Wednesday, 30 March 2011

the territory of rain

The rain got here! the garden definitely needed it, but I am so glad I took the chance to garden yesterday. I cleared the bit around the pond, to give a bit of breathing space to the yellow flag irises I grew from seed

and the woodland bed under the birch tree, getting rid of excessive aquilegias (it would break your heart to do it, as they are so lovely, but everything else needs room too! I also planted out some sweet violets here in the hope that they will produce more of the intensely purple - almost liquid in its depth - flowers and less leaves.

I forked over the herb patch and added some more sage and thymes, some st john's wort and some wood violets

and planted out a seedling fennel in the rose bed. I sowed three sorts of tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, carrots and beetroot, calabrese, courgettes, and rosemary seeds as an insurance, because my new bush that I planted this year looks as if it got walloped by the frost and it's struggling some. Finally I planted five root cuttings of comfrey. I could regret this - comfrey plants spread like mint - but they are so useful for providing liquid feeds for all those tomatoes, that it's worth it.

Oh, and I picked the first rhubarb, too.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Going Outward

This is Brantwood, the setting for our Geopoetics conference "Going Outward" this weekend. It is a beautiful house, set in 250 acresof lovely Lakeland countryside and overlooking Coniston Water. It was the home of John Ruskin, and the setting for some of his experiments in farming and gardening, and where he spent years studying and drawingand encouraging local crafts and industries.

I hadn't known much about Ruskin apart from his art criticism, which established the reputation of Turner and inspired the Pre-Raphaelites, but it turned out there was a lot more to him than that. He was interested in education and social welfareand the environment, and the place of art and creativity in the lives of ordinary working people, not just a cultured elite. He was a competent but not a great artist, (which gave him a perceptive insight into the process of painting) and a serious geologist, not to mention a prolific writer.

The Brantwood Trust who own and manage the property now, continue his aims by managing the estate with a view to sustainable farming and conservation of habitat as well as making it pleasant and accessible for visitors. There is a gallery for local artists and they run courses in gardening, and drawing, and a very pleasant and comfortable venue for conferences like ours.

We learned about Ruskin and visited the garden - many of us took a walk around the estate, but I didn't, being defeated by the distances and the steep hills involved. I looked around the herb garden full of plants useful for dyeing and medicine and food and cosmetics, and watched the ducks on the lake and visited the house, which is kept very much as Ruskin left it.

We talked about the connections between Ruskin and geo-poetics, and between geo-poetics (and poetry in general) and film-making and watched some very stunning films. We had a social evening with poetry and singing and stories, and were introduced to the work of Mariusz Wilks (particularly his Journals of a White Sea-Wolf) a Polish Writer who practices geo-poetics in Russia, and heard poetry from England, Scotland, Wales, Poland and Venezuala. All in all, it was a great weekend - even the weather was lovely!

You can find out more about geopoetics here

Monday, 28 March 2011

Water - A (quick) Pause inLent

The theme of readings for the 3rd week in Lent is water, which seems quite timely as I have been

noting World Water Day last Wednesday.
We are heading for a serious water crisis, not because there isn't going to be enough water, but because it's going to be
in the wrong places
in short supply where we need it

We are draining the ground water very fast (60% of European cities are using up groundwater resources faster than they can be replenished - I got this figure off the New Civil Engineer, so you can bet that if they are worried, we should be).

We are creating deserts where fertile ground used to be by cutting down trees

We are creating serious floods by paving over ground which used to store water and release it into rivers gradually, or by building on flood plains

and of course,

We are melting the ice caps by excessive carbon emissions. It was also Climate Change week last week, and Earth Hour on Saturday.

Learning about the rock formations in my territory

and finding that a lot of my home landscape was created by water - the action of glaciers carving out valleys and depositing sedimentary rocks, and the inundation of the sea, which at one time used to come in as far as Aberfoyle.

Watching Richard Ashrowan's beautiful film 'Lament'

which features eddies in the River Tweed, at a geo-poetics Weekend at Brantwood House in the Lake District. This lead us to reflect on the transitory nature of human lives---

remembering as a counter-balance the passage in Psalm 1
where the man who ponders the law of the Lord is compared to
a tree that is planted
beside the flowing waters
that yields its fruit in due season
and whose leaves shall never fail

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A Poetic Weekend

On Saturday I went to St Andrews for the StAnza festival. Every year I say I should book early, and I should plan to stay over so I can get to the late night things, but always I forget, and I missed the Sorley Maclean events and seeing Billy Letford and so many more---

But St andrews is always fun. their idea of civil disobedience appears to be five pensioners tutting because the garden centre isn't open, and the Tesco express seems to think that students live on sprouting broccoli and organic pasta (not a sausage roll insight!). I think there were more lederhosen and grey floppy felt hats (a bit like Gandalf, only with blue and white cords around them) than I personally need to feel at home in a place, but the fish supper was the best I've ever had, much improved by the sight of the guy behind the counter prepping a lobster while I waited for my salt and vinegar on it!

I did get to the Anne Clarke reading, and Philip Gross and Selima Hill, and they were excellent events, but the really nice thing is to wander about and meet people and find out who has interesting things happening, and discover new things about poetry. Judy Williams (who was, just by chance in the seat next to me for the Selima Hill night) introduced me to the concept of the 'glosa' - a poetic form which expands and comments on already existing writing. It doesn't have to be another poem (at least not in my head; the classic version probably does) and I can see endless possibilities.

On Sunday I was at the Tower Mill in Hawick for an event organised by Eildon Tree, which was held over from the bad weather last December. It's a long haul to Hawick from here, but those Ettrick hills are the most beautiful I've ever seen. I kid you not, and I am married to a guy who is nuts about hills, so I've seen a fair few. It was much quieter than St Andrews, but there were some cracking readings (mostly short stories), and excellent music from four girls who called themselves Fiddling Chiks. Eildon Tree is a magazine which promotes new writing 'in the borders and beyond', and like Northwords Now it's free, but it's harder to come by as there isn't a web-site. I found it in the Scottish Poetry Library - well worth a look.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Mountain Moments - Second pause in Lent

This distant mountain is Ben Ledi, the highest I can see from where I live. It's the motif for the second Sunday in Lent, because in our church we always read about the Transfiguration today.

Last year I think I talked about those moments of vision which sustain us when life gets bleak (which it did, as I remember, and still does). This year I want to move beyond the private and personal, into my life as a poet and as someone trying to live an environmentally responsible life.

Poetry - like religion, it seems to me - often gets stuck in a concern for private moments of illumination, as if they are the only things worth writing about - or worse, the only things worth living for. But this is to say that poetry, or religion is no more than self-indulgence. St Peter (who often gets put down for being impatient or overly self-assertive with his excited 'let's build three tents' outburst), is perhaps on the right track. The privileged moments aren't just to be savoured. They demand a response, a commitment. If we are lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of the world, then it isn't enough to be grateful and appreciate it. We must also cherish it, and be responsible for it. If we write poetry it isn't just about how lucky we are - it's also to share our vision with people, and enable them to cherish and share and speak up for their own visions.

As an environmentally conscious person, this last point is most important. It's easy for me, living in a fairly rural setting, to get excited about skylarks and buzzards and whooper swans, and as a person who isn't on the breadline, to ponder about where the most ethical food is going to come from - and I'm not going to apologise for it; those issues are important.

But some people don't have that luxury. Some people live in inner cities. Some people live alongside polluted rivers, depleted soil, or toxic emissions, or have to deal with failing monsoons, or catastrophhic weather systems. I get the feeling that a lot of green aspirations are romantic and nostalgic, or a fairly desperate longing for a new start. We can't do that. We have to say with Peter, "It is good for us to be here ".

I have become very enthusiastic about permaculture theory lately for many reasons - it is pro-diversity (including human, social and philosphical diversity), it is positive and hopeful, and it seems well grounded in understanding the earth and the way we are likely to behave. But one of the big things going for it is the way it is being used to revive degraded environments in the third world, after over-development or environmental disaster.

Here's a link to the Permaculture Portal, where you can read all about some of the good things that are happening all over the world. But best of all, ways to start here, where we are.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

who are we without the land? a first pause in Lent

Christianity gets a bad rep for being insensitive to the environment. It gets blamed for a dualistic soul/body, earth/heaven dichotomy in our thinking, which privileges the spirtual and the heavenly over the material and the here and now. That isn't Christianity, it's neoplatonism, but quite often you do find Christians who fit that stereotype, and I'd like to spend this Lent thinking about it.

The traditional Ash Wednesday injunction 'remember man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return' seems to have gone by the board these days - we just can't handle inclusive language in English and I do remember a priest saying he thought calling a woman 'woman' was quite rude (says it all, really) so he wouldn't do it. It's a shame, because it does highlight the fact that we are of the earth and have a responsibility to it.

I might talk about places where Christianity is a more rural phenomenon and redress a balance or two later on in Lent, but this week I want to consider something a bit more immediate. In this country Christianity (and especially Catholicism) has been a very urban experience - apart from in the Highlands and Islands, anyway. And with the exception of eg the Duke of Norfolk, it has been a poor people's experience. It's less so now, but we do keep what we call the preferential option for the poor, and this goes part way to explaining the lack of environmental awareness.

The poor don't own land. The poor don't have big gardens, can't buy smallholdings, or holiday cottages, and are finding it hard even to rent homes in the country. There's even competition for allotments.

What's worse, the poor have been removed from the land by industrialisation, high prices, war, emigration and several different kinds of chicanery from the enclosure of the common land to compulsory purchase. And there isn't much anyone can do about that now.

The Christian religion grew up among people who had been forcibly removed from the land. It was important that they developed a belief system which granted them dignity even without a home or a nation. They had to build new communities inspired by a God who cared for them even in the most radically deprived circumstances. It isn't surprising that some people began to feel that the land doesn't matter.

But this leaves people vulnerable. There are people who will use this attitude to justify stealing the land from under the feet of those who live there. Donald Trump, for instance, seems to feel that money can compensate for the loss of home and community any time he wants some. We only have to remember the outcry about the sale of forests in England to realise that this is a live issue. Land does matter. It has to be guarded, cherished. While we live, we are dependant on the land, and responsible for it.

But there is another point, and we have to make this clear too. There was a time when only landowners had the vote. They owned the land, they took care of it, they got to decide what was done with it, never mind what their tenants thought and felt about it. And this attitude hasn't gone away. Now the owners may not be wicked squires and landed gentry; they might be agri-businesses or insurance companies or even conservation groups. But they can't be allowed to behave as if the landless don't matter. The environmental shake-up that is on its way has got to work as much for the urban landless working classes as for the suburban gardeners and allotment-holders, the farmers and landed gentry.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Living Landscape

The Living Landscape:How to Read and Understand It By Patrick Whitefield

This is a fascinating book, which pretty much does what it says on the jacket. Patrick Whitefield is a man who knows his own territory intimately and understands the changes that have made it what it is today. In this book he looks at all sorts of landscape, mostly, but not exclusively, rural, and deals with everything from geology to land use and wildlife. It is easy to read, but very densely packed with information, maps, diagrams and colour photographs. It is published by Permanent Publications in conjunction with The Permaculture Association (Britain).

I read this last summer excited to discover how much it is possible to learn from observing the trees and plants and climate of a place, and this year I am reading it again, more slowly, and using it as a focus for my territory walks. By this time next year I hope I will have built up a good picture of the area I live in.

Area Profile
A landscape shaped by the flows and falls and resting places of water, my territory is the flat land along the valley of the Forth.

It is surrounded by the Trossachs (highest Ben Vorlich 987m and Ben Ledi 879m) to the north,

the Ochils (highest Dumyat 418m) to the north and east, to the south west the Touch and Gargunnock Hills (highest Black Craig, 485m), and to the west, Flanders Moss.

The Valley opens out between the hills to the Carse of Stirling, once very wet and boggy, now drained for farming. The rock is red sandstone and the soil in our valley is silty gley, though largely fertile because the village has been cultivated so long, and some patches of very sticky clay.

The village itself grew up around the Abbey, which was famous for its orchards – only one of which survives. The River Teith flows into the Forth at Craigforth, to the north of the area.

The Forth itself winds and meanders and is tidal as far up as the old Stirling Bridge.

Monday, 7 March 2011

so whose is poetry anyway?

We had a really good night at the Mitchell library last night - Glasgow is a city that really knows how to do libraries - a gorgeous big sandstone building, takes books seriously, sells books, good rooms for readings and other events, good toilets (ok, it's a middle-aged preoccupation, but our local library doesn't have a loo within 100 yards), has plenty of computers near the cafe where they don't bother the rest of us - and the cafe is brilliant too. Only downside is you meed a map and a guide, and possibly even a St Bernard with brandy to negotiate all those corridors, but the staff are that helpful I wouldn't be too sure they don't have one somewhere.

The evening was set up by the Scottish Writers Federation, and the organisation was immaculate. I notice that many poetry events these days are the same; I'm not sure if the flaky absent-minded poet stereotype is being de-bunked, or if it is accepted so completely that we overcompensate, but there are several business organisations that could learn a thing or two from the arts people!

There were thirty-five writers reading, and I was assured that access to the opportunity was completely open. Anyone who wanted to read got the chance, although latecomers had to go into a draw for the wild card slots. This meant much greater diversity than you get in a lot of readings - there were performance poets, page poets, novelists, first-timers, very experienced poets, young ones and pillars of the writing community.

Obviously the quality was variable. Obviously there were some poets who wouldn't get published in the TLS any time soon. And I've seen articles by prominent writers complaining that all this inclusivity is an insult to professionals who have spent years learning their craft, and is even demeaning to the whole of literature. I didn't like the sound of this at the time, and after last night I'm even surer that this is bull-dust.

Let's take quality first. If you put a lot of beginner poems alongside, say, Seamus Heaney (oops, my prejudices are showing here, but who's going to argue) it doesn't imply that one is as good as another. In fact it becomes obvious to anyone who gives a damn about poetry which is an achieved poem and which is a good attempt. And yes, I imagine there are 'poets' who will find this a kind of validation, tick the ambition off their life list, and dine out on it ever after, but they aren't really poets. They won't stick around because they'll be off after their next target, and small loss to the rest of us. Any beginner who actually cares about what they are doing will see perfectly that they have a long way to go. The accolade of being included isn't a reward, it's permission to roll up their sleeves and start work. And we live in a culture where many people feel the need for that permission. To deprive them of it is simply mean-spirited.

But there's also something more basic at stake. If poetry is reduced to an academic discipline, requiring years of training, then it becomes an unsustainable luxury, like grand opera. And if there isn't corporate sponsorship (with the creation of spectacular events so the corporate can do their entertaining) then pretty soon it's just fiddling while the Big Society burns, and then there won't be any poetry. And who would miss it?

Last night showed another perspective. There was a lot of very accomplished poetry, and I've noted a few names to look out for in future. But some of the least developed stuff was potentially the most important. I don't know what you called it, George McEwan, but the Ballad of Reid and Airlie ought to be up there with the Freedom Comeallye. People wrote about some of the most important issues of their lives - sometimes personal, sometimes political. People used poetry to get to grips with family issues, personal events, community and historical perspectives. It went beyond 'self-expression'; it wasn't just a licence to let off steam about stuff. It was the genuine voice of a community.

Poetry needs this. If poetry loses touch with this, it will deserve to disappear.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

February in the garden

We had such nice weather last weekend. The crocuses seemed to appear from nowhere,

the snowdrops were in full flower, and all the birds seem to be manically nesting. The shyer ones who came in during the cold weather seem to have gone back to quiter country, but there are sparrows, dunnocks, all kinds of tits, robins and blackbirds setting up their territories.

And I am setting up mine.The early potatoes are in, seeds are happening,

and I'm planting soft fruit bushes, like the redcurrant above, and the gooseberry below.

At my desk, I've updated the burnedthumb web-site, and written a few wintry poems.
On Sunday I will be reading at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow -gorgeous sandstone building. You can find out about this event, organised by the Scottish Federation of Writers, here