Category Archives: Geopoetry

All things come to an end (of sorts)

On Friday 18th October it was a pleasure to host an evening of science and literature at the Geological Society in London called ‘Ask the Mountains Their Story’. I thought I’d post here the introductory text which I wrote for the programme.

Cheers to Flo Bullough for the photo

Cheers to Flo Bullough for the photo

This evening’s event marks the end of my year-long collaborative project with earth scientists, researching geology and climate change. In many ways, however, it is also the end of an idea which began two years ago at an event – Poetry and Geology: A Celebration – held in this very lecture theatre.  On that occasion, Dr. Bryan Lovell, the instigator of that celebratory day, offered the audience the following challenge: ‘I hope that our poetry will help to establish true environmental conviction where our scientific prose has failed us’. With the assistance of an Arts Council Grant for the Arts award I took up that challenge in June 2012, joining geologists on field excursions, attending lectures and seminars, and keeping abreast of the literature on the subject through the resources of the Geological Society’s Library.  The results are collected in the pamphlet Fossil Sunshine, available from Worple Press.

It’s been a year spent on beaches. In Yorkshire I stood amongst the ruins of tide defences and fallen double-yellow lines, looking at the slumped cliff coast of Holderness, and gathered Norwegian porphyry, Devil’s toenails, Baltic amber. In Margate I joined a troupe of geo-historians and lugged home a flint as polished and humanoid as a Henry Moore. In Dorset I read a poem on the cliff top to a slightly bemused crowd from the BP Institute; at the foot of that cliff, in Lulworth Cove, we rubbed our hands in oil sands and learned about the intricacies of horizontal drilling. And returning home, to the Antrim coast where I grew up, the coarse black basalts around the Giant’s Causeway took on a new significance, their forging having played a possible part in global warming 55 million years ago, the 55Ma Event which dumped a billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

What I have enjoyed is the practical creativity of geologists. Whether working through a problem on a raised beach, or calculating the volume of an imagined oil field, or mapping in their minds an invisible cliff, their creative approaches are ones that artists and writers should hope to emulate.  They are unafraid to think of and design grand, sometimes terrifying, solutions to our climate challenge. Science backs them up, but it is imagination that gets them there.

ATM with Poole map cropped

Reading ‘Oil Field’ with Geological Map of Poole. Thanks to Harry Man for the pic

I hope that my poems capture some of the creative verve exhibited by the scientists I met, that they are not afraid to ask difficult questions, and that they don’t presume to have the answers. To me they are a record of a year of discovery and are as various as my monthly obsessions: coastal erosion to oil pipelines to the Anthropocene to lab work to geo-engineering. While looking at instances of past climate change, it is human history and human characters that figure largely in the poems: human indifference and bloody-mindedness, human stoicism, but also human optimism and ability and ingenuity.

It is a pleasure to be joined this evening by three varied speakers: Sarah Day, whose The Space Between Us is a fictional account of 18th Century explorer Vitus Bering’s final expedition in the landscape of the frozen north; Barbara Cooke, whose biography Oil Men has been called ‘a vivid and absorbing piece of biography’ by former TLS editor Jeremy Treglown; and Bryan Lovell. I am delighted that Bryan has returned to talk about the science behind geology and climate change. Bryan is the firmest believer that cross-disciplinary action between arts and sciences is the best way to get the message of climate change across to a climate-fatigued public. It is encouraging, then, that this evening’s artistic intervention is one of many such projects existing up and down the country and throughout the world. And though it marks the end of my project, poetry can rarely be defined or confined by the imposition of time-scales. I hope there are more poems coming, as there is always urgent work to be done.

Michael McKimm, London, October 2013


Ghosts of Gone Birds (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013)
Featuring the work of more than 180 artists and writers, including Sarah Day, this book introduces the ideas behind a unique art and conservation project, providing a platform for the artists to tell us why they got involved, and how they approached the brief – to ‘breathe life back into the birds we have lost – so we don’t lose any more’.

Challenged by Carbon: the Oil Industry and Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
‘Climate change fatigue is said to be an ailment slowly spreading through the media. Bryan Lovell’s lively new book — peering into the doubts, concerns and prejudices that have dogged climate negotiators — is an instant tonic for this malady.’– Nature

FIELD WORK Studio Eleven Gallery, Hull, and touring 2014
Six artists – painter, sculptors, graphic artist, silversmith and poet – respond to the geology of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, in collaboration with the Flamborough Quaternary Research Group and Hull Geological Society. Artists include: Desmond Brett, Cath Keay, Anna Kirk-Smith, Michael McKimm, Jo Ray and Carlo Verda. For more information about the exhibition, its tour dates and locations, and events and activities surrounding it, contact

The Anthropocene Project 2013 / 2014
The ‘Anthropocene’ is the new geological ‘age of mankind’ as proposed by the Earth sciences. The transdisciplinary Anthropocene Project explores this concept, using research and presentation methods from the arts and sciences.

City poet Tom Chivers sets out to explore climate as culture, mapping out the territory of climate science within urban space. ADRIFT is a project from Cape Farewell, an organisation that pioneers the cultural response to climate change.

Climate change: evidence from the geological record
The geological record contains abundant evidence of the ways in which Earth’s climate has changed in the past. That evidence is highly relevant to understanding how it may change in the future.

Imagine2020: Art and Climate Change
IMAGINE2020 are eleven European performing arts venues and festivals who support artistic work  that explores causes and effects of climate change.


A Walk in the Woods

“Geopoetics is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world.”

There was a good turnout on Sunday morning for the inaugural gathering of the London branch of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. This first meeting took the form of walk from Muswell Hill to Gillespie Park Local Nature Reserve just south of Finsbury Park, and was excellently guided by Gordon Peters and Richard Meyers, whose knowledge of the history of the area, as well as the local flora and fauna, was at times staggering.

Parkland Walk 2nd September 2012

We started at the top end of Parkland Walk, a park which follows the route of a railway line which used to run between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park. Almost immediately we had wide views across London, then entered the canopy of trees that would accompany us for most of the day: sycamore and oak, rowan and hazel, birch and beech. We left the Walk and entered Highgate Wood, where Richard pulled a sprig from an alder to show how, perhaps unusually, you can see last year’s female flowers, this year’s female flowers and this year’s male flowers all at the same time.

In the shade of ancient woodland we looked at remains of kilns, where jobbing potters – Ancient Britons – fired clay for Roman households. We spied blue tits and nuthatch and lesser-spotted woodpeckers. With our hands we gauged the age of coppiced hornbeam. I remembered Andrew Waterman’s poem, ‘In Highgate Wood’: “I lean against//a hornbeam’s fluted trunk to follow up/the frail slant of a silver birch bole hung/with tatters of bark like peeling paint.”

Back on Parkland Walk, we could see more clearly now its previous incarnation as the railway track, including two cavernous archways. Different species of bat have been found in the park, and roosting in the tunnels. When they were excavating the tunnels they found ostracods and gastropods, shark and crocodile teeth, remnants of the tropical sea that covered southern England during the Eocene.

The park has fought development into both a stretch of motorway and a housing estate, and now has Local Nature Reserve status. It is a place to be shared by the local community, mostly joggers and cyclists judging by today (they clearly take exercise much more seriously here than in my usual East End haunts), but also as a shortcut to work, and a treat for those midnight bat-hunters.

The Spriggan – a sculpture by Marilyn Collins. 2nd September 2012

I like what Gordon says, about the fact that this shared space is therefore a negotiated space: one has to accept different interventions into nature, and our group’s interest has as much a place as the youth with his spray-can, graffiti-ing the bridges.

At one point we hit blue-and-white police tape, forensics in their plastic jumpsuits. A different intervention, a reminder. We curved off, a little more silent now, rejoining the path at Finsbury Park before entering Gillespie Park, another Local Nature Reserve, with ponds and meadows, and the Islington Ecology Centre that opened in 1990 (early, I believe, for this sort of urban thinking to take root) and which had laid on a cracking lunch.

After lunch, Norman Bissell, down from the Isle of Luing where he is the Director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, gave a very interesting talk, introducing the ideas behind geopoetics and the work of the centre (its meetings, talks and publications), before leading a discussion on people’s experiences of the day and future possibilities.

Perhaps unsurprising for a group based in London there was a lot of talk about the Lea Valley, and the loss of public land, or the changing of the natural into the utilitarian, particularly along those stretches near the Olympic Park. While it was agreed that the Lea Valley is currently intelligently and subtly managed to suit the needs of both human and wildlife, there was a consensus at how easily it is for governments or local authorities to reverse environmental decisions and that the need to defend our public green spaces was a constant one.

Norrie reminded us that while we should be rightly concerned with these matters, standard activism was not what geopoetics was about, but nor could we just be a walking group interested in the natural world. The twin constructs of geopoetics – geo being of the earth, and poetic being creativity (not just poetry, but all types of creativity) – demanded a creative response to our relationship with the earth. And indeed, walking in a large group, catching and weaving through various conversations, watching other people point things out or ask questions, listening to informed guides as well as hearing different ideas and perceptions from others, meant that I came away with many more notions for writing than I would on a normal walk, those sparks that might well turn into poems.


There are plans to hold future meetings, perhaps on the South Downs and again in London. If you’re interested in attending, or would like more information about the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics visit or get in touch with me through this blog and I’ll pass your details on.


What is Geopoetry?

While putting together the programme for Poetry and Geology: A Celebration, a one-day event held at the Geological Society in October 2011, the question of what exactly we were celebrating was the most frequent aesthetic (as well as practical) concern for myself and my co-convenors.  Was the day just about those poets who had an interest in geology? Was it about famous geological poems?  Were we looking for geologists who wrote poetry or poets who wrote about geology (or both)?  What links where to be made between the act of writing poetry and the act of geological research (and vice versa?). Was the day limited to the study of ‘rock poetry’ or could broader avenues be explored such as our relationship with space and the aesthetics of place? In the end, as I hope the online resources reveal, the day was able to encompass all of these areas and more.

Something that caused most concern, however, was the use of the word ‘geopoetry’.  At first I shied away from it. I knew that the most well-known use of the phrase was originated by the Scottish poet Kenneth White and the International Institute of Geopoetics which he founded in 1989. Geopoetics, White writes, ‘is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world’. This would indeed make a fitting banner for our day, but I felt that overuse of the word may narrow rather than widen our field, that we would be mis-using it, and also that the slightly more shamanistic elements of the geopoetics movement were perhaps not appropriate for an event at the Geological Society.

But I had seen Kenneth White in an incredible Q&A with Drew Clegg at St. Andrews in 2008 and deep down I knew that geopoetics had to be an element of the day (one simple sentence of White’s has since been firmly in my mind: that when writing poetry, you should ‘start with the local knowledge, with whatever is under your feet’). So I was thrilled to have Gordon Peters from the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics attend to provide an enlightening keynote lecture on geopoetics and the work of the centre.

Harry Hammond Hess – pioneering geologist who called his theories of plate tectonics ‘an essay in geopoetry’

It was only after the event, however, that I was informed that the term has at least one earlier origin, and it was in fact a geologist who coined it.  Harry Hess (May 24, 1906 – August 25, 1969) is considered a revolutionary figure in earth sciences and a ‘founding father’ of the unifying theory of plate tectonics. When he first published his theories and findings in the article ‘History of Ocean Basins’ (1962), he called it ‘an essay in geopoetry’. As the Canadian poet Don McKay explains:

[Hess] described his speculations as geopoetry in order to induce his readers (mostly other geologists) to suspend their disbelief long enough for his observations about seafloor spreading, driven by magma rising continuously from the mantle, to catch on. He needed his audience, in the absence of much hard data, to speculate imaginatively, as if reading poetry.

McKay goes on to explain, in his important and eloquent lecture  ‘Ediacaran and the Anthropocene: poetry as a read of deep time’, how Hess’s reasons for using the word geopoetry are as important today as they were back in 1962:

Now that so much evidence is in, and no one disbelieves in plate tectonics any more (at least no one who does not also disbelieve in evolution), the term might be allowed to lapse, a marriage of convenience whose raison d’être has evaporated. But, as you can see, I don’t think it ought to be. I think that Harry Hess, like Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, or any other creative scientist, enters a mental space beyond ordinary analysis, where conjecture and imaginative play are needed and legitimate, and that this is a mental space shared with poets. But even more than this poetic license, I would say, the practice of geopoetry promotes astonishment as part of the acceptable perceptual frame. Geopoetry makes it legitimate for the natural historian or scientist to speculate and gawk, and equally legitimate for the poet to benefit from close observation, and from some of the amazing facts that science turns up. It provides a crossing point, a bridge over the infamous gulf separating scientific from poetic frames of mind, a gulf which has not served us well, nor the planet we inhabit with so little reverence or grace. Geopoetry, I am tempted to say, is the place where materialism and mysticism, those ancient enemies, finally come together, have a conversation in which each hearkens to the other, then go out for a drink.

Both Kenneth White and Harry Hess – men working in different fields, with different practical and aesthetic concerns – used the word in different contexts. But their intentions were the same – to create that crossing point, to open up the world; to improve as well as challenge, through imagination and astonishment, our relationship with the earth.

Tagged , ,