Karen McCarthy Woolf and Dominic Bury talk climate change, grief and decolonising ecopoetics

This is an excerpt from the article. Read the full article in Magma 72


KMW: I write to you from Hedgebrook, from a log cabin in the woods, next to a waterfall. A short bicycle ride brings me to a beach called Useless Bay. The houses are luxurious, American flags fly high and a bald eagle perches nearby. Driftwood adorns the beach: whole trees, uprooted and worn smooth. What strikes me as I meander on the shore is that I find only one piece of plastic debris. Everything else is organic: clam shells, sand dollars, baby crabs. Such a rare thing today, when marine litter and plastics pollution, alongside other anthropogenic hazards, are destroying ocean ecosystems at alarming rates. There are orcas here too, although I hear the pods are diminished. When I was writing An Aviary of Small Birds, in the aftermath of losing a baby in childbirth, I found it incredibly comforting to be on, in or near water. Personal grief gave way to a larger, environmental grief in the transition from that first collection to my second, Seasonal Disturbances, which explores the holistic ecology of water: as element, physical space, spiritual dimension and conduit and repository for humanity’s detritus, whether physical or emotional.

DB: We’re both staying in what sound like relatively pristine and idealistic landscapes. I’m in south Devon, volunteering at a college next to the river Dart, surrounded by moorland that although it has changed, doesn’t feel like it has much for many hundreds of years. I note this because it seems to me that people who feel that larger, more amorphous grief for the environment often feel the need to make trips to such landscapes in order to salve that grief. It allows them to imagine a time in which every landscape felt as untarnished. And the sea has always been one of these landscapes for me. I feel as if everything falls away when I am by it or in it. Every worry, every anxious thought. It somehow seems so inviolable, so constant. And yet, if you look deeper, the sea’s ecosystems are among those in in the greatest state of turmoil, the most vulnerable to climate change and the closest to collapse. And so, in this way, the sea acts as a metaphor for how we see the earth in general.

KMW: It’s what Timothy Morton terms a hyperobject, which in the world of object-oriented ontology is a thing so vast in its complexities and associated meanings, whether temporal, physical and/or political, we find it almost impossible to acknowledge. Jane Hirshfield captures this in her poem Global Warming, when she describes the moment James Cook’s ship arrives in Australia and the “natives/ continued fishing, without looking up./ Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended”.

Dom, are you still in South Devon? I’ve just been writing a long poem about trees and forests. I met E Annie Proulx at a festival in Poland, and she wrote me a little note that said “Dear Karen, poet of music and trees and climate change, what are trees?” Perhaps, for now, I’ll leave that question with you. Auden wrote, in his poem Bucolics II, that a “culture is no better than its woods”. Perhaps that’s another metaphor (via aphorism) to think about.

DB: Trees? I guess in the context of environmental grief they could be used as a tool for salving that grief? If you’re caught up, as a poet, with the natural world and its degradation. It’s important to look at how this grief prevents action being taken to prevent runaway climate change, acting as a barrier to people, environmental activists and writers fully facing the darkness of its possible outcomes. The problem is that, unlike normal grief, environmental grief isn’t processed by the body. It’s too amorphous, too conceptual to be worked through properly. With climate change there’s no closure or catharsis; grief goes on whirling around in the body, and until it’s processed properly, and people reach a level of acceptance around it, tangible action is hard.

And so, the question becomes, how do you work through this grief? Does the act of reading and writing poetry have a role? Does the use of image, of allusion, of the lyric allow you to access those deep places of the body where emotional transformation comes from? What about your experience of writing Seasonal Disturbances? Was it cathartic, or did you find the opposite, an endless reopening of the wound?

KMW: I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive; although what I realised was that Seasonal Disturbances sought to make a colossal grief intimate, whereas previously I was trying to make an intimate grief more universal. In the book there are many ideological reversals that play out through form and syntax which connect to satire. I think humour, however bleak, is another form of healing. When we laugh, we release. And this release is also a resistance, perhaps one that gets us closer to the final stage, acceptance. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is a good example: the abuse suffered by her mentally ill mother is situated against the same abuse that a corrupt humanity is inflicting on the Amazon. It’s interesting, as you say, Dom, to think about how image and the lyric might endow a capacity to access deep places of the body, through which transformation occurs. For me, I’ve found that this access is driven by sound rather than image; certainly with regard to trauma.

DB: Perhaps then, if a poem’s musical value has the power to transform or alter, this should be one of the first tools in an eco-poet’s tool box? We’ve talked before about how studies on climate change seem to become white noise when presented to the public, as if we have become desensitised. And when you couple this with the knowledge that change doesn’t occur from a place of logic, that it needs to be felt ravine-deep in the body, then this surely opens the door to the sonic power of poetry to undercut the logical, thinking self and go straight to the visceral, the gut. It’s much harder to become desensitised to song because it’s something we’ve felt for many thousands of years.


Read the full article in Magma 72.
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