Wonder as well as wondering is one of many things that slowly returns to me as my long depression lifts over months of cycling two Worcestershire routes into and across the countryside. This is partly the body’s ‘feel-good’ chemicals released by the exercise. But it’s also noticing things that I’ve never spotted before, things which remind me that the real world is bigger than four cramped walls clamped around me, with a sky that’s higher and wider than my usual faded-white-ceiling one.
As I start to properly recognise the different look and feel of changing seasons, my experience of time changes in two ways. The first is quite simply that the recurrence of certain things – like a field’s colour at different parts of both year and day – becomes more important as a marker than dates, hours and minutes, which often feel more about time passing or accumulating.
The second is that while on my bike the minutes become one extended present. My journey isn’t defined by the clock but by the slope and curve of my route, and the details that I see, hear, smell, taste and feel around me. This sense is even intensified by some of my thoughts as I feel myself enter the timeless landscapes of poems I love.
When summer nudges towards autumn, fields reverberate with the beautiful imagery of Alison Brackenbury’s ‘Harvests’:
‘The barley is silk, look, purple, silver,
its wild colours. The swallows swim in it,’
The verb ‘swim’ applied to the swallows’ flight echoes how I experience cycling: flight in the air’s fast flow past me; my pedals treading water in a way that keeps me afloat while also propelling me onwards.
Although the M5 motorway and other busy roads create a constant background white noise almost everywhere outdoors near Droitwich, the more remote lanes and tow paths have their own, different, tunes. Between passing cars and the mechanical chunder of tractors, intermittent birdsong, animal calls and rustling leaves.
In Alice Oswald’s ‘A Wood Coming into Leaf’, she offers: ‘Birch, oak, rowan, ash | chinese-whispering the change.’ I can’t name the trees I pass, or the leaves I hear. But it feels like a kind of speech, if only I could interpret it.
Ecologist Suzanne Simard’s research (published in 1997) shows trees use a network of soil fungi to communicate needs and aid neighbouring plants. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees also gives fascinating insights into the electrical impulses, chemical changes, blossom colour and scent signals trees use to exchange information with insects and other trees, as well as communicate internally within a single tree. I’m not a scientist, and I can’t transcribe the leaves’ ‘chatter’ accurately into human language. I’m not entirely sure I want to though. They are what they are, and that isn’t human.
My reaction is partly self-centred: I want to respond to nature without losing the beguiling mystery of something only experienced in parts and never fully understood. However, it’s also at the heart of a greater internal conflict: how can I fully understand another person’s experiences, let alone those of a different species? On the one hand, I can’t empathise without re-imagining based on something similar within my experience. But, on the other hand, how do I, as a writer, keep any such translation true to the original?
I don’t come to any conclusive answer, except to try to remain alert to all possibilities and to accept that my knowledge is always only partial and subject to revision. Perhaps, this touches too on the appeal of poetry. Poems have to be experienced exactly as they are. They’re irreducible to a simple summing up in different words, and open to the individual reader or hearer’s interpretation. Even then, every re-reading brings a new angle, a new reaction, a new experience. A strong poem can never be totally and unexpandably understood.
I reflect on this again now in my pale blue-walled and star-stickered white-ceiling study. But out in the unwalled, roofless countryside, I actually know it – in everything I see, hear, smell and feel, including the rain’s braille on my bare arms. Drops sparkle like small crystals on leaves and petals; liquid pools glisten inside white bindweed flowers – and I’m living Alice Oswald’s ‘A Short Story of Falling’:
‘it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower’
Meanwhile, in winter, the wind often sounds like it’s performing its own poetry. Or reciting someone else’s. If I listen carefully, I can almost hear Mark Goodwin’s ‘The Ea(r) Tre(e)’:
‘a tiny the atre of bone cut o pen on the north
corner wind & rain of saying can now pour in
to the bony orn ament of cupped space an aud’
Just as nature encompasses many different landscapes, species and means of communicating, so different poets have their own styles and emphasis in translating or interpreting them. Goodwin has written about his use of gaps in poems. I often experience such white space within words in poetry about place or landscape as a breaking up or fragmentation that may be environmentally symbolic. But I also find, particularly when it’s between whole words, a sense of escape, openness and even bridging. The white gaps might be a breathing space, the path up a hill, the air through which sound travels, or anything I pass through in order to get from A to B. Similarly, lack of punctuation in an eco-poem might signify the negative effects of something like erosion but can also evoke a literal and symbolic positive removal of imposed barriers – between words, landscapes and species.
Bibliography – Part Two
Brackenbury, Alison, ‘Harvests’, Breaking Ground and other poems (Carcanet, 1984), p.31.
Goodwin, Mark, ‘The Ea(r) Tre(e)’, Molly Bloom, 2017 <https://previously-in-mollybloom.weebly.com/mark-goodwin2.html>
Oswald, Alice ‘A Wood Coming into Leaf’, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (Oxford University Press, 1996), p.8.
Oswald, Alice, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape, 2016), p. 1.
Diane Toomey’s 2016 interview with Suzanne Simard about her research: < https://e360.yale.edu/features/exploring_how_and_why_trees_talk_to_each_other >.
Wohlleben, Peter, Das geheime Leben der Bäume. Was sie fühlen, wie sie kommunizieren. Die Entdeckung einer verborgenen Welt (Ludwig Verlag, 2015). English edition: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from a Secret World, trans. by Jane Billinghurst (Greystone Books, 2016).
Some of the photo-poems in these articles were previously published in: ‘photo syn thesis: an eco exploration of future light earth water’ on Molly Bloom (https://mollybloom17.weebly.com/sarah-james.html, Sept 2018).