In the end, non-hierarchical, the earth speaks beseechingly and her listening, although accidental, is hearing – a quality like hot or cold, incontrovertible – sensation first, then words – spoken intimately, as if directly to the ear.
A list of instructions: create the future, cultivate morality, responsibility, presence. A list for more listening: time is just so – hear time differently, breathe in through the ears and out into necessary emptiness, listen for what is asked.
The recurring background sound of darkness – the same silence where presence lives, always broken by the perfectly imperfect, changes in the weather. An inkling not to be detached – exchange shoes – reassemble what has been broken, made separate.
Her slow cadences – listening as lament – tell how much has been shattered and yet her breath doesn’t forget, pays attention, keeps on putting itself back together again, ourselves and the good earth – before going home to silence, the beginning of things.
After Jorie Graham’s ‘Poem’ in Runaway (Carcanet 2020)
I used to live on the edge of woodland but now I live in the middle of agricultural land, pasture for sheep, sometimes cattle, and increasingly used by pheasant shooters. A little house not on the prairie, but a wind-blasted field. An ideal spot for a poet, who needs solitude and spaciousness to think and write. It is by both accident and design that the trees have disappeared: a wholesale felling in 2018, that felt like an invasion of absence, an amputation; and successive storm damage, particularly evident ever since Storm Desmond in 2015/16 and, at the end of 2021, Arwen’s devastation, which left me, like many others, without power or water for seven days.
Fortunately, there are still trees marking the garden’s loose, uncertain perimeter – holly, yew, rowan, laburnum, cypress, birch. I couldn’t live here without them. They are my companions, kinfolk, fellow conspirators in the arts of living on a damaged planet. Their assembled company softens the sense of bare exposure and the force of the wind. They also act as its instruments, roaring like the sea on more days than not, a leafy ocean, audible on the other side of my thick stone walls. The chimney is the wind’s chanter, funnelling great breaths into the room where I sit and listen, half-listen, try not to listen. It sounds like sobbing, the heave and fall of someone’s heart breaking. I pretend it isn’t mine.
Who am I kidding? Why would I rather not admit it? This pain and loss that shakes the ground under my feet and slams doors shut, always a cold draught at the back of my neck. It’s hard to find the words, stand upright, walk around with all that grief inside.
On this high ground where I live we have lost many trees since Arwen and Malik – conifers, hardwoods, immature and venerable. Their limbs have been torn off, root plates up-ended, forced out of the soil by the trees’ crashing descent. All the roadsides and hedgerows are scattered with their broken branches. On my daily walks I bring some home for firewood, carrying them in my arms like a loved one I must prepare for consignment to the flames.
And it’s not only single trees that have left an empty space behind them – although I’ll sorely miss the Scots pine behind my house and the two enormous oaks I’d pass by the farm gate – the whole landscape is affected: the old horizons, contours and pathways, their special character, the habitat for wildlife, the shelter they provide. It’ll take many years before we regain a sense of lushness and canopy and can experience the benefits of the mature trees’ capacity for carbon capture, the development of their complex interspecies relationships, above and below ground. In mourning for the trees, we also mourn for the loss of everything in the trees’ ecosystem – which is our own. Whenever we lose anything or anyone, we lose part of ourselves.
Imbolc or Candlemas is associated with the slow stirrings, still mostly beneath the ground, of Spring. It’ll stay cold, and probably get even colder, until we reach the Equinox later in March. Some days it requires a leap of the imagination to believe in sap rising and the earth greening. This ancient fire festival has always been a pivot point between life and death – a tender and powerful threshold between the fierce Cailleach and sweet Brigid, mother Demeter and daughter Persephone.
Our tears show we care, that we suffer with the world. We water the earth with our tears and, beyond the scope of our understanding, it will do what it will in its own good time. This Imbolc, it is raining here and the sky is heavy and full while we collect our seeds, actual and intentional, and prepare for sowing. What will you plant?
As we give our attention to the old-growth forest and the beloved backyard shade tree, we recognise that paying attention to trees is only the beginning. Attention generates wonder, which generates more attention and more joy. Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgement of pain. Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine. Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond. To be responsible. This, too, is a gift, for when we fall in love with the living world, we cannot be bystanders to its destruction. Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Foreword to Old Growth (The best writing about trees from Orion magazine), 2021
‘I think as an ecologist. But I feel as a member of a great family – one that includes the elephant and the wheat stalk as well as the schoolteacher and the industrialist. This is not a mental condition, but a spiritual condition. Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world. Now, of course, in the hives and dungeons of the cities, poetry cannot console, it carries no weight, for the pact between the natural world and the individual has been broken. There is no more working for harvest – only hunting, for profit. Lives are no longer exercises in pleasure and valor, but only the means to the amassment of worldly goods. If poetry is ever to become meaningful to such persons, they must take the first step – away from their materially bound and self-interested lives, toward the trees, and the waterfall. It is not poetry’s fault that it has so small an audience, so little effect upon the frightened, money-loving world. Poetry, after all, is not a miracle. It is an effort to formalize (ritualize) individual moments and the transcending effects of these moments into a music that all can use. It is the song of our species.’
A few wintry verses from this past year’s renga
Gwen carries her own placard
I don’t want to live
on a spaceship
what you give the forest
the forest gives you back
I plant eight buddleia
hoping for a summer
astonished by butterflies
defrosting the freezer
is today’s weather
all the little suns
on my glasses
more a question
of when not if
written in snow
and the planet’s on fire
wily coyote legs
a raw stillness
in the house
on the short day’s back
the long night
trailer load of logs –
alder, Matt says,
this will end
this will carry on
[Quotations from Eugenio Montale, Laurie Anderson, Moshe Feldenkrais, Octavia Butler, Henrik Blind.]
Ecological awareness consists of infinite ongoing strands. These include close looking, close listening, close touching, close smelling, close tasting – close sensing between and beyond all the conventional senses familiar to human bodies. Close might also be slow or deep.
Ecological awareness is an art, a creative act, a commitment to being alive, and therefore dynamic, transformative.
Walk outdoors and after half an hour point to the place where you end and the weather begins.
Nowhere are any of us alone, nowhere are we not part of the biosphere, or abandoned by the imagination.
In our climate, why would you not begin each day checking your own internal weather and preparing for what the coming hours might bring?
What we call Nature is a fiction, a wild and muddy one that won’t stay flat or still. It will not be contained on a neatly labelled shelf in the bookshop.
Left to the wind, the dried pods of honesty (Lunaria annua) shed their skins and spread their seeds before glowing with the light of many moons, true to their word. Bring the night sky indoors to remember the year’s passing.
Being in Nature suggests you were sometime out of it, perhaps in that mythical place Away.
Not looking at the clock involves not looking at your phone, your computer, all those other contrivances that divide your attention and devour your time.
The art of ecological awareness asks you to let there be a space between things and sensing and language – and to choose to live in that space.
A day without a tree in it is no day at all.
Whitman asks you to come, speak; says if you are large, if you contain multitudes, you will contradict yourself: will you prove already too late?
The space outside our walls is ready to give us what we have been waiting for; whatever time of day or night, a special kind of light.
Thinking with Timothy Morton and Ian Hamilton Finlay.
My longtime collaborator Birtley Aris and I are delighted to have finished work on a new publication Dwelling Place, set at the National Trust site Allen Banks in Northumberland. It features four poems and pen and ink drawings prompted by work I did for my PhD looking at Susan Davidson, a Victorian descendant of the Bowes Lyon family, who landscaped the grounds of Ridley Hall where she lived after her marriage to John Davidson, extending into the gorge and woodland at Allen Banks after his death in 1842. As part of her vision, she created the tarn in Moralee Wood, bridges across the river, a network of footpaths and various summerhouses across her estate. The Cedar Hut above Raven’s Crag on the cover is a modern reconstruction of one of these.
All of the poems in Dwelling Place are sparked by ideas of home and belonging, what we do to create spaces of shelter and sanctuary. Birtley and I started work on it long before the pandemic but it seems to have accrued new layers of meaning in the light of this past year.
As we can’t launch the pamphlet in real life, we’re offering it here for sale at £8 (£10 including p + p). Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity to gather together for a reading in Hexham and Newcastle at some point next year. There are many things I’m missing at the moment but poetry events are among the top of my list.
Taking stock of The Bookshop under the Bed, there are also some copies of other pamphlets and books – some quite old and rare – that I can also send in the post for anyone who’s interested or looking for an unusual Christmas present. The best thing, if you’d like any of these or Dwelling Place (or want to enquire about any other of my books), would be to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, send me your postal address and we can sort out how you’d like to pay.
Acts of Love (Echo Room Press, 1990)
Aerogramme (Talking Pen, 2004)
Heartwork (Playspace Publications 2012)
Through the Garden Gate (NCLA 2011)
Border Song (Hareshaw Press, 2012)
another wild (Hareshaw Press, 2014)
All of the above are £6 each (+ £2 UK p+p) or any 3 copies for £20 (inclusive of UK p+p). I can look into international postage costs, if necessary.
I have unearthed one remaining copy of Acknowledged Land (Northumberland County Libraries, 1993) – an early collaboration with Birtley Aris, now extremely rare and much sought after – and am happy to consider offers.
I am offering these books as part of the Artist Support Pledge, where if I make £1000 (unlikely I know, but these are unprecedented straitened times…), I pledge to buy another artist’s work for £200.
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.
It’s not easy being a flaneuse in Amman – the city’s built on a series of hills and steep valleys. Dusty red limestone is never far away and pavements are consistently unreliable – often not there at all, and if so, broken and disconcertingly high, planted with trees right down the middle. The dry heat and constant traffic adds to travelling by foot’s lack of appeal. But after four days here, getting around by car, I feel the need to know where I am from the ground up, so this morning the air’s a little cooler and I venture out for a gentle stroll round the neighbourhood where I’m staying.
It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when no one else is out walking. Taxis keep tooting at me – a signal they’re available. I try looking both nonchalant and purposeful but probably just appear more and more strange as I keep stopping to inspect plants growing in the front gardens and along the roadside. While I’m photographing a mat of tiny red daisies creeping beneath a decapitated palm, a man who looks like he might be a gardener comes to see what I’m doing. He talks away to me in Arabic and I talk back at him in English, asking questions about the flowers of course he can’t answer. After a while, we part with smiles and nods, making peace with our mutual incomprehension.
Not far down Uhod Street the land to the west falls away and right there in the heart of this densely populated suburb I can see a flock of sheep – brown-wooled, semi-somnolent and fat – although it’s not clear what they might find to eat with not a blade of grass in sight. They really couldn’t be any more different from the sheep I see every day back on Stagshaw Fair – making me feel closer to home and impossibly distant at the same time. An encampment of cardboard shacks is perhaps where the shepherds live – urban bedouins. Another sort of flock – of construction workers – are perched on one of the many half-finished or abandoned buildings, clambering over great blocks of concrete, sprouting rusty iron rods, without the aid of scaffolding. ‘Luxury Homes’ says the sign.
Pretty flowers spill out from the railings of those luxury homes that are finished – plumbago, jasmine, bougainvillea. Hollyhocks, native here, have seeded themselves beneath olive trees and telegraph poles. Some of the grander houses have topiaried cypresses dissecting their stretch of pavement. The ‘pavement’, private rather than public space, speaks in many languages.
On the rougher patches of ground between housing lots the involucrate carline thistle and other prickly plants I’ve still to identify are well-adapted to take their chances with the rubbish, cigarette butts and random building materials. My feet get dustier and dustier and the coolness quickly dissipates giving way to more familiar relentless heat. Even though this part of Amman, Tla Al Ali, is one of the highest spots in the city (nearly 1000 metres – the same altitude as Scafell Pike) only the occasional breeze relieves the weight of the sunlight so close to the land here.
Over the course of an hour, I pass only one other person on foot – a man carrying a yoke on his shoulders strung with clusters of shocking pink candyfloss bagged in plastic. Later, back in my room, I hear him blowing a whistle like the Pied Piper to announce his presence and tempt the children. Today, Saturday, is the equivalent of our Sunday – the weekend, traditional family time, after Friday afternoon prayers. I lean over my balcony watching him climb the hill again with his vivid featherlight load, still whistling, but no one comes to buy. High as a bird, my arms are cooled by the smooth red-veined limestone beneath them. I have landed at last in this wondrous city of many layers.
I am staying in Amman as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North (co-founder), the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) (co-founder), St Mary’s College, Durham University (co-founder) and Dr Fadia Faqir (initiator and co-founder) and the British Council.
There’ll also be posts on the Durham Book Festival blog and an event with my fellow Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm. See Durham Book Festival website for booking details.