Snow Day

When your day looks like this! I keep planning to start the gardening, clearing leaves where the primroses are coming through starting the first seeds and mulching ground for new plantings, but not yet, not yet —

Though the sun is shining and a lot of the snow is melting now, it wasn’t happening this morning when I went out at seven o’clock. The best bit of being the first out, though, is that you can see where the fox came up the street. It isn’t all gloom however –

this witch hazel is good to go, and in the sheltered corners, the first snowdrops are peeping through the green, there are fat buds on the camellia, and look –

fully open hazel catkins, blazing in the sunshine.

I have been very busy editing proofs, and Haggards has gone to the printer. I’ve been giving the website a good pruning and reorganisation – it has been getting quite unwieldy, with all the different activities I’ve been involved in. It will have a new look soon, thanks to my lovely webmaster, but in the short term, I’ve been adding new events to the news page. I do hope that I will see many of you at one or another of them. The first is in Falkirk, as part of the One Weekend in Falkirk Event, on Friday 26th January at the Gin Lounge, (above the Wine Library) Princes Street, Falkirk.

The year’s editing is about to start, too. The submissions for Stravaig 6 have come in, and we will soon be selecting some of the outstanding work that was inspired by Expressing the Earth conference convened by The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics in June. It’s looking very promising!

The Wren in the Ash Tree

The last twenty pages of Haggards contain a long poem called The Wren in the Ash Tree. I’ve been going on about it , it seems like forever, and bits of it have appeared in Dark Mountain 9 and on this blog here, but now you will be able to get the whole thing.

It was inspired by Sorley Maclean’s An Cuillithionn’ (‘The Cuillin‘, 1939), which I read two years ago. At that time,we hadn’t yet had the major political upheavals that were to happen, but I could see which way the wind was blowing, and I really thought we might be in for a major collapse of both environment and society. I was trying to chart both the progress of decay and the  intellectual dereliction that made it possible, and, hopefully, find perspectives that might encourage us not to despair completely.

I chose the wren almost at random, because I love wrens, and because the song of wrens in the trees surrounding our garden often accompanies my writing. It was particularly fortuitous, as when I started research, I discovered its traditional use as the symbol of enlightenment, inspiration and creativity. I got hold of the definitive study of wrens The Wren by Edward A. Armstrong (published by Collins in 1955, and never bettered), and used his extensive research to structure the poem.

It is in seven cantos (including Prologue and Epilogue!) in tribute to Sorley Maclean, but it isn’t nearly as long. The cantos are

  • The Bird that Brought the Fire, which sets the scene and introduces the wren marking its territory
  • The Outcry, which is a protest from the earth about the wreck of our environment.
  • Fuga Mundi, which evokes the responses I was hearing from activists and concerned people; the wren in this canto is surviving the harsh weather of winter
  • There are Lights. This canto was originally going to be called Our Lady of Sorrows, and deal with compassion, but the election of Trump intervened, and more particularly, the Women’s March, so now it is about the networks of women who quietly resist destruction. The wrens in this canto are nest building, and it it noticeable that Armstrong sees this process as happening through negotiation and dialogue between male and female birds.
  • Soil and Seed, which deals with both the literal soil beneath our feet, and, metaphorically, with the collective unconscious. In this canto the wrens are on the nest, and eggs hatch. Recent research suggests that chicks crack the egg shell only in response to the ‘whispering’ of a parent bird, and they can recognise their own  parent.
  • A Web of Speaking Beings was inspired by a quote from Colin Tudge which is used as the epigraph. I am very taken by Julia Kristeva’s idea of the human as a ‘speaking being’ whose identity is formed in dialogue with the people around him, but in this quote I saw that this applies to the whole of material existence. The young birds fledge at the end of this canto.
  • In the Silence of Our Hearts talks about the moment of insight which might begin the process of regeneration.

By the end of the writing process, the poem wasn’t about collapse so much as regeneration. Donald Trump and Brexit may have divided people and caused havoc, but they have also united people who are simply not up for letting this happen. I started writing in despair, and I finished, not only with vision, but with gratitude, courage and hope.

I do hope you like it!


New Year, New Book

As it’s only just over a month until the launch of Haggards, I guess it’s time I started talking about it a bit! I don’t have a cover image yet but I hope these roses will give you a taste of what’s to come. They are  growing in a stretch of wild land near my house. They are one of nine herbs I picked to write about in a poem called A Charm of Nine Haggard Herbs. 

A ‘haggard’ is a patch of rough ground, too small to be cultivated. It often refers to where Irish labourers were allowed to grow food for themselves, but it survives in Ireland for patches of wasteland or hedgerow. Seamus Heaney uses it in Servant Boy

             your trail

broken from haggard to stable,
a straggle of fodder
stiffened on snow,
comes first-footing

the back doors of the little

but I confess I found the word in a cookery book. It’s exactly the concept I wanted for the book. I started by thinking of borderlands – here’s what I wrote in a piece called Maquis Machair Mearc:

The eleventh design principle of permaculture is to ‘use edges and value diversity’ – you can find the rest here if you’d like to follow them up. The reason is that where two sectors overlap, the border region shares characteristics of both, and can support more (species, ideas, artforms, activities) than either sector by itself. Permaculture design in landscape tends to create a lot of margins, most notably in the iconic herb spiral, specifically to maximise the different crops which can be grown in a small space.

Herbs are a great example of being on the edge. Herbs touch borders on a practical level with cooking, fabric crafts, housekeeping, medicine, magic, animal husbandry, but also culturally with values of simplicity, authentic living, connection with nature, feminism, healing, spirituality, value for the senses and the body, recovery of one’s personal identity, resistance, repentance, wildness, renewal. There’s a lot of potential in herbs, for all sorts of reasons. I’m going for a dander along the edges of the garden, the roadside, the riverbank – and the uncanonical margins of the poetry world.

Now here I have to admit that I have been somewhat seduced by language. The headline of this post is a coincidental resemblance I’ve had in my head for some years, and it may be spurious. I was thinking of borderland country, marginal, a bit precarious, but which is characterised by a wealth of flowering plants, and surprising survivals – black bees on the machair of Coll, or the French resistance, that sort of thing. But the maquis isn’t the fragrant hillside, full of bees and lavender and sage and hyssop. That’s the garrigue. And the mearc is a more political thing – the badlands where law doesn’t run, and monsters may lurk among the outlaws. The English-speaking equivalent of the machair is the hedgerow, with its associations with foraged herbs, sloes and blackberries, and also the hedge witch, the hedge school, the tramps and vagabonds. But all of these borderland places have surprising riches and revelations. They are places that should be cherished wisely.

A haggard is exactly that sort of place. It also evokes grief, and something untameable (and it was an insult usually applied to a woman perceived to be beyond domestic control), which turned out to be more relevant to the themes of the book than I expected when I started!

The first section of Haggards is called Wild-Crafted. It has poems about wild land, and what you might find there, about grief and resilience, and new, or recovered old, ways of learning and seeing the world. The second is called Materia Medica, and has poems about the individual herbs,  the many different ways we think about them, and the different kinds of healing they offer, some of which have nothing to do with physical health, but with connection and creativity. The last section is The Wren in the Ash Tree, but I’ll leave that for next time. It’s a big beast of a poem. It will take a while —

In the meantime, Happy New Year!



2017 Best of Times, Worst of Times

This was taken on a very frosty walk at Cambus yesterday, where the river Devon flows into the Forth. The light was wonderful, and we’ll be going back there again, as soon as we thaw out!

This pretty much sums up my year – wonderful if you look at it one way, awful in another light. It’s easy to see why it was so bad. Both Trump and Brexit have turned out even worse than we could have told them they would be, and some of the recurring health problems that plague our family came back with their big boots on. Then there were upheavals in many of the poetry circles I frequent, and many of my friends and family have dealt with severe illnesses and bereavement. It’s mostly my job to look after people, but this year hit hard, reaching a real low when I found myself in a street in Glasgow suddenly, and mercifully temporarily, unable to work out who I was or where I lived.

This lasted for a very short time – no longer than it takes to orientate yourself from a dream you wake up from wondering whether it was real or not – but it was enough to make me take stock of what on earth I think I am doing with my life. And from there on it was all good. Everyone who had health problems has received very good care, and I go into next year with very much less responsibility and concern. I cut back my involvement in projects that weren’t working for me, and and called a few spades by their proper names instead of pretending that things were fine and I would go on pretending I was okay with things.

And I looked at the wonderful things that have happened – a fortieth wedding anniversary trip to London, blogging at StAnza, finishing Haggards, the Expressing the Earth conference, which is still bearing fruit in many exciting ways, the Charm of Nine Herbs translation which was so much fun to do, the wonderful reading and workshop at Taigh Chearsabhagh I wrote about last time, editing Landfall for The Federation of Writers, and Matt MacDonald’s Petrichor which will be out next year.

And the books – Rachael Boast’s Void Studies, Sophie McKeand’s Rebel Sun, Jim Carruth’s Black Cart, Rachel McCrum’s First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate, JL Williams After Economy and Judith Taylor’s Not in Nightingale Country in poetry, and Claire Wellesley-Smith’s Slow Stitch, which inspired a new type of creativity. Those have been absolutely brilliant.

So it’s been impossible to find a balanced response to this year – average it was not. And the outlook is similarly unstable. And yet I find myself believing very firmly in human resilience and common sense. The world is full of people who resist hysteria and self-destruction, who refuse to be party to the nonsense we see around us, who respond to a crisis with gentleness, compassion and creativity. I’ll finish with the last bit of The Wren in the Ash Tree which sums it up:

A wren is singing
in the damp hush after the rain.
Between desire and action is insight,
a quiet emptiness where something like
the startling wake of poetry in my head
can happen, making new.

Among the wrecked buildings
Abandoned in the heart of Govan
there are patches of tilled earth
lavender and mint, two carrot plants,
a stand of potatoes. On the door
of an abandoned church, a poster –
classes for drummers, taekwondo,
English as a second language,
poetry for those who have the time
on a wet Friday morning, in all
the languages of earth.

In the silence, a wren is singing.

This is probably the last post of this year, so Ill take the chance to wish everyone a happy Christmas and New Year.


Taigh Chearsabhagh

This is where I was last week. It was amazing.

There was a long cold drive to Uig through frost and snow and sometimes blinding sunshine – there was a magnificent rainbow on Skye – and then a quiet crossing to Lochmaddy. The Hamersay House where we were to stay was very pleasant and welcoming, and in fact so was everyone we met.

I like how island communities fit a lot into what looks like a sparse landscape. There are shops that combine post office craft stall and cafe in a building about as big as an average kitchen. Taigh Chearsabagh has three art studios (lovely light rooms overlooking the harbour) where you can do a full art degree and distance learning facilities for degrees in Gaelic and Music as well as more technical studies. It’s very child-friendly too – someone told me that her grandchildren found ‘their peers are everybody’. It was good to hear Gaelic being spoken too.

But the landscape, though sparse, is beautiful.

I wrote this poem after our first visit (in 2006, I think):


Perhaps at the damp end of a dour day,
when whey-thin clouds clot and curdle
against a washed out sky, and the puny wind
sharpens the rain in my face like teeth,
I might find the rim of a blue lochan
sleeping in the cold lap of the hills, where
water-lilies fold white stars in green cups,
and reeds wade knee-deep, and whisper.

Then if the clouds would open like eyes
and, in the sudden fall of sunlight, a curlew
cry, emptying the air, and the rippled
water blink between the reed-stems –
then I would look, and listen, and grow still.
Then I would know what I came for.

This time there weren’t any waterlilies, but the curlews were still there – and there were whooper swans. I wasn’t disappointed!

I read Rushlight as the first poem on the Thursday with poems from all three books, and then on Friday we had a workshop. I used lemon balm as a reference (there was a plant and some cookies!) and writing from herbals through the ages about it, showing how differently herbalists have felt about their subjects, and then some writing about landscapes evoked through the plants growing there. Some wonderful writing came out of it – a recollection of traditional healing, including a Gaelic charm, memories of gardens and of learning about plants, a powerful and thought-provoking reminiscence of wild coriander growing in the streets of Bradford, some lovely sensual evocations of the scents of herbs, and some well-expressed thinking about what knowledge might be important to us. It always surprises me how well Schoolish goes down (this poem is coming out in the next issue of WriteAngle, so I can’t share it here, but I’ve read it a bit, so you might know it), but it certainly hit a nerve!

And while I was doing that , my husband was out looking at this:

That is St Kilda, out in the distance.

I must say a big heart-felt thank you to Uist Art Association for inviting me, to Pauline Prior-Pitt who does so much work organising things so excellently, and to everyone who came and listened and wrote and bought books. You were fantastic!

Slow Stitch by Claire Wellesley-Smith

I was attracted to this book when I saw it in the V&A shop last summer by the low-key illustrations – the subtle colours, simple stitches, the neatness and regularity of her technique, and the care represented by the samples of sewing – there’s a gentle observant rhythm to them which is modest but not miserly, simple but not puritanical.

Then as I got into it, other values engaged me: the small scale of the projects envisaged – no long training, no expensive materials or kit – was a serious consideration as I was thinking of ‘mindful and contemplative’ sewing as a springboard to new poems, and not wanting to get over-committed. Creative mending and repurposing fabrics I might have sent to recycling had a certain green cachet. But where I really got on board was in a chapter called Stitching, Walking, Mapping, where Claire Wellesley-Smith talks about creating something with plants from a particular area, slow-dyeing threads or eco-printing, and stitching a design that records a connection.

Further in, she talks about the connections to the historical industries of the area where she lives, and makes cross-cultural links with other women using different traditions of textile art. Slow Stitch is an inspiring read, but if you would like to see more of Claire Wellesley-Smith’s work you can visit her website, and in particular, look at the beautiful short film Provenance.

It was in response to this book that I started Red Yellow Blue, and I have showed the first dyes here. But I’ve also been sewing, learning how to slow down, and make use of some of the fabric I’ve been saving, and some of the pictures that I took during the Half a Hundred Years project.

The next project is to connect with family history. My father’s mother died when he was a child, so we know very little about her, apart from the fact that, according to her school report, she was exceptionally good at needlework. But I do own this:

which she made. The hand stitching is exquisite. I am going to try and make a copy of it for my sister – I can’t do the drawn thread work, but those lovely Clarice Cliffe type marigolds look as if they are within my measure. It will have to wait a while, until after my trip next week to Lochmaddy, but it’s a project I am looking forward to.


Winter Violets

Violets do this – flowering randomly any time from October to April. Back in the day there was a whole industry forcing violets to bloom through the winter so that flower girls could sell posies on the streets of London. I have never seen enough violets in bloom at once to make a posy, but even the single unexpected blooms lift my heart. In spite of the fact they are a beautiful deep, rich purple, (like no body of water I have ever seen), they have a luminous gleam that always makes me think of sunlight on water. So I was very interested to find this article on twitter this morning

where a calm sea is described as ‘pansy-like’. I totally get this in one way, and yet in another, not at all.

This is the violet patch in the new look herb bed. This one focuses on scent and colour, with lavender, rosemary, purple sage southernwood, myrtle and costmary, for pot pourri, and the dye herbs – bog myrtle, dyer’s greenweed and woad to come next year.

I have finished the last big garden job before the winter, which is to plant the new rosa gallica officinalis here:

fortified with bonemeal and mulched with last year’s leaf mould, just in time, as we have had the first frosts, and it is time to think about work indoors.

Although setting up my plans for the colours and stitches projects I’m working on has been new and exciting, the two biggest concerns in my mind at the moment are the workshop I’m planning at Taigh Chearsabhagh, and the launch of Haggards next year. I am putting together some sensory experiences, some plant associations, and some very diverse ways of writing about herbs as ways of thinking about home, landscape, healing, femininity, wildness – and many more. We’ll have to see what comes out of it, but I’m very excited.

I’m putting together a newsletter for Haggards, which I hope will include news of events still at the planning stage – do sign up, if you would like to hear more.



We have made Landfall!

Last Saturday the Federation of Writers (Scotland) launched their latest anthology, Landfall. I was so proud to edit this – fifty-four authors of prose and poetry, some well-established, like the first Makar A.C. Clarke, some experiencing their first taste of publication. The design, layout and typesetting was carried out by my daughter Naomi Rimmer – no link to her site, this time as she is taking a sabbatical for a while. And here it is:

Copies can be obtained from the Federation for £10.

The First Colours

Here they are, my first dyed yarns. It’s been an exciting time. I was lucky enough to find dyestuffs locally – acorns, a branch off a cherry tree, which I stripped to make bark chippings,

and, most unexpected of all, some privet berries. Most privet bushes are clipped within a inch of their lives, don’t flower, and therefore don’t get to produce berries, but we were a bit less vigilant this year because of nesting birds and so I got a jar full of a murky inky liquid that looked like this

Following instructions from Helen Melvin in a craft book by Kirsty Alsopp (because she works on the small amateur scale which is all I can cope with, I set up a dye bath

and eventually got this bunch of beautiful colours:

Left to right, they are privet berry on an alum mordant, which is a very pale duck egg blue, privet berry with an iron modifier, which is closer to a wedgewood colour, cherry bark on alum alone, a very pale apricot, cherry bark with added iron, a kind of oatmeal, and acorn , a surprisingly yellow straw, and acorns with iron, a greyer beige.

They are quite pale, almost ghost colours, which is probably because I got too excited to simmer them for the length of time required, but I’m very excited by them. Fortunately every experiment yields something I can use, even if it isn’t what I wanted or expected. Trying to describe the colours has been interesting, as they don’t reproduce on the screen very clearly, and trying to thinks of designs to use them in is quite productive too. I’m thinking sparrows and blue tits, which is sparking ideas for poems as much as embroidery. And I’m fascinated by seeing what happens when you add the iron liquor to the dye pot. It doesn’t just change the colour of the bath, like washing out a paintbrush – the yarn changes almost instantly, like alchemy.

I’m thinking about translations, as I often do, recklessly, because time is short, and I have too many ideas, but I had a conversation last summer with a friend who translates poems from German, which made me think about translations and transformations, and the gaps between, and what desn’t change. Only now, I have a whole cluster of new images to write about it. When you submit a manuscript you often have a fallow time after it where you don’t write and sometimes wonder if you’ll ever write again; it looks like this fallow time is going to be shorter than I imagined!

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In June Mandy Haggith recommended this book to me, saying it was one I must read, and she was right. When I wrote Ways of Knowing I was looking for a way of thinking about and transmitting knowledge that would encompass both the academic and the intuitive ways we get to know about the world we live in, and this book does exactly that. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, Professor of Environmental Biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and this book discusses the human relationship to the land from both the perspective of her scientific training and the traditional wisdom and practices of her family. Intellectually and ecologically this is a great achievement, and the book is well-written, approachable and engaging. I Love it, and it will be on my shelves forever, so you can take this as a heart-felt recommendation.

It throws up a few issues, not of contention, but requiring further thought and development from a European perspective. (By which I mean simply someone living in Europe – in the book Kimmerer uses ‘European’ and ‘Western’ as cultural groupings, which is reasonable in an American setting, but less so from here).

What I love especially are her ideas

  • science as relational knowledge, not as detached observation
  • the speaking of a language as connection with the past and with other speakers, not as an assertion of identity (Gaelic activists here will get this connection – I get the feeling that people who disapprove of the use of Gaelic see it simply as creating barriers and ant-establishment acting out)
  • the reciprocity of the ‘honourable harvest’ where a disciplined use of natural resources is repaid by care, and this care is valued as genuinely nurturing the environment we profit from.. If we might see traditional cultures as tending towards the anthropomorphic and magical, we might want to recognise that this is in deference to our needs as humans; we behave much better when we are in caring relationships than when we try to follow rules.
  • seeing the earth as nurturing rather than functional, as organic and alive rather than as property
  • her ways of relating to key plants in a region as a way of belonging to that region. I thought about my territory and I’d say the key plants are ash, willow and alder, meadowsweet, comfrey, hawthorn, bramble and red clover. As it turns out, most of them have a place in Haggards. Alder doesn’t, but I have plans —-

I see some parallels between traditional Native American culture and Celtic practices, and even Biblical ones – the idea of jubilee, for instance, or leaving the gleanings of the harvest for wanderers, of gratitude and restraint. I can see parallels between what happened to First Nation Americans and what happened in Ireland and in the Highlands – the same lies, the same exploitation, the same refusal to understand the existence and respect the validity of other, less pragmatic world-views, which makes me wonder about how Western culture got to be the way it is (too big a subject). I don’t want to be too simplistic here, some of the Scottish and Irish who suffered so badly here went and inflicted exactly the same treatment on others when they got to America, but it does throw up some thoughts on why we can’t simply import ideas from other parts of the world simply because they seem sensible. So much of traditional Native American knowledge is conditioned by long knowledge of landscape and climate, soil types and wildlife. We can’t just copy and paste ideas, especially if we don’t have the same grounding – and we mostly don’t. Roger Deakin, in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, deplored the damage well-meaning developers did to watercourses in his area for want of detailed local knowledge, and I have become aware of controversies among permaculturalists about importing ideas such as herb spirals, which work when in some countries, in places where neither the soil nor the climate make them appropriate.

We are aware of attitudes that seem similar – profit as motivator, the market as the only regulator of industry, the earth as inert resource to be exploited (along with the self-serving opposition of jobs and environmental protection). But things are different here. We are, despite the ‘get on your bike’ mentality of governments, a much more settled country. People feel they belong to their place of residence, town or countryside. People feel, mostly, some obligation to their locality, even if it means being thought a ‘nimby’. It can narrow us, make us selfish when we go to other places like the National Parks, but it’s something we can build on, and we do, sometimes.

It means our residual land-lore is closer to us and more extensive than we think, and perhaps environmental organisations could be less dismissive and paranoid about unqualified people doing damage, and more willing to co-operate with residents, rather than taking such a missionary position.

It means that in this country, questions of class need to be more carefully looked at before assumptions are made about consultation and new initiatives, because we can create conflicts of interest unnecessarily in one direction, and turn a blind eye to others. This especially applies to the issue of land ownership. There’s a lot of over-simplification in these discussions, mostly because we’re importing models from places where the issues are much starker.

This book is a great place to start those conversations!