Cape Farewell Challenge 2: The Skin You’re Living In


Hi I’m Karen McCarthy Woolf! This is the second of my four weekly challenges asking you to respond to Cape Farewell’s archive of photos, videos and blog posts.

Cape Farewell leads expeditions of artists, musicians, writers and scientists to places like the Arctic and the Amazon so they can see the effects of climate change close up and respond to it in their work.

SWITCH is a project which aims to add the voices of young poets aged 11-18 to the conversation and I will be selecting poems to showcase on the Switch website after the submission deadline for all four challenges on 22 February 2013.

Karen McCarthy Woolf  Karen McCarthy Woolf  is a poet, dramatist and short fiction writer for print, online, broadcast and live platforms.

Challenge 2: The Skin You’re Living In

The theme for this week is home. What does it mean to us as individuals and what would it be like to lose our home? What would it take to make us leave our homes? What are the things we’d leave behind? Who are the people we’d miss?

As the climate changes around the world, many animals are forced to travel further to find food. Many birds like the Arctic tern are having fly for increasingly longer distances to access dwindling food sources when they migrate each year.

Polar bears spend half of their lives hunting, mainly for seals, on arctic sea ice. As global temperatures heat up they are being forced inland as the ice breaks up. Most people were shocked and dismayed to see the film footage of polar bears marooned on tiny islands of ice, far offshore and with no access to their hunting grounds. Whether on land, in the air or at sea, the natural habitat and the animals who live there are under threat..


David Harradine - It's The Skin You're Living In‘It’s The Skin You’re Living In’, David Harradine. Copyright Cape Farewell.

In ‘It’s The Skin You’re Living In’, artist David Harridine dressed up in a polar bear suit and wandered from Northern Europe, through Scotland and down to the south of England. As the journey progresses the man under the polar bear skin is revealed. Click here to see more images and for a link to the film, which charts his journey from north to south and from beast to man.

Polar bears look cute, but they are deadly predators. As their habitat is destroyed, they are coming closer to human settlements to look for food. Their sense of smell is around a thousand times more powerful than ours.

Use ‘It’s The Skin You’re Living In’ as a starting point to do a 15-minute timed freewrite about really getting under the skin of a polar bear: as well as thinking about what the bear might be searching for, I want you to concentrate on the sense of smell. What can the bear smell on the wind? There’s nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread wafting on the air when you’re hungry. What’s the equivalent for polar bears? Can he smell dogs in the distance, or a campfire surrounded by men with sleds? What is he thinking? Where is home for a polar bear? If the bear were to write a postcard home, what would it say? (For details of how to use freewriting as a drafting technique, click here.)

When you’ve finished go back and read through your notes, underlining any particular phrases you like or that catch your attention.


This week in your journal I’d like you to describe your home in as much detail as you can. What does it look like? The smell of hot toast and butter always reminds me of my grandma’s house when I was little. Is there a particular smell that always reminds you of home? Who lives there? How is your room different to the other rooms? Are the moments of chaos and calm? Have you ever travelled for an extended period of time and felt homesick? Write about how that felt.

Further inspiration

Gillian Clarke: ‘Polar’
You might like to look at the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke’s poem ‘Polar’ from her new book Ice as a further source of inspiration. You can read it here. In it she describes a polar bear rug in her childhood home and what it feels like to lie on this rug that was once an animal, and she writes about how she would like it to be alive again.

Jen Hadfield: ‘Paternoster’
Jen Hadfield’s poem ‘Paternoster’ is in the voice of a shire horse reciting the Lord’s Prayer. In it we get a sense of the horse’s life and what’s important to it. Click here to read the poem.

Louise Gluck: ‘Snowdrops’
Or have a read through the American poet Louise Gluck’s poem ‘Snowdrops’ which is written in the voice of the snowdrop flower. The snowdrops speak about what it’s like living under the earth.


Kenny Taylor - Arctic Terns ‘Arctic Terns’, Kenny Taylor

The Arctic tern flies more than a million miles in its lifetime in search of food. Now it is having to fly further and further north each year. The sand eel is the main part of its diet and due to changes in ocean temperature, which affects the entire marine ecosystem, they are now in short supply.

For more inspiration take a look at Cape Farewell’s SWITCH website for more on the changes in the birds’ migration patterns as a result of climate change.

Writing your poem

This week’s challenge is to write a poem from the point of view of an animal that is having to leave its home to survive. It might be a polar bear, or it might be another animal, such as the Arctic tern. Where does it go? Who does it encounter on its journey? Your poem should include the sense of smell as well as sight.

Submitting your poems

The Cape Farewell challenges are now closed – you can read the fantastic winning poems on their website. But why not follow Karen’s challenge and submit to one the magazines or competitions on our list of Poetry Opportunities?


Cape Farewell logo      Switch logo

Published January, 2012

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