Category Archives: trees

2/2/22: Trees and Time

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

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Inside/Outside

Early last week I wrote an initial dispatch from Glasgow for New Writing North’s Climate Newsletter and you can read it here.  I’m trying to catch up with my impressions and experiences and will post instalments as and when I have time.  

The first three lines are a quotation from Thomas A. Clark’s work included in Dislocations:Territories, Landscapes and Other Spaces, an exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery.

places are not as

they appear, but as

they are imagined

Wiser than all the government delegates at COP26, the Eco-cab driver who took me to the station could see there’s a gap between words and deeds, promises and action.

I met a friend on the train who is working flat out to keep his business afloat – where does he find the time to protest, campaign or the money to retrofit renewable energy options in his home?  I hear this again and again – people not having the space or resources to transform their lives in a way that would radically help the planet, despite doing everything they can day-to-day to reuse, recycle and reduce.  Of course governments need to intervene with guidance and support.

Happy to reconnect with the Coat of Hopes – with my own little patch added.  It’s been out and about in Glasgow all week and worn by lots of different folk, including some COP delegates.  So, a circle has been stitched together.

I keep coming across another powerful sewing project embellishing the city – Collective ZurciendoDarning the Planet – beautiful embroidered ‘Trees for Life’ initiated by a women’s artivist collective from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Peru.  

use caution – walking directions

may not always reflect

real-world conditions

In the fish and chip shop two men pray to Allah.  Roma women are selling single red roses. You can hardly see the pavement for rubbish, plastic and polystyrene, stinking tumbleweed.  The Council are going to sow wildflower meadows across the city.  

I am offered a slice of vegan sausage roll in Sauchiehall Street and they ask if they can film me eating it.  They want to know why no one’s talking about veganism at COP26.

Everybody wants to know why they are aren’t talking about what they aren’t talking about.  The streets ring with them asking and singing and dancing and shouting.  The police – many more police than are needed – look confused but stand where they’re instructed and occasionally gather for group photos and selfies.  Some of them wear knuckleduster gloves and carry tazers which prove entirely unnecessary and therefore appear ridiculous, not to mention a waste of our taxes.

The COP26 Main Event Armadillo and Hydro (Blue Zone) and the Science Centre (Green Zone) are cordoned off by stout steel railings and heavily policed.  Despite the blue and green banners claiming that we’re doing this ‘together for our planet’, there is limited access and the message is one of exclusion, cumbersome and ugly.  Another example of more being spent on defending territory rather than sharing and regenerating it.  More than twice the amount the UK government spend on helping poorer countries in the global south deal with the consequences of climate change we in the so-called developed world have created with colonialism, extractivism and over-consumption is dedicated to keeping climate refugees from crossing our borders.

It’s as if Glasgow is populated by three tribes – those who are here to do their bit on the fringes of COP  and happy to announce it with a badge or a flag, a t-shirt or a hat with horns, and those who are going about their business with a mixture of bewilderment and pride that their city has been chosen to host this historic occasion, and then the police, drafted in from all over the country – with vanloads from the Met, Norfolk, Wales, Cornwall etc.  

Oh, yes, and the first few days of the Leaders’ Summit, those other shadowy presences at the centre of it all, invisible behind the blacked-out windows of their limousines gliding down Stobcross Road beside the River Cyde, protected from everything going on, ‘the real-world conditions’ on the streets.  And isn’t it true that democracy dies in darkness?

a dawn raid – police

arrest an inflatable

Loch Ness Debt Monster

As part of the fringe events, Tom Goldtooth from the US Indigenous Environmental Network kicks off the first Coalition Movement Assembly.  Humanity must learn its spiritual connection with the earth, he says, know that it is sacred, and then it will be clear that fossil fuels must stay in the ground.  It will be clear that the patriarchal system has caused so much damage with violence, rape and exploitation.  I saw mostly men coming and going down at the main site.  It is mostly women in this gathering.  

Cage (2015), Jade Montserrat and Webb-Ellis, Hunterian Art Gallery

What is outside?  What is inside?  How do they interpenetrate?  How come into dialogue with each other?  How can ‘we should’ and ‘we must’ realign into ‘we will’?  Where might diversity, solidarity and unity meet?  These questions recur all week and these investigations and conversations will carry on beyond November 12th when COP26 is over.  I look forward to seeing where it leads.  

the artists make hearts

with hands and earth, dolerite

quartz sand, granite, peat

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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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Autumn Colour

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Caramel

 

It takes the louche cool

of late summer on the heel

of a long-drawn-out

drought to bring out the best

in a leaf

before it sets free its ghost.

 

When desire isn’t all

that matters, then fall

is the deciduous rise

to the surface

of carotene, anthocyanin

or xanthophyll,

 

silenced till now by the clamour

of chlorophyll.  And even this

sweetness must be lost –

a red lament of abandon,

defiance,

indeed, utterly natural.

 

 

 

From Reading the Flowers (Arc, 2016)

 

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In the House of the Wind

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The House the Wind Built

 

This is where we live now

the chimney redbrick roaring

a hollow trunk open to the flow

of the wind a bellowing fall

of wind a bellyful all day long

trying to breathe it in / break free

 

Since the trees were felled

I’ve stayed close to the floor

prone trying not to feel flayed

flaying around so full of flay

and fall all my freckled skins shed

succumbed to floor or flaw

 

 

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Celebrating Capability Brown

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John Cobb as Capability Brown in ‘The Eye Catcher’ at Kirkharle Courtyard

 

Making the Lake

 

This far north

dips and hills

unpredictable as summer

 

outside the tent

tall grass waves westwards

 

making the lake

a long lead time

different machinery

 

capability shifts landscape

in the mind

 

chittering swallows

twist in flight

white-blue-white

 

on the ridge of his horizon

a skeleton tree

 

pegs show contour

banks woodbound

piles driven level

 

bring me a basket of bread

for the road to Cambo

 

moon in his eyes

will he be hunter

gardener or poet?

 

wheelbarrow stands in sunlight

casting a dark green shadow

 

these rattling meadows

our ancestors

our hope

 

a spider runs between cracks

in the dried earth

 

for this place, this day

a necklace of beads

of heat, mud, honey

 

where is the boundary to be drawn –

planned and unplanned?

 

begin with an outline

a structure, a framework

anchor it then overlay

 

Kirkharle – eight hours from Newcastle

on dirt roads

 

harsh edge of roofs

gives way to

serrated larch against the sky

 

the price of a line of beauty –

twanging muscles, calloused hands

 

looking north, new energy

beyond the oil route

wind turbines, wood

 

when the wheel stops

it starts all over again.

 

 

A renga in celebration of Capability Brown

on 17th August 2016

at Kirkharle, his birthplace three hundred years ago.

  

Participants:

 

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Michelle Caulkett

Linda France

Patricia Gillespie

Rosie Hudson

Lesley Mountain

Diana Smith

Tony Smith

Clara May Warden

Liz Wilkinson

Margaret Williams

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Postcard from the Antipodes

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Visiting Logan Botanic Garden in the Rhinns of Galloway was a cheap ticket back to New South Wales.  A stunning collection of eucalypts.  If I could catch the smell for you in these pictures, I would…dusky, soothing, clean.  A beautiful garden, maverick and refreshing.  While I was there I also caught a glimpse of Tasmania and New Zealand, Chile and South Africa.  I didn’t want to leave.

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The Tulip Tree

Only pale by the evergreen,

hardly distinguished by leaf or color,

it used to slide a little pale from other trees

and – no great effect at our house –

it sustained what really belonged,

but would, if severely doubted,

disappear…

 

from William Stafford’s The Tulip Tree

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