In the Poetry Please slot on Radio 4 at the start of this month, the writer Owen Sheers shared a fine selection of poems that touch on humanity’s relationship with nature and which speak particularly powerfully to us at this moment, when we’re in the midst of an ecological crisis of our own making. One of his choices was So the Peloton Passed, by Simon Armitage, who on his appointment as Poet Laureate in May said it was “absolutely essential” that poetry respond to the issue of climate change.
Sheers told his host, Roger McGough, that the climate crisis was something “all storytellers need to address, because on one level where we find ourselves is the result of a failure in narrative, in storytelling”.
Novelists, though, have recently been responding to a planet in peril, as Robert Macfarlane pointed out in an essay last weekend for The Guardian on the rise of “the new animism”:
A turning back towards “nonhuman interlocutors” has also occurred in recent fiction where “land” is encountered as sensate, memorious and even intentful, rather than a static stage set for human actions. From Australia there is the towering body of work – both novels and essays – by the lands-rights activist and indigenous writer Alexis Wright, which explore “special acts” of rights-giving to nature in both modern law and “ancestral stories”. In Britain, I think of Daisy Johnson’s dazzling Fen and Everything Under, Max Porter’s Lanny, Fiona Mozley’s Elmet, Zoe Gilbert’s Folk, Richard Skelton’s Beyond the Fell Wall, and Laura Beatty’s quietly brilliant Pollard and Darkling, in which trees grow through human lives in shaping ways.
Macfarlane also cited the work of Amitav Ghosh, who has tackled environmental catastrophe in both non-fiction (The Great Derangement) and fiction (Gun Island), and Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which has haunted me since I read it back in June.