SOME THINGS I’VE NOTICED

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Threshold

There’s been so much to assimilate – on an individual and collective level – since Covid 19 grew to pandemic proportions and affected all of our lives, I’ve not written anything reflective about where I am with my work for some time on my blog.  The coronacoaster has necessarily distracted vital attention and action from the Climate Emergency, while holding a mirror up to it and giving us in the global South a small taste of what living with disaster and deprivation is like.  A recent Mori poll indicated that two-thirds of the global population believe Climate Change is as dangerous as Covid 19.  The inadequacies of our support systems laid bare a chilling lack of preparedness and resilience.  If we were in any doubt before, we are witnessing the old order unravelling and no one really knows what will come next.

 

As lockdown is beginning to ease, there is a chance to take stock and look closely at the threshold we’re now desperately trying to keep steady on, before deciding what threads we want to renew and carry across for life on the other side.  We could jettison denial for a start.  Not speaking truthfully about Climate Change, the pandemic and death itself – the pressure to always be positive and partisan – perpetuates an unbalanced, insecure system and an essentially dishonest culture.  We are seeing many people choosing not to participate in it – a more welcome contagion.

 

Although it’s a vulnerable and dangerous place/time, this threshold is also one of great openness and possibility.  Change – newly aware, informed and inclusive –  needs to happen at a quicker pace than previously thought.  We’ve all seen the alarming news from Siberia rapidly overheating, the Amazonian Rainforest continuing to be razed by fire and Arctic ice melting, creating a warmer, bluer ocean that reflects back the sun’s rays, disrupting whole weather systems and melting yet more ice.  The UK government’s strategy to revive the pre-existing moribund, toxic economy, reinvesting in fossil fuels and harmful food supply chains, is a fatally lost opportunity when healthier, fairer and environmentally friendly enterprises and pathways are at hand, ready to be implemented.

 

I’m not the only one who sometimes feels angry, disappointed, fearful, confused and full of sadness.  While it is important to feel those feelings and continue to work with our millennia-old twisted and tangled karma, we can decide what we want to take into our shared future.   I hope our fears and wounds from the past might spark radical transformation rather than knee-jerk reaction and further injustice.  Carved in stone in the Canongate Wall of quotations outside the Scottish Parliament, one from Canadian poet Dennis Lee makes a good, practical suggestion: ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’.

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Tightrope

The threshold can feel like a tightrope between hope and despair, pessimism and optimism, and transformation too much to ask.  Perhaps Barbara Kingsolver’s sense of cultivating hope as a ‘mode of resistance’ might be more within our grasp:

‘I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being optimistic and being hopeful.  I would say that I’m a hopeful person, although not necessarily       optimistic.  Here’s how I would describe it.  The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a    terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’  The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I        don’t think it’ll be that bad. The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still        be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’    …Hope is…a mode of resistance…a gift I can try to cultivate.’

 

Every day I walk my own tightrope between different weathers in my heart and mind in response to whatever inner and outer work, interactions with others, physical well-being, reading, viewing, listening etc is acting upon my imagination and the space I occupy in the world from moment to moment.  I’ve noticed how much I’ve been conditioned to polarise – to choose a position between two opposites – like the hope v. despair antithesis.  The same binary dynamic skews any new thinking about other ways of framing the Climate Emergency.  I’ve often found myself on a seesaw juddering between the need to digest the science, confront the ramifications of difficult-to-absorb data, and my default intuitive approach (via poetry and Buddhism as an interwoven practice) of cultivating judgement-free embodied awareness.  As if these approaches were mutually exclusive, at odds with each other.  I hope to expand my own capacity to integrate both, bring a sense of deep and kind presence to my reading of the distressing facts and let those facts in turn percolate into my more open, creative awareness.  I don’t want to find myself paralysed and numb, ceasing to engage.  One of my favourite Susan Sontag quotations (of which there are many) is ‘Writing well is the best revenge.’

 

I’ve noticed how much highs and lows have been magnified under lockdown, every small triumph or failure, ache and pain, gaining out-of-proportion purchase with none of my usual escape routes.  This effect is triggered by the fight or flight response to stress or trauma – a primitive, reactive, self-protective mode, necessary for survival.  I’m more contented and function better when I can go beyond simply surviving to an expansive, creative, sustainable thriving, taking others as well as myself into account.  There’ll be a lot more fight or flight in the air if measures are not taken to mitigate and adapt to global warming and related environmental catastrophes.  I know in my own body that I’d prefer to avoid that scenario.  What would it look like if we could all adjust our moral compasses and find our True North, to help navigate our way through the times ahead?  How can we expect integrity from our governments if we don’t commit to it in our own lives?

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Stepping Up   

Lockdown has been an entirely different experience for everyone – even those in the same household.  Across the world we’ve been united in dealing with a threat to our existence but major inequalities and discrepancies around poverty, race, age, class, gender and geography have been exposed.  We all need to work with that, live from it at a personal and political level and redress what needs to be redressed.  This requires a radical new culture of empathy and kindness.  The Dalai Lama tells us: ‘Compassion is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.’

 

The regenerative power of multiplicity and diversity revealed itself in the way local action and mutual aid has worked so heartwarmingly in respect to the Covid crisis.  Communities have shown their strengths and grown more tentacles.  Everyone matters in the exchange between what is needed and what is offered at a local level.  There have also been important lessons and new opportunities in terms of the local economy, particularly when it comes to food production and supply.  Act local, think global is not just a clever slogan.

 

I’ve always felt a strong need to connect, collaborate and cross-fertilise around my work.  I really appreciate the way I am changed by my interaction with others, enlarged and enriched by creative exchange.  Post-Covid I’ve had more inklings of that dynamic simply being around others, strangers as well as friends, in the supermarket, on local walks, in Zoom conversations, over cups of tea in my garden (and I’m very aware of my great good fortune in having a garden at all, as well as plenty of outdoor space on my doorstep).  Strangely, despite isolation and physical distancing, I have felt less of a solitary being, more sensitive to and appreciative of my dependence on others.  My work requires great swathes of time spent alone – sometimes I feel that might be why I chose to be a writer, simply to ensure I have enough of the solitude I need.  However, the Climate Emergency (of which Covid is only one symptom) is calling on me to override my preference for a quiet life.  That ship has finally sailed.  My deeply rooted needs and values around connection and community have risen to the surface, asking me to overcome any resistance to pushing myself out of my comfort zone and find ways of being real and creative with frustrating online platforms, challenge myself more (I’ve taken up running for goodness sake), have more faith in what I might have to offer and accept imperfection.  That old number from Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better…’.

 

I tell myself that most of the time it’s enough just to be present and honest, open to what a particular person or situation demands.  I want to give what I can where it’s needed.  And I don’t doubt it is.  More reflective, contemplative strengths, usually associated with introverts, are crucial as we gather on this threshold, awake to ‘the wild beauty of the invisible world’ (John O’Donoghue, ‘For Belonging’).  It’s time to hear more from quieter voices and less of louder ones.  Going deeper might help us get to the roots of the problems we face.  A new radicalism is already on the rise and that is something worth carrying forward.

Roshi Joan Halifax talks about Zen Master Dogen’s encouragement ‘“to give life to life,” even if it’s just one dying person at a time, one caregiver at a time, one child at a time, one life at a time’.  I’ve also been pondering what she has to say about not-knowing and surprise:

‘…what I call “wise hope” requires that we open ourselves to what we do not know, what we cannot know; that we open ourselves to being surprised, perpetually   surprised. And I think that wise hope emerges from deep inside the preconscious only     through the spaciousness of radical uncertainty, of surprise.’

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About Time

Recently I’ve had a chance to take stock of the poems I’ve been writing during my residency as Climate Writer.  For my ten-minute slot on NCLA’s Inside Writing, I chose to take a snapshot of some of my thoughts about Time.  You can listen to the podcast here, along with lots of other interesting work from these interesting times.  How are you dealing with them?  What do you want to carry with you across the threshold?  You might be interested to see a wordcloud from the London Climate Action Week webinar on Post-Covid Climate Resilience I attended last week.

Be well

L

X

 

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*

The jellyfish are from Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival, a wonderful film by Fabrizio Terranova.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Murmuration

 

One of the projects I’ve initiated as part of my Climate Writer Residency with New Writing North and Newcastle University has just launched online.  I’m hoping that Murmuration will bring people together in a far-reaching creative collaboration.  The poem that arises from it will serve as a collective inventory of what really matters, celebrating our love for the natural world at a time of Climate Crisis and Coronavirus.

 

 

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The concept is inspired by murmurations, those astonishing displays of aerial acrobatics we see in the air in autumn and winter, when great flocks of starlings gather. Flying together, but never colliding, starlings know there is safety in numbers.  In a murmuration the birds are protected from predators and cooling temperatures, while they share news and information and enjoy each other’s company, arcing, folding and singing together.

In the human realm, creative climate action requires both an individual and a collective response and the starlings’ murmuration offers a symbol of what can be achieved through community, collaboration and co-operation.

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The first thing people ask when I tell them about my post as Climate Writer is ‘What can I do?’  The words we use, think with and live by, are vitally important for sharing information and telling new stories of creative resilience, developing alternative ways of living together at a time of crisis.  We’ve already seen this happening since the restrictions imposed as a consequence of the global pandemic.  There are many new demands for our attention online and unanticipated distractions from the continuing crisis around climate and related imbalances.

With this project we might learn from the starlings, raise our wings and our voices in a powerful accumulating murmur, remembering to stay in touch with what we love about this miraculous world where we live.  It is a chance to share our observations, feelings, dreams and wishes. Together, we can make something spectacular, far greater than the sum of its parts, an ensemble work of art.

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You can contribute to the poem by writing between one and three lines of any length celebrating the natural world, beginning with either the phrase ‘Because I love…’ or ‘What if…’. I will distil and curate all the thoughts and impressions sent in into a single long poem, expressing the collective imagination of all the people who have contributed. Artist Kate Sweeney, who created the wonderful animation on our invitation trailer, will bring the lines to life, making an animated filmpoem, which will reflect our connection with this earth, the natural world and each other at this extraordinary moment in time.

You can read more details and instructions for how to contribute here.

Encouraging comments from Sinéad Morrissey at Newcastle University: “The really exciting thing about this project is that it’s all about the audience – a reaching out to anyone who would like to take part. An ironic consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is that, even in physical isolation, we can now connect with so many people digitally, without the limitations of time or distance. In other words, a whole new kind of conversation can take place. Be part of it. The launch of Murmuration will form part of Inside Writing: a digital poetry festival running through May, June and July, hosted by NCLA and featuring some of today’s most exciting poets responding directly to COVID-19.”

And Anna Disley at New Writing North: “At this stressful and uncertain time, one of the positive things that many people have reported is a new appreciation of the natural world; we are looking more closely at what is on our doorstep, noticing more.  This initiative aims to capture that appreciation, to use our collective voice to ensure our natural world is cherished and protected. Added to that, we hope it’s also an impetus not to revert to pre-lockdown climate damaging practices.”

Please think about writing your own ‘Because I love …’ or ‘What if…’ lines and send them in to the New Writing North website or using #writeoutside on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram by 1 August 2020.

Many thanks.  I’ll look forward to reading, flocking, flying.

 

 

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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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