Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology
  • Audio
  • 15 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Taking inspiration from your surroundings

Updated Saturday 28th August 2010

In this extended interview, the poet and writer Andrea Porter explains how the beauty of the Fens in eastern England influences her work teaching local children about environmental concepts

Listen

Copyright open university

Read

Andrea Porter
Hello, I'm Andrea Porter and I live in a small house in the Fens in the United Kingdom, and I work with special needs children aged from five to 11 in a variety of 70 different schools in rural and urban locations.

Interviewer
And this is not the only career that you have, is it?

Andrea Porter
No, I'm also a poet, and I suppose a writer.  I've kind of juggled those two balls in the air for quite a long time now, so.

Interviewer
Does one inform the other?

Andrea Porter
Yes, because if I didn’t do the day job so to, well with poetry it’s a day job but if I didn’t do the work that I do, I think that keeps me very grounded.  I think otherwise poetry, you know, there’s a danger of becoming - I wouldn’t like to just rely on poetry for my way of life, because I think that would do a disservice to me and poetry.  I mean that’s just personal taste, you know, I can't, I like to know that I'm functioning with people that are, most of whom live on the margins of society really, the sort of children I work with, and I like travelling around and seeing, you know, the rural community has its problems just as much as an urban community, and it keeps me grounded, so I think that element forms the poetry.  And before I did this job I was a social worker, and so I've always worked with kind of marginalised people.

Interviewer
How does the landscape, the physical landscape, influence both of your careers?

Andrea Porter
In the one, it’s because my job is peripatetic, and I cover, it’s quite a big mileage I cover, you know, and I see, and it’s within that patch, I'm constantly driving through the countryside all the time and through towns.  So every day I have it through the car window at me, so I just see it all the time and I think partly, and I think, you know, the joy of the Fens is it’s flat, not so hard to walk through the Fens and you see things that, there is nothing so spectacular as a sunset in the Fens because you can see the curve of the earth because it’s so - in particular areas you can literally see the curve.  I mean just these, and you, and I think that technically, geography would probably put me right, in certain parts of the Fens there is nothing between you and the Ural Mountains.  If you look in a certain direction, there is no higher until you get to the Ural, and somehow that, you kind of had a, when the wind’s blowing in across the Fens, and it can really cut you, and that’s why, you know, even the trees are a history of the wind because they're just so warped and stunted, you know, if you get a real fen tree.  But they're just, so I suppose it all affects poetry and the, and the, because I have to know about the, in a way the children I work with, I have to know their context and so, you know, sometimes you would deal with a child who’s got certain problems who’s in a rural community or in a rural setting, it’s sometimes a very different problem from a child in an urban dysfunctional housing estate.

Interviewer
Do you believe that there is some kind of therapeutic role for the natural world?

Andrea Porter
When you see people’s reactions and children, especially children’s reactions because, you know, I sometimes go out with groups of children and we go out to, you know, I have been with children who have never seen the sea, you know, and they're ten years old and they’ve never seen the sea, or they didn’t realise that milk comes from a cow.  So they're, and that’s the kind of urban child being taken out, but there’s also rural children who, you know, eggs come out of a chicken’s bum, this is a bit of a revelation, they go oh no, I'm not going to eat an egg again.  But I think it’s that, if you walk a lot in the Fens, in fact I can only talk about, I'm talking about the Fens now but I mean it’s a different experience when you go elsewhere, there is something, I think there is something about the ability to be literally, I mean I know it’s an idiomatic phrase, but down to earth.   There is something almost basic and feral about, you know, you get a bunch of kids mucking about in a wood, you know, in the leaves, and it’s a natural instinct to sort of, you know, they're almost down there looking for the little ground nuts to store like squirrels, walk through the very urban bits that I work in, you know, the big housing estates, and where they’ve tried to make, build houses, you know, they’ve read all the books and they’ve built, you know, they’ve not gone high and they’ve done small, defendable territories for houses to try and make people feel, they’ve actually knocked down all the high walkways that were very high crime rate because they were just so, you were so vulnerable on those.  But like there was a common in the middle of a big housing estate in Huntingdon and they were going to build on that, and it was interesting, it wasn’t the kind of ecowarriors who were out there defending that, it was the local women with their tattoos and their kids and their, you know, four kids in a pushchair and, that were out there saying here, my kids play football on there.  It was something that they realised that whatever, that they had an understanding that in some way, that space is a vital commodity to life and they understood that at a very basic level that where were their kids going to play and that actually their kids needed to play on that.  You know, you can see them all out there, the park in St Ives in the summer is just, you know, all the Asian women are out there with their kids and their blankets and, you know, swapping pakoras round the, you know.  And there’s another bunch of kids playing cricket and there’s some dads playing football, so it’s a whole - and it’s a space that’s not just valued, it’s essential I think.  It’s regarded as part of who they are, I think, to have the space because otherwise, especially - I work with a bunch of mums who were, I was essentially teaching them how to listen to their children read but a part of it was they had a little fun session where we had a creative writing session and they wrote poetry, so we decided they wanted to write poems about where they lived and that area.  And it was interesting that all of those poems spoke about not wanting to be wrapped in boxes virtually, they all spoke to that idea that because we live on an estate it doesn’t define who we are, and somehow the space they're allocated is part of their feeling of being.  They have to have something other, because otherwise they are defined as the rat in the box.  And because some of the estates have got very bad names, they feel that, you know, they are, there’s guilt by association really, you know, you don’t want to live on the Oxmoor, it’s a bit rough, you know, you'll get mugged, you'll get this, and actually it’s not true.  Certainly very certain parts, but they're very, their green spaces are part of them saying look, we breathe, we’re like, you know, we’re like middle class people with big gardens.  It’s that sense that they want to keep the land because it also is something for their children’s future.  And it’s not in that big Copenhagen way, it’s in a very minute, tiny way that they want to make sure that there’s room for them, you know, physical room.  And there’s one thing that, when you drive out into the Fens like Ramsey or Chatteris, something like that, there is room, I mean there is room to breathe, literally you can stand out there, you know, the big Tick Fen, they’ve got these huge wind turbines and they dominate the landscape and it’s quite strange because some people, there’s some villages around the town that have got the huge no wind turbines here because they got very uptight about it, and they tend to be the pretty little villages.  Out on the kind of Fen it’s like fine, you can put it out on the Fen, and the Chatteris people are quite proud of the wind turbines, they like them, they think they're nice, you know, and they're amazing, you know, against the sunset.  And strangely enough in Chatteris they take their kids for walks to the wind turbines, to see the wind turbines, because they think they're, you know, look at the big wind turbines, and you can hear them, they're like, they have a voice.  I don’t know whether you’ve been very close to wind turbines, they go that woomph, woomph and they're really going, and when the wind comes in in winter, so it, you know, the fact that you could take your kids to go and see the wind turbines, not out of any eco thing but just because they're like big, they're their version of the Angel of the North, and they're functional, hey, you know.

Interviewer
Imagine that, two birds in one stone.

Andrea Porter
Yeah, you’ve got sculpture, you’ve got art, and you’ve got function with them.

Interviewer
Well let’s talk about art for a minute then.  You're the author of A Season of Small Insanities, which is a full length poetry collection that was published last year, as well as staged radio plays and many other works.  What do you think the role of art is in addressing environmental issues?  Is there one?

Andrea Porter
I'm always frightened of polemic in work, I think polemic will get anyone anywhere, because I think the purpose of art, in specific relation to sort of ecology or what’s happening to the planet, is to make people feel a moment.  You know, it’s that punctum in the poem, where you go yeah, I felt that, you know.  There’s that point where it moves to the point, or even in a play, you know, for narrative art and you suddenly have a little revelation, not only into what the play or the poem is about, but into yourself.  And I think if you, unless you have that connection, the minute you start saying I'm, you know, let me tell you it’s bad, you know, there’s global warming, this is bad, I think the greater force comes with saying - I mean I've got one poem in there about skin cancer, because I mean there’s four women in my office all been diagnosed with skin cancer, and when I read that poem it’s amazing how many, and I usually say and that’s, you know, we have to wonder why that is, how many other people come up to me and say yes I've got a cousin who’s been diagnosed with skin cancer.  And then they go from there to saying and why is that?  And I think it’s, you have to go, I mean there’s a thing in poetry going from the particular to the universal, and I think you have to do that in terms of an artistic approach to wondering about the planet.  I mean there are great poets who can write about the bigger picture but I think in terms of getting, if people become moved that a single chestnut tree is being knocked down for something or other, you know, in a pat, it kind of, I think that resonates more because it’s touched them at a very human level rather, because they feel, I mean there’s a lot of sense of feeling very, well what can we do about it, very sort of hopeless in the face of all this, whereas I think when you're presented with particular things and you work through that, somehow you think, well I can manage one chestnut tree, you know, I can manage writing a letter about global warming, because my cousin’s got skin cancer, rather than saying, you know, I'm going to write global warming is bad and I really think you should do something about it.  But it’s also, it’s interesting with children because children have a very, I think partly because I think education is getting better at making them explore their environment and I think with children, when you do art projects with children, either creative writing or, you know, I've done physical, you know, let’s build a yurt in, you know, and things like that, that they're actually, children learn by what they do not by what they're told.  And I think art, art has to be in that realm of this is going to help you to do rather than this is going to tell you.  But I mean there’s, I mean I suppose there’s still room for saying Oh I didn’t know that, you know, you need to have certain facts and things, but if poetry’s going to mean anything or art is going to mean anything of any genre, I think it’s very important that it speaks to the particular and moves the individual.  It’s that tiny movement within an individual’s, for want of a better word, you know, soul, inner being, whatever that is, that actually is the thing that motivate.  You know, to make somebody upset about a chestnut tree being knocked down is much more powerful than giving them a whole thing about the rainforest, or to make them upset about, you know, I've had children who've done, Raid the Rainforest is one of the big curriculum things and I've done create, because I do a lot of creative artwork within my work with children, so I'm looking at art from not, the big art as well but you know, the tiny art.  You can't imagine how many children who have never even been to a zoo, never seen a jaguar, never, you know, never seen or can even imagine what the canopy of a rainforest would be like.  When they transform the whole of their classroom into a way, with just green sugar paper, stuff like that, and they're bringing in cuddly toy parrots and they're sticking it in there and they want to stick in a cuddly toy lion and you're saying no, wrong continent, you know.  So they're learning things all the time and they go that, and then I've been in - and we did that, and we filled this canopy, you know, they made, they had to duck to get through their, their whole classroom was like you're in the canopy, your classroom is the canopy and they went through there, and then we’d got all these birds and we’d made pictures of insects and we put all the ones, and we put pictures because we couldn’t build all of them of endangered species, because things like that, and it was, and they got, and they kind of played in it and they were kind of working their way, how do they get to that corner of the classroom because there’s a big trunk in the way because somebody brought in a thing.  And then I and the teacher went in early one morning, we took out all the animals and those kids’ faces when they came in, they said where’s the parrot gone, I said it’s gone, it’s dead.  Do you know, and that, and they got so angry and there was kids in floods of tears, you know, we kind of went a bit too far, they got really upset, but I was saying well this is what’s going to happen.  And then we got some of them to play the loggers and say Oh you, come along, you're going to tear them all down.  They weren’t popular at the play, but it was kind of like, and even they were saying well I can't do that, I don’t want to do that, we've worked so hard making it.  And I said well it took thousands of years, you know, it took you half a term to make yours, it’s taken thousands of years to make that.  So I'm only using that as an example of the particular, how that can - that was an experience that those children, and it was an art experience in my mind, that they could take out and say I've experienced what art can mean, in terms of making me aware of what’s the wider world is like.

Interviewer
Well when you look at the wider world, I mean when you look and think about what’s going to happen over the next few years, what do you see?

Andrea Porter
I suppose I'm, my glass is half full sort of person, because I see awareness but I also see more, in terms of the economies of the world, I worry that in fact big mean invested interest, I mean I know and its, you know, because of BP at the moment and things like that, but I see the fact that it has to be made monetarily advantageous to be green, you know, and I don’t know whether we’re ever going to get to that stage.  It’s got to be not just in a kind of, I am a great, I'm kind of a believer that states don’t run the country, I'm a bit into the global corporations.  The global corporations run the world.  Global corporations do not move and change, I mean if all the stuff about, you know, any change within any sort of system like that, and I'm not just talking politics, I'm almost talking about the whole culture of it, but that will not change unless there is an advantage to change, either to perpetuate themselves or to gain monetary advantage.  And I think we've got to be just a little bit smarter in the way we protest and, you know, the way we approach things.  And I think the smart economists have a lot, you know, are the ones that I would put my hope in, in a way.  The fact that green businesses will perhaps, because they're using green electricity and all that sort of business, being hey, we’re getting advantage out of this, you know, we get brownie points with people but we also get cheaper electricity because we have our own wind turbine or whatever.  But at the same time, I balance that with thinking I'm glad my daughter’s living on higher ground up north.  People are very resilient but society is very fragile, and sometimes it’s too, it’s how can you keep that balance.  Because it doesn’t take a lot for a, you know, you only get an ash cloud going up and the world’s tipping on its axis because we can't get our planes up, you know, how dare it.  So it only takes a series of small events and, my daughter’s, who also she did her MA in creative writing and she’s writing a graphic novel based on the book Six Degrees, about how different scenarios will happen at one degree of warming, two degrees of warming, etc, until six degrees is like the tipping point, or some people believe that six degrees will be the tipping point when there’s like, there’s no going back.  Or the fact that Greenland, you know, why are countries so interested in oil exploration down in Antarctica and those polar ice caps, because they're going to be green, liveable land if the temperature keeps going up there, that land’s going to be at a premium because, you know, states are thinking hey, we’re going to disappear and we need to move somewhere.  And I mean that whole idea of, and I don’t think it, in terms of the  -  I'm a bit Gaya-like in terms of the planet ceiling, you know, that I think that, the fact that we’re just a blip on the history of the planet, but look what a blip can do.  I think the planet will kind of heal itself in a sort of way but I don’t think, we might not be part of it.  Personally I think I, you know, you’ve just got to do the little bits you can but also, you know, it’s a bit like I'm a member of PEN for, you know, English PEN for political prisoners who are writers and things like that, and some of those are writers on ecology, it’s quite interesting when you go through the PEN, because they have their list of writers and journalists, and a lot of those are challenging corporate power in places like Nigeria and things like that and it, so it’s not just, you know, governments put poets and writers and journalists in prison, not just because they challenge them politically but because they may challenge their, the economies through writing about saying we can't go on like this, we can't go on digging all the oil out of Nigeria. 

Interviewer
It sounds both optimistic and pessimistic in a way.

Andrea Porter
I think it is.  I think it’s a bit like the day job and the artistic side.  I think you're doing this fine act of juggling them all the time, and one day you're catching the pessimistic ball and the next thing you're catching the optimistic ball.  And you're kind of, but you don’t drop one.  I think it’s that, it’s your kind of burden and your hope.  Because I'm a great believer that if you give up hope then that’s just kind of the worst thing you can do.  Because I don’t know what, I mean when we say we’re worried about global warming or we’re worried about other ecological things it’s a kind of, it’s like you also have to have in your head well what do we want instead, you know.  You can't just say don’t do that, don’t do that, you have to present a positive, but we do want this, we want the birds and the animals to remain in the, and the rainforest to remain uncut, but we do want people in that area as well to have viable occupations, to have an economy that they can, you know, live that’s above starvation level without having to cut.  So all the time you're having to balance this, aren’t you, and I think you have to do that in personal as well because sometimes if you think too much you get overwhelmed, and if you think too little you get overwhelmed with a sort of euphoria.  It’s a kind of like, you know how you could live your life on a champagne bubbles on the surface and it’s not, and you kind of think well it’s fine, I can go along like, and there are people who can go their whole lives, have very happy lives and not, and say well it’ll only be my grandchildren or my great grandchildren that’s really going to be affected like that, and I think sometimes you have to see, to look into the future is quite frightening thing, you know, for good or ill, even.  I mean if you said to yourself where am I going to be in 20 years’ time, you know, that can be I've got another 20 years, that’s good, but also it can be but I might be, you know, the Fens might be disappearing under the water because, you know, or so, you know, according to global warming the Fens, because it’s the lowest lying of all of Great Britain it’s going to go first.  So you kind of look around, I'm driving across the Fens and I think I mean this could go back to being exactly as it was before, it’ll be an eel marsh, which is a kind of like, okay, so is that a kind of turning full circle and that’s okay, but at the same time I think having a child or having children also affects the fact that you’ve got to feel a responsibility.  Or a family, I mean it doesn’t, you don’t have to, it doesn’t have to be your children, but a sense that there is another, because I work with children I look at them and I think yeah, hey, I don’t want you to drown or be having to live with a shotgun to keep some, you know, the breakdown of dystopian society where, you know, it’s survival of the fittest.  Because I work with some kids who won't survive.  I work with five year olds, so you're thinking actually by the time you're 40, it may be a very, very different world.

23’20”  

The Fens Creative commons image Icon lonelycoo under CC-BY-NC under Creative-Commons license

Become a Creative Climate diarist

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?