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Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


herbs


  • Thaw

    stony soil, some straggle grass and the first sight of tulip and daffodil bulbs showing through

    The Thaw

    Just two degrees of difference.

    The air softens and dulls, grass blurs.

    The privet heights are quick with sparrow-bustle,

    blackbird hop, wren flit, a new colony

    born in craic and kerfuffle.

    A great tit trapezes birch-stems

    nibbling the catkin sheaths,

    the see-saw strop of teacher, teacher

    sharpens the morning, adding fizz

    to spring’s still coolness.

    Ebb-tide is swimming with ducks,

    upended, spinning, suddenly noisy.

    Paired swans, humped leavings of snow,

    melt into the drained river.

    The slick banks slump into silty furrows.

    Damp is gathering with the first drift of rain.

    Earth relaxes ice-bound muscles,

    lets out the sharp sour stink of thaw –

    mud and leaf-mould, and frost-burned grass

    collapsing into wetness, rot, fertility.

    This is from Wherever We Live Now, when the ice had been thick on the banks of the Forth, and the sudden change was like the curtains swishing back at the theatre. Here, in the place of the fire, it is not so dramatic. There was a wee sprinkle of snow and a bit of frost, and there was a good six degrees of difference, but everywhere looked quiet, and gray and a little bit cooler than you might expect, and it still does. But the birds have had their cue. The robins have been busy all winter, but the great tits have joined in with their ‘teacher, teacher’ and on the path into town the blackbirds are marking their territories, and all the rooks crows, jackdaws and magpies are sorting themselves out, and clucking over the state of last year’s nests. These birds are shamelessly at it already, having only packed it in reluctantly in November.

    a pair of amorous street pigeons, one stalking the other along the roof

    What with bad knees and poetry and trying to get the house sorted out, I did not do as much in the garden as I had imagined, but now I’m glad, because there are several places where bulbs are coming up, and goodness knows what damage I might have done if I’d breezed in, clearly and improving and hacking things to bits. But we finally brought home all the plants which had been holidaying at my son’s house.

    open boot of a car packed with plants in pots visible are bay, lavender mulifidia, a planter with various culinary herbs and a camellia

    There will have to be considerable reconfiguring of the current beds to accommodate all of them, but it can be done bit by bit. And there are some new and exciting seeds that I saved for when we settled. Looks like my knee healed just in time.

    On the poetry front, I’ve been involved in judging the William Bonar competition, doing final proofs for a collection by Ruby McCann, and selecting poems by Red Squirrel Press poets for Herbology News. And I even wrote a poem. There is more of a thaw going on than I realised!

    bay trees placed either side of the french door into the garden

  • Midsummer Morning

    dandelion clock among daisies

    We have got to Midsummer’s Day, and the weather is hot and sunny. The birds nesting in the garden have all flown, and people have begun to cut their hedges, and along by the river the yellowhammers are just leaving the nests, with their distinctive calls racketing through the hawthorns and alders they seem to like.

    It is peak herb this week, with roses, lavender, woodruff (I’m a little too late for this really, but I’ll dry it anyway, to use as a fixative for potpourri), chickweed, self-heal and clover all ready for harvesting, and peppermint and yarrow bulking up. The traditional midsummer herbs, St. John’s wort and meadowsweet are not yet flowering here, but they are close. There are chopped chives in the freezer, and basil ready for making pesto.

    These are the first of the marigolds, which I sowed back in the autumn, and forgot about. There will be plenty more from the spring sowing, and they will last well into the autumn.

    The plants that dominate the garden this week, however, are the ferns. They have some association with this time of year, with fairies and with midsummer magic. It was believed that you could sprinkle fern seed in your shoe and become invisible – more on this website.

    harts tongue fern

    This one is the hart’s tongue fern.

    polypody

    and this is polypody. A lot of ferns have had traditional medicinal uses, but they are most welcome in my garden for their refreshing green in the glare of summer, and because they will cope with shade.

    Posting here may be a little erratic over the next few weeks. Lockdown has been tough on all of us, and especially on some of my family, and we all need a bit of chilling time. But I will be writing and gardening, and I hope there will be a newsletter soon, inspred by clover. Enjoy the summer!


  • Living la Vida Lockdown-Here Comes the Sun

    crimson peony against green leaves

    It’s the warmest day so far, and the garden is looking quite pretty. I’m not the only one taking photos today – my daughter has caught me in the act of actual gardening, harvesting thyme.

    me, harvesting thyme

    I have moved on to the planting out stage, the tomatoes are in the greenhouse border, and the aubergines are in bigger pots. There are planters full of ammi majus, lupins and cerinthe, and fennel and agastache are in the borders. There are helichrysum, mollucella and nicandra which I will dry for winter flower arrangements, and annual seeds in the gaps left by the bulbs which have gone over. My initial optimism about the germination of said seeds has since been damped by the realisation that a lot of the green shoots have turned out to be hairy bittercress and willow herb, but you never know. The recent rain has done wonders for everything!

    Mostly I include rather pleasnat pictures of my activities, but you’ll be glad to know there are no photos of the comfrey liquid I’ve just strained and stored in old milk cartons. It smells particularly vile, but it is rich in potassium and the tomatoes and fruit bushes will be getting a very healty watering of this stuff over the next few months. More photogenically, I have started to harvest my herbs, first making a dandelion muscle rub for aches and tightness, and a violet leaf oil for skin sensitivity, and now drying thyme on a rack I made years ago from a muslin nappy tacked to a frame of leftover 2×2 struts.

    thyme leaves and flowers on a drying rack.

    I’m also making chive flower vinegar, which is coloured implausibly pink, and has a faint onion taste in salad dressings

    Poetry is harder to come by. You might like to see, among many other good things, a poem I have in the latest edition of Stravaig, but there is very little new work of my own happening just now. However, I have started work on a new Red Squirrel Press pamphlet to be published in October, so I haven’t lost all my poetry muscles!

    In Scotland we hope to hear more about the roadmap for coming out of lockdown tomorrow. It has been an anxious time, but one that has brought out both the best in our communities, and the strange and dangerous gaps in our politics economy and social and environmental thinking. I’m sure many people have been thinking how we can implement the lessons we have learned!


  • Out of my Head and into the Garden

    windowsill herbsWe hit a milestone this week. when I went out this morning it was light for the first time, and although it is cold and wet, and was seriously icy this morning, this is the week that gardening finally got outside.

    I’ve done a bit of clearing, and weeded the world’s smallest knot garden. Nothing is looking very bright there yet, (so no photos), but it looks as though all the plants have come through the winter. The southernwood plants are bare and floppy, and I was convinced I’d lost one, but there are buds forming on even the most puny and motheaten, and I have some confidence.

    I am not so sure about my lavenders, however. They look as though they have taken a bashing, and though there may well be some regrowth as the weather warms up, I’m convinced I’ve lost a few. I should have overwintered them in the greenhouse, with the agapanthus and myrtle and some other stuff i got nervous about. Mostly this paid off, and there are signs of new growth on the mint, myrtle and tarragon. I took some cuttings of scented-leaf geraniums and lavender dentata, and most of them are well-rooted. I potted them up yesterday, and they are looking quite perky.

     

    I’ve also made some thyme disinfectant, which you make by boiling up a lot of the prunings of the thyme currently billowing all  over the steps with plenty of water for about an hour. You get a very sinister brown liquid which smells, but not too strongly, of herbs, and which has a reputation for being useful in combating germs – even MRSA and other troublesome strains of bacteria. This is just in time for some heavy duty spring-cleaning coming up over the next week or two – the disnfectant will keep, in a cold place, for about a month.

    propagating bench

    Next week is StAnza, and I will be there for most of it. My head is spinning with all the good thingsthyme pot on offer, which you can discover here, but I’m particularly looking forward to Clare Trevien’s Shipwrecked House, a workshop with Gerrie Fellowes about poetry sequences, and a poetry breakfast (which comes with Danish pastries, as if I won’t have had a StAndrews breakfast) with Christine de Luca, Kei Miller and others. This is all well and good, but it means I’ll be leaving the seed sowing until after I get back. And then garden gardening will begin in earnest.

     


  • Between Duende and Zen

    pussywillow
    I’ve been thinking a lot about duende lately. It’s been on the edges of my consciousness since I started thinking about folk music while writing the Eurydice Rising Sequence (which seems a long time ago now). I was looking at traditional forms, the sean nos of Ireland, and the ‘traditional style’ of Scots Gaelic, and the most interesting thing I discovered is that there is almost nothing written down about it. Even the Mods, where the judging is exact and technical, don’t seem to have any defined criteria. There is slightly more discussion about sean nos, because there has been a significant style shift, from a melody heavily ornamented with grace notes to something much more simple, but again, no definition. The best I can find is ‘it’s got to have soul’. I can recognise it when I hear it, though.

    Sean Nos

    The stillness of the old musicians,
    singing at the bar’s end, eyes closed,
    is a thing you wouldn’t notice, unless
    you sing yourself. The skill doesn’t show
    in dynamics and drama, it’s rubbed hard
    down into the song’s grain till the voice
    glides silky and free and nothing comes
    between mind and melody. Sean nos
    is of the soul, a music gathered,
    in-dwelling, sung from the quick of the heart.

    If you want to hear the real thing, the best sean nos singer I have ever heard is Iarla Ó Lionaird from The Gloaming. Check out especially the track Necklace of Wrens, which is the setting from a poem by Michael Hartnett.
    While I was thinking about ‘soul’ however, the word duende kept cropping up, and I’ve been reading Lorca’s In Search of Duende. Lorca describes the duende as an earth spirit, possibly related to the Scandinavian trolls, or the British boggart, someone to keep on side if you want to live in places it has chosen for its own. More northern creatures are mostly seen as mischievous and unruly, although Halldor Laxness writes about a truly destructive demon called Kollumkilli (possibly a distortion of Columcille, because the demon lives near Celtic monastic ruins which the first Icelanders found when they settled the country) in his novel Independent People. The Spanish duende, on the other hand, is downright inimical. Peasant life in Spain is a fight to the death with the thing.
    And it’s a particular kind of fight, a bit like tai chi. I only had one tai chi lesson, and I’m so dyspraxic I couldn’t follow the instructions, but I did grasp the concept. In most fighting styles, you attack and recover, you are concerned with self-defence and holding a little energy in reserve, but in tai chi you commit totally to one mighty move, pouring all your energy into the most effective blow you can. A fight with duende is like that, and the art forms with duende, particularly the canto jondo, have that distinctive sound. I imagine that blues does too. Music is a powerful weapon against the thrawn-ness of adversity.
    We are experiencing adversity on a global scale and there is no doubt about it, even in the comfortable bits of the first world, and music and arts of all kinds are responding to it. The Dark Mountain project is one that I have been involved with, but everywhere you look, something is happening as people are trying to articulate the meaning of what is happening. But there are other patterns of behaviour too – spiritual renewals on a parallel with the Ghost dancing movement of the First Nations, or the development of monasticism in post imperial Europe; a return to nature as in the rivers and mountains movement in Classical Chinese poetry or pastoral poetry in Latin; an engagement with the ancestors and tribal traditions, radical politics and a fascination with magic.
    And here my thinking comes back to its origins. Because wherever these changes and upheaval and renewals happen, herbs become iconic. The shape of the herb poems I’m going to work on is beginning to come into view.


  • The Adventure in Progress

    wintertreelineFor the next four months or so, the territory of rain is going to look like this. There are still leaves clinging to very sheltered trees, but not so many now. Teal, merganser and goldeneye are back on the river, and the sparrows are very quick to notice when I fill up the bird feeder. I have winter pansies and some cyclamen in pots which are still in flower, but even the last brave marigold is gone from the garden.

    And that is the end of the herb posts for this year, because I foolishly forgot to take photographs. However, there are still fourteen posts outstanding and next year I aim to catch up with what I owe, as well as keeping a record of the herb-related activities I’m planning. There will be herb teas, seasonings, oils and vinegars, some basic remedies, candied angelica (which I’ve always wanted to try), some household cleaners, and perhaps some more adventurous experiments.

    Meanwhile here’s a list of what I’ve grown this year:

    • alecost
    • alkanet
    • angelica
    • avens
    • basil
    • bay
    • betony
    • borage
    • calamus
    • carnation
    • chamomile
    • chervil
    • chives
    • comfrey
    • cowslip
    • cyclamen
    • dandelion
    • english mace
    • fennel
    • feverfew
    • foxglove
    • gaultheria
    • heartease
    • hellebore   – mixed purple and white, christmas rose
    • honeysuckle
    • horehound
    • horsetail
    • houseleek
    • hyssop –  pink and blue
    • ivy
    • japonica
    • jasmine
    • ladys mantle
    • Lavenders – blue madrid, white madrid, lavender alba,  lavender arles , lavender avignon, lavender dentata, lavender rosea
    • lemon balm
    • lemon verbena
    • lily of the valley
    • marigold
    • marjoram
    • Mints – apple mint, eau de cologne mint, mount atlas mint, peppermint, spearmint
    • monarda  – fireball,  citriodora
    • mullein
    • myrtle
    • nasturtium
    • nettle
    • oregano
    • orris
    • parsley
    • pink
    • poppy
    • primrose
    • roman wormwood
    • roses – alba, gallica, sweetbriar, zephirine drouhin
    • rosemary
    • sages – green sage, purple sage
    • santolina
    • scented geraniums – apple, lemon, rose
    • sorrel
    • southernwood
    • st john’s wort
    • sweet cicely
    • sweet rocket
    • tansy
    • tarragon
    • thymes – common thyme, lemon thyme
    • violet
    • winter savory
    • woodruff
    • yarrow

    bigwillowMeanwhile, on the family front, phase one of our adventure is over. We have three new jobs and one new house. Another house move is under way and a new business venture is in preparation. A tricky shift in a health situation has gone well, and things all around are beginning to look up.

    Although I’ll be pretty busy between now and Christmas, (like everybody else!) I’m back to writing and planning for next year. I have been reading a lot of good new poetry over the summer, and I hope my next post will include some reviews and recommendations. It will be nice to feel like a poet again!

    shelfie



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