Tag Archives: ecology

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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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Outside In

So, I came home via Edinburgh Botanics and spent a wonderful weekend wandering around the Gardens and looking at the displays inside and out.

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Franz West & Heimo Zobernig 2004/2013

IMG_6255A woman asked me What are those chairs doing?  She didn’t seem convinced when I told her imaginary people were sitting on them.

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I thought that perhaps the Petrosavialles Family was also imaginary…but apparently not.  According to Wikipedia, they are found in high-elevation habitats and have bracteate racemes, pedicellate flowers, six persistent tepals, septal nectaries, three nearly distinct carpels, simultaneous microsporogenesis, monosulcate pollen, and follicular fruits.  Sounds interesting.  I hope they find a specimen soon.

When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

John Muir

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Tales of the Riverbank

IMG_5724Today, while my car was in the garage, I picnicked among the long grass on the riverbank at Corbridge and caught up with Saturday’s Guardian Review.  As well as enjoying watching a very hairy caterpillar add the flourish of its own signature to the page, I found myself initially pleased, then provoked by Steven Poole’s consideration of the current ‘fashion’ for ‘nature writing’ – a category of creative non-fiction he suggests is ‘a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, offering an idealised and xenophobic view of the countryside and what grows and roams there.  His tone rings with familiar critical one-upmanship – just another aspect perhaps of old ideas about power and hierarchy contemporary authors are attempting to unravel? Environmental challenges have opened a door onto the exciting possibility of radically re-interpreting historical narratives about class and gender.  Poole asks ‘who should really be in charge?’  This is surely the wrong question, which can only lead to yet another unhelpful answer.

IMG_5728In his article Poole imagines a largely urban readership seduced and distracted from their usual concerns by these books – the texts themselves substitutes for nature.  People who live in the countryside like to read about it too!  And aren’t we all in this together, asking questions about what constitutes ‘the natural’ and where we fit in amongst it?  Trying to figure out how to limit the damage for ourselves and future generations? Surely the time for looking at things in terms of male/female, working/middle/upper class, urban/rural is past – such divisions a luxury we can no longer afford?

By now we’ve seen enough evidence to acknowledge the interdependence of living organisms.  This is simply pragmatic, rather than what Poole, rather sneerily, calls a ‘flirt with panpsychism’.  Whatever happens from hereon in, whether we live in the city or the country, there is no doubt that we are implicated.  On Radio 4, Monty Don’s Shared Planet has been offering a very balanced consideration of where things currently stand with regard to the pressures on species and space.  I’ve really appreciated his calm, measured tones – a pointed contrast to the quickfire delivery of most presenters.

IMG_5732Poole picks up on the implications of Otherness in relation to plant and animal species – seen as either ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ – and gives it a political spin, as if nature writers were no better than fascists, intent on keeping out ‘illegal immigrants’; his critique tending to be more rhetoric than fact.  In another enlightening radio series, looking at trees in particular, Richard Mabey made an attempt to redress the bad reputation of the sycamore, suggesting we should be grateful that such a robust, well-adapted species exists to fill up the gaps left by our failing elm and ash.  Landscape is not static.

The impulse towards a Thoreau-type immersion in natural environments that Poole criticises as romantic and elitist is so widespread it seems to reflect a deeper need in society than one reserved for a privileged few.  As the population approaches the 9/10 billion mark, it’s hardly surprising it’s not just writers who have an inkling for more silence, solitude and spaciousness, a corrective to the clamour of so much indiscriminate social and media input.  However the writer concerning herself with ‘Nature’ has the potential to unearth welcome and necessary insights out in the field that will benefit us all in the midst of our current ‘transition’ conversations and choices.

IMG_5726And like the caterpillar making itself present to the argument, the contribution of the writer seemed to be made clear on the next page  – where the poet David Constantine introduces his ‘Hero’ Albert Camus by saying:

I suppose most writers believe, with Camus, that ‘saying things badly increases the unhappiness of the world’. And that they are duty-bound, therefore, to say things accurately; that is, to tell the truth.

Fiction and poetry will help in this struggle (against the ‘hell’ of the world) by dis-illusioning; but also…by embodying a love of the earth and the enjoyment of its gifts and by making works which are fit to be seen in it; which is to say, by making and asserting beauty in the teeth of ‘a world that insults it’ (Camus)…an assertion of individual freedom…brings you into a recognition of common human suffering and of the common need to lessen it and enliven the lives of all.

This isn’t a definitive ‘answer’ but it is a way of living and working that does no harm  – saying things well, saying things true – one I am profoundly appreciative of my fellow writers’ risking and sharing.

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In searching for the links for this post, I found a very long thread of comments taking issue with Poole’s article online and a particularly persuasive counter-article from today’s Guardian by George Monbiot (who came in for a lot of stick on Saturday).  He reminds us of the dangers of upsetting the delicate balance of the ecosystem:

Exotic invasive species are a straightforward ecological problem, wearily familiar to anyone trying to protect biodiversity. Some introduced creatures – such as brown hare, little owl, field poppy, corncockle and pheasant’s eye in Britain – do no harm to their new homes, and are cherished and defended by nature lovers. Others, such as cane toads, mink, rats, rhododendron, kudzu vine or tree-killing fungi, can quickly simplify a complex ecosystem, wiping out many of its endemic animals and plants. They have characteristics (for example, being omnivorous, light-excluding, toxic or inedible to any native carnivore or herbivore) that allow them to tear an ecosystem to shreds. These aren’t cultural constructions. They are biological facts.

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The Wollemi Pine

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At Mount Annan one of the trails we followed was the Wollemi Walk. An emergent rainforest tree that dates back around 150 million years, Wollemi nobilis was only discovered by accident in 1994 in the Blue Mountains (west of Sydney), where they grow on wet ledges in a deep, sheltered gorge. There are less than 50 in the wild and some may be between 500 and 1000 years old.

Apart from their importance in terms of diversity, these pines have already been found to contain taxol, used in cancer treatment. How many more plants might be out there still to reveal their curative properties?

Coexistent with the dinosaurs, the Wollemi Pine was only previously known as a fossil.

The original tree is in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

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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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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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