Fog has curled and settled itself in the valleys, locking the low land into a monochrome hush. We drive in it, and then through it, emerging to see mountains floating above a clouded land. We’ve come to Whinlatter Forest, and as we walk into this wooded landscape, we tread lightly over birch, oak and hazel leaves sugared with the morning’s frost. Beneath them the forest floor is a dense spread of brown pine needles, each one edged with white crystals of ice. Cold has covered the land.
We walk in and up. As we gain height, so too does the sun. We leave the shadows behind, and step into rays of light that fire up the late autumn colours of the forest. Oak leaves are a crsip gold; hollies burst with red berries; leafless birch trees hang slender branches against the sky; the last of the larch needles lend a burnished haze to this gathering of trees. Under foot, the night’s frost is melting, so that perfect globes of wetness glisten on the vivid green of mosses and ferns.
We have spent some time carefully choosing a site for the canvas, and it is now in place. There’s no wind, and little to challenge us today. It’s easy now to pause. A pause that allows for the noticing of sounds – not the traffic of the A595, which is constant and slightly irritating – but the few birds that send chits and pheweets into the air, and the stillness of the wood. Even with the traffic there is a quality here of stillness. I pause here with the sun warming my back, and watch the shadows shift.
I stand with these words as if they are an invitation. My mind drifts to think of woods as places for stories, for magic, for fear, for inspiration. But I’m not here to imagine a fictional story or create a fanciful character. I’m most concerned about the way imagination helps us, individually and collectively, to move forwards from a place where the health of the natural world is in decline: to replace the present with something better.
I can see beyond the trees to the bare flanks of Skiddaw, and to Bassenthwaite Lake, a mirror reflecting the sky. Each one of these landscapes has been affected by decisions made by people. This forest was planted after the First World War, and how it may look in fifty years’ time will be determined by choices made now. The smooth sides of Skiddaw are denuded largely because of the removal of peat in the sixteenth century to be used for the smelting industry; hundreds of thousands of barrel loads were scraped up and taken away. Ospreys have been breeding successfully around Bassenthwaite Lake (and now further afield) thanks to conservation work by organisations and volunteers. I imagine going back to a time when the forests were a rampant mix of native species hugging valleys and slopes; to a time when the slopes of Skiddaw were squelching wet, covered with peat and mosses; to a time when ospreys thrived and didn’t need assistance to come back.
This is my local view, from my current spot of ‘here’ among the trees, in the Lake District. Thinking about the impact humans have on the planet, and the possibility of these impacts being beneficial to reverse a trend of damage, my imagination wants to reach out to something much bigger: a future where biodiversity is increasing, where the release of greenhouse gases is dramatically reduced, and global warming is not escalating.
Right now there’s a future that needs to be imagined in a way that is not only a manifestation of predictions of gloom and destruction. Current scientific reports warn of a continuing rise in sea-level, the increasing frequency of severe environmental events such as floods, fires, droughts, and the destruction of habitats including coral reefs and polar ice. These possibilities are terrifying but also, strangely, gripping – like a movie. Our newsfeeds and screens, and our minds and our imaginations, are filled with images of disaster – why are crime, horror, and trauma so popular in modern media? Usually, there is some form of survival, but that survival is typically only for the minority.
I sit in the late autumn forest watching tree shadows pass across the canvas. A wren is chattering behind me. I wonder: where are the stories and films and projected realities that offer something positive – not through science fiction, or through blind optimism, but as the result of something real and tangible that can lead to an alternative, and better outcome?
I think it was Olafur Eliason who said in a recent interview that people aren’t going to change until they see that change can lead them to something better. That place is the possible imagined future. We cannot see it yet, but can we imagine it? And to get there, in the very first instance, can we imagine what we need to do in the present? What replaces a fossil fuel economy? What shifts the desire for stuff? What banishes the fear – among those privileged enough to have houses, utilities and the luxury of more food than they need – to step away, or sacrifice, a life of more-than-plenty, for a life of just enough?
With the terrifying and abstract nature of some projections – storms, heatwaves, droughts, mass migration, fire, hunger, terror – the magnitude quickly becomes too much. The imaginable is smaller, more manageable. A single tree, flourishing. A single person, caring. A group, working together to create a space where nature can find its way and a struggling ecosystem can recover. Or different ways of conversing with one another, valuing integrity in politics (I would hate to admit this is too much to ask even though history suggests it may be), or a shift of power and privilege away from the few, towards greater equality.
Here I go again – my ramblings taking me from nature and natural spaces into politics. But it’s unavoidable: one cannot be disentangled from another. And while the natural world is visibly declining in quality and must be fought for, how can politics (and associated economic and business models) support the natural world and trigger positive actions?
We are less than a month from the UK parliamentary elections. The main party leaders are throwing promises around like treats in a party bag. Who knows which will last. Positive plans for a future that uses fewer resources and prioritises the environment, the very thing on which we depend, are thin on the ground.
I am not alone in feeling very, very concerned. But our own politics are strangely stuck. And the media continues to feed us bad news. The truth is that there are things happening that show the rewards of positive imaginings. Imagination can be at its most powerful when it takes us to a starting point, where an idea is shared, or a first, small action is taken, with conviction, with hope. What this starting point may lead is often beyond the space of imagining. Did Greta Thurnberg think that sitting in quiet protest instead of going to school could motivate so many people to speak up with their demands, or could give her a voice among world leaders? How might the humble beginnings of local groups – of which there are so many – impact what happens at a community, society and national level? Ambleside Action of Future, Cumbria Action for Sustainability, South Lakes Action on Climate Change, Another Way … these are just a few of the many groups on my own doorstep whose members are pooling ideas and taking action.
It can be daunting, and can even prevent action, when the end point cannot be imagined. But to imagine an action that can be taken now, and will be part of a longer process – that may be easier. Behind each success story is an idea, an imagined action that has been followed with courage, and allowed to grow.
‘Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.’
Greta Thurnberg at the Extinction Rebellion rally,
Marble Arch, London 23 April 2019.
I watch the sky ever so slightly changing its blue. Shadows of the tall larch trees have passed from one side of the canvas to the other, and the sun is nearly at its highest point for the day. We chose this spot to install the canvas after visiting it earlier this year with Jennifer Grange, who runs forest bathing events. For a moment I imagine myself back to that day when the trees were in leaf and the air was summer-warm, and I entered a prolonged pause, quietly connecting with the space, sensing the trees, the moss, the soil and the air. The pause led to imaginings … this forest is connected, via a continuing, unbroken corridor, with other woodlands and forests. This could be one of many actions that work together to improve and strengthen natural systems in this one small part of the planet.
Not long after we put up this installation and I’d written the notes I’ve shared above, there was a film showing in Kendal. The film 2040, directed by Damon Gameau, proposes an imagined future where greenhouse gas emissions are low, and nature is in recovery; this future draws on systems and innovations that are already in place, such as village-level solar energy networks and seaweed farms. It offers real hope, if only businesses and governments make a dramatic shift.
Following this, Rob and I hosted education manager for Our Planet at WWF UK, Matt Larsen-Daw, for a day of school visits and a public talk. Matt’s presentations starkly showed the scale of loss and the trajectory of destruction if things carry on as they are now. But they didn’t just mourn the loss. They outlined a real reason for hope: they shared stories of tangible things that can be done to turn things around. And they offer some encouragement for young people: what they imagine now will play a vital role in the way the future looks.