From Beetles to Bananas

Creative Writing Workshop at Nethercott House, Farms for City Children, Iddesleigh, Devon July 19th 2018

The moorland glowed behind me more yellow than green, dried out, hot. With the Sat Nav ‘recalculating’ I headed downhill between hedgerows along narrowing lanes. Somewhere, close by, twenty nine children, waited. And then, in the shade of trees, I saw the sign. I’d found ‘Nethercott House’ for our ‘Climate Stories’ Workshop.

The charity ‘Farms for City Children’, founded by Sir Michael and Lady Morpurgo, offers residencies at Nethercott House for school children to experience farming and living in the countryside first hand. It provided a unique place for a ‘Climate Stories’ team, myself as creative writing lead, and Met Office and University of Exeter scientists Kate Baker, Sarah Baker, Jess Collins, Felicity Liggins and Tom Powell, to join pupils from The Marine Academy, Plymouth. Inspired by our previous arts/science Dartington workshops, our aim was to connect a rural setting with climate change as a way to promote discussions and writing by young people.

Farm manager Tim Rose, Education Officer Mel Slater, and teacher Georgina Brunning helped us organise the afternoon. With clipboards, pens and paper we split into groups and settled in specific areas: by the dried up pond, in the Victorian walled garden and under a canopy of foliage in a ‘forest’ area. As I headed away from the house a boy rushed towards me. ‘Look!’ We watched a luminous beetle, the size of a pin head, climb up his arm before it flew off. Wide eyed he said, ‘I’ve never seen one like that before.’ There were other significant and poignant moments during our afternoon that prompted writing about insects and their decline. Among snap dragons, bees and butterflies discussions arose with Jess about the Earth being like a garden that needs nurturing. One poem linked the passage of time in light years through sunflowers and stars. As the day grew hotter other thoughts emerged on water supplies, rainfall and drought with Sarah and Kate.

Franklin R. Rogers writes about poets and painters entering a state of creativity called ‘the meander field’; the farm setting certainly seemed to provide the children with a space conducive to creativity. A girl said, ‘I can write a poem about a lavender bush – I’m sat by one and I can smell it!’ Connecting to the senses proved vital to the writing. Conversations about carbon dioxide, green house gases and the historical clearing of land were ongoing in the forest area with Tom. Felicity, our ‘roving scientist’ answered ‘pop up’ questions and, in our ice-cream break, demonstrated her show stopping ‘Cloud in a bottle’ experiment when there were no clouds in the sky. Working outside a classroom proved liberating. Perhaps Nethercott offered freedom to write in a similar way to Frank O’Hara who drafted his ‘lunchtime’ poems while strolling around New York. In an environment we were inspired by and were active in we could fire up imaginations, question our ideas and through looking and talking usefully fuel the spontaneity and authenticity of the writing. One pupil talked about how he couldn’t bear for trees to be cut back. Plants should be left to grow and find their own way and spread their roots. Another asked, ‘Do you know the banana plant is a herb?’ Most of us didn’t. Someone connected rosemary to a Chinese take-away meal eaten just before coming to Nethercott. This lead to writing about the food chain, sustainability, transporting food, and looking after cows, pigs, sheep, horses, chickens kept on the farm.

Writing poetry allowed us to pause, really look, consider subtle change and the language we use around climate change. Some collaborated on their writing while others used the opportunity to express how precious such things as birdsong, trees and wild flowers were to them on a personal level. Kate Baker commented: ‘It was great to work with young people, who are not afraid to ask lots of questions and to be naturally curious. Poetry and creative writing were used as a powerful tool for them to express their enjoyment of being in the countryside, a very different setting to their normal city lives.’

Now, as I edit the children’s writing for the ‘Climate Stories’ anthology into a collaborative poem where the children’s voices and words celebrate and analyse the past, present and future of the natural world, I wonder if we could repeat this thought provoking, productive and memorable afternoon again. There’s no doubt being away from a traditional classroom in a heat-wave helped drive discussions and motivate writing. In the magical setting of Nethercott where, on the horizon, moorland meets sky, something very special happened as the children read out some of their poems. We were united in wanting to imagine and find ways to care for and protect the countryside from climate change and, as the dinner bell rang out, a collective awareness shone through – there’s no time to waste.


Dr Sally Flint

Dept of English, University of Exeter

July 30th 2018



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