Expressing the Earth – the Herbs

When we visited the Kilmartin Museum, my first port of call was the lovely herb garden planted alongside the path. I had been struck by this last time I was there, because it seemed very different to a lot of recent constructions, which often come straight out of a picture book, without regard to climate or local tradition. This garden had a lot of local plants, mostly native, but not all – Highland herbalists were in touch with healing traditions all over the world, and were willing to import or try out new ideas. They were all well-grown and in good condition, and divided into beds according to their uses for healing, dyeing, cooking and fibre – including flax and nettle – and beautifully labelled and displayed.

I had planned to talk about the herb garden in my presentation, and emailed the Museum so I could credit the designer, and it was with great trepidation that I discovered it had been designed by Patsy Dyer, who was coming to the conference in her other guise as storyteller!  Unfortunately we were scheduled against each other, so she couldn’t come to my presentation and I couldn’t go to hers, but it was lovely to meet her.

I distributed copies of The Charm of Nine Herbs to everyone who came, and I was delighted to find how much interest there was in my subject. The gist of my talk was that pre-scientific herbalists didn’t necessarily operate by magic and guesswork, but by observation and experiment, adapting their practice to the locality and the climate, as well as the patient, but presenting their knowledge in a way that suited a culture without books. Dependence on a uniform set text radically changed not only herbal practice, but the way we thought about knowledge, and I added that having access to the internet, with a whole mass of data, observation and opinions, was teaching us to relearn  the one-time skills of verification and adaptation of information to our own particular needs.

This went down a lot better than I thought it might! I had a lot of fascinating conversations about such things as the placebo effect, the herbal practice of a holistic approach to illness, the doctrine of signatures and the revival of old physic gardens. I’m going to try and put all  the things I said into some coherent form, and may add it to the Half a Hundred Herbs page.

Expressing the Earth – the Highlights

This is the river running through Kilmartin Glen, which we visited during the Expressing the Earth conference at the weekend. I am hoping to have some longer, more considered posts drawing out some of the themes of the experience, but this will have to wait until I’ve collected my thoughts – it was a very rich and full programme, and will take some digesting!

  • the thunderstorm which happened just after I arrived, taking out the WIFI at Seil Island Hall. It made it impossible to tweet, stream events or even to run the films we had planned, but there was enough going on without that!
  • meeting old friends, some familiar figures from previous geopoetic events, some from the poetry world, and some known only from Facebook up to now – and the making of many new ones.
  • the beautiful island setting, and the wonderful catering provided by a local firm Fisherman’s Kitchen.
  • Siobhan Healy’s glass ghost orchids
  • Luke Devlin talking about ‘radical geopoetics’, and everyone delightedly waking up to what he meant.
  • how receptive people were to my talk about herbs and to the Charm leaflet. And I sold some books!
  • the cyanotypes people made at Susannah Rosenfeld-Kings workshop.
  • hearing lots of other languages spoken – German, Gaelic, Spanish, Portuguese – and accents from all kinds of places
  • Alistair McIntosh being the voice of a stone, and talking about the community buyout of Eigg
  • Neil Simco’s keynote about the educational vision of UHI, plus Mairead Nic Craith about identity and relationship, and Anuschka Miller turning our ideas about ocean on their heads.
  • the lovely herb garden at Kilmartin, designed by story-teller Patsy Dyer, and maintained by her wonderful crew of volunteers.
  • the baby robins outside the museum, barely fledged and playing around the benches under the watchful eye of their parent, each staking a claim to its own bench.
  • Dreaming Agrakas, an opera written by Mark Sheridan moving between the coasts of Scotland Greece and Sicily, combining references to traditional Gaelic music and coastal folklore, a classical Greek ode by Pindar and a modern reflection on the many migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. There were only three performers, Hannah Bown, voice, Morag Currie, violin and Mark himself on piano, but it was a magnificent achievement.
  • hearing Nikita Pfister’s river suite, beautifully played on the melodeon, and Dave Francis, long known to me for his generosity as a teacher and developer of traditional music, singing himself.


Latest News June

All this recent wet has done great things in the garden, and my yellow flag irises which I grew from seed are finally in full bloom. June has been exceptionally busy this year and is getting busier by the minute. I’m involved in editing two books, and there’s another to come, as well as finishing my own new collection – of which more news later in the summer.

The biggest and most imminent event is Expressing the Earth, which is coming up at the end of next week. I’m still writing my talk on Herbs Landscapes and Ways of Knowing (I can talk about it like anything, but this requires organisation, and possibly PowerPoint) collecting illustrations from herbals, and getting stuff printed. I have turned my translation of the Charm of Nine Herbs into an illustrated leaflet and everyone who comes to the conference will get one.

You can have one too! If you sign up to my newsletter, (promise, not too many mailouts) I’ll send you one, or you can have a PDF if you’d rather. More than just spamming you about the book, it’s got news of a herbs and poetry facebook group this time, and there will be poems and bits of other writing I’m engaged in, as well as readings and all the stuff you would expect. Use the contact form on the new contact page and we’re good to go.

Still Standing

For London, for Manchester, for Kabul, for Syria, for Yemen, for all the places where people have been hurt.

Stand in the Light

Stand in the light.
Allow the wild things to creep
out of the shadows.
Welcome them all, the wet
bedraggled things, the ones
all spit and claws, the one
who weeps and hangs its head,
the one who stares, and says ‘Make me.’
Stand in the light. They are yours,
washed and unwashed alike.

Stand in the light, and sing.
Raise your voice as if
there was no fear of darkness.
Listen and you will hear
other voices, other songs,
rough and sweet and dauntless,
blues and canto jondo,
pibroch, nanha, tanakh.
Stand in the light and sing. Their pain
is yours. Allow it to hurt.

Stand in the light. Be still.
Light is what we need. Let it glow,
let it shine into the furthest dark
to find the lost forgotten hopes
and warm them to new life.
Allow it to grow and touch the ruined
homes and hearts and show us
what’s to mend. Stand in the light.
Be still. Become the light.

Black Cart, by Jim Carruth

Black Cart, by Jim Carruth, published by Freight Books 2017

Jim Carruth describes this as ‘a love poem to a rural community in Scotland. He comes from a farming family in Ayrshire, and this collection is a mixture of description, memory and elegy for a way of life that is changing and quite probably dying out. Parallels with Heaney and Clare come to mind here. His poems are as full of affection, observation and lyric description as Heaney’s, and there is a similar sense that he is heir to a way of life that isn’t for him in Into the Blue, where the poet

Was supposed to
Knock an old soup can off the fence post
But winged a cloud and brought down the sky

with the gun that was an intrinsic part of his father’s identity, or The Trouble With Ploughing, where the young Jim has proved so inept with a tractor he isn’t allowed to try it, and the sense of his vocation as a poet in Searchlight:

I look for them still, listen for their returning voices;
I will them back into the light.

But Heaney’s poetry starts very much with his own relationships, his memories and the way his past, his family, his community and landscape have shaped him – and then becomes his own way of looking at the wider world. Carruth’s is about something else. His complicated relationship with his origins comes through – as how could it not? but it isn’t the focus. The focus is on those people,that landscape, the way those communities lived, in all its beauty, crushing hard work, isolation and anxiety, its particular skills and cherished traditions and its eclipse.
Carruth’s poetry is like Clare’s or Burns’ in that it is not (like Heaney’s or Wordsworth’s for instance), a poet’s detached observation of another way of life, but is instead embedded within that life. It’s an issue often misunderstood. Clare himself was conscious that he was a poet and a scholar, and if not a gentleman, then not a simple peasant either, and I can’t be the only one that finds the epithet ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ thoroughly patronising when applied to Burns. The difference between Wordsworth and Clare isn’t education or art or craft versus genius, or culture, it’s a point of view. I don’t want establish a hierarchy of poetic style and intent, nor to trespass into Jim Carruth’s private or professional life, but simply to say that, like Clare’s, his poetry is from the ground up, not the desk down.
I love it. It has wit and affection and humour – how many jokes can you make about silage? It has a disenchanted eye, as in Drowning Kittens (be warned, this will upset you) but isn’t cynical or despairing, even in the bleak Farm Sale. And although it is elegaic, it also has a strong sense of continuity and tradition, that something can be kept from the wreck of a way of life that will enrich future generations if they remember it honestly.

May in the Territory of Rain

sunny garden 1

Well not so much territory of rain this week. It is beautifully hot and sunny, and  after everything in the garden hanging fire for about a fortnight, it has all started happening at once. Seeds have grown (but so have a million weeds), the thyme and sage have come into flower, and I have started harvesting. Chives are in the freezer and I have made tarragon and basil vinegar.

I’ve found some chickweed

not this plant, I hasten to add – it is very near to territory marking posts of dogs and foxes – and I am infusing it into oil. I’ve done the same for cleavers (I wish I could say they weren’t from my garden, but they are), and I’ve made some hawthorn flower tincture

I will be drying the thyme and sage,

plus some lovely sprays of eucalyptus and bay my friend Rita Bradd brought me, when she came to discuss editing her new pamphlet of poems, which will be out in September. She also brought me a hand of ginger, and as I noticed a little growth spur on it, I’ll be planting up a division of it to see if I can grow it on. There are cuttings to take too, so I am looking forward to a very busy weekend.

Elsewhere, the black backed gulls have pretty much moved on from their old nesting site. I only counted three yesterday, nesting on chimney pots. But on the plus side, there are more housemartins and swallows and swifts than ever, and I hope they will rear broods successfully. The robins abandoned their nest in the ivy pot, but they must have found somewhere else because there are baby robins and blue tits in the garden. The magpies that were a problem in other years seem to have taken themselves off, so the small birds are very active. There are frogs and newts in the pond, and I’m hoping this year will repair some of the damage last year’s cold and wet did to our wildlife.

Expressing the Earth

Eight years ago I was at the Atlantic Islands Festival on Luing. It was my first geopoetics event, and it isn’t too much to say it was life changing. It was partly the inspiring setting – several of the poems in my first collection were written there – but also the mix of disciplines and kinds of creativity on offer. I can’t remember it all, but there was poetry, film, archaeology and geology, bird-watching and story-telling, music and workshops on websites for writers and submitting work for publication. Also some Zen meditation, which made it into the book, and tai chi, which didn’t! There have been some smaller events since then, but this June I’ll be at the first on a similar scale:

Expressing the Earth

Norman Bissell, the director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, announced it thus:

The Scottish Centre for Geopoetics and the University of the Highlands and Islands will host Expressing the Earth in Argyll 2017 to bring together creative artists, musicians, poets and film makers along with academics, researchers, students and teachers to explore, create and debate the earth and the environment in this spectacular area of Scotland.

Expressing the Earth will look to the multitude and proliferation of the islands and peninsulas and address the ways in which people are influenced and brought together by these features from the Neolithic and Bronze Age, early Celtic Christian heritage and seafaring history to more recent industrial exploitation of the Slate Islands.

Themes and activities, rooted in Geopoetics, include literature, history, visual arts, film making, archaeology, geology, geography and theology – with active engagement and creative outcomes as central to the conference as academic papers and presentations.

The conference will take place at the Seil Island Hall in Argyll with field activities also in Kilmartin Glen, Easdale Island and the Isle of Luing. Poetry readings, musical performances and social gatherings will play a key part in the conference programme and it is intended that publications and exhibitions will follow.

There was a call for engagement earlier in the year, and I am delighted that so many artists, musicians, film makers, writers and academics of all kinds have responded. I don’t know quite how we are going to cope with the richness of the talent on offer, all packed into three days – we are going to wish that even Scottish summer days were a bit longer to cope with it all! The Centre’s facebook page has been featuring some of the papers and workshops on offer, or you can find out more here:

I’ll be talking about herbs, not just the uses and beliefs of herbs that I’ve been sharing here, nor the poems that are going into the next book, but the attitudes to knowledge and culture and the environment that have come out of my studies, and I’ll be talking a bit about the wonderful herb garden at Kilmartin, which we will have a chance to visit. I’m very excited about the way my writing and my philosophy and herbal knowledge has come together, and I hope that anyone who comes will find it interesting.

Book now, if you can – tickets are going fast!


The Journey – an Exhibition by Christine McIver

My artist friend Christine McIver has an exhibition in the Dunblane Museum until the 29th May. It is called The Journey – Images of Migration and the picture here – which doesn’t do justice to the impact and haunting atmosphere of the actual painting – is called The Lost Boys.

Like many of us Christine was deeply affected by the current migration crisis and the plight of refugees, made more poignant by the realisation that many of us in the Central Belt are descended from migrants ourselves, particularly from Ireland. As she worked in watercolours on rice paper, she says

“the illustrative style of the work reflects the idea that migratory journeys are not confined to one generation but become part of our ancestral story.

The people who are brave enough to make these journeys are the ancestors of our future civilisations.”

I found the paintings beautiful, and intensely moving. I have loved Christine’s work for many years, but this exhibition seems like a new departure, and has an added depth and confidence. You can see more of Christine’s work here:

All the artist’s proceeds of the exhibition will be shared between the Scottish Refugee Council and the Maryhill Integration Network, so that is an added reason to go and see it while it lasts.



The Charm of Nine Herbs – The Methods

Mugwort, plantain which lives facing the sun, lambscress, burdock,chamomile, nettle, crab apple thyme and fennel

  • a salve for keeping thus: chop the leaves finely and mix with the apple pulp and a salve base.
  • a plaster or fomentation – make a paste of water and ash, and mix the fennel with oil and beaten egg. You can use a salve before and after.
  • Sing this charm three times over the herbs before you work them, and also over the apple. Sing it over the patient, (both mouth and ears) and over the wound each time you apply the salve.

This part involves more than average guesswork, as the text seems more than a little garbled. You will note that it is prose and not poetry for what it’s worth, and also that this bit substitutes lambscress for houseleek. Perhaps this is a substitution the scribe made because houseleek was less available locally, but the word is ‘lombescyrse’, so this is not just a best guess. The word for crabapple is different too, ‘wudusuræppel’ rather than ‘wergulu’, so the prose addition may have been made in a different part of the country from the poetry. This may explain the Odin and Christian references too – we are looking at an amalgamated text.

I am interested in the singing. In later monastic practice, time was measured in the length of time it takes to say prayers, and it may be that singing the charm was the same sort of thing. But in the light of the religious references, perhaps we can guess that to the Saxons, just as physical healing was also a redemptive act, and not just a metaphor for salvation, spiritual healing brought genuine comfort and strength, and was not just a placebo.

April in the Territory of Rain

This is not really a typical month, as it has certainly not been the territory of rain. There hasn’t been any serious rain all month, and not much in March. The pond is low and I’m already watering things that I wouldn’t usually need to worry about until June. On the other hand, until last weekend, it wasn’t really cold, so we have had a beautiful month, with blossom – the cherry coming a good fortnight earlier, and the apple just opening. Daffodils and primroses weren’t battered by winds, and the wind anemones flourishing and spreading.

The cow parsley is just beginning on the road verges, along with white dead-nettle and garlic mustard – the first time I’ve seen it here, and the bluebells are out. Soon it will be time to go to Inchmahome, where the bluebells are like a flood under the old chestnuts and oaks, and the geese will be nesting.

Migrant birds are back, though not in large numbers yet, and the dawn chorus is pretty impressive. We had on major disappointment, in that robins made a lot of progress on a nest just below my study window, but then abandoned it. They haven’t gone far, however, as I still see them foraging.

There have been some changes, most of them quite encouraging. Wrens chaffinches and gold-finches are about in greater numbers and there are more song-thrushes. There are more skylarks in the fields this year, but I haven’t seen any lapwings at all, nor heard a curlew. The biggest change is the lesser black-backed gull colony. The warehouse they used to nest on was demolished, and though a good number tried to nest among the rubble, they were disturbed by surveyors, and I saw no chicks at all. This year fewer gulls have come back, and only the boldest are on the site – which isn’t being developed at all yet. Some of them are on chimneys, and some of them must be on the river bank, but it seems awfully quiet without them.

The other change is the deer. Once the sight of a deer coming down from the crags was a rare thing, but now you can see them browsing in the fields furthest from the road almost every day. As the human community begins to struggle with our social and environmental pressures, some quiet resurgence may be beginning among our neighbours. I’m taking all the hopeful signs I can get!