Category Archives: wild

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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Ways in Which Studying Moss is Like Making a Poem

IMG_0447At the beginning you are advised to ignore those mosses growing on trees or stone for they ask something different

A moss should behave a certain way but doesn’t always

thuidium

Thuidium tamariscinum

You realise that adjectives like ‘straight’ and ‘curved’ are not reliable, just a matter of perspective

Mosses have a very thin cuticle, are absorbent on all surfaces

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Hypnum cupressiforme

You can observe a species with the naked eye, look more closely with a handlens or at

the level of cells through a microscope – ever deepening attention

Some mosses have a nerve

campylopus

Campylopus introflexus

Their names are tongue twisters – all hail teachers of Latin!

Mosses lend themselves to metaphor – imaginative ways to describe and remember them (for example, overheard: Denis Healey’s eyebrows, teddy bears’ arms, Catherine wheels)

Desiccated moss can be brought back to life by immersing in liquid

dicranum

Dicranum majus

Looking at mosses for a long time transports you to another world – one where scale is nothing if not elastic

The fascinations endless, the discoveries universe-expanding

Moss sometimes grows on exposed bones

When you look at a landscape and say there’s nothing there, there will be mosses

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Hard to know where to start trying to give an account of this week’s wonderful Mosses & Liverworts field study course, run by Northumberland Wildlife Trust and led by John O’Reilly. We were based at Knarsdale Village Hall near Alston and went out to sites at Lambley Viaduct and Williamston Nature Reserve. After two days we were able to identify around twenty or so common bryophyte species – out of the 800 mosses and 300 liverworts found in the UK. If flowers are often overlooked, bryophytes are seriously neglected. It was deeply satisfying taking the time to learn how to see them.  I am already planning regular moss walks to make sure that I keep practising this new language.

 

 

 

 

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November

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On Thursday we gathered at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham to launch another wild – a new edition of a pamphlet published ten years ago under the title wild.  There was a mix-up between the publishers and the printers so it came back with much thinner paper and cover than expected but the small print run quickly sold out.  We always hoped we might work on another edition and now, with a beautiful new re-design by Melanie Ashby, here it is…

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In 2002, the artist Birtley Aris and I sought out a wild flower each month in different places around the north-east of England.  This is from the original introduction:

We were interested in ordinary, less well-known spots as well as more obvious landmarks; the surprising uncontained spaces in towns and cities as well as the rural environment.

Inspired by the reverberations of wild, we wanted to seek out and celebrate that particular quality of North – an autonomous identity, the open spaces, resilient flora and fauna, unfolding seasons, relatively sparse population and unequivocal weather.

From the start we envisaged setting the large-scale context of landscape alongside the miniature world of wild flowers. Some months we had an idea of the flower we were looking for; others we left it to chance, waiting to see what was growing.

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For the new version we have included eight more poems that pick up the themes of wild and take them somewhere else – looking at light, energy, memory and belonging.  They are introduced by this wonderful quotation from Pico Iyer:

Love is a wildness that has been falsely domesticated.

We were very lucky to have Morag Brown playing the violin for us, her wild northern tunes creating just the right atmosphere and bringing us all together in a celebration of place and this new work in print.

If you missed it, there’ll be another chance to hear some of the poems and buy the book at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle on Thursday 4th December, 7pm.  No need to book – all welcome.

Mugwort

 

Who could say exactly where a river

shifts shape into sea? Where current collides

with tide? On the pier’s stone slopes, mugwort

grows in spite of the salt and the weather:

who could say where its black becomes brown

becomes silver-grey? Today everything

is edgeless and strange. Even the spray

from the waves battering the southern jetty

bursts in the air like fireworks: a negative

framed by the window of the Bungalow Café.

Dirty glass catches the blur of what

could be a man, crouching to make a sketch

of mugwort fronds, like alchemical wands,

chancing their silver. Although, who could say?

 

Artemisia vulgaris

Roker Pier, Sunderland

November

 

 

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Wild at Heart

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Love is a wildness that has been falsely domesticated.

Pico Iyer

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I thought of the bypass patient’s chest being closed, the message being: You can’t see this wild place again, you can’t witness this beauty. But the moon was hidden in there, and the sun, and neither of these would rise or set, and the birds that flew up out of it were planets and constellations because the chest was really an aviary, too full of fluttering, and when it was closed no avian life would be seen again.

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 The thoracic cavity must have been the place where human music began, the first rhythm was the beat of the heart, and after that initial thump, waltzes and nocturnes, preludes and tangos rang out, straight through flesh and capillary, nerve ganglion and epidermal layer, resonating in sternum bone: it wasn’t light that created the world but sound. And the sewing up of the man’s chest was like the closing in of a house with a roof and walls: where would passion erupt? How could the spirit fly free?

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Extract from Gretel Ehrlich’s ‘A Match to the Heart’ (Penguin 1994)

Photos from Cragside, Northumberland

Chippewa Song Pictures

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From Shaking the Pumpkin
Edited by Jerome Rothenberg

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Poetry & Zen

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Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.

Traditions of deliberate attention to consciousness, and of making poems, are as old as humankind. Meditation looks inward, poetry holds forth. One is private, the other is out in the world. One enters the moment, the other shares it. But in practice it is never entirely clear which is doing which. In any case, we do know that in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.

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I started writing poetry in my adolescence, to give voice to some powerful experiences that I had while doing snowpeak mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. At first I wrote “directly as I felt.” Then I discovered the work of Robinson Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence. Aha, I thought, there is more to poetry. I became aware of poetry as a craft—a matter of working with materials and tools—that has a history, with different applications and strategies all over the world over tens of thousands of years. I came to understand poetry as a furthering of language. (Language is not something you learn in school, it is a world you’re born into. It is part of the wildness of Mind. You master your home tongue without conscious effort by the age of five. Language with its sinuous syntax is not unlike the thermal dynamics of weather systems, or energy exchanges in the food chain—completely natural and vital, part of what and who we are. Poetry is the leap off of [or into] that.)

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I think I had come to understand something about play: to be truly serious you have to play. That’s on the side of poetry, and of meditation, too. In fact, play is essential to everything we do—working on cars, cooking, raising children, running corporations—and poetry is nothing special. Language is no big deal. Mind is no big deal. Meaning or no-meaning, it’s perfectly okay. We take what’s given us, with gratitude.

The poet in us can be seen at both the beginning and the end of a life. Everybody knows a child can come up with a rhyme, a song, a poem that will delight us. At the same time, the old priest on his deathbed will write a poem, his last act. The most refined and accomplished people will express their deepest understanding in a poem—and the absolute beginner will not hesitate to try to express a transient transcendent moment. There is no sure way to predict which poem will be better than the other.

Poetry is democratic, Zen is elite. No! Zen is democratic, poetry is is elite. Which is it? Everybody can do zazen, but only a few do poetry. Everybody can do poetry but only a few can really do zazen. Poetry (and the literary world) has sometimes been perceived as dangerous to the spirit career, but also poems have been called upon to express the most delicate and profound spiritual understanding.

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Beyond wild. This can indeed include language. Poetry is how language experiences itself. It’s not that the deepest spiritual insights cannot be expressed in words (they can, in fact) but that words cannot be expressed in words. So our poems are full of real presences. “Save a ghost,” you might be asked by your teacher—or an owl, or a rainforest, or a demon. Walking that through and then putting a poem to it is a step on the way toward realization. But the path has many switchbacks and a spiritual journey is strewn with almost as many land mines as a poet’s path. Let us all be careful (and loose as a goose) together.

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Spending time with your own mind is humbling and broadening. One finds that there’s no one in charge, and is reminded that no thought lasts for long. The marks of the Buddhist teachings are impermanence, no-self, the inevitability of suffering, interconnectedness, emptiness, the vastness of mind, and the provision of a Way to realization. An accomplished poem, like an exemplary life, is a brief presentation, a uniqueness in the oneness, a complete expression, and a kind gift exchange in the mind-energy webs.

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder lives in the northern Sierra Nevada and practices in the Linji Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist tradition.  Pulitzer prize-winning poet and essayist, his most recent book is Practice of the Wild (North Point Press).

An extract from the Introduction to Beneath a Single Moon: Legacies of Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich (Shambhala Publications).

The first image is a detail from Felicity Aylieff’s Lotus Flowers (2006) at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, and the second and third are from Akio Suzuki’s wonderful show at the Globe Gallery, Newcastle, part of this year’s AV Festival.  The fourth and fifth are Alstromerias and a reclining Buddha on my window sills at home.

 

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Flowering Through The Cracks

Red Campion

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Selfheal

 

Prunella vulgaris

Now your flowers are all gone,

your flowers of light have come –

what’s left when this and that

you don’t need’s blown away

Call dark red/light green

your architecture of opposites –

spinal pagoda, whiskery sixes –

more than the eye can see

Haloed in fine hairs, like human

skin, you ask to be touched –

only let yourself be stroked

skywards, hollow-tongued

Summer’s blood drained from

your cups, you’re drying, huskish –

empty pockets of veined paper,

your language without words

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Tales of the Riverbank

IMG_5724Today, while my car was in the garage, I picnicked among the long grass on the riverbank at Corbridge and caught up with Saturday’s Guardian Review.  As well as enjoying watching a very hairy caterpillar add the flourish of its own signature to the page, I found myself initially pleased, then provoked by Steven Poole’s consideration of the current ‘fashion’ for ‘nature writing’ – a category of creative non-fiction he suggests is ‘a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, offering an idealised and xenophobic view of the countryside and what grows and roams there.  His tone rings with familiar critical one-upmanship – just another aspect perhaps of old ideas about power and hierarchy contemporary authors are attempting to unravel? Environmental challenges have opened a door onto the exciting possibility of radically re-interpreting historical narratives about class and gender.  Poole asks ‘who should really be in charge?’  This is surely the wrong question, which can only lead to yet another unhelpful answer.

IMG_5728In his article Poole imagines a largely urban readership seduced and distracted from their usual concerns by these books – the texts themselves substitutes for nature.  People who live in the countryside like to read about it too!  And aren’t we all in this together, asking questions about what constitutes ‘the natural’ and where we fit in amongst it?  Trying to figure out how to limit the damage for ourselves and future generations? Surely the time for looking at things in terms of male/female, working/middle/upper class, urban/rural is past – such divisions a luxury we can no longer afford?

By now we’ve seen enough evidence to acknowledge the interdependence of living organisms.  This is simply pragmatic, rather than what Poole, rather sneerily, calls a ‘flirt with panpsychism’.  Whatever happens from hereon in, whether we live in the city or the country, there is no doubt that we are implicated.  On Radio 4, Monty Don’s Shared Planet has been offering a very balanced consideration of where things currently stand with regard to the pressures on species and space.  I’ve really appreciated his calm, measured tones – a pointed contrast to the quickfire delivery of most presenters.

IMG_5732Poole picks up on the implications of Otherness in relation to plant and animal species – seen as either ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ – and gives it a political spin, as if nature writers were no better than fascists, intent on keeping out ‘illegal immigrants’; his critique tending to be more rhetoric than fact.  In another enlightening radio series, looking at trees in particular, Richard Mabey made an attempt to redress the bad reputation of the sycamore, suggesting we should be grateful that such a robust, well-adapted species exists to fill up the gaps left by our failing elm and ash.  Landscape is not static.

The impulse towards a Thoreau-type immersion in natural environments that Poole criticises as romantic and elitist is so widespread it seems to reflect a deeper need in society than one reserved for a privileged few.  As the population approaches the 9/10 billion mark, it’s hardly surprising it’s not just writers who have an inkling for more silence, solitude and spaciousness, a corrective to the clamour of so much indiscriminate social and media input.  However the writer concerning herself with ‘Nature’ has the potential to unearth welcome and necessary insights out in the field that will benefit us all in the midst of our current ‘transition’ conversations and choices.

IMG_5726And like the caterpillar making itself present to the argument, the contribution of the writer seemed to be made clear on the next page  – where the poet David Constantine introduces his ‘Hero’ Albert Camus by saying:

I suppose most writers believe, with Camus, that ‘saying things badly increases the unhappiness of the world’. And that they are duty-bound, therefore, to say things accurately; that is, to tell the truth.

Fiction and poetry will help in this struggle (against the ‘hell’ of the world) by dis-illusioning; but also…by embodying a love of the earth and the enjoyment of its gifts and by making works which are fit to be seen in it; which is to say, by making and asserting beauty in the teeth of ‘a world that insults it’ (Camus)…an assertion of individual freedom…brings you into a recognition of common human suffering and of the common need to lessen it and enliven the lives of all.

This isn’t a definitive ‘answer’ but it is a way of living and working that does no harm  – saying things well, saying things true – one I am profoundly appreciative of my fellow writers’ risking and sharing.

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In searching for the links for this post, I found a very long thread of comments taking issue with Poole’s article online and a particularly persuasive counter-article from today’s Guardian by George Monbiot (who came in for a lot of stick on Saturday).  He reminds us of the dangers of upsetting the delicate balance of the ecosystem:

Exotic invasive species are a straightforward ecological problem, wearily familiar to anyone trying to protect biodiversity. Some introduced creatures – such as brown hare, little owl, field poppy, corncockle and pheasant’s eye in Britain – do no harm to their new homes, and are cherished and defended by nature lovers. Others, such as cane toads, mink, rats, rhododendron, kudzu vine or tree-killing fungi, can quickly simplify a complex ecosystem, wiping out many of its endemic animals and plants. They have characteristics (for example, being omnivorous, light-excluding, toxic or inedible to any native carnivore or herbivore) that allow them to tear an ecosystem to shreds. These aren’t cultural constructions. They are biological facts.

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