Poetry painting the reality of climate change

When we talk about climate change, it’s usually about what the latest scientific report has laid out, or what politicians and economists have to say about policies to lower our emissions and preparations for climate change adaptation. Through all the technical, political, and scientific discourse however, the clearest message can become the hardest to communicate: the planet we live on is breaking – and there is no time left to waste.

Climate change is an emotional issue – and the science, logic, and reason behind it can’t create the societal shift that we need on its own. Turns out, poetry can deliver this message.

Harry Owen, a poet and writer living in Grahamstown, South Africa, has spent much of his life using poetry as a vehicle to highlight the threats our natural environment faces to inspire readers to preserve the natural world for future generations – and he has shared some of these poems with us.

The Hallelujah Tree

Dracaena cinnabari

Leather strips of blue-gum, discarded dinosaur skins

tasting of dust, threatening smoke, lie at the mother tree’s feet.

Bots – thin as famine, as drought, jungle drier than desert,

green realm shrivelling to yellow desiccation and death:

this is our bleached carcass wasted to skeleton.

Blind faith wheezes through the raised arms of the Hallelujah Tree,

its dark cathedral of dragon’s blood simmering beneath

a devilish froth of spears, defying all the gods of rain.


Harry Owen

Tree on the Drostdy Lawns

Perhaps you will cast down only

whatever it is you want to,

whatever it is you need to cast down:

moths and manna, coins, rain and silver goblets,

your roots aching with that elemental

longing of a child’s outstretched arms,

pulling in, holding on, needing.

Perhaps your sky is hot, or misted cool,

or only really there when the weather

moves, when you too are cast down beneath it,

clouded in leaves, twigs, branches, birds.

Perhaps my roots and yours, my gifts

and yours, my span and yours are one;

perhaps, after all, we’re the same.

Harry Owen

(from Small Stones for Bromley, Lapwing Publications, Belfast, 2014)

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin

Now the tide pours in, surf high

on the beach, a panting sea mist

like the tongue of a weary dog.

But no tsunami, no expert

arrogance of plutonium.

No Japan. And yet already

somewhere the story is forming,

a novelist sits and scribbles.

No one truly learns, not really.

Tonight: full moon, a super-moon,

and I’m pulled, my tides are turning,

rolling, slow as a basking whale.

Something stirs, something nuclear.

Here is writing in the sand,

titanium sandscript, black ink

running. It comes, is covered, goes,

eases itself like a ghost

into new meanings. I touch it,

taste its dark blood, turn, turn.

Chromatography. Music on

a rotating drum. The writing

on the wall.

Harry Owen

(from Small Stones for Bromley, Lapwing Publications, Belfast, 2014)

Visit Harry Owen’s website to read more of his work.