Projects Archive

Churchill 2014, Nature Stories, Projects

Churchill Fellow for 2014

Winston Churchill memorial trustSometimes when you have an idea, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Sometimes, it goes straight into my ideas box (a small, silver gift box I didn’t send the gift in(!), but kept and is now full of post-its and scraps of paper with ideas that I wanted to not lose, but needed to park for later). Sometimes you act on the idea, and it takes off. It forms a trajectory of its own. And it begins to change from a trickle to a stream in your life. And then who knows, perhaps to become the whole ocean of what it is you are, or what you do.

That seems to be the way my writing work around animals and conservation is heading. With the wonderful news that I’ve been awarded a Churchill Travel Fellowship for 2014, to research best practice in the USA and Canada in the field of writing practice as it takes place in the field of conservation education.

The Fellowship, one of 137 this year, out of around 1,200 applications, gives me the opportunity to spend six weeks developing knowledge and practice in conservation education, learning from some of the world’s leading organisations and individuals in taking conservation education to school and community groups.

The main focus of this work so far has been on marine mammal conservation. It began when I got involved with the charity ORCA and their cetacean data project in the North East of England–whale and dolphin watching, basically, to gather data about the populations in the sea along the North East coast, and in the North Sea, seen from the DFDS Ferries that cross to continental Europe.

But I wanted to do more, and learn more. So I applied for a small grant from HEFCE via the Unlimited Fund, which supports new social enterprises. And I was successful — and Nature Stories was born. ORCA already did school visits, taking the school kids out on the ferries to Amsterdam, to see the whales and dolphins. I then proposed writing workshops with them afterwards. You can read more about that on the project overview.

This work seemed so important I wanted to take it further. And the Churchill Fellowship looked like a good way to do that. And I was delighted when I was awarded the grant.

So I’m beginning to plan out the trip, which will take in some writing for/at the Vancouver Aquarium; joining Jackie Hildering the marine detective on some killer whale education boat tours with the Killer Whale Center; a visit to San Juan’s Whale Museum; attending the Mid-Atlantic Marine Educators Network Conference in Maryland; and then back over to Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (with, I hope, time for a trip to Farm Sanctuary and Animal Place in between).

I’m also going to spend a week of my own time in Toronto with the marvelous Toronto Pig Save people, and Jo-Anne McArthur, the author of We Animals, and who runs the Humane Education project, because I want to extend this work into writing practice around farmed animals too, seeing how writing (my own, inspiring that of others) can generate greater awareness and deeper reflection, leading to change, in people’s treatment of animals, and an improvement in the recognition and interests of animals, especially those billions (fish, farmed animals) who are all but invisible to us as living, sentient beings. Who are, as the film suggests, the Ghosts in Our Machine.

I’ll be using the Nature Stories site as my project blog to record the experience and connections, ideas, and discoveries — of which I hope and expect there to be many.

21 Soul Activism, 40before40, Projects, Writing Blog

The 40 x 40 list; a writer’s utopia of habits

I have a small silver box full of post-it notes. Written on those post-it notes are ideas I’ve had over the past five years while completing my PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, the creative element of which is my novel Obélisque. Both are all but finished (the PhD just waiting for the viva; the novel finished enough for now to pass that viva; I’ve also had an idea for what I need to do next with it).

The box was a helpful idea for how to deal with all those ideas that arrive as exciting distractions, bundles of energy to ‘do stuff’, while already committed to a major project. I’d have the idea, write it down, put it in the box, and put the lid back on the box. Suffer a little of the sadness of not being able to jump into that new idea right away, and get back to the discipline of, as Neil Gaiman says, finishing things.

So one of the reasons for looking at a list of 40 things to do for my 40th year was about, now those two big projects are all but ended, taking that lid off, literally and metaphorically. It feels so good to have an idea for something new and be able to act upon it. Rather than diverting it onto a post-it note and putting it away.

So that’s Reason One for my 40×40 project, which began officially this week (forty weeks until my 40th).

Reason Two is because none of these things are bad things to do. In fact, they are the easy habits that I want my life to be filled with (as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do…). And over half of them are all to do with honouring my commitment to write; either writing itself, or gaining inspiration to write about. A few friends have looked at what I’m proposing and warned me of not taking on too much. But these are all small, everyday things, rather than the large challenges some people set themselves (which are amazing and worthwhile in themselves, such as this XL challenge).

These are the things I sometimes fill my life with, and sometimes am too tired and lethargic to see through. Lethargy, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis suggests, is often the result of not grappling with the potential largeness of our life. To become is painful, and challenging, because it means change from the routizined life. So we often sink backwards away from even easy actions. It’s too easy to be overwhelmed.

Somehow, turning all of this into an aesthetic project feels a useful way to develop good rituals to replenish energy, rather than suck it away. It’s what the cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “the utopia of ordinary habit” that forms the ground from which energy for life can grow rather than become depressed. Heart-opening practices that will feed my writing and creative life.

Naming and visualising my actions also helps me commit to them. I have a very large 70cmx100m piece of art paper taped onto a piece of hardboard on which I am recording the activities as I do them. I’ll also do a weekly update for myself here about the most interesting things to come out of the project.

And there’s one last thing. When a friend questioned me on the size of the list, I replied by saying it was okay, I’m not being hard on myself, if I fail to do some of these things, so what? And yet I’ve wondered about that statement. I’ve wondered what it is about these everyday habits I’m okay with not doing, when so many of them are connected to the soulful sense of what I can achieve as a best self: as a writer, a vegan, a runner, a friend, a human being.

So I’m not okay with not doing these things. They are important, grounding, creative. And, as I’ve pointed out to a few people, “40 afternoons doing nothing” is high on the list.

So here is the list. With a couple of gaps still. There are a few ideas that, like all important challenges to one’s comfort and old habits, keep slipping away from my consciousness each time I think them. I’m sure I will pin them down at some point. And just creating this list has been an act of creative self-awareness, rewarding in that so many of the things I thought I wanted for myself—my professional career as a writer, my animal advocacy, my social networks—figure as central activities.

And finally, the sensation I feel when I read this list, or look at the board, which I have also begun to decorate with collage, is one of opportunity and energy. That tells me it’s a good thing to have done. And to see through.

Reading, Writing, Inspiration

  1. Read 40 books from my shelves
  2. Write 40 letters
  3. Spend 40 afternoons doing nothing
  4. See 40 performances
  5. Learn 40 Koans or prayers
  6. Plant 40 plants (and learn their names)
  7. Make 40 things
  8. Submit 40 pieces of creative writing
  9. Finish 40 bits of existing writing
  10. Listen to 40 albums without distractions
  11. See 40 exhibitions
  12. Write 40 new flash fictions or poems
  13. Review 40 books on the mid-life
  14. Contribute to 40 collaborative projects
  15. Read 40 random journal articles
  16. Learn 40 yoga poses
  17. Write 40 posts about being/going vegan
  18. Read 40 poetry collections
  19. Review 40 animal rights/ethics books
  20. Learn about 40 pieces of art

Feeding my social self

21. Help 40 animals
22. Friends over for 40 dinners
23. Run 40 races
24. Learn 40 new vegan recipes
25. Have 40 proper conversations
26. Remove 40 things from my home
27. Give 40 presents
28. Spend 40 hours learning French
29. Meet 40 new people
30.
31.

Looking after the self

32. Meditate 40 days in a row
33. Be alcohol free for 40 days
34. Be chocolate free for 40 days
35. Do a 40-mile run
36. Commit 40 hours to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul activism programme
37. Let go of 40 things
38. Take 40 walks with the ecological self
39.
40.

Thanks to Viccy Adams, Ceri, Jill Clough, Susan Tonkin, Jo Montgomery, Rachel Fay, Steve Thorp and others for some stimulating conversations and ideas for things to go on the list.

40before40, Projects, Writing Blog

Filling the wobbly vase at 40

potteryHello. Happy New Year.

I’m working on a fun idea for my 40th year. A few months ago, while engaged in conversation with a student, we spoke about time-limited-oriented blogs, such as ‘400 Days until 40’, which is one that my student used to read. It freaked me out a little that he mentioned this on the exact day that I had 400 days until I was 40. Anyway, after a few weeks of pure fear of aging and dying, I then went on a friend’s 40th birthday, we spoke about it, and I got over it.

And now I’m starting to see other friends, acquaintances, bloggers, all with their excellent ’40 before 40′ lists (going up in balloons, singing in public etc). Other people have lists or acts that are more closely linked to their everyday. A poet I know is learning 40 poems off-by-heart before she’s 40. (She’s a wonderful performance poet.) I liked that idea. In fact, I liked both the wild and the everyday.

Read the rest of this entry

Projects, Writing Blog

Sleep Pressure: Tumblr Project

In May 2011 I entered a three month sleep programme at Glasgow University’s Sleep Centre as a participant in a PhD study to assess people’s adherence to programmes that help them sleep better. I’d always had difficult and interrupted sleep, perhaps operating on 70% of what (I thought) I needed.

The  sleep programme helped me understand my own sleep needs, sleep hygeine and attitudes towards sleep and myself. Under the guidance of Meghan Crawford and Dr Simon Kyle, who both work in Colin Espie’s centre, and with the support of a fellow sufferer, C, I progressed from being a poor sleeper to an average sleeper. And in 2012 I would say I now am a good — automatic — sleeper.

As ever, my instinct was to write about it. This is my sleep log that I kept at the time, something that I found incredibly useful, and then, as I needed to, left behind — writing about sleep did not, for me, make it automatic, and automaticity is the key behind good sleep behaviour. But I’m still happy with the record and what I learnt through the process of understanding myself through writing.

Activism, Projects

Save Our Woods

Save Our Woods is a grassroots organisation that was born in 2010 to ensure that our public forest estate remains in public ownership. The people behind SoW (Hen, Karen, Nick and now also Pip) believe this is the best way to protect those woodlands for future generations, ensuring their access and biodiversity are maintained and enhanced, and their resources are managed sustainably and in the best interests for wildlife and local communities.

The campaign began when the Government announced plans to sell off up to 100% of the Public Forestry Estate. The campaign was incredible, and forced the government into a ‘Yew Turn’. SoW are now engaged with Government on formulating their response to the Forestry Panels’ recommendations.

Here’s my contribution to the Save Our Woods campaign via their website. I also wrote a number of academic papers which were presented at conferences and a final version of which will be published in the collection Environmental Crisis and the Media (edited by Libby Lester and Brett Hutchins). The chapter can be downloaded from my Academic CV page.