Category Archives: insects

Magic Mountain 

Today we had a tour of Vitosha Nature Park by the Director and an expert botanist called Toni.  A massive pick-up truck transported us 2000 metres up within sight of the Black Peak.


The plants (and the views) were wonderful- rare species endemic to Bulgaria I’d never seen before, flowers I’d only ever seen grown as garden  varieties and some familiar from our hedgerows.

1489 plants have been recorded at Vitosha – about half of the native Bulgarian flora and one third more than the whole of the U.K. flora.

Ten occur only in Bulgaria; many more are Balkan endemics.  59 of these mountain plants are in the country’s endangered Red Book.

Even at the highest point it was still hot but up there, the land was boggy, disguising the ever-diminishing reserves of peat. Small blue butterflies and big orange ones, bees and crickets were busy feeding on the nectar.  We saw a couple of incredibly graceful kestrel practically floating in the enormous blue sky.


I have problems with scale in places like this, ricocheting between a focus on the miniature and expanding to fill the space, paradoxically leaving no room for familiar thought processes.

  It’s not a problem untilI try to articulate my experience and find it impossible – words inadequate, the wrong medium.  Birdsong might do it or some Scandinavian yoiking.  All I know is when we came down my ears were full up and the city appeared too soon, also full, intoxicated with its own cacophony.

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Trailer

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Today’s flurry of snow settling round what few flowers are out in the garden also brings a couple of trailers for my new collection.

You can read an ‘In Conversation’ piece I did with Paris Morel on the Arc website here.  Apparently the cover’s still work-in-progress but you can see the beautiful photo of an Eryngium taken by Karen Melvin in her garden.  Out of shot, I am the one holding the piece of white card behind the plant.

One of the poems from Reading the Flowers (due in the Spring – with a launch reading at Hexham Book Festival) is in the new edition of the Australian Plumwood Mountain Journal, guest edited by Tricia Dearborn.  You can read it – ‘Self Portrait as a Case of Stick Insects’, and another newer poem – ‘Watching the Perseids with Sue’, here.

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The Politics of Bees

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Yesterday I received an email from Friends of the Earth about the ‘Bee Action Plan’.  Unsurprisingly, even through it’s great that it’s on the political agenda at all, things do need to go further.  Please check it out on their website and sign the petition and share it as widely as possible with your friends and contacts.  As the flowers come back into bloom, there isn’t much that’s more important than the health of their pollinators…

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It’s almost three years since the Bee Cause launched. In that time I’ve seen you take action to save bees in so many ways. You’ve signed petitions, planted wildflowers all over the country, built bee hotels, added your name to newspaper adverts and even organised Bee Teas with your MP.

Now I need your help again.

It’s your last chance to call for a brilliant Bee Action Plan

Lord de Mauley, the Bees Minister, wants to hear what you think of his Bee Action Plan. But time is short. In one week the door on his consultation will close.

I’ve seen the Bees Minister’s plan for bees and it’s a good start. But to truly reverse bee decline I think it needs to be much better. Almost 20,000 people have already signed the petition for a Bee Action Plan that will do the job.

Will you join me and help make it 25,000 signatures?

It’s crunch time for bees. Please take a moment and add your name.

The bees are depending on you.

Best wishes,

Lucy & the Bee Cause team

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Honey From The Hive

Bee cake 2I’ve been wanting to read Sean Borodale’s book about bees since it came out a couple of years ago.  Finally this weekend a long train journey gave me the perfect opportunity.  Bee Journal (Cape 2012) won that year’s T.S.Eliot Prize and various people had talked glowingly of it to me.  I’d also heard other, less complimentary, reports – certain readers quite vehement in their dislike.  I was fascinated by this polarization of opinion and wondered where I’d find myself on the spectrum.  It’s interesting to reflect what we bring to reading a new collection (particularly by a poet new to us) before we even open its pages – so much expectation and hype to negotiate.  On the back of the book Carol Ann Duffy declares Sean Borodale is ‘without doubt the most exciting new poet I have read since Alice Oswald.  His Bee Journal raises the bar for us all and announces a thrilling new voice in British poetry.’  Simon Armitage calls it ‘honey itself in poetic form, a sustained tour de force of language and thought.’  In my experience having your expectations raised too high is often dangerous – whether it be for a book, a film, play, exhibition, or even a garden.

s & R 2But I did want to like this book.  Back in the ‘80s, living the good life, we kept bees for a decade or so.  Looking it up in the journal we kept of those early years on the hill, I discovered we bought our first two WBC hives on 28th August 1981 for £60 (plus another tenner for various bits of equipment) from a Mr Jamieson in Corbridge. The management of several hives became part of our lives, a dish of delicious honey oozing out of the comb a standard fixture on our kitchen table.  Funny, now they’re grown, my two sons have no taste whatsoever for anything sweet. We also had a go at making our own foundation and candles fashioned out of the honey-scented wax.  The hives were moved (rather perilously in the back of our van) up to the heather in the late summer months to give the honey that distinctive strong flavour.  Bee-keeping is messy, demanding and occasionally painful, but immensely rewarding.

The whole culture is ancient, romantic and deeply resonant.  Poets – from Virgil to Sylvia Plath to Carol Ann Duffy and Jo Shapcott – have always been drawn to writing about bees.  Recent environmental pressures resulting in the decline of the bee population has added a new frisson to the honeycomb of associations.  When, or if, all the bees die, it has been suggested we will only have four years left to survive ourselves.

swarm 2Sean Borodale presents this collection literally as a journal: the blurb claims he wrote it ‘at the hive wearing veil and gloves’, but, knowing how big and clumsy the gloves are and how much you have to think about with your head in a hive, I’m not so sure.  My first impression was of a dense, self-conscious use of language – a strange, ungainly mixture of poetic and technical vocabulary, straining for effect.  There’s a real sense of haste, of ‘notes towards’, a raw energetic awkwardness that is startling, unsettling.  It is not until the cycle of the second year that I was quite able to catch the voice and be drawn into its wild momentum.

It’s as if Borodale needed the first year to properly come to know the working of the hive and locate the language to match it.  He can then evoke a feeling of intimacy and connection – and real jeopardy in the responsibility for caring for his colony.  A recurring image is of the hive as a ‘mind’, a collective consciousness.  He’s also intrigued by the different sounds emitted by the bees, their music and what the changes of tone communicate.

B 2By the second July, after the earlier intoxication at the novelty of the venture, a darkness starts to filter in.  There is anxiety, danger, intimations of ‘theft’ in taking the honey from the hive.  I enjoyed this shift in mood and texture and could identify with the highs and lows of the beekeeper, the mirror of his own mind. Tempered by a new vulnerability and humility, the writing reveals itself as brave and original, fuelled by an almost feral abandon, that to my ear sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.  Alice Oswald is right when she says these are ‘pre-poems, note-poems’: ‘a kind of uncut home-movie of bees.’

She likes its ‘oddness and hurriedness, its way of catching the world exactly as it happens in the split-second before it sets into poetry.’ I occasionally found it irritating –  tending to the self-dramatising, intoxicated with itself, trying to communicate more ‘beeness’ than the language or form can hold.  I wondered if it might work better as a film (Borodale’s usual area of operation) – a more ephemeral form; the diary structure possibly asking for more factual documentary treatment than poetry inherently permits.

Running alongside my questions about the poems, I cared deeply about the bees and was as devastated as Borodale himself when the verroa mite is discovered in his hives.  On 24th/25th January there is no poem just empty white space below the stark heading ‘BEES DIE’.  His portrait of the dead queen is wonderful – a careful sketch, infused with wonder and loss.

Veins in her wings are a rootwork of rivers,
all echo and interlace.  This is interface, compound eye.
I look at the slope of her head, the moth’s proboscis;
her thin tongue piercing is pink as cut flesh, flash glass.
 
From 10th FEBRUARY: QUEEN

Bee cakeSix months later a nearby swarm offers itself for capture and Borodale is convinced these bees are related to a previous swarm from his own hive.  He collects them to form the nucleus of a new colony and the cycle can begin again.  Towards the end he writes this line:

You are not fully ordinary, bees.

I felt the same about his poems – not fully ordinary, perhaps because not fully formed. But their risk and dash stretches what we think of as poetry, broadens our expectations.  Don’t we read poetry for different reasons at different times?  I read this more like I might read prose – for the ‘story’: information, drama and nostalgia.  It left me with a longing to dip a spoon into a pot of honey and let the taste of it on my tongue take me back to a hilltop in the Tyne Valley.

To be honest, this is dark stuff; mud, tang
of bitter battery-tasting honey.  The woods are in it.
 

Much work, one bee, ten thousand flowers a day
to make three teaspoons-worth of this
   disconcerting
   solid broth
of forest flora full of fox.  Immune to wood shade now.
 
From 12th NOVEMBER: WINTER HONEY

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The pictures are from some old albums: In black and white, capturing a swarm in an ancient skep and then directing them into an empty hive; Simon and Rufus all suited up and ready to smoke the hives for inspection; our own little B – veiled; Cake in honour of his 6th birthday – 25 years ago.

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Under Glass

photoVery good yesterday to be back in Durham again – a perfect sort of Monday.  It was a bit chilly in the Botanic Garden so I took refuge in the glasshouses with the orchids and insects.

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One of the tarantulas was looking very strokable, almost cuddly – safely behind glass.

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I’d gone down to hear Philip Ball’s lecture on the Cultural History of Invisibility – The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen, which was fascinating – and not unconnected with the notions of camouflage and disguise I’d been pondering looking at the stick insects.  His line was basically that the Invisible has always been a metaphor for the Unknown, Otherness – and freighted with issues of moral responsibility.

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How many can you spot among the brambles, their favoured food?  My research tells me that stick insects reproduce by parthenogenesis.  Many species consist only of females.  One of their defence mechanisms is thanatosis – playing dead.    In North America they call them walking sticks, which is strange as, being nocturnal, it’s rare to see them move at all; so playing dead is hardly difficult.  Who knew a stick could be so clever and interesting?  But definitely not cuddly.

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In And Out Of The Woods

IMG_7405As yesterday was the anniversary of my arrival in Sydney (for my stint at the Botanic Gardens in 2013), it seemed like the perfect day to receive an email from the folk at Plumwood Mountain (An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics) letting me know their first issue is now available online.

The poem of mine they have included considers the ants I met while I was in Australia.  I like the idea of them being called back home, to the forests where they belong.

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This week I’ve been enjoying listening to Germaine Greer read from her new book White Beech: The Rainforest Years, about her conservation efforts on 60 hectares of an old dairy farm in south eastern Queensland.  It’s a great venture and her narrative is teeming with powerful evocations of the plant, bird and insect life at Cave Creek in the Numinbah Valley.  As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says in The Independent, ‘It really is some story’, written by a woman who is ‘a force of nature and among its most erudite defenders’.

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Closer to home, several of the trees in our woods were perilously near to crashing down in last autumn’s storms so they’ve had to be felled.  They’re such enormous trees, fir and spruce, that their shift from vertical to horizontal makes the space out there feel quite different.  It’s as if something’s been erased, a stretch of time lost.  But I’m sure the ants will be very happy.

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‘How long does it take to make the woods?’

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

What is the way to the woods, how do you get there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness and joy, by passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the straight way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.

Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
Wendell Berry
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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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Buttercup

I spent most of this afternoon looking at a buttercup.  An exercise in Goethe’s system of observation, I was testing my powers of perception and a wayward creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) on the edge of my lawn was a convenient subject.  I liked the idea of giving such an easily overlooked flower so much attention.  Although I did have a rival – an elegant bronze fly feeding on its pollen.  The process is that you look closely, paying attention to every single detail of the plant’s structure, its colour, habit and ‘feel’ – much in the way that a botanical illustrator might in order to be able to make an accurate representation.

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As if part of me knew that it wasn’t a plant to touch or taste, I discovered when I looked it up later that the highly acrid buttercup is poisonous to cattle and can cause blisters in humans.  Beggars used to rub them on their skin to induce sores and elicit sympathy.  An old cure for lunacy was to hang buttercups in a bag round someone’s neck (probably a poet’s).  Its original name was butterflower or crowfoot. You can see from the photo that some creature wasn’t put off by the flavour…

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Observing the buttercup so closely, in sunshine and under cloud, I hope I was able to enter into an intimate understanding with it and come to know what Goethe called its ‘archetype’ – a process not unlike the way I tend to approach writing a poem about a flower.  Unsurprisingly, what was suggested was a child-like quality, playful, radiant and very strong.  We used to hold a buttercup under each other’s chins to see if we liked butter.  I’m not sure children still do that, which seems a terrible pity.

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