We Saw It All Happen

Poet Julian Bishop uses his collection We Saw It All Happen to witness signs of the climate crisis with the immediacy of news coverage of war and conflict, and to find hope in nature’s ability to hang on.


 

1,880 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Back in the days when I was a cub reporter on the South Wales Echo I thought words could change the world. And to an extent they did. I’d write a piece about a family with a damp flat and as if by magic the landlord would quickly fix it, shamed by a Page Five lead.

Later I was made the BBC’s first environment reporter in Wales, at a time when climate change was barely on the news agenda. I seem to remember the position was prompted by a series of terrible floods in North and West Wales. And because they were “great pictures”, I often had the top story in bulletins. When the weather was ok, I used to cover any rural issue. Once I reported on a new pesto factory opening in Powys.

Ambition took me to ITN’s News At Ten in London where I switched to more of a production role, eventually being in charge of deciding the running order of news stories. I frequently elevated environmental stories only to have them knocked down to the bottom of the list. Those were the days of ‘climate change’ rather than ‘climate crisis’ but, even so, I’ve noticed that most TV news programmes only lead on it when there are “great pictures” — the recent US wildfires come to mind.

And here’s the problem — war and famine are huge human catastrophes with an immediacy that the climate crisis doesn’t have, except when it manifests itself (increasingly) in fire or flood.

Showing the cover of Julian Bishop's poetry collection, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023)

Visualising five degrees

Which is where my idea for We Saw It All Happen came in. Is it enough to bear witness to such events and move on or do we have a greater responsibility than that? Is the media necessarily underplaying climate change because of huge unfolding disasters like the conflict in Gaza? There’s a separate blog to be written about the climate factor in this conflict, although probably for another day.

For me, the attack on our natural world is also a form of warfare but one that isn’t on our TV screens daily, if you discount Sir David Attenborough’s increasingly outspoken Planet series. Don’t forget such programmes fall under the general tag of ‘entertainment’ at the BBC.

That said, I wanted to create something engaging to read but that also made a forceful point. For inspiration, I reached back to some of the now hugely out-of-fashion Augustan poets of the 18th Century, for example Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Generally thought of as satirists, they were also masters of poetic form, another approach I was keen to adopt. So my book contains many sonnets, a specular, sestina, Golden Shovel and riffs on other forms. It’s also very political. I learnt about many of these forms during a year-long poetry course at City Lit in London, an adult education centre just off Covent Garden.

I wrote the ‘anchor poem’ for the book, Five Degrees, after reading a report from scientists at Stanford University which looked at the impact of each extra degree of warming on the planet. I remember I was on the Eurostar going to Brussels for some media event and it made me wonder whether dull-sounding data might somehow be translated into poetry, especially given that many poetic forms depend on various numbers of lines or syllables. ‘Five’ immediately suggested a villanelle, a tricky form with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. I knew instantly that the refrain had to be: “too late”. And then with not a little poetic licence I began to fill in the detail, tethering each degree to one of the scientific findings in the Stanford paper.

This is what it looked like:

Five Degrees

Take one – another atoll gone, droughts, faster rate
of ice melt. Sweltering taxis. A few mortuaries fail 
to cope in The Pyrenees. Chin up, it’s not too late. 

Two degrees - forget the Med. Instead, investigate
Aberystwyth for a tan. Gozo is a no-go. You can sail
across London in a skiff! Maybe Donald’s heart-rate

skips a beat. Three degrees. Now the floodgates
open. Holland (and the coral) gone. A large-scale
exodus from Africa. Geo-engineers arrive too late.

Work hard for a degree at Oxford-by-the-Sea, wait 
for a Balliol boat. Bail out - Cambridge is a folktale.
At four, methane leaks from the sea floor, the rate

accelerates. Mangrove swamps, sapodillas recreate
the tropics in Paris. Bananas on a boulevard; so shale
had an upside after all! Take the fifth – way too late

to keep the lid on oceanic gas explosions so great 
Hiroshima is but a flicker. Then the final coffin nail:
supercharged fireballs banging into cities at a rate 
of knots. The lid lowers by degrees. Sorry: too late.

Five Degrees was eventually printed by Magma Poetry magazine in their Schools issue — after Trump lost the election, so “Donald” was changed to “the Earth” which was an extremely satisfying edit! Sadly the poem is proving horribly prophetic…

I say it was an anchor poem because I wanted a central section of the book to deal with current affairs, seen through a poetic eye. I divided the poems into Starters, Mains and Afters, not least because after trying to order the poems I noticed food was a pervasive presence (weird, because I’m skinny, although I do love cooking).

We Saw It All Happen – hope and trauma

My plan was to try and release the strongest poems in a pamphlet and then focus later on a full collection. I sent off a selection to a pamphlet competition run by a small press in Manchester called Fly On The Wall, who caught my eye as one of the few publishers to claim everything they do is with the environment in mind and actually mean it. To my shock, Isabelle Kenyon, who runs the press, asked if I’d like to go ahead with a full collection straight away. Of course the answer was yes!

Then began the terrible process of sifting through several years of poems to work out which ones fitted my chosen framework. I soon realised they were quite a gloomy bunch — and who wants to read a book of poems about the climate emergency without a few notes of hope?

This led to some research on efforts being made to save endangered species from extinction and the birth of poems such as Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail, one of a sequence of poems inspired by the Back From The Brink project, a collaboration between several different UK wildlife agencies to save some 20 species from extinction. The poem was also published in an issue of Magma Poetry:

Little Whirlpool Ramshorn Snail

A name twenty times its length, curled
on a page indexing threatened species -
smaller even than a waterboatman's oar
pushed out to the fringes of extinction.

These water specks, scaled-down ammonites, 
translucent on the edge of a British ditch,
crawl among the marginals, dodging carp
to clamp onto reeds they still call home.

Despite the incursion, the plucky Ramshorns
cling on, skim ditches for scraps of algae, 
flattened whorls spiralling ever further down 
through the ferny fringes of a marshy nook.

Small coils that spin in a run-down clock,
man's hands have been moving against them,
conchologists wading in to their rescue,
trying to wind the miniature cogs back.

And I needed a title poem for the book. I eventually decided to re-work a draft of a poem I’d called ‘That Scene With The Walruses’ which was about watching an episode of David Attenborough’s Netflix documentary series Our Planet where walruses appeared to be climbing cliffs in search of food only to throw themselves off. It now appears they may have been fleeing from polar bears but whatever the reason, I found the film extremely traumatic and wrote the poem straight after watching the programme.

So it seemed most fitting to re-title the poem We Saw It All Happen, given that an important function of the book was to examine the role of the media — for better or worse — in how we formulate perceptions about the climate emergency.

Rather gratifyingly, some poems have taken on a life beyond the book. One called Lobster was runner-up in the international Ginkgo Prize, a major international award for ecopoetry, in 2018, where the prize was a week’s residency at a retreat near Ballinskelligs in southern Ireland. I used the time to put together a first draft for the book and the residency inspired a few new poems as well. But the poem was picked up by several other publications, most recently an anthology of poetry and short stories from Guts Publishing called The Transformative Power Of Tattoo. In case you’re wondering what the connection is, here’s the poem:

'Lobster', one of Julian Bishop's poems in his 2-23 collection, We Saw It All Happen

Relating to the natural world

We Saw It All Happen has been out nearly a year now and I’ve been concentrating on promoting it. Most bizarrely, I was asked to give a talk to a group of City types with offices near The Gherkin in London. They’re a firm of environmental consultants and I tried to convince them that maybe there’s a place for poetry in corporate boardrooms or at least as part of a distinctive pitch. I’m not sure how the message landed but I managed to sell quite a few books.

Julian Bishop reading at a Magma launch, London 2023

And of course I’m planning a possible follow-up, this time with more of a focus on plants and trees and how humans relate to them. I’ve been greatly inspired by Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard and her book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, (Penguin, 2022). Her work explores the symbiosis between fungi and trees and how trees use fungi to communicate with one another.

Another mini project has been what I’m calling Shakespeare Shovels – using lines about the natural world from Shakespeare plays as the basis for climate-related poems. I’m convinced that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a climate protester!

To finish with, here’s a sneak preview based on a quote from Macbeth Act II, Scene 3 (“some say the Earth was fev’rous and did shake”):


Find out more

We Saw It All Happen is available from Fly on the Wall Press (2023).

The Ginkgo Prize is a major international award for ecopoetry, funded by the Edward Goldsmith Foundation and organised by the Poetry School. You can download each year’s anthology of winners and runners up — including the 2018 anthology featuring Julian’s poem, Lobster

Suzanne Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest is published by Penguin (2022).

Julian Bishop
Julian Bishop
A former journalist, environment reporter and tv news editor who writes poetry about eco issues and was runner-up in the 2018 Ginkgo Poetry Prize.

Create the Future – Creatives in Residence for Climate Change

Actor, director and cultural entrepreneur, Giovanni Enrico Morassutti shared case studies of creatives in residence, of climate theatre and community engagement with an international conference, exploring strategies for encouraging cross-disciplinary projects to address the biodiversity and climate crisis.


1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


In November 2022 I was invited to give a presentation to ‘Create the Future’, the international conference on opportunities in the arts organised by the TransCultural Exchange at Boston’s Colleges of the Fenway, Massachusetts USA. I focused on Environmental, Climate Change, and Sustainable Art Practices.

I was invited to the conference by artist and curator Mary Sherman and my presentation was sponsored by the TransCultural Exchange’s Betsy Carpenter Foundation and the Rudi Punzo Memorial Fund.

Being part of the conference as a panelist along with American artist and curator Janeil Engelstad, cultural innovator Gordon Knox, and Ute Meta Bauer, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore, enriched my understanding of artistic practices dealing with ecological and climate-related topics. During the panel, we focused on how creative residencies can provide artists with direct access to understanding climate change.

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence

I presented strategies for encouraging activities and opportunities for cross-disciplinary projects incorporating art, theatre, science, environmentalism, and business. I described a few case studies such as the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, a residency programme sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Practices in the Arts, and a think tank for sustainability in the arts and culture. I curated and organised this programme in 2018 together with Gudrun Filipska from the Arts Territory Exchange, a nonprofit organisation in the arts that is creating vast global opportunities for artists. Two international artists (Kelly Leonard and Beatrice Lopez) got the opportunity to stay at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, exploring their ecological art practices by sharing, after a year’s correspondence, their perspectives on sustainability.

Showing the setting for Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, a cultural centre and creative residency, in the Friulian countryside in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Photograph: Stefano Padovan
Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Stefano Padovan

Art Aia – Creatives In Residence (AACIR) is a cultural centre, a creative residency, located within an agricultural centre situated in the Friulian countryside near the town of Sesto al Reghena in the province of Pordenone, Italy. Its aims are artistic research and experimentation in the area, information, and promotion of art and culture locally and internationally, promoting exchanges and collaborations between individual artists and groups of various nationalities and backgrounds. I founded Art Aia – Creatives In Residence to create a place for artistic production and research that focuses on the creative process and facilitates cultural exchange across borders. The main focus of our programmes is climate change art and theatre and sustainable art practices. I am glad to perform a leading role in the organisation, and this work represents my contribution to the Climate Justice movement.

AACIR also intends to raise awareness and call for action on issues related to global warming, climate change, and the risks that biodiversity is facing. During the ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice, for instance, Kelly and Beatrice also met Prince Guecello di Porcia, among other eco-entrepreneurs, and discussed the intertwining of sustainable business and art practices. Guecello is the owner of Cantina Principi di Porcia, a sustainable farm and vineyard that limits the use of environmental resources thanks to technological innovation.

While visiting his farm, the artists walked with a large filtering fabric in front of a large deposit of processed soy to emphasise the necessity of filtering and recycling. The fabric was then hung up in one of the art spaces of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, along with the residue of processed soy from the winery as a symbol of a sustainable future, creating the artwork ‘Filter’. The ATE Residency in Sustainable Practice has been an opportunity to create connections between people coming from different fields, creating a dialogue and opening up strategies for interdisciplinary sustainable practices.

Showing 'Filtering' and other artworks at Art Aia - Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez
‘Filtering’ and other artworks at Art Aia – Creatives In Residence. Photograph: Beatrice Lopez

I was pleased by what Guecello said referring to Art Aia – Creatives In Residence during the Circular Economy forum in Milan in 2020, that its initiatives offer opportunities to discover a territory almost completely unknown to tourists from a unique perspective. He was very impressed by the work of Beatrice and Kelly, especially by their capacity to express the concept of sustainability through their artworks. About the local environment, Kelly Leonard was affected by the verdancy of the area surrounding AACIR. She said: “I found the area of Italy to be too green, too rich, too comfortable…”

Showing hay bales in the countryside near Art Aia - Creatives in Residence, Italy. Photograph: Clara Filipelli
Hay bales in the countryside. Photograph: Clara Filipelli

Climate Change Theatre Action

The other case study I dispensed in Boston was based on climate change theatre. I participated in Climate Change Theatre Action 2021, a worldwide series of readings and performances of short climate change plays presented biennially to coincide with the United Nations climate change COP meetings.

I contacted the prominent Italian environmental association Legambiente to collaborate on the production of an event near the Tagliamento river, which is considered the last morphologically intact river in the Alps. I decided on such a location in respect of its authenticity. Its canals and water make me feel connected to nature and life. I think it is crucial to create occasions to share the delicate balance of Planet Earth that we have drastically violated in the last 50 years. In Friuli Venezia Giulia, the region where my art residency is located, Climate Change Theatre Action involved different partners, both public and private. The Regional Environmental Protection Agency sent one of their scientists to illustrate climate changes at local and global levels, reconnecting what is happening in the territory to phenomena on a global scale: their causes, effects, and possible actions to limit and cope with climate change. The municipality of Morsano al Tagliamento hosted part of the conference in the historical landmark of an old furnace.

To produce the event, I launched grassroots fundraising to connect with the region and foster community involvement. The first part of the event had the character of an informational meeting for citizens. Several local artists took part, such as Silvia Braida. And Edoardo Marcon, owner of the company La Casa del Sole, explained how photovoltaic panels work and provided a solar power station to give clean energy during the event.

For Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento, as a theater director, I presented the play When, written by playwright Wren Brian. We rehearsed the play at AACIR, where actresses Viviana Piccolo and Clelia DelPonte could focus on its environmental message. I decided to direct this play because of its universal meaning to reconnect with nature, to re-establish a connection with Mother Earth.

In the production, I also added some recordings of memorable speeches delivered by young activists including Greta Thunberg and Severn Cullis-Suzuki — also known as “The Little Girl Who Silenced the World for 5 Minutes” when she addressed the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. I was moved by their courage and spontaneity and I thought that such recordings could express a sense of urgency and be a good addition to the composition of the play. I discussed my creative choice with Wren Brian, and not only did she like the idea but, as a Canadian living in Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral and traditional homeland of Anishinaabe people, she also suggested I do some research on Autumn Peltier, an Anishinaabe Indigenous rights advocate from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. I was impressed by Autumn Peltier’s activism on the issue of water protection, and since the play was staged by the river, I decided to include part of her speech as well.

Showing the Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia, for Climate Change Theatre 2021 at Art Aia - Creatives in Residence. Photograph: Francesco Simoni
The Climate Ribbon in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Photograph: Francesco Simoni

Our team installed a climate ribbon — inspired by The Climate Ribbon project that started in New York City at the 2014 People’s Climate March — which featured a large tree where anyone who wished to do so was able to express, by writing on a ribbon, their thoughts on what they love and what they fear losing due to climate change. Also, in Friuli, by hanging ribbons on the tree, each participant expressed their solidarity and will to fight against climate chaos.

Together with the Regional Environmental Protection Agency, we also created an online questionnaire where people could reveal anonymously their fears about the climate crisis. The phrases collected online, such as “the sound of the wind blowing in the trees” or “the snow”, were transcribed on ribbons and displayed during Climate Change Theatre Action sul Tagliamento.

My effort is to strengthen the ecological component of AACIR through further cultural and artistic initiatives and through the restoration of some spaces to be repurposed for artistic practices in harmony with the natural environment of the territory. I am glad that Art Aia – Creatives In Residence is recognised abroad. Being invited as a speaker to the Transcultural Exchange Conference in Boston and tapping into their network of artists, curators, residency directors, grantmakers and international arts professionals — as well as judging the work of other artists in the portfolio of review sessions — all expanded my horizons.

I believe a multidisciplinary approach to the topic of climate change can raise awareness and increase solidarity among different partners. These projects created a kind of connection between people that led to collective civic action, political expression, community dialogue, and shared cultural experiences, seeing art as a vehicle for understanding environmental issues, and better reflecting on practical solutions to prevent the climate crisis and to foster sustainability.


Find out more

Create the Future was TransCultural Exchange’s 2022 International Conference on Opportunities in the Arts, in Boston, Massachusetts USA from 4th – 6th November 2022. TransCultural Exchange’s mission is to foster a greater understanding of world cultures. They do this through large-scale, global art projects, cultural exchanges and educational programming.

Explore the residencies and other activities of Art Aia – Creatives In Residence, an international art residency for artistic production and research that combines art, environmental sustainability and ecotherapy practices. AACIR focuses on the development of the creative process, facilitating cultural exchange across borders. It is located near the Comune of Sesto al Reghena in the north-eastern Italian region Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

You can watch the short and powerful speech that 12-year old Severn Cullis-Suzuki from British Columbia, Canada gave to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro at Before Greta, there was Severn, the B.C. girl who silenced the world in the Vancouver Sun (26/9/19). And you can read an interview with Autumn Peltier, who is the Anishinabek Nation chief water commissioner, explaining how Indigenous communities in Canada are fighting for their right to safe, clean drinking water in Autumn Peltier: a long walk for First Nations’ water rights from CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. 

You can read about Wren Brian’s play Whencommissioned for Climate Change Theatre 2021 and performed in six countries, including Italy — at her website, where you can also hear a short audio from a performance.

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

Giovanni Enrico Morassutti

An actor, director, cultural entrepreneur, founder of Art Aia - Creatives In Residence, promoting environmental and biodiversity protection, inviting communities to take action on the climate emergency.