Tag Archives: leaves

The silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.

I’ve been meaning to get around to writing something a bit less ‘oh mama, can this really be the end?’ around here, something rather more reflective of my usual generally pretty chipper life and times. Only, over the last few weeks, life hasn’t been the usual, not really. It’s been just stressful and angry, lonely and hard, missing persons, and pretty awful overall, with bright spots cast by the wonderful people I try to surround myself with and by climbing high enough to get above the fog (literally, but also a painfully obvious metaphor, no?).
Also the damn wind won’t stop blowing, which I hate. It makes cycling, and indeed walking in the ‘wrong’ direction, feel like a chore – it can’t have been like this last April when I first got Leon (yes, I have been a cyclist for one year and one day!), now it just feels awfully inexhaustible, and exhausting. Although I have just recently gone caffeine-neutral as an experiment, so that might also not be helping. It is not good!

Anyway – to write, you need some inspiration, and I’ll be honest, I am truly spoiled for it. It’s spring and I’m springin Edinburgh where so much of the city is bordered in fantastic vivid sap green, everything that was so sad just a few weeks ago, so bleak and dried-up, has come to life and it’s all bursting with newness and potential. I guess that this is almost the best time of the year for that. Bright sunlight streaming dappled through these many leaves feels like a real blessing, all the better for its having been away so long. I hope I never lose the delight of witnessing this annual return to life. I mean, it’s been 25 years and, just as Samir said the other week, it just seems to get more miraculous and joyful each time, not less.

Apart from leaves, there’s friends and art. The quietly wonderful James Robertson, who I’m lucky enough to know in a professional capacity, brought a breath of fresh air, and the word ‘bawheidedness’, into the quiet of the Scottish Poetry Library (which is in itself a very excellent thing) with a bubblingly brilliant reading from the two latest pamphlets from his press, Kettillonia. Again, that warm feeling, like springtime, of newness out of the old, surprises out of the familiar.  Gordon Dargie read powerfully and passionately, and often funnily, of youth and young manhood; James read reflectively and raptly, soft echoes resounding in his words of lives past, glowing, glints.

He was kind enough to insist on presenting me with a copy of his book which I’d expressed an interest in. It’s gorgeous. I probably should read rather more contemporary fiction. Off the top of my head, novels that I’ve read that were originally published in the past ten years: Everything is Illuminated, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, The Good Mayor, and now half of James’ novel The Testament of Gideon Mack. I’ve enjoyed them all, in different ways. I’m sure there must be some others I’m forgetting (oh, something by Will Self, but those are all the same really), but yeah, the point is, I don’t do it much. There’s always just so many books I want to read and most of them aren’t contemporary, not really, now that the twentieth century’s been and gone. I suppose in a way that puts García Márquez, Heller, Kundera into the ever-stretching bracket of [the past] with the classics and epics; what chance do I have against the weight of all the past and all that’s never done nor dusted?

But to get to what was supposed to be the point: now there’s something that’s kept me inspired, kept spinning in my head, filling up those dry old channels which are usually full of crust and crud like thinking about work, conversations I have had, I might have, I didn’t have, wondering what people are doing, thinking, wondering what I’m going to have for tea tonight. These mental arteries like drought-stricken, dusty riverbeds are now green and overgrown (like the fantastic, lush peace of the huge half-forgotten cemetery, full of bluebells and birdsong, that I climbed into on Monday with Sarah) with thoughts of essential music, rhythms and patterns, colours; thoughts of Wounded Knee.

Wounded Knee is a downright incredible dude. For one thing, he’s amazing at communicating – getting across what he’s thinking and feeling to his audience, which is what makes him such a different prospect from an evening with most artists. I think it’s fair to say that the phrase ‘audience participation’ usually strikes a chilling chord of fear and horror in the hearts of all right-minded people (it was ruined at an early age by the multifaceted badness that was schools’ theatre), but somehow WK manages to make this feel like collaboration rather than participation, something much more natural and joyful, like connection. The bowling ball song and the birdsong, and ramsons (one of my favourite words and definitely one of my favourite smells, it’s a long story, but they’re the wonderful smell of the Hermitage in spring and summer, the cycle paths, the burn, the cemetery too, and I’ve long thought they’re the smell I will most miss if I ever go and live elsewhere. I’ve never been anywhere else where it’s so easy to surround yourself with that wonderful fresh greenness in the middle of a real, populated city). The sound, the fury, the sheer cathartic noise of a room full of young people really thinking about testicular cancer; screaming, a gong. Being more than the sum of our parts. The awareness, somewhere in the sidelines, of how odd it might look, if I could be outside looking in at myself, to be so rapt – wrapped – in the depth and sincerity and resonance of the unamplified songs of a man in purple underpants standing by a white wall.

The first time I saw Wounded Knee it was like falling down the rabbit-hole. It’s just like that, I guess, with the tangible texture and growth of his sound using loop pedals; the surprise of hearing something I never had heard —

The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next. First, she tried to look down and make out what she was coming to, but it was too dark to see anything: then she looked at the sides of the well, and noticed that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves: here and there she saw maps and pictures hung upon pegs.

but this time, at the second Downsizesound, there was no electricity and no loops, it was more level, all of our many feet remaining on the ground, but a feeling more like finding yourself in a secret green glade – a blossoming arbour or a mossy clearing in a vibrant old forest – with one you just realised you love. Tapping in to something bigger and older and darker and more alive than any of us. Sharing time and sounds and silence. And knowing what someone means, or getting the impression that you know, insofar as we ever can know what anyone means, is just unbeatable.

Alasdair Roberts did wonderful things with words. I’m no music critic (as you’ll have noticed) and don’t really know how much I can say about him other than to say it’s really not often I come away from a gig thinking ‘that must be a bit what it must be like if you could be in a very small intimate space with some of the Decemberists’, or ‘that must have been a bit what it was like to see a young Bob Dylan’, and definitely not both at once, but this is what I thought about him. He also seemed to reference Yeats, bringing back welcome echoes of the first poem my mother ever read to me – ‘because a fire was in my blood’, I recalled happily at his tale of the hazel wood, and given the fortnight that had gone before this night, was it ever. I’d been thinking, talking about hazel trees just the other day, I perhaps ascribe too much significance to coincidence sometimes, but if I were you I’d not be surprised to see the image of some lucky Corylus avellana leaf coming soon to a ribcage near you. Alasdair Roberts sang, heartfelt and convincing and light (in the way that insect wings are light and beautiful, not beer or entertainment) songs of dowsing, really quite considerable gore, the three ages of man, sociopathy and saturninity (gosh I love that word. Word of the week, I think), among other things, and that is some feat.

An incredibly vivifying evening was brought to a close by the spirited Issho Taiko drummers – four people, many different drums, accompanied by accordion, flute, guitars played with skewers, xylophone. To say they had impressive technical skills is really not the half of it, the red-blooded forceful drumming coming together with the otherworldly melodies to bring about a breathtaking, haunting happening in the room. A deep, vital,  feeling suffused me, deep in my belly, the same place as sex or somewhere very near it. Joyous and uplifting, it just physically got to me: made me stand up straight, made me feel taller and kind of better, grounded, self-aware. It also underlined, or was, the reason for seeing this sort of thing (and no, I have no idea what ‘this sort of thing’ is either) live because recorded it’s like losing a dimension or two or three. Sometimes gigs can just be adding vision to sound, seeing people play songs you’ve heard before; this couldn’t have been much more different. It was adding vision and touch and experience to sound; feeling and hearing and doing something totally new – it was collective, people joining and working wonderfully together – which I think is both necessary and inspiring; exaltant, and in truth, revolutionary.
(And for more on that note: Nowtopia, which I should write more about but don’t have time because the Edinburgh book launch is happening right now! Read and learn and be the change.)

Mayday

remember that day when we saw the kite caught in the big tree
the little ginger cat from your neighbour’s garden had followed us all the way to the shop
the red kite in the big tree and you with grass stains on the knees of your jeans
i think every boy in the park climbed into that tree to get the kite back down,
human pyramids, twelve boys up in the big tree and you and me laughing at the foot
playing catch with an old tennis ball

and in the end they got it and the pretty girl said thank you
and in the end none of them took her home
pollok dave said he got her number but elgin dave said he never did
either way, we didn’t see her again.
in the evening your neighbours had a barbecue and shouted over the wall for us to come round
we fed that little ginger cat on scraps of chicken until it fell contentedly asleep
the sky was all orangey fading into slate

There she goes, my beautiful world.

planeUp until I was about nine or so, I always thought these were called ‘plain trees’ – no special name, just your common-or-garden, standard variety tree. In London, where I lived, they’re all over the place, so it seemed a reasonable assumption. In fact it’s spelled ‘plane’ and they are London Planes, Platanus × hispanica (or × acerifolia).
The London Plane is a hybrid of two trees from either side of the world, Platanus orientalis and P. occidentalis. The Eurasian one, orientalis, is obviously the closer to home for me and is the one that interests me more. It (like the London plane) is huge, beautiful, sturdy, fast-growing and long-lived — they’re particularly revered in Greece, where at Kos, there’s one that’s supposed to be 2,400 years old under which Hippocrates taught medicine.
The leaves can be used to treat certain eye problems, and while (unlike me) the plane tree is super tough and hardy, (like me) it loves and needs sunlight — in fact, from one of the tree books I love so much at the national library I’ve made a note of the decisive sentence, ‘It cannot grow in the shade’.

Really though, for me, this one is about where I’m from and remembering how much good and beauty and strength I get from that. My other two leaves, for their own reasons, are to do with growth and newness, looking forward and finding my own way in the world, my place in Edinburgh, where I’m at or where I’m going more than where I’ve been. This leaf, which I picked up last time I was down there on my way to Camp for Climate Action 2008, is to balance that out a bit, is about recognising that the past is wonderful too and that, as I keep saying, I’m very lucky and blessed to have such fantastic people in my life who have always been there for me. To remind myself, perhaps, a little, that it’s not always all about what’s new: you need roots and wings.
Home and family are all mixed up together for me; memories of London are inevitably memories of my brother, my parents, and my sister’s birth. Memories of primary school and starting to know myself, learning to learn. The first pavements I ever walked were scattered with plane leaves, and so this seems only natural, simple and right.

London, of course, is the hometown of very many other people, many great and inspiring people. Not least among them is William Morris, the great Walthamstownian (that is clearly not a word, but should be). I’ve quoted him here before and will again (particularly if and when I add an elm leaf to my little gallery – see Previously on Alice’s torso), because he’s endlessly appropriate. All of these together, with my lily and shooting star, are symbolic of Morris’s and my shared understanding that there is so much beauty, so much deserving of awe and adoration in nature, and that it’s worth looking after. So, I think I shall leave you with him today, on pattern-designing:

You may be sure that any decoration is futile, and has fallen into at least the first stage of degradation, when it does not remind you of something beyond itself, of something of which it is but a visible symbol. […]
[T]hose natural forms which are at once most familiar and most delightful to us, as well from association as from beauty, are the best for our purpose. The rose, the lily, the tulip, the oak, the vine, and all the herbs and trees that even we cockneys know about, they will serve our turn better than queer, outlandish, upsidedown-looking growths. If we cannot be original with these simple things, we shan’t help ourselves out by the uncouth ones.

(lecture, 1881)

I know what you talk about in your sleep.

A quick note of some things that have been happening: I look out of windows. I go to parties. I enjoy the kind warm light of summer evenings and I stay up late. I write letters. I go for walks, I go for bike rides, I try to capture little moments and pieces of things. I try to hold on. I smile, I grin, I laugh, and I make other people laugh. I kiss. I remember.

I went to the zoo in the course of my voluntary work (meaning I didn’t have my camera) and I saw a black jaguar. It was just insanely beautiful. I will have to go back.

I grow beans! P gave me a scarlet runner bean one night, I planted it in my kitchen and was enchanted, thrilled, delighted to see it grow.

weekend
So then I asked him for another one for my office and he gave me three so my colleagues could join the fun – ‘in the spirit of competition’, he said. The race is on. D’s is the tallest and mine is the smallest, right now, which is sort of like our bodies as well. Slow and steady. The one in the kitchen is huge and it’s tying itself in knots, but I think in a happy way.

I went to a party and met lots of people, some of whom were lovely; I talked to people I’d met before and people I only ever see at parties. In the morning, a boy who is an experimental physicist at CERN sat and kindly explained to me about subatomic particles, and the large hadron collider, and the Higgs boson, and why it was important. He wanted to know why I was interested, and seemed happy with my explanation. Behind him, the large kitchen window treated us to a view of the gradually changing sky as the sun came up, from darkness into the most beautiful, bright, pure, sunny day I’ve seen in ages. Conor brought up Richard P. Feynman, quoted something from What Do You Care What Other People Think?. He seemed pleased that I’d heard of him before, knew something about him, as with Murray Gell-Mann, Max Planck, ALICE, singularities and everything else for which I have Laurence to thank. In RPF’s case, actually, it is not L but my parents, I read a book or two of his from their shelves when I was younger, I feel I should state this, I don’t know why.

Here’s one of my favourite things he wrote, on the same note:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere”. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
(The Feynman Lectures on Physics, 1964)

I walked on home through the morning and everything shone. With dew and new sunlight, but also with something else, I think.

Last night I went to Medina with P and we heard the most amazing thing, a lean man in a check shirt and black beard stepped up on to the modest little stage and he sang; in the yellow and red light he made a thousand wonderful sounds using only his voice, with a loop pedal gently stroking layers upon layers of resonant rhythms, of murmurs and howls… There’s no way that words are ever going to get close to explaining it. And yeah, there were other performers, there was other music as well. But Wounded Knee and his wondrous wandering lament for Phil O’Donnell blew my tiny mind.
I talked to Simon Kirby who is one of my most admired living people and I hadn’t seen him for ages. I hugged him, in fact. I hope I did not make a fool of myself. Si told us about an upcoming installation he’s working on, where bamboo robots will make traditional Chinese music float in and out of home-grown Scottish leaves and blossoms, echoes fading through the midsummer night’s air. Sometimes, I think I must have dreamed things but actually they were real. I can’t wait.
We stayed out late and lay in the grass in the big dark park because we didn’t feel like going home yet; it was a school night but fuck it, I wanted to see stars. Then as I walked home, savouring again the strange bluish quiet of a deserted Princes Street, I listened to my mp3 player and it played (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? What, indeed.

In the morning I had an email, a sort of free-association free-verse, from Rémy who was one of the loveliest people I’d met at the party; we’d bonded over our mutual love of notes and notebooks, and I’d hoped I’d hear from him again sometime.

alice's afternoon off
It was strictly too sunny to be at work, and I felt funny and fuzzy from lack of sleep, so I just took the afternoon off and rode my bike around in Holyrood Park and it looked like this.

This is my life and it’s pretty fucking incredible, you know.

This one’s from the heart.

lime, hornbeamLIME (is the British name) or linden leaves are heart-shaped and especially beautiful, most especially especially at this time of year. Just go and look at some, they’re everywhere.

In Norse and early Germanic religion, the linden was highly revered and associated with Freyja, the goddess of fertility, attraction and love. In Greek myth too (or just Ovid), it’s lovey-dovey because of the story of Baucis and Philemon. They were an old married couple who, although they were poor, showed kindness and hospitality to Zeus and Hermes (in disguise) and were rewarded by being granted their only wish: to be together forever, even in death. He was turned into an oak tree and she a lime, and there they stood, intertwined, in the deserted bog that was the ruin of their town (the gods had to destroy it because everyone else was too wicked, see).

The association with romance has continued through European art and literature, via people like Walther von der Vogelweide (scroll down – Unter der linden is the third one on that page) all the way down to Nick Cave. Aw.

Tilia platyphyllos (the large-leaved lime) is one of only about 30something trees native to Britain – only the south though, which is where I’m native to, too. It and its friend Tilia cordata and their hybrid Tilia x europaea are very frequently planted as ornamental trees, or shade trees in parks and gardens. The European thing is to have long lime-lined avenues, like Unter den Linden in Berlin and the gorgeous Frederiksberg Allé in København. It used to be a closed street, with gates, which only the King and his family (that’s Frederik) could use, but luckily for me it was opened to the public in 1863. I walked down there on September 14, 2006, which became one of the most unutterably beautiful days of my life.

Lime blossoms make a sweet and pleasant tea which has been used as a remedy for, among other things, headaches, indigestion, fever, liver disorders, anxiety and hysteria. The wood is soft and easily worked so it is favoured by carvers, including the most excellently-named Grinling Gibbons, and my uncle Roli who is totally ace and taught me about the Gibmeister, having just completed a degree in Ornamental Woodworking. The blossoms are also good for a light, delicate but beautifully flavoured honey. This tree is all about the prettiness.

Sun in the sky, you know how I feel.

Yeah, I’m feeling good. Today is a day off (extracurricular work – I did go to lectures) and it feels much better when it comes after a few days of actually having done some work rather than just many guiltily taken days off in a row.
Sooooo, ink.
new ink
I am going to get four or five more all down my right side/ribs – different species of tree and in different springy, summery and autumny colours – over the next year or so. I am in love with it. I think it is super beautiful. And it didn’t even hurt that much. Arnica makes me superwoman.

Leaves are beautiful, but they’re also a memento mori, for obvious reasons, and even more so for a less obvious reason. I was lucky to know a wonderful woman and rabbi, Erlene, who sadly died last year. She had been in hospital in London for some time and we’d been writing to one another; when I heard that she had died, I’d recently made her this little card with bright green dyed leaf skeletons (I bought them from Millers, oddly), and having nowhere to send it to, it sat on the mantelpiece in our old flat for nearly a year (until we moved out), reminding me of her.

Trees are links to the past, and they inspire me. I like to touch them. And, to quote, erm, myself, “I think it’s fair to say they are much greater than us – so much bigger, older, slower, grander, and harder to hurt. And they do so much for the world, and don’t do anything evil or malicious. They’re a home for birds, insects and all the coolest animals of the forest, like squirrels and bats. Um, actually I think bats live in caves. But never mind. And they make the air that we breathe. They’re amazing.”

Some (many) people translated this respect and awe into actual tree-worship (cf. The Golden Bough). Lots of funky nature worship stuff right here in Scotland, and to a perhaps surprising extent trees and nature are important in Judaism too. Most obvious example would probably be the popular idea of Etz Chaim (The Tree of Life) or Tu Bishvat – we celebrate the trees’ birthday! yay! – but they also come into play at Sukkot and Shavuot. The Torah – the Law – itself is described in a common prayer as being “a tree of life for all who hold fast to it: its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”

Ruskin love: “The leaves of the herbage at our feet take all kinds of strange shapes, as if to invite us to examine them. Star-shaped, heart-shaped, spear-shaped, arrow-shaped, fretted, fringed, cleft, furrowed, serrated, sinuated, in whorls, in tufts, in spires, in wreaths, endlessly expressive, deceptive, fantastic, never the same from footstalks to blossom, they seem perpetually to tempt our watchfulness, and take delight in outstripping our wonder.”

This particular leaf came from a hornbeam tree in George Square, near the labyrinth; I picked it up just after a very pensive stroll around it last week, when I’d been thinking about lots of important things that I still am not entirely ready to go into here because they’re complex and hmm, painful. But lots of other nicer things as well. And, yeah, I am incredibly happy that I came here to Edinburgh and have a lot of respect and joy and happy memories and all that sort of stuff tied up with that particular geographical area. don’twanttoleave. Now I’ll always have a little part of it with me, forever.

Amusingly (I only found this out the other day), hornbeam is the Bach Flower Remedy used “against feelings of exhaustion and tiredness that come before an effort has been made. The person in this state feels that he or she is too tired to cope with the demands of the day. It’s easier to stay in bed or put off making a start – but if an effort can be made to get started the weariness will fade, a sign that unlike the Olive state this is a mental rather than a physical weariness.”
The website quotes Dr. Bach himself: “For those who feel that they have not sufficient strength, mentally or physically, to carry the burden of life placed upon them; the affairs of every day seem too much for them to accomplish, though they generally succeed in fulfilling their task. For those who believe that some part, of mind or body, needs to be strengthened before they can easily fulfil their work.”
I have an anti-procrastination tattoo! Heh.

And just to make today even more awesome, I got a nice jumper from a charity shop for four pounds.