Hywel Griffiths explores how creativity from Wales can help us tackle the climate crisis
The people of Wales face many environmental challenges – flooding on the coasts and in the river valleys, pollution from past and present industries, the risk of landslides on the slopes of the valleys around former mining communities and the crisis of the biodiversity. These and other, less visible challenges, such as microplastic pollution, are of course exacerbated by the biggest challenge of all: the climate crisis. Sea level rise, more frequent extreme events – rainfall, storms, floods, heat waves, drought and wildfires – are all likely to affect us in ways that are increasingly easy to imagine. Our landscapes are continually changing at different scales, but they are now changing faster than we have experienced before, and will be for the foreseeable future.
These environmental challenges are intrinsically linked to socio-economic challenges. Our landscapes and environments are key aspects of our appeal to tourists from outside Wales, but they also provide us, as Welsh citizens, with essential ‘ecosystem services’. These are the places we visit to walk, run, cycle, reflect, recharge and be inspired. To some extent, this has always been the case; we have been inspired by these dynamic landscapes for centuries. Some of our early stories were inspired by our changing landscape: the myth of Cantre’r Gwaelod is surely the best known example, which tells the story of the lower kingdom of Gwyddno Garanhir in Bae Ceredigion, flooded when the drunken guardian, Seithennyn, failed to close the floodgates. That the poem that inspired it, part of the Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin manuscript, was an attempt to explain the enigmatic coastal landscapes (the sarnau of Bae Ceredigion – glacial deposits stretching in straight lines across the bay – or the buried forests of Borth Beach) or a common memory of the gradual or episodic inland landslide of the shore engaged in the verse, it speaks to the creative cultural power of changing landscapes.
The urban, industrial and post-industrial landscapes of Wales have inspired poetry, song and prose,
Poets of princes (12th and 13th centuries) and poets of nobility (13th-16th centuries) used landscapes to good effect, seeing their grief for their patrons reflected in the savagery of storms or in flooding rivers, for example in Gruffudd ab an Ynad Coch’s elegy for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Landscape was also a more “everyday” occurrence in their work: in a fifteenth century cywydd Lewys Glyn Cothi asks God to build a bridge across the Afon Tywi after a flood prevented him from traveling from one boss’s yard to another. In recent times, landscape in poetry has become more overtly politically charged as poets and songwriters react to the appropriation of landscape for commercial forestry and reservoirs, and to disasters such as the landslide of ‘Aberfan, and – in the case of the Capel Celyn flood in particular – this response continues to influence our perceptions of environmental management. The urban, industrial and post-industrial landscapes of Wales have also inspired poetry, song and prose, and continue to do so as they change rapidly.
Climate, landscape and poetry therefore have a history. But, concretely, today, what can poetry be used for in the climate crisis? A English is not a sandbag, after all. I would say, however, that we should look to poetry, and the arts more generally, as we weather the coming storms, for four main reasons (I’m sure there are more).
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First, poetry can be a vehicle for communicating science. The public debate about climate change, the extent to which we need to change our practices and systems, and how we need to act to mitigate the inevitable impacts of climate change, has been – and in some cases continues to be – debated without much reference to scientific understanding and the nature of how science works. Poetry, through the use of imagery and metaphor, can effectively communicate and inspire engagement with climate change science and where else could this be done if not in Wales?
Secondly, as I have pointed out, poetry in Wales is intrinsically linked to the landscape, whether coastal, mountainous, rural or urban. Our landscape is a repository of legends, place names, social, cultural and political history, and a means by which these things can be preserved, transmitted, reassessed and reinvented. It’s also a way to foster an appreciation for nature, encourage a sense of stewardship (in its best sense) and hope.
Poetry is a social, often communal activity in Wales and the power of poetry can facilitate important conversations.
Third, poetry can help us understand different perspectives. No one has a monopoly on how Wales should respond to the challenges of the climate crisis and the diversity of landscapes and communities across Wales means a conversation is needed for us to appreciate the perspectives and concerns of others. Poetry is a social, often communal activity in Wales and the power of poetry can facilitate important conversations.
Finally, and linked to all of the above, poetry can inspire a sense of solidarity, both with individuals and communities in Wales whose circumstances are very different from ours, as well as with communities across the world, many of which face threats of an even more severe nature.
In recent years I have had the chance to combine my creative and academic work through a number of projects and try to put some of the above into practice. In 2021, I had the opportunity to be one of four artists in residence for the Our Picturesque Landscape project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund through the Dee Valley and Clwydian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Pontcysyllte UNESCO World Heritage Site. The larger aim of the project, inspired by the region’s history as a destination where the picturesque could be experienced, was to encourage and enable communities to engage with places in the region, some of which, perhaps, were far from the main tourist attractions. I ran poetry workshops with Ysgol Min-y-Ddôl in Cefn Mawr, and Ysgol Gwernant and Ysgol Dinas Brân in Llangollen, focused on exploring the places students enjoy along the valley, what they have done along the river and what it meant to them. . We created poetry about their milltir sgwar. I also spoke to other writers, Natural Resources Wales, Canal and Rivers Trust and local authority staff, to find out more about their relationship with the landscape. Based on all these experiences, and lots of walking, listening, thinking and bending over bridges, I wrote poems for six locations, all on the banks of the river or canal, reflecting on the intersections of history (particularly industry and tourism), culture and landscape, and published them using the increasingly popular technology that enables 3D tours of landscapes. A QR code takes you to the first site, from which you can explore five more.
One such site was Horseshoe Falls, to me a microcosm of much of Wales. Set in a stunning location, downstream from a marvelous example of an incised meander, most people visit Afon Dyfrdwy cascading over a shallow, curving weir, white water glistening like a crescent moon. They sit and swing on ropes above the water, swim, picnic and visit the historic church a stone’s throw upstream, enjoying the view of nature and the landscape. Some stroll along the canalside path, where water from the river is first diverted to the engineering marvel of Telford and Jessop, in an industrial landscape, eventually destined for a reservoir near Nantwich in the Cheshire. The parallels with the Elan Valley, so beloved by visitors for its landscape aesthetics but essentially an industrial and largely unnatural landscape (in terms of water flows and vegetation cover), were striking. In 2017, I led a group of writers and geomorphologists (earth scientists who study landscape processes and forms) around the Elan Valley, in conversation about the Anthropocene. The resulting poetry and prose was an example of sharing different perspectives and their creative communication.
I hope these activities can be seen as two possible models of how poetry and poets can contribute to a response to the climate crisis in Wales, drawing in as many people as possible from across the country. There will be many opportunities to participate over the next few years – to create, in the spirit of hope, as our landscapes change around us.
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