BurnedThumb

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


unwilding


  • The Tipping Point

    bramble bush with pale, red and blak berries. Dappled sunlight.

    It is peak bramble time, jam-making, pickling, apple cake and plum crumble time. The first geese are here, and the last housemartins are lining up to leave. The bird population in the garden has changed – the sparrows are mostly in the fields just now, so the blue tits have a chance at the feeders. The magpies are mostly bothering something else in the woods, there are starlings along all the roof tops, and the robin is noisily staking out his winter territory in the hawthorns over the burn. The temperature has dropped ten degrees over the last week, and I’m about to pick the last tomatoes and move the lemon verbenas and the scented leaf geraniums into the greenhouse before the frost. I’ll be stripping out the spent annuals, and sowing the seeds I’ve saved to jump start next summer’s flowers, and I’ll be making pot pourri and some dried flower arrangements to give us scent and colour through the dark days.

    Because next week is the equinox, one of the tipping points of the year, and we’re heading for winter. I’m having a tipping point of some other kinds too. I seem to have shifted from ‘learning about’ this new territory, to ‘getting to know’ it. I am aware, not only of new facts as they come to my attention, but how they impact things I already know. I understand more about why some plants are thriving and some aren’t, how taking out all the stones from the front garden changes not only the drainage, but the feel of the soil, and I can hear when there’s a new bird in the garden. It feels like a more mutual phase, as the garden responds to what I’ve done – and not always in the way I expect. I had no idea the marshmallows would grow so tall, or how much shade the lilac tree casts.

    And in writing, too. I’ll be in the house more than the garden, in my head more than the world. I’m out of the note-making, researching, puzzling, planning stage and into the real words on the page. Unwilding is still very short – less than five per cent of the total, but there are actual words! And more importantly, as it turns out, the next poetry collection has begun to happen. It is tentatively called The Midsummer Foxes but it is also going to have bees, weather, music, herbs and the moon. I have always wanted to do a ‘four elements’ collection, and this may well be it. I am embarrassingly excited about it!

    left, a ceramic eggshell with gilded edges, middle, and arrangement of dried grasses, right a porcelain egg-shaped trinket box


  • Finding the Form

    a tangle of sweet peas, st John's wort catnip and borage. A bumble bee on the st john's wort

    I have been so glad of the garden lately. The mix of sunshine and showers has brought everything on, and every day there is something new to look at. It isn’t just the herbs, either. I have had our own lettuce, strawberries (never more than four at a time, but so tasty!) and potatoes for a few weeks now, and on Friday I got the first tomato.It was a new variety to me – Ruthje – which is an elegant peardrop shape, and not too big. I think I was a bit impatient, as it wasn’t really ripe, but there are plenty more to come, so we’ll see. The sweet peas have done well, and the poppies have been amazing – bright shots of colour in what would otherwise have been very gentle misty pastels. My grandson has been fascinated by the developing seed pods, so I hope he will help me harvest them when it comes to seed saving time.

    Now that my husband is home again, the bird feeders are better maintained and we have flocks of sparrows and starlings clustered around them like fat bunches of grapes. We’ve even seen an ambitious magpie trying to twist itself into the right angle to get hold of a fatball, and there was a greater spotted woodpecker one quiet morning. I think there might be a hedgehog visting at night, because there was something moving in the shade of the fence in the dark. I have been woken several times by an owl flying in, calling, and its claws grating on the fence as it landed, and one spectacular night I looked out to find three foxes, almost full-grown, but clearly still adolescent, playing and chasing each other across the rough grass behind our house.

    This had me thinking. When I first heard the sounds, it wasn’t animals I was thinking about. Now that the schools are on holiday, there are young people wandering about at all times of the day and night. Mostly they are just going home after parties, or setting off to catch early flights on holiday (that particular lot were far too lively for four o’clock in the morning!), or hanging about chatting and skylarking, away from their parents. Pretty much like the foxes, to be honest. I wonder if I would have felt more ambivalent about human prowlers? Yes, a hostile human can do more damage that a fox, but our neighbours are not our enemies, even when they are teenagers, are they? Sometimes they do seem as alien as the foxes – I’ve heard older people describe younger ones as ‘roaming in packs’ – but it’s natural and necessary, at some periods in your life, to distance yourself from the authorities in your life and from what’s expected of you, and renegotiate the boundaries between yourself and the world. And it isn’t easy to live with for a neighbour as much as a parent.

    Somewhere in my head the wandering boys and the foxes are getting mixed up. There’s an Irish ballad called Sly Bold Reynardine, about a were-fox who seduces unwary maidens, lures them to his den on the mountains of Pomeroy and drowns them. And I remember that some people used to refer to the Faeries as ‘the good neighbours’ so as not to provoke them. There are poems here, and notes for the non-fiction book.

    I feel as if I have been spinning my wheels on the whole writing thing for a long time, not only while my husband was in hospital, but since we moved, since I finished The Well of the Moon in fact. I’ve done a lot of reading, and a lot of editing, and a lot of planning and drafting and to-do lists. I went on a course last summer to learn how to write proper essays, only to be told I should ‘be more poet’.

    It turns out to be right! There is a fox poem, possibly one of a sequence, and I’ve found my way in to the non-fiction. I’m following the ballads and the charms into the liminal spaces, renegotiating boundaries and allowing the poetry to shape the prose. It seems that if you find the form, the words flow much more freely, and I’m looking forward to finally making some progress with my own work.

    a stone archway in a wall,  overgrown with ferns and heather. A rocky path through it


  • Wilding Unwilding

    a tangle of elder with berries, bindweed and brambles

    Beyond the brambles you can see shadowy spaces beneath the elder branches. They are the sides of a bank, four feet deep, that let you drop into a ditch. The undergrowth you can see in the foreground is wall to wall nettle. I was picking blackberries there last week – there were lots, in peak condition – when I slid down that bank, and only the elder roots stopped me hitting the ditch. If I had, I don’t know how I would have got out! I have lost confidence in the theories that grasping the nettle reduces the sting, also that it does anything at all to help arthritis. It doesn’t look as if I will be picking blackberries any time soon.

    This is a great pity, as it is a wonderful year for berries of all sorts, hawthorn sparks among the foliage, rowans a wild flame, hips burning a deeper red each day. We have had plenty of rain since the middle of August, and the garden is thriving, with sedum and phlox, marigold and marshmallow still flowering. I have saved seeds of marigold, poppy and echinacea, and I’m waiting for the marshmallow ‘cheeses’ to ripen, so that I can sow them. The snapdragons are over, however, and I have planted out wallflowers and bulbs of wild daffodils under the willow at the front of the house, and mulched it with ‘lakeland gold’ a bracken based compost which will add structure and tone down the alkilinity of the soil a bit. It is coming up to the equinox, and people are beginning to post on social media about the skeins of geese coming in for the winter. The air is colder, and my focus is shifting from outside to in, planning next year’s sowings, the sewing and knitting for the longer evenings, and more importantly, the new writing.

    Last week I wrote about my trip to Moniack Mhor, where I received a lot of help and encouragement with a book of essays I want to write about the poetics of human relationships with the landscapes and communities where we live. Think a synthesis of fifteen years of blogposts, but less rambling and reactive and repetitive, more structured and at a leisurely reading pace. It is harder than you might think to craft a language about this. I found a perfect quote from Gary Snyder about knowing a place, googled it, and found it used as the cover photo of a survivalist group in midwest USA, complete with a man brandishing an AK rifle. I’d have liked to use ‘dwelling’ to describe the permanent, committed relationship you might have with a home place, as opposed to the temporary alignment you might have with a place you’re in for work, or a holiday, or this phase of your dream life, but Heidegger used it for some questionable attitudes to favoured species and people, and it sometimes gives rise to nativist thinking and ‘blood and soil’ politics which would be distracting. I’m using the phrase ‘grounded’ to describe this axis of the book.

    But there’s also the ‘gleam of light’ axis – the phase of poetry which illuminates the tangles and tedium of the everyday, which celebrates, honours and inspires. It’s a more adventurous and experimental task, where we meet beings we never expected to meet, explore places and ideas we never wanted to go, and come back gifted, broken and remade. I believe that both these phases could combine and modify each other to make for ways of living with the world that are wiser, more creative and kinder. Or at least make for the kind of poetry you’d want to read!

    But also there is new poetry. The essays will be called Unwilding, but there will be a collection inspired by the local earth-spirit, the duende of this place. Here is a bit from one of the new poems:

    The garden speaks in sow thistle, mudstone
    spider and slug. I say to it ‘apple trees’.
    It says ‘elecampane’. It says roses here,
    not there. Leaf cutter and chafer live there.
    It gives me couch grass, bistort, ground ivy,
    red clover, buttercup, magpie, fox. I live here
    west of the sun, east of the moon. Orion
    strides up the wrong face of the sky’s hill.

    It will have the wild apple trees, the brambles and elder, and the voices of the burns – most local fairy creatures in Scotland live in water, not on the land, it would appear. It will probably have mines and metalworks, as I discover more about the past, monks and evangelical preachers, there’s a precedent for them, too. It will be called Wilding.

    The shadows beteen trees, rowan, hazelnut and beech. A grey squirrel is seen through an arch made by a fallen branch.


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