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:
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?

Excursion 3: Dorset

How do you go about looking for oil?  This was the question posed to a group of PhD students from the BP Institute at Cambridge University this weekend, on a field trip in Dorset led by Dr Bryan Lovell, Dr Andrew Leonard and BPI’s Dr Andy Woods. Bryan had invited me to join them and it was a fascinating, inspiring trip, taking in Kimmeridge Bay, Lulworth Cove, the Wytch Farm Oil Field and Bridport Sands. It was great to be given such an insight into the complexities of reservoir access and production – the scientific, social and environmental factors – as well as to meet such a wide range of researchers. I’ll post a full report at some point – but for now here is a selection of pictures from the weekend.

Kimmeridge Clay Formation at Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset – a major source rock for hydrocarbons

On the cliffs to the left of this picture are Wealden Oil Sands

Bridport Sands.

A member of BPI makes calculations for a fantasy oil reservoir.

The nodding donkey at Kimmeridge Bay. The UK’s oldest working oil pump, it produces around 80 barrels of oil a day













The Crumple, Lulworth Cove – layered Purbeck rock strata folded by the collision of two continental plates