Tag Archives: ecology

Natural History Museum, Sofia

 

centaurea

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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Launched!

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It all came together beautifully for last night’s launch of the new Northern Poetry Library anthology. There were readings and food and flowers and some exciting dramatic pieces inspired by poems, and music too…

Wendy Breach from Transition Tynedale spoke about Edible Hexham, the fantastic project that led to us reading and writing poems about food for six months…

A G M

For Transition Tynedale – bold enough to put poetry (and gardening!) on the agenda

 

Poetry is not on the agenda.

Return to sender.

Though saving the planet is important,

it’s still the elephant

in the room – no one tabling what matters,

only what flatters.

Imagine Akhmatova, Neruda,

some intruder

fool enough to ask what happened to joy?

Wonder? Words that cloy

because there’s no cash attached, no profit

to be gained from it.

Just the beat of the body from the heart,

a hunger for art,

bread we’ll bring to the fire and break together,

whatever the weather.

 

I asked folk to record their thoughts throughout the evening in a kind of low-tech twittery sort of a way…Here are just three of the cards I found posted in the collection box.  The night seemed to involve a lot of tables – entirely natural and entirely unplanned – celebrating a different sort of wood and water…

 

Many thanks to Wendy Scott at Active Northumberland for making it all possible.

 

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Writing ‘Reading the Flowers’

 

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Reading the Flowers began life as a small collection of poems written during a Leverhulme Residency at Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, sadly now closed. Nine months in a garden isn’t even a full cycle of the seasons so it was natural to want to expand into a longer, more far-flung exploration of what happens in a Botanic Garden, a space where nature and culture meet.

The poems do not document or delineate the gardens I visited so much as put them under the microscope, zooming in on individual plants and processes. They also range beyond the walls of formal gardens, spilling into hedgerow and meadow, wild garden and island. The ‘landscapes budding inside us’ also draw my attention, psychological, social and spiritual concerns mirroring what is translated into botanical classification and horticulture. This thematic diversity is reflected in an abundance of formal strategies and multiple voices telling how their gardens grow.

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As a garden is a managed, boundaried green space, so the collection opens with an invitation ‘to enter./Step across the carpet of petunias and fuchsias’, in a poem called ‘Cut Flowers’, immediately placing together the realms of plants and paper in a collaged ‘flora’, signalled by the book’s title. Similarly, the final poem enacts the dynamic of arrival and departure, entrance and exit, via the traditional turnstile gate.   This cycle is built into the poem’s structure, which uses the mirrored specular form. An earlier, simpler version of the poem gave its (then) title, Through the Garden Gate, to the pamphlet it introduced of poems from Moorbank. I’ve enjoyed the sense of evolution and adaptation in the six-year process of gathering this collection together.

 

 

 

The epigraph is from Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘A Fairly Honourable Defeat’:

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

This clearly points to its opposite – how people on this planet fail to appreciate the beauty of the flowers that grow all around us and so miss out on a whole world of wonder and delight. Part of the poems’ intention is to encourage the reader (and the writer) to look more closely and not bypass the opportunity to ‘be mad with joy’ at least some of the time.

 

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Joy is not the only response flowers elicit. They also inspire gratitude and appreciation, reminding us that we depend upon green growing things for the very air we breathe, by courtesy of the process of photosynthesis. Plants provide us (and other creatures) with food, shelter, medicine, clothing, artistic inspiration, spiritual illumination and hope. The natural world, a traditional symbol of renewal, is currently under threat; climate change, desertification and development, extinction, all shifting the emphasis towards that other symbolic association – impermanence. A flower’s beauty is enhanced by its short life. Although it comes and goes, part of us knows it will return the following year. This is becoming less and less of a certainty, making flowers even more precious, as are all the birds and insects with which we share our gardens.

A sense of ‘kin’, the glittering web of interdependence, is taken up in the poems capturing memories of family, nurture and roots. Love too is nourishment, offering the possibility of (re)generation.

 

 

Travelling ‘away’ to gardens across the globe, the concept of ‘home’ is investigated – a source of identity, presence, desire and nostalgia. Its dark side is revealed in poems triggered by the colonial agenda of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, reflected in the horticultural and botanical imperialism of plant collection and classification. War, violence and environmental disaster are also part of the garden’s story.

 

 

IMG_0670 (1)         Ultimately, however, the balance is tipped in the light’s favour, the therapeutic effects of time spent ‘reading the flowers’ undeniable. In many languages this has a double meaning of ‘picking the flowers’, recalling the origins of our word ‘anthology’, from the Greek meaning ‘a gathering of flowers’. The implication is that reading about flowers has a similar effect to closely observing flowers. Many gardeners write extremely well about the plants they spend so much time nurturing. Many others enjoy reading what these gifted writers have to say, particularly during the winter months when short days and harsh weather keep those of us in the northern hemisphere indoors.

Reading the Flowers follows the long line of poet-botanists/horticulturists such as Goethe, Erasmus Darwin, D.H. Lawrence, Vita Sackville West, Michael Longley, Louise Glück and Sarah Maguire. It is not a garden manual but, unlike the cherry blossom itself, a poem evoking cherry blossom will never lose its petals; absent loved ones live and breathe on the everlasting span of a page: both plants and poems naturally ‘our highest currency’. Looking at flowers is a lesson in transience, an encouragement to make the most of these small, brief miracles in our lives that are so easily overlooked.

 

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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

hypnum

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

You will lose all track of time IMG_0459

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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Dear March –

Dear March – Come in –

How glad I am –

I hoped for you before –

Put down your Hat –

You must have walked –

How out of Breath you are –

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –

Did you leave Nature well –

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –

I have so much to tell –

 

I got your Letter, and the Birds –

The Maples never knew that you were coming –

I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But March, forgive me –

And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –

There was no Purple suitable –

You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April –

Lock the Door –

I will not be pursued –

He stayed away a Year to call

When I am occupied –

But trifles look so trivial

As soon as you have come

 

That blame is just as dear as Praise

And Praise as mere as Blame –

 

Emily Dickinson

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After two days thinking about Poetry, Creativity and Environment at last weekend’s symposium in the School of English at Leeds University, the idea that my mind keeps returning to is one suggested by Zoë Skoulding – ecological writing (and thinking) should always engage with the possibility of imagining something different, a radically altered viewpoint.

Her own practice enacts that process by taking ‘a deliberately skewed perspective’ to both time and place, walking in urban spaces and re-imagining them as if all the accretions of man-made city life were not there, acknowledging historical disjunctions and the impossibility of ‘accuracy’. She read from her wonderful sequence Teint, which charts the Biévre, one of Paris’s underground water courses.

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Harriet Tarlo also spoke about her ‘writing outside’, the notion of fieldwork, both alone and in collaboration with artist Judith Tucker – their different disciplines coming together like Bunting’s ‘lines of sound drawn in the air’. Going out in a state of attentive awareness in search of ‘particulars’ and then undertaking a process of ‘condensation’ and ‘selection’, preferring to bypass ‘the lyrical I’ in any resulting text. It was good to hear Harriet quote her mentor in Durham, Ric Caddell: ‘To live here is not to escape’.

I was particularly happy to meet Madeleine Lee, a Leeds alumna like myself. She is a poet and an economist and recently Writer in Residence at Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I spent a fascinating and fruitful week en route to Sydney in 2013. She noticed that people were tending to sleepwalk through the gardens and wanted to draw attention to the environmental implications of their colonial history through poems about native ‘economic plants’ like rubber, nutmeg, clove and other spices, traditionally grown along Orchard Road, now the main shopping avenue. Through her writing she has become an ‘accidental advocate’ of green spaces, the remaining 5% of tropical rainforest on the island of Singapore.

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No one was particularly interested in either the didactic/rhetorical or the elegiac/mourning modes of writing about the natural world. Generally these poets are bearing witness to land, place, plants and creatures, dismantling assumptions, risking ambiguity and uncertainty, taking a modernist, experimental stance. A lucid, appreciative interpretation of Jorie Graham’s Prayer (by post-graduate researcher Julia Tanner) reflected the weighing up of moral and ethical predicaments with ‘something instinctive’ in order to transform and ‘re-singularise’ that ‘problematic’ ‘I’ everyone was tiptoeing around so nervously. Although it was heartening to see it for a change, I wondered if the mood and emphasis would have been different if the panel were all-male rather than all-female, or a mixture? Another poet with a strong Leeds connection, Jon Silkin (as you can see from the photo) was also with us in spirit – and in Emma Trott’s paper on his Flower Poems.

Yesterday I walked out of the School of English onto Clarendon Road after my classes, delighted to see the magnolia buds stretching to release their deep pinks and to hear a lone great tit playing the xylophone of its throat – notes going up, notes going down. Encountering poetry and creativity at its most vivid, spontaneous and inescapable out of doors.

 

 

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Word search

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

Niels Bohr

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On Saturday I went to the first in this year’s Hexham Debates on Justice, Peace & Democracy. Chris Kilsby, Professor of Hydrology and Climate Change at Newcastle University, gave an excellent presentation called Climate Change: What’s the Hurry? He very clearly showed that the question was entirely rhetorical. Even I (someone who struggles with graphs and jargon and ‘science’) was left in no doubt that the evidence of a serious acceleration in global warming – particularly since the 1960s – was undeniable. I ‘knew’ this on a deep, intuitive level but was glad of the chance to let my head catch up with my heart. Despite the knife edge sensation of this expanded awareness.

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There aren’t actually words to express it – awkward, inconvenient, uncomfortable, terrifying. What do we do with these feelings while life is expected to continue as ‘normal’? As a society we are being coerced into living a lie. The individual lifestyle choices we might make are not enough without government endorsement of mitigating policies. I’m not sure poetry is in a position to effect the change that is necessary, but it is a resource to help us find the right words and at least share them with each other, as we walk the knife edge together.

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Dear Lake

IMG_0587an ache in the day the way bones ache where they were broken

is it enough to say rosehip? my shadow walking?

grubby necks under water the swans are two fat pillows floating

not a lonely place – a lonely month – back-to-back faces

I try to find a corner round a lake which has none

wind engraves its secret formula on your gunmetal surface

the sort of weather broom is built for – waxed rumours of leaves

an eyeful of fieldfares cast loose in the implacable sky

IMG_0589I want to be more here and less here in a finger-click

this bench dedicated to a child who died after ten years in the world

so cold a flask of coffee can’t warm me

swan wings working like an engine trying to ignite

slowly I feel the real in my finger ends

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what should be done by one who’s skilled in goodness and knows the way to peace

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Sea Sandwort and Other Stories

photoThose who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

Rachel Carson

It’s always wonderful to spend some time on the coast of Northumberland. I’m just home from a few days in Beadnell visiting Lisa Matthews and Melanie Ashby, immersed in their exciting A Year in Beadnell collaboration. Yesterday we went out for a walk and they showed me their chosen patch while I kept a weather eye out for the plant life. There was a surprising amount still in flower and several varieties that were new to me, which is always exciting. You can read a brief account of it and where it took me here. Later in the year, I’ll be writing something for the journal documenting the highlights of their year.

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As well as the beauty of the Northumbrian coastline, the project takes its inspiration from the environmental writing and research of Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964), most well-known for her book Silent Spring (1962), which drew attention to the dangers of introducing pesticides into the ecosystem. Before that ground-breaking work, she also wrote a trilogy focused on the sea, based on her explorations as a marine biologist along the New England coast. In Margaret Atwood’s 2009 novel The Year of the Flood, she is Saint Rachel of All Birds.

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Lisa and Mel will be reporting on their progress at this year’s Durham Book Festival on Sunday 11th October.  See you there!

In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.

Rachel Carson

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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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