Sunday, February 25, 2007


This is Waldo, the dearest, most beautiful, most golden cat there ever was, taken in about 1990 on an old Instamatic. If he is still alive he is a very old cat. This picture hurts.

Waldo was loved in something of the way that Molly is loved; as the intelligent, receptive, deserving animals of couples without children are loved. These animals acquire a preternatural sensitivity, a knowingness, a closer-to-humanness. This is not to say that they are made into grotesque parodies of babies, although that does happen, but they are loved with similar visceral intensity. Respectful and sensible humans recognise their companions' essential animal nature; they also know that their love for them will, in the order of things, exact a parlously high price in grief. This form of love, of child-substitution, is met with at best incomprehension, at worst contempt, by those who don't experience it. I have seen and heard of people who lavish this affection on an animal and then go on to have children; the scales fall from their eyes and the emotion is directed where, from an evolutionary point of view, it is supposed to go, to the human child, and is withdrawn from the animal. This phenomenon makes me glad of the finality of my childlessness; I would not want to be guilty of such betrayal. I never want to be guilty of betrayal again.

Waldo showed up behind the wholefood restaurant in South Wales where I was working, still young, still with his balls, but with his handsome face yet unblemished by tom-cat skirmishes. I took him home, had him seen to, and for some years he lived with me and my flatmate, then with me and my boyfriend. I left him and the boyfriend, together, at the same time.

The relationship with this man took up the greater part of my twenties and into my thirties. It was a mistake. He was a dear, good, intelligent person, but it shouldn't have lasted more than a weekend. Two weekends maximum. It lasted seven years because, like Chaucer's Criseyde, I had a sliding courage. I entered into it out of weakness and I stayed out of weakness.

I was at an impasse; life in London had palled, I was tired of the noise, the hardness, the edgy demands of it, the judgemental, personal-is-political attitudinising around me. One relationship had ended, work supported me but was not serious, I fantasised about getting away from it all. It should have been an opportunity really to go forward, to develop confidence and talents, but I opted for a retrograde move back to my university town, for an ill-conceived business project ( the wholefood restaurant ), and to filling this man's need, finding comfort in his undemanding kindness and gentleness.

I knew I couldn't stay, but I couldn't leave either. I lived a torn existence immersed in the relationship, but keeping my family largely in ignorance, visiting old friends always alone, generally denying the matter. About mid-way through our time together, I went back to my parents' house while my father was dying. On my eldest brother's direct enquiry, I admitted the existence of the relationship. Interpreting my tone correctly, he urged me that no one should settle for half, at least not knowingly and at the outset, and if I knew that was what I was doing I shouldn't do it. Hearing the truth made me miserable. In the searing light of the courageous truthfulness with which my father faced his death, I almost found the strength to finish it, but I was drawn back, in part because I feared the alternative of my mother's neediness, of a destiny as stay-at-home youngest child; my life may have been a poor thing but was mine own. Anyway, I missed my cat.

Exhausted by my seemingly pointless and unjustifiable resistance to commitment, a couple of years later I gave in and agreed to live with him, rather than go on maintaining nominally separate addresses. This was the beginning of the end. I fled hither and thither, drinking too much, having futile and short-lived affairs, often with quite nice men who quite rightly didn't see it as part of the deal to help me clamber out of the emotional morass I was in. When these failed I drifted pathetically back. I behaved atrociously but he took it all in the hopes that I might one day come back and stay. I went back to Mum, I took a postgrad. course, but still the quicksand of the tender trap kept dragging me back.

In the end, I tore myself away once and for all by a move of such an hideous, humiliating, drastic idiocy that my rational mind can still barely encompass that I did it, but that is another story. All I can say is, when your stuck in the gooey fat of the frying pan, sometimes the fire seems to be the only possible option. I walked through that shameful fire, ultimately, to where I am now, and I would be nowhere else.

Remorse about him hung around a long time; the memory was like bathwater too hot to put more than my toe into. But I think now I am free of it. In Monica Ali's novel 'Brick Lane', the vicious, sneaky, hypocritical old loan shark, from whom the couple borrowed to buy necessities to improve their life, keeps coming back with her thuggish sons to extract usurious interest. In the end, the central character says, in effect: enough, break my arms if you will but you are not having any more from me. The shark and her cohorts slink away. Remorse is like that. It will go on squeezing you until you turn around and say enough, no more, I have paid my dues to you and then some, break me if you want but then leave me alone.

And looking back on my younger self with the compassion that time brings, I understand that in some measure I was wronged too, that weakness and need and tenderness can be powerful and ruthless weapons when their target is susceptible.

The other day we took down a box of old, pre-digital photos and decided on a thorough sort out. Soon a satisfying pile of discarded prints had accumulated. There was just one very small envelope of pictures from before. Before what? Before I knew what it was to love someone not for what they needed from me but for what they were, from before there was stability and a balance of forces in my life. There was stasis, years of stagnation and boredom, but not stability, because of an inward restlessness, a heavy knowledge that this was not right. And, as another man said, if something's not right it's wrong. It was a time without grace. I choose to keep these pictures for the record, and because I find now I can look at them without that corrosive remorse, without pain, without grief.

All except this one.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ten French films, and other roads to recovery.

I really am very touched by everyone's kind words and thoughts, and am feeling considerably better. I no longer feel as if I've been run over, and my hairbrush has stopped being a hob-nail boot across my scalp. Unfortunately, I still can't manage my 6 a.m. starts, I need the sleep too much, and that's really my best time for blogging, when I feel calmest and clearest and most focused. The trip to Rennes has been postponed; it's quite a long way in our old jalopy, and would be a waste if I wasn't feeling bright enought for it, and will probably be even nicer when the days are longer and we can take in the jardin du Thabor when the trees are leafing and flowering and so on, and we'll try to go to the Chinese later in the week.

I have been quite enjoying the kind of things you can only really get away with with a clear conscience when you're ill: catching up with reading, as avus suggested, and watching movies during the day. I'm slightly relieved that I can still immerse myself in a novel; I've noticed since I've been doing this that I've less time or interest for reading them, though I find I've been reading more poetry, both on- and off-line, than I have for a long time, which is good. I've read Jhumpa Lahiri's 'The Namesake', and quite a few of the stories out of ' The Interpreter of Maladies'. I liked them, they were clear and dry without being lightweight, but I began to feel saddened after a while by the sense of loss and dislocation in them, and that self-definition and freedom so often seem to require betrayal for her characters. Now I'm stuck into Isabel Allende's 'The House of the Spirits', which I've not read before. I once had an English teacher who said he could only really become absorbed in Dickens when he was ill and confined to bed, there was something about that rather seething, slightly grotesque, over-peopled world that suited convalescence, you could get lost in it then. 'The House of the Spirits' is like that and then some. It can be somewhat stomach-turning in places, but it's fascinating.

I also curled up on Sunday afternoon and watched 'Tuesdays with Morrie' on the telly, which was a very nice spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Jack Lemmon was so luminously alive, the treacle didn't seem to matter too much. Anyway, I was ill, a little of what you fancy... I brushed my teeth afterwards.

Talking of sweet, rr was a bit disparaging about the taste of mead, which many people don't much care for. I actually like mead, which is something of a specialite de la region here, and known as chouchenn. But then I have limited tolerance of gall and wormwood and can down quite large amounts of syrupy beverages, especially alcoholic ones; jars and bottles here are forever in commission for not only the ever-present sloe-gin ( we do keep this relatively dry), but also blackberry whisky, raspberry and strawberry vodka, and various other steeped liqueurs and ratafias, including some with rose petals and cardomon from recipes on the very interesting Danish Schnapps website, which go well after curry. Or before. Or during. When the ginger wine ran out, which is a difficult thing to get hold of here, I located the bottle of mead, and suggested mixing it with the whisky in the manner of the whisky-macs I'd been drinking. However Tom opined that this would be a chronic waste of both ingredients, so I carried on drinking the whisky with a spoonful of honey, a squeeze of lemon and hot water, and the mead separately. It's all much more fun than antibiotics anyway.

During the phase of home-winemaking that most men in my family seem to need to go through ( until my brother-in-law took him to one side, saying that while he too had experimented with parsnips, dandelions, plums and tomatoes, in the end you had to ask yourself why was it the French always stuck to grapes?), Tom made some mead. While the honey was heating the house was entered by several disoriented bees, and in the final product it was impossible to stop all the sugar fermenting to alcohol, which resulted in an almost entirely clear, dry liquid more reminiscent of fino sherry with an aroma of honey than mead as we knew it. It was interesting and quite strong, but not what we expected.

Another project has come my way to pass the time of my indisposition, thanks to Jonathan at Connaissances, his excellent Paris-based blog which is an intriguing combination of geology, poetry, observation and comment. Mistaking me for some kind of highbrow, he has tagged me with a meme to nominate my ten favourite French films. He says he feels I should be equal to this task because I like the film 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind', which is true. I like it, and also ' Being John Malkovich', because I love the way they play with ideas about consciousness, asking who is looking out from behind the eyes and do we really know them, who is in control, to what extent are we the sum of our memories, how much do we create each other, what would we do if we could get into another's, or indeed our own, head? And they deal with authors' and artists' relationships with and manipulation of fictional and non-fictional characters, and much more. Not unrelated to these matters, I also love them because Charlie Kaufman who wrote the screenplays has, like me, a passion for the story of Abelard and Heloise, to which he openly alludes in both films.

However, this does not make me a connoisseur of French cinema! My first reaction was one of panic as I rather doubted I could remember having seen ten French films, and if I had, I probably couldn't remember their titles and certainly couldn't pretend to call them favourites. I had one or two unwatched in the DVD collection, perhaps if I made haste to watch those while on my bed of ill-health I could just about rustle up a respectable ten? On reflection, I can just about bring together a list of ten French films I have enjoyed over the years, but I regret they will be largely very predictable and unoriginal ones, but here goes:

1) L'equipier. (The Light)

Not only because it's Brittany, and despite having infidelity as a main theme, which, like Zhoen, I'm rather averse to, but for it's windswept and ruggedly beautiful setting on the island of Ouessant (or Ushant, as in 'from Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues'), and because it's the Jument lighthouse which is really the star of the show, and I'm something of a lighthouse fan. But the acting is good too, and there's a somewhat shocking little twist about one of the characters toward the end which stops it from being as predictable as it seems. To me, the subtitles, in French at least, are necessary, since the protagonists are mostly surly and monosyllabic Bretons with their teeth permanently set against the inclement weather which makes the dialogue hard to follow.
I haven't yet been to Ouessant; a young student of mine whose family collect Breton islands, says it's one of her favourites, a wild and westerly place still full of otherness. She told me of how, the day they were leaving, they had to run to catch their boat through a tempestuous storm. One boat had already run aground that day, and as they approached the quay, a coffin was being carried from their boat through the wind and the rain by dour, black-clad bearers, an exile returning at last.
It is a source of some chagrin to me that my DVD copy of this film has gone astray. I can't think who I've lent it to, and no one remembers having it. I'll replace it some time, but I keep thinking it will show up...

2) Le Peuple Migrateur ( Winged Migration )

Admittedly the soundtrack is rather naff in places, but if you love birds, as I do, it's a must, and the sheer technical achievement of filming it and all that went before, ensuring the birds imprinted without making them vulnerable and no longer wild, etc is simply remarkable. The grief and longing of the farmyard geese as the wild ones fly over is a real teary moment!

3) Amelie

Everyone's favourite, of course, what more to say? And the music is a delight too.

4) Les Enfants du Paradis ( Children of the Gods )

Predictably again. I studied Prevert, with rather mixed feelings, at A level, and went to see this over two nights at University film club. That we sat enraptured over eight hours (?) altogether in an uncomfortable lecture theatre watching a grainy black and white movie not in English gives the lie to the notion that one is less patient in one's youth. We later had it on video and never got around to watching it, even in the comfort of home.
Much of it's aura lies in the stories told about the making of it - that it was made in secret from the occupying Germans ( not actually true, they encouraged it, but were kept in ignorance of its true length and content ), that members of the cast were frequently AWOL form filming because they were running missions for the Resistance, that poor old Arletty, who as Garance was a symbol of the free and beautiful spirit of France, not to be possessed ignobly or against her will, was actually having an affair with a German officer, and missed the film's eventual release as she was standing trial as a collaborator.
Whatever, it's just one of those things you really should see!

5)& 6) Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources

Look, I told you there wouldn't be many surprises...
But just drink in that golden, lavender-scented Provencal atmosphere, weep as the good but hapless hunchback is brought low, cheer as his fey but crafty daughter eats her dish of revenge cold, but with lashings of good olive oil no doubt. Try not to have murderous thoughts about Peter Mayall, just relax and enjoy!

7) Diva

I suppose this was the French film to see when I was a student, cool, cool, cool. In fact I seem to recall it all takes place in a cool blue, almost monochrome, underwater world. Mopeds in the metro, that very French combination of whimsy and violence, and I like the way the enigmatic, loft-dwelling controlling figure spends the whole time doing a jigsaw of an enormous blue wave and a seagull, and leaves the seagull until the very last. That's the kind of thing Tom does with jigsaws.

8)L'Auberge espagnole ( Pot Luck, or The Spanish Apartment )

An engaging little ode to the joy of pan-Europeanism. The central character's love interests are singularly uninteresting, so much so that I completely failed to register that one of them was Audrey Tautou, but the general, rub-along, multilingualism, and the views of Barcelona are fun, and the chase scene culminating in Kevin Bishop's act of hilairious self-humiliation to save his sister's honour makes it all worthwhile.

10) Une hirondelle a fait le printemps ( The girl from Paris )

Nothing fancy, nothing dramatic, just a nice little film. The scene near the beginning, when the girl is arguing with her mother about wanting to go and be a farmer reminded me of nothing so much as that Monty Python spoof of the DH Lawrence-type scenario where the northern father in shirt sleeves and cloth cap is deriding his son's fancy notions about going off and being a coal miner instead of doing real work writing novels. Vegetarians and other sensitive souls be warned, some of the grislier aspects of life on the land are not glossed over.

So, there they are. Some of the younger members of my family would doubtless bemoan the absence of Belleville Rendezvous from this list, but frankly, apart from the opening musical bit, I don't really like it, though I know it's very clever. The frog eating is too gross, and I have the feeling there are too many French in-jokes I'm not understanding.

I haven't looked at anyone else's ten, lest I be discouraged, and I won't tag anyone else directly. I'm sure some of my bright, cultured and enthusiastic readers - you may not be numerous but it's quality that counts! - could come up with a few French films they've enjoyed, or else a cogent argument as to why they can't stand French cinema at any price. Over to you, my place or yours!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

What a waste...

... of a holiday to be ill in it. I knew I should have sorted out the 'flu jabs.

It's not too bad but I'm short of energy or heart for anything much, so please forgive my neglect of blogs and blogging. There's so much I wanted to write about and so many places I want to go but short of a few quick visits and replies to comments I can't seem to get much together. And we were going to go to the new Planetarium in Rennes, and to celebrate Chinese New Year on Saturday at the Lien Dong in Lamballe where I'd have had steamed wontons and Mi-Xao noodles and thought I might even ask if I could photograph the pretty embroidered panel with the restaurant's name on it...

I've put my nose outside the door a couple of times and the chiffchaffs have started singing and celandines are flowering and a whole scattering of brimstone butterflies have hatched out, oh boo hoo!

Never mind, there's still next week. See you all soon.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Rubious fragments

Now the New Year reviving old desires,

The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,

Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough

Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling...

One thing is certain, that Life flies,

One thing is certain and the Rest is Lies;

The Flower that once is blown for ever dies.

I came like Water and like Wind I go...

While the Rose blows along the River Brink,

With Old Khayyam the Ruby Vintage drink.

And when the Angel with his darker Draught

Draws up to Thee - take that and do not shrink.

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days

Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:

Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays...

Ah Love! Could Thou and I with Fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would we not shatter it to bits - and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire?

( From The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam "translated" by Edward Fitzgerald )

Monday, February 12, 2007

" How among the frozen words, Pantagruel found some odd ones."

" He then threw upon the deck whole handfuls of frozen words, which seemed to us like your rough sugar plums, of many colours, like those used in heraldry;... one of them, that was pretty big, having been warmed between the hands... gave a sound like chestnuts when they are thrown into the fire without being first cut, which made us all start.

... Panurge prayed Pantagruel to give him some more, but Pantagruel told him that to give words was the part of a lover. Sell me some then, I pray you! cried Panurge. That's the part of a lawyer, returned Pantagruel.

... I would fain have saved some merry odd words, and have preserved them in oil, as ice and snow are kept, and between clean straw, but Pantagruel would not let me, saying it was folly to hoard up what we are never like to want, or have always to hand."

( Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Bk 4, Ch. 56, trans. Urquart )

I knew why they lopped the trees like that, but not that it had a special word and history. Then, some time ago, I read a letter in a newspaper, explaining, in response to another letter of enquiry, that the practice was known as emondage. Always satisfying to have a word and an explanation, and what a curious word, what did it have to do with the world?

But I didn't keep the article, and I forgot the word. I started taking pictures of the trees, and forming what I wanted to say about them, but without the word it was a non-starter. My elderly neighbours were largely keeping withindoors for the winter, and when I did see them I forgot to ask if they knew it. The notaire, the local, partially state-salaried lawyer who deals with property matters,I thought would probably be the best bet.

This occurred to me as I came down out of the woods by my friend's house, trailing one spaniel (mine), one rumbustious collie cross and one greyhound (hers I was walking for her that day). The notaire's office is on the road just above, so I put the dogs back in their respective confines (our car rather resembles a rolling dog kennel, with vestiges of beach or woodland floor strewn about it), and walked up there, walking boots, leaf mould, dog hair and all.

Moncontour notaires' office isn't grand, some of them are, but a degree of formality is observed in these places. We were told at one time that one should address a notaire by the title Maitre, not merely Monsieur, though since many of them are now women I should imagine this has gone by the board. But even for women your chances of being accepted into the profession are reduced if your father or other senior male relative wasn't one. I said I had a question and was asked to sit and wait.

After a time, one partner came out. She listened to my enquiry with unwavering seriousness, and again, asked me to wait. I waited. And waited. The passage from Rabelais I'd once read about the frozen words like sugar plums came into my mind. I half expected this peculiar or antiquated word, once unearthed form the dusty canons of the notaires leather-bound volumes, to be brought out to me on some form of salver, possibly adorned with the tricolour ribbon much favoured on ceremonial occasions.

Eventually my notaire came back with another, who she said, spoke English. I repeated (in French) that it was a French word I wanted, that I had seen it once but lost it, it was for something I wanted to write. They pondered, was the word elagage, they suggested. No, that was a current, more general word, though often the one used for the practice. I was taken into an inner sanctum - I apologised for the muddy boots and was graciously excused - while books were consulted and 'phone calls made. Finally another colleague was contacted who came up with the word: "Emondage?" " Yes!" I cried, that was it! My impeccably correct interlocutor permitted herself a smile of satisfaction.

In fact the word is not particularly archaic, simply specialised. I came across it shortly afterwards on an information board about hedgerows at the arboretum, which I must have walked past many times.

The episode in ' Pantagruel ' is often seen as satire applicable still to the attitude of the Academie Francaise to the language, that they would keep it frozen and atrophied, rather than let it be warmed between the hands of usage, and would preserve and save the words they prefer rather than let new ones be found and formed. An interesting thing I heard recently: the word 'e-mail' is frowned upon in French, it should be replaced by the undoubtedly more elegant and well-formed 'courriel'. However, an even cleverer word having arisen for spam - 'pourriel' , its use has apparently been discountenanced by the worthies of the Academie, for no other reason one can see but that they didn't think of it, and it shows dangerous tendencies toward humour and playfulness with the language. I wonder what Rabelais would have made of it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lemon, lime and honey, everywhere.

Sunday morning, 6 am, the day like a blissful calm unruffled pool before me, a thunderstorm which had beat on the bedroom Velux just passed. The first real day of the February holiday
"...and Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize it's the first day of the holidays" (- The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe ).
My adults sent off to look after their grandchildren or whatever, my teenagers to have a well-earned rest from studying for bacs and brevets, a good roast dinner with friends last night, the second viral bug of the winter on the way out, one friend and one family member each on chemo seem, mercifully, to be on the way up, fingers crossed.
I made a cup of lemon and lime blossom tea with honey, and put on Tallis. Ah, Spem in alium, like drinking deep from a well of translated souls; I breathed deep and waited for the computer to come on-line, my spiritual state was deliciously elevated...
Some movement, I know not what, and my sleeve caught the cup of tisane and pulled it off the table, its contents spilling onto onto my dressing gown, my pyjama leg, the bean bag, the floor and the dog. Fortunately, my somewhat lax attention to the pooch's grooming makes for a thick coat, she was surprised rather than hurt, and the bean bag broke the fall of the mug, a favourite bone china one, which remained intact.
Amazing the spreading power of one teaspoonful of honey when diluted in half a pint of herb tea. Molly is not sure she likes the flavour as she licks it off her hindquarters, dogs are not over-fond of citrus, and having no knowledge of Proust ( less even than I...), do not appreciate lime blossom much either. She insists that the bean bag stay where it is, wet patch or no wet patch, as that's where she goes at this time of the morning. If I must focus my attention on that nasty boring computer rather than her, she should at least be parked as close as possible.
By the time I had mopped up, shed the dressing gown and made fresh tisane, Spem in alium had finished, but I am still serene, if a little sticky.
Apologies to tall girl for the apparent plagiarism; I thought of you as I was clearing up, and the fickle nature of life, fate and comestible liquids.

Someone, an actress, I forget who, had an English setter (dog) called Tallis. I so wish I'd thought of that.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I simply can't wait.

I was going to wait until she arrived in the flesh, or rather in the stone, before featuring her on the blog, but I simply can't.
This is the swan sculpture Tom chose from the works of the very wonderful and talented Jantien , who lives and works in Amsterdam, for a Big birthday he has coming this year. I would perhaps have been tempted by another swan in green serpentine, but his was the one he fell in love with (- I kept catching him gazing at her on the screen in close-up -) in alabaster, so I've put down 25% on her, and she'll arrive later this year. She's currently being feted and admired at Jantien's expo in Holland, but no-one else can have her!
We haven't actually met her yet, though I did see her in a half-formed state while she was being carved. Jantien and her lovely partner Jessy pack up everything in their yellow bus and head west each summer to stay with our friend Emilie, who's Jessy's mum, but Jantien can't leave home without a lump of stone and chisels, so the environs of Emilie's house tend to be scattered with chips of exotic geology for much of the month of August.
We had long been promising ourselves a piece of strokable stone sculpture, Little Swan seems to fit the bill!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


L'émondage means pruning, or lopping of trees, more specifically here it is a practice of harvesting wood, mainly oak and chestnut. Tenant farmers in this part of Brittany were not allowed to fell trees in around the fields they rented, but did have the right to l'émondage: removal of dead and inessential growth for use as firewood. This source of heat being ever at a premium, this method has become standard among all land users, owner and tenant alike, and what is considered inessential wood is taken to extremes, so that all but a topmost branch - and sometimes not even that is spared - is lopped off, at intervals of about every nine years.

At one time, the more substantial branches were put to more durable use, fence posts, beams, sawn for planks; my elderly neighbour remembers how he and his brother as quite little boys would saw planks with a two-man saw in a saw-pit, as the younger and smaller brother he had always to go below in the pit and be covered in sawdust. Everything else, down to the smallest twigs, was bound and burned as fagots, in fireplaces where the draw was so bad that the door had to be left open, thereby reducing the benefit of the fire, to avoid the room filling with smoke.

Now, with tractors and chainsaws and centrally heated homes - most farmers hereabouts disdain to live in old stone farmhouses, which they often sell to starry-eyed British people with more enthusiasm than money and more of both than sense, and generally live in neat modern rendered 'neo-Breton style' dwellings at some distance from their place of work - only the large branches are deemed worth bothering with as firewood. They are chopped into logs, and the brushwood, which can contain quite decent-sized pieces, is piled up in the winter fields and burned in great bonfires which pour heat and carbon dioxide into the open sky, smouldering on for days and days. An enterprising and environmentally aware goat farmer near here is attempting to curb this waste and to persuade others to chip the stuff and use it in special furnaces for some of their energy needs (drying hay, heating sheds, etc), but with limited success, I think. The outlay on plant and man-hours make it economically uninteresting.

The practice of l'émondage is also convenient for modern farming methods and machinery, which have already caused the hedgerows to be reduced drastically. Every last inch of cultivable land can thus be squeezed without spreading branches getting in the way. (Also, chestnuts standing alone need to be pruned, or they can become top-heavy and split.) It has had a marked effect on the look of the countryside; the trees acquire a habit of growth where a plethora of small branches sprout from the trunk radially, and leaving in the topmost branch results in a small, tasselled crown and a variety of quirky, kinked forms and angles, especially visible in the winter months.

At times the trees appear deformed, misshapen, tortured, mutilated, stunted, or like giant furry caterpillars, bizarre.

But in some lights they can, to my eyes, take on a peculiar, stark, calligraphic beauty, like lines of a mysterious Ogham alphabet inscribed across the landscape.

In being shaped by humans, they sometimes seem to have anthropomorphic attitudes and characteristics; they can look like family groups,




Some, like this venerable old grandfather, have clearly reached great age and girth.

The stress of the lopping undoubtedly weakens them, making them susceptible to galls, fungus, and colonisation by ivy. The indwelling creeper makes a tree within a tree, green and opaque all the year round. In winter twilight, the straggling branches radiating from the dark ivy-clad body can give the tree a menacing aspect.

Yet the ivy provides food and shelter for many birds; it supports and conceals nests, blackbirds strip the purplish green berries in hard times, and thrushes find the small yellow and violet snails which seem to be their favourites, and break them on the stones at the base.

I need to know wilderness exists, but I am not sure I could live in it. Wilderness is glorious, but this is not wilderness, but highly managed, intensively used agricultural land, in some ways over exploited and laid waste by farming. The wildwood here is long gone, and even the richly peopled microcosm of the hedgerow is dwindling; these maimed survivors of trees are the vestiges, the ghosts of those things. Yet we still rely on firewood, and we feast quite well on chestnuts in the autumn, as the jays do on acorns. I would like to honour these trees; they may be damaged and struggling, they may have lost their wildwood innocence by the harm we have done them, but they continue to provide warmth and food and shelter, and they maintain, in my eyes and in their fashion, their own character, dignity and grace.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Three haiku

Oak head, ivy fused,

Seems to breathe in lapwings

Passing over, beyond.

Hill's shoulder, lopped tree,

Magpie out of the blue

- the camera saw, not eye.

Small mauve embryos

Of false acacia,

A sweet chestnut's spiny nest.