Tag Archives: winter

Transparency

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in invisible ink

on invisible paper

I write

all-seeing poems

*

…that thing you’re not meant to do: write poems about writing poems.  But this came unbidden yesterday, and I rather like the slightly unhinged quality of mind that comes when you have a cold, so I’m posting it here in the spirit of transparency.

Another reason for disorientation is the awareness that this time last year we were covered in snow up here and I was leaving for my big trip towards the equator and beyond, into the southern hemisphere and the orient.  I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed, how much world I’ve seen in between.  A very different winter so far this year – in all sorts of ways.

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How To Get Through The Winter

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A friend brought me three pomegranates, a traditional New Year’s gift in Greece.  I can’t remember how many years ago I last ate one.  When I was a kid, we used to eat the seeds with a pin, which seemed like great fun.  Apart from the fat shiny russet globes warming up my winter kitchen, it’s been an intense pleasure spooning out the garnet seeds to eat raw, add to yogurt or scatter onto salads.

photoI can’t agree with Jane Grigson, who calls them ‘unrewarding fruit’: no more than a closet of juicy seeds, each one gold in a deep pink jelly, the sections held firmly in a yellow astringent pith.  She quotes an extract from André Gide’s Les Nourritures Terrestres (1895), a long poem in praise of pleasure, dedicated to the pomegranate.

A little sour is the juice of the pomegranate like the juice of unripe raspberries.

Wax-like is the flower

Coloured as the fruit is coloured

Close-guarded this item of treasure, beehive partitioned,

Richness of savour,

Architecture of pentagons.

The rind splits; out tumble the seeds,

In cups of azure, some seeds are blood;

On plates of enamelled bronze, others are drops of gold.

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The story of Persephone tells us that the maiden, abducted to the Underworld by Hades, made the mistake of eating six pomegranate seeds while she was there.  According to a law decreed by the Fates, this meant she had to stay there for six months; only then could she return to the surface of the earth for the other six months of the year.  Her mother Demeter’s grief explained the alternating seasons – decay, barrenness, growth and harvest – the cycle of life.

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Image from collaboration with Hexham Embroiderers’ Guild for Hexham Hospital

Pomegranate (Punica granatum) literally means ‘seeded apple’ and it’s easy to see how eating them might feel like sympathetic magic.  Winter will pass. Things will start growing again soon.  Early agricultural communities, after many thousands of years’ hunter-gathering, utterly dependent on a good crop, created stories and rituals (like that of Persephone and Demeter within the Eleusinian mysteries) to affirm the rhythms of their labours to survive and flourish.  What do we look to encourage us through the winter?  A well-stocked larder, a good book by a roaring fire?  Don’t we all have our own talismans to help us get through and out the other side of the dark?

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In some Jewish traditions it is thought the pomegranate was the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the Garden of Eden.  In the light of the vast mythological lore surrounding this remarkable fruit, that would make sense.  In Tamil the name for it – maadulampazhum – means ‘woman’s mind’.  The seeds (between 200 and 1400 in one fruit) represent the multifaceted way the female mind works, apparently unfathomable to the male, as the pomegranate seeds are hidden by the skin.  Persephone, Demeter and Hecate were all seeds of the same fruit but it fell to Eve to claim free-will for human beings, making grown-ups and gardeners of us all.

The summer had been ended for some time

If not officially

Before the shock of greyness, blanketing,

Pressed the blind season up against our faces.

Winter, my God, a familiar I had forgotten:

That’s all I needed.

The portcullis dropped and locked around our houses.

The long worthwhile campaign to build the town up

Surrounding it with fruitful fields was seen

To have been only a little flourish; frivolous –

The house of straw of the pig before the wolf.

‘The dark is back’ the eyeless morning said..

From Persephone by Jenny Joseph (Bloodaxe 1986)

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Perfection

photoA renga from Harnham Buddhist Monastery yesterday; the genius loci schema adapted to incorporate the Ten Perfections (paramis – positive qualities to cultivate as part of the Buddhist path – generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, kindness, equanimity).  Ajahn Sucitto calls them ‘ways to cross life’s floods’:

The parami take spiritual practice into areas of our lives where we get confused, are subject to social pressure and are often strongly influenced by stress or stress-forming assumptions.  Providing alternative ways to orient the mind in the stream of daily events, the ‘perfections’ can derail obstructive inner activities and leave the mind clear .  Cultivating parami means you get to steer your life out of the floods.

Tomorrow night we’ll gather for our ritual of Forgiveness and Aspiration – the best way I know to begin a new year.  The New Moon, traditionally a good time for setting fresh intentions, falls on 31st so this year our usually rather arbitrary ‘new’ beginning should have added resonance.  May you have a peaceful and clear crossing of the threshold at the dark of the moon.

Getting Used To Darkness

Brief blue scatterings

lighten the limbo

at the end of the year

*

cold gates clunking

mark the way in

*

the open water

receives sun, breeze

and a lone swan

*
getting used to darkness

I know you are there

*

how even the body relaxes

when you enter a house

full of good people

*

Emma watched the pull

to text back many times

*

fear’s sour taste –

not having

not being enough

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we sit with the impossibility

of nothing

*

these walls built from stone

out of the fields

they now enclose

*

two gardeners

on their hands and knees

*

the bleached tree guards

stake out a promise

of soft glade and birdsong

*

crossed fingers behind your back

won’t do it

*
spines on cacti

fine and scarlet

beneath dim light

*

grant me a spider’s skill

her slow spun wheel

*

he listened

with complete attention

to the difficult guest

*

geese graze tight-in

amongst the Cheviot ewes

*

dark clouds

arced glow

rippling at the shore

*

a rumour of snowdrops

instead of first snow

*

the young oak

have yet to learn

to shed their leaf

*

two hundred kilos of salt

awaiting the weather.

 

A genius loci/parami renga

at Harnham Buddhist Monastery

on 29th December, 2013.

 

 

Participants:

Ajahn Abhinando

John Bower

Chandra Candiani

Linda France

Geoff Jackson

Linda Kent

Eileen Ridley

Tim Rubidge

Christine Taylor

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Even in the Leafless Winter

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As a counterpoint to Christmas I’m very happy to post this piece and accompanying video by Malcolm Green, bird lover and storyteller.  His captivating collaboration with Tim Dalling, Shearwater, has this year toured the length and breadth of the country and will be returning to Orkney for next year’s Festival.

I like the idea that the starlings are putting on a show for those with time to stand and look in North America too.

Reed (Phragmites australis) is the species in the Celtic Tree Calendar for October 28th – November 23rd.

Starlings at Lambley

I first noticed the starlings on a walk with Pat on November 10th (2013).  They were in the reed beds of the Lambley water treatment plant; the reeds alive with their pre-sleep twitter as they found their best perch for the night.  Sometimes five or six excited birds clung to one stalk so many had collapsed.

Then another night from a distance, a ball of them flew through the sky – in turn visible and invisible, expanding and contracting, like a breath.  Breath-taking.

Again on December 8th, I went to the same spot with Paul and we stood beside the reed bed from three o’clock in the afternoon. We watched them assemble; one little flock after the next joining the gathering cloud – a ballet of birds that whipped and whooped through the sky, round and round our heads.  How many were there? Perhaps 20,000 or so individuals that joined together to become a single gyrating organism.

I read on Google that it is possible to understand the movement of the flock mathematically.  It’s also easy to project all sorts of meanings onto this extraordinary dance. But the experience seems to defy rational explanation and this, in a way, is its power. The sight and sound transcends our mental murmurings and busy calculations to simply set our cells aflutter with excitement and awe. A reminder that there is a real, living world away from the desk and the screen.

I believe they have left the little reed bed now.  Perhaps they flattened all the available stalks and it is no longer a refuge.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Malcolm Green

Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,

but with stars in their black feathers,

they spring from the telephone wire

and instantly

 

 

they are acrobats

in the freezing wind.

And now, in the theater of air,

they swing over buildings,

 

 

dipping and rising;

they float like one stippled star

that opens,

becomes for a moment fragmented,

 

 

then closes again;

and you watch

and you try

but you simply can’t imagine

 

 

how they do it

with no articulated instruction, no pause,

only the silent confirmation

that they are this notable thing,

 

 

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin

over and over again,

full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,

 

 

even in the leafless winter,

even in the ashy city.

I am thinking now

of grief, and of getting past it;

 

 

I feel my boots

trying to leave the ground,

I feel my heart pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.

 

 

I want to be light and frolicsome.

I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing,

as though I had wings.

 

Mary Oliver

 

 

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A Door into the Dark

All I know is a door into the dark.

Seamus Heaney – The Forge

IMG_6980On my last visit to the Botanic Garden here in Durham I was struck by the changing view of the trees.  Most of the leaves had been shed, revealing the familiar winter silhouette of bare branches.

IMG_6983One of the trees previously unfamiliar to me is the Japanese Elm, Zelkova serrata, still clinging on to the last of its beautiful ochreish leaves. Rare in the wild, its name derives from the Georgian for ‘bars’ and ‘rock’, reflecting the hardness of the wood, used in architecture and as railings.  I was interested to discover that Georgian is what is known as a Kartvelian language (or South Caucasian).  It is not thought to be related to any other language genealogy, making it one of the world’s primary language families. There are approximately 5.2 million speakers of Kartvelian languages worldwide (mostly in Russia, the United States, Israel and Turkey).

IMG_6984It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable, experience to be lost in the woods any time.  Not till we are completely lost, or turned round, – for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost, – do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature.  Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realise where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

Henry Thoreau – Walden

In the garden, or at my desk, there’s always more to know, to find out and I often feel lost in the midst of it all.  I’m especially aware of that in this University town so dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.  Every day I am learning something new, expanding my small view of the universe.  Today’s lesson was about chlorophyll (courtesy of astronomer Bob Fosbury) – how it both reflects and transmits light, like a thin scattering of snow on the surface of a leaf; how it existed on earth long before we did and made (and still makes) human life possible.

I find myself thinking a lot about the colour green at the moment, and about the limits of what I, and we all, know – in my mind they’re somehow connected.  Bob also showed me an infra-red photograph of an avenue of trees, reflecting so much light beyond the range of what we can see.  As if what is visible to the eye weren’t astonishing enough…

IMG_6986Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark.  That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go…

A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno.  It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?’…

Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?…

Socrates says you can know the unknown because you remember it.  You already know what seems unknown; you have been here before, but only when you were someone else.  This only shifts the location of the unknown other to unknown self.  Meno says, Mystery.  Socrates says, On the contrary, Mystery.  That much is certain.  It can be a kind of compass.

Rebecca Solnit – A Field Guide to Getting Lost

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The Garden in Winter

A weekend in London and a visit to the wonderful Garden Museum

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Tucked away next to Lambeth Palace, the Museum is housed in a converted church.  The 16th century plant hunters, gardeners and collectors, John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570-1638) and Younger (1608-1662), are buried in an ornate tomb in the garden.  Apparently they used to have a small botanical museum in the area, which they called the Ark.

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At this time of year everywhere’s rather bare and back to the bone, but I look forward to returning to see it during the summer.  The knot garden and its surrounds are planted with species introduced by the Tradescants – such as the scarlet runner bean, red maple and tulip tree – and many others grown by them in their Lambeth garden.

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A great way to spend a winter Saturday, looking at old spades and hoes, mowers and watering cans!  Lots of quaint adverts reflecting changes in horticultural fashions.

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As well as the permanent collection, there was also an exhibition of art inspired by gardens over the centuries.  I found a lovely book in the shop recording Charlotte Verity’s year as Artist in Residence – beautiful, delicate paintings and drawings.

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I envied her the chance to observe the changing seasons in such a small but resonant space – time to go deep into it and let it go deep inside her.  I felt something like that during my time at Moorbank.  Looking more widely now at a range of different gardens, I am missing that sense of a clear boundary.  Poetry for me works best in sharp focus, in miniature.  The absences associated with winter also make for a certain spareness just now.  Perhaps the turn of the Solstice will shift things…

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What Love is Like in Winter

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