I was recently asked why, having lived so long in England, I still write so much about Ireland. It’s a question I’ve been thinking over for a while, and one I might turn on its head slightly – why do I find that when writing ‘about’ Ireland, by which I mean the north Antrim coast, do poems come together much more easily and satisfactorily? There’s probably a psychologist who will tell me there’s an obvious scientific answer, bound up in childhood and memory. Something to do with word association, perhaps, in the way that when I think ‘coast’ I think of the black basalt rocks and the waves at Runkerry, less than a mile from where I grew up. When I think words like farm and field, cow and sheep – no matter where I am – these words bring to mind this place, Carnkirk, where I am writing today. The word lane conjures a particular image, of a lane which runs straight towards the cliff at the end of our road, with a dark green mohican down its centre. In an undergraduate essay on Seamus Heaney I likened it to a centrifugal force, in that no matter how far Heaney travelled in life and in verse, all his poems were spun from and constantly pulled by the force of his childhood farm in Co. Derry, the heart of his ‘word hoard’.
On Saturday, an unseasonably mild day, with the rain holding off but the world a numb grey bleed of ocean and sky, we came at the Causeway from the west round Runkerry Point. This is true basalt country, rocks tumbling black and slick towards the sea as if just forged. Bulbous in places, jagged in others, they sit on the beach like the Grand Causeway’s truant cousins, un-uniformed, laid back, really more fun. They are to me more believable as lava. I always loved the way the heat ran through them on a summer’s day and you could believe they might just pop like bubbled tarmac. We walked around the blustery headland, where I noticed what I never had before: large erratics on the edge of the cliff or in the fields, where sheep spread themselves out in the fields, their rumps inked red. The headlands lay before us, four or five, each reaching further out in the still water: Portnaboe, the humped Stookans, the Grand Causeway low in the water, then the Organ, and finally the Chimney Tops. It’s well worth it, if you visit the Causeway, to take these coastal paths and get a proper look at the place.
I officially started this project – to write new poems addressing the geology of climate change – in June, but really my thinking around it dates back over a year, to a talk given by Dr Bryan Lovell of Cambridge University, then President of the Geological Society. Bryan has been my advisor and supporter throughout the project, and if it was not for his enthusiasm and belief I doubt I would ever have got started. He spoke that day about an event which happened 55 million years ago, when over a billion tonnes of carbon was dumped into the atmosphere. The temperature of water at the bottom of the ocean increased rapidly from 11 to 15 degrees centigrade, oceans became more acidic, with less oxygen, and the extinction of life that followed in the oceans and on land marked the beginning of a new geological epoch (the Eocene). The message is a simple one: we humans are now repeating that carbon dump, but on a larger scale. For all the climate change deniers, here is evidence in the geological record about the effects of carbon on the atmosphere and the planet. What’s happening now has happened before, but this time we’re responsible.
This is the piece of scientific fact – the real geology of climate change – that I’ve been worrying away at for most of this year. This is what, when I set out on this project, I really wanted to recast in poetic form, to try and get this message across in a new way. But it’s been nothing but stops-and-barely-starts, failed sonnets, some terrible haiku. I’ve tried to make it work, but it won’t. The problem was how to write a poem (another question might be why write such a poem, for which I’d begin by referring you to this post) that worked all of this science and scientific omen into it while retaining the subtlety and condensed-ness of the poetry I like to read and write. Maybe the science of it was just too big for poetry. Maybe there’s no way to do away with the scientific words without losing the science. I just couldn’t find a way in.
But then a few weeks ago I was looking in the new issue of Earth Science Ireland and came across an article on climate change by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, in which they refer to the event 55 million years ago. They mention, however, something I had not been aware of before: that the influx of carbon “may have been triggered by massive volcanism associated with the opening of the North Atlantic (and so, locally, the Giant’s Causeway).” I wouldn’t say this was a eureka moment, but it was certainly one of those exciting ones that I think most writers of poetry must feel: a way into a poem that comes from an area you know and know well. I’ll just have to see what happens.