Two poems in RISE

The fine folks at the Tandem Collective l have published a zine called RISE alongside the Oxford Climate Society, and two of my poems are in it! Both of them are about animals that were near my house at some point, wherever that house was. Here's one of them:

NB-1
From where the road gives out above the bay
I can see highway, windmills to the east,
The castaway remains of Highway One

Given up to the pheasants, the engulfing tide.
One year we saw a seal there, Chris and I
And Brie, under the broken bridge; looking confused

At how it could have swum up from the bay,
Made landing in the icy marsh. To think
a journey would breed consequence. But no.

The way you wake at the engine’s glitchy tick
and wonder just how far you went that day,
the radio still on until you pull

the door. The seal, though, anyways, aloof,
surveying its decision, or else us;
confusing vehicle with exit plan. To think

we’ll find ourselves like that one day: the ice
ahead not broken up, the waters pushing back
against the commerce of the day’s commute

and us just sitting there agape, unmoored,
like some dumb animal. twenty miles off;
the windmills sliced the isthmus, Amherst gleamed
like a faraway desert, or the sea.

 

Living Off-Grid in Wales

A post written a few years ago and now available here, with pictures; but I wanted to have it up here. And I've been thinking about energy, these past few days.

 

This blog post is written by Bernard Soubry, MSc Environmental Change and Management Candidate 2015-16.

It’s cold in the mornings here. Waking early, I pad through the kitchen and the living room of the house, open the door, and step out into the misty air of the porch. There, bare feet on the wooden deck, I look out at the hillsides and the valleys, the mist coming down the green comb of conifers on the mountain. There’s the quiet roar above from the river turning into reservoir, dropping out onto the micro-hydro turbine. There’s a creak on the slate hill from the vane on the windmill, swinging to meet the air currents. Under its arc, the solar panels sit, gazing up at the clouds.

For four days, we were visiting the Centre for Alternative Technology, hiding out on the Western coast of Wales. Thirty of us in two eco-cabins, off the grid and powered by water, by wind, by sun. We lived for four days, responsible for our energy use, tyring to understand and draw together the threads of our learning about energy, its productions, its systems, its use.

Much of the design behind the trip is to let us, poor students that we are, finally understand the practice behind energy systems theory. So we explore this place and the spaces around it. We blow around hillsides on wind farms, visiting substations and turbines, buffeted by sixty km/h winds, kept warm by the sheer energy of the turbine transformers within the columns. We plug our ears against the drones of the hydro turbines in Rheidol, descending into the belly of a fifty-year-old station to see the guts of energy production.

And we understand the power of renewable energy: not only to make a space neutral, but to allow it to be generous. One night, lights on, music flowing, we look at the hydro meter and realize we’re generating much, much more than we can store. “Plug in your phones and laptops!” someone calls–we can’t share the energy anywhere else, so we’ll have to use it. We’re wasting energy by not being able to share it with anyone. Incredible.

We take time to discover where we are, and be shaped by it. CAT plays with its space, the way it calls out to you to do something, or else to sit back and observe. Chris takes us up to the play area and releases us, like little kids: we climb up onto the blades and hubs of old windmills. We laugh at how silly we look, squatting down onto the seat of a wind-powered mechanical lift, like a vertical swing set. We giggle as we slide down the gullet of a giant metal sculpture of a worm, imagine ourselves compost. And we grow quiet in the greenhouses, where new plants and regrowths leer up at us from the soil.

Everywhere we go, we see the dark grey slate that made up the quarry out of which CAT sprung, fifty years ago. Slate, this sharp, compacted metamorphic soil, is all around us–as building material, as platter for food, as something we crunch through as we wander in the wooded with Freya, our teaching assistant, learning about where our water comes from, how high you have to reach to catch the wind.Much of CAT’s work is in learning how to build space, and to do so in respecting the source of the materials we have beneath our hands. We stand under the cover of woven willow trees; next to roofs of moss and sedum; lean on walls of pressed earth. When we walk back to the eco-cabins, I see the straw poking out from an old mudded building wall, left to return to the soil. I think of the hay fields we saw on the bus ride here, the sun that would have grown them, the distances they crossed to come here. Material produced here, returning to the earth. Who, seeing this, wouldn’t want to build this way? Houses and buildings that are part of the land, that return to it when they aren’t needed.

This kind of place–a place of learning and teaching, of putting forward what is possible and even what is necessary for us to live in systemic integrity–is at a crossroads, Chris reminds us. Thirty years ago, the Centre for Alternative Technology was the alternative. But now, in the age of global climate deals and ever-expanding renewable production, its innovations have become mainstream.

 

“So what do you do?” Chris asks us one evening, all assembled. “Do you reach the broadest public, or do you focus on deep education? Do you teach a lot of people just a little, or do you teach a few people a lot?”  We think about it and ask it of each other. How do we fit in? We have all come from different places of knowledge, different possibilities for the future–and we’ll be taking these lessons back with us. Are they enough?

Another energy system is possible–we know this now. How do we transition this, then, to the towns and the countries in which we live? And how can we use them to make spaces and communities like the ones we have seen here–not degenrative, not neutral, but generous and regenerative? The answer seems hard to find, but not impossible. Not from what we’ve seen here, and the lessons we’ve been given.

So we think about these things, and the sun comes out, and it’s time to leave. But the questions keep coming, and we carry them with us as we haul our bags and our coats and our boots down the hill, feet sure and slow on the hard-pressed earth.

The Innovation Game

(this was originally written for the Skoll World Forum blog; I was invited as a Writing Fellow in 2018. They chose not to post it.)


FARMER-CENTERED DESIGN: INNOVATIONS IN SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE
13:30, Thursday, Rhodes Theatre Lecture Hall, Saïd Business School

Ever since entering the Forum lobby on Tuesday morning, I’ve been playing something I call the Innovation Game. Three rules: you find the word “innovation”; you replace it with the words “new sh*t”; you see if the sentence still makes sense.

It’s simple and surprisingly fun until you consider just how many words there are here with which you can play a variation of the Innovation Game. The Impact Game, for example. The Proximity Game. The Social Entrepreneurship game. It becomes, for someone who is a writer and who remembers their Eric Blair, unsettling. 

I was unsettled as I sat down yesterday for the Farmer-Centered Design: New Sh*t in Sustainable Agriculture panel. And I became confused when, instead of discussing what sustainable agriculture was and how farmers should be at the centre of their work, the participants of the (mostly-male, it bears calling out) panel were invited to give a brief talk advertising their company, then gently discuss the challenges they had overcome.

It would be wildly impolite to comment on the actual activities of any one of the presenters, all of whom have likely worked very hard and are genuinely interesting and well-meaning people. Those who care can look up their companies. Hello Tractor sells tractor-sharing services; Pula sells insurance to smallholders; Proximity Designs sells small-scale agriculture tech; Babban Gona is a franchise for farmer cooperatives; and FarmerLine is a consultancy for farmers. I am not going to summarize their presentations, because in summarizing them, I—a farmer and sustainability researcher—would be tempted to critique and potentially ask questions. And critique, or questions, or precision, are not at the heart of what I’ve seen at the Forum this week.

Farmer-Centered Design: Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture was a nice display of how the Innovation Game, and the Skoll World Forum more generally, seem to work. It was a panel on farmer-centered design which invited no farmers, where sustainability was never discussed, and where agriculture was collectively presented as a narrative where smallholders are launched by forward-thinking companies from back-breaking drudgery into wealth and productivity. And even though there are likely as many theories of change for agriculture as there were panelists—even though you’d think none of these panelists could have had exactly the same philosophy—the sense you got sitting there was that everyone agreed with each other. It was, in short, a room full of people talking about how great their thing was, and the rest of us sitting there and  feeling pretty good about it.

The Skoll World Forum’s About Page says that “each year, the world’s most influential social entrepreneurs, key thought leaders, and strategic partners gather at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School to exchange ideas, solutions, and information.”. So why did I leave feeling like I had just sat through a series of good-natured advertisements?

Call me out if I’m wrong: FCD:ISA was designed to make us feel good about ourselves and each other. Of course it was; these are the necessary conditions to networking and helping potential investors get a sense of the market. And to safeguard those good feelings, you need to be in a room where the words are so wide that everyone fits inside them, no matter how vague agriculture or sustainability have to become in the process. In a world where doing good and making money means playing with this kind of live financial ammo, it seems strategic to want everyone to like you. 

Which makes me wonder: in order to attain its aim, does the Skoll World Forum privilege imprecise language? Are all of us using these words vaguely not because they're impossible to define, but because it's financially and politically advantageous to think of everything as being social entrepreneurship—and therefore, of everyone as being on the same side? Or did everybody else at New Sh*t in Sustainable Agriculture have a shared and well-defined vocabulary, the dictionary for which was somehow never stuffed into the back of my plastic lanyard? 

Before the people at the World Forum who kindly gave me said lanyard and the unlimited lunches that come with it cut me off, let me clarify: I don’t want to disagree about whether the privileged should help make people’s lives better. I do, however, desperately want to disagree about how it should be done.

Social entrepreneurship at its best seems to consist of people who want to make a living while genuinely helping others. But a precondition of genuinely bringing aid and power to the vulnerable is the space to question your practices, and what helping others looks like. If that space privileges other things—just getting along, for example—you get social entrepreneurship at its worst: the broadest church of feeling good which, in trying to unite everyone, stops anyone from asking real questions.

Let’s spare a thought for the dialogue which could have been a part of this panel: Does franchising co-operatives remove power from them? Does insurance actually mitigate risk if you’re still losing on food security? And what, exactly, is each company’s definition of good and prosperous agriculture?

Maybe it would have been worth talking about these things. But we can’t ask these questions until we are willing to draw the line between what is sustainable and what is not; what is socially motivated and what is not; and what doing good genuinely means to each person who sets out to do it. 

To those who wanted a summary of the session: sorry. It’s probably been livestreamed. But give a writer an open ticket it and their work will likely boil down to this: words matter. The words which the Skoll World Forum attendees use to build their work, vague as they are, will make the lives of the people they have chosen to help better or worse. If you believe the Social Entrepreneurship Game, we are, all of us, in the business of caring for life in one way or another. Which will require new sh*t, yes; but  just as importantly will require us to get our own sh*t together first. 

 

to maps!

so here's to google maps! and to technology, for being more fun in its accuracy. maps, paper maps, are solid friends, and they'll always have. place in my saddlebag. they bring the order of absolute place. they ask from you, but they give a lot--know where you are, and from these points, you can olace yourself as an insignificant dot in a preordained scale , granular or sweeping. maps are what ask you to be responsible, to keep track, to understand the world beyond you. they are the sure hand tht's been there before. 

 

google maps is a little tipsy, but the best chance you've got, and is saying, come on, man. i swear there's a road here. i got an algorithm, man, and it says there's a road right here--and then points straight into the bushes. google maps asks you to fly in the face if all things reasonable or logical; it asks you to surrender the sense of relational knowledge for the benefit of instant information and direction that does not make any more sense than the information on all sides of it. when you look at the phone, you are not looking around where you are. all the information you need is the blue dot, the little shy arrow pointing in the direction you're facing. (which is utterly miraculous in my mind. to think that they know, if all things, which way your phone is pointing. ) you surrender every bit of where am i for two statements: i am here and i need to go this way.

 

and yet i love using my phone to navigate precisely because of how unreliable it is. google maps has sent me into marshes; into private property; once, almost into a river. twice in the south of france i followed my phone down a narrow lane that dissolved into n unpaved road, and when the fabled left turn came, i pivoted and saw pure underbrush, with the faintest tyremark through the grass.

 

i went anyway. i always go. getting lost is the miracle of travelling somewhere new--especially on a bike--and google maps is the perfect enabler, both incredible tool and reliable screwup. it has failed to get me to my hosts on time, accurately schedule travel, ir sanely interpret the notion of what a passable road is. but google maps has also placed me in the path of a harrier hawk flaring open its wings at sunset; has forced me into the arms of many unexpecting French bakers after a hungry fifteen-k detour; has found me perfectly paved, smooth roads at sunset, when the grass went on honeycoloured through the fields. iam not saying maps do not do this. but like the drunk friend who sometimes stumbles, as if by chance, into some miraculous place in the middle of things, it sent me somewhere i would have gone to if i had known the full context of my going.

 

if i had only followed my map, i would have gotten there. and reliably, too--on well-practiced roads that go through many towns, and which have existed long enough to be deemed worthy of mapping. but it would have been less surprising, and strange; and perhaps less fun. better to be lost and singing than true and silent, no?

I pulled out the boxes I have stuffed in the closet of my old room. Five of them: old journals, a tablecloth, hiking boots, a walrus baculum Ian gave me before he left the Maritimes that's about the size of a femur. And books, mostly books: Kingsolver, Chekov, Mitchell, Zwicky, Dickens, all the Harry Potter books I could get my hands on when I was fifteen. They like there with their spines stuck to one another, like a catalogue of bones; like a compression sack of the self. All these parts of me, neatly stacked and lightless! All these ways I used to understand myself and define myself, gone. 

Books like those, though, aren't meant to be read by me any more. They're meant to be things that I return to; a certain amount of nostalgia, of lost sense of self has to be felt before I find it necessary to open them up, sweep off the storage cloths, and sit very quietly on the my childhood bedroom floor for a very long, very quiet time. 

I always end up doing this when I come back to my parents' house, which I've done every year or so since I left. I was afraid it was nostalgia at first--some longing for the old self who used to be fed and cared for at fifteen, who would sit on the same bedroom floor and scratch out first poems or read Dune. I worried that I was somehow seeing that time as a better time.

I don't think so anymore. It feels, now, like looking back at a map after a long ride though the hills. When I've successfully lost myself and still found my way home, there's a quiet joy in tracing back my route til I figure out exactly which turn I took, where I went, and to live the journey again by tracing myself on paper. 

One day there will come a time when I'll take those boxes out and bring them to where I want to be at the moment--where Salinger and Vonnegut and Mistry will all sit exposed to light, in another house and another place and another time; and their spines will fade with time. The maps and the journey will start to look the same. 

---

Ach, this has been so self-reflective. Montreal does this to me right now. I'm worried, too, about the next weeks: meetings in New Brunswick, in Nova Scotia, which may or may not change what the days will look like in the coming months and years.

A doctorate feels so immense right now not because of its actual length or what its work requires, but because of the precarity in needs me to accept: that for at least another two years, the books stay in the closet, the clothes are kept packed, the baculum (hem) remains under wraps. Two more years of not knowing where exactly I'm living, or with whom; and of being certain that, no matter what, I'll uproot somewhere in order to do it. It's a chance to do much, yes. But it's also a necessary surrender. I want to figure out the edges of my surrender, pace out my territory. Find out where my choices end. 

And then, as MacKay reminds us, snow tires.

ah, there was something here before. and then I deleted it. 

is it worth it, I wonder. tonight i made ratatouille, sliced thinly, rings of zucchini and fairytale eggplant covered with red tomato. a bed of basil, garlic, olive oil. an hour in the oven, a half-hour to prepare. i like doing it. they know that. it's about making myself feel useful. 

after, though; not a word. each family member to their respective screens. it made me feel sad. it made me wonder why I'd done it.

i see them still, eyes locked away from each other, backs almost touching. 

Lots of worries today, not the least of which being the news from away: white sugar poured into water, phone calls from Glasgow, hearts being broken from a distance. The slow whine of a bobbin unspooling. Here in Montreal, the air is warm and ripe with humidity, the sun beats down, the water ruffles with wind; on the other side of the pressure system, houses are torn from foundations, people cower in stadiums. Try, despite all you know, to feel as though you're not unjustly on the winning side of a rigged, zero-sum game. Try, despite knowing this, feeling that we aren't all losing anyways. 

 

This evening, diving into water after a warm evening row with Dad. We never swam in the river as kids. It was dirty and messy and cold, not to be dealt with. Recently, though--since Claudia's death--I've asked my body to be okay with the cold; to glory in the shock and the eventual warming to it. Maybe it's a lesson in breaking inertia. Maybe it's just letting my muscles relax and be held by a different gravity. I like to hold myself there, letting the sky swell and take over, edgeless pastures of cloud. I could have stayed. It's nicer in there. 

 

Should stop writing these at night before bed; far too meditative, far too little fun.

 

Today's highlight: Along de Maisonneuve, right before Concordia, noticing someone coming up fast on the bike path, slipping between pedestrians and commuters and bixi-tourists as fast as I was, and noticing the flash of orange guiding them as I saw them look at my bike, and hearing the same sound come out of our mouths at the same time: a slow, head-nodding, appreciative "Yeah."  It lasted no more than a second, but I flew through the next few blocks, an unstoppable grin on my face. Recognizing each other and, in the split-second of common slipstream, glorying in that shared instrument of purpose. 

 

 

(What a nice ride, though. spinning my way up the hill from Ville St-Pierre to NDG, along the train tracks, following the path along De Maisonneuve from the ghosts of my high school to the ghosts of Chris and Brie's old building to the ghosts of the time I sat at Vendôme and cried. Following the path, still, weaving between the commuters on full-suspension mountain bikes and the tourists on their glitchy Bixis all the way through Westmount, through the park and the smell of Porsche baking in the twenty-eight degree heat, through the shaded bustle of the Concordia buildings, along the shearing sounds of construction, up to the Place des Arts and over the sunlit white tiles and the giant-sized swings to Ontario, meeting the wide street and my own memories from years past with a sense of new tarmac and new grit. And in it all, the hard sun of a new day, the heat, the humidity, the wind you generate through movement. The joy of being happy in a place that you left and which forgot you. Montréal didn't care; but I did, and I returned, and every time I return I hold new love for this place. Riding it with that new familiarity, with the muck  Look, city! Look at me, who left and came back. Let us be familiar with one another; and if we can, let us be friends.)

Try not to think about it too hard. (It's late and the slow fan is on and the crickets are sweetening the night air. There is a part in your hair from where you didn't part it right when you came out of the water and shook yourself dry. The left side of your back is aching from the bike ride. The spoken distances you'd set yourself: twenty, fifty, a hundred kilometres, all of them falling back into silence at the end of the day. How much further you go when you don't think or speak of where your wheels are headed.)

It's been a long time since you have written without consequence; try to give in to writing without consequence. Writing without sequence, writing in sequins, writing in, sick one. For a while it will all feel unnatural and meta, as though you're writing to your words themselves, trying to coax them into being smart enough. Try to coax them, sure. But when you come to the choice of either picking something which is clever or something which is true, pick something which is true.

(Your hands feel warm from the slow typing, the warm night air. You are sitting at the desk where you wrote your first poems, where you first send messages of love to a girl you'd met at a writing class, where you played a Star Wars game on an old computer your school principal had given you when you were thirteen. You look up and there are two of you looking back: the glass in the windowpane has shifted. Against the darkness, the lamplight is catching in so many different ways.)

Without holding back, without category, without intention or place or hold thereon. People your paper. Pickle the rest. When you feel the bile rise, feed it with brine. Comparisons are odious. Transformation is inevitable. Just give yourself to practice and be brave enough to be bad at it for however long it will take to get your balance. 

 

Here's something I wrote, from a long time ago, as a placeholder:

Knit/Purl

Rocking the chair one-footed, keeping breath,
a watch slipped in my pocket, unmarshalled heartbeat:
I love the things my body does
when I'm not looking.
The way it knows I’ll never trust myself     
to do certain things, and so must learn them well      
as to forget them. Somewhere inside the self
there hides not shadow, but so pale a light
that it fades from my view      
until my doubt can cast it on the wall.

This morning, say, stabbing a knitting needle
again and again into a twisted stitch,
pissed off that I'd gone wrong somewhere, I looked
up in frustration; and only when my thoughts
had fixed on something else--a high bird humming
between two shadows in the oak outside--
did I look down and find my hands now ravelling
somewhere far past myself, accomplishing boldness
where I failed to sing boldness; in the endless baffling
of my branches, being fruitful.