sitting outside writing

Writer in Residence

Karen Lloyd Writer in Residence page

The essays and poetry I’ve been concerned with over recent years - and will continue to write and investigate under my residency with The Future Places Centre - uses language to extend and develop ideas about seeing in relationship to the environment and the non-human communities that are part of those environments. Those same communities may, for example though, have few – if any – advocates speaking on their behalf, or in support of their right to exist.

In the past, my writing has investigated such things as ‘communities’ of birds on the edge of extinction here in the UK. Who, I wonder, speaks for the wildlife that has largely disappeared from our landscape under the ‘progress’ of agri-business? The nightingale, the curlew - the former hanging on by a thread. And yet even though we have this knowledge – and we have it by the bucketload - essential and specific habitats (scrub, in the case of the nightingale: silage fields in the case of the curlew) are being cut out from under the last bird’s wings. Now, under legislation being considered by the Conservative government to reduce ‘complications’ in planning laws – and to speed up what they refer to as progress – endangered communities of adders and newts would cease to be protected. Wildlife groups and individuals who ‘see’ this, are outraged; outraged and deeply, deeply upset. Aldo Leopold, the American hunter turned major conservationist and writer on nature, wrote ‘One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.’ Indeed; many of us do.

We live in a world of wounds, but we also live in a natural world that is vibrant, remarkable, extraordinary, and in more ways than we really know, intensely enriching to human life. Yet even now, and with battalions of technology at our disposal, we are not always able to understand exactly how the natural world works. Take it from me though, without a working natural world, it’s curtains for us anyway.

But technology and data have provided some extraordinary ways for us to ‘see’ differently, and more clearly. Look at the British Trust for Ornithology web page showing the movements of cuckoos between the UK and Africa (a cuckoo named Clive, another Attenborough) and what you have is a bunch of data that allows us to ‘see’ the otherwise unseeable. This applies to just about any species these days. I’ve even heard they can attach data loggers to wasps!

On one of my research visits to Hungary – accompanied by my friend the wildlife artist Szabolcs (Szabi) Kókay - we went to see a field; yes, just an ordinary field. But this was the precise field in which the last sighting in Hungary – one of the last anywhere in the world for that matter – took place of the now believed extinct slender-billed curlew, cousin of the larger Eurasian curlew. And Szabi had seen it here and had later borrowed a museum specimen with which he’d made what I came to refer to as an ‘extinction pilgrimage’. Szabi took the specimen back to the field in order to paint it in situ; in the birds context, in other words. And here the story clarifies. Although the slender-billed curlew is still believed to be extinct, scientists harvested isotopes from museum specimens such as the one Szabi had borrowed, and when they studied those minuscule, otherwise ‘unseeable’ isotopes – dust – in other words, they found tiny amounts of vegetation from the bird’s breeding range which also allowed them to see that they’d been looking for the bird in the wrong places all along.

I have just returned from a bike ride along the River Kent, during which I was compelled to stop and listen for a few moments to what I thought might be – just might be – the call of a goshawk. I peered up into the tree, but as usual with the trees in full summer foliage, I couldn’t ‘get’ the bird. I took my phone of my pocket, opened the Collins Bird app, searched for goshawk, and there it was in playback, the dementing call of a juvenile begging for food. (“Aw mum!”) In that situation, technology brought something to life for me that would otherwise have gone unknown. Sometimes I hate my phone; it’s constant ‘begging’ for attention. On this occasion though, what it helped to me get at was a certainty.

I should return to the job in hand. So what am I going to do with all this language I’m going in search of – mine and that of other writers. Some of it will I hope provoke us to think about what Simon Armitage has called the “background hum that won’t go away;” the environmental crisis that looms large on every horizon – whichever way we turn. But I believe that language can and does (of course) exist as a bridge between science and data and knowledge and experience. Above all, language has the capacity to lift us up; to raise our hope for better things and to hold that hope up firmly against the light. Like this, and in relationship to one another – in community – writers and readers can together harvest fragments of knowledge and experience that somehow allow us to look better, and to see differently.

This is the kind of work I want to produce and go in search of – whether in the fields or the inter-tidal zone, in the high fells or in the uncertain territories of progress, so that we are for moments at least able to suspend or at least to see differently the darkness. To walk in the light of a world we almost forgot how to love.

Poems for the Anthropocene

  • Genesis

    And on the seventh day, God sat back in his Ikea Poang chair, lit a cigarette and blew smoke rings that travelled miraculously in sequence across the skies...

  • YouTube

    We will take our devices to the fields, press play, watch lapwings tumble over scrapes of nests and hear them irritate the sky, capitulate to crows, become specimens of lost archives on temporary display...

  • Pond Frogs, Lake Prespa

    Out in the darkness a female frog crams her shambolic self into the meeting place of ground and wall. She is a car wreck of a frog...