Category Archives: ecology

How do you write about Climate Change?

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The only way I can begin to think about the question of how to write about Climate Change is to do it – start writing and see if I can spin a thread for myself, and maybe others, to follow.  This will be the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to track my spinning.

In September I submitted my Creative Practice-based PhD – Women on the Edge of Landscape – investigating place and ecology, poetry and biography.  I’ve written a collection of poems called ‘The Knucklebone Floor’, set at Allen Banks in Northumberland, imagining the 19th century widow who intervened in the landscape there – Susan Davidson (1796-1877) – as well as other women who have lived, worked and walked there before and since.  I tried to find a voice for them all, acknowledging points of difference while testing the possibility of commonality, a collective vision of an authentic good, dwelling alongside the constantly changing beyond-human.

I called my critical reflective essay ‘Flower Album’ because I wanted it to be a place where I could assemble my ideas, process and reading, using another Victorian woman, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson’s (1821-1918) beautiful watercolours of native wild flowers as touchstones.  These two very different northern women held a love of, and intimacy with, the natural world in common.

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After over three years of looking at the macro-perspective of this particular landscape and the micro-view of the plantlife that grows there – all at a time of increasing urgency about Global Warming and Mass Extinction – I felt my own sense of intimacy with the land at Allen Banks deepen and grow.  I became one of its creatures as much as the dormice, dippers and dragonflies who’ve made their homes in the woods and along the river.  My essay’s ‘conclusion’ culminated in a call for tenderness, a conscious love for the earth that stands in the way of any harm being done to it, just as you would protect your own (or anyone else’s) children.  Not on my watch.

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If ‘Climate Change’ is portrayed as our enemy, if the phrase ‘Climate Emergency’ is intended to summon up associations of wartime solidarity, I am concerned that the dynamic evoked, the story conveyed, is an unhelpful one, leaning more into conflict than healing.  Such attitudes tend to demonise Climate Change as just another ‘other’, to be hated and eradicated.  When will we learn there is no such place as ‘away’?

If we know ourselves to be truly part of nature, inextricable from it, inside and out, isn’t it more fruitful to examine the part of ourselves that needs to affirm the polarity of Self and Other?  What if we tried to come to terms with that part of ourselves that has contributed to Climate Change, allowed it to happen without doing anything to prevent it or radically alter the political structures that perpetuate our current crisis?  Surely Climate Change is less the cause of our current crisis than the effect of what Naomi Klein calls ‘the deep stories about the right of certain people to dominate land and the people living closest to it, stories that underpin western culture’.  I admire the way she has ‘investigated the kinds of responses that might succeed in toppling those narratives, ideologies and economic interests, responses that weave seemingly disparate crises (economic, social, ecological and democratic) into a common story of civilisational transformation.’

It’s important to be pragmatic and vote for the party you can trust to take action to protect the environment, but in the longer term, the system itself needs to change to ensure greater equity and justice – not just in this country but on a global level.  How to achieve that is another question we will be struggling with in the years ahead.

Tenderness is not really a word that comes to mind listening to the politicians making the case for their party’s extravagant promises.  But reading Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is maybe the nearest I’ve got to it.  Telling stories of women around the world directly affected by Climate Change, she makes politics personal.  She remembers one woman in drought-stricken Honduras saying to her: ‘We have no water.  How do you live without water?’  Worrying about flying and driving and our various western consumer dilemmas, we really have no idea.  These women trying to look after their children in the face of unimaginable deprivation and disruption are, as Robinson says, ‘the least responsible for the pollution warming our planet, yet are the most affected.  They are often overlooked in the abstract, jargon-filled policy discussions about how to address the problem […] the fight against climate change is fundamentally about human rights and securing justice for those suffering from its impact – vulnerable countries and communities that are the least culpable for the problem.’

On the day that Mary Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, Seamus Heaney wrote to her saying: ‘Take hold of it boldly and duly.’  That is what she is doing on the subject of climate and its impact on human rights.  What would it look like if contemporary writers took hold of our current task ‘boldly and duly’?  How would Seamus Heaney write about Climate Change?  In what form would he express his grief for everything we have already lost?  What are the words we might start hearing in unexpected places that could help us adapt and thrive?

Isn’t it the writer’s job to write so that people want to read or listen, so that what they’ve read or heard stays with them, strengthening their relationship with themselves, the world and each other?  How do you write about Climate Change so that people want to keep on reading, not flick past in search of something more entertaining or distracting?  For me, Voice usually matters more than Story – a form of words shared in passing that gives a sense of the writer’s pulse, the thrum of their beating heart, the intimacy with their conspirators I saw in the work of Susan Davidson and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson and have tried to translate into my own words.

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Still inclined to spend some time in the 19th century, I’m currently listening to Samuel West’s reading of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders and although the story is beguiling, fateful and compelling, it’s the atmosphere I love best, the sense of place, particularly as it’s evoked by Hardy’s own intimacy with those trees growing in Little Hintock, characterised almost as vividly as Giles Winterborne, Grace Melbury and Marty Short.  If we knew trees in their natural habitat as well as this, perhaps we’d care for them better.

            Although the time of bare boughs had now set in, there were sheltered hollows amid      the Hintock plantations and copses in which a more tardy leave-taking than on windy          summits was the rule with the foliage. This caused here and there an apparent mixture of the seasons; so that in some of the dells that they passed by holly-berries in full red were found growing beside oak and hazel whose leaves were as yet not far removed from green, and brambles whose verdure was rich and deep as in the month of August. To Grace these well-known peculiarities were as an old painting restored.

            Now could be beheld that change from the handsome to the curious which the     features of a wood undergo at the ingress of the winter months. Angles were taking the place of curves, and reticulations of surfaces – a change constituting a sudden lapse from the ornate to the primitive on Nature’s canvas…

We can only write from a sense of who we are, the wild landscape of our hearts and minds.  The writing process depends upon our own unruly growth, the ways we choose to cultivate and nourish our imaginations and fill our days.  Seamus Heaney said that too – that it’s what we do when we’re not writing that matters.  Spending time with trees, observing their changes through the seasons, planting and protecting them – this too is the writer’s task and will send roots down into the thirsty soil of our collective imagination.

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Naomi Klein has been encouraging people to read Richard Powers’s The Overstory.  I’m late to the party but it’s next on my reading list.  She says:

            It’s been incredibly important to me and I’m happy that so many people have  written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we’ve been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It’s the same conversation we’re having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It’s also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

This weekend the Woodland Trust’s Big Climate Fightback aims to encourage a million people in the UK to pledge to plant a native tree.  They have a target to plant a tree for every person in the UK by 2025.  We have a small oak seedling from a friend’s garden we’ll be adding to the recent replanting of the woodland behind our house. While you’re considering how a writer might write about Climate Change, what you need to read about it or who you’re going to vote for, you can pledge to plant a tree or support the Woodland Trust here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing Lichen

There are still a few places left on my Writing Workshop – out in the field and at the Sill – next Saturday 10th August – looking at lichen.  Bring botanical lenses and magnifying glasses!  And cross fingers for fine weather.

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Iain’s photographs are stunning.  They beautifully capture these strange life forms that do so well in Northumberland – a testament to our clean air and fresh elements.  We’ll be moving between the real thing and samples of his images to write our own poems and short pieces in appreciation of lichen.  Even the word itself is mysterious and exciting – whichever way you say it – lichen!

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Poetry & Ecology

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In the Physic Garden

 

Andrew asks if spiritistically is a word

it is now I say

how do you spell it he says

and we sound out the letters together

him way ahead of me

written down they’re ghosts

of the evening primrose

throwing up its arms behind us

MOTH’S MOON FLOWER

says the sign and we lean in

to yellow like thunderbugs

drinking from wilting cups

spiritistically we are yellow

and black when they are the same

night and day – me and Andrew

his words I want to save

and the flowers I can’t

and it’s okay

what does kill or cure mean he says

 

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Just back from the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival where I was delighted to be awarded the Bronze in this year’s Ginkgo Prize for my poem sparked by a summer’s day at Dilston Physic Garden, working with a group of vulnerable adults from Haltwhistle on one of their Zig-Zag outings.

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The Prize was judged by poet Mimi Khalvati and gardener and writer Alys Fowler and organised by the Poetry School, following Resurgence’s initiation of a Poetry Competition specifically for ‘eco-poems’ a few years ago.  This year the newly-named Prize was generously supported by the Goldsmith Trust, which promotes the work of ecologist Edward Goldsmith (1928-2009). It was fascinating meeting everyone involved (including one dog – Pekingese – and one baby – North American) and all the other winning poets: a real live chain of interconnection – ecology in action.

There is a beautifully designed and produced pamphlet of all the winning and commended poems.  You can read it online here.  Our wonderful certificates were designed and hand-made by Charles Gouldsbrough.

Part of the award for winners and the runners-up is a 10-day residency in Ireland next Spring at Cill Rillaig Arts Centre, County Kerry.  The chain of interbeing continues and will grow…

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At Allen Banks

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I’m spending a lot of time at Allen Banks these days – stepping out of the garden into the wild.  It’s the site for my current PhD research at Newcastle University and I’m looking at its history as well as its ecology towards writing a book-length sequence of poems.

As part of my endeavour to consider it as a collective site, it seemed natural to invite a group of folk to participate in a walking renga at the end of the summer, on the brink of my starting my second year of study.  We walked on the East side of the river, up through Moralee Woods to the tarn, stopping along the way to write and share our verses.

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Here is the renga we made together:

The Landscape, Ourselves

 

Today’s truth –

the seventh month is our ninth

white river brown

 

a startled heron

wingbeat of silence

 

what is that sumptuous smell?

she only knows it

as ‘country’

 

a choice is made

to keep to the middle way

 

uphill

tripping on roots

my breathing quickens

 

through the ghost of a window

we gaze over the valley

 

mirror tarnished

by pondweed

waterlily

 

layer upon layer

memories settle

 

my companions are painting light

collecting earth

gathering pollen

 

by the water

a stack of wooden bones

 

and so we lean

into the landscape

ourselves

 

picture the moonlight

shadowing these branches

 

in a wild grove

between two fields

with all that’s unspoken

 

Allen

muttering, meandering.

 

A 14-verse Renga at Allen Banks,

Morralee Wood,

on 6th September 2017.

 

Participants:

Jo Aris

Matilda Bevan

Holly Clay

Martin Eccles

Linda France

Malcolm Green

Sharon Higginson

Alex Reed

Eileen Ridley

Christine Taylor

 

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Sound artist and fellow PhD student, Martin Eccles recorded the day and you can read his own renga here.  As well as writing our collaborative version, this time I encouraged everyone to keep all their verses and make their own individual renga, imagining them all as parallel shadows of our shared experience.

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Borderlands Renga

IMG_3645What the land says

*

Morning sun

warms crumbled earth

relief from frost heave

 

I hold it in my hands

it holds me

 

hills made overground

by velvet tunnellers

dark soil workers

 

home to the unseen

and the spectacular

 

a rusty horse-shoe, half-buried

 

O larch, cone

and whisker of you

nubs of dusted red

 

ash trees do it for me

sometimes, especially

 

fluid hardness of wood

 

leaning into, leaning on

a steady place to start

bones and barks both bend

 

hollowed, clothed

folding rock and living humus

 

the burn’s law carves a groove

divides a field

opens up earth’s skin

 

 

*

sunlit current between the banks

silent cross-currents within me

 

aching for the river’s touch

to be closer

to my open hand

 

telegraph pole floating down in the flood

 

the stream tumbling into my right ear

drifting from my left

 

glistening water

passes under the high bridge

carries thoughts downstream

 

shadow of a fish

playing with light

 

steepness

a water world

wagtail

 

too thirsty to write a verse

above the river, I drink

 

above is below, flickering

skittish dipper flashes

stone to stone

 

today’s green umbrella

sheltering last week’s rain

 

earth route, sea bound

 

the water continues

sure in its course

holding to uncertainty

 

 

 

*

around the shadow of my hat

grass glows

 

in an auditorium of green fire

burning off

winter’s residue

 

furious and ferocious me

I lie down and rest

 

bliss – a line

scorched between

need and no-need

 

sun-grown leaf, grain, fruit

 

this stone below me, slow

this light on my face

 

a constellation of solar systems

scattered over

the dandelion meadow

 

red absorbed

sleepy cushion after lunch

 

furnace of microbial life

 

flowers

photosynthetic factories

forging the sward

 

 

*

feathers in my pocket

song in the air

 

crows – two in the uplift

corks on an unseen river

your wings, my home

 

take me up, thermals

so that I may see

 

the nothingness of being

that lives by breath

 

ripple in the pool, rustle in the tree

 

tickling my cheekbones

songs of blackcap, chiff chaff, jackdaw

 

drowsy afternoon

a chance to listen to air

sifting memories

 

my mother’s bloodroot

 

a wave of tiny combustions

the wave arranged in patterns, rhythm

 

cow-breath gorse-breath

blowing the flute

of the secret valley

 

 

 

*

where the skylark is –

even to the ten thousand galaxies

 

this pen settled in the saddle

of thumb and forefinger

widening to describe all this

 

space curves

there is a tree, a wall, a house

 

a network of human habitation

 

soft sow shape of Cheviot

stretches out asleep

over all those centuries

 

distant granite whaleback

 

in the distance

between thoughts – a space to fade to

 

sky full of bird paths

each flown invisibly

opened and closed

 

bear’s garlic, shepherd’s purse,

Persian speedwell

 

blue harvest

 

slip through

follow the fold of sky

return

 

 

 

*

the me that has no thoughts

the other quietly watching

 

a way to be back

along the boughs

a root home

 

with all the twists and turns

still there is the green

 

can we meet the tree?

sometimes I sense it

and so must she

 

tell me what I am

and through me sing

 

a group reflects

a hawthorn dances

I listen

 

preoccupied by the thinking

we forget the knowing

 

delusions like crows on a fence

 

arthritic old thorn

teaches silence

to sapling ash, oak, gean

 

ten thousand green eyes

turned skywards

 

what a day of embrace!

tree of heart’s desire

hold our grief, our trust, our uncertainty

 

alive to this place

 

tangled in and out of shadow

risk yes risk joy.

 

 

A walking renga

from Borderlands 3 at Burnlaw,

Whitfield, Northumberland,

on 23rd April, 2017.

 

Participants:

Jo Aris, Melanie Ashby, Michael Van Beinum, Matilda Bevan, Neil Diment, John Fanshawe, Jane Field, Linda France, Kate Foster, Malcolm Green, Sharon Higginson, Geoff Jackson, Martha Jackson, Georgiana Keable, Virginia Kennedy, Linda Kent, Martin Lee Muller, Karen Melvin, Tim Rubidge, Geoff Sample, Torgeir Vassvik, Gary Villers-Stuart, Rosie Villiers-Stuart, Nigel Wild, Richard Young.

 

Borderlands 3 was a gathering of Northern Networks for Nature.  On Saturday we were mostly indoors, listening to excellent speakers, sharing thoughts (and fantastic food – thanks Martha!) and watching and listening to a ‘salmon fairytale’ from Norway.  On Sunday we went outside and walked down the valley as far as Bridge Eal, stopping along the way to consider the elements and write renga verses.  This renga is the fruit of that walk in that place on that day with those people.

 

 

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Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

centaurea

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.

 

animals

*

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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Launched!

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It all came together beautifully for last night’s launch of the new Northern Poetry Library anthology. There were readings and food and flowers and some exciting dramatic pieces inspired by poems, and music too…

Wendy Breach from Transition Tynedale spoke about Edible Hexham, the fantastic project that led to us reading and writing poems about food for six months…

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For Transition Tynedale – bold enough to put poetry (and gardening!) on the agenda

 

Poetry is not on the agenda.

Return to sender.

Though saving the planet is important,

it’s still the elephant

in the room – no one tabling what matters,

only what flatters.

Imagine Akhmatova, Neruda,

some intruder

fool enough to ask what happened to joy?

Wonder? Words that cloy

because there’s no cash attached, no profit

to be gained from it.

Just the beat of the body from the heart,

a hunger for art,

bread we’ll bring to the fire and break together,

whatever the weather.

 

I asked folk to record their thoughts throughout the evening in a kind of low-tech twittery sort of a way…Here are just three of the cards I found posted in the collection box.  The night seemed to involve a lot of tables – entirely natural and entirely unplanned – celebrating a different sort of wood and water…

 

Many thanks to Wendy Scott at Active Northumberland for making it all possible.

 

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Pennycress, Willowherb

IMG_0503Because it was a sunny day and I’d just missed my connection – watching powerless as my homebound train pulled out of the station without me (always painful, much worse than missing it by ten or even five minutes) – I walked on to the end of the platform where sun struck stone paving unimpeded by canopies or walls. A row of advertising boards, brash inducements to buy the latest ‘Number 1 Crime’ books, each with their own moody picture, intimating the gruesome and forensic, gradually petered out. I was happier looking at the stone underfoot, the grid of moulded rectangles harbouring sweet green creases of moss the further along I walked.

A tiny pennycress grew out of nothing, no visible earth, valiant among the coming and going of trains with their strident livery and their harried passengers, noses in novels, fingertips stroking screens, ears plugged against the outside world – I knew this because I’d just been one of them.

At the very end the platform sloped gently down until it met grey-blue clinker. I could see some plants with red leaves growing among it, sturdy against the sharp stones. Deep-veined, prolific, possibly a willowherb. I ambled slowly down the ramp scanning for any other plant life that might be thriving in this apparently inhospitable setting. The toothed leaves of an unfamiliar thistle wrapped themselves around a discarded bolt, rusty and large enough to be missed.

I eased the rucksack off my shoulders and placed it on the ground at my feet; knelt to look more closely and touch the veined leaves I’d seen from a distance, fiery in the sunlight that warmed my face and shoulders after such a very long winter, cramped and flowerless.

I dug in the pocket of the rucksack for my camera to take a picture in the afternoon light, all the lovelier for coming unannounced, unexpected. I crouched down again to focus close enough to catch these low-to-the-ground, unostentatious plants.

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Come away from there, now, step away, step away.   Please return to the platform.

A loud voice, with worry in it, a man’s. I lifted my head to see a bearded young man in a lilac uniform carrying a walkie-talkie. He repeated his instructions as if it were a matter of life and death, staying at the top of the ramp some distance from me. Until proven innocent, clearly I was dangerous.

Come up now, come back to the platform.

Another man, shorter, navy blue jumper, stood beside the first, twitching slightly. If he’d had a gun, he’d have his finger on the trigger. I could tell how much it cost him to say nothing. The tremor in his shoulders gave him away.

I had a choice: to argue the toss and claim my freedom as a citizen, my fundamental right to look at plants in the sunshine while waiting for a train; or simply let it go and reassure them – for I could see they were anxious about something and were in dire need of reassurance – that I wasn’t a terrorist, or suicidal, or a flagrant destroyer of railway property.  Though what they were reading into my grey hair and best black coat was a puzzle to me, a disguise impenetrable even to myself.

I’m just taking some photographs.

Forced to confess, it sounded like a crime. To persuade them it was true, the only sin I was committing was photography, I lifted up my camera and the shorter man started bobbing from foot to foot. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told me to drop it and raise my hands above my head. 15.34, a Wednesday and Central Station was suddenly an action thriller. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for these men, looking down at me, chests puffed out – so keen to do their duty, or be seen to do their duty, on high alert where there was nothing to be alert about. How exhausting it must be to wear a lilac uniform, carry a walkie-talkie and suspect middle-aged women of unspeakable crimes, a threat to the common good and trains running on time.

IMG_0506I made my way up the ramp slowly, with dignity I hoped: the only way I could express my deep disappointment at such misdirection of human energy, a senselessness that seemed to becoming more and more familiar, not just to me but everyone I speak to. Resistance burned at the core of me, political, existential. The willowherb remained unphotographed.  Had it come to this – that a person was no longer able to look at flowers growing in a railway station when the weather coaxed them in that direction? Would it have been different if I was a man writing down the number of a passing train?

The two men looked disappointed too.  Perhaps that I’d proved such easy meat and offered no further opportunity for their heroics. The drama had come and gone too quickly. I wanted them to be embarrassed but no one apologised to anyone else. Not I, nor the men, who turned on their heels and scurried back towards the main body of the station, disappearing in the coolness of the shade.

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Ways in Which Studying Moss is Like Making a Poem

IMG_0447At the beginning you are advised to ignore those mosses growing on trees or stone for they ask something different

A moss should behave a certain way but doesn’t always

thuidium

Thuidium tamariscinum

You realise that adjectives like ‘straight’ and ‘curved’ are not reliable, just a matter of perspective

Mosses have a very thin cuticle, are absorbent on all surfaces

hypnum

Hypnum cupressiforme

You can observe a species with the naked eye, look more closely with a handlens or at

the level of cells through a microscope – ever deepening attention

Some mosses have a nerve

campylopus

Campylopus introflexus

Their names are tongue twisters – all hail teachers of Latin!

Mosses lend themselves to metaphor – imaginative ways to describe and remember them (for example, overheard: Denis Healey’s eyebrows, teddy bears’ arms, Catherine wheels)

Desiccated moss can be brought back to life by immersing in liquid

dicranum

Dicranum majus

Looking at mosses for a long time transports you to another world – one where scale is nothing if not elastic

The fascinations endless, the discoveries universe-expanding

Moss sometimes grows on exposed bones

When you look at a landscape and say there’s nothing there, there will be mosses

You will lose all track of time IMG_0459

Hard to know where to start trying to give an account of this week’s wonderful Mosses & Liverworts field study course, run by Northumberland Wildlife Trust and led by John O’Reilly. We were based at Knarsdale Village Hall near Alston and went out to sites at Lambley Viaduct and Williamston Nature Reserve. After two days we were able to identify around twenty or so common bryophyte species – out of the 800 mosses and 300 liverworts found in the UK. If flowers are often overlooked, bryophytes are seriously neglected. It was deeply satisfying taking the time to learn how to see them.  I am already planning regular moss walks to make sure that I keep practising this new language.

 

 

 

 

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