By Mirko Bonné, Berlin / Translated by James Lattimer
Directing this question at the mirror, even if just the mirror of language, I work out that it’s been more than fifteen months now that you’ve been one of the five authors working on the Weather Stations project. Has the way you see the world changed after having been at a weather station yourself?
Every morning, the first time I look out of the window I take in the weather, the sky, the clouds and trees, the trees that enable us to read the wind. A year and a half ago, reports about a tornado in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern would have surprised me, but I certainly wouldn’t have made the connection with my profession and noted down the things that the mayor of Nützow said, things, by the way, that I also heard expressed in very similar fashion in regions of Australia, where they’ve been living with extreme weather for decades now.
The Weather Stations project is about raising awareness. Something which must be pretty much old hat for you, no?
Climate change is of course a good match for today’s world. No one actually attends to anything that can’t be understood or consumed. The only thing that counts is what’s useful – and preferably to oneself. During my adolescence in the Kohl era, we still used to offer dogged opposition, happy to have something to rebel against in the form of the throwaway society, but we didn’t guess at the time that we in our morally flawless manner were taking part just as diligently in establishing the throwaway world in which we live today. It goes without saying that writers are concerned with raising awareness. But they shouldn’t allow themselves to be yoked to a particular cause, not even one such as this. Writers have to keep hold of the reins themselves and not allow themselves to be led too much, the best balance is somewhere between horse and driver. As far as I’m concerned, climate change is a linguistic problem, as for me it’s all about examining the possibilities of how it can be represented and communicated in literary terms. The Weather Stations project has taken me to linguistic fields into which I would never otherwise have ventured. I sat at Chowder Bay in Sydney with two oceanographers who explained to me what it’s like to dive in a forest of seaweed and algae.
Are writers able to contribute to making the complex, manifold demands exacted on today’s world by so-called climate change and its consequences more transparent – would you agree that that’s what it’s about?
Over the course of the project, I’ve realized – and have been very surprised by – just how much everything depends on the individual here. I would even say that climate change isn’t a problem for humanity, but rather affects each person individually. Whether in Dublin, London, Melbourne, Potsdam or Sydney, I was able to observe the same thing everywhere in the faces of the oceanographers, cloud researchers and meteorologists we talked to: their frequent astonishment at sitting across from people for whom language actually means something fundamentally different.
For a writer and for a poet in particular, it’s difficult to talk about language and writing in purely abstract, fundamental terms. Was the Weather Stations project restrictive to this end?
There’s no reason to relinquish a sense of productive doubt just because the problem in question seems so very urgent. It would be absurd to have to disregard the demands, dismissals and doubts that poetic minds have attempted to communicate for centuries as soon as the focus is on seemingly unambiguous conflicts that can only be determined for sure via science.
You’ve said in various panel discussions that you believe the debate surrounding climate change revolves around a conflict either not recognized as such or concealed.
The conflict is far-reaching and can hardly even be expressed in words. I regard the consequences wrought by climate change as the expressions of a world attempting to put its human inhabitants in their place. It is a dialogue that has gone off the rails, an ancient conflict that is now escalating. Humankind against nature – and vice versa. This is likely the root cause for the fear many people have of engaging with the subject to any real extent. Yet I equally believe that it is first and foremost the linguistic side of things that is important in this debate.
Because you’re a writer rather than a computer or speaker. Could you maybe formulate your approach in more detail?
I try to avoid every theory. John Keats said that every philosophical axiom must be proved on our pulse. And Günter Eich was of the opinion that writing means seeing the world as language. Communicating the dramatic nature of climate change – I actually prefer to say climate destruction – is to my mind also a problem of precision. Science claims to operate based on the most precise language possible. For me, as a poet, on the other hand, language is far more than just a vehicle for data or a semantic tool. It is a sensual, tangible, historical medium, that is, a narrative one. It is itself the communicator. And it is always also a monster fully capable of being manipulated. I can never hear or read the word ‘total’ without thinking of the criminal demagoguery of someone like Goebbels. For me, language is no more or less an instrument than magic is. In my eyes, it’s the connective tissue necessary for life, that which connects me to everything and everyone else, linking our world of today with the past world of the dead and the future one of our as yet unborn grandchildren. Language is the only parallel world whose existence I do not deny. The wonderful quotidian poetry of so many of the texts written by my Melbourne Weather Stations colleague Tony Birch talks about precisely this again and again: What does my life, the life of people today, have to do with the stories of people from the past, who still knew how to read the land and didn’t have to cover everything in concrete and destroy it out of pure fear and insecurity?
What experience was the most important for you in these months at a weather station?
The best moments were always when people started talking. Past weather and the weather of today. The sort of weather described by my grandfather, the sort of weather we used to have when I was still a girl. A student in Tallaght near Dublin told me how he saw his grandparents’ house being washed away when the heavy storms hit Ireland in the summer of 2014. It was really moving to visit the Yarra valley south of Melbourne and to speak to people about the bushfires that destroyed entire stretches of land there. In those months, it became very vivid to me how much people love their lives and their stories. I think that’s also something we have a form of language to thank for which aims at vagueness rather than precision. That’s why I think that climate change represents a chance, probably the last chance, for a greater sense of togetherness.
Free Word is an international centre for literature, literacy and free expression. We develop local, national and international collaborations that explore the transformative power of words. Living Dangerously: Stories of Climate Change is our programme that puts sets out to harness the transformative power of literature to explore how, as global citizens, and in the context of environmental degradation, we might live our lives differently. In the lead up to Paris we will hear from artists in all corners of the world about how climate change affects them and how their attitudes are reflected in their work. Check back every week between November and December to hear from writers in Nigeria, Nepal, Jamaica, St Lucia, the UK, Norway and further afield. Weather Stations brings together five partners from across the world – internationales literaturfestival berlin, Krytyka Polityczna in Warsaw, Tallaght Community Arts in Dublin, The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne and Free Word in London. Each organisation established a Weather Station at their cultural institution and a Sub-Station at a local school – facilitating writing workshops and activities that engaged students in key questions about living with our changing climate. Over the past 18 months, students from the five schools worked together and with writers in residence to explore how literature can inspire new ways of living in the context of the most fundamental challenge facing humanity today – our changing climate. ‘Weather Stations: Writing Climate Change’ brings together some of the best of this work.