BurnedThumb

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


the place of the fire


  • Lights, Camera, Action

    very green spring grass, with the first cuckoo flower

    On Sunday, I saw my first of these ladys smocks (also known as cuckoo flowers) growing in the forecourt of the police station. They are much earlier here in the west, than I was expecting, but it seems to me that the celandines, which have appeared en masse this week, are rather later. Along the footpath and in the park, the green things, which seemed to have stopped and started during March, have suddenly stirred into action. Ferns are unfolding, sheets of acid green petty spurge (also known as milkweed), dogs mercury – which indicates ancient woodland – and bluebell leaves are showing in the wilder bits of the park, and shepherd’s purse, ground ivy and whitlow grass are along the pavements. I never expected so much plantlife in this built up suburb, but it seems even more abundant here than back in Stirling.

    shepds purse showing seed heads and some flowers at the top

    The birds are busier too. We have several goldfinches, siskins, blue tits and chaffinches as regular visitors to the bird feeder. Though the sparrows seem to have dispersed a little, the blackbirds are back and the starlings are still here in their bronzed summer feathers. The common gulls have been joined by lesser black-backed gulls, and I can hear woodpeckers drumming in the trees along the footpath whenever I go out into the garden. All the smaller trees are wearing more green – hawthorn, birch, bramble, poplar and hazel, and the pink cherry trees the builders scattered around the estate have fat buds just ready to open.

    In the garden, I have seeds germinating in the cold frame, leaves on the dwarf willow and new shoots of lily of the valley and martagon lilies. The culinary herbs are settling into their new patch, and the first flowers have appeared on the rosemary. The beds at the back are looking a little bare, as I’m moving some plants to the front, and the new herbs to replace them won’t be ready for a while, but there are tulips I didn’t expect coming out all pink and scarlet, and plenty of purple blossom developing on the lilac.

    camellia in flower. To the right, a lilac in leaf, to the left daffodils

    Settling into this new space is like folk dancing – advance and retire, hands across the set, turn and progress. You think you discover something, you realise you got it wrong, then maybe, after all …. This garden does have more light and air than our previous garden, as I expected, and the soil is as heavy, but it isn’t acid, and barren. It is rich, and though full of stones, it’s also full of worms and grubs and ladybirds, and bumble bees have come out in hundreds now the weather is warm. In winter the back of the house was in shadow all morning and the sun rose straight into my study window, but now the first light shines into the windows to the right, and by ten the sun is so high over the roofs that most of the back, as well as all of the front, is in the light. The soil is not as wet as I had imagined on the south side – in fact it seems to have dried out a lot in the last coouple of weeks – but against the north and west fences, it’s still very wet. I think there may be an underground watercourse running down into the burn behind the house, and I’m planning to move all the wet-loving herbs – the marsh mallows, the flag irises and the meadowsweet there.

    It seems appropriate too, that there are finally new poems to think about, and new kinds of writing to experiment with. I haven’t done many reviews lately, because I still have fourteen boxes of books waiting for shelves, but I am working on an essay about geopoetics as a commentary on a discussion project I am working on with Pentland poet Helen Boden, whose debut collection A Landscape to Figure In was published by Red Squirrel Press last October. Look out for this in my next newsletter, which I hope to send out next month sometime.


  • Snow

    hawthorn trees and brambles, covered in snow

    I was not expecting this today. Just enough for a frosting, and now with a bright clear sky giving us more light than we seem to have had for weeks. This is the haggard behind the house, open ground that was turned over back in the summer, and then left. I hope it goes on being left. There is ivy on those hawthorns, which were thick with berries in the autumn, and mugwort and plantain and bistort growing through the heavy clods of turned earth. I am interested to see what else will grow if it goes on being neglected, but I have the feeling that it will be grassed and planted with the trees the developer seems to favour – flowering cherry, lime, whitebeam. Not that these are too bad – they all have wildlife-friendly blossom and the whitebeam has berries, but I bet the grass will be mowed within an inch of its life.

    This garden is wider than our previous one, but less deep, so the birds on the feeder are closer to us, and they give our garden life and character that it otherwise would miss. House sparrows and tree sparrows seem to live alongside each other harmoniously, and we aren’t too bothered by the rampaging city pigeons we used to see, though we do have a few wood pigeons, as you can see here.

    wood pigeon (right) and goldfinch (left) on a hawthorn tree

    The goldfinch shows the scale! We have a few chaffinches too, and occasional dunnocks and robins, and coal tits, great tits and blue tits. Once there was a small flock of long-tailed tits clinging to the fatballs, clustering like barnacles on a ship’s hull, and giving their soft sweet contact calls, as if they were pensioners on a day out: ‘are you there? Are you keeping up? have we lost Annie? no, there she is’.

    There are starlings too, but I miss the blackbirds and thrushes. When the berries were first ripe they came in over a weekend, but they seem to have moved on for the most part. I hear them on the woody path, or in the park, but not here. I’ve heard wrens too, but they are shy and secretive, and I’m not surprised. We have a lot of cats on this estate.

    The big miss is the geese. Winter does not seem like winter without the blanket of cloud, quilted with the skeins of pink-foots and greylags going over, the aimless swirls of them going to roost, the dedicated squadrons coming south in Octoberr, going north in March. I am looking for different markers for the slow opening of the lengthening day here, and yesterday I found them. The first long, tenderly pink rhubarb

    a bowl of stewed forced rhubarb on a table

    and the marmalade oranges. About now, my mother-in-law used to ring around all her daughters asking ‘Have you made your marmalade yet?’ and we would discuss recipes and the quality of oranges and the price of sugar. I miss this a lot. She made it in great quantities every year, much of it given to family and friends or sold at a church fete. I don’t make nearly so much, because I’m the only one in our house who likes it, but nothing else tastes so good as homemade marmalade, so here it is

    a preserving pan full of simmering marmalade

    I have taken few photos of the Place of the Fire so far, kept close to the house by weather, strangeness, and a bad knee, but as I learn the rhythms of this new place, I am discovering the places with things to tell me, and learning when to take my camera out.

    Snowy garden showing the back fence, with seedling birch, snakebark maple, buddleia and sedum

  • The New Path

    sunny tarmac path littered with fallen leaves, overshadowed by beech trees

    Our nearest road was closed for a couple of months while the council put in this new path for walkers and cyclists. It’s rather lovely. I took the camera there yesterday. I found the rowans!

    rowan tree with many berries

    This path is heavy on beech and sycamore, which gives a lot of golden leaves this time of year, and plenty of beech mast for the grey squirrels, but I found oak, holly, ivy and hazel too, and ash trees, some of which looked ominously bare. It may have been because we had an unusually dry summer, but I can’t help wondering about die-back. There are ash trees in full leaf, however, so it may not be as serious as I might have thought.

    I liked these ferns, but I can’t identify them reliably.

    a group of ferns, very graceful and branching

    The most surprising thing was this wild apple tree. Down south there are many rogue apple trees on the edges of roads and paths, perhaps sprung from cores discarded at picnics, but I didn’t know of any in Scotland.

    apple branches, few leaves one green apple against a blue sky

    I think I heard a blackbird singing, which came as a relief, as I haven’t seen any blackbirds or thrushes here. I thought I’d finally seen one here

    a starling perched on the top of a hawthorn tree, another on a roof

    But no, it was a starling. In fact as I focussed on this picture, I saw that the whole tree was alive with starlings, sparrows (both tree sparrows and house sparrows) and coal tits, some of them only noticeable when they moved. I think birds here are quite cautious, because so many houses have cats which wander around the whole estate, but there seem to be plenty of them. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better through the winter.


  • The House that Says Yes

    There was a lot to love about the Territory of Rain, and about the house we lived in, and there were many happy times and lovely things that happened there, but we lived in a house that said no. And not now. Not here. Whatever you did, it fought back. This house, in the Place of the Fire, doesn’t have the history or the character, and in terms of square feet of space, it’s actually smaller, which surprised us. But it says yes.

    craft cupboard, with sewing equipment, against a wall with pictures and pinboard

    It says yes to room to write, and sew and learn about herbs.

    bookshelves stacked with books and files, and cupboard doors to hide stationery. To the right a window with a paraffin lamp.

    It says yes to books, and quiet spaces to read, and room for lots of chairs for the family when they come over. It says yes to space for guests to sleep over, though our first two visitors were still sharing their room with a lot more boxes than they would like. A lot of other stuff has come easier – thge park, and lovely places to walk, getting access to our doctor’s surgery, and membership of the local library. Some things not so much – public transport is a bit hit and miss, and I’m only just getting back to the point where I can walk to the nearest bus stop.

    But the kitchen! I am sure we bought the house because of the beautiful serene colour it was painted – somewhere between sage and olive – but the previous owners had free-standing units, which they took, so for a while we were short of both storage and worktops. Yesterday we fixed that:

    Rustic kitchen island with three drawers, shelves at either end and a two door cupboard between them

    Now there is a good solid worktop, slightly lower than the average, to accommodate my shorter than average height, and a larder cupboard which holds all the cooking ingredients I need to get back to my usual baking and preserving. I’m going to make the first batch of bread this afternoon.

    The garden is a slightly different prospect – it doesn’t say no, exactly, but it says yes, but, and yes when. There is more usable growing space than I first thought, but the soil is very heavy clay. I have created a working plan, and I will make a few sun maps to see where the light falls – it is much less overshadowed than the old garden, and faces due west, so we are not going to be short of sun for the mediterranean herbs, but the drainage will certainly have to be improved. The garden seems to have its preferences, too. Beside the shed it says chickweed and nettle (good signs, both of them, for fertility and goodness locked in the soil). There is a spot which seems to be saying ‘elecampane’, which I love, but haven’t grown for years, because it’s enormous. And the front lawn definitely says dandelion, which we might have to argue about. On the whole, however, the conversations I have with this new home are almost all good ones. This is a house that says ‘yes’.


  • Making Connections

    a tall grey cupboard with open shelves containing a sewing box, threads, boxes of art materials, pestles and mortars seeds and essential oils

    We are beginning to feel a little less transitory now. A lot of boxes have been unpacked (though there are many more to go) and we have had a chance to think about what we own and how we use it, so our living spaces are becoming more welcoming, and our working spaces more organised and accessible. This is my herb and craft cupboard, which holds a lot of random stuff – materials and equipment, including my camera, which now has its own proper place – that used to be scattered across a lot of nooks and crannies, so that every job was harder to get started, to organise or to clear away afterwards. There is a big bookcase in this room too, so all my reference books and files will be where I need them.

    There are small forays outside now, too. A month before we moved I had a nasty flare-up of my rheumatoid arthritis, and for a long time walking was very difficult. But if RA is sneaky and excruciatingly disabling, it is also variable, which means that it can abate as fast as it came. This week has been suddenly a lot better, and we have been walking up the field track, meeting cows, still outside, and some horses – and also a raven, which we didn’t expect – and into the town a couple of times, which has meant the opportunity to see a whole new range of plants growing on what looks like a subsoil of heavy clay. There are even bulrushes in some of the open spaces between the streets, which implies some very wet ground beneath.

    a rusty railing, beyond which is a sparawling urban skyline and a view out to hills. A cloudy sky.

    I am enjoying the feeling of looking out from this high point. It’s not that high as Scotland goes, but we do have an open aspect over miles of counntry. A lot of it is the glittering urban sprawl of Glasgow – a high rise or two, a lot of pylons and a couple of television masts, but there are belts of woodland, open green country and some very distant hills. After being right at the bottom of the Forth Valley, this feels exhilarating and welcoming.

    We are getting to know our neighbours, and their animals – almost every house has a dog or a cat, and next door has rabbits, too. The birds I thought were quite scarce seem to be here too, but shy. We put up a feeder, and they came – blue tits, wrens, robin, starlings and sparrows. Clearly, I just have to make an effort to stop and look, be quiet and let them show themselves when they are ready. But sometimes, you get something really unexpected – last night, I looked out of my window and saw a fox crossing the street. It is clear that there are going to be many different kinds of connections to be made to this territory.


  • Putting Out Roots

    a fence, some leylandii saplings a hill looking towards a belt of conifers

    Okay, it doesn’t all look like this. We are in a newbuild housing estate, with construction only just coming to an end, and it’s as suburban as you can imagine. But go along the path at the side of the house, follow it round, and you come to this. I imagine that when those leylandii get going you won’t even see the farmland, but there’s a path up to a ruined castle, a burn, and some very interesting haggard plants between the corporate landscaping.

    mugwort

    First you are called/ oldest of herbs – mugwort, according to the Charm of Nine Herbs. It is growing freely on a wild patch of land between the houses. On one side of the path is scorched earth, as if someone has put weed-killer, and might add lawned spaces, but just now there is mugwort, chickweed, nettle and all sorts of good things.

    Kate Unwin of The Moon and the Furrow suggested that the disputed atterlathe which I mentioned here, might be this plant, which I found growing against our fence:

    a clump of bistort in flower

    It is called bistort. I’m not quite convinced about the identification – bistort has another Old Englsh name naeddrewort, but it is possible that it was known by several names in different parts of England, or that there were several plants called naeddrewort, or simply that Old English scholars aren’t that great at botany. Bistort does have the anti-inflammatory and alterative properties ascribed to atterlathe, and it is a common herb, very plentiful – and on my back doorstep.

    The birds in the Place of the Fire are very different – plenty of crows, jackdaws and magpies, lots of starlings, but very few sparrows. I did hear a wren in the haggard on our second day, but although there are plenty of berries, both birds and bees seem to be much scarcer than they were in Stirling. The shape of the garden is more or less fixed, but I will have to do something to make the planting more wildlife-friendly.

    We are almost settled here now, after a fortnight. We have unpacked almost half the boxes, and bought kitchen storage and work-spaces. We are going to build a lot more bookshelves next, which will create a library, and a quiet space for chilling out when all the family is together (I am thinking of Tolkein’s Hall of Fire in Rivendell now). Two of our grandchildren have visited several times, and the other is coming to stay for half-term tomorrow. The Place of the Fire seems to be more open to the wind than the Territory of Rain, but it hasn’t been short of a shower or two since we got here. It is slightly milder and I am just about getting used to the East-West orientation, which means the sun comes up looking directly into my new office.

    New poetry has not yet happened here, though I have done some editing and participated in an online reading at Gloucester Poetry Festival. It was enormous fun, though the great Facebook meltdown (and related online disruption) meant we had a very small audience.

    Sadly, the great poet (and all-round wonderful person) William Bonar died recently. I was lucky to have the opportunity to go to his funeral last Friday and pay tribute to him, to his gifts as a poet, to his generosity to other writers and to his enormous contribution to the Glasgow poetry group, St Mungo’s Mirrorball. He will be much missed.

    It will be a week or two before posts on this blog get back to normal, but ideas are beginning to trickle in, especially round the climate conference next month. I look forward to making you more acquainted with the Place of the Fire over the next few months!


  • The Place of the Fire

    fireplace at Tappoch broch, ashes overgrown with fern and bramble

    This is from Tappoch Broch near Larbert. The hearthplace is clearly still used every now and then by people camping out, and I found that continuity rather moving when we visited last September. The hearth as a metaphor for home has a long history, so I have chosen it as a reference for the new territory, although we are moving to a modern house with no actual fireplace. I will have to have a firepit outside! Fire struck me as a good reference point, because it is in a coal-mining area with a long tradition of ironworking, and I was already thinking of fire while I was finishing The Well of the Moon.

    It is a more hilly place than here, and on higher ground – though nothing spectacular. The territory of rain is at sea level, and the place of the fire is only about a hundred feet above, but it makes a difference. The new house faces east/west rather than north/south, and the garden is more open to the sky, without our tall hedges. I expect I will miss the sparrows! There are plenty of oak and beech and hawthorn trees, some ash, but not, as far as I have seen, many willows – which I will miss – but I don’t think the land is much drier. Maps show several drainage ditches emptying into a network of burns flowing down towards the Clyde. I haven’t yet had too much opportunity to explore, partly because of activity here, but mostly because I’ve had a bad flare-up of my rheumatoid arthritis, which has made it difficult to walk. (It’s getting better now, luckily.) You will see a lot more about it when I do, however, under the Place of the Fire category.

    This is also going to be the catchall for my next writing projects. The publication of The Well of the Moon, and the move prompted me to focus more on how I work and what else I might do. There is a whole new look planned for this website, with an extra page for non-fiction. It will cover the process of settling into a new landscape, and the issues it throws up for learning to belong in new communities, but will also cover the research I have done on herbs, poetics and the philosophy behind it all.

    seedheads of thistle, dock and hogweed

    It won’t be long now. We have started clearing the old house, which is gradually filling up with cardboard boxes. I’ve packed twenty boxes of books already (including David Morley’s Fury, which is why I haven’t yet posted my review of it!) and there are ten still to do, although Callander Bookshop got an awful lot. The herbs to go have been potted up, the kitchen is next, and the dreary process of informing everybody who needs to know the change of address has started. It’s all beginning to feel real, and a lot more exciting!



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