as possible (I couldn’t keep drawing Penguin in a Brazil football shirt lugging a massive trophy around!).

What is definitely not a stereotype but in fact quite the opposite is the sequence of events in one of Rio’s infamous favelas, or shanty towns. These cover much of the Rio heights and are still the nest of armed drug-related criminals and street gangs who make Rio a very dangerous city. However, I discovered a paper about a very different story in one particular favela with a wonderful community spirit that includes actual climate actions (p.37 – note the words in blue. This is a system I use to refer the reader to a technical section at the back of the book where the words in blue are explained in a sort of annotated glossary). I wanted to celebrate this in the book, largely to counteract the mostly negative technical content in the Amazon, and this was a perfect opportunity to do so. As so often in Captain Polo’s dialogues, there is also a quick reference to climate justice when Polo’s new friend explains how it is the poorest areas of Río de Janeiro that suffer the worst effects of climate change. Polo’s visit to the favela provides a natural progression to the next few scenes — as yet undrawn — that celebrate more positive news: the stellar work of Brazilian NGOs and conservationists restoring the heavily fragmented and yet biodiverse Atlantic Forest. I recently completed a consultancy with BirdLife International that involved writing a communications article about this work, and this provided me with handy technical information to throw into the comic.

Where next for Captain Polo?

So, what’s next? I aim to publish Polo in Brazil sometime this year, and like Books 1 to 4 it will be available from all major book retailers online. Those wishing to make a pre-order will be able to do so, and I will be posting about this on social media in due course.

This fifth book in the series is taking so long to finish I find it hard to think of its sequel, technically the final book in the second trilogy. However, this book will exist, and it will see our friends Captain Polo and Penguin finally reach the Antarctic, probably stopping over in Argentina. No idea how I will end that story, but you may be sure Tex and his epiphany will be involved, Conor will somehow reappear after a long and life-changing experience being lost in South America, and there will be lots of ice. Oh yes, and probably a new villain.


Find more

Alan is an award-wnning author, with ten children’s books: most of them graphic novels and comics, including the growing and highly acclaimed Adventures of Captain Polo series about climate change. Polo books 1, 2, 3 and 4 have all won awards (the Literary Titan Gold Award for the first three), and Alan’s graphic novel Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection has won two awards. 

The Captain Polo character is the inspiration behind the Captain Polo Academy as a global brand promoting environmental and climate literacy, helping people and institutions who work on biodiversity conservation, climate change and education achieve greater positive impact.

You can sample more of Captain Polo’s adventures in Pole to Pole, a short feature in our Creative Showcase. And Alan contributed a short piece on Environmental Justice as part of our Environmental Keywords series.

Alan J. Hesse

Alan J. Hesse

An author-illustrator, educator and conservation biologist inspired by nature's majesty and fragility and the need to protect it and who believes that education should be fun.

Un-tending the World — A Geopoetics of the Wild

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White finds in James Roberts’s ‘Two Lights’ a profound, close observation of the living world: a wise blending between writer and subject that encapsulates the essence of geopoetics as the sensitive expression of reality.


1,780 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


“There is a skill in un-tending to our spaces, in patiently leaving them to their own remaking. It’s a skill that is vital now, when the damage we’ve done to earth has become so urgently in need of reversal. Some of the best examples we have are found in old churchyards. We can enter and quietly watch the slow unfurling of the space. Perhaps we can rediscover our sense of the sacred.”

James Roberts’s work has been on my radar since I received and reviewed a copy of his astounding Winged four years ago, as the UK and much of the world remained in lockdown during the Covid pandemic. My gut feeling then was that this book
marked the emergence of an artist whose observation and awareness of the creatures of this earth are precise, startling, and vital. And needed, urgently.
I wrote then that he is ultimately a realist interlocutor, and now I’m convinced.

“In this twilight space that echoes with the sound of the falls there is an elsewhere that is almost touchable. Children, every one a little animist, are born with a sense of mystery in nature, though we educate it out of them. It returns at times, in places like this. “

Here, in his new work, it is James’s words and narrative that lead, with a carefully curated collection of images that stand alongside — supporting, not dominating. And his words track difficult and often unimaginable terrain: his wife’s illness, his depression, and the various ecological crises we are foisting upon our world that are accumulating into a bigger disaster of ecosystem collapses that we cannot understand.

Geopoetics in ink: Showing a Swift from the book 'Two Lights' by James Roberts
Swift from the book ‘Two Lights’ by James Roberts

Geopoetics — seeking a renewed sense of world

All of this has sent James out to walk, wander, explore and observe: bigger journeys in earlier days, across Africa and the Algerian desert, and then more recently closer to home, along rivers and streams meandering through Wales and the Welsh/Herefordshire Marches, woods, fields and edgeland strips and crevices.

“I’m doing my best to imagine a species of bird on a planet like ours, but utterly different, thousands of light years away. I imagine this planet spins on a more oblique axis to its sun so that twilight in its northerly and southerly regions lasts for days. Here evolution has favoured creatures which can create their own light. Its oceans glow, lit by clouds of algae. In its strange forests trees have evolved needles which shine like Christmas decorations. And in its skies are great birds blocking out the pointillist patterns of the surrounding galaxies. The birds have long necks and wide wings. They are covered with phosphorescent feathers, standing out against the sky, like luminous swans or comets.”

This is from the opening chapter, ‘Chasing the Dawn’, tracking the start and spread of each dawn across the world, and demonstrates a deftness, an acuteness, and a sense of an observer-participant in this universe, that really fizzles. It sets this book up beautifully.

He leads us across different terrains and habitats, describing how different species of birds interact with and are moved or motivated by the sun’s rising, and then brings us back to ‘home’ with him, with a placing and drawing of his own terrain, and then an overview of how he came to be there.

The chapter delves into a description of his connection to bird life, birding, or bird knowledges — this is such a wise blending between writer and subject. It is as though we are being gently told or forewarned that from here on in, the writer becomes bird, and will be shamanicly moving between these worlds throughout the book.

Showing 'Watching for Swans' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Watching for Swans’ from Two Lights. Image by James Roberts © 2023

The words flow as black marks making narratives on the page, and then as we turn some pages we find a resonant wash of a bird flying across the whiteness. A swan champions upwards, neck and wings extended (I searched for the right descriptive word there, and championing feels like the very best at my disposal right now), within or against a black/grey gloom or miasma, passing across and over.

I’m influenced by the Scottish poet/philosopher Kenneth White, who advocated an approach to life known as geopoetics, defined by The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics as “seeking a renewed sense of world, a sensitive and intelligent contact with the world by means of a poetics, expressing reality in different ways, through de-conditioning and using all our senses”. This work — I’m unable to call it simply ‘a book’ — encapsulates all of that, glued together with feathers held and dropped by all the avian community flying past James’s close-observing eye.

Swans abound minutes from my house close to a bend in the River Cam, and I too stop and watch and wonder as they glide and move, inhabiting and dominating watery space. There’s a bird interplay, along this hallowed river space, between swans, ducks, and a heron (I assume it’s a single solitary heron, with a defined hunting ground, though there is a ‘heron tree’ a mile or so further down, which is known to house a dozen or so at various times). And of course there’s at times a very active human layer, University and town teams rowing along at speed, their coaches on cycles bellowing from the towpath. Then there’s the below-the-water-line interplay, although with three sewage inputs within a couple of hundred metres any aquatic life is seriously threatened. And yet, the swans live here! They arch, and breed, and feed. Life.

“It’s our fate on this ocean-facing island, if our direction of travel as a culture continues, to face the rising waters, the ever-more-frequently-boiling rivers. We may continue to poison them, to carve, block, and silt them up for a time yet, believing as we do that they are simply our resources to be harnessed. But they will outlast us and their waters will run clean, eventually. There will come a time when this stretch of river will flow wilder than it does now.”

Creation in the ruins

In another striking sequence, within the chapter titled ‘The Church and the Island’, James writes about visits to ancient churches, creates pictures, discusses religious practices, especially asceticism — fascinating histories of hermits Evagrius and Cynog — and even hearing an ethereal voice testing the acoustics in one building.  He then returns us to the ruins, to the wild, and the becoming that transcends facilitated worship towards an other-worldly deity.

Other snapshots he brings us include tragic moments of hatred invested upon the natural world by some of us. Shooting at swans, tearing apart foxes, throwing an owl’s already dead body onto a road to be crushed by vehicles, and the ugly reality of compulsive photography — of everything! — rather than seeing, observing, sensing, listening, and being with.

Two Lights is writings and images in the ruins. The desolation of despoliation, and not knowing the catastrophe that humans are catapulting ourselves towards. And yet, through close witness, and perhaps the collapse of our ego clutching to all we think we know, the avian world is just there — here, right alongside us. Whether or not they might save us is immaterial. Their equal existence is what’s important, and how we may come to notice that through the witnessing experiences, reflections, and decline of our own mortal lives. He really is writing and creating work about passageways through time and air, led by avian species that live their lives in focussed flights of movement, within landscapes of loss and life.

“Across the continent many species are on fire, crops withering in the prolonged drought and vulnerable people dying. Every single community on Earth, human or wild, has now encountered losses caused by the depletion of nature and by global warming. Unless we find a way to heal the damage we’ve done the losses will accelerate. It will take a huge shift in our psyches to achieve this. Every country, city and village, every community and family needs to ask the question: who speaks for wolf, for bear, for fox, for gull, for heron, for kingfisher – for all species, not just our own?”

'Wolf' from Two Lights by James Roberts (2023)
‘Wolf’ from ‘Two Lights’. Image by James Roberts © 2023

Find more

Geopoetics as untending the world: Showing the cover of 'Two Lights' by James Roberts, published in 2023.Two Lights – walking through landscapes of loss and life by writer and artist James Roberts is published by September Publishing (2023).

You can read a sample chapter at the link above — and explore much more at Night River Wood, James Roberts’s website and his Instagram.

In our Quarantine Connections series, you can read A River of Sound, a piece that James Roberts contributed during Week 8 of our communal sharing of creative content and reflections during the UK’s first Covid lockdowns of 2020. James said of this piece: “I wrote this piece a year ago as a response to an increasing awareness of my own gradual loss and also the almost unnoticeable fading of natural sounds from the landscape. A year later there is a noticeable increase of birds in the landscape, and particularly in the surrounding uplands where the curlews are calling more than I’ve ever heard before. I’m not sure if this equates to me being hopeful for the future of declining species, but it shows how very easy it would be for us to give the wild the space it needs to thrive.”

James Murray-White mentions The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, a network developing an understanding of geopoetics as the creative expression of the Earth. “It looks for signs of those who have attempted to leave ‘the motorway of Western civilisation’ in the past in order to find a new approach to thinking and living … It seeks a new or renewed sense of world, a sense of space, light and energy which is experienced both intellectually, by developing our knowledge, and sensitively, using all our senses to become attuned to the world, and requires both serious study and a certain amount of de-conditioning of ourselves by working on the body-mind.” You canalos explore the International Institute of Geopoetics.

All the Little Gods Surrounding Us, his review of James Roberts’s earlier Winged is one of 14 posts that James Murray-White has written for us. ClimateCultures was seven years old this March! James was one of our first authors back in 2017. Throughout this year we’re delighted to celebrate our anniversary with new posts from some of those inaugural contributors, alongside other returning — and new — ClimateCultures authors.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.

Sharing the Fire — Hope Tales Event & Chapbook

Practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter revisits the Hope Tales project, with its fourth event and chapbook exploring ‘Fire’ themes in the Celtic winter Samhain festival, shared learning from other cultures and creatures, live music, poems and stories.


1,010 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


When I first studied applied photography and monochrome printing under the eccentric, brilliant West Country teacher Ron Frampton, I was puzzled by his warning “beware the new” each time we gathered to view our work from the previous week. Wise words indeed; each new image laid on the table for viewing brought “ooh”s and “aahh”s, apparently better than what we had already done. Yet this happened each week and we weren’t improving that quickly! There was something in the very newness of each image being seen for the first time; it was exciting, thrilling — and faded quickly.

I always think it is strange that funders prefer to put their money into new, riskier initiatives rather than supporting things that already work well. Perhaps the draw of the new is inevitable for us humans; shiny new tech, something different to wear, a book still to read — we draw excitement from anticipation itself. Perhaps this is why our project Hope Tales still retains the thrill, excitement and ability to surprise. Even calling it a project seems falsely formal because this series of happenings has been remarkably organic, changing each time to reflect its location and participants, repeating a tried and tested pattern, and yet being new each time.

Hope Tales events — the magic of the mix

The concept is simple: gather a bunch of creative people in a room for a couple of hours and ask them to share something on a theme with the rest of the room. Supply some food and drink, some fairy lights and some music. Gather up the songs, poems, bits of writing and drawings afterwards and make them into a pocket book. Repeat. And it is never the same.

Hope Tales - showing chapbook 4: Fire

In my first piece about Hope Tales for ClimateCultures, I wrote about our first three events, which were held in London, Somerset and Essex on the themes of Air, Land and Water respectively. Last autumn on a drizzly dark Hallowe’en (or All Souls’ Night), we held Hope Tales event number four on the theme of Fire at the wonderful Margate School by the sea. The magic happened again, with pieces about learning from other cultures and creatures, the Celtic winter festival of Samhain, and live music from the Swedish folk band Tree Oh! We welcomed Henry Coleman and Eva Badola for the first time.

Hope Tales event: showing Eva Badola talking about sustainable tourism.
Eva Badola talking about sustainable tourism. Photograph: Nicky Saunter © 2023

Our hosts for the night was an independent not-for-profit postgraduate liberal arts school right in the heart of Margate, run by artist and educator Uwe Derksen, whose giant crow you can see below. What a presence to have looking over our shoulders as we performed!

Margate School with Uwe Derksen’s giant crow figure. Photograph: Nicky Saunter © 2023

The Margate School is based in a former Woolworths building that had stood empty since 2008 and has played an influential part in the story of Margate’s regeneration. We had help from local sound technicians to ensure the music worked, because Tree Oh! were performing songs specially written in collaboration with poet-economist, Andrew Simms, to celebrate London’s green spaces. They have since launched an EP.

Hope Tales event: showing Swedish folk bank Tree Oh! performing songs about London’s green spaces.
The Swedish folk bank Tree Oh! performing songs about London’s green spaces Photograph: Nicky Saunter © 2023

Hope Tales chapbooks — a hopeful light

The Fire chapbook we made from the contributions on this night is now available to download, along with the previous chapbooks. And our next Hope Tales event — the last in this series — will be at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, London on 30th May from 7-9pm, so please do get in touch if you would like to be a contributor. The theme is Love (in a hopeful light), which seems apt as it feels like we could particularly do with some more love in the world at the moment.

Surely there is nothing new to say about love, I hear you say. And yet I know that once again people will gather, share what has come into and then out of their individual creative minds and by collaborating will make together something much bigger than the sum of its parts.

Excerpt from Hope Tales IV – Fire: Poem by Nicky Saunter © 2023

The Hope Tales project has been a joy to participate in, maybe because it has been so light touch and unconstrained. A perfectly timed piece of funding from the University of Essex provided the fuel for us to maintain our campfire, and our team of collaborators have come together each time with enthusiasm, creativity and laughter. It is of course endlessly expandable — and was designed to be so. A Hope Tales event could be put on in any place with any group of creative people. It could be done on a very small budget or none at all, so do get in touch if you are interested in doing one yourself.

Working in the field of sustainability can be a grim slog at times and this way of approaching the unknown through hope and fundamental themes has proven uplifting. The role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change is a slim but strong lifeline into the future.


Find out more

You can read Nicky’s previous post on the Hope Tales project from the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, Hope Tales – Stories for Change. And all four chapbooks are available to download from the Rapid Transition Alliance. To find out about the Hope Tales: Love event at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, London on 30th May, contact nicky@newweather.org

You can hear Tree Oh!‘s EP Our Urban Nature, songs with Andrew Simms here.

The Margate School, where the Hope Tales: Fire event took place, is an independent not-for-profit postgraduate liberal arts school and creative community hub inspired by making a positive difference to our communities and environment.

Nicky Saunter

Nicky Saunter

An entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and campaigner, and creative artist who is driven by what we can do rather than what we cannot change.

Ecopoetikon: Global Ecopoetries for a Cultural Tipping Point

Ecopoet Helen Moore celebrates global ecopoetries through a new project gathering poets from Global South and North. Ecopoetikon offers a powerful indicator of intersecting crises and inspiration for a tipping point in our relationship with the living world.


1,410 words: estimated reading time = 5.5 minutes


Are we yet at a cultural tipping point, which makes conversations about climate change and environmental degradation “many, various, and unavoidable”? Doubtless this is the work of contributing artists to ClimateCultures, and it’s the vision of British ecopoet Caleb Parkin, who sees poetry “with its scalar shifts and ability to hold multiple perspectives and ambiguities” as being uniquely placed within the public imagination “to support the representation of massively distributed temporospatial (time/space) violences to the entire biosphere”.

Caleb’s insight is taken from a statement he wrote for Ecopoetikon, a new online showcase of global ecopoetries, which was launched in September 2023. It aims to provide a powerful poetic indicator of how ecological and intersecting social crises are affecting people across the world, and as such, adds significantly to these unavoidable conversations. Caleb is one of twenty ecopoets featured on the site, which I’ve been co-curating over the past year. His contribution includes his richly textural poem Almanac of Lunar Songs — a poem “inspired by human and more-than-human lunar behavioural influences – from microorganisms to ‘supermoon baby booms’ [, which] weaves through the various names given to the full moons each month” and written to be performed under Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’ in Bristol Cathedral. Almanac of Lunar Songs was a Bristol City Poet collaborative commission, with Miranda Lynn Barnes.

March

The plough moon brings on spring, softened soils. Equinox moon.
Longer days, last of winter, earth’s movement emerging. Worm moon.
Earthworms surface, converge on winter’s wastings, fertile, gleaming.
In like a lion, out like a lamb, March brings the wind moon, crow moon.
Sweetness seeps from the birch and the maple beneath the sugar moon,
sap moon. How it glows in the half-light. How we ache towards the solstice.

With each ecopoet nominated on the basis that they demonstrate commitment and creative innovation in their practice, the site is currently showcasing the work of poets from Australia, Botswana, Colombia, Estonia, India, Italy, Mauritius, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, the Philippines, the UK, and the US, and offers a rich tapestry of perspectives.

Global ecopoetries: a network of solidarity

Although the definitions of ecopoetry remain contested, at Ecopoetikon we define it as poetry written with engaged ecological and social consciousness. For us, ecopoetry should be informed by a level of ecoliteracy, an awareness that we live within ecosystems and in reciprocal interaction with the more-than-human world. We also see the intertwining social and ecological crises as having the same roots —  i.e., globalised, industrial, white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism, and materialism. And more deeply, as a crisis of perception and imagination, emerging from a paradigm of separation: human from Nature and Nature from culture.

Ecopoetikon was originally inspired by a student interview conducted by Kathryn Alderman with Craig Santos Perez, an acclaimed ecopoet from the Pacific Island of Guam. In late 2022, Perez called for poets from the Global North to read and support poets from the Global South, and to teach their work, and so the idea for a ‘world ecopoetry share’ was born. Categorising countries according to their economic and developmental status, as in the ‘Global North’/’South’ binary, is problematic; however, Ecopoetikon’s ethos is more broadly one of building a network of solidarity, and transcending Eurocentrism and the Western literary canon to highlight less privileged voices.

Rina Garcia Chua from the Philippines is another of our featured poets, and she writes of growing up in Metro Manila, where she experienced a typhoon that forced her to “swim and walk in flooded highways when it dumped a month’s worth of rain in just a few hours.” One of the three poems I selected for her webpage is titled 113 Submerged Reefs, and visually reveals contested territory in the South China Sea, with oil represented as an omnipresent but less visible text within the poem-collage.

Global ecopoetries: Showing Rina Garcia Chua's poem '113 Submerged Reefs'
‘113 Submerged Reefs’ by Rina Garcia Chua, featured in Ecopoetikon, first published in g u e s t 17 (2019) and The Global South 19.1 (2023).

Tjawangwa Dema from Botswana touches on the fraught landscape of Elephant populations and expresses right relationship with the forest in their poem Commons:

Here we gather
blistered tongue to blistered tongue and say
no one owns the forest or its flycatchers
nor its trout lilies or lichen. No one

And Zheng Xiaoqiong, whose poems are beautifully translated from the Chinese by Eleanor Goodman, finds her inspiration among the trees, plants, birds, and snakes of Mt. Baiyun, and from factory-work in Guangdong. In Time, wild Nature is contrasted with the factory, where she herself worked from the age of twenty-one, witnessing how “workers are inflicted with occupational illnesses such as pneumoconiosis, dermatitis, lung cancer …”

a lonely bird hides itself in the darkness of the lychee grove
the darkness overwhelms the red of the lychees, and the dark branches
turn even darker, the birdcalls have faded, and here
the roar of the hardware factory continues its banging unabated …

Decolonising canon and curriculum

Who should have the power to determine which poems are worth reading? Conscious of the literary gatekeepers who have often raised obstacles to more politically engaged work, including my own, Ecopoetikon’s editors are aware of the opportunity that this online platform offers to transcend political borders and to include more diverse voices.

We aim to avoid exclusivity by including ecopoets who have been nominated by others on the basis of their commitment and creative innovation in their practice, and the editorial team welcomes nominations of ecopoets whose work we’ve yet to discover. In featuring poets from across the globe, we’re also aware that some may not define themselves as ‘ecopoets’, because an ecological worldview is inherent in their culture, and evident in their traditional ecological knowledge.

Funded by the University of Gloucestershire’s School of Creative Arts, and built by student web designer Ardeshir Shojaei, Ecopoetikon features three search tools, one of which is thematic. With poems grouped under ‘oceans’, ‘soil/agriculture’, ‘pollution/waste’, ‘indigeneity/roots’, ‘ecocide/extinctions’, ‘regeneration’, and ‘interspecies communication’, amongst other themes, this function readily provides material for research or learning across a range of disciplines. The site’s bespoke teaching resources, available to subscribers, offer writing prompts too. Over the coming years, the project team plans to evaluate Ecopoetikon’s impacts, and welcomes feedback from site users.

In September 2023, we launched our global ecopoetries project both at the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment at Liverpool University and at the 2nd Ecocultural Humanities Symposium at the University of Gloucestershire. In 2024, we aim to build awareness of the project through commissioned features, social media and in-person and online events – and again we welcome invitations to collaborate with other artists and networks. Look out for news of these, and why not book onto an evening with Ecopoetikon poets Helina Hookoomsing and Mario Petrucci, who will read at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival’s online ecopoetry event on June 3rd 2024?

A restorative act

When I ask the growing community of featured poets how they feel about the project, Mario Petrucci, whose extraordinary poem Heavy Water, a poem for Chernobyl I selected for the site, emails me saying: “In the ten-minutes-to-midnight cacophony of ignored environmental wake-up calls, Ecopoetikon sings a sweet yet piercingly persistent note. Too often, ecopoetry is met with neglectful silence; it’s profoundly encouraging to join this lively conversation.”

Working together we hope to see ecopoetry serving not only as a cultural tipping point, but also as a restorative act. A signpost towards regenerative cultures, where we value the Earth, and particularly the land/bioregion we inhabit, as our community. A future where the prefix ‘eco’ is no longer needed because all humans inhabit ecocentric and socially just cultures.


Find out more

Helen Moore

Helen Moore

An ecopoet, author, socially engaged artist and nature educator who offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and collaborates in ecologically oriented community-wide projects.

In celebrating global ecopoetries, Ecopoetikon aims to offer equal voice and representation to established ecopoets from around the world. Based in the Creative Arts at the University of Gloucestershire in the UK, Ecopoetikon is a developing research project that showcases a diverse international network of ecopoets through an online mapping project. You can find poems from a growing network of ecopoets around the world, including those mentioned in Helen’s post: Caleb Parkin’s Almanac of Lunar SongsRina Garcia Chua’s 113 Submerged Reefs; Tjawangwa Dema’s Commons; Zheng Xiaoqiong’s Time (translated by Eleanor Goodman); Mario Petrucci’s Heavy Water, a poem for Chernobyl.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival, launched in 2011, offers an annual 10-day programme of live literature events. The online ecopoetry event with Ecopoetikon is on June 3rd 2024.

Dystopian Farming: An Inquiry

For animist farmer and author Paul Feather, 2024 brings a creative inquiry into ‘dystopian farming’ as resistance as well as sustenance, and a search for joy and meaning that makes our dire times tolerable: the potential for liberation.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


I have been farming for twenty years, and I’ve had some success in growing food. Enough success that people ask me lots of questions about it, and that I have several hundred pounds of sweet potatoes, yacón, pumpkins, and potatoes stacked in crates in the cellar alongside shelves full of canned tomatoes, pears, and pickled everything. Enough that I don’t feel overworked in producing all of this. I have been farming for twenty years, yet I still don’t feel like I know how to do it — even less do I know how to talk about it or how to answer your questions about farming.

Farming dystopia. Showing Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains.
Farming dystopia: Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. Photograph: Terra Currie © 2023

Whether I have answers or not, people continue to ask how my farm works. So, in pursuit of these answers that I don’t yet have, in 2024 I will make an inquiry into what I do. I shall call it ‘Farming Dystopia’, because I feel that dystopia best describes our cultural and ecological context. I resonate with the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte who points out that “some indigenous peoples already inhabit what [their] ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” in which settler colonialism has so drastically altered people’s environment that it is harder to obtain the traditional foods and materials that they have relied on for millennia. He emphasizes that in spite of this unfortunate reality, “we do not give up by dwelling in a nostalgic past even though we live in our ancestors’ dystopia.”1

This dystopia does not only affect Indigenous people (even if it does affect them most severely). We all live in a world of façade and confusion, where every practice, including farming, requires some not-quite-tolerable measure of exploitation half perceived, but partly veiled by the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to get through the day. The present dystopia is a soul-numbing experience for anyone, at best; and a terrifying and dangerous one for far too many.

Farming for liberation

If I would honestly describe my farming methodology, acknowledgment of our dystopian context would have to be the jumping-off point. I am farming within a dystopian context. I am inside The Matrix. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this is a Brave New World. Dystopian farming is a means of sustenance and also resistance. It is a frank admission of our dire context, but also — maybe even primarily — a search for the joy and meaning that makes that context tolerable.

This inquiry originates as an attempt to answer questions about my farming methods, and so its initial structure will be blog-like: if I can’t ‘explain’ my methods, perhaps I can narrate them every week or so. However, I would also like to de-center my own methods, because farming is extremely context-dependent. I have no real way to know whether my particular methods will be helpful for people with different access to land, different body types, different social and family structures, different climates … different everything. In the dystopian context, the value of a method is in its potential for liberation, and I don’t know how much my methods can liberate others, especially people with less privilege than I have enjoyed. I would like to be able to answer that question.

If my inquiry is to be successful, it will also have to include other voices, other platforms, and other knowledge. Perhaps it will evolve away from a personal blog to become more like a book, a zine, or a journal article. If there is dialogue, we could even borrow the format of a podcast.

For now, I will inquire and write. My initial reflections have been about the curious mix of liberation and obligation that goats bring into my life. As I make small daily movements in preparation for spring seeding, I will snap pictures and share thoughts about how to coax another round from the dirt. What do I owe the dirt for this?

Dystopian farming in dialogue

As I hope to include others in this inquiry, I think it is helpful to situate dystopian farming in a broad dialogue about global agriculture. Without making prescriptions about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in contexts that I haven’t experienced, I hope I can narrow the scope of the inquiry in a way that invites the participation I am looking for.

I think that dystopian farming should be agroecological and radically holistic. Agroecology is a broad framework that includes dimensions of science, social movement, and practice.2 It is true that like many frameworks, the concept of agroecology is partially coopted by institutions3, so for this inquiry we retain the multidimensionality of agroecology and emphasize its roots in peasant social movements such as La Via Campesina.4 We also use it as a framework that addresses multiple scales: from the ecology of a single farm plot all the way to the global food system as a whole.

This inquiry will naturally interact with dialogue about permaculture — which along with ‘regenerative farming’ seems to have captured much of the imagination of the ecological farming movement — but we should critique these frameworks for their extraction of Indigenous farming practices while failing to integrate Indigenous critiques of modernity. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have also failed to credit Indigenous people for their intellectual foundation or adequately address the legacies of settler colonialism. This is not something I will critique on the basis of morals or ideology, but because the approach I describe as dystopian farming is radically holistic and acknowledges that failure to integrate these critiques makes our farming practice more damaging to the land, weakens our social movements, and undermines our scientific foundation.

Showing Full Life Farm logo
Full Life Farm. Design: Terra Currie

Finally, dystopian farming is pragmatic. There is room for abstract discussion — and possibly even fiction — but in the end we must have sweet potatoes and a cellar to put them in. Obviously my initial inquiry is personal and fundamentally anecdote, and perhaps that is all it will ever be. But this is also an invitation — or maybe it’s a manifesto to co-create something far more interesting than anecdote or my personal critique of a farming ethos that fails to address the deeper crises of our modern dystopia.


References

[1] Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene”, in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2021, Routledge).

[2] Steve Gliessman (2018) Defining Agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42:6, 599-600.

[3] Omar Felipe Giraldo & Peter M. Rosset (2017) Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:3, 545-564.

[4] Val, V., Rosset, P. M., Zamora Lomelí, C., Giraldo, O. F., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina I. The symbolic and material construction of agroecology through the dispositive of “peasant-to-peasant” processes. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 872-894; Rosset, P., Val, V., Barbosa, L. P., & McCune, N. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina II. Peasant agroecology schools and the formation of a sociohistorical and political subject. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 895-914.


Find out more

You can find Paul’s Farming Dystopia blog at his website with Terra Currie, where they discuss Full Life Farm — the ecological experiment they established in 2007 on five acres in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains – as well as present their art and writing and health and education work.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.