Monday, 28 January 2013

Beyond Castlerigg's Stone Circle ... a Review of 'The Other Side of the Bridge'

Lovely review of ‘The Other Side of the Bridge’ by writer Joyce Wilson in Thursday’s Keswick Reminder (24.1.2013) – thank you Joyce!

The Other Side of The Bridge by Geraldine Green (Poetry)
ISBN:- 978-1-907401-86-2   Paperback  40 poems  £7.99  Available from all good book shops or from
                                               *                                               *                                                   *
Although born in Barrow and now living in Ulverston Dr Geraldine Green comes from a well-known Whitehaven family, (the Coyles) and as a result, many of her poems reflect her strong connections with the town. It's clear that her childhood memories of the tales her grandmother told have proved to be a strong influence on her writing.  She was fascinated by the story of Barney Goose, a true tale, still told in Whitehaven, she recalls …

  ‘I tell the kids how Barney the goose'd
  step along the bar in the pub
  that stood beside these docks,
 tell them how Barney'd sup
 his Guinness.’

Geraldine's family, like so many others went to America for a while and she includes poems inspired by life there.  Travelling across the vast prairie is remembered ...

   'These ghosts of buffalo,
    These man-hunting bison.
    Ghost bison pound the earth
    Their hooves the pestle
    this land their mortar.’

Geraldine casts her net worldwide. A few lines from Skiathos in Greece captures a fleeting, warm, lazy, early morning image ...

        'Morning pulls itself open
              cats slink uphill
         to the churchyard.'

Dr Green's roots lie firmly here in Cumbria as we recognise when she writes ...
         ‘Beyond this seat my left hip leans against
         beyond the shale-grey flanks of Skiddaw
         this drystone wall, Derwentwater lying below me.

         Beyond Castlerigg's stone circle,
         low clouds rising like steam from a train
         down in St John's-in-the-Vale.
         Beyond the slate-grey track
         miners' ghosts tread at midnight.'

A poet who writes sensitive and innovative patterns of strikingly powerful words on an almost empty page and who engages the reader in a variety of emotional experiences, Geraldine Green is a freelance writing teacher and mentor in addition to her position as sessional tutor at the University of Cumbria.

                                                Joyce Wilson  Jan. 2013

Sunday, 27 January 2013

'Walking Stories/Leaving Footprints' - Creative Writing Workshops


I wasn’t sure if yesterday’s creative writing workshop would go ahead. Like other parts of Britain we had snow snow and yes, more snow! Cumbria had its share of the white stuff mostly dumped on us on Friday. This meant that members of our writing group who live in parts of Cumbria that gritters don’t reach, would have a struggle to get out of their drives, lanes, farmyards, let alone reach a passable road!

However, three out of the eight signed up arrived. Lancaster was a green patch in the white so that was fairly ok for two of the group who came by train. Roads between Grange and Ulverston were still slushy and slithery in places, so thank you to our new member from Grange for joining us – complete with home made lemon-drizzle cake!

We began by workshopping a piece of writing each of the group had brought along Our new member A. shared a poem that meant something to her and read it to us:  ‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver - which nicely took us onto the next part of our workshop, the outdoor writing/walking/reflecting session.

I themed yesterday’s workshop around the idea of Peninsulas which are “almost an island” and what that means in terms of geography, possible social isolation, its benefits and drawbacks and also the idea of metaphoric and symbolic peninsulas and asked each of the group to ponder on these ideas. I ended the morning session by inviting someone to read Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Peninsula’ and we discussed this, sharing what worked, perhaps didn’t and if or not we liked it and why. I shared with them a quote from Helen Vendler who has written excellently and extensively on Heaney’s poetry, then shared Heaney's poem:

The Peninsula

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive

But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitwashed gable
And you're in the dark again. Now recall

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog.

And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.

- Seamus Heaney 'Opened Ground - Poems 1966-1996' Faber & Faber

“A Pack of four she-wolves and Roy the dog” (Thank you A.)

Yesterday’s a plein air session took place on the beach at Newbiggin. The tide was going out and the horse and rider I often see were curvetting on the silver-lit mud flats as we got out of the car. We wandered along the beach, each of us absorbed in our own actions, pauses, reflections, uplifted heads to the sky, clouds, distant horizon of tide returning to the Irish Sea…

… picking up shells, driftwood, sea glass, stopping to contemplate, in silence, an outward action: oyster catchers prodding wet mud, a solitary walker saying hello her dog eager for attention before scampering after her… our inner thoughts our own, mapping inward landscapes of memories, the outer and inner meeting on this place that is almost an island marking time and space between sea and land.

We returned home for late lunch, chats and much laughter, then settled down to write in response to stimuli I provided. The following kicker lines were used taken from the highly recommended “Earth Shattering - Ecopoems” (Bloodaxe Books, ed. Neil Astley).

Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn and briar  fr. ‘The Combe’ Edward Thomas p.60
The plum orchard/tidal with bees fr ‘Livestock’ John Burnside p.204
I sit at McDonald’s eating my fragment of forest fr. Fast Food, William Heyen, p.172
It gathers the river shivering in a wet field fr. ‘Birdsong for two voices’ Alice Oswald p.116
This is why, sometimes, the grass looks electric fr. ‘The orgasms of organisms’ Dorianne Laux p.111
I was pushing my cart through the sharp/fluorescence of the supermarket fr. ‘The Devil I don’t know’ Chase Twichell p.96

I asked each of the group to choose one and write in response to it. Later, after sharing what they’d written, I asked them to read out the poem their line came from. This was a lovely way to end the workshop. Thank you.

Geraldine Green 27.1.2013

Next workshops:

February 23rd, March 23rd, April 27th, May 25

Friday, 18 January 2013

“I turn homeward, still wondering” - Aldo Leopold

The 30th Annual Meeting of the SW/TX Popular Culture Assoc./ACA - February 24–28, 2009, Albuquerque, New Mexico

“I turn homeward, still wondering”


“All seems familiar, even the hurried greetings/Seem those of friends, every face seems a kindred one”1  


This Paper is a journey. It explores what it means to dwell and I’ll begin by quoting Jonathan Bate, taken from his book ‘The Song of the Earth’

To dwell you must be content to listen, to hear the music of the shuttle. [Basil Bunting’s poem] ‘Briggflatts’ begins by inviting a ‘sweet tenor bull’ to descant on the ‘madrigal’ of a place as ‘A mason times his mallet/to a lark’s twitter’: the poem’s essential lexis is aural. There is a distinctive sound to every bioregion, whether Bunting’s Northumbria, with its herring gull and running beck, or Wilson’s rain forest, with its honking leptodactylid frog and echoing howler monkey. But there is also an undersound, a melody heard perhaps only by the poet, which harmonizes the whole ecosystem.2

Bate’s passage , I think, pulls together many of the essential strands that for me address the issue of dwelling. He states that the undersound is ‘a melody heard perhaps only by the poet’ but I would suggest that it can be heard by anyone who is willing to listen.

My own bioregion is Cumbria, in the northwest of England; its borders are Scotland, Northumbria, Durham, Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Irish Sea.  It has a history of Border Raids with the Scots, of being inhabited by the Romans, who built Hadrian’s Wall and whose soldiers and masons came from all over the Roman Empire: Bulgaria, Spain, the Mediterranean, Persia; its language and roots are a mix of Celtic, Old Norse, Latinate and Saxon. So what ‘undersong’ do I hear when I step outside my front door, go walking along the becks (Icelandic word for stream), or into the dales and onto the fells? Behind the mundane sounds of traffic, low flying aircraft, the hum of this computer, there are connections I imaginatively make with them, aircraft flying west make me imagine my next trip to America, this computer’s humming reminds me of the ease with which we can connect with people globally. Underpinning the moment are deeper undersongs:  the seasonal departure and arrival of the geese that take the same flight path as the practising jets.

Besides, or beneath, the melody of this bioregion, this place, there’s a reaching back in time to the song of my childhood, the strong West Cumbrian familial burr, composed of Irish and North Eastern accents, the rich, but cautiously given, stories of farmers and life as it ‘used to be’ in the valleys, who’re reticent until they ‘know’ you.

In order to explore the continuities of the ‘inner undersong’ I’ve chosen to compare the writings of two men separated by a century – the 19thC British peasant poet, John Clare and the 20th C American ecologist, Aldo Leopold, who’s Wilderness area is not far from here – following two different routes to understanding the ways in which we carry with us and transmit our own individual/particular experiences of dwelling. Indeed, ‘anyone who is willing to listen’ can attune their inner ear to the undersong of their own bioregion.

John Clare

I’ve chosen John Clare as a starting point because his writing and life intersect with my feelings about the nature of rootedness in a single place.

I will begin by examining a poem by Clare, titled ‘The Lark’s Nest’. The following lines express Clare’s innocent joy at discovering not only a nest, but also one with new laid eggs inside:

            ‘Behind a clod how snug the nest
            is in a horse’s footing fixed!
            Of twitch and stubbles roughly dressed,
            With roots and horsehair intermixed.
            The wheat surrounds it like a bower,
            And like to thatch each bowing blade
-       and here’s an egg this morning laid!’
(ll. 7-14) 3
The form of the poem matches its content. It is tightly woven, with an ababcdd end rhyme scheme. Clare envisages the nest as being built in the same way a thatched cottage is constructed, down to the roots, horsehair and clod, in the same way a lath and plaster wall is made. There is a sense of trust, which Clare recognises, in the way the nest lies ‘behind a clod’, a lump of earth that the horse drawn plough has created. The unspoken image of a plough horse’s heavy hoof enhances the trust exhibited by the skylark who has chosen to build her nest in the field. When one discovers the tragedy experienced by Clare in his later life, through his alienation from his beloved Helpstone, poems such as ‘The Lark’s Nest’ become more poignant. Let me quote from ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period’ about Clare’s disorientation upon removal from Helpstone:

… but now, everything was strange and unfamiliar. He describes the effect with an extraordinary adjective that powerfully suggests an undermining of his self-hood:
            ‘Strange scenes mere shadows are to me
                Vague unpersonifying things …’ (‘The Flitting, ll 89-90)

In the process of removal Clare has become an unperson, anticipating the rootless and nomadic sensibility of modern society.4

Clare’s experience helps one to articulate some of the most fundamental questions underlying the dialogue between rootedness and migrancy - how do we, can we, feel at home on the earth, if we also have a sense of alienation, of becoming an ‘unperson’? What do we carry within us that remains ‘home’ and enables us to dwell away from ‘home’ and where inside do we carry it? The answers to these questions lie in our internal space – or our internal ability to recreate external worlds we’ve inhabited; they lie in our memories, our imaginations and a desire to share it with others. I’d like to quote Timothy Clark on Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of Holderlin’s poem ‘Homecoming’:

For Heidegger, after Holderlin’s own poetics and practice, the act of the poem itself, in the time of its being read, is itself such a homecoming process.5

To return to Clare, prior to his removal from Helpstone, he had felt ‘at home’ alone, yes, but not lonely, for, as with Leopold, he had the company of the ‘ordinary’ things of nature, … at Helpstone he had felt that,

                 every weed and blossom too
            was looking upward in my face
            with friendship’s welcome ‘how do ye do’
                                                                        (‘The Flitting, ll 126-128)6

Aldo Leopold

At first glance Clare and Leopold appear unusual ‘bedfellows.’ However, close examination of their writings draws them together. Leopold, writing a hundred years on from Clare, nonetheless reflects and harmonises with him on the ways in which we establish and transmit to others our internal sense of dwelling in a particular place.

Leopold’s autobiographical work, ‘A Sand County Almanac’ is mainly a collection of observations of daily life spent on his farm in Sand County, his reflections on the life he shared with flora and fauna of the region, its geology, weather patterns and farmers, hunters and tenants of the area. It includes a ‘Series of sketches here and there’ where he writes of his life spent in other parts of the USA., including New Mexico.

As with Clare, solitude was important to Leopold. In his book, ‘A Sand County Almanac, he says, “Solitude, the one natural resource still undowered of alphabets, is so far recognized as valuable only by ornithologists and cranes.”8 One of the uses he made of this solitude is concentration on acts of interpretation which are ways of establishing our sense of the connections and rhythms underlying external phenomena. Such interpretive activity is itself a means of ‘carrying’ transitory experiences, both for our own sake, as we retain and constitute our own sense of self from these insights, and for others. If we can grasp underlying patterns we can then transmit our understanding to others, and equally others can reciprocate by transmitting theirs to us.

The idea of dwelling and the ability to ‘read’ and understand such things as signs and inscriptions of clouds, birds, wind, ice and seasons of a particular environment, was also important to Leopold. Here’s what he has to say about the arrival of geese in Spring,

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that, twice a year, proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.9

Throughout this book, Leopold reminds the reader that we can learn from the flora and fauna, the weather and seasons of our environments, not in the Romantic sense of Nature being a Benevolent Mother, or Parent, [my capitalisation] but in a practical way, combining a sense of wonder with that of survival. Reading the signs is how indigenous people not only survived, but passed on their knowledge of the best places to hunt, to get water and gather food, to their children, through stories and myth. ‘To know thyself’ from the Greek, gnosis, I would suggest also means having an intimate knowledge of knowing where one lives and also one’s roots – the two may not always be the same, but we can try, as Seamus Heaney suggests, to ‘reconcile more than one cultural identity’. 10

Leopold has a poet’s eye for the way in which small observed details can be freighted with much wider meaning and connections. He demonstrates that the reader can learn from a single plank of driftwood, thrown up from a recent flood:

Each old board has its own individual history, always unknown, but always to some degree guessable from the kind of wood, its dimensions, its nails, screws, or paint, its finish or the lack of it, its wear or decay. One can even guess, from the abrasions of its edges and ends on sandbars, how many floods have carried it in years past. 11

This ability to observe the complex nature of one’s dwelling place also enables the observer to transcend his or her own limited perspective and to understand, or begin to, the nature of other dwelling places and ways of feeling at home or, indeed, feelings of alienation. By understanding one we can begin to understand the ‘other’.

Clare and Leopold also have the ability to allow the reader to enter into their world and not only inhabit the poem or prose, but inhabit a world depicted by their writing. In Clare’s case, a lark’s nest, hidden behind a clod of earth. The description of it allows the reader/listener to imagine what it would feel like to be that lark;

in Leopold’s case, that of a muskrat. The following is a quote from Leopold:

Once touching water, our newly arrived guests set up a honking and splashing that shakes the last thought of winter out of the brittle cattails. Our geese are home again!

It is at this moment of each year that I wish I were a muskrat, eye-deep in the marsh. 12

What both writers convey is the importance of imagining oneself into a new perspective, other than that of a two legged, upright animal, a perspective closer to the ground, with a different view of the world. Without any fuss, Clare and Leopold convey through their writing, a sense of wonder and excitement to the reader/listener in a subtle and down to earth way. They both recognise that the same thing that creates a sense of wonder also carries with it a fragility and vulnerability, as J.R. Watson observes:

This kind of perception gives a sharp edge to Clare’s poetry and a deeper meaning to his natural descriptions: a wild flower is not just pretty, but it is part of an unfettered existence, while a baited badger is an example of the abuse of power. 13

Such heightened perceptions of the most minute and fragile elements in an ecosystem give a poignancy to both writers’ recognitions of the fragility of entire bioregions.

Both writers are acutely aware of the changes in agricultural practices and their impact not only on the human economy, social life and communities but also on its spiritual life. Leopold and Clare both experienced the draining of marshes and fens. During Clare’s lifetime, this happened to the great fen at Wicken, in Cambridgeshire, which is now being restored as a fen, by the National Trust.14 Leopold wrote:

Some day my marsh, dyked and pumped, will lie forgotten under the wheat, just as today and yesterday will lie forgotten under the years. Before the last mud-minnow makes his last wiggle in the last pool, the terns will scream goodbye to Clandeboye, the swans will circle skyward in snowy dignity, and the cranes will blow their trumpets in farewell.15

In conclusion

“I turn homeward, still wondering” - ‘A Sand County Almanac’, Aldo Leopold. 16

In this Paper I’ve been looking at two writers who convey a sense of how we internally preserve, comprehend and transmit the places where we put down roots; who exemplify the process of finding/reading/expressing the ‘undersound’ of a given dwelling place. This is an essential and shared human capacity, evident every time we encounter experiences, through others, of dwelling in places different from our own.

In my own experience during a trip to America in July 2008 I found that at many of the venues, large and small, rural and urban, where I performed, the poems people read were often about where the poet lived. One poet read about her experience and memories of the Dustbowl years of the Depression; in New York a poet read of his pride in Brooklyn. It made me think how we’re all hybrids, carrying around many cultural roots and identities; an amalgam of languages and memories of place.

Dwelling, of course, can mean multiple things. We dwell in several places simultaneously – physically and geographically, in our memories, thinking back to our roots; our imaginations project us forwards into the future. All these aspects can come together to dwell in a poem and the poem itself can become a place we can inhabit.

The word conclusion isn’t really appropriate here, as the journey I am making is a continuous one. Each time we leave our own ‘homes’, when we return to them, we view them afresh; the familiar and unfamiliar merge to create new possibilities, fed into it by our experiences of other cultures, tongues, countries and people. This alchemical mix has the potential to solidify into prejudice – or to create tolerance and understanding of what it means to dwell on the earth as an ‘other’, whether that ‘other’ is human, non-human, or inanimate.


1     p. 106 Timothy Clark, ‘Martin Heidegger’ (Routledge 2006)
2   p.  236 Jonathan Bate, ‘Song of the Earth’ (Picador 2000)      
3   p.  113 J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)
4   p. 114  ibid.
5   p. 106 Timothy Clark, ‘Martin Heidegger’ (Routledge 2006)
6   p. 114 J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)
7   p. 101 Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
8   p. 101 ibid.
9   p. 18 ibid.
10 p. 202 Seamus Heaney, ‘The Redress of Poetry’ (Faber and Faber 1996)
11 p. 25 Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
12 p.19, ibid.
13 p. 116 J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)
15  p. 162 Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
16 p. 5 ibid.


Jonathan Bate, ‘Song of the Earth’ (Picador 2000)
Timothy Clark, ‘Martin Heidegger’ (Routledge 2006)
Aldo Leopold, ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ (Oxford University Press 1968)
Seamus Heaney, ‘The Redress of Poetry’ (Faber and Faber 1996)
J.R. Watson, ed. ‘English Poetry of the Romantic Period 1789-1830’ (Longman Literature in English Series, 1996)