Literary Scholar Dr Catherine Charlwood presents 2019 Hay Festival INSPIRE Lecture


Dr Catherine Charlwood presented her work entitled ‘Such a Pair : The Twin Lives of Humans and Trees’ at this year’s Hay Festival on May 30.

Dr Charlwood was the winner of the annual Institute for Sustainable Practice, Innovation and Resource Effectiveness (INSPIRE) Lecture, organised by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) and the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, UK & Ireland (ASLE-UK).

The INSPIRE lecture is competition-based and aims to showcase research which explores the relationship between literature and the sustainability debate. The judging panel invited submissions that explore how literature, in any of its forms, responds to and is shaped by our capacity to know the natural world in the context of debates around sustainability.

Dr Charlwood’s lively, illustrated lecture traced the twin lives, and connected deaths, of humans and trees in English verse, especially in the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Mew. Poetry, Dr Charlwood shows, records the passing of specific tree lives, borrowing aspects of the elegy – a form which traditionally records a human death – to lend importance to such losses. Her sensitive and insightful discussion of Hardy and Mew explored the paralleling of plant and person, the way that tree-felling is represented in poetry, and moments when the distinction between the human body and the tree’s form starts to fade. Dr Charlwood's inspiring lecture asked us to think about the value of tree lives, not just to human lives, but also to the shared life the entire planet needs to sustain.

The lecture, which took place at the Starlight stage at Hay, was followed by a public discussion between Dr Charlwood, Dr Jane Davidson, UWTSD Pro Vice-Chancellor for Sustainability and Engagement, Director of INSPIRE and former Welsh Government Minister for Sustainability, and Professor Brycchan Carey, Chair of ASLE-UKI.

Dr Charlwood is an emerging scholar in the environmental humanities who currently works with the Diseases of Modern Life project at St Anne's College, University of Oxford. She studied English, and American, Literature at the University of Cambridge and, in 2017, gained a doctorate on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost from the University of Warwick. Her academic publications include articles on Hardy's verse; memory in the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro; literature and science methodology; and a book chapter on Primo Levi's Auschwitz memoir. She is currently completing a book-length study of Hardy and Frost. A Fulbright scholar and former teacher, Dr Charlwood now co-hosts LitSciPod: The Literature and Science Podcast.

Brycchan Carey is Professor of English Literature at Northumbria University and Chair of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, UK and Ireland. He said: “ASLE-UKI are excited to continue supporting this important competition. Poets have for many centuries moved people both to describe and to delight in the natural world. For many in today’s highly urbanised society, poetry is a direct and tangible link to nature, inspiring them to create and nurture a more sustainable world. Literary scholars such as Dr Charlwood play a vital role in understanding and promoting the literature and culture of sustainability.”

Dr Davidson said: "Each year, it is an enormous pleasure to engage with talented artists interested in nature and the environment who bring us new understandings due to their exceptional facility with words. The competition enables Hay visitors to witness the extraordinary talent that lies in our universities and create an opportunity for new understandings. We enjoyed exploring what lay behind this year's winning lecture with the Festival audience. Previous winners have addressed how re-reading Shakespeare through a sustainability lens can unearth fascinating insights into the way we used to live and inform our ideas for the future; they have explored how Nature Writing has adapted to our new environmental concerns and ecological perspectives in our post-colonial globalized economy and looked at the importance of inter-related ecosystems remaining in balance. The competition has demonstrated unequivocally that stories for change can play a crucially important in re-interpreting our world for the benefit of future generations.”

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