Blog

  • Singing Science

    Writing with scientists and songwriters from Devon and beyond in the beautiful surroundings of Dartmoor is a memory with some wonderful contrasts. Balanced against the somewhat negative science messages of how climate change will be detrimental to the natural world, are an array of inspiring and positive stories of how people are joining together to make a difference. In all of this, there is a stark conflict between how we engage with talk of global changes, compared to the emotion that is generated from an individual character's tale. Even the weather joined in, changing our mood from a hot summer’s day writing under nearby trees, to a subtly darker spirit that came with torrential rain and composing in shadowy corners. I feel very lucky that life enables me to pursue my dual passions for mathematics and music, but I learned a great deal watching scientists and songwriters questioning each other and developing songs that combined real science messages with real people and real life. 

     What struck me most was that the song-writers had a great desire for new inspiration, not that they are lost for ideas, but somehow the themes associated with science research, and even individual words, sparked off their imagination in new and exciting ways, as they wove their chosen morsels of climate science into some beautiful songs. Someone asked Peggy Seeger, at a recent Q&A session in Sidmouth, why aren’t songwriters writing protest songs anymore? Well I think the answer is that they are! They’re singing out loud and strong about many important topics, and they’re hungry for further knowledge to inspire their work, but like all the previous “greats”, we just need to seek them out and help them to the stage.

    Rosie Eade

    Senior Scientist at the Met Office, free-lance singer-songwriter and Climate Stories Songwriting Lead

    @folk_pixie

  • From Beetles to Bananas

    Creative Writing Workshop at Nethercott House, Farms for City Children, Iddesleigh, Devon July 19th 2018

    The moorland glowed behind me more yellow than green, dried out, hot. With the Sat Nav ‘recalculating’ I headed downhill between hedgerows along narrowing lanes. Somewhere, close by, twenty nine children, waited. And then, in the shade of trees, I saw the sign. I’d found ‘Nethercott House’ for our ‘Climate Stories’ Workshop.  

    The charity ‘Farms for City Children’, founded by Sir Michael and Lady Morpurgo, offers residencies at Nethercott House for school children to experience farming and living in the countryside first hand. It provided a unique place for a ‘Climate Stories’ team, myself as creative writing lead, and Met Office and University of Exeter scientists Kate Baker, Sarah Baker, Jess Collins, Felicity Liggins and Tom Powell, to join pupils from The Marine Academy, Plymouth. Inspired by our previous arts/science Dartington workshops, our aim was to connect a rural setting with climate change as a way to promote discussions and writing by young people.

    Farm manager Tim Rose, Education Officer Mel Slater, and teacher Georgina Brunning helped us organise the afternoon. With clipboards, pens and paper we split into groups and settled in specific areas: by the dried up pond, in the Victorian walled garden and under a canopy of foliage in a ‘forest’ area. As I headed away from the house a boy rushed towards me. ‘Look!’ We watched a luminous beetle, the size of a pin head, climb up his arm before it flew off. Wide eyed he said, ‘I’ve never seen one like that before.’ There were other significant and poignant moments during our afternoon that prompted writing about insects and their decline. Among snap dragons, bees and butterflies discussions arose with Jess about the Earth being like a garden that needs nurturing. One poem linked the passage of time in light years through sunflowers and stars. As the day grew hotter other thoughts emerged on water supplies, rainfall and drought with Sarah and Kate.  

    Franklin R. Rogers writes about poets and painters entering a state of creativity called ‘the meander field’; the farm setting certainly seemed to provide the children with a space conducive to creativity. A girl said, ‘I can write a poem about a lavender bush – I’m sat by one and I can smell it!’ Connecting to the senses proved vital to the writing. Conversations about carbon dioxide, green house gases and the historical clearing of land were ongoing in the forest area with Tom. Felicity, our ‘roving scientist’ answered ‘pop up’ questions and, in our ice-cream break, demonstrated her show stopping ‘Cloud in a bottle’ experiment when there were no clouds in the sky. Working outside a classroom proved liberating. Perhaps Nethercott offered freedom to write in a similar way to Frank O’Hara who drafted his ‘lunchtime’ poems while strolling around New York. In an environment we were inspired by and were active in we could fire up imaginations, question our ideas and through looking and talking usefully fuel the spontaneity and authenticity of the writing. One pupil talked about how he couldn’t bear for trees to be cut back. Plants should be left to grow and find their own way and spread their roots. Another asked, ‘Do you know the banana plant is a herb?’ Most of us didn’t. Someone connected rosemary to a Chinese take-away meal eaten just before coming to Nethercott. This lead to writing about the food chain, sustainability, transporting food, and looking after cows, pigs, sheep, horses, chickens kept on the farm.

    Writing poetry allowed us to pause, really look, consider subtle change and the language we use around climate change. Some collaborated on their writing while others used the opportunity to express how precious such things as birdsong, trees and wild flowers were to them on a personal level. Kate Baker commented: ‘It was great to work with young people, who are not afraid to ask lots of questions and to be naturally curious. Poetry and creative writing were used as a powerful tool for them to express their enjoyment of being in the countryside, a very different setting to their normal city lives.’

    Now, as I edit the children’s writing for the ‘Climate Stories’ anthology into a collaborative poem where the children’s voices and words celebrate and analyse the past, present and future of the natural world, I wonder if we could repeat this thought provoking, productive and memorable afternoon again. There’s no doubt being away from a traditional classroom in a heat-wave helped drive discussions and motivate writing. In the magical setting of Nethercott where, on the horizon, moorland meets sky, something very special happened as the children read out some of their poems. We were united in wanting to imagine and find ways to care for and protect the countryside from climate change and, as the dinner bell rang out, a collective awareness shone through – there’s no time to waste.

    Dr Sally Flint

    Dept of English, University of Exeter

    July 30th 2018

  • Shells in Gardens

    For a few years now, I have increasingly thought that art could be a powerful medium for science communication, capturing the minds of people who will not absorb the messages of traditional science communication for whatever reason (not interested, not typically seen, writing too dense or full of jargon). With a song in a pub pulling on the heartstrings, the consequences of not taking climate action may finally sink in. Certainly the scientific urgency means it’s time to try and communicate about climate change in whatever way possible. 

    I was therefore delighted to join the ‘Climate Stories’ program and excited about having a go at using art to try and communicate climate. When I was younger I did some singing and drama and a lot of music; I continue to play music but mostly my creative side goes into my science, with free time spent outdoors. So it was a little daunting to start thinking like an artist again! 

    The three days we as scientists spent together with some local artists at Dartington Hall in Devon were tremendously enjoyable, and not just for the inspiring grounds and good food and weather! Within a few minutes of starting the poetry session, discussions revealed the fascinating research tales we had and it started to become clear that there would be some fantastic climate stories we could show. Poetry also presented my first challenge; show don’t tell. For years, writing scientifically has taught me to focus on telling the reader what the data means. As scientific data is often complex and not easy to understand, as the expert in it, it is helpful to be very clear about what it shows to prevent misunderstanding. Instead, in the creative arts, the power of a piece can be a little hint, showing the reader an event or object and letting them take away their own message. It was certainly a change of mindset for me, and I do still often end up erring on the side of telling, but I certainly try to avoid lecturing.

    Next, printmaking. Inspired by the huge banner depicting a river the group before had made, we eagerly started planning a series of prints that could be animated. It was relaxing to be making something with the hands, until time ticked by and we had to rush to get all the prints done in time! Seeing the film made of all the printmaking together at the end of the workshop revealed, incredibly, just how much environmental education could be encapsulated by simple prints.  

    Theatre took us out discovering the gardens at Dartington Hall and really for me, on a journey of the senses. In such beautiful settings I realised how I could tell the story of the changeable ocean using the garden as a metaphor. For successful communication, relating to your audience is key, and of course, many of the things we talk about in climate science are hard to understand or relate to. Again, it was a joy to see the different ideas everyone came up with, and I think we all learnt a lot from each other. Indeed, the workshop was a great chance to meet scientists from different disciplines; despite working in the same city, it can feel hard to forge links. Over a shared love of communication, I’m sure many future productive relationships have been born. 

    Finally, songwriting. I was initially nervous (it seemed a puzzle for me where to start!) but we were taught simple techniques, and somehow, two hours later, our two groups produced two (in my opinion) great songs! So it may not always be that quick and simple, and I went along to the songwriting community workshop weekend to find out. This time, two partial songs, but some great ideas and discussions with songwriters interested in singing about climate change. I think the power of a song cannot be underestimated, but what really struck me here is the attention to detail of the songwriters I worked with in combining the words, rhythms and music into something magical. Of course, as a scientist, attention to detail is really important, but I tend to move on when something works and is technically right as I have so much to do. Instead, the tinkering really turned the existing message into something powerful and memorable. 

    I’ve also really enjoyed revisiting drama and poetry in the community workshops. Showing teenagers the shells that I use data from, and watching them create a beautiful piece of theatre using them, reminded me of the power of romance in communication. They told the story of an old woman who lost her husband to sea and who collected shells from the shore to connect to him, recollecting stories of the past from the shells when asked by the local youths. A powerful, emotive, piece of drama, it reminded me that people care about stories about people. As earth scientists, we don’t do this. Instead, as science communicators, we can present the healthy love we could have for our planet and all its species, to inspire moving away from the toxic relationship we have now. 

    At another community workshop, working together with another scientist from the Met Office and an English literature student from the University of Exeter, I was delighted to co-write a poem. This time we merged our interests and ideas to create a powerful tale about the inequality in accessing drinking water across the planet, worsened by climate change.  Throughout the project the power of collaboration has been truly inspiring. Together, we have co-created great pieces of work, supported each other, listened with awe and praised, and inspired each other to new creations, and reminded ourselves of the critical importance of our core science day jobs. It feels like a great model for productivity and I am looking forward immensely to seeing the outputs of the project brought together on the 19th September at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. 

    Dr Freya Garry

    Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Geography, University of Exeter

  • Are you sitting comfortably?...

    Here's a little Climate Story about heatwaves, and the process of scientific inspiration.

    Once upon a time, almost exactly 15 years ago in fact, a Climate Scientist went with his wife to a City of Towers in the Duchy of Tuscany, to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. It was an idyllic setting - the City of Towers had not changed in the 10 years since they had visited it first on their honeymoon. They arrived late one golden summer evening and found the Vernaccia white wine they had at their aperitif still deliciously crisp, the ice cream from the legendary gelateria in the main square still luscious, and the view from their bower in their favourite hotel still breath taking.

    But the next morning they discovered one thing had changed: the heat.

    It was hot. It was so hot the wine got warm before they could drink it, the ice creams melted in the time it took to carry the cones out of the gelateria into a shady spot round the corner, and the view was hidden by the shutters that had to be kept closed all day to keep temperatures within toleration indoors. The City of Towers only came alive at night, when temperatures dropped to a bearable level. Everyone was exhausted by the heat, tormented by the need to find relief from the physical feeling of oppression and jeopardy generated by the extreme weather. The Sun had become the enemy.

    What was happening to the world? Everywhere in Europe people were suffering. Heat extremes were reached in places singularly unadapted to deal with those temperatures. Pictures began to emerge from hospitals across the continent, showing the continent's Elders succumbing to the heat, and those already vulnerable through illness having to contend with yet another threat. Summer - holiday time, fun time, family time, relaxation time, had become deadly.

    One evening the Climate Scientist and his wife emerged from their refuge in the dark into the hot night and made their way to a restaurant on the City walls. They sat down at a table looking over the darkening Tuscan hills, and drank their Vernaccia perhaps a shade too quickly to keep it cool. They toasted the ten happy years they had spent together, and fell to talking about the changing world. And the Climate Scientist began to muse: "I wonder if it's possible to figure out whether the odds of these kinds of extreme heat events have increased due to climate change. How might I go about working that one out?"

    And at that moment, a wondrous Transformation came over the Climate Scientist: for the rest of their stay, only half of him was present in the City of Towers. The other half had flown off into the Realm of Mathematics, where he spent several months working out the solution to his question, posed in the evening heat of that Tuscan holiday.

    The result was a seminal research paper, published in Nature in 2004, marking the start of what has since become a new branch of climate science: extreme event attribution.

    The Climate Scientist in question is of course Peter Stott, and the writer of this post was with him that evening in San Gimignano.

    And 15 years have elapsed since that murderous summer, and here we are again...

    Pierrette Thomet

     

    Stott, P. A., Stone, D. A., Allen, M. R., Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003 . Nature, 432, 610-614. This paper has been cited over 650 times and is now receiving more citations per year than any previous year since it was published in 2004.

  • Bringing the Arctic to Exeter

    The morning I spent at the RAMM museum in Exeter with a group of writers and scientists was an exhilarating experience. I had chosen a display of exhibits from the Arctic, fascinating artefacts from the peoples who make this frigid world of tundra, sea and ice their home. I was particularly taken by a wonderful little model sled, with a miniature hunter and his seven tiny wooden dogs searching for seals. There were other exhibits too, including a set of throwing stones, a beautiful sealskin coat and an Inuit canoe. I took two groups of writers to visit the display, where we talked about our changing world and our hopes for the future. After each visit, we returned to a room at the back of the museum to write. Sally Flint, our tutor, gave us a few expert tips to bear in mind, including taking care to think about our point of view.

    I’ve been fascinated by the polar regions ever since I came across a book at school of Herbert Ponting’s evocative black and white pictures of Robert Falcon Scott’s exhibition to the South Pole. Last year I travelled by sea from Aberdeen to Spitzbergen, and was lucky enough to watch a polar bear mother and cubs resting on a floe and learn from experts about the ecology of the bears and the threats they face from the diminishing ice. This session in Exeter deepened my polar experience further, as my cohort of writers and I, the scientist, responded in our different ways to this chilly landscape and these resilient people.

    There was also my own poem to think about. Sally was not letting the scientists get away with taking it easy on the writing front. Leaving the Arctic display, one of my group wanted to take a detour by the massive stuffed polar bear who stands defiantly alongside a menagerie of other exotic animals collected by the curious Victorians who founded the museum. And it was this moment of serendipity that helped fix a problem with the story I was trying to tell. I realised I needed to change my point of view, from hunter to hunted, from man to bear. I wanted disaster at the end of my little narrative but I also wanted an upturn in fortunes. A hungry bear finding meat gave me a grim happy ending.

    Before we dispersed, we listened to the work we had created in such a flurry of creative energy. It was a gloriously diverse collection and I could really see how this group of experienced writers had brought their skills and insights to bear on the task Sally had set us. We scientists also had our own work to read out. I thought it belonged with the others just fine.

     

    The Hunter Hunted

    by Peter Stott

     

    She watches,

    eyes narrowed against the polar sun,

    nose flaring for a scent,

    twin cubs leaning against her massive yellowed flanks,

    a man,

    skidding across the ice,

    two dead seals lolling on the sled behind,

    seven panting dogs straining against the ropes up front.

     

    Her offspring are too hungry,

    the floes at sea too far apart,

    the gaps too wide,

    to hunt.

    She’s too tired

    other than to watch

    for luck to change.

     

    A crack,

    like a pistol shot, 

    panicked yelps, a bark of man,

    and the perfumed smell of terror,

    as the watched

    dive headlong through the newly opened fissure

    from white to black.

    She stirs.

    There’s meat

    and they need to eat.

  • If we had to start from scratch, who could find flint and make an axe?

    I certainly wouldn’t be able to. I realised this whilst I was looking at a wall of them with Jess Collins in Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. On the 16th of June, we stood there for five minutes, the timeline of the Earth’s evolution surrounding us, and getting existential.

    Coming to ‘Climate Stories’ at the RAMM was a brilliant excuse to pick up my pen and paper after a hectic third term at University. For a few moments, I could slow down and broaden my tunnel vision to the big, beautiful picture that is our planet.

    Peter, Jess and Katie had each chosen an exhibition to show us and talk about. After my conversation with Jess, I wrote ‘Survival Kit’ for the future generations who will live on Earth. Joining Katie in the bug room, she reminded me that a bee dies after it stings someone. I had completely forgotten this and realised I could add a new branch of narrative to a poem I had previously written.

    Although I ran out of time to look at Peter’s choice, those who visited the sleds and the Arctic Exhibition wrote some beautiful work by the end of the session. Returning to the RAMM for only the second time, I feel like the poetry I created after this workshop has rekindled the appreciation I had for museums when I was younger. They are buildings of free and invaluable education on our doorstep.

    Working with ‘Climate Stories’ has set off a spark. The workshop was a reminder to me that inspiration is everywhere, but it only shows itself once you start looking. I now feel excited and compelled to research past my humanities degree and talk about my values and vision of an ideal world.

    Philippa Uden

    Philippa took part in the Creative Writing public engagement workshop run by Sally Flint on Saturday 16th June at RAMM in Exeter