Category Archives: Poetry

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

WELCOME
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

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

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 michael.mckimm@geolsoc.org.uk

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. www.hkw.de/anthropocene

ADRIFT
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. whatisadrift.tumbler.com

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. www.geolsoc.org.uk/climatechange

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. www.imagine2020.eu

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Excursion Five: The Giant’s Causeway Revisited

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

River Bush, Runkerry Beach, December 2012

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.

Looking west from Runkerry Point

Looking west from Runkerry Point

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.

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

Causeway Headlands, December 2012

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.

A subtle form of activism

“Ecopoetry is a subtle form of activism. Poetry is not perhaps the most obvious means of reaching a wide audience in the twenty-first century. But it is a vital form which retains health even in its contemporary marginality.  And this is what makes poetry so crucial, being one of the few forms it is difficult to make conform to corporate utility, its fundamental features acknowledging complexity and the difficulty of expression, rather than endorsing simplicity, instant apprehension, the superficially clear yet disposable soundbite. Poetry’s notorious instability of meaning, its protean shifting, its rhythmic soundings, resist swift dismissal. Poetry is a terrestrial channel in a digital age, grounded and grounding, set firmly in the soil of the real.”

Dr. David Borthwick, University of Glasgow
From the Introduction to Entanglements: new ecopoetry (Two Ravens Press, 2012)

The Anthropocene: Seven Abstracts from a Conference (Plenary)

 

We might consider this:
balloons of sulphur –

about the size of basket
blimps tethered

at fairs – balloons of burning
particles sent into

the stratosphere – or even
this: fixed artillery

firing sulphur from
the surface – I’m deadly

serious – sulphur to reflect
the sunlight, to cool

the climate, to give us time.
We could even try it

with a trillion
wisp-thin mirrors.

Or we might want
to start a nuclear winter –

we’d do this by releasing
particles of soot –

this is actually the cheaper
option, and less messy.

You don’t believe me.
Well I’m deadly serious –

this is where we are.
This we must consider.

 

 

 

 

The Anthropocene: Seven Abstracts from a Conference (Six)

 

Know the oceans
are being altered.
 
The nature of the seafloor
will change:
 
cream-coloured
calcium carbonate
 
dissolved to darker clays.


Change in sea water pH caused by human created CO2 between the 1700s and the 1990s, from the Global Ocean Data Analysis Project and the World Ocean Atlas

The Anthropocene: Seven Abstracts from a Conference (Five)

 

worked ground
worked ground                       engineered excavation
worked ground                       engineered excavation                       canal cutting
worked ground                       engineered excavation                       artificial pond/lake
worked ground                       engineered excavation                       rail cutting
worked ground                       engineered excavation                       road cutting
worked ground                       mineral extraction
worked ground                       mineral extraction                          quarry (hard rock)
worked ground                       mineral extraction                          pit (superficial deposits)
made ground
made ground                           engineered embankment                     flood defence embankment
made ground                           engineered embankment                     rail embankment
made ground                           engineered embankment                     road embankment
made ground                           engineered embankment                     reservoir embankment
made ground                           engineered embankment                     screen embankment
made ground                           waste tip                                 mine waste tip (colliery)
infilled ground (undivided): worked ground (undivided) and made ground (undivided)
infilled ground: worked ground (undivided) filled by mine waste tip (colliery)
infilled ground: pit (superficial deposit) filled by made ground (undivided)
infilled ground: pit (superficial deposit) filled by mine waste tip (colliery)
landscaped ground
landscaped ground                  landscaping for site formation
landscaped ground                  landscaping for recreational purposes

The Anthropocene: Seven Abstracts from a Conference (Four)


It’s as simple as sediment flux:
what we’ve moved from land into the water.

In 1855 the levees broke along the Yellow River.
Now it’s eighty feet above the floodplain.

As much earth and stone as used to make
the Great Wall of China has been displaced

for Hong Kong Island Airport.
Think about the movement of water around the earth.

Let’s cover the basics: deforestation, fallow lands,
tilling, terracing, irrigation systems, subsurface

water extraction, mining, transportation systems,
waterway re-plumbing, reservoir interception,

groynes, jetties, seawalls, breakwaters, harbours,
warfare that magnifies many of the above

for a duration that extends beyond the period
of combat, dissipation in the frozen north.

I’m afraid it’s too soon to tell the impact
of sea-floor trawling on the continental shelf.





The Anthropocene: Seven Abstracts from a Conference (Three)

Here we have a map of Swanscombe, east of London. Highlighted is the legacy of mineral extraction, infrastructure development and waste management. The blue areas show infilled ground – landfill sites, sand and gravel pits. Red is worked ground.  You can see the Swanscombe Chalk Pit here. When it closed in 2008 it had provided 100 million tonnes of chalk to the Northfleet and Swanscombe cement plants.  There are also the motorway and railway cuttings.  Bottom right is the cutting for the channel tunnel, opened in 2003.  Near the Thames – the green area – all that is made ground, embanked and raised. It’s actually mostly fields now, with new houses, and the odd industrial estate and freight harbour. Ignore the grey areas.

The Anthropocene: Seven Abstracts from a Conference (Two)


For me, it dates back to farming,
the first forest clearances by fire,
smoothing out the land we re-named fields.
Tillage, shifting cultivations.
Knowledge of crops and the intricate seasons.

Survivalists, stewards of the biosphere,
from nothing we grew. Slowly learned
to tame the kyne, surrounded our homes
with loose thickets of breeding-pens.
Walked behind manure’s bright stink

as we thought of what to plant
and for how long. Doused the soil.
Moved and changed it.
Barren swathes that would not root
until we cropped, re-cropped, dammed rivers,

sliced channels, thought of ourselves –
and where was the harm in that? –
as the mighty river’s arteries flowed past.


The Anthropocene: Seven Abstracts from a Conference (One)

I have written a sequence inspired by the abstracts from the conference The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time? held at the Geological Society in May 2011. I’ll post them up here over the next week.  There’s a highly recommended introduction to the Anthropocene on the BBC here, with links to a new World Service programme, which I also recommend.


Coal, oil, gas – let’s call these ancient,
rather than contemporary, sunshine.

Sunshine we sought with our intelligence
and drive: genies hidden in the earth.

Fossil sunshine, animal and plant long dead.
Seeping from the ground. Exposed in cliffs.

Not the sort we knew as heat on skin,
that gave us night’s black signal to rest,

day’s light permit to move and work.
That contemporary beacon for our crops –

contemporary as in constant, modern,
as in still here. Is it possible, a soft

landing for civilisation? We were smart.
How smart do we now want to be?