Category Archives: gardens

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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On Lindisfarne

 

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Portrait of the Artist as an Island Flower

 

However much it loves history, a poem

is not an interpretation panel, in a frame.

 

There are many things it cannot do in a time

at odds with itself.  Gather up, as she did –

 

field garlic, brookweed, sea campion, beaked parsley,

water plantain, knotted trefoil, tufted centaury.

 

Pluck them where they hide on whin or dune to take

home (imagine crossing the sea-soaked causeway

 

by horse-drawn carriage) then paint – purple and white,

yellow and pink, the common language of green.

 

Not scented or seductive, each one’s a modest plant,

at risk from slipshod steps, or simple disregard.

 

Conjure the woman in a watercolour mirror

of flowers as tenderly as if from her own bones

 

sealed in a box; her secrets – thank god – encrypted.

Heed the silence, most eloquent against the tide.

 

  

In 1874, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson made seven watercolours of plants found on Lindisfarne, many rare and endangered.  These images are among the 468 botanical paintings in the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum, Newcastle.  2018 marks the centenary of her death, aged 98, at Norham on Tweed. To our knowledge, no portrait of her exists.

 

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I wrote this poem for Newcastle Poetry Festival’s Waves & Bones project, based on Lindisfarne, tying it in with my PhD research.  In my critical essay, I’m connecting various threads and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson is one of them.

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One flower she didn’t paint is the Lindisfarne Helleborine, which I’m going in search of next month.  Also a good chance to see the 650 sweet peas coming into bloom they’d just finished planting in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden last time I was there.  

 

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Poem for a Birthday

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Poem for a Birthday

 

I am the single bluebell

In the mowed lawn.

I am the clusters of buds

On the British Library apple.

I am forget-me-not

Self-seeding where it will.

I am water hyssop transplanted

From India, Ayurvedic.

I am a hellebore’s nectaries

Fleshy with pollen.

I am dewdrops beading

Lady’s mantle leaves.

I am dandelion and dock,

Goosegrass and nettle,

Never say weed.

I am honesty, in love

With my faithful moon.

I am the new clematis,

Alba, kissing its trellis.

I am so many yellow keys

Of cowslip, jangling.

I am the different yellow

(Buttery) of marsh marigold.

I am these violas on the step

And their blue music.

I am narcissi –

Pseudopoeticus – still at it.

I am this garden, here, flowering

Against the odds, catching

Every last gram of wind.

 

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I sometimes feel that I have lived two hundred and fifty years already and sometimes that I am still the youngest person on the omnibus.

Virginia Woolf, Diary, 1931

 

 

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Earth, Earth, I cried

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At times I was even sure the garden and I were made of the same substance, sand and earth rubbed my bones, mosses, ferns, violets and strelitzia sprouted from my skin, stretched out my limbs.  In springtime I let the caterpillars stride over me, in rusty soft processions, and when they made moving rings around my spread fingers, my skin had the stiffness of bark.

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In the old days I’d have been scared.  But now I knew it was me the garden.  I was the garden.   I was inside, I was made of priceless diamonds and I had no name.  Earth, Earth, I cried.

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From Hélène Cixous, A Real Garden (1971)       Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic

Images by Francesca Woodman

 

(The Portable Cixous

Edited by Marta Segarra

New York:  Columbia University Press 2010)

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The Eye-Catcher

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I heartily recommend this fantastic one man show about Capability Brown at the Moot Hall in Hexham on 12th October.  See details below.

I saw it at Kirkharle, Brown’s birthplace – in a marquee within a barn – and we were all entranced by John Cobb’s evocation of this literally ground-breaking landscape gardener.  Not much is known about the man himself, allowing plenty of room for poetic license, some beautifully inventive physical theatre and a rollicking text to remind you of the great number of commissions Brown undertook during his lifetime and his skilfully-cultivated connections with influential clients – all against the dramatic backdrop of eighteenth century history.

Catch it while you can  – a marvellous way to celebrate Capability Brown’s tercentenary.

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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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From the Notebook

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What are poets for in these destitute times?

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Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

Katherine Mansfield

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Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.

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I, the sculptor, am the landscape.

Barbara Hepworth

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In life, in order to understand the world, you must die at least once.

Bassanio

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There is God. There is no God.

Simone Weil

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One Week in May

Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.

Alfred Austin

– for Karen and Joe – 

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am I dreaming

this garden

or is it dreaming me?

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the sudden marvel

of a cactus bloom

white peacock tail

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starburst and curl

empty-hearted

a clematis unclenching

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modelled in wax

souvenir

from Mars

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intoxicating

the fin de siècle scent

of lilac

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behind glass

Nerys’s peonies always

on the point of opening

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what to love most

leaves

or their shadows?

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a bowl of stones

blue lavender

raven skull and wingbone

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a spiral

of green thoughts

going nowhere

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something French

about their flicked tips

just so, chic

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the ramparts

say what they mean

and mean what they say

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a second spiral

going nowhere

slowly

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a whole afternoon

reading the trees

binding their torn pages

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to a house of flowers

I bring flowers –

two kinds of lilies

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after rain

the smell of green

rinsed awake

 

 

 

Holly Hill

Northumberland

1 – 10 May 2015

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New Moon

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On the brink of a New Moon, I’m pointing you in the direction of some new writing that has recently become available online.  There are some unpublished poems from my botanical travels on the Poetry International site, with an introduction by Katy Evans-Bush.

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Since the beginning of this year,  I have been visiting Cheeseburn Grange, just outside Stamfordham, and writing about the gardens and artworks there.  Much work is going on behind the scenes so that next year it will be open to the public.  It’s a wonderful place and an exciting venture.

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Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that I’m posting less and less these days.  The Botanical project officially came to an end in May, after my marvellous visit to Pisa.  I’m currently concentrating on the various strands of writing arising from my research, poetry and prose, and so will only be posting sporadic thoughts and news as I go along.  The plan is that I will emerge again in the New Year…

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The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

 

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Floo’ers

The garden is a paradox, combining mathematics

and magic, history and myth, science and art,

reality and utopia.

John Dixon Hunt
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Yesterday I enjoyed an unexpected outing with the Corbridge Gardening Society to two gardens in Border Country – Floors Castle and Mindrum. It was a gorgeous summer’s day, ideal for exploring these two very different gardens in the company of some expert gardeners and plantswomen.

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I wanted Floors to be Scots for floo’ers but I suspect it’s too grand for that. The scale of the place – gardens, grounds and castle – was astonishing. And only 3 permanent gardeners to keep it in such immaculate condition, when back in the 19th century they had 100!   As we sat and drank our coffee, we had plenty of time to enjoy the blue and silver border. I thought this was my favourite bed until we turned the corner and saw the ‘hot’ border – a stunning stretch of reds and pinks, yellows and oranges. And then taking a right by the ‘rose chains’ (great swags of pink ramblers), there were more delights – the softer pastels of the spring and summer borders.

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Mindrum was more modest, but equally original. Working with the shape of the land, falling away down to the winding Bowmont Water, one of the Tweed’s tributaries, the garden doesn’t waste an inch.

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The more formal upper gardens, lush with clever planting and traditional sculptures, soften as they descend, incorporating a variety of perennials, trees and bamboos along the riverside.   Afterwards we were treated to a wonderful tea in a big white tent, looking out onto the beautiful Northumbrian countryside. Perfect end to a perfect day!

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