British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe

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Commissioned Poem by Helen Mort: ‘The Library of Ice’

As part of our collaboration with Helen Mort and the Poetry Society on the ‘I am the Universe’ competition, we commissioned a poem from Helen that she read in public for the first time at the Mediating Climate Change conference in July. Helen’s poem engages brilliantly with some of the project’s key themes, particularly the agency of nonhuman nature.

The Library of Ice
after David Buckland’s ‘The Cold Library of Ice’.
In the library of ice, the shelves
were bridal-white, crevassed, unreachable.
I watched the fjord, how gently
it could carry off a single page of cold,
then volumes, sections, half
the world. The sky was a bored librarian
in cloudless blue, the calving face
an index I could never read.
No list, no human names, no litany
of winters unreturned.
I looked for a language I could know
like music, and the library offered up
the sound of shifting boulders,
the glacier’s shoulders lifting them,
too slow to hear. I looked
for a language I could know like braille
and my fingers froze against
each sign I touched. I looked
for a language I could know like colour,
saw the near-transparency of air
around a flame. In the library of ice,
I knew that I was smaller than a book.
The years dripped into centuries.
I stood and waited to be classified
as if the glacier would pick me up
and stamp my bones with frost
then let the absent evening come,
the high sun borrow me.

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Conference Proceedings: Mediating Climate Change

Lucy Rowland (Leeds) reports on the Mediating Climate Change conference that took place in Leeds, 4-6 July 2017. 

Taking place during the bicentenary of the global climate crisis prompted by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, the inter-disciplinary Mediating Climate Change conference sought to examine our encounters with climate change through multiple mediums. With researchers offering their thoughts on climate change and mediation from the vantage points of art, literature, history, social sciences, philosophy, and behavioural psychology to name a few, discussion and debate throughout the three-day duration of the conference was lively and incisive.

The first event of the conference took place on Monday 3rd July, in the form of an Early-Career and Postgraduate Workshop entitled ‘The Anthropocene: Fact or Fake News?’, led by Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood of the University of Illinois. Giving early-career and postgraduate researchers the opportunity to work through their personal engagement with the concept of the Anthropocene in the context of current critical debates and theorisations, the workshop prompted questions on postcolonial conceptions of the Anthropocene, of technofossils, of the naming of the epoch itself and of its possible origins and futures.

Prof Mike Hulme delivers the opening keynote (Photo: Lucy Rowland)

On Tuesday the 4th July, Professor Mike Hulme (King’s College London) opened the conference with a powerful keynote lecture entitled ‘Knowing Climate and its Changes: In Places, With Numbers and Through Myths’, chaired by Dr David Higgins (University of Leeds). Discussing the need for an examination of the failures of imagination in addressing climate change as well as its successes, and drawing on his expansive research on the subject of climate change and disagreement, Prof. Hulme raised concerns over the political nature of climate change and its consequent propensity to be a source of permanent conflict.

The conference continued with its first session of three concurrent panels, divided thematically into categories of ‘Journeys’, ‘Institutions’ and ‘Materialisms’. A wide array of topics were covered, from contemporary literature and creative production, to ideas of the institution as mediator and philosophical breaching of the archaic categories of ‘human’ and ‘nature’. The second panel session, on the themes of ‘Water’, ‘Science’ and ‘Scales’, was equally far-reaching in its scope. Topics such as climate engineering, the visualisation of scale, and scientific narrative strategy were matched by further engagement with contemporary cultural production and climate mediation through art and literature.

Tuesday’s fascinating plenary paper was given by Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin (University of Leeds) and chaired by Kate Lock (University of Leeds), regarding research produced through the Priestley Centre for Climate Change on behavioural decision making, climate change and environmentalism. Professor Bruine de Bruin discussed methods for effective communication and decision making in the context of climate-change related issues, offering ‘mental models’ of decision making in the face of risk, and theorising the best ways of encouraging positive choices and behaviours.

Lucy Burnett performs ‘Through the Weather Glass’ (Photo: Lucy Rowland)

The evening’s events consisted of an art installation and performance by author, poet and lecturer Dr Lucy Burnett (Leeds Beckett University). Reading from her latest hybrid novel Through the Weather Glass (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2015), the audience followed the inspirational journey behind the novel’s origins through the narrative and through a visual Google Earth journey. The first day of the conference was drawn to a close by the ‘I Am the Universe’ Young Poets competition prize-giving and readings, compered by poet Helen Mort.

Wednesday, 5th July’s panel sessions were formed around the thematic concepts of ‘Ice’, ‘Perceptions’, and ‘Discourses’. Papers were concerned with climate before the formation of the concept of climate change, with the engagement of ice through literature and film, and with climate change journalism and environmental activism.

A roundtable discussion entitled ‘Climate Change Denial and the Media’, chaired by Dr Chris Paterson (University of Leeds), saw contributions from Piers Forster (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre), Professor Robert Hackett (Simon Fraser University), Kate Lock (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre), and Andrea Taylor (University of Leeds, Priestley Centre). Prof. Hackett addressed media focus on episodic climate-related disasters and the obscuring of long-term effects of climate change, and Piers Forster focused on ways to effectively communicate scientific research to the public. Concerning the politics of climate change, Kate Lock brought to the audience’s attention the partisan nature of climate change representation in the media.

The fourth panel session, concerned with ‘Communications’, ‘Weather Histories’, and ‘Subjectivities’, raised questions regarding media narratives of climate change, environmentalism in children’s film and television, climatic unrest through history, and the notion of the emotional and psychoanalytic subjective in climate change contexts. Continuing the day’s panels were discussions of ‘Anthropocenes’, ‘Apocalypse’, and ‘Modes of Representation’. Speakers presented on topics such as the epistemic friction of the Anthropocene epoch and apocalyptic representations of the end of the world.

Wednesday’s events were brought to a close by a plenary public lecture from Professor Alexandra Harris (University of Liverpool), entitled ‘A Change in the Air: Weathers, Words, and Landscapes’, chaired by Dr Tess Somervell (University of Leeds). Prof. Harris’s engaging talk navigated multiple literary and historical accounts of changes in weather across the ages, drawing from her recent non-fiction work Weatherland: Writers and Artists under English Skies (Thames and Hudson, 2015).

The final day of the conference—Thursday 6th July—was opened with a plenary panel, comprising of talks from both Dr Nigel Clark (University of Lancaster) and Dr Adeline Johns-Putra (University of Surrey), chaired by Dr Jeremy Davies (University of Leeds). Dr Clark spoke on the subject of ‘The City as Medium: Myth, Migration and Mid-Holocene Climate Change’, covering cities, agrarianism and climate mitigation from the mid-Holocene period, using examples from this time to illustrate the importance of democracy and social responsibility in our contemporary age. Dr Adeline Johns-Putra continued the panel with her analysis of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, engaging with contemporary criticism such as Timothy Clark’s Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (2015) and emphasising the role of the reader’s emotional responses to novels that deal with themes of climate change.

The sixth panel session, consisting of ‘Localities’, ‘Futures’ and ‘Irish Media Representations of Climate Change’ covered issues ranging from Croatian climate fiction, to climate scepticism in the Irish media, to climate change in the case of two indigenous communities. The final panel session, made up of ‘Creatures, Monsters, and Myth’ and ‘Performance’ responded to varied topics such as the endangered tuatara lizard in New Zealand, to Icelandic sagas and performing news on climate change.

Prof Gillen D’Arcy Wood speaks on ‘Climate Delusions’ (Photo: Lucy Rowland)

The conference was brought to a close by Professor Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s plenary paper, entitled ‘Climate Delusions’. In a sobering and insightful discussion, Prof. D’Arcy Wood traced future predictions of ocean level rises, flooding epidemics, and other climate-related disasters, commenting on the importance of the abandonment of field mastery in academia in the context of climate research, and the delusions that inhibit comprehension of the catastrophic reality of climate change.

Final remarks given by Dr David Higgins and Dr Tess Somervell noted the variety and scope of the topics and disciplines, whilst consciously acknowledging the challenges of interdisciplinarity. Closing questions and comments were taken from the audience, which praised the success of the conference and the level of engagement and responsiveness across disciplines, whilst recognising a need for further work and collaboration in the future.

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Public Events in Leeds, 4-5 July

As part of our conference Mediating Climate Change (4-6 July), we have organised three public events around the themes of literature, art, and environment to take place in Leeds.

All welcome. These events are free, but places are limited so booking is essential.


‘Through the Weather Glass’ – Poetry Performance by Lucy Burnett

Tue 4 July 2017
17:00 – 18:00 BST
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall
University of Leeds

What if we can’t solve climate change? What if, instead of staring at our reflections in the weather glass, we travelled through everything we know about climate change and participated in the world beyond? Lucy Burnett’s hybrid novel Through the Weather Glass tells a fantastic, playful account of the author’s struggles to understand environmental change through the persona of Icarus during a 2500 mile cycle from Salford to the Greek island where Icarus fell. On the back of an extended Arts Council funded tour in 2016, this performance and installation version of the novel combines live poetry, film, installation and music, inviting the audience to join Icarus on a genre-twisting and gender-bending road trip up mountains, across plains and along the coast of our wonderfully changing world.

Lucy Burnett is a writer, artist and performer, and works as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Leeds Beckett University. Leaf Graffiti, her first poetry collection, was published by Carcanet / Northern House in 2013. Her second book, a hybrid novel called Through the Weather Glass, was published by Knives Forks & Spoons in 2013. In 2016, an interactive installation version of Through the Weather Glass toured the UK with the support of the Arts Council. Lucy is currently completing her manuscript for a second poetry collection with Carcanet Press, and developing a collaborative poetry / physical theatre sequence with OBRA, an international physical theatre company based in France. Lucy’s work frequently explores environmental questions and themes, including climate change: prior to returning to academia she worked as an environmental campaigner for organisations such as Friends of the Earth.

Book tickets here:


‘I am the Universe’: Poetry Reading and Prizegiving

Tue 4 July 2017
18:15 – 19:15 BST
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall

‘I am the Universe’ is a competition for young people to write poetry engaging with climate change. Working with landscape representations by contemporary artists and British Romantic writers, the poet Helen Mort created a challenge for young writers up to the age of 25, asking them to consider their place in the world and explore ideas of strange and familiar places, shifting territories, and our collective and individual responsibilities towards our planet. The competition received over 200 brilliant, searching, beautiful poems from young people all over the world.

This event will feature readings of the ten prize-winning poems as well as a specially commissioned poem by Helen Mort.

‘I am the Universe’ is the result of a collaboration between the Poetry Society and the AHRC-funded British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project at the University of Leeds.

Book tickets here: 


A Change in the Air: Weathers, Words, and Landscapes – Public Lecture by Alexandra Harris

Wed 5 July 2017
17:45 – 19:00 BST
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall

Writers and artists across the centuries, looking up at the same skies and walking in the same brisk wind, have felt very different things.

The Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest lived in a wintry world, writing about the coldness of exile or the shelters they must defend against enemies outdoors. The Middle Ages brought the warmth of spring; the new lyrics were sung in praise of blossom and cuckoos. It is hard to find a description of a rainy night before 1700, but by the end of the eighteenth century the Romantics will take a squall as fit subject for their most probing thoughts. There have been times when the numbers on a rain gauge count for more than a pantheon of aerial gods. There have been times for meteoric marvels and times for gentle breeze.

As we enter what may be the last decades of English weather as we know it, let us celebrate English air and the writers and artists who have lived in it.

Alexandra Harris is the author of Weatherland, an attempt to tell the story of English literature through changes in the weather. She is Professor of English at the University of Liverpool, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a judge of the 2017 Ondaatje Prize for work evoking the spirit of place. Previous books include Virginia Woolf, and Romantic Moderns, for which she won the Guardian First Book Award and a Somerset Maugham Award.

Book tickets here:

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I am the Universe: Winning Poems

The British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project collaborated with The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network to produce ‘I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change’. The challenge and competition used Romantic texts and images alongside contemporary artworks to inspire young poets to think and write about the world’s changing landscapes.

The competition received a fantastic 239 entries. The winning poems, judged by Helen Mort, have now been announced, and can be read and enjoyed on the Young Poets Network website.

We have also published the wonderful 1st-prize-winning poem, ‘Inverie’ by Abigail Meyer, on our Public Engagement page.

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Mediating Climate Change: Programme

The draft programme for our conference Mediating Climate Change (4 – 6 July 2017) is now available!

Visit our conference page to check out the fantastic panels, papers, and events we have lined up.

On the conference page you can also find details of how to register.

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Poetry Reading Recordings

In November 2016 British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe collaborated with Leeds University Union Spoken Word Society to host an evening of readings from Romantic poetry and prose.

Members of LUUSWS performed pieces of Romantic writing about environmental catastrophe, apocalyptic weather, and climate change, inviting the audience to challenge their preconceptions about Romanticism and nature.

Now the recordings of their fantastic performances are available on our Resources page!

Photo by Talya Stitcher

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Mediating Climate Change: conference registration now open!

Registration is now open for our conference on Mediating Climate Change, which will be taking place at the University of Leeds from the 4th to the 6th July 2017.

Visit our conference page for details of how to register, and for further details about the conference including a programme and travel/accommodation information.

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I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change

British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe has collaborated with The Poetry Society and poet Helen Mort to create I am the Universe: Writing Climate Change: a challenge and competition for poets under 25. We invite young writers to respond to Romantic texts alongside Romantic and contemporary images, and use this inspiration to think and write about the world’s increasingly shifting landscapes.

The competition is now live! See the challenge and read about how to enter here, on the Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network.

Das Eismeer, or Sea of Ice (1823-1824) by Caspar David Friedrich

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News: Second Mediating Climate Change Call For Papers

The second Call for Papers for the conference Mediating Climate Change is now available.

Mediating Climate Change is an international, multidisciplinary environmental humanities conference organised as part of the British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project.

Visit the Conference section of our site for further details about the conference.

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News: Mediating Climate Change Call For Papers

The Call for Papers for the conference Mediating Climate Change is now available!

Mediating Climate Change is an international, multidisciplinary conference organised as part of the British Romantic Writing and Environmental Catastrophe project.

Visit the Conference section of our site to see the Call for Papers and for further details about the conference.

This entry was posted in News.

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