Wednesday, August 31, 2005

production shortfall

Sorry for the lack of exciting new posts. The last three weeks I've been trying to squeeze 36 hours of stuff into 24, and my poor blog has worked its way into a dusty corner between the barbells and the unpaid bills. This'll carry on for a while. I was in Herne Bay on Monday, I was up on the hill in the dark with lots of relatives last night, all other waking hours I've been at work. I read some poems by Lisa Samuels late last night but that seemed like the least significant thing that happened all day.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Firelooker

So fuck you.

I was born here, no-one knew I was here, my father died here, it's older than me, I'm always looking in the rose embers and it's my book of memories too. She knelt by the fire, watching it catch and blacken the afternoon but without any feeling of a blaze. A terrible book.

- He's certainly put his back into it. Us, we wanted to move on - well, you have to. They're always sending him off abroad, too. Well, I hope they appreciate him.

Len was walking round the kitchen while he polished his shoes. As he passed the doorway she felt a searching shadow of mint bathrobe cut across her. The coalite snapped in the grate, a supper of fuses burning over meadows and canal-banks running with Colin with Darren with Sonia, head down with his phone pressed to his eye like Sherlock Holmes, hounding them down.

- The walled garden was amazing. Rambler heaven! Right back up together. If only Dad was alive. Does it all on his own, no-one to help.

They're burning stubble, you're running down the cinder track, buildings either side, black hoardings funnelling into plate-hands - oh, you have to get away! "Hello, Moto." The geese clatter, so slowly wheeling, like the point of a long-sword - great lightnings. So many leathery books.

- And the kids adore him.

If I could just stand on my own two feet, just me and them, it would be all right I know it would. If there was even one chance don't you know I would have taken it. God knows it isn't as if I haven't tried. Even you. Can't you fucking see we've tried everything.

She started to drop words into the air as if no-one was listening.

- There's something I need to say to you. I know that he's your brother, I know you'll always love him...

In the fire the curtains went up and up. It was always Scaenus Primus, nothing ever started. Dance of the seventeen cigarettes. She watched her hand between her knees picking the crumbs of wood and coalite out of the felt, picking and smoothing, moving along. The die is in the past.

Finally he came to a halt and came in. He fell into the sofa with a sigh, his bathrobe gaping; he looked at her absently while his hand clawed about for the newspaper. He'd written some of the numbers in already.

- ...but I don't like him videoing the children.

His head wobbled, not getting it.

- Who...?

Oh yes you do. Oh yes, you do get it.

His mouth was completely open. Train-wreck.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Carline Thistle

It's a funny thing with Carlina vulgaris (Carline Thistle). Sometimes it does look scruffy and a disgrace to its surroundings, and sometimes you look more closely at it and you realize with a little shock that it's actually pretty and perfect - the way that an insect can sometimes be seen to be fresh and immaculate though its body is designed to resemble a dead leaf.

And then at other times Carline thistle (especially in numbers) just looks bold and great and hey what's the problem - like the old-fashioned Christmas decorations made out of straw that you can buy in IKEA. That's how it looked on Morgan's Hill near Calne on Sunday. I also saw: round-headed rampion (for the first time), buckthorn (first), marsh helleborine (second - reputedly the only downland site in the UK), saw-wort (second), juniper (in the wild - first in UK). So you can guess I was happy, especially as I had never heard of Morgan's Hill and arrived there by chance. It was blowy and I didn't have much time, at first I missed the quarry and had to double back against the clock, running, took a short-cut over some barbed wire and got stung and scratched to bits. It was bliss. But the group of Carline thistles, a plant I've seen fifty times before, was my highlight - the only plant whose flowers catch the light this way - like straw, yes, but also like gold. Stocky and almost motionless in the breeze, they were emitting a signal though I didn't understand it.

At about the same modest height (20cms) - modest by thistle standards, I mean - I saw something else I'd never seen before, the stalked variant of Cirsium acaule (Dwarf Thistle). (Usually the flowers push out straight from the basal rosette.) I didn't know about this variant until I checked in the book, and for one hammering moment thought I might be looking at a hybrid with Cirsium tuberosum, Wiltshire's great rarity. Everything else about the dwarf thistle is ferociously armed with spines, but the stems were merely bristly, pale and sinuous. I caught myself thinking: "These stems don't seem very highly evolved... I suppose there's no need. After all, they're not usually there." As usual, my mind was struggling to cope with the distinction between a species and an individual. (I vaguely suspect the philosophical coherence of our conception of a species, especially post-Darwin.)

Juniper, one of the world's most widespread plants and the only conifer native to both America and Eurasia, is now rare in England. The few wild plants that remain (like the two on Morgan's Hill) are old, twisted, and lichenous, though still producing plenty of berries. There seem to be no young juniper plants and the problem is thought to be rabbits (introduced to Britain in the Middle Ages) eating all the seedlings (the immature leaves are floppy and palatable).

Follow this link to see pictures of Carlina vulgaris, from John Crellin's site www.floralimages.co.uk. John is a photographer who lives in Weston-Super-Mare (at the other end of the Mendips from me) and his site contains hundreds of images of Mendip plants, as well as other UK and Spanish wild plants.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

book I'll never write

There’s a hill I’ve been to a hundred times, and each time I get a surprise. It’s a small space, a compact chalk outlier, and criss-crossing it like this I began to learn how little one path teaches you of an area, how we walk on paths and thus drape a linear veil across the world; how a screen is occlusion just as much as illumination.

In early August I wasn’t expecting much, panting uphill through brambles not yet blackberries, nettles at their stingiest and choking chaff of thistles. In Spain, the main flowering season runs from the end of February to the beginning of June – then there’s an arid gap when it’s too hot and dry, then a second and more modest season in October-November. At the other end of Europe, in Northern Sweden, the flowering season hardly begins until the end of May, and is one concentrated rush of bloom until the third week in August, when autumn is already gustily apparent, a time of berries, mushrooms and feasts.

With global warming, southern England is drawing a little closer to the Mediteranean model than it used to. Most of our delicate wild flowers are drawing to a close at the end of July, and something like a hint of that arid recess becomes apparent in the scorched land of the southern hillslope. But it was still just a little too early for the end-of-summer specialists, of which the hill has two: autumn gentian and autumn lady’s tresses.

This was our holiday time and the top of the hill, the place that is almost a concourse and the place where you really feel you “inhabit” the hill, was lively with the shrieks and chants of children. I thought, as often before, about how the environment that we’ve grown to really enjoy is desert.

Desert, naturally, with running water and chips at the poolside bar. I was very struck, this spring, by my friend’s description of Hawaii, the island split by its awesome volcano into two entirely different climates, the desert east side where there’s never any rain at all and the verdant west side where it rains every day. (My friend, an astrophysicist, is usually at the top of the mountain.) As you’ll have anticipated, the whole wonderful leisure-park of modern Hawaii is on the east side, where water (presumably from the west) is piped into golf-course and swimming-pool oases, and the weather is sunny every day.

Yes, a desert climate is what we really like; inside, we live in mini-deserts, keeping the air bone-dry, which is why not many plants like it there. But in a perfect world, we’d rather be outside, sleep outside, eat outside, and of course, in the words of the song, have sex on the beach.

But the coasts of Hawaii and Spain are a bit crowded, we need more resorts, and these are beginning to inch around the politically more intractable parts of the Med. But what about the real deserts? I remembered the heart-stopping photo (on a calendar) of a Libyan mountain landscape, tiger-striped with shadows, deep in the Sahara, and I thought – yes, this could be one helluva resort. And then I thought – but no. The world is thankfully not quite as open to development as all that. We need a bit more technology and a bit more economic push before we get to put golf-courses right in there. If I was a developer I’d be looking wistfully at that photo and saying, yes, “its time will come”, “the time is not right”, or some such phrase – which sounds like superstition, but is in fact nature.

For development, too, is part of nature. It is a wave that slops across the virgin earth (it really is a virgin to this particular process), but it doesn’t move randomly; on the contrary, it moves according to just the same economic laws as nature’s other processes. Before it, shrinking day by day, is the green island we call wilderness, or unspoilt, or precious. Back of it is a growing hinterland that we don’t think much about yet, though many of us live in it, the country that is post-developed; for the wave does not stop arrested as in a photo of it crashing down on a tide-line, it moves on, and off, and new waves follow.

I thought this in a few seconds as I passed by the families and away to the deserted north side of the hill. Here, the spear-thistle and the more magnificent woolly thistle exploded along the cows’ favourite walks. Bees were ecstatic in those deep flowers. In August, a botanist gravitates to the north side, the Yin of a hill. Here, housemartins swooped low over an unsuspected patch of clustered bellflowers (Campanula glomerata), comically dwarfish compared to the “toppklocka” I had seen in Swedish woods a fortnight before.

I will never write the story of all those criss-crosses, all the relative spaces and times that my walks on the hill have illuminated. It would take some hundreds of pages and would be full of references to e.g. meeting the herd while walking back over “the meadow of the ant-hills”, which is what happened tonight. If you keep memorialising a place unknown to the readers, then you must be trying to take something away from them – that’s the feeling I get.

From the north scarp, which is wet enough to hold moss and marsh-thistle in its furrows, and to emit an invisible fountain of insects for the housemartins to feast on, I inspected, far below, a strip of ground that is nearly always in shadow. It backs onto a cropfield and is out of everyone’s road. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been down there even once, and I suspect it of being the hill’s sacred space, the place we “inhabit” least. (The cows, however, may have a different geography, for they gather to sleep near here, where in bad weather they can conveniently withdraw into a sheltered alley between hill-slope and beechwood.) I also saw carline thistle in flower (when it looks dead) and, what I don’t remember seeing before, carline thistle in bud, when it promises a yellow and mauve freshness that never comes to pass.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Backwards from now

Maximilian
father's mother's - Belarus
climb up it, but you might wreck your tights (6)
salt really hurts your elbows
wasps like fennel
you can't collect plums in: birdbox voicebox jukebox boxkite
granat: garnet or shell (mil.)
3 x single duvets
"goat's cheese mountain"
had to go to the law
prevails / in the wafts of past-away time
hello - yeah - I'm at mine
the first few months they "starved"
snömärkeslav
further down you have "Okända
good school, Sundsvalls Kommunaler Flickskola
upset with her, because the trip to Lisseberg was
Dad scraping the rust off a tsuba with an antler
but we'll have our bloodmeal
himself on the steps of their house
You can see the tree-shadows through the tree-shadows
youthfulness kneeling in black and white
hangs by feathery juices
Salisbury Plain - first faint
ligule - how we plan to be pulled about - hinged arm-pit hair

Sunday, August 07, 2005

How blackcurrants grow

When blackcurrant leaves appear at the end of the shoot, they at first appear to be in opposite pairs. As the shoot continues to grow the spaces between the leaf-stalks elongate dramatically, and they are then seen to be alternate. If you imagine that you are looking down the stalk from the shoot, each leaf is rotated clockwise from the previous one by an an angle that averages 160 degrees. Hence, the stalk of leaf 10 lies directly above the stalk of leaf 1 (9 * 160 = 1440 = 4 * 360). At least, that's how I think it works. Anyway, it isn't simple.

My review of the heyday of the English progressive rock band Van Der Graaf Generator is now online in Stride Magazine. It's also in its appropriate place (1971) in the "Brief History of Western Culture" - see the links over there on the right.

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