Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Where are the women?

Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, visited Oxford last night and answered questions in a Town Hall so packed people were standing in the aisles and peering in from doorways. Miliband’s question and answer session was preceded by a short panel discussion on climate change headed by Mark Lynas, Ian Legett, Dr MA Khalid, and Oliver Tickell. The evening underlined an aspect of climate change discussion that has been troubling me for some time: it’s overwhelming dominance by men.

While living in Oxford I’ve been to talks by George Monbiot, David MacKay, George Marshall, Mark Lynas, Chris Goodall, Mark MaslinColin Tudge, Oliver Tickell and Mayer Hillman. Most of these people were promoting books. Only one public event I’ve been to in this city had a woman on the panel: the literature festival discussion with Jay Griffiths, Phillip Pullman, John Ashton and Peter Gingold. Although outnumbered Griffiths was eloquent in presenting her book, which is not exactly about climate change but brings fresh outlooks crucial to the discussion.

We do have one especially prominent female climate change campaigner in Britain, Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party and MEP, but it’s clear that women are strikingly under-represented in political, scientific and technical discussion of climate change. It can’t be argued that the issue itself is not attractive to women, that we are put off by the scientific and technological debate, since audiences at events and workers in environmental organisations include women and men in fairly even numbers. At the Climate Camp women are certainly as active as men. In fiction, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Hall, Jeanette Winterson and Liz Jensen have all written climate change themed novels. Why then in discussing climate change in fiction do we usually refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, an unremittingly masculine novel that isn’t about climate change? In poetry too women are engaging with ecological questions to an extent that has not been recognised. (I declare a special interest here, as I have an article coming out on this next month, ‘‘Shadows in their voices’: British women writing wild poetry’ in The Wolf).

The inequality is largely within public discussions where the climate change movement is being shaped and taken in new directions. I don’t think there is any simple reason for this: it is likely to be merely a reflection of wider power structures, the difficulties women have in getting their voices listened to seriously, and perhaps the difficulty we sometimes have in taking our own voices seriously. But it does matter. It is recognised that climate change will affect women disproportionately. Climate change activists often express dissatisfaction with the unfair way in which the few dominate resources in today’s global society and with the intractable way power stays with the powerful. We repeat these patterns in our own structures. Several of the men I named above I admire, and I deeply respect what all are doing, but even they must get a little weary of treading and re-treading the same circuit. We need to pay attention to where women are speaking, celebrate them and welcome more variety in our discussion of climate change.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Wytham Woods in July

High summer has flooded Wytham Woods with green:

Nettles and in places Bracken have mostly taken over from flowers, but these Nettle-leaved Bellflowers were one of the exceptions breaking through the cover:

Wherever the canopy opened up a little there were also many butterflies enjoying the Nettles and the last of the Blackberry blossoms, especially Small Whites, but here’s a Brimstone on a Creeping Thistle:

(Apparently these creatures’ yellow colour gave butterflies their name.) We also saw an elegant Silver-washed Fritillary, but the superior photo is courtesy of The Independent’s butterfly guide:

There was also plenty of mammal activity in the woods - we saw a Badger poking about under a log beside one path who hurried off when we got too close. This was at about 6pm but it was still very light so a real surprise and a gift to see. According to the BBC these woods have the densest Badger population in the world, but that doesn't make it less special to see one. The Badger was fairly small and fluffy so perhaps a youngster. We also saw a female Roe Deer crossing a path and heaps of shredded pine cones showed there must have been lots of Squirrels hidden in the leaves. The Hazels have little clusters of nuts now sheltering under their leaves, and many immature nuts are already on the floor and chewed apart by Squirrels and mice:

I was entranced by the movement of leaf shadows on the trunks of the Beeches. The light changes as if through water, and you do feel as though in a different element, under a thick canopy above and crossing a seabed of dried Bluebell seedpods on yellow stalks and eager little Ash and Beech saplings:

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Dark Mountain

I started writing this blog for two main reasons, firstly because I’m convinced that writers and artists have a central role to play in changing our current disastrous attitudes to ecology, and secondly because it's often difficult to recognise where they are already doing this. Many writers have sought to tell stories that would lead us into healthier relationships with our habitats and with other species, but they often aren’t widely celebrated here in the UK or that aspect of their writing is not adequately recognised. What’s more, the scale of the challenges facing us today require a much more concerted, urgent response from writers than is currently taking place. It’s hard not to scream when reading Ian McEwan describe climate change as a ‘background hum’ in his next novel. A ‘hum’? This sort of diffidence is precisely the problem – if climate change sounds like a hum, we haven’t understood what it is.

So I’m very excited that two people have launched a project for writers that fully recognises the scale of what is happening, and that we need new kinds of stories. The Dark Mountain Project launched on Friday night here in Oxford on the banks of the Thames. There was good music, a beautiful sunset and provocative ideas. Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine have written a manifesto and promise to establish a journal to follow. The Project appears to have taken its name from a Robinson Jeffers poem, but it's especially evocative since everywhere mountains really are darkening. Here are the principal points from the manifesto:


‘We must unhumanise our views a little, and become confident

As the rock and ocean that we were made from.’

                                                (Robinson Jeffers, ‘Carmel Point’)

1. We live in a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling. All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.

2. We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.

3. We believe that the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilisation: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality, and the myth of our separation from ‘nature’. These myths are more dangerous for the fact that we have forgotten they are myths.

4. We will reassert the role of story-telling as more than mere entertainment. It is through stories that we weave reality.

5. Humans are not the point and purpose of the planet. Our art will begin with the attempt to step outside the human bubble. By careful attention, we will reengage with the non-human world.

6. We will celebrate writing and art which is grounded in a sense of place and of time. Our literature has been dominated for too long by those who inhabit the cosmopolitan citadels.

7. We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies. Our words will be elemental. We write with dirt under our fingernails.

8. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

 From point three I’m in enthusiastic agreement. But it would be a bit disturbing to agree entirely with a manifesto, wouldn’t it? I’m sure the writers want conversation as well as praise, so I have to admit to having a problem in the second point. The writers spoke convincingly of environmentalists wasting energy in seeking to shore up the present systems, but I do think many of us are putting our energy into seeking fresh ways of living, which surely are necessary. Climate change really is a problem we should try to solve, especially if we wish to respond to non-human views, otherwise we can look forward to our rewritten lives on an almost sterile planet. The manifesto ends upbeat so I’m sure it’s a misreading to suggest that the writers think we should give up on trying to limit climate change. It does, however, draw our attention to the ways we’re doing this, in whose interests we're working and the assumptions we’re making about humanity’s role on the planet.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Autumn leaves in July

The Horse Chestnut trees here are showing signs of damage from leaf miners (Cameraria ohridella) that cause brown blotches in the leaves. Here’s one in the park beside the river:

The blotches will probably spread, turning the whole leaf prematurely brown and shrivelled, as is already happening to this tree in the city centre:

In 2006 after losing their leaves prematurely some trees were observed to flush and even to flower in autumn.

About this time last year I took a bus journey across Bedfordshire into Cambridge and passed countless Horse Chestnuts with almost no green left on them – the route was unrelieved by a single healthy tree. My impression is that this process is slower this year, so perhaps our reasonably chilly winter slowed down the moths’ emergence, or else management techniques are working. (Management might explain why the tree in the park is doing better than the second one pictured.) According to the Forestry Commission the leaf miner is primarily an aesthetic problem and thankfully there’s no evidence that it damages the trees in the long term. Bleeding canker is a more serious problem for this species, but even so the leaf miner has only been in this country since 2002 so it might be a bit early to say that trees won’t be affected by dropping their leaves months early in successive years. The Horse Chestnut seems to me a particularly urban tree as so many grow in parks, school grounds and gardens. The sight of its large, soft leaves drying and curling back as though scorched is unsettling and yet it's already beginning to feel like part of summer's rhythm.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Radical Nature

The Barbican is currently showing a fascinating exhibition on nature and activism, Radical Nature: Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet 1969-2009. There’s a great range in feeling, from the shocking grand beauty and optimism of Agnes Denes’ wheatfield in Manhattan to Lara Almarcegui’s careful documenting of London’s patches of waste ground. 

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation, 1982 (It's being recreated in Dalston now.)

Like many of the projects displayed, these are site specific. Unable to contain them the exhibition has to document them.  Others are installations – uprooted trees and other plants appear popular. Lots of thought was given to displacement of nature and the dissolution that follows. 

There were also interesting displays of ecologically minded buildings, some achieved and others free-floating utopian conceptions. R&Sie(n) showed a termite-shaped building covered with plant life, blending into its forest environment which according to the blurb ‘incorporates instability, entropy and the hybridisation of the vegetal and biological’. I went to the exhibition with my brother-in-law, who is himself a talented architect, and he wondered whether this kind of design could cause problems in giving the illusion of not impacting upon the surrounding ecosystems, especially if the design isn’t as efficient as it could be. The problem here might be that buildings should make us feel part of a place and ecosystems (since even the most urban city is a habitat), without obscuring the impact of the ways we get our water, energy and generally comfortable environment. I particularly liked the exhibition’s geodesic domes, which combined spaciousness and intimacy, showed sympathy with natural shapes while clearly being designed

Domes have mixed associations though (this is great, not sure about this).

The exhibition’s timescale was disconcerting. Hari Kunzru’s review compared the 1970s ‘global ideas and blue-sky thinking’ with today’s artist’s ‘pragmatism… less about saving the world than recovering some flotsam and jetsom from the collapse.’ I felt some alarm at the disconnection between the creativity of the artists working over the past four decades and what’s actually happened, a little as I do on reading Gary Snyder’s brilliant 1969 essay ‘Four Changes’ with its acute analyses of our pollution, population and consumption problems. Snyder’s 1995 postscript acknowledges the problems have got worse rather than better but ends with typical calm:

            My teacher once said to me

- become one with the knot itself,

till it dissolves away.

- sweep the garden.

- any size.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Lake District: nothing like a piano

Many people here in the UK are planning to holiday at home this year for economic reasons, but it’s also a really positive thing to do to avoid air travel and to explore beautiful places closer to home. While we really enjoyed our trip to Dartmoor, I still think the Lake District has to be the best place in this country for outdoors holidays, which gives me a chance to show off my dad’s new book:

It's a portable guidebook with 20 circular routes for walkers of all abilities, including peaks, scrambles and more accessible routes. Each route is provided with directions, details about distance and refreshments, Ordnance Survey maps and stunning photographs. You can read more about it here, and buy it here!

(My title is a geeky Auden reference.)

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

London is a River City

I took part recently in a walk along the route of one of London’s buried rivers as part of Amy Sharrocks’ project, London is a River City. We walked the Walbrook from its source outside London’s Highbury and Islington Tube Station through the City to its entry into the Thames, at a stony beach beside Cannon Street Station. The Walbrook was covered five hundred years ago and today it's concrete and cars all the way to the Thames. But as Sharrock’s explains, by following the route we uncover a submerged city, or at least become part of its layering. Sharrocks talks powerfully about water – how it's what we mostly are and how it runs through our imaginations and bodies:

‘stream of consciousness, flow of life, tides of feeling… We are water creatures, and our bodies are like colanders, constantly leaking fluids, thoughts and memories, yet trapped in a Sisyphean attempt to shore up against the future. If forgetting is an action that happens to you, then UN-forgetting might have to be an equally active effort.’

Thirty or so of us met all dressed in blue and walked all linked together in loops of blue elastic. Most passers-by stared or smiled, though some passed by as though there really wasn’t anything odd about it. I heard two or three recognise us unprompted: a little girl who said ‘they’re a river’, a businessman who asked, ‘are you a fountain?’

This was an event, not a guided walk, so we chatted for half of it and then fell silent for the second half to listen to the city or maybe imagine the river. Despite the odd watery street name, the city’s dryness dominated the view. As Sharrocks noted, like water, we were a little disruptive, but for the most part passed through lightly.