Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The week We Cleared the Pond

This year, the pond mostly looked like this -

a bit flowery, but mostly overgrown, and frankly out of control. So last week we spent a whole morning clearing, dividing and repotting. And now it looks like this -

The inhabitants were very surprised.

There was a bit of an autumn clean-up going on in other places. It's one of my principles not to be too tidy - yes, folks, the nettles, tansy, alkanet and teasels are there FOR A REASON, dammit - but if I wanted to put in some crocuses under the witch hazel or to see the wild daffodils I planted last year come spring, or even to get to the bird feeder over the winter, something had to be done.

And I weeded the fruit patch. I think this bed will be quite productive this year.

On the poetry front, if anyone is thinking of going to the Reading for Rights event organised by FREA in Irvine next month, there is a poster up on the Burnedthumb website. I'll be reading just before the interval.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Stravaig - call for submissions

Stravaig, the on-line journal of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, is looking for submissions for our second edition. We are looking for poems, essays and artwork on the theme of Coast to Coast.

Please consult the Centre's website for the kind of work we are looking for. Submissions should be sent to by 30th October.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Peregrine by J A Baker

I struggled with this book, and didn't even finish it, mostly because I was reading it in bed last thing at night, and I could never find the place I'd stopped last time. It wasn't that the writing was bad - on the contrary, it was often stratlingly beautiful in a by Ted Hughes out of Dylan Thomas kind of way, it's just that it was so blooming repetitious. The peregrine is nothing more than a sleek elegant (powerful) symbol of violence, fear and death.Once with the:

Something was running towards the safety of the ditch at the side. The hawk dropped lightly upon it. Four wings fluttered together, then two were suddenly still. The hawk flew heavily to the centre of the field, dangling a dead moorhen from his foot.It has wandered too far from cover, as moorhens so often do in their search for food, and it had forgotten the enemy that does not move. The bird out of place is always the first to die. Terror seeks out the odd, and the sick, and the lost.

makes the point. A hundred and twenty two pages is, literally, overkill.

To be fair, the book was written during the Cold War, in the shadow of the Atom Bomb and the Nuremberg Trials, and focusses most on the years immediately following the Cuba crisis. The whole of Western culture in that period seemed to be about the stuctures of power, violence in society and death. And I'm not above using hawk imagery about nuclear weapons myself. But I think that if we are to avoid anthropomorphising our picture of the natural world, it is as important to avoid brutalisation as it is to avoid sentimentality. Your ass is lunch, as Gary Snyder points out - it's a fact of life, human, as well as animal, and sado-masochistic wallowing is as unhelpful as denial.

Two things did stand out for me, however. One was the depiction of the cold winter of 1962-3. I was eight then, and remember it well. Liverpool doesn't often get snow, being coastal, but that winter snow fell on Christmas Day and was still lying in April. The school playground was glassy and treacherous with thick ice, and that was the only winter we ever slept under old overcoats like in the song - because all the blankets we had just weren't enough. We didn't talk about global warming that year - the big fear was the return of the Ice Age. J A Baker describes a snowy desolation of a landscape without birds, and their return with the melting of the ice and the new leaves feels like a victory

The other thing was the casual mention of birds in large flocks - hundreds of lapwings or starlings, redwings and fieldfares in scores and flocks, mass movements of birds coming and going. We were worrying even then about what was happening to our environment, but Baker's countryside seems so rich and fertile and so well populated by everything from sparrows to nightingales. Since then peregrines have thrived, but I haven't seen more that twenty lapwings in one place for years, and the winter migrants come singly, not in flocks. We are used to worrying about the loss of species, but the overwhelming impression I get from reading books from previous years (and it's only fifty years ago) is that population densities have crashed even in species we regard as common, and safe, even in areas where we are aware and trying to protect biodiversity.

It's probably fair to see Baker's book as a product of its period, and it has certainly inspired many fine naturalists and nature writers. I'd like to go further, however. The disciplines of both geo-poetics and permaculture invite us to go beyond projecting our ideals and failings onto nature, simply observing what is happening around us, spotting the energy blocks and opportunities to develop from within the natural world not from the solipsistic human bubble of aspirations and remorse we seem to favour.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Territory in August

We went away in summer, and it feels almost as if we have come back to autumn. It is mostly the illusion caused by the week's gap, but not all. The rowans are red, the elderflower is over (it seemed to go on and on this year, and in England it is flowering yet), and all the birds have fledged, even the big black-backed gull chicks who were trampolining about on their warehouse roof, while the older birds all trash-talked them into finally making the jump. The swifts have gone, and I've seen the first geese and heard curlews heading coastwards.

Ther vegetable patch is coming good. We've started eating courgettes, and the first beans will be later this week. There are tomatoes ripening - not many, pollination has been poor, and now the bean plants aren't so tall the pigeons can't find the cabbages so easily.And my companion planting of borage and marigold looks fabulous, even if it doesn't seem to achieve much!

This photo was meant to be a spider's web, coloured rusty with the spores of the fern it stretches over, but I'm not sure whether you can make it out.I've sown some of it, according to the instructions on Sunday's Gardener's Question Time, just for curiosity. Fernseed is curious stuff. Apart from the fact it isn't actually seed at all, it was popularly supposed to be magical - if you mixed it with oil it could make a potion enabling you to see fairies. I think I'll settle for some more fernlets to plant in the shady places!

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Week of the Lavender

Four generations of us - my mother-in-law, my hsband and myself, our two daughters and our grand-daughter - went on holiday to North Yorkshire last week. (Our son is busy finishing his last hospital placement at the moment and he and his wife couldn't be with us). It is a lovely part of the world and we went on this train to Whitby for the beach, the Abbey and the Dracula experience, but for me, the highlight of the week was the Wolds Way Lavender Farm

I do love lavender; there are so many varieties, and the scent is so powerful - and not at all oldlady-ish - and the bees and butterflies were everywhere. It was developed on the site of a run-down pig farm, and as well as the commercial side of things, it tries to be as sustainable as possible. The distillation process is fuelled by their own wood, and the ground surrounding the display and production areas has been landscaped to encourage wildlife.

I came home with five new varieties of lavender for my garden, some tips on growing them well, and a lot of inspiration. Now I am picking up the threads of my poetry life and my garden, and looking forward to being involved in an archaeological project in our local Abbey. I'm not sure yet just what this will entail, but it sounds very promising. Watch this space as the project unfolds!

Monday, 6 August 2012


The Fall of Feathers

August in Scotland, and the air is full
of thistledown and feathers.

gull feathers white on the fields,
the young starling's downy beige

among the seedheads, gold and scarlet flash
of finches at their autumn feast.

A sparrow hits the window.
Three grey feathers spiral to earth.

A sparrowhawk catches a pigeon,
leaves a whirl of plumage and blood.

August in Hiroshima,
feathers of ash and burning rain.

August in our memory.
paper cranes, falling tears.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Selected Poems By Kerry Hardie

This is a book by a poet who is new to me, which I bought at StAnza, and I am so pleased I did. Kerry Hardie is an Irish poet who writes about a lot about home, exile and travelling, the Irish landscape, alive with birds and changing weather, and the people who live there, about illness death and bereavement. It is domestic poetry, in that it grows from the engagement with home and family, but not domesticated - by which I mean that it is not sheltered, cosy, narrow or sentimental.

People talk a lot about restoring a lost connection to the earth, and there is a lot of poetry which tries very self-consciously to re-create that connection, often by air-brushing out the people, as if 'wild' nature was somehow more natural. There is, of course, a real problem in very urbanised or industrialised societies - you only had to look at the opening of the Olympic Games to see how dominant the built landscape and the technological mindset is in England. But this book is a poetry of the human inhabitation and involvement in landscape. It is no less knowledgeable or realistic about the natural world than some of the 'geek poets' I reviewed earlier this year, or the wild writers, but it does feel more assured, more grounded, even more genuinely progressive.

It's also more accessible. The style of these poems is deceptively easy. They read like notes to friends, snatches of conversation with - or about family members. But the language is acutely visual, tactile, atmospheric, and the thinking is profound. Way back when I first went on line, and my blog was hosted by LiveJournal, I had a rant about religious poetry, which is so often a over for preaching, confrontation or simply shoddy poetics and/or theology. Not this time. This is how you write good poetry about religion. I love it.

You can find out more about Kerry Hardie on the Bloodaxe website: