Hope and the Climate Emergency

There was an Extinction Rebellion event at Bondi Beach this morning. A couple of hundred of us sat in the shape of the XR logo, representing the planet and an hourglass. There were brief speeches, a drone photo, and some magnificent dancing by members of the Tango Rebellion. The handful of police didn’t have to do anything but stand and watch.

One of the speakers read what she called a faux elegy for the planet – faux because we intend to take action to at least minimise the results of the climate emergency. On the way home in the train, one of my companions expostulated that it’s not the planet that’s in danger of dying out, it’s us or at least life as we know it. The planet will survive just fine. But we all agreed there is such a thing as climate grief that needs to be faced.

I found myself thinking of A D Hope’s poem, ‘On an Early Photograph of My Mother’, the first poem in his A Late Picking (1975) that, according to my pencilled notes on the contents page, was written in 1958, presumably with the proliferation of nuclear weapons in mind. I don’t expect many of my readers to know the poem, so here it is in full, the anger and, yes, grief beneath the irony as alive as ever:

On an Early Photograph of My Mother

Who would believe it to see her now, the mother
Of so many daughters and sons – and one of them I –
Dear busy old body, bustling around the sky
That this was indeed my darling, and no other?

Who would suppose to view her then, the tender
Bloom and dazzle of wildfire, and the stance
Of unripe grace, the naked eloquent glance,
Time could so tame or age despoil her splendour?

Or who imagine the imperceptible stages
From her madcap Then to this staid respectable Now?
One picture the Family Album does not show.
See where she ripped it angrily from the pages!

That is just the picture I should give most to recover,
When she changed to a molten mass and began to shrink
To a great smooth stone, and the stone began to think,
And she raged at her ruin and knew that her youth was over.

Did you destroy it, my darling, that face of granite
Cracked and scarred by your volcanic heart?
Did you take one look and tear it across and apart,
The barren body, the gaunt, unlovable planet?

You could not foresee this lovely old age beginning,
The ripeness, the breeding beauty. How could you know
Yourself with your lap full of flowers, soft-shouldered with snow,
Royally wearing your waters, your children pinning

Cities of lights at your breast, to show how clever they are?
Take comfort, my darling, and trundle your bulk through the sky:
Your cleverest children—and one of them is not I—
Are finding the trick that will turn you back to a star.

Cunning and cautious, but much less cautious than cunning,
They split small pieces of rock, a cup or two from your seas.
'Helping Mother!' they say, 'and busy as bees.
The noise we can make is tremendous; the flash is stunning.'

'We can do better,' they say. 'A surprise for Mother;
She will be pleased when we show her what we can do.'
How long will it take? Just another invention or two
And someone will press a button. You need not bother;

You will blaze out with the nimbus of youth, the limber
Liquid gait and the incandescent air;
You will forget the middle-aged ruin you were;
Good luck to you, darling! I shall not be there to remember.

6 responses to “Hope and the Climate Emergency

  1. It’s so strange to me that nuclear annihilation was what I grew up fearing and being angry about because some foreign power could do it to us when we had nothing to do with their quarrels… when all along we were creating a different kind of risk ourselves.

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    • When we were asked to lie down in contact with each other for the drone photo this morning, I said something to the woman next to me about putting our heads in each other’s laps, and she said, in what I took to be a deliberate reference to the threat of nuclear annihilation she grew up fearing, ‘And kiss your arse goodbye!’

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  2. Yes, it’s a bitter irony.

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  3. Bravo Jonathan and all those with you at the Bondi Beach event this morning. In the mid-1950s at school (West Tamworth PS) I remember shivers at the playground version of the British nuclear “testing” over Indigenous lands across Central Australia that should it rain we’d probably all die – the reference no doubt conveyed by a mate overhearing his parents speak of “testing” – maybe too to the elevated strontium 90 levels being measured across eastern Australia as the fallout drifted eastwards – and in fact not so wrong. Who’s to say that some of the cancers so prevalent nowadays were not planted by those “tests”! In any event – through the 1960s my “fears”/belief was that (fundamentalist Christian that I then was) the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent – probably before I got to my Inter(mediate Certificate exams) in 1963 or certainly before my Leaving in 1965 – but by the time I was at university and free from that narrow belief system it had been replaced by the US wars (VN+ onwards – only ceasing briefly during the Presidency of Jimmy Carter) and their ramping up of nuclear threats against the USSR!

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    • Hi Jim. This current upsurge of what Peter Dutton says is not protest has a long back story. Lisa’s comment that back then we feared an external enemy is so true, but there was also the slogan, ‘We have seen the enemy and they is us.’

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