Monday, 25 May 2009

Swimming Isis

The hot bank holiday weekend tempted us out yesterday for a swim in the Thames, called Isis in the stretch through Oxford. Eran and I plunged in from Port Meadow, a large flood plain where the river enters the city from the west. It's a beautiful stretch of open space inside the ring-road. This photo shows some floodwater on the meadow, not the river:

The water was surprisingly pleasant, not too cold although cold enough to keep our swimming time fairly brief, and the current was very gentle. The river's name and the month brought to mind the Dylan song opening:

I married Isis on the fifth day of May, 

But I could not hold on to her very long.

Wild swimming grew in popularity in this country following Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, but only boats, geese and dogs joined us yesterday, along with clouds of cotton-white willow seeds just now being released to the wind. The cycle route between our flat and the city centre crosses the Cherwell River three times because of the way it splits before joining Isis/the Thames a little downstream. Here's a photo of part of the island formed I took last winter:

The changing water has become central to the life of the city for me. Right now there are lots of tiny flotillas of goslings, ducklings and signets following their parents around and after nightfall on the bridges you can see bats dipping over the river to catch flies. If the summer’s a sunny one we’re hoping to immerse in the river a few more times before we say goodbye to Oxford and leave for Paris at the end of September.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Arboretum in May

We visited the Harcourt Arboretum today in the May sunshine, where the rhododendrons were in bloom and peacocks mewing, shaking out their tales and making small children cry, but I'll leave those to your imaginations and better photographers since I still have Hughes in mind:

Here is the fern's frond, unfurling a gesture,
Like a conductor whose music will now be pause
And the one note of silence
To which the whole earth dances gravely.
There was another visitor from the Bodleian:
Oaks are now fully leafed, vivid green, and their flowers drying up and falling off:
The meadow crawled with life, like this lime green spider spinning between buttercups:

Finally, a visitor to our garden, just before she was chased away by the magpies nesting in the leylandiis and chattering like monkeys every morning:

Friday, 22 May 2009

Great turning times

As part of a project for Transition Oxford I recently looked again at a WWF report from last spring ('Weathercocks and Signposts', here), which argues that an adequate strategy for tackling climate change demands engagement with the values underlying our decisions. The writers show that the seductive model of consumer choice can never solve so large a problem, but also that there are far more powerful possibilities available to environmental campaign groups: expressing what we actually believe.

I was struck by this account of why consumerism is so powerful:

‘Grant McCracken argues that consumer goods serve as bridges to our hopes and ideals. He suggests that, both as communities and as individuals, we must develop strategies to cope with the discrepancy between how we find society in reality and our hope than an alternative society is possible. One such strategy, he argues, is the displacement of these ideals - allowing us to sustain hope that we might at some point, achieve the ideal social life we seek.’

The displacement may be onto a society in the future, in the past or in another place, or onto the lives of others (celebrities, for example). We need these ideals to give us hope, so we also need to be able to access them without risking close scrutiny of their meaning. The prospect of ownership of goods is a bridge between ourselves and our ideal life, so a car is sold to us as conferring freedom, sex appeal and adulation. If you buy the car and little changes, there’s always a better car, a higher level of consumption, so the ideal is deferred. It’s a familiar, wretched situation, but what I find interesting about this account is the consideration of the contradiction between our hopes and experiences, and the ways we need to bridge this. Like many people, I probably use work in a similar way (though with less environmental consequences).

Rather than displacing our ideals, the writers invite us to ask what are the values motivating us in the environmental movement, then to be clear and confident in expressing them. This is, after all, how American presidential elections are won (the situation is closely comparable: the voter knows their individual vote won’t win the election but still matters). The result can be a powerful and empowering conversation, one with hope but also recognising the scale of the issue.

This kind of campaigning would not ask us to change our lightbulbs (although that’s a good thing to do), but instead to look at what’s going on and think about what we care about. ‘It may be better to avoid focus on ‘things you can do’ at all (whether these be things small or large). Better, perhaps, to urge the audience for a particular communication to begin to think for themselves about what they can do. Prompting such reflection may facilitate integration of these external regulations into a person’s sense of self. Individuals may then be more motivated in the behaviour choices they make, and engage in these changes more persistently.’ Pragmatically, the fear is that this kind of cultural shift would just take too long, but then, perhaps it’s already underway.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Shadow to shadow

The swifts have been back in Oxford for two or three weeks now, especially around the Museum of Natural History where the tower is filled with specially designed swift boxes. I often pass by on my way to visit Eran’s office and look out for the birds circling above the science departments. You can even see inside the nest boxes on this webcam. As they don’t yet appear to have laid eggs the scenes are mostly rather dull (feathers in a box) but I’ve just logged on to see two swifts snuggling up together. Here they are.

Swifts’ comfort in the air is legendary: after fledging they will not land for three years, not even to perch on wire like swallows (they don't have sufficiently developed legs), not to sleep and not even to mate. They do everything in the sky, which is their element as water is to fish. They only land to nest when they set up their homes inside roofs. So seeing the swifts resting like this makes me wonder, is it a delicious relief to settle down in the nest box and fold up their wings for the first time since fledging? Or perhaps they’re uneasy out of the air and excited to get back to it when breeding is done.

There’s an evocative chapter on the wildness of swifts in Michael McCarthy’s new book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo and their shrieking exhilaration when flying. McCarthy points out that swifts are relatively neglected in myths and folklore, perhaps because their air-borne life is so distant from us, but they suddenly appear in twentieth-century art, especially symbolically within poetry. Hughes (in ‘Swifts’) gives us an idea about why:

             … They’ve made it again,

Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s

Still waking refreshed, our summer’s

Still all to come –

                                    And here they are, here they are again…

 Maybe we’re drawn to them partly because of their wildness (‘Their lunatic limber scramming frenzy’), but there’s also the vulnerability, as Richard Mabey describes in Nature Cure. Swift populations fell in Britain by 41% between 1994 and 2007 – a fearsomely rapid decline.

Hughes wrote a series of creation poems called Adam and the Sacred Nine in which he described different species of birds coming to Adam with gifts showing him how to live. They are obliquely described, essentially the birds' own natures. Adam has to decide whether to accept or reject those gifts. 

A few lines from ‘The Swift comes the swift’ retrospectively carry an unintended suggestion of the main threat (global warming, us rejecting the gifts), but much beside that:

            Till the Swift

            Who falls out of the blindness, swims up

            From the molten, rejoins itself


            Shadow to shadow – resumes proof, nests

            Papery ashes

            Of the uncontainable burning.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Birds - by the Snow

There are a few main forms for writers engaging with climate change in this country: poetry, non-fiction and speculative/science-fiction. The more I read the more I feel that poets are most thoroughly at home exploring our changing relationships with nature (as seen especially here and here). While this may be because I don’t myself write poetry, it’s probably because of the rich tradition of English language nature poetry. It’s common to trace this to Wordsworth and Clare (especially since Jonathan Bate’s Song of the Earth). It won’t surprise you to hear I feel it goes all the way back. I love, for example, these lines of Old English wisdom poetry that mingle the truths about men with the truths of nature:


… Fisc sceal on waetere

cynren cennan.             Cyning sceal on healle

beagas daelan.             Bera sceal on hae├że

eald and egesfull.             Ea of dune sceal

flodgraeg feran.            Fyrd sceal aestomne


… Fish must in water

breed their kind. A king must in a hall

share out rings. A bear must be on a heath

old and terrible. Waters from the downs must

flood-grey flow. A troop must stick together


Which makes me think of Emily Dickinson:


Water – is taught by Thirst –

Land – by the Oceans passed –

Transport – by Throe –

Peace – by its Battles told –

Love – by Memorial Mold –

Birds – by the Snow.

Perhaps because of the way a poem leaves us space around the lines to make our own connections and interpretations I often feel creative reading poetry in a way that happens more rarely with prose. In this way maybe engaged poetry escapes the didacticism that plagues prose. I’m beginning to think that writing about nature needs this sense of space, of room around the edges, silences, rather than utterly exact description. 

This spring we have two new collections from Alice Oswald (of which more in a later post), and there’s an evocative poetic dialogue between John Kinseller and Melanie Challenger taking place on Arts and Ecology here. I also want to share this link to the website of poet Helen Moore (thanks Kim for passing this on) who has a beautiful selection of poems online, all gracefully observant.