Category Archives: nature

Presence/Absence

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A group of us were intending to meet on Monday at the Burnlaw Centre in Northumberland for a Spring Equinox Renga – part of our cycle through the year since last Summer Solstice at Bywell.  In the light of everyone’s changed circumstances, I invited a wider group of people to write and share a few renga verses – single haiku-like three liners and two liners – as they tuned into Spring’s return over the weekend.

It was an experiment in connecting creatively across the new spaces between us and I didn’t know what would happen.

I felt very touched by all the verses people sent.  There was a real sense of presence across the distance.  Maybe not quite as much as if we were all in sitting in the Beautiful Room at Burnlaw together or on the benches round the fire pit in the field, with the curlews calling above our heads, but the form and focus of the renga held us all in a beautiful space of our own making – inside and out at the same time – at a safe distance – over the course of several days.

Several people mentioned that it was helpful at this strange time to open the senses to the world around them and be more aware of what was going on.  It’s something anyone can do.  Even just one verse a day works as a good gauge of your state of mind and a record of your activities, thoughts and feelings.  The renga we made in this way, it seems to me, is an important document of what this unprecedented time has been like for twelve people in the North of England, alone and together, this past weekend.

As often happens when we sit together for a renga, it was interesting to see ideas and phrases shared, overlapping.  I wanted to honour this very different context and way of working, as well as the sheer abundance of verses, and so created a new, longer than usual form, doubling the schema in a specular fashion – where the themes are mirrored around the silence between the two parts.  I wanted to suggest a sense of flow, back and forth, like a wave, from the various links and shifts, and occasional repeats.  I had to do a bit of cutting and stitching here and there to keep it supple, and as with traditional rengas not every verse I was sent appears.

Even remotely, a renga is greater than the sum of its parts, a strange alchemy occurs, sending out ripples of authentic connection.  I hope that in reading it, as much as in the writing, people might feel the warmth and clarity of being brought in touch – with ourselves and each other – across our physical distance.

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Landscape Without a Map

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Spring Equinox:

I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

frost bites land

slow to warm

 

beyond the garden hedge

the silence

of the empty playing field

 

some branches bear leaves

some are sticks against the sky

 

a lone runner, two dog walkers

woodpecker’s insistent tap

we move in a landscape without a map

 

a careful two metres apart

the neighbours share their stories

 

beneath the bay

melon seeds all taken by the mouse

green-petalled tulips

 

I stream old songs for comfort

            dance me to the end of love

 

close the curtains

light the candles

evening begins

 

how quiet the air is

as we count our breaths

 

not so much

for what they say

just their voices

 

pearly strands of frog spawn

in the tractor ruts

 

our hectic decadence

more evident

as the pause lengthens

 

the sun is shining

on apple buds

 

a shower of blessings

over and over

the curlew weeps her song

 

sheets spread and billow

sweetening in the open

 

the moon

waning

follows the train

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

show me the point where

before ends

and after begins

 

I sow pea seeds in the earth

imagine tendrils twining

 

 

II

listen for what remains

when everything we rely on

is gone

 

in the old orchard

a haze of honey

 

along the verges

blackthorn and celandine

plastic bags

 

behind the wallflowers

a saucepan lid moon

 

across the rough fell

of our hands

the call of a new corvid

 

doing nothing

takes such a long time

 

underneath this map

ancient tracks whisper

bid you tread and seek

 

dead wood alive with lichen

white, yellow, red

 

on the Sele a girl hurries by

shouting into her mobile

BASICALLY, IT’S A FUCKING NIGHTMARE

 

before we were sandpaper to each other

we were silk

 

on me your voice falls

as they say love should

(Bechet’s ‘Black and Blue’)

 

a bumble bee, heavy, dozy

bangs on the sunlit window

 

scent of silage and cow dung

as we pass Peepy Farm

all lowing and milking inside

 

we are living and dying

through history

 

it is the song thrush

at dusk

that unstops her tears

 

if this is the first unknown

why is everything the same?

 

there are breaks here and there

but still a place to sit and feel

the vibrations of your voice

 

Venus suspended – a gift

for Mothering Sunday

 

frosted air polishes my skin

I walk in the small waking hours

a hushed world

 

in the silence you hear sunlight

unfurling leaves in the hedges.

 

 

A 20/20 Distance/Presence Renga

conducted remotely over the Spring Equinox

20th– 23rd March 2020

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Deborah Buchan

Holly Clay

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Geoff Jackson

Liz Kirsopp

Lesley Mountain

Ruth Quinn

Alex Reed

Tim Rubidge

 

 

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February

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Without thinking too much about it beforehand, I decided on Shrove Tuesday to give up Instagram for Lent, along with a few other things.  I wanted a chance to practise restraint, hoping that freeing up some space might leave more room for things I’d rather prioritise.

I’m still keeping my ‘year renga’ but have appreciated the change in pace that not filtering it through social media seems to have brought.  Perhaps I’ll always be primarily a pencil and paper kind of writer, thinking at the speed of graphite.  But here is the next instalment in digital form – February’s verses to look back on as we enter March and whatever it might bring.

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February

 

hibernating tortoiseshell

waking up too soon

 

for Imbolc

for Brigid

endings and beginnings

 

to explain grace requires

            a curious hand                                                                        (Marianne Moore)

 

in late light

pruning the apple tree

figuring it out as we go

 

fractal mosaic

of a dragonfly’s wing

 

in this dream

we are all at once hero

and enemy and saviour

 

flock of redwings

a shook tablecloth

 

life never speaks simply

it shows itself in its flower

it hides itself in its roots                                                                    (Luce Irigaray)

 

writing in my hut

calling itself Atlas

 

storm moon and hailstones

I warm myself

at your fire

 

the year’s first snow

settles on the trees’ north

 

in the city

a few hours of spring

petals peel back

 

in the market

for tomorrows

 

do not stand

in a place of danger

trusting in miracles                                                                             (Moroccan proverb)

 

curled against the world

a small white ibis

 

my driver knows

hardly any English but says

‘We need more water’

 

the charcoal seller

in his infernal cave

 

a city lost

between its past

and its future

 

the best thing about going away

is coming home

 

50 million years old

seedpod souvenir

from the flame tree                                                                           (Brachychiton acerifolius)

 

I admire his blackboard and chalk

keeping track of the bins

 

as if we were out at sea

the wind’s waves

gusting and toppling us

 

however far you walk

the road stretches on

 

I open the front door

onto a wall

of compacted snow

 

mandala of wood

atlas of the imperilled world

 

a dead man’s tattoos –

fail we may

sail we must                                                                                       (RIP Andrew Weatherall)

 

dressed in ceremonial kimonos

they look back from the future

 

how to translate

all these words

into acts of love?

 

alone and walking

against the weather

 

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Writing the Climate

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Last week my new post as Climate Writer with New Writing North and Newcastle University was officially announced and I have been very touched by all the warm messages and gestures of encouragement and support I’ve received.  I am often taken by surprise to be reminded of the invisible strands of connection between us when it looks like nothing is happening.  Living in a culture of appearances casts mists over all our eyes.

It seems to me one of the difficulties of tackling Climate Change (both in the world and on the page) arises because here in the UK we can’t properly see it.  Those people badly affected by the floods of recent years have had to shift into survival mode, without the luxury of any distance to consider the influence and implications of Climate Change on their wrecked homes and lost and ruined possessions.  [Clare Shaw’s Flood (Bloodaxe 2018) is a powerful book of poems on the subject of floods in the world and floods in the psyche. See also Brian and Mary Talbot’s fascinating graphic novel Rain (Cape 2019).]  If we can’t see a thing (or hear, touch, smell or taste it), it’s hard to know what we’re faced with and how to respond.  Because we can’t quite pin it down, the words for it elude us and because the words elude us, we can’t quite pin it down.  A vicious circle.

The fact that Climate Change is being ignored by governments capable of introducing new initiatives and renewable systems, that already exist, in order to address our runaway carbon emissions adds to the sense of unreality.  Climate Change can feel like a collective dream, the way Cocteau thought of cinema.  Like a dream, the meaning is hard to interpret – things aren’t what they seem, there are many layers, characters and objects often symbolic rather than actual. There are those who say that everyone in a dream is some aspect of ourselves.  And so it is with Climate Change – we are each (and together) the protagonist of this story, and we are also the antagonist, our own worst enemy.  It’s no good waiting to be rescued for we are our own saviours too.  This hall of mirrors makes the subject even more tricky to write about.  The language itself is not designed to cross the subject-object divide, let alone accommodate the disruption of verb tense to triangulate time and allow past, present and future to co-exist.

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These are some of the first principles – the origin myth of Climate Change, if you like – I’ve been trying to get back to in these initial weeks of acclimatisation.  My head a little dizzy with all the reading and thinking and puzzling, I’ve felt a bit like Sisyphus doomed to keep rolling an enormous rock up a hill over and over again when it’s always tumbling back down.  In an effort to create some physical boundaries and foundations for my work, and a sense of progress, I’ve created a dedicated space in my little hut some friends kindly passed on to me a few years ago.  Always declared an academia-free zone and my very own medicine hut, I used it to regather and recharge while I was working on my PhD.  Now it can come into its own to accommodate (literally) my musings on the elusive, unwieldly subject of Climate Change.  As if it always knew this was going to be its purpose in life, its manufacturer’s mark has gained new significance.  I’m hoping my hut will carry the weight of this work so I don’t need to.  Better Atlas than Sisyphus.

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Apart from establishing a conducive physical space, I’ve also been experimenting with a virtual container for my process.  Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with digital platforms and the only social media space I feel remotely comfortable in is Instagram.  I appreciate the focus on visual images and lack of clutter, its capacity to connect and inform.  Since the beginning of the year I have been posting daily images and short texts arising from an awareness of the natural world and climate issues.  The form I am following is an adaptation of the ‘year renga’ I used (in a notebook, privately, never intended for publication) that ended up becoming book of days (Smokestack 2009).  Renga is an old Japanese collaborative form I’ve been working with for the past two decades, alongside others and alone.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this but as a daily practice it keeps the subject at the front of my mind and every day is another door, a chance to refocus and begin again.  Which is perhaps another first principle for tackling Climate Change, living with it and writing about it.

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Here are my renga verses for January.  You can see the images on IG @lindafrancebooksandplants (also via my website).  You can also read more about my post on the New Writing North website.

January

Weather forecast –

new * things *

under * the * sun

 

black coal and butterfly wings

both out of their element

 

bearded lichen

knows where time lives

and grows there

 

less knowledge

more attention

 

using my car

as a salt lick, the sheep

make a monograph

 

high water

Leith

 

raindrops on the windowpane –

the lamp stays lit

all day

 

January’s muses

Beauty, Prudence and Folly

 

five hundred years old

the Spanish chestnut tree

still bearing fruit

 

of earthly joy

            thou art my choice

 

keepsake –

something hidden

inside something else

 

clouds and crocodiles

a three-umbrella day

 

before we leave:

peace

to this place

 

crossing the border

windmills! windmills! windmills!

 

white pencil points

of snowdrops

about to write their name

 

the room is full

of all the lost creatures

 

on the windowsill

a bowl

of borrowed time

 

I resort to poetry

            like I resort to tears

 

four of us

not quite on top of the world

but nearly

 

walking into

the wind’s sighs

 

the unknown becomes known

the outcasts come inside

the strange becomes ordinary

 

our molehills

are mountains

 

we need new words

for what we don’t know

honest and kind

 

invisible birds singing

dusksongs in the birches

 

year of the rat

new moon – second chance

at starting over

 

Sunday morning

a tangle of light and dark

 

in the corner of the room

a shopping trolley

a very British rebellion

 

her black cat called Maya

watches my every move

 

a head-scratching sort of day –

out among other people’s voices

to hear my own better

 

my car still proud

to be European

 

one day gone missing –

next month

come find me

 

 

One of the things I want to do with this work is to connect with others and find ways for writers to come together and discover what they might be able to do to help find the words we need to see our way into what this time is asking of us.  So please do chip in here with comments, suggestions and anything at all you think I should be looking at.  The post is only part-time but I’m keen to cover as much ground as possible over the year.

Many thanks.

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A Hundred Years of Pangolin

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1911

These animals, which might be taken for reptiles rather than mammals,

are found in the warmer parts of Asia and throughout Africa.

Pangolins range from 1 to 3 ft. in length, exclusive of the tail,

which may be much shorter than or nearly twice the length of the rest of the animal.

Their legs are short, so that the body is only a few inches off the ground; the ears

are very small; and the tongue is long and worm-like, and used to capture ants.

Their most striking character, however, is the coat of broad overlapping horny scales,

which cover the whole animal, with the exception of the undersurface of the body,

and in some species, the lower part of the tip of the tail.

Besides the scales, there are generally, especially in the Indian species,

a number of isolated hairs, which grow between the scales, and are scattered

over the soft and flexible skin of the belly.

There are five toes on each foot, the claws on the first toe rudimentary,

but the others, especially the third of the forefoot, long, curved, and laterally compressed.

In walking, the fore-claws are turned backwards and inwards, so that the weight

of the animal rests on the back and outer surfaces, and the points

are thus kept from becoming blunted.

The skull is long, smooth and rounded, with imperfect zygomatic arches,

no teeth of any sort, and, as in other ant-eating mammals, with the bony palate

extending unusually far backwards towards the throat.

The lower jaw consists of a pair of thin rod-like bones, welded to each other at the chin,

and rather loosely attached to the skull by a joint which, instead of being horizontal,

is tilted up at an angle of 45°, the outwardly-twisted condyles articulating

with the inner surfaces of the long glenoid processes

in a manner unique among mammals.

 

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1936

Another armored animal – scale

lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity until they

form the uninterrupted central

tail-row! This near artichoke with head and legs and grit-equipped gizzard,

the night miniature artist engineer is,

yes, Leonardo da Vinci’s replica –

impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear.

Armor seems extra. But for him,

the closing ear-ridge –

or bare ear lacking even this small

eminence and similarly safe

 

contracting nose and eye apertures

impenetrably closable, are not; a true ant-eater,

not cockroach eater, who endures

exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night,

returning before sunrise, stepping in the moonlight,

on the moonlight peculiarly, that the outside

edges of his hands may bear the weight and save the claws

for digging. Serpentined about

the tree, he draws

away from danger unpugnaciously,

with no sound but a harmless hiss; keeping

 

the fragile grace of the Thomas-

of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine, or

rolls himself into a ball that has

power to defy all effort to unroll it; strongly intailed, neat

head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in-feet.

Nevertheless he has sting-proof scales; and nest

of rocks closed with earth from inside, which can thus darken.

Pangolin_scale_burn_in_Cameroon._Credit-_Kenneth_Cameron_-_USFWS_(2)_(32575640450)

 

2017

The true scale of the slaughter of pangolins in Africa has been revealed

by new research showing that millions of the scaly mammals are being hunted and killed.

Pangolins were already known to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammal,

with at least a million being traded in the last decade to supply the demand

for its meat and scales in Asian markets.

Populations of Asian pangolins have been decimated,

leaving the creatures highly endangered

and sharply shifting the focus of exploitation to Africa’s four species.

 

Pangolins are secretive, nocturnal and some species live in trees,

making them very hard to count and the total size of the populations in Africa is unknown. But the new analysis, based on data collected by hundreds of local researchers

at scores of hunting sites and bushmeat markets across central and west Africa,

found up to 2.7m are being killed every year,

with the most conservative estimate being 400,000 a year.

 

Pangolins curl up into a scaly ball when threatened, which defeats natural predators

like lions but is no defence against human hunters.

The researchers found half the animals had been snared or trapped,

despite wire snares being illegal in most of the 14 central African nations

analysed in the research.

 

Almost half of the pangolins killed were juveniles,

an indicator that the populations are being dangerously overexploited

as animals are being caught before they can reproduce.

This is particularly harmful as pangolins are slow breeding

and produce only a single pup every year or two.

 

 

 

 

Extracts from Encyclopedia Britannica 1911, Marianne Moore’s The Pangolin and Other Verse 1936 (layout with indents unfortunately lost in translation) and The Guardian 2017.  Wiki Commons images.

 

World Pangolin Day 15th February 2020

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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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Knowing Our Place

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I had no idea that the Barbican had a Conservatory  – or a Library until a few weeks ago when I found myself there, reading at a launch of Issue 18 of Long Poem Magazine.  It was a friendly affair, surprising and happily sprawling like the unsung long poems and sequences the magazine does a wonderful job in drawing attention to.  We were tucked away in the Music Section, a niche of hidden delights.

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I particularly enjoyed hearing Katharine Pierpoint read her poem Camelopard, trying (and succeeding) to catch the giraffeness of the giraffe and Anna Reckin’s graceful evocation of various emanations of Jade.  Also Alex Bell’s epistolary Dearest, lurking in the shadows of Victoriana, as did my own contribution – A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place.

When I was younger and a touch adrift I often read self-help books to check my bearings.  Most of them have migrated from my shelves now (apart from a few classics like Dorothy Rowe on depression and Buddhist angles on anxiety) but I was interested to trace a clear line of connection between those and the beginnings of the genre in the 19th century.

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A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place is part of new work I’m writing for my PhD, an overture to a book-length piece.  If you’re interested in reading it and other longer poems and sequences, I’d point you in the direction of Long Poem Magazine, edited with passion and insight by Linda Black and Rose Hamilton.

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Etiquette books also fascinate me.  It’s hard not to be braced by their arbitrary sharpness, like eating a particularly arcane olive.  Possibly after a long soak in a dirty martini.  Some Russian visitors I had once called that sort of snifter a ‘walking stick’, to be taken before leaving the house for any reason.  And in the right quantity (although this is hard to gauge) it can rinse the senses wonderfully.  Isn’t that what we want reading a poem to feel like?  To ‘take reality by surprise’, in Francoise Sagan’s phrase.

And so back to music (always)…My senses didn’t know what had hit them watching and listening to Ukrainian ensemble Dhaka Brakha perform at the Sage last week.   And it was a performance, highly choreographed and styled with stunning costumes riffing on traditional styles, as did the music that playfully transforms folk songs from their beleaguered motherland into something almost miraculous.  I was transported, utterly enchanted, and continue to be so listening to their latest CD the road.  Dhaka Brakha ‘know their place’ and invite us to spend some time there.  Foolish to refuse.

Down in London, I can sometimes feel like a bit of a country cousin.  Walking from the Tube station to the Barbican, I was very excited to see a plant breaking up the clean lines of the long tunnel of the Bridgewater Highwalk.  It wasn’t going to be told where it could grow and where it couldn’t, what freedom means.

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Knowing our place is no easy matter – fierce, transgressive, and extremely quiet, it must take the risk of being there, doing it for ourselves.

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Installing ‘Compass’

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Despite the rain, it was good to be up at Cheeseburn today helping install our sound piece, ‘Compass’.  Hearing it for the first time in the place it was created in and for was immensely satisfying.  The Formal Garden (above) is where the Dawn Chorus happens (and where we heard it in the Spring), coming from four concealed speakers arranged around the central space.  Hard to tell what’s ‘real’ and what’s not.

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Outside the Potting Shed, an ancient sundial of unknown provenance (possibly Scottish?) was an early inspiration for the 4 x 4 concept of the piece.

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Inside the Potting Shed are some of Paul Scott’s beautiful ceramic ‘cuttings’ in old Cheeseburn pots.  For sale over the weekend.  I’m very very tempted…

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Over a year’s work for three days – like a plant that only blooms once in its lifetime or an exotic insect’s short span on the wing – even more precious for being ephemeral – like the sounds themselves.

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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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