Category Archives: plants

Digitalia

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Spending so much time in the 19thcentury lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about our relationship with time and history.  Not just because the present is so confounding, although that is undeniable. I’m struck by how little we seem to have learned from the past, every day faced with so many instances of collective amnesia.

But context is all and we must keep re-visiting history, our own and our shared inheritance, to re-view it in the light of the present.  Only then can we orientate ourselves in the direction of the most helpful choices, for our own individual and the common good.  Frequent pauses are necessary.  Moving slowly also makes it easier to see what is really needed.  Change is subtle as well as cataclysmic.

The most powerful new element affecting the way we relate to the quotidian and the longer view is digital technology.  My very first emails were sent back home from Internet cafés in India while I was away for six months, travelling there and in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Sikkim, in 2001-2. When I got home, I bought my first mobile phone and gradually the way I (and the rest of the world) communicated changed.  Happy to admit my ambivalence to our current dependence on the digital, I’m still resisting acquiring a smartphone but have plenty of other portable gadgets to keep me connected and distracted.

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This is a SLOW introduction to letting everyone know that I have a new website (thanks to New Writing North and Creative Fuse’s recent DigiTransform programme).   At the same address as my old one, you can visit it here – and I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts you may have about it.  I now have the skills to update and amend it myself, something that wasn’t possible with my old site.

 

On another digital note, you might like to check out the Poem of the North, an exciting Northern Poetry Library initiative for Great Northumberland 2018.  It also does strange things to Time and Space, creating something new from the shared compass of the imagination.  My own contribution has just been added and you can learn more and watch it unfold here.

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So, after all that clicking and coding, I feel the need to go back, a long way back and see things from the perspective of one of our most ancient plants – Equisetum.  A living fossil, which once dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests, it is also known as horsetail, snake grass or puzzlegrass.

 

This poem by Joanna Boulter is worth spending some time with:

Horsetail

(Equisetum)

We live in droves.  Memory herds back

to a time before there were horses or pasture

 

when soil was hardly soil, inhospitable.

You ask why we still grow, abandoned here

 

after thirty million years,

left clinging out of our time

 

by brittle toeholds

to a past you can’t conceive of.

 

Our roots reach so deep

we can grow anywhere,

 

have done and will, in marshes or sand dunes.

We cannot be dug out.

 

Think of the silica spicules

that scaffold our stems –

 

part organic, part inorganic

things could have gone either way

 

for us, you could have been

the beached ones.

 

But we are still at the crossroads,

and you need us.

 

You need to think sometimes of sparse

harshness, of glassy grains without humus,

 

your world returning to that.

 

(from Collecting Stones, An Anthology of Poems and Stories inspired by Harehope Quarry, Vane Women Press, 2008)

 

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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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Happy New Year!

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Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944

 

New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

Issa

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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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Christmas Cactus

fullsizerenderWinifred Nicholson

Christmas Cactus, 1979

Oil on board, 46 x 56 cm

The world is white, deep snow, the sky is deep blue, the mountain Old Man Tindale is blinking sleepy eyes of silver blue white, and I would like to be a squirrel and sleep until my flowers come out from deep under the snow.

Winifred Nicholson

Letter to Ben Nicholson, Bankshead, late 1970s

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The Last Day

Saturday 30th July

Back in the Botanic Garden, and of course it looks lovelier than ever because I am saying goodbye. I find myself making my ritual walk round, trying to imprint the experience of it in my memory to revisit when I am back in England.

There are only two other visitors – a woman of about my age and what I presume is her granddaughter. She takes a photo of the smiling child in front of a fern in the glasshouse. One of the gardeners is sitting at a wrought iron table outside in the full afternoon sun reading the Saturday paper. I, on the other hand, quickly seek out the shade round the back by the rose garden – one of the whitewashed wooden benches, a soothing place to sit, despite the unavoidable whine of the traffic barely twenty metres beyond the cypresses marking the garden’s boundary.

You enter this garden through a small flower shop, potent with the scent of lilies – cut flowers arranged in vases, highly confected bouquets, that the Bulgarians seem to love, plants in pots, for indoors and outdoors, lots of different papers and ribbons for wrapping. It is the custom to take flowers when you’re visiting – and always an odd number; even numbers only associated with death.

A door opens onto what they call the Greek garden – a little vignette of village life, panoramas of the timeless classical landscape and some ancient jars and marble fragments alongside southern plants, including a venerable specimen of a ‘European olive’. Every time I see a plant on this trip with Europaeus in its name I feel a pang of anger and sadness, already nostalgic for the continent I feel part of, at home in.

After ‘Greece’, you enter Central and Southern America, the desert plants – cacti, succulents and palms. There’s also a small Tropical House with a constant fine mist fed by a flowing cascade and trough. Even though it’s still hot, the sight and sound of the water makes you feel cooler. They are generally good with fountains here, large and small, part of their Austro-Hungarian heritage, scattered all over the city, particularly in the parks and gardens.

Outside, pears are ripening above pots of purple basil. Since my first visit to the garden a month ago, various things have gone over. The lilies and day lilies that were so striking then have been replaced by dahlias and Japanese anemones. Though I think today the roses have truly come into their own, looking fuller and more beautiful than a fortnight ago. I’ve enjoyed this way our two countries are connected – through our national flower – despite all the differences between us, a sense of recognition and understanding, possibly thorny at times.

Another of the gardeners (in the uniform of green dungarees and yellow shirt) is giving this part of the garden a good soaking – everything desperately thirsty. During this month there’s been only one day (an evening really) of rain. Otherwise it’s been in the high 20s and low 30s centigrade day and night. I have acclimatised mostly but sleep is sometimes troubled by the heat (and the mosquitoes, who took two weeks to notice I was here but, crikey, when they did, made a proper meal of me…).

In the Rose Garden there’s a fragment of volcanic stone – an unusual flowing shape almost like a horse, legs hidden by the grass, as if it were swimming. I saw a lot more of this on the coast, often studded with lots of tiny fossils. It is used extensively in the hard landscaping at Balchik Palace and the Botanic Garden there. Bulgaria has very diverse geological formations – to match its biodiversity (and cultural diversity) generally. It’s the second most biologically diverse European country (after Spain) – a fact that many of the Bulgarians I speak to are unaware of. They shrug and look confused when I tell them, unfamiliar with feeling anything like pride for their native land.

Last week I was interviewed on the National Radio about my Residency here with the Next Page Foundation’s Literature and Translation House. When the presenter (also passionate about plants, which I have to say is rare) asked how I found the country and Sofia in particular, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer – along the lines of ‘unusual, exotic, contradictory, something Asiatic, something European and something else I can’t put my finger on…’ Afterwards however I was more interested in the simple fact of being asked; seeming to suggest Bulgarians are so unsure about their national identity, they need to hear it from someone else, an ‘outsider’. So many things here seem very aware of their own status as work in progress. Nothing is fixed, certain or reliable. I noticed something similar on my travels to gardens in Italy. Although this can at times be frustrating, there is a truthfulness in it. Everything is work in progress after all, isn’t it? Including us. Hence my difficulty pinning down any neat definition.

Walking through the city to the garden this morning, I was struck by the accidental wabi sabi aesthetic of the place. Wabi sabi is what the Japanese call the quality of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of life as manifest in the physical world, natural and man-made and the fruitful place where they meet. Unlike in Japan, in Bulgaria they don’t set out to create such an aesthetic, but it happens anyway. Their history – of many different invasions and changes of regime – has been absorbed into their world view and natural philosophy. There’s a strong sense of the ad hoc, ingenuity in the moment, informed by a deep acceptance (or maybe sometimes deep resignation) at the way things are.

Even though there’s a decadence to the appearance of things – architecture, streetscapes, even gardens – because of this outlook, there’s also an intense freshness, a childlike quality of innocence and openness. There is something consoling in this – a relief to let go of the whole goal-oriented, ‘grown-up’ perspective. And it also allows for the fact that if a thing (an idea, a poem, a garden) is never really finished then it can never really come to an end.

It’s only later I discover that Sofia’s motto is ‘Always growing, never ageing.’ I ask my friend Nadya (Radulova – one of the city’s best poets and translators) if some people might think it’s more accurate the other way round – ‘Always ageing, never growing’. But she is adamant neither are true, the city is always just itself, eluding any neat phrase or defining formula. The work in progress continues.

 

 

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Roundabout Garden

Sofia Botanical Garden is the only one I’ve visited (so far) that is practically located on a roundabout.  It’s hard to imagine – even when you’re actually there.  But of course the result is it’s very far from being an oasis, the constant heckle of traffic impossible to ignore.

However despite the whirlwind happening all around it, there is much to enjoy in this small but densely planted rectangle.  I’m slowly getting to know its quirks and shady corners. 

Slow is the word…even the gardeners go very slowly to be able to work in the burning heat.  Sometimes it’s cooler inside the glasshouses.  My poetry brain feels a bit like a battered coffee percolator on an old iron stove.

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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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Wild Teasel

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Dipsacus sylvestris

‘the wild and the manured Teasel – two different species’

Unknown

there is a fmall Moth about twice the size of the Euonymella, fpeckled with black, which finds its way into this formidable plant, and makes a comfortable and fecure domicilium of its fpinous head

                Flora Londiniensis, Vol II 1796

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