A Year and a Day

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Several years ago I visited Cheeseburn in Northumberland on the Solstices and Equinoxes and Cross Quarter days, spending time in the gardens and grounds.  It was a sanctuary for me after Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, had closed.  I struggle with my own semi-wild garden, high and wind-ravaged, with a very short growing season, wedged between a field of sheep and a strip of woodland, never quite managing the sense of luxuriance I long for.  So I enjoy visiting other gardens and luxuriate there.

Cheeseburn was a perfect place to witness the changes that happen over the course of the seasons – a mixture of the natural, the elemental, and the man-made.  It was also going through major changes in preparation for housing more sculptures and opening to the public on a more regular, formal basis.  I was privileged to be there, on the sidelines, able to watch this transformation.  Since then, as a result of the dedicated and enthusiastic work of Joanna Riddell and Matthew Jarratt, the place has become very popular, much-loved, and an important site in the region for supporting new artists.

The knowledge I’d gained of the setting at Cheeseburn informed Compass, a sound installation with Chris Watson, commissioned by Cheeseburn in 2015, and shown in 2016.  Because Cheeseburn’s early summer opening this year has been curtailed, a new version of Compass is being released online over the next five weeks.  As well as the original four pieces set in different parts of the garden, reflecting the points of the compass and the seasons of the year, Chris and I have created a new compilation piece, A Year and a Day, spanning the entire year.  You can listen to these works on Cheeseburn’s Facebook page, YouTube and Sound Cloud.

Revisiting my various notes for this piece, I came across the earlier monthly blog pieces I wrote for Cheeseburn from my initial visits as Poet in Residence.  I’ve added them here, in a new Archive space on this site, for those who’d like to read them alongside listening to the recordings as they are released.  It’s good to be reminded of the long arc of history as well as the passage of the seasons at this particular time.  This too shall pass.  But some things, the important things, we hope, will endure.

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Sculpture by Joe Hillier

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May Day Gathering

 

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The festival of Beltane marked the time when cattle were moved from winter shelter to summer pastures and the community came together in rituals of protection and blessing.  Over May Day weekend a group of us celebrated by writing renga verses in our own spaces.  I gathered a selection of the verses together to make this special Beltane Renga.  It captures a sense of this uncertain time – with thoughts from Derbyshire to Glasgow, city and countryside – and creates a space to look in and look out.  A monument for remembrance, as well as blessing and protection.

 

On Beltane Street

 

May’s not out yet

so we fill the house

with honesty, forget-me-nots

 

watering the compost

waiting for the bean shoots

 

drawn in windows

chalked on pavements

rainbows for our better angels

 

the curlew’s call follows its flight

sky mapped in sound

 

thought she was away with the fairies

Grandma May

but now I also chat to them

 

stilled streets

where wild creatures roam

 

after the rain

trees groan and stretch

their greening fingers

 

a circle not a line

this deadlinelessness

 

rinse until clear

gently reshape

allow to dry naturally

 

she hits the bottle

it hits her back

 

I miss waves

long to float

to be held by sea

 

wasp sawing last year’s lovage

harvesting timber

 

her children are suspicious

of the new smells

bleach, soap, fear

 

smoke has no discernible edge

it’s all shadow

                                   

let the fern unfurl your grieving 

let the heron still your breathing 

let the selkie swim you deeper 

 

raising glasses on Zoom

all our wrinkles show

 

over-heated plate

(earth-coloured)

broken into two half moons

 

under the blaze of gorse, wild pansies

purple petals, yellow hearts

 

days like this

begin and end

in fullness

 

we walk paths from here

to who knows where

 

 

 

 

 

*

two robins a branch apart

no need for song

proximity language enough

 

it is my heart I hear

growling with longing

 

we walk around an island

built from the acts

of our own containment

 

five hares in a line – lope

leap – whoooa and they’re gone

 

pink side down

magnolia petals

dangle and twist

 

every day now

like three in the afternoon

 

 

 

 

 

*

I drive my herd out

[locked down]

between two fires

 

marsh marigolds crowd the ditch

cups of gaudy gold

 

she holds up her Thursday pan

to the evening sky

flash and clang and shimmer

 

mouse-chewed chocolate

a Post Office apology

 

wands of ash

Venus of the Woods

protect us

 

reflected light ripples

dissolves a branch, a leaping fish

 

fresh mown lawn

lungfuls

of torn chlorophyll

 

ants crawl over the garlic

put down to repel them

 

aching for the day

when this

is a memory

 

rosemary in the blue pot

rubbed between thumb and forefinger

 

at the nature reserve

a police notice asks

Why are you here?

 

down the desire path

through the puzzled wood

 

if you knew Time as well as I do

said the Hatter

you wouldn’t talk about wasting it

 

early morning quiet

kisses the ancient spinney

 

in the gloaming

they raise a glass

tie Beltane ribbons

 

            whir whir wit whir woo

the pigeon insists

 

striking a match

in the darkness of stars

flickering in cupped palms

 

tomorrow’s home-ed

making dandelion honey

 

this Year of the Great Reckoning

unpunctuated by the dash

of vapour trails.

 

 

 

A Distance/Presence Renga

over Beltane weekend

1st – 3rd May 2020

 

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Adrian Brewster

Larry Butler

Holly Clay

John Cobb

Martin Eccles

Linda France

Lilly Fylypczyk

Susan Gibb

Malcolm Green

Jackie Hardy

Sharon Higginson

Geoff Jackson

Virginia Kennedy

Liz Kirsopp

Bernadette McAloon

Karen Melvin

Lesley Mountain

Ellen Phethean

Ruth Quinn

Ratnadevi

Alex Reed

Linda Thake

Maria Venditozzi

Mandy Wilkinson

 

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Neither Lion nor Lamb

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March

 

what light there is

filtered through the fan

of their feathers

 

the spine, pale and articulate,

of a fox or a hare

 

punctuated equilibrium

how earth evolves

in sudden ruptures

 

the sputnik graphic

alarmingly crimson

 

someone gets there

before me – liberating

the abandoned bicycle

 

in the open field of the day

plovers calling

 

the room full

of winter

it’s never been as warm

 

neat white flowers

of the barren strawberry

 

if a thousand people

look at the moon

there are a thousand moons

 

what I tell the bees

is between me and the bees

 

everyone stockpiling

against worst-case-scenario pain:

paracetamol, ibuprofen, codeine

 

the colour of persimmons

a new charity shop jumper

 

bags packed

last minute change of plan

staying put

 

the swift narrow rowboat

Truant Muse in cursive script

 

half going one way, half another,

trying to give myself away

to inexactitude

 

stay in touch

she says, not touching

 

bringing home snowdrops

a small handful

of lingering hope

 

a woman in a mask comes

to measure my per cubic foot energy

 

wild garlic tart

as much for the soothe of making

as the savour of eating

 

Spring Equinox: I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

warcabinetspeak

lockdown, self-isolation

linguistic distancing

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

the pilgrimage

of these days

becoming the path

 

two long-tailed tits

among the apple buds

 

my son comes home

we dance around each other

nothing is familiar

 

clapping the NHS

under a canopy of stars

 

a hedgehog emerges

from hibernation

leaves its traces

 

our prayer flags unfurl

as the chill wind blows

 

two pine logs and a plank

a new bench

for absent friends

 

in my sleep I steal back

yesterday’s lost hour

 

star of Bethlehem

hiding its pale light

among what the flood washed up

 

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The first image is a gogotte – a natural rock formation from the Paris Basin, 33 – 28 million years old (Natural History Museum).  The second, ancient and new, frogspawn in our pond.

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Just to say…

 

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Last week we were supposed to be holding our first Climate Reading Group at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle – a prelude to Rebecca Solnit’s visit.  This, like every other cultural gathering, had to be cancelled and, in our shift to connecting online, you can read my brief report of Solnit’s book of essays Whose Story is This?  on New Writing North’s blog.  I hope it persuades you to read the book, if you haven’t already.

We are working to make it possible that our next group – reading Karen Solie’s poetry collection The Caiplie Caves – will take place online via Zoom.

Wishing everyone well.

L

x

 

 

 

 

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Presence/Absence

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A group of us were intending to meet on Monday at the Burnlaw Centre in Northumberland for a Spring Equinox Renga – part of our cycle through the year since last Summer Solstice at Bywell.  In the light of everyone’s changed circumstances, I invited a wider group of people to write and share a few renga verses – single haiku-like three liners and two liners – as they tuned into Spring’s return over the weekend.

It was an experiment in connecting creatively across the new spaces between us and I didn’t know what would happen.

I felt very touched by all the verses people sent.  There was a real sense of presence across the distance.  Maybe not quite as much as if we were all in sitting in the Beautiful Room at Burnlaw together or on the benches round the fire pit in the field, with the curlews calling above our heads, but the form and focus of the renga held us all in a beautiful space of our own making – inside and out at the same time – at a safe distance – over the course of several days.

Several people mentioned that it was helpful at this strange time to open the senses to the world around them and be more aware of what was going on.  It’s something anyone can do.  Even just one verse a day works as a good gauge of your state of mind and a record of your activities, thoughts and feelings.  The renga we made in this way, it seems to me, is an important document of what this unprecedented time has been like for twelve people in the North of England, alone and together, this past weekend.

As often happens when we sit together for a renga, it was interesting to see ideas and phrases shared, overlapping.  I wanted to honour this very different context and way of working, as well as the sheer abundance of verses, and so created a new, longer than usual form, doubling the schema in a specular fashion – where the themes are mirrored around the silence between the two parts.  I wanted to suggest a sense of flow, back and forth, like a wave, from the various links and shifts, and occasional repeats.  I had to do a bit of cutting and stitching here and there to keep it supple, and as with traditional rengas not every verse I was sent appears.

Even remotely, a renga is greater than the sum of its parts, a strange alchemy occurs, sending out ripples of authentic connection.  I hope that in reading it, as much as in the writing, people might feel the warmth and clarity of being brought in touch – with ourselves and each other – across our physical distance.

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Landscape Without a Map

I

Spring Equinox:

I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

frost bites land

slow to warm

 

beyond the garden hedge

the silence

of the empty playing field

 

some branches bear leaves

some are sticks against the sky

 

a lone runner, two dog walkers

woodpecker’s insistent tap

we move in a landscape without a map

 

a careful two metres apart

the neighbours share their stories

 

beneath the bay

melon seeds all taken by the mouse

green-petalled tulips

 

I stream old songs for comfort

            dance me to the end of love

 

close the curtains

light the candles

evening begins

 

how quiet the air is

as we count our breaths

 

not so much

for what they say

just their voices

 

pearly strands of frog spawn

in the tractor ruts

 

our hectic decadence

more evident

as the pause lengthens

 

the sun is shining

on apple buds

 

a shower of blessings

over and over

the curlew weeps her song

 

sheets spread and billow

sweetening in the open

 

the moon

waning

follows the train

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

show me the point where

before ends

and after begins

 

I sow pea seeds in the earth

imagine tendrils twining

 

 

II

listen for what remains

when everything we rely on

is gone

 

in the old orchard

a haze of honey

 

along the verges

blackthorn and celandine

plastic bags

 

behind the wallflowers

a saucepan lid moon

 

across the rough fell

of our hands

the call of a new corvid

 

doing nothing

takes such a long time

 

underneath this map

ancient tracks whisper

bid you tread and seek

 

dead wood alive with lichen

white, yellow, red

 

on the Sele a girl hurries by

shouting into her mobile

BASICALLY, IT’S A FUCKING NIGHTMARE

 

before we were sandpaper to each other

we were silk

 

on me your voice falls

as they say love should

(Bechet’s ‘Black and Blue’)

 

a bumble bee, heavy, dozy

bangs on the sunlit window

 

scent of silage and cow dung

as we pass Peepy Farm

all lowing and milking inside

 

we are living and dying

through history

 

it is the song thrush

at dusk

that unstops her tears

 

if this is the first unknown

why is everything the same?

 

there are breaks here and there

but still a place to sit and feel

the vibrations of your voice

 

Venus suspended – a gift

for Mothering Sunday

 

frosted air polishes my skin

I walk in the small waking hours

a hushed world

 

in the silence you hear sunlight

unfurling leaves in the hedges.

 

 

A 20/20 Distance/Presence Renga

conducted remotely over the Spring Equinox

20th– 23rd March 2020

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Deborah Buchan

Holly Clay

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Geoff Jackson

Liz Kirsopp

Lesley Mountain

Ruth Quinn

Alex Reed

Tim Rubidge

 

 

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February

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Without thinking too much about it beforehand, I decided on Shrove Tuesday to give up Instagram for Lent, along with a few other things.  I wanted a chance to practise restraint, hoping that freeing up some space might leave more room for things I’d rather prioritise.

I’m still keeping my ‘year renga’ but have appreciated the change in pace that not filtering it through social media seems to have brought.  Perhaps I’ll always be primarily a pencil and paper kind of writer, thinking at the speed of graphite.  But here is the next instalment in digital form – February’s verses to look back on as we enter March and whatever it might bring.

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February

 

hibernating tortoiseshell

waking up too soon

 

for Imbolc

for Brigid

endings and beginnings

 

to explain grace requires

            a curious hand                                                                        (Marianne Moore)

 

in late light

pruning the apple tree

figuring it out as we go

 

fractal mosaic

of a dragonfly’s wing

 

in this dream

we are all at once hero

and enemy and saviour

 

flock of redwings

a shook tablecloth

 

life never speaks simply

it shows itself in its flower

it hides itself in its roots                                                                    (Luce Irigaray)

 

writing in my hut

calling itself Atlas

 

storm moon and hailstones

I warm myself

at your fire

 

the year’s first snow

settles on the trees’ north

 

in the city

a few hours of spring

petals peel back

 

in the market

for tomorrows

 

do not stand

in a place of danger

trusting in miracles                                                                             (Moroccan proverb)

 

curled against the world

a small white ibis

 

my driver knows

hardly any English but says

‘We need more water’

 

the charcoal seller

in his infernal cave

 

a city lost

between its past

and its future

 

the best thing about going away

is coming home

 

50 million years old

seedpod souvenir

from the flame tree                                                                           (Brachychiton acerifolius)

 

I admire his blackboard and chalk

keeping track of the bins

 

as if we were out at sea

the wind’s waves

gusting and toppling us

 

however far you walk

the road stretches on

 

I open the front door

onto a wall

of compacted snow

 

mandala of wood

atlas of the imperilled world

 

a dead man’s tattoos –

fail we may

sail we must                                                                                       (RIP Andrew Weatherall)

 

dressed in ceremonial kimonos

they look back from the future

 

how to translate

all these words

into acts of love?

 

alone and walking

against the weather

 

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Writing the Climate

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Last week my new post as Climate Writer with New Writing North and Newcastle University was officially announced and I have been very touched by all the warm messages and gestures of encouragement and support I’ve received.  I am often taken by surprise to be reminded of the invisible strands of connection between us when it looks like nothing is happening.  Living in a culture of appearances casts mists over all our eyes.

It seems to me one of the difficulties of tackling Climate Change (both in the world and on the page) arises because here in the UK we can’t properly see it.  Those people badly affected by the floods of recent years have had to shift into survival mode, without the luxury of any distance to consider the influence and implications of Climate Change on their wrecked homes and lost and ruined possessions.  [Clare Shaw’s Flood (Bloodaxe 2018) is a powerful book of poems on the subject of floods in the world and floods in the psyche. See also Brian and Mary Talbot’s fascinating graphic novel Rain (Cape 2019).]  If we can’t see a thing (or hear, touch, smell or taste it), it’s hard to know what we’re faced with and how to respond.  Because we can’t quite pin it down, the words for it elude us and because the words elude us, we can’t quite pin it down.  A vicious circle.

The fact that Climate Change is being ignored by governments capable of introducing new initiatives and renewable systems, that already exist, in order to address our runaway carbon emissions adds to the sense of unreality.  Climate Change can feel like a collective dream, the way Cocteau thought of cinema.  Like a dream, the meaning is hard to interpret – things aren’t what they seem, there are many layers, characters and objects often symbolic rather than actual. There are those who say that everyone in a dream is some aspect of ourselves.  And so it is with Climate Change – we are each (and together) the protagonist of this story, and we are also the antagonist, our own worst enemy.  It’s no good waiting to be rescued for we are our own saviours too.  This hall of mirrors makes the subject even more tricky to write about.  The language itself is not designed to cross the subject-object divide, let alone accommodate the disruption of verb tense to triangulate time and allow past, present and future to co-exist.

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These are some of the first principles – the origin myth of Climate Change, if you like – I’ve been trying to get back to in these initial weeks of acclimatisation.  My head a little dizzy with all the reading and thinking and puzzling, I’ve felt a bit like Sisyphus doomed to keep rolling an enormous rock up a hill over and over again when it’s always tumbling back down.  In an effort to create some physical boundaries and foundations for my work, and a sense of progress, I’ve created a dedicated space in my little hut some friends kindly passed on to me a few years ago.  Always declared an academia-free zone and my very own medicine hut, I used it to regather and recharge while I was working on my PhD.  Now it can come into its own to accommodate (literally) my musings on the elusive, unwieldly subject of Climate Change.  As if it always knew this was going to be its purpose in life, its manufacturer’s mark has gained new significance.  I’m hoping my hut will carry the weight of this work so I don’t need to.  Better Atlas than Sisyphus.

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Apart from establishing a conducive physical space, I’ve also been experimenting with a virtual container for my process.  Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with digital platforms and the only social media space I feel remotely comfortable in is Instagram.  I appreciate the focus on visual images and lack of clutter, its capacity to connect and inform.  Since the beginning of the year I have been posting daily images and short texts arising from an awareness of the natural world and climate issues.  The form I am following is an adaptation of the ‘year renga’ I used (in a notebook, privately, never intended for publication) that ended up becoming book of days (Smokestack 2009).  Renga is an old Japanese collaborative form I’ve been working with for the past two decades, alongside others and alone.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this but as a daily practice it keeps the subject at the front of my mind and every day is another door, a chance to refocus and begin again.  Which is perhaps another first principle for tackling Climate Change, living with it and writing about it.

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Here are my renga verses for January.  You can see the images on IG @lindafrancebooksandplants (also via my website).  You can also read more about my post on the New Writing North website.

January

Weather forecast –

new * things *

under * the * sun

 

black coal and butterfly wings

both out of their element

 

bearded lichen

knows where time lives

and grows there

 

less knowledge

more attention

 

using my car

as a salt lick, the sheep

make a monograph

 

high water

Leith

 

raindrops on the windowpane –

the lamp stays lit

all day

 

January’s muses

Beauty, Prudence and Folly

 

five hundred years old

the Spanish chestnut tree

still bearing fruit

 

of earthly joy

            thou art my choice

 

keepsake –

something hidden

inside something else

 

clouds and crocodiles

a three-umbrella day

 

before we leave:

peace

to this place

 

crossing the border

windmills! windmills! windmills!

 

white pencil points

of snowdrops

about to write their name

 

the room is full

of all the lost creatures

 

on the windowsill

a bowl

of borrowed time

 

I resort to poetry

            like I resort to tears

 

four of us

not quite on top of the world

but nearly

 

walking into

the wind’s sighs

 

the unknown becomes known

the outcasts come inside

the strange becomes ordinary

 

our molehills

are mountains

 

we need new words

for what we don’t know

honest and kind

 

invisible birds singing

dusksongs in the birches

 

year of the rat

new moon – second chance

at starting over

 

Sunday morning

a tangle of light and dark

 

in the corner of the room

a shopping trolley

a very British rebellion

 

her black cat called Maya

watches my every move

 

a head-scratching sort of day –

out among other people’s voices

to hear my own better

 

my car still proud

to be European

 

one day gone missing –

next month

come find me

 

 

One of the things I want to do with this work is to connect with others and find ways for writers to come together and discover what they might be able to do to help find the words we need to see our way into what this time is asking of us.  So please do chip in here with comments, suggestions and anything at all you think I should be looking at.  The post is only part-time but I’m keen to cover as much ground as possible over the year.

Many thanks.

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A Hundred Years of Pangolin

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1911

These animals, which might be taken for reptiles rather than mammals,

are found in the warmer parts of Asia and throughout Africa.

Pangolins range from 1 to 3 ft. in length, exclusive of the tail,

which may be much shorter than or nearly twice the length of the rest of the animal.

Their legs are short, so that the body is only a few inches off the ground; the ears

are very small; and the tongue is long and worm-like, and used to capture ants.

Their most striking character, however, is the coat of broad overlapping horny scales,

which cover the whole animal, with the exception of the undersurface of the body,

and in some species, the lower part of the tip of the tail.

Besides the scales, there are generally, especially in the Indian species,

a number of isolated hairs, which grow between the scales, and are scattered

over the soft and flexible skin of the belly.

There are five toes on each foot, the claws on the first toe rudimentary,

but the others, especially the third of the forefoot, long, curved, and laterally compressed.

In walking, the fore-claws are turned backwards and inwards, so that the weight

of the animal rests on the back and outer surfaces, and the points

are thus kept from becoming blunted.

The skull is long, smooth and rounded, with imperfect zygomatic arches,

no teeth of any sort, and, as in other ant-eating mammals, with the bony palate

extending unusually far backwards towards the throat.

The lower jaw consists of a pair of thin rod-like bones, welded to each other at the chin,

and rather loosely attached to the skull by a joint which, instead of being horizontal,

is tilted up at an angle of 45°, the outwardly-twisted condyles articulating

with the inner surfaces of the long glenoid processes

in a manner unique among mammals.

 

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1936

Another armored animal – scale

lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity until they

form the uninterrupted central

tail-row! This near artichoke with head and legs and grit-equipped gizzard,

the night miniature artist engineer is,

yes, Leonardo da Vinci’s replica –

impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear.

Armor seems extra. But for him,

the closing ear-ridge –

or bare ear lacking even this small

eminence and similarly safe

 

contracting nose and eye apertures

impenetrably closable, are not; a true ant-eater,

not cockroach eater, who endures

exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night,

returning before sunrise, stepping in the moonlight,

on the moonlight peculiarly, that the outside

edges of his hands may bear the weight and save the claws

for digging. Serpentined about

the tree, he draws

away from danger unpugnaciously,

with no sound but a harmless hiss; keeping

 

the fragile grace of the Thomas-

of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine, or

rolls himself into a ball that has

power to defy all effort to unroll it; strongly intailed, neat

head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in-feet.

Nevertheless he has sting-proof scales; and nest

of rocks closed with earth from inside, which can thus darken.

Pangolin_scale_burn_in_Cameroon._Credit-_Kenneth_Cameron_-_USFWS_(2)_(32575640450)

 

2017

The true scale of the slaughter of pangolins in Africa has been revealed

by new research showing that millions of the scaly mammals are being hunted and killed.

Pangolins were already known to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammal,

with at least a million being traded in the last decade to supply the demand

for its meat and scales in Asian markets.

Populations of Asian pangolins have been decimated,

leaving the creatures highly endangered

and sharply shifting the focus of exploitation to Africa’s four species.

 

Pangolins are secretive, nocturnal and some species live in trees,

making them very hard to count and the total size of the populations in Africa is unknown. But the new analysis, based on data collected by hundreds of local researchers

at scores of hunting sites and bushmeat markets across central and west Africa,

found up to 2.7m are being killed every year,

with the most conservative estimate being 400,000 a year.

 

Pangolins curl up into a scaly ball when threatened, which defeats natural predators

like lions but is no defence against human hunters.

The researchers found half the animals had been snared or trapped,

despite wire snares being illegal in most of the 14 central African nations

analysed in the research.

 

Almost half of the pangolins killed were juveniles,

an indicator that the populations are being dangerously overexploited

as animals are being caught before they can reproduce.

This is particularly harmful as pangolins are slow breeding

and produce only a single pup every year or two.

 

 

 

 

Extracts from Encyclopedia Britannica 1911, Marianne Moore’s The Pangolin and Other Verse 1936 (layout with indents unfortunately lost in translation) and The Guardian 2017.  Wiki Commons images.

 

World Pangolin Day 15th February 2020

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THRIVING AND BALANCE

 

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It’s the last day of the year.  I wake up to frost on the fields and mist in the valley, my head still thick with a Christmas cold.  First thing, I listen to yesterday’s Today programme edited by Greta Thunberg.  It’s twenty past eight when they announce the news at six o’clock: ‘The time is out of joint’.

Top news is that ‘the coming year is the last chance for us to take action against Climate Change’ (according to Natural England and the Environment Agency).  It is already too late for those affected by the wild fires in Australia.  In Victoria, some are trapped, unable now to evacuate.  The images that rise in my mind are something out of a disaster movie – unreal, at a distance.  Another consequence of our collective blindness flickering inside my brain, not knowing where to settle.

Greta herself is introduced by several clips from her past speeches and, at the sound of her voice, I find myself weeping – the passion and urgency in it, its purity of focus and simple sanity.  A great wave of emotion sweeps through me – sadness, confusion, love and gratitude all tumbled together: everything we don’t usually hear in the news – how people truly feel – what passes through our hearts and minds right from when we wake up in the morning and switch on our radios.  Especially when we hear, as I do now, so many contradictions and disjointed switches of attention.

‘Individuals can make a difference but are not responsible for Climate Change…they can’t solve it on their own but individual action and what people choose to do in their lives is really important’.  (Steve Westlake, Researcher in Environmental Leadership at Cardiff University).  According to Steve, ‘every big helps’ – flying, car use, how we grow, buy and eat our food, how we heat our homes.  Governments and legislation have the power to reduce carbon emissions and the individual (theoretically) has the power to influence politicians.

Then, Kevin Anderson, who I heard speak so persuasively at Newcastle University in October, insists that across the globe we are still failing, ignoring the Paris agreements so that our emissions are continuing to rise to around 1%, and heading in the direction of a 3 or 4% rise by the end of the century, rather than the 1.5/2% cap we’re supposed to be aiming for.  He’s traced a lot of ‘imaginative accounting’: no one including aviation and shipping and the import of consumer items (all hidden in that little word ‘net’).  We have known the facts for 30 years and yet are still prevaricating, leaving a shameful legacy for the next generation and certainly not considering the impact on poorer parts of the world – those who consume and emit the least.  Cassandra-like, his predictions barely have room to land: this section ironically cut short because they are running out of time…

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The same happens with the next item – on ladybirds and bees, particularly the recent rise in the harlequin ladybird population, who are steadily eating our native 7-, 8- and 10-spot ladybirds.  The bees don’t really get a mention before it’s ‘time for the weather…’

‘It’s 7 am on Monday 30th December and the BBC News is read by Diana Speed.’  It’s Tuesday 31st December and the clock on my bedside table says 9.43; the frost still white out of the window, the sun shining, while the glaciers, even in the Antarctic – previously thought relatively stable, are melting.  One, called Thwaites, like a naughty public schoolboy, alone is responsible for 4% of the rising sea level.  One of the scientists says there is no going back: ‘we can’t regrow the ice sheet.’

Meanwhile, in the UK, wildlife species have declined by two-fifths, that is, nearly halved.  A much balder picture than the clinical ‘41%’ they use on the radio – more graspable, but more devastating.  Bathed in sunlight, the whole day ahead, I am sitting listening, the whole world alive and trembling inside me.

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I sit up a little straighter, heartened by economist Kate Raworth’s upbeat tone as she exposes the problems created by thinking only in terms of GDP and expecting endless growth – like having just one dial on your car’s dashboard to cover petrol, mileage, air and oil etc: it simply doesn’t work.  What she recommends instead is economies that promote ‘thriving and balance – something we understand in our own bodies’ – that meet the needs of all people while meeting the needs of the planet, taking into account health, education, housing, water, politics, reinvesting in soils, regenerating landscapes.  New metrics for the 21st century.  Officially the new decade doesn’t actually start until 2021 but everyone seems so keen to see the back of the old one, we’re ushering it in already.  The softer side of ‘imaginative accounting’ perhaps?

The positivity continues with an interview with Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja.  The band has been working with the Tyndall Centre and Liverpool City Council on creating a carbon neutral model for an upcoming concert and plan to travel by train when they go on tour next year.  In the background, they play a track I haven’t heard for nearly twenty years that takes me back to another life and does something strange to my stomach – not unpleasant-strange, just time-travelling-strange.  Because of music’s emotional resonance and social influence, del Naja says they have something to contribute to addressing Climate Change and they are committed to changing their way of doing business.

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What would it look like if we all changed our way of ‘doing business’?  Wouldn’t that be the best New Year’s Resolution?  For me, it’s something to do with Time – how we use it and how we think about it, straddling the Now of our daily choices and the invisible future of the complex, unanticipated consequences of our actions; holding both in our bodies at the same time, remembering Kate Raworth’s ‘thriving and balance’.  In the coming year I want to find out how to walk that edge.

When Greta Thunberg’s father Svante is interviewed, he talks about how all he wants is his daughter to be happy and so he and her mother ‘took time to listen’.  His wife stopped flying and he became vegan not to save the planet but to save their daughter, who had been distraught to the point of starvation and silence with the state of the environment.

In another report, Joanna Sustento from the Philippines, tells how she lost her entire family apart from her brother in the 2013 Super Typhoon Heiyan, and now dedicates her life to campaigning against fossil fuels.  It’s hard not to feel angry when the presenter Sarah Smith still insists on suggesting that there is no definitive evidence that extreme weather events were caused by Climate Change and still uses the term ‘net zero’ so carefully unpicked by both Kevin Anderson and Greta Thunberg.  Typhoon Heiyan was responsible for more than 6,300 lost lives and over 4 million displaced citizens.  The Philippines is listed as the country most affected by Climate Change in the Global Climate Risk Index 2015.

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The programme properly comes into flower in a Skype conversation between Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough.  Their shared openness and humility is inspiring.  When Greta says she is honoured to be talking with the man whose films she watched when she was 9 or 10, that showed her what was really happening in the natural world, David assures her he is very flattered.  But he says she has achieved in a very short time, what people like him have been trying to get across for the past twenty years.  She is ‘keeping the issue on the front line… Every day we delay changing things we are missing an opportunity.  In history no one has ever agreed but now we need some sort of consensus…some kind of electric shock to bring them to their senses.’

And then, again, the disjunction after this, with the shift to the Sports News and whatever’s happening just now between Celtic and Rangers (football, of course, more important than life or death).

Interviewed at the end of the programme, Greta Thunberg (less like ‘a brat’ than anyone I’ve ever met) admits it’s been ‘a very strange year’.  And wouldn’t we all agree with that?  She’s glad she’s being listened to but concerned that it isn’t being translated into action, seeing a huge lack of awareness in politics, finance and the media.  Pragmatic and realistic beyond her years, she knows that the campaign must continue whatever the crucial outcome of November’s UN Climate Conference 26 in Glasgow.  No single solution will solve everything but what she’s trying to do is change the conversation.  ‘Once we start to act, hope will be everywhere.’  Her phrase ripples out in the air, filling my room with the sweetness of what is possible.

She wants to go back to school and be educated like any normal teenager.  But, she says, ‘this isn’t a normal situation and we all have to step outside of our comfort zones’.  Climate Change is only going to become more urgent.  The medicine is to become active, says Dr Greta.  Inform yourself about the science, the actual situation, what is being done and what is not.  Be an active democratic citizen and make our governments change their policies.

If you do everything you can, there is no reason to be sad and depressed.  It gives you a meaning, makes you feel as if you have an impact.  It is an amazing feeling to be part of something bigger, she says: ‘I wish all people could feel like that.’

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As a sort of coda to the past three out-of-joint hours, the next news bulletin leads with Mark Carney, outgoing Head of the Bank of England, talking about Climate Change as a ‘tragedy on the horizon’ and asking ‘at what speed are we going to change?’

Festina lente – make haste slowly.  Take a fortnight to cross the Atlantic and raise the tempo. If we let go of everything we think we know about Time, maybe we will have a chance to thrive.  I come downstairs to start the day, hours and minutes already falling into a new balance as the light begins its slow annual return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A yard of sunlight

 

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A Winter Solstice Renga

at Fair Hill, Haltwhistle,

on 22nd December 2019.

 

A yard of sunlight

 

4.19, licked awake

by the dream fox

skulking across the fells

 

midwinter mist

unwraps the river

 

remember the arrow on the map

this could be the place

where old timbers revive a door

 

her shadow sharpens

blurs, doubles

 

new earth being made

from this year’s leaves

the fluff of jumpers

 

Picasso-like bird’s wing –

plaster flying

 

outside the December dusk

firelight inside

I warm my hands

 

how many footfalls

on these bare boards?

 

Aesica was built by the legions

left dry

aqueduct unconnected

 

impossible now

to not have you

 

presently the character

of his adoration

became clear

 

we are eight

circling the red box

 

if only words

were only air

rising

 

a yard of sunlight

at the north end of the garden

 

the little tree

sings

in the rusty bucket

 

stamped on thin ice

a thousand fragments of starlight

 

sonata gathered in

to one dense sound

above the rooftops

 

bulbs turn

from waiting to watching

 

empty fields

left to the rooks

snow is coming

 

tomorrow is the shape

of a leaf.

 

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Matilda Bevan

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Liz Kirsopp

Christine Taylor

Clara May Warden

 

Light Sculptures by Michael Seal/Lumicube

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