Author Tom Bullough on his XR capture – and what the Welsh saints can teach us about the climate crisis | Books

IIt’s a dirty wet day, water running down necks and hills, yet Tom Bullough climbs up Fan Frynych’s slippery slope, not at all proud, as he talks quickly about the problem of the situation. of heaven – writing to Wales. and in life itself.

“How do you get people to care about the climate problem? You have to turn to the things you care about,” he says, disappearing into the blue veil of rain. “You really can’t choose where you are as a writer, where your heart is, and it just so happens that I love Wales and I’m from Wales, so my writing about Wales is done with a strong desire that I cannot do. .”

Bullough is best known for Addlands, a novel set over 70 years on a farm in Wales. His new book, non-fiction, is about his journey from south to north along the line of Sarn Helen, the Roman road that runs through the country and gives the book its title. With the pace and economy of a novelist, Bullough presents an intimate and entertaining history of Wales, including the lives of the saints, the Welsh language, the coal mines and folklore, as well as the vivid present day. Here you find a dystopia – a deserted city with no people where robots walk – and strange moments like the “simple” afternoon view of mid-Wales from Snowdonia to the Brecon Beacons. He writes: “It’s like watching someone you love sleep.

Sarn Helen also looks to the future indifferently. Bullough’s visit was accompanied by discussions with scientists about how Wales – and the rest of us – must adapt to the climate crisis.

Bullough grew up on a Welsh hill farm; his childhood was “farming and books”. Eighties children’s TV shows such as The Dukes of Hazzard were banned in his family; instead, his mother read to her sons—King of Strings, twice. This must have been an interesting read: Bullough’s brother, Oliver, is also a writer, of fiction.

Photo: Aled Llywelyn

Tom Bullough turned to fiction because he felt he had to do more to solve the climate problem. He joined Extinction Rebellion (XR) – and was arrested, jailed overnight and fined – but feared he couldn’t write climate fiction without “high risk” of causing his players to panic. “I don’t like the idea of ​​writing fictional stories with a purpose. You can’t go into it knowing what you want to say.”

What Bullough says is powerful. We reach the peak of our journey – Bullough is talking a lot without getting out of breath – and descend into a beautiful green valley and a track that bends with beauty and tension: Sarn Helen.

The Roman road may have been the first part of the “civilization” of Wales but, as Bullough notes, like many buildings that followed it was a “charity”: built to discover wealth and it takes you to other places. Most of the English literature about Wales has also been alternative. Bullough writes that the way Welsh farmers have appeared in literature and poetry – in the poems of (English-speaking Welshman) RS Thomas and (Englishman) Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill for example – is nothing like the real thing. Literature’s Welsh farmers may be noble people but they are not given much representation or an inner world. “It’s a romantic tradition that goes back to earlier writers like John Leland, who are going to deal with the Welsh as originals. Thomas is playing in that tradition; Chatwin was working in the same way,” says Bullough. . “When I started writing, I was like that too. It took me a long time to understand that what I was writing was someone else’s opinion about what was going on here instead of what what’s really going on.”

Sarn Helen is “an attempt to explain what is really here, who these people are, but also where we are in the environment. This,” Bullough says of the sheep pastures and fields that are not of the native trees around us, “that’s what we think is our heritage, we think this is nature, that’s how it should be. It can be very beautiful but in the end it’s a place of skeletons.”

Apart from sheep and a single red kite – feeding on the carcass of a dead, wrinkled sheep along the way – there is little natural life on our journey. The author recognizes that he has a stake: his father was an inventor who developed silage in his area, which contributed to the post-war agricultural boom that robbed Britain of its wildlife. illustrated in Jackie Morris’ illustrations throughout Bullough’s book.

“I’m a big fan of George Monbiot and I also understand how he managed to offend so many people with his hatred of sheep,” says Bullough. “I share his sentiments in many ways, and I grew up on a bloody hill farm. The smell of sheep is home. So I can feel what people feel they are losing, which is their soul, their identity. You’re trying to get rid of those things – what are we?”

Part of the Welsh aversion to regeneration, believes Bullough, is the “fear of annihilation” that protects the core of its culture. The Welsh language may be booming (29% of the population speak it, increasing every year since 2010) but traditional agriculture (88% of Wales is devoted to agriculture) seems to have died out. His conversations with scientists convince him that animal agriculture must be greatly reduced in an empty world. Another scientist, Judith Thornton, talks clearly about land use in a low-carbon world: instead of sheep, highlands will be dedicated to storing carbon and biodiversity; the marginal fields will become high yielding forests and the lowlands must be intensively cultivated for food (especially vegetables).

Bullough is reluctant to state his position on this and other major debates in Sarn Helen – including whether Wales should stop raising sheep. In other words, my opinion is neither there nor there. What I want first and foremost is for us to have this conversation clearly, now,” he says. “The key point that Judith is making is that we have to do everything which we do now with fuel from that land, as well as growing food. Of course, that doesn’t leave much room for livestock. We also need to be realistic about what [net zero in] 2050 means. ” The change in our region and society “is a change beyond anything that anyone in this part of the world has ever experienced,” he says. “What happened in the Second World War was nothing compared to this.”

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Sarn Helen also reflects on Bullough’s performance. He gives the emotional speech he gave to the magistrates on his day in court. When his writer friend Jay Griffiths was sentenced by a judge who kindly praised the organization, Bullough was greeted with “blank faces” and a fine of £772. “This is the truth of what we are up against. too. This is something that cannot be moved. That’s how it felt that day; he was very disappointed,” he says.

Bullough is still participating in the legal status quo protest but is telling the truth about the XR’s decline. One local group he joined closed immediately because people called him “terrorists”. Limiting global warming to 1.5C is over, he says, and there is little media discussion of that. Capitalism seems to be able to accommodate and eliminate protest, as required by the direct action of Just Stop Oil and others. But he is no more despondent than he was. “We felt that the protest could make a difference, and to the extent that it did – it made the conversation even more, it made the 2050 goal, it changed the narrative and it continues to change the narrative, and you have to draw some. power from that.”

We reach the end of our journey – the church of Llanilltud, an oval of “haggard pines” surrounding the ruins of a church dedicated to Illtyd, a Welsh saint from the time of Celtic Christianity and a frequent figure in Sarn Helen. Llanilltud was certainly almost a pre-Christian place of worship, and for Bullough it is a place of permanent residence, a place of peace and comfort. He is non-religious but writes persuasively about the role of saints in shaping the ways of living in Welsh culture and, unexpectedly, how they can help us cope with global warming.

Bullough is convinced that adapting to the climate crisis depends not only on technical fixes but also on new stories and principles to live better with nature. Christianity, he says, took a strong hold in Wales, because it incorporated its values ​​and places of worship into the existing religious system. In this age of climate change, “we cannot tell these stories at all and expect them to continue. If we want to renew ourselves, we must do it in relation to indigenous stories and traditions,” he says. “To a large extent, we are talking about adopting new moral codes. What model do we have for that is not the change of different religions?”

Despite the lack of serious action on climate change so far, and his experiences as an activist against the immovable that is the capitalist establishment, Bullough “finds it hard to be discouraged because it’s a good time to be alive.” He half laughs. “What a bloody challenge and within it we can see what people are. Can we be more than what we have shown ourselves to be?”

Sarn Helen: A Journey through Wales, Past, Present and Future is published by Granta (£16.99). To support Guardian and Guardian, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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