Fàd a’ Chaorain

I’ve experienced agoraphobia, or at least that’s one explanation for what it was, only once in my life. I was travelling by train from Glasgow to Fort William in February, one of only a handful of passengers spread between the two carriages of the train. We crossed Rannoch Moor late in the afternoon. I remember peering out of the window into what seemed like emptiness: the moor stretched and fading, a monochrome of rock, turf, bog and water. Everything solid was smeared with thin, wet snow, appearing indistinct and yet oppressive. Even the mountains that circled the moor were both far away and looming.

I became disorientated, clinging to my seat while at the same time floundering out on the moor. The sensation was brief but overwhelming. I’ve never felt so lost. I pulled myself together – that’s how it seemed, as though I had to haul some part of me back onto the train – and spent the rest of the journey unnerved, buried in a book for distraction, grateful that, as night fell, the windows reflected back the lights of the carriage, keeping out the dark.

Rannoch Moor is a big chunk of land in the Central Highlands. It’s no wilderness – its ecology has been drastically affected by the presence of man – but it’s certainly remote and, in these overcrowded islands, it has a rare sense of spaciousness. You can walk for days without crossing a road or bumping into another human; although, of course, it wasn’t always thus. Like everywhere in the Highlands, the moor bears the terrible imprint of the Clearances – that period during the 18th and 19th centuries when so many communities were forcibly uprooted and pushed out to the unproductive margins, the rocky coasts, or else herded onto emigrant ships bound for America and Canada. You don’t need to wander far on the moor to find signs of the people who once lived there: at a bend in a river, an old settlement, the houses roofless but with their walls intact, the lintel stones above the hearths still black from cooking fires.

Since that train journey in my mid-­twenties, I’ve returned to Rannoch Moor again and again. I’ve walked across it and climbed the mountains at its edges. I’ve gained a bright store of memories: a glorious swim in the Allt na Caim after a hot day’s walk, the water peat­stained and golden in the sun; two days in a tent reading Sorley MacLean while a gale scoured the moor, the tent like a curach, prow to the wind, its skin keeping me dry and buoyant in the pouring rain; an evening on top of Glas Bheinn, watching the sun burn the ridges and peaks of the Aonach Eagach as it fell.

The moor’s a good place to learn to be alone, and often, when out on it, I’ve felt a loosening of self that seems far healthier than that first experience of dislocation on the train. I’ve also begun to learn about the moor itself, its seasons and its plants and birds and beasts. And I’ve delved into its cultural ecology, its stories, spending hours doing detective work online and in the National Library, sifting through books and journals, seeking versions of a particular story or making the connections between place-­names and events. Better still, I’ve sought out and learnt from those with a life’s store of passed-down tales. It’s been a joyful learning.

Rannoch Moor is rich in all the different layers of story, from local tales of memorable events and characters, to legends of the Fianna. Tales of Fionn and his men abound on the moor and the glens that surround it, a wild theatre for their exploits, and at the heart of the moor lies the loch of Fionn’s son, Oisien the Bard. These stories animate the land, drawing us to a deeper relationship with it and the people who once lived there. Through them we glimpse the world view of a Celtic culture that flourished in Scotland for fifteen hundred years. But there are deeper layers still, older stories.

Out on the moor you’ll find traces of the peat banks that were worked by generations of families, cutting the peats each summer to dry and then store for winter fuel. This is still practised in Scotland, though mostly now only on the Outer Hebrides. On a fresh cut bank you can see most clearly the different strata: from the turf on top to the first spongy layers of peat and down to the fàd a’ chaorain, or bottom layer. This is where you find the darkest, densest peat. There are stories from Rannoch Moor that equate to the fàd a’ chaorain, that carry the deepest myths of the land: stories of giants and earth shapers; stories of the Cailleach herself, ‘the veiled one’.

It’s said that there are three great ages: the age of the eagle, the age of the yew tree, and the age of the Cailleach. These aren’t spans of time as we moderns perceive them. This is big, deep, ancestor time and the Cailleach is the oldest of all. She’s first mother, mountain maker and loch former. She’s also the goddess of winter and controller of the elements. And in Scotland, uniquely, she’s the mistress and protector of deer. There are countless tales in the Highlands of the Cailleach tending to her herd of hinds, as well as accounts of her shape­-shifting into a deer herself. Such stories suggest a link to other northern cultures and their shamanic traditions, like the reindeer-­herding Sámi (it’s worth noting that some experts date the extinction of reindeer in Scotland to as late as the 12th century). It’s also been argued that these tales represent surviving fragments of a deer-­cult that came north with the hunter gatherers who gradually populated the glens at the end of the last ice­-age.

What I find remarkable, what prickles my hair and sets my head spinning, is that here in the UK – one of the epicentres of modernity – there remains what the folklorist Hamish Henderson called a ‘carrying stream’: an oral tradition of song and story that survives even to the present day. And borne on that stream are tales that take us all the way back: folk memories from a pre-­Christian and possibly even pre­-Celtic people; stories that collapse time, defying the distance between us and the earliest inhabitants of this land.

The Cailleach is closely associated with a particular mountain on Rannoch Moor: Beinn a’ Bhric, ‘the speckled mountain’. It’s to the high corries of Beinn a’ Bhric that she leads her hinds in the summer. By day they graze the sweet mountain grass and in the long evenings she milks them, singing songs to let any hunter nearby know that she’s present (woe betide those who disturb the Cailleach at her milking). Today modernity intrudes even on Beinn a’ Bhric. A wide stalker’s track has been laid half way up the mountain, so that wealthy businessmen can be hauled up to shoot the deer that still frequent the corries. But you can climb away from the track, and if you know where to look you can find, near the summit, the Cailleach’s well. And drinking from it – the same well used by those early hunters who would have quenched their thirst and made their offerings – it feels like no great thing to shrug off a few thousand years, it feels possible to enter into some kind of communion.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE

 

What would Qohelet do?

You may recall the popular song from the ’60s, the chorus of which ran:

To everything
Turn Turn Turn
There is a season
Turn Turn Turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven 1

Written and composed by Pete Seeger and later popularised by the Byrds, the words of the song are largely drawn from the writings of an ancient Israelite man named Qohelet.

Qohelet lived around the mid-300s BCE, likely in Jerusalem, and his writings are preserved in a book of the Hebrew bible by the same name (in English bibles, Ecclesiastes). He probably was not a king, as is said in the book, but was likely a sage or philosopher. Referred to as the Teacher or Preacher, the editor of the book may have been one of his students.

The book is part of the Israelite wisdom tradition – a broad range of literature that is concerned very directly with life, and how to deal with the difficulties and challenges of our existence. The book of Qohelet is unique in being highly skeptical of the goodness of God and of the value of wisdom itself. Its approach is so unusual that people have wondered how it made its way into the bible at all.

While it is a lovely and melodic rendering, Seeger’s song gives a wrong impression of the book – the sense of cosmic justice and balance that is conveyed by Seeger’s song (most of which is drawn from the beginning of ch. 3) is a far cry from the sense of futility that Qohelet experiences and which pervades the book.

The Qohelet we find in the pages of his book is a serious and curious man, a sort of Hunter S. Thompson cultural explorer and recorder who, after a long life during which he had attained much in the way of status and material success (2:4-8), takes it upon himself to thoroughly examine his society. By poking and prodding into all its corners he hopes to find what, if anything, is the meaning of life.

I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. (1:16-17) 2

In his search for answers he tenaciously observes what is happening in the lives of the people around him, rich and poor, old and young. Relentlessly clear-eyed, he does not allow himself to succumb to self-delusion or sugar coat what is going on around him. He is not susceptible to spin. As Qohelet says, ‘The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness’ (2:14). And as his editor says, ‘he wrote words of truth plainly’ (12:10).

As a result of his explorations Qohelet concludes that the world can be summed up in one word: hebel. This word is typically translated as ‘vanity’, but because ‘vanity’ now almost always has the sense of being vain or conceited, the true sense of the world as it is meant by Qohelet is not conveyed. A more accurate translation of hebel than ‘vanity’ is ‘a breath, whiff, puff, vapour’ and it refers to anything that is illusory, incomprehensible, futile, or meaningless. This sense of meaninglessness is at the heart of the book – ‘vanity’ appears 38 times and is the first word after the superscription and Qohelet’s last word in 12:8. The superlative construction ‘vanity of vanities’ that begins and ends the book points to complete and utter meaninglessness. Nothing we possess, be it material goods, pleasure, or religion, can change the fact that everything is ephemeral and ultimately futile. As Qohelet discovers in the course of his inquiries, even the pursuit of wisdom itself is finally nothing but folly and ‘a chasing after wind’ (1:17).

*

The society that Qohelet lived in is an echo of our own. At the time he was writing, the Persian empire which ruled throughout the Near East had replaced Israel’s agrarian subsistence economy with a monetary economy, based on standardized currency. Epigraphic evidence from the period shows that money was being used in large and small business transactions, given as gifts and bribes, and hoarded. It is the growth and development of this monetary economy that provides the socio-economic context of the book. The book’s vocabulary suggests an audience very concerned with the economy; it is full of words like money, riches, private possession, salary, surplus, yield, account, assets, worker, and consumer. 3

A key part of the economic system imposed throughout the empire was a system of property grants. These grants gave rights over various properties to favoured individuals, military personnel, or temple communities; additionally, even more exclusive royal grants were given outright to relatives and friends of the crown. Recipients of these grants were required to collect taxes from their lands for the king, but were entitled to keep a portion.

Needless to say, under this system there were fortunate people who fared extremely well, and there were unfortunate ones who received little or nothing at all. The system benefited the political elites with friends in high places and those powerful entrepreneurs who had access to large amounts of capital; at an obvious disadvantage were smallholders, whose political influence and access to capital was limited. Not surprisingly, the gap between the rich and the lower classes grew larger, with the rich becoming extremely powerful and the poor becoming more and more vulnerable.

One option available to people wanting to get ahead in the empire was to take out a loan. Interest rates were high, however, and it was easy to fall behind on payments. In the event of default an entire estate could be seized – lands, house, children, and slaves. Based on studies of Persian documents of the period, it appears that something was occurring at the time Qohelet was writing that suddenly caused many people to lose their land holdings. Those who once possessed property had to give it up and many found themselves imprisoned for debt or enslaved.

The sense drawn from these documents is that in this competitive economic environment some people were willing to do just about anything to move ahead, and that the rich were getting around the law at the poor’s expense. Qohelet condemns this economic culture, viewing it as one in which people were deluded into thinking that ‘money meets every need’ (10:19) and driven by envy to strive for success that could not be satisfied:

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. (5:10; cf. 4:4-8)

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind . Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ they ask, ‘and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This also is vanity and an unhappy business. (4:4, 7-8)

Greedy consumers could not find peace, either because of indigestion or anxiety concerning their investments. ‘Sweet is the sleep of labourers, whether they eat little or much, but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep’ (5:12).

In addition to being at the mercy of rich and powerful proprietors, ordinary citizens were victimised by corrupt courts and judges and unscrupulous priests. ‘Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well’ (3:16). He also warned against the government and its spies, for to say too much could mean being scooped up by the state security apparatus. ‘Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter’ (10:20).

As he looked around at his world, Qohelet saw a volatile and unpredictable place where there was a lot to worry about and very little of certainty. People found themselves caught up in rapid political and economic change, and most were helpless to do anything about it. Theirs was an upside-down world in which nothing seemed reliable or permanent; even people who had been given grants could not rely on having them forever. ‘I have seen slaves on horseback, and princes walking on foot like slaves’ (10:7).

Ultimately, this world was a difficult place for Qohelet to comprehend. While he seems to accept many of its contradictions, he saw that the world was full of inconsistencies and even glaring contradictions that could not be explained away. ‘So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than might; yet the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded’ (9:16). Qohelet is certainly a theist, but he saw it as pointless to turn to God for answers to his questions – like the Persian emperor, God is a distant and incomprehensible mystery, responsible for deeds both pleasant and unpleasant (7:13-14). The bottom line is that we live in an unreliable world dominated by powerful people who inevitably impose their will over others. ‘For the word of the king is powerful, and who can say to him, “What are you doing?”‘ (8:4). Things rarely turn out as we might want or expect and justice does not prevail. All truly is vanity.

*

As will be apparent, there is much in Qohelet’s world and writings that sound familiar. If Qohelet were alive today he would see much that is recognisable in our world – economic uncertainty, job and housing loss, huge income disparity, rampant consumerism, and social dislocation. As he says, little changes.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)

But there is one obvious difference between Qohelet’s times and our own: Qohelet was operating on the assumption that the natural world was stable and unchanging. While he likely observed shifts in weather, the basic patterns would have seemed permanent. There was no reason for him to assume otherwise.

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:4-7)

But as we now well know, with climate change nothing is predictable. There is no longer a reliable flow to nature. The natural order – probably the one iota of stability that Qohelet could rely upon – is rapidly becoming undone. So how would Qohelet respond to our situation? What would Qohelet do?

One thing he wouldn’t do is take the human-centred position taken by some religions that places humans apart from and above nature.

For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (3:19-21).

He would not see us as detached from what is going on – whatever happens to the natural world happens to us.

Neither would he see the world as a learning ground for humans with suffering and ecocide somehow ‘for the greater good’ or fitting into a discernible cosmic plan. I very much doubt that he would deny the reality of climate change, avoid it, or succumb to any of the myriad ways humans have found to numb themselves to it. He would not buy into any spin. Rather, I suspect he would be one of those who are able to confront the dark truths of our times head on.

Neither, I suspect, would Qohelet attempt to resolve the contradictory nature of the situation we find ourselves in. He would clearly see that our economic system has put many people in a position where on the one hand they are aware of the devastating problems our actions have created, but on the other hand aren’t willing to give up what they have. He would accept the folly of this way of thinking and view it as futile to try and convince people to think otherwise.

Would he fall into the camp of those proposing resistance? Given his view that power inevitably rests with the wealthy (i.e. oil barons) this does not seem probable – he would likely view active resistance against these powerful forces as another futile endeavour. ‘If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter’ (5:8). Unlike the ancient Hebrew prophets, Qohelet’s critique of society is not accompanied by a call for social transformation. Nonetheless, pursuit of knowledge about the world is not without value. Our knowledge may be limited (10:14), and the answers he comes up with to his questions are that all is ‘futile’ or ‘meaningless’, but it seems that it is still better to know this than to walk in the darkness of the fool. It is still better to be engaged in the world than to blindly ignore or deny what is happening. And while no formula or strategy will necessarily change things, practical wisdom may still have at least some effect (10:4). Therefore, one makes sure to sharpens one’s implements before beginning a task that calls for sharp tools. ‘If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed’ (10:10). Preparation may in some cases make a difference.

I suspect, though, that ultimately, after he has let the facts of our situation register, Qohelet would probably not do much of anything. There are times when even careful preparations are not enough, and this (he would say) may be one of them. It seems likely, though, that he would continue to observe and comment on what he sees. Being a literary man, he may well start a blog (‘Nothing New Under the Sun’), or send out the occasional tweet (@Qohelet, #allisvanity). But our collective fate has been sealed; events are now out of our control and there is little that can be done. And, given our enormous capacity for folly, he probably wouldn’t be surprised that we have arrived at this juncture. In his view there is oppression and injustice in the world because there are ambitious and greedy people who simply cannot have enough (5:8-12). Society, and even the entire cosmos, is now endangered by their lack of contentment. At the end of the book Qohelet shifts to a vision of the end of humanity (12:1-8). It is not much of a stretch to imagine Qohelet enfolding nature in this description of the end of things – a casualty of humanity’s staggering greed and folly.

But Qohelet is not without advice on how to live in the world as it is. The only possible response to the fact that all is vanity is, he says, to enjoy life whenever possible. This is his most persistent counsel – seven times he explicitly exhorts his readers to enjoy life:

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (8:15)

Do everything you can when you are able (eat, drink, and be merry), as in death there are no opportunities to do anything. ‘Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all; yet let them remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity’ (11:8; cf. 9:7-10). Of course, being Qohelet, enjoyment is also elusive, so do not wait for perfect conditions but be spontaneous – be sure to celebrate at any occasion that presents itself. ‘In the morning sow your seed, and at evening do not let your hands be idle; for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (11:6). Given that we cannot control what is happening in the world, spontaneously experiencing joy whenever possible is an appropriate response. ‘When times are good, enjoy; when times are bad, see’ (7:14) 4. For in spite of everything, there are moments when the sweetness of life is undeniable: ‘Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun’ (11:7).

*

In the ancient Israelite wisdom tradition, there is a metaphor of a mine that contains wisdom 5.The idea is that if we dig deep enough a gem of insight will be found that will reveal the appropriate way forward through life. It is hard going finding any such gems these days – if they exist at all they seem to be hidden in the mine’s deepest chambers. Wisdom is, as Qohelet says, ephemeral and elusive. While the advice he gives to his contemporaries – ‘enjoy the moment’ – still applies, many will find it difficult not to see this as a not very helpful cliché, given the gravity of our circumstances. If he were alive today Qohelet may well agree. So perhaps the most important thing to learn from Qohelet is his modus operandi, his way of being in a world much like our own: ask questions, stay engaged, and if so inclined, record.

1 ‘Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)’, was written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s; it was recorded by the Limelighters in 1962 and popularised in the Byrds’ 1965 cover version.

2 Quotes from Qohelet/Ecclesiastes are from the Revised Standard Version of the bible (except where noted).

3 For my understanding of Qohelet and his social context I am indebted to C.L. Seow, Ecclesiastes. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

4 C.L. Seow translation.

5 Job 28. Considering the destruction wreaked over the centuries by mining, this may no longer be such a useful metaphor.

The Green Cathedral

The Green Cathedral is a place, a series of places, a philosophy, a feeling, a mind-set, a movement, a lack of movement, a meditation. Many meditations. It is walking and running, sitting and seeing.

It is a phrase I find myself returning to and which, over thousands of miles of wandering, has risen from the subconscious to become a recurring motif in the novels, poems and short stories that I have published over the last half decade or so.

The Green Cathedral represents the sacred places, the silent spaces. It elevates the natural landscape to the respectful position it deserves.

It replaces doctrine and dogma. The Green Cathedral recognises the ruins of the past as part of present and future narratives. It attempts to recalibrate the senses and reconsider time. It celebrates the joy of the rural reverie. It is in all countries. It is open to everyone.

These images and words attempt to fleetingly capture the essence of The Green Cathedral.

Out of the wood:
shot like a bullet
from the gun
of history –
a hare.

.

.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.15.03

Everything
begins and
ends in fire.

.

..

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.16.55

Forever alive
in the corner of your eye
a salmon spins
the air..

.

.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.18.37

Chisel
beats
 digital..

.

.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.20.10

Go nowhere
and
stay there.

..

.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.22.07

‘All of us have a place in history.
Mine is clouds.’

– Richard Brautigan

..

.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.24.25

A neighbour, a woman of maturing age, tells me of a childhood lived on
the edge of the moor. ‘Strange things happened up there,’ she says.
‘Once I woke to a circle of stagmen dancing around my room.
I can still see them now, as clear as day. Men, with the
heads of stags. Their breath in the air. Their feet
on the floorboards. Moonlight. Dancing.
The moors are strange.
The moors are
special.’

.

..

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.26.20

Borders and boundaries
mark only impermanence.

Wires rust. Walls fall.
Fences become futile.

..

.

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.27.27

‘Oh, the water, how it enfolds –
the salt, the taste,
the gorgeous undertow…’

‘Carrion’ – British Sea Power

.

..

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.28.43

A soft summer
pine-drunk
sleep
in
the
green
cathedral.

.

..

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.29.58

Climbing trailing
creeping binding;

Hedera helix
poison ifig

bindwood
lovestone.

.

..

Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.43.48

…and in the cromlech,
the bones of England…

.

.

.Screenshot 2015-07-08 at 10.44.50

One day
all will
be moss.

.

.

Benjamin Myers is an award-winning writer. His novels include Beastings (2014), Pig Iron (2012) and Richard (2010). He lives in the Upper Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, UK. www.benmyers.com

Evolution on fast-forward

Skindancing by Susan Richardson (Cinnamon Press, 2015)
Ecozoa by Helen Moore (Permanent Publications, 2015)

Susan Richardson knows her poems off by heart. She doesn’t read them; she performs them. When you hear the words, it’s easy to understand why. Her words fit together; pick one up and you pick up the whole concatenation. Not only are the vowels and consonants locked together but the ideas, too, flow as indivisibly – and refreshingly – as water in a stream.

If a lion could speak,
we’d tire of his whinges of wardrobes and witches,
of how Richard filched his heart
and how his rampant act on flags
has knackered his hips

The ideas in Richardson’s latest poetry collection, Skindancing, are all of a piece too. They are to do with mutation or, to pick a more positive, grander word, transformation. This is a planet where change is fast and unpredictable, as if the evolution button is stuck on fast-forward. Adolescent girls change into seals (‘I found I could no longer part / my knees and thighs’), a woman changes into a doe and will ‘out-wood’ her fiancé-turned-hunter and a mother grows a beak.

As well as metamorphoses, there are new relationships between humans and animals too (indeed, one of Richardson’s poems is entitled Humanimal); there is a Harry Potter-esque hippo under the stairs, an emeritus professor translating Lionese and a porcine heart transplanted into a human.

Richardson creates new relationships between words as well. She is an expert at punning and while word play is integral to the sumptuous fabric of her poetry, this playfulness could occasionally risk distracting us from the poem’s story. Instead, we may find ourselves thinking about the flexible fun of language or the poet’s marvellous mind. For example, the enjoyable ‘Witch Fulfilment’ in which Richardson’s ‘herb-perfect’ witch has refined the art of ‘casting churls into swine’.

Yet this poet clearly wants to draw our attention to language. She is reminding us that language is a contrivance developed by humans, just as we crafted tools from stone and organised ourselves into social groups. Richardson invents delicious Carrollian words (‘closhi swush’, ‘hurble and blursh’) and beautiful words (windwhim, stillsea). She compresses words in a way that feels like a geological shorthand (‘how to happyeverafter’), as if the weight of centuries of human language has squeezed out all unnecessary air between letters and phrases (‘quicker than an ear’s fear-prick’).

There is much that is anthropological about Skindancing. The references to Waitrose, MGM, ladyshaves and Strepsils document human life as it is now. Yet when, in ‘Homophoca Vox Pop’, a photographer lies on the sand to take pictures of a seal and then turns into one, or when in ‘Zoomorphic’ someone shares a bed with an ‘insomnia llama that feels curiously real rather than a metaphor, we are being reminded that evolution is ongoing and that, although this is how we are now, there are many other ways we as a species could have developed and may still develop.

Skindancing is indeed so jam-packed with ideas, the reader can fear missing something. ‘Quappen’ is not, after all, one of Richardson’s made up words. Google reveals that it is a fish (and an articulated loader). Cernunnos may be familiar but what about Youwarkee? Not having a broad enough vocabulary – or a classical education – can feel intimidating. Nevertheless, the pleasure of the language and the accessibility of so many of the ideas means the reader doesn’t have to have a dictionary – or internet connection – at hand to be able to delight in this collection.

Deepening this enjoyment are the moments of beauty where jokiness is put aside and a more profound emotional connection can be made, arguably because language is so effectively serving the idea.

She will lick what she births
into a mix of huffs and words,

It is in these moments in particular where the human and the animal fuse, where a transformation occurs in both directions. Ultimately, Skindancing is poetry of celebration and of warning. Of knowing what we have been, what we are and what we may become.

Ecozoa
In
contrast to Richardson’s Skindancing, language is subservient to the idea in Helen Moore’s Ecozoa, at least initially. Language is used as a tool for communicating a point directly, as if there isn’t time to employ poetic devices. The message must be communicated, got across and understood:

Oil, synthetic crude
which brokers world warming, hunger, war
and ecocide, the international crime;
ecocide, destruction of life.

Watching the video version of Kali Exorcism on YouTube, the reason for this approach falls into place. This is prose-poetry that is to be performed, almost sung. It’s a chant, a wake-up call, a call to action. This is a text for street-shouting, a handbook for getting angry and refusing to accept ‘modern-day culture, which promotes apocalypse as our most likely future’, as Moore writes in her end notes.

Ecozoa is divided into four sections: Tharmas, Urizen, Urthona, Luvah. These are the four zoas of William Blake’s personal mythology, borrowed from the Book of Exekiel in the Old Testament where zoa is apparently the name of the four creatures who pull the chariot of God’s spirit. Without a thorough understanding of Blake’s mythology, it is perhaps best to read Ecozoa with Moore’s own explanation in mind, again presented in her handy end notes. She writes that Blake’s work ‘points to the power of the imagination in addressing the ecological crisis we face.’ She notes that ‘Blake’s vision of the rebalanced “four zoas”’ enable ‘fear and limited thinking to fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.’

This is the trajectory of the collection, from rant to hope. There is a shift in poetic style from declamation to ode to lyricism. In the straight-titled Earth Justice, the camera, as it were, cuts away from a court transcript where oil companies are on trial over the Canadian tar sands to a description of swans and ducks on water. The poetry, when it comes, is dazzling:

Oil, that ancient sunlight. That liquid gold
Which fuels our fast-lane rage.

As the pages of Ecozoa turn, Moore allows more story. In ‘daughter of dodmen’ we are transported into the mind of a girl in Avebury in 2,700 BC whose tale of ‘women’s mysteries and menses’ absorbs us and engages us through the sound and rhythm of language that has an ancient tone:

afterwards we fired up our beacons on the roundy hills
and gladdened at the sight of other fires distantly beyond

It seems that story will always speak to many of us more clearly than intellectual reasoning can. Almost despite its title, in Climate Adaptation, # 2’, Moore moves soon to narrative, to the lyricism of a moonlit London where the inhabitants are forced to live by night because of unbearable daytime heat.

Humour too, more effective than haranguing, is a device Moore uses with enjoyably British cynicism to engage us. In ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’, well-worn phrases become exhibits in an auction.

Moral compass, 21st century, made in Taiwan.

‘The Ecopyschologist’ is one of the poems in Ecozoa where idea and story blend perhaps most satisfactorily and where poetry is not at odds with manifesto. Similarly, in ‘On Sitting for Christopher Twigg’, we are there with the protagonist ‘on the patio’ watching the artist at work and letting ourselves be absorbed into nature.

This is not to say that there is no place for rant in poetry. Sometimes you have to tell it how it is so there’s no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity. Moore’s is crisis poetry. There arguably isn’t time for anything else. In this light, what is curious is a move at the end of the collection towards prayer.

‘glory be to Gaia
for whales, phosphorescence and fish;’

Is prayer how, as Moore writes in the end notes, ‘we can sense the evolving futures we most desire’? How we can use imagination rather than rage to enter a new ecological age? Frustratingly, the collection ends – like film credits rolling before it enters this new era, but that is most likely the point.

It is in one of the final poems in the collection, ‘Apple Country, West Country’, where the narratives split into two with especially satisfying honesty: story becomes poetry and rant becomes information. One narrative describes the idyll of Apple Day when ‘our year draws its circle’. The other narrative tells us apples are sprayed up to twenty times in a growing season to produce more perfect-looking fruit. This, after all, is the age we are living in. These are the divergent stories we are telling each other and ourselves every day.

Joanna Lilley is the author of the poetry collection, The Fleece Era (Brick Books, 2014), and the short story collection, The Birthday Books (Hagios Press, 2015). Her current projects include a manuscript of poems about extinct and endangered animals. Joanna lives in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada where she has lived since 2006 after emigrating from the UK. www.joannalilley.com

Helen Moore is an award-winning ecopoet and community artist/activist based in Somerset, SW England. She studied French and German at Hertford College, Oxford, and got a distinction for her MA in Comparative and General Literature from Edinburgh University. Her debut collection, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins, was published by Shearsman in 2012, and was described by Alasdair Paterson as being ‘in the great tradition of visionary politics in British poetry.’ Her second collection, Ecozoa, which responds to Thomas Berry’s vision of the ‘Ecozoic Era’, is published by Permanent Publications. 

Susan Richardson is a poet, performer and educator based in Wales. Her collection of poetry, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, was inspired by her journey, for which she received a Churchill Memorial Travel Fellowship, through Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the footsteps of an intrepid eleventh century female Viking, and one of the themes is the impact of environmental issues on the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Her second collection, Where the Air is Rarefied, was a dazzling collaboration with visual artist, Pat Gregory, exploring environmental and mythological themes relating to the Far North, including an exhibition which toured galleries in Wales and beyond. Susan has been published in numerous journals and anthologies and is currently poet-in-residence with the Marine Conservation Society, writing poems and running workshops in response to their Thirty Threatened Species appeal.