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A tide of green ink: Can literature face the storm of climate change?

As floods batter Wordsworth's home, Boyd Tonkin looks at nature writing in a crisis

One flood does not make an apocalypse. Still, the worst-hit location of last week’s record-breaking inundations in Cumbria seemed almost too ominous to be true.

No figure has ever done more to bring a loving care for the natural world into the heart of British life than William Wordsworth. Now the poet’s birthplace, a handsome mid-Georgian house in Cockermouth, stands battered but more or less intact amid the mud and debris left by receding floodwaters. The swollen Derwent wrecked its garden wall, behind which Wordsworth happily played as child in the 1770s, and swept the iron gates clean away.

That same river, Wordsworth recalls in his autobiographical epic The Prelude, had made “ceaseless music through the night and day” of his childhood, and “with its steady cadence, tempering/ Our human waywardness, compos’d my thoughts/ To more than infant softness, giving me... A knowledge, a dim earnest, of the calm/ That Nature breathes among the hills and groves”. So the Derwent, to the father of rural romanticism a token of nature’s “calm”, suddenly looks more like a wild harbinger of disorder. Whatever the scepticism of climate scientists about single events, the likelihood of freakish weather has seeped deep into our cultural consciousness. It gives to the once moody but innocent British climate an edge of madness and peril. “It’s getting closer, faster and faster, whatever’s outside,” concludes Ruth Padel’s poem of global warming, “Slices of Toast”, with its messages of calamity from mud-slides in the Philippines and rising waters in Bangladesh yoked to domestic dread beside the “small waters/ of our particular rivers”. Padel links near and far: “this terrible readiness/ to worry about your own family first may be the least of our problems/ but I think ‘My daughter,/ my daughter, how is she going to deal with this?’”

Thanks to Wordsworth, his fellow Romantics and their heirs, literature in Britain in a way went “green” two centuries ago. Poets from John Keats through Thomas Hardy to Ted Hughes, and prose observers of nature from Gilbert White to contemporary writers such as Robert Macfarlane and Adam Nicolson, have chronicled the flora, fauna and landscapes of the world’s first industrial nation with a passion and alarm bred by an abiding sense of threat and an urge to protect. “Let them be left, O let them be left,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins about Inversnaid Falls on Loch Lomond, “wildness and wet;/ Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” By 1844, Wordsworth himself was protesting in verse against the building of the Kendal & Windermere railway (“Is then no nook of English ground secure/ from rash assault?”) that would bring trippers to the Lakes whose glories he had first broadcast. The apostle of untamed beauty as a balm for the soul aged into the first NIMBY activist.

Ruth Padel, shortlisted this week for the Costa poetry award for her verse sequence about her great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin: a life in poems, stresses that poems of the non-human world have often mourned and warned. “Right from the Industrial Revolution onwards,” she says, “nature poetry has been a place where poets could express their environmental concerns.” But Padel, whose commitment to the enriching otherness of nature will also feed her forthcoming novel Where the Serpent Lives, insists that this tradition rests on sensuous artistry and not sermonising in verse. “Literature, whether a poem or anything else, doesn’t work unless it’s literature first.”

As governments, scientists and campaigners gather for the climate-change summit in Copenhagen, an array of visual artists – from Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley to Sophie Calle - will address related topics in the eARTh exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, which opens next week. To corral writers into any such common endeavour usually proves tougher than herding cats, although Ian McEwan – a champion of the eco-conscious word – will contribute to the RA show.

When I interviewed McEwan about his 2007 novel On Chesil Beach, we talked of the problems that beset literature with any upfront “green” agenda. First, the trap of propaganda: “Fiction hates preachiness… Nor do readers much like to be hectored,” McEwan warned. Equally unpromising is a too-familiar dystopian tradition that thrills readers with flesh-creeping disaster scenarios of flood or fire: “We’ve had so many dystopias that we’re brain-dead in that direction”. However, McEwan did hold out some hope for climate-change fiction that would offer “something small and fierce… Maybe it needs an Animal Farm. Maybe it needs allegory. But if you’re going in that direction, you need a lot of wit.” McEwan did go in that direction, and has duly come up with a comic solution. His new novel Solar, due in March, will depict the misadventures of a burnt-out physicist, Michael Beard, who in the midst of mid-life mess stumbles on a clean-energy technology that might just save the planet. It will feature eco-emergency not as the didactic centrepiece but more of a “background hum”.

McEwan was one of the first writers to join the Arctic expeditions of Cape Farewell, a project led by David Buckland that since 2003 has brought scientists and artists together to witness the effects of climate change first-hand and reflect on it via their work. This summer, Cape Farewell also took a team to the Andes; among them was the Canadian novelist Yann Martel, whose Man Booker-winning novel Life of Pi lightly touched on environmental themes with its fable of assorted species marooned on a flimsy raft.

Robert Macfarlane, the writer and academic whose book The Wild Places took a modern vision of the strangeness and sublimity of nature from its traditional British habitat on moors and fells down into scruffy inner-city streets, runs a mile from the idea of arm-twisting green advocacy. He sees “the relationship between literature and environmental activism as governed, excitingly, by the law of unintended consequences” – as in the impact on many readers of the unspecified catastrophe that underlies Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. “There is a great deal of frankly low-grade pseudo-art and pseudo-literature currently being produced in the name of the biosphere,” Macfarlane says, “and the hokiness of this stuff lies in part in its eagerness to be seen to be ‘doing’ something”. For Macfarlane, just as for Ian McEwan, “We have a word for literature whose political outcome is pre-meditated, and it is propaganda.”

In poetry, environmental worries have long pulsed through the arteries of modern British verse. But its finest practitioners also shun that preacher’s voice. Rather, a nagging ache about the fate of beloved places and creatures throbs behind their work, as it has since John Clare recoiled from the cruel badger-baiters and rapacious landlords of 19th-century Northamptonshire.

Take Philip Gross’s The Water Table (Bloodaxe, £8.95), shortlisted for this year’s TS Eliot Prize. Its fiercely detailed attention to the ever-shifting moods of water – specifically, the Severn estuary – is shadowed by images of change that belong not only to the immemorial ebb and flow of tide but alarming new disruptions. So an elderly iceberg that has “jumped ship from the loosening Arctic” wanders up the Bristol Channel: “It wasn’t the last,/ just a message from lastness”. In common with gifted peers, such as Kathleen Jamie and John Burnside, Gross fashions a poetry of nature in which the “message” lies just as much in the rapt cherishing of wilderness and wildlife as in undercurrents of anxiety about a future that may ruin them.

Some cultural activists argue for a still more radical approach. This spring, Paul Kingsnorth - author of Real England - helped to devise the “Dark Mountain” project (www.dark-mountain.net). This root-and-branch challenge to the foundations of a culture of consumption aims “to question the stories that underpin our failing civilisation, to craft new ones for the age ahead and to write clearly and honestly about our true place in the world”. The Dark Mountaineers now plan a journal and an inaugural festival, next May, in Wales.

Kingsnorth, too, deplores the channelling of literary talent into eco-propaganda. “It gives us art and literature within what is effectively a limiting political framework,” he comments, “one where we have swallowed a campaigning narrative about ‘saving the earth’ and hung some well-crafted words on it.” The Dark Mountain crew prefer a more subversive shade of green.

They suggest that mainstream environmentalism shares a human-centred, “anthropocentric” stance towards the natural world. For Kingsnorth, orthodox greenery “puts its faith in technological wizardry, from electric cars to wind turbines; it refuses to countenance any hiccups in the ongoing liberal narrative of human progress.” In contrast, “The key thing we are interested in is re-examining the myths that underlie our civilisation”, above all “human supremacy and our supposed ability to control... what we call ‘our environment’.” But he does value close-up writing about nature – “oblique, powerful, detailed examinations of our relationship with the real, non-human world” – as a living antidote to the abstractions of ecological debate.

Can Poetry Save The Earth? runs the title of a new book by the Stanford University professor John Felstiner (Yale, £25). Unsurprisingly, the question remains open. Felstiner, more modestly, opts to present a selection of poetic masterworks about the natural world - from Wordsworth to Derek Walcott - and interpret them in the light of our eve-of-destruction mindset. Even if savouring great verse can do “next to nothing” about rising seas or shrinking forests, he proposes, then “next to nothing would still be something”.

Meanwhile, nature writing can teach us to stand still, to be quiet and pay heed: the foundations of any politics of rescue and reform. It was the enigmatic Marianne Moore, as Felstiner recalls, who came up with the ultimate definition of how poetry can join the mind to the world: by creating “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”.