Fox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

FeaturedFox and badger: encounters with remarkable animals

In the summer of 1983 we were holed up in a cottage in the rolling Shropshire hills just outside Clun. Walking along a woodland track one evening, we encountered a badger, a meeting so rare and magical that the memory of it – the subject of an earlier post on this blog – has remained to this day. Last weekend, back in the same neck of the woods, we had another remarkable encounter – this time with a fox.

Meeting a fox is not that unusual, whether in town or country. But the circumstances of this encounter were strange. We were driving  out of Clun along the A488 when we noticed the fox ambling along the grassy margin at the side of the busy road. We slowed, then stopped, and the fox, possibly a young female, paused too, inquisitive about us and showing no fear of the car. She looked in superb condition, a very fine animal with black-tipped ears and elegant charcoal shading to her white-tipped brush.

For several minutes we watched entranced while she, too, stared back at us.

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves

It was only when our dog stood up in the back seat and peered at her through the window that the vixen turned tail and disappeared through the hedge.

It isn’t unusual to see a fox during daylight hours. They often hunt for food in the daytime, especially when they’re feeding a litter of hungry cubs – another factor making it likely that our fox was a female.

There was a further twist to this story. Two hours later we returned along the A488 and, at the same spot, saw the fox again – this time on the opposite side of the road. Strange coincidence!

Seeing a wild animal so closely and long enough to study her every detail made for a priceless moment; but, on a busy A road, also provoked fears for her safety – as envisioned in Simon Armitage’s poem, ‘The Fox’:

Standing its ground on the hill, as if it could hide
in its own stars, low down in the west of the sky.
I could hit it from here with a stone, put the torch
in the far back of its eyes. It’s that close.

The next night, the dustbin sacked, the bin-bag
quartered for dog meat, biscuit and bone.

The night after that, six magpies lifting
from fox fur, smeared up ahead on the road.

Alice Oswald expresses the same sense of the animal’s vulnerablity in her poem, ‘Fox’, giving voice to her midnight food-seeking vixen: ‘my life/is laid beneath my children/like gold leaf.’

I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
in the heart’s thick accent

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name

as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf


See also

The Last Days of Troy: Homer by Armitage

<em>The Last Days of Troy</em>: Homer by Armitage

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus –
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
– The Iliad,
Book One, opening lines

I’ve never been able to keep straight in my head the stories and characters of the Greek myths – who did what to whom, who was related to whom, and who was mortal, who of the gods.  So I was mightily appreciative of Simon Armitage’s Last Days of Troy which we saw performed at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester this week: the clarity of the language and narrative drive of his adaptation of the Iliad meant that I never once lost the plot.

Somehow, Armitage has managed to compress into a three and a quarter hour performance the essence of fifteen thousand lines of the Iliad, as well as throwing in episodes from The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. He has done this by paring the epic poem to the bone and focussing on the wrath of the maverick Greek warrior, Achilles. The production grips throughout – a combination of Armitage’s poetic prose, imaginative staging, and powerful performances by several members of the cast.

Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy
Zeus (Richard Bremmer) and his wife Hera (Gillian Bevan) in The Last Days of Troy

Homer’s Iliad written around 700 BC, begins at the end of the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greeks determined to revenge the abduction by the Trojan prince Paris of Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. But Armitage places another act of vengeance at centre stage in this adaptation – Achilles’s wrath when his ­commander-in-chief Agamemnon seizes Briseis, Achilles’s captive woman, as his own compensation. Achilles, his pride and honour outraged, withdraws from the fighting and persuades his mother, the goddess Thetis, to ask Zeus to turn the tide of war against the Greeks, with appalling consequences. Simone Weil once remarked that ‘the true hero, the true ­subject at the centre of The Iliad is force, that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing’. Later on in this production, a powerful and terrifying scene in which Achilles howls and tears at a body he has butchered revealed the truth of Weil’s words in the most vivid terms. Stubbornly resisting appeals to return to battle, Achilles has ­eventually agreed to send his beloved comrade, Patroclus, into the fray.When Patroclus is killed by Hector, Achilles embarks on a lengthy and pitiless slaughtering spree, finally killing Hector and dragging his mutilated triumphantly around the walls of Troy.

The play opens in present-day Hisarlik in north-west Turkey, the archaeological site where the remains of Troy have been excavated. The god Zeus is now reduced to being a pedlar to the tourists – selling little statues of the gods and replicating himself as a living statue performer. He relives his memories of the siege and the machinations of the gods that extended a wasteful and horrifying war.

Why do nations go to war? At whose orders? These are issues still as urgent today as they were some three millennia ago when Homer gathered echoes and whispers from events that took place in the Bronze Age, four- or five-hundred years before he was born.  You could interpret the clumsy interventions by bumbling gods as a comment on modern-day politicians who lead their nations to war, while other aspects of the narrative such as the factional struggles, the grandiose but hollow rhetoric of war, the delusion and growing despair might seem familiar. But Armitage and director Nick Bagnall resist the temptation to draw heavy-handed parallels with present-day conflicts.

Although Simon Armitage has made these connections in interview, his play seems to be primarily concerned – just as in Homer’s original telling, or in Alice Oswald’s stunning Memorial – with presenting us with a clear-eyed view of the carnage of war.  A couple of years ago, in the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak wrote of how, in Homer’s poem:

Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.

Sneaking a look at Adam Nicolson’s  new book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, which Rita has just begun reading, I see that he asserts that:

The siege of Troy, often seen as a kind of war, as if these were two states battling with each other’, is in fact more like a gang from the ghetto confronting the urban rich … the hero-complex of the Greek warriors is simply gang mentality writ large.

‘Iliadic behaviour’, he writes, ‘echoes through modern urban America.  gang members ‘talk about themselves, their lives, their ambitions, their idea of fate, the role of violence and revenge, in ways that are strangely like the Greeks in the Iliad.’  As I read that sentence, I thought of The Wire, The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad.

So, revenge is one strand here in Simon Armitage’s stage dramatization; another is his implication that Helen’s abduction was really just an excuse. The final scene seems to suggest that the real motivation of the Greeks was plunder and annihilation of a rival state, rather than justice for Helen’s seizure. In this production, we are drawn inexorably into a forcefield of consequential violence. Armitage has explained how he excised minor characters, parallel narratives and self-contained episodes, and rolled some principal characters into one in order to maintain the narrative thrust. Odysseus, for example, is an amalgamation of several high-ranking nobles in the Greek encampment, though Armitage has expressed the hope that he has preserved the personal traits associated with him.

Ashley Martin-Davis’s stage design includes some striking visual effects: the Trojan warriors emerge from a smoke-filled tunnel as if from the mists of time, while the arrival of the wooden horse, which lies beyond the scope of the Iliad, is done with great effect. There are powerful performances from Jake Fairbrother as Achilles and Simon Harrison as Hector. Richard Bremmer is a rather comedic Zeus, Colin Tierney makes an impression as wily Odysseus,  while David Birrell gives a good performance as Agamemnon.

Lily Cole as Helen of Troy Photo-Jonathan-Keenan
Lily Cole as Helen of Troy (photo by Jonathan-Keenan for the Royal Exchange)

Talking about it afterwards (appropriately enough, over meze at Dimitri’s at the bottom of Deansgate), we did feel that were weaknesses in respect of the presentation of the women and the gods – failings that were apparent in both the writing and the performances.  None of the women in the play really shone  – Lily Cole, in particular, gave a performance that was as inexpressive and wooden as the ships her face reputedly launched. She has one haunting moment, however, when she sings a lament to seduce the Greeks inside the wooden horse with dreams of home. (In the programme, the words are in English, but I could not identify in which language Cole was singing).

As far as the gods were concerned – they were presented as figures of fun, bickering among themselves, rather than cosmic forces feared by men.  I know there is an element of this in Homer, but the humour did deflate the tragic intensity. The immortals may have squabbled, and their bickering may have worsened the conflict, but in Homer’s time they were perceived as divine beings; here they appeared to be no more than a bunch of petulant, squabbling relatives.

fresco depicting lyre player with a bird, palace of Nestor, Pylos
A fresco depicting a poet with a lyre and a bird, Myccenaean palace of Nestor, Pylos

 Apart from those reservations, though, this was a gripping production.  As always, the question is why, in Edward Luttwak’s words, ‘people keep buying and presumably reading an interminably long, frequently repetitive and intermittently gruesome Iron Age rendition of Bronze Age combat’.  In his new book, Adam Nicolson reckons it’s all to do with ‘Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue.’

He does not give us a set of exemplars.  These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model as men.  Nor Penelope or Helen as women.  Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery.  What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death.

In the Royal Exchange programme, Simon Armitage puts it this way:

Ancient fables endure for all kinds of reasons, but their continued relevance to the way we live now plays a major part in their survival. At the time when this play will be premièred many countries will be marking and commemorating the centenary of the First World War, with images of atrocities and questions of military morality high in people’s minds, just as they were for Homer. Moreover, the channel or strait that runs from the Bosphorus to the Dardanelles or Hellespont continues to symbolise a political, economic, cultural, philosophical and religious fault line between east and west. In that context, the story of Troy is a blueprint for a conflict that rages to this day.

See also

Alice Oswald’s Memorial

Alice Oswald’s <em>Memorial</em>

I have never read The Iliad and unfamiliarity with the Classics leaves me confused as to names, relations and stories.  But none of that matters when you pick up Alice Oswald’s stunning new poem which is, as the author says, a lament, ‘a kind of oral cemetery’.  This powerful anti-war poem is a memorial to the dead soldiers of The Iliad.  It begins with a list of the soldiers who died during the ten-year siege of the city of Troy, Greeks and Trojans, their names written in capital letters:


– the names continue, echoing across thirty-one centuries, for another eight pages.

The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington

The poem is, Alice Oswald states in an introduction,  ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story’. She calls it a ‘reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’.  The way that Oswald goes about this is to draw upon Homer’s stories, briefly eulogising each soldier with a concise description of his death, followed by a simile that is repeated twice as a refrain.

Oswald is a classicist – she read classics at Oxford – and in her introduction she notes that just about every critic since Matthew Arnold has tended to praise the Iliad for its nobility.  She prefers the ancient critics, who praised Homer’s enargeia, his ‘bright unbearable reality’.

Alice Owald and the cover of Memorial

Alice Owald and the cover of ‘Memorial’

The words are as clear as everyday conversation; the twice-repeated similes, each of which begins with ‘like…’ have the force of a blues.  Here are three passages that give a sense of the whole:

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower‐lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus     Iton      Pteleus     Antron
He died in mid‐air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half‐built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads


IPHIDAMAS a big ambitious boy
At the age of eighteen at the age of restlessness
His family crippled him with love
They gave him a flute and told him to amuse himself
In his grandfather’s sheep‐nibbled fields
That didn’t work they gave him a bride
Poor woman lying in her new name alone
She said even on his wedding night
He seemed to be wearing armour
He kept yawning and looking far away
And by the next morning he’d vanished
Arrogant farmhand fresh from the fields
He went straight for Agamemnon
Aiming for the soft bit under the breastplate
And leaning in pushing all his violence
All his crazy impatience into the thrust
But he couldn’t quite break through the belt‐metal
Against all that silver the spear‐tip
Simply bent like lead and he lost
Poor Iphidamas now he is only iron
Sleeping its iron sleep poor boy
Who fought for Helen for his parents’ town
Far from his wife all that money wasted
A hundred cattle he gave her
A thousand sheep and goats
All that hard work feeding them wasted
Grief is black it is made of earth
It gets into the cracks in the eyes
It lodges its lump in the throat
When a man sees his brother on the ground
He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere
Lashing without looking and that was how COON died
First he wounded Agamemnon
Then he grabbed his brother’s stiffened foot
And tried to drag him home shouting
Help for god’s sake this is Iphidamas
Someone please help but Agamemnon
Cut off his head and that was that
Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man
That was their daylight here finished
And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world


And HECTOR died like everyone else
He was in charge of the Trojans
But a spear found out the little patch of white
Between his collarbone and his throat
Just exactly where a man’s soul sits
Waiting for the mouth to open
He always knew it would happen
He who was so boastful and anxious
And used to nip home deafened by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running
All women loved him
His wife was Andromache
One day he looked at her quietly
He said I know what will happen
And an image stared at him of himself dead
And her in Argos weaving for some foreign woman
He blinked and went back to his work
Hector loved Andromache
But in the end he let her face slide from his mind
He came back to her sightless
Strengthless expressionless
Asking only to be washed and burned
And his bones wrapped in soft cloths
And returned to the ground

Memorial is a lament for the dead of all wars: the friends who die side by side,

In a daze of loneliness
Their conversation unfinished

or the boy who was a famous hunter but dies

Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands

On the Gists and Piths blog, Simon Turner in Notes on Alice Oswald’s Memorial writes that:

Memorial … doesn’t feel like a reduction of the Iliad, but rather a concentration.  Oswald is forcing the poem to speak across centuries: the numbering and naming of the war-dead is as vital an act of public memorial and mourning now as it was 100, 500, 3000 years ago.

Memorial differs from previous poems that have used Homer’s poetry as a jumping off point – Logue’s War Music and Simon Armitage’s version of the Odyssey spring to mind – because its act of reduction is formal rather than narrative.  Logue strips the Iliad down to brass tacks to tell the story of Achilles’ rage more readily, whilst Armitage recasts Homer in his own blokey idiom, chopping two thirds of the tale in the process.

Oswald is as ruthless in her editing, but her interests lie elsewhere: her intention, it seems to me, is to make the poem more contemporary by, paradoxically, stripping it of all but the aspects of Homer’s work that precede Homer.  Writes Oswald in her preface: “This version . . . takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.  What’s left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers”.  Oswald sees these two poles of the poem as deriving from distinct sources: the pastoral lyric and the formal lament, both with their roots in the oral tradition. […]

The poem itself is startling, relentless in its close focus on violence and death, like the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan spread across 80 pages.  With the narrative gone, the function of the Homeric simile – where the action pauses momentarily and we are whisked away from the combat zone into the realm of the natural world – becomes doubly important: there’d otherwise be no breathing room at all.  Oswald seems to have been aware of this, with the similes in many instances being repeated, like the chorus of a song.  The reader is literally being forced to slow down for just a moment before rushing back headlong into the fray.  It’s very effective, no more so than at the poem’s conclusion, which provides an epilogue of disembodied similes that might be read as collective elegies for the war dead…

As Simon Turner notes, the poem ends with a series of similes of multitudes – leaves blowing in the wind, chaff at threshing time, thousands of water birds massing in the air:

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matters no more than the leaves

And then:

Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone.

The view from Troy across the plain of Ilium to the Aegean Sea

See also

Kurt Jackson’s Dart exhibition

Spent an absolutely brilliant morning at the Lemon Street Gallery in Truro, viewing The Dart, the new exhibition by Kurt Jackson.  The show charts Kurt’s progress, following the river from sea to source, and was accompanied by an illuminating documentary filmed throughout the journey by his wife, Caroline.

On show were three floors of Kurt’s work on show, including paintings, sculpture and pottery. The highlight, though, was the surprise of finding the artist himself was present in the gallery, and taking the opportunity to briefly discuss his working methods with him.

The exhibition begins with a poem by Kurt Jackson:

Indian Dart 2009

And I walked along the Dart
scribbling and striding dustily
(towards Wistman’s Wood)
around and past
that crouching clenched squat copse
and then across the ling, cotton grass and bog
to search for the river’s source
in an Indian summer.

And I painted up the Dart
among the many happy Two Bridges sheep
their shit mixed with my paint
and the meadow pipit’s song,
following those riparian meanders
to lead the eye from moor to tor to blue horizon
in an Indian Summer.

And I swam down the Dart
on my Hexworthy birthday
drifing over the trout,
gasping with the golden cold sunlight,
under lipstick-berried rowan and watchful oak,
in an Indian summer.

And I stared into the Dart
eager to glimpse the salmonid pilgrims
of Buck – fast – leigh’s slow – dark – depths
through the jewelled sinking –  sun – spangles
and swimming monks’ reflections
in an Indian summer.

In the gallery basement a film of Kurt painting by the river was being screened.  It revealed the methods that Jackson employs and lengths to which he goes in creating his images, working plein air.  When working on the larger canvases, he does not – as I had imagined – work at an easel.  The canvas is spread on the ground, and Jackson may splatter the paint across the canvas in a manner rather like Jackson Pollock; or he may walk across it, or scrape his muddy boots on its surface.

I had a chance to speak to Kurt, and asked him about his method: I was curious how a process of random-seeming paint splattering could result in an image that seemed far from abstract, controlled, almost recognisably ‘photographic’ (though I realised later, on reflection, that this is entirely the wrong word to use, since no photograph could ever the sense of place, time, weather, light that you experience looking at one of his paintings).  Is there much re-working back in the studio?  He responded that, though he does sometimes make final adjustments in the studio, often most of the refining and re-working of the image is completed at the location.

What is really striking about his approach is the way in which he immerses himself totally in the environment.  We see him swimming in the river. He often records details of weather and the sights and the sounds around him in handwritten notes on the paintings themselves.  He endures the midges, and in one extraordinary scene in the film he is seen sitting on a snowy bank in December, icicles hanging from bare branches overhead, visibly shivering with the cold. He told me that the paint was freezing as it touched the canvas and he achieved the effect he was seeking by scraping the paint surface with a metal box-lid because his brushes had frozen solid.

In other paintings there are strands of grass, clumps of earth, his own footprints, and there’s an ink sketch created with a freshly- picked reed.

The show also includes several simple yet beautiful  still lifes of flowers from the banks of the Dart – either paintings or etchings.  Two of my favourites were this painting of a dandelion, a primrose, and a few daisies: and the etching of ransoms – wild garlic.

There are also work by Jackson in other media – including pottery and metalwork.  A beautiful example is this piece – ‘ The river is surrounded by oak and sycamore with a granite bed’ – constructed in pewter, tin, copper,granite and oak.

The inspiration for the Dart project were the wartime memories of  Kurt’s father, Alan, who was evacuated, aged 12, from the East End of London to Dartmouth. He would tell Kurt stories about having a wonderful childhood by the river, fishing, crabbing and generally playing in the sun. Kurt continues:

For me the stories and the material in them were very powerful and so I decided to go first to that place to see if for myself and then to trace the river back and find out where it came from.

I knew that the Dart ended her forty-seven mile journey in ‘my father’s estuary’, flowing between Dartmouth and Kingswear before entering the sea, and that she originated somewhere on the Dartmoor wilds, but where did she go after pouring off those moorland flanks?

A brief day trip in 1999 on a freezing mid-winter’s day, suffering with the side effects of a doctor’s back medicine didn’t help.Wistman’sWood briefly revealed its unique beauty and magic, but the Dart was only the briefest of glimpses tumbling along the valley bottom. I had already immersed myself inTed Hughes’Dart-based poetry; then came Alice Oswald’s prize-winning ‘Dart’ poem to entice me further. Richard Long’s Dartmoor ramblings, Seth Lakeman’s ballads, Chris Chapman’s photographs and maybe even Widgery’s watercolours all seemed to gradually demand for my own engagement with the Dart.

And what did I learn after my brief few years exploring and scribbling up and down that watercourse? I could see why a small London boy would find comfort and adventure in this paradise, removed from the horrors of war and the city, but I also discovered that this Eden, the Dart, is not just extraordinarily beautiful, but that it is a meandering string of jewels – a chain of very special plant and animal communities, many that are now extremely limited in their habitats and distribution.A haven of biodiversity,with moorland and blanket bog, valley mire, acid grassland, ancient woodland, gorges, flower meadows, mudflats and salt marsh.

Ring ouzel, high brown fritillary, southern damselfly, bog hoverfly, marsh fritillary, Dartford warbler, southern marsh orchid, goshawk, salmon, spotted heath orchid, lamprey, marsh violet, hen harrier, sea trout, otter, osprey, eel grass, cornish moneywort, blue ground beetle, nightjar, small-leafed lime, wood warbler, greater horseshoe bat, red grouse, alder buckthorn, keeled skimmer, wood ant, goosander, cirl bunting.

– Kurt Jackson, 2010

Kurt Jackson summed up his journey along the Dart in these words:

I’ve walked the river, swum in it, snorkelled it and boated on it. I’ve tried to become as intimate with it as possible. It was a very fruitful experience and actually a true delight.

Jackson refers in the essay above to Alice Oswald’s poem, Dart, a book-length poem that seamlessly integrates the voices of the people who live and work on the Dart that Alice Oswald recorded in conversations  over several years.

Dart: Excerpt

Who’s this moving alive over the moor?

An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
where will he shelter looking round
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?

tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots. ..

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who’s this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking…

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out, so now I’ve taken to the moors.
I’ve done all the walks, the Two Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won’t let go of man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I’ve marked in red where the peat passes are and the
good sheep tracks

cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I,
in the pit of his throat, I
summon him just out of earshot

I don’t know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military track from Oakehampton and
head down into Cranmere pool. It’s dawn, it’s a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear plovers whistling, your feet sink right
in, it’s like walking on the bottom of a lake.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South south west and down the contours. I go slipping
between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can’t get out.


and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

in walking boots, with twenty pounds on my back: spare socks, compass, map, water purifier so I
can drink from streams, seeing the cold floating spread out above the morning,

tent, torch, chocolate not much else.

Which’ll make it longish, almost unbearable between my evening meal and sleeping, when I’ve
got as far as stopping, sitting in the tent door with no book, no saucepan, not so much as a stick
to support the loneliness

he sits clasping his knees, holding his face low down between them,
he watches black slugs,
he makes a little den of his smells and small thoughts
he thinks up a figure far away on the tors
waving, so if something does happen,
if night comes down and he has to leave the path
then we’ve seen each other, somebody knows where we are.


Everything about it is a love song

Everything about it is a love song

The Guardian Review today contains responses to climate change by artists, authors and poets in advance of  December’s Copenhagen summit in which world leaders will try to reach a global deal to tackle global warming. The contributions also mark the launch of the 10:10 campaign to reduce carbon emissions.

The issue contained the finest work I have read by Andrew Motion: The Sorcerer’s Mirror

Midnight and midsummer in London.
I step out through the French windows
and stand in my quarter-acre of garden
so I can feel the earth more clearly turn
and breathe in what passes for its sleep.
Dark green wind through the flighty cherry.
Fruit glistening on the woven branches
where an apple tangles with a bristly vine.
And at my back the spacious mulberry tree,
my favourite, which is always last to leaf
then stays longest, spreading its big hands
above my head now the sky gulps abruptly
and the smell of crushed grass and dry brick
wakes as the dark earth wakes and I look on.

I see what I hear: a sleepless song thrus
still claiming its territory in the darkness,
and the sour music of traffic cruising close
by the edge of the garden, swept on a breeze
which was also pure and simple once, although
tonight, in the same long breath that shakes
the mulberry leaves, it carries and scatters me
over the polar cap and snapped-off sea-ice –
every luminous, upside-down meadow stitched
with gorgeous frost-flowers and icicle grass
three thousand years have worked through
and sculpted in silence – all now withering
into warmer seas, slipping loose their cargo
of millions of silvery krill and plankton
in deeper currents and quick, chaotic flow.

After that breath a pause. Rain settling
over Camden and Kentish Town, but here
a cloud-break and the cherry still at her station.
I take my place in the open, intending to lift
clear of myself, beyond the miserable sky-litter
of planes circling in their stack, until I arrive
in the star fields and find the gods still playing
their long-drawn-out games. Except when I reach
Orion unbuckling his belt, and Venus drawing
a velvet curtain round her candle to brood alone,
I travel through to the tattered ceiling where day
after day sunlight seizes the smoke of burnt offerings
we have made to ourselves, and breaks them down
into stark chlorine and bromide as proof of sacrifice.

Here comes the rain, driving me in to hide
under the mulberry: the first drops splashy,
then in a flash tighter and smaller, then thinning
to dust, then smoke where it strikes the hard level
of the neighbour’s wall. Already my patch of lawn
is awash, and when I look from my shelter down
to the stippled surface, it opens like the miraculous
O of a sorcerer’s mirror. Here are the rising tides
overflowing their slack estuaries and river basins,
the Arctic shore, Shanghai, Florida and Alaska.
Here are the baffled species taking to high ground,
the already famously lonely polar bear and caribou.
Here are the miniature crustaceans and even glaciers
cowering in their valleys like defeated creatures.

Then the storm passes, unravelling downhill
towards King’s Cross with a final thunder-roll,
and the sky-dome steadies. My patch of grass
returns to grass again; the close apple and vine
harden inside their silhouettes; and the cherry
re-balances a weight of darkness in its leaves.
This is the moment I should feel the earth at peace.
Instead, I step from the shadow of the mulberry
and lamplight pouring through my French window
freezes me mid-stride. There I am in the long glass
reflected back at myself, crouched like a guilty thing,
and although I move on quickly over the threshold
one look is enough to show the bare horizon behind me
and beyond it the other cold planets in their broken chain.

Written for Peter Maxwell Davies to set to music. It was commissioned by Cambridge University

Another piece is Time capsule found on the dead planet by Margaret Atwood:

1. In the first age, we created gods. We carved them out of wood; there was still such a thing as wood, then. We forged them from shining metals and painted them on temple walls. They were gods of many kinds, and goddesses as well. Sometimes they were cruel and drank our blood, but also they gave us rain and sunshine, favourable winds, good harvests, fertile animals, many children. A million birds flew over us then, a million fish swam in our seas.

Our gods had horns on their heads, or moons, or sealy fins, or the beaks of eagles. We called them All-Knowing, we called them Shining One. We knew we were not orphans. We smelled the earth and rolled in it; its juices ran down our chins.

2. In the second age we created money. This money was also made of shining metals. It had two faces: on one side was a severed head, that of a king or some other noteworthy person, on the other face was something else, something that would give us comfort: a bird, a fish, a fur-bearing animal. This was all that remained of our former gods. The money was small in size, and each of us would carry some of it with him every day, as close to the skin as possible. We could not eat this money, wear it or burn it for warmth; but as if by magic it could be changed into such things. The money was mysterious, and we were in awe of it. If you had enough of it, it was said, you would be able to fly.

3. In the third age, money became a god. It was all-powerful, and out of control. It began to talk. It began to create on its own. It created feasts and famines, songs of joy, lamentations. It created greed and hunger, which were its two faces. Towers of glass rose at its name, were destroyed and rose again. It began to eat things. It ate whole forests, croplands and the lives of children. It ate armies, ships and cities. No one could stop it. To have it was a sign of grace.

4. In the fourth age we created deserts. Our deserts were of several kinds, but they had one thing in common: nothing grew there. Some were made of cement, some were made of various poisons, some of baked earth. We made these deserts from the desire for more money and from despair at the lack of it. Wars, plagues and famines visited us, but we did not stop in our industrious creation of deserts. At last all wells were poisoned, all rivers ran with filth, all seas were dead; there was no land left to grow food.

Some of our wise men turned to the contemplation of deserts. A stone in the sand in the setting sun could be very beautiful, they said. Deserts were tidy, because there were no weeds in them, nothing that crawled. Stay in the desert long enough, and you could apprehend the absolute. The number zero was holy.

5. You who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words:

Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.

There’s a poem by Alice Oswald: Written some time between the Month of May and the Month of May Not

Is it possible
The sun could turn over a grey cloud
And find a may tree underneath?
It is possible.

Is it possible
There could be lines of blossom
Like bird-linen drying on the branches
It is possible.

Is it possible
A stream could turn over a stone
And find a mayfly underneath?
It is possible.

Is it possible
Maybe a mayfly might
Have a passionate two second love affair in mid-air?
It is possible.

Is it possible
Millions of windblown refugees
Each with a leather seedcase could stand up
And let their green clothes fall on them
The way a child at midnight
Sits up stalk-straight asking for water in a trance of heat
And drinks it straight down without waking?
It is possible.

Is it possible
Several billion birdsung springs
Could prove this hypothesis:
That the green grows back every May?

Or is it possible
May itself
May not?
It is possible.

The issue also features a chilling short story, I am your inner polar bear. Find me before it’s too late by Jeanette Winterson which concludes:

Once upon a time there was a polar bear. He had nowhere to live so he came to live in your head. You started to think polar bear thoughts about icyness and wilderness. You went shopping and looked at fish. At night you dreamed your skin was fur. When you got in the bath you dropped through nameless waters deeper than regret. You left the cold tap running. You flooded the house. You dived into winter with no clothes on. You sought loneliness. You wanted to see the sun rise after a night that lasted as long as all the things you have done wrong. You wanted to see the sun come up and no one to be near you. You wanted to look out over the rim of the world. But you live in the city and the rest is gone.

And all the longings and all the loss can’t bring back the dead. The most beautiful place on earth was everywhere – a raft in the wilderness of space, precarious, unlikely, our polar bear home.

Bill McKibben’s article, Why 350 is the most important number on the planet, is very interesting: he’s helped launch the first real grassroots global political protest about global warming – called The number comes from new science that followed the shocking melt of Arctic ice in the summer of 2007. Researchers became convinced that climate change was happening faster than they had previously expected, and that they had enough data to put a real number on it.

That number was 350, as in parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. Above that level, in the powerful (and peer-reviewed) words of Nasa scientist James Hansen, we can’t have a planet “similar to the one on which civilisation developed or to which life on earth is adapted”. Yet we’re already past 350, at 390 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, and rising by 2% annually: ‘that’s why the Arctic is melting, why Australia is burning, why the world is changing in front of our eyes’. The aim is to get politicians to agree on the 350 target at Copenhagen.

This week The Essay on BBC Radio 3 has been by Richard Mabey, and on Tuesday he quoted Lewis Thomas:

“Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos.

If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking for a very long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held afloat by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.

The full text from which this quotation comes – ‘The World’s Biggest Membrane’- is from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher and can be read here.

If I ever come back as a tree, or a crow,
Or even the wind-blown dust;
Find me on the ancient road
In the song when the wires are hushed.
Hurry on and remember me,
As I’ll remember you.
Far above the golden clouds,
The darkness vibrates.
The earth is blue.
And everything about it is a love song.
Everything about it.
Everything about it is a love song.

– Paul Simon