Musings on a threatened world: the path to hope

Cliffs in Co. Kerry, on Ireland’s west coast. Image: By Christophe Krief, via Wikimedia Commons

To acknowledge the realities of the climate crisis is the path to hope, towards finding a way to overcome them.

DUBLIN, 26 May, 2021 − Several decades ago Michael Viney packed in his job as a newspaperman in Dublin and moved out to an isolated cottage on Ireland’s west coast to indulge his passion for nature and the environment.

From there, for the past 45 years, he has regaled readers of the Irish Times with a weekly column full of lyrical observations on nature and life on the Atlantic shore.

There is talk of insects demolishing cow pats, of coconuts swept in by the tide from far away places, of the simple pleasures of digging.

“A handful of my garden soil has a cool, silky feel,” he writes.

In his contribution to Empty House, an anthology of Irish and international  writing on the climate crisis by various writers and poets, Viney adopts a more ominous tone. Climate change, he says, is the new and disconcerting background to our lives.

“It’s no longer so hard to think it possible that the great human experiment will doom itself to extinction, leaving a mangled planet to lick its wounds.”

Empty House has a lot of anxiety within its pages – little wonder, considering the dire environmental state the Earth is in.

Alice Kinsella, one of the book’s editors, points out that the eco in ecosystem and ecology comes from the ancient Greek οἶκος (oikos), meaning the house, family, household or home.

Eco-anxiety, she says, is the fear of losing our home. A poem by Catherine Phil MacCarthy imagines Earth as a house:

Could it be sometime
we are not there,
gone without trace,
planet earth, an empty house.

There is fear of what the future holds – and humour. Michael Whelan describes a flooded Dublin:

The year could be 2098 but no one there will know it
as the last polar bear surfs down O’Connell Street
on the flotsam of a rushing tide, balancing on the curved
upturned roof of a long-rusted tour bus…

There is talk of the joys of simple things. Arnold Fanning walks to quell his worries:

Walking lessens the grip anxiety has on me, step by step, and in walking I can breathe deeply again, more easily, appreciate life more, even as I absorb nature around me, feel the healthy functions of my body, and so walk on, less burdened, less afflicted, more bountiful.

For Orla ní Dhúill, gardening is the great salvation:

My mother says when her hands are inside the soil
that is how she goes to church.
It took me two decades to really understand.
It took me finding my own piece of land,
five square feet of neglected backyard, but it was mine.

There is an acute awareness of how the world around us is changing, of how nature shows signs of shutting down. John Sexton talks of the loss of bees, the planet’s pollinators:

On the sills the bees are dying. Bumbles
fuzzing in their humming. Their furred knitwear
losing lustre; their breathing visible,
their wings crisply stopped. The dustpan will share
them to the hedged garden…

This is a brave book: the climate crisis is not an easy subject for either poetry or prose. Readers do not want too much gloom. Many look instead for possible pointers towards the path to hope.

As Alice Kinsella says in her introduction, it isn’t pessimism to acknowledge the peril we now face, to know that action on a global scale is our only hope.

“To engage with the realities is to be optimistic. Because it’s only by acknowledging the very real threats that we have any hope of preventing them.” − Climate News Network

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Empty House: Poetry and Prose on the Climate Crisis. Doíre Press, €15/£12 Eds. Alice Kinsella & Nessa O’Mahony

About Kieran Cooke

Kieran Cooke, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and Financial Times. He now focuses on environmental issues