Tag Archives: botany

August

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August is a yellow month – hypericum, mullein, alchemilla, ragwort, oilseed rape.  A small black beetle is inexorably drawn to all that yellow and the promise of protein-rich pollen, hence its generic name ‘pollen beetle’.  August is also the month for an insect less visible to the eye – the berry bug or harvest mite, in the Trombiculidae family, relative of the tick.

Every August the wily, indiscriminate berry bug (that the French call aoûtat after the wily, indiscrimate month) comes to my garden – and me – to feed, enjoying what sweetness I have left.  With its precise and persistent mandibles, the larva punctures my skin, injects a digestive enzyme, chews a hole called a stylostome and leaves raised red itchy spots on my arms, legs, torso, neck.  Without realising what’s in the air, I start scratching and then, it dawns – the hypericum’s in bloom, and I remember it’s that time of year again: August, the difficult month.

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Looking back, the long summer holidays stretched out into an infinity of sunshine and sand and no school – an exciting, dangerous mixture of freedom and boredom.  Where we lived, on the south coast, most of that happened near water, either salt or chlorinated, but sunny days that weren’t beach or pool days would be spent either ‘down the lane’ or ‘over the railway line’.  These were lonelier places and therefore potent with risk, though no one spoke of that; the taboo carrying a terrible weight of darkness.

‘Down the lane’ there was water, a trickling stream and a flat wooden bridge, and sometimes boys, precocious with leer and innuendo.  It was where I learned what an oak tree was, saw my first celandine and picked blackberries, scratched much worse than a hundred berry bug bites.  It was where a girl called Hazel from ‘up the road’ fell out of a tree and got spiked on a piece of metal jutting out of an abandoned van.  The drama – screams, blood, sirens, uniforms – hushed us all for days.

‘Over the railway line’ there were pigs that squealed and grunted and boys on scramble bikes that whined like giant insects.  Hidden by trees, there was a circuit they would ride around in pointless ovals on Sunday afternoons, a ritual of speed and petrol.  This was the place where every December Mum and I would go in search of a Christmas tree.  My mother trying to carry her saw nonchalantly, as if it were a handbag or umbrella.  Again, this was dangerous, forbidden but necessary, some ancient feudal right.  No one else used to have Christmas trees like ours, long-needled straggly pines, sticky with resin, rather than compact, domesticated, garage-bought spruce.  We’d spend a long time choosing ‘the best one’ – the right size (no taller than the ceiling), a good branching shape – and carry it back, Mum at one end, me at the other, like a comedy double act.

We’d also collect cones that my mother would paint white or scatter with glitter to make Christmas decorations, miniature worlds that confounded scale, where a tiny Santa Claus sat on his sleigh in a forest of enormous pinecones and a tall red candle that year after year was never lit.  We’d find holly and cut a carrier bagful to prop sprigs behind pictures or on the mantelpiece in odd little pots that only appeared at Christmas out of one of the big brown cardboard boxes Mum kept on top of her wardrobe.  The holly also scratched and prickled but it was easier to bear then because we were all wrapped up in coats and scarves.

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I grew up thinking that was what ‘Nature’ did to you – cut through your skin, made you itch, sometimes drew blood.  It wasn’t clear to whom it belonged, whether we were entitled to it or not.  It was all somewhere else, prepositional – ‘down’, ‘over’, ‘across’, ‘beyond’.  Entering it meant crossing a threshold into another world, transgressive, full of menace. Our occasional forays to find something we needed, according to the season – brambles or greenery – involved taking something that both was and wasn’t ours.  The house was changed by it, more and less itself.  It made me feel the gnaw of adrenalin, cortisol, that sense of a bigger, unknown world beyond our street, my school, the town.

My mother had a phase of making arrangements out of dried grasses and ornamental seedheads – arid affairs that gathered dust on the radiogram and windowsills.  I’d keep going back to look at them, touch them, puzzled by this bit of outside brought indoors, not knowing if they were dead or alive.

Because we lived in a flat we didn’t have a garden.  There was a small patch of green in front of our block planted with bland shrubs that never flowered, mostly waxy laurels, a single oak tree, with thin grass in between.  My mother was the self-elected custodian of this contingent green space, requiring her to go out with shears and saw at regular intervals to keep everything in check.  The job was really housework outdoors, a stay against chaos and doom, the shame of untidiness.

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A bookish child, I recoiled from anything with a whiff of animals.  The nearest I got to the countryside was Anne of Green Gables, and later Wuthering Heights – an unhealthy bipolar map of the world.  When we read The Wind in the Willows at school, I sulked and tuned out, listening to my own thoughts instead.  What had a talking toad to say to me?  I have great caverns in my imagination full of trapped rabbits and lost otters, caged bears and dark horses.

One reliable zone of fascination however was the wildflower series of Brooke Bond Tea cards.  It was incredibly exciting when my mother opened a new packet and I could slip my fingers between the green paper and the lining to fish out a new card and see what it was.  I learnt everything I know about flags of the world, the history of cars and costume from them.  And wildflowers.  That’s how I knew that the yellow flower that grew down the lane in the spring was lesser celandine, and recognized others from C.F. Tunnicliffe’s blurry paintings:  cowslip, sweet violet, foxglove, ragged robin. 

 Their names were enchanting – the sound of them like snatches of song, a spell, the sort of thing you might call someone you loved.  These flowers might have been printed on small rectangular pieces of card tucked inside packets of tea but I recognized them.  Naturally they became part of me, my story, an almost whispered, immensely seductive invitation to explore one corner of the natural world that didn’t bite and mostly didn’t scratch, that stayed still, didn’t run away and abandon you.  Flowers made no noise.  Among them there was no sense of trouble.  I knew I could go there because I was there already – I was ‘of’ it – a lesson in the genitive case.

Another geometric world I shared with my mother was more arcane – even the name sounded mysterious, like a flower itself.  Philately.  Around the age of ten I became interested in stamps and, with my junior kit (album, hinges, starter set and magnifying glass) bought from Woolworths in the town a bus ride away, I began collecting.  I soon graduated to being a specialist – having ascertained that a proper philatelist concentrated on stamps from one country, or illustrated with a chosen theme.  More for pragmatic reasons than patriotic ones, I decided to collect stamps from what everyone in those Commonwealth days called Great Britain.  I pounced on all the letters that arrived through our letterbox and soaked the stamps off their envelopes in saucers of water; big commemorative ones, a special prize.  As with the tea cards, this is where I extended my education and learned about the world’s currencies and capitals, British bridges, the origins of antiseptics and the Red Cross.  My mother and I would go to stamp fairs and look at thousands and thousands of stamps in an afternoon.  I’d buy a few sets or first day covers to add to my collection and when we got home we’d consult the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, amazed how much each scrap of coloured paper was worth.  Whenever a new set of stamps was issued, my middle sister, who still lived at home, would post me a first day cover.  Although the anniversaries they commemorate have long past, I still have them – Votes for Women (50 years), TUC (100 years), Captain Cook’s First Voyage (200 years); my sister’s rounded capitals in thick blue biro, my name and our address, before postcodes were invented.

Turning the musty yellowing pages of my home-made loose-leaf folder, which I still have, I discover the threepenny Spring Gentian issued in 1964 to mark the Tenth International Botanical Congress in Edinburgh.  There’s a smudge and a space where both the hinge and stamp have been lost above my note recording the ‘1/3d Fringed Water Lily’.  By the time I was nearly nine in April 1967, the price of a second-class stamp had risen to 4d.  There were four different ones in the British Wildflowers series – Hawthorn and Bramble; Larger Bindweed and Viper’s Bugloss; Ox-Eye Daisy, Colstfoot and Buttercup; Bluebell, Red Campion and Wood Anemone – all taken from Keble Martin’s classic Concise British Flora.  The 9d Dog Violet and the 1/9d Primrose were drawn by the distinguished botanical artist Mary Grierson.  Both their names in tiny capitals at the bottom of each stamp; I had no idea who they were, or what many of these flowers looked like in Real Life.  But I was touched in a place that stamps celebrating National Productivity Year or British Technology, or even the First Flight of Concorde, could never reach.

Despite my focus on British stamps, I also had a soft spot for stamps from other countries emblazoned with flowers, intriguing as book covers in a foreign language – lilies from Hungary (Magyar), cacti from Brazil (40 pesetas), waterlilies from Viet Nam, tulips from Afghanistan (‘Queen of Sheba’ and ‘Jewel of Spring’).  When I went to the Grammar School and started to learn it, I began to understand the usefulness of botanical Latin – all those different countries, alphabets and painting styles, using the same way of describing their flowers.

And for all their bright extravagance, it was comforting that they were contained in squares and rectangles.  Sometimes even triangles, from countries I’d never heard of.  The shapes were like flowerbeds, small pieces of garden you could hold in your hand, carry in your pocket or pencil case, put in a special book to look at on rainy days or lonely nights.

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Edna O’Brien called August ‘a wicked month’.  It is a difficult month for us all, I think, but especially for gardeners.  The big story about growth is past, fewer plants are in flower and things are starting to get blousy, set seed.  Hungry caterpillars and insects leave their perforated calling cards in petals, leaves and stalks.  Green is starting to fade and dry.  Karel Capek, in his curious and wonderful book The Gardener’s Year, published in 1929, says ‘a real gardener feels it in his bones that August is already a turning point.’

Those achingly long summer holidays.  Nights still short, showered with meteors, petals falling from the heavens. Postcards landing on the mat, pictures of faraway places and exotic stamps.  Tanned skin freckled with bites.  A big fat book to disappear inside.  My mother’s birthday, Lily – named after a flower – who showed me all she could of Nature, in that strange, tight world, the working-class garden of the 1960s.

 

I wrote this for Durham Book Festival nearly a decade ago when I began the botanical journey that led to my poetry collection ‘Reading the Flowers’, published by Arc in 2016.  To celebrate it being on this year’s new Laurel Prize longlist, initiated by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and the Poetry School, Arc have a special offer throughout August.  You can buy the hardback for the price of the paperback (the offer also applies to my previous collection ‘You are Her’) via their website.  In these difficult times for small presses (and poets), buying poetry books is a great way to support literature and culture and keep us all thriving.  

Enjoy your August and stay well.

 

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Why Flowers?

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When I was a child, we lived in a flat with no garden.  All the flowers I knew were on stamps I collected, or cards in packets of Brooke Bond tea I pasted into stiff little albums that had to be sent away for.  From the bright flat images next to the old songs of their names – cowslip, butterbur, meadowsweet, forget-me-not – I sensed that plants were powerful, even though they were small, soft and, as far as I knew, silent. So I learnt young that there was such a thing as paradox, that life could contradict itself and things weren’t always what they seemed.

The flowers whose names chimed in my head, like portable poems, wild and cultivated, seemed to grow in an imaginary realm, a world I read about in books where people lived in houses with gardens and gardeners, exotic apparatus like wheelbarrows and spades.  They belonged to people who weren’t us, with different names and different lives – Alice Through the Looking Glass and Mary in The Secret Garden, across the ocean Anne of Green Gables.  My mother’s name was Lily and, in the absence of a garden, she filled our flat with houseplants she’d water every Saturday morning and feed a magic potion from a fat brown bottle.

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I was twenty-four before I saw a snowdrop and knew that was what I was looking at, consciously paired the word with the three-dimensional flower growing out of hard winter earth.  By then living in rural Northumberland, as the seasons changed and flowers appeared in garden, woodland and hedgerow, I remembered all the names I’d forgotten I ever knew.  It was a revelation that echoed Adrienne Rich’s reflection on poems – that they ‘are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.’[1]  Flower and word spoke to each other – in the botanical texts I read as well as the poems I wrote.  I got my hands dirty in the soil, watching and learning how different plants grew, looking up where they came from and how they were named.  Moving between inside and outside, self and other, I experienced a kinship and intimacy I found nowhere else.

When Georgia O’Keeffe took the flower as muse, she felt her portrayals were misinterpreted.  How she explained it is a touchstone for me:

A flower is relatively small.

Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers.  You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.  If I could paint a flower exactly as I see it no-one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.

So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers… Well – I made you take time to look … and when you took time … you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.[2]

Like a friend, a flower is never just one thing: both subject and object, it is a composite form, a layered text.  In the field, however long you look at a flower, however closely you observe it, the flower shifts shape at different times of day in different kinds of weather.  You have to get on your knees, down at the flower’s level, to inspect it properly.  I need to put my glasses on and lean in very close.  If you use a botanical hand lens, the scale changes even more: stigma and stamen, pollen grain or droplet of nectar are magnified, so you can imagine how it might look to a foraging bee.  This is ‘reading the flowers’, via our word ‘anthology’ from the Greek, which also means ‘gathering the poems’ – just one seed of a long association of plant and book, word and root, folio and leaf.[3]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images from the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne.

[1]Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (College English, Vol. 34, No. 1, ‘Women, Writing and Teaching’ (Oct., 1972), pp. 18-30.

[2]Georgia O’Keeffe,‘About Myself’, in Georgia O’KeeffeExhibition of Oils and Pastels, exhibition brochure (New York: An American Place, 1939).

[3]Linda France, Reading the Flowers (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2016).

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In The Fruitful Dark

 

Blessings on the winter.  

May all beings be safe and well.

 

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*
Wild Teasel’s botanical name Dipsacus fullonum derives from the Greek ‘to thirst’, referring to the way rainwater collects in the cup-like structures formed round the stem by the leaf bases. This led to the plant being called ‘Venus’s lips’ or ‘Venus’s basin’.  The dry seedheads were used to tease out, or card, wool before spinning.

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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

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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

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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?

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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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