/ 9 July 2019

Week of the Festival: Ledbury Poetry Festival, Ledbury, UK

The Hills Are Alive

The climate crisis, writing about places with ‘powerful personalities’ and being ‘witness to change and chance, and much loss’. (by Jean Atkin)

From the top of Midsummer Hill, I see the Malverns stretch north, a kinked chain, with the turrets of British Camp elbowed out to the west by the ferocious geology of 600 million years ago. I’m currently Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival and Malvern Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) – a wonderful chance to write in these places alongside poets of every age. The Troubadour project has encouraged a small mountain of writing about the hills of everywhere and anywhere, but also we are running writing workshops in the rare and extraordinary places around the Malverns AONB, often in places not usually open to the public.

It seems to me there are places which have such powerful personalities that they properly resist definition in human terms. All the same, I have to write about them from where and when I am.  Much of the time, my writing is a witnessing. A witness to change and chance, and much loss. I think many people now live in a state of great grief for the earth, all that us humans have done to it, and what will be left for our children and grandchildren. We are so personally implicated. It is impossible not to notice the loss of diversity, of particular species, of habitat. How now if I leave a window open into the dark, and a light on indoors, so few moths enter. How I haven’t seen peewits tumbling above the fields for years. I actually remember the last time. How woods I recall from a free-ranging childhood have been wiped away under concrete. It is impossible not to contrast the human experience of place now with that of the fairly recent past – still so often a tale of loss, of disappeared skills, sights and enriched experiences. I write about place, but I am implicated, human, so I have to write about place from the human perspective. In a time of global heating and crashing biodiversity, this matters. When I write in the skin of a place, a person, a creature – it is just an act of imagination and perhaps empathy. It can’t be exact; it might be miles off. Try harder. 

But my writing is also the witnessing of the immense remaining wonder in the world, sometimes in far and wilder places, but also in the nearby and the everyday. And in the same way I’m interested in our human stories and histories on the earth. We are all carbon, we are earth.

The mere act of walking puts us in rhythm. The heart pumps, the lungs bagpipe along. Walking is natural to humans, a pace we can sustain for many hours, over all kinds of terrain. It allows the mind to wander as freely as the limbs. I do a lot of writing in my head while walking, but also often carry a pocket notebook and a pencil, and scribble things down on damp and dog-eared pages. There’s a freshness to writing what you see, outdoors, in the wind, crouched in moor grasses on the Welsh border, trying not to knock over your coffee.

across the gorge, a nursery 
of dark firs gathered quiet

and good by the cliff’s white knee 

(From ‘Eglwyseg Day’, How Time is in Fields, IDP, 2019)

Walking takes me to places I can’t reach in a car. In 2011 I searched in the Galloway Forest for hill farms abandoned in the wake of the vast conifer forest development of the 1950s. I knew I was following the fading paths and lost fords of worn-out farmers, conscious even of the absence of Blackface sheep from the empty sheep rees (folds) no longer in use or maintained. We all walk, and write, on borrowed ground.

It’s intricate, this sheep ree, links and passageways

to fox them.  The ghosts of sheep like water

run down the face of Mulwhacher to pour

between the rock walls of the Buchan burn.

And the dykes, raddled then, with shearing dags and blood.

It could have been some other year’s cold August.

(From ‘The Absence of Sheep’, The Dark Farms, Roncadora Press, 2012)

It is fascinating to write about places created by people, places with special character. On one of our Troubadour Days, we invited a local school to visit the Cloud Hedge at Old Colwall, not normally open to the public. The Cloud Hedge dates back to the 18thcentury (at least), and is formed of a vast line of yews that has been cut loosely into nimbus-like curves over nearly 300 years. It’s huge, and truly strange. The children, aged 10 and 11, vanished into its depths, exploring, shrieking, writing.  Here’s an extract from the collaborative poem I helped them to produce. It’s full of wonder, and we performed it then and there for the Hedge. None of the words are mine.

The Cloud Hedge

has leaves like bubbles in air

has twisted faces that mutter in wind

The Cloud Hedge

is shady like a tent and stormy like the Channel

is a mysterious tunnel stretched like a witch’s broom

The Cloud Hedge

has branches that reach to sky like hands reach to the heart

is a dark sharp spike, a pin that blows in the wind

The Cloud Hedge

swallowed us like flies

never stopping to wait for us

The world offers such a dizzying wealth of inspiration that as a poet, I feel I’m trying to catch lightning in a bottle. There is the sense of the spoor of a poem, which I track, seeing its tail whisking away around a corner, a sense of bone and breath, catching that glimpse as you might paint it, tethering a shadow in words. 

The woods have many paths that peter out.

What don’t I see?

As if invisible, a deer

steps exactly 

through the yew tree roots

in front of me.

(From ‘To be above or below sound’, How Time is in Fields, IDP, 2019)

But we are where we are, and it’s the youngest people who will face the worst that climate crisis will bring upon us.  Poetry famously ‘makes nothing happen’ – but the actual context of W H Auden’s poem* is this:

‘For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making…
…it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.’

Poetry ‘survives/ a way of happening, a mouth’. Not for nothing are poets locked up around the world by authoritarian regimes. Poetry has power, is spoken, is heard. Poetry looks observantly at what there is to be seen. So I agree with Mary Oliver**, who said ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion’, and warned against looking without noticing. This is climate emergency. To save the earth will require devotion.

Like many poets, I’m thinking more and more these days about how to tackle in my poetry this huge thing in our lives, and how it affects both wonder, and witnessing. It’s always in the mind.

I pass burnt-back gorse and hawkbit, sour 

sea blackberries

take a walk on dog-pawed sand 

find high

tide billows a blue-striped stone all iron-bound 

a bladderwrack bank hisses high in my ear

and grass sways

into seaweed, stones go under

the coast is falling down

(From ‘estuary spell’, 2018, unpublished)


Jean Atkin is a poet, writer and experienced educator, based in Shropshire. She's worked on a variety of residencies in both England and Scotland and provides workshops and readings to schools, festivals and community organisations. She currently Troubadour of the Hills for Ledbury Poetry Festival, and Poet in Residence for Hargate Primary School in West Bromwich.