Fragments of soft black ash, filaments of coal-black cinder, a thick smoky gritty dust floats down and settles on windowsills and doorsteps, table tops. Fires are burning in the mountains to the north of us and all night firefighters will have been holding the lines of fire back and hoping the wind drops. This is the drought season, the grasses bleached and dead foliage piled high in gullies or ravines.
I have been out in the back garden harvesting fennel seeds, handfuls of yellow and brown seed, so much that it reminds me of the shower of gold falling into Danae’s lap. I will store the fennel seed in brown paper packets and use some for cooking and some for planting. Bronze fennel, Florence bulb fennel, a wild green fennel that tastes of intensely sweet aniseed.
The Great Dane, now fully grown and supposedly well-trained, chewed up one corner of a treasured dark blue coverlet in linen for no reason at all except that he felt like chewing on something soft and irreplaceable. He was exiled to the back garden as a punishment and I hear him crying to come in, wanting his biscuit and our company. Damn dog.
The one inaugural poem everyone still remembers is the one spoken in 1961, with lines that run: ‘The land was ours/Before we were the land’s’, mysterious and resonant phrases that for me are bound up with John F Kennedy, the Cold War and the frail American dream still bouyant. That poem was written by Robert Frost who died 50 years ago this week. I studied his work for A-level and at university, memorised his poems Mending Wall and the famous Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. He was a crusty plain-spoken farmer with a persona that was all-American energy and forthrightness. Many readers, myself included, took a long time to notice the darker and stranger side to his poems
In reality, Brodsky writes, Frost was a dark, “terrifying” poet, as Lionel Trilling had called him. He was a poet animated by “anticipation,” by a knowledge of “what he is capable of,” by a sense “of his own negative potential.” Frost’s life contained much besides contemplative strolls through the New England countryside, but Brodsky argued that in that countryside, Frost had seen the most profound part of himself. In nature, Frost had painted his “terrifying self-portrait.”
The relationship we have with the landscape in which we find ourselves embedded, our countryside, rivers, forests and mountains, our cities, what the radical and prophetic writer/activist Derrick Jensen calls ‘our landbase’. So often this has become a non-relationship, degraded beyond recognition. I think of this while thinking of the veld fires raging through wilderness, the terrified wildlife, the dry riverbeds. What needs to change in our thinking about ecology and taking care of the land that is ours during this life?
“It’s no wonder we don’t defend the land where we live. We don’t live here. We live in television programs and movies and books and with celebrities and in heaven and by rules and laws and abstractions created by people far away and we live anywhere and everywhere except in our particular bodies on this particular land at this particular moment in these particular circumstances.”
Paying attention to the here and now, to what is present and passing even as I type these words on my keyboard. I open the back door and call, the Great Dane comes running in, wagging his tail and happy to be indoors again, to lie on his rug and have his tummy scratched, to munch on the fluffy tail of small dog Chub.