Tuesday, 26 April 2011

poem fragments

It seems a while since there was any actual poetry on this blog, so it's time to redress the balance. As I'm working my way through Patrick Whitefield's "The Living Landscape", I've begun to write a sequence of poems about my home territory. Here are bits of the newer ones, still in draft form.

(from)The Territory of Rain
This is the territory of rain.
It is king here, more than cold or wind,
and all living is by negotiation
with flows and falls of water.

Earth and sky are heavy with it.
Peat grips it like a miser's fist.
River runs muddy as it sloughs
the silt from bank and hillside.
It winks between grass stems,
silvers pot-holes in the tarmac,
attacks roofs with soft persistence,
slips between slate and timber.

(from) Grounded
In the gardens the soil is deep, dark and full
of broken china, rubble of half-bricks, the bony
broken bowls of clay pipes. As I dig the kitchen bed,
seeds from other gardeners, poppy, columbine,
marigold and wild pansy, come to light, and flower
rowdily among the onions. Neither first here
nor last, I leave seeds too – borage, nasturtium
blue-flowered alkanet. They'll never be rid of me -
I'll be here, recidivist gardener, grounded on earth.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

April in the Garden

We took a short break up north in Helmsdale last weekend. The weather was lovely, the B&B was great and we visited brochs, cairns, Viking castles and deserted villages to our hearts content. But it's meant rather erratic blogging this week.

The weather went on being lovely and I took a day to catch up with garden jobs, putting in potatoes, pricking out tomatoes and the half-hardy annuals, and planting out herbs, digging out the ground elder. It looks so innocent when it first comes up, but it has roots that tangle everywhere, and I've been fighting it ineffectually for nearly thirty years. It's worse than bindweed. The garden is almost the way I want it now, though there's a trellis to put up, some more fruit bushes to put in and space to find for more wild-life friendly plants and nest-boxes. The mulching round the roses is paying off, and most of the seeds I've sown are germinating nicely - all we need is a bit more rain.

After that, though, the week went downhill, with something nasty and postviral stealing a couple of days. But it's hard to be despondent as spring gathers full strength. The pear blossom is past its best already, but the cherry is at its peak, and the apple (my favourite) just poised to be glorious. All the trees apart from ash - always the last - are shimmering green, and there are new flowers every time I go out.

Enjoy your holiday weekend!

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A Last Post in Lent

This post is rather late, as I've been up north, looking at deserted villages near Helmsdale in Sutherland. The weather was beautiful, and we enjoyed exploring Helmsdale and Brora as well as Bad Bea and the Old Castle of Wick. We celebrated Palm Sunday in Brora, a tiny, but friendly parish, which set the tone for the last week in Lent. We had the belssing of the palms, and a short procession, and at the Gospel there was the reading of St Matthew's Passion. In the newsletter there was the comment:

'the phrase His blood be upon us and upon our children is a reference to the sack of Jerusalem in 68 AD and not an excuse for anti-semitismn..

This can't be said too often.

'the phrase His blood be upon us and upon our children is a reference to the sack of Jerusalem in 68 AD and not an excuse for anti-semitismn..

All my life this has been said to me, and yet, it needs saying. I'm less shocked by the bad behaviour I hear about, as people will always make excuses to blame the outsider, but what really bothered me was the story of a village in Poland where the Catholics all helped and protected their Jewish neighbours, and enabled them to escape, but were terrified that their priest would condemn them for being disloyal to their faith. How do people get their faith so mixed up?

Actually the story of the Passion has been a fairly constant example of how people often get their faith mixed up. From a sado-masochistic wallowing in the suffering and pain involved, to the interpretation of God as a strict legalistic tit-for-tat lawyer demanding that someone has to die because of the Fall, from the blaming and name-calling to the emotional blackmail that D H Lawrence describes when he imagines Christ saying, "I got this for you, Ursula Brangwen, now shut up and do as you are told", there have always been fairly dysfunctional presentations of a story that is meant to be about liberation, about forgiveness, compassion and new life.

But then, what really crucified Jesus was the dysfunctional views of our relationship with God - our fear that religion demands more than we are capable of giving, that it means conforming, no matter what the pain, that it is about punishment and rejection, and suffering for the cause. Let's not pretend that faith is all sweetness and light, consolation and reward - it can be demanding, and integrity can be painful. The way out of the messes we get ourselves into is no walk in the park. But it is, genuinely, a way out. Easter is the Good News, after all!

I wish all of you - Christians of all traditions, observers of all faiths and none, some good news, some liberation from what grieves you, some spring-time joy and new life. Happy Easter!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Walking the Territory - Spring

Among the ivy there is new green

and the hawthorn trees are in exuberant fresh leaf

Everything isn't lovely however - among the nettles (no, I don't do nettle soup) are unfolding leaves of giant hogweed. It looks quite attractive when it's new, but it's decptive. It towers to about seven feet high, shading everything else out, seeds as prolifically as dandelions and has roots that go down as far as hell. And, as if that wasn't bad enough, they sting worse than nettles and can cause terrible burns to unwary children. Our council is quite good at spraying the stuff on the roadsides, but it seems impossible to keep up with it.

On the other hand, however, we do have the cuckoo flower, just getting into its stride. The pear blossom is out and the early flowering cherries,and I heard the first skylark.

Monday, 11 April 2011


On the 5th Sunday of Lent the readings in our church are on the themes of life and death, with the over-riding motif that God is not about sentencing to death, but about raising from the dead - we start with Ezechiel's "I am going to raise you from your graves, my people" and go on the the story of Lazarus.

A lot of people think that Christianity is all about the next life, as a kind of trade-off for all the bad stuff we have to put up with in this (along with a nice side dish of seeing people we don't like in hell-fire).

I'm thinking that the way we view death shouldn't be an excuse to postpone living in the moment, but on the contrary, it should make a radical difference to the way we live our life here and now. How would you feel if that annoying person who is giving you so much grief landed up in Heaven next to you? (You do believe in the forgiveness of sins and redemption and all that don't you?)

Here is the most challenging witness to life after death that I know of. Imagine not only forgiving your murderer, but greeting him as a brother in Heaven. When I reviewed the film "Of Gods and Men" (which was cited in the Observer yesterday as one of the best films of all time - I agree!), I lamented that there wasn't a decent translation of Chretien de Cherge's Testament on the web, and a very kind woman in Germany sent me a copy (see below). Her name is Monika Farhrenburger.

I may say that since that post I have come across a Moslem conservationist from Algeria called Hichem, who is trying to live this message out from his tradition. I feel very privileged to have got to know him and Monika.

Testament of Dom Christian de Chergé

                                                                    (opened on Pentecost Sunday, May 26, 1996)

                                                                                                                                    Facing a GOODBYE.... 
If it should happen one day - and it could be today -
that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf
all the foreigners living in Algeria,
I would like my community, my Church and my family
to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me:
for how could I be found worthy of such an offering?
I ask them to associate this death with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value.
In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood.
I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil
which seems to prevail so terribly in the world,
even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.
I should like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity
which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God
and of my fellow human beings,
and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down.
I could not desire such a death.
It seems to me important to state this.
I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice
if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay
for what will perhaps be called, the "grace of martyrdom"
to owe it to an Algerian, whoever he might be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately.
I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism fosters.
It is too easy to soothe one's conscience
by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: it is a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, I think, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there that true strand of the Gospel
which I learned at my mother's knee, my very first Church,
precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm
those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic:
"Let him tell us now what he thinks of his ideals!"
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, God willing:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as He sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always be to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today,
and you, my friends of this place,
along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families,
You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a "GOD-BLESS" for you, too,
because in God's face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.

Algiers, 1st December 1993 
Tibhirine, 1st January 1994 

Christian + 

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abrams

David Abrams is a magician as well as an anthropologist and critic, so has a really interesting take on the concept of 'spell'. It comes down to the fact that when a person knows somethng intimately and practices a craft to the point where it becomes second nature, it looks like 'magic' to an observer. But it isn't - it's knowledge and skill.

But this combination of knowledge and skill isn't somthing our culture is good at. We are very good at learning vast quantities of information; we are pretty good at organising and storing and accessing information, and astonishingly good at communicating it (less good at evaluating it, however!).

What Abrams points out is not only that information is different from knowledge - it's static, verifiable, presumed to be universal when verified, and requires intellectual detachment - but the pursuit of information rather than knowledge changes our relationship to the world in which we live - greatly to our detriment. Not only do we lose access to the skills and knowledge acquired by the 'magician', but we become increasingly isolated from the earth, and ignorant about the way we need to treat it. In primitive societies people lived in dialogue to all the living creatures, and even the earth itself. Once we became literate, or more accurately, privileged the kinds of knowledge conferred by literacy over the rest, we tallked only to other humans, or perhaps only literate humans, and since the internet gives us access to so many people that we must be selective, only to those humans who reflect our own world vision.

It's a compelling argument, and backed up by a lot of interesting and convincing research. I have reservations however. I don't think those skills and that kind of knowledge arequite so lost as Abrams imagines. Anyone who practises a craft, works with animals with any dedication, tends a garden or tries to observe wildlife; anyone who looks after small children or provides care for the sick or for people in difficulty, is learning other ways of knowing and relating to the world around us. Many of the experiences Abrams has to go to indigenous tribes to discover are a regular part of life for urban western people who aren't confined to a university or a bank. But it is true, and dangerously true, that this kind of knowledge and skill, that implies relationship rather than detachment, experience rather than validation, and is fluid, adaptive and relative rather than static and verifiable, is despised in certain quarters. And those are the quarters who have the money and the power and where decisions are made.

Also I must admit that I have a soft spot for the static, verifiable, scientific kind of knowledge. I am by nature impulsive, emotional and adaptive. I do the relational sort of response all the time. It's not always the right thing to do. Often it makes decision-making incredibly difficult and it leaves you fairly vulnerable to bullying and manipulation. An ability to sort things out, get organised,detach yourself from the whirlwind or the bog of the immediate situation, make comparisons and evaluate your information can be pretty damn' valuable now and then.

Anyway, if we stopped being literate, who would read this book?

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A Poem for an Artist

Here's a poem I wrote for the dyer and eco-alchemist India Flint. I hope to include it in the poetry collection which is due to come out in August.
India's Alchemy
For India Flint
How she simmers mashed leaves,
shredded roots, pounded bark and berries
until the colour flows, and bleeds
into kettles, and stains her hands,

how the mordant bonds and brightens,
and how the air transforms
the white to rust and umber,
green indigo to bright blue,

and how some stains are welcome.
Silk drinks up the sap of leaf and flower,
colours different every time, and shapes
a ghostly faded permanence, like memory,
like what our hearts are steeped in.

India has a new post on her blog Not All Who Wander Are Lost about a project she did called The Colours of Home. It's not only an inspiring concept, it produced some wonderful fabrics. You can see them here

Monday, 4 April 2011

the gleam of light on water - 4th pause in Lent

The theme for this Sunday in our church was light, or vision. It's a theme that matters a lot to me.

The 'gleam of light on water' is an ancient Celtic metaphor for a moment of delight, or enlightenment - a glimpse of the 'otherworld'. It's the metaphor I used to underpin Lúcháir, though I don't think the enlightened world is so very 'other'. As Christians we're supposed to believe in the resurrection of the body, not some disembodied etherial blissed out state of mind, which means there's a definite place in our spirituality for a deep love and commitment to the world we're in.

But we have to see it differently. See it as it is, not as we want it to be (or are afraid it might be). See it as a masterpiece of creation, not a snare or a delusion. And see every fact we can establish about it as a gift from God (so there's no room for pretending evolution didn't happen). It has been a tradition in my family, which is heavily biassed in favour of the sciences, that all truth leads to God. If you think there's a contradiction between faith and science, then you probably don't understand one or the other (and possibly both).

I was going to go on about this, but frankly the whole thing makes me cross. I know that people on both sides are just lining up along the party lines because they hate the other lot. I've heard Catholics sneer at the Big Bang theory, and I can see that if they realised that one of the leading scientists involved in discovering it was a Catholic, they'd change sides without breaking step. And some Protestant fundamentalists talking about the earth being 6000 years old, who would drop it like a hot potato if they knew that this calculation was made by a bishop (and well after the Bible was written!). And there are some atheists who find it hard to accept that any Christian can be a scientist at all.

Seeing with the eyes of faith doesn't involve switching your brain off. It involves switching your heart on. Then maybe we can hear the insights of people we don't agree with, and learn from them, without sacrificing our own integrity. And that would be a whole other world!