Monday, 24 June 2013

Holding open a door (early morning)

There is a postcard downstairs from the Ashmolean Museum. It's the cornerstone of a noticeboard with pictures of plants and places I worked amongst over a decade ago. It sits between Dr Bach's garden in a village in Oxfordshire and a saguaro cactus on Saguaro-Juniper covenant land in Arizona. All the pictures tell a story. Each one is a small door into an earth I wish to remember and keep within me, so I don't forget where I am or what I am doing here.

When I was young, I spent many rainy afternoons in the city galleries looking at pictures, and in many ways I learned my craft as a writer, by describing these canvases and becoming fluent in the cultural knowledge they held within their masterly pen and brush strokes. Some of this was about observation, learning how to communicate what I saw and gave value to, but some of it was about the mysterious art of perception, a sensibility that enables you to gaze deep beyond the surface of things. I looked into the gloomy green-tinged faces of Spanish saints, the laughing sun-dappled revellers of Paris, long before I went to these places and saw these people for real. You could say that looking at art trained me to pay attention to the real thing when I stumbled upon it in the streets of Montmartre, or Madrid. For a while the ability to notice the folds in a Florentine angel's dress, or the lace on a Dutch burgher's cloak, made me a good fashion editor when I grew up. But not all art taught me to ply my trade in the Empire, about the seductive nature of possessions and power that has made all Marxist critics despair since Roland Barthes. Not all pictures the artists painted increased the vanity of their patrons. Not all roads lead to Rome.

One of those rainy days I found myself in front of a small painting in an exhibition about English landscape, and something unusual happened. Instead of stepping back and observing, I stepped into its world. It was a painting by Samuel Palmer of a small country scene, set in the Kent I had once glimpsed as a child. Instead of a torrent of words that usually came in these moments, there was a silence. Nothing took place, except a feeling, as if the ground were moving under my feet. As if I were standing in the painting itself and could feel the trees breathing all around me.

In the following room, the same feeling came to me as I stood in front of Paul Nash and his luminescent paintings of Oxfordshire hills. I can't remember the name of the show now, but it taught me something about the presence of land and something about lineage that has subtly influenced the relationships I have had with English art and writing since.

Palmer was influenced by Blake, and Paul Nash was influenced by Palmer. There was a lineage between them there I could see and feel, and even though I was educated to observe landscape as the background to historical events, or as the view from a grand property, these places remained remote from my own experience. Although I could, in the manner of that once-hungry adolescent, discuss Palmer in the context of the School of Ancients and the pastoral, and argue how the Romantics were escapists from a geo-political reality, Palmer acted on another part of my intelligence entirely. His small paintings showed a real place that crossed over into the imagination: bright clouds, large moons, everything in abundance and brimming with harvest, even though this idyll was threatened by the Industrial Revolution then, as much as it is now. They gave a sense there were other things at play, a blueprint within the land itself that, no matter what happened to it, was always there, in the tree moving and changing, in ordinary things. That it would only take a change of sensibility in ourselves to rediscover.

wicker basket

When I was 35 I threw away and burned all the note- books and diaries I had ever written in those city years and went on the road. A few things I kept however in a wicker picnic basket, that I sometimes collected from someone's garage, or a lockup, and looked through when I was passing through London.

Amongst these small possession were two postcards from my gallery-haunting years. One a sepia ink drawing by Samuel Palmer and the other a painting by Paul Nash of Wittenham Clumps. I couldn't tell you what I felt in those worlds, except that it felt like an England, a place that I belonged to and hoped would always be there. A place I could return to. This England was a round, warm, benign place, that was at once mys- terious, intimate and real, its dusk and shadows, full of sunlight and moonlight, a door through to different time. A landscape in which people, sitting, walking or working, had a place.

The new cover for Dark Mountain 4 is a lovely painting inspired by Samuel Palmer, and I realised that I had kept that postcard all these years, in that wicker basket and in the corner of my room, for a reason. Because it was the first painting I came across that made me feel at home in my own country.

Our perception of the world is inherited and honed, as mine was by the landscapes and interiors of the elite classes, by the Gainsborough drawing rooms, by the stables of Stubbs horses - a land and a house and view, always owned by other people. But sometimes you stumble into another room by accident and realise this is not the England you recognised with the part of yourself that used to be called the soul. The feeling, breathing, imaginative relationship with land when you are part of it, as much as it is part of you. Palmer shows you that this world is common and belongs to you and the people who work within it, who take time to pause amongst the corn. You are no longer the lonely observer in a city gallery. You are immersed in another country. The painting did something that none of the landscapes of Turner and Constable ever had: it set up a desire.

This morning I got up before sunrise and sat beneath an oak. Even though East Anglia does not have the rounded contours and hills of Shoreham, everything in the neighbourhood you could find in Palmer's world: the apple tree laden with blossom in a quiet garden, the winding lane, the hare, the sheep, the great harvest moon swinging above the fields of barley. You could see this place through political or historical eyes, as a landowner, or as a dispossessed, deracinated people - a cruel and unfair England. Or you could see it through scientific eyes, the eyes of a disappointed environmentalist, noticing the dead poisoned soil and razed hedgerows, the threatened ash, the disappearing songbird.

Or you can see it as an artist and a writer and notice the round beauty inherent in all its forms. You could hear the blackbird singing and the wren, feel the soft South wind soughing through the leaves, the scent of summer rain. the land that is always here, rooted in deep time.

This evening I walked with ten people along the River Waveney that loops around Bungay common. At one point I jumped into the river and swum amongst the damselflies and yellow lilies, so was behind the rest. As I looked in front of me, I saw the people in a line walking through the long water meadow grass on a midsummer evening and as I went to join them I thought about what I would write for this blog, why I think art matters, and writing matters. Why recognising the link between a line of people in a Palmer painting in 1830 and one that takes place in front your eyes in 2013 matters. Because if the writer can take us out of the city, back to the place where we belong, where we become part of the living, breathing planet, we will have done our best work. Because a people who are connected to the earth, in time, will stand by it and by each other.

When I stumbled upon Dark Mountain, as I had once stumbled upon Samuel Palmer, something sparked inside. I recognised a certain lineage in the England that people were writing about -  painting, scything, making sheep hurdles - artists who sat under trees before sunrise (though now perhaps with their laptops) and why mysteriously it attracts so many people and inspires them to create (so much so that there are two Dark Mountain collections this year). Because we are holding out for an earth we know we belong to, by virtue of being alive in this form. Because somewhere in the place where there are no words, just a feeling, we are holding open a door . . .

Dark Mountain 4 is now available to order or by annual subscription (2 volumes).

Images: Early Morning, Garden in Shoreham, Girl in Cornfield by Samuel Palmer; Landscape of the Vernal Equinox III by Paul Nash; Swimmers in the River Waveney (Wild Swimming); Dark Mountain 4 cover by Kit Boyd

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Flight of the Butterflies

As the IEA reports ever-increasing carbon emissions, and Britain's environment minister denies any change in the climate in the last 17 years, what is the response of the truly awake person in the current cultural dissonance? In the summer issue of the radical grassroots magazine,  STIR. I wrote a review of Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Flight Behaviour, the latest 'cli-fi' book that look squarely at our present crisis and whose main protagonist is one of the most extraordinary creatures on earth. 

In many ways dystopias are easier to write than a realist fiction that can look at the awesome forces that are out of kilter on the earth. Most books would rather put their imaginative attention on a post-collapse world, than face the gritty problems of a family or community living out the consequences of neo-liberalism and a globalised industrial culture. How can you create a plot when the conventional “bad guys” – those who wield corporate power - have become invisible? How can you find empathy for people who appear as ignorant victims of circumstance and stand in their home territories, witness to weird weather and species extinction. - subjects which seem better handled by the deeper and more metaphysical forms of poetry, or by non-fiction, unconstrained by a linear storyline?

Although the heroine of Flight Behaviour, Dellarobbia Turnbow, is a far cry from Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, this is a classic tale of a trapped woman yearning to transform and break free from a near-impossible situation. What distinguishes it from these works and the thousands of romances built around the same theme is its mighty big subtext: climate change.

Barbara Kingsolver is known to tackle big subjects in her novels — sometimes successfully, sometimes not: women in the Arizona mine strike of 1983 in Holding the Line, sustainable food production in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Native American rights in Pigs in Heaven, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky and the Mexican revolution in Lacuna, and, most famously, the impact of colonialism in the Congo told through the eyes of a missionary family in The Poisonwood Bible. All these themes, however, belong to the human and political realm.

Climate change is notoriously hard to talk about, belonging to what some call the 'supernarrative', the massive planetary shifts, that even though caused by human civilisation, we have limited capacity to control as individuals. Our sense of agency in our personal and social lives melts with the glaciers. History we can deal with, war, poverty, and even apocalypse, but eco-systems in feedback loops? These are non-human, non-linear realities normally assigned to science and to ecological campaigns. However human beings are not created from facts and figures, we are the creatures of story - the choices we make and the roads we take. Story is what makes meaning and gives value to our lives. 

Role of the Novel

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the novel rose to prominence along with industrial civilisation, when people felt their lives to be largely shaped by human forces and therefore responsive to acts of individual will (Askay Ahuja reviewing the short story collection, I’m with the Bears)
 In Flight Behaviour the central ecological dilemma takes place in a run-down sheep farm, in a run-down town where everyone has strange names, goes to church and every turn of the bad luck or weather is attributed to the Lord’s mysterious ways. The book is told from the point of view and in the language of 28 year-old Dellarobbia, who is stuck in a small house among the Southern Appalacian mountains with two small children and a husband she doesn’t love, dominated by harsh and judgemental in-laws. She has no money, no education and no prospects. Her neighbours’ son has cancer and all their peach trees and tomato plants have dissolved in the endless biblical rains. Small wonder you think she wants to throw it all away on an affair and run heedlessly up a mountain one day in ill-fitting boots.

Somewhere, after many long descriptions, the book takes a small flight of its own: the revelatory lake of fire Dellarobbia discovers on the mountain instead of her lover turns out to be millions of displaced overwintering Monarch butterflies. The hero of the book, a dusky well-mannered scientist, arrives from the Outside World with his assistants to live in a trailer on the Turnbow farm and record their destiny. His passion for these insects, his intelligence and grace, affects the smart but unschooled Dellarobbia and Preston, her son, and their world begins to open up. Will this encounter manifest into a relationship? Will the wooded hillside be logged? Will the butterflies survive the on-coming winter? Will redemption come to Feathertown? Will she herself take flight, like the flame-coloured butterflies in Spring? And then? So the old-fashioned devices of story telling kick in and you have to find out the outcome, though the prose does not get any easier for all that.

Kingsolver was originally a scientist and she applies her scientific eye not just to the insects undergoing numerous tests in Turnbow’s barn-laboratory —she puts their whole world under the microscope. Long drawn-out scenes in the local dollar and thrift stores tag every item on display; an exchange with an activist reveals that their “lifestyle” scores very low on the carbon ratings. Numerous rather creaky conversations between Ovid Byron, the entomologist, and his new assistant spell out the behaviour of this extraordinary butterfly and the ramifications of global warming. It’s a right-on subject and you cannot fault the author on facts, Yet this “left hemisphere” fixation on detail makes for a flat Puritanical prose-style, lacking lyricism or feeling. The beauty of the Appalachian mountains is absent, and even Dellarobia, cast as a red-headed Venus by the local TV company, does not come across as beautiful.

Story of our times

One reason we read, and need fiction is to understand how and why we are living now while imagining our way forward. (Adrian Ayres Fisher reviewing the post-apocalyptic novels, Arcadia and The Dog Stars)
 So this is a personal story and a story about our times. When I left my old city life I stopped reading novels; by the time I returned to England ten years later and joined the Transition movement I had stopped reading books almost completely, unless they were related to work. I realised reading books had become an escape, something that afforded a comfort at the end of the day. Novels belonged to a book club, literary festival culture, the books you took to the beach. They belonged to old ladies at the libraries who checked out ten thrillers at a time to occupy their minds and fill their days. They were not the challenging and inventive works I once studied.

Like many of my contemporaries, when I returned to writing the form I chose was not fiction. We rediscovered the essay, the pamphlet (often in the forms of blogs), creative non-fiction and citizen journalism. In an era where becoming rooted in time and place has become an imperative, many of us sought out the older and vaster forms of myth and fairy tale, radical prose of the commons that challenged the history of the Empire. The impromptu speaker of words on the streets and at festivals took our attention, and fiction receded to a remote drawing room and Sunday newspaper world that seemed increasingly old-fashioned, conformist and slow. Used to squeezing plot into 140 characters or a pithy caption these 437 pages stuck in the Appalachian mud now seemed way too lengthy. Who had the time to read this stuff?

The pursuit of a narrative that can speak of our collapsing times is a mantra of the day, and perhaps it’s worth asking: does this narrative belong to the people who see the future coming, or do we include, as Kingsolver does here, the people who deny it is happening and are most likely to lose out when it does? Who will log their voices and their experience? Can we step in each other’s shoes and imagine what is it like, how it could be different, without the fictive form?

One of the major tensions in Flight Behaviour is the lack of awareness the outsiders (in their designer boots) have about the restrictive and humiliating nature of being dirt poor – of not having the right house, or education. Or indeed shoes. “Most of us have to walk around in our sleep, accepting our underprivileged position,” Dellarobbia tells Ovid:
I’d argue that the teams get picked and then the beliefs get handed-out. Team Camo get the right to bear arms, and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They understand recycling and population control and lattes and as many second changes as anybody wants.
 I am not a climate denier and so cannot imagine what the doubters among Kingsolver’s readers might feel about Flight Behaviour. Looking out at equally waterlogged country (in East Anglia) I find myself thinking about that small imaginary house in Tennessee and realise that the book’s strength is linked to its ability to see what is, without any ought to be in the way. And that responding to nature in crisis might just bring things out of us we never thought were there.

When I opened the book I felt I would rather spend two hours watching Jennifer Lawrence in similar bleak conditions in Winter’s Bone. But in the end the novel had greater staying power. Roots, and not screen stars, are what we need right now, wherever we are, if we want to hold ourselves in place on the earth.

Images of monarch butterflies from 2012 documentary The Flight of the Butterflies; STIR is available at selected outlets and by subscription (see their website for details)

Thursday, 6 June 2013

ARCHIVE: The Sea Kale Project

Five years ago I began a walk down the Eastern Seaboard. It was called The Sea Kale Project.  

Originally the walk was going to be a springboard for a photographic exhibition and begin in Norfolk. In the end however it was the catalyst that drew me back into writing. First a small piece in a local magazine and then an abundance of journalistic blogs, principally about the Transition movement, during the following three years. Sea Kale also became the subject of the final chapter of 52 Flowers That Shook My World. 
Tomorrow, in another time of shift, I will go with Mark to Sizewell beach, as we do each year, to visit the extraordinary community of wild, robust cabbages that flourish strangely and beautifully beside the nuclear power station. Here is a piece I wrote on This Low Carbon Life in 2011 in celebration:
 Along the sandy dunes and shingle banks of the eastern seaboard there is a front line of wild plants, the ancestors of our allotments and fields - wild carrot, wild cabbage, sea beet, sea pea, sea kale, sea rocket, oraches, sorrel – and our medicine cabinets - wormwood and eyebright, sea buckthorn, sea holly, scurvy grass. Of all our ancient companions, the sea kale with its abundant flowers and rich detoxifying leaves is the largest and most impressive. Its tap root sinks deep into the shingle and holds fast in a rocky and uncertain time - the kind of plant that can weather a storm.

The plant marks a territory that runs along the shoreline from Norfolk to Kent. It’s a geographical, ecological territory, but also a place you can map in time, in the ways that make meaning of our presence on the planet since our forebears first ate those salty iron-rich leaves.

I came across the sea kale in Dungeness. I had gone there because of Derek Jarman. I had read his journals and noticed the flash of wild flowers in the text, as he struggled with the elements that howled through his shingle garden and to keep own tenuous thread to life. He had come in search of bluebells and found instead the bleak shore and the sea-kale that grew beside the nuclear power station. It was a singular territory that he made his own: wind-broken, austere, at the end of the line.

We had, like the artist, driven out of the city at bluebell time and found the crambe's crinkly purple leaves pushing through the stones. We had been travelling and were looking for a place to live. We walked past the black fisherman’s hut and its now-deserted garden, sat amongst the flowering dwarf blackthorn and crab apple. As we drove away, I looked back and the familiar mosaic of marsh and sky and sea sparked something in me. It was the memory of somewhere I used to know. A certain strand of my life that began when I was a child in Sandwich Bay and Felixstowe.

When we settled in Suffolk Mark and I began an open dialogue with the wild places along the coast, following a practice we had developed working with dreams and medicinal plants – visiting, holding a discourse within the territory, cohering our findings, keeping a creative log. It had become clear that for the future to happen we needed to be realigned with the natural systems and to recover our aboriginal ability to speak with the earth. How could we do this in our native land?

The dialogue began with a question: Who is this self in this territory? How can we communicate in an intelligent and vigorous way? What effect does the land, its moods, rhythms, creatures, weather, have on our imaginations, on our memories, on our realignment?

In 2008 we began a project that mapped the mosaic of eco-systems and their relationship with the human settlements along this shifting coastline. We named the project after the study seakale communities. Having this kind of dialogue means you don’t walk the track you choose. You encounter what is there. going out without a plan, meeting what crosses your path. Not just the beautiful, but also the difficult. We began just as the sea asters were setting seed n the marshes. On November 9 there was a massive storm surge. A powerful northeasterly wind ran against the high tide and the estuaries flooded their banks. We ran out of our houses and stood by the shore as the rivers merged with the sea and swamped the houses down at Blackshore harbour.

After the flood people everywhere began speaking about how to protect the land. Small bands collected together, stacked sandbags against the river wall, spoke out for the birds and the spirit of the place.

“Just a few cows”, we were told by the greysuited men from the Environment Agency in Reydon village hall. The agency were refusing to mend the broken banks of the Blyth as the government announced its retreat back to the metropolis.

"What about the fishermen?" I asked. "Fishing is not economic", he replied.
"What about the tourism?"
"They will go elsewhere".

The cows in the watermeadows didn’t count. The birds didn’t count. The land didn’t count. The people in the coastal seatowns didn’t count. Only the populations in the industrial towns would be secured. The oil prices began to rise. Suddenly I realised I was living in a different time. A time I did not know.

This was the time I found myself talking to Charles Clover, environment editor of the Daily Telegraph, our paths crossing after 25 years. He was telling me about the fish in the ocean he has spent his life defending, and a book he had written called The End of the Line. I told him what was happening down by the sea’s mouth. The agency was abandoning all the defences of the rivers and their harbours along the territory of the sea kale – the Blyth, the Ore, the Alde, the Deben. It was business as usual in the hotels in town, down at the pier, at the fish shop (The show must go on!) but some of us were beginning to ask why.

"They are going to take everything!" he said.

We walked the coast line from the statue of Neptune at Lowestoft, towards the Martello tower of Aldeburgh, from November to the following late summer. We stood on the beaches with 1700 others making a human SOS protest at Walberswick, watched an adder slither by through the sea peas as the police and activists outwitted each other at Sizewell power station, watched the sky burn as the reeds caught fire at Easton Bavents.

We swam in the ocean, with the seals, in the high waves, watched the sea become glass-green, pewter, azure, opal, bruised, mad with foam, tipped with fire. We swam in the wake of Roger Deakin, and walked in the footsteps of WG Sebald. Above us the sky raced with clouds, the wind blew sharp and salt, and warm, scented with heather, hail clattered on our heads. The sands shone silver, the cliffs flashed gold. The land pulsed with light, We pocketed treasures: sea coal, sea peat, a glass bead, a worn kitchen tile, an oyster shell, a deer skull from the tumulus at Dunwich at winter solstice. The sand martins departed their cliff dwellings, the barnacle geese arrived, the starlings rose like spectres over the marshes. Stags roared in the reeds. Seasons came and went. In the mornings standing at my window, I would see the sea like a shining band on the horizon, like a mirror. It’s a good day, I would say to Mark. Let’s go out.

Today is such a day. And I’m writing about this project, about the resilient sea kale, because you notice in a droughted spring, it’s the plants with strong tap roots that flourish. It’s the tap root that keeps us alive. To belong you need a story, and to have a story you need a territory. You need a strong tap root to keep you anchored in a hard time. Sometimes the territory you find yourself in is not the place where you think you belong. It is not the lovely bluebell wood, or the rose garden where you sit alone with your thoughts. It’s not a tropical ocean or an Aegean island cove. It’s a windy English beach with people and houses and oil tankers on the horizon, where you encounter a thousand difficult questions about power and nature and exploitation. And the story you need now is not the story you were born with; it’s a story you have to discover, that you are challenged to go walkabout and find.

Part of me when I began the project wanted to stay on that wild ecstatic shoreline with the flowers, with the birdsfoot trefoil and centaury and harebell, to put all my attention on birds and stones and light, to keep hold of the outsider position of the artist and dreamer, but that shoreline kept taking me to the people, to face those awkward questions: to the protesters at Sizewell, to the campaigners in the village halls. It took me back into journalism as I found myself writing an article on the project for a local community magazine, the first I had published in 2o years. It didn't take me to paradise, it took me straight into the heart of the struggle.

It took me back into society, into Transition, to the place where we all meet, the place at the end of the line, at the edge of the narrow land, England, at a point in time where we need to come to certain decisions about the future. Decisions and meeting places I'll be writing about this week with some of the people who have crossed my path.

Among the seakale on Sizewell Beach, 2011; Derek Jarman in Dungeness, 1992 (by Howard Sooley); Greenpeace protest at Sizewell A, 2003; SOS protest at Walberswick, 2008: Sea Lale Project notebook, 2009; Mark, seakale and Sizewell B, 2011.