Tag Archives: conservation

In And Out Of The Woods

IMG_7405As yesterday was the anniversary of my arrival in Sydney (for my stint at the Botanic Gardens in 2013), it seemed like the perfect day to receive an email from the folk at Plumwood Mountain (An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics) letting me know their first issue is now available online.

The poem of mine they have included considers the ants I met while I was in Australia.  I like the idea of them being called back home, to the forests where they belong.


This week I’ve been enjoying listening to Germaine Greer read from her new book White Beech: The Rainforest Years, about her conservation efforts on 60 hectares of an old dairy farm in south eastern Queensland.  It’s a great venture and her narrative is teeming with powerful evocations of the plant, bird and insect life at Cave Creek in the Numinbah Valley.  As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says in The Independent, ‘It really is some story’, written by a woman who is ‘a force of nature and among its most erudite defenders’.


Closer to home, several of the trees in our woods were perilously near to crashing down in last autumn’s storms so they’ve had to be felled.  They’re such enormous trees, fir and spruce, that their shift from vertical to horizontal makes the space out there feel quite different.  It’s as if something’s been erased, a stretch of time lost.  But I’m sure the ants will be very happy.


‘How long does it take to make the woods?’

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

What is the way to the woods, how do you get there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness and joy, by passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the straight way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.

Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
Wendell Berry
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In the Shade

In the Shade

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Touchstone and Compass

Another stimulating and nourishing day last week for a small group of us at Moorbank, writing and painting…Knowing that a meeting to decide the garden’s fate was going on at the same time was hard to ignore and crept into my own early draft.  I was also influenced by recent newspaper reports of further species extinctions.  IMG_5748Already a very special place, the thought that it might not continue in its present form after November made the garden feel even more precious.


After the Petition

The day of the meeting no sun shone
in the sky, no one could find anyone else,
everything running behind time.

A handful of gardeners carried on
regardless, weeding and planting, corralling
a home for the family of hedgehogs.

We all had one foot in the garden,
the other elsewhere, still unimaginable.
This naturally involved some wobble.

News had already reached us the conifers
would be the first to go, eaten away,
if not by feral goats, by diseases

with names that sounded as if they longed
to be trees themselves; or just felled and split,
casualty of another meeting,

the city trickling ever wider, milk spilt
from a plastic container. Top of the list
was the Atlas Cedar, touchstone

and compass, old friend. We were in danger
of being locked out of the garden, looking
the other way, forgetting what we used

to call life without offending the god
of irony; distracted by square plots
cultivated inside our houses

we learned never to be without, tucking
them in our pockets, close to our hearts,
where they pulsed on our behalf. In the end

the meeting left many things undecided,
except the date of the next meeting.

photo copyBirtley Aris and his Croton, painted in the Tropical House.

photo copy 2There will be a NGS Open Day at Moorbank next week on Sunday 21st July, 2 – 5pm.  I would encourage those of you who live in the North East to go along and make the most of this sanctuary almost hidden in the heart of the city.  It’s looking beautiful and summery just now.

photo copy 3


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Imaginary Gardens

nor till the poets among us can be
‘literalists of
the imagination’ –  above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’ shall
we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore

(From ‘Poetry’)

When I tell people I am writing poems about flowers and gardens, they soon ask me about my own garden, naturally assuming that I am an ardent gardener with an impressive patch full of rare and beautiful specimens, tastefully created to respond to the site and the seasons. I hesitate to take a spade to their soft focus image of ‘the poet in her country garden’. But turn it over I must and happily list all the reasons why my garden is a failure – its setting over 700 feet above sea level that catches every breath of wind; the short (and getting shorter) summers; the incursions of creatures both wild and agricultural, all hungry, heavy-footed and pawed – sheep, cattle, moles and, most terrible of all, rabbits; my back, vulnerable after a riding accident, not up to all the digging and bending required of a good gardener; the shortage of funds to throw at help or plants or whatever might be needed to make my life easier and my garden more…what is the word I’m looking for? Respectable? Meant? Horticultural?

The last straw (Hordeum vulgare?) is that the garden where I live isn’t clear where it begins and where it ends. The house, a late 19th century gamekeeper’s cottage, faces an open fell to the south, used for grazing sheep and cows, while the back and sides are given over to woodland, planted with Scots pine, spruce, a few exotic cypresses and less exotic sycamore and elder. On the margins of what I think of as garden, there are rowans, laburnum, white lilac, bird cherry and birch.  Traditionally a garden aspires to be a boundaried space, a contained, controlled environment, a paradise.

But there is a wild, spare beauty about this place spilling beyond its edges that is almost all the garden I need. Every day I am refreshed by the ampitheatre of green I find myself at home in, the wide bowl of a moody Northumbrian sky. The impression is one of immense space and openness, with views stretching far across to the other side of the Tyne Valley, the aerial on Pontop Pike and the windmills at Tow Law on the horizon. Forgive this peasant’s folie de grandeur but every inch of it feels like ‘my garden’: as I write this, that’s from the leaves on the divided birch outside my window just starting to crumple and turn, the patches of Hockney blue between the clouds, right down to the berry bugs snaffling at all my tender places, yet more regular, unwelcome, visitors at this time of year.

It’s often said Tibet is a natural home for Buddhism, its wide terrain and mountainous spaces offering a mirror for the open, limitless mind cultivated through meditation. Do we, I wonder, become the spaces we live in? Adopt their characteristics in the same way people sometimes say we do with our partners or pets? Or is it the other way around? Does an innate narcissism result in our creating spaces that mirror our consciousness, as we often do in our homes and gardens? Messy kitchen, messy mind? Tidy borders, tidy mind? It’s not consistent or straightforward but I think some sort of exchange can occur. Since living in open rural settings, I’ve grown used to more expansive states of mind, a sense of freedom that can feel constrained if I’m pent-up too long in a city or built-up area, with no clear view of the sky.

This seems to suit my imagination, the place for me poems come from. Or at least it’s become my habit, what I’m used to. And it’s there that I do my best gardening, nurturing the seeds of ideas, experimenting with patterns and textures, while weeding out what isn’t necessary. I often find myself telling people that I write about flowers because I can’t grow them, to compensate for my limitations as a gardener. Isn’t that why we all do what we do? Because we can’t do anything else?

So for now, for the next few years, I’m going to take a break from fretting over my own garden – how I can’t make it do what I want it to. The truth is I’m more interested in getting a line break in the right place rather than perfectly positioning an iris or a peony.  I’ll be looking at how other gardens work – specifically botanic gardens, not belonging to anyone in particular, officially defined as ‘collections of plants grown for purposes other than purely aesthetic’, where the plants are usually arranged according to country of origin, botanical family and economic use. More important than they have ever been, they are our safeguards against the dangers of extinction as a result of increasing instances of deforestation, desertification and development. I’m drawn to these gardens because of that sense of common ownership, a universal stewardship in the interests of research, conservation and education. They’re like reference libraries with plants instead of books.

As much as a theatre for the senses, with ‘real toads in them’, I see these gardens as a state of mind, a place for learning, growth. They are man-made spaces, but at best collaborations between the human and the plant worlds, rather than a chance for man to express his dominance, centrality and control. Again, that word exchange – like the breath coming in and out of our bodies – that one simple unconscious act revealing how much we depend upon plants for the very oxygen we need to live.

If I were a better gardener, gifted with the conviction that anything is possible, I’d like to create a garden like Edward James did at Las Pozas in Mexico – over 80 acres of pools and waterfalls, stone balustrades and steps leading nowhere among orchids, lianas, Spanish moss and strangler figs. His structures had names like The House on Three Floors Which Will In Fact Have Five or Four or Six, the House with a Roof Like a Whale and The Temple of the Ducks. Like him, I’d have a bath set in the middle of it so I could lie back in the water, smoke a cigar and watch the stars gathering among the tangled nets of trees as I listened to birds and frogs call to each other from branch to branch, my favourite, unquestionably real, parrot perched on my shoulder.

You don’t have to garden to garden; gardening in the mind is a gentle vice with an impetus of its own.

Mirabel Osler

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