IWD 2023: Alma Mater and Mother Nature

A feature by author, playwright and screenwriter Laline Paull for International Women’s Day, March 8 2023

A few days ago, the UN High Seas Treaty placed 30% of the world’s oceans into protected areas and put more money into marine conservation with new rules for mining at sea.  This is colossally good news, and how often can we say this, that something so good has changed for our natural world? 

When I was at Hertford a few days ago, the term alma mater was drifting about in my peripheral imagination, but when this UN treaty – ten years in the negotiating and 48 hours non-stop in the room to get it over the line – was announced, it came to me.  Alma mater, nourishing mother as well as the place we come from.  The ocean is the alma mater of life on earth, and She – because today is International Women’s Day and it’s always Mother Nature – gives us the oxygen for every second breath we take.  So the UN High Seas Treaty, just made us all a little bit safer, as well as being a framework to protect the citizens of the ocean. 

Citizens, because I believe that in time, we will recognise sentient life as deserving of rights.  Humans still have a hard time treating each other with respect, so for now, this is my speculative heart’s desire, and also the place from which I wrote Pod, my third novel. 

All my novels (The Bees, The Ice, Pod) have a spine of science, informed and advised by top biologists in their field.  Pod has passed muster at the Natural History Museum, which is featuring it in June, and is an immersive migration epic set in the world of cetaceans.  Focused mainly on two different tribes of dolphins (bottlenose and spinner) there’s also a humpback whale who chooses a lonely life singing warning to any who can hear him, of the fatal dangers of the shipping lanes and nets of death.  Other characters include an amoral remora fish, a sex-changing Napoleon Wrasse (written long before any topicality), even giant clams – whose physiology is astonishing. 

Pod is full of fact-based and frequently politically-incorrect animal behaviour, which has angered some readers, made others cry, was extremely intimidating to write (so many species, and such harm have we done and still do to the oceans) and has just been longlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  This means readers are connecting with the natural world from a place of empathy and imagination – the holy grail of politics and advertising, because these are human super-powers that can change the world. 

When I was last on the Tube, I saw adverts for an insurance company asserting ‘We protect what we love,’ just as I was hearing that dreary tannoy announcement, ‘If you see something that doesn’t look right, contact a member of staff.  See it, say it, sort it.’ As William Blake said, “What is now proved was once only imagined.” 

Let’s imagine the world we want, and get there together.  

A black and white image of author, playwrite and screenwriter Laline Paull.

Laline Paull (BA English, 1983) was born in England. Her parents were first-generation Indian immigrants. She studied English at Hertford College, screenwriting in Los Angeles, and theatre in London, where she had two plays performed at the Royal National Theatre. Laline is a member of BAFTA and the Writers’ Guild of America.

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