All the Little Gods Surrounding Us

James Murray-White discovers in ‘Winged’, a new collection of words and images from fellow member James Roberts, a creative expression of the natural world’s ‘being-ness’ and a way for us to deepen our own presence within the more-than-human.


1,000 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes


Very very occasionally — and I really mean rarely — a piece of creativity or an aspect of someone’s inner world made tangible comes into our own perspective and halts us, stops the mental chatter, and becomes a tool to deepen our ways into the real earthly things inherent in our wonderful world.

Winged by James Roberts is such a collection of crafted joy. Words gathered, and images captured: a series of poems on twelve birds in flight, their presence observed and made art by this sensitive recorder and responder, and set loose again in the mind’s eye within this isle’s wild places.

‘Every living thing is just a song in the memory of another’

The kingfisher, in the starting poem, is variously a “little water bee”, a “little fire belly”, and finally a “little dripping dagger”, and is so perfectly matched with an illustration highlighting the downward thrust of its beak — free falling into a river kill, perhaps.

The owl, also focused downward, and yet with both wings outstretched, has

Spent its whole life
In preparation for an instant,
Learning to fix its being
To a needle point flaring lightless

Presence: Showing 'Owl', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Owl’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

And this sharp-eyed poet journeys into the unknowing knowing of “the cracks of the underworld“ and “that hole in the night which keeps watch / and waits endlessly for us to wake.“

‘Falling always out of absence into open air’

Roberts gets up close and personal with the curlew too, and sparrow, heron, swallow, swan, goshawk, lapwing, kite, golden plover, and the rook. All of them meet him and us on the path, and all become conduits for Roberts’s journey into “rapture-stillness” while we and he become “shapes imagined by a forest”.

Presence: Showing 'Kingfisher', from James Roberts's collection, 'Winged'
‘Kingfisher’
Art & text: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

We are never told in the work where the artist-poet is wandering the world, and it’s right that those parameters aren’t set: this is work that takes us into both stillness (and observation) and movement. It’s reminiscent of the work of wandering father of geopoetics Kenneth White in its intense focus on the birdness of the bird, the seeing and the beyond seeing.

In-between these depth-flights on winged joy with our bird kin, we are given glimpses back into the human, and specifically the predicament of the pandemic that this work and pamphlet has been created within.

Can we nail the world shut
long enough to discover everything

and

I don’t want to know the name
of the colour of this sky

And yet this human world is nothing but a distraction from the simplicity, the presence, and the straight ‘being-ness’ of the world Roberts inhabits and offers to take us within (or as far as he is being taught to tread), and wait.

A presence in the meeting point

The images are graceful, and yet some use the power of the simple line to striking effect: the kite, bold, splayed across a white page; the rook, moving upward in an unhurried dominance, and the swallow, hanging in flight, its hind feathers sharply curved navigation wands. All the birds here have an iridescent blue bleach presence — with us, and yet in-between arriving and leaving, bringing us into Roberts’s meeting point with word and image. Within each bird-body, patterns give way to depth and control: I see a face in one, granulated surfaces in others, and great focus in all. More experienced birdwatchers would enjoy the specifics of their shapes, twists and turns. As a generalist, I’m seeing that these images show birds expressing themselves with their freedoms and choices. They are not conforming to any projected ‘bird qualities’, and that I feel is Roberts’s point — here they all individually are, and Roberts amongst them. And us, vicariously third hand but, with his help, able to dive a little into the shallows and beyond.

Presence: showing 'Rook', from the collection 'Winged' by James Roberts
‘Rook’
Art: James Roberts © 2020 http://nightriverwood.com/

I’d like to thank James for the timing of this pamphlet’s arrival both in the world, and in my hands: just as the UK Government is relaxing lockdown (too early in some people’s opinion). I arose early this morning with anxiety about anti-social behaviour and general idiocy upon release from our houses, and the human need for company and alcohol and addictions.

James Roberts is highlighting, in his beautiful, small and yet very precise way, that solitude, close observation and engagement with the more-than-human creates a deeper joy, and a refined aesthetic that creates a wholer human.

Many thanks for your artistry and your presence, birdman.

And I’m wondering if I stand here long enough
Will I learn to feel the wind
Without wanting to know
What it’s saying?


Find out more

Winged by James Roberts (2020) is available from his site, Night River Wood, where you will also find his journal and other works (including A River of Sound, a piece that James contributed to our Quarantine Connection series). James is the founder, arts director and editor of Zoomorphic, a site dedicated to writing that deepens our connection with wildlife and the more-than-human world.

James refers to geopoetics, which the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics describes as “deeply critical of Western thinking and practice over the last 2500 years and its separation of human beings from the rest of the natural world, and proposes instead that the universe is a potentially integral whole, and that the various domains into which knowledge has been separated can be unified by a poetics which places the planet Earth at the centre of experience. … 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.” The Centre is affiliated to the International Institute of Geopoetics founded by Kenneth White, whom James also mentions.

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.
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In Time: Crisis, Care, Creation

Artist Margin Zheng felt moved to perform Lola Perrin’s work, Significantus, as part of their climate activism, and adapted the piano suite to new conditions when Covid-19 prevented public events, producing a unique online concert: Crisis, Care, Creation.


1,800 words: estimated reading time 7 minutes


It is often the most peculiar motifs of circumstance that make life and art — and the art of life — tremble beautifully, in truth unveiled.

I first learned of Lola’s composition by a chance Internet-search, motivated by a serendipitous moment of curiosity. I was creating a foothold for myself in climate activism, having led a climate rally in September at my college (Haverford College) and started a hub of Sunrise Movement on campus. I knew of — and also personally knew — composers who wrote politically oriented music, and I also was familiar with composers like John Luther Adams who wrote music evocative of the mysterious, mesmerizing powers of nature. So the question came to me — it might have been in November: had anyone written a piano piece about the climate crisis?

Someone had, in the UK: her name was Lola Perrin. Elated, I ordered the score and tried it out, and, entranced, I soon had the inescapable conviction that I would perform Significantus in public someday.

Lola Perrin’s ‘Significantus’
Photograph: Margin Zheng

After a few emails and conversations, including an email and WhatsApp exchange with Lola herself, and an application to a student performance fund offered by my college, I received in January the happy news. I had received the E. Clyde Lutton 1966 Memorial Fund. With the support of Haverford College’s John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities, I was going to perform Significantus in a concert in Earth Week — with a personal spin.

Climate activism under lockdown

The general format of the performance was to mostly follow the score: first seven movements of music, then a short talk by a guest speaker, after that audience participation in breakout groups, and finally the last musical movement, followed by a reception and informal conversation. But instead of focusing on sharing information on climate change for the audience to reflect upon, my event was to center on storytelling and emotional connection: the guest speaker was to share a personal story about how they became called to climate activism, and the audience was then to share in small groups their own stories of thinking, feeling, experiencing a world in crisis. The final movement was to be a collective improvisation, beginning with just me playing, then continuing as a duet with the guest speaker (also a performer), and finally expanding to the audience members, who were to contribute something of their own to the performance by singing, speaking, playing an ‘instrument’, dancing, whatever else they imagined, symbolizing the collective creation of a better future.

Logistics were a battle from the start, mostly because I was so unfamiliar with the challenges of planning a concert and thus approached the task too dreamily. It was not until spring break, in March, when I finally got my guest speaker confirmed, but by then all plans were in peril. The pandemic had penetrated the county where my college was, and soon after it spread all over the region. After a few weeks, what was increasingly likely became inevitable: classes were to be online for the rest of the semester, and all on-campus events were cancelled. Most students, including myself, were barred from returning to campus (exceptions including many international students and students without a safe home to stay in); I was to spend the rest of my semester at home.

I was devastated. I had such wonderful visions for a concert of compassion and creation, and now they were stolen away! The fund that was supporting the concert required performances to be in the semester the money was granted, so there was no chance for the concert to be postponed to the fall, when hopefully on-campus activities would recommence. Besides, there was intentional meaning in scheduling the concert during Earth Week, two days before the mass strikes that were to sweep the U.S. — it was the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, in a crucial year for action.

Crisis, Care, Creation

The concert was always about performing ‘in time’: not just tickling vague eternities with delicate trained fingers in hypnotic moto perpetuo, but contextualizing my performance — and generally my being — in the tensions of my times. In the great existential crisis of a humanity that seems so determined, to its own peril, to go on and on and on producing — but needs to stop and reflect and confront itself: whom is ‘business as usual’ hurting the most? (The already marginalized and oppressed: people of color and especially Indigenous people, poor and working-class people, people with disabilities, young people, etc.) And what are they saying, doing, demanding? 

I am a young, Chinese American, genderqueer person from a middle to upper-middle class background. I was born a U.S. citizen and am the child of immigrants. I was not raised in any religion, but I feel deeply spiritual, a Seeker. I exist with a particular combination of privileges and challenges, and though I cannot speak and act for anyone else, I must live with full intention as who I am, embedded in human and nonhuman space and time.

Before I sent the audience into breakout groups, I shared my own story of living in the climate crisis.
Margin Zheng

So when I realized that the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate emergency were really twin crises, both the result of governments caring more for concentrated profit and political power than for the health and wellbeing of people, I decided that my project — early on titled ‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ — had to continue, in whatever way it could. This was the gift I had for this moment, a gift I had to give.

The result was a Zoom-based concert on April 20th. The original format I had planned turned out to speak profoundly to the needs of the times and to require only a few adjustments: in lieu of a guest speaker/performer, I spoke my own story after the initial half-hour of music; audience members joined Zoom breakout rooms to reflect upon how they were emotionally processing the moment of multilayered crisis and to practice collective care; and the final movement still invited audience members to join me (while on mute) with their own musical, kinesthetic, or visual performances (some people even drew pictures) as I gradually broke away from Lola’s score and started improvising.

While performing, I felt thoroughly in a state of flow.
Margin Zheng

After the initial awkwardness of speaking to a Zoom audience (since my video was pinned onto the screen, I had to watch myself as I spoke!), the experience was for me one of intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually engaging flow. I took many artistic liberties in my interpretation, breathing through the music and dancing through its spirit. I embodied yearning, awe, sorrow, numbness, anger — every emotion a different subjective time, every movement in time like a river. I spoke the first words of my personal story — “This should be my time of dreams!” — with the final chord of the seventh movement (entitled ‘We are playing with fire, a reckless mode of behaviour we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on ourselves’) still resounding, and I still panting from exertion. After speaking, I then joined a breakout room myself, shared in heart-to-heart dialogue. Afterwards, I concluded with the last movement — a joyful part-planned, part-spontaneous performance despite my not being able to hear the audience’s own improvisations — and then some last words, though by then I found it hard to speak, how exhausted and elated I was from it all. 

Imagine better, create!

Throughout the performance, my body and spirit were spellbound, and — I am told — many in the audience were too. Even without the usual physical performance space enabling a palpable sonic resonance, there was communication, fellowship, spiritual reverberance. Many were stressed and lonely, and in music, conversation, and creation, they found emotional grounding and solace. As I read the messages people sent me afterwards, I felt joy, pride, gratitude. My ‘crazy’ idea worked! — and it meant something.

After the concert, one audience member shared with me the drawing he made during the collective improvisation as an expression of thanks. Image used with permission.

This was an event I shall always remember, as it brought people together, and it touched them deep.

I write this nearly two weeks after the performance, on May Day 2020, the International Workers’ Day, when many people in the U.S. and elsewhere — especially those deemed ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic — are striking, protesting, and otherwise mobilizing for urgent aid and protection: for safe working conditions, for accessible medical care, for rent and mortgage cancellations and an end to water shutoffs, for the release of those confined in unsafe prisons and detention centers, for a #PeoplesBailout: for the basic right to life. I stand in solidarity with the people who striked that day as well as with the people who cannot or do not strike but still call upon those with privilege to support them and to demand crucial change — both the immediate and the deep.

The climate crisis is not just about nature, and the pandemic is not just about a virus. They are both manifestations of the greater plague of capitalism and of money-run politics: life-devaluing systems that if we — the united peoples of Earth — do not soon uproot will only cause even more death and irreversible destruction. Can we act — in time? Connected with our identities, our personal and collective histories, our individual and shared longings for the future, can we move the rhythms of our world and dance a variegated, syncopated, yet more harmonious tune?

Showing Margaret Zheng's performance, Crisis, Care, Creation on Earth Day 2020
At the end of Crisis, Care, Creation, I departed from the score in partly planned improvisation, synchronously performing with each audience member.
Margin Zheng

I would like to end with the words with which I concluded my virtual concert. Let them resonate with you, my fellow human being, a being in time:

So long as we live in a world of crisis, we must continue to practice care for ourselves and other living beings and to day by day strive to create a thriving, more beautiful future. Thus I leave you with one more question, to be answered in contemplation and in action:

How do the crises of the emerging world compel us to live anew?


Find out more

Signicantus composer Lola Perrin is a fellow ClimateCultures member and creator of the  ClimateKeys global initiative.

Sunrise Movement is a movement in the USA to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.

‘Crisis, Care, Creation’ was performed for Earth Day 2020. Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, Earth Day Network aims to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.

Margin Zheng
Margin Zheng
A philosopher, artist, awakener, and spiritual intellectual, formally studying music and mathematics, informally learning voraciously about our world in transformation, involved in actions promoting climate justice.
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Signal from the Edge #3 – I Am Purpose

Writer Indiana Rivers shares a short story exploring one person’s sense of purpose. Evoking ideas of conversation with the universe to illuminate times of zoonotic pandemic and climate crisis, Indiana reflects on the presence of signals from within.


1,300 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


Indiana’s post is the third in our series Signals from the Edge, which sets the challenge of creating a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of a new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

***

 

universe and purpose, showing moon in the sky
Photograph: Indiana Rivers © 2020

I am purpose

Hello.

We are the universe.

We have chosen to present ourselves to you as language because we feel it is the simplest and easiest way to communicate with you.

We have heard whispers from the minds of you. It is of the assumption that we have caused humanity’s current state of … Isolation. Destruction. Vulnerability.

Of course, humans love to cast blame. Even when that blame cannot reach time or form or space.

We can only observe. Humanity is in control of its own fate. Where did the first infection begin?

“Um.”

This is a rhetorical question.

“Oh.”

Digestion of a diseased animal.

Humanity’s consumption of non-human animals. Ah, yes, the origin is confirmed.

What you call ‘zoonotic’ is the isolation between the human and the animal. But what you cease to understand is the thread between every living being. A hum. A heartbeat.

Weaves us together in a tangle of chaotic uncertainty.

We have not the capacity to scribble you out. What a crisis permits is the human spirit to blaze until it burns the light —

“Sorry, hi, sorry to interrupt but why are you telling me? Am I supposed to do something with this?” The voice is coarse, dry, awkward.

That is for you to decide.

“But, why me? You could have picked anyone.”

We did not pick you, as you call it. You were randomly chosen.

A pout. “Oh, okay, well, thanks, I guess.”

Don’t thank us. We do not require praise.

“Then what do you require?”

Nothing.

A pause. Then a whisper. “You’re a barrel of laughs.”

Your attempt at sarcasm has not succeeded.

“Hey! Excuse me, you may be the almighty bloody universe but there is still such a thing as … as respect. Even from a formless … being, such as yourself. Selves. Sorry. Pronouns.”

We admire your strength.

But we do not require anything. We are communicating with you to offer you a purpose.

“Purpose?”

An echo of a voice. High-pitched and loud. “Saph, dinner’s ready!”

“Alright, Mum, be down in a sec.”

Do you consume animals, as those who were first infected?

“No. I used to but then realised it was stupid of me to think I had the right to eat them just because they’re a different species. And don’t even get me started on how eating animals is destroying the planet –”

But you’re going to tell us, we presume?

“Yes. I can be selfish sometimes but I don’t want to be a god. I’m not even sure I believe gods should exist. But it seems we’re acting as if we’re gods. Unpredictable weather patterns. Increase in carbon dioxide levels. The planet is roasting like a potato. And all you ever see on the news is the football results and lengthy discussions on what the Queen is wearing.”

You are wise, child.

Gurgles. “Wha? Really? I couldn’t even get a C on my GCSE maths exam.”

Yet you were able to see what so many of your kind cannot. The purpose we offer you is something you already recognise. A hum. A heartbeat. Made of stardust. You feel it within yourself but can never quite reach it.

“This sounds … familiar. And it’s kind of freaking me out.”

As it should.

The high-pitched and loud voice returns. “Saph! It will get cold. It’s your favourite.”

“Yes, coming, sorry. Just talking to my … girlfriend. Be right down!”

Listen to the hum of us. The vibration of us. Of you. There, you will learn of your purpose.

“I think I already know it.”

Then you have won.

***

signal and purpose - showing the sun above rooftop with aerial
Photograph: Indiana Rivers © 2020

I am purpose — context

I decided to focus on connectedness because being an optimist I find focusing on the positives of any situation is the most beneficial way to learn and develop.

I had the idea to write a conversation between the universe and a teenager because I wanted to draw upon the relationship we have with each other and how collectives of union are forming because of this crisis.

More so, I wished to look at the origins of the virus and question our consumption of animals. Even though I was primarily focused on the consequence of viruses being passed from animal to human because of this consumption, I also wanted to bring attention to how climate change has been influenced by animal agriculture.

I decided a teenager would be a comedic and authentic partner to the universe character because it is a time in our lives where I believe we are truly ourselves. On the verge between child and adult. That balance is what makes us who we are, I believe. And what is the universe if not us? We are its stardust.

At first, I didn’t know how the conversation would go. I knew the Signals from the Edge series focused on signals and messages. I thought a signal from the universe, in this context: sending a human being a message that they can be offered a purpose. In reality, by telling someone they have a purpose means they already know it. They just need to recognise it.

The piece also made me think about how I interpret the word ‘edge’. Before writing this, I had always seen the word as an ending, something that reaches a wall where there is nothing left. Now, I am accustomed to seeing the word as a place unknown. Somewhere that holds knowledge and a beingness we believe we cannot reach.

I also wanted to keep the reader guessing as to whether this is a dream sequence or some form of reality. Of course, the universe could never have a voice that we could understand but humans do and we are biologically part of the universe so … paradox?
Essentially, I wanted this conversation to highlight the signals found within us and how we can access them during times of unprecedented events. I hope Saph can bring hope to anyone of any age and teach us that the messages we send ourselves can guide us to the light.


Find out more

You can explore some of the issues around the origins of coronavirus diseases such as Covid-19 in human exploitation of animals in this report from the international NGO Traffic: Wildlife trade, COVID-19 and zoonotic disease risks: shaping the response (April 2020).

From bats to human lungs, the evolution of a coronavirus, by Carolyn Corman in the New Yorker (27th March 2020), looks at how such diseases are transmitted, and the latest research into understanding them.

And Transmission of diseases from humans to apes: why extra vigilance is now needed, by Arend de Haas at The Conversation (24th March 2020) explains how our great ape relatives are also vulnerable to coronavirus diseases — with the risk being transmission from humans.

You can find previous Signals from the Edge contributions in the form of a burning forest and the cry of a fox, and a fragment of an alien encyclopedia, cast backwards in time and in space.

Indiana Rivers
Indiana Rivers
An activist, writer, artist, drummer and witch, studying an MA in Environmental Humanities and writing on eco-anxiety and environmental impacts of animal agriculture relating to veganism.
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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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Bristol Climate Writers Presents … ‘Desert Island Books’

Four writers of fiction and nonfiction (all members of Bristol Climate Writers and ClimateCultures) share the ‘Desert Island Books’ they discussed at a recent library event on climate change: Nick Hunt, Caroline New, Peter Reason, and Deborah Tomkins.


3,000 words — approximate reading time 12 minutes


At a time of enormous cuts to library funding all over the UK, Bristol is not an exception — in 2017, seventeen of its 27 libraries were under threat of closure, including Redland Library, the second most used library in the city. The Friends of Redland Library — which campaigns to keep libraries open all over Bristol, initiated a series of evenings — Desert Island Books, in which “a panel of interesting people” discuss a particular topic through books.

On 9th January 2020, four of the Bristol Climate Writers took part in a climate change Desert Island Books event at Redland Library. We were each invited to bring a book to discuss, and also a ‘wild card’, a book which could be on another subject completely, although only one of us took that option, with persuasive reasoning. This was followed by Q&A.

Members of the panel were Nick Hunt (travel writer, freelance journalist and editor of Dark Mountain), Caroline New (fiction writer and Green Party Campaigns co-ordinator), Peter Reason (writer and Emeritus Professor, Bath University), and Deborah Tomkins (fiction writer and founder of the Bristol Climate Writers network).

Climate change — a background hum

Nick Hunt's choice:

- Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin
- Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk

Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is not really a novel. It’s a collection of stories, anecdotes, folklore, songs, rituals and even recipes describing the Kesh, a people “who might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. Le Guin herself described it as an ‘archaeology of the future’.

Desert Island Books - 1, Always Coming Home
Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin

Post-apocalyptic fables mostly fall into two categories: eco-utopias where everyone lives in harmony with nature, and dystopian nightmares prowled by murderous, looting gangs. One is invariably misanthropic, highlighting the savagery into which humans plunge as soon as the veneer of civilisation is stripped away, while the other is often extremely dull (perfection always is). Always Coming Home belongs in the utopian category — although, beyond the valley of the Kesh, there are signs that other societies are falling back into hierarchy, expansionism and misogyny — but there are several qualities that make this book different.

Le Guin’s exceptional skill as a writer is the first. She builds her world so delicately that only halfway through the book does it become apparent that this quasi-Native American society of hunter-gatherers has access to a technology that resembles a god-like internet, which permeates their lives so thoroughly that, like the wind or the rain, it is hardly even mentioned. Another quality is what I can only describe as her honesty, which seems a strange thing to say in relation to a sci-fi/fantasy book.

The daughter of anthropologists, Le Guin does not present herself as the writer or creator, but simply as an archivist whose role it is to record information and pass it to the reader.

In one Kesh folktale, a man steps through a hole in the air to find himself ‘outside the world’, a duplicate version of his own valley that is filled with roads and houses as far as he can see. This shadow-place is populated by monstrous backwards-headed people who smoke tobacco ceaselessly, eat food that is poison and can only say the words “Kill people, kill people, kill people”. The story is a shamanic voyage: the backwards-headed people are us, glimpsed with nightmare clarity by a culture to whom pollution and war are practically incomprehensible. It is an invitation to see ourselves, and the violence of our civilisation, as indigenous cultures might have seen us at first point of contact, or even as non-human creatures might regard us now.

“Stories about climate change don’t need to be about climate change”, writes critic Robert Butler in an essay in the anthology Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. “Stories written before people knew about human-made climate change — Faust, Galileo, King Lear — may now resonate in ways that hadn’t been seen before. Even if climate change is not the subject matter, or the principal theme, its presence may still be detectable. It could be, in Ian McEwan’s evocative phrase, ‘the background hum’.”

Always Coming Home is not a story about climate change, or not directly anyway (an unspecified cataclysmic upheaval is buried so deep in time that the Kesh retain no knowledge whatsoever about its cause). But a ‘background hum’ runs through the book, permeating it as thoroughly as the digital intelligence that invisibly fills Le Guin’s world; not a note of anxiety or despair but of trust in human kindness, and a celebration of our place not at the top of a hierarchy but as one small part of a living, breathing universe. Above all, it is a book about hope… even if that hope lies 20,000 years in the future.

Navigating unbearable things

Caroline New's choice:

- The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson
- The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell

I broke the mould in our team presentation of climate fiction by talking about the witty, escapist detective stories by Catriona McPherson, the excellent Dandy Gilver series, rightly called ‘preposterous’ by one reviewer. As a climate activist I read new and terrifying information every day. I don’t go to bed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I go to bed with Dandy Gilver and her ilk. I need to sleep. Maybe the human mind needs a little denial as it needs chocolate.

Set in the 1930s, their upper-class female detective protagonist shares the classism of the period, modified by humour and compassion, but prevails against sexism. She notices poverty, or we could not like her, but the resilience and humour of the poor stop poverty threatening the benign nature of reality. We readers know what is coming, but we let ourselves be rocked along with Dandy in the comforting hammock of interwar privilege. This is high-class denial for the intelligentsia.

As a writer of climate fiction myself, I have to ask: ‘Why would anyone want to read about unbearable things?’ And yet they do. Fiction about the Holocaust, violence and war, the slave trade and other atrocities pulls us straight into the terrifying opposite of love. What makes it readable? I can think of two obvious ways.

Firstly, when the horror is interwoven with stories of love and courage the relief of this truth about human beings lets healing emotions soften the rigid horror of the trauma.

Secondly, fiction can counter the bland numbness of privilege, which can be a relief. By saying ‘This is real! This happened!’ it can afford us the catharsis of grief. Or it may amount to the cry ‘Stop!’ One way or another, these works forbid denial, which in theory should bring us closer to action. If, that is, we have the faintest idea of what to do.

Climate change is perhaps different from the other sorts of unbearable things I have mentioned. The enemies are structures, although worked by human minds. We are all deeply implicated. We all did this. This unpleasant fact may be what made climate fiction slow to take off.

Desert Island Books - 2 The Ship
The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell

The Ship is actually about denial, but not of climate change. It is metaphorical but entirely to the point, and in that sense more realistic than the US survivalist post-apocalyptic genre where women in cross-gartered trousers peer irresistibly from wattle-and-daub shelters and take aim at small game with home-made crossbows. The Ship is set in an unspecified time when there are no apples left, only ersatz apple juice and wax replicas. Most of the eco-systems that support human life have already broken down, and the government’s only solution is to allow the weakest to die so as to protect a surviving elite. The horrors are mostly off-stage, which makes it possible to contemplate them out of the corner of an eye.

The Ship itself is the ultimate middle-class solution; a floating gated community which tries to create its own truth. In reality it is going nowhere, forever. The on-board leadership (the heroine’s own father) parrots the message of many dictatorships: forget the past, erase it: it never happened and only traitors make us look at it. The teenage heroine has to grow up in the face of this thick denial, and the book charts her adventures up to the point that she sees the clear outlines of her moral dilemma and takes steps to end it.

Closing the species gap

Peter Reason's choice:

- Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky
- The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Learning to Die, by poet/philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky, is a tiny book of essays, but it explores a huge theme: How should we die at the end of times?

The first essay, by Bringhurst, considers the nature of the wild Earth, “living life to its full… self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us”. Humans are, of course, part of this, but we are ‘liminal creatures’, on the margins of the wild, sometimes tempted to believe the ‘witch tale’ that we can live entirely outside it. The wild world has been pushed by humans beyond its limits, bringing about mass extinction of life on Earth, one that may well include humans. If anything survives, “it will again be the wild… that is responsible for the healing”.

Bringhurst is demanding we look reality in the face, challenging us with the realities of death: “You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today?”

Jan Zwicky picks up this essentially moral question: “What constitutes virtue in such circumstances?” The answer, she tells us, is surprisingly straightforward: it is “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life”. Harking back to Socrates, she explores six core virtues:

  1. Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
  2. Courage: physical, civic, and moral.
  3. Self-control: knowing when enough is enough
  4. Justice as ‘the order of the soul’.
  5. Contemplative practice: attending to the beauty of brokenness
  6. Compassion.

And this must all be approached with a sense of humour, a lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. “We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal to despair. Even in the face of death.”

In contrast, Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a novel that sets out to close the gap between people and other living things, and in particular, trees. It challenges human exceptionalism, so, while there are nine human characters, key protagonists are the trees themselves.

Desert Island Books - 3 The Overstory
The Overstory, by Richard Powers

This may sound over-serious and philosophical for a novel, but it is also a gripping read. The lives of the human protagonists become intertwined with each other in the so-called Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s, when activists attempted to stop the logging of the last virgin forests. The narrative builds to a series of thrilling climaxes as the protestors blockade logging machinery, occupy trees, battle with police, and eventually engage in illegal direct action with appalling consequences.

The great achievement of this novel is that it draws the reader into a different worldview in which we know — really know, not just as scientific abstraction — that trees communicate with each other; that forests are not collections of individual trees but living, collaborating organisms; that they can, in their own way, communicate with us. How does this change our attitude toward them and to the plant world in general? It is often said we will not solve the ecological crisis through facts and figures but through good stories that engage our imagination in alternative ways of living. The Overstory is such a story.

Climate change in a realist tradition

Deborah Tomkins' choice:

- Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver 
- Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall 
- What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is a quieter book than what some may imagine climate fiction (or ‘cli-fi’) to be, with little overt drama, and in the realist tradition. In other words, it’s not shelved in fantasy or science fiction, nor is it a thriller.

I chose this book because I tend to write realist climate fiction, and know therefore just how hard it is to do without breaking into dystopia (current or future), or upping the stakes with some kind of environmental disaster. But I have also written a speculative cli-fi novella, and found it a good deal easier. There is something freeing about putting your story on a different planet or several hundred years in the future.

Desert Island Books - 4 Flight Behaviour
Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour is set in the Appalachian Mountains, in a dirt-poor community, an area that Barbara Kingsolver knows well and writes compassionately about. The people are ill-educated and never travel beyond the nearest town. Climate change means nothing to them in their struggle for existence — except they’ve noticed the weather doesn’t behave as it used to, and constant rain and flooding threatens their farms and livelihoods.

The main character, Dellarobia, has her life upturned when she spots ‘fire’ in the woods — in reality, millions of monarch butterflies which have somehow gone astray from their usual migration route. If they all die in the Appalachian winter, the whole species will become extinct. The local community sees it as a sign from God not to fell the trees — tree-felling is likely to be the only source of income that winter for Dellarobia’s family — and Dellarobia appears on TV, to her dismay, as some kind of mystic figure (the portrayal of the manipulative TV reporter is a joy). Into this confused mix comes Ovid Byron, a black professor of entomology who is passionate about the monarchs; and Dellarobia, bright but uneducated, begins to learn about ecology and climate change.

Flight Behaviour isn’t perfect — it’s a little wordy, and the story could have been told in perhaps half the length, but it’s one of the very few novels that address climate and ecological issues in the realist tradition. It’s worth noting that Kingsolver has been writing fiction exploring these themes for several decades.

I chose two wild cards, both non-fiction, similar but different: George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Per Espen Stoknes’ What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.

They both look at the psychology of denial, all the mental tricks people play on themselves in order not to deal with the reality of climate change. Both are engaging and easy to read, drawing on research. Marshall is a communicator, and approaches the issue from the point of why climate communication so often misses the mark; Stoknes is a psychologist. Of course, none of this is simple, and there are many and multifarious reasons, some overlapping, some wildly incompatible. Both books offer useful insights about how to “retell the story of climate change and embrace strategies that are social, positive and simple” (Stoknes).

I have found both books of immense value, both for my writing and in my campaigning, as I have learned (and am still learning) about how to communicate with people who don’t want to hear. Perhaps the tide has turned in the past two years, with the Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough effect, but we still have a long way to go, and I recommend these two books for insights into communicating effectively.

Bristol Climate Writers panel at Redland Library
Bristol Climate Writers panel at Redland Library
Photograph: Friends of Redland Library ©
2020

The Desert Island Books evening — one of torrential rain and floods, incidentally — ended with questions from the audience, who had turned out in good numbers, despite the weather, and the animated discussion showed how much people enjoyed the session.


Find out more

Bristol Climate Writers was founded in 2017 to provide a network for writers in the Bristol area who are writing in any genre about climate change. We consist of fiction writers, poets, science writers, travel writers, journalists, memoirists and more. We meet monthly for discussion, and also provide occasional public workshops. The Desert Island Books event is one of a number of public events Bristol Climate Writers has engaged with.

The Friends of Redland Library spun out of the 2015 campaign to save Redland Library from being closed. It must have worked, as only one of Bristol’s 28 Libraries was closed but some other cuts were made. In 2017 there was a new move to close seventeen of the city’s now 27 Libraries. FORL became more active, organising one or two events a month. This included the Desert Island Books format, where a panel of speakers nominated books on the event theme plus a ‘wild card’. The main driver is that the audience wanted intelligent discussion on serious subjects. The city’s libraries now look safe until March 2021.  

Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin, is published by Gateway (Orion, 2016; originally published 1985).

Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk, is published by Shed (2014) and available as a free download.

The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell, is published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson (Orion, 2015).

The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2019).

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, is published by University of Regina Press (2018). You can read James Murray-White‘s February 2019 review for ClimateCultures: Attending to the World’s Extraordinary Surprise.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is published by Penguin (2018).

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver, is published by Faber & Faber (2012).

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall, is published by Bloomsbury (2014).

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes, is published by Chelsea Green Publishing (2015).

Caroline New
Caroline New
A mother, grandmother, activist, environmentalist and writer, currently editing 'Blank Times' - a humorous fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic neo-fascist regime run according to Ten 'Planetary Principles'.
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Deborah Tomkins
Deborah Tomkins
A writer of long and short fiction and articles, who started writing about climate change to answer the question – ‘How, really, will it be?’
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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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Peter Reason
Peter Reason
A writer linking the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources and participatory perspectives.
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