I have always been a writer, since I could read. In the past I’ve done translations, written articles on spirituality and various forms of fiction, but now I focus on poetry. I have a poetry collection called Wherever We Live Now which Red Squirrel Press will publish in 2011, and I am trying to develop an environmental and cultural initiative called the Lúcháir Project – a philosophy of life and work, a poetics and an on-going commitment to a way of living, thinking, communicating and creating, that is simple, sustainable and in solidarity with all the living beings of the world.
I am of the Tolkien generation. It wasn’t possible to be young in 1968 without reading The Lord of the Rings, and I was hooked by those elves and hobbits whose outlook (rather simplistic, it must be admitted) was grounded in a benign and interactive relationship with the places they lived, as opposed to the rootless and destructive forces of evil. Nor was it possible to read it in Liverpool, still scarred with blitz damage and just beginning to replace the inner city slum communities with peripheral wastelands of high rise flats and sprawling estates without shops, schools, playing areas or community centres, without becoming aware of the profound connection between good contact with the earth, cultural and community life, and human well-being.
My background, “Irish Catholic and Scouse” as John Belcham puts it, transformed a generation of agricultural labourers to dockers, seamen and factory workers, and their children into urban professionals, with only fragile roots in the place we found ourselves. As industry declined in the seventies, we became not only dislocated, but increasingly isolated. Ninety percent of my generation left Liverpool to find work during the eighties. I came to Scotland, and settled where I now live, beside the Forth at Stirling, and after more than thirty years people still say to me, ‘but you’re not from Scotland, are you?’
Questions of where I’m from (historically and socially as well as geographically), matter a lot to me. We are shaped by our tribe and territory of origin, and carry them with us wherever we go. But they don’t matter as much as where we live now and how we live here. I made my home in this place, learning new weather pattern, new styles of housebuilding, a different kind of humour, social fault-lines in different places. I began to garden and observe the plants and creatures of field and hill, forest and riverbank, while the consequences of the energy crisis, unabashed capitalism and the Cold War unfolded. My children went through education learning new skills and a different history. At Stirling University I studied medieval literature and monastic spirituality, particularly the American Trappist and hermit Thomas Merton, and met students from many countries and espousing many different faiths and philosophies.
Although students were as bright, and much harder working than in my generation, I was disconcerted by the segregation of their studies, by the increasingly narrow specialisations, the lack of ordinary practical living skills – lighting a fire, hanging washing out to dry, cooking, sewing, gardening, or a basic understanding of the world we live in. They did not understand the effect of wind on the temperature, of sunshine on the taste of a strawberry, or of seasonal variations on the availability and quality of food. I became more and more concerned by the emphasis of concept over craftsmanship, design over function, the commodification of knowledge and the disposability of theories and opinions, with a consequent loss of depth, rigour, passion and commitment. The green protesters I met at that time struck me as either stuck in nostalgia, or acting out of drives that were aristocratic, misanthropic, or puritan, if not downright philistine. We were in a culture running on empty, and the energy and perspective needed for a new start seemed to be missing.
In the mid-nineties, while mopping the kitchen floor, I heard Kenneth White give an interview on Iain Anderson’s Fine Tunes in which he outlined the principles of geopoetics and finished with a reading of A High Blue Day On Scalpay. It stopped me in my tracks. I very quickly found The Bird Path in my local library, and soon after that Handbook for the Diamond Country and the waybooks, and even brushed up my O Level French to be able to read Lettres de Gourgounel. Kenneth White had been in all the areas I was interested in, and if I didn’t agree with his conclusions, I had to admire the way he was able to bring issues and ideas together, and the wit and energy with which he did it. He gave me new tools to think about the issues I had been mulling over, and changed the way I write completely.
Kenneth White is an author I argue with as often as I agree with him. As a medievalist, I find his cultural motorway infuriatingly simplistic. In my own practice I like to emphasise stability rather than travel (but an extra-domestic stability, equally open-eyed and alert of mind), and I find new possibilities as often among human communities as in nature, in reinterpreting traditions as often as in radical thought. But I think the work-field outlined in geo-poetics is the right work-field for the times we live in. I like his emphasis on bringing together the fields of art and science and philosophy; his cross-fertilisation of eastern mental disciplines and western traditional cultures; his emphasis on the common ground of life on earth. In his essay Kenneth White: a Transcendental Scot, Tony McManus quotes Kenneth White
“world emerges from a contact between the human mind and the things, the lines, the rhythms of the earth. When this contact is sensitive, subtle, intelligent, you have a world (a culture) in the strong confirming and enlightening sense of the word.
— geopoetics is concerned with developing sensitive and intelligent contact, and with working out original ways to express that contact.”
I would like to think my imperative for the Lúcháir project: Connect, Cherish, Create echoes that.
Bright Morning, Eilach a Naoimh
Atlantic sun shatters
into a thousand
diamond points of light.
(first published in the Luing calendar 2010)
Perhaps at the end of a damp, dour day
when whey-thin clouds clot and curdle
against a washed out sky and the puny wind
sharpens the rain in my face like teeth,
I might find the rim of a blue lochan
sleeping in the cold lap of the hills, where
water-lilies fold white stars in green cups
and reeds wade knee-deep, and whisper.
Then if the clouds would open like eyes
and, in the sudden fall of sunlight, a curlew
cry, emptying the air, and the rippled
water blink between the reed-stems –
then I would look, and listen, and grow still.
Then I would know what I came for.
(first published in the James Kirkup Memorial Anthology 2010)
Naming the Autumn
A mite in the hills’ green folds
I walk, naming the autumn –
coal tit, oakmoss, bracket fungus.
I mark the whiskered outgrowths
of blaeberries and whin, and hollows
where primroses will flavour spring
with sunlight and honey. I know
which woods are good for burning
and where the Highland faultline cuts
the ancient metamorphic rock
from fertile sandstones in the south.
A net of sweeping birch twigs sifts
the wind, and catches strands
of lichen, ice-green and hairy. Taxonomy
fails me. I cannot bring to mind
its name, or whether it’s the sort
I need to make a winter pot-pourri.
No matter. The art of knowing
is knowing when to let things be.
(First published in NorthWords Now 2008)