Sunflowers in a vase painting by Scott Alexander

Poet and novelist, Helen Salsbury, reveals how Pens of the Earth, a collaboration of local writers and environmentalists, came to reimagine Portsmouth.

  • 05 November 2021
  • 9 min read

I’d been volunteering for Star & Crescent as a community reporter and had found myself covering some exciting local environmental projects.

I’d spent ninety minutes deep in conversation with Clare Seek (Portsmouth Repair Café, Plastic Free Portsmouth, Portsmouth Green Drinks) about the challenges and opportunities of urban environmentalism and had come away stunned and inspired by how much was happening in the city: a network of passionate people working for change.

I’d also covered a visionary Portsmouth Friends of the Earth and Sustrans 'Streets for People' public meeting, where I first began to grasp the idea that cities could be designed around people rather than cars.

Reflection of a bird in a window

As someone who had lived for eighteen years in the middle of Buckland, a concrete grid of narrow streets where the only green space to be found is the local cemetery, the idea that we could bring wildlife back to the city and turn it into a place where communities and families could thrive was a revelation. 

I was also both heartbroken and terrified about the environmental catastrophe becoming ever clearer in the news. The idea that if we didn’t act – individually, collectively, as a city, as a country, as a world – in whatever way we could to start making a difference, time would run out. 

Imagining a better future

In reporting about environmental initiatives in Portsmouth, I had found hope and a vision of an alternative future. As a yoga teacher, I’d learnt that visualisation was a powerful tool – that by focussing your attention on what was possible, you could work towards it. 

It seemed to me that campaigns like Streets for People were fuelled by this positive visualisation, that by imagining a liveable city – where wildlife prospered, where walking and cycling was pleasurable, where people could gather on corners to chat, and everyone could breathe clean air – they gave themselves a clear landmark to head towards.

And who better to reimagine Portsmouth than a bunch of writers?

"I liked the idea of creative writing being able to send out positive environmental messages wrapped up in fictional short stories that show how easy it can be to do just one thing for the environment without having to change your whole way of life."

– Sue Shipp, Pens of the Earth Volunteer

So I did what any good writer does, I used words. I put together a proposal, and invited my writing community and our local environmentalists to get behind it. And they did. 

"Pens of the Earth has combined two passions, writing and nature, and allowed me to focus closely on their connections and intersections."

Alison Habens, Pens of the Earth Volunteer

Building a team of creatives

Right from the start we had a fabulous team of collaborators, volunteers and experts. We had environmental campaigners, creative writers and tutors, editors, publishers (Star & Crescent), spoken word troupes (T’Articulation), social media experts, website and graphic designers; some of whom arrived ready skilled, many of whom learnt on the job. We launched in July 2019 and we’ve been learning how to do this thing ever since! 

Our environmental advisors shared their campaigns and visionary futures with us via talks and articles:

  • Plastic Free Portsmouth
  • Streets for People
  • Portsmouth 2030
  • Wilder Portsmouth
  • Tree Wardens
  • Community Orchards
  • Pocket Parks

We then invited writers to respond to this fertile content by submitting material. And as the stories and poetry flooded in, Portsmouth’s landmarks, shores and streets got a new literary and environmental makeover.

"I wanted to imagine, in my stories, a greener, kinder, more egalitarian city: an image of what could be, but is not yet."

Sue Harper, Pens of the Earth Volunteer

We had green roofs, sunflowers planted in potholes, a visit to a repair cafe, a glimpse of the Cornwallis Crescent Community Orchard and it’s impact on local residents, a Zeppelin trip to the Isle of Wight. We had stories set in local parks and significant trees, we had neighbours reclaiming their connections with each other, a woman knitting a community together by transforming Festing Road to a car free zone... and we had beach cleans.

"It’s much quieter at that end of the seafront, the shingle populated with hardy plants that tolerate exposure and salt spray. Camilla said it had been designated as a local wildlife site." 

– Every Little Helps, Sue Shipp

But it wasn’t just about spreading the word, it was also about changing ourselves. 

"My personal calling to this theme is a clear memo to self to act as well as write, when it comes to environmentalism. I need to remember the lines of my own poem, Southsea but Plastic Free, when I'm throwing away another single-use wrapper; otherwise the creative writing work I love isn't so meaningful."

– Alison Habens, Plastic Free Portsmouth

In collaboration with Star & Crescent, everything we accepted was edited, published and promoted – reaching as far as we could across the city, and beyond. Because gradually, our reach began to expand beyond Portsmouth.

Welcoming change and promoting campaigns

In 2020 the world changed for all of us, and we asked our writers to explore that. We opened it out to everyone regardless of location; this was a universal experience. We invited our writers to reflect on what we were living through and to find the cracks of light, the rainbow in the storm. We asked them to craft a permanent record of the changes we saw, when all the cars, planes and ferries so briefly stopped – the birdsong, clear skies, clean seas, quieter streets. We encouraged them to explore the interdependence between humans and the natural world. Had the burgeoning of nature helped people to get through the difficulties and traumas? What changes would they like to see merging from this time? We asked them to dream of what could be achieved. How could we protect this planet for the future benefit of all?

And as the cars began to roll again, we welcomed campaigns to make our streets safe for walking, cycling and social distancing, and cheered the small gains towards a city which could be so much more enjoyable for people, with a proper cycle lanes and pedestrianisation of commercial areas such as Castle Road in Southsea. We learnt how the Wilder Portsmouth campaign had been steadily progressing, building wildlife corridors through the big grey sections on the map – working with communities, streets, churches, councils and individuals to create a landscape where humans and wildlife could thrive.

Bird collecting nesting materials

We haven’t stopped. This year, in the lead up to COP26, there’s a real need for people to add their voices, to contribute their talents. As Andy Ames of Wilder Portsmouth so encouragingly said, “We need different people playing different parts – rebels and advocates, artists and writers, funders and supporters, doers and thinkers.” 

So we’re getting involved in the city’s activities. 

Great Big Green Week

For Great Big Green Week we held an online spoken word event in collaboration with T’Articulation. It was thrilling to hear our writers perform their work and to feel the strength of possibilities in their words. It was inspiring to hear Jenni Jones, the Portsmouth Liveable Cities & Towns Officer for Sustrans, talking so eloquently about the life-enhancing ‘School Streets’ scheme which aims to make the school run so much healthier and happier for children and also for parents, teachers, residents.

Jenni explained how closing school streets to traffic temporarily at drop off and pick up times can improve air quality and road safety, reduce congestion, and create a more playful and relaxed environment. 

The scheme is currently being piloted in two Portsmouth schools, with more to follow.

"We’ll be focusing on inspiring the children and their parents to use their senses, to describe the feelings of what it’s like to have quality time walking or cycling or scooting together, to take notice of the changing of the seasons, temperature, the colours, sounds and smells in the streets free of traffic."

– Christine Lawrence, Pens of the Earth Volunteer

We’re also grateful to Vin Adams who has volunteered to support Christine in this endeavour using his experience as a community arts practitioner. It’s early days, but look out for the publication of the resultant work later in the school year: we’re hoping that it will appear both on the Pens website and on school walls.

Vin will also be bringing his performance experience to the organisation of spoken word performances during the Portsmouth Climate Festival. Pens of the Earth performers will be supporting two of the festival’s planned events. 

More change on the horizon

In the meantime our editing team are hard at work, preparing for the publication of poems and stories from this year’s ‘Small Differences Add Up’ theme. Publication will start in November and be promoted on social media by our Communications team. There may also be another collaboration with the University of Portsmouth, following the wonderful online ‘Streets for People: Small Differences Add Up’ creative writing workshop, which took place this August, lead by Dr Alison Habens. It’s still available to view online.

If you’d like to get involved with Pens of the Earth we’re always grateful for volunteers with suitable experience, just email me at helen@pensoftheearth.co.uk. We’re also fundraising for two of our favourite charities – the wonderful Wilder Portsmouth and Tree Sisters, who have so far planted 20 million trees. Donations are always greatly appreciated. 

To keep up to date with what’s happening, check out our website, follow us on Twitter at @EarthPens, like us on Facebook and/or join our mailing list. 

This site uses cookies. Click here to view our cookie policy message.

Accept and close