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Shape-changing labyrinth...

22nd June 2018

Shape-changing labyrinth…

When Lorna Howarth, stellar partner-in-publishing, asked if I’d write an article teasing out some of the ethical issues that underpin Butterfly’s Children, I found myself in a heart-sinkingly dead-end. For decades I’d been writing passionate, polemical words on social and ecological justice – mostly embodied as letters to the editor of ‘The Guardian Weekly’ – and now I couldn’t produce even a sentence.

I rummaged through my archive and realised that I’d said it all so many times I was starting to sound like a Bach fugue – same themes endlessly repeated backwards, sideways and inside out. Lorna and I tried patchworking some of the letters, and that didn’t work either. It felt expedient, not authentic; each letter had taken days to write, distilling the quintessence of an issue then honing to the GW’s sovereign and rigorous standards of journalism. I could no more ‘cut and paste’ than I could cobble together a couple of poems.

So I’ve decided to let a selection of letters speak from their own haecceity. All my work, factual or imaginary, addresses Bill McDonough’s prophetic question: “How do we love all the children of all species for all time?” Non-fiction is easier, since there are existing facts and concepts to build on. Fiction (my deepest love) is a leap without a parachute into a Stygian and shape-changing labyrinth. Yet once my eyes adjust, the darkness is lustrous, there are stars and galaxies inside…

Below are the original drafts of letters which have all appeared in ‘The Guardian Weekly,’ and are reprinted with permission from the editor.

19th April 2011


Alleluia for Bolivia and the grounded vision embodied in its new laws recognising the co-valency of humans and nature ( Bolivia enshrines rights of Mother Nature, 15 April). The Norway-Guyana forest deal (Greens bargain of the century, 8 April) is an exciting and necessary transition structure, but at root is still the old paradigm trying to ingest the new – have your paradigm and eat it? Bolivia is both radically challenging anthropocene economics, which is predicated on a terminally stupid race to see who can destroy Earth’s life support systems fastest; and giving birth to the ecozoic era, in which economics, technology and human aspiration are ancillary to ecological wellbeing, and where the manifold ‘services’ provided by the natural world – as tangible as oxygen and pollination, as tenuous as awe and delight – are factored at their true value into our cultural bedrock.

What mind-boggling sophistication keeps trees aloft, water sweetly flowing, and gets oaks into acorns and back out again? The genome of just one person, written, would fill 12,000 books. We share 70% of our DNA with bananas. A wheelbarrow of healthy soil contains more DNA – more intelligence? – than a human does. In a litre of seawater there are a million phytoplankton as beautifully and diversely patterned as snowflakes; these microscopic creatures generate more than half of earth’s oxygen, are not only major carbon sinks but also the basis of the marine food chain, and release dimethyl sulphide which shapes the physics of clouds and hence the weather. Plankton can’t build normal skeletons in our acidifying oceans; we’re destroying one of the countless, intricate, invisible matrices on which our lives depend.

We not only deny sentience and rights to the non-human world, but treat it as a cross between an abattoir, a sewer cum junkyard, and a bargain basement. Bolivia is signposting a way out of that psychotic narrative. The concept of a ministry of mother earth, with its own ombudsman, gives me goosebumps. Ombudsman is both gender- and species-offensive; how about ombudstree?

7th October 2014


Alleluia to Alison Flood’s celebration of Ursula K Le Guin (Elegant, popular and enduring, 26 September). I’ve been reading and rereading this remarkable woman with untrammelled delight for 40 years. There are so many gifts in her work; perfect pitch for language; endless curiosity and concomitant willingness to be wrong; humour; fine-honed, stellar imagination; the ecology – boundless, intricate, evolving – of her mythic universes, Earthsea and Hain; passion and compassion; a fierce commitment to justice and truth; and a grappling with fundamentalism, particularly patriarchy and war, in all its odium.

And like fireflies all through her work are the aphorisms; ‘When the word becomes not sword but shuttle’ (Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences); ‘If power were trust…’ (Tehanu); ‘They didn’t rule, they only blighted’ (City of Illusions ); ‘Belief is the wound that knowledge heals’ (The Telling); ‘…because he didn’t seek for dominance, he was indomitable’ (The Dispossessed); ‘the verb “to be rich” is the same as the verb “to give” ’ (Always Coming Home).

Ms Le Guin, it’s an honour to share a galaxy with you.

6th September 2016

Carnal inherence

Steven Poole’s thoughtful essay, Does it matter if Google is rewiring our minds (26 August), triggered multiple synapses, dendricities and detours in my biome.

It reinforced my visceral dislike of the on-line universe which I visit only when I must, fiercely resist its colonising of all aspects of our lives, and despair over the ecocidal costs it externalises onto the Earth whose wellbeing is inextricable from our own. I don’t know if this makes me an elderly Luddite or a canary in the mine.

David Abrams, in his splendid and seminal book The Spell of the Sensuous, asks how we have become so estranged from non-humankind (8 billion species and counting) that our discourse is unquestioningly predicated on enslaving and reifying the biosphere, drowns out all voices but the anthropocentric, and has forgotten ‘our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities’. He postulates that it was the development of the written word that first displaced this inherence, and sundered us from reciprocity and kinship with ‘the wild and multiplicitous other’.

I would argue that in allowing technology to rewire, mediate and define our experience, we’re not just further selling our souls and birthrights, but terminally turning our backs on an ecological literacy and wisdom essential to our survival. All of us – microscopic diatoms, great whales, Huon pines, sea eagles – arose from stardust. The blood in our veins differs by just one element (iron as opposed to magnesium) from the chlorophyll that animates green and lifegiving fecundity. We are the trees breathing, the rocks dancing. And as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘What we need in our time is to hear within us the sounds of the earth crying’.

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