Lúcháir is Irish for ‘delight’, related to the Scottish Gaelic luachair – the soft rush (juncus effusus)– and the Welsh llwych, ‘a spark’. The pith of this plant was soaked in tallow used to make rushlights and by association this word came also to mean ‘the gleam of light on water’ – a flash of beauty, enlightenment, and in Celtic tradition , a glimpse of the other-world. In early Christian times, churches, and especially graveyards, in Scotland were often sited at the reedy headwaters of lochs – the places where Heaven and earth are closest.
This rush, this moment of delight when earth and Heaven are seen together, seemed to me to be the appropriate image for an attempt to integrate personal faith, love of the earth and its indigenous traditions, and the growing awareness of how all these things are endangered by the perfect storm of careless living in the world, greed, fear and human ignorance of who we are, where we came from, where we live and all the creatures with whom we are privileged to share the world. It became the basis of my poetry practice, and a way of life.
Pope Francis Laudato Si
In developing what I’ve called a ‘grounded poetics’ I have drawn from:
- the insights of geo-poetics, in which I found a way of grounding art in an informed and intelligent awareness of the earth. You can find out more at the site of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics.
- the environmental initiatives of the permaculture movement whose principles (which you can see here) have a lot in common with the social teaching of the church in which I was brought up, especially in the emphasis on diversity, inclusivity and subsidiarity.
- the spiritual practices of monastic traditions – particularly that of the Rule of St Benedict. I have studied my own monastic tradition deeply, but I have also learned a lot from friends of many faiths and observances – Wiccan, Quaker, Buddhist, Socialist and many others.
and aim to produce poetry grounded in knowledge of my environment, and a dialogue of simplicity, peace, wonder and respect.
Walking the Territory
I wanted to get to know the world around me – the history and geography, the ecology and community. Careful observation of what is here already grounds my thinking about what to do next.
Where I live is a river valley. The Forth flows through it, still tidal at this point, meandering crazily at the foot of the Ochils. It’s milder here than places even a short distance away, because it’s low-lying and sheltered, and sometimes we have mists and sometimes floods. It’s very close to the city centre, but, as it is isolated by the river, it is secluded, and there are skies dark enough to see stars. One day we will be on an island in the middle of an ox-bow lake, but for now we are a semi-detached suburb, playing at being farming country. It’s good land, over devonian sandstone, a mixture of silt and clay – there were orchards here for centuries – and it’s a good place for wild-life, with a variety of habitats, woodland, hill, field, river and bog.
There is also my own smaller territory, the garden, which is about 1800 square feet, level, south-facing. It is bounded by a tall privet hedge on the west side, a lower hazel one on the south, and suburban larch fencing on the east. There are currently two trees, a rowan and a birch, lawn, borders and a pond. It has been gardened organically since we came, and is productive, but also over-run with ground elder, buttercups and bindweed.
The human community here is part of this. I feel very strongly the importance of connecting with the past – my own family heritage in Ireland, but also with the history and traditions of where I live now, with the miners and artists and monks who used to live here and with the farmers, university students, the shop-workers and people who run B&Bs, who live here now. The village used to play an important part in the history of Scotland, and it has buildings and memories to cherish.
The Walking the Territory Project inspired some of the work in Wherever We Live Now, and almost all of the poems in The Territory of Rain.
Half a Hundred Herbs
My own patch, the territory of rain, has shrunk a little – to my own back garden. During the first year, I kept any eye on the birds and wild flowers outside, but my focus narrowed a little, and I paid attention to the herbs – growing, using them in the house, and writing about them. At one a week that ought to have made fifty two, but two of them, the rose and the elder, needed a little more space. So fifty it was. I did also stretch the definition a little. There were some trees in the mix, and a few weeds and wild flowers. And there were no serious medicines; medical herbalism is much more learned than I can stretch to, and I didn’t go beyond the odd cold remedy or hand cream. This was a very home-made project.
With a narrower focus, I hoped to pay attention to the smaller and less glamorous inhabitants of the garden – the insects, the mosses and lichens, the strange creatures I see in the pond. I took my inspiration from Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog for Trees for life, which takes notes of things as small as aphids, in spite of being set in the most picturesque Highland landscape I’ve ever seen, and also from Rima Staines’ Weed Wife post on her blog Into The Hermitage which wanders into some of the territory I’ve worked on in my Huldra-folk poems.
You can find a list of the herbs available to me in this pdf: herb list
and a list of books which I have found useful (pdf) Booklist.
I wanted to reflect on the place herbs have in our culture, the way we use them as archetypes, as symbols of resistance, as a way to reconnect with the earth and with aspects of ourselves and those aspects of our society we have let go astray, as a way of dealing with grief, upheaval and hardship. Work on this project will form part of my next book, the working title of which is Haggards.
This is a study of pastoral and Eco-poetry, which aims to reclaim the genre from the stereotypes of nostalgia, escapism, lyric romanticism or evangelistic cheer-leading. I want to include perspectives of feminism and radical politics in attitude towards land use and ownership, and a deeper philosophical and psychological insight into notions of inhabiting, ‘home’ and wilderness. It will probably be a long-term project!