THE FIRST POEM I EVER WROTE (voluntarily after the age of 8 or so)

when I was 17 I went on a summer camp where my group was led by a gentle man called Li/Lee Trew. he was following/ influenced by Tom Brown’s school of Nature Connection. on the first morning we were given the chance to get up before breakfast for some sensory awareness activities. we made nettle string and gathered mushrooms by their scent (well, stinkhorn anyway). and in the autumn I made a bow drill under his instruction, and wrote this slightly er… well it is what it is and I was 17 at the time and was self concious of its fertility language clichees but it came very naturally so here it is –

Ode to my bowdrill

I have fashioned you

until you fit like male and female,

like Yin and Yang.

Now the spindle is held in the grip

of my eager bow

and I press it home.

Fire, come bless me.

Back, spinning.

Forward, grinding.

Back, smoking,

the ember comes.

I place it in the tinder like a newborn in a blanket.

Glowing growing coal

feed on my breath until you

burst into living flame.
bowdrill pic

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tree for me

I say “You there, bumpy, you may be the tree for me

may I lie at your roots and bask, to get off task?”

 

I drop down and a weight lifts, my mind can drift

sun warms me and my eyelids fall closed, my limbs repose

it’s a sunny summer evening and I’m free to be,

so I let go nagging thoughts, let the world wash around me.

 

there’s wind and laughing chatter and beyond the urban sea

the eb and flow of engines, that muddle of realities

it’s chaos and it’s peaceful

it is war and it is order

 

or war and chaos and peace and order, chaos, peace, order, war

order and chaos, peace and war

I’m not gonna split em up, I’ve tried before

it gave me hours of inaction and my head got sore

 

reality’s not simple, it never will be,

we’d better get on and accept that, take responsibility

to do what we can with what’s around us, ‘cos perfection is illusory

and meanwhile I gotta take time, yeah take a bit o time

to remember all I can really know is me.

bumpy tree

 

this is a song. wrote it in a park at the end of a day, sometime in early summer 2013. I wrote it quickly in the first draft, and musiced it over a few days – I was in a highly active stage, one where I was feeling quite effective, and so I was recognising my need for downtime and giving it to myself: this song is good for me to help revisit that need when I’ve been neglecting it. I’ve sung it to friends, but not performed it yet. I am intensely self conscious of my songs – they have always been a product of starting with an emotion that I can’t quite pin down, and poking and prodding phrases of chords, melodies and words until there’s something that feels coherent.

grazing leaves and grasping nettles

It’s spring. And nothing makes me take more joy in this than grazing lime leaves straight from the tree. Freshly inflated, tender and glowing green in the sun, they are up there with the salad leaves. The public performance of eating them while walking down a side street, though, sets them up a notch. People notice. Children are particularly likely to comment. And it’s sometimes possible to persuade passerbys to try, and even if they don’t taste them then, it’s opened up to them that we live in edible landscapes.

Picking nettles also leads to these conversations. They’re one plant that most people, however urban, are likely to have heard of, if only to hate and avoid them.* However, knowing that there is a plant that stings, called the nettle, is not the same as being able to recognise it reliably. Being unable to identify a plant which stings makes all foliage pretty scary. I accompanied a reception class on a trip through some woodland, and saw the fear with which they were kept on the path, not touching plants on either side by the other class staff. Learning of a threat from nature, without learning how to control it, seems a surefire way to generate aversion.

IMGP0386

So, there’s something to counter with introducing nettles, not as a scary plant, but as an exciting and tasty one. Eating something with shock value attracts the attention of people who generally think of plants, and cooking as boring. It’s a story to tell. “You’re fun. In a weird way.” was the groundbreaking observation of a 13yrold in reaction to me drinking nettle tea.

Picking nettles in public spaces is, as with eating leaves from the tree, an invitation to conversation. Spreading the possibility of a different interaction with food, skipping the chain of commerce. Free, tasty, healthy, zero-impact vegetable matter. What’s not to love?

Recipes… are all over the internet these days. My favourite thing is to fry onions & garlic, add nettle tips, continue to fry until they wilt, add a sprinkle of flour and then some stock to make a green white sauce. It’s great in pie, as an alternative to tomato in pizza, on toast, on pasta…

Even simpler are lime leaves – they’ re just a tender, mild salad leaf. Use as you’d use lettuce, if it weren’t at all bitter.

*Finding a 12 year old who didn’t recognise them, and hadn’t heard of them at all, surprised me. “But I don’t live in nature” she said.

Pond dipping – new to newts

Something pretty exciting is happening in the wild garden. It’s spring. The frogs and newts are out from hibernation, and getting on with, y’know, what they do in spring (that’s another post though). And that’s not the most exciting thing for me – I do love it, have done every year of my life. It’s the kids’ reactions.

I’m lucky to be a playworker in community garden in urban london. It’s somewhere where children can wander in, and if they’re over 8, they can do this independently of their parents/carers, if they’re younger then they can come as a family. We’re next to a busy road, but are screened from it by trees and our building. Some children don’t come very often, but there’s a few who keep coming back. And sometimes there’s someone who comes for the first time.

With a new person, they don’t always become a regular. Often though, there’s something which they’re excited by, and a bit scared of but then they overcome that fear and hesitation and experience something new. These moments are happening in the wild garden. Urban kids are jerky. They respond sharply to each other. They are alarmed as they slip on uneven ground. And they glance around without focussing closely.

Then they see something move in the pond.

“Aaagrh what’s that?”

“It’s a frog, I can see it?”

They’re not sure about putting their hand or knee down on the dirty ground but they can’t balance without doing so, so their nets dip wildly. I ask them if they can see anything where they’re dipping. They can’t, it’s murky where they stirred it up. I lean in slowly, getting someone to watch the end of the net to develop their underwater eyes, and we scoop up a newt (common/smooth newt, Lissotriton vulgaris – which in the UK is protected from sale, but may be captured, unlike the Great Crested Newt).

“Does he bite?”

“it looks like a fish!” “No, like a lizard”

“Can you touch it?”

Most of them won’t come close, let alone touch a newt at first. It’s a rule that you can only touch creatures from the pond if you dip your hand in pond water so it’s cool and damp first. But after a while, sometimes after ten minutes, once the most screamy friend has gone away, they’ll come, and they’ll look at the newt’s golden eyes, his spotty (or her speckly) belly. They can see which is male and which is female (the females have bulging middles full of eggs, and the males have bulging balls at this time of year). Some of the kids it takes longer to break through the hesitation. They have to slow down to observe. But once they’ve seen, they’re telling the others, and showing them. They’re learning through doing and looking and thinking, because something’s there right in front of them, and they need to work out what’s going on. They’ll remember that the newt can breathe in air as well as water, and when they come out, they’ll see that newtings, with their external gills, can’t breathe air. And this knowledge is not abstract, but is immediately shaping their actions.