Nature Revealed + Caring Together Nature Writing Workshop: Climate Change
As part of the Nature Revealed: Tracks, Traces and Trails project, Dr Lucy Rowland delivered a pen-pal style nature writing workshop for the Caring Together over-55s community group in the Summer of 2020. In this series, Lucy reflects on the writing that the group members produced, drawing out several recurring ideas, themes and motifs. In this post, Lucy discusses the ways in which understandings of climate change feature in the creative written work by the group members.
Climate change is one of the focal themes of Nature Revealed: Tracks, Traces, Trails, alongside the nocturnal, migration, and the subterranean. However, it is also one of the more difficult ideas to introduce productively during engagement activities. Most people now accept that anthropogenic climate change is drastically altering the earth and its environments, and that different societies and parts of the world are more vulnerable to its effects than others. However, climate change for many people can still feel somewhat intangible. For those of us living in the UK, witnessing the more dramatic and immediate effects of climate change on the news, or reading about it online – I’m thinking particularly of the bush fires that now rage across the US each year – can sometimes make it feel as though the effects of climate change are always “elsewhere”, somewhere far away from us. It is all too easy to think of climate change as something that happens to someone else, too: the environmental changes that we can link to climate change here in the UK are often incremental, slow, and less (immediately) catastrophic, although no less significant in reality.
This presents a particular challenge when we try to write about climate change in our contemporary moment. How can we depict climate change in relation to our own experiences of the natural world? This is something that the group members grappled with in their writing. In many of the written pieces submitted for the workshop, climate change featured as part of the way the writers connect with nature through the changing of the seasons, and colours their experiences of nature from childhood and throughout their younger years. Despite the fact that the prompt materials from the workshop did not refer to climate change explicitly, concerns over the climate crisis were very evident in many of the pieces. Some of the group members produced writing that worked through a series of ideas that touched indirectly on the climate crisis or related environmental issues. Others reflected on the disturbing history of carbon emissions cover-ups during the 1980s, and the legacy of these mistakes for our younger generations.
There are all sorts of emotional responses to the climate crisis depicted in these writings, for example frustration, anger, sadness, and even a kind of nostalgia for a past world that was not yet alert to the ramifications of fossil fuel burning. For example, there are frequent mentions, throughout many of the pieces, of the absence of snow in the UK of today. A recurring image – something that almost seems akin to a shared memory or consciousness – is the transformation of snow into rain over recent decades. One of the written pieces is structured in a way that reflects this transformation: the beginning paragraphs reference learning the names of flowers from Ladybird books, the seasons, and the process of learning as a child to respect nature and what it provides: ‘everything takes us back to nature which needs to be fed and watered in order to survive’. Interestingly, however, the final few paragraphs of this piece take on a more questioning tone: ‘I rarely see huge flocks of birds nowadays […] is it because of the pollution to the atmosphere and low cloud that we don’t see them, or are the birds not around […] as they once were?’ The writer then reflects on our weather today: ‘summers of torrential rain instead of weeks of warm sunshine […] We don’t get the snow therefore we have to rely solely on rainfall for our water supply’. This acknowledgement of the subtle transformations in climate, and in our everyday weather patterns, seems to arrive gradually in the piece. It culminates in a darker outlook on the effects of pollution and climate change: ‘the seasons are changing and will do so more drastically in future. All things “nature” will suffer – if steps are not taken’. The double quotation marks used here are also an interesting choice – perhaps suggesting that nature is not something external to us, but something that we belong to, and could suffer alongside.
Another of the pieces makes a more direct link between the disappearance of snow and the intensification of climate change in recent years: the writer remarks that ‘as a fifties child living in a semi-rural area I have memories of deep snow falls, adults digging paths so we could walk to school’, but also reflects ‘are the seasons changing? Yes of course they are. Global warming is with us but it’s not always easy to grasp’.
A radically different approach to this same challenge is encountered in a fantastic semi-narrative piece by another of the group members. Here, the focus of the piece is on memories of a single elm tree that featured in the writer’s life, ‘all through my childhood and into adulthood’. The piece reflects on the dead tree – a ‘petrified replica of what it once was’ – through the meaning that it held for the people living and working nearby, as it stood for decades in a field near the writer’s home. The tree, which died officially in the 1970s, presumably from Dutch Elm disease, managed to outlast its fellows and continued to stand as a leafless ‘faireoir’ or ‘watcher’. We learn that the tree ‘mirrored the history of the place’ and provided shelter for farm workers and cattle alike in all kinds of weather, but when the writer returns to visit ‘alas, the glorious summers of the past ten years allowed an onslaught that even she could not defend against […] the old tree could not fight back’. In some of the other written pieces, there is a sense that the climate crisis is just out of reach, or around the corner – but this story of the tree seems to suggest that for some species, it may already be too late.
Despite the ever-present threat that the climate crisis poses to our landscapes, ecologies, and our cultures, the creativity and ingenuity displayed in these writings remind us that there are always ways to reflect on and grieve anthropogenic climate change. More importantly, however, creative endeavours also allow us to find new ways of valuing and protecting what we do have, and responding to the challenges we face in such difficult times.
By Lucy Rowland
Look out tomorrow on the Land Lines website for the release of the PDF booklet of all the written pieces and transcriptions!