Filmmaker James Murray-White spent a winter break in Cumbria to edit footage for his film, Finding Blake, and he took time out for ClimateCultures to review Cornerstones. This new collection of writing explores how all landscapes — from Dartmoor to the Arctic Circle — begin below the surface of the earth.
approximate Reading Time: 5minutes
Earlier this year I counted myself blessed, albeit slightly apprehensive, as I was shown into Jordans Mine on Portland in Dorset, by mine manager Mark Godden. I was there to see and film where the slab of Portland stone for the English mystic William Blake’s new ledger stone was cut from. We’ve published much material about Blake’s life and work, his burial site and the process of creating his new stone over at the multi-fabulous Finding Blake project website.
The experience was my first face-to-face encounter with the multiple seams where much of the stone that London is built with (or in the current age, faced with) comes from. This subterranean world, manned only by a few — with huge trucks driving in and out constantly, their lights churning towards and then away from us in the chasms and tunnels — seemed out of this world. And yet, in many ways, it was utterly of the world — an underground engine that takes what is below to build up what is above.
As I reflect upon it, and edit the footage from that day, I’m minded by two other films that deal with underground worlds. Firstly, Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which looks at a vast underground series of tunnels that make up a giant nuclear waste dump, and how it is being prepared. The second is Werner Herzog’s paean to our ancestors, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (also 2010), which delves beyond the actuality of the images in the Chauvet cave in France, which have survived more than 30,000 years, to the wonderful suppositions this visionary filmmaker conjures up.
As the weather up here on the Cumbrian Fells worsens for winter, and the slate on the roof bounces around, I’ve been hunkering down with this deep collection of writings that explore the ground beneath the writers’ feet. Many of the stories in Cornerstones were commissioned for a BBC Radio 3 series, and they all speak to the theme of bedrock. We skim along the tectonic plates with writers such as Sara Maitland, John Burnside, and Tim Dee, all gloriously bunched and slammed together by editor Mark Smalley.
Sara Maitland places a chunk of Lewisian Gneiss in our hands, of about 3 million years in age; sculptor Peter Randall-Page takes us on a tour of Dartmoor tors, and talks of findlings, or orphan boulders; and, in From taiga to tundra — a favourite piece — Daniel Kalder writes of “dead things and diseases and giant holes leaking gas”.
Tim Dee makes it all the more personal in his piece, My rock, about the diagnosis and treatment of his kidney stone. Something of the deep and discursive comes through as he feels deep pain, going on his subterranean journey into the emotions of that, while researching what a kidney stone is, what causes them, and the history of others suffering them, without actually ever seeing this chunk of calcite. He was, for a time, “awaiting granulation by laser, living around a rocky shadow”.
There’s a link here too with Jason Mark’s potent political writing, Fall of the wild. After what sounds like a very hairy journey by plane through the passes surrounding the Yukon River, where the pilot has to navigate into a hamlet to wait out the storm, Mark engages with the First Nations Gwich’in people’s struggle to preserve and hold on to the rock they have ancestrally lived on, the wilderness.
On the borders of change
I’m writing this a few miles from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall, the surviving rock edifice of a collapsed civilisation. I was delighted to read in Sarah Moss’s piece, Whinstone, that “the classical bedrock of English history is as much a thing of flux and mutability as the bedrock of our border”. And her starting and concluding with reflections upon the “firestone far beneath our feet, bubbling and seeping…” is a masterly literary creation.
I once had the pleasure of sharing a sauna with editor Mark Smalley, in the Bristol Lido, and as the heat rose he talked of the passion project he was trying to make happen: a radio programme about the Beer Quarry Caves in Devon, from which Exeter Cathedral was hewn. I’m delighted we’ve both now had these momentous and personally uplifting experiences going below ground and, along with these writers who have patiently observed, recorded and responded to that which holds us, have made material from our subterranean sojourns.
Find out more
James Murray-White is a multi-media artist who has worked across theatre, journalism and reviews, and now focuses on creating powerful and moving films for a range of projects, campaigns and clients. His passions include exploring ecological connections, anthropological spaces, and creative responses to issues. James is filmmaker in residence with GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, documenting their award-winning work with artists exploring environmental issues. You can find out more at his Directory entryand sky-larking.co.uk. James is the creator of the Finding Blake film project, whose website I edit.
ClimateCultures welcomes new Member Mary Woodbury with the first in her two-part series on the development of eco-fiction.
Eco-fiction, Mary suggests, is "not so much as a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres."
You can read part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction here.
When we approached the cottage in Ireland, a pair of white horses in the meadow raised their heads to look our way. Strong winds lifted their manes and tails wildly yet gracefully. We had driven from Dublin to the west coast, near Doolin, and were staying above the cliffs in a cottage. I was tired from an overnight flight and the drive to Doolin.
You look at Ireland on a map and think it wouldn’t take very long to get from coast to coast, but it takes a while to get used to driving on the other side of the road and the other side of the car. It takes special patience to understand the roundabouts, to safely navigate the narrow country lanes with no shoulders — only rock walls, with more seasoned Irish drivers whipping by at 100 km/h or faster — and to stop and smile while farmers older than dirt slowly herd their cattle across the road. My husband was the driver, as my mother and I took in the magical countryside around us. When we arrived at our destination and stepped onto terra firma, my spirits rose. I went straight over to the horses. They were the cottage owner’s animals, and it took some wading through wet, tall grasses to get there, but the horses came right up to me and allowed me to pet them and feed them hay from the meadow. Each evening, when we returned to the cottage, they were there to greet us.
And each morning, when we left the cottage, we explored the wilds of Ireland: caves, the Burren, the sea, the cliffs of Moher, and the many places we ran — which William Butler Yeats had written about. We sailed to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, a real island in Lough Gill, which Yeats was inspired to write as he walked the bustling Fleet Street of London in the 19th century and dreamed of getting away into a simpler life more strongly connected with nature. We did trail runs in Slish Wood, which was what Yeats referred to as Sleuth Wood in The Stolen Child and in the trails around the lake isle. Nearly every single waking moment of this journey was filled with sweat, wonder, being away from cities and people, and interacting with natural things and places, though at night we did hit the pubs. I sensed within the wild a great seclusion, sacredness, awe, and even discomfort at times. It was a world alive with remnants of the past. I felt free.
If my story were fiction, it might be called eco-fiction, because the story depends on natural places and the human connection therein. Many precursors to eco-fiction exist, and Yeats’ early work — such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree and The Stolen Child, which dream of escape to the wild from the Victorian world he was locked into — might be considered one inspiration for the modern literary field. Later, he sought this escape via mysticism, but the early roots were steeped in Irish mythology:
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.from The Stolen Child, W B Yeats
What is Eco-fiction?
One of the largest works describing Eco-fiction is Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (2010). He researched hundreds of books and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction were:
The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.
Another definition is by Mike Vasey (referenced in Dwyer’s book):
“Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principles.”
Some descriptions are simpler. Ashland Creek Press calls it “fiction with a conscience,” and one of the press’ co-founders, John Yunker, via personal correspondence, called it a super-genre. I think of eco-fiction not so much as a genre than as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive. I am not big on labels or boxy terms, but eco-fiction is broad and has a rich history. Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space. It can be set in the past, present, or future. It can be set in other worlds.
A short note on climate change in fiction
These days, many terms have sprung up to address the ‘hyperobject’ that is anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or what one might call the biggest eco-crisis of our times, perhaps what all other prior concerns in eco-writings have led to, built upon, and culminated in. Such genres include Anthropocene fiction, new nature writing, enviro-horror fiction, afrofuturism, green fiction, ecofuturism, ecopunk, biopunk, solarpunk, environmental science fiction, environmental fiction, climate fiction, and ecological/new weird fictions, to name a few–and these do not always relate just to just climate change but to a related eco/socio/political/cultural system. A hyperobject, according to Timothy Morton, explains objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change. Again, I think of eco-fiction as a way to bring alive the wild in any genre, whether romance, adventure, mystery, you name it.
Jim Dwyer stated in his field guide that the first time he heard the term eco-fiction was from the Eco-fiction anthology published in 1971 by Washington Square Press. Within this collection are even older short stories dating back to 1933. You might be surprised at the big authors in this little anthology: Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asimov, and William Saroyan. The preface to the anthology states:
“The earth is an eco-system. It possesses a collective memory. Everything that happens, no matter how insignificant it may seem, affects in some way at some time the existence of everything else within that system. Eco-fiction raises important questions about man’s place in the system: Will man continue to ignore the warnings of the environment and destroy his source of life? Will he follow the herd into the slaughterhouse?”
So the first time the term eco-fiction came about, it contained stories going back to 1933. But, like with many living things, this type of literature has roots and branches and an ever-extending canopy. According to Dywer, precursors include magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical fiction. Like with the anthology edited by Stadler, science fiction roots are evident as well. Environmental science fiction and ecologically oriented weird fiction go back far, because, as with Yeats’ and others, writers in every field have always worried about the trappings of walls and cities and refinement and wondered about the kind of life where one can “come away” to the “waters and the wild”. We can find such concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works, too, which often pit machine and greedy power vs. an imaginary (but not unrealistic) natural world. Patrick Curry wrote an article titled Tolkien and Nature at the Tolkien Estate, stating:
“Tolkien…returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive “resources” started to bite only 400 years ago. Middle-earth is real because despite our modernist education we recognize it.”
There’s a long lineage of works in this canon, from early myths of weather gods and goddesses such as Thor, the thunder god, or Susanowo, the Japanese Shinto god of storms and sea. There’s Noah in the Bible and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1759 was Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which dealt with regulation of the weather. Various storms, such as floods and winds and ice storms and fire, figure commonly in eco-fiction plots — but stories do not have to be apocalyptic; they also can be subtle and thoughtful.
We cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to Upton Sinclair to Michael McClure to Naomi Klein.
One might say eco-fiction first began as cave drawings of animals and birds, which documented an era of humans connecting with their environment, and did so with storytelling via art; but the term became popular in the 1970s when natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists, and nature writing with a sense of advocacy grew in literary study (ecocriticism), nonfiction, and fiction. Along with other environmental movements, the study of ecologically oriented fiction began to bloom and there became a sense of morality in storytelling. We have to be very careful in storytelling to be true to art forms, however, and not be preachy. Eco-fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us –- our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection.
In part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction, Mary will look at how this “way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness – and human connection to these things – into any genre” has been evolving from these earlier expressions and will return to the personal journey to her Irish roots.
Find out more
Mary Woodbury runs eco-fiction.com: Blowing your mind with wild words and worlds. Check the site’s interviews and spotlights for some of the best modern eco-fiction. Mary also set up Dragonfly.eco: an ecologically oriented writers workshop (with a new global eco-fiction series), library, and resources for authors and readers in a changing world: a place for writing and reading meaningful stories about our natural world.
She wrote a three-part series for SFFWorld.com: Exploring the Ecological Weird (see links to other parts in the article). And you can read these interviews with Ecolit Books and Writing Forums, where Mary talks about her work and inspiration as a writer and publisher and about environmental literature.
Mary also wrote three articles on climate change and storytelling for the Free Word Centre — where, of course, you can also find the writers’ panel discussions and more from the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts climate change events for writers, which I helped TippingPoint organise at the Free Word Centre. Which also gives me another opportunity to plug the excellent anthology of all the poems, stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from these events, published by Cambria Books as a free ebook.
For the articles and books mentioned in Mary’s piece:
This Wikipedia article introduces the work of Timothy Morton, including his concept of a hyperobject. (You can hear a Guardian interview with Timothy Morton via the January 2018 listing on our Views from Elsewhere page: Why we need to rethink climate change, with Timothy Morton).
The Eco-fiction anthology was published in 1971 by Washington Square Press, edited by John Stadler.
It's a pleasure to welcome back writer Nick Hunt for the latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Nick's contribution of three objects traces one path from our present into a future which he reminds us will not stay forever on any one course. He returns us to a longer view, of a past which honours the power and beauty of natural forms - the human and more-than-human.
This seventh generation
On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.
A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.
In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline.
Around the same time, ivory – used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls – was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.
(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)
Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever mutating variety – polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene – plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.
That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.
Sun machines: the future for now
I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing.
The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but – as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out – more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.
Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight.
Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.
Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.
This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain.
The long past of the Long Man
When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient – unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years – but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.
Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there – the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky – and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is – he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century – and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.
We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.
Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.
You can find more of Nick’s writing at Nick Hunt – and ClimateCultures is pleased to have Nick’s own selection of passages from his new book, which you can find via the links on his Profile page.
You can read other contributions in the series at our page onA History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Nick’s way when I review it for ClimateCulturesnext month.
Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...
"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post."
At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally.
Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question.
Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post.
In part 1 of Doggerland Rising, Justina Hart introduced her poem, which was commissioned following the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. Drawing on advice from experts at Durham University, she investigated the prehistory of Doggerland, the lowland plains inhabited by mesolithic people before sea level rise created the North Sea. In this concluding part, Justina completes the story of her research and reveals how the poem's characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.
Click on the map to read Doggerland Rising #1: Walking Across the North Sea.
Reading academic papers – a new vocabulary
Following the day at Durham University spent meeting with palaeo-scientists to discuss all things Doggerland, they emailed me numerous papers to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. With six weeks to go till the commission deadline, I focused on reading and journaling to help the ideas bubble up.
Studying an area where knowledge is expanding rapidly I found to be exciting and addictive. Although the Doggerland concept had emerged in the early twentieth century, it didn’t take off until the late 1990s when Professor Bryony Coles at the University of Exeter examined and wrote about the archaeology of Doggerland; and until researchers at Birmingham University (Vince Gaffney among them) in the 2000s used data from oil and gas drilling maps to chart the submerged landscape of the Southern North Sea.
I started a Doggerland journal in my writing program, Scrivener, jotting down salient points and ideas every day. Early on in reading the academic papers, one thing that struck me was the intriguing sounds of many of the scientific words and terms used to describe investigation into the North Sea. Here are a few:
The mysterious half-understood (to me) quality of these words sparked my first draft for part I of my six-part poem. Scientific exploration provides an entry point both into the writing and into the Doggerland landscape:
Wade in with palaeogeographers,archaeologists, palaeogeologists,cartographers who swiminto the past for a living, who disturb and reconfigure depths.
Later on, I realised that these palaeo-scientist characters were part of the poem’s scaffolding that could be removed. The start of the finished part I of the poem now addresses the reader directly as scientist-investigator and everyman. He dips a hand into the North Sea and comes face-to-face with one of his Mesolithic ancestors:
A man hallooing as if to himselfpaddles through shallow waters. He looks ahead, squinting;he can almost see you, you him.
Letting go of research and sinking into the sea
Having immersed myself in the research, the next step was to let go of it – taking whatever I’d absorbed with me – and allow myself to sink into a place from which the poems might flow. That was the idea anyway. It felt risky: the research was a safety raft without which I could end up all at sea.
Giving myself the gift of this time to sink or swim was – as a jobbing writer/editor where paid tasks must take priority – the privilege of having a commission. What joy to be given licence to write and research poetry in prime client time. I unplugged from the internet for consecutive mornings and, in silence, held the idea of the sequence lightly in my mind, listening for what might surface.
I used others’ writing, music, photographs, and my own visits to natural landscapes to tickle the poetic synapses. Early on I found a jazz song that I took as a soundtrack for my project, Mi Negra Ave María, by Roberto Fonseca. Soaring and anthemic, it includes the lyrics:
And Atlantis can once again Rise from the ocean And the musical, beautiful sound will resound And shake in every tree …
I read poetry with watery and icy themes (the polar wilderness gave a useful sense of remoteness and strangeness).
I wanted to make a research trip to Druridge Bay on the Northumberland coast as recommended by the Durham scientists, but it was too far afield. Instead, with help from my partner as driver, I went on a long madcap jaunt from Staffordshire down the M1 and M25 to one of my old stomping grounds on the Kent estuaries to photograph mudflats. I also took pictures of trees in bogs in Osmaston, Derbyshire. These landscapes became the stage set for the inundated Dogger Island.
Here is a note from my journal:
5 November 2016 – research trip to northern Kent: Visited the Medway, got excited on seeing marshes, then just beyond the sea at Allhallows and took pictures as the sun was going down. Landscape very flat and I was bitter around theears, although it would have been 2-3 degrees warmer then [i.e. in the Mesolithic].
After a time, interesting things started cropping up in my journal. Here’s a piece of stream-of-consciousness writing:
The voices [in the poem] are strong. They are alive. They are speaking to us but also tothemselves as though there’s this thin film of water called time between us … They talk tothemselves and the meaning trickles to us across this film. They can kind of see us throughthis film too, and not.
The first character emerges – let’s call him Shaman
One day as I was writing my journal a character emerged urging ‘Follow me, follow me, follow me’. So I did, trusting his voice more as time went on. At first he acted as a guide, taking me back in time to the Mesolithic; later he made his way into the poem. It felt exciting channelling a Mesolithic character, as if I was bringing someone back from the dead whose bones lay under the North Sea. He seemed to relish the chance to live again.
This man, aged twenty-five or thirty, becomes the character we meet in section I, and who we follow through the poem. If he or someone like him did exist, perhaps he was a Mesolithic shaman because of his time-travelling and piloting abilities. Archaeologists know that such roles existed in tribal groups because they have unearthed objects such as deer skulls used as masks in spiritual ceremonies; they’ve also found standing stones or menhirs beneath the waves.
This is the kind of thing my nameless shamanic character whispered to me. It made its way into the poem in section II:
‘Look in the water. Look in the pool I’m looking at. The pool that is brackish, filled with saltwater, the river’s still. Giant oaks are asleep in it. I leave something there for you, a clueabout me. I take off my necklace and cast it in, it’s like casting a spell – that one day we will come this way again.’
Drafting the whole sequence was like walking a tightrope over the North Sea. I had never written such a long poem in different voices before and did not know that I could complete each section until I had its first draft down.
So I navigated my imaginative North Sea – and the poem – by degrees: first I was a quarter of the way across, then a half, then three-quarters … Since each section had to come from deep down, as if from my own internal sea, each time it was a case of listening, having faith, holding my breath until at last I was rewarded with each poem’s content, form and language. All the sections had to tie together and tell a story as well, of course.
After writing the first four poems (out of the total six), I attended a small poetry festival in London, Second Light’s The Song of the Earth. I found the workshops by poets such as Jemma Borg and Hannah Lowe very helpful for renewing my inspiration, and the festival provided a much-needed break from my own company. I came back and wrote the last two sections.
Sharing the poem – feedback and editing
Had the poem succeeded? It felt to me that the commission had moved my poetry on, but the proof’s in the pudding. I sent the finished draft to fellow West Midlands poet, Sarah James, who generously read it, suggested tweaks and commented, “It all reads beautifully and feels very crafted and finished”. I was over the moon. The poet Myra Schneider kindly read and fed back in detail before I submitted the final version. “It’s a real achievement – a step forward,” she said. I am indebted to these poets and other readers.
Myra pointed out that the poem needed some linguistic fine-tuning to get it ‘as close to Anglo-Saxon as possible’, as this would be more in keeping with the prehistoric setting. So before filing, I spent a few hours scouring the poem for Renaissance and post-Renaissance words and concepts. I scrapped ‘lurid’ (mid-seventeenth century), replacing it with ‘violent pinks, blues, greens’. ‘Sulking’ (late eighteenth century) became ‘turned sour’, ‘unnavigable’ (early sixteenth century) became ‘where evil spirits hide’, and ‘foraminifera’ (mid-nineteenth century) was changed to ‘tiny sea animals’. A whole passage like:
Here I come: pushed from the delta’s mouthinto blue – blue is my element and green –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
was transformed with simpler, more concrete language into:
Here I come: pushed from the river’s veinsinto blue – blue is my dwelling place –the sea’s body slows me, to breathe …
Myra also spotted an anachronistic use of the country names, ‘Germany, Holland, France’, in a refrain in part IV of the poem, which is voiced by the tribe’s ancestors. This started life as:
Yet once we were kings who strolled throughparadise to Germany, Holland, France.
Few readers might have noticed – and the rhythm worked well – but having put so much work in, it was important to get all the details right. I turned to Dr Jim Innes for help. ‘How might our Mesolithic ancestors have referred to these lands?’ I asked.
‘They would have had names for these areas I suppose, but we can’t know. I would perhaps have said something like ‘the eastern high ground beyond the plain’ and the same for Britain, only ‘western’. That doesn’t tell the reader exactly where though, so maybe … ‘theuplands beyond the eastern plain’ or similar.’
Here’s the final refrain:
Yet once we were kings who strolled through plains rich as paradise to the uplands beyond.
I sent the finished draft to the Durham scientists for fact checking and so they could see what I’d made of the research. All good except Jim spotted I’d used the phrase ‘heading inland’ in section VI, when people would have had to cross water to get to Britain. Jim also checked the date in which I’d set the poem:
‘The dates look fine. Our main radiocarbon date from Dogger peat at -27 metres depth is8140 radiocarbon years ago, which comes out when calibrated as 9300-9000 calendaryears ago. Other dates suggest that the Dogger island was finally fully submerged by about 8000 calendar years ago, or a little before.’
Personal insights – leaving the Mesolithic
The Weatherfronts commission was the first time that I’d ever been paid to write poetry. Symbolically this was deeply important to me as I was being remunerated for writing something I love, and this made a real difference to my craft. Previously, I always fitted my fiction and poetry around the freelance writing and editing I do for commercial clients; now, for the first time, creativity could take centre stage.
Not surprisingly, focusing on my poetic craft during the best, most productive hours of the day meant that my poetry improved. I began to value my work as a poet more and started seeing it as on an equal footing with my client writing. I was able to set and rise to a more difficult poetic challenge than I’d otherwise have attempted. I had not felt such joy in any paid work I’ve done in years, and loved the luxury of the reading and generative time.
Collaborating with the Durham palaeo-scientists was another revelation and joy. The only careers advice I recall receiving at university was ‘Don’t go into academia’, and yet the researchers seemed to thoroughly enjoy their working lives. Thanks to Weatherfronts, I now know that I’d welcome the chance to do other collaborative projects with researchers and universities in the future.
The collaboration completely changed the nature of my Doggerland poem. If I had attempted to write it without talking in-depth to the scientists, I believe that it would have looked very different. Gradual if dramatic climate change (coastal erosion, low-lying island nations at risk of submergence) and migration are more akin to what our Mesolithic ancestors were experiencing, and more akin to what we’re experiencing in the twenty-first century. The scientists helped me and the poem to take this focus.
By the end of the project, I began to envy our Middle Stone Age ancestors for the simpler rhythm of their lives, their multi-skilled resourcefulness, and even (medical advances aside), their quality of life. Pulling out of ancient time and leaping forward to the present day came as a wrench.
Find out more
You can read the full lyrics to Roberto Fonseca’s Mi Negra Ave MarÍa and play the track.
Explore the poets who gave Justina feedback: Sarah James and Myra Schneider. and Dr Jim Innes‘ research into human palaeoecology, particularly in relation to Mesolithic communities and their impact upon the environment.
There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website. Doggerland Rising and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.
Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking...
"When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?"
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Our latest Members' Post comes from writer Justina Hart, one of five winners of commissions from Weatherfronts 2016. All the commissions from that and the 2014 event have now been brought together in a combined anthology, available as a free download from Cambria Books. In the first of two posts, Justina introduces how she collaborated with palaeo-scientists at Durham University – one of the Weatherfronts partners – and how the research she conducted with their help fed into the creative process.
A long time ago (approximately 9,000 to 9,500 years), a vast, low-lying and once-Edenic landmass off the east coast of England, known as Doggerland, connected Britain to mainland Europe. My Weatherfronts project was a long poem called Doggerland Rising, about a tribe forced to leave their homeland as the North Sea rose to swallow the last remaining island, Dogger Island.
Doggerland first came to the world’s attention when, in 1931, a commercial fishing vessel hauled in its nets off the East Anglian coast and discovered a Mesolithic antler harpoon inside. It wasn’t until the 1990s though that archaeologists began viewing marine environments and submerged forests as once inhabited landscapes. Scientific research into these landscapes has intensified since, concentrated at universities including Exeter and Birmingham.
This post is about how I collaborated with palaeo-scientists at one of Weatherfronts’ commissioning partners, Durham University, and how the research I conducted with their help fed into my creative process. It’s a case study with poetic leeway, which I hope might help or inspire others.
Weatherfronts and early ideas – Dogger what?
I’d never heard of Doggerland until I sat next to palaeo-scientist Dr Louise Callard at dinner at the Weatherfronts conference at Free Word in London in May 2016. The conference, the second in the Weatherfronts series, brought climate change writers/artists and scientists together. Louise was super enthusiastic about her summers spent aboard a big ship drilling boreholes into the seabeds off Britain and Ireland – she and her colleagues are working on the BRITICE-CHRONO project to map the last glacial maximum. A young woman’s working life so far removed from my own: I was intrigued to learn more.
As the wine flowed, Louise moved on to ancient people who might have inhabited these seas, and touched on lost lands. She mentioned Doggerland. The word ‘Dogger’ rang a faint bell from the shipping forecast, which holds a special place in the imagination for many of us.
I left dinner, my head filled with images of our ancient ancestors who might have drowned off England’s east coast, or survived submergence by trudging over shallow seas at low tide. In my mind’s eye I saw women, children and bearded men dressed in furs footslogging across a desolate, sea-whipped landscape. This vision resembled a cross between Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and the film of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I swapped the next session I’d booked and hotfooted it to Louise and Alison Cook’s workshop, Understanding the Ice.
Writing the proposal – what have I taken on?
My aim was to write a sequence of four to six poems ‘told in the voices of the ancient people of Doggerland as they witness and respond to rapid climate change’. My idea coalesced on the train on the way home. I would set it at the last possible point people could have realistically inhabited Dogger Island – without needing to grow wings or fins or build better boats. This would relate to the current global situation where people are experiencing climate change inter-generationally and even in individual lifetimes.
To fill in the knowledge gaps in my proposal, I did some Googling. The links focused on populist myths and fears – apocalyptic scenarios that would be ripe for Hollywood treatment: ‘Doggerlanders decimated by tsunami’ (a reference to the Storegga slide tsunami which hit Doggerland around 8,000 years ago); ‘Was Doggerland the real Atlantis?’. To write the poem, I was going to require proper help with research.
To win a commission, writers had to include details of support or further information they might require, such as ‘contact with one or more of the speakers at the event’. Spending a weekend surrounded by scientists was a first for me and I was excited. I also wanted to write a poem that would not, perhaps could not, exist without Weatherfronts or the input that scientists might provide. So I said that I wanted to work with the Durham University Geography Department scientists, some of whom I’d met at Weatherfronts.
But would the scientists, who spend their working lives weighing up data, look askance at the idea of collaborating with a poet who, on some level, would be making things up? Instead of assessing the amount of foraminifera in ancient mud, say, or counting grains of ancient pollen, would they baulk at using their hard-won research to make imaginative jumps?
Making the links – the muddle of ancient time
I heard that I’d won one of the commissions on the day the Brexit referendum news broke. It struck me as spooky since this project was about the moment that Britain broke physically from mainland Europe in around 8,500 BP (‘before the present’).
Over the summer I emailed the Durham scientists I’d met at Weatherfronts and did a Skype interview with Professor Harriet Bulkeley. Not much happened while most of them were doing 10-hour shifts onboard ship in the middle of the sea. “I’m heading offshore again,” Louise emailed, “to spend 52 days in front of some glaciers in NE Greenland. We will be ~80º N and therefore will have very limited communication with the world.” Right. I was spending the summer on my narrowboat in a marina in Lichfield, Staffs.
Before she went, Louise emailed some photographs of a small stretch of exposed ancient forest in Druridge Bay, Northumberland, as visual inspiration. “When sea levels began to rise this forest was drowned and buried by sand,” she wrote. “It occurred around 6,000 to 8,000 thousand years ago, before which land was possibly connected to Doggerbank when the sea level was lower. Some fortuitous rough weather has removed the overlying sand to reveal this forest. Apparently you can see footprints in it, but I’m not sure.” The visuals set the poetic cogs whirring, although I couldn’t make out the ancient footprints either.
Durham University also sent me a first paper to provide context: Mark White’s Things to do in Doggerland when you’re dead, which focused on Neanderthals in Britain. The paper was so brilliant that I became fixated for a week or two, not realising that it was set in the Palaeolithic, many tens of thousands years earlier. I got carried away for a brief moment with the idea of writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Neanderthals.
I had fun Googling background information for poems that I wasn’t destined to write: ‘Did Neanderthals have names?’, ‘Did Neanderthals speak and use language?’ It was silly season and my mind threw up numerous Neanderthal-inspired poems and jokes. How many Neanderthals does it take to change a lightbulb? Why did the Neanderthal cross the road? The mistake shows that linking up with scientists and asking those basic contextual questions can be vital. Also, if you’re dabbling in prehistory, check your dates first.
Here’s a fragment in which I imagined Neanderthals experiencing rising sea levels:
We have our own sounds for water, run,higher ground, drowning –but the same sounds as you for fear …
A first poem – bedding down with Mesolithic tribes
Things improved once I knew that I’d be writing about people because this would give the sequence more scope and variety. My poem would be set firmly in the Middle Stone Age period, the Mesolithic.
Our Mesolithic ancestors were surprisingly advanced. Settled in encampments, they had a wide range of skills and led a full, rich life with, in Doggerland’s heyday, a balanced diet of meat, fish, fruit, nuts and seeds. The temperature would also have been slightly warmer than in today’s Britain.
Before I’d conducted any formal interviews with the scientists, I wrote a first complete poem. It arrived, excitingly enough, almost fully formed.
This poem is a lament in the voice of a young woman. The sea having claimed her land and drowned her people, she is grieving for the fact that she won’t be able to have children. At the end, she walks into the sea, embracing the water as having life. She claims as her own the animated, dancing sea, as if all nature springs from her feminine life force. Doggerland – and climate change writing – had started to become a canvas for exploring personal material which I had resisted writing about in other, perhaps more obvious, ways. Here is a fragment from the last verse of an early draft of the poem:
The waves feel cold but they’re soft toolike fur. This new world moves, is alive– each tear, each sea drop is alive.Look, see all my babies dance!
This poem did not ultimately fit into the final sequence. But after finishing the Weatherfronts commission, I turned it into a song with lyrics and a melody, and then recorded it in a professional studio. It became my first recorded song.
Face-to-face with scientists – clarity at last
I was lucky to be invited along with one of the other commissioned writers, Sarah Thomas, to form part of a panel event at the Durham Book Festival in October 2016. This was exciting in its own right and, with an early December deadline looming, great for focusing the mind. The extra night’s accommodation granted for research purposes proved invaluable for the making of my poem.
The panel event happened on a Sunday. On the Monday, I spent the whole day on campus doing interviews and getting to know Durham, which I’d not visited before. I talked to Louise and to Dr Dave Roberts, followed by Dr Jim Innes, Dr Mark Brigland and Dr Mark White. I’m indebted to them all.
Since disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 loom large in our own consciousness, we’re inclined to project our current climate woes onto our ancient ancestors. Right away the Durham scientists steered me from such apocalyptic and other populist scenarios: when the Doggerland tsunami hit there was no chance of there being any people left on Dogger Island. Rising sea levels meant that they would have been migrating away for centuries.
They also gave me an insight into essential topics, such as:
rates and levels of inundation
changes to the landscape and vegetation
Mesolithic people’s skills and tools
Their lifestyle and spiritual views
Their ability to cope with rapid climate change.
At the start of the day I had a vague picture of Doggerland 9,000 years ago. But as we progressed, I began to pick up the very first inklings of the inter-tidal, estuarine backdrop and the resourceful people who would populate my poem.
Meeting face-to-face also enabled us to build ongoing relationships. And I think crucially, actual contact with scientists on the ground and hearing their passion for their subject fuelled mine. They were not at all fazed by the idea of helping a poet. Mark Brigland told me he read the Saturday poem in the Guardian every week. That was very humbling. I was off the starting blocks and away.
In the second part of her post, Justina completes the story of her research and the drafting of Doggerland Rising – revealing how her characters emerged and what she has learned from the process.
You can discover more about the BRITICE-CHRONO research into the ice sheet that once covered most of the British Isles, which Louise Callard and colleagues have been working on, at the project homepage.
Justina read excerpts from her finished poem, Doggerland Rising, at the 2017 Hay Festival and you can listen here:
And her full poem and all the poems, short stories and non-fiction that were commissioned from both the 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts competitions are included in the free ebook available from Cambria Books.
There is more about Justina’s writing – poems, short stories, non-fiction, novels – at her website.
Questioning what lies beneath? Space for creative thinking..."When you walk across a field or through woods, or travel on the sea, do you think about what, and who, might have been there before you? When you pause to listen, what do you hear from those who are still there, beneath?" Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.