I wrote a good part of my latest novel, Sugar Hall, in the woods behind my house. I sat beneath ancient oak and beech with a notebook and some sort of Eleanor Lavish version of a mackintosh square to save future rheumatism, my twitchy deerhound roped to a trunk. For fifteen years these ancient trees have been the trigger for my imagination: their sight, their sound (their susurration) gave me my writing prompt. In Sugar Hall they became my site-specific story. The novel is a ghost story. In one chapter a murdered and ancient enslaved boy tells the reader every strange thing he has seen beneath these equally ancient oaks: we see time ticking over two centuries in a matter of pages. I often thought – as I sat beneath these trees in the cold – how much had these woods actually changed since the eighteenth century? Wider trunks, a little thinning, but these generous-hipped trees, the dips and gullies beneath them, had altered very little.
This was until the morning the machines came. This sounds rather like Terminator, and it was.
The machines started up behind me at the top of the hill. They pushed through trunks (they don’t seem to chainsaw any more, they push with things like tanks). The next morning I walked up to the lip of the hill where oak trunks wide as tractor wheels surrounded me. I asked the contractors what the wood would be used for. ‘Logs,’ they said. ‘The ancient oak?’ ‘Yup.’
My boots sank in the caterpillar-tracked mud and for the first time I could see the whole bright sky up there. It was gone, this specific site of my imagination, of Sugar Hall. Even the wide and rotten oak trunk I had the runaway boy hide in within my pages, this was gone.
Too many years ago for me to count I worked for the Bajan poet Kamau Brathwaite while I was a student. It was a good gig. I lived in Manhattan, bought him coffee and muffins, travelled with him to readings and to Barbados. Kamau wanted to revisit his 1977 collection Mother Poem with his entire graduate class. Mother Poem is a history of Barbados: a personal memory of Barbados, an exploration of the inheritances of slavery and colonialism. It is dreamlike, experimental. It’s also what you would now call a site-specific collection. That summer of 1996 we travelled from one end of the island to the other, visiting each site of each poem. We even popped in on George Lamming, the Bajan novelist, at his hotel. As we walked through hot cane fields, through the rooms of his childhood home, his childhood beach, Kamau would talk of the coral island, his mother, his sister, and learning about snow at school. His childhood beach was the place where, one evening, he pointed towards a setting sun and a jut of land along the Bridgetown coast where something huge was being built.
‘There, over there, Tiff,’ he said, ‘hotels are sitting on my metaphors.’
Kamau and Barbados were over twenty years ago and his landscape must be beyond recognition now. Until he died at nearly ninety in February 2020 he was still there, dreaming his remembered landscape onto this new ‘developed’ one. And it was not a pastoral dream, it was a crucial projection: something other than the past and the present. It was something that the writer creates in that vortex of memory, present lived experience (and the changes this imposes) and imagination.
With Kamau in mind I think of the loggers in my woods, tearing down my ancient trees. Well, perhaps not ‘my’ woods or trees but my site specific-place of the imagination, my metaphor-woods. Don’t forget these are Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter woods — the big hitters, Tolkien and Rowling, both used the Forest of Dean as their creative trigger. And then there is Dennis Potter. As a child I’d walk beneath these trees and expect Bob Hoskins to be singing ‘Pennies from Heaven’ up on a branch. For all of the Dean’s industry, for all of the coal seams under our feet, I do wonder what past Dean writers would make of this destruction. Would Dennis Potter, or Winifred Foley of A Child in the Forest fame, or those previously mentioned big hitters, be pointing at the logging tanks and saying, ‘these machines are killing our metaphors’?
For a while now I’ve been working in Iceland on my fourth novel. I’ve been at the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park where unpredictable weather changes have impacted local farmers, flora and fauna, and writers alike. This summer the waterfalls were trickles. I was told this was due to lack of snow in the spring in the highlands and so no summer melt, whereas in May a few years before, whole herds of sheep froze to death up there in an unseasonable snow storm. In the lush East Iceland valley where I stayed a new friend Skotta taught me these Icelandic words: gróðureyðing (desertification) and jarðvegseyðing (soil erosion). Skotta tells me dust storms and soil erosion have been happening for over a thousand years in Iceland, yet the frequency and unpredictability is increasing. She plays me a famous song from 1992 by the band Ríó Tríó . It’s called ‘Landið fykur burt’ (‘The Land Fades Away’).
Then there are the disappearing glaciers.
Halldor Laxness’s Under the Glacier is set around another Icelandic glacier, Snæfellsjökull, found on the western part of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. On clear days you can see this glacier-capped stratovolcano (yes, it’s also an active volcano) from Reykjavik. In the novel the Pastor Jon Primus tells us, ‘In the old days when I got tired I used to look forward to falling asleep with the glacier in the evenings. I also looked forward to waking up to it in the mornings. Now I am beginning to look forward to dying […] and entering the glacier.’ For the Pastor it is a sacred, transformational place. Jules Verne used this Snæfellsjökull glacier as the site of his 1864 novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It’s also part of the fourteenth- century Bárðar saga, Snæfellsáss. For centuries this glacier has been trigger to these writers’ imaginations, and now it is melting. In 2019 Þorsteinn Þorsteinsson, glaciologist at the Icelandic Met Office, predicted it will be gone by 2050.
Then in the summer of 2014 a glacier ‘died’. Okjökull. In 2019 there was a funeral. The writer Andri Snær Magnason wrote the eulogy. There was a procession to the site itself, a plaque with a dedication, and Andri wrote the article, ‘The glaciers of Iceland seemed eternal. Now a country mourns their loss’ for the Guardian. As I pictured this funeral procession, this act of dedication, this creative attempt to give poetic voice to this destruction, I wondered how we as writers go on to negotiate this absence?
Perhaps it’s Andri who is trying to articulate the writer’s negotiation with the fact of these changes (whether they are bought about by global warming, capitalism, or by both). In an interview in November 2019 in the Reykjavík Grapevine he said of his latest work, About Time and Water, ‘this issue [climate change] is so large that language collapses. Meaning collapses. Metaphors collapse.’ I suppose we’re back to Kamau’s metaphors collapsing under the weight of that Bridgetown Hotel. Andri takes it further: ‘One of the ways to talk about [climate change] is by not talking about it, by diverting the story to the periphery and using that to resonate at the scale of what is actually in the centre. […] The way we scale up language is with mythology — with archetypes and stories.’
Perhaps this is why the enslaved boy spoke to me beneath the oaks and beech of my Forest of Dean. Perhaps the story needed that distance to resonate; perhaps my character needed to be a ghost, an archetype.
Telling stories is what we have to keep doing, on our childhood beaches now cordoned off and shadowed by hotels, at the sites of our dead glaciers, under a tree-less sky. For my next book – set in East Iceland – I’m still not sure how I am going to manage this. I’m still not sure if chaining myself to an ancient oak or a melting glacier (hard, I admit) would be a better use of my time. Yet here we are, noting it all, measuring melt and rain and the changing patterns of birds; telling these stories.