The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes. MARCEL PROUST

Friday, 18 April 2014

Garden Diary (1)

Bee fly.

Early this morning I heard a knocking noise coming from the kitchen. I ignored it, thinking it was the central heating pipes. But when I finally went to investigate I found it was a male chaffinch flying persistently at the window pane. I'm sure it was attacking its own reflection in the glass, believing it to be a rival bird vying for territory.

Out in the garden more and more spring flowers are opening. In the semi-wild shady area at the bottom of the yew hedge honesty, forget-me-not and yellow archangel are in bloom. Bluebells, tulips and daffodils — including the stunning pheasant's eye, or poet's daffodil, which some believe was the first cultivated narcissus — border the wooden fence opposite the hedge, and clumps of wallflowers crowd the base of an ornamental cherry. The cherry's pink and white blossom faded quickly — as it always does — a few weeks ago.

The clematis growing up the fence is just beginning to reveal its delicate white flowers, and the creeping stems of the greater periwinkle create ground cover. The periwinkles' purple corollas contrast strikingly with their dark, waxy-green leaves.

Under the kitchen window stands a container of quince, its crimson flowers now past their best, and naturalised ivy-leaved toadflax creeps prolifically up the red-brick kitchen wall, happily disguising an unsightly network of downpipes and drains.

The hellebores and cyclamen have been blooming all winter, and are flowering still. But the white blooms of the camellia, so numerous this spring, turn brown and wither almost immediately. At the end of tough but flexible straight stalks the flower heads of the allium will remain tightly closed until May. They look like tiny onions.

Just over a month ago, around the time of the full moon, our pond was full of mating frogs. The frogs departed, leaving behind jellied masses of spawn. The tadpoles developed, and now there are thousands of them, wriggling in the depths like spermatozoa or sunning themselves on the bricks supporting the aquatic flower baskets. Some surface for a gulp of air, their lungs already forming.

Bees, ladybirds and other insects have been on the move for several weeks, including pond-living whirligig beetles, water boatmen and pond skaters. I've also been delighted to spot bee flies, which have the wings of a fly but the body of a bee. They have a long proboscis for drinking nectar, and are important pollinators. I've seen early butterflies too — Brimstone, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Holly Blue.

Holly Blue.

(Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the pictures.)

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Single And Double

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. CICERO

One world in two, both intertwined: / A double helix of grace and love. . . THE SOLITARY WALKER Two Worlds in One

Poet's daffodils newly opened.

Narcissus poeticus (Poet's daffodil, Nargis, Pheasant's eye, Findern flower or Pinkster lily) was one of the first daffodils to be cultivated, and is frequently identified as the narcissus of ancient times — often associated with the Greek legend of Narcissus. WIKIPEDIA

The intertwined trunks of our crab apple tree.

Unlike many trees, the crab apple grows singly, and sometimes woods will only have one tree. . .

. . . Crab apples have long been associated with love and marriage. It was said that if you throw the pips into the fire while saying the name of your love, the love is true if the pips explode. Apple wood was burned by the Celts during fertility rites and festivals, and Shakespeare makes reference to crab apples in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Love's Labour Lost. THE WOODLAND TRUST

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Contemporary Garden

Zen pond.

Crab apple blossom against a rare blue sky.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Suspicion















We make assumptions. 
Cary Grant: lazy and selfish
man-child or manipulative murderer?

We’re swayed this way and that
by a manipulative film director.
What do we know that we’re not made to know?

As innocent as Joan Fontaine
we judge according to confused desires,
to what we’re led to think

from clues scattered deliberately
like broken headstones,
the letters half-obliterated;

from strengths or defects in our character
and reasoning; from standpoints
as subjective as painterly perspectives.

We don’t need the corpse.
For it’s already there
rotting in our imaginations.

Suspicion is a 1941 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Wallflower Meditation


Inspired by English cottage gardens and cottage gardeners.

Wallflowers may be old-fashioned, and may not get asked to dance as often as they should, but they are no shrinking violets, and will put on a sexy springtime display given half a chance. They are some of my favourite garden flowers.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Traveling Through The Dark

While I was editing my poetry magazine The Passionate Transitory, would-be contributors occasionally asked me what kind of poem I was looking for. Some asked me to suggest a 'model' poem as example and guide. Some asked how you wrote a good poem.

It's hard to say what makes a good poem, but you know one when you see one. I've been thinking what poem I would choose if I had to choose just one as perfect paradigm, one that seems to embody everything I like in a good poem. Naturally this is a very personal choice (I would love to know your own choices). This is the poem I came up with:

Traveling Through The Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason —
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all — my only swerving —,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

WILLIAM STAFFORD

It's probably Stafford's best-known poem, and deservedly famous, I think. I clearly remember when I first heard this poem read on the radio years ago. Its impact on me was enormous, and it haunts me still. For me, it's got everything: apparent simplicity, great technical skill disguised by an almost conversational tone, a concision in which every word counts and resonates, a moral/life dilemma, an ambiguity, a confrontation between the modern human world and the natural world.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Beginning And End Of The Viking Way

Country road as rubbish dump.

The walk did not start well. Leaving Barnetby and the roar of the M180 behind me, I took a minor road north and found that someone had dumped mounds of rubbish by the track. As a walker you come upon this sort of thing disturbingly often. At first it used to enrage me; now I just feel a kind of hopeless despair. How do human beings deserve to live on this beautiful planet if they engage in such filthy, mindless and selfish activity? So many roads — usually the main roads — in England and Spain are lined with the sweet wrappers, crisp packets and juice cartons people have thrown from their cars. A lot of this stuff never seems to get cleared up. I wrote about the 50 types of rubbish I found by a Spanish roadside here

For hours I crossed montonous chalk farmland. The landscape was flat and featureless — huge fields of four-inch high wheat shoots, purple sprouting broccoli, and very little else. It was so uninteresting that eating an apple from my packed lunch became a major event. I pined for a picturesque ruin or pretty village. But at least the paths were soft and firm and easy on the foot — mostly grassy bridleways along field boundaries. They were dry too, as rainwater is quickly absorbed by the porous chalk.

Birds were the saving grace — especially in the few isolated pockets of woodland which miraculously survived. It's the spring migration season and lots of birds were on the move. I saw flocks of fieldfares bound for Scandinavia, and heard chiffchaffs newly arrived from the Mediterranean and North Africa. But the bird that accompanied me for most of the walk was the skylark. These were either invisible or tiny specks high up in the blue, singing their hearts out over the cornfields. Skylarks were under threat at one time, but here they are plentiful.     
After the forecasted promise of mild weather, a chill Siberian breeze had blown in from the North Sea and, with no obstacle before it, swept across Lincolnshire's northernmost chalk plateau, cutting straight through my fleece, polypropylene shirt and merino wool vest. The temperature was more like winter. Despite a few recent balmy days, spring was still holding back. 

Dropping with relief into the more sheltered Humber valley, I followed a hedged byway to South Ferriby. The views north towards the Humber estuary (and west to the steel works of Scunthorpe!) would have been impressive had conditions been clearer, but the day remained hazy, with an intermittent sun.

The estuary was muddy and opaque, the same muddy brown as the North Sea into which it flowed. I could barely make out the far side through the haze. Taking the path along the southern bank, I passed a couple of cliffs, then deviated through Far Ings nature reserve — the true path had been closed because of flooding. The Humber Bridge swung into view out of the murk. I remember Queen Elizabeth opening the bridge in 1981. It was then the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, but now it's been demoted to seventh-longest.

Footsore, I stumbled into the Humber Bridge viewing area car park at Barton, the official start (or end, depending on which direction you're travelling) of the Viking Way. I'd been hiking this route on and off for nearly three years. (I started in May 2011 — here's my first blog entry about it.) Although it's 147 miles long, I'd covered more than that, as I'd walked some there-and-back stages twice. It had been a piecemeal, jigsaw-like affair — sometimes I'd gone north to south, sometimes south to north. However, I'd finally reached the end — or the start. And it really was the beginning in yet another sense: over the bridge beckoned the first stretch of another long-distance trail, the Yorkshire Wolds Way.

Slowly I walked the half mile into Barton-upon-Humber's town centre. It was late Saturday afternoon and the place was practically closed except for some raucous pubs. I didn't fancy going in. Young kids screamed about on bikes and in bus shelters. Men in hoodies nursed beer cans. It was bitterly cold. If you weren't feeling suicidal before, a trip round Barton could have tipped you over the edge. For me, at that moment, it seemed a wretchedly miserable backcountry town, and I made for the railway station, eager to leave. (I say 'railway station': it comprised just one track, one platform, and five bucket seats occupied by some of Barton's yelping youth.) The train came in on time. I boarded, warmed myself by the heater, and headed for home.          

Sheltered bridleway to South Ferriby.

Remarkably straight furrows.

Sheep graze by the Humber.

The wide Humber estuary — muddy and opaque.

Another consequence of Britain's recent severe weather.

Willow tree on the diverted path through Far Ings nature reserve.

The Humber Bridge.

The beginning (or in my case the end) of the Viking Way. A little anticlimactic that it ended in a car park on a cold and dismal afternoon.
Walking to Barton railway station by a reed-fringed watercourse.

Friday, 28 March 2014

57 Channels

Oh what sad creatures we would be
without the Shopping Channel!
Or game shows where C-list celebrities
make up the panel!

My dear, how could we ever cope
without those docu-dramas!
Those film star interviews from Guadeloupe
or the Bahamas!

Eastenders helps the hours pass;
to Corrie we’re addicted.
The medium is our message, as
Marshall McLuhan predicted.

And what glum boredom would we feel
without our sitcom fix!
Our wired brains would soon congeal
without those moving pix.

Our life would end up dull and dry
without the News and Weather.
If our TV curled up and died
we’d never stay together.

But just one thought: if plague or blight
attacked that magic screen;
when we’d recovered from the fright,
a blessing it might seem.

We’d turn to cards and chess again,
pick up the violin,
unpack the keyboard, practise Zen
and find a world within.

We could train ferrets, master French —
a thousand more projects.
With any luck we’d read a book.
We might even have sex.

Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis:
shoot the damn thing out.
Then you’d be free eternally
to dance and muck about.

What happy creatures we would be!
Le monde serait si beau!
We’d be the unrecorded stars
of our own reality show!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Reading

I love books, and the older I get, the more widely I seem to read. I always have lots of books on the go at once. They fall into four categories: those I've been reading 'forever' and never finished (Dante's Divine Comedy, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet); those I read quite ploddingly but do or will finish (Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani, Karen Armstrong's History of God, Hendrik van Loon's Story of Mankind); those I read quickly and find 'unputdownable' (The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz, The Magus by John Fowles, The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane); and those I'm constantly dipping into but rarely reading all the way through (often these are art, poetry or philosophy books, such as The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, A Year with Rilke and The Penguin Krishnamurti Reader). I think different books call for different ways of reading: some you want to take into yourself, to savour leisurely and meditate upon; others you want to devour in one or two evenings. I have no preference: I enjoy all kinds of books, and don't care how quickly or how slowly I read them.

Right now I'm reading Marc Chagall's My Life, a delightful, rather whimsical memoir by the great artist; the amazing, towering masterpiece of Proust's In Search of Lost Time; and The Broken Road, Patrick Leigh Fermor's posthumously-published account of his youthful walking adventures in Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.

On my waiting-to-be-read pile are the novels Stoner by John Williams and The Immoralist by André Gide (this a reread), The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol and Bashō's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.

So I still have to complete War and Peace, but will do some day. I've read two-thirds. And I've just borrowed CH Sisson's wonderfully lucid translation of Dante, which is really exciting — so much more readable than other translations I've tried:

Half way along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.

It is hard to say just what the forest was like,
How wild and rough it was, how overpowering;
Even to remember it makes me afraid.

So bitter it is, death itself is hardly more so;
Yet there was good there, and to make it clear
I will speak of other things that I perceived.

I cannot tell exactly how I got there,
I was so full of sleep at that point of my journey
When, somehow, I left the proper way . . .

We often find ourselves 'obscured in a great forest, bewildered' — but books can help point out the way.