Stormy weather

28 June 2011 § 8 Comments

Donner und Blitzen

All day
It’s been building up to this.
Now impatient Lightning,
Weary of waiting,
Runs on ahead
A million miles
While the lumbering laggard Thunder
Is still lacing up his boots.

You can try
To drown out the old tales
With talk of vapour, latent heat
Charged particles and ions;
Facts and equations all laid out
In quick, brilliant strokes
Across a blackboard sky.

But when the stuffed and swollen night
Bursts and splits
Zeus still rages round his realm;
Jupiter hurls the blazing bolts
That Vulcan forged for him;
Red-bearded Thor takes another ride
Swinging Mjöllnir in one mighty fist
Smiting the Jotun at Asgard’s gates and
Warming the earth
With sparks struck from the mountain-tops.
And God decides the sofa
Would look better over there.

Too much of a good thing

23 June 2011 § 15 Comments

Losing myself

I have found myself
So filled with others’ clamour
My own word-hoard is spent and plundered.
I have measured each hour’s value
While leaving its true worth unweighed;
Made walking in the woods and fields
Another tick on the to-do list,
Gloried in the dawn departures
And burning quarts of midnight oil,
Talked of plans and strategies,
Of doing, being, wanting more.

So I must lose myself
Again; become forgetful,
Run my hands along the bark
Of growing trees, watch the wind
Turn ash-leaves silver,
Smell the grass the cows have trodden,
Find my old ways through the woods.
And if I wander far enough
I know that I will meet myself
Coming back again.

Summer solstice

21 June 2011 § 10 Comments

Sol sistere

So. The sun stands still.

And for half a heartbeat
The year is balanced
Like a coin on its edge.

On the sarsen-studded hill
They watch the light
Flare round the hele stone
As white-robed priests
Chant Alban Hefin incantations
In a strange, forgotten tongue.

Then the clock ticks
And tips us over
To start the long slow roll
Down into darkness
Where Alban Arthan waits
Crowned with holly, bound in iron.

Fields of fire

20 June 2011 § 4 Comments

Night fighters

A white beam
Sweeps the midnight fields
Like a hand searching under a bed.
Grass-blades caught beneath its bright gleam
Bristle black; a million tiny gnomons
Telling the rapid hours
Of this unwonted, sudden sun.
The woods recoil before
The engine’s heavy throb,
And poplars flare
Like burning buildings
In the tail-lights’ angry glare.

Two shots.

The echo rolls
And ricochets around the farm.
Keep your head down, Reynard;
Squeeze tight the shining eyes
That will betray you
And seek the shelter of the earth.

At half a mile, my skin grows tight
Waiting for the spent stray’s bite;

Then wonder. The hunting dog is gone
In search of rabbits on the wrong
Side of the hedge. Caught in the edge
Of that cruel light, a half-second’s untutored sight
Of that long nose and wolfish gait
Would be enough to seal his fate.
I call him, with the sickened urgency
Of frantic fathers trapped in Tripoli
When unseen hunters rip their night
With noise, and death’s unholy light.

Power plants

15 June 2011 § 9 Comments

Photosynthetic

From the air they softly suck the gas
That, one day, could kill us all.
Unseen, their chloroplasts
Surge and jostle to catch the sunlight:
Microscopic power stations
Blanketing the world,
Making fuel enough
To heat, light and move us
Six times over, while emitting only
The elements of life itself.
In due season
They seduce our senses courting bees
Then freely let their future fall
Into our waiting, hungry hands.
They have no voice
But that the breeze bestows;
No locomotion of their own, yet set
The earth itself astir,
Heaving, splitting – and, when they are gone,
Surrendering to gravity,
Water and the wind.
Without them, we would suffocate,
Starve, sleep unsheltered, till
We stumble to a sweating, shivering end.
This we know
And so
In labs, the white-coats burn through time and millions
In their attempts to do what Nature
Cracked a billion years ago.
While she continues, quiet and unremarked,
In every leaf and blade of grass.

Inspired by last night’s BBC documentary Botany – A Blooming History. Photosynthesis is so easy to take for granted, yet it’s the most fundamental process on earth. During the programme, they showed some leading-edge research being done at the University of Glasgow that’s aiming to reproduce photosynthesis in the laboratory. It’s important work, potentially unlocking unlimited sources of free, clean energy. The scientists are using electricity, platinum electrodes and all kinds of complex apparatus to separate water into its constituent elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Something the humblest plants have been doing, using nothing but sunlight, for a thousand million years, and we’re still decades away from fully understanding, let alone copying.

Desecration

13 June 2011 § 11 Comments

Heart broken

Rounding a rise deep in the wood
I feel my throat and fingers tighten:

A half-dozen young hornbeams
Supple, wrist-thick, new in leaf,

Wrenched from their ancient coppice-stools
Or snapped off shoulder-high,

Torn ends splayed like old paintbrushes,
Stark-white as wantons stripped in the market-place.

Someone seized these living limbs
And broke them, felt the soft bark split and curl

Heard the tender fibres tear
Smeared their hands with green and sap

And – what then? Just walked away
Or – more likely – ran off laughing, leaving

These slender lengths of springtime bent
And sticking out like dislocated fingers.

I stand in my defiled, sacred space
And grieve. For more than trees died here today.

Perspective

12 June 2011 § 6 Comments

Weatherproof

Seen from inside
Outside
Is a grey hell:
Trees in full leaf flayed by a west wind
Thrash and hiss with spray
A ten-tenths sky leans on the land
Like a drunkard on a doorpost
And next-door’s downpipe
Mumbles an ostinato in its throat.

I stand under the wood’s dripping eaves,
Smiling warm, watching the hunting-dog
Gun down rabbits in the wet field.
No rain reaches beneath my hat-brim;
My jacket turns the wind’s blade like a shirt of mail;
In these boots I could wade a river.
No such thing
As bad weather:
Just the wrong clothing.

 

The drought breaks

6 June 2011 § 12 Comments

Summer Dies

This morning brings
A triple killing:

The Sun
Smothered with a grey cloud blanket;

The cracked ground
Drowned and beaten to a pulp

And my long run of hot, dry roads
Murdered in cold rain.

A summer born and dead too soon.
And the garden sends flowers.

Sounding the alarm

14 April 2011 § 6 Comments

The night watch

Walking the woods as twilight slips
Like a poacher between the fading trees
My every step sets off some new alarm:
A blackbird chinking like a mason’s chisel;
A stream of shrill invective
Pouring from an unseen wren, blazing with a courage
A hundred times her size;
Pigeons clattering from the topmost branches
In a fusillade of frantic wings;
Jays and magpies rasping threats, while the silly yaffle
Hides behind his nervous laugh.
The watchword is passing through the wood
Like a creeping barrage. I advance behind it,
All element of surprise long gone
And with it any hope of gaining ground.
And as I pass back into the world
Of cars and curses, litter and the ugly shouts
Of boys and girls abroad too late, grown up too soon,
The darkening wood still rings with song:
The all-clear, and a sweet lament
For what the world once was
And all that we have lost.

Directions

13 April 2011 § 6 Comments

Directions

Pass in under the wood’s eaves
And take the right fork past the tall lone ash
With the hole high up where the nuthatch hides.
Four steps down to the silted stream
Its banks revetted with iron roots
Like veins in the back of an old man’s hand.
Five back up to the field corner
And a sinuous trail, just shoulder-wide,
A winterbourne of mud between low branches
That pluck at clothes like nagging children.
Four ways shake hands in the trampled clearing;
Follow the one that rounds the rim
Of the deep pit dug by long-dead brick-makers.
Into the coppice, over twin ditches
The hunting-dog hurdles in two long leaps.
Past the great fallen tree, worm-holed, beetle-bored,
And weave through the birches down in the dip.
Hug the wood’s edge where it fronts the field
Home to rabbits and cows in the warmth of the day
And the fox in the evening. Up the short steep slope,
Sandy, seamed with burrows, to a broad, level ride
Under spreading oaks, where the bluebell scent
Hangs thick as smoke. Pause in a soaring hornbeam hall
High as a church, with a floor of beaten earth. Call the dog.
Over a young tree, still bravely bursting into leaf
Though laid low by a curl of wind a dozen nights ago.
Down the slope where the squirrels sprint
For safety in the tangled trees. Three steps down
To the sleeper bridge, then the last drag up
To the wood’s front door. Close it behind you.
Keep the key.

I got the idea for this poem from the wonderful ‘Britannia‘ atlas of England and Wales – the world’s first-ever nationwide road map, published by Scottish polymath John Ogilby in 1645. It consists of a series of 100 strip maps, drawn at the then-innovative scale of one inch to the mile, each describing a section of road, such as ‘London-Bromley-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge-Rye’ (plate 31) or ‘Oxford-Buckingham-Bedford-Cambridge’ (plate 80). It bridges the gap between modern cartography and the medieval means of navigating across country, which basically involved following directions from one town to the furthest extent of local knowledge, then asking again.

For my poem, I simply followed Ogilby’s example and wrote notes as I walked round our nearby woods. (Incidentally, Ogilby claimed to have surveyed over 26,000 miles of roads in order to compile his atlas, measuring distances using the intriguingly-named ‘Wheel Dimensurator’; about 7,500 miles’-worth appeared in the final version) Sadly, I can’t draw, so I’ve created a ‘strip map in words’, which I hope gives some flavour of what you might find if you ever chance upon our corner of the country.

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