SCCAN Story Weaver Lesley Anne Rose reflects on SCCAN’s Northern Gathering, which took place at Merkinch Community Centre in Inverness on Saturday 16 September 2023
“This is the time to dream, The best dream of them all”
These are the closing lines of Ben Okri’s poetry collection Mental Flight, An Anti-Spell for the 21st Century, a long secular poem celebrating humankind’s achievements at the end of the 20th century and rallying cry for the next. The last page of this collection, which was read aloud to open SCCAN’s Northern Gathering, concludes with a final section called Turn on Your Light, which in turn is concluded with the above quote.
Extremes of light and dark, weather and landscapes are all associated with ‘the North’ in popular imagination. All of which gives a ‘Northern Gathering’ an air of something ancient and deeply attached to the land, which many of those gathered wanted to discuss, debate, communicate with and take action to protect.
“Nature’s coming in!”
In medieval times, the north door of a church was called the Devil’s Door and kept locked tight. “Nature’s coming in!” announced Nadine Malcolm, Development Officer (Arts, Culture and Heritage) at the Highlands and Islands Climate Hub, as she burst through the door of the McCreadie Suite at Merkinch Community Centre where the Northern Gathering was taking place. Far from bringing the devil with her, Nadine carried in armfuls of leaves and branches to decorate a corner of the room dedicated to the Letters to the Earth exhibition. Leaves and letters handwritten on rustic handmade paper combined to create a cosy, leafy corner and constant presence of nature throughout of the day. A reminder of why we were gathered and the importance of our individual and collective relationship with the Earth.
The McCreadie Suite was large enough for everyone in attendance to sit in a circle during the times we all gathered together. Following the opening poem, welcome and housekeeping, the circle broke as we separated into the three morning workshops. The first led by Nadine who invited those in attendance to write their own Letter to the Earth and in doing so bring all of our fears, frustrations and love to what is happening to it.
The second workshop focused on Resilience, Wellbeing and Active Hope and was led by Chris Johnstone, Active Hope is a programme that supports us to find, and offer, our best response when facing concerns about our world situation. Chris’ gentle harmonica played at intervals across the McCreadie Suite during his workshop as activities shifted and provided a calming resonance for us all in the face of the, sometimes overwhelming, questions of the day.
Everyday Change Makers with Story Weaver Kaska Hempel, was the third morning workshop on offer. Providing an opportunity for those gathered to learn how to record great interviews on their smartphones and contribute to the Everyday Changemakers series of SCCAN’s 1000 Better Stories podcast. Kaska had also set up a Storytelling Corner adjacent to the Letters to the Earth exhibition in the McCreadie Suite, which reminded us all of the importance of story as well as providing those gathered with an opportunity to share and record our own climate story.
Autumn is a time to look within, to harvest and to shed. Reflections that arose during the morning workshops chimed with the time of the year. Conversations touched on the commitments we make to the Earth, both in terms of our climate pledges, but also what we need, or want, to let go of and ‘commit’ to the ground. We opened up conversations on the importance of deep listening to the Earth and re-establishing a relationship with the land, rather than considering it a commodity to be bought, sold and extracted from. As the morning workshops concluded we gathered again for lunch and conversations from the morning continued as our commitments to the day, and the Gathering, were sustained by delicious vegan and gluten free food.
The afternoon offered three more workshops. The first, The Earth Writes Back, led by poet Cáit O’Neill McCullagh, an opportunity to create ecopoetry; poems that share the dialogues between us people and this planet, making together the world we share. In the leafy corner of the McCreadie Suite, attendees were invited to imagine poetry as a form of deep listening, asking the questions ‘what does the earth want to tell us today; what pasts have we shared, and what ways of sustaining can we imagine together?’ With Letters to the Earth hanging above the workshop, attendees imagined new ‘potential histories’ in which the Earth writes back.
In complement with the Earth writing back, the Tradition of the Bard workshop led by Nadine, Col Gordon and Lee McNeish shared the history of the traditional role of the Bard in Scotland, and their significance as news-bringers, informers and cultural commentators. This workshop felt particularly apt for the Gathering as we learned of the function of the Bard to bring people together, foster community and shared stories/histories. The workshop took us on a journey of active remembrance and imagination, as we learned of the Bard’s role of looking after associated rights attached to the land. All of which fell away as land became a commodity to be bought and sold, and our individual and community relationships with it severed and mediated instead by ‘professionals’ who speak on behalf of nature.
The workshop was a gentle reminder that some solutions for a hopeful future have deep roots in the past, which linked with the third afternoon workshop offer on which focused on place based writing and climate stories. Led by myself, Lesley Anne Rose, one of SCCAN’s Story Weavers, the workshop invited participants to let places, their past, present and possible futures speak through us as one continuous story we have influence over. We re-drew maps of places we know well and care about, taking back our relationship and orientation on the land from the hands of state cartographers and into those who have a living relationship with place.
“The future that we want, and the future that we choose, is so much better than the present that we have.”
As attendees formed a circle for the final time, the day, and Gathering, was drawn together, and to a close, by more poetry, this time from Cáit O’Neill McCullagh. The deepest takeaways from the day were a deep reflection on ‘place’, in terms of our physical relationship with the land, but also as a liminal space where stories take shape. A mythical space where we step into dreamtime and into a place where the past, present and future exist in unison. All of which chimed with notions of ‘the North’ as a place deep within our own internal geographies as well as a direction on a physical map.
Nadine reminded us under the leaves of nature she brought into the Gathering of the need to reconnect with the power and potential of kinship and to be kin with each other and the earth. The Gathering had been a reminder of kinship, and the challenge for all of us as we dispersed and began our individual journeys back to the places we know of as home, is how to take the visions we collectively connected while in kin with each other, on a journey from a place of imagination and into physical reality. And in doing so collectively create a future that has the potential to be so much better than the present that we have.