Equinox

A radiant rising
In readiness for a gilded mourning.

For a fraction of a fraction of a second
Night and day will stand

Precisely aligned
Perfectly opposed;

The season a bright gold penny
Balanced on its edge.

And in the fraction of a fraction that follows
We start the long drop into dark

From which we wonder
If we will ever emerge

And if we do
What kind of world we’ll find.

So I let our falling star
Copperplate my limbs and face

Breathe the newly sharpened air
Allow myself one more glance back;

The last day of a summer
That never truly was.

Wise words

All voices mute. All books closed.
And so I took myself into the hills
Wandered among the woods and fields
To tap the wisdom of the world.

Seek my silence, said the land. Breathe my air.
Watch the shadows cross my face, the trees bend with the wind.
Understand my deeper workings
But never let your knowledge close the door on wonder.

Follow the roll of stars and seasons,
The great wheel turning in the earth.
Plough, sow and harvest; but guard the goodness in you.
The sin is not in lying fallow, but working gifted ground to dust.

Feel my bones beneath your feet. Be that bulwark for those you love.
And as time and fortune wear and shape you
Be shot through with truths as hard as flints
That strike sparks, blunt blades, outlast events and weather.

Green shoots?

A run of bladed, jetstream-jagged days
Ends in a windless dusk. Bold blackbirds sing
Down in the wood; a pale rosewater haze
Makes paper cut-outs of the hills. Now spring
Has shown herself; a hope so long suppressed
By bitter blows and wicked weathers’ sting
Glows like the trembling sun that fires the west.
But do we dare set blossom, bud or flower
When still, at any time, the wind may turn
And rake us with its icy claws; an hour
Condemn a season’s patient growth to burn?
I’ll see the greenwood burst in leaf and then
Believe that winter will not bite again.

Tree of life

-I-

No-one in town forgot that summer night.
A sultry, restless afternoon gave way
To dusk descending in ramparts of bruised
And brooding clouds. The sun was shuttered out,
The mountains melted. Nature drew a breath
And held it.
                          People scanned the sky. They sniffed
Rain on the air, brushed clinging tentacles
Of hair from sweat-dewed foreheads, hurried round
To check on horses, shut car windows, send
Their pets and children under cover, then
Stood on verandas, watched from kitchens. Now
The weight of air killed every sound, and talk
Dried like cut grass. The storm hung like a great
Black hammer, raised and ready to be swung.
The townsfolk drifted limply off to bed,
Oppressed by heat and silence. Wringing sheets
Were thrown aside with weary sighs and groans.
And then it came: a stranger’s hesitant
Knock at the door. The lucky few who slept
Murmured and shifted. Now the first shy drops
Of rain tapped on hot roofs. The clouds conferred.
Then, reaching an accord, the sky gave way
And fell. Like echoes from some monstrous cave
A thousand miles beneath the earth, a deep
Flat detonation boomed. Hands flew to ears,
Small dogs dived under couches, houses rocked.
The aftershocks rolled round the cowering hills
Like boulders in a snowmelt spate. Again
The clouds collided, heralding the rain
That hurled itself upon the helpless earth
With savage force. Roads ran like creeks, bare ground
Seethed like a boiling pot, and tender plants
First bent, then broke, beneath the water’s weight.
A silver blade sliced through the dark. It seared
The retinas of watchers. For what seemed
An endless age the landscape lay exposed,
Stark, petrified in aching brilliance,
Then vanished. Those who saw the strike would swear
They heard a manic laugh, or shriek of pain.

-II-

Far from the town. A lonely, trackless tract
Of forest on the steep and dusty rim
Of some lost canyon on the mountain’s flank.

The bolt that lit up half the world had struck
A mighty pine tree.
                          Thirty thousand amps
Coursed through its ancient trunk. Yet in that one
Ecstatic microsecond, no harm came.
The tree did not catch fire. It did not split.
The energy blazed through it like the surge
The soldier feels the moment he’s aware
He’s in the sniper’s sights.
                          And suddenly
It was transformed.
                          From all its millions
Of stomata, the tree began to breathe
Out poetry. Experience trapped in
Its wordless wood for three long centuries
Rose from it in a vast exultant cloud.
The tree had found its voice. It spoke with joy
Of water entering its roots. It groaned
As it recalled the agonies of sap
Returning in the spring. It took the songs
Of birds that nested in its branches, wove
Them with the rustle of the breezes through
Its needles in a silent symphony.

The tree told of all science had observed
But never felt, and could not understand:
Of water pumping through its phloem; how
Its cells swelled and contracted; of its deep
Slow drawing in of CO2, and clean
Life-giving exhalations; how it caught
The sunlight in its leaves, and fed on stars.

Its voice filled all the forest, mingling with
Steam rising from the sun-warmed undergrowth
And searching out each hollow of the hills.
And as the sun rose higher, so the song
Grew louder – a gigantic chorus missed
By elk and eagle, bear and butterfly.

The tree spoke on. Its understanding grew.
Reflex responses turned to acts of will.
It realised it was no longer bound
By those laws that had governed it, and all
Its countless brethren, since the first seed stirred.

All summer, then, the tree declaimed and learned
Until its consciousness awoke. In shock
It realised the other trees had heard
No word, no single syllable – and if
They had, they’d not replied, or understood

The tree now knew its voice would not be heard
Among the grey-green ranks of its own kind.
To stay was to remain a lump of wood,
Unheeded and unseen. It had to reach
That other world it sensed must lie beyond
This lonely place. It must escape – or die.

Slow. Slow. Deliberate as a man
Who peels a Band Aid from his hairy leg
The tree began to rip itself away
From stony soil baked brick-hard by the sun.
The dry ground pulsed, heaved, cracked as knotted roots
Convulsed and flexed like hatching snakes. And though
Each torn stump flamed, the tree would not desist.
It laboured on: its trunk twisted and writhed
Though no wind blew; from fissures in its bark
Came moans of pain, while resin seeped like blood.

The beauty of its poetry gave way
To ugliness and violence; its sweet
And lyrical refrains were now replaced
With savage imprecations poisoning
The air; its clear songs lost in howls of rage.

But it was done. One last, titanic thrust
And from the place where it stood undisturbed
For fifteen generations, it was free.
It stood some hours, recovering its strength.
The burning of its torn and broken roots
At last subsided.
                          Then, uncertainly,
It grasped the startled earth, and tried to move.

At first, its gains were too small to be seen.
Its roots were weak, and any sudden shift
Could topple it. The roots felt out the ground
As delicate as surgeon’s fingers, gripped
With power to shatter concrete. Driven on
By some deep impulse, it began to crawl.


-III-

The forest ranger spotted it. And screamed.
He hit the brakes. The truck fishtailed. Stones flew
And dust erupted. When it cleared, he threw
Himself out of the door, heart thudding, ran
Towards the apparition. Everything
He knew and understood tried to deny
What he was seeing. Yet there was no doubt:

Slow, steady, purposeful, the tree advanced
Along the logging road, bending this way
And that to keep its balance.
                          And the man
Stood stricken with confusion, dread and doubt.

He slipped and scrambled to the truck and called
The office. Though they laughed at first, the fear
And passion in his voice were all too real.
Was he a lunatic, or did he speak
Some dark, disturbing truth? The boss was firm:
Stay where you are. I’m coming. Do not move.

He found the ranger standing, stunned and mute,
Right where he said he’d be. The boss’s jaw
Fell slack. But not for long. The dollars flashed
Like fireworks in his mind. Man, this was it:
The winning ticket in life’s lottery –
A goddamned miracle! With hands that shook
And trembling voice, he called the newspaper.

-IV-

It did not take them long.
                          By noon next day
The town was overrun. Battalions
Of journalists moved in. The cameras rolled
And satellites bounced images into
A billion disbelieving eyes and brains.
Newspaper headlines blazed. Switchboards were jammed.
Hotels rooms, flights and rental cars sold out
In seconds as the story swept the world.

Behind the news teams came the scientists:
A task force of the brightest botanists
Geneticists and biochemists streamed
From universities around the globe.
They measured, probed, examined leaves and bark,
Took samples of the sap and roots. They swapped
Hypotheses and theories; plans for clones
And micro-propagation were proposed.

By now the true believers had converged.
Some claimed it a as god, while others saw
The devil’s hand at work.
                          All were agreed:
A strange and wondrous thing had happened that
No science or religion could explain.

The money men won out, of course.
                          They sent
A helicopter and a sling, and plucked
The tree out of the forest, set it down
Inside a giant city stadium
Where people paid their dollars just to sit
Entranced and watch, heads shaking, from the stands.

-V-

Slowly and aimlessly, the tree patrolled
The vast and empty space. A sombre cloud
Of poems rising imperceptibly
Above its tattered branches: a lament
From some forgotten world; the lonely cry
Of all the Wild imprisoned: far from home,
Bewildered, lost, abandoned, and afraid.

The tree sobbed out its heart. Its poems rose
Unheeded in the gritty, choking air.
The fumes and filth infected every line,
And tainted them with rage, spite and despair.
The concrete rubbed its roots raw; and the din
And clamour of the city drove like nails
Into its flaking bark. It knew no rest
And craved the silent precincts of the woods.

New revelations broke upon the tree:
Though millions watched and wondered, no one heard.
They cared not for its wisdom; all it might
Have told them of the world. Its quest had failed:
The separation ran too wide, too deep.
All it had suffered, striven for, was lost.

A shimmering of falling needles. Bark
Cracked like old parchment. Shrivelled roots. Bare limbs.
They fed and watered frantically. In vain.

With its last failing gasps, the tree now spoke
Of forests long forgotten, bright clear streams,
Of sharp, sweet air, and vast unfathomed nights:
A vanished world passed down through root and seed
It could have shared, had they had ears to hear.

The tree was still. Its songs and poems ceased.

And with it died a dream. Humanity
Forgot, disowned, denied all it had seen
As some collective madness, or a trick.
The scientists retreated to their labs,
And there resumed their work unravelling
The inner mysteries of plants. They wrote
Arcane and learned papers only they
Could understand, and flew to conferences around the world
To argue every detail.
                          And the one
That could have told them every secret stood
Encased in glass and silence for all time.

Waking up the neighbours

Some new folks just moved in next door.
I don’t where they lived before:
Out in the backwoods, I’d surmise;
Secluded, far from prying eyes.
They took up station in our street
Two weeks ago. We’ve yet to meet
Them; we’ve seen neither hide nor hair
Of them; it seems they’ve never there
In daylight. No, it’s only when
The sun’s long gone they rise, and then
They whoop it up: they party long
And loud; just sing the same damn song
For hours; a sombre, one-note tune
Of desperate death beneath the moon
That echoes and conspires to keep
Three dozen decent folk from sleep.
But you’ll near no complaints from me
About their midnight revelry.
Their presence is a gleaming knife
That cuts through this suburban life
And speaks to me of wilder ways,
Of freer times and long-lost days.
I stand and listen, wish that I
Were with them, under that dark sky,
Our senses sharpened, blood on fire,
Like prisoners outside the wire.
I know I’ll never shake their hand
Enter their world, or understand
Their secret life, but still, it’s good
To have them in the neighbourhood.

 
 

First nature poem for a while. On a couple of nights lately, we’ve listened to tawny owls hooting in the trees across the street: a reminder that, even in the congested south-east of England, the Wild isn’t far away. And we’re all the better for that. N.

From the train

The train bursts from the city, racing down
Towards the warm coast. Every mile that flies
By, blurred in grimy glass, helps exorcise
The weary ghosts that stalk me in that town:
Of lives I might have lived; what could have been
Were I a different man, or had not seen

The blood and filth that stain the golden crown.
Was it my curse or cure to realise
My own way ran through woods, beneath wide skies
In open fields, by winding lanes? I’ve thrown
That switch now, taken my own track: I’ll stay
True to it, follow it to come what may.

Winter reflects

White-haired, crooked as a cottage beam,
He shuffles through the quiet wood;
Runs crabbed fingers over the young hornbeams’
Cool, straight limbs, picks at their tight bark
With cracked grey nails
And sighs. For these last months
They have been his, stripped bare and helpless,
Bending to his will.
But now
He hears her singing far off,
Sees her first shoots spearing through the slop
And knows: she’s coming.
And beneath her softness she is strong –
Too strong for him, that’s certain –
And with her steely sweetness she will win back
All he’s called his own
Then fill it with her colour, drive away
All trace of him, send warming breezes where
His chill breath lingers, melt his footprints,
Send him to some strange and distant country
Where he’ll lie in iron chains
Until the trees wax fat and sleepy,
Eager for his touch.

Midsummer? (again!)

No drowsy dusk, no scent of elderflower
Or honeysuckle, dog-rose, eglantine
And all the garlands of Titania’s bower
As we poor, foolish mortals now incline
Our closest to the sun. Come solstice night,
I should walk, knee-deep, on the feathered edge
Of moth-soft fields suffused in amber light
While Oberon, enthroned beneath the hedge,
Holds court and toasts the world in golden ale.
Instead, I shiver in the house as rain
Smacks on the glass like grape-shot, and a gale
Roars in from the Atlantic once again.
The weathermen despair: all hope depends
On honest Puck, who shall restore amends.

 

I posted this sonnet on 21 June last year: as you’ll gather, honest Puck has been falling down on the job, and it’s distinctly un-Midsummer-ish here in Sussex this year, too! And to think the nights start drawing in again tomorrow…have a splendid weekend, one and all. N.

Robocrop

The farmer rises early (lots to do)
Eats breakfast, settles in his comfy chair,
Logs on to FarmCommand Pro (Version Two).
From deep within a datahub somewhere
Instructions are dispatched. Now on the screen
The big John Deere pops up: tasks verified,
The engine fires and, unmanned, the machine
Rolls off to work, with laser beams to guide
Its every move. The farmer nods. A wink
Of infra-red detectors in the shed
Tells him how much the calves have had to drink:
Another click, and all the beasts are fed.
New window. Scroll-down menu: highlight ‘Hive’.
Check status, scan for viruses, click ‘Run’.
A hum of minute motors and they’re live;
The day’s first wave of drone strikes has begun,
While through the whispering stems, unheard, unseen
More tiny workers fan across the land
As programmed, picking wheat and barley clean
Of pests and weeds too small for any hand.
And all the while, beyond the empty skies,
The sleepless satellites are on patrol
Like gangmasters with hard, all-seeing eyes,
Reporting ceaselessly to Ground Control
With data from each square inch of the fields.
The farmer smiles; he’s constantly on top
Of fertilisers, pests, projected yields
And profits from this season’s robocrop.
No senseless labour in the heartless sun;
No wasted effort; everything exact
And micro-managed, all resources run
For optimum production, based on fact
And real-time information – farms reduced
To mere facilities; a factory floor
Where food’s no longer grown, but just produced
According to a new, unnatural law.
So, with a robot made for every task,
Our mastery of Nature is complete.
There’s only one more question left to ask:
Is this the kind of food we want to eat?

 

On a long drive up the M40 last week, I listened to Costing the Earth on BBC Radio 4, which investigated how “satellite technology and advances in robotics are set to revolutionise the future of farming”. It was fascinating, but I have to say I also found it absolutely chilling – it seemed to be predicting the end of everything I know and love about farms, farming and the countryside. There’s a good deal wrong with current agricultural practices, of course, but if this is the answer, I’m not sure we’re asking all the right questions yet. N.

(NB There’s no such software as FarmCommand Pro Version Two. Or at least, not yet!)

Snow joke

The smiling, suited seers had long foretold
Its coming. Now the bitter wind is thick
With it, and whole lands disappear; the cold
Magician works his well-worn conjuring trick
And we are in an older Age once more;
When wolfish winter stalked us and we stood
At bay for months, dependent on our store
Of fodder, and the warmth of wool and wood.
And now it seems that Progress counts for naught.
Our wheels will not avail us; no device
Can liberate our captive country, caught
And held by one hand’s-breadth of hard-packed ice.
For all our cleverness, we’ve been undone.
We’ll go afoot, and so await the sun.

 

Once again, our sceptred isle has been paralysed by a modest, and long-expected, fall of snow: a couple of inches of the blessed stuff and we’re back in the Middle Ages. It’s wearisome, frankly. Stay safe and warm, everybody. N.