Category Archives: animals

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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Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

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Medicinal Herbarium

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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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Wild Teasel

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Dipsacus sylvestris

‘the wild and the manured Teasel – two different species’

Unknown

there is a fmall Moth about twice the size of the Euonymella, fpeckled with black, which finds its way into this formidable plant, and makes a comfortable and fecure domicilium of its fpinous head

                Flora Londiniensis, Vol II 1796

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Solstice Blessings

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Be branching bone.

Strip yourself of yourself.

A silver bell rings in the quietness.

Let your tongue become that bell.

(After Rumi)

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Chippewa Song Pictures

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From Shaking the Pumpkin
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg

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The Perfect Imperfect Garden

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A little lost, trying to find the place in Pisa I’m staying, I come across the Orto Botanico by accident – a tantalizing glimpse through statuesque iron gates. The back entrance is locked but here, now in the heart of this dusty terracotta, lemon and grey city I can see green spilling everywhere – ginkgo, oak, plane, palm – and people walking around clutching plans, looking back and forth between paper and tree. The information I’d read had said the garden was closed on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. This, like many other things, proves to be wrong.

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Every day they let me in for free and I walk through the shady lodge into a dazzle of sunlight. The first view, the central square – Piazza Arcangeli – is a carefully composed picture of glaring white gravel, an ivy fringed pond, with a semi-circle of oddly tame purple and yellow pansies, and two monumental Chilean wine palms, planted in the 19th century when the grand building that houses the University’s School of Biology was also built. The sweet scent of jasmine permeates the air and acts like a spell. Now you are entering Garden Time – things happen differently here.

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To my left, south, is the oldest part of the garden, established here in 1591, having moved from two earlier sites in the city since it was founded in 1543. The first surviving design dates from 1723 and this is more or less as it stands today, with just a few changes. A dense mood of continuity and tradition hangs over everything – comforting and stultifying.

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In the Myrtle Garden medicinal plants are arranged in ceramic pots on stone staging like guests at the theatre – guests who’ve forgotten to wear their best clothes. The rosemary and sage need no special attention: they would grow wild given half the chance. Many of the others are thirsty, sulking, distracted by weeds. I enjoy the big old myrtle though, remembering my midwife back in the early ’80s when I gave birth to my sons at home – brisk, no-nonsense, with a heart of gold. How does a girl born in the chilly North Tyne valley on the cusp of the twentieth century end up being called Myrtle? I invent an Italian honeymoon for her parents – wish them an unlocked garden, the fragrance of jasmine, the excitement of sparrows and the sinuous darting of lizards.

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In the Cedar Garden the original cedar is missing – as is the heart of the oldest magnolia in Tuscany, braced by three iron props, thick glossy leaves burgeoning anyway – venerable, perfectly imperfect. Who says a heart needs to be visible to stay strong?

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I see my first ever flower on a tulip tree, eat my first loquat, plucked from a just-in-reach branch – sharp and juicy – and find a maroon blossom also new to me. The petals look and feel as if they are made of flocked card, curled up in the heat of the sun. The label tells me it is Calycanthus floridus, a native of North America.

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The far end of this part of the garden is marked by the extraordinary ‘grotesque’ façade of what is now the Botanical Museum. The site of the old entrance on Via Santa Maria, it was decorated to celebrate the dynastic marriage between a Medici and a Lorraine in 1752. Next to it, the traditional ochre-coloured stucco is fading and peeling. Dark green shutters keep out the powerful sun. Climbing pink roses spike the eye. All these colours shouldn’t go together, but they do – Italian style so often brash, extravagant, excessive.

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To the north of the School of Biology lies the Orto Nuovo and the Arboretum – a less formal planting of many varieties of trees and a massive stand of bamboo in a landscape more like a park than a botanical garden. There is a small pool with waterlilies, fish and turtles. Students sit around it to work, eat, flirt – often all three at once: pleasure such a necessary thread in the texture of any Italian day or night. There’s a low hill from which you can see the top of the Leaning Tower up on the Field of Miracles and the dome of the Cathedral, pleated like a giant seedhead against the backdrop of the sky.

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Time passes. What is a week might be a month. I am bitten on the ankles by mosquitoes. I take photographs of beetles, striped red and black like the coats of arms of Italian aristocrats. I drink cool pear juice from the vending machine. Roberta shows me the wooden doors from the old entrance – carved panels of Aloe, Belladonna, Verbascum and Crown Imperial (the garden’s emblem). Tree surgeons work very slowly, lopping off the topmost branches of the oldest highest trees, stacking great mounds of wood beneath them. I make friends with the garden cat, ginger and white and luxuriant. I feel honoured, special, until the next day I see him languishing, faithless, alongside a young student under the red chestnut tree.

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A Swedish visitor asks me if I know why the garden is so neglected, why the students aren’t set to weeding. Two days later I see a small group of girls hoeing and hooking up weeds in a corner of the Myrtle Garden. I find the strangest, largest wisteria ever – root and stem rearing like a dragon to climb the nearby trees. I discover the name Hortense comes from the Italian for hydrangea. The new glasshouses are three years behind schedule and several species of plants have died waiting. I sit beneath a eucalyptus, calmed by its familiar reassuring smell, the little moons of its fallen leaves. My skin turns pink and freckled. I think about history, my own and the garden’s. I press leaves and flowers between the pages of my notebook.

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Before coming home I spend 24 hours in Florence for an Italian poet friend’s book launch. Too short a time for so bountiful a city. Long enough to climb the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and see the Garden of the Roses and the Iris Garden, home of the Florentine ‘lily’ (giglio). From here, there is a sweeping view of the Arno, the same river that runs through Pisa, and the whole of the city, buildings packed so close together, not much changed since the time of the Medicis and the Renaissance.

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I sit with a lump in my throat beside the Duomo – Our Lady of the Flowers – a church built from so many different marbles, perfectly arranged, like some sublime garden, with such care and skill and devotion. Behind me a French tourist spills his ice-cream and his wife mops him up with a tissue from her bag soaked in perfume. ‘Now I smell like a woman!’ he says laughing. I get up to leave, taking the scent of jasmine and violets with me.

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Turtle Diary

 

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So there I was imagining life as a turtle, conferring all sorts of qualities upon them I wish I had, enjoying sitting next to the laghetto where they swim and bask in Pisa Botanic Garden. These four turtles were practically enlightened by the time I was finished.

Later talking with Roberta, one of the botanists, I discovered the turtles were only there at all because they had been abandoned by the good people of Pisa when they grew bored or burdened by their duties as turtle keepers. And the turtles had responded by eating all the lotuses!

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The S Word

photo 3Our mild early Spring has tempted me into the garden – sadly neglected after my year of travelling.  I’m looking forward to giving it more attention this growing season.  What I got up to today was less gardening than restoring/tidying.  This past fortnight has seen regular incursions by the neighbouring sheep population.  Clumsy-hooved and fat-fleeced, they’ve trampled the already thin grass and snapped off lots of low branches.  One of the few shrubs that thrives up here, a climbing hydrangea has suffered the loss of many buds.  The garden’s been littered with broken stems and twigs, strands of wool trailing everywhere.

photo 2The two brightest sights are: the ivy, glossy and constellated with its strange sputnik flowers, and the small tête-à-tête daffodils, cheerful and resilient.  Both these seem to have escaped the depredations of the sheep and the ferocious breeding and tunnelling of the rabbits.

photo 4What I want to know is where does all the soil go when the rabbits dig their holes?  I spent half my time outside today ferrying soil from molehills in the field to the gaping chasms in what are laughingly called my ‘flower beds’.  Last year on our visit to the Bowes Museum, during our tour of the Library, next to a 1920 book called Margarine, I spotted another with the title The Archeology of Rabbit Warrens.  Maybe that’s what I need now to understand the earth-moving strategies of these creatures that, after twenty years, I’ve become resigned to sharing this patch of land with.

photoThis will be my first year without a conservatory – another rather grand name for what it actually was – rotten and perilous: finally it had to come down.  Andy, the estate handyman, left the stone walls standing and built me a little wooden gate so that I’d have a rabbit-proof space to grow plants in pots and maybe sit and write when the weather warms up.  The sort of gardening I like involves a lot of sitting down between tasks!

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The Elephant in the Room

IMG_6731The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep. . . . If this day in the lifetime of a hundred years is lost, will you ever touch it with your hands again?

Zen Master Dogen

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IMG_6708I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.

Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.

We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”

We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.

 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot writing to philosopher Slavoj Žižek

IMG_6744 2When there is understanding and a set of values that encourage sharing, then the limitations, the needs, and the lacks of any given life can be acknowledged and effort can be put into using material supports with compassion. This is also true in cases of deprivation; surely a major contributor to this is the greed and exploitation of others, which has its source in identification with material prosperity. If we could all accept the experience of limitation on our resources and comforts, if affluent people’s standard of living were not so high, there would be fewer people who felt, and actually were, “poor.” Maybe with more sharing, there would be less severe physical deprivation. Instead of creating golf courses in the desert, or seeing air-conditioning, two cars, and countless television channels as necessities of life, we could try to accept limitations to our material circumstances and acknowledge that there is suffering.

This acknowledgment doesn’t require that everyone should feel wretched; rather, it’s a matter of learning to know and accept that this earthly realm is one of limitation. When we wake up to how human life on this planet actually is, and stop running away or building walls in our heart, then we develop a wiser motivation for our life. And we keep waking up as the natural dukkha [suffering] touches us. This means that we sharpen our attention to catch our instinctive reactions of blaming ourselves, blaming our parents, or blaming society; we meditate and access our suffering at its root; and consequently we learn to open and be still in our heart. And even on a small scale in daily life situations, such as when we feel bored or ill at ease, instead of trying to avoid these feelings by staying busy or buying another fancy gadget, we learn to look more clearly at our impulses, attitudes, and defenses. In this way dukkha guides and deepens our motivation to the point where we’ll say, “Enough running, enough walls, I’ll grow through handling my blocks and lost places.”



Ajahn Sucitto

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Creepers

At Durham Botanic Garden last weekend a group of us  gathered in the glasshouses for a writing workshop while the rain fell outside.  It was a perfect spot for letting the eye and the imagination take a walk together.

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I was very aware we were not alone – a fine assortment of creatures keeping us company, thankfully behind another layer of glass.  I liked the proximity of human, plant and animal – just part of the way we’re all tangled up together.

IMG_6569Brazilian Birdeater Tarantula

IMG_6568Great African Land Snail

IMG_6530Cockroaches – Death’s Head, Madagascar Hissing and Mottled Leaf

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Even the cafe couldn’t escape its share of creeping things – the outside attempting to come in from the cold…

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