On Friday afternoon last, Good Friday, I left my house to go to Tramore and on a whim, an impulse, I took a detour to visit the old graveyard at Mothel in Co. Waterford.
It was an afternoon of sunshine and clear blue sky and the air in this old country graveyard was full to bursting with birdsong – the music of songbirds punctuated by the caw of crows and the coo-coo of pigeons. The only other sound I could hear was that of a tractor from the farm beside the graveyard. From here you can look across to Cruachán to the left and the Comeraghs to the right. On this April afternoon the mountains were hazy in the sunshine. As I walked around I could smell freshly mown grass and the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Cut Grass’ seemed especially appropriate in this place –
Cut grass lies frail:
Brief is the breath
Mown stalks exhale.
Long, long the death
I prefer nowadays to find my spiritual sustenance through art, through people or at times being alone in nature. A church that has fallen open to the sky tells me something about the beauty in old stone and also prompts me to slow down, gain some perspective, take a longer view.
And here is the burial place of the Houlihan Family, my husband’s people. Because they were blacksmiths the grave is marked with an iron cross with a lance and staff, very likely made in their own forge in Tinhalla.
But I think my impulse to take this detour on Good Friday was to get a sense of my own great-grandmother, Mary Cullinane, of Old Grange. Mary is also buried here but her grave remained unmarked except for an annual showing of daffodils in the spring. However a path was recently created by the Office of Public Works that now obliterates her resting place. But I’m discovering that Mary was quite a remarkable woman and there is a story to be told.
All is quiet here in the Suir valley on this March afternoon after all the storms and upheaval of just a couple of weeks ago.
and the greenhouse is empty and dormant, waiting, but yet …
just beside it there are stirrings of life – new season rhubarb has been nosing its way above ground. Doesn’t that single leaf above the ruby stalk have a brainy look about it?
Some overwintered garlic
and overwintered broad beans with some of the weeds that overwintered with them
and some cabbage from last year’s crop, still producing those leaves with their lovely purple veins
The slender scarlet stems of the dogwood are getting on with it and showing their new pale green Spring promise
while the spinach leaves shine bright in the afternoon sun. But I would like to know what else is eating it!
Meanwhile above it all the crow flies …
What’s in the box?
Here’s a clue!
I like nothing better than unwrapping a parcel that arrives in the post all tied up with string. Don’t you? There is that delicious sense of anticipation for those few moments before I tear open the wrapping.
this is what I found inside the box …
Colourful handcrafted gift cards, each with a selection of seed packets inside with instructions for growing.
As regular readers will know this blog sometimes takes to the outdoors, finding inspiration in digging and tending and generally spending some time with things that just won’t be rushed. And as a GIYer I’m always interested in new initiatives that encourage more people to have a go at planting seeds and to learn at firsthand the wonders of growing some of their own food and appreciate the taste of fresh veggies grown with nil food miles or chemicals. Trust me, there really is nothing like it. So when Dee Sewell of Greenside Up (cue full disclosure here!) put a call out for someone to review her gift box of seeds I jumped at the chance. And as you can see from the photos above this is no ordinary set of seed packets but a very thoughtfully presented gift box with a selection of seeds that I think couldn’t fail to inspire those fortunate enough to get one. Who wouldn’t be captivated by titles like ‘Awash with Squash!’, ‘It’s Wine O’Clock’, ‘Feeling Hot?’, ‘It’s Time for Tea’ and ‘Bees Banquet’?
Growing food from seed has so much in common with the writing process – you must plant the seeds (words), add just the right amount of compost, rain, sunshine, earthworms and so on. Keep on tending it. Weed and hoe. Keep working. Observe. Progress, growth is not always obvious. It will take time and go through several stages, some that seem not at all promising. But the process itself teaches me something – perhaps patience, perhaps the need for regular attention. Now that it’s Spring here in Ireland let’s plant seeds. Grow and write. Write and grow.
Ted Hughes‘ book ‘Poetry in the Making’, first published in 1967, is a compilation of a series of BBC radio programmes that he wrote and presented for an intended audience of ten to fourteen year olds. It contains the following advice on how to ‘capture’ an animal in poetry which, to my mind, also captures the essence of how to get that first draft written and how to build up writing confidence whatever the writing genre or age of the writer.
Here is what Hughes says: “See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic. If you do this you do not have to bother about commas or full-stops or that sort of thing. You do not look at the words either. You keep your eyes, your ears, your nose, your taste, your touch, your whole being on the thing you are turning into words. The minute you flinch, and take your mind off this thing, and begin to look at the words and worry about them … then your worry goes into them and they set about killing each other. So you keep going as long as you can, then look back and see what you have written. After a bit of practice, and after telling yourself a few times that you do not care how other people have written about this thing, this is the way you find it; and after telling yourself you are going to use any old word that comes into your head so long as it seems right at the moment of writing it down, you will surprise yourself. You will read back through what you have written and you will get a shock. You will have captured a spirit, a creature.”
Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ is the first animal poem he wrote, and it is about a fox but it is also about the act of writing.
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
In the coming weeks, starting tomorrow in Brewery Lane Theatre, I will be encouraging writers (and myself) to keep their ‘whole being on the thing’ in my weekly workshops. I can hardly wait to see what we capture. Shocks? Surprises? Pretty much guaranteed.
On the day after the Dublin City Marathon on the October bank holiday, newspapers were full of photos that showed the agony and the ecstasy of the runners, capturing the grit and determination of thousands of ordinary people who had achieved something extraordinary. But nobody completed this event without working towards it patiently and doggedly over months. The date was fixed, a goal was set, training schedules were devised. Training became non-negotiable. Putting on runners and heading out the door had to happen whether one felt like it or not.
In the same way the growth of a writer is the cumulative result of doing a little a lot. Regularly getting to the page or the screen, finding mini-projects to work on, deadlines that must be met, all make it much more likely that you will write and that you will develop as a writer.
This is also the time of year when certain wild animals hoard away food as a precaution against the scarcities of winter. In the same way it is good to develop the habit of squirreling away details and observations in notebooks. These are likely to provide a rich resource for future writing and are pleasurable to do. For example you might start a ‘Weather Notebook’. Here in Ireland there is no shortage of weather even if, thankfully, it’s not as extreme as it often is in other parts of the world. Pay attention to the sensual nature of what you’re experiencing. What are the smells, the light, the sounds? Write it down and date it. This is authentic material for you to draw on when you are writing something in November and need a detail that captures an evening in May.
So, tell me, what details have you squirreled away in your notebook today?