Poem: Gaia at Ely Cathedral

As we are beginning to venture out a little more, we thought we would pay a visit to Ely, and the vast indoor space of its ancient cathedral. They often have contemporary art there, which helps the old stones continue to sing, giving a new perspective on ancient truths. We knew that Gaia, an installation by Luke Jerram, was going to be there in July, and so we went and saw this beautiful, astonishing sight. The comparative emptiness of the cathedral space made it all the more powerful as it floated above us.

And as the space is vast, and it takes time to walk up to, around and beyond the piece, you do have time and space in which to allow the work to speak to you, to stir up responses, and to pray. I am sure that one of the intentions is to give us all an opportunity to experience something like “earthrise”, when the astronauts first saw the whole of the Earth from space, and how that shifted their perspective, and began to change the way all of us are able to see our home. The staggering, indescribable beauty of the whole called out my sense of awe, which sat uncomfortably alongside my awareness of the damage we are doing to our precious, unique home.

In the setting of the cathedral, as Gaia hangs in the nave under the painted ceiling which tells the long stretch of the Bible’s story, I found the language of repentance surprisingly, and helpfully, came to mind. Repentance both in our more familiar understanding of sorrow for wrongdoing, and desire to amend, and in the possibly more ancient meanings carried in the old texts, of returning home, and of undergoing a profound change of mind – a paradigm shift in the way you see.

Much of my writing celebrates the beauty of the natural world, how lovely, precious, and vulnerable it is. But sometimes, that love spills over into grief. So the old stones, and the old story, seemed illuminated by our current crisis, and, in turn, those ancient words seemed to express something necessary, and powerful, and, in the end, with the potential for hope.

You can listen to the poem here.

Gaia at Ely Cathedral

She seems to float, lit up with her own light,
slowly turning, blue and blooming with clouds
as we walk up, look up, small before her.

While above our steps,
the familiar painted roof
rolls on, telling its painted story,
from the tree, and the garden,
on towards this

fathomless shining beauty,
the ‘all’ that was so very good
in that beginning.
Now as she turns
we see how she hangs
below the story’s last scenes –
the gift of a beloved child
held on his mother’s lap,
held forward towards us,
loved and given and giving,
and the wounded golden king,
who gives still.

And below, below hangs the whole shining Earth,
dazzling, vast with sea,
turning and flowering with clouds
from the southern ice-shine,
melting although we do not see her weep,

And the land, those small green swathes
and swags, are dressed in white too,
a veil of vapour,
while the deserts spread brown
and red above our eyes.

The lands are small, countries
seem tales we tell.
What is certain is this one great
flow – ocean and ice and cloud –
and the unseen winds that bear them
through our blue, breathing air.

And the people stand beneath her,
lit by ice, and hold up their hands
as if to carry her, or hold her,
or save her from falling.

How beautiful it is.
How strange and wondrous
that we should be creatures
who live within so much living perfection.

And as she turns slowly
under the child and the king,
I wonder, what do those
familiar words mean now,
‘the sins of the world’,
as the stain of our reckless harm
seeps through the blue and green,
through all this living glory,

And is there any hope in our
waking up to beauty with grief
and loss, even as dust and ashes
float across the sky,
across us all, late as we are
in our repenting?


And is there hope,
hope that we might be granted
this grace – time
for amendment of life,
to tend the garden
with its leaves and fruit,
shining and greening,
to take part in the work
of loving and healing,
of restoration,
of making all things new.

Looking at Gaia from behind the communion table brought to mind the words of repentance from that service, and I was aware of my sense of what “the sins of the world” might mean was creaking open a little wider.

Poem: The apple tree, having grown in shadow

Things change, yet leave their mark. I was thinking about this as I looked at one of our apple trees, grown curved in its search for light. You can see the shape of the trunk most clearly in the shadow it leaves on the fence. Even when light returns, the curve remains. Grown like this, the tree has given us apples in autumn, and beauty all year. I thought about how the tree found a way of flourishing despite the shade, and admired its resilience. So, the poem is mainly about the tree, but also, murmuring away underneath, was an awareness of the tree as teacher, making visible something that is often hidden within us.

The tree adapted to its setting, and as the setting changed, the adaptation remains even though there is more light. We all do this, whether it’s growing accustomed to living quietly and distantly during a pandemic, or learning from a young age how to live in difficult emotional or physical circumstances. Even when things are better, lighter, more friendly, we can find ourselves living as if they are not. Patterns of mind can be changed, new growth can happen, but it takes noticing, with compassion, and stretching ourselves a little into the new, more open space.

As lockdown eases, we can go gently with ourselves as we try to asses what is safe, and what has become a habit that is no longer needed – and those assesments are far from easy. We can be gentle with each other, too, as we all navigate our way into more open living. The changes in how we respond may be, in part, due to patterns of being which were laid down long ago. These, too, can be nurtured into more helpful shapes that keep us safe and help us flourish, both. I believe we can become free from patterns that no longer serve us, and grow with full vigour.

All these things I thought about, as I looked at the apple tree. But mainly, I though how beautiful it was, and how much blossom it bore this year.

The apple tree, having grown in shadow

I follow the curve with my eyes,
the way the thin trunk
arches back, seeking light.
On that side, the branches
grow thicker, surer.

It bends away from the dense shade
that was there, only weeks ago,
a dark shrub that outgrew it,
then died. Now, the blossomy
branches lean back,
away, from open
light-filled space.

Cast in shadow, it grew thus,
leafing and flowering,
supple, adapting to shade,
and seeking light.

I wonder, what will happen now?
Now we have cut down that
dense, dry growth?
The thin branches on this side
will fill out, strengthen,
divide, reaching into the place
that was once too dark,
heavy, in time, with fruit.

But what of the trunk?
Will it bear, one hundred
years from now, that curve,
lessened, perhaps, by
years of thickening growth?
The adaptation no longer
serves it, yet the tree
may still bear it,
And the tree’s beauty
is held in the grace
of this curve.


Such shapes of growth
and thought persist,
gently, strangely,
known or unknown.
We make allowance
for the ghost
of a shadow
no longer seen.

Poem: A good place

I am sure that all people who have ever tried to tend a garden, or grow crops from the land, are deeply aware of the changeablility of weather, and the vulnerability of their work. This year, I have pretty much given up growing veggies from seed, as the cold and dry has thwarted too many of my efforts.

I’m aware that the work and care I give to my garden can be undone so quickly by the weather. Increasingly, I’m aware how the increased instability of the climate is making it harder than ever to grow things. I seek to work in harmony with the rest of nature, but the rest of nature is capricious.

I am feeling the loss of a tree, that died a few years ago when the Beast from the East was followed by relentlesly hot and dry weather. I know I could not save it, and cannot save all the plants. Even though I know new things are growing, there is an unease in my tending. I have planted an apple tree in its place, which is flourishing, full of blossom. But this contrast between my nurturing of the place, and the wildness and unpredicatability of the weather has been on my mind.

Elsewhere, I have written about the tree. You can read it here.

And yet, the garden is full of life, it florishes, and changes, and we adapt. Things want to grow, and live, and they do.

A good place

Just now, a buzzard drifted
overhead,
slowly, consideredly.
‘This is a good place’
I whisper, looking up,
as mice quake the
lengthening grass.
It flies on, slowly,
its head turns back

as a blackcap sounds
its golden, limpid song.
This is a good place.
Yet the tree died even so.

The weather blows in weird.
Too hot, too cold,
too much, then not enough, rain.
Things begin their opening,
and close and blacken.

This is a good place.
I tend and nurture.
I make homes for many creatures.
And the tree died even so,
even so the earth shifts
as the ice melts,
the winds veer and change,
I cannot hold them back –
that endless dry north wind
that burns the soft green growth.

But I stand
with my trowel in my hand,
with dirt under my nails,
and I tend, and I nurture,
even as I look up and watch
the sky change, as high birds
drift across,
and I live tenderly,
tending,
For it is a good place
even so.


Poem: Enough

Sitting in one of my sitting-and-thinking spots in the garden, sometimes something catches my eye which brings me joy. In my last post, One hundred and ten years, I talked about the primroses in the garden, and why it mattered to me that they spread. We could have lost them with the blitz of herbicides in the previous century, and their modest presence is still not guaranteed.

Here is a poem then, that draws on their growing brightness in my spring days. Now, we’ve had some warmth, and they are beginning to retreat under the cover of later plants, but here is how I love to see them. Soon, their fine seed will begin to fall again, down over the sleeper into the waiting lawn. I thought about that experience of falling, and how so many things that feel like an end may not be such an ending, after all.

We’ll mow around them, and let them make their way across, amongst the speedwell and the forget me nots that are also growing there.

Enough

Some days, something
as simple as the way
the primroses tumble
over the wooden sleeper
to the grass below
is enough.

It’s enough to see
they fall
and are caught,
nestled between strong
grasses, resting on good earth.

Enough that once there,
they soften and grow.
Enough that they
unclench their
green fists
into open hands
as they spread slowly,
and ever wider,
across the grass
like cold, yellow butter.

They fall. They are caught.
They find a welcome,
a green place, all they need.

May our fallings
be so caught.
May we, after all,
come to rest in some new,
surprising place
where we flourish.

May we find that what
feels like a falling
is, after all, a running
over, an overflowing,
down, to some place
we had not known
before.
And may that
running over
be enough.

Poem: One hundred and ten years

I am delighted to see how even the tiniest glimmer of sun brings out clouds of insects in the garden. I love the way the spring flowers are hungrily visited by bees. I do what I can to encourage butterflies. It cheers me when they come, but sometimes, I remember reading in novels, and poems, of an abundance that I can hardly imagine. It fills me for a kind of nostalgia for something I didn’t know, but nonetheless miss. I feel its lack. I remember as a child hearing older people talk about primroses and cowslips as flowers that were abundant in their youth, but had all but vanished from the countryside. No doubt, these memories are what is behind my cherishing them, and watching them spread through the garden.

So, although it warms my heart to see the growing abundance in our lightly disordered patch of nature, I’m aware of shifting baselines – I know the natural world I experience is diminished compared to that which our ancestors saw and knew. I sometimes feel the presence of a ghost landscape behind what I see – a landscape of what had been. To the best of my knowledge, my place was once an orchard, and my mind’s eye can almost see it, alive in a way I can only dream of.

I was reminded of a book I loved as a child, Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, where the garden, as it was, becomes visible, even though it had been destroyed and built over. At least here, in this place, there is hope that some of the abundance there was can return, as much as it is within my power.

One hundred and ten years

Despite this cold
there is a shimmer
of life in the air above
the beds, where bluebells
begin their opening.

Tiny flies, and larger,
and bees, and the
occasional, beautiful,
butterfly – look, just there!

I watch them in awe,
all these tiny specks of life.
Each small thing part of
The garden’s constant dance,
each with their own
irreplaceable steps.

I wonder what it was like,
over a hundred years ago now,
before the house was built,
when all this was orchard.
Did butterflies rise in clouds
as you walked through
the long grass?
Could you lie down and hear
the hum of many bees
in the blossom above?
Could you doze in the scent
of wildflowers, the hum
and scratch of insects?

Perhaps, like
Tom’s Midnight Garden,
that place is still here,
in the shadows.
Sometimes, I can
almost glipse it,
as transient as
dawn mist.

And perhaps, I hope,
it is becoming
less ghostly, more embodied,
humming in this shimmer
of life in the air.
Growing stronger,
growing more certain,
after so many years.

A Poem for Earth Day: What might it mean, to live well on a dying Earth?

Yesterday was Earth Day, and, as I have before, I wanted to mark it. I’m a little late, but here is a poem that has been circling my mind, and troubling me, for a couple of weeks now. I heard this question – or something like it – on a podcast, and it rather took my breath away. I do spend time attempting to answer questions such as – What can I do to limit the harm I am doing? or, Is there anything regenerative that I could attempt?, or What can I do about all this plastic in my life?.

The more philosophical question, of what makes a good life, in this time when we are waking up to the way ecosystems are fraying and dying, is harder to attempt. Yet these phrases came to me, and I think there is power in the question. There is some liberation, too. It doesn’t focus on all the things I’m not doing, or are unable to do. Neither does it reassure me by looking at what everyone else isn’t doing either. So the poem is not a list of tasks, but something closer to a way of being, which will, naturally, lead to tasks, and to action.

In some ways the question is offensive. And in the places it rubs against you, there is something to be explored. And perhaps, in finding our own answers to the question, we may find the dying receeds, and the living has more hope and space. But that is not the point just for the moment, just as we approach this question. The point is, to face up to what we are doing, and then find a way of living within that knowledge. It’s quite a task. But I feel there is some merit in the attempt.

I was encouraged that yesterday the virtual Climate Conference that President Biden convened made some positive announcements. As we seek to move from goals to a change in the way we live, maybe this question helps.

The question arose on a Nomad podcast which centred around an interview with Gail Bradbrook, of Extinction Rebellion. It is well worth listening to. You can find a link to it here.

May we live well. May that wellness include all living things.

Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus said.

What might it mean, to live well on a dying Earth?

Who knows?
The worst kind of foolishness,
of absurdity
to even try.
And yet, something sparks,
something kindles,
at the question.
And so, knowing the absurdity,
these words come….

To be tenderhearted,
though afraid.

To know that each
small thing matters.
That even though
it is not enough,
such calculation
is not your task.

To tend the tender plants,
and see their flourishing.
To feed birds.
To stop on your way
and talk to friends,
and those you barely know,
to stand with them
in their griefs,
to laugh within their joys.

To be compassionate
to all, beginning with
yourself.

To do those things
you have found within
your power to do.
To also do those things
your heart whispers.
And both, without
measuring outcomes.

To act as if you have
hope,
even if you do not.

To act boldly when you feel
the call to do so, but
with gentleness and grace.

To look for beauty, and joy,
and love.
To travel through despair
and let its darkness
dissolve about you,
having held you.

To grow food
for yourself, and for
all those you share
your place with.

To stand in awe under
the song of the songbird.
To be merciful to the
worms and the beetles
and the spiders,

To – again and again –
say yes to life, and to joy.

Say yes to all that is good,
while there is so much that
grieves you, and leaves
you despairing.

To know a more beautiful world
is already here,
and yet coming,
and still beyond our grasp,

And to live in it anyway.

Poem: Hospitality – Lockdown III

Next week, all being well, the rules will change here in England. We’ll be able to have someone local in the garden again. Having all this time with no human visitors has made me thing about who I’m tending this garden for. It’s been rather nice to leave aside my imaginary visitor who might critisize my rather haphazard and untidy methods, and just go with what I want, and what the garden seems to do. I hasten to say that my dear friends who came and sat with me last year, when inside was out of bounds, are always delighted to be here, and say no such thing! The critic is internal, and I am seeking to encourage her or him not to worry, to look at what is beautiful instead.

I’ve changed my emphasis this year. Previously, I was being quite purist about going for british native plants, wildflowers, and I still do try for those first. However, that did leave a long gap in the latter half of the year when there wasn’t much for the insects, so now I’m going for abundant life – plants and a style of gardening that encourage insects, birds, any other wild creatures that are happy to be here. I am protecting tender things from the muntjac, but the deer is welcome just the same. You can read about my planning for later in the year in my poem, Dreaming of Flowers.

Hospitality, then, in my garden, is the largely hidden from human eyes at the moment. It is fairly unconcerned about what other people might think. It is simply what I, and the wildlife, like. This winter, I’ve done other things to shelter nature. I’ve put up a couple of bird boxes, and made a bee hotel, and had piles of cuttings where ladybirds overwinter. I might write about those later. For now, I’m just rejoicing in a few of the flowers.

An edge of the lawn, left unmown, where the primroses have settled. I planted the crocuses in the autumn lockdown.

Hospitality  Lockdown III

Alone in the garden. Mild.
The early insects stir, hum,
fly slowly towards the flowers
I have planted –
startling yellow aconites,
the shrub honeysuckle,
primroses, crocus –
oh, those two together,
the purple and the yellow,
how they shine,
how they bend their
impossibly thin pale stems
as they follow the sun,
as they accept the
weight of bees.

This garden is still
a welcoming place.
Cut off from friends,
from human hospitality,
from tea and laughter,
from human notice of
these opening buds,
even now
the garden hosts
such a banquet.

It sustains and rejoices
so many –
the hoverflies,
like this one,
resting in the yellow aconite
all this time
as I write.

I have spread a table here,
welcoming all this life,
and together with
all these,
I receive the early warmth,
I rest in the fragrance of flowers.


Just to add – today, I saw the first male brimstone butterfly visiting the primroses. So exciting!

Poem: Inside, Outside. Lockdown III

This new lockdown, I am writing in my notebooks again, letting what emerges, emerge. You can read about the Lockdown Poems here – their immediacy, their rootedness in my place.

Once again, I have begun writing what I see, and what is before me in this moment. Whereas the earlier poems, starting in March, are largely written outside, this one is about looking out. Beginning to write is a revealing thing. As I proceeded, I felt that what I was exploring was that sensation of being stuck inside – looking out, but not with longing. I am looking out at a world that is far from inviting. Cold, wet, and darkening as it is. Once again, that small moment, that everyday feeling of watching the rain, seemed to unfold and reveal a wider and deeper difficulty. Not so much of being stuck inside, but of not wanting to venture out into a world that seems alarming, potentially dangerous, as we face the terrible acceleration of the pandemic’s spread. It is truly terrible, the grief that is echoing around our closed rooms, the potential for harm in each interaction.

But venture out I will – the natural world still offers its hospitality and welcome, however cold and dark it seems. The garden and area around still see me tramping about for exercise and refreshment. I had a new waterproof coat for Christmas, which is making all the difference to how I feel about being outside just now – at least from the point of view of the weather. The pandemic is a different matter. My venturing is limited now, circumscribed and circumspect. I notice an increasing tendency to some anxiety at the thought of “out”. That anxiety is well founded. I am listening to it, and taking what precautions I can. As we all are.

It will not always be so, though. We will emerge. For now, the balance and relationship between inside and outside has shifted, profoundly connected to the natural world as we are. We can feel cut off from the winter, we are certainly cut off from each other. But even now, there are tiny wonders to be seen out there, small hopes and shifts, if we can raise our eyes and look.

Inside. Outside   Lockdown III

Inside, looking out,
through golden light
to cold grey,
through glass
and warm air
and stillness,
to where the
cold wind shudders the trees.


Outside, the curved seedpods
of the tree peony
drip with ice rain,
glittering

While candlelight
and lamplight
are reflected in the glass,
and glow orange in
the darkening grey garden.

And a tumble of birds
comes, and goes,
comes, and goes,
chattering endlessly
on the feeders
that sway in the sharp wind

And if I hold my nerve,
and hold the gardener’s gaze,
even from here I can see
that fuzz of green
on the ice-furzed soil –
Herb Robert, violets,
the tissue-paper yellow
of wet primroses,
and the soft spears
of bulbs just beginning.
Bluebells.  Cerise gladioli.

Outside seems far away.
A different air.
A different light.
But soon my boots
will be on my feet,
and my coat wrapped about me,
and I will feel that frost,
and the cold wind,
and I will feel
the ice rain again.

To keep our spirits up, a reminder of what is to come.

Poem – Dreaming of Flowers, Lockdown III

Here in England we are back in lockdown – I think it’s Lockdown III, depending on how you count the November one. It’s exhausting, and so difficult for so many, with all the chopping and changing. It’s dreadful to watch the numbers of sick and dying rising every day, and to hear of the hardships lockdown brings too. It’s relentless. I am so grateful to the science and health professionals who are working so hard to both tend the sick and find ways of overcoming the virus. I am so grateful for the promise of the vaccines. I only hope we can get them delivered quickly and effectively.

In the first lockdown, I wrote snatches of poems which often started from times of quiet, seeking stillness in the garden. You can read about that here. How much of that I’ll do at this time of year I don’t know. What this lockdown will bring we can’t say. But I find myself drawn again to the gentle changes of weather and season, plants and flowers, as a way of steadying myself, and marking the passage of time, and connecting with something beyond myself which gives glimpses of hope.

In the November lockdown, or circuit-break, I’m not quite sure what name to give it, I indulged the gardener’s delight of ordering and planting bulbs for the spring, and began dreaming of flowers – I found myself waking with planting schemes forming in my mind. I needed something to look for beyond the shortening of the days, the closing in of the weather, and the uncertainty surrounding Christmas. I found it was effective. It was someting within my control, something I could do to introduce an element of hope and change and the promise of beauty. It gave me physical work, too, which in turn helps with sleep.

And yesterday, the notebook came out, and tentative jottings began to emerge.

So I don’t know whether this will become a regular practice, but, as in the first lockdown, I thought I’d share with you whatever it is that comes up, and see if that connects with you, who are kind enough to share your time and attention with me here. I hope we can peep outside, and see something that lifts us. I hope we can receive the gifts this dark season gives, and perhaps bring a few sprigs of green inside. We can plant hope, even here.

So this poem, which might be the first of a new series of Lockdown poems, draws on the earlier planted hope, and receives encouragement and delight from seeing new things spring up. I also wonder – what this time? What might I do during this lockdown? Of course, there is no necessity for there to be anything, it is enough to live in these strange days, but, I am wondering what there might be that is within my scope and power to do, to begin, to dream of….

Dreaming of flowers  Lockdown III

Each morning, now,
as the sun nudges fitfully up,
I do my rounds of the garden,

sometimes under a wide umbrella,
walking with as much grace
as I can muster,
careful not to trample the
sodden, spongy ground.


I am looking for fingers of crocus,
ready to spread,
and snowdrops, grey-green
in the dark soil.
I am looking for what I planted,
and for what has inched
in patient drifts through
the waiting ground.

And there, and there,
I begin to see.
Each day, I hope,
a few more,
and a little taller.

On better nights,
I dream of flowers now,
and wake to think of flowers.
Red and purple
and orange, spread
like velvet, loud with bees.
The hard knots of bulbs
I planted in fistfuls
by November’s shrinking light –
in a fury of hope,
in defiance of the
narrowing circle
of my life, of our lives –
they will awaken.


They are beginning
to do their work now,
this time, within me,
locked down once more,
they are beginning
to push up from the
cold dark depths,
beginning to green
in this faintest, tentative,
stretching of the light.

And what this time?
What will I do that
could push through
the darkness with
green spears of hope,
could fill my dreams
with the scent of life?



Poem: November Trees – twilight

I wrote this when it was darkening fast – by the end I could not see the marks my pencil was making in my notebook. Darkness comes so early now, but that change into night is beautiful, and, if we can take a moment to notice it, has things to teach us too.

So I have no photo of this moment, but am offering you others from autumn, and hope that you will have a chance to look out of the window, or walk through darkening paths, and see the trees as they settle for the winter, and the birds as they settle for the night.

November trees – twilight

It grows dark.
The trees are black lines
against a yellow sky
which shines, illuminating
through a net of ink,
and the last birds drift
overhead to their roosts
by the river,
and the last birds murmur
and settle in those darkening
trees,

And quiet sadness
creeps like frost across the grass,
as the last flowers
bow their rimy heads.

And suddenly, the question –
What are we to do?
seems a different kind of puzzle.
Not one to solve, but
one to lay down,
in its many pieces,
on the cold grass,
slowly, in wonder.

All this before me knows
what to do, and does it.
Rooted, patient,
receiving the weather like
weather –
whatever comes, comes.

From this place, it will act
when action stirs it with
the unsettling brightness
of spring.  When the ink
stirs once more with green sap.


Until then,
the cold trees will
net the light,
and wait, and deepen,
the darkness will spread
as I am learning to be
grateful for this breath,
to watch this red leaf
spin on a thread of
spiders web,
to feel the cold
sting me alive.