Inexplicably…

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…in the trees at Varna Botanical Garden/Ecopark…

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…Having a few technical problems here – if anyone has Instagram, it seems to be easier for me to post pictures there – I’m at lindafrancebooksandplants

 

 

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Installing ‘Compass’

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Despite the rain, it was good to be up at Cheeseburn today helping install our sound piece, ‘Compass’.  Hearing it for the first time in the place it was created in and for was immensely satisfying.  The Formal Garden (above) is where the Dawn Chorus happens (and where we heard it in the Spring), coming from four concealed speakers arranged around the central space.  Hard to tell what’s ‘real’ and what’s not.

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Outside the Potting Shed, an ancient sundial of unknown provenance (possibly Scottish?) was an early inspiration for the 4 x 4 concept of the piece.

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Inside the Potting Shed are some of Paul Scott’s beautiful ceramic ‘cuttings’ in old Cheeseburn pots.  For sale over the weekend.  I’m very very tempted…

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Over a year’s work for three days – like a plant that only blooms once in its lifetime or an exotic insect’s short span on the wing – even more precious for being ephemeral – like the sounds themselves.

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The Sounds of Summer

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How do geese know when to fly to the sun?

Who tells them the seasons? How do we humans

know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds,

so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it,

that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.

                                                               Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

‘Compass’, a new sound installation, created especially for Cheeseburn Grange in Stamfordham, Northumberland, is a new collaboration with Chris Watson, one of our leading wildlife recordists. On Google Earth, Cheeseburn sits at just a few minutes past the noon of North. As well as North, South, East and West, ‘Compass’ also refers to other concepts that come in fours – the seasons, the elements and the four quarters of the day. So, in four separate locations around Cheesnburn’s grounds this Bank Holiday weekend, visitors can listen to an orchestrated soundscape of birdsong, wildlife, weather and original poems composed for each setting, time of day and season.

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As Cheeseburn’s first Writer in Residence, I visited over the span of a single year, on solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days, to create a calendar of the place, based on simple observation and reflection (You can read the ‘notes’ of this experience here).  The intimate awareness gained from this research informed both the concept of Compass and the poems I wrote to accompany Chris’s recordings.

The two of us spent time at Cheeseburn together over another year to create this exciting new installation, where a world riven with migration and change finds a compass in the sense of sound itself, the poetry of everyday listening. Filtered through the ears and the imagination, visitors are invited to travel across time and space, through light and darkness, life and death, home and away, whilst also being able to experience the wonderful gardens and grounds at Cheeseburn in ‘real time’ on a summer afternoon.

As well as ‘Compass’, there will also be new work from Mike Collier and Sarah Dunn, also referencing the natural world and its winged creatures.

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Hoping the sun shines for us and looking forward to seeing you there – Saturday, Sunday, Monday 11 – 4.

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Celebrating Capability Brown

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John Cobb as Capability Brown in ‘The Eye Catcher’ at Kirkharle Courtyard

 

Making the Lake

 

This far north

dips and hills

unpredictable as summer

 

outside the tent

tall grass waves westwards

 

making the lake

a long lead time

different machinery

 

capability shifts landscape

in the mind

 

chittering swallows

twist in flight

white-blue-white

 

on the ridge of his horizon

a skeleton tree

 

pegs show contour

banks woodbound

piles driven level

 

bring me a basket of bread

for the road to Cambo

 

moon in his eyes

will he be hunter

gardener or poet?

 

wheelbarrow stands in sunlight

casting a dark green shadow

 

these rattling meadows

our ancestors

our hope

 

a spider runs between cracks

in the dried earth

 

for this place, this day

a necklace of beads

of heat, mud, honey

 

where is the boundary to be drawn –

planned and unplanned?

 

begin with an outline

a structure, a framework

anchor it then overlay

 

Kirkharle – eight hours from Newcastle

on dirt roads

 

harsh edge of roofs

gives way to

serrated larch against the sky

 

the price of a line of beauty –

twanging muscles, calloused hands

 

looking north, new energy

beyond the oil route

wind turbines, wood

 

when the wheel stops

it starts all over again.

 

 

A renga in celebration of Capability Brown

on 17th August 2016

at Kirkharle, his birthplace three hundred years ago.

  

Participants:

 

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Michelle Caulkett

Linda France

Patricia Gillespie

Rosie Hudson

Lesley Mountain

Diana Smith

Tony Smith

Clara May Warden

Liz Wilkinson

Margaret Williams

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Roses, English & Bulgarian

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I’ve just been sent a link to the video they made at the Reading Room in Sofia – including my poem Rose Tattoo…You can watch it here.

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Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

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Medicinal Herbarium

*

On the fourth floor of the National Museum

of Natural History, leaves and stems and dried

flower heads of native plants are arranged with pins,

coded and labelled, on painted boards – Verbena

officinalis, Adonis vernalis. Some

are as old as I am, all colour drained out of them

as they dessicate and curl. But there is beauty

in their withering, as if these were the bones

of Bulgaria’s flowers, their skeletons. Inside

their glass cases, they tell of loss – and what heals,

what’s worth preserving. Many I recognise, stirred by

a ghost of blue or an elegant thorn, old friends –

Centaurea cyanus, our cornflower,

and Leonurus cardiaca, motherwort.

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*

Frosted panes diffuse the brunt of the sun. Silence

plays across the chessboard floor. Other visitors

prefer the drama downstairs of bats and bears,

tigers and eagles, in stricken poses stilled

according to a taxidermist’s whim. Pilgrim

here, I’m more moved by this room of flowers than

the Russian church next door, for all the almond-eyed saints

blessing its walls. I’ve come to ask not for my own soul

to be saved but these tissue refugees, precious

plants – their natural physick, an esperanto

of seed, rib, heart and vein – Laburnum vulgare,

Carlina acanthifolia. Hear my confession,

my sins: irredeemable gravity, this passion

for what can’t be bought or sold, a faith in silence.

 

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*

Another display, devoted to mountain plants,

shows four Vitosha tulips clinging to what’s left

of their green and gold. A recent addition – faint

sign someone still thinks they’re worth saving: more

hope in a speck of pollen than our whole poisoned

anthropocene world. Trollius europaeus.

Today they can’t help looking like an epitaph.

 

As I leave, descend, all the creatures in the ark

follow me, eyes black with hunger, blame. Beneath

my feet, great cracks in the marble floor are spreading;

a deep fault that can only widen and slide right

open, taking us all down with it – animal,

vegetable and mineral, the country’s biggest

ammonite and its tiniest flake of stolen moon.

  vitosha tulips

9th July 2016

 

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On Nasturtium Street

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On Nasturtium Street

 

July, behind the school

no one enjoys

the shade of the chestnuts

 

white house

conversations in the garden ­–

the past is inside

 

a wall of crooked stones

supports a line of box

my aching back

 

no cry of cicadas

just the sound of a baby

falling asleep

 

the only bloom

on next door’s patch –

an abandoned parasol

 

concrete tiles, concrete bricks

a shoot of ivy on a trunk –

is it strong enough?

 

Linda tells us

about 24 hour poetry

the plot of the clouds thickens

 

new grass comes in squares

slugs and ladybirds

not included

 

trees in the yard

nature constrained –

a human soul in the world.

 

 

A 9-verse ‘simultaneous renga’

in the Literature & Translation House,

Latinka Street, Sofia,

on 27th July 2016.

 

Participants:

Boris Deliradev

Linda France

Yana Genova

Stefan Ivanov

Zdravka Mihaylova

Margarita Peeva

Yana Punkina

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Unusual to work with a group of folk for whom English isn’t their first language writing in English in their own country – hence the impromptu/simultaneous nature of this renga and the three-line verses throughout.  Everyone responded to the space and wrote their own verse and then we worked on the editing of the whole piece together.  It was a great chance to share the renga form in a country where it is unknown and a lovely way to get to know more people there interested in writing and poetry.

Also, a sort of blessing for the Literature House, which is in the middle of renovation and expanding into its wonderful role as a sanctuary and resource for writers and translators from all over the world.  It’s on Latinka Street, which means Nasturtium in English!  We also had in our midst a Geranium (Zdravka) and a Marguerite (Margarita)…

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Photo by Zdravka Mihaylova

 

 

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The Last Day

Saturday 30th July

Back in the Botanic Garden, and of course it looks lovelier than ever because I am saying goodbye. I find myself making my ritual walk round, trying to imprint the experience of it in my memory to revisit when I am back in England.

There are only two other visitors – a woman of about my age and what I presume is her granddaughter. She takes a photo of the smiling child in front of a fern in the glasshouse. One of the gardeners is sitting at a wrought iron table outside in the full afternoon sun reading the Saturday paper. I, on the other hand, quickly seek out the shade round the back by the rose garden – one of the whitewashed wooden benches, a soothing place to sit, despite the unavoidable whine of the traffic barely twenty metres beyond the cypresses marking the garden’s boundary.

You enter this garden through a small flower shop, potent with the scent of lilies – cut flowers arranged in vases, highly confected bouquets, that the Bulgarians seem to love, plants in pots, for indoors and outdoors, lots of different papers and ribbons for wrapping. It is the custom to take flowers when you’re visiting – and always an odd number; even numbers only associated with death.

A door opens onto what they call the Greek garden – a little vignette of village life, panoramas of the timeless classical landscape and some ancient jars and marble fragments alongside southern plants, including a venerable specimen of a ‘European olive’. Every time I see a plant on this trip with Europaeus in its name I feel a pang of anger and sadness, already nostalgic for the continent I feel part of, at home in.

After ‘Greece’, you enter Central and Southern America, the desert plants – cacti, succulents and palms. There’s also a small Tropical House with a constant fine mist fed by a flowing cascade and trough. Even though it’s still hot, the sight and sound of the water makes you feel cooler. They are generally good with fountains here, large and small, part of their Austro-Hungarian heritage, scattered all over the city, particularly in the parks and gardens.

Outside, pears are ripening above pots of purple basil. Since my first visit to the garden a month ago, various things have gone over. The lilies and day lilies that were so striking then have been replaced by dahlias and Japanese anemones. Though I think today the roses have truly come into their own, looking fuller and more beautiful than a fortnight ago. I’ve enjoyed this way our two countries are connected – through our national flower – despite all the differences between us, a sense of recognition and understanding, possibly thorny at times.

Another of the gardeners (in the uniform of green dungarees and yellow shirt) is giving this part of the garden a good soaking – everything desperately thirsty. During this month there’s been only one day (an evening really) of rain. Otherwise it’s been in the high 20s and low 30s centigrade day and night. I have acclimatised mostly but sleep is sometimes troubled by the heat (and the mosquitoes, who took two weeks to notice I was here but, crikey, when they did, made a proper meal of me…).

In the Rose Garden there’s a fragment of volcanic stone – an unusual flowing shape almost like a horse, legs hidden by the grass, as if it were swimming. I saw a lot more of this on the coast, often studded with lots of tiny fossils. It is used extensively in the hard landscaping at Balchik Palace and the Botanic Garden there. Bulgaria has very diverse geological formations – to match its biodiversity (and cultural diversity) generally. It’s the second most biologically diverse European country (after Spain) – a fact that many of the Bulgarians I speak to are unaware of. They shrug and look confused when I tell them, unfamiliar with feeling anything like pride for their native land.

Last week I was interviewed on the National Radio about my Residency here with the Next Page Foundation’s Literature and Translation House. When the presenter (also passionate about plants, which I have to say is rare) asked how I found the country and Sofia in particular, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer – along the lines of ‘unusual, exotic, contradictory, something Asiatic, something European and something else I can’t put my finger on…’ Afterwards however I was more interested in the simple fact of being asked; seeming to suggest Bulgarians are so unsure about their national identity, they need to hear it from someone else, an ‘outsider’. So many things here seem very aware of their own status as work in progress. Nothing is fixed, certain or reliable. I noticed something similar on my travels to gardens in Italy. Although this can at times be frustrating, there is a truthfulness in it. Everything is work in progress after all, isn’t it? Including us. Hence my difficulty pinning down any neat definition.

Walking through the city to the garden this morning, I was struck by the accidental wabi sabi aesthetic of the place. Wabi sabi is what the Japanese call the quality of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of life as manifest in the physical world, natural and man-made and the fruitful place where they meet. Unlike in Japan, in Bulgaria they don’t set out to create such an aesthetic, but it happens anyway. Their history – of many different invasions and changes of regime – has been absorbed into their world view and natural philosophy. There’s a strong sense of the ad hoc, ingenuity in the moment, informed by a deep acceptance (or maybe sometimes deep resignation) at the way things are.

Even though there’s a decadence to the appearance of things – architecture, streetscapes, even gardens – because of this outlook, there’s also an intense freshness, a childlike quality of innocence and openness. There is something consoling in this – a relief to let go of the whole goal-oriented, ‘grown-up’ perspective. And it also allows for the fact that if a thing (an idea, a poem, a garden) is never really finished then it can never really come to an end.

It’s only later I discover that Sofia’s motto is ‘Always growing, never ageing.’ I ask my friend Nadya (Radulova – one of the city’s best poets and translators) if some people might think it’s more accurate the other way round – ‘Always ageing, never growing’. But she is adamant neither are true, the city is always just itself, eluding any neat phrase or defining formula. The work in progress continues.

 

 

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In the Reading Room 


Yesterday we went to the lovely Reading Room, a public library in Sofia City Garden that is celebrating its first birthday today.


They made a little video reading there and spelled my name in big wooden Cyrillic letters outside.


As well as a library, it’s also an information point, which helps with the funding.  Brainchild of the writer Alexander Shpatov – he told me they’re trying to figure out a way to create another one to house all the books they’ve acquired.  The fee for joining is the donation of one book.


Alexander has written a book of short stories called Live from Sofia, which I duly bought rather than borrowed and am looking forward to reading – bringing a little bit of Sofia home with me.

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Reading at the Palace of Culture


Tonight at 6 o’clock Sofia time.


With poets, translators and collaborators Nadya Radulova, Kristin Dimitrova, Georgi Gospodinov and Vassil Vidinsky.


In the literary cafe called Peroto ( the Quill) – older poems plus some new work I’ve written while I’m here.  

Full report to follow! 

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City of light and shade

Sofia is a city of dramatic contrasts, history and geography under pressure from all quarters.  It is sometimes confounding, sometimes beguiling.  Now I’m back here after my time away on the coast, it’s strange to see how much it feels like ‘home’.

‘A city called Wisdom should float on clouds…

…Reality is never clear.  It’s never final. You can always change it or see it in a different way.’

From ‘Solo’ by Rana Dasgupta

 

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