On the fourth floor of the National Museum
of Natural History, leaves and stems and dried
flower heads of native plants are arranged with pins,
coded and labelled, on painted boards – Verbena
officinalis, Adonis vernalis. Some
are as old as I am, all colour drained out of them
as they dessicate and curl. But there is beauty
in their withering, as if these were the bones
of Bulgaria’s flowers, their skeletons. Inside
their glass cases, they tell of loss – and what heals,
what’s worth preserving. Many I recognise, stirred by
a ghost of blue or an elegant thorn, old friends –
Centaurea cyanus, our cornflower,
and Leonurus cardiaca, motherwort.
Frosted panes diffuse the brunt of the sun. Silence
plays across the chessboard floor. Other visitors
prefer the drama downstairs of bats and bears,
tigers and eagles, in stricken poses stilled
according to a taxidermist’s whim. Pilgrim
here, I’m more moved by this room of flowers than
the Russian church next door, for all the almond-eyed saints
blessing its walls. I’ve come to ask not for my own soul
to be saved but these tissue refugees, precious
plants – their natural physick, an esperanto
of seed, rib, heart and vein – Laburnum vulgare,
Carlina acanthifolia. Hear my confession,
my sins: irredeemable gravity, this passion
for what can’t be bought or sold, a faith in silence.
Another display, devoted to mountain plants,
shows four Vitosha tulips clinging to what’s left
of their green and gold. A recent addition – faint
sign someone still thinks they’re worth saving: more
hope in a speck of pollen than our whole poisoned
anthropocene world. Trollius europaeus.
Today they can’t help looking like an epitaph.
As I leave, descend, all the creatures in the ark
follow me, eyes black with hunger, blame. Beneath
my feet, great cracks in the marble floor are spreading;
a deep fault that can only widen and slide right
open, taking us all down with it – animal,
vegetable and mineral, the country’s biggest
ammonite and its tiniest flake of stolen moon.
9th July 2016
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.
Just returned home from a wonderful trip to Glasgow where there seemed to be flowers everywhere we went…
at the Tramway’s beautiful hidden gardens
and the lovely Botanics
in Kibble Palace
to this – my new collection! Hooray! Spring is here!
Images from the wonderful Antarctica exhibition at Palace Green Library in Durham. The poem is by Dr Wilson who was part of Captain Scott’s last expedition.
Last year ended with my travels in Turkey, where one of the many highlights was a hot air balloon ride as the sun rose above the astonishingly beautiful valleys of Cappadocia.
Back in the North, the new year began as usual for me at Harnham Buddhist Monastery. Yesterday a group of us gathered there for one of our occasional renga sessions. In the chilly winter conservatory we saw the light fade as we worked our way through a new schema, with the additional rigour of conforming to the traditional 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllable count throughout. After five hours of finger-tapping and head-scratching, the odd spat of wrangling, we’d created this seasonal renga catching the year as it turns.
May 2016 be peaceful and fruitful for us all.
Your Origami Life
Hungry now, the jaws
of winter are snap-snapping –
the upstart year prey
a row of unruly ash
gesture to the rain-washed sky
jackdaws crowd the field
sodden silent monitors
a message in black
as if the moon were patched silk
shredded honesty, falling
across Bolam Lake
a raft of male goosander
white bodies, hooked beaks
you didn’t need to say it
but what a difference it made
will this be the year
she sorts through those old boxes
clears her path of dust?
we are all responsible
and me more than anyone
pruned raspberry canes
twigs, bits, dry in the greenhouse
ready for burning
so how many paper folds
in your origami life?
sways to wild weather
bullfinches chase their redness
through my thicket of slow thought
sweet, sharp, dangerous
licking honey off the knife –
well, that’s how it looked
the lilt of a saxophone
curling towards the ceiling
in the quiet morning
we pass windblown oak and pine
part sawn, cleared quickly
Forties, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher
storm force 12 rarely forecast
here in old tough grass
waiting for the miracle
of winter snowdrops
every day the sun climbing
higher above layered cloud.
A han-kasen renga
at Harnham Buddhist Monastery
on 2nd January 2016.
In Turkey I was very excited to see poinsettia growing wild – flowers the size of dinner plates, brash and beautiful, like their botanical name – Euphorbia pulcherrima.
Its English name derives from Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Minister to Mexico, who introduced the plant to the US in 1825. In Turkey they are known as Atatürk’s Flower, because Atatürk, the father of the modern republic (1881-1938), liked it and encouraged its cultivation in Turkey. There are many statues of Atatürk around the place, often with a bird or a child, accompanied by a plaque saying Peace at Home, Peace in the World in Turkish, English, German and Russian.
I arrived home to an article by Alys Fowler in the Guardian recounting the story of how poinsettia came to be associated with Christmas. In Mexico, where they are native, back in the sixteenth century, a poor girl called Pepita (or possibly Maria) couldn’t afford to buy a present for Jesus’s birthday. An angel told her to gather a bouquet of weeds to place on the altar of her church, where they transformed into the blood-red bracts so familiar to us today.
Once you’ve seen the poinsettia growing where it’s meant to, it looks too much like a caged bird in a centrally heated living room. To relieve our wall-to-wall grey, Alys Fowler advises a Christmas cactus instead because as well as being easier to keep alive after it’s bloomed, it also filters out pollutants in the air.
On this day, 742 years ago, at Konya Rumi died. Here in Turkey they call him Mevlana – ‘our teacher’ – and celebrate today as his ‘wedding day’, when he became one with God.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.