Poetry review: Lingering with Trees

We were old gloves / one to the other / not a matched pair, but cut / from the same skin – irretrievable.

Poetry should be read aloud. And this applies not only one’s own writing, but also that of others. Reading out loud Robert Ramsay’s opening poem Susanna, a tribute to his late sister, not only reveals the beauty of the words he carefully placed alongside each other, it also helps to conjure up imagery and associations triggered by those words. The tribute to his late sister places the poet’s relation to his sister in a landscape that is imbued with personal and family memories. Though our interaction and experiences of the landscape may be different, we share the landscape we are cut from with those dear to us. And it is this theme that, to me, manifests itself in many guises throughout the Robert Ramsay’s collection Lingering With Trees.

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Robert Ramsay (photographer unknown)

A retired farmer now writing poetry and running the Kinblethmont Gallery near Arbroath, Robert Ramsay spent part of working life as an engineer in West Africa before returning to his native Angus. Lingering With Trees contains nine poems reflecting the poet’s time in Africa. And as with his other poems in this collection, in An It Were Rothko, he immerses himself in the landscape.

… a single brush / the long churn of one ceaseless bar of surf. / The top part pallid blue / thin black line / then a green belt, white finishing / in wine-dark waves, before / a dry biscuit stripe of sand.

Here, you swim with the poet, feel waves build and tumble around you. The Atlantic Ocean may be different from the North Sea in Angus, but the vividness with which Ramsay conjures up the experience even transports you to places you have never been part of.

Returning to the northeast of Scotland, trees are rooted in the Angus landscape and the poet often takes time to ponder their presence. In A Clutch Of Young Pheasants you watch on as the game birds scatter in a field lined with hazel and pine, and wonder whether it is because the poet used to be a farmer that he is able to capture the very essence of the trees and birds of the Angus landscape so characteristically. In The Old Scots Pine, Ramsay likens the tree’s bark to sand:

it looks like sand / thrown where the sun should set. Read it out loud and you can hear the sand thrown and landing.

Lingering With Trees is far from a conventional collections of poems. Poems previously published in Driving Back (Blue Salt Publishing, 2009) and Ploughing On (FastPrint Publishing, 2003), have been interwoven with sections of new work. Above all, this is a collection embedding personal memories and reflections in the Angus – and West African – landscape. And it is exactly because Ramsay does so that the poet holds up a mirror for us to investigate our presences in the landscapes in which we live. The almost 300 pages of poetry with cover art by James Morrisson RSW, RSA are beautifully presented by The Lumphanan Press.

Copyright poetry Robert Ramsay, copyright review Petra Vergunst

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Fallen tree

IMG_9619Untidy, I thought when I approached the board walk alongside the Coy Burn near Crathes Castle. Branches and twigs had sprawled into the water, bobbing on the rhythms of the babbling stream. As people squeezed passed on the planked path I took it in. A tree had fallen across the stream and branches, twigs and leaves had become entangled in it. A pile of more or less equally long branches had become heaped up on the upstream side of the trunk as if someone had accidentally dropped an armful of firewood in the water. Something in this tangle moved. I probably noticed it because the movement was not caused by the bobbing burn. Then I saw it: a wren, its tail cocked up, on twigs low above the water. I should not have been surprised, this tangle, full invertebrates, must provide a healthy meal on a chilly winter day.

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The tree had probably fallen over the stream by itself, uprooted when the Coy Burn was in full spate or just because it was old. I wondered which invertebrates live in those heaps of wet leaves in the river. Who would they be eaten by? Would fish find shelter in this tangle? Further downstream I had looked at the ladder installed  to help salmon negotiate the dam and enter the Mill Pond ten years ago. Could it be, perhaps … would it be too much to ask for a salmon to find shelter in the vicinity of this fallen tree? After some rain recently the burn is muddy, and there is no way to tell.

As I walk on I notice more trees and branches in the water and every time smaller branches, twigs and leaves have piled up behind it. I looked around. This could be the work of beavers, but alas, beavers are still to reach Deeside. True, the ecological impact of fallen trees across small watercourses has similarities. The heaped up debris form these floating, temporary dams slows down the flow of water andmay even cause the river to exaggerate or create new meanders. All that is needed is one tree to fall across the water, and the knock-one effects will seep through the burn and bank ecosystem over time. Tidy streams are all but natural.

In the project Water / Shed I will investigate the ecology of water in its manifestations in the catchment of the river Dee and the options we have to manage these water resources in a sustainable way.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Wildlife encounters

Re-reading last summer’s entries in my nature diary. The buddleia bushes have been flowering for more than six weeks and from my desk I have been following the small tortoiseshells, peacocks and red admirals that feast on it. Having seen only few butterflies last year, I was excited at first, but eventually my attention waned and I returned to work. I did look up to admire the three red admirals basking in the late summer sun on a low white wall nearby, and sat upright when a coal tit propelled itself through the bush, causing the butterflies to flutter off before gliding back to their perch until the coal tit hit again. I realised how gradually I took the presence of these late summer flyers for granted and how I needed incidents to reignite my attention.

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A ringlet posing at Easter Anguston. Ringlets fly in large numbers for only a few weeks in July. Later on this walk I encountered an additional sixty specimen of this butterfly.

Wildlife encounters: what value do we attach to them? The pattern of fading attention as I start to take the presence of butterflies on the buddleia bush for granted is something I have experienced more often. Early spring those green-veined whites fluttered abundantly, but I took time to take a good look at that one peacock on that dandelion flower. I guess it is something many people recognise. We are keen to rise untimely early and travel across the Cairngorms to watch capercaillie lek, but do we go out of our way in a similar manner for the blackbird courting a female in our garden?

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The much rarer – and more colourful – common blue during the same walk.

As we get on with our life we encounter wildlife  – a spider entering through an open window, a slug on our doorstep, a sparrow on the bird table. Some of us even flock to the coast to watch birds migrate or go for a stroll at dusk to watch starlings murmur. How do we value those wildlife encounters and why do we respond so differently to different species? I can’t wait to see my first butterfly this spring.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Shifting shape

The sense of loss was overwhelming. The woodlands had always been there and I had  imagined them being there always, but now men had parked their cars on the track and cut down trees one after another. And then, only a few weeks later, they did the same in another woodland. The canopy opened up and it was as if the magic these woodlands held for me had escaped.

You look unsure. Do my sounds remind you of the hum of car engines and the revving of chain saws? Do my sounds not help you leave time behind? (From: Embrace)

By the time trees were felled, I was editing Embrace, myperformance poem in which I investigated my feelings towards the woodlands around my home. Ever since I moved here, the woodlands had played with my imagination and they had been where I conceived and developed many creative ideas. True, when writing my poem, they started to live a life of their own, but Embrace is, and will always be, a reflection of the way the woodlands affected my imagination up to the time of writing. There, on the corner where I often enter the woods awaits that fairytale house where wood smoke arises from the chimney and which gets me in the right mood to imagine the play of shadows in moonshine.

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Now these trees had been cut, and with the clearing of those trees something else had become clear. Without realising it, I had developed a strong sense of ownership of the woodlands around my home and this feeling had been shattered as the legal owner(s) of the woodlands had given order to fell trees. Suddenly, the motivation why so many communities in Deeside – Birse, Aboyne, Durris, Maryculter – had bought forests or otherwise co-managed with Forestry Commission Scotland was crystal clear.

At times it felt I had lost the woodlands that I had captured in my poem. Indeed, the woodlands have changed in appearance, but almost a year on I surprise myself by walking the paths between sycamore and beech trees remembering the scenes inspired by specific places and experiences, and these places are coming to life again. Could it be that because I wrote the poem that I am able to revive my feelings about those woodlands and have them fuel my imagination once again?

But sorrow will not last. The black bird will perch again. Elder trees will grow, their white umbrellas developing heavy crops of deep red berries. I have shifted shape and my shape shall shift back. (From: Embrace)

My book-length, narrative poem Embrace is available from Lulu Publishing and Amazon.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Hear the Woods

IMG_8530A midgy September afternoon in the Forest of Mar near Braemar. A group of adults and children stand still to listen. The flow of water in the distance is hardly discernible from the wind through the Scots pines. Around our heads the sound of a mosquito intensifies, then ebbs away. Next to a young birch we realise that the sound of the wind in the trees is made up of infinite numbers of individual leaves moved by the wind. The children excel in pretending to be animals and clatter over a boardwalk, rustle their feet through heather and squidge the cushions of mosses beneath the tall trees. Then we peck stones, rasp pine cones with twigs, rustle branches, listen to lichen and play tree bark percussion.

Our exploration of this part of the Caledonian forest was guided by Hear the Woods, a set of five text scores I wrote for this event and that aimed at creating a dialogue with the forest and that were, in part, inspired by Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening philosophy. The field work that led to the text scores revealed how sound can give us a strong sense of being part of place that extends beyond what we can perceive visually. The text scores thus encouraged us to explore both horizontal and vertical geography.

The piece of Caledonian forest we were in had many stories to tell. What’s more, we came up with a different set of narratives than we would have done if we had explored the forest only focusing on what we could see. Movement, and the interaction between textures this involves,  turned out to be an important part of this narrative. The forest emerged not as a collection of seemingly soil-bound trees and plants, but as a lived-in ecosystem beaming with movement and life.

The way most of us think about the Caledonian forest is informed by the experiences we have when interacting with it on our visits. These experiences are often dominated by what we see. Shifting to sound as our dominant source of information provides fresh experiences and new perspectives on what the Caledonian forest may and could be.

The sound art workshop Hear the Woods was part of ‘Inhabiting the Woods, new research and creative practice in the Caledonian pinewoods’, a field-based seminar organised by the Department of Anthropology of the University of Aberdeen.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Outdoor singing

IMG_3853The end of May and skies are blue. Together with teachers, helpers and more than fifty pupils I walk from the centre of Huntly to the White Wood for a singing workshop. On a dead branch over the Deveron a heron perches, and the fields on the other side of the hedge are filled with darting lamb. To keep his mind of the weight of his bag I  engage a young boy in an exploration of tickly, bristly and ribbed grasses. He holds on to the grasses until we arrive at the White Wood. In 2015, Deveron Projects planted oak saplings to create a living monument to peace, and ever since it has invited artists to use the wood as a place for inspiration. Now Deveron Projects invited me to do a singing workshop with pupils from Gordon Primary. As a poet and composer I set out to write number of short songs inspired by the story of the White Wood. As teachers and pupils gathered in a circle to sing these, orange tip butterflies fluttered on the other side of the path.

There is something special about singing out of doors. When walking in the woods I often catch myself singing rounds, short songs that I sing again and again without really thinking about it. The pace of my footsteps coincides with the rhythm of the songs. The whole thing feels natural, as if for a moment I go beyond myself and am one with the wood.

In my outdoor singing workshops I try to achieve something similar. As each activity takes place in a different environment and responds to the time of year, I compose a number of rounds specifically for the event. You can know your environment by naming plants and animals, discussing the ecology of a place. You can also know your environment through sensory exploration, distinguishing pleasantly and unpleasantly scenting flowers. I would argue that singing is yet another way of exploring your environment, rendering the feeling of being one with a place for just that fleeting moment. My interest as an artist lies in the different ways in which we can know our natural environment. Singing songs out of doors provides one such way of knowing.

 

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Embrace

Embrace investigates our relation with woodlands. Shaped as a conversation between those woodlands and her fictional self, this narrative poem explores different ways in which such relation can be shaped and ultimately proposes a deep, embodied sense of belonging. Embrace was written with financial support from Aberdeen City Council and formed the culmination of the project Alder and Aspen. The poem is available via Lulu Publishing and Amazon.