Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’

Showing a mapping exercise for the word 'resilience' at the Environmental Keyword project eventClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reflects on some of the participants’ encounters and experiences at a workshop exploring the word ‘Resilience’, the second in the short Environmental Keywords series from the University of Bristol during February and March 2022.


2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8.5 minutes


For the second Environmental Keywords workshop, another group of researchers from different university departments, as well as writers (fiction, non-fiction and poetry) and others gathered in Bristol to explore a local area and one of the critical concepts in addressing how we respond to our biodiversity and climate predicaments. On this occasion, the event took place in the Barton Hill area of the city and — as with the earlier session in Easton — everyone shared a walk there before discussions back at the university’s local micro campus. While a couple of the participants had been to that earlier session on ‘Justice’, it was mostly a new group that came together here to discuss the word ‘Resilience’.

Again, my role — as someone who couldn’t be in Bristol for these workshops — has been to speak with participants afterwards and gather their reflections once a little time had passed, allowing the walk, discussions and role-playing session to ‘settle’ with them. So, as with my post on the ‘Justice’ session, this cannot offer an objective account of the workshop or of the word ‘Resilience’ and its meanings. Instead — as one commenter on that first post rightly described it — I offer a personal, ‘impressionistic view’ rather than attempt any definition: definitions (hopefully many of them) must come later, as part of the wider conversation. I hope this is a fair reflection of what participants have shared with me once they’ve had some distance from the workshop, and that it offers a way towards further conversations. As before, I encourage all ClimateCultures members and other visitors to our site to offer their own insights and responses, ideas and examples.

Getting going

As with the ‘Justice’ session, the local walk proved to be a popular way into the topic. One person noted examples of resilience in how the natural world responded to the human environment of hard structures and air pollution: “As we walked over a bridge — traffic-jammed, and rather a hideous piece of brutal architecture, I noticed from in between the cracks between the tarmac and the concrete a bed of low weeds was flowering madly. Really pretty little white blossoms. Despite the noise, the stink of exhaust fumes, the grim and rather chilly day. It struck me again (after all it’s that most miraculous of seasons, spring) that nature — plants anyway — just want to grow. And they will, given half, a quarter, a tenth of a chance.”

Showing a visual metaphor for the word 'resilience: photograph of weeds growing in a concrete crack
‘Give nature half an inch’
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Another noted how “walking there was good and thinking about the reality of the area with the tower blocks and the park, which turns out to be an old chemical dump”, was maybe a way of “checking our assumptions, coming from a place of privilege.” And a reminder of how, as a more general point, it’s important to be “led by local people, and not enforcing solutions.”

Another person said of this integral part of the workshop design, “the walk at the beginning is amazing, it really gets people going,” while a fourth emphasised how “My strongest memory was the spaciousness the workshop gave, thanks to the walking format. It gave a real opportunity to reflect what we mean by resilience before jumping in to make our points.” And having a range of people with whom to share these local encounters was clearly important: “I met a wide array of people from artists, social scientists to an engineer.” As another of the respondents put it: “There was room for a range of conversations from philosophical to quite practical: what are we resilient for, for what are we resilient against?” And another mentioned that “Everybody was very eloquent and engaging, I was really taken by the stories they told.”

Reclaiming the word ‘resilience’

Thinking on the word ‘Resilience’ itself, one person reflected on how “I guess I’d been … using it without necessarily thinking how others interpret the word. I was surprised to hear that for one of the others … it has negative connotations.” And “for architects and builders the important thing is to make structures stronger and more stable, not more permeable and likely to ‘bend in the wind’, if you like.” And another person admitted that “I was not particularly attracted to this word. To me it had contradictory meanings, relating to being tough and strong.”

As one contributor said, “It’s made me look at it in a much more nuanced, complex way, more of a live way. It’s one of these words where we become almost blind to it. It’s almost like a buzzword. Some of these words now are becoming so co-opted by greenwash, it’s like a cliche: so, reclaiming that. For me it’s alongside ‘regeneration’, which is a great precept of the XR movement: we have to look at how do we regenerate ourselves, look after ourselves.” 

Showing a local poster on the climate crisis
‘The sign says it all’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

Another person expanded on this sense of the nuanced nature of ‘resilience’: “a word I’ve been considering for some weeks now, which I think is pertinent to resilience: ‘provisionality’, in the sense that everything is provisional. None of us knows what will happen tomorrow or even in the next hour, so many things being dependent on so many others … I think emotional resilience can be improved by helping people engage their imaginations more effectively while navigating the uncertain — the provisional — and holding in tension many different uncertainties, at the same time as working for the best options available (or even imagining those options into being). So projects involving science, technology, the arts, and communities are key to this. I feel this kind of active and practical imaginative work within communities will contribute to resilience in all its many meanings.” This was reiterated by the respondent who said “I think imagination is a very powerful tool. Imagining together within the community how the future should be gives us the tools to be resilient.”

Showing local graffiti in Bristol
‘What have you truly loved so far?’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

One comment maybe suggests another word that can be appropriate to discussions of resilience — ‘transience’. Someone had pointed out during the workshop conversation “that actually in nature there were things that were not resilient, that were actually very fragile. A delicate flower, for example … That led me first to think — and I think I said — ‘resilient’ does not mean ‘permanent’. The two terms are often conflated. And at the heart of the matter is our equation of death/decay/transiences with failure. When the delicate flower ‘dies’ this is not the failure of the flower to beat the odds, as it were. That ‘explanation’ makes no sense! The natural world being so continuous, contiguous, is something that we modern humans, wedded to the idea of our separateness, find extremely hard to comprehend. We are not permanent, we are fleeting — always changing, transitioning into new forms constantly.”

This opening up of one term through others — of the word ‘resilience’ through ‘provisionality’, ‘transience’, ‘imagination’ — perhaps speaks not just to those nuances of resilience itself but to the actual value of encounters and conversations like these walk-and-workshops: that our understanding of keywords such as these cannot be ‘monolingual’, so to speak. As another comment offered: “It made me realise how complex it is as a topic, how many different ways of looking at resilience there are. How there were people there who were working on it at a grassroots level, or looking at structural engineering as a form of resilience … [or] looking at resilience in terms of how do we access the land and grow our vegetables. Or myself looking at how do we prepare ourselves for what’s to come. And we drilled down into: is resilience necessarily a positive thing or not?” 

Grounded connection

A couple of participants looked to particular examples like this as a way of demonstrating resilience at these different scales or sites, drawing on their own backgrounds or on the role-playing session midway through the afternoon. “Our ‘team’ worked on looking at the local streets and parks by focusing on the disused, or unloved ‘edges’. The small bits of road or edges of fields or pathways, that could be loved back into everyday life. Planting fruit trees or bushes, creating wildflower areas, making things more wildlife-friendly, especially for insects: this could all be done relatively easily but only with the direct involvement of the people who lived right next to those spaces … [who] have a more intimate and grounded connection with their own environment and place within it.”

Showing a mapping exercise for the word 'resilience' at the Environmental Keyword project event
‘Our ‘Green Edge’ project takes shape’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

Another reflected a personal motivation to use their ethnographic experience with engineers “to share how critical infrastructure engineers understand this concept … [So] I did share a couple of engineering perspectives on resilience, how they relate to sustainability, what their limitations are.” Terms that this contributor fed back, such as ‘redundancy’ and ‘preparedness’, and ideas of ‘bouncing back (or forward)’ from extreme events or of some things being beyond our control — all play into complementary or overlapping understandings of ‘resilience’.

One person observed that “We can’t just always be resilient … I shared something that’s important to me, that it’s important that we allow ourselves to break sometimes, or to bend. I shared some of the emotions and the psychology around it, which is something I think about a lot.” This was complemented by another’s reflection that “Particularly when we’re talking about extreme weather events (but also with the ’emotional weather’) we need to find ways to counter the common assumption that you need to do more to stand strong against these things in a direct kind of way (e.g. flood defences/higher walls) and advocate more strongly for things like tree planting, soil health, etc so water can be absorbed and dissipated and held more gently.”

Showing a workbook form the event on the word 'resilience'
‘Workshop notebook’
Photograph: workshop participant © 2022

Clearly, as with ‘Justice’, these are conversations that can run on in time and shift into wider territories, and will continue to influence how we see the language as well as how the issues are illustrated all around us. As one person told me, “I will carry on thinking about it for sure. Just the act of being in a room together is so much bigger than the sum of its parts. I’m such a believer in that interdisciplinary ‘just hanging out’ together, having tea and doing activities that break down the barriers.” And another suggested that this dialogue between disciplines and experiences reminds us that “There will never be a single authoritative definition (and that’s a good thing!) but it’s certainly useful to think how/whether we can apply thinking in one area to another.”

As another put it: “I definitely like the word more now. I can see it doesn’t necessarily mean to be strong but to be adaptive. Also [it] made me reflect that maybe it’s not about adapting to climate change but to a new way of living that doesn’t cause climate change.”


Find out more

Do contribute your responses below to be part of the conversation! See the Leave a Reply box underneath the existing comments.

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focuses on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson and complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

We have two previous posts in the series, both reflecting on our first keyword ‘Justice’: Walking With the Word ‘Justice’, also by Mark Goldthorpe; and Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations, a response from writer Brit Griffin. And the main Environmental Keywords section on this site also now has a new page with other creative responses on that word: ‘Environmental Justice’ – Taking the Conversation Forward. You can help us build the page for our new word, ‘Resilience’: do let us have your thoughts, questions suggestions and examples via the Leave a Reply box on this post or via our Contact page. 

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Seasons of Nature’s Gift and Natures Lost

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Gifts of Gravity and Light, an anthology of diverse writings on our seasons, and explores how, as we disrupt the living world, our relationship with it shifts, and with it ideas of ‘nature’.


2,980 words: estimated reading time = 12 minutes


“Rites of passage are — and should be — about an individual loss of innocence in order to learn the fuller knowledge of the next stage of life, but the young today are having to learn that the very world around them is in passage, a seasick kind of instability. For them, the correct maps are not the OS maps detailing ancient pathways, but rather future maps, showing coastal erosion as the seas rise and where all the horizons are bleak and every melting is an anxiety.” Jay Griffiths captures here part of how it’s not just the natural world around us that is changing with the climate and ecological crisis we have brought it — a whole world shifting into something that’s a nature/artifice hybrid — but our relationship with nature. And as that relationship distorts, so does our idea of it, the emotional register in which we experience seemingly ‘natural’ things. As our seasons change, so do their meanings within us.

A problem in reviewing an anthology is capturing its diversity of voices. And with Gifts of Gravity and Light, diversity is key. Editors Anita Roy and Pippa Marland have brought together a range of writers that’s rarely seen in so-called ‘nature writing’, speaking to a refreshing spectrum of experiences and engagements with the subject. More than simply a break from the genre’s white, middle-class, male traditions, it’s also a broadening of the professionalised model of what such a writer is. As well as Jay Griffiths — who has of course written much on nature and the wild over the years — we have essays from writers of fiction, of dance and theatre criticism, or poetry and plays, and more. The contributors are also artists, dancers, gardeners or rappers, and their personal and family stories include Cambodian, Caribbean, Ghanaian, Indian, Indonesian, Maltese, Romany and Zimbabwean experience or heritage, as well as urban and rural life around the British Isles. These, and the mix of sexuality and gender identities the contributors write from, all inform a rich array of texts. The collection’s subtitle, A Nature Almanac for the 21st Century, suggests this break but also the renewed, more complex view of nature and of being in it that we need now more than ever. There’s a sense of both being at home in the natural world and of being displaced within it, and it displaced within us. And this even before we consider the disorientating fragmentation brought by Covid, as some of the writers do: pandemic, lockdown, isolation. But there’s also much celebration of nature and humanity here — patterns, encounters, instances and experiences, small and large.

The dozen essays are reflections on the UK’s seasons, taking us through the annual cycle while revealing some of humanity’s fingerprints on it. Even the seemingly least threatening disruptions can be experienced as displacement. Griffiths writes on summer and on fear — fear experienced as a woman walking alone in the countryside, fear of the violence being done to the living world, our home, our seasons: “Summer itself is overshadowed now.” And each season overshadows the next, the sense of progression and endless cycling becoming unmoored.

Seasons of change - Gifts of Gravity and Light front cover
Gifts of Gravity and Light
Cover design Natalie Chen, images Jack McLaughlin © 2021

Spring – unseasonable seasons

Kaliane Bradley writes about spring and its rituals, but speaks from what is meant to be winter: a January that’s forgotten how to be a January. “When the blossoms are unseasonable, it engenders a feeling of dread in me similar to sensing the first hot and morbid congestions of a nosebleed. … It is four months early, and is yet to endure the January frosts. I hate living through unprecedented times, with all the rituals that hold us coming unstuck.”

Our personal experience of the seasons is perhaps a laboratory in which to investigate changing relationships with the rest of the living world. Seasons offer a complicated kind of stability as we navigate our lifepaths through multiple, entangled flows of time: an ebb and flood through successive years’ more-or-less predictable patterns of light and dark, heat and cold, colour advancing and retreating; the infinite daily variations of weather (‘if you don’t like this, wait an hour and you’ll get something different’); the slow-quick flow of lived experience that forms our personal biographies; the eddies of anticipation and memory that at once draw us forward and backward. Seasons evoke, capture and complicate them all, even in the ‘normal’ times we carry ahead within us as we move beyond normal times.

Pippa Marland reminds us that “When we think of ‘Time’ it sounds monolithic, uniform, the thing that takes us inexorably from the cradle to the grave in an unbroken line, straight as a Roman road. It stretches unimaginably far behind and ahead of us, framing our brief appearance. But when you look more closely, you see how complex it is — how its many strands weave together and sometimes fray apart. The linear and the cyclical are always moving through and across each other.”

This folding of time, of its different directions and speeds and associations, is also a feature of each biography. Testament looks back on his urban childhood as something where “for us, ‘nature’ didn’t come naturally. We got in a car and went somewhere. Middle-class aspirations, perhaps. The same reason my parents took me to plays that none of us understood.” In the city, constantly building and rebuilding on itself, “any little green had to squeeze between cracks, creep up the sides of drainpipes, the smallest flowers finding ledges to cling to in the brickwork of the abandoned alleyways I cycled through.”

But on those family trips to the countryside, “once out in an old pair of trainers in a field or woodland, the pleasures were all 3D. It was more than leisure, or even family bonding. It was a new landscape. My parents had allowed me to be part of an image which, as a person of colour, society had often not painted me into.”

Summer – long memory and the arm of return

Michael Malay feels his own displacement on Severn Beach, with memories of his younger self seeing it for the first time on his arrival in the UK, homesick but “excited by this place called England, by the world at his nose.” He wonders at the pull the estuary has on him, its unknowable nature: “Though we come to its edges, to wonder at the bright flowing unstillness of it all, the estuary is its own place, with its own wild mind, and has no regard for what we think… But my head is whirring, a thought-flock of words, and I cannot step out of my mind, which is where I know the estuary begins.”

In contrast, Jay Griffiths writes powerfully of the experience of unfreedom out-of-doors: “frightened of being alone on the dusty lanes and paths … No amount of experience of the vast majority of good-hearted men-o’-th’-woods can ever quell the fear. When I want to get right inside summer like a seed in a sunflower, I find there is a grubby Perspex shield between me and the full experience I crave. I can see it the bridleway, the campfire, the tavern — but I cannot inhabit it as I wish. … I have been planted not out in the commons but in a pot where my roots cannot spread properly. I have been bonsaied. And I hate it.”

Summer for Tishani Doshi “is the long stretch. The arm of return. After the perseverance of winter and the breakthrough of spring, we are finally here again.” ‘Here’ is another multilayered thing: in her case, a village in North Wales experienced over decades’ of summers, her aim to “net over them all, until they are layered one over the other, a palimpsest of time, of summers.” It is also the memory of her mother’s time in the small village after wartime, on into post-industrial reshapings of the landscape. “I think about how we are made up of the generations before us and how nothing is thrown away. How when we meet it is always in the season of summer.” And how these holiday encounters with Welsh relatives informed and shaped her childhood in India. “I remember returning from summer back to life in Madras, desperate to reveal my new self to my old friends, wondering how their summers had altered them. Summer can be generous, an unending field interrupted by apertures, so it is possible to hitch your load of memories to someone else’s.”

Seasons of continuity - Gifts of Gravity ands Light back cover
Gifts of Gravity and Light – contributors

Autumn – a full-body experience

Like memories, life persists and shapes the emerging future, the new normal. Luke Turner says: “It can take a century after a tree’s death for its skeleton to rot away.” The last decaying remains of a copse in Belgium hosts not just new generations of birch and beech but broken stumps and the loops of barbed wire from the Ypres Salient of the First World War. For him as a teenager, it was the site of a school trip to the battlefields of a lost generation, when “in Britain alone, as many as 250,000 boys under the age of nineteen were caught up in the wave of patriotic optimism that swept the country in the autumn of 1914.” That autumn was not dry, as the military planners had predicted and therefore deemed suitable for the Allied offensive, but one of the wettest in decades. The ground conditions, exacerbated by the destruction of the drainage systems, meant that “the battlefield became a quagmire that swallowed, according to some estimates, half a million lives.”

War artist Paul Nash wrote home of a hellish landscape at Ypres, where “sunrise and sunset are blasphemous … mockeries to man … The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.” And, as Turner writes, poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “pen captures the dead, the machines, the insanity, the weather, the structure of the trenches, the surrounding natural world … a blurring between corpses of men and trees.”

Anita Roy writes of a very different autumn day in southwest England’s Blackdown Hills: “Autumn on a day like this is a full-body experience. The lane is thick with fallen leaves and they look like they feel — crisp and biscuity; and they sound like they smell — like crushed chestnuts and bonfire smoke. It’s a nostalgic hit to all five senses…” The field she’s visiting — a private place, cared for by a friend — “is one of the very few places on Earth where the balance is right. It’s not wild — not really — but neither is it cultivated.” In an eery balance with Turner’s battlefield, this English treescape is fundamentally shaped by humans: “the timber chopped for logs, and smaller batches and twigs are fed through the noisy shredder … There’s no shortage of signs of human activity — but all this is poised, counterposed, or rather harmonised with the natural ebbs and flows, urges and surges of nature.” Where poppies rise from battle-torn soils and stand for remembrance of what should have never been, here wildflowers are now “allowed to emerge from the fallow soil” and speak to what could still be. 

Although this visit is in autumn, Roy recalls an earlier visit in the spring of our first covid year, when she fled to the field “pursued by general anxiety fuelled by the news of the pandemic and accelerated by upward spiking graphs. Alarming, horrifying, overwhelming as these were, you’d have thought by now we’d be used to it, given the similar infographics on climate change.” But, as unlearned lessons from the carnage of warfare also show, although we’re good at seeing patterns we’re not skilled at heeding them, of understanding connections between those things we find more convenient to treat as separate — in fact, prefer to actively disconnect in our imaginations. “Tree? Leaf? Wind? Stalk? Where does one end or the other begin? Humans! So busy trying to make sense of things, so good at not trusting what their senses do say. I give up trying to quieten my metaphor-making monkey mind. All those imaginary lines, axes and degrees, … tipping points and see-saw seasons, of life and death, summer and winter, future and past, and the impossible task of pinning down where is ‘here’ and when is ‘now’.”

As Raine Geoghegan remarks, “There’s something about autumn that is conducive to reflections and introspection. Perhaps it’s a time when the earth shifts into a gentler gear, where Nature calls us to be attentive, to notice the movements of wind and water and to wake up, open our eyes to the deep beauty that is all around us.” It is, as she says, an invitation to calm the mind and ask “What gifts are we given at this time of the year?” Her poems here are sprinkled with Romany words, or ‘jib’: Koring Chiriclo, the cuckoo; grai, horses; drom, road; vardos, wagons; atchin tan, stopping place. 

Raine sits surrounded by Herefordshire’s trees — oaks, willows, silver birch, spruce and beech that “all seem to be reaching for the sky” — and watches a nearby stream. “I find myself singing for the trees, an old song. The river she is flowing, flowing and growing, the river she is flowing, down to the sea. Oh mother carry me, a child I will always be. Oh mother carry me, down to the sea.

Like Raine’s Romany heritage, her personal experience of the disabling effects of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia feeds her relationship with the natural world — a ‘Deep Living’ as she calls it. “I rest in the mornings and I take my time to do each task. I see more of what is around me, noticing the little things: the sky changing colour; a blackbird swooping onto the lawn and peeking at the grass; the way the moon glows in the night sky; small wildflowers bursting through a crack in the pavement. For me, everything comes back to Nature.”

Winter – the yield of the year

Writing this review in the cold spell brought in by Storm Arwen, I find that Zakiya McKenzie’s introduction to winter has a special bite: “My mother first came to England during one of the coldest winters that country had ever seen. Months and months where the days were inky and nights were frigid with lonely unfamiliarity … It was colder still to a child who had spent all her life in a place where the sun watched over her every move. That Jamaican countryside sun was her companion… In the new country, the sun held itself back leaving a murky array of shades of black, white and grey. The trees stood naked and stark … My mother did not know that the leaves returned with haste in the spring…”

Familiar seasonal companions become less constant and predictable when it’s the climate itself that’s shifting; winters we might have expected in past decades become rare — but can still catch us out. Winter’s “ability to replenish and renew, to be entirely different in one place from the next, reflects a thing recreating itself,” McKenzie suggests. “If we too spring and grow and then wither and die, can we not refresh and replenish too? In winter lies the assurance that, though the tether of our hearts is long and twisted, time is longer still.”

Amanda Thomson shares Scottish words associated with winter: Yield is the influence of the sun on frost, Waller a confused crowd in a state of quick motion (a waller of birds — and maybe of Michael Malay’s ‘thought-flock of words’), Snell the severe, sharp quality of the air. “On blue days when the air is snell, or in anticipation of it becoming so, ten, twenty coal tits, blue tits and great tits gather at the feeders, along with occasional woodpeckers, siskin and finches — gold, green, bull, chaff. When I go out to replace the fatballs, they fly behind, in front, overhead with a

                 Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
                                                                                Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
                                                   Thrrrrrrrrrrrr

                                                                                   (say it)

so close and in stereo, ruffling the air like an express train speeding through a smaller Highland station on its way south to Glasgow or Edinburgh.”

As Alys Fowler walks and slips along clay-mud paths in a park near Birmingham — paths that feel “wounded … hardening in the summer from the previous winter’s damage, like scar tissue, reopening in the winter, rotting and foetid” —  she brings ideas of displacement down to ground level. “Whereas soil wants to be firmly rooted, mud wants to go places, it oozes out of its home. It sticks, coats and clings to all that it touches. It wants to move on … because its particles are no longer knitted together by gossamer-thin threads of fungi and the microbiology of billions of small lives that make up the structure of the soil.” Our foothold on the surfaces of a world that’s in unaccustomed motion itself becomes uneasy and unstable, as we slip and stick and come unstuck.

This is a generous book, offering the small stories — of childhood, family, place, of growth and falling away and regrowth — that enable the big connections with the flow of the world. And maybe, in its multiple, diverse encounters and imaginative layerings, it helps point to ways we might yet adapt, adjust ourselves to shifting realities, by paying the world the attention that repays us with yet more to see and sense.


Find out more

Gifts of Gravity and Light, edited by Anita Roy and Pippa Marland, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2021). The title is taken from a poem by Simon Armitage, who provides an extract from his Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as an epilogue; fellow poet Jackie Kay’s Promise provides the epigraph, with a foreword by Bernadine Evaristo.

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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Talking to the Crisis

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


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


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

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

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

Deepening the dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation is creative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tending our patch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the opportunity lies, Matt suggests, is for art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Bringing It All Back Home

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


2,800 words: estimated reading time = 11 minutes 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gentle force

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Small pieces of hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebellion for the natural world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Find out more

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

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

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

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

On a Writer’s Imaginarium

Writer and artistbook maker Sarah Hymas reflects on an on- and offline cross-genre shared space she has created to support creative writing, and why this imaginarium is as much for her as for the other writers who join.


1,900 words: estimated reading time  = 7.5 minutes


Why is it we separate poets from writers, and writers from artists? Don’t we all make, create, draw our experience and ideas from the world into new forms? Aren’t we all inspired by each other, whatever the form or genre? Other people’s processes and imaginings offer new insights and routes into all my creative projects, however subtle or slow in emerging.

I don’t know how many years ago I saw Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. I remember little about it bar the title and a sense of stepping into new wild worlds. Gilliam seems to be unrelenting in his creative vision, always pushing at the supposed bounds of reality. When I wanted a name to capture my ambition for a porous space of shared thinkingwritingdreaming, ‘imaginarium’ felt the perfect word. When I discovered that a toy shop chain and a special effects production company both used it for their names the idea was sealed.

The Imaginarium: an opening to possibility

When I ran the first series of A Writer’s Imaginarium I was actively thinking about how being very short-sighted, and not wearing glasses until I was six, affected my perceptual development, how I must have filled in so many gaps with guesswork. Not being able to see sharp edges meant my view of things was not contained. They weren’t contained. One of my reasons for writing, I think, is because I also felt I overspilled my physical self, and writing was and still is a placeholder for that excess. Imagination synthesizes all our senses. What we see we can also feel, hearing something we might visualise it.

Showing Sky photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Vital as it is in connecting our relationships with the world, in the here and now, our imagination opens us all, short-sighted or not, to possibility, for rewiring how we perceive or think or want to perceive relationships between things, including ourselves. A Writer’s Imaginarium began as a way to feed my own practice. Sharing what I was reading, thinking and excited by helped me develop my own writing. It has become a similar container for discussing favourite writings and thinkings which become new terrains for new projects.

I write poetry, fiction, site-specific audio walks, creative nonfiction and ecocritical theory, and make artistbooks with and without text. These have all fed my interest in how form contains text and how subject shapes form. In its six-year life the Imaginarium itself has taken on many forms: online, in-person, six-month programmes, one-day sessions, a week-long on- and offline intensive, a solo guidebook, a month-long forum-based version planned for August, and who-knows-what shapes will rise in the future.

They all seek to create a space of imaginative exploration, a collective thinking, where projects can roam, without a map or too much of a plan. The basic premise for anyone interested in joining is that they have a writing project they want to sit with, play with, improvise on and unpack in some way. It can be in any genre; and either a really sketchy idea or super developed. The workshops ideally incorporate a good mix of genres for cross-pollinating the ways we shape the worlds we write.

This cross-pollination is perhaps more evident in the longer programmes, where a buddy system pairs up people to share process or work or ideas or whatever they decide, between the sessions. Buddies are changed on a monthly basis to encourage everyone to connect with everyone else. It’s intended as a nourishing system for book recommendations, making progress in tandem with someone, and talking all things writing related with an equally passionate other.

We’ve had novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, essayists, digital writers, live artists, genre-hybridists and who-knows-whattists pass through the various Imaginariums. There’s a real mix of how much people actually write on any programme. Some write x words a month. Others treat it as a tool-gathering opportunity to play with various drafts that they go on to develop after the programme. Still others treat it as a hothouse in which to complete an entire thing over its duration. And writing this post I think why limit the process to writers? A visual artist, musician or dancer might want to play with words within or around their own practice. It’d be fascinating to envelop other artforms into a programme.

A shared holding space

The Imaginarium: a shared holding space. Showing cave photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Now more than ever it seems writers, publishing gatekeepers and all artforms appreciate that traditional notions of form or genre don’t necessarily serve the stories we need to write, read and share. We’re living in haphazard, uncertain and confusing times. As creative practitioners we essentially respond to that. A Writer’s Imaginarium is a holding space for unsafe and messy thinking, the sharing of ideas, processing how or what we write. So the discussion element of an Imaginarium is primary, which might rise from a reading or writing prompt. There’s never any pressure to read out. I don’t enjoy reading out the scrappy stuff freshly written in a workshop, and wouldn’t impose that upon anyone. I just want to chew around ideas, scribble some of them out, use other methodologies to my usual to find fresh ways into and through the terrain. Making up writing provocations is a joy — it allows me to unpack my own processes, map routes through passages I undertake spontaneously, and try new things out, before I suggest them to others. We need writers to experiment with new ways of perceiving the world, reworlding it through new and familiar forms, to keep our imaginations active, searching new pathways and bridges in the challenging times ahead.

The writing provocations in and out of the sessions are for people to try, taste and maybe return to or reject. Not everything works for everyone. One person described the six-month programme as being like “a curiosity shop … Full of hidden depths and surprises.” Some of those surprises might be more unpleasant than others. We can learn some interesting things through what makes us uncomfortable. Equally, we might not want to learn those things at that time. What’s for sure is that all prompts come from my love of visual arts, music, philosophy, the natural world, architecture, and on and on. An Imaginarium is not about producing a whole bunch of new work to present to others — although it can be if that’s what you and your buddy decide to do. It’s certainly about working out how you can best support a particular writing project. Who do you need to be reading, listening to or looking at? Where do you need to go for stimulation and nourishment? What habits will enable this particular project at this time?

Making the connections visible 

I offer a tutorial to everyone during or after the programme, so there is an opportunity for close discussion of writing. Of course I see feedback as important — as much for me as for the other. To read someone’s work closely enough to discuss it deeply is a connective and thought-provoking experience. It’s a sharing of creative preoccupations and a chance to unpack my current thinking that the writing in question prompts. How else do we come to read work if not through our own lived experiences and references?

I’ve been running writing workshops across my community for almost thirty years, for specific or more general groups of people, on loose themes or within particular projects, and I value how they make visible the connections we have with others (writers, humans, and all earthlings). The Imaginariums build on these sessions, and my work as a creative coach, to create new supportive networks for fictive, real, projected or speculative worldings.

Showing water photograph by Sarah Hymas
Photograph: Sarah Hymas © 2021

Each Imaginarium rises from the belief we’re writing for a future reader (ourselves or another), and aims to bring together the company of others who want to catch those sparks. Imaginarium formats have been shaped by specific project methodologies and also go on to inspire new ones. Whichever way round they work, they keep my imagination plugged into an evolving and ever-growing circuitry that feeds my practice, encouraging a spreading of theoretical, linguistical and creative impulses that shape my ambition and enjoyment of my writing. I hope that works similarly for others.


Find out more

You can explore the Spirit of the Imaginarium and its current and future versions at Sarah’s website.

Writer Ursula Le Guin — whose The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction considers fiction as a container and has featured in previous ClimateCultures posts on ‘disciplinary agnosticism‘ and objects of the Anthropocene — said that “I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination … The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.” And in Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves at her Brainpickings blog Maria Popova, says that “Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination.” And Popova adds that Le Guin said that this “self-invention … is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told.”

In Episode 5 of his Creativity podcast, writer John Fanning also picks up on the same essay as does Popova, and how Le Guin distinguishes between imagination and ‘mere’ creativity. He takes us back to the Romantics to suggest that imagination shapes our reality; indeed, for William Blake, imagination was reality, as he explained at age 20 to a patron who was dissatisfied with the ‘over imaginative’ illustrations Blake had created for his book: “I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.” As Fanning suggests, “Even the word itself, from the latin word, ‘imaginari’, asks us to question ourselves, because it means ‘to picture oneself’, to image oneself, to imagine oneself, which is perhaps a real understanding of creation, to investigate and picture from yourself, create from your images, your memories, your imagination, a visionary Blakean place where visions create mental concepts that are not actually tangible to the senses, but are there, present, nevertheless. Perhaps the best way to express all our creative world is the Imagination, just as the Romantics trusted…”

Sarah Hymas

Sarah Hymas

A poet, performer and artistbook maker focusing on the sea, its ecosystems and its interdependence with people, and the impacts of climate change and pollution.
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