Tuesday 13 March 2012

Polar bear hunting is not sport

I've just signed a petition here sending a message to the Canadian government in protest at their granting of licences to shoot polar bears for so-called 'sport'. 
I have campaigned for the rights of indigenous people to use their lands as they will, and many years ago that meant I came across the difficult question of whether this includes the right to hunt polar bears. I love polar bears beyond all other animals, I always have. If I were to choose to die, it would be by the paw of a polar bear ('I'd rather die by carnivore than by car...'). I revere these animals. My instinct is that no-one should have the right to hunt them.

But for indigenous people, such as the Chukchi people from north east Russia, hunting polar bears is a fundamental part of their identity. A young man comes of age by taking part in a polar bear hunt, and the animal's skin is then made into clothes that he will wear to hunt for the rest of his life. I have grown to accept that indigenous people have the right to wear polar bear pants. More than that, I have come to see the survival of the traditional ways of people who understand bears and their habitat sufficiently well to be able to hunt them, as a key part of polar bear conservation.

So, I am not opposed to the hunting of polar bears per se. But so-called 'sport hunting' is a totally different matter. There is no moral basis for people with no cultural or spiritual connection with polar bears to gun them down, often from helicopters. It's a disgusting practice, and one the Canadian government profits hugely from, selling polar bear hunting licences for up to 60,000 Canadian dollars.

No civilised country should tolerate this. Please join me in telling the Canadian government to stop the sale of 'sport' licences for hunting polar bears. The petition is here.

N.B. The picture is from the Bear With Us bear sanctuary.

Monday 12 March 2012

The paper paradox

Today I returned to a role I had for almost five years, from 2005 to 2009, as co-ordinator of the European Environmental Paper Network. One of my mottoes in life is 'never go back', but I have made an exception here, and after two and a bit years, I'm putting the hat back on. At the end of my first day, I'm so glad I made the decision.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm passionate about trees and forests. I am a woodland animal and I am fierce in my desire to protect the world's forests. But I'm also a writer, and that inevitably means significant paper use.

Therein lies a paradox. On the one hand I want vast amounts of paper to come pouring off presses with my writing on it. On the other hand, I want the paper industry to stop destroying precious forests.

This paradox led me to seek answers to how paper can be sustainably produced and used, so that my literary appetite wouldn't need to be satisfied at the expense of endangered habitats or people dependent upon them. Part of the result of this search was a book, PaperTrails: from trees to trash – the true cost of paper (published by Virgin Books on 100% recycled paper and available paper free as an ebook – of course!).

The other result was that I found myself putting my energy into a growing, global campaign to push the pulp and paper industry towards a future where it is benign, sustainable and life-enriching.

At the moment there are still parts of the paper industry which are far from benign or sustainable, and as I read through some documents today I remembered why I need to return to the job of helping to transform the industry. This excerpt from a funding bid will give you a flavour:

'The paper industry uses 42% of the world’s industrial timber, more water per tonne than any other industry in industrialised countries and as much energy per tonne as steel manufacture. As well as its climate change emissions, the pulp and paper industry’s impacts include large-scale deforestation and forest degradation, human rights abuses in many countries, emission of toxic pollutants like dioxin, and more domestic waste than any other material. Globally, paper production, use and disposal are responsible for more climate change emissions than aviation, yet this has not been fully appreciated. The life-cycle of a single sheet of A4 paper causes the release of as much greenhouse gas as a light bulb left on for one hour. Just 10% of the world's population (Western Europe and North America) consume more than 50% of the world’s paper. Europeans and Americans use 6 times as much paper as the world average.

'Most if not all of the negative effects of pulp and paper production could be radically reduced: the destruction of natural and high conservation-value forests could be entirely stopped; the climate-impact of paper-production radically reduced by maximising the recycled fibre content and using best available technology; the emission of pollutants dramatically reduced by using totally chlorine free (TCF) bleaching technology. Most importantly, perhaps, the unsustainable consequences of paper production could best be mitigated by reducing the over-consumption of paper products in the most developed parts of the world. The EEPN is determined to work towards these goals in close collaboration with its members.'

And I'm proud to be working with them again.

Friday 2 March 2012

By leaves we live

'By leaves we live' is the motto of the Scottish Poetry Library (quoting Patrick Geddes, I think), so what better place to do the research for an anthology of poems about trees? I'm very excited to be working with Saraband Press to compile an anthology, which will be based around the Gaelic Tree Alphabet but not restricted to Scottish poems. I had a list of about 80 poems, which I'd used in the A-B-Tree project events last year (see my web page on the project if you don't know what I'm talking about), but I knew there must be more tree poems out there, waiting to be discovered. Thanks to the Poetry Library I have more than doubled that number.

I just can't rave about the Scottish poetry library enough. If you have never been, and have even a passing interest in poems, you must visit the next time you're in Edinburgh. It's down towards the bottom of the Royal Mile, on the right, pretty much within shouting distance of the Parliament (that's if shouting poems is your thing). It's staffed by lovely people, has a uniquely peaceful atmosphere and it's simply packed from the basement to the attic with the best writing in the world.

I've been a friend of the library for a few years. They do free postal lending to friends, which is an absolutely brilliant service. I start each day reading poetry in bed with a cup of tea, and feeding my habit would be impossibly expensive if I couldn't lift the phone, ask for some books and receive a few days later a package of goodness for my bedside table. It means I can take wild risks, read experimentally, ask for poets I've barely heard of, and gorge myself on fat collected works that would break the bank and bend my shelves.

It also means I can read books that Amazon and the rest say are unavailable or out of print. As a poet who has two out of print books now, I know exactly what that means. It's very comforting to know that even though publishers can't (or won't) keep work available, the library is there making sure an inquisitive reader can have their curiosity satisfied.

So, I'm a long-term fan of the library, but only over the past couple of weeks have I discovered the full depths of the miracle that is their catalogue. I've used it, of course, because you can use it anywhere, which is a great help to someone for whom a round trip to the library is more than 500 miles. I fairly regularly type in the name of a poet or book title I want, to see if they have what I fancy in the lending section or only available for reference. But until I started researching the tree poem anthology, that was about the extent of my enquiries.

But now I know what treasures it contains. You can do a subject search, type in a tree species (say Birch), and up comes a list of 38 entries. Some of these are books by familiar names - The Poetry of Robert Frost is there because of his famous poem Birches - but many are by poets new to me. Even pamphlets are in there. Even the priceless concrete poetry art of Ian Hamilton Finlay. And then there are the mysterious items that are not books, but are individual poems in the Scottish Poetry Index.  These are gold dust!

Here's one: The Leaning Tree, by Robert B Shaw. Clicking on its title takes me to a page that tells me that it's in Verse. To be precise, it's in Vol. 7, no. 3 (Winter 1990); p.66. Verse is a now-extinct poetry magazine. There are masses of these, and they are the lifeblood of the poetry scene. Publication of individual poems in little magazines is how most poets get established, get their poetry seen and take part in the literary world. But the magazines are obscure, ephemeral, specialist and you can't possibly subscribe to even all of the good ones and keep pace with what's currently being published, let alone search their back lists. Except you can! Because a deity at the Scottish Poetry Library has catalogued them! 

I've done searches for all 18 species in the Gaelic Tree Alphabet, which threw up about 250 items that looked new to me or needed investigating, and I spent much of this week in Edinburgh going through my lists, in the library, checking up on them. And what treasure I have found! A Norman MacCaig poem that isn't in the big collected works; ancient Chinese writers meditating on pine; old Scots poems; Gaelic poems; poets completely new to me, like the Norwegian Olav Hauge, beautifully translated by Robin Fulton, and poets who were previously just names, like Michael Hamburger, who it turns out share my passion for trees.

Most of these discoveries would have been completely impossible without the catalogue (and all the years of data entry it must have required to build it). To all of those involved, each time I could follow the directions to an old copy of Lines Review, or West Coast Magazine, or Chapman, including even (thank you, thank you!) the page number, I offer my heartfelt gratitude. 

I felt as if there should be a shrine where I could make an offering, burn an incense stick, leave some flower petals or titbits of food. Instead, this blog post is my puja. Blessings and thanks to the Goddess of the Scottish Poetry Library Catalogue.