Category Archives: ecology

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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Inexplicably…

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…in the trees at Varna Botanical Garden/Ecopark…

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

 

 

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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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A Year in Beadnell

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I’ve mentioned visiting Lisa and Mel during their year in residence at Beadnell before and posted a log on their lovely blog. For this new publication, I’ve written a poem from my time there – about the Rosebay Willowherb growing in the dunes.  Do come along to the Lit & Phil, if you can make it, on 12th April.  I’m sure it’ll be a rich and interesting evening.   Look forward to seeing you there.

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Dear March –

Dear March – Come in –

How glad I am –

I hoped for you before –

Put down your Hat –

You must have walked –

How out of Breath you are –

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –

Did you leave Nature well –

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –

I have so much to tell –

 

I got your Letter, and the Birds –

The Maples never knew that you were coming –

I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But March, forgive me –

And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –

There was no Purple suitable –

You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April –

Lock the Door –

I will not be pursued –

He stayed away a Year to call

When I am occupied –

But trifles look so trivial

As soon as you have come

 

That blame is just as dear as Praise

And Praise as mere as Blame –

 

Emily Dickinson

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After two days thinking about Poetry, Creativity and Environment at last weekend’s symposium in the School of English at Leeds University, the idea that my mind keeps returning to is one suggested by Zoë Skoulding – ecological writing (and thinking) should always engage with the possibility of imagining something different, a radically altered viewpoint.

Her own practice enacts that process by taking ‘a deliberately skewed perspective’ to both time and place, walking in urban spaces and re-imagining them as if all the accretions of man-made city life were not there, acknowledging historical disjunctions and the impossibility of ‘accuracy’. She read from her wonderful sequence Teint, which charts the Biévre, one of Paris’s underground water courses.

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Harriet Tarlo also spoke about her ‘writing outside’, the notion of fieldwork, both alone and in collaboration with artist Judith Tucker – their different disciplines coming together like Bunting’s ‘lines of sound drawn in the air’. Going out in a state of attentive awareness in search of ‘particulars’ and then undertaking a process of ‘condensation’ and ‘selection’, preferring to bypass ‘the lyrical I’ in any resulting text. It was good to hear Harriet quote her mentor in Durham, Ric Caddell: ‘To live here is not to escape’.

I was particularly happy to meet Madeleine Lee, a Leeds alumna like myself. She is a poet and an economist and recently Writer in Residence at Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I spent a fascinating and fruitful week en route to Sydney in 2013. She noticed that people were tending to sleepwalk through the gardens and wanted to draw attention to the environmental implications of their colonial history through poems about native ‘economic plants’ like rubber, nutmeg, clove and other spices, traditionally grown along Orchard Road, now the main shopping avenue. Through her writing she has become an ‘accidental advocate’ of green spaces, the remaining 5% of tropical rainforest on the island of Singapore.

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No one was particularly interested in either the didactic/rhetorical or the elegiac/mourning modes of writing about the natural world. Generally these poets are bearing witness to land, place, plants and creatures, dismantling assumptions, risking ambiguity and uncertainty, taking a modernist, experimental stance. A lucid, appreciative interpretation of Jorie Graham’s Prayer (by post-graduate researcher Julia Tanner) reflected the weighing up of moral and ethical predicaments with ‘something instinctive’ in order to transform and ‘re-singularise’ that ‘problematic’ ‘I’ everyone was tiptoeing around so nervously. Although it was heartening to see it for a change, I wondered if the mood and emphasis would have been different if the panel were all-male rather than all-female, or a mixture? Another poet with a strong Leeds connection, Jon Silkin (as you can see from the photo) was also with us in spirit – and in Emma Trott’s paper on his Flower Poems.

Yesterday I walked out of the School of English onto Clarendon Road after my classes, delighted to see the magnolia buds stretching to release their deep pinks and to hear a lone great tit playing the xylophone of its throat – notes going up, notes going down. Encountering poetry and creativity at its most vivid, spontaneous and inescapable out of doors.

 

 

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Word search

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Niels Bohr

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On Saturday I went to the first in this year’s Hexham Debates on Justice, Peace & Democracy. Chris Kilsby, Professor of Hydrology and Climate Change at Newcastle University, gave an excellent presentation called Climate Change: What’s the Hurry? He very clearly showed that the question was entirely rhetorical. Even I (someone who struggles with graphs and jargon and ‘science’) was left in no doubt that the evidence of a serious acceleration in global warming – particularly since the 1960s – was undeniable. I ‘knew’ this on a deep, intuitive level but was glad of the chance to let my head catch up with my heart. Despite the knife edge sensation of this expanded awareness.

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There aren’t actually words to express it – awkward, inconvenient, uncomfortable, terrifying. What do we do with these feelings while life is expected to continue as ‘normal’? As a society we are being coerced into living a lie. The individual lifestyle choices we might make are not enough without government endorsement of mitigating policies. I’m not sure poetry is in a position to effect the change that is necessary, but it is a resource to help us find the right words and at least share them with each other, as we walk the knife edge together.

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The Scale of Change

On Saturday I visited Transition Tynedale’s Community Garden (in the grounds of Hexham Middle School) for the first time.  Despite the freezing temperatures and snow on the hills, a few sturdy souls had turned out for their regular twice-monthly garden session.

Garlic and onions were planted, fruit bushes pruned and leaves cleared.  Matty was even able to take her supper home with her.

My contribution was mostly admiration.  I particularly appreciated the ancient cherry tree and the grass sofas and willow den.  And the super-organised shed…

Really it’s the ‘wrong’ time of year to be immersed in a poetry project all about growing food.  In our workshop sessions in the Library on Monday tea-times we’ve tended to concentrate on the eating side of things.  which, along with reading gardening books, is what’s meant to happen in winter surely?

But, fair weather gardener that I am, after Saturday, I was shamed into doing a bit of tidying of my own patch – currently an uneasy limbo of snow and geraniums.  In the Community Garden too there were a few spots of colour and I found myself drawn to them like a starving bee.

Professor Stephen Blackmore (the Queen’s Botanist in Scotland) says that gardening can save the planet.  If everyone looks after their own bit of green, be it a garden or a hanging basket, the cumulative effect will make a difference.

‘…so much of the state of our planet hinges on the state of our plants and vegetation.  Often we are overwhelmed by the scale of change to the planet, and we think ‘What can we do to change anything?’, but your little patch of garden is part of the processes of nature, supporting wildlife and replenishing the atmosphere.’

 

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The Unexpected Orchard

Friday was a beautiful day and I tagged along with a couple of Transition Tynedalers to pick some apples at Jim’s orchard – an unlikely spot squeezed between the River Tyne and the A69 on the edge of Hexham.

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It was the start of a conversation I’ll be having with Transition Tynedale (and Edible Hexham) considering the poetry of food, gardening and ecology. Part of a new Northern Poetry Library Project, which is placing six poets in residence in libraries across the county. I’ll be based close to home in Hexham. There’s a launch reading at the Northern Poetry Library in Morpeth on National Poetry Day, Thursday 8th October at 7pm. Do come along if you’d like to find out more and meet the poets.

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Transition Tynedale will be pressing some of Jim’s apples (and others) at Hexham Farmers’ Market on Saturday 10th October 10 – 1. If you’re passing, come and say hello and have a taste of juice. I will also be pressing poems out of people!

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At 96, Jim has trouble keeping on top of this wonderful orchard he planted himself. Figs, peaches, medlars and soft fruit as well as apples. Talking to him put me in mind of Robert Frost’s poem After Apple Picking.

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After Apple-Picking

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

But I was well

Upon my way to sleep before it fell,

And I could tell

What form my dreaming was about to take.

Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin

The rumbling sound

Of load on load of apples coming in.

For I have had too much

Of apple-picking: I am overtired

Of the great harvest I myself desired.

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

For all

That struck the earth,

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,

Went surely to the cider-apple heap

As of no worth.

One can see what will trouble

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

Were he not gone,

The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost

 

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