Poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie, who was appointed as Scotland’s Makar (National Poet) in 2021, is one of the members of Paperboats, a collective of nature writers formed earlier this year, which also includes Merryn Glover, Sandy Winterbottom and Linda Cracknell. Focused on nature and environment in a time of climate and ecological breakdown, the group’s name comes from the poem ‘What the Clyde said, after COP26’, which Jamie wrote for the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. They describe themselves as ‘Scotland based and global in outlook and write to affirm the astonishing life of this planet.’
On Thursday 23rd November (the week before COP28 begins), from 9.30am-11.30am, the members are gathering outside the Scottish Parliament for poetry and music, and to deliver 1,000 paper boats made from the pages of second-hand books and magazines, along with 1,000 Climate Hopes (short messages with aspirations for the future) to MSPs of all parties urging them ‘to support rapid and urgent action in the face of accelerating climate breakdown.’
Kathleen, tell me about Paperboats and its purpose
It was formed by a group of friends, all of whom have some connection with the University of Stirling. Many of them are writers, and we were becoming increasingly frustrated about the absolute lack of any meaningful action [on climate]. This is before Brechin got flooded out — just nothing is happening.
We talked and thought: ‘What can we do as writers?’ We knew that as much as we admire the kids who go and glue themselves to oil tankers, we can’t do that ourselves. The others very kindly suggested we name the group Paperboats after my poem I wrote about COP26, and it’s growing from there, slowly.
The little folding paperboat is our logo, our mascot, and it’s attracting interest in bookish places like schools and libraries. We are setting up stations where people can make paperboats, which gives you a few minutes with someone else to talk about these things, how scary it’s all getting, and what we can do about it. So, the idea of taking these paperboats down to the parliament building is now happening late next month, just as the COP28 summit is getting going, and we are saying to the MSPs: ‘Can you just get on with it!’
You have the Paperboats Zine online too?
The Zine is publishing written creative writing that has nature and the environment as its central focus. I believe there’s a groundswell of this writing in Scotland, but it hasn’t got a place yet. We’ve done one edition and we are about to launch a second.
What have been people’s responses to the campaign?
It catches people’s imagination. The paperboat is a lovely little object, and it’s just a few minutes to make them. It’s a non-violent, gentle thing, you know? More and more people are getting alarmed and frightened, and want someone to step up and pay real attention to this, and it isn’t happening. People are finding it difficult to talk about.
What do you hope might happen at the Scottish Parliament when you go there?
We are going to invite [the politicians] to come outside and receive the gift of this little paperboat, and say ‘we are here, we are aware of what’s going on and nothing meaningful is happening.’ And if it is meaningful, it’s too slow. We need to step up to this.
What I am getting from reading the Paperboats Zine is quite a sense of despair and sadness in the writing. Do you feel that as a nature writer, you still have a sense of hope about the climate?
It’s frustration, really. We can never afford to give up hope – that would be really morally derelict, especially for the younger ones. We can’t just shrug and say, ‘well, it’s all pointless’. You can’t do that. So, there’s always hope. It’s veering into frustration, if not anger now. It’s actually really happening now, in our own cities and towns, and how many of them are washed away before we think ‘we’ve got to fix this’? It means massive cuts to emissions, and very soon.
Is the focus of your writing different now? Is it now more on climate change than nature in general?
I don’t think that they can be separated. If you’ve got the slightest interest in the natural world then you are deeply concerned about the loss of diversity, climate change and pollution. There can be no such thing as nature writing now that doesn’t pay heed to all that. You can’t go in nature any more to escape, because nature is where the real harm is happening in front of your eyes.