Planet Local — Community and Connection

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White visited the Planet Local Summit, finding in its examples of urgent work around the world to foster being and acting locally a cultural turning towards nature as antidote to climate and ecological breakdown.


1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


Once in a while I’m fortunate to attend a gathering — truly in this case an in-gathering of a community — that is so warm and focused that my intuitive heart knows that this is a real crystallisation of the worldwide urgent work going on, and that this will be a big impetus for it to flourish, broaden and deepen.

Planet Local - promotion for the summit in Bristol, October 2023

Helena Norberg-Hodge, inspirational founder of Local Futures, the organising NGO, spoke in her opening address of the Planet Local Summit of all attendees being part of the ‘bacterial mycelia’ seeding the crucialness of acknowledging our local belonging. This felt a deep truth and, as I write and reflect, still feels the best take-home gift. I left Bristol feeling energised to return home (currently Cambridge) with many gifts, new and old connections made and refreshed, and a strong motivation to keep working at a local level. I returned specifically to co-host a public engagement event called Dear River, of which more later.

Planet Local - showing speaker Dolma Tsering with Helena Norberg-Hodge at Planet Local.
Speaker Dolma Tsering with Helena Norberg-Hodge at Planet Local. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

Planet Local – our need for connection

Helena set the term ‘localisation’ as the antidote to the twin threats of climate and ecological breakdown, happening at speed now in every corner and continent of our planet, and the death march of the industrial/economic system that capitalism has wrought upon the human world. By acknowledging, being and acting locally — in terms of fostering community, emphasising well-being, local food growing, and community care — including finance staying within our local systems, Local Futures describes localisation through these actions as “a cultural turning towards nature” and “an expression of our need for connection — both to others and to all living beings.”

This was the first post-pandemic gathering for me that I felt called to, due to both the high-profile speakers in-person and the sessions sharing case studies of specific local actions and issues. From Helena, Bayo Akomolafe, Morag Gamble, Iain McGilchrist and Charles Eisenstein to many other brilliant engagers, thinkers and philosophers, pragmatists, growers and weavers, the hall at St George’s, associated spin-off rooms — including the cafe/bar, and various rooms at the nearby Folk House venue, and The Tobacco Factory arts centre to which the summit relocated on day three — were all humming with conversations and ideas brewing and being dissected and unpicked.

The big evening conversation on the Friday, a much-hyped conversation between XR co-founder Roger Hallam and ex-Government Minister Zac Goldsmith felt almost a dampening of the enthusiasm during the day: neither seemed to absorb the energy of the gathering, and while they found a kind of middle ground around failures of policy, and the potential of coming bloody revolutions (and the history of previous ones), neither could really offer any threads to hold hope upon.

The community-building that XR and Just Stop Oil has created is hugely commendable and needs anchors and deep seeding across all levels of our societies. I recently heard about an elderly couple who watched Chris Packham’s incisive and timely documentary struggling with his conscience about being arrested for activism and using his powerful voice; and they are now inspired to act, in whatever local way they are able.

On the other hand, Goldsmith’s tale of woe and pressure from lobbyists, including in one notable case the National Farmers Union, against plans for environmental support he was proposing is simply insane, and needs calling out. This is the industrial death machine of chemicals, vested interest, power; the insecurity of the human mind, tragically, that has created this huge schism in a world with so much staggering beauty, potential, and constant flux and change. The next day, Charles Eisenstein’s words — “The idea that the change can happen with the right person in charge is inherently wrong” — reminded me of Goldsmith and Hallam, and also the pedestals and stages we create for leaders to stand on (and fall or get kicked off, because we’re fallible humans!).

Belonging in the human and the natural

Bayo Akomalafe and Iain McGilchrist. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

It was a joy to hear philosopher Iain McGilchrist reflect upon the theme, both alone and in conversation with Bayo Akomalafe and then Helena. I’m struck by his phrase:

“We are here to respond to the values of the universe, both in belonging ourselves and as part of the human community; to develop and expand our relationship to the natural world, and, partly as a result of these two practices, to live within divinity.”

A one-to-one conversation with Iain became a beautiful engagement around the theme of grace, which is an enduring talisman for me to hold. I recommend Iain’s The Master & His Emissary for an erudite scientific dissection of the schism in our body-brain and how this permeates across human history.

Food and farming, and the systems that support them, was a key theme of the Summit. With another hat on, I’m a member of the team making Six Inches Of Soil, a new documentary on regenerative agriculture and new entrant farmers, which will be premiered at the Oxford Real Farming Conference early in 2024, so I’ve an interest here, as I hope we all have. It’s increasingly clear that knowing our local farmers and buying direct or from local farmers’ markets, with local supply chains, is vital to planetary health and soil-human survival and potential thriving.

Chris Smaje, smallholder, writer and food activist, based outside Frome, and Jyoti Fernandez, farmer, activist, and co-founder of the Landworker’s Alliance, are tremendous forces for good in this sphere. Both are making change, standing strong against big farm companies and food/meat manipulation and galvanising opinion.

It was refreshing to hear from Nelson Mudzingwa, a Zimbabwean farmer who has struggled to gather seed sovereignty and organic certification across his land and the African continent. By open source seed saving, his collective is developing crop resilience to climate change in their region. Words of hope from a country known for bitter political struggle. Farmer, former head of the Soil Association and now founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden chaired this session with passion and aplomb, though I found his constant allusions to connections across the CEO worlds, including Bill Gates, distracting and pretty irrelevant given the brilliance within this audience and panel.

Speaking from a new story

A day and a half in, however, I was chomping at the bit for news from really local actions, initiatives and community building from these isles. As a former Bristol resident, I know that this city is bursting with creative social enterprise and strong community efforts, particularly around peri-urban food growing and combatting poverty. It’s a gritty sprawl of communities, and I sadly heard there had been a stabbing that led to a fatality in a neighbourhood nearby on Friday.

I had expected to meet the Street Goat Project bringing their furry troupe up the steps of St George’s to engage with us all. However I found the answer in a brilliant presentation from three members of Frocal in the village of Forest Row, Sussex: in a nutshell, asking themselves “what it might be like if we all lived and acted more locally?” They gave examples of their success and failures and acknowledged that it was a work in progress, albeit a vital effort for these times. I will visit friends there and investigate shortly. Frocal feels like a really valuable and catalysing project.

Darcia Narvaez of The Evolved Nest. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

Other takeaways for me include the theme of colonisation of the mind as well as land and countries and continents: Vandana Shiva in her pre-recorded video highlighted this, reminding us that just 600 men created the East India Company treaty (that our monarch signed and sealed) to sail off and colonise that part of the world. Anthropologist Darcia Narvaez picked up on this with her fascinating presentation on her work on Nestedness, agreeing “we are all colonised”, and how might we respond to that knowing? Her thesis continues in the knowledge of our connectedness to, and acceptance of, our heritage.

Keynote speaker Charles Eisenstein delivered a meandering wander through his response to the topic — “ I trust the deployment of the intelligence that my gifts will be useful for” — and concurred with the broader theme that we “need to speak to people from a new story”. He brings a wisdom to our human need to really acknowledge that “technology is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of what it means to be human” and that our “common goal is to rekindle our connections”.

Planet Local.

Sadly, I had to leave after two days, and the third and final day of the summit relocated to another Bristol venue, and I suspect drilled down more into very local UK and Bristolian specifics.

What called me very strongly back to my locale was an event I co-hosted to celebrate water and river systems at this time of waking up to the sorry state most rivers are in, and specifically how they are being abstracted from, and our human sewage dumped within. Dear River was a locally-organised gift to our community, to meet the issue with creativity, grief, and space — space to gather, to listen, to respond, and to ask “what can we do?” After two days of deep stimulation at Planet Local and then this event, I suspect that asking this question is our fullest human response.


Find out more

The Planet Local Summit took place from 29th September to 1st October 2023, in Bristol, UK. You can find the full programme, find about the speakers and watch the livestream recording on the Local Futures website.

James highlights Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master & His Emissary (2009). You can find out more at Channel McGilchrist, and James shares his experiences taking part in and filming a retreat with Iain in a post for James’s Finding Blake project on William Blake: Exploring the Divided Brain.

You can read about the work of Water Sensitive Cambridge, the local organisation James has helped create and which organised the Dear River event that took him away from the final day of Planet Local, in this piece from Cambridge Independent: ‘We need to make the shift’: Water Sensitive Cambridge joins Accelerate Cambridge programme’s new cohort.

And Six Inches of Soil is the film James has been working on: “the inspiring story of British farmers standing up against the industrial food system and transforming the way they produce food — to heal the soil, benefit our health and provide for local communities.”

And here on ClimateCultures, you will find many other pieces by James, including his review of fellow member Susan Holliday’s book, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.

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

On COP & the Art of Change

Climate change communicator Julia Marques helped amplify COP26 reporting from the Blue Zone in Glasgow. Here she looks at the artworks she encountered at the COP and the value of creative activity alongside the activism and negotiations.


2,570 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes


As I entered the Blue Zone of COP26 in Glasgow last November, I was struck by how artificial the place was. It seemed strange to be discussing the environment within extremely unnatural surroundings, with just a few plants dotted around.

COP plant: Showing a plant looking a bit droopy in the main thoroughfare of the COP26 Blue Zone
A plant looks a bit droopy in the main thoroughfare of the COP26 Blue Zone. Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

But my eye was looking for art. Any art. Just something to indicate that the organisers had thought about more than merely providing four walls and a roof for negotiators to agree on what each country would do to tackle climate change for the next year.

I was feeling fairly nervous and overwhelmed. This is one of the biggest summits of the year, and it’s about one of the biggest issues that we are currently facing as a species on Earth. 

I was at the COP with the editorial team of Climate Home News — an independent news outlet specialising in the politics of climate change — as their community engagement manager. Although I have been thinking and working in the climate space for several years, I am fairly new to the media world and the specialism of working in the climate politics space. There’s a lot to learn, and COP is a big part of that world so I felt very privileged to be a part of it and wanted to experience it to the fullest. 

As a community engagement manager, I am constantly learning what captures people’s attention and keeps them coming back for more. At Climate Home News, we report on a fairly niche topic and aim to appeal to climate specialists but also those who are more generally interested in what is going on in climate politics. Art can bridge the gaps between specialist knowledge and public understanding; unfeeling data and a myriad of emotions. 

We know that data and science aren’t enough; we need good communication that speaks to people’s values and worldviews. I was hoping that the COP organisers had taken this into account. I certainly wanted to see more than just MDF and concrete. I was there to work, but also to be inspired by the spectacle of COP.

Did I find any art? Well, yes actually, I did.

Into the Action Zone

After the security area and initial entrance hall, there was the Action Zone, which, funnily enough, is where I saw most people napping due to the comfy seats available there.

But this was also where a huge globe slowly turned over their sleeping heads. It was beautiful, gently showcasing the wonderful place we live and what’s at stake in the discussions taking place below it. It gave an incredibly relaxing feel to an otherwise manic venue, with 20,000 people running around each day for two weeks, on their way to meetings, debates and other events.

I personally enjoyed going to this area to take a break from the madness of the negotiations and trying to capture them on social media as part of my role at Climate Home News.

COP art: Showing 'Gaia' by Luke Jerram in the Action Zone at COP26
‘Gaia’ by Luke Jerram in the Action Zone at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

After the Action Zone, I spotted this piece — Hurry Up Please It’s Time by Cornelia Parker. A very timely reminder to all those involved in the process, but especially the leaders. This COP included a leaders’ summit in the first two days (not all COPs do). So there would have been many world leaders walking by this piece of art. It was stark and direct, a counter to the convoluted and complex negotiations (unsurprising when you have 197 countries trying to agree on something).

COP art: Showing 'Hurry Up Please It’s Time' by Cornelia Parke
‘Hurry Up Please It’s Time’ by Cornelia Parker
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

The COP Pavilions

Further down this main corridor, I reached the Pavilions. This is the part of COP that many people say reminds them of an oversized trade show. Seemingly anyone can have a pavilion, some were country pavilions, others were themed — such as the methane pavilion — and others were run by organisations such as Chatham House.

This area was a bit of a maze but there was a lot going on and it felt like quite an exciting part of the venue. Confusing — each pavilion had its own agenda of events, which were not available anywhere other than the pavilion itself — but buzzing!

I personally enjoyed this area as a place to meet others and explore what each country or organisation wanted to showcase. A lot of the leaders and some celebrities who attended could also be found walking around this area and it was very likely that you would bump into one or two just by being there! In my case, Justin Trudeau casually ambled by as I was waiting for Leonardo di Caprio to emerge from the meeting room of the UNFCCC pavilion. I also saw Nicola Sturgeon several times, walked past John Kerry by the country offices, and brushed shoulders with Alok Sharma more than once.

However, my personal favourite encounter was with Christiana Figueres in the Action Zone. She was sitting eating her lunch when I noticed her and stood nervously summoning up the courage to go over and talk to her. Eventually, I did, and she was very happy to meet me and revealed that she is a big fan of Climate Home News. We took a photo together before parting ways, and I was thrilled. She has been a big part of previous COPs as former head of the UNFCCC, and was influential in getting the Paris Agreement finalised. 

COP talk: Showing Julia Marques with Christiana Figueres at COP26
Christiana Figueres (right) and Julia in the Action Zone at COP26

One aspect of the conference that I found pleasantly surprising was the accessibility to leaders and other people of note that you had in the venue. There were a lot of indigenous peoples attending COP and they could be seen harassing leaders over their lack of action on indigenous and environmental rights. This is something I don’t believe happens at any other conference of this scale. Kudos to COP for keeping this particular aspect alive and well.

The Indonesia pavilion, COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021
The SDG7 pavilion (“affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030)
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021
The Turkey pavilion
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

Indigenous art at the COP

Right at the back of the pavilion area, I came across a huge piece of art. Although it was quite hard to see fully due to space limitations, it still left an impression. This was the only piece of indigenous art that I saw in the entire Blue Zone. It turned out to be the Bamboo Ark Vela Mola, a sail sewn together by 37 Guna mola artists from the Gunayala islands off the coast of Panama. 

It had symbolically travelled across the sea to Glasgow and they had managed to sneak it into the Blue Zone and display it near the Panama pavilion. A ‘mola’ is a colourful hand-sewn cloth which is unique to the Guna people. The organisation behind the sail’s appearance at COP was Geoversity, and two indigenous leaders formed part of the group bringing this piece of art and indigenous messaging to COP26. 

I was glad to have found some form of indigenous art. There was also an Indigenous Peoples pavilion in the area, where various leaders could gather and share experiences. Indigenous representation is crucial to these negotiations, although much of the time these voices are not included in the main plenary meetings. 

I think the fact that the sail was not an official piece of COP art says it all — indigenous people are not barred from attending but the barriers for them to do so are higher than for others. Many had long journeys to get to Scotland and return home, with various quarantines due to Covid19 along the way. The accreditation process is online and bureaucratic, and then of course there is also the cost of travel and accommodation (something which many people struggled with, including the Climate Home team – I’d like to thank the Human Hotel for their great initiative in sourcing homestays for many delegates and attendees).

Beautifully colourful and vibrant, this piece certainly stood out and was in stark contrast to the blue and white of the rest of the venue. It’s a shame it wasn’t in a more prominent position, but I think the fact it was there at all is testament to the resilience of indigenous peoples around the world.

As I made my way further into the venue, there was a long corridor between the pavilions, the country offices and the plenary and meeting rooms. Here I found another turning globe, but this one was not so exact and had UV writing on it which only appeared under the lights at the back of the installation. These words proudly proclaimed that “people live here” with arrows pointing to all the ‘four corners’ of this particular globe.

‘People Live Here’ by Oliver Jeffers
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

This was a piece by Oliver Jeffers and seemed to me to be raising awareness of the fact that we are talking not only about climate, but about people. People do live nearly everywhere on Earth, and it can be easy to forget this when following high-level negotiations with technical language. It is people causing rapid climate change and it is people (among other beings) who are being affected by it.

I thought the sentiment of this piece was nice, but I think the writing could have been more obvious — would it not have made more of an impression to have words squeezed into every bit of land to show the scale of human occupation?

Further down the corridor there were some satirical cartoons about climate change and also some children’s messages to the leaders (although I am unsure whether they would have had time to stop and read them). The Eden Project also had a hive-like structure situated at the border between where nearly everyone was allowed and where you had to have a media, observer or party pass to get through. Hexagonal shapes creating a dome emulated the biomes of the real Eden Project in Cornwall, UK. The idea was to bring a ‘cabinet of climate curiosities’ to COP26 that represent what change is needed to tackle the climate crisis. 

I suppose this was quite a significant location for the pavilion; a physical area of transformation from a fairly accessible part of the Blue Zone to a more restricted area reserved for those who were more involved with the actual nitty-gritty negotiations. It prompted me to ask myself: Is this the transformation needed, or do we actually need to allow more people in?

The Eden Project pavilion at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

This led to the pre-fab part of the conference, which noisily wobbled and leaked when Glaswegian wind and rain swept in towards the end of the first week. One of the plenary rooms also started leaking part way through week one, meaning they couldn’t let anyone in until they’d fixed it. I’m not sure if the people knee-deep in the process were too aware of the natural world outside making its presence felt inside, beyond being grateful not to be out in it! 

Art — cause for contemplation

There was increasingly less art as you walked through; some photos of innovators in the e-waste space and a little display on nature-based solutions. By the time I got to the media centre (all the way through the entire venue, about a 20-minute walk) the organisers had obviously given up, with only white walls and blue signs left to adorn the hallways. 

One of the corridors in the media centre
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

However, this was the concentration centre of the conference. Journalists need a place to gather their material and their thoughts, compose a piece of audio, visual or written work, and publish it to (often tight) deadlines. I witnessed many journalists miss family birthdays and children’s bedtimes so that they could report on the negotiations. I would like to acknowledge the dedication to the cause that many of them have. The media often gets vilified, but there are many reporters and editors who do care deeply about the climate crisis and diligently report on it. So perhaps in this instance, there is no need for any other art; the art is being created in a quietly studious way in this very practical place as the negotiators bustle around the rest of the venue with its more decorated areas.

There was, however, a beautiful view of the sunset from the media centre windows — Nature’s art, in all its shining glory. I was told by the more seasoned reporters that it was actually quite nice to even have windows in the media centre, as sometimes they are merely provided with walls, floor and a ceiling. In a way, this was the best art of all as the rest of the venue had little access to the outside.

Sunset from the media centre at COP26
Photograph: Julia Marques © 2021

Art is there to give us cause for contemplation, to give us the space we need to think about things. Art can also prompt us to think about them in a different way, and this is what we need when it comes to climate change. We need a mindset shift to figure out how to live differently. Perhaps the negotiators, technical experts and policy makers also need to be given some time to reflect and process things in an unconference-type way. Art can help with this, and I’d like to think that the little pieces of art dotted around the venue may have made a few of them stop for a minute and wander into another world before the pull of the negotiations brought them back to where they were. It certainly helped me.

This COP was the 26th Conference of the Parties on climate change. They’ve been going since 1995. That’s 26 years of talking. Now is the time for action, and perhaps art can spur that action through imagination and time for contemplation. Let’s have more of it in future climate negotiations.


Find out more

You can explore some of the artworks Julia has featured in her post:

Gaia by Luke Jerram
Hurry Up Please It’s Time by Cornelia Parker
The Bamboo Ark Mola Vela by Geoversity (with more in
Hoisting the Mola Sail Designed by the Indigenous Guna at MAHB, the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere)
People Live Here by Oliver Jeffers.

The Eden Project brings a “cabinet of climate curiosities” to COP26 describes how the Eden Project partnered with international architecture practice Grimshaw in the delivery of the Eden Project Pavilion at COP26.

Julia mentioned the Human Hotel: the COP26 Homestay Network supported people attending the COP by enabling people in Glasgow and surrounding areas to offer space in their private homes as overnight accommodation for visitors from the climate justice movement.

Julia is Community Engagement Manager for Climate Home News whose mission is to deliver original journalism that informs and inspires action to tackle the global climate crisis. You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn

Julia Marques
Julia Marques
A climate change dramatist, activist and communicator specialising in social and cultural aspects of climate change who has worked in the nonprofit and media sector.

“Time to Act” — Failure & Success at COP26

Composer Lola Perrin and curator Rob La Frenais invited three artists and organisers to talk about their creative work for COP26 and their feelings about the global conference’s failure to match the warm rhetoric of its first day.


2,570 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


For many, in the days and weeks after COP26, along came a new wave of grief. Friends privately confessed to fits of uncontrollable sobbing from pure rage at international politicians still ignoring the science, otherwise they’d be in full emergency mode. The conference began with pretty speeches with presenters including David Attenborough and the Prince of Wales repeating each other’s words; “the time has come to act”. But just over two weeks later when COP26 ended, scores of new fossil fuel licences were signed, sanctioning production well into at least the 2040s.

Compare those pretty speeches to the dignitaries and the world’s media with the actions by global citizens who do indeed act — in any way they can to put a stop to the killing machine, but who are increasingly criminalised and imprisoned for doing just that. Also what of other acts, for example, birth strikes among women and some men who withhold reproduction as protest in the face of extinction, and hunger strikes that regularly appear across the world in which people decide to act by withholding food in protest at genocidal government policies? These acts rarely make mainstream news but they are there. So turning back to those pretty words on the first day of COP26 when all and sundry appealed for action, what kind of action were they talking about when it’s so hugely controversial to even mention ending fossil fuels in any final COP agreement? No wonder we cry and rage in frustration.

For this ClimateCultures post we wanted to see what three artists/organisers who took part in COP26 with creative work felt about the failure of the COP and where they will go next.

Miranda Whall is a performance artist based in Wales who crawled through the pouring rain as delegates met indoors, eventually to no avail. She expresses her frustrations powerfully in her performance and here.

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice which organised music events during COP26, both live in Glasgow and virtually in nine online concerts featuring 350 global musicians. Warren and Music for Climate Justice were focused on using culture to bring an indigenous voice to COP26. The concerts repeatedly broadcast this message; “Planetary Climate Change threatens our civilisation and therefore, all human art and music, there is No Time to Waste”.

Mike Stubbs is the former Director of FACT, Liverpool and has now returned to his artistic practice as well as directing ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster. His early work was based on young people’s fascination with car culture. His latest work questions this early fascination, in ‘Climate Emergency Services’ a van spray-painted in hot rod style with images from the Australian bush fires which he took to Glasgow for COP26.

We asked each artist/organiser four questions.

What did you do at COP26?

Miranda Whall

Heading to COP26 - showing artist Miranda Whall's crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Miranda Whall’s crawling performance for Be-Coming Tree: global online performance on Aberystwyth seafront.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

“On Saturday 6th November I crawled with a six-year-old potted Scots Pine on my back through the centre of Glasgow, from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios on Dawson Road to the COP26 Green Zone in the Science Centre on the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration area. Passers-by ignored, laughed, stared, cheered and filmed as the tree and I silently and determinedly made our way through heavy rain and high winds to reach our destination. The intention of my heroic/tragic/comic slow and gentle art activism was an expression of my grief, my despair and my outrage with a world dominated by corporate and personal greed, and an insistence that non–human nature, and in this case trees, be put at the centre of discussions on how to mitigate the climate emergency and ecological crisis. Animals, plants, trees, air, earth and oceans should be, metaphorically, sitting at the discussion table with heads of government and delegates.

“My hope was that crawling to the COP26 United Nations climate change conference carrying a tree that was equal in size to my body might inspire human beings to re-think and re-align their relationship to trees, seeing them not only as a resource to use and abuse but as an ally and a vital source of knowledge. We all literally need to get down from our human-centric, two-legged, dominant and hierarchical position and start recognising our non-human vegetal others as equals, and as sentient beings with a voice that we crucially need to listen to if we are to find a way out of our human-made catastrophe.”

Warren Senders

Music4ClimateJustice performance, November 6th 2021: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ Terje Isungset composer and musicians performing on instruments carved from ice.

“To be clear, I was not ‘at’ COP26. I stayed in my small house in Medford, MA. Other people from the M4CJ (Music for Climate Justice) organisation were in Glasgow. I organised and produced eight days of streamed video content: music, profiles, and interviews addressing the intersectionalities of climate activism and the performing arts. This worked out to 4.5 – 5 hours of music a day, from the 5th to the 12th of November (with a live opening event in Glasgow that I did not work on). The artists and activists we presented came from all over the world; the M4CJ ‘Festival’ was almost certainly the most diverse musical event in human history.

“Participating artists contributed a video performance and added a short spoken statement about climate change. Some of the performances were created for this event; others were archival. In several cases, the estate or trust for a major artist who was no longer alive agreed to contribute material. Interviews and panel discussions included profiles of artists, activists, musicians/composers working with climate data, ethnomusicologists & eco-musicologists, and artists & thinkers in related fields.”

Mike Stubbs

Climate Emergency Services at COP26, Glasgow November 2021. Showing Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people
Climate Emergency Services engaging with young people.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

“I presented Climate Emergency Services (CES) outside the Glasgow Transport Museum on the opening weekend of COP26 and then spent four days in Glasgow at the end. The artwork was hosted by the Coventry Biennale and Govan Project Space. Activities included the artwork appearing as a confounding, confused hot-rod/emergency vehicle to stimulate conversations on cars and climate emergency. I drove around Glasgow and managed to become part of a strange parade with other (police) emergency vehicles tagging along on the back of an organised pedestrian protest march. I was the only vehicle other than three cop cars.”

How has the failure of COP26 directed your intentions towards future actions?

Miranda Whall

“The failures of COP26 have enraged me and so empowered my determination and commitment to take this performative work much further. Up until the crawl in Glasgow I had crawled in isolated and rural locations, so my audience was mostly an infrequent passer-by. Crawling in a busy urban centre took the performance directly to a bigger and wider engaged and non-engaged public. Both on the streets of Glasgow and on the politically polarised and de-humanised highways of social media I felt simultaneously empowered and vulnerable. Down there on my hands and knees, I began to more fully realise the performance’s potential to aggravate and alleviate, to provoke and heal. And I more fully realised that this human/animal/vegetal/technological hybrid that I have created is a new ‘thing’; an alliance, a symbiotic union, a co-creating community, an interconnected future.”

Showing Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Miranda Whall crawling through a rainy Glasgow on the way to COP 26.
Photographer: Ashley Calvert © 2021

Warren Senders

“I don’t think terms like ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are applicable to COP26, or any such conference. Lacking the ability to set policy, the conference is not describable in those terms. It succeeded in conveying the current state of climate-change research to policy-makers. It succeeded in forcing climate change into the forefront of worldwide media coverage for a few days. It gave activists something to do, a way to connect … and gave the climate movement a lot to think about going forward (issues of intersectionality, of indigenous representation, of systemic discrimination, economic models, etc). It failed to generate hard policy outcomes … but to expect COP26 to result in systemic transformation was to expect that (in a hopefully soon-to-be-obsolete metaphor) the airport bus would grow wings and take off down the runway.

“Such expectations represent a popular (and entirely understandable) need for a deus ex machina which would magically solve our problems. I was not immune to that feeling; none of us were.

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' with Aparna Sindhoor Dance Company
Music4ClimateJustice performance on 6th November: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ with Aparna Sindhoor’s Encounter, dance theatre Inspired by indigenous people’s fight for their forest.

Mike Stubbs

“It makes me want to want to continue to mingle and discuss these issues with members of the unconverted members of society, i.e. car nuts, pissed people, street dwellers, middle-class shoppers, kids and anyone not into COP26 or the environment. Climate Emergency Services is a hot rod with a gun on the roof playing extra loud birdsong, flashing lights and a sci-fi plant glowing/growing inside. It’s not a bad way of sparking up a conversation.”

What ideas do you have for your next climate-engaged work?

Miranda Whall

“I am now planning further solo urban tree crawls and collective urban tree crawls. I am also preparing to crawl in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt with a palm tree on my back for COP27 from the 7th – 18th November 2022. I will crawl for longer and further and hopefully up to, if not into, the conference and negotiation centre. In Glasgow, I reached the entrance of the Green Zone. This was ineffectual, next time I need to crawl to the entrance of the Blue Zone or its equivalent in Sharm El- Sheikh.”

Warren Senders

“I’ll go on doing what I’ve been doing all along. Daily vigils, a daily quota of political activity, intermittent public activism (marches, sit-ins, possible NVCD), and intermittent benefit concerts as part of an ongoing collaboration with M4CJ. I hope to present the first such event in May or June 2022 (I’ve organised 21 previous benefit concerts since 2009).”

Mike Stubbs

“I am trying to find a sustainable model with Creative Folkestone on how to continue the work of Climate Emergency Services and am planning to tour to festivals, motor shows and schools, integrating practical workshops on air quality monitoring and growing. Additionally, in Doncaster I am going to be announcing an open call for a new artists residency scheme on sustainability and water and a lab which will develop new critical work on climate for ArtBomb Festival 22 in August next year.”

COP26: Showing Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Climate Emergency Services on the way to Glasgow.
Photograph: Lou Johnson © 2021

Many people feel dismayed at business since COP26. What must happen so we’re happy in 2025?

Miranda Whall

“The wind is gusting its terrifying gusts outside my window as I write this. The wind terrified me as a child because it blew down walls and trees and shook my window, I would crawl into my parents’ bed and stick my fingers into my ears until it blew itself out. I remember loving the peace and quiet that followed. But now the wind terrifies me more than ever, because I know what it means and I know there is no peace and quiet to follow. What we must do could not be more clear — leaders must lead and businesses, corporations and citizens must follow. Simple. I am on my hands and knees pleading. I cannot articulate this better or differently.”

Warren Senders

“What would make us happy would be the governments of the world taking climate change seriously and engaging in concerted and robust collective action. Is there a mechanism to make this happen? No. The systemic inability of our governance to cope with climate change is a diagnostic indicator pointing to a structural problem in our governing mechanisms themselves. In geopolitics, hasty actions between nations are likely to be harbingers of war. The UN was developed specifically to reduce both the likelihood and the severity of such hasty actions — providing a place where disputes between nations can be discussed instead of leading to armed hostilities. That is to say: the UN was created in order to make international relations slower, more measured, more reflective. Which is a structural problem in light of the fact that what the climate crisis demands is that we all act very quickly. The UN isn’t equipped to direct concerted and robust collective international action any more than that airport bus is equipped to be an airplane.

“At this stage in the crisis, our happiness must come in the successful resolution of short-term problems. We live in ‘interesting times’, and our responsibility is to the future.”

Showing Music4ClimateJustice performance at COP26, 6th November 2021: 'Rhythms, Words, and ... Ice!' “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group
Music4ClimateJustice performance 6/11/21: ‘Rhythms, Words, and … Ice!’ “Bhuka Tiende”, Dzapasi Mbira Group. Most musicians in Zimbabwe are subsistence farmers. They are already suffering from extreme climate change.

Mike Stubbs

“We will never be happy. Continue to engage the disenchanted, talk to your family, collaborate with like minds, write to MPs, become councillors, be artists, make art and protest when you can.”


Find out more

Lola Perrin adds: I was interviewed by Warren as part of M4CJ at COP26 and appeared in the concert on November 11th. I found I became gradually more and more addicted to the concerts once they started streaming on November 5th — they’re quite deeply emotional and the breadth of work gathered together from 350 engaged musicians across the world is really powerful. Here are links to the M4CJ COP26 streamed concerts on YouTube:

5th November 2021 Journey Around the World in Space and Time  
6th November Rhythms, Words, and … Ice! 
7th November Strings and Threads That Tie Us Together 
8th November Music Beyond Boundaries 
8th November M4CJ Global Launch Show 
9th November Our Island Home 
10th November Turning Art Into Activism Part I 
11th November Turning Art Into Activism Part II 
12th November From the Ancient to the Future 

Warren Senders is a musician, member of the New England Conservatory faculty and activist, and part of Music for Climate Justice. You can read about him in this 2018 piece at the Climate Disobedience Center, in a 2011 Arts Fuse feature Playing For the Planet, and a 2019 piece for The Indian Express, This Hindustani singer does his riyaz on streets and warns people about climate change. You can hear Warren in this Radio Boston interview and performance from 2010: Boston-Area Percussionists Drum For The Planet. “When Medford resident Warren Senders first learned about the effects of climate change, he felt helpless. ‘I’m no scientist,’ Senders thought. ‘What can I possibly do to help?'”

Miranda Whall is an interdisciplinary and performance artist based in Wales. She says of her crawling works, “My crawling projects are titled Crossed Paths. So far for Crossed Paths – Animals I have crawled as a sheep, badger, almost otter and I have carried out extensive research for mountain hare. For Crossed Paths – Trees I have crawled with an Oak tree, Birch tree and May tree. Other crawling projects are in development. Crossed Paths is a project about going deeply into the living landscape, ecosystems and interspecies dynamics to explore animal, plant, land and human narratives.” On Miranda’s Vimeo channel, you can watch her Showreel for COP26 Glasgow.

Mike Stubbs is an artist, curator and consultant, Director of ArtBomb Festival in Doncaster and former Director of FACT Liverpool. You can read more about Climate Emergency Services, which was commissioned for Creative Folkestone Triennial 2021.

Lola Perrin 
Lola Perrin 
A composer, pianist and collaborator on keyboard conversations about climate change with economists, lawyers, scientists, artists and other thinkers across the world.

Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible.

The Art of Reimagining Managed Retreat

Artist Yky shares ideas and artworks he presented to an international conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around ‘managed retreat’ — and how artists need to engage with pedagogy to contextualize and reimagine responses to climate change.


2,440 words: estimated reading time = 10 minutes


In June 2021, Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City organised a four-day conference addressing scientific, social, and governance issues around the theme of ‘managed retreat’. This conference covered a broad spectrum of topics, but all of them were meant to discuss resilience, relocation, and climate justice when facing the consequences of flooding. I was invited to discuss how art could address the challenges of climate-caused relocation.

At what point managed retreat? Columbia Climate School conference 2021

It was no surprise to me that, amongst key issues, it was recognised that most practitioners facing climate change and resilience challenges had no adequate professional preparation in terms of communication. Scientists are often blamed for not being able to see the value of unconventional narratives. But artists also have their share of responsibility. During this conference, it appeared that the meaning we give to the words ‘managed retreat’ and how to bring pedagogy into the process were two essential issues. To give more insights on the way art should address the question of communication improvement, I presented five of my works that question how vulnerabilities may turn natural hazards in disasters.

‘Managed retreat’ — advancing in a different direction?

Art provides powerful narratives, enabling us to bridge the gap between scientists and non-expert citizens. It gives a better understanding of the world. Its vision of reality enriches the collective debate, enabling a significant change by shifting the perspective to more open-minded views. It gives the opportunity to understand reality differently, either using our sense of understanding or our sense of emotions, or both. Facing disasters, be it due to climate change or others hazards, artists will use their skills to convey the message they find appropriate. Most often, the vulnerabilities that shape such disasters translate into a scope of artistic representations which are direct, realistic, emotional, strong, and visually meaningful.

But, seen from the artistic point of view, translating into a piece of art the meaning of ‘managed retreat’, though terribly actual, is much more challenging. During my presentation, one of the questions sent through the Q & A session asked “is the word ‘retreat’ appropriate to discuss the topics of the conference?” I think this was one of the most interesting questions, as indeed, the word ‘retreat’ can have a negative perception. It is linked to this idea that you have been defeated and that there is no other alternative than withdrawing and leaving the field to the ‘enemy’. Flooding-caused displacement cannot ignore our attachments to a community or a place. It needs to address social and environmental justice issues as integral parts of the retreat management. But at the same time, it is ambiguous. What do fairness or justice mean when dealing with the unavoidable tradeoffs linked to forced evictions, when prioritising access to retreat resources, when ignoring the fact that indigenous communities have tribal rights that are too often ignored by our post-colonialist behaviours?

But what about understanding retreat as ‘advancing in a different direction’? Could we think of retreat as being a way to reimagine, reinvent, redefine processes to give the environment its full place, promoting visions radically different from massive human movements? Undoubtedly, the creativity and imagination required to propose new scenarios, even ones seen as utopian, are the privilege of artists. But how can we describe the complexity of urban space from the artistic perspective? How could artists translate into their works the unpredictability of our future as described by Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre?

There is a need for all artists to better understand some concepts. ‘Resilience’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘risk management’ are not interchangeable words. When sustainability calls for more efficiency, resilience is more focused on redundancy. Both need to be linked, and the conditions providing a synergistic effect between the two concepts are key when looking for the path to reimagine ‘managed retreat’. Artists don’t need to be experts, but they need to know how to address through their skills the issues related to climate disasters. Empathy is not enough; there is a need to better engage with scientists, to better contextualize the concepts so that such concepts, through an artistic expression, help non-expert citizens to understand how and why retreating from flooding-prone areas and moving to safer ground can also meet their needs.

Bringing pedagogy into the process

The scientific community may understand complex concepts but without appropriate storytelling it will fail to engage people, for a simple reason: facts are not enough. We also need the right narrative and, in this respect, art can help.

There are many examples of associations, like Art of Change in France, Artseverywhere in Canada, or Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, with talented artists who are committed towards climate change. And some of them bring artists and experts together to imagine and propose answers and ideas for adaptation and transformation. But few are engaged together in a pedagogical process. However, artists need to recognise their social responsibility and be involved in an artistic approach consistent with the objectives we are trying to reach. Some of them may find it difficult to leave their comfort zone: going beyond a natural sensitivity finding its expression in a painting, in a sculpture or in a poem is not easy, and sometimes not feasible. But artists can also engage in improving our well-being and well-living, using their skills to increase our collective awareness, through a designed pedagogical approach together with scientists in a co-working exercise.

Ultimately, the threats and challenges we all face are so high that being committed towards non-expert citizens becomes a duty. A pedagogical approach is not needed simply to make non-expert citizens aware of the challenges they face; but it is definitely a requirement if artists want to play a role in explaining the systemic nature of socio-ecological threats shaping our vulnerabilities.

Pedagogy cannot be decreed; it needs to be learned. And in the specific case of hazards and related disasters, teaching is cognitively challenging. When both experts and artists decide to join their skills, Paulo Freire can be very helpful. Freire was a Brazilian educator and sociologist who dedicated most of his work to vulnerable communities. His work — most of it can be found online — was about how knowledge should be transferred from teacher to learner, and the core was based on the idea that unequal social relations build the path to a “culture of silence” which is created to oppress. To this extent, it leads to questioning the systemic nature of inequalities in our society, shaping the vulnerabilities that lead to disasters. ‘Teachers’ following Freire’s principles, will need to develop the critical consciousness of ‘learners’, aiming to build a “cultural action for freedom”.

Managed retreat: the art of critical thinking

Redefining ‘managed retreat’ in such a way that the focus moves from disruption in human occupancy to promoting new visions incorporating issues of gender, race and equity questions the nature of artistic approaches. How can they be consistent with the duty to (re)educate communities about conceptual processes which themselves had their share of responsibility in creating inequalities? In line with Freire’s approach to giving more importance to questions than to answers, artworks should prioritise such issues. By doing so, art will engage in this ‘critical thinking’, seen as the cornerstone that enables us to reconsider what has been taken for granted when this is needed.

In the five works I showed during the conference, and seen below, the property of argentic paper to darken when exposed to light should be seen as an allegory of ephemerality, questioning the value of what lasts in time. Each is a diptych of two photographs illustrating a given urban space impacted by a natural hazard. While the first one is stable in time, the second image darkens — with some parts disappearing as the argentic emulsion turns black. It is the comparison between the two photographs that will lead the viewer to question the resilience level of the urban space. Being ephemeral, this work can be seen as having no value, unless its value lies in the questions it raises.

“Only the ephemeral is of lasting value.”
Eugène Ionesco (playwright, 1909-1994)

Shakes 

‘Shakes’ questions how resilience can be implemented in the case of widespread destruction by earthquakes, which are devastating at different levels. They impact the cities, the organisations and the persons. But they also talk about an irrational fear, which is the destruction of our matrix. In this diptych, the second picture darkens in time in such a way that only the broken glass path remains, referring to our fears and vulnerability, while two attributes of our cultural heritage — a Le Corbusier building and the Golden Gate Bridge — are endangered even when not destroyed

Yrban resilience: Showing Shakes, a diptych by artist Yky
Shakes, a diptych: D0 and D+
Artist: Yky © 2018

The Japanese paradox

The Japanese paradox’ is all about the difference between risk management and urban resilience. It is well-known that the Japanese culture of risk management is almost second nature. But do we really speak of urban resilience, the way we understand it, when philosophical and/or religious principles refrain from addressing the norms that sometimes need to be reconsidered? In that work, darkness in time is detrimental to the city and its inhabitants, confronting the great wave of Hokusaï, symbolising the almighty nature that no one can stop.

Managed retreat: showing 'A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+', a diptych by artist Yky
‘A Japanese paradox at D0 and D+’, a diptych
Artist: Yky © 2018

La Seine

La Seine’ was taken during the substantial flood in Paris three years ago. And this work is about the adaptation of historical cities’ urban environment. How far are we ready to go in losing our cultural heritage, and what does this mean in terms of resilience?

Managed retreat: Showing 'La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+' by Yky
‘La Seine, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist Yky © 2018

NB: ‘Shakes’, ‘The Japanese paradox’, and ‘La Seine’ were showcased just before the pandemic during the Art of Resilience exhibition organised by the World Bank in Washington DC.

Do cities learn from getting burned?

This work was inspired by the Australian tragedy that we all remember but is also related to the ongoing and never-stopping fires in California. And it speaks of the moment where cities will be impacted, and not only the wild-urban interface. It also questions our inability or difficulty to learn from aboriginal traditions in terms of fire risk management.

Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Do cities learn from getting burned, a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2019

Is NYC retreat inevitable?

This work refers to the different issues discussed during the conference. It was inspired by an article published last year in the online journal NewCities in which the CEO of the Star City group explained why he decided to leave the Hudson River area where he was living and why he did not believe any longer in urban resilience. This work concluded my presentation, not only because it refers directly to the conference topic, but also because not being able to explain to non-expert citizens the meaning of urban resilience should be seen as a collective failure.

'Managed retreat: Showing 'Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+' by artist Yky
‘Is NYC retreat inevitable? a diptych at D0 and D+’
Artist: Yky © 2020

Find out more

You can explore the programme for the At What Point Managed Retreat? conference and watch videos of all the sessions. Yky explores many aspects of urban resilience in a changing climate in his Resi-city blog about his work picturing urban resilience seen from the citizen point of view: for example, Exploring spirituality in the urban frame. Some of the artworks featured in this post — including Shakes — were exhibited at Art of Resilience, organised by the World Bank in Washington, DC. In Urban Resilience? Art, the Missing Link, his earlier post for ClimateCultures, Yky offers further thoughts on art as a pedagogic tool and imagines a conversation between citizens, a scientist and the artist himself as they consider Shakes.

You can read about the language we associate with coastal change and particular responses such as managed retreat in You can’t resist the sea: Evolving attitudes and responses to coastal erosion at Slapton, South Devon, a 2009 paper by geographer Stephen Trudgill.

Yky mentions the work of Carl Folke and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. You can download and read Resilience: Now more than ever, an article co-authored by Folke for Ambio: A journal of the Human Environment in 2002 and shared as part of the journal’s 50 years celebration in 2021: “As proffered in the Ambio article, resilience is about learning from and developing with change, rather than managing against change. Resilience is about having the capacities to live with complexity, uncertainty, and change, abrupt or incremental, and continue to develop with ever changing environments. This includes both adaptation and transformation.”

Among the organisations bringing together artists’ responses to environmental and climate change, Yky mentions: Art of Change in France, which was created in Paris in 2014 ahead of COP21 and “highlights the role of artists and creativity as accelerators of the ecological transition and acts on an international scale”; Artseverywhere in Canada, “a platform for artistic experimentation and exploration of the fault lines of modern society”; and Julie’s Bicycle in the UK, “mobilising the arts and culture to take action on the climate and ecological crisis.”

The work of Brazilian educator and sociologist Paulo Freire is celebrated by the Freire Institute, an organisation for transformative community-based learning, and many other organisations around the world (which you can find listed at the Freire Institute). “Freire developed an approach to education that links the identification of issues to positive action for change and development. While Freire’s original work was in adult literacy, his approach leads us to think about how we can ‘read’ the society around us. For Freire, the educational process is never neutral. People can be passive recipients of knowledge — whatever the content — or they can engage in a ‘problem-posing’ approach in which they become active participants. As part of this approach, it is essential that people link knowledge to action so that they actively work to change their societies at a local level and beyond.” Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, translated into English in 1970.

Yky mentions Anthony Townsend, the CEO of the Star City group, who decided to leave the Hudson River area over climate resilience concerns when the river flooded Hoboken, New Jersey: Our Inevitable Retreat is the article Townsend wrote for NewCities. “The plan I came up with was simple — move inland and uphill. To my disbelief, the housing market hadn’t skipped a beat. Once I finally pulled the trigger, my condo sold in less than a week, at a profit.” 

Yky
Yky
A citizen artist exploring urban resilience whose photographic works use argentic paper's response to light to highlight the challenges raised by climate hazards in urban spaces.

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.