I’m not an academic. I’m not a scientist or a geographer. I can only give you the broad brushstrokes of an observer, a reader, a poet. Bear with me.
How do we see the Earth? Imagine her from space. Describe her. We’ll probably say mostly blue, random areas of green. We won’t mention the dry, barren yellows and browns, the grey edges of sea, the carnival of landfill. We may even forget to mention the white. And the white is shrinking. NASA data shows Greenland lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion. These two ice sheets contain more than 99% of the planet’s freshwater ice.
Some years ago, for a challenge, I wrote a poem based on an idiom. The one I chose was ‘skating on thin ice,’ which led me to reflect much more deeply about ocean pollution and global warming. I wrote a dark, emotional response to something I believed was still largely in the future. But since writing that poem – and it wasn’t so long ago – it’s become clear that the ice is already breaking up at an alarming rate and a dirty sea is washing away the distance between us and catastrophe. The poem, Something Nameless, begins
We looked beautiful in the half light
gliding like birds or angels across the bay.
It all looked beautiful.
We thought it would hold.
And we did think it would hold. We talked not of the immediate future but that of our children and their children. We were doing our bit, weren’t we?
We recycled our plastic, we turned the tap off when we cleaned our teeth, we ate less meat and, if we had room and time, we grew a few vegetables. While on our screens, glaciers collapsed into impossibly blue oceans, flood waters rose, and temperatures reached all-time highs. Otherwise, everything continued as normal.
A grey film creeps across the ice.
Our tracks fill with water; cracks appear.
Fish race below the surface weaving to stay with us.
There’s no going back; we keep moving.
By midday, the sun is high and burning.
The sea is rising.
A slip of scorched foam rides its surface;
there is the smell of sulphur.
As time has gone by, a creeping sense of unease has spread through the population. Changes needed to be made not just by us, the little people, but by the giant corporations. Sadly, unlike the skaters on the ice, everything seems to be moving impossibly slowly. In the supermarkets, virtually all our food still comes wrapped in plastic. Vegetables that could be grown here are flown in from places like Kenya, Thailand, and Argentina. Even after the blessed calm of lockdown where we saw possibilities of different existences, roads continue to be clogged with vehicles, and contrails once more sweep across the sky. So little seems to be happening that the disappearance of plastic straws, the use of recyclable coffee cups and reusable water bottles are probably the most tangible changes.
When I was little, my mother would wash freezer bags and peg them on the line to dry. She’d mend clothes, use the butter wrapper to line cake tins, put leftover marmalade from her plate back into the jar. We would walk to the shops and buy almost everything locally. Meat and fish were wrapped in paper and fruit and veg put in paper bags. We washed our milk bottles and took our pop bottles back each week to be reused. There was no cling film or kitchen roll; there were no plastic bottles of hand soap, no bin bags.
Look at us now.
Have we fucked it? Yes, we have. Is it too late to put it right? Yes, possibly, and we will inhabit a new reality to which, as a species, we shall need to adapt. But just maybe we should be thinking about our beautiful planet in relation to all species, not just ourselves. We shouldn’t be putting things right to maintain our own status quo but to promote and sustain all life.
In the distance, a drift of algae
defines the skyline; waves lap the ice.
Clouds of plankton billow with extraordinary light.
We keep moving.
Waves flood the ice beneath our feet.
A carnival of plastic crackles in the breeze.
Something pale and nameless
rolls upon the tide.
We also need to consider our children growing up in an atmosphere of hopelessness, their future uncertain, dark. Without hope, inertia takes over. Is it worth recycling our tins and bottles when China is accelerating their production of coal power plants? Is it worth turning off the tap when deforestation continues at an alarming rate in Africa and South America?
Yes, of course it is. It’s a collective endeavour and a new mindset. We are not isolated individuals. Our children are growing up with the knowledge that climate stability and the balance of eco-systems are vulnerable and need protection. But they need to feel empowered, and that their actions can make a difference.
Perhaps the key word is collective. To belong to a group, whether at a national or international level, such as Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace, or at a more local level – beach cleaning or tree planting – can remove the isolation of struggle in these bleak times; it can help to provide purpose and a more positive outlook. Even to collaborate on a creative project can create the impetus to be proactive and forward-looking.
Projects I have been involved in lately include a poetry film with writer and filmmaker Janet Lees, Blame the Fox, and my response through poetry to artist Richard Sharland’s collage Crucifix found in the thawing Arctic, in which he asks if we will find our faith too late. (See below.)
His point is an important one. We need to have faith in ourselves and our ability to move forward. There has never been a more crucial time to join with others, to make our voices heard.
It looked so beautiful in the half light,
we thought that it would hold.
Crucifix found in the thawing Arctic
At first glance, a palette of brown
and ice-blue describes the scene:
drenched wood, like the edge of a hull
surfacing below a white sky,
an abandoned moon.
Looking closer, we find traces of colour:
salt-washed remnants of greens and reds,
a snag of nylon rope
and fractures thin as swallows’ wings,
that inky blue.
We like the distressed look,
hang it on a nail above our fireplace,
a conversation piece, as the water creeps in
beneath our feet, flooding the carpet,
crackling in the sockets.
Outside, the long call of gulls
still conjures childhood:
voices swimming on waves of sea-blown light,
the spinning sails of plastic windmills,
buckets of desperate crabs.
They say that when the sea disappears,
leaves fish pitching and flapping in the air –
air like a long breath drawn
but never exhaled –
you have five minutes, that’s all.
We remember the woman that ran across the sand
so fast she was almost falling,
her child digging small troughs and runnels
as the great wall of water
You can’t say we weren’t warned.
We had a second chance but didn’t listen.
Now no one’s watching,
the child lost, the Earth tilting, its seas
slopping like vinegar in a jar.
Jane Lovell is an award-winning poet whose work focuses on our relationship with the planet and its wildlife. She has been widely published in journals and anthologies in the UK and US. Her publications include ‘Metastatic’ (Against the Grain), ‘One Tree’ (Night River Wood), ‘Forbidden’ (Coast to Coast to Coast), ‘This Tilting Earth’ (Seren Books) and ‘The God of Lost Ways’ (Indigo Dreams Press).
CALL TO ACTION: Encourage your children to engage with the planet and its wildlife. Teach them that every life, however small, matters. Give them a sense of wonder! Go out at dusk or dawn, listen to the birds and watch for bats and other wildlife… you never know what you might see! Grow currant bushes from sticks and pea shoots from dried peas. Make fat balls out of nuts and dried fruit. Go out foraging in local hedgerows. Visit a wildlife rescue centre. Create an insect hotel from stones or bricks with twigs and dry leaves. Build a den. Teach them that they are part of a living, breathing world and they have the power to do amazing things!