Thursday 7 July 2016

Suffocated Clover

I've just finished a story about poetry and mythology for the upcoming Dark Mountain issue on Uncvilised Poetics. Called The Red Thread it looks at the myth of Ariadne and the Labyrinth and how poetry can fast-track you into the urgent realms of the metaphysical. 

The threads are lines from certain poems that have pulled me into different directions in my life, including the local poet George Crabbe. So I thought I would repost a piece I wrote originally for 52 Flowers That Shook My World, which is based around the flowers (and people) he catalogued in the fenny, marshy lands of the Suffolk coast.

marsh samphire - walberswick

southwold, suffolk 04

When I first came to live in Suffolk I was shocked by many things. I was shocked by the tameness and emptiness of the agricultural land, the restraint of villages but most of all I was shocked by the conventional human world in which I found myself and its relationship with plants. I was no longer living amongst the alternative earth warriors of Oxford, nor with the radical medicine people of the American desert. This was small-town England where flowers lived under tight control in gardens, or in nature reserves for their scientific and educational interest. Of course the wild strip of shifting coastline was exciting, its birch copses, mudflats, and gorse-scattered heath. I had loved these waterlands for many years and was happy to return. But becoming part of its human community was something I had not bargained for.

 In your twenties, in the bohemian city, friendships come easily. You dance together, you sleep together, you get drunk together, you give each other work, live in each other’s houses; everything is shared. But as you get older life can calcify and become static - a fixed house, job, family - and these easy-going social relationships end. If you go travelling this open exchange continues because everyone’s lives are still fluid; people come and go, in and out of your life, and it doesn’t matter what age you are.

But in Southwold it really does.

When I walk into a local lecture given by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, practically everyone has white hair. It is given by a warden of a nearby area called the Breckland. Once known as the desert of England, with sand-dunes and strange forest pools, it is  a particular territory with its own distinct flora and fauna. The keeper explains the measures they take to keep this flora and fauna in abundance. Whenever he shows a slide of something good happening (Breckland thyme is increasing) everyone in the audience goes ooooh, and when there is a depressing statistic (the numbers of sand larks are down this year) aaahh goes the audience,  as if we are in some kind of old timer’s music hall. At the interval I ask the speaker about the particulars of a certain rare wormwood that grows there, and he gives me a queer look. Artemisia campestris, he says. Field wormwood. And I realise it is a look of horror, of a man trapped in a net. I do not go back.

sea lavender - river blyth

However I don’t give up on my human and plant communications. On May day I go to the blessing of the nearby bluebell wood by a band of local vicars. In the summer I take part in the Suffolk Hedgerow project, detailing all the trees in the neighbourhood hedges. I go to plant sales, flower festivals, garden openings and Greenpeace fairs, but there is something about joining in with these ventures I can’t quite do. There is something in the women’s faces, the ones who serve the tea and cake, the volunteers who seem to organise everything. They are my age or older. There is something in their eyes, in the way they are nervous and jittery with each other, sometimes making mistakes with the money, or silly comments - something repressed, inverted, as if their natural intelligence and creativity will never be allowed to burst out of them whilst they are serving in these places.

One warm August evening a small old lady approaches me at a garden party. She has overheard me talking animatedly about sheep’s bit scabious. Her name is Pam Ellis and for the last twenty five years she has run a botanical show at the local museum. “You are going to take over from me,” she said. “Do you know the Latin names.?”“Yes,” I replied, “Good,” she said. And carried on talking to the others.

Of course I had no intention of taking over. I had a horror of becoming one of those Women Who Did the Flowers I had seen at the church jumble sales. But I had not counted on Pam’s persuasive powers. She was a formidable botanist and mycologist, as was her husband who had begun the flower display originally, when the museum was also a natural history collection. Botanists, like writers, rarely give up their passion. In fact, this passion usually increases with age. When the curator rang asking me to visit them at the museum, I found myself saying I would do it on one condition, that I was allowed to write a paper each week to go with the exhibition.

“I’m radical!” I warned them.

The curator smiled. He had found my weak spot. “You can write what you like,” he said. “Now these are the jars and this is where you fetch the water.”

southwold museum
I loved doing the flowers. I loved getting up with the hares and the foxes, moving through the dawn, roaming the woods and riverbanks in search of plants. I loved cycling into Southwold with a basket full of wild flowers flying behind me, and diving into the sea after the setting up was finished. I loved putting all that life and colour amongst all those dry fossils and facts, locking up the ancient door leaving behind a beautiful show for others to enjoy.

But most of all I liked sitting down at my desk and deciding what I was going to write for the wild flower collective, as I called it. It was like having a column again, something I had not had enjoyed for years. I was unashamedly enthusiastic. I wrote about politics and poetry, railed against agricultural pesticides and the council’s slaying of roundabout orchids, the radical apothecary Nicholas Culpeper; I  interviewed ecologists and ornithologists and the guardians of the local woods and reedbeds;  I  walked for miles over the heathlands, sat in preserved meadows and hidden wastelands, wrote about vibes of places and gave the medicinal properties of all the plants, their countryside lore and their Latin names (as promised to Pam). By the end of the summer 180 different wild plants had appeared on the museum’s sunny windowsill.

But I never met any people. Occasionally the curator or one of the volunteers when I went in to refresh the flowers would praise the display. Everyone loves it, they told me. And you are so knowledgeable! But something in me rankled. I didn’t like to think about it, but I knew nobody took any notice of what I was writing. I had a feeling that I was being humoured. Just so long as the flowers were done.

I went to interview the creator of the Hedgerow Project and asked him about the community and the countryside. He had spent a good deal of his time travelling to villages all over Suffolk and I thought he might give me a clue about belonging. He looked at me

“There is very little enterprise,” he said mildly. “It’s mostly newcomers who get involved.”

One week  I decided to write about the 18th century poet and part-time botanist, George Crabbe. George Crabbe is an unusual poet. He is well known as the poet of this coastline, but although his lines are suffused with the nature of these marshes and shores there is nothing romantic or poetic about them. His poem The Borough is famous for inspiring Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, however the classical music festival founded on this opera, bears little trace of the nature of the poet, let alone the damned heroes and heroines of his epic tales. Crabbe hated Aldeburgh, and yet it transfixed his imagination for his whole life. His passion lay in the waterlands that surrounded the town. For in his heart, he was a lover of wild plants.
People speak with raptures of fine prospects, clear skies, lawns, parks and the blended beauties of art and nature,” he wrote to his friend Edmund Cartwright in 1792, “but give me a wild wide fen in a foggy day with quaking boggy ground and trembling hillocks in a putrid soil; shut in by the closeness of the atmosphere, all about is like a new creation and every botanist an Adam who explores and names the creatures he meets with.”
I set myself the task of reading the works of Crabbe, to find all the plants that appeared in his poems for the next exhibition and to find appropriate quotations for the cards.  I spoke with Neil Powell, a local poet and writer who had just published a new biography of Crabbe to ask about the flowers. You have to read about suffocated clover, he told me. It’s key. He had spent hours on the beach between Thorpeness and Aldeburgh looking for this tiny plant.

“Did you find it.?” I asked.
“I think I did,” he said. “But then I am not sure.”

viper's bugloss - cambridgeshire
Suffocated clover is not an easy plant to find, even for a botanist, and Crabbe is not an easy poet to read, even for somebody who has spent a good deal of her life studying and reading all kinds of literature. Classical in construction, most take the form of moral tales which are inordinately long. However something about the tone of them was compelling and familiar. He was writing about a Suffolk that I recognised, in spite of the difference in centuries. Trained as an apothecary and surgeon, a man who worked as a reluctant curate all his life, his eye is not on the poetic and the lyrical landscape.  It bores into the minutiae of life, of the oppressive and shifting moods of the collective, into the spiritual despair, and mostly into the betrayals and indignities that the community heaps on individuals who dare to step out of line. Be different. Or like himself, creative.

 Meadow clovers are easy to see. They appear profusely in midsummer, beloved by bees, honey-bringers, nitrogen-fixers. They appear in their different colours in the jars on the windowsill:  crimson and white, sometimes a pale tufted yellow, or in the shape of strawberries. But to distinguish the smaller clovers you have, like Crabbe to get down on your knees and have a good look. On the bare ground, on the heathland track, you find them, squashed and tiny amongst the rabbit-bitten dune grass, burrowing, reversing, clustering, suffocating, hiding themselves away from human tread. As you peer among the other pea-flowers, trefoils and fenugreek, miniscule sparks of yellow and white, you find yourself in a different world. The startling pink veins of the birdsfoot show you all the beauty of the small things, of myriad other worlds within this one. You feel the enormity of being alive, of so many possibilities, as if you could begin again, yet the human world is so old, so repressive, how can you shine in your own right? How can the future begin?

You might not want to look closely like this, but somehow you have to. You have to think of Crabbe as he stands exhuberant in the primordial fen, downtrodden and despised in his various curacies. You have to consider yourself, squashing your  knowledge and breadth of vision for a new world into these small cards on a windowsill. You want like all writers to share this knowledge, your love of the natural world, have an intelligent and lively conversation with your peers, but the old forms will not let you. Hemmed in by taxonomy, by a restricted imagination, by minds trained to dismiss the wild and the beautiful, you can get no further than a smile. You are clever to know the Latin names, the women will say down at the museum and look away. Nature table, says the guide to the local museums of England.

sandwort - southwold
Community is a feel-good word in the modern world, but there are good historical reasons to be wary of them, for their unconscious collective intent can stifle one’s very life-force. People from the outside, visitors, city people, often imagine country communities to be well-meaning friendly village things. They do not recognise them, as agencies of constriction and conformity. No one who has paid close attention to the testimonies in Akenfield recorded by Ronald Blyth in the late sixties however could be romantic about community in Suffolk. Everyone yearns to get out of Akenfield; no one would want to live in The Borough. Enjoying a country retreat is one thing, becoming part of the local collective is another. No creative individual really wants to belong to a community. Not if they are smart. It provides you with roles that you have no business playing.

When you read poetry you need to crack the poem’s linguistic code, and find out what the poet is really saying, beyond history, beyond literature, underneath all that difficult style. The flowers cracked the code of Crabbe’s writing for me, as I struggled through pages of rhyming couplets. Bitter and repressed plants are everywhere in his work. Especially the end-of-the world wormwoods. Artemisia campestris is one of the plants he requests for his botanical garden in Mumford. “Wholesome wormwood” is spied by Orlando in The Lover’s Journey as he speeds through the green lanes. Southernwood appears outside Ellen Orford’s door in The Borough.
Like the clovers and grasses he loved to seek out, Crabbe’s human subjects are the undistinguished worth paying attention to,” I write for the exhibition in late July. “And he presents their lives with all the accuracy of a botanist, rather than the idealisation of the romantic or classical artist. Where he can be as florid and as mannered as anyone of his time, writing to the aristocracy for patronage for example, when speaking of plants and the land his language is modern and direct. It blows like a breath of fresh air through the formal gardens and hierarchical houses and universities which as a saltmaster’s son from Aldeburgh he was not heir to.

emerging sea kale - aldeburgh beach
 I walked around Crabbe’s Aldeburgh in search of the “unsightly weeds” his son wrote were so precious to his father. I walked around the fens and waterlands, finding the “soft slimy mallow of the marsh”, creeping dwarf sallows, wiry-stemmed salt lavender, bull-rush, sea cotton and sea asters that appear in his poetry, and the atriplex he loved to grow in his botanical garden. I walked through the blighted agricultural fields, finding painted viper’s bugloss and field poppy, sea poppy and sea-pea along the Aldeburgh shoreline. I thought I found suffocated clover. But I am not a botanist and tiny introverted clovers are not easy to distinguish. 

Suffocated clover is the “new species” of plant that Crabbe was delighted to come across and name. However it was also identified by another botanist in Norfolk, and the plant’s “discovery” was formally given to him.  It was a disappointment to Crabbe. Disappointment was a great part of his repertoire. Disappointment, despair, derangement, and most of all claustrophobia. It was this emotional tone I recognised from my own experience of rural Suffolk, a dark undertow that you can hear in Britten’s music also – a certain gloom and oppression, a feeling tone linked with the spirits of the oppressed:
He knows the plants as he knows the difficulties of the villagers. He writes as an insider with an outsider’s eye, unencumbered by the classical allusions of eighteenth century poetry, or the reforming zeal of the nineteeth century novel. It is the ‘what is’ of his writing that is startling and original. This makes him however a difficult and unfashionable poet to read: for the suffering of Keats or Shelley can still speak to every youth with a strong imagination and desire. And there is none of this sensitive poet in Crabbe. The suffering is of a deeper, maturer sort. It comes from experience: not only an awareness of his own difficult childhood, his awkward position in society (he burned his botanical treatise for example when told by a Cambridge don it was worthless because not written in educated Latin) but also from his first hand observations as an apothecary, surgeon and curate at the beginning of the industrial era.

Crabbe's (hidden) opium addiction connected him to the dark mental and emotional residue that English society does not wish to account for: uneasy moods, fickleness of perception, lack of compassion, blighted lives, cursed outsiders, the nightmare visions of his tales for which the marsh and fen and sea are perfect mirrors. The ‘wild amphibious race’ he writes of are the same as the boggy ground and sterile soil of Suffolk. These are not metaphors.

This is why E.M. Forster says ‘to speak of Crabbe is to speak of England’. He is saying what exists, not what should or could be. For these things he is the poet of our thistles and tares. Those plants, like himself, which struggle out of the inhospitable soils. Not for him the dancing daffodils of Wordsworth or the mystic rose of Blake or the imaginal globed peonies of Keats. His poetry is full of real human weeds rejected and scorned by the land-owning society. No one is going to come to Crabbe country in the way they can go to Hardy country or the poetic Lake District. Who would want to identity with the sadistic Peter Grimes or the religious maniac Jachin, the Parish Clerk? And yet to this day, the characters he describes are still here amongst us, within ourselves. Just as the Cambridge botanical garden he collected seeds from still exists. Just as the tiny suffocated clover still grows on Aldeburgh beach and the thistles in the fields spread their prickly arms, threatening war.
opium poppy - aldeburgh dunes
I finished the shows on the Autumn Equinox as the last of the year’s flowers were departing. Shortly afterwards I was invited by the curator to a drinks party to celebrate the museum’s year with all the trustees and volunteers. So many people enjoyed the show, he said. But I couldn’t somehow enjoy myself as I made an attempt to mingle.  I felt constrained and inarticulate in a way that was totally unnatural to me. I stood awkwardly with a glass of sticky wine, whilst an old man ran down the arts centre where I had just begun work.

These creative places never last of course, he said dismissively.

I could not answer him. As I struggled to find the words to defend myself, I felt a sudden immense pressure bearing down on me. I could hardly breathe. Then I noticed a certain agitation around me. My eyes glanced nervously around the room, as a sea of grey-haired people wearing red poppies began to merge together. Then I realised: it was November 11, and almost eleven o’clock. I looked at the crowd and they all suddenly seemed like dead people drinking a toast to war and more war. May it never end!  I though I was going to pass out. The atmosphere was suffocating.

Before I knew it, I was rushing out of the Red Cross hut into the wild fresh autumnal air. Running, half-crying, half-laughing, as far away from death, from grey-haired community, from the ooh and the ahh and the ghosts of the thousands of women who did the flowers.  The relief was extraordinary, as if I had been let out of a prison. I was bursting out of hundreds of years of  church fetes and bell ringing and jam cakes and politeness and charity cases and men who crushed the spirit of any creative enterprise before it had a chance. We are free, I called to all the poppy women constrained all these years, to all the plants, to all the writers, as I ran and I ran across the green, the sea shining in the distance, with the gorse-scented wind in my hair.

common wormwood - thorpeness