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.

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.

Payment in kind

12 April 2011 § 8 Comments

Life and living

I know how it looks:
My riding the roads and
Walking the woods
On weekdays;
My chair growing cold
Keyboard quiet, screen boarded-up
Dust settling slowly on the desk.
But
Putting others’ words on paper
Like hammering bent, rusty nails
Into a rotten, splintered board
Is just a job.
The real work is here,
Among the tongue-tied trees
And voiceless flowers;
The wind grows weary
Of whispering to itself,
And the woods are bursting
To share old secrets
So long held in.
All this
Must be taken down,
Absorbed, distilled, translated.
A life’s labour,
Voluntary, open-ended:
Without pay or prospects,
Pension, promotion.
No kind of living;
And the only true life.

Florescence

8 April 2011 § 10 Comments

The flowers of the field

Violet and Primrose
In their bright one-pieces
Lie in the sun
And nudge each other, pitying
Poor plain Windflower,
Who, for all her basking, stays
As white as writing paper all season long,
And giggle at tall green
Jack-by-the-Hedge
With his strong stems, thick leaves
And fair head of white flowers,
As shy ragged Robin
Blushes in his tattered coat.
May and Cherry
Braid themselves with blossoms
Bridal-white; and, trembling, wonder
If Winter will return
To ravish them
And steal their unborn fruits.
While at their feet
The gentle hand of Spring
Tailor-tacks a pair of orange tips
To a lady’s smock.

“No very great matter in the ditty”, as Touchstone said; it’s Friday, and far too lovely a day to be writing anything very serious.

Seeing the wood for the trees

7 April 2011 § 16 Comments

Call it a wood

Call it a wood
If you will,
But this is my cathedral;
A greater glory captured in a single hornbeam bud
Or papery anemone
Than any Caen stone vaulting
Or stained-glass acreage.
And this is my study;
These living trees inspire more lines
Than the dead wood of my desk.
And this is my schoolroom;
These mute tutors hold the wisdom
Of the earth, and every lesson worth the learning
Of life and death, of failing and returning.
And this is my hospital;
In these soft scents and shaded paths
Lie sovereign remedies
For all my pains of heart and mind.
And this is my sanctuary;
The fears that stalk my nights and days
Dare not follow when I claim
Protection beneath this canopy.
And this is my stronghold;
A bulwark against the madness,
The ugliness, the noise
Of all that lies outside:
Call that the world.

Weeding wheatfields by hand

24 March 2011 § 6 Comments

Roguing

Sometimes
Fickle Summer picked up her skirts
And took a short, unscheduled break,
Lending the farm to Autumn
Who, having no truck with harvesting,
Drove us from the fields
With a thin and ruinous drizzle.
Other times
A snapped belt, sheared bolt or burst hydraulic hose
Deep in the combine’s vitals
Would leave the big machine
Bellied like a bog-bound mammoth,
Spilling its guts in gouts of oil
Across the gasping stubble.
As such times
We lads, not seeking or permitted
To wait out the delay with idle hands
Would fill the old blue van with plastic sacks
Then bundle in ourselves
And rattle to some distant field
To hunt out rogues: the wild oats
Whose tasselled heads rose, mockingly,
Above the standing crop.
We’d deploy along the headland, sacks in hand,
And take a tramline each, walking steady
Like policemen on a forensic sweep,
Stopping to pull the rogues up, roots and all
And bag them for the bonfire. To relieve
The tedium, we’d tell the green boys, out from town,
Them ol’ rogues’ll hear you comin’, see,
And bein’ woild, they’ll duck down quick
And ‘ide till you’ve gone boi,
Then pop’en up again, so moind you watch ‘em.
We learned to curse those wily weeds
And the gaunt, grey man who sent us there:
Four-pound-fifty seemed so little
For an hour that felt so long,
And all the while we knew
The rogues would not be vanquished
And we’d be back to pull more out next year.
A hopeless task, but honest, and somehow
No crazier than the work I’m doing now.

Rogue n a plant that falls short of a standard, or is of a different type from the rest of the crop; vt to eliminate rogues or inferior plants from (a crop, etc)

Roguing is the traditional way of keeping the harvest help occupied when inclement weather or the inevitable mechanical catastrophes bring the main activity to a halt. I know weeding a fifty-acre wheatfield by hand sounds daft, but compared to some of the so-called ‘proper’ jobs I’ve been given since my far-off student days, it  seems like a sensible use of time.

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