Tag Archives: autumn

Sound & Vision

Leonardo da Vinci, Star of Bethlehem and other plants, c.1506-12

Shantideva wrote in chapter eight, verse ninety-nine (VIII:99) of A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that if someone is suffering and we refuse to help, it would be like our hand refusing to remove a thorn from our foot. If the foot is pierced by a thorn, our hand naturally pulls the thorn out of the foot. The hand doesn’t ask the foot if it needs help. The hand doesn’t say to the foot, ‘This is not my pain.’ Nor does the hand need to be thanked by the foot. They are part of one body, one heart.

Joan Halifax, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet (Flatiron Books, 2018)

The idea of ‘one body, one heart’ has been on my mind lately as I’ve been working on our collective poem Murmuration, as part of my Climate Residency, collaborating with artist Kate Sweeney on the filmpoem for Durham Book Festival.  Murmuration is one thing – as the starlings’ flock is one thing – but made up of five hundred different voices.  There is unity in diversity, similarity and difference – and I’ve worked hard to try and catch the sense of that: bearing with contradiction and not trying to look for answers, just staying with all the questions the lines and the poem itself throws up.

You can book a place to watch its launch at Durham Book Festival, right after an event with Jenny Offill, talking about her Climate Change novel Weather (Granta, 2020) – highly recommended.  I’ve also written an essay on the making of Murmuration, which will be available during the Festival.

I’m very aware there’s an excess of things to watch and listen to online at the moment, but in the absence of human-to-human conversations and gatherings in the wild, it seems important to stay connected and be proactive in accessing alternative perspectives on how much is happening in the world that runs contrary to the news in the mainstream media, that insists on highlighting stories that communicate divisiveness, alienation and blame.  

I recently discovered, we have 86,400 seconds every day to fill. And sometimes I do nothing but listen to them ticking away.

The people at TED Talks have created Countdown – a programme with a coalition of voices addressing different aspects of the Climate Crisis.  Nothing is more important than the sharing of clear factual information.  One thing we can do – even though we might often feel powerless –  is to stay well-informed.  How we take in and pass on what we know (and feel) is what makes society and culture.  The imagination is powerful – it’s where the future resides.

You can take a look at the TED Countdown here.

The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop.  Together, we will find hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.

The Eight Principles of Uncivilisation, Dark Mountain

And so we enter the dark of autumn and winter. One of my favourite times of year. We could do with a bit more darkness – that place where we can be with what we don’t know and just love each other.  ‘Night is the mother of life’ says Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuna. ‘Light is born from darkness’.  

So many thresholds and edges just now – happening on a level I won’t see the end of or understand in my lifetime.  But I’m curious, interested to see what’s waiting in, what Joan Halifax calls, ‘the fruitful dark’.  One of the things I’ve been doing lately thinking about hope in the dark is planting bulbs, burying them in the cooling earth so they can do their own magic and emerge in their own time next year.  Next year…even that sounds like an unknown world.

Dried flowers from Verde Flowers, Burnhopeside Hall

Art is the flower – Life is the green leaf.  Let every artist strive to make his flower a beautiful living thing – something that will convince the world there may be – there are – things more precious – more beautiful – more lasting than life…you must offer real, living – beautifully coloured flowers – flowers that grow from but above the green leaf – flowers that are not dead – are not dying – not artificial – real flowers – you must offer the flowers of the art that is in you – the symbols of all that is noble – and beautiful  and inspiring – flowers that will often change a colourless leaf – into an estimated and thoughtful thing.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, On Seemliness (1902)

I’m doing a couple of linked afternoon workshops online for Lapidus Scotland (Words for Wellbeing) in October (17th & 24th), called Climate Crisis: Looking our Demons in the Eye.  I was experimenting with ways of tackling the subject with groups right at the beginning of my Residency and then the pandemic arrived.  I’m very glad to have this chance to work with others now, looking at how we might find words for an experience that can so often feel beyond the reach of words.  

Places are free, open to all, and you can book here.

Quotation: Luce Irigaray

Stay well.

L

X

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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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Russet

I want to say Eve’s tears

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I want to say her freckled skin

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I want to say unlock the pantry

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I want to say a finch singing

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I want to say green, darling, green

Paintings by Vanessa Bell

Words from last week’s ‘Poetry of Food’ workshop

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Blackberrying

photoAll stained and scarred from an afternoon picking backberries from the hedgerows hereabouts.  Last year’s crop were transformed into vodka and vinegar, still in the pantry.  This year I think I’ll make some jelly to join them.  I’m less interested in the eating and drinking than the collecting – a ritual of the season ever since we walked upright.   Jane Grigson’s wonderful Fruit Book tells us ‘when a neolithic burial was excavated at the beginning of this century on the Essex coast, there was about a pint of seeds found in the area of the stomach – with blackberry seeds predominating.’

The poems I always turn to are Sylvia Plath’s moody Blackberrying –

The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.

I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,

Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.

The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.   

…and Seamus Heaney’s childhood evocation in Blackberry-picking – you can watch a fine reading of it here.  

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet

Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it

Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger

Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

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Those two poems cast a long shadow – it’s never seemed necessary to say anything more.  But I did write a Hedgerow Jelly poem a few years ago, which some foraging friends of mine used as a recipe to make some of their own and then gave me a jar as a gift.  A perfect exchange.

Hedgerow Jelly

The morning seemed ordinary

until she lifted the sieve of fruit – each berry

plucked from the hedgerows, ‘goodly

amounts’ of hawthorn and rosehip, according to the recipe

necessary

for pectin to set the jelly,

tumbled with apples from the city –

and dripping through the muslin was ruby,

pure and concentrated autumn, fiery,

bloody,

waiting for sugar and another boiling, bubbly

and foaming, till she wanted to dive into the beautifully

maroon confection bursting into life in the shiny

saucepan, her whole kitchen rich and smelly

with harvest bounty

she skimmed and poured into jars, steamy

with anticipation, fumes rising billowy

and sweet, like the spills, sticky,

she licked from her fingers before holding her trophy –

three glinting garnet jars, lovely –

up to the light, too rosy

to seal in with a label saying its name so plainly

 

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Harvest

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Ripeness

 
>pre
Ripeness is

what falls away with ease.

Not only the heavy apple,

the pear,

but also the dried brown strands

of autumn iris from their corm.

 

To let your body

love this world

that gave itself to your care

in all of its ripeness,

with ease,

and will take itself from you

in equal ripeness and ease,

is also harvest.

 

And however sharply

you are tested –

this sorrow, that great love –

it too will leave on that clean knife.

 

Jane Hirshfield

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Under the Toffee Apple Tree

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At Durham Botanic Garden yesterday I enjoyed my second autumn of the year (although this one more sure of itself and familiar than in Sydney in March) and the sweet, slightly burnt fragrance of the Katsura tree.  For some people it evokes the smell of candyfloss – definitely something Bonfire Nightish about it.  Cercidiphyllum japonicum – the leaves are like heart-shaped spoons, pale gold, veined with green.  Rising here from a five-stemmed trunk, the branches are whiskery and tentative, but generous.  It is pleasing to discover that the wood is often used to make boards for the game of Go.

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Drumsticks

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A small shrub, Ipsopogon anemonifolius has yellow flowers in the spring and summer. These have turned into cones with the arrival of Australia’s autumn … Seen today on a coastal walk in the Royal National Park, south of Sydney.

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Towards the end of the 19th century NSW Premier Sir John Robertson saw the need for a people’s park where Sydneysiders could escape from the pressures of urban living and enjoy nature. Traditionally the land of the Dharawal people, mudflats and mangroves were replaced with grassed parkland and exotic trees. The Park has evolved to accommodate more contemporary ideas about conservation.

It covers 16,300 hectares on a sloping sandstone plateau and contains over 700 species of flowering plants. The deep river valleys also support tall drifts of turpentine, blackbutt and bluegum, as well as areas of rainforest.

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Home & Gardens

When I get home I want to do everything at once – listen to the radio, read the Sunday paper, watch my new DVD (David Attenborough’s Kingdom of Plants), eat, drink, write, go into every room to remind myself of what I’d left behind, text my nearest and dearest, read my mail, edit my photos etc etc etc.  A terrible burst of simultaneous desires after sitting behind a wheel for three hours.  In the end I settle for unpacking before having a cup of tea and some crackers while I listen to Simon Armitage’s play The Torch Bearers on Radio 3 (part of this year’s FreeThinking Festival at the Sage which I missed, being away).  I say I listened but it didn’t really go in (apart from his recurring motif of Lunaria annua  – Honesty – which did make me prick up my ears).  My mind was just too full of motorways and trees and gardens and all the different beds I’d slept in while I was away, all the friends I’d stayed with.

Jackie Hardy, haiku mistress, in Sheffield, who reminded me that Basho (1644 – 1694) was named after the banana plant that his disciples planted outside the hut he’d moved into to live a more solitary life.

 by my new banana plant

the first sign of something I loathe –

a miscanthus bud!

Jan in Oxford (whose key I’ve managed to bring home with me…), who left on Friday morning to spend the weekend at Alice Meynell’s (1847 – 1922) house in West Sussex with her friend, the poet’s great-granddaughter.

Alec Peever, my longtime friend and collaborator, who lives in Ducklington in a house almost as old as the Botanic Gardens in Oxford (1621).  I collected the slab of sandstone I’d found in my garden some years ago that he’s carved for me: my translation of the name of this place – ‘Stanley’.

My namesake in ‘rural Bolsover’ (currently in need of protection from various plans for development – supermarket/garage/housing), with whom I took the horti out of culture and went to see A Taste of Honey at Sheffield Crucible (raw and compelling, spiced up with a live jazz trio) and visited Harley Gallery – Wendy Ramshaw’s wonderful poetic Room of Dreams.  Ramshaw designed the gates at Mowbray Park in Sunderland, where Alec and I worked together in 2000.

At this time of year it’s always the trees that leave the strongest impression and I’ve been ‘woodbathing’ as much as possible, breathing in all their goodness (particularly at Harcourt Arboretum), whilst mourning the loss of the ash trees in Denmark and possibly soon Kent and the threat from the dieback fungus spreading further (52 cases reported nationwide so far).

That’s the last of my travels for the next few months.  Now I just have to find the words to describe all these different Botanicals, the wonders that I’ve seen…

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Cities & Gardens

How many cities have I flown into at night – full of expectation and delight, already dazzled by the sense of otherness?  Those particular patterns and colours nothing like the ones I left behind in that place for want of a better word I call home.

There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact, that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, art by art, contemplating with fascination their own absence.

From Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities

Steeped in history and beauty, it was easy to forget that Padua is a city.  After a week the wonder hadn’t worn off.  As a country dweller, I’m interested in the fact that Botanic Gardens through their traditional connections with Universities tend to be based in cities, where what they offer simply in terms of green space is particularly vital.  Antonella Moila showed me a passage underlined in one of her books – a quote she likes to share with her students from Marco Guazzo’s description of the garden in Padua written in 1546, just one year after it was first established:

Scolari & altri sign. possano da ogni hora venir nell’orto & ridursi co i loro libri a ragionar all’ombra, delle piante dottamente; & alla peripatetica sotto quella passeggiare investigando le loro nature…

(Scholars and others can at any hour be found in the garden, considering their books in the shade, and the plants intelligently; walking through, investigating their nature…)

Today in Newcastle Padua felt a million miles away – the idea of the need for shade a cruel joke.  I went to a meeting of Moorbank volunteers to discuss the future of the garden.  It seems to be clear that the University no longer has the will or finances to maintain Moorbank and so the gardening volunteers who keep the wheels turning are stepping up their efforts to try and make it viable as some sort of community venture.  I was impressed, not for the first time, by their redoubtable practicality and endless resourcefulness.  There will be an initial meeting to garner practical assistance of any kind that folk feel they might be able to offer (not necessarily gardening – admin, fundraising, business acumen, publicity, legal expertise etc) on Sunday 25th November at 2.30 and the garden will be open from 1pm.  All welcome.

On my way out of the city I called into the wonderful Amnesty International Bookshop on Westgate Road and couldn’t resist buying far too many books – a mixture of gardening and poetry.  Amongst which: a copy of Ida Affleck Graves’s A Kind Husband (Oxford 1994) – a magnificent book I’ve been hunting for in my house for years but suspect I lent it to someone and it never came home; and one by a Canadian poet called Lorna Crozier I’d not heard of before – The Garden Going On Without Us (McClelland and Stewart 1985) – this inscribed by the author ‘For Tom Paulin – words and best wishes from Saskatoon’.

Driving west, leaving the city behind, I stopped off at Bywell where the trees were looking stunning in the afternoon light.  Typically, just when I wanted to take some pictures, my batteries were ‘exhausted’ as my camera tells me with such a sigh I can’t help feeling sorry for it.  My friend John, man of many cameras, came to the rescue and took these quick and lovely shots.  I drove home up the valley in the dark and through snow, all the gold turned to silver – the first of the year; the dream that was Padua receding further and further.

Garden at Night

Leaves flood the yard

in deep shadows.  Gourds

float like jellyfish

in the night’s tidal pools.

This far from ocean

only plants know

such darkness.

Even the earthworm

pulls threads of light

through the blackest corner,

the sleeping eye.

Lorna Crozier

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Resilience

On Wednesday I paid a visit to the North East’s first Big Eco Show at the Stadium of Light.  I wanted to know what a community I wasn’t familiar with were saying (and doing) about Climate Change and related ecological issues.  It was heartening to see such a focussed and energetic exchange of information.  It seemed a fitting venue for this current work that is asking for our unified attention – almost a shrine to collective effort, celebrating two of the North East’s abiding stories – football and mining.

It could be seen as self-interest that businesses should prioritise environmental considerations, or even see them as commercial opportunities, but I got the sense that this wasn’t a cynical exercise.  Most of the people I spoke to did seem to have the planet and its population’s interests at heart.  It was good too to hear how much government legislation is increasingly holding businesses to account.

Many set-ups in the North East have found themselves seriously suffering after what one speaker called ‘Thunder Thursday’.  It is anticipated flooding will only increase in the coming years and so businesses need to build their resilience, speeding up recovery time.  Various organisations are working towards helping folk make this possible.  The way LOCOG handled sustainability in their development of the Olympic Park kept being mentioned as a model: that environmental awareness can no longer be an optional extra and needs to be an integral part of a project or practice’s raison d’être.

I had the start of what I hope will be a continuing conversation with Teeside University about the carbon footprint of my Botanical project, my ‘Resource Efficiency Pathway’ (lots of Newspeak opportunities here!)  Given its scope, it’s important that I should build this into my approach to the work and find as many practical, creative solutions as possible.

If anyone has any helpful suggestions, I’d be very happy to hear them.  Do post a comment below.  Thanks.

Would that we were all as resilient as the buddleia blooming out of the cracks in the city streets…

I’m writing this on the morning of the Autumn Equinox, sitting in my garden, enjoying the level light and mild air.  Tomorrow I go to Harnham for a week, on retreat – a deeply sustainable way to begin this project I think, where I want to bring a thoughtful spaciousness to both how I write and what I say on this loaded subject.  And particularly not fall into the trap of being worthy or didactic about it.

As I sit, Bruno the postman brings a mixed assortment of brown envelopes.  The most uplifting contained a new pamphlet – Earthwords, poems to celebrate 40 years of Friends of the Earth.  In it Gillian Clarke writes ‘A love song to the earth is more powerful than a sermon’.  There are a couple of poems of mine in it, including this one, set up at Dhanakosa, on the edge of Loch Voil in the Trossachs:

AT THE RETREAT HOUSE

In the midst of the wild, loch on one side,
mountain on the other, someone’s planted
a garden. It takes more than hope
to barrow ten tons of gravel and spade
and rake it level round L-shaped beds,
to coax those plants strong enough to dance
with the season’s short span into flower –
tangled nasturtiums, astrantia’s tethered stars.

It’s a gesture towards what’s possible,
our instinct for cultivation, how much care
we bring to the landscapes sculpted
inside us. At its heart, a hedge of box
shelters four pear trees trained in a spiral
towards open sky, the promise of harvest.

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