Cape Farewell Challenge 4: A ‘ditty box’ for the world


Hi I’m Karen McCarthy Woolf! This is my final weekly challenge 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 4: A ditty box for the world

Ditty Box 1Artwork by John Cumming and Cecil Tait

Sailors kept the only personal belongings they were allowed in their cramped accommodation on board ship in ‘ditty boxes’. Ditty Boxes is a sculpture project by John Cumming and Cecil Tait that draws on this history.

Ditty Box 2Artwork by John Cumming and Cecil Tait

“Imagine a wooden box so small as to be manageable in a ship with almost no private space. Inside the box are some tokens of home and loved ones, some small tools, a sewing kit, perhaps some scrimshaw; the bare essentials of identity, self-maintenance and a hoped-for future.”

Andrew Greig

The challenge

The theme for this final week is loss.

The ocean absorbs around 80% of the heat caused by climate change. Warmer waters sound great when you’re thinking about taking a swim, but the reality is bad news for the plants and animals that depend on the oceans. It’s not just fish that are under threat – the whole marine eco-system is in crisis as the sea ice melts, sea temperatures rise and the oceans become more acidic. All living organisms, from algae through to coral, crabs, krill and cod are affected – and the sea birds too.

Sea Change is a Cape Farewell project in the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland that brings artists and scientists together with local people to explore the impact of climate change on the ecologies and cultures of the island communities. Many of the bird species that visit or live on the islands are endangered – kittiwakes, arctic terns, auks and skuas could die out because warmer waters have led to drastic shortages of sand eels, their main food supply. Fishing is also a major part of the island economies and every family has a connection with the sea.

Our idea of what it might mean to have been a sailor is really quite romanticised. For hundreds of years, those who spent their lives at sea often endured conditions of extreme hardship. Many were forced into it through poverty and the need to survive. While at sea, every aspect of a sailor’s life was controlled by the ship’s captain and officers.


Write a list of everything you can remember losing. It could be something small, like a favourite jacket or scarf – or perhaps it was something more significant, like a friendship. Once you’ve got your list, choose one of the items on it and then do a freewrite about what happened; try to remember a much detail as you can about the event, from the moment you realised the object was lost, until you finally gave up looking for it. Read more about freewriting as a technique here.


This week’s sense is touch. If you’re still keeping a journal this week you could make a note of all the things you might put in your own ditty box. It could be physical objects that catch your attention in the week, or it could be people you’re fond of. If you’re describing objects, write down how they feel in your hands. Are they heavy? Rough to touch? Cool on the skin? Read more about journaling as a technique here.

Further Inspiration

You might like to take a look at Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle One Art. In it she laments all the things she has lost over time – from material things such as houses to great loves of her life. As the poem progresses the emotional scale of what is lost increases. Younger poets might find Kit Wright’s The Magic Box a great example, also.

And don’t forget Cape Farewell’s SWITCH website – click through to GET INSPIRED!

Writing your poem

If aliens landed in 100 years’ time what are the things you’d put in Planet Earth’s Ditty Box? The things you put in to the box don’t literally have to ‘fit’ – but be as specific as you can. You might want to add a feather from a bird that’s on the brink of extinction – if so tell us which bird it is. Just like a museum catalogue, your poem could include a little tag, with a note about why the object is there and how humanity used it. You could include some of the items you recorded in your journal.

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 February, 2013

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *