Tag Archives: wild flowers

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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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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November

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On Thursday we gathered at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham to launch another wild – a new edition of a pamphlet published ten years ago under the title wild.  There was a mix-up between the publishers and the printers so it came back with much thinner paper and cover than expected but the small print run quickly sold out.  We always hoped we might work on another edition and now, with a beautiful new re-design by Melanie Ashby, here it is…

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In 2002, the artist Birtley Aris and I sought out a wild flower each month in different places around the north-east of England.  This is from the original introduction:

We were interested in ordinary, less well-known spots as well as more obvious landmarks; the surprising uncontained spaces in towns and cities as well as the rural environment.

Inspired by the reverberations of wild, we wanted to seek out and celebrate that particular quality of North – an autonomous identity, the open spaces, resilient flora and fauna, unfolding seasons, relatively sparse population and unequivocal weather.

From the start we envisaged setting the large-scale context of landscape alongside the miniature world of wild flowers. Some months we had an idea of the flower we were looking for; others we left it to chance, waiting to see what was growing.

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For the new version we have included eight more poems that pick up the themes of wild and take them somewhere else – looking at light, energy, memory and belonging.  They are introduced by this wonderful quotation from Pico Iyer:

Love is a wildness that has been falsely domesticated.

We were very lucky to have Morag Brown playing the violin for us, her wild northern tunes creating just the right atmosphere and bringing us all together in a celebration of place and this new work in print.

If you missed it, there’ll be another chance to hear some of the poems and buy the book at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle on Thursday 4th December, 7pm.  No need to book – all welcome.

Mugwort

 

Who could say exactly where a river

shifts shape into sea? Where current collides

with tide? On the pier’s stone slopes, mugwort

grows in spite of the salt and the weather:

who could say where its black becomes brown

becomes silver-grey? Today everything

is edgeless and strange. Even the spray

from the waves battering the southern jetty

bursts in the air like fireworks: a negative

framed by the window of the Bungalow Café.

Dirty glass catches the blur of what

could be a man, crouching to make a sketch

of mugwort fronds, like alchemical wands,

chancing their silver. Although, who could say?

 

Artemisia vulgaris

Roker Pier, Sunderland

November

 

 

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Winterbloom

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In yesterday’s brief respite from the rain, I tracked the sun north and east to Stamfordham and was rewarded by many more hints of spring than have crept up to the fell.

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One of my favourite early flowers is the Witch Hazel (called Winterbloom in North America – a name which fits it perfectly), seen here in two varieties – the more common golden yellow Hamamelis sp. and the gorgeous coral version, ‘Jelena’.

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I also saw for the first time a white-flowered Butterbur (Petasites alba) – all the ones I’ve seen before have been pink.  Like strange underwater creatures, its mad globed heads poke up through the earth before the leaves appear – a habit it shares with its relative, Coltsfoot.

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Today it’s back to wind, rain and grey skies but surely now that we’re past Candlemas, or the pagan Imbolc if you prefer (traditionally the start of Spring), and the days are starting to lengthen, the wheel of the year is changing direction, turning away from winter and wherever it will take us next?  Less pain, more light and music?

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Flowering Through The Cracks

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Selfheal

 

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Now your flowers are all gone,

your flowers of light have come –

what’s left when this and that

you don’t need’s blown away

Call dark red/light green

your architecture of opposites –

spinal pagoda, whiskery sixes –

more than the eye can see

Haloed in fine hairs, like human

skin, you ask to be touched –

only let yourself be stroked

skywards, hollow-tongued

Summer’s blood drained from

your cups, you’re drying, huskish –

empty pockets of veined paper,

your language without words

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At Cove Park

Installed in the beautiful setting of the Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat Centre at Cove Park, overlooking Loch Long, to work undistracted by anything but the scenery.

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Lots of wild flowers growing on the hillside – one new to me – Red Bartsia.

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And a striking purple Wild Angelica.

photo copy 2That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.

John Berger

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