Wales under the sea: Poet imagines the nation’s future after climate change
A Welsh poet has described what Wales future could look like unless drastic action is taken on climate change, as our communities are submerged by rising sea levels.
Taylor Edmonds, the Poet in Residence for the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, has imagined a future where the places we live are lost forever, for a new series of free online events, Everything Change, exploring the roles of creativity and adaptive thinking in tackling the climate emergency.
The 26-year-old was recruited to the post in April to communicate Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act and the duty it puts on those in power to protect people not yet born.
Passed in 2015, the law requires decision-makers including Welsh Government, to use more joined-up thinking to prevent problems like climate change and inequality in the long term.
Taylor, who was born and raised in seaside town Barry, penned My Magnolia Tree after learning more about the risks of rising sea levels if huge cuts are not made to our carbon emissions.
The climate is changing because of emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from human activity; since the late 19th century, the global average temperature has risen by 1.1°C and the global sea level has risen by about 20 cm.
In Fairbourne, Gwynedd, plans are being prepared to relocate 700 people and dismantle the entire village, as flooding and storm surges are predicted to make it uninhabitable. Gwynedd Council said it is working with Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and Dŵr Cymru to identify a long-term plan.
In addition, a map by Climate Central suggests that some areas across Wales, including Swansea, Llanelli, Aberystwyth, Rhyl and Cardiff, could be under water by 2050 if decisive action is not taken on climate change.
On Wednesday government advisers said Wales needs to do more to prepare for a hotter, wetter future, to protect people, infrastructure and wildlife. The Climate Change Committee warned 26,000 more properties could be at risk from coastal flooding by the 2080s.
‘Poetry has power’
Taylor’s poem sees its narrator in the future, grappling with sandbags used to protect against floods, as they lament how the places walked by their great-grandparents no longer exist.
“We all know about the imminent threats of climate change and how it’s already impacting people who are having to leave their homes due to extreme weather. I wanted to explore what this might look like closer to home and its impact on generations of a family,” said Taylor, who now lives in Penarth.
“I was lucky to know some of my great-grandparents, who came from Wales, Scotland and Barbados, and I’ve been able to hear their stories, grow familiar with some of the places that were special to them.
“I started to think about how I’d feel if I wasn’t able to visit those precious places in the future – what if all we had left were stories?
“Poetry and art have the power to humanise stories and provoke empathy in ways reports and statistics don’t. Poetry grabs you, makes you listen, gives ideas depth and makes you see yourself and your stake in things.”
The poem sees the narrator dream about following their great-grandmother’s memories through Cardiff, its back streets and picking wild garlic in Bute Park.
With echoes of the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod, it issues a prophetic warning, in which readers will hear a call-to action: ‘the leaders, the people, they rolled over like spent dogs, yawned above the warnings’, as the narrator regrets that they will ‘never re-live her firsts, never see the garden where she planted magnolia,’ before describing the future Welsh capital as ‘an underwater city … a skeleton… a shipwreck’.
Taylor will perform the poem this Saturday at Everything Change, a free online event produced by Taliesin Arts Centre and Swansea University professor in Creativity, Owen Sheers. Future Generations Commissioner, Sophie Howe will also appear.
The programme of ‘discussion, creativity and new ideas’, will discuss the value of interdisciplinary creative thinking across the arts, sciences, law, business, policy and activism in taking meaningful action on the climate crisis. The series of interdisciplinary conversations explore seven crucial areas of change; Money, Food, Water, Energy, Justice, Story, and Change itself.
Wales declared a climate emergency in 2019 and is the only country in the world with a Well-being of Future Generations Act – the first legislation globally to enshrine the rights of future generations alongside current generations.
The Act sets out seven goals including a Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language, which requires public bodies to work together to promote and protect culture, heritage and the Welsh language, encouraging people to participate in the arts.
Sophie Howe is the first Future Generations Commissioner and says her interventions have led to Welsh Government scrapping plans for a £1.4bn motorway through a nature reserve, in place of a new transport strategy that prioritises public transport and active travel, a freelancers’ pledge to support creatives while linking them with public bodies to co-create public services, and a commitment by the First Minister to a basic income pilot.
In May, Welsh Government announced a new Climate Change Ministry, covering cross-cutting sectors which influence climate change – housing, transport, planning, environment and energy.
Ms Howe said culture had a huge role to play in communicating the realities of climate change to inspire people to demand more from politicians.
“In Wales, our industrial heritage contributed to the climate change that’s now making people all over the world climate refugees, and it’s important that we talk about that and demand solutions from people in power,” Sophie Howe said.
“The stories we tell about the future we want for Wales and the world are incredibly powerful and poetry can bring to life the challenge with the urgency, and hope, that’s required.
“The Welsh Government has shown ambition on climate action, from the Well-being of Future Generations Act which requires we’re a globally responsible nation, to now, a new Climate Change Ministry. Taylor’s warning reminds us just how crucial it is that we see continued deeds and not just promises.”
My Magnolia Tree
by Taylor Edmonds, Poet in Residence for the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.
(For Everything Change.)
All I have left of my great-grandmother is her letters.
While I was taking my first breath
she was watching the storm roll in,
lining the house with an army of sandbags,
willing the river to shush. It had given warning
in the bloat of it, with plastic bags and Stella cans
thrown up onto the grass. I know this
because my grandmother never had secrets.
She began writing me letters long before I existed,
so that I might grow into something good,
I know of all her firsts.
First school, with the haunted bell tower
and the boys that cornered her in the playground.
First pet, a tan Labrador that uprooted
the floor tiles when left alone.
First fear, of being swallowed by the moon.
First home, council estate, a magnolia tree
that shed petals of pink snow in spring.
Her first kiss, between the rocks at the water’s edge,
incoming tide snaking up her legs.
There are lessons here.
I dream of Cardiff, where I chase
my grandmother’s outline through the back streets,
seek fingerprints on shop windows,
a flash of her on the top deck of a bus.
Sometimes, I find her on the green of Bute Park
picking wild garlic, sheltering
from a shower at Central Station,
or clasping a blue bag of fruit on City Road.
She tells me nothing was an accident.
The leaders, the people, they rolled
over like spent dogs, yawned above the warnings.
All my great-grandmother wanted was to die
an honest woman, on honest land.
I will never re-live her firsts,
never see the garden
where she planted magnolia
so that I too could hold pink petals of snow.
Her underwater city is a skeleton, a shipwreck;
but still, I ache for it.
I read her letters to the sky
while the storm rolls in, I line
the house with an army of sandbags.