Climate Reading Group Tuesday 8th June 2021

Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis (William Collins 2019)

Linda France introduced Letters to the Earth which gathers submissions from over one thousand letters written in response to climate and ecological emergency.  The book is arranged in five sections: Love, Loss, Emergence, Hope and Action, with an introduction from Emma Thompson that suggests reading it might ‘turn your rage into action and your grief into love.’

Contributions from all ages and backgrounds, using poetry and prose set in the present and the future, prompted wide-ranging discussion with agreements and opposing views on the impact on reader’s motivation to take action. Some pieces with the most impact were short and powerful, examples of ‘less is more’.

‘False Alarm is a brief description of a scientist’s nightmare in which children are trapped in a burning farmhouse, ‘The situation is getting more and more dangerous. I can’t persuade the fireman to get going. I cannot wake up from this nightmare.’  Stefan Ransdorf.

Sea Change is a call to action and hope from 15-year-old ‘You may think you are simply one small positive droplet in an ocean of troubles …but with millions of others …that sea can make a change.’ Harkiran SS Dingra.

Young people were mentioned as a powerful force who argue for action around climate change linked with challenging sexism, racism and homophobia, often leading the way with podcast and social media. Yet ‘Letter to the dying’, is a disturbing letter written by a teacher who questions how we pass on the message of climate change to younger people without causing despair. ‘I can’t offer a child a future. That’s something that’s been taken from me.’ Isobel Brunin

The role of politics was included in a letter from MP Caroline Lucas who wrote ‘political failure is, at root, a failure of imagination.’  She calls on artists and writers to paint positive pictures of how the world could be.

A great strength of this book is the diversity in its many forms of writing.

A Break Up Poem ‘This is not a love letter to the earth/It’s a break up poem to the atmospheric protection of the ozone layer/to that last defence we say see you later….’  Niamh McCarthy sits adjacent to a letter to baby nephew, ‘with a conspiracy-mad dad’, from a gay uncle.  ‘We don’t shop at Waitrose writes from a working-class perspective ‘The Prime Minister in 2050 will be begging us chimney-sweep type people to sort it out….’ Simon Jay.

‘We are building a hospital’ by Claire Roussell demonstrates how writers and poets make choices about their metaphor, myths, time. ‘We have been sending smoke signals to the future people, asking them for advice on how to be good ancestors. We are building the walls from something our grandmothers said..’

Perhaps the pieces with less impact were those longer letters which read like a stream of consciousness; this raised the question if the book should have been more tightly edited.  Discussion on the design and production of the book considered if a more colourful ‘coffee table’ edition would have greater impact. Others felt it was more appropriate that a simple publication reflecting the democratic process of community arts, away from literary gatekeepers.   Although the contents might appear to be ‘preaching to the converted’, the letters reinforce the role of writer and poet to bear witness in our changing world, where the very presence of Letters to the Earth is a form of protest.

Other forms of action also featured in the discussion, including a local Extinction Rebellion where a woman sat alone with placards in the traffic in Jesmond, Newcastle.  Another where two sisters’ ecofeminist TED talk shows maths and crochet combined to create a coral reef installation, older and younger people together to increase awareness of climate change.

The book ends ‘Creation is the antidote to despair’ and website details for ongoing action: letterstotheearth.com.