Adam Weymouth - The ghosts of trees
Updated: May 21, 2020
Adam Weymouth sits down to talk about activism, human ecology, and stories that connect us with the living planet.
Where else to start: you walked from London to Istanbul, which is kind of crazy.
Yeah. I mean, it's not as crazy as you might think actually. I've since met several other people that have done it. There's this idea that the brain works very well at three miles an hour. But there's also a huge amount of mundanity to walking something so long. I think people sort of assume it's this kind of devout pilgrimage with an epiphany at the end - and it really wasn't that at all. It came from having had a very intense year and the kind of burn-out which felt inevitable when you worked in climate change activism. As an alternative to that, it felt pretty nourishing. You're never that remote in Europe, never that far from the news, though it was pre-iPhone almost. I'm still pre-iPhone, but it was the World Cup year, and I watched most of that sitting in little bars in France and Italy. But in some ways I felt more embedded in news than when watching it from afar. I grew up in the time of the Bosnia conflict, so walking through all of former Yugoslavia and meeting people every day that had been wrapped up in that war and lost people in that war - and it still feeling so present... in some ways I felt much more engaged. Maybe not with news, but with politics.
You sometimes describe this journey as a pilgrimage, were you doing this because of faith?
No, I was interested in the idea of pilgrimage. I'd just done a Masters in Human Ecology and I wrote my dissertation on the connections between pilgrimage and protest walking. So I was looking at the spiritual side of protest, in a sense. Back when the climate camps were happening I did a two week walk with about a hundred other activists. And that was my research. And I was kind of interested in what happens to people when they go on long walks together - the structure, I guess, of pilgrimage. How did communities form, stuff like that. I'd already walked to Santiago de Compostela and the original plan was to walk to Jerusalem, which I ended up having to cut short to come back for a court case.
In 2009 writing for Resurgance, you talked about the power of activism to "create a story without the usual narrative structures" - authored by activists and, ultimately, the public, rather than those in power. Can you unpack this a bit?
Yeah, I probably came to question that in the court case. I'm totally supportive of direct action when it's done well, I'm totally supportive of Extinction Rebellion and the narratives that are being created at the moment. But we ended up having a month in court with a jury because it was a conspiracy trial (specifically conspiracy to commit aggravated trespass at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station), and you don't really get a better chance to tell your story than that, right? We had James Hansen come. We had Caroline Lucas come - amazing expert witnesses, and we were found unanimously guilty by the jury, which kind of made me wonder, are we telling the stories in the right way? You know, if this is the best chance we're ever going to get to engage with twelve members of the public, are we taking in the wider considerations of the history of coal mining in Nottingham? What does coal mean here? Is it okay to just come in from the places that we're coming in from to tell people how they're meant to be running their lives? Which was not our intention, but I can see that's how it was perceived. (On appeal the case collapsed because of the involvement of police-officer Mark Kennedy). But I also wonder if we were telling that story now, maybe 10 years later, would it be received in a different way? I think there has been a shift in people's readiness to hear those stories.
It's all one story to me
Have your beliefs changed about your activism as you've turned to writing?
For me? Yeah. I think the best way to affect change is really just trying to do what you do best. I was starting to feel the drain of the court case that we've talked about. And I'd sidelined writing because the thinking was, if we only had a hundred months or so - what are we doing sitting round on our arses writing books? And I think a lot of burnout can come from that. The urgency can make you make quite bad choices. The most passionate activists I know, the ones that I think are most brilliant, have maintained that passion - and for them it's made sense to carry on in their line. But for me, writing has been a much more sustainable way to try and engage with this stuff, to tackle it in ways that make sense to me.
Does the message change when you're a writer rather than an activist?
I think it probably has to, yeah. With Kings of the Yukon, one of the things that I felt I could try and do best was just lay out quite how complicated and nuanced the situation is. And activism in general, and especially the sort of news cycle that we live in now does not have a lot of space for nuance. So much of activism is about messaging, you get a banner or you get a soundbite or whatever. Behind that, everyone's very well aware of the complexities. But I really enjoyed being able to get to the bottom of something and lay out both sides and really understand that everyone's truth is totally coherent. You know, that's the thing that really struck me writing this - everyone's worldview is coherent for them. Writing to me seems to be trying to help someone understand someone else's truth. To try to understand how their worldview is coherent to them, which is not to say it's right, necessarily; but to try and create an understanding between different ways of looking at things.
A few of your earlier articles are written for "Positive News", a small outlet dedicated to "the good things that are happening" in the world. What power do you think purposefully positive material like this has?
I like what positive news do, but I wonder if sometimes they are a bit hampered by not being able to show the other side. I think it's really great that there's a newspaper out there that you can pick up in a cafe, it used to be free everywhere, and to see that positivity. I'm not sure, I feel like we do need the good stories and the wins. I have a friend that works in renewable energy, runs a startup, and he always thinks everything's going pretty well. From his perspective, businesses, and basically capitalism, is going in the right direction.
You've often found your voice by travelling and spending large amounts of time in a place or on the move. How has this shaped your perspective?
In lots of different ways. The idea for doing the Yukon river as a canoe trip came from having done the walk to Istanbul, and the first time I went to Alaska I was there much more in a classic journalist role. I'd turn up in a village in a bush plane for a day and chat to some people and leave. And that was an incredibly hard way to approach people there. And it's a way that people are very familiar with being approached as well. Some of these places, like Newtok, which is all over the headlines as America's first climate refugee community, must sigh and think, "oh - here comes another one." We're very much coming in with our way of doing news or telling stories - but they're totally embedded in this land. They've been there for generations. They've seen a succession of white guys turning up, with different hats on. Here comes the missionary, here comes the teacher, here comes the cop, here comes the journalist. But basically people come in and tell them something and ask them something, and take it, and head off.
Walking or paddling is still a very quick way to get to know places that have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. But giving it a bit more time and a bit more engagement and getting to know the land a bit meant I'd meet someone in one village and they'd say to look up their cousin in the next village, and we'd kind of get passed on. Also, people were interested in the grape vine that we were carrying with us as we could take their news with us. To become so wrapped up in people's lives, travelling the river the same way they are - you're losing your viewpoint, which might be seen as bad behaviour. But I think the people you meet really appreciate it; and as a way of telling those sorts of stories, it was important. And I'm writing a book here, I'm telling two sides. The Canadian perspective is really interesting because they're so used to people turning up and taking their stories, they now have this traditional knowledge policy. So before getting to meet any elders on the Canadian side of the border, I'd have to write what I was intending to do, sign a contract, say how I'm going to reciprocate afterwards, which in this case was sending them books. And that is a laborious way to work. But I think it's also quite an honourable way to work. And it's just them having got sick and tired of sharing their stories and getting nothing back for it. Storytelling has this long oral tradition, it's how people used to store information. People stored food by sharing it and they stored information by sharing it.
The media became part of the problem
So, they're wary of a kind of copyright infringement?
Essentially, yeah. Suddenly these things which were given to people in such good faith are taken and might be presented in a way that feels very genuine, not necessarily twisted, but still used. It's really made me think how I want to work in future. I just wrote a story about Lesbos and working with some refugees there. And it's definitely made me consider what I can give back in telling their story, you know? Has it a benefit to them beyond 'exposure'?
So to give some context on your book the Kings of the Yukon: you paddled the entire length of the Yukon river through Canada and Alaska, following the spawning journey of the King salmon so as to understand the ecology of this disappearing fish. And in parts this was a very sobering journey, Alaska has 3x the national rate of rape, almost 6x that of sexual or domestic violence. Alaskan natives have the highest suicide rate of any ethnicity in the entire US - and higher than any other national rate in the world. How did you interweave such elements of human tragedy in your account of your travels through nature?
It just felt like it was all there to see, the only way to do it. You see the chronic alcoholism, you meet people all the time that have lost people to suicide. You meet the people that have been taken from their parents and sent to the residential schools. And then in the next village you see the crumbling school is still there. The history feels really tangible and really present.
You paddled for four months across 2,000 miles. With such scope it feels as if you're partly telling the story of the land.
The idea of Human Ecology is bringing in the human to the web of connections that makes up any geographical ecology - so bringing in the politics, bringing in the history, bringing in the economics. It's kind of all one story to me. And I feel that in London as well - but that web is just so much more tangled. On the Yukon where everything is really stripped back to its bare bones, it's really not a poetic leap of the imagination to see that when you change the land, you change the people - or when the people change, the fish change. Those elements are totally entangled. And I don't think you can tell one without the other. Indigenous lives changed massively 100 years ago when a hundred thousand people came in for the gold rush, they came because of the geology, and this changed the salmon, and then the people's lives changed again. We are ecological beings.
So when 60% of the natives were killed in a 1900 outbreak of influenza, and a further 50% of the remaining population were killed in the 1918 Spannish Flu outbreak - you describe a generation "orphaned from the old ways". How did you deal with the difficulties of accessing a culture where so little certainty remains?
Yeah, really hard. And that was one of the ways that this journey felt way too quick. I don't know if a lifetime will be enough to understand that, and partly because the people are wrestling with it so much themselves. In the court case that I write about, where the Yupik are defending their fishing rights on these indigenous beliefs of: "the salmon choose to be caught"; other indigenous people I met thought that was romanticizing their own past and using it to make a point in court. There's so much contention of what those old ways are. This is not meant to be a book about returning to a kind of old, noble-savage way of life. No-one's looking to do that. What people are looking for is how to balance being indigenous and a 21st century North American. How do you get to make those choices for yourself moving forward? And that's, again, coming back to the sharing of stories - those are things that are not going to be shared with me straight away. Even if I have turned up in a canoe.
When you finally meet a wild king salmon, you note that your story has been one "above all else, of relationships" of the symbiosis of man and his natural environment - and how they imprint on one another. Is this a story you feel the western world has lost contact with?
Yeah, yeah, I do. I think it's so, so abstract for us here. We hear the tropes all the time that we're disconnected from nature, and screens, and blah, blah, blah. And I don't know if spending a bit more time outside in a park is going to really change that. The part of the book where I follow the salmon from the fishery to the Tesco on Seven Sisters Road, I realised that this entire four month journey and all the research means that I understand this one product in the supermarket a little bit better than I did before. There's a thousand other products in there. How are we possibly meant to understand the connections and this symbiosis? The relationships are so abstract. In terms of climate change it's just so much more a part of people's daily reality and people's lived experience on the Yukon. As much as it's becoming part of the conversation here, there's still a kind of intellectual leap in imagining what climate change is going to be like. It's so different to meeting people who've lost family members through the ice, because you can no longer trust the ice, or really simple stuff, like those who wouldn't have shot as many geese this year because the migration patterns have changed. Really the effects of climate change that we're going to see for quite a while is the price of bread going up a bit.
How was your journey or writing benefited by having a partner with you for stretches of the trip?
So I was with Hector at the start, who's this old Scottish guy, and then by myself for a while, and then Ulli turned up. So it was interesting to see different interactions based on different people that I was with - and most of my travelling and my work I've always done by myself before. And Ulli could open up connections with people that I had no way of opening up. We only got to spend time with Mary who I write about quite extensively, because Ulli was there. She had ways into talking to some of the elder women that I simply didn't have. And things I haven't included in the book as well because they were things that she was given by them - she was taught how to cut the fish. Ulli's also from the Arctic Circle herself in Sweden. So it was the kind of landscape that she really clicked with, because it was very much what she grew up in.
Some of your writing is set in the British landscape: crossing Dartmoor, picking up the trail of the last wolf in Scotland. Has writing about it connected you with your own home?
Oh, very much so. I ended up doing the work on wolves in Scotland because coming back from Alaska the first time I felt that the Scottish landscape is not dissimilar, really. Alaska is on a magnified scale in a lot of ways. But still, where are the wolves and where are the bears and where are the trees? And how can I tell that story? Growing up, Alaska was a very easy place to romanticize. Jack London and David Attenborough and Into the Wild and all these things - there's this sense that we have to go somewhere like this to experience a sort of 'wilderness', which, is a really problematic word I now think. The more that you start to understand these places you see their own histories and their own problems. They're much less easy to romanticize the closer that you get to them.
In an article for Granta you describe the Welsh town of Fairbourne, a community due to be washed entirely into the sea. Incredibly, people there were actually first informed about this by the presenter of the BBC's Week in Week Out program in February 2014 - in a way that was, actually, inaccurate. Can you take me through how this extraordinary misreporting affected the community?
So there was this program about flooding on the west coast of Wales and it had shots of floods in Aberystwyth and shots of floods in Barmouth, which is just north of Fairbourne. Fairbourne itself has never really flooded. There's been a little bit of flooding on the south side, just someone's garden basically with a caravan in it. But the way that the residents felt the program was put together made it look like Fairbourne was on the verge of going under the sea. And this same program said that the shoreline management plan, which had just been put out by the Welsh government, condemned Fairbourne to no longer be protected after 2025 - and that it'd be underwater by 2055. The first repercussion of this was shock. But Fairbourne is kind of one of the closest beaches to the Midlands, and a lot of people remember going as kids. When they retire, many decide to go and spend the first part of their retirement there. And then maybe if they need further care, they plan to sell up and move back to the Midlands. So the main impact was it suddenly became impossible to get a mortgage on a house because you can't get a mortgage on a house with less than a 40 year life expectancy. So all these people who'd poured all their savings into Fairbourne suddenly realised that they were never going to be able to sell. They were never going to be able to move back and be near their kids.
In some ways what was fascinating to me about that was just the minutiae of climate change. It's not the typhoons and things, necessarily, that are going to affect us. Part of the story was that the council wouldn't protect properties where over a sixth of the value of the house would be needed to defend it, and journalists descended on the town, and property prices just crashed. So the media became part of the problem by guaranteeing these people's homes lost their value and so wouldn't be protected. Residents told me tourists turn up to come and take photos and see the disaster, which isn't happening. It's still a totally functioning little town.
I suppose with climate change we are looking for these sorts of stories, we're looking for these dramatic moments and the first village that's gonna go under water because people are trying to find ways of telling these stories. But so many people I met in Fairbourne were so reluctant to talk to me because their problem was not climate change, though I met very few people that were denying that sea level rise is a problem. What they were really unhappy about was the way that they've been treated. And that was partly by the Welsh government and how they'd been informed, but it was absolutely by the media as well who were all turning up, looking for a disaster and creating a disaster. I was asked by someone recently when I was contemplating going back, please don't publish anything else about this until we sell our house, because they've been trying to get this deal through - and the last thing we need right now is Fairbourne coming in the news again while they're trying to close this deal. So I didn't.
How will we feel the lack of diversity and nature following 'shifting baseline syndrome', or when our lives do begin to be affected by climate change - will it just become the new normal?
Well, I think it already is. We have shifting baselines. Most people don't know that Scotland's meant to be more or less forested. In some ways shifting baseline syndrome is great, I think, because we don't just walk around knowing what we're meant to be seeing all the time. I find it quite hard to go to Scotland now and not just see the ghosts of trees everywhere. I used to really enjoy walking across these beautiful, barren hills. I've got a one year old, and she's not going to miss the coral, particularly. In some ways it feels like a bit of a relief.
People are more ready to hear these stories now
It's a strange adaption. I feel like we would miss things more if we still had a strong oral tradition or a habit of reading lots of longer form, local stories. From a young age we'd be well aware of the heritage of our landscape, but instead we've got the internet, and an always novel, almost insulating layer of content between us and the longer story.
That's one of the things that feels so fascinating to me in places like the Yukon where suddenly these stories which have been passed down for generations: how do you treat the salmon, how do you understand the ice, are suddenly kind of meaningless. Or these stories that have documented a way of life that is more or less constant, are gone. Their elders have always been the repositories of the knowledge, but the climate is changing so quickly, twice as fast in Alaska as the rest of the planet. And that's really hard.
But knowledge that's taken centuries to acquire is often quite detailed in understanding patterns in nature, or about anything really - rhythms in music, for example.
Yeah, and in academia at least there's a big move now to try and find some sort of synthesis between indigenous knowledge and our western scientific ways of understanding the world. But that's pretty new. And maybe there's a way of telling stories that could also try and find a slightly better synthesis.
What responsibility do you think writers have to engage with climate change as a topic?
In terms of thinking about nature or travel writing, I have a real problem if it fails to engage with climate change, or writers that fail to engage with the politics of where they're travelling. And I do think there is a responsibility, and I think we are really seeing a shift away from more escapist ways of seeing. The new David Attenborough series is a real case in point. Something that is loved and is that mainstream for the first time is choosing to really hammer home an environmental message. It's always kind of reserved it for the last bit of the last show or not really covered it at all, because the importance had been to create the wonder. And I get that. But it feels to me like there's a shift in the way of doing things. And like I said earlier about my court case, maybe that's because people are more ready to hear these stories now.
You're in your mid-thirties, so have been a 'young writer' a little more recently than most of my other interviewees, and you won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for 2018. What's it been like, entering this field of travel writing and social criticism?
It's great that you can still be young at 35, isn't it? Only in writing. Or chess. And they have a young farmer award for under 40s I think. But, yeah, it feels like a really exciting time to be to be working on this.
Do you feel not-young?
I like to try and feel young. I guess it's not something I've really thought about till now. In some ways I don't feel like I'm in the industry, or caught up in that kind of journalisty world. And I don't have a smartphone and I try and stay away from social media and, you know, all that sort of stuff. In my early 20s when I was more involved in activism it still felt that all of this was kind of incumbent on maybe the next generation. The sort of thing you hear from a lot of the school strikers now, "we're not meant to be sorting this out, we're meant to be going to school". And in the last couple of years with the book coming out, I feel that I am - though probably on the younger side, one of the people that now has that responsibility for the rest of my career to be tackling these issues.
I sometimes wonder if the unraveling of the climate is just going to be incredibly well documented and written about whilst remaining inevitable. And because my book is about a far flung part of the world that most people have never heard about, I don't know how helpful it is to do that. I wouldn't want to do another book like it, I don't think. I'm more interested in what those new stories look like. So there's a real question out there about how you can tell stories that try and make people act, without campaigning, without preaching. I feel like focusing on something closer to home that's perhaps a better way to make people engage. And there seems to be a massive rise in people's appetite for it now, and that feels really exciting.