Tag Archives: botany

Liminal

 

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Sea Mouse

The orphanage of possibility

has had to be expanded to

admit the sea mouse.  No one

had asked for such a thing,

or prophesied its advent,

 

sheltering under ruching

edges of sea lettuce –

a wet thing but pettable

as, seen in the distance,

the tops of copses,

 

sun-honeyed, needle-pelted

pine trees, bearded barley,

or anything newborn not bald

but furred.  No rodent this

scabrous, this unlooked-for

 

foundling, no catnip plaything

for a cat to worry, not even

an echinoderm, the creature

seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny,

baby-mummy-swaddled, it’s

 

at home where every corridor

is mop-and-bucket scrubbed

and aired from wall to wall

twice daily by the inde-

fatigable tidal head nurse.

 

Amy Clampitt

(1920 – 1994)

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As well as painting plantlife, Victorian naturalist and artist Margaret Rebecca Dickinson closely observed and recorded the array of shells and creatures she found on the Northumberland coast.  I was pleased to spot my first sea mouse a few years ago in an after-dark rockpooling adventure up at Cresswell.

I’m going to be talking about Margaret Rebecca Dickinson at the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library (in the Great North Museum, Newcastle) on Wednesday 22nd August, 6 – 7.15 pm, when some of her paintings will be on display.  It’s free but you need to book – details here.

 

The first photo is of harebells growing from the walls of Lindisfarne Castle, looking across to Bamburgh, 19th July 2018.

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Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

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Medicinal Herbarium

*

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.

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*

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.

 

animals

*

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.

  vitosha tulips

9th July 2016

 

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Rosa rugosa

Also known as Japanese briar, saltspray rose, beach rose, potato rose and Turkestan rose.

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The white variety Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ is now in bloom in my garden and doing much better than usual after a spell without any cows in the field next door.  On Sunday my friend Cesare from Milan and I were inspecting the more common deep pink variety up at Harnham and pondering the rugosa part of its name.  The Latin means ‘wrinkled’ but although the petals have an unironed quality, they’re more dishevelled than actually creased or wrinkled.

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It eventually occurred to me that perhaps it was/is the leaves that were/are rugosa – quite deeply lined, much more textured than other varieties of rose.  It seems to make sense.  Strange to notice how this new insight about a plant I’ve loved for a very long time has made it come alive in a new way for me, freshening my intimacy with it.  And that’s all before I even mention the smell…These past few warm days the garden’s been a veritable bowl of sweetness.

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From the Notebook

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What are poets for in these destitute times?

Heidegger IMG_9945

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.

Katherine Mansfield

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Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.

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I, the sculptor, am the landscape.

Barbara Hepworth

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In life, in order to understand the world, you must die at least once.

Bassanio

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There is God. There is no God.

Simone Weil

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In Praise of Rory McEwen

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When I visited Kew in the summer of 2013, one of the highlights was coming across the work of Rory McEwen in the Gallery of Botanical Art. His depictions of flowers and leaves, staggering in their precision and beauty, took my breath away.
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There was mention of a TV programme about him made by Jools Holland, his son-in-law – although they never met. I missed it in 2013 but tonight it was screened again on BBC 4. You can watch it on iPlayer (available until 13th March).
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Lovely to be reminded of this gifted man who excelled at everything he did – music, television, art, family and friendship. Here are some of his tulips, a flower he returned to again and again.

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Tulipomania

 

After Rory McEwen

§

What binds you is a puzzle,

nub ruched in chlorophyll;

vellum high-drama – those push-me

pull-you strokes I must pluck out

my eyes to elucidate.

Old English Striped Tulip ‘Sam Barlow’

§

Flamingoed half to death,

queer, alcoholic pink,

I accuse you a keeper of secrets,

kisser of bruised lips,

inarticulate with desire.

‘Columbine’ Bybloemen Breeder

§

Darling, your encrypted coral

is wave and particle, wet

and dry. You are a creature

of the sea, plus its shell-like:

an old Venetian paradox.

‘Julia Farnese’ Rose Feathered

§

You break with tradition,

expose what you wouldn’t

even call flaws, delineate

your own vade mecum, risk

the interior, canyon and gorge.

‘Mabel’ Flamed

§

Cheeky, sticking out your bum,

knowing I’ll chase you forever,

never catch you up – licked

sherbet’s tingle and fizz; a chameleon

of blown, exploded glass.

Tulip ‘Red and Yellow’

§

Your life as a parrot

is a sly disguise, utter nakedness;

raucous, a knack for tricks,

showing off, sudden flight.

Without you, I’m bereft.

‘James Wild’ Feathered

 

§

Too good for this world,

double-dutch; two of you

down on your knees, so much

to long for, starless; then

the deep V of love.

‘Habit de Noce’ Bybloemen Feathered

§

Neither vegetable nor fruit,

are you the devourer

or the devoured? No one

could be more open

without stumbling into dying.

‘Helen Josephine’ Rose Breeder

§

Given in to gravity, you

let yourself go – your widowed

grains of pollen, full stops

on thin air. I count six tongues,

nothing else to be mad about.

‘Dying Tulip 1’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Burns Night

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To a Mountain Daisy

ON TURNING ONE DOWN WITH THE PLOUGH IN
APRIL, 1786.

Wee, modest, crimson-tipped flow’r,
Thou’s met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure
Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow’r,
Thou bonnie gem.

Alas! it’s no thy neebor sweet,
The bonnie lark, companion meet!
Bending thee ‘mang the dewy weet,
Wi’ spreckl’d breast,
When upward-springing, blythe, to greet
The purpling east.

Cauld blew the bitter-biting north
Upon thy early, humble birth;
Yet cheerfully thou glinted forth
Amid the storm,
Scarce rear’d above the parent earth
Thy tender form.

The flaunting flowers our gardens yield,
High shelt’ring woods and wa’s maun shield
But thou, beneath the random bield
O’ clod or stane,
Adorns the histie stibble-field,
Unseen, alane.

There, in thy scanty mantle clad,
Thy snawie bosom sunward spread,
Thou lifts thy unassuming head
In humble guise;
But now the share uptears thy bed,
And low thou lies!

Such is the fate of artless maid,
Sweet flow’ret of the rural shade!
By love’s simplicity betray’d,
And guileless trust,
‘Till she, like thee, all soil’d, is laid
Low i’ the dust.

Such is the fate of simple bard,
On life’s rough ocean luckless starr’d!
Unskilful he to note the card
Of prudent lore,
‘Till billows rage, and gales blow hard,
And whelm him o’er!

Such fate to suffering worth is giv’n,
Who long with wants and woes has striv’n,
By human pride or cunning driv’n
To mis’ry’s brink,
‘Till wrenched of every stay but Heav’n,
He, ruin’d, sink!

Ev’n thou who mourn’st the Daisy’s fate,
That fate is thine–no distant date;
Stern Ruin’s ploughshare drives, elate,
Full on thy bloom,
‘Till crush’d beneath the furrow’s weight,
Shall be thy doom!

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New Moon

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On the brink of a New Moon, I’m pointing you in the direction of some new writing that has recently become available online.  There are some unpublished poems from my botanical travels on the Poetry International site, with an introduction by Katy Evans-Bush.

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Since the beginning of this year,  I have been visiting Cheeseburn Grange, just outside Stamfordham, and writing about the gardens and artworks there.  Much work is going on behind the scenes so that next year it will be open to the public.  It’s a wonderful place and an exciting venture.

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Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that I’m posting less and less these days.  The Botanical project officially came to an end in May, after my marvellous visit to Pisa.  I’m currently concentrating on the various strands of writing arising from my research, poetry and prose, and so will only be posting sporadic thoughts and news as I go along.  The plan is that I will emerge again in the New Year…

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The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

 

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Leavings

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All our literatures are leavings.

Gary Snyder

And so, my last day at Cove Park.  I’m very sorry to be leaving this wonderful place, so conducive to deep and broad thought.  My three weeks here have allowed me to orientate myself more clearly in relation to the writing that is growing out of my botanical travels.  Still much to do, but at least I know which direction I’m taking.

IMG_6100Someone said the days here are long but the weeks are short.  That’s a good way of describing the strange timelessness a community of writers and artists slip into together free from the distractions of the supposedly real world.

IMG_6092Last night we stood on the deck looking at a sky so clear the stars seemed almost near enough to touch.  How old was the light we were seeing?  Owls screeched among the birches and rowans. The beginning of autumn’s chill percolated through the air.  A perfect moment to take home.

IMG_6104We live in eternity while we live in time.  It is only by imagination that we know this.

Wendell Berry

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Welcome to Padua

On the eve of my departure for Padua I took the few renga lilies that have survived the depredations of some leaf-cutting insect lurking in my conservatory to Moorbank.  It seemed important to leave them in safe hands, where they’d be sure of a stable environment and regular temperature.  I’d always imagined that they’d end up there, an exciting addition (New Zealand native) to the collection under glass.  They had been doing well despite setbacks – greenfly and windburn – which I was pleased I’d been able to overcome.

I wasn’t sure what Clive, the manager, meant when he said he would look after them for just one year.  I was shocked when he explained that the University had made the decision to close Moorbank and it might not be there beyond a year’s time.  I was dumbfounded – sad and cross – not sure what to say or do for the best.  It was a strange, disorientating piece of information to take with me on my first visit – to the world’s first botanic garden, established in 1545.  The superimposition was disturbing – here I was finally embarking on my ‘Grand Tour’ of Botanical Gardens, for which Moorbank had been the seed and inspiration.  Ironic that it was there I discovered how important botanic gardens are for our future in terms of research, conservation and education and now its own future had been curtailed by what it’s hard not to see as a short-sighted management decision, yet another disastrous ‘austerity’ measure.  I am still in the process of assimilating this news and will no doubt be returning to the subject, as will various others who are keen to find some way to keep Moorbank going.

Padua felt like a different world all together – running to a kinder calendar, clock and thermometer.  In the privileged, cosseted position of ‘visitor’, and with the luxury of just one task to focus on, it was easy to feel at home in its daily rhythms, marked by the chiming of the bells at St. Anthony’s Basilica, set at the end of the cobbled street that leads down to the Orto Botanico.

Entering the garden felt momentous, almost ritualistic – so many stations of the cross to pass through on the way – two bridges over shallow waterways grazed by sleepy, semi-transparent fish, two sets of gates, stone pillars, wrought iron, an assortment of signs, a ticket booth (where the attendant sat listening to the Beatles on my first encounter!).  Then, even inside the garden, there is another wall to pass through – tall, circular, red brick – built in 1552 to keep out the thieves who’d taken to stealing the precious plants collected from the Venetian Republic’s trading posts in the Horto Medicinale.

The whole layout  – a typical Renaissance design: a square, divided into quarters, contained within a circle, forming a hortus sphaericus or cinctus – invites a similar response: a conscious, embodied relationship with ‘Nature’, based on the enlightened understanding that the human is part of it – inside and out – and accords to the same principles as everything in the wider universe.  Walking round the garden was an incredibly rich experience – metaphysical, sensual, aesthetic, horticultural, scientific and ecological.  There were an infinite variety of possible routes to take, the structure wonderfully apparent at the end of the season, with many plants at a less lush part of their cycle.

However it was clear right from the start that something very different was going on here from what would be possible in the North East of England.  Two lemon trees flanked the inner entrance at the West Gate.  Exotic Brugmansia grew abundantly in huge terracotta pots.  Cacti and succulents and palms I’ve only ever seen growing under glass at Moorbank stood outside in the open air.  An artesian well allows the garden to be fed and watered by a thermal spring which makes all this work, as well as counteracting the long, parched Italian summers.  While I was there the temperature was falling (still around 20 degrees C most days, but cooler at night) and some of the tender plants in pots were starting to be moved into the shelter of the old 18th century greenhouses.

One of the special attractions for me of the garden in Padua (apart from its place in history and very particular layout) was what is known as ‘Goethe’s palm’.  There was a sense of pilgrimage in seeking it out, following in the poet’s footsteps.  I’ve been reading his 1790 book The Metamorphosis of Plants, fascinated by his careful observations, recording of detail and probing for botanical and philosophical significance.  Goethe visited the garden in Padua on his travels to Italy and refers to this particular palm  – a Mediterranean fan (Chamaerops humilis)  – in his book, as an example of the successive differentiation in the formation of the leaves.  It has its own octagonal greenhouse, built between the wars, which it is now outgrowing.  There is an old sundial, a hollow circle carved in stone, just outside.  Its lines and shadows mirror the form of the palms’ leaves in a manner recalling the Renaissance system of ‘correspondences’ – As it is above, so it is below.  This echo effect spills all over the garden and the effect is of a precious, faceted jewel – profoundly pleasing, stimulating and inspirational.

I spent a delightful morning with the Vice-Prefect, Antonella Moila, and she was able to point out various aspects of the garden I might otherwise have missed.  I was especially interested to broach the big green barriers on the south of the garden to take a look at the new development. Enormous, confident glasshouses rose from a parcel of land bought by the University of Padua from the Jesuit Church.  They were just installing the sun shades the day I was there.  This whole extension, fringed by the Romanesque domes of the Basilica of Santa Guistina, is still in the process of being landscaped so there is lots of mud and machinery and no plants just yet.  But despite delays (the original plans were agreed around 10 years ago), it is hoped the new addition will be open to welcome many more visitors to the garden next spring.  Grafting new onto old, this garden’s history is still in the making.

It made me even sadder about Moorbank being closed – seeing the investment the University of Padua is making in the future of this garden, taking on the demands of change, without forsaking continuity.  At a time of economic crisis, it requires a leap of faith – something perhaps Italians manage more naturally than us.

I could say much more about my week in Padua – and probably will – but I wanted to share some initial impressions for now, as I unpack.  Just before going I decided to leave all my ‘technology’ at home and stick with notebook, pencil and camera.  It was the right decision, I think, allowing an undiluted immersion in the place so that now I have my own deep well to call upon when I come to write about it.  I’m sure I’ll also be talking more about my visit to this enchanting and important garden at my reading at Durham Book Festival on Sunday 29th October (in the Town Hall at 3.30pm).  I look forward to seeing some of you there.

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SOWING A SEED

This is the new blog for Linda France’s Botanical project.  Previous posts are still available, but will soon no longer be active, in The Poet’s Garden.

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