Who/What is Woke?

Now that Ron DeSantis is officially in the running for US President, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about woke culture, wokeness and ‘the woke mind virus,’ which according to DeSantis ‘is basically a form of cultural Marxism.’ I think he may have offended Marxists with that one while simultaneously whistling to antisemitic conspiracy theories of the World War 1 era.

The way ‘woke’ is getting bandied about these days, I’m starting to wonder if I know what it means. I’m not the only one, a survey conducted at King’s College London found that 25% of people think that ‘woke’ is a compliment, another 25% think it’s an insult and the rest either don’t know or have never even heard of the term.

According to the Oxford Online Dictionary, it’s an adjective meaning ‘alert to injustice and discrimination in society, especially racism.’ The dictionary cites these examples: “We need to stay angry, and stay woke” · “Does being woke mean I have to agree with what all other woke folks say should be done about issues in the black community?” · “The West Coast has the wokest dudes.”

The consensus is that ‘woke’ derived African American Vernacular English (also called Ebonics) and was originally about someone being alert to racial discrimination and prejudice. Some sources claim the word in this sense was coined by the novelist William Melvin Kelley, who in 1962 authored an essay for the New York Times entitled ‘If You’re Woke, You Dig It.’ The word didn’t catch on or acquire a more political or broader meaning to include discrimination other than racial until the earlier 2000’s. The singer Erykah Badu used the phrase ‘Stay woke’ in her song Master Teacher in 2008. Badu was singing about all types of injustices all over the world.

These definitions and uses make wokeness sound much more passive than it appears to be by those who attack it. More than just being alert, people who are labelled as woke want to change school curricula and laws that affect our jobs and ways of life. In a recent Wall Street Journal survey, 55 percent of US Republicans said, ‘Fighting woke ideology in our schools and businesses’ was more important than ‘protecting Social Security and Medicare.’

This so-called woke ideology that has entered American schools and universities has many progressive forms, such as Critical Race Theory. This approach to studying history is nothing more than understanding past events in their social and political contexts, acknowledging the roles of women and ethnic minorities. This makes people on the right uncomfortable as it destroys some of the myths of US history that have fed public discourse and patriotism for decades. This is nothing new. Throughout the twentieth century, plenty of scholars have posited revisionists histories, some leaking their way into popular writing – Gore Vidal’s brilliant Burr comes to mind.

‘Woke’ as something to spit at the left has also crept into British culture. The current Home Secretary Suella Braverman referred to Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters as ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati.’ For me this makes the label ‘woke’ a badge of honour.

But it’s not so straight forward. Popular media has linked wokeness to debates around cancel culture. Those who want to cancel scholars and public figures who are gender critical and want women’s sex-based rights protected. On this point, I feel very unwoke as I support freedom of speech and freedom of research (along with gender criticality). This makes me uncomfortably aligned with the American right and in search of a sick bucket.

I’m suspecting this is a generational issue as well with the young left wing taking progressive positions a step too far for some of us older progressives. Putting generational differences into the mix was mentioned in a recent BBC article. Ash Sarkar, contributing editor for Novara Media group, explained that differences on issues such as climate change and race are making the use of woke a pejorative term, and that it has become a ‘convenient vehicle for lots of right-wing anxieties about a generational divide in political outlook.’

Ultimately, woke has become multi-faceted and slippery and as complex as what it means to be liberal these days.

Difficult Women

Prime Minister Theresa May was once publicly referred to as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ by one of her own MPs, Kenneth Clarke. May revelled in it and used the label to raise her feminist credentials. But the more I read about ‘difficult women,’ the more I think May was undeserving of the accolade. Her brief time at No. 10 Downing Street left many of us wondering about her competence as she fumbled her way through Brexit negotiations that left all sides unhappy.

In Helen Lewis’s book Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, the author looks at the lives of 19th and 20th century women who were judged as difficult women, but who were clearly breaking barriers, often risking their lives and destroying their and their families’ reputations. These stories make Theresa May look like a lightweight, if not a fraud among difficult women.

Among Lewis’s choices are the many little-known suffragettes, who spent years in prison for rioting, and women who weren’t allowed in universities, but having been accepted went anyway – with sympathetic male escorts. Lewis also writes about Marie Stopes, who was a palaeobotanist and campaigner for women’s right, perhaps best known for her book on the female body Married Love (1918), and for being the founder of Britain’s first birth control clinic. To Lewis’s credit, she points out that Stopes wasn’t a complete inspirational heroine. Stopes was a gushing admirer of Adolph Hitler, going so far to send him some of her love poems, and she was a strong advocate for eugenics. Lewis writes about her because she was complicated and because women’s histories tend to be selective in our modern search for feel-good role models and pioneers.

Bringing this topic back into the 21st century, I did a search on ‘difficult woman’ in the News on the Web Corpus of some 14 billion plus words, mostly from written language but including news transcripts. The Kenneth Clarke quote loomed large. Other women referred to as ‘difficult’ were Winnie Mandela, Megan Markle and Patti Smith, along with many people’s mothers. I did another search looking for occurrences of ‘difficult man’ in the news corpus. I expected to find fewer occurrences of ‘difficult man’ than ‘difficult woman,’ but the opposite was true. ‘Difficult man’ occurred 20% more frequently than ‘difficult woman.’ Why is this? I suspect, first of all, it’s because men are more likely than women to appear in the news. Examining the contexts of these occurrences more closely, I noticed that ‘difficult’ was often used to label the woman as if she belongs to a type of woman that didn’t need any further explaining. That’s who she is, and our culture understands what that means. Difficult man often appeared in phrases such as ‘a difficult man to pin down’ and ‘a difficult man to track down’ – the busy, important man – and in sports contexts, ‘a difficult man to mark’ and ‘a difficult man to stop’ – the heroes of the male-dominated sports news (oh, don’t get me started on that one – the lack of coverage of women’s sports).

Writing about this topic probably makes me a difficult woman. With this in mind, I’ll close with a quote from Helen Lewis: ‘Being a feminist unavoidably involves being a killjoy, because it involves puncturing the cosy bubble of consensus. That’s difficult, and it can make you seem difficult for doing it.’

Marie Stopes


Whenever I regale people with the attractions of the French town of Menton, something I’ve been doing a lot lately as we’re on the lookout for an apartment there, I include a former home of Katherine Mansfield. I’m met with more or less the same response – ‘Oh, I love Katherine Mansfield! She’s my favourite short story writer.’ To which I add, ‘There’s a street named after her too!’ Eyes light up. This is the ‘cult’ (not my word choice) of Katherine Mansfield.

It’s been described as ‘a cult unique in modern literature’ because it was started after Mansfield died by her husband, the writer and literary critic John Middleton Murry. Only three of Mansfield’s books appeared during her lifetime. After her death, Murray edited and published eleven others, along with articles about her works, giving his late wife a status far greater than she had in her lifetime. According to literary rumour, when Murry received a handsome royalty cheque for The Dove’s Nest and Other Poems, he was reported to have said, ‘It was by far the biggest cheque I had ever received, and ten times as big as any Katherine had received for her own work.’ Most biographers agree that Murry’s motives for creating the myth of Mansfield (better alliteration than ‘cult of Mansfield’) had more to do with his financial needs than any literary conviction.

The intense interest in Mansfield’s work goes beyond her husband’s dealings. Like other idolised figures, Mansfield died young. She was 34 when she fell victim to tuberculosis. Though short, her life was scandalous and intriguing. She married twice and was known to have affairs with women and men, and her friends included D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Mansfield broke barriers, taking up topics such as women’s sexuality and support for the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand.

This year, marking the 100th anniversary of Mansfield’s death, the veneration has been rekindled and interest in her life and works have resurfaced. Helen Simpson, writing in The Guardian, notes that biographers have wildly varied in their account of her personality and motives for writing. I agree. Some have painted her as a saintly feminist icon (the phrase ‘free women’ is overused), others as a liar and literary imposture, while others still describe a tortured life and consequently aggressive personality. Simpson attempts to make sense of this divergence of opinion: ‘One explanation might lie in Mansfield’s keen sense of the absurd and the striking lack of anything deferential in her attitude – whether towards men or anyone powerful or rich or influential. The “ripple of laughter” (a favourite phrase of Mansfield’s) at play throughout her writing could cause offence (particularly coming from a young, upstart, female New Zealander). A sense of humour for a woman is a double-edged sword. When one of her finest tragicomic stories, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, was published, the reviewers found it “cruel;” in a 1921 letter Mansfield commented: “It’s almost terrifying to be so misunderstood.”’

While I have a few ‘favourite’ short story writers – J.D. Salinger, Joyce Carol Oates, Italo Calvino, Anton Chekov, Helen Dunmore and William Faulkner – Mansfield is up there, but not an all-time favourite. It’s not that I don’t like her work. I simply haven’t read much of it. Despite Mansfield’s popularity, her books didn’t appear on the undergraduate reading list during my years as a student or as a teacher of literature. I stumbled across a few of her stories, such as ‘At the Bay’ and ‘The Stranger,’ in anthologies of great short stories. I was surprised to see that the Literary Encyclopedia, which I have written for over the years, does not have any entries for her books, only a short paragraph about her life. I see an assignment proposal in my mental in tray.

I’m currently reading Mansfield’s first collection of short stories, In a German Pension, published when she was only 23. It’s a beautifully subtle work, often involving what modern audiences would call observational humour. It draws me in, and I can see myself engaging in Mansfieldmania – ah, that’s the word I want. ‘Cult’ connotes David Koresh, the Tr*mp base and the horrific deaths reported this week in Kenya at a Christian doomsday ‘church.’ Mania in a non-clinical sense is about enthusiasm and joyful obsession. I submit.

I tell my Mansfield-adoring friends that the house in Menton is called a ‘memorial’ with a plaque on the exterior wall. At this point, I confess that every time I go to this house, it’s always closed, and the plaque is impossible to read from the gated fence. I stand on my tiptoes to see what inhabits her garden. The mysteries of her short life metaphorically captured.

Some Thoughts on Six-Word Short Stories

I was recently invited to write a response piece to a scholarly article about six-word short stories for Connotations. The original author, David Fishelov, and I agreed that while all six-word stories in his study were narratives, they weren’t all truly stories. Fishelov defines narrative as ‘a represented action that involves “a change of fortune” … or a change or evolvement from one situation to a significantly different situation.’

Here’s an example of a six-word story that I would classify as a narrative but not story:

I invented a new word: plagiarism. (https://www.reddit.com/r/sixwordstories/top/?t=all)

This first appeared in a section of Reddit with the label of “Jokes.” Then it reappeared in a section on six-word stories. This mini-narrative reads as if it were a one-line joke. The only action in this narrative is the invention of a new word, with the punchline being that the word is about the wrongful borrowing of other people’s words. The action would be meaningless to the narrative if the invention were not of the word plagiarism. This example has a narrative element but would not be categorised as a story by most readers.

Since writing this piece, I’ve stumbled across a few other stories that I think are good examples of six-word stories:

Poked hole in condom. Divorce final. (From generatorfun.com/6-word-story-generator)

Alexa, where did my parents go? (By Lucy-Jo Dalby Six Word Story 2020 shortlist and winners announced | First Story)

It’s still you. Always will be. (From a Buzzfeed reader: messinab on BuzzFeed)

These little stories give us not only events or suggest a change in a situation, but also imply other events and narrative elements, such as background, resolution and character.

But my favourite six-word story is still the famous one attributed to Ernest Hemingway – he never published it, so I imagine it written on the back of a cocktail napkin at a bar in Havana:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

India and the Global Majority

Here we are at the end of April 2023. What makes this date significant? This week, India’s population is expected to have reached 1,425,775,850, overtaking China as the world’s most populous country. This brings a few thoughts to mind.

First, I’ve always had a soft spot for India and its peoples. This might have something to do with my ‘spiritual’ childhood and attending the Temple of Kriya Yoga in Chicago at the age of ten. For a while I even identified myself as Hindu though I wasn’t really. In grown-up life India came to represent some of my favourite authors – Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai – and the music of Ravi Shankar and A.R. Rahman. When I finally travelled to India, I revelled in the colours and fragrances, its architecture rich in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious history and the experiences of seeing a tiger in the wild and riding through the crowded chaos of New Delhi in the back of a rickshaw. I also saw poverty on a scale I had never seen before. An enlightening experience all around.

The other idea that has surfaced with this population milestone is that of a global majority. Since the middle of the twentieth century, together China and India have accounted for over a third of the world’s population. For the entirety of my lifetime, the world has been predominately Asian. Yet for much of my early life – and perhaps I speak for other Westerners – my world view did not match this Asian reality.

That started to change with globalization – I know this is a swear word for many, but globalization is not just about a McDonald’s/Coca Cola world invasion, but also includes a spreading of Asian cultures and languages to the West. I went through a Japanese phase in the 80s when Japan was an economic powerhouse and Akira Kurosawa films regularly featured at the Edinburgh Film Festival. Living in Korea in the late-90s and travelling widely to neighbouring countries made America feel for me even less central to world cultures – a bit player. Today, I reflect on the power of ‘K’ – K-pop, K-design, K-cinema – as everything adorably Korean.

The concept of a global majority can also be seen through another lens. Writing about leadership in education, Rosemary Campbell-Stephens defines the global majority to include ‘people who identify as Black, African, Asian, Brown, Arab and mixed heritage, are indigenous to the global south, and/or have been racialised as ethnic minorities.’ Combined, these groups currently represent roughly eighty-five per cent of the world’s population. Campbell-Stephens adds that the term global majority was ‘coined to reject the debilitating implications of being racialised as minorities.’ Recognising the largest populations isn’t just about numbers, it is a move ‘towards reclaiming the autonomy and efficacy that the process of racialised categorisation and minoritisation removes.’ I can see the value of this – a challenge to prejudicial thinking. But it also misses the mark by not acknowledging racializing religious groups as found in antisemitism and, to bring this back to India, in Modi’s government, which is openly discriminating against Muslims.

As India’s population and economic power grows, so too does its place in the world. I watch this global power shift with fascination and a bit of unease.

My week in the heat

I haven’t been on holiday near the Equator or sitting in a sauna at some upmarket health club that I don’t belong to. The heat comes from reading and listening to climate science. Hot temperatures and hot in the sense of stoking my anger. As tomorrow is Earth Day, yet another awareness campaign, I promise I won’t mention any numbers or statistics as you will have heard enough, and I don’t think they’re very helpful. What we need is a shift in thinking. Here are some highlights that have rattled my head this week and have brought me to this conclusion.

In David Wallace-Wells’ newsletter, the environmentalist describes how critiques of the ‘catastrophic thinking’ in recent climate activism have been ‘regularly and conspicuously levelled by complacent centrists and patronizing greybeards against the alarmist fringe of the climate movement — yes, warming was happening, they acknowledged, and yes, it represented a challenge to the world’s collective status quo, but still, all of this hyperbolic talk was, let’s be honest, a bit much.’ This does an excellent job of depicting the stance of many public figures who are not climate change deniers but are not fighting for the environment either. It is as if positioning oneself in the middle of the argument, avoiding extremes, is reasonable. In this case, it’s not.

I’ve been reading Simon Sharpe’s Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change, where the issue of communicating the dangers of climate change is looked at from a slightly different angle. Sharpe argues that climate scientists have been pulling their punches when presenting their findings to the public and to policy makers because these scientists have tended to talk in terms of predictions, which they are naturally cautious in making. It would be better, according to Sharpe to address the effects of climate change in terms of risk assessment – that is, looking at the worst possible scenario. He compares risk assessment in other fields to make his case. ‘What would become of a national security adviser who stormed out of a briefing on a terrorist threat complaining that it was all too depressing? Or a chief medical officer who decided not to warn political leaders of an approaching pandemic in case the bad news caused them to ‘switch off’? Obviously, such negligence is unthinkable.’ Yet, scientists, economists and politicians have skirted around risk assessment in the context of climate change. My blood boils thinking about it.

I took a break from these commentaries on catastrophic thinking and parlance only to find this item in the New York Times: ‘India is among the most vulnerable countries to human-caused climate change. And its poorest people are at the greatest risk…. This week, many parts of India were under heat wave alerts. Schools and colleges were closed in most parts of West Bengal state.’ Over to EuroNews, where there were stories around the fact that 2022 had the warmest summer on record across Europe. There was no escaping it.

Finally, returning to Simon Sharpe as he has the right words to describe what’s been going on in my head this week. He writes, ‘Thinking about climate change risks can be emotionally draining. You might feel you’ve heard enough by this point. There are increasing reports of climate change scientists and activists needing psychological support to cope with the strains of constantly staring into the abyss, trying to tell people about it, and witnessing the utter inadequacy of our collective response.’ Am I an activist, or an ordinary news junkie, needing psychological support? Perhaps not yet, but I did find writing this blog therapeutic.

Happy Birthday, Scrabble

This week Scrabble celebrated its 75th anniversary, and in its honour, we dusted off our old classic set and played with Ravel and Liszt in the background. There was a time in the winter months when we scrabbled once a week, on one of our non-drinking nights. We altered that tradition over time to a non-competitive puzzle night – each of us immersed in our own world of words (me) and numbers (David).

Our old Scrabble set has a few faded letters, but all the tiles are there. According to France Info, across the world close to one million of the lettered tiles have been lost. And for some more weird statistics – if you were to stack these lost letters on top of each other, the pile would be twelve times higher than the Empire State Building.

Some more trivia – Scrabble was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts and was first called Lexiko, then Criss-crosswords before becoming Scrabble in 1948. This word derives from the Dutch schrabbelan, which means to scratch – perhaps what you do to your head while trying to compose words from those seven random letters, especially the servings of all consonants or all vowels.

The game we played wasn’t stellar. The highest scoring word was stinger, which used up all seven letters, giving me an extra 50 points for a total of 66. This pales when compared to the highest scoring word ever of oxyphenbutazone (1458 points). But I suspect this is theoretical. I’m not sure I believe it appeared in a real game as part of the word would have to be in place, and that would lower the score. According to Guinness World Records, the highest score in a tournament for a single word was 275 points for beauxite.

When I used to subscribe to The International Herald Tribune, I got hooked on the print version of Scrabble for one player. Realising its potential for addiction, I’ve stayed away from the digital versions and online groups. I would do little else with the sedentary part of my life if I went those directions.

The actual 75th anniversary was a couple of days ago. As I too often do with humans, I am issuing a belated ‘many happy returns’ to this wonderful boardgame for lexophiles (another good Scrabble word if your opponent leaves you with the ex and space around it).

The language of coloniality

This week Buckingham Palace announced that King Charles was supporting research into the royal family’s links to the transatlantic slave trade. This is along the lines of investigating any links between America and lunar exploration. It’s bleeding obvious and the stuff of history books, novels and films, and in the case of the latter -living memory for most of us. Of course, the moon landings don’t carry the shame of the colonisation and enslavement of peoples. It’s this shame that has allowed for this trick of the mind where people talk of the monarchy as both integral to the British Empire, and therefore colonialism and slavery, and yet, at the same time separate from the Empire when it comes to the well-documented atrocities and the financial gains that still exist today.

What’s going on here I think can be found in understanding the terms colonialism and coloniality. The withdrawal of European countries from their colonies represented the end of colonialism, the political and economic structures enforced by the colonisers to govern and exploit the colonised. But that wasn’t the true end of it. Sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel explained back in 2011 that ‘we have come out of a period of global colonialism to enter a period of global coloniality.’ In contrast to colonialism, coloniality refers to the hegemonic ways of thinking, doing and being that show power of one group over another even if the colonial governments are no longer in force. Coloniality has its roots in colonialism but is far more subtle and is disguised in the language of progress, modernization and development – I’m paraphrasing here from an insightful article I read recently by Pinky Makoe (2022), a sociolinguistic studying coloniality in education in South Africa.

Here’s an example of coloniality at work. A recent article in Nature pointed out how biological species have been traditionally named after persons, real and fictional. ‘Eponyms typically reflect benefactors, dignitaries, officials, the author’s family members and colleagues, or well-known cultural figure’ at the time of their so-called ‘discovery’ by westerners. This point is illustrated in the names given to animal and plant species in the continent of Africa, a strong majority were named after British men, followed by German men, followed by French men, followed by Belgium men – you get the idea. The fact that these names stayed in place for so long points to the coloniality that remained long after the colonisers were gone. The article was about the drive to replace these names, these relics of colonialism, by adopting the names used by local people where these species can be found.

At least we are talking about coloniality – in concept, where we are not using the word. This idea has finally come out of the shadows of academia and is making its way into the popular press. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard of King Charles. His ‘bold’ announcement is a step in the right direction and in its naivety is only trying to fit into popular thinking.

Children’s spoken language: politeness and impoliteness

I recently authored part of an online course, including a section on politeness and impoliteness in children’s spoken language. Here are some scraps from the cutting room floor.

When looking at spoken language whether adults or children, we talk about the use of politeness markers,such as ‘please’ and such conventional formulaic expressions as ‘thank you’ and the uber-annoying ‘have a nice day.’ In linguistics, politeness markers are seen as tools used in interaction to avoid giving offence, by showing friendliness or deference. Examples of polite language also include nicknames, jokes or in-group slang to show friendliness, or the use of formal terms of address, hedging or formal language to show deference. 

In languages, such as French and Italian, politeness can be marked by addressing someone using the formal form of you. In Japanese, Korean and Chinese politeness is writ large in the use of honorifics, those titles or words used to express respect. In Korean, for example, the word nim is added to names and titles to show respect and recognition of a higher social status than the speaker. When I was studying Korean while living in Korea, I soon discovered that as a foreigner I was being taught to use honorifics as if I were a child speaking to an adult. Even worse, I was encouraged to use a type of language that was extremely formal and made me sound as if I was making public emergency announcements.

Polite behaviours and language are taught to us from an early age and are associated to some degree with contexts. For example, a young child giving an order to a peer might use an imperative verb form, but that same child would express the same desire to an adult in the form of a question or request. Polite language is also culturally reinforced in written texts found in children’s literature and in other modes and media, such as films and musical stage plays. Typically, in children’s literature protagonists use politeness markers while the villains employ more verbal insults and sarcasm. In my study of politeness in Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a corpus analysis revealed that only the protagonists, Matilda and Miss Honey, used the word please. They were also the only characters to use thank you in a polite sense, as opposed to the sarcastic way this expression is used by the two villains, Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull.

Of course, I found impoliteness more fun to analyse and write about. Like politeness, impoliteness in language is taught to us from an early age, but is more often taught through impoliteness metalanguage – that is, being told that you are being impolite, rude, discourteous, etc. The language of exchanging insults, taunting, making the witty reply and having the last word to ‘one-up’ another child may be creatively improvised by some children. But it seems most children borrow from a repertoire of name-calling and phrases which have been used by other children before them. Among children, impolite language appears to have a range of social functions, such as creating solidarity and being the centre of attention. Consider the use of expressions like cry-baby, spoilsport and mardy baby (an English dialect word for a spoilt child). Depending on the context, these expressions could be meant to anger, hurt or display affection towards the intended target.  Folklorists have also noted that childhood jeers and insults are often softened by using rhymes, as if to say the insult should not be taken too seriously. From my own childhood: ‘Roses are red. Violets are blue. Garlics stink and so do you.’

The pinnacle of impolite language in childhood occurs in the use of swear words. My research into this area of childhood language didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Perhaps this is because what applies to children also applies to adults. Swearing is great for blowing off steam – especially at oneself – but when directed at someone, it’s often counterproductive and belittles the speaker more than the listener.

You’ve probably gathered that these extracts that didn’t end up in the final online units have had some of their academic language shaken out of them and some personal asides added in. There’s another type of language for you – bloggery.

Five Vignettes About Trees


I attended Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Chicago, where the first line of Kilmer’s best-known poem was painted in old-worldly script above the stage of the auditorium: ‘I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.’ The metaphor still works for me, but the rhymed couplets throughout the poem (I will spare you) edge close to doggerel. Thankfully, loads of other poems about trees have been published. I’ve recently discovered the French-Canadian poet Hélène Dorion, whose collection ‘Mes forêts,’ as the title suggests, features trees. Here’s a sample:

Trees bite into the soil
their bodies parched
in the cold of their roots
gaunt shadows bodies
pressed together
we hear the song
of fracture and desire
body like the tide going out
pale boat
lost in its night

body of love and storm
given over to the earth
that it licks as if
it were a wall to pierce through

  • Hélène Dorion (Translated by Susanna Lang)


With talk of today being the Spring Equinox in the marginalia of the news, I was reminded of St Joseph’s Day. It’s the day before the equinox, but nevertheless it was for me as a child the Italo-American version of St Patrick’s Day. It was customary to wear red. In Italy, it’s also celebrated by gorging on a zeppola, a custard-filled pastry with cherries on top – the cherries represent the buds on the trees in spring.


At the start of the year, I enrolled in another MOOC intended for French undergraduates to help me expand my French vocabulary. The course, entitled ‘Les Arbes,’ was about the biology of trees and their contribution to the Earth’s biodiversity. Once again, learning scientific French highlighted the paucity of my scientific English. Many of the words I looked up in French were the same or close to it in English.


In Cambridgeshire where I live, a furore has erupted over new plans led by the county council to build a busway (a bus-only road) from a new 6000-home development to the town of Cambridge. Building such a road will involve cutting down 1,000 trees. The majority of these arboreal victims are in the Coton Orchard, one of the UK’s largest and oldest orchards, with a unique ecosystem that cannot be mitigated with planting new trees elsewhere. This is part of a pattern in Britain, where the mass felling of trees has been carried out in the interest of road building. In 2018, despite two years of protests from residents in Sheffield, the city council allowed for the felling of some 17,500 trees. It later turned out that the justification for this was based on misunderstandings of an environmental survey coupled with misinforming the public.

I’m not just being sentimental about trees – all trees everywhere. Trees are also a crop that provide wood for furniture and pulp for toilet paper, among other things. Some trees also need to be cut down due to disease or public health reasons. The destruction of trees in our parks and towns is a different matter altogether. With the loss of these trees, the bird and insect populations, already in catastrophic decline, suffer greatly. To this, it’s necessary to add negative effects of such barbarous acts on the human population, both in terms of our physical health (such as the quality of the air that we breathe) and psychological health (where studies have shown improvements in emotional well-being with the introduction of sylvan spaces).


Every year, I buy an artsy calendar to add some colour and visual creativity to my home office in Ely. It’s also a place to jot down writing deadlines, meetings and health club activities – things that are on my phone calendar as well but are sometimes forgotten when my head is in the comfort of clouds. My 2023 calendar has a tree theme. Every month displays a painting of trees by some famous, and some not so famous, European artists. Looking at these photos of paintings everyday – these meadows, these tree-lined shores, these shaded forests – gives my days a natural sense of calm and beauty. Since according to a French professor lecturing on the MOOC, there are over 60,000 species of trees, every year could have a tree theme, a different tree calendar, and in the remainder of my lifetime, I still will have only scratched the surface.

Above: Emmanuel Gondouin, La Forêt, 1912
Feature image: Henri Charles Manguin, Les oliviers à Cavalière,  1905