Tag Archives: plants

On Uhod Street

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It’s not easy being a flaneuse in Amman  – the city’s built on a series of hills and steep valleys.  Dusty red limestone is never far away and pavements are consistently unreliable – often not there at all, and if so, broken and disconcertingly high, planted with trees right down the middle.  The dry heat and constant traffic adds to travelling by foot’s lack of appeal.  But after four days here, getting around by car, I feel the need to know where I am from the ground up, so this morning the air’s a little cooler and I venture out for a gentle stroll round the neighbourhood where I’m staying.

It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when no one else is out walking.  Taxis keep tooting at me – a signal they’re available.  I try looking both nonchalant and purposeful but probably just appear more and more strange as I keep stopping to inspect plants growing in the front gardens and along the roadside.  While I’m photographing a mat of tiny red daisies creeping beneath a decapitated palm, a man who looks like he might be a gardener comes to see what I’m doing.  He talks away to me in Arabic and I talk back at him in English, asking questions about the flowers of course he can’t answer.  After a while, we part with smiles and nods, making peace with our mutual incomprehension.

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Not far down Uhod Street the land to the west falls away and right there in the heart of this densely populated suburb I can see a flock of sheep – brown-wooled, semi-somnolent and fat – although it’s not clear what they might find to eat with not a blade of grass in sight.  They really couldn’t be any more different from the sheep I see every day back on Stagshaw Fair – making me feel closer to home and impossibly distant at the same time.  An encampment of cardboard shacks is perhaps where the shepherds live – urban bedouins.  Another sort of flock – of construction workers – are perched on one of the many half-finished or abandoned buildings, clambering over great blocks of concrete, sprouting rusty iron rods, without the aid of scaffolding.  ‘Luxury Homes’ says the sign.

Pretty flowers spill out from the railings of those luxury homes that are finished – plumbago, jasmine, bougainvillea.  Hollyhocks, native here, have seeded themselves beneath olive trees and telegraph poles.  Some of the grander houses have topiaried cypresses dissecting their stretch of pavement.  The ‘pavement’, private rather than public space, speaks in many languages.

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On the rougher patches of ground between housing lots the involucrate carline thistle and other prickly plants I’ve still to identify are well-adapted to take their chances with the rubbish, cigarette butts and random building materials.  My feet get dustier and dustier and the coolness quickly dissipates giving way to more familiar relentless heat.  Even though this part of Amman, Tla Al Ali, is one of the highest spots in the city (nearly 1000 metres – the same altitude as Scafell Pike) only the occasional breeze relieves the weight of the sunlight so close to the land here.

Over the course of an hour, I pass only one other person on foot –  a man carrying a yoke on his shoulders strung with clusters of shocking pink candyfloss bagged in plastic.  Later, back in my room, I hear him blowing a whistle like the Pied Piper to announce his presence and tempt the children.  Today, Saturday, is the equivalent of our Sunday – the weekend, traditional family time, after Friday afternoon prayers.  I lean over my balcony watching him climb the hill again with his vivid featherlight load, still whistling, but no one comes to buy.  High as a bird, my arms are cooled by the smooth red-veined limestone beneath them.  I have landed at last in this wondrous city of many layers.

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I am staying in Amman as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North (co-founder), the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) (co-founder), St Mary’s College, Durham University (co-founder) and Dr Fadia Faqir (initiator and co-founder) and the British Council. 

CBRL website is http://cbrl.org.uk/

CBRL’s British Institute in Amman accommodation: http://cbrl.org.uk/british-institute-amman/accommodation

There’ll also be posts on the Durham Book Festival blog and an event with my fellow Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm.  See Durham Book Festival website for booking details.

 

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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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The Last Day

Saturday 30th July

Back in the Botanic Garden, and of course it looks lovelier than ever because I am saying goodbye. I find myself making my ritual walk round, trying to imprint the experience of it in my memory to revisit when I am back in England.

There are only two other visitors – a woman of about my age and what I presume is her granddaughter. She takes a photo of the smiling child in front of a fern in the glasshouse. One of the gardeners is sitting at a wrought iron table outside in the full afternoon sun reading the Saturday paper. I, on the other hand, quickly seek out the shade round the back by the rose garden – one of the whitewashed wooden benches, a soothing place to sit, despite the unavoidable whine of the traffic barely twenty metres beyond the cypresses marking the garden’s boundary.

You enter this garden through a small flower shop, potent with the scent of lilies – cut flowers arranged in vases, highly confected bouquets, that the Bulgarians seem to love, plants in pots, for indoors and outdoors, lots of different papers and ribbons for wrapping. It is the custom to take flowers when you’re visiting – and always an odd number; even numbers only associated with death.

A door opens onto what they call the Greek garden – a little vignette of village life, panoramas of the timeless classical landscape and some ancient jars and marble fragments alongside southern plants, including a venerable specimen of a ‘European olive’. Every time I see a plant on this trip with Europaeus in its name I feel a pang of anger and sadness, already nostalgic for the continent I feel part of, at home in.

After ‘Greece’, you enter Central and Southern America, the desert plants – cacti, succulents and palms. There’s also a small Tropical House with a constant fine mist fed by a flowing cascade and trough. Even though it’s still hot, the sight and sound of the water makes you feel cooler. They are generally good with fountains here, large and small, part of their Austro-Hungarian heritage, scattered all over the city, particularly in the parks and gardens.

Outside, pears are ripening above pots of purple basil. Since my first visit to the garden a month ago, various things have gone over. The lilies and day lilies that were so striking then have been replaced by dahlias and Japanese anemones. Though I think today the roses have truly come into their own, looking fuller and more beautiful than a fortnight ago. I’ve enjoyed this way our two countries are connected – through our national flower – despite all the differences between us, a sense of recognition and understanding, possibly thorny at times.

Another of the gardeners (in the uniform of green dungarees and yellow shirt) is giving this part of the garden a good soaking – everything desperately thirsty. During this month there’s been only one day (an evening really) of rain. Otherwise it’s been in the high 20s and low 30s centigrade day and night. I have acclimatised mostly but sleep is sometimes troubled by the heat (and the mosquitoes, who took two weeks to notice I was here but, crikey, when they did, made a proper meal of me…).

In the Rose Garden there’s a fragment of volcanic stone – an unusual flowing shape almost like a horse, legs hidden by the grass, as if it were swimming. I saw a lot more of this on the coast, often studded with lots of tiny fossils. It is used extensively in the hard landscaping at Balchik Palace and the Botanic Garden there. Bulgaria has very diverse geological formations – to match its biodiversity (and cultural diversity) generally. It’s the second most biologically diverse European country (after Spain) – a fact that many of the Bulgarians I speak to are unaware of. They shrug and look confused when I tell them, unfamiliar with feeling anything like pride for their native land.

Last week I was interviewed on the National Radio about my Residency here with the Next Page Foundation’s Literature and Translation House. When the presenter (also passionate about plants, which I have to say is rare) asked how I found the country and Sofia in particular, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer – along the lines of ‘unusual, exotic, contradictory, something Asiatic, something European and something else I can’t put my finger on…’ Afterwards however I was more interested in the simple fact of being asked; seeming to suggest Bulgarians are so unsure about their national identity, they need to hear it from someone else, an ‘outsider’. So many things here seem very aware of their own status as work in progress. Nothing is fixed, certain or reliable. I noticed something similar on my travels to gardens in Italy. Although this can at times be frustrating, there is a truthfulness in it. Everything is work in progress after all, isn’t it? Including us. Hence my difficulty pinning down any neat definition.

Walking through the city to the garden this morning, I was struck by the accidental wabi sabi aesthetic of the place. Wabi sabi is what the Japanese call the quality of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of life as manifest in the physical world, natural and man-made and the fruitful place where they meet. Unlike in Japan, in Bulgaria they don’t set out to create such an aesthetic, but it happens anyway. Their history – of many different invasions and changes of regime – has been absorbed into their world view and natural philosophy. There’s a strong sense of the ad hoc, ingenuity in the moment, informed by a deep acceptance (or maybe sometimes deep resignation) at the way things are.

Even though there’s a decadence to the appearance of things – architecture, streetscapes, even gardens – because of this outlook, there’s also an intense freshness, a childlike quality of innocence and openness. There is something consoling in this – a relief to let go of the whole goal-oriented, ‘grown-up’ perspective. And it also allows for the fact that if a thing (an idea, a poem, a garden) is never really finished then it can never really come to an end.

It’s only later I discover that Sofia’s motto is ‘Always growing, never ageing.’ I ask my friend Nadya (Radulova – one of the city’s best poets and translators) if some people might think it’s more accurate the other way round – ‘Always ageing, never growing’. But she is adamant neither are true, the city is always just itself, eluding any neat phrase or defining formula. The work in progress continues.

 

 

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Roadside Botany in Balchik


Taking a walk

I saw

a wild flower.

Not knowing its name 

I saw

its beauty only.

Ok-koo Kang Grosjean

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Magic Mountain 

Today we had a tour of Vitosha Nature Park by the Director and an expert botanist called Toni.  A massive pick-up truck transported us 2000 metres up within sight of the Black Peak.


The plants (and the views) were wonderful- rare species endemic to Bulgaria I’d never seen before, flowers I’d only ever seen grown as garden  varieties and some familiar from our hedgerows.

1489 plants have been recorded at Vitosha – about half of the native Bulgarian flora and one third more than the whole of the U.K. flora.

Ten occur only in Bulgaria; many more are Balkan endemics.  59 of these mountain plants are in the country’s endangered Red Book.

Even at the highest point it was still hot but up there, the land was boggy, disguising the ever-diminishing reserves of peat. Small blue butterflies and big orange ones, bees and crickets were busy feeding on the nectar.  We saw a couple of incredibly graceful kestrel practically floating in the enormous blue sky.


I have problems with scale in places like this, ricocheting between a focus on the miniature and expanding to fill the space, paradoxically leaving no room for familiar thought processes.

  It’s not a problem untilI try to articulate my experience and find it impossible – words inadequate, the wrong medium.  Birdsong might do it or some Scandinavian yoiking.  All I know is when we came down my ears were full up and the city appeared too soon, also full, intoxicated with its own cacophony.

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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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Flower, Flower, Flower

Just returned home from a wonderful trip to Glasgow where there seemed to be flowers everywhere we went…

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at the Tramway’s beautiful hidden gardens

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and the lovely Botanics

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in Kibble Palace

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to this – my new collection!  Hooray!  Spring is here!

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A Year in Beadnell

launch

I’ve mentioned visiting Lisa and Mel during their year in residence at Beadnell before and posted a log on their lovely blog. For this new publication, I’ve written a poem from my time there – about the Rosebay Willowherb growing in the dunes.  Do come along to the Lit & Phil, if you can make it, on 12th April.  I’m sure it’ll be a rich and interesting evening.   Look forward to seeing you there.

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New Shoots

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For some reason the rabbits seem to be letting my spring bulbs alone this year.  I’d planted everything in pots for easy removal if necessary but, touch wood, no sign of damage so far.  It’s very heartening to see some colour up here after our long subdued winter.  And the sunshine these past few days has softened the blow of returning from Rome and missing its irrepressible light and crumbling grandeur – an unequivocal primavera.

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Some bright new things to let you know about – a couple of readings and a new digital publication.

On Thursday 30th April at 1pm I will be reading from another wild at the Robinson Gay Gallery in Hexham for the Book Festival.  My collaborator, the artist Birtley Aris, will be there and Sue Dunne will be playing the Northumbrian pipes.  The Gallery will be showing some of Birtley’s original drawings for the book.

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At Burnlaw Centre in Whitfield, near Allendale, on Friday 1st May, three of us will be reading from and talking about our new books connected with the land – Malcolm Green, Peter Please and myself.  It starts at 7.30pm and it is rumoured there will be copious quantities of tea and cake.

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Mslexia magazine have just launched the first in a new series of e-books.  Poetic Forms is a revised and extended collection of a sequence of articles on the crafting of fixed forms commissioned back when the magazine started in the late 1990s.  A lot of people have told me how useful they’ve found these pieces and I have continued to use them in workshops and tutorials so I’d definitely recommend you download a copy if you’re at all interested.  A second e-book based on my First Principles series will be available next month.  You can find out more here.

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