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How ecopoetry can help us tackle climate change

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16 May 2022

How ecopoetry can help us tackle climate change

Professor of Ecopoetry and Poetics

REF 2021

This case study was included as part of the Research Excellence Framework for 2021:

Monday 16 May • Viewing time: 1 minute

My project exploring the environment of a Lincolnshire plotland, and the people who live and stay in its chalets, is giving a voice to the marginal — and helping to put climate change in a local context.

I’ve always been interested in experimental techniques of poetry. As an ecopoet I use the whole space of the page, using language inventively to make people think again and question their assumptions about the environment we share. I have worked in this field for thirty years, and have coined the term Radical Landscape Poetry.

For the last decade or so, I have worked with the artist and academic Dr Judith Tucker from the University of Leeds. Judith creates pencil drawings and paintings and I write poetry. Our work is created together and designed to be displayed together.

A typical project will see us visiting a particular place over a long period of time, walking in its countryside and experiencing its wildlife and plantlife. Equally importantly, we speak to the people who live there.

It’s all about feelings — people's feelings about their place. You can't truly understand a place or its history without understanding the people. The environment and the culture of a place are intertwined.

In 2013 we embarked on a new project about the Humberston Fitties, a plotland of chalets in North East Lincolnshire. Over the following years, this project would lead to extensive public debate about the environment and its local context.

One of our last remaining plotlands

Back in the first half of the 20th century, you would find plotlands all around the British coast. They were a bit like a static caravan site, except that instead of caravans you bought a patch of land and built what you liked on it, often out of recycled materials left over from the war. In recent times plotlands have fallen out of favour, and many have closed down.

The Humberston Fitties near Cleethorpes in North East Lincolnshire is one plotland that continues to be a strong community. It contains around 350 chalets, all with their own unique aesthetics.

The chalets are owned by a mix of really interesting people. Most have decided to live a simple life on the coast; others just take their holidays there. They love the environment and the landscape, and that’s no surprise — there are vast, beautiful beaches, estuaries, flat landscapes, and it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its amazing birds.

The Fitties are also the subject of several environmental debates. The whole of the east coast, including the Cleethorpes area, is liable to flooding and in need of flood defence. Salt marsh can help as a soft defence against flood, but some local people would rather preserve the sandy beaches than let the salt marsh reestablish itself. It’s often seen as a sand versus mud debate!

Since 2016, the people of the Fitties have also felt that their way of life might be under threat from the sale of the overall land to a private company, which raised fears that its heritage and environmental status would be undermined.

It made it the perfect place for us to explore in our work.

How we worked

The way we make art is to make a connection with people. In the Fitties we delivered postcards to every chalet and asked people to write down their memories of the place. We also set up stalls on the beach to talk to people.

I also carried out longer interviews with some chalet owners. People like to talk about their area. They'll drag out their aged aunts and grannies who love speaking to someone who is interested in what they have to say.

Some of the older people could remember the times of gas lamps and fetching water in buckets. For many of them, if was a long-held ambition to have a chalet there, and they had saved up all their life for it.

From our many visits and conversations, Judith and I created collaborative paintings and poems for exhibition. It was also made into a book called Neverends — which is the name of one of the chalets. We wanted people to be able to take something away from the exhibition.

My poetry in the collection includes landscape poetry and found words from the voices of the chalet owners, their memories, and the way they feel about the plotland.

We launched Neverends at the launch of the exhibition near the Fitties, where many of the chalet owners were present, along with local historian Alan Dowling, who wrote a book about the history of the Fitties. It felt like he was passing the baton of documenting the Fitties on to us, which was very moving.

Since then it has been exhibited all around the UK and as far afield as Yantai in China and Gdansk in Poland.

A painting of a Fitties chalet in North East Lincolnshire by Judith Tucker
One of Judith Tucker's Fitties paintings

Making connections to climate change

Climate change is such a huge idea, it can be overwhelming and hard to relate to. My work helps relate the macro to the micro. By talking about a specific place it can refer to the smaller scale changes that people notice — like the first daffodil or first cuckoo getting earlier.

Coastal areas like the Humberston Fitties are in the frontline of climate change in this country. You can see the effects of climate change there more than other places, from flash flooding caused by extreme rainfall and storms coinciding with high tides.

There are families who have owned chalets in the Fitties since the 1920s. They can tell you how the climate and the landscape have changed. The old flood defences are now underwater. All this land was originally reclaimed and sometimes it feels as if it would like to go back to marsh and sea.

That’s why it’s so important that my work amplifies the voices of local people. When thinking about how we deal with environmental crises, we can’t make big decisions without engaging with local communities and seeing how they are invested in their place.

Giving people a voice

The community of the Fitties certainly engaged with our project. They told us it opened up art and poetry to people who have never before set foot in a gallery or opened a volume of poetry. We had a really good reaction when we exhibited our work locally — including in the local Discovery Centre at Cleethorpes, which offered a community art space near to the Fitties plotland itself.

North East Lincolnshire has been written about a lot as an example of a place where people feel left behind. It’s a place that used to rely on a fishing industry that was once the biggest in the world but has now all but disappeared.

Through our work, Judith and I have given disenfranchised people a voice. When I use their voices in my poems, people tell me they feel more valued and listened to.

Locals were surprised we wanted to make art about the Fitties. And people value a place more when you make art about it.

We’ve talked about the Fitties all over the world. We feel a responsibility towards it. And now we have our own chalet there too.

REF 2021 Research Excellence Framework logo

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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