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Stravaig #3 Geopoetics in Practice


Stravaig #3 Geopoetics in Practice Contents 1

Atlantic Poetics

Essay

Norman Bissell

2

Walking Aberlady Bay

Essay

James McCarthy

3

Aberlady Walk

Poem

Tessa Ransford

4

Island Journal

Poem

Gerrie Fellows

5

Stories That Connect

Essay

Geraldine Green

6

The Course of Empire

Poems

Nancy Campbell

7

Mean Reefs

Essay

Mike Roman

8

Here – Just Here

Poem

Andrew McCallum

9

Kaleidoscope Of Mist and Sun

Poem

Andrew McCallum

10

How Few Are The Words

Poem

Andrew McCallum

11

Listening Out: Some Notes

Essay

Christian McEwen

12

Imagine

Poem

Mandy Haggith

13

Inchnadamph

Poem

Mandy Haggith

14

Iona Pebble

Poem

Mandy Haggith

15

Hiking the Neo-Carboniferous

Essay

Dave Coulter

16

Tessera

Poem

Barbara Hickson

17

Earth to Earth

Poem

Barbara Hickson

18

Bowl – untitled

Image

Fiona Byrne-Sutton

19

Epiphany at the No. 20 Tram Stop

Essay

Bill Eddie

20

A Geopoetical Experience

Essay

James McCarthy

21

Woods and Trees of the Road North

Poems

Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn

22

Walking the Territory

Poem

Elizabeth Rimmer

23

Dark Mountain

24

Contributors


Atlantic Poetics: Expanding our sense of world Norman Bissell

When You Go Out

When you go out into the world use all your senses touch and taste wild thyme smell hawthorn and kelp watch herring gulls soar listen to the sound of the sea above all open your mind and who knows what you will find.

4


I first read this poem to a group of University of the Highlands and Islands MA Music and the Environment students at Balmaha by Loch Lomond. We then went out along a little stretch of the West Highland Way with our senses attuned and our minds open and came back with some notes, short poems and images as food for our creative imagination. It was a kind of haiku walking. The richest poetics come from contact with the earth, from an attempt to read the lines of the world. To be truly creative we need to adopt this approach of sensitive awareness and openness to the world, and work at it regularly and consciously in our various fields of endeavour whether in music, writing, visual and other arts or sciences or in combinations of all of these, and by developing a heightened awareness of the earth or cosmos and our relationship to it we can nourish our creative expression in all these fields. This world outlook and approach is known as geopoetics and it has the potential to bring about a new or renewed sense of world amongst those who practice it both intellectually through knowledge and study, and sensitively using all our senses. It’s a holistic concept and collaborations between creative people are at the heart of it. It has much to offer everyone whether they live in urban or rural Scotland or other parts of the world and it opens up the possibility of radical cultural renewal for society as a whole. As a Glasgow man born and brought up near the River Clyde who used to go most holidays to the coast, one of the areas that has attracted me within the vast field of geopoetics is Atlantic poetics. Kenneth White, who founded the International Institute of Geopoetics in 1989, has spent most of

his life on the Atlantic coast, growing up in Fairlie in Ayrshire, and living for the last 30 years on the North Brittany coast. The opening sentence of his book House of Tides reads “In a general way, it’s the Atlantic that governs our territory, creating the weather, shaping the coasts, wavelengthing minds.” Atlantic weather fronts, coming from the west in wave after wave, shape our coasts from southern Portugal to the Faroe Islands, and leave their mark on our landscapes, cityscapes and minds. We’ve seen plenty of them this winter bringing so much rain and flooding.The 790 or so islands of Scotland, of which 99 are inhabited, are unified as well as separated by the Atlantic Ocean which for millennia has been the seaway that connected them with each other and with the rest of the world. For the hunter gatherers who came to the islands after the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, and the Celts who sailed right up the west coast around 3,000 years ago, the sea was the highway for settlement and trade. And as recent archaeological finds at the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney have shown, back then the islands weren’t on the periphery but very much at the heart of sea-going routes, trade and cultural life. Our North Atlantic waters are immensely rich in habitats and species and some areas like the Firth of Lorn, Loch Creran and around St Kilda, have been designated Marine Special Areas of Conservation, with more under consideration. These waters and the lands between them offer a fertile basis for the practice of geopoetics because there we are directly exposed to the elements of wind and water, the vast skies whose clouds are ever-changing, and the wildlife which lives there. They can inspire us to be creative in many different ways. This poem was inspired by such a place. 5

Sounds

Sometimes here it’s hard to tell the sound of the wind from the sound of the waves or the sound of the waves from the sound of the rain or the sound of the wind and the waves and the rain from the sound of my breath.

A deep appreciation of our rich natural environment and the value of our cultural heritage is crucial to the future of the islands and the rest of Scotland. In his ground-breaking book On The Other Side of Sorrow Jim Hunter showed that such an appreciation was always a part of the literature of the Celts and Gaels, and the work which has been done recently on the history of Art in the Highlands and Islands by Murdo MacDonald and others also brings this out. Many of our islands have a distinctive yet shared heritage but today they all face serious challenges such as declining and ageing populations, a growth in the number of second homes and lack of affordable housing to attract and retain families, private land owners who put little or nothing back into the community, the high cost of fuel and travel, school closures, a decline in the number of Gaelic speakers and of island dialects, and the need to sustain our marine and island environment. On the Isle of Luing in Argyll where I now live, our population has declined from 207 in late 2007 to 180 in 2013, 46% of the population is over 60, there are only a handful of Gaelic speakers left on the island and we lack basic social and cultural facilities. However, the


a pole of attraction for creative people of all kinds and it’s in a wonderful setting since Cullipool, where the Centre is being built, looks out beyond the little isles in the Firth of Lorn to the open Atlantic between the long coast of Mull and the Isles of the Sea. It was here that Brendan the Navigator came from Ireland in a curragh in the 6th Century AD to found a monastic settlement and centre of learning at Eileach an Naoimh many years before Columcille came to Iona .

growth of Community Trusts and Social Enterprises over the last 15 years, which have been able to access funding from a variety of sources, has begun to empower communities to respond to these challenges and strengthen them. In 2008 the Isle of Luing Community Trust came up with the idea of an Atlantic Islands Centre which would provide an introduction to the natural and cultural heritage of all the main islands of Argyll and Bute, including Luing, and a social and learning centre for residents and visitors. ÂŁ1.3 million has been raised since then and the Centre is under construction and due to open in summer 2014. As well as a cafĂŠ res-

It is through Atlantic poetics and the kind of energy that comes from the Atlantic waves and winds in such locations that we can help to re-ground and re-invigorate the potentially vibrant cultures of the islands and of Scotland as a whole. By attuning our minds to the elements in such places we can renew our lives and our creative work. Scotland and its islands have so much to offer the world but we need to expand our sense of what that is by deepening our knowledge and experience of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. It is through this expansive sense of world that we can point the way forward.

taurant and arts and heritage exhibition spaces, it will provide a venue for larger concerts, theatre, courses and social functions. It will help to regenerate the island community by providing amenities which make it a better place to live. The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, which was founded on Burns Night in 1995, hopes to rent a space in the Atlantic Islands Centre where people can come from all over the world to research our extensive resources and take part in courses which will develop their understanding and practice of geopoetics and their ability to apply Here is another poem inspired by the it in their own lives. It could become Atlantic coast of the Isle of Luing.

Slate, Sea and Sky An island on the rim of the world in that space between slate, sea and sky where air and ocean currents are plays of wild energy and the light changes everything.

6


Aberlady Bay 23 November 2013 James McCarthy

Following a convivial lunch at the Aberlady Inn, our party of seven headed out for the Aberlady Local Nature Reserve on a spectacularly fine early winter’s day under an opalescent sky, reflected in the mudbanks and tidal waters of the Peffer Burn, and backed by the tawny vegetation of the merseland. (We were reminded crossing Nigel Tranter’s ‘Bridge to Enchantment’ that he composed his historic fiction walking the dunes with notebook in hand.) Below us, a couple of redshanks were displaying their scarlet legs in the mid-afternoon sun and giving their characteristic piping song, and on the higher ground, a posse of colourful Wigeon were busily tugging at the grasses. Aberlady Bay, backed by the panorama of the Forth Estuary and the hills of Fife, is renowned as the first Local Nature Reserve in Britain, known for its huge variety of waders and wildfowl, with well over fifty breeding birds. Fortunately the very knowledgeable Bill Eddie was on hand, not only to identify the various species but also to imitate their calls. Within a short space we were able to ‘tick off’ Lapwing (Peewit) Teal, Redshank, Curlew, Kestrel, Carrion Crow, Blue-tit, Stonechat,Wood Pigeon, and Oystercatcher while the Thrushes and Blackbirds were feasting on the late Sea Buckthorn, now providing a blaze of orange colour on the golf course banks. A couple of Roe Deer made their appearance. Off shore the gentle sighing of the Eider Duck confirmed their presence, and later Bill spotted three Sanderlings trotting along the tideline in the gloaming.

the estuary from their feeding grounds in the surrounding farmland, but as dusk descended on our return trek from the coast, there was neither sight nor sound of this mass daily homecoming. A diversion was provided by naming the evening stars as they made their crepuscular appearance, but it did not make up for the absence of the great skeins we had anticipated.Without warning, and just as the waters of the estuary were finally beginning to lose their steel-like glint, we heard that evocative sound in the fading sky – what this author calls the ‘giggle of the gaggles’ -but one that is immediately recognisable: then we could, in the diminishing light, spot what appeared to be swarms of bees coming in from various directions, their flights forming and reforming in undulating waves, and always accompanied by that magBill had promised that we would enjoy the spectacle of ical sound. Tired legs were forgotten as we watched and thousands of Pink-footed Geese coming in to roost in listened to the winter song of Aberlady. 7


Aberlady Walk Tessa Ransford

We meandered the path to the shore to the point where a raft of Eider rides on champing waves below the rocky bank Lapwing and plover calling and redshank stalking along the bay sandpiper and dunlin beside the sea - at sea-level - a sense of being balanced there walking between the ocean and coast The track led over dunes and marsh through buckthorn and rose, rose and orange the sun in the west above cloud spread black as darkness was gently embraced Darkness, December evening crepuscule with curlew call through the non-seeing and Venus was suddenly flooding our eyes as thousands and thousands of geese came wheeling in as they cried calling, settling time to be home

8


Island Journal

scree travellers

footing it

over and up

light-stepped

looking back

pyramid

Gerrie Fellows at the distant col at unexpected I

others

Walking on Mull's basaltic sands we look aslant

over water

from our wet footprints from the caldera

might be rocks

bird churches

but their legs jolt as they stand I expect them

broken lava terraces

silhouetted

crossing the ridge

the way the lava ran

out towards

but

out towards

they are nowhere molten

our co-inhabitants

vanished

And where we were

into the planet of time and rock

a green falling away

to the slate islands' riven fins Culipool's black steep

III that pitched our daughter's football Gone over water once he travels towards his father from beach fallen flyer on Warfarin to wave tips

white on white

taking the yachts’ sails against the lava flow

She and I at a forest edge talking of this

to our being here now aslant in time and distance by water

After rain:

you and I

over moss

water-logged pasture

bracken

logged rainbows sharp

dipping below the cloud

of our big dark neighbour

the caldera’s flow fixed to stone cold, but we are warmmoving

in the bellow of stags

dark honeycomb

as the beaches lift

beyond us, unseen

the debris

of a wartime flight

ripped

aluminium in rock

a vanishing

as of walkers on a ridge

descending

towards fanned basalt flattered by sunlight

or the flit A child’s delight at the monkey puzzle shape of it

our bootprints trackless on the steep black scree

dashed to a stump press of a trunk

hollow im-

gigantic horsetail

up beyond us,

IV

craning necks

until I say to her -

At the boat rail

fifty million years

our daughters mottled as young birds

but we’re on fire

blooded animals

the not-quite

racing away from us tip us

steep up into the

wind

taking us by columns cooled

over which the sea escapes

of yesterday’s texts on her phone

II

sharp showers

sheep

verdant headland in rain

we marvel at

the conversation of years:

to this island's cooled opposite

rain diary

fort

to the hexagonal

grass, pathless

cattle-grazed with green

by black sand

a walk by raised beaches

between upheaved tussocks

from that island

bound

V

standing as we do in the Atlantic forests

as seal pups out on the water towards a landing stage

9

in the warm damp young as we are cient

in the an-


Stories that Connect Geraldine Green

My story starts with a wood, Bardsea wood…

tae blaw tha’ nowuz an’ mak’ a scuttle?’ Meaning, ‘Are you going to the Gaiety Picture House in order to blow your nose and make a noise?’ or the Durham miners, convalescing from the 1940’s on into the 70’s at Conishead Priory, now the Manjushri Institute. As a child I travelled with them, the Durham miners, on the school bus, back and forth from St. Mary’s RC junior school, Ulverston in the 1960’s to our council house home. Conishead Priory was a home to them, to recuperate... they gave us sweets, us kids. Gave us sweets and spoke with a lilt and a hinny and they too proved to be part of my singing, when I eventually dared tip toe into writing poetry never believing I could be a poet. But men and women such as them, my mum, dad and Nana and Granda gave me the grit to ultimately say, yes. I am a poet.

… and an intensely remembered childhood moment of writing a poem after becoming mesmerised by the wind-swaying branches of two silver birches feeling that if I let go I would become part of them. As a child I only dimly understood that it was a seminal moment in my life. What did the experience mean? How could I become part of the birches? It was an experience that propelled me into wanting to gain an insight into this kind of imaginative encounter. It’s been an itch to be scratched, a mystery to be solved, a As I type this, I’m realising that it’s a series of journeys, of ‘something’ I need to address. It’s a lifelong quest and it led turnings and re-turnings. I returned to a place recently, one me into looking at other cultures to help me understand it. which has strong emotional and physical ties and which has helped lead me on this poetic journey. The place is called Leap forward about 10 years and you’ll find me in Heath’s ‘Borneo’, named by my Great Uncle Richard ‘the beachbookshop, Barrow-in-Furness, browsing the shelves, alightcomber’ after he found a Dutch ship washed up on the ing on a book called “Touch the Earth, a Self-Portrait of shore. He took some of its planks for repair purposes and Indian Existence” by TC McLuhan. If you hover just behind firewood and nailed the name of the ship to the hut. It’s a me you won’t see the effect it had on me, you might feel family beach home – though on a cliff top – in west Cumit though. At last something that made sense. Here were bria; specifically a cliff to the west of a village called Nethpeople saying how they felt about the land, how they recertown, which itself means ‘furthest most point.’ The family ognised its importance on the spiritual and physical health joke being if it was any netherer it’d be in the Irish sea! of people. Even though it has gone through many incarnations and “I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part been battered by the elements it remains a place of refof my country, nor will I have the whites cutting our timber uge, perched on a cliff top, overlooking the sea. The cliff along the rivers, more especially the oak. I am particularly on which it is situated is itself almost a tiny island, cut off fond of the little groves of oak trees.” from the mainland by a railway line. ‘Borneo’ has at once a rootedness, yet also a feeling that at any moment it could – Tatanka Yotanka, or Sitting Bull, Sioux Warrior. be swept up by the wind, Dorothy-like as in the Wizard of This book has been part of my life for almost 40 years. It Oz, and blown inland to Scafell Pike. Or out to sea, over the led me to want to visit America, to meet with people who Isle of Man, then over Ireland to land in New York. reverence the earth, as I do. I grew up not knowing whether I was Irish or English, with But I’m leaping ahead. Other languages and dialects also a mother who would point out Ireland to me – “Over played a part in forming and informing who I am, what my THERE’s the Mountains of Mourne, you can see them when poetry and prose is about. it stops raining and beyond THAT is America, where your When I was a child of three an older brother, in trying Great Aunt Lucy went.” – and a father who listened to Irish to teach me French, Spanish and Greek, introduced me to rebel songs. I recall hearing my parents discuss the Night of the pleasure in the sounds of other languages, without un- the Big Wind and The Irish Potato Famine (always spoken derstanding meaning. From an early age accents, dialects, in capital letters.) They would turn to me and say, “That’s colloquialisms and other languages fascinated me. Whether when the Coyles’ and Fitzsimons’ came and settled HERE the rough burr of farmers at an Ulverston auction mar- in west Cumbria.” It’s small wonder that I’d sit on the cliff ket, or the lilt and fall of family-visiting Irish, Polish, Italian top, listening to the shush of the sea on one side, the ocand American relatives in Cleator Moor and Whitehaven, casional train rattling past on the other, watching swallows mingling with west Cumbrian dialect and its why-use-two- and sand martins swoop and dive in spring and summer. syllables-when-three-can-make-a-word-into-a-song? For Sniffing saltwater and gorse, surrounded by sea pinks, my example, to-o-wast, for toast, or dad’s ‘Ista-ga’in tae Gaa-ity 10


chin pricked by tufts of grass, I’d stare out across the Irish the ground and sniffing. The day after, when the buffalo was Sea and daydream of going to Ireland one day – or even butchered and before the body was moved away, the males came up, sniffed the ground, tried to nudge the dead buffalo, America. knelt down, then got up, did a stiff legged dance. Then the Before travelling to Spain, Greece, Oklahoma, New Mexcows came up and did the same thing, then the calves.Then ico, Kansas or New York my perceptions of these places they all left, in single file. They did the same Day Two, Three, were informed by what had been fed into me through litDay Four. And that’s where we get our dances from. erature, history and popular culture. For example: Spain, Picasso, Bullfights, Lorca, Machado; Greece: mythology, Sef- Or the story of a person from Lower Manhattan who, like eris, Cavafy, Odysseus Elytis; Oklahoma: wagon trails, wind, many others had to leave their home because of Hurricane Plains, Indians, Cowboys and Carter Revard; New York City: Sandy; a story I transformed, translated into the poem “No Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, 9/11; Place.” Whitman, O’Hara; New Mexico: Lawrence, Taos, search for Or the experience of watching the sun set over the Tall spirituality, cactus, thin air, Los Alamos, adobe huts; Kansas: Grass Preservation in the Flint Hills, Kansas, to which I reWizard of Oz, red shoes, wagon trains, jazz and tornadoes. sponded by writing “Breathing in a Prayer.” My fascination with North American Indian culture was Or being told by a shop keeper in Albuquerque Old Town questioned by a friend who asked me a couple of years ago: the tale of ‘La Llorona’, meaning ‘the wailing woman’ who “What do you want to go writing about Native American drowned her children in the Rio Grande and then herself. Indians for? You have your own ethnopoetics right here!” Forever after her ghost went searching for them, reaching This perceptive remark made in conversation with me by out from the river and drowning other children because the poet Jerome Rothenberg points towards the issue of she was lonely. The New Mexican legend called to mind a the ethics of appropriation. Is it ‘right’ to write in response tale Mum told me of a woman called Ginnie Greenteeth, to a country, or culture, or a person’s experience that is who lived in a tunnel near Whitehaven Docks, had hair of not your own? green slime, green teeth and ate little children. I’m aware of the sensitive nature of this issue. Of how, for As well as places what also makes travelling special are the example, a person from a culture that has experienced copeople: People such as LaCretia who came up to me after lonialism could take offence if a poet from the previousthe collaborative presentation George Wallace and I gave ly dominant culture was perceived as appropriating their at The Gordon Parks’ Centre, Fort Scott, Kansas, telling me myth, music, language, culture, geography or history. Being excitedly that if I’d had a mike they’d have been whoopin’ brought up in an Irish Catholic family I had the notion emand hollerin’ in the aisles when I read Maya Angelou’s fine bedded in me at an early age that it was English colonial poem ‘And Still I Rise.’ Or Carol who told me my poetry rule that lay at the root of many Irish problems. Perhaps was effervescent and that she’d felt she’d been on helium. it was this influence at a young age that caused me to feel Or Martha, who gracefully offered us tea at her home, redrawn to others who perceived that they also lived under freshing after a hot day and energetic performance in front similar colonial rule. I felt then, and still feel, drawn to those of Gordon Parks’ moving photos of the downtrodden, whose lives and writings are perceived as being at the marthe neglected in society, whose inner dignity and grace he gins. caught so well on camera. Writer John Burnside observed in his article in The New Statesman, 31st January 2013, that he was “willing to use Whether through poetry or prose, anecdotes or travel anything – begged, borrowed, or stolen – to recover those notes the aim in writing ‘Salt Road’ is to share the wonder I feel in my encounters with others on my journey through transformative and connective presences.” I’m the same. This urge to connect has led me to seek out and listen to this bewildering, messed up, yet still astonishing world. stories, sometimes first-hand, sometimes read and reflected upon on my walks. Stories told to me on my trips over the last eight years or so to North America, such as this from Victor Robidoux, Iowa Nation Eagle Sanctuary, Perkins, Oklahoma: When we butchered a buffalo out in the field, there, [pointing to the bare red earth of the slaughter ground] the big bull came up and watched.Then they all stood in a circle and watched.When the blood ran the buffalo went wild, pawing

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The wind blew his words seawards. We shall be as a city on a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us. Our eyes were on Governor Winthrop, whose person imported grievous vices: a tolerance of wine and music; wife after wife, they say, at his estate where, even now, men career like hounds after their scarlet masters, tongues

The Course of Empire Nancy Campbell Very seductive are the first steps from the town to the woods, but the end is want and madness. Emerson, letter to Thoreau, 1845 What we have started, we will finish. George W. Bush, April 2003 The Savage State Anne Hutchinson, Boston, 1635 Waves hissed on the dunes with midwinter malice yet there came a smell off the shore like a spring garden. After a sick and stormy passage we were hungry for land. The last turnips sunk in our gullets, ears a-thunder with cabin cries, we stumbled from the carrack like Noah’s beasts onto Ararat: gentle and simple, saint and sinner, sheep, goats, pigs, fowl, even dogs dancing in the surf. And thus we stood again upon our proper element. God has given the uttermost parts of the earth

lolling, tails teetering between pride and apology. That is a land weary of its inhabitants, a land grown to high intemperance in all excess of riot. Alford is with me still: resounding in Sabbath hymns and familiar weekday laughter; lingering in a pungent sheep fleece laid down among wolverine pelts in the barn; and in an orchard of wild walnuts, huckleberries, hickories and persimmon, recalled by the bow of an apple sapling’s branch in the breeze. And so I can forget for a moment how vast this land where lilies wax each morning over dark indentures of pine and hemlock on the water; where Wachussett stretches along the horizon light as stockings laid out before a dance. But I see this sweetness milked: cabins raised in clearings, trees turned to monuments, hilltops ablaze with fires, fences marching through swathes of felled forest with pioneer rectitude, purposefully vanishing westwards, shadowing the sun into the wilderness where all men may walk as their conscience persuade them.

for our possession, said Winthrop. 12


The Arcadian State Henry David Thoreau, Concord, 1833 Henry prises freshwater clams apart with his penknife, dropping the shells into the Sudbury River as he sculls between low banks of goldenrod and tansy. Since his brother’s death he has been listening, as if waiting for an oar that fails to fall and leaves the vessel drifting with the tide – late laughter floating away over the water. He has rejected the family profession, the manufacture of graphite pencils. He stoops in the hall of the Old Manse, peering through the genteel gloom into the packed trunk that harbours his Harvard jacket and his books. He will abjure those shady porticos for governance by self and by season. The inventory of a hermit: a kettle and a skillet, one narrow bed, three chairs, a jug for molasses, a jug for oil, a copy of Homer’s Iliad, a green desk, a japanned lamp, one inkwell, several pens, their nibs to be pressed out of use scything through his journal: I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. 13


Return to the Ocean: The Mean Reefs of Saudi Arabia

yard, we’re ready for the real thing. Bound for the Farasan Islands, a coralline archipelago adjacent to Jizan, the voluminous winds have forced us to head along the coast instead. Besides, this week, it’s the annual parrotfish festival in Farasan, which means that the water around the main islands has been netted off in anticipation of shoals of the fish known locally as ‘Hareed’ and ‘Hamour’ which migrate here from the Indian Ocean to spawn. We head for the coral-bound coast of Omaq, the ‘mean reefs’ as Zeya calls them, about 250km north of Jizan, and a little over a third of the way to Jeddah.

Mike Roman All around us arose from the living sea a hymn to the ‘sensitive chaos’. All that life around us was really water.

Jacques Cousteau

Diving in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea is one of the world’s great secrets within a secret. The coastline here has remained relatively unchanged since ancient times, and is generally recognized as one of the least spoilt habitats on the planet. Even with the discovery of oil in the 1930s, mostly concentrated in the Persian Gulf on the eastern side of the peninsula, the Red Sea still retains its relative purity. Whether the Farasan Islands off the kingdom’s south-west coast, or various fringing reefs along its 1700km Red Sea shoreline, there’s more to Saudi Arabia than doesn’t meet the eye. Our divemaster is a plump phlegmatic Saudi called Zeya. He runs the local dive shop in Jizan, a town in the Asir province of south-western Arabia. Zeya (may Allah have mercy on him and reward him immensely) is here to teach us scuba diving, and hopefully practise his English. During our theory sessions, Zeya talks of the ‘marriage of plankton’ and the ‘Dick of Disney’ (go too deep and you may end up speaking like him). He speaks of the wives of the sea as if they were his own: ‘Is wife of sea same-same wife of lady?’

This part of the coastline, known as the Farasan Bank, is an extensive shoal that runs for about 300 miles from the coastal town of al-Lith, just north of Omaq (and south of Jeddah), southwards to Karamaran Island off the coast of Yemen. This is a shallow area where the reefs, with their greater access to sunlight, have grown over large areas and been transformed into sublime coral gardens. Cousteau, in The Living Sea, describes this area as one of the most interesting coral ecosystems in the whole world. Already, at the end of March, it’s hot and sticky, the warm wind coming in from the Red Sea heavy with moisture. Jizan, reputedly the third largest port on the sea (though you could be forgiven for not thinking so), is, like many other cities in Saudi Arabia, a city in expansion, and a city in progression. Jizan’s far-reaching outskirts are to host one of the six planned ‘economic cities’ dotted across the kingdom, funded by the petro-billionaires, to soak up the growing youth unemployment. Jizan itself, where we live and teach, has all the seeming of a giant dusty building site, pockmarked here and there by lone caterpillars and the concrete exuviae of half-finished buildings and roadways.

He talks of the ‘bizarre and the beautiful’ and refers to the sea’s myriad inhabitants as ‘eyes of the sea’. When trying to elicit the word ‘virgin’ to describe the fringing coral reef, he says:

Situated about 100 kilometres north of the Yemeni border, Jizan nevertheless possesses an ancient heritage dating far beyond the Muslim era as an outpost on an old coastal caravan route from north Arabia to the southern tip of the peninsula, now modern-day Yemen. Some say that it was ‘You know, same, like mother of Jesus, not touch.’ inhabited by the early Ghassanite Arabs, and that it even Above all, Zeya reminds us again and again: possessed, according to the 18th century Danish survey‘The best important rule in the diving - breathing - always I or Carsten Niebuhr, people of a different religion, ‘neither talking, slowly and deep.’ Sunni nor Zaidi’. Following the rise of Islam, Qizan, as it was then called, acquired as a local saint the Sheikh Hassan, a grandson of the more important coffee saint, Sheikh Shadhili of Mocha. Jizan shared in the coffee trade with Yemen, as well as being an eminent place for pearling. In 1834, as part of the Ottoman Empire, Jizan was described as a small port of some 400 inhabitants, and later, during the early part of the 1900s, as one of the few ports which prospered greatly during the blockade. When the British military officer Gerald de Gaury passed this way in the 1920s on wartime assignment, the photographs he took illustrate quite remarkably the coastal village that Jizan then was, with its small thatched roundhouses redolent of the Ethiopian toukl, and Following three evenings of theory and practice in the its small fleet of dhows. By 1930, the Emirate of Asir (of postage stamp swimming-pool in the compound court- which Jizan was the coastal capital) had been absorbed into 14


Ibn Saud’s twin kingdoms of the Nejd and the Hijaz. Shortly thereafter, in 1932, all three regions merged into the greater Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 4 years later, whilst helping Ibn Saud establish the disputed south-western boundary of his kingdom, the English mapmaker Harry St. John Philby, wrote of Jizan, which he used as his Headquarters, as ‘a sad place…ugly, mosquito-ridden and humid’. Some 75 years later, with all aspects of the quaint and bucolic vanquished, the mosquitoes have gone, but Jizan still remains dispiritingly hideous and humid.

tures here are some of the hottest on earth with an ordinary summer day reaching hellish levels on the mercury scale. Highland Saudis from the mountains find it very difficult to remain for any time along the coast. Only the inhabitants of the Tihamah can withstand the obscene heat and sponge-like humidity, and even then at a push. If it wasn’t for the air-conditioning, most likely, there wouldn’t be many people here at all.

60 km out, we pass the site for Jizan Economic City (JEC), according to the slick brochures and web pages, a Dubai in the making. For the moment, however, it is an enormous building site, with trucks coming and going, and not much else. ‘Maybe 50 years, JEC is ready’ Zeya says as we fly by. Further on, at the roadside, my extended family awaits with some of my not so distant cousins. It’s a troop of wary-looking hamadryas baboons, about 30 of them spaced out on the rocky rampart ditch. Behind them, in the distance, barely visible in the morning haze, is the dark, shark-jaw outline of the Asir Mountain range from where they descended. The baboons have been drawn down from the mountains by the promise of free handouts by passing motorists. It’s an ad hoc safari moment as we pull over and a tribe of adults mosey on over to the car. Another car behind us throws some food from its window and the baboons disappear in a cloud of dust.

As we roll onwards, farms, wadis, mango stalls, and acacia groves fly by. The mountains rise in the east, fronted by great tent-like alluvial plains. The sea, itself fronted by lagoons and mangrove forests, sits shimmering to the west. A red-arsed baboon, now red all over, lies matted to the surface of the road. A sign reads: Jeddah 619km, Makkah 626km, Al Madinah 1015km,Yemen (Wrong Way).

Halfway along the Tihamat ‘Asir is the seaside hamlet of Omaq, famous for its virgin reefs, and its fish canteens run by Bedouin women from the mountains. Booking into a small roadside motel, we waste no time in getting suited and booted and tanked up for our first dive. To be sure, the Red Sea is more popular for diving in the tourist zones of Egypt and Jordan, but it is the Saudi coastline (partly due to its relatively sparse human population and that obscene heat) which contains the most extensive areas of coral reefs, with over 194 recorded coral species.

On the rocky shore, it’s a real conference of birds. A flock of sooty gulls sit patiently with three brown boobies. In amongst them is a squacco heron, a turnstone, and the graceful elegance of a bar-tailed godwit and a lone crab plover.The crab plover, tentatively walking and poking the sand, is a real beauty. On a sign, at the water’s edge, an Osprey is perched. The sign, warning against the strong currents, reads: Ministry of Interior - Border Guard.

This coastal land-strip bordering the Red Sea is known as the Tihamah (hot earth), and this particular section between the Hejaz and Yemen, as the Tihamat ‘Asir. The Tihamah plains, varying in width between 30 and 100km, are an extension of the Great Rift Valley System reaching from Before entering the sea, Zeya gives us a quick recap on the Mozambique in Africa all the way up to Syria. The tempera- rules of the sea, ending with perhaps the most important: 15


If it’s very pretty, or very ugly, or if it doesn’t flee from you, two iridescent clownfish who have formed an unlikely symdon’t touch it! This rule of thumb, Zeya explains, also ap- biosis with the poisonous anemones to which the clownfish alone are immune. Zeya then points excitedly into the plies to Saudi women. depths. The shadowy outline of a shark appears. It’s a lone 10 metres down, the coolness of the sea is cleansing. Orblack-tipped reef shark. It barely registers us before weavgies of oxygen bubbles exiting from our mouths writhe ing its way into the dark blue distance. their way to the surface above. In front of us is a quiet city of a fringing coral reef, perhaps the size of a football Later that evening, Zeya and his cousins take me to the field. Behind, moving further out into the sea, is a gradual Bedouin fish tent to eat. We buy the fish from the fishmontalus of sand dropping softly into the depths.The volume of gers aside the tents, and then give it to the old women to sea-space resounds. I feel as if I’ve just stepped into a differ- cook in their deep wood-fire ovens. The women here have ent planet. One is firmly ‘in’, not ‘on’. All around, the coral’s quite a reputation. They come from the mountains, their brightly coloured residents regard you with indifferent eyes: faces uncovered and deeply scarred from the passage of clownfish, parrotfish, a squadron of cuttlefish navigating the time. ‘They cook the finest fish in the whole kingdom’, Zeya shallows. This is a world of seahorses, stargazers and sting- tells me. Underneath a large canopy, spread across a rug the rays, a world whose vibrant pelagic harmony few will ever size of a tennis court, various groups of young male Saudis see firsthand. When Cousteau dived here, he was in awe of sit cross-legged eating from large silver platters of fish, rice the ‘noble shape’ of the fishes, their ‘living expression’, in and vegetables. Half an hour later we are all sitting similarly, the way every part of their body reacted to the impact of tucking in to an enormous platter of hareed and rice. the water. There are shoals of small fish everywhere, each The next morning, after fajr prayer at 4.30am, we get the with their own distinct colours and movements, and names. equipment on and go for one final dive. It’s the best time to They navigate the water so effortlessly. Large schools of dive, the ‘magic hour’ Zeya calls it, ‘when the sea is waking yellow sweetlips and wrasse flow through the currents and up’. Avoiding the plethora of ghost crabs still socializing on the soft coral fields like streams of gold. When faced with the shore, we walk into the ever-brightening sea as the sun danger, their acceleration is truly remarkable. It’s hard not slowly climbs above the mountains behind us. The sea is to feel slightly silly when in their midst. cool but not too cold, the air still fresh and not too warm. The stark juxtaposition between the land and the sea (par- Mask on, and breathing apparatus in mouth, we slowly disticularly between Saudi and scuba) hits you at every turn. appear beneath the surface. Where Saudi Arabia can convey the aspect, through its heavy severity and oppressive climate, of a world removed of any transcendence, this is simply not the case in the cool confines of its reef strewn sea.The coastal ecotone of mangroves and lagoons is a gateway to another dimension, and another world. The heightened prevalence of life, and the wider than usual diversity of species, is, I suppose, less Saudi Arabian than it is simply Arabian. Under the surface of the sea, it is a Debussian ‘danse profane’, a polychrome cosmos of strange creatures and even stranger intelligences, and, emphatically, of a cool, blasphemous nakedness. Above the surface, it is austerity all the way, a world of monochrome and heat, leaching humidity and draconian uniformity. In the sea there is a certain levity; on dry land, (and you don’t get much drier than the Kingdom), it’s all gravity, which, according to Cousteau was, ‘the original sin committed by the first living beings who left the sea.’ ‘Redemption’, he wrote, ‘would come only when we returned to the ocean’. Over the next two days we make several forays into the sea and the coral reef. The reef and its vast array of inhabitants continue to dazzle. The staghorn coral ekes outwards from the body of limestone coral like a petrified tree, its static stone-like nature belying its aliveness and movement. The brain coral, a glowing orange in the blue, is utterly bizarre for its structural similarity to a real living brain. Zeya points out a leather-back sea turtle in the distance, and, over there, near the coral, some blowfish. At the coral’s edge, in amongst the sea anemones, we catch a glimpse of 16


here – just here Andrew McCallum

a crater gouged

a mountain tarn

a mirror blackly gleaming

down loose scree I scramble

a tingling apprehension of being

too close to an edge

which is neither land nor sky

and what I find is

a face so deeply poured

it might be buried in

its own reflection

a place where life and death meet

where life gives birth to death

where death gives life

the saving grace of fear

here

under a film of time

the wind blows

across dark waters

a few grains of eternity

here

17

just here


kaleidoscope of mist and sun Andrew McCallum

they

blow in many ways

but in one direction only

southeast off the Atlantic

over herring fields, onto the mountains of Mull

throwing Iona into fickle clarity

kaleidoscope of mist and sun

just as one strains to appreciate each fresh vision

it explodes again

remaking everything

moments of revelation blinking between

mists and blazing passion

gusts of fear and uncertainty

we all need such gales in our lives

the breath of Chaluim Chille

moving across the face of the waters

18


how few are the words Andrew McCallum

before you the ancient rain

behind you the warmth of the fire

you stand there and think

how few are the words that

a body needs in life

witness all this

with your face to the wind

the rain tapping your shoulder

19


LISTENING OUT: Some Notes on Tanera Christian McEwen

In the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Frank Fraser Darling moved to the tiny Scottish island of Tanera Mor. He came as a naturalist, intending to study seals and birds, and stayed on, for several hard-bitten years, to transform a ramshackle ruin into a thriving and productive farm.

If you were to look for Tanera Mor on the map, you’d find it on the north-west coast, not far from Ullapool. It is the largest of the so-called Summer Isles, originally used by mainland crofters as summer grazing for their cattle, and later as winter grazing for their lambs. It is composed of red Torridonian sandstone, with a thin covering of peat: some 770 acres of tussocky hillside, birch and alder woods, high cliffs, and bright-eyed lochans. I came there first in 2010, and have returned several times since, teaching a series of workshops with the local artist Jan Kilpatrick. Whether or not it is true that, as the sociologists like to say, “cognition is place specific”—meaning that certain thoughts are only possible in certain places – there’s no doubt that Tanera has had a powerful effect on my own internal weather.

His was an urgent, sinewy, masculine enterprise, dependent, as so often, on the (largely) unsung labor of his devoted wife. But held in the daily mesh of action and practicality was another catch entirely: quiet epiphanies of looking and deep listening, the fruit less of mindfulness than of what some have called “placefulness” – the blue-grey/blue-green wisdom given by Tanera itself. For years now, I have lived in the United States – first in Here, for example, in his memoir, Island Farm, he describes Berkeley, California, then in New York City, most recently in a little college town in Massachusetts. Returning to Scotland his pleasure in the evening milking. after so long away has, at times, an aching potency, which I loved drawing milk through my fingers and hearing the Tanera makes only more acute. When I first arrive, I like to sound of it piercing the mounting foam in crock or pail… take things slowly: looking, listening, pausing, breathing in. I There was the distant calling of the barnacle geese newly take a long meandering walk, resting for twenty minutes on come to this green point, there were the near sounds of a sun-warmed rock, looking out across the body of the isrough tongues licking backs on which the hair was growland. I glance down at the tough grass, seeded with brilliant ing long for the winter, of diligent muzzles plucking the wildflowers: the white and lavender and egg-yolk yellow grass, and if they were not grazing I would hear the soft of the little flower called eyebright, the creamy fronds of rhythmic cudding of the cattle, together with the comfortmeadowsweet, the concentrated purple of knapweed or able rumblings of their vast bellies. thistle, the varied yellows of coltsfoot, dandelion and torAt such times, he said, “with the sea plashing on either side mentil, the soft puffs of white and crimson that mean clover. and the mountains darkening into the night, milking the litEach visit fills me with the same impossible impulse – the tle black cow was a moment of joy in [the] day and war was desire to count and catalogue these island beauties, to acforgotten.” He was entirely given over to the immediate cumulate not stones or shells or pressed dried flowers, but task, and at the same time, entirely focused – listening out memories, noticings. And yet that small-scale focus is con– delicately appreciative of each island sound. stantly being disrupted, my eye moving out from Tanera it2. self to the tremendous frieze of mountains on the Scottish mainland, now radiantly visible, now obscured. Stac Pollaidh, 20


Cul Beag, Cul Mor; Ben Mor Coigeach; the Fiddler: one and squabbling overhead. looks like a shifting family of mastodons (hence the official The ancient Mesopotamians saw birds as sacred because adjective, “pachydermatous”); another like a plum-pudding; their footprints so resembled their own cuneiform script. the third is as sharply symmetrical as a child’s toy triangle. More recently, “the language of the birds” has been seen by Like the Summer Isles, these mountains are composed of alchemists as the gateway to all mystery, all hidden wisdom. mixed Torridonian sandstone, set on a bed of gray Lewisian What Fraser Darling would have made of this, I’ve no idea. gneiss: at three billion years, among the oldest rocks on He was of course a professional ornithologist, alert to the earth. Each has been submerged deep underwater; buried “seething toiling birdlife” on the island. Clearly he had an under layers of miles-deep sandstone; buffed and scored excellent ear, well able to distinguish the “loud song of the by glaciers. Each has its own inimitable character, its own island wrens, the thin pi-i-i-i of tysties, the skirl of a guillecompacted history. One of the joys of Tanera is the sheer mot, the cooing of eiders, and the purity of a thrush’s song.” astonishment of that geology, the marvel of its daily compa- He remarked too, with his own brand of wry amusement, ny. “What do I know when I am in this place,” asks Robert on the young gulls whose “unmusical voice” was “like an Macfarlane in his book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, un-oiled door-hinge.” “that I know nowhere else?” What calls to me? Where do But there was something of the dreamer and the mystic to I pay attention? On Tanera, there are days when time ithim too, and the notion of a deeper knowing, a deeper kind self seems visible, from those ancient blue-grey presences of listening, would, I think, have puzzled and intrigued him. across the water to the shrill green of a single fallen leaf. He was fascinated by the island: not just its natural history and geology, but its (far more hidden) human story too. Who used to live here? What had their lives been like? And 3. the lives of their ancestors? During his years on Tanera, he Meanwhile, I continue to explore the island, tramping up conducted unofficial oral histories, recording local legends the steep track from the harbour, snuffing on the wind that and etymologies, along with a smattering of history and arraw, sweet scent: heather and honeysuckle and bog-myrtle, cheology, in an effort to reconstruct a living narrative. coffee and engine oil, the acrid tang of someone’s cigarette. Without that work, it would be difficult to interpret TanI notice the smooth green pelt of the hillside, the splotchera’s human past, at least beyond the most immediate imes of rusty lichen, the clouds shifting to a wide fan overpressions. On my first visit, I saw ruined crofts still standhead. I feel the squelch of peaty water through the straps ing on the ridge above the pier, their rubbly walls lost in a of my sandals, the sudden flutter of a meadow-pippet as she tangle of ferns and nettles and wild iris. Young trees were springs up underfoot. I go swimming at Mol Mor, the largest sprouting from the space beside the hearth, and moss grew beach on the island, where the rocks are big and round and soft over the fallen stones. I took photographs of those sleek with emerald weed, and the water is pure Aegean crofts, and of the herring-curing station, further down the turquoise (though searingly, bitingly, breathlessly cold). coast at Tigh an Quay. Tall and lean, it is an imposing edifice Another day, I go swimming off the pier, edging down the even now, its walls harled white with shell-sand and lime rusty barnacled steps into the dark water, afraid of that mortar, its empty windows cutting out clear rectangles of cold, afraid of cramp, afraid for a while that I won’t make it blue or cloudy sky. An old phone-booth stands to one side, back, repeating like a mantra with each stroke, “Swimming its red paint long since faded, its door tied shut with a piece to Scotland, swimming back to Scotland – ” of turquoise twine. I took pictures of that too, and of the I “taste” Scotland in that icy water, in the leafy dulse grow- “new” quay built by the Fraser Darlings in the long suming wild along the shore, and in every mouthful of salt sea mers of the war, its red and grey and sandy-coloured rocks wind. I taste it too each evening, as we settle down to din- blotched bright with orange lichen. ner – haggis and venison from the mainland, fresh berries and courgettes and onions from a Tanera garden – the spirit of the land becoming energy and sustenance, taking on, however briefly, my own corporeal form.

By then I already knew some of the more recent history: herring, emigration, sheep, the Highland Clearances. But I had no idea how to make sense of what I saw. It took several readings of Island Farm, and some further research too, before I began to understand just how long – and how completely – Tanera had been inhabited. It is a tiny piece of territory, not more than a mile and a half in length. But reaching back across the years, I saw it thronged with invisible human presences.

Between times, I listen out in ever-widening circles, starting with the soft whoosh of my own breath, and the shuffle of wind in the tall clumps of fern, noticing how differently it moves through the rowans and the aspen trees, the flapping plastic bin-bags, or my own unbuttoned mackintosh. The Irish writer John O’Donohue wrote that landscape “is always in conversation with itself.” Walking by the shore, I 4. hear that muffled monologue in the low flop of the waves, the grind of stones on the shingle, the white gulls swooping Not much is known of Tanera’s ancient past, of the people 21


who first lived there, or precisely when. Standing on the hillside, looking out, I imagine small bands of fisher-gatherers, searching for fish and shellfish along the shore, raiding the cliffs for prized sea-gulls’ eggs, and hunting seals and otters for their meat and skins. I picture the early Neolithic farmers, and later still, the Celts and then the Picts, sowing the machair with barley and wild oats, and grazing their cattle on the rugged pastures. By the time the Vikings arrived, towards the end of the eighth century, it seems likely that it already possessed a considerable year-round settlement. Hawrarymoir, those old marauders called it, “the island of the haven,” in honour of its magnificent horse-shoe-shaped Anchorage.

forever. The keeper of the Statistical Accounts for 183435, a Reverend Thomas Ross, remembered that “prodigious shoals” would appear off the coast of Loch Broom, often as early as the month of May, though most of the catch was taken between September and February:

When the herrings set fairly in… the benefit is very great. The herrings of this coast are of the very best kind – the people are instantly afloat, with every species of seaworthy craft … sloops, schooners, wherries, boats of all sizes… constantly flying on the wings of the wind, from creek to creek, and from loch to loch… Hundreds of boats are seen to start at day-set for the watery field, then silently shoot their nets, lie out at the end of their train, all night, and Frank Fraser Darling preferred to believe that the name return in the morning full of life and spirit, to sell or cure had an earlier (Celtic) derivation, and meant “island of fire.” their cargoes. [My ellipses.] He noticed that much of the peat had been scraped from Several herring-curing stations were established locally; inthe top of Meall Mor, its highest point, which may well have cluding the one on Tanera, at Tigh an Quay. The smoked served as a beacon up and down the coast. Certainly such fish (or “red herring”) were transported as far as the West a beacon would have had its uses on those long dark winIndies to feed slaves on the plantations. Some were also ter nights, when the Vikings sped across the Sound in their exported to Ireland, and Irish soil bought back as ballast in narrow longboats, burning and pillaging and taking hostages. their place, hence an especially verdant field called “Little On the island of Eigg, not far to the south, the Norsemen Irish Park.” Fraser Darling was especially drawn to such took over the farmland, and reduced the local population etymologies, and the way they functioned as a mini-histoto slaves: a practice that may also have been replicated on ry. Not far from his house there was a little hill, called in Tanera. The earliest human record is a tombstone, dated Gaelic Cnoc Ghlas, or the “green knoll.” Its name too was 1193, when the Norse were still ensconced. “I do not wish a compacted anecdote. For many years, the fishermen had to suggest the place is miserable,” wrote Fraser Darling. spread their nets out there to clean and dry, and the dried “[But] at the back of everything I get a sense of great age, sea slime had acted as a kind of fertilizer, endowing it with dark things done, and secrets held.” a cap of bright green grass. In the centuries that followed, Tanera’s population shrank The herring-fishery flourished for more than 400 years. But and swelled with the seasons. Crofters brought their cattle by the middle of the nineteenth century the shoals had there for summer grazing, and returned them to the mainbegun to diminish, and with them Tanera’s prosperity and land for the winter. The soil, though poor, was not unculindependence. In 1881, there had been 118 crofters on tivated. Traces of lazy-beds have been found on the lower the island: fifty years later, every one of them had left. The slopes of the island, and some may have been worked until Great Depression tolled the death knell for the islanders. quite recent times. The Reverend Roderick MacNab, who When Frank Fraser Darling arrived in 1938, he and his wife wrote up the Parish of Lochbroom (and hence the Summer Bobbie were the only inhabitants. The herring factory was Isles) for the Statistical Accounts of 1791-99 (see http://ediin ruins, as was the original quay, plundered for its cut and na.ac.uk/stat-acc-scot/ ) described the use of “sea-ware” as finished stone. The crofts stood roofless and empty. The fertilizer, along with “compound dung-hills and shelly sand,” schoolhouse, built in 1870, had not served as a school since claiming they could produce “exuberant crops” from land before the First World War. Already the island was returnthat was “formerly thought good-for-nothing.” ing to legend, dateless and inexact. But for all their hard work, the people were, in his opinion, “rather poor,” living mainly on fish and potatoes, sup- Hungry for information, Fraser Darling befriended Murdo plemented with oysters, cockles and other shellfish. Rents Macleod, the last crofter-fisherman to leave Tanera, and latwere high, and “the engrossing of farms for sheep walks” er wrote up many of his stories. There was the cargo of forced many to emigrate to America. Whole districts were rum buried somewhere down near Tigh an Quay, “a legend already depopulated, and where hundreds of people had known as far away as Orkney.” There were the strange old once lived, “no human faces are now to be met with, except coins Macleod had dug up as a boy, “silver coins, about the size of a shilling.” There was the ancient graveyard next to a shepherd attended by his dog.” Little Irish Park, with its rough unlettered graves, and crumIf there was one tremendous consolation to be found at bly fragments of human bone. And always there was Tanera that time, it was in the bounty of the local herring-fishery. itself, with its wild red cliffs and rowan trees and “festoons Great shimmering shoals migrated south between Tanera of fragrant honeysuckle,” its sandstone rock “dotted with and the mainland, then back around the smaller islands to tiny cornelians.” the open sea, in an abundance many thought would last 22


yes, “placefulness.” 5.

Nietzsche once wrote that the lakes were the eyes of the mountain, reflecting back the true light of the sky. On TanFrank Fraser Darling left Tanera towards the end of World era, one of the lochans holds its own small island, looking War Two, and died in 1979, with a long list of books and out across the heathery slopes with its own velvety green honors to his name, among them his 1969 Reith Lectures, iris, its own keen, uncompromising gaze. appropriately entitled Wilderness and Plenty. Island Farm was recently reissued, in a shiny new paperback edition, I thought of that last summer, as I stood with my friends with Bobbie’s smiling picture on the cover. In reading it, I outside the old schoolhouse, where the Fraser Darlings realized they too had joined the legends. Frank was playing had lived for much of their first year. We were staring back carols on his mouth-organ, while Bobbie sang, celebrating towards the far south-east, now lit up in delicate beige the first Christmas of the war. He was lying in the school- and gold, almond and lavender. The scene was being transhouse with a broken leg, while Bobbie brought him cups of formed even as we watched: Stac Pollaidh and its attendant strong hot tea. He was writing, writing, writing; they were mountains deepening from maroon to purple to blaeberry working on the quay. He was planting a sixpenny packet of as the sunlight fled; the moon slipping out, deft as a tongue: sweet peas down by the shore, enjoying their “tiny world of a plain round face, long nose, and dark smudged eyes, a wide and doubting mouth. We watched it rise over the fragrance and peace.” After the Fraser Darlings left, Tanera was uninhabited for hills, white, then pure bone ivory, its long track lengthening several decades. In 1965, it was bought by the Summer Isles across the bay. Estates, which restored several of the ruined crofts, and let them as holiday accommodation. A salmon fish farm was established on the island, along with a café, a post office and a small sailing school. In the spring of 2013, the Wilder family, who own the island, and have lived there for almost two decades, decided to put it on the open market, through C.K.D. Galbraith in Inverness. No one knows quite what will happen next. But for friends of the island – and indeed, for the most casual visitor – the hope is that not too much will change, that in a world of distraction and overwhelm, Tanera will continue to be the haven it has been since Viking times, a source of wisdom, concentrated beauty, and

Meanwhile the sun was setting on the other side of the island, a rampage of fiery orange and charcoal grey. “Tiger clouds,” someone called them, their edges gleaming gold. It was a marvellous thing to stand there on the crest between: gazing first at the small round moon and quiet hills, and then back to the far west with its roaring angelic golden pyre – looking, listening, listening out.

23


Imagine Mandy Haggith Imagine the land covered in ice, almost to the top of the mountains. Imagine the peaks of Quinag, islands of rock in a sea of ice. Imagine it sparkling under stars, freezing in the night cold, crackling into crispness. Imagine the moon in a blue sky looking down on all that white. Imagine it thawing by morning, south faces softening. Imagine the sun, burning through fog, melting its edges, weakening its hold on the land. Imagine warm wind gnawing at westerly slopes, corroding crystals. Imagine trickles of melting, a gurgle of bubbles in cracks, an insistent rub of fluid, widening slivers of sliding, slumping slush. Imagine the collapse, an afternoon thunder of mountainside ice slides, a roar as trickles merge into torrents. Imagine the ice in motion, seething down to the coast, dragged west by gravity to the Atlantic ocean. Imagine how it would grind and scour, groan and crack. Imagine stones grabbed from crags and grasped from corners, loosened, freed, tumbling, snatched back by earth in erratic ways and places. Imagine water working its way under, lubricating the lower surface, loosening its grip, sending it slipping along. Imagine it calving, ice-bergs teetering off onto ocean journeys, glacial offspring doomed to a life of sea-melt. Imagine great chunks of chill swept into the heaving sea. Imagine it wasting away, watering down, sweating and winnowing, drifting into wet breath. Imagine the smell of drying ground. Imagine the first signs of life, green moulds, algal scum, filaments of moss, a frond of lichen. Imagine the first wind-blown grass seed germinating in that spring of springs. Imagine the first bird!

24


Inchnadamph Mandy Haggith

rain gusts billow torrents gush from cliff-top caves fall up into the sky

25


Iona pebble Mandy Haggith

smaller, smoother, greener than my finger-tip mottled as a thrush-egg a salt-tumbled seed of sea

26


refuges and shuttered military installations. The contrasts are a little crazy. Just about when I settle into the idea of maybe seeing something wild I turn a corner and see a row of giant power lines strung out across the horizon. From the parking lot the Braidwood Fish & Wildlife Area looks pleasant enough. I make a point to ignore it’s industrial pedigree as I began to wander along the man-made lake shaped out of old strip mine pits. At regular intervals along the perimeter gravel access road were water sampling pipes that Marquette and Joliet could not have forseen. But there’s plenty of summer greenery – mainly of the invasive types. Men fished from the bare patches along the shore worn out of the Phragmites. And almost all of the bigger trees along the way were cottonwood and black locust, and the dominant shrub layer was Eurasian honeysuckle. This, by and large, is what the future landscape of Illinois may look like.

Hiking the Neo-Carboniferous Dave Coulter I The giant Exxon refinery appears on the horizon about an hour southwest of Chicago near where Interstate 55 crosses Interstate 80. Thousands of cars and trucks traverse this modern crossroads every day. I wonder how many of the drivers realize that the rivers down below - the Des Plaines and the Kankakee - are fading watery trade routes now eclipsed by the automobile era. All this traffic necessitates the presence of that refinery that is now shrinking in the rear view mirror.

It’s pretty easy to get cynical about the state of the world from such a vantage point, but I was here to find fossils.The path to the fossil beds was poorly marked, and I found it due to a combination of luck and stubbornness. One grandfather teaching his two granddaughters to fish said that the rock piles were a quarter mile down the road. I later reckoned that it was more like two miles to the main spot, but it was about the nicest August day ever - clear, and not even 80 degrees - so I walked without complaint. One the best things about going for a walk is encountering the unexpected, and along the access road were some avian surprises including Great Blue Herons, Cormorants, Caspian Terns, Goldfinches, Blue Jays and - wonder of wonders - a wild turkey trotting down the road. Tucked into shadier corners of roadside ditches clumps of Black-eyed Susans held on.

But carbon has been the king in these parts for some time. Just a little further down the highway the observant motorist might notice barren rust colored humps in the distance, anomalies in this otherwise flat farmland. These mounds of waste rock are the remnants of strip mines that used to operate here. Tiny little isolated towns named Coal City and Diamond will probably be overrun by the sprawl that After hiking those couple miles I finally found the fossil is modern Chicago. grounds. The weedy eroded hillsides were pocked with I used to come out here when I was a boy to fish in the circular patches of bare earth, their surfaces littered with Kankakee, or crack open Mars-colored pebbles looking discarded rust colored shards - nodules that had come for fossil ferns. And lately I’ve been visiting the little town up empty. It was as if I’d stumbled upon a deserted camp of of Braidwood and the surrounding countryside, hoping to pre-historic tool makers. But there’s nothing pre-historic do a little of that once again in this summer. Things have about a landscape that overlooks a nuclear power plant just changed in the four decades since I was a kid. For one thing, over the northern horizon. A Red-tail Hawk and a Turkey a person can’t just pull off the road and wander onto pri- Vulture surveyed the scene from above. vate property and beat on rocks like we used to. Granted, I admit right now there were no big fossil finds that day. In we probably shouldn’t have trespassed then either, but now hindsight, think I was happy enough just to find the main all those old tempting spots off the frontage roads seem to spot. And anyway, I had packed only a quart of water and an be fenced off. Nowadays the State of Illinois has set aside apple, so I didn’t have the luxury to linger. But I did scratch fossil gathering spots for the public at the Braidwood Fish around a little, and came away with some charismatic & Wildlife Area - where I’m driving to. non-fossil bearing rocks. On the walk back I found a turkey I’d never noticed when I was young that the quality of the landscape around here seems to be either really good or really bad. Jumbled together in this junction of rivers and roads are fine prairie remnants and heavy industry, wildlife

feather on the road and with about a mile to go I finally saw some other fossil hunters. A man and a woman were hiking in, toting a small cart with their gear. They said that I had indeed found the right place, but didn’t go far enough

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in. Just before the parking lot I bush-whacked and found some nodules that I took home to split later. In one rock I found a faint, ghost of a leaf impression and the other held the broken off corner of a fern. II Braidwood Dunes and Savanna is on the outskirts of the town of Braidwood. This 250 acre parcel is - according to the Illinois DNR - “a remnant of dry-mesic sand savanna, mesic and wet mesic sand prairie, sedge meadow and marsh representative of the Kankakee Sand Area Section of the Grand Prairie Natural Division. The area is one of the largest and most diverse examples of its type remaining in Illinois“.The site is what remains of an 11,000 year old sand dune created by the outwash of the last Ice Age. To say that this preserve is merely rare is a vast understatement. Native prairies in Illinois are already ridiculously rare, these last fragments analogous to living museum pieces. Experiencing a sand prairie is akin to seeing a wooly mammoth lumbering along Old Route 66.

The green tendrils, the fiddleheads persist patiently in the midsummer heat. I like to imagine the unlikely possibility they’re descendants of those cracked dusty rusty nodules I scrounged from the side of the road four decades ago now tucked away in a shoebox. But what right do I have to these fossils? I certainly wouldn’t dig up a fern here today. Is it right to possess one merely because it’s fossilized? Is a midsummer ritual of atonement not in order? Should I not return these ancient ferns to some gravely lot - maybe behind a truck stop - and give some other kid a chance to hear the echoes once again? III When I was a kid my dad and I used to sometimes fish in creek that was a tributary to the Kankakee River. I didn’t know its name then, but I have since checked my maps and I now know it is called Jordan Creek. Our fishing spot was located under a highway bridge. I’d never have remembered this place except for the drive-in restaurant next to the bridge. The restaurant had - and still has - one of those weird giant statues out by the road to lure in traffic. In this case, the statue is dressed like an astronaut and has a rocket in his hands. The name of the place is the Launching Pad, and the highway is Illinois 53, the modern name for an old section of Route 66.

On a July day the site is spectacular. Wildflowers abound certainly, but wildflowers like I’d never seen in any one spot together - blazing stars and milkweeds, some common, some closer to extinction than I’d like to know. There are orchids co-existing side by side - for now - with invasive Reed canary grass. The entire landscape is a parable in co- Looking back, it was the perfect spot to take a kid fishing. existence, bounded on all sides by industry, defunct mining This was a no-lose proposition: park at the drive in, fish in the creek, and grab a burger or hot dog all within a fifand dormant urbanization. In 2006 the Will County State’s Attorney promised to in- ty yard radius. If the fish didn’t bite, there was always the vestigate a series of undisclosed radioactive tritium spills Launching Pad. I still remember it as the site of one of my from the nearby Exelon nuclear power station that took early fishing triumphs. I think I caught four Bluegill and mayplace between 1996 and 2003. According to a press release be a Catfish - more than my dad that day.We took a couple from the State’s Attorney: “The first spill, of about 250,000 of the dead little fish back home as a surprise for our cat. gallons of effluent containing tritium, happened in 1996.… On the drive back home I stopped briefly at the Launching In each of the next two spills, in 1998 and 2000, about 3 Pad. I wanted to see if Jordan Creek looked at all like I’d million gallons of effluent containing tritium was spilled. As remembered. In my mind’s eye it all seems a little rougher a result, groundwater east of the plant recently was found and maybe a little bit greener there. to have a tritium level nearly 11 times higher than the federal limit. A 2003 spill left groundwater at the Braidwood Dunes and Savanna Nature Preserve, east of the plant, with a recent tritium level about 50 percent higher than the federal limit.” An 11,000 year old echo, perched on the edge of extinction. These 250 acres may have escaped coal mining and farming but are still vulnerable to contamination from coal’s modern kin, uranium. But there are still ferns here. Hidden among and under the invasive scrub and grasses are ferns. It cheered me to think that in spite of everything that ferns may occupied this very crust of the earth for 280 million years - since the Pennsylvanian Period.

When I left the Braidwood fossil grounds that Sunday the ancient flora of the Pennsylvanian epoch was left more or less unscathed by my efforts. I don’t think I was really looking for fossils anyway. I already have my small share, a half-filled shoebox on a wooden shelf. I think I was looking for something else, but one can’t really go back in time. But maybe somewhere a time machine whirrs out there, shiny and humming, along the banks of the Kankakee. And I promise you, if I see it flying my way down Route 66 that I will surely put my thumb out.

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Tessera Barbara Hickson

to walk quietly content with insignificance to absorb the dapple of birdsong hear silence in sound to sense the fern-damp fecundity of shadowy spaces accept lushness and life with death and decay to feel drawn to one special tree and sit at its roots know the feel of its bark in the small of your back hear the rush of the wind through lichen-clad branches and drift into dreams of patterns and webs of circles and threads to find that you fit perfectly

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earth to earth Barbara Hickson

An almost sacred act to mould and form clay, feel it slide through my hands, shape this globe, know it is ancient rock, landscape ground down by millennia. It will stand on the land from which it came, be battered by the elements, crack and erode over time, reduce to earth once more.

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Bowl- Untitled Fiona Byrne Sutton

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of its kind, it may be reluctant to cross large expanses of water, but it is hard to believe that occasional individuals do not wander from the continent. Suitable habitat exists in France, a mere 150 kilometres from the Kent and Sussex coasts, which are well within the dispersal range of the species. This large woodpecker has a great propensity to wander in winter and has been known to travel long distances. The Scandinavian population in particular is subject to occasional irruptive migrations in which individuals may disperse up to 500 kilometres.

Epiphany at the No.20 Tram Stop Bill Eddie (November 2013) (In Memoriam - Fiona Pirie, 1953-2011)

It was one of those Central European days of winter when the sky was overhung from horizon to horizon with a leaden grey. At the terminus of Divoká Šárka, the chill was palpable and we shivered uncontrollably on leaving the No. 20 tram. A light wind was blowing from the east and the air was occasionally filled with snow flurries - surely too cold for snow? This was our last full day in Prague and we planned to walk the ten kilometre path, following the Šúrecký tributary stream downhill through the valley of Šárka to where it enters the mighty Vltava. In the 7th century, one of the earliest Slavic settlements apparently existed in the valley, which is named after Šárka, a pivotal figure in Czech mythology. She allegedly committed suicide by throwing herself off a cliff in the valley during what became known as the ‘Maidens War’. Divoká Šárka is beloved of the people of the Czech Republic and the name Šárka is immortalised in the third of six wonderful symphonic poems that comprise Má Vlast (My Country) composed by Bedřich Smetana between 1872 and 1879. We hoped to find the Black Woodpecker, the largest and most striking of the European woodpeckers which breed regularly in forests on the outskirts of Prague. It has been sighted in Šárka, as well as in several parks of central Prague such as Stromovka and in the old cemetery of Olšanské between the districts of Žižkov and Vinohrady. I have always been fascinated by this bird ever since I first saw an illustration of it in Collin’s Pocket Guide to British Birds, where it was depicted as the Great Black Woodpecker. It is not yet on The British Ornithologists’ Union’s official ‘British List’ but it must have visited the British Isles since there are more than fifty alleged sightings from England. Like many

As a teenager, my interest in this species grew, thanks to a television film documentary by Heinz Sielmann on the BBC’s Look programme, and which later became the basis for his book entitled My Year with the Woodpeckers.1 Sielmann was able to film woodpeckers in their nest holes by gradually cutting open a section at the back of the nesting tree and enclosing the nest chamber within a specially-constructed hide that hugged the trunk of the tree. This was pioneering work for the 1950s and it allowed Sielmann to observe for the first time the intimate behaviour of several European species of woodpeckers at their nests. Filming was done in mixed beech forest near Dülmen in Westphalia but the inspiration for the film really began years before when, as a schoolboy, Sielmann first encountered the Black Woodpecker in the old-growth forests of Mazuria in Poland (formerly East Prussia). I glimpsed my first Black Woodpecker in Germany in 1969 in mature beech forests on the outskirts of Kaiserslautern in the Rhineland but it was not a very satisfactory view. I had to wait eleven years before I saw another, this time on the high slopes of Mount Olympus in northern Greece. I saw it remarkably well as it flopped unsteadily across the mountainside where the beech forest gives way to large stands of Greek fir. It was a male and I could clearly see the large streak of scarlet framing his distinctive angular head. In the course of a half century of birding, I have seen this bird only a few times. In the autumn of 2006, my wife Fiona and I were driving along a winding road in the shadow of Mount Timfi in the Pindos Mountains of northern Greece and, as we stopped at a lay-by to check our map, a shrill, melancholic, wailing kleeeah rang out from some pines several hundred yards down the road. It was sufficiently different from the call of a buzzard and I suspected it might be a Black Woodpecker. When I reached the spot I quickly saw that it was indeed my long-sought woodpecker. It was a male, and how astonishing he was, clambering up the main trunk of a small pine, scraping the rough bark noisily with his great zygodactylic toes spread out in firm grasp. In the dappled afternoon light that played through the foliage, the scarlet crown and jet-black satin plumage were in vivid contrast. He soon spotted me and, with a loud ringing klee-

32


klee-klee-klee-klee, he was off. He flew, half-hidden by the trees, back up the road and then changed course. As he was about to cross over the road, I shouted to Fiona to watch out for him passing overhead. As a result, she was able to see him thump on to a pine on the other side of the road and peek at her round the trunk before finally disappearing over the ridge. The whole episode lasted a mere few minutes but what a phenomenal experience it was — this relationship founded on difference, this otherness, without which there would be no dance. The woodlands that hug the upper edges of the Šárka valley are mostly birches and they have a characteristic, if somewhat monotonous, uniformity that is reminiscent of conifer plantations. However, the young twigs in the leafless canopy had a purplish hue, providing the only hint of colour in that forbidding winter landscape. We wandered downstream for about three kilometres but my initial euphoria quickly dampened in the cold grey silence. We saw only a few small birds, an occasional Chaffinch or Great Tit. The valley has intriguing cliffs and rock formations and I can imagine it to be verdant in the springtime and summer but that day, in the freezing cold, it was bleak and inhospitable. As the light quickly began to fade, we reluctantly retraced our steps back up the valley towards the tram-stop.

duszewska, I was ‘lost’ in the Kampinoski Forest close to the River Wisła not far from the northern suburbs of Warsaw. As we tried to find the correct path that would take us out of the flooded forest, we heard the ringing kleeklee-klee of the Black Woodpecker, but all we saw of it was a fleeting glimpse of a shadowy figure moving off through the lower canopy. Frustration often seems to be the norm when trying to observe this bird but occasionally the unexpected happens. One year later, Mike had an encounter with a Black Woodpecker in the old-growth forests of Białowieża in north-east Poland. He later wrote, ‘I got a good look at it clawed to the tree, enough to see its red head, its neck and all, before it let out a yell and flapped off. I was almost in tears at the power of the experience, at the wonder of seeing this bird for the very first time, and in such a sacred place.’ Black Woodpeckers may be difficult to find if time is short, and they are usually rather shy, but, throughout their range in Europe, they are relatively common and the breeding population in the Czech Republic alone has been estimated at between 3000 and 6000 pairs. One is apt to come across them suddenly within the forest and, almost invariably, they spot you first, or, more likely, they are to be seen flying between forests as in my latest sighting of one from a bus outside the village of Mnichovice. For most British birders, even the most seasoned of them, it is difficult to find enough time during short trips to the continent to learn their habits. The Black Woodpecker is a bird that can be observed at close quarters as evidenced by the many fine photographs that have been produced in recent years by resident European birders. I often wish for the opportunity to spend several weeks or even longer in the springtime living in close proximity to their forests, to wander at will where the world is quiet, in silent contemplation with these wonderful birds.

When we arrived at road level, a biting wind was blowing and we anxiously awaited the approaching tram. Then, for some reason, Fiona looked skywards and exclaimed, ‘That’s a funny-looking crow!’ ‘It’s a Black Woodpecker,’ I gasped, as it passed immediately overhead, flop-flopping across the winter sky in its characteristic wobbly, un-woodpecker-like flight. This was really uncanny. Was it synchronicity? Why, of all the places that this enigmatic wanderer of the forests could fly over, should it choose that particular spot at the No. 20 tram stop? As it disappeared in a south-westerly direction, the cold was temporarily forgotten and we boarded the tram in an ecstatic mood. Heading back to warmth The Black Woodpecker was proclaimed ‘Bird of the Year, and a celebratory glass of glühwein in Malá Strana, I found 2008’ by the Ukrainian Bird Protection Society and deservedly so. The stark, satin black plumage is relieved in the it hard to believe what we had just witnessed. male by a fire-flash of scarlet on his crown that ends in a Such epiphanies never last long and maybe that is why they slight crest.This is replaced in the female by a smaller patch are so special. Yet during those moments we are enrapof red on her nape. The eyes are pale straw-coloured and tured by the event and lose all sense of time. William Blake, penetrating and there is a little black mark that extends in Auguries of Innocence, wrote that we can hold ‘eternity forward from the pupil into the iris so that the bird apin an hour’ but I believe that we can hold it in minutes, even pears to have a constant look of incredulity. Perhaps its seconds. Maybe that is what people mean when they say sheer vivacity, flighty behaviour and ringing calls are what ‘my life flashed before my eyes.’ As the French philosopher most appeal. Yet the habitat where Black Woodpeckers are Henri Bergson says, what is important is the experience as to be found must also be a contributing factor, whether it is duration (durée), not the tick-tock of rational time. sun-dappled mature beech forests or resin-scented mounTime, in the everyday sense of the word, is a factor to be tain pines. considered when searching for Black Woodpeckers. In the It is a real artist’s bird. Several artists and writers have been early spring of 2007, with Mike Roman and Berenika Mioinspired by the Black Woodpecker. For example, in 1892-94, 33


the Finnish symbolist artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, painted a very evocative picture of it against a background of the vast forests of Karelia, the meaning of which could clearly be interpreted in nationalistic terms. For the Canadian artist, Robert Bateman, the Black Woodpecker was a jinx bird. His first attempt to find it in the Spanish Pyrénées ended in failure ‘...hiking through the forests, climbing through snowfields, and scanning sunlit mountain peaks...’ It was only many years later in 2001 that he finally caught up with it, again in Spain. Then ‘...one finally appeared early one morning in the mountains...’ He was apparently so inspired that he painted a picture of it.2 Bateman’s style of painting may be described as scientific naturalism and his portrayal of the Black Woodpecker is an accurate representation of the bird in its natural setting but to my mind it fails to convey the overwhelming presence that this bird has. Despite these criticisms, for a long time now I’ve had a suspicion that many artists and poets see birds in a deeper, more meaningful way than most birders simply because they are able to see with their mind’s eye beyond the surface appearance of things. But few of them are able to maintain a delicate balance between the integrity of the world and the creative imagination. The term that may be used to reconcile the power of the creative eye with the independent status of the world is ‘phenomenon.’ This was the way Thoreau used the term. For him, it is ‘an entity that bridges the gap between subject and object; it is the ‘structure’ that holds this dichotomy together and preserves the world from...overreaching romantic imagination.’3 For me, the ‘extravagance’ of writers like Thoreau is necessary to go beyond the banality of scientific naturalism and give vibrancy to our relationships within the living world, and it resonates clearly with my own desire to go beyond. This is what pulls me this November morning back to the woodpeckers of Šárka, Stromovka and Vyšehrad in Prague, and of Łazienki Park and Wilanów in Warsaw. To express the inexpressible is the paradox. I can only describe it using inadequate language — this long pilgrimage, always turning on itself, always returning to the woods and to the birds. 1 Sielmann, Heinz. 1959. My Year with the Woodpeckers. Transl. S. Lightman. London: Barrie & Rockliff. 2 Bateman, Robert, 2002. Birds. Toronto: The Madison Press, Ltd. 3 Peck, H. D., 1990. Thoreau’s Morning Work. Memory and Perception in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, the Journal, and Walden. New Haven: Yale University Press. For an excellent short video of the Black Woodpecker, see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUejoNpCUmQ

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ernment expense) Since its reservation, it has become one of the few Biosphere Reserves in Britain. In September of this year I renewed my acquaintance with this area by a curious conjunction of serendipities. Scheduled to stand in for Kenneth White at the Dumfries and Galloway Environment Art Festival to give a talk at the Bakehouse Arts Centre in Gatehouse of Fleet on Geopoetics and the work of White, I thought I would revisit my old haunts, specifically to sample a festival event labelled the Rosnes Benches. Below the lowering scarp of the Clints of Dromore, renowned for its faithful peregrines, we foregathered at the Reserve Centre to be given an introduction to the philosophy behind this project by Mathew Dalziel of Dalziel + Scullion, based on the School of Fine Art at Dundee University, who have many international artworks to their credit.

A Geopoetical Experience James McCarthy

The Cairnsmore of Fleet is a prominent granite massif just east of Newton Stewart protruding out of the predominant shales and slates of the Galloway Hills, previously the haunt of eagles, but still retaining its magnificently-horned wild goats and summit dotterel. With extensive conifer forestry all around, it is one of the very few open hills left in this district, showing a full range of grassland and heather ecosystems from low altitude up to 710 m. Which is the reason, some 35 years ago, I spent a considerable time negotiating its purchase from the Forestry Commission as a National Nature Reserve – a long and hard-fought battle against the forestry interests determined to clothe the wild open moorland with the ubiquitous Sitka Spruce. (One result was that I convinced the bureaucracy in the then Scottish Office that the food for a sheepdog was a legitimate Gov-

The thirty low benches to be built only a few inches from ground level, are proposed to be sited in different habitats across Dumfries and Galloway, for which funding has recently been secured. To be made of Jesmonite, a mixture of resin and powdered stone, they will follow the congenial shape of a surfboard and will be decorated with traditional cup-and-ring symbols, with a recess to fit the shape of the human head when lying horizontal. Grouped in two’s, three’s and fours in situations likely to evoke the most rewarding sensory response, whether visual, auditory or other( Rosnes is ‘sensor’ spelt backwards) they will be an entirely new approach to the interaction of people and environment. Their function is to encourage people to stop, dwell and absorb the context that surrounds them – whether tree canopies above, the sound of a flowing river, or the night sky filled with stars. Mathew Dalziel made the point that most often the countryside experience involves walking, with a destination in mind, seeing everything at eye level when we are in the upright position. The benches shift the focus from looking at an artwork per se to reconnecting with the environment and the ecology of a place in order to tune into our surroundings – unlike traditional medita-

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tion with the eyes closed and the ears attuned to personal breathing, those who use the benches will be encouraged to open their senses quietly to their natural surroundings. Each armed with a roll-mat and a handlens, our variegated group of all ages trooped down to the Big Water of Fleet flowing under the spectacular viaduct which previously carried a railway across the length of Galloway, not a little curious about what was coming next. On the rough grassland, forbidden to chatter or fall asleep, and with the suggestion that we expose at least our arms to the breeze, we looked at the grey scudding clouds of the sky and discovered that there were several skies, moving at different rates across our sight and that the movement induced a certain tranquillity – I would have happily lain there all afternoon. But no – it was off to the river, where now with closed eyes, we could distinguish between the tinkling ripples across the stones and the quiet murmur of the tea-coloured pools, and surprisingly, a musical medley in-between. I regretfully resisted the invitation to take off our footwear (only because of elderly joints) but took pleasure in the smiling faces of those who – possibly for the first time – experienced

the sensual delight of walking barefoot across the cushion mosses to an exposed stone, where a quite unique sensation was experienced underfoot. I regretted having to leave, because of my lecture commitment, before the remainder of the event involving, I presumed, looking more closely at the nature’s marvellous designs through a handlens. But the whole event had been both educational and inspiring, even for a lifelong ‘geopoet’ (in all but name) and I could not resist referring to it in my talk as a ‘geopoetical experience’ when all the dialectic and words are forgotten. I had made the point that geopoetics can readily embrace not only poetry and prose, but all of the arts, whether musical, visual or other – all forms of cultural renewal. And my experience that afternoon could hardly have been more appropriate in a location which had almost faded into a distant memory… As I quoted Nietzsche at the very end of his life who summed it up succinctly: ‘Brothers, remain true to the Earth.’ www.rosnesbench.com/index.html

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(I)

to carry salt to the waves

near Shirakawa

as their needles trickled all night long

there’s virtue in the accommodation of the young

with shiny drops of moon

rowan and ash that we found growing

making a tinsel-show illuminating the lochside special

one out the crook

woods & trees of the road north Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn

whose starry cast I rename

of a gean one out the crook of a rowan

baby-pine posh-pine ginger-pine

and the gean we saw from the road north, a journey on St Fillan’s Hill through Scotland guided by Basho’s with a mirror gean Oku-no-hosomichi fallen so that the crown

scary-pine sporty-pine

hangs down

Basho visited the pines of Shiogoshi on his journey; the moon is Saigyo’s, the waves are the sea, nearby, at Lochailort

and the exposed roots

cling to the turf rim

(III)

peeled from the cliff

Isle Maree

or brushing free our arms

this sylvan reliquary

among the light shafts

of native and naturalised

that pick out wisps

binds species together

on the dying branches

in a communion of polyphony

trees growing within trees, Taynriach Wood & Saint Fillan’s Hill

the birch & chestnut alder & beech willow & dog-rose

(II) in sight of Loch Eilt’s islands we imagined the pines of Shiogoshi had invited the wind

37

sycamore & juniper


(IV) each in concord with

Scoto-Japanese larch, a hardy variety; the Duke of Atholl seeded the hill above Dunkeld using cannon

woodland credo

Druidic oak & rowan Maelrubha’s holly

reach for the light

and the Viking larch

but keep a strong centre to blow about in storms

following the deer path in from the shingle beach

be airborne as rowan

through carpeted blueberry

which occur farther off

we praised them all

than bird-shat birches

(V) trees of note (47) Basho’s willows in the yard at Zenshoji the groves of Stonypath

the line of larch

be windcast as alder

with light falling in

pointing north in Norse

by floating downstream

where the great ash

the grove of oak

or blowing up the burn

has fallen

be hybrid as the larch

(21)

encircling the green graves the heads and half-moons of the copper coins deposited in the holly

cast from a cannon at hame in the Wald

Basho’s great two-trunked pine of Takekuma Ra Big Fir! topping the Hermitage Wood

that fee silent wishes learn from the pine the initialed trees about the well

(15)

be first to shed

Basho’s huge chestnut tree

your old needles

near Sukagawa

where a heart is pierced by an arrow

wait for warmth then split your cones

recording the visit

and scatter seed

the great sycamore on the estate of Dunira

of a love-sick couple seeking a cure for their folly

you have to choose either cling

(12)

to the trunk

we were ferried to Isle Maree by Nick, of Loch Maree Hotel; the species are taken from after Dixon’s Gairloch (1886); the half-moons are after Valerie Gilles poem, ‘Isle Maree’.

Basho’s willow of the “pacing stream”

or climb branch

at Ashino

over branch to the canopies

grows amang Burns’ birks o’ Aberfeldy

emptying their pockets filling the air

hooped along

with birdsong

a pathside arch

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(39) Basho recalling the Noin boats floating over Saigyo’s gean blossoms Sorley Maclean’s beithe, calltainn, caorann

http://the-road-north.blogspot. co.uk Images: photographs, AF & KC, 2010-11: ‘nadokoro’ beech found on the road north

straight and slender on Raasay (51) Basho’s rain at Tsuruga a gentle smirr on Ord’s Druidic grove of oak, hazel and willow (37) Basho’s dwarfie gean perched on rock under Mt Gassan’s piled-up reluctant snow the three apples of the sons of Uisneach on the slopes of Gleann Fhaolain below the peaks of Glen Etive

the numbers in brackets refer to the ‘stations’ in Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi; the Scottish trees were our pairs, found on the road north. For more on the project see:

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how rivers swell and drain lay down sand and clay, shape and transform. In this place I write these rocks - igneous, sedimentary, basaltic, overlaid, broken, weathered gold and grey the big lump of Ben Ledi,

Walking the Territory

the sweep of Abbey Craig. the folds and hollows of the Ochils, the waterfalls, the mills

Elizabeth Rimmer In this place I write here, and here only, to know this egg-shell, fern frond, worm-cast, this cloud, blanket-stitched with sunlight, this river, its dimples and eddies. In this place I write this now and never again moment, this here, new-known, known over and over again, the depth of it, the wealth, the complex intensity. In this place I write the dialogue we carry on with the earth, a continuous exchange, almost unconscious, of love and fruitfulness, grounding, belonging, the landscape of home. In this place I write this landscape - how water shapes it through rain collected in the peat banks, the weight of ice, its grinding slowness ,

the silver mines and the spoil tips of open cast coal mines. In this place I write the slow growth of moss and lichen, the wear and the interchange, the melting, dissolving. In this place I write this grey of sky and how it gives rich lustre to the green, makes the air soft and mild. Leaf here does not outshine the blossom on the apple trees. In this place I write with inwardness, attention, humility, the meaning and the purpose quietly growing from deep understanding, not compulsion a poetics of blood and earth and fire. In this place I write to make from this here and this now a poem, a silken clue to thread the maze feel the thrum of other hands touching, laying hold of it, taking the weight together, lifting it into the light. 40


New stories for the age of endings ‘When the cities lie at the monster’s feet, there are left the mountains.’ The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers in search of new stories for troubled times. We promote and curate writing, art, music and culture rooted in place, time and nature. Dark Mountain: issue 5 – our latest book of Uncivilised writing and art – is out now. Find out more, and subscribe to this and future books, through our website.

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Contributors Norman Bissell writes poetry, essays and reviews which have been widely published in journals, books and newspapers. He won a Creative Scotland Incubator commission to write a feature film screenplay and a joint Best Ambassador Award for his contribution to the feature documentary We Are Northern Lights in 2012. He is also a very experienced teacher and lecturer who has collaborated with musicians, composers, visual artists and scientists in performing poems from his collection Slate, Sea and Sky. He has been director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics since August 2002 and is Vice-Chairman of the Isle of Luing Community Trust. Fiona Byrne-Sutton’s sculptural ceramic press moulded vessels are physical, expressive of geological processes and embedded with Scottish clays she digs up. Each is hand made and unique. In exploring our natural heritage and biodiversity she is developing an imaginative geopoetic map of Scotland from her Glasgow studio. Her work features in two new books, Natural Glazes, Collecting and Making by Miranda France and Additions to Clay Bodies by Kathleen Standen. Her website is at http://www.fionabyrnesutton.co.uk/ Nancy Campbell’s poems and artist’s books examine the changing life of the coastal communities of northern Europe and the Arctic. Her works include The Night Hunter and Tikilluarit (both published by Z’roah Press) and How To Say ‘I Love You’ In Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, which won the 2013 Birgit Skiöld Award. Nancy is Artist in Residence at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. Her website is at www.nancycampbell.co.uk Ken Cockburn is a poet, translator, editor and writing tutor based in Edinburgh. A former Assistant Director and Fieldworker at the Scottish Poetry Library, Ken has worked as a poet across Scotland in many different settings. Recent publications include Ink, with artists ~in the fields (2011), and Snapdragon, translations of poems by Arne Rautenberg (2012). In 2010–11 Ken and Alec Finlay undertook The Road North, a ‘translation’ of Basho’s Oku-no-hosomichi (Back Roads to Far Towns) from 17th century Japan to contemporary Scotland, realised as a journey, a blog and a long poem. He and Alec are currently working on Out of Books, visiting sites associated with Boswell and Johnson’s 1773 tour to the Hebrides, and focusing on the books they read, referred to, quoted from and critiqued as they travelled. www.kencockburn.co.uk; www.theroadnorth.co.uk; www.out-of-books.com Bill Eddie has been involved with geopoetics and the work of Kenneth White for more than a decade and was a tutor for Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh (1998-2011) where he taught courses on Botany, Ornithology and Geopoetics. He currently continues his research on the bellflowers (Campanulaceae) and is a keen amateur birder. With Martin Ingrouille he co-authored the textbook Plants: diversity and evolution. His interest in Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the challenge of Rudolf Steiner has fostered his interest in education and new ways of engaging with the world through a science of qualities. Gerrie Fellows’ fifth collection, The Body in Space, will be published by Shearsman this April. Her poetry includes Window for a Small Blue Child, a sequence about fertility treatment in which images from medicine interact with those of the body in the natural world, and a poetry and prose sequence, The Powerlines, which explores transformations wrought by settlement and hydro-electricity. A Scottish poet with roots in New Zealand, much of her work investigates the echoes and meanings of place. Alec Finlay (b. 1966): artist & poet based in Edinburgh. Recent projects include Sweeney’s Bothy, a collaboration with The Bothy Project to create a hut for artist-residencies on the Isle of Eigg; and Tigh, Scotland’s National Memorial 42


for Organ and Tissue Donors at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, opening September 2014. Finlay has published over twenty books, including today today today (Playspace, 2013), A Company of Mountains (Atlas, 2013) Be My Reader (Shearsman, 2012), and Question Your Teaspoons (Calder Wood Press, 2012). Finlay blogs regularly at www.alecfinlay.com. He is represented by Ingleby Gallery.  Geraldine Green is a freelance creative writing tutor, mentor and published poet. She lives in Ulverston on the Furness Peninsula, Cumbria where she was born. Her latest collection Salt Road was published in 2013 by Indigo Dreams. Geraldine is writer-in-residence at Swarthmoor Hall and a guest tutor at the Hall and also at Brantwood, Coniston. In September 2011 she gained a PhD in creative writing titled: ‘An Exploration of Identity and Environment through Poetry’ from Lancaster University. A frequent visitor to North America she has a three-week poetry tour planned for July 2014. Geraldine blogs at http:// geraldinegreensaltroad.blogspot.co.uk Mandy Haggith is a poet, author and environmental activist who lives in Assynt, in the NW Highlands of Scotland. Her most recent novel is Bear Witness. During 2013 she was poet in residence at the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens, celebrating the ancient relationship between nature and writing exemplified by the Gaelic Tree Alphabet. She has gathered poems about trees from around the world into the new anthology, Into the Forest. Mandy’s website is at http:// mandyhaggith.worldforests.org Barbara Hickson lives and works on the south-eastern edge of Lancaster, overlooking Clougha Pike and the Bowland Fells which provide inspiration for much of her poetry.  She has worked in HE research management and administration for many years, including several years with the Centre for the Study of Environmental Change. Her spare time is spent writing, fell walking, mountain biking and gardening. Andrew McCallum lives in Biggar.  He writes in Scots and English.  He used to hang out with the Brownsbank Committee, which curates Brownsbank Cottage, the last home of Hugh MacDiarmid, and Biggar Writers Group, but has been doing a lot of solo stuff lately.  James McCarthy is the former Deputy Director (Scotland) of the Nature Conservancy Council, previously spending several years in East Africa as a soldier and forest explorer and has travelled widely elsewhere. Much of his writing concerns the lives of Scottish explorers and travellers and several of his published works have been presented at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. (His latest on the life of Sir George Macartney of Kashgar is currently short listed for the Proverse International Prize.).He is currently working on a dual biography of Sir Fulque and Lady Swanzie Agnew of Lochnaw. Christian McEwen is a writer, educator and cultural activist, who was born in London, and grew up in the Borders of Scotland. Since moving to western MA in 1994, she has edited two anthologies, helped produce a video documentary, Tomboys!, and completed a book of creative non-fiction, World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Bauhan Publishing, 2011). For the last five years, Christian has been interviewing poets who come to read at Smith College in Northampton, MA, a project she calls “Sparks from the Anvil.” Her play, Legal Tender: Women & the Secret Life of Money, will premier in March 2014. Tessa Ransford (www.wisdomfield.com) has been an established poet, translator, literary editor and cultural activist on many fronts over the last forty years, having also worked as founder and director of the Scottish Poetry Library. She initiated the annual Callum Macdonald Memorial Award for publishers of pamphlet poetry in Scotland, with the attendant fairs and website: www. scottish-pamphlet-poetry.com. She has had Royal Literary Fund fellowships at the Centre for Human Ecology and Queen Margaret University and was president of Scottish PEN from 2003-6. Her Not Just Moonshine, New and Selected Poems was published in 2008 by Luath Press, who have also published don’t

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mention this to anyone, poems relating to India and Pakistan, and a two-way translation book with Palestinian poet Iyad Hayatleh, Rug of a thousand colours. Her most recent Luath collection Made in Edinburgh is inspired by the natural environment of Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park. Elizabeth Rimmer was born and educated in Liverpool and moved to Scotland in 1977. She is inspired by weather, landscape and tradition, the work of craftsmen, gardeners, and musicians. Her first collection Wherever We Live Now was published in 2011 by Red Squirrel Press. More recently her poetry has reflected a growing interest in the philosophy, psychology and spirituality of ecological movements, and in the mythology of women in connection to the earth and to nature. Her second collection The Territory of Rain will be published by Red Squirrel Press in September 2015. She blogs at www.burnedthumb.co.uk. Mike Roman is an inveterate ‘tefl-er’ (Teacher of English as a Foreign Language) who has spent the best part of the last 2 decades travelling and ‘teaching’ (more ‘learning’ really!) in Europe, Middle East and Africa. As a result of all this stravaiging he has come to see his own country, Scotland, in a whole new light, and over the past few years has been extolling the virtues of the local in his writing and photography. As Ken White aptly says somewhere: ‘Only long miles of strangeness can lead us to our home’.

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To join the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics please see www.geopoetics.org.uk.


Stravaig Issue 3