Two States

Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.

The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
working glitchlessly
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.

The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.

The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
hidden aquifers
and while my hands are
pairing socks
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
edible gemstones
the ore of that ground called home.

The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.

The Lowdown Souls: Old Moon in the Arms of the New


Oxford Botanical Gardens. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

  Autumn encroaches. In tiny increments it pulls its covers up higher each night; dusk always seems to surprise us, as if it really oughtn’t be doing that.
  Nostalgia for summer tapers every conversation, string vests and grown-up blonde dashes clung to in the hope that warmth really will return. It’s as though we haven’t lived through this every year of our lives, that as far as we have heard, as far back as our genetic memory serves, this is something new and vaguely frightening.
  Lanterns are lit, ghouls shooed away with rituals that keep their attraction. And the gravity that follows the upward throw of any dense object brings it crashing down towards us, unprepared and flapping our hands.
  Perhaps other people deal better with autumn than me. Reading a book on Biodynamic gardening, I was reminded of how obvious these things should be – if, that is, any of us spent long enough in the elements to remember that this downward pull is only the other side of the cycle that everything turns. The moon waxes, shines, wanes, disappears. The waters in us and every other moving thing rise tidally towards it, dropping back when its magnetic allure fades.


  This month, the triply descending cycle of autumn, new moon and (squeamish men look away now) an unusually well-timed period brought it all home to me. I could almost feel myself being lowered into my grave. I felt profoundly sad, a feeling I am rarely overwhelmed by, being more partial to the natural highs of laughter, growing things, creativity.
  But I cannot describe how much I valued feeling so low. I had the distinct sense that it was a kind of preparation for death.
  The day after descending into my grave, so to speak, I went to a Red Tent evening at a friend’s house – well, yurt. (Don’t tell me you didn’t realise I was such a hippy.) After the usual hugs and teas and catching up, we went straight into the heavy stuff: menopause and death.
  As one woman, a nurse, pointed out, we Brits do death very badly. We prefer not to think about the finality of our earthly lives, concentrating on practical matters – healthcare, wills and testaments, inheritances (those enticing burdens that make a relative’s death seem confusingly attractive). We do the usual British thing of not wanting to cause a fuss, to go and hide somewhere with our grumbles and get out from under other peoples’ feet. So the elderly get packed away in homes, anaesthetised to numb them to their mortal process. Is it more to ease their suffer or to protect us from the sight of someone going, fully aware?
  Spain is so different. Elderly parents, dotty and deaf as they come, are dutifully cared for by grown-up sons or daughters, taken out to events slowly on unsteady, slippered feet, forgiven for wandering off and falling asleep in strange people’s cars. This is the comedown after a lifetime of general good health, of being in service to other people: it’s an expectation that is becoming harder to honour as the grip of the Northern European work fetish tightens.


  As my biodynamic gardening book maintained, winter is a time when the garden appears to be dead, but there is just as much going on beneath the surface as there is above it during the rest of the year. Life is dispersed among millions of micro-organisms, microfungi, worms; more than that, there is a quiet in this temporary fallow period that is an essential antidote to the activity and production of the rest of the year.
  I like being around old people. They offer the long view, neutralising my anxiety about getting to where I want to be quicker (in that self-defeating tizz of wanting to be somewhere than isn’t the present moment).
  If I live to be 80 (God willing), I’m less than halfway into my time here. What does it matter than I don’t have my book of poetry (self-)published yet, my novel finished, my album recorded? Let alone the deserts I would regreen if I had the chance, the disadvantaged youth I’d educate, the single mothers I’d support with all the millions of pounds I would have if any of those projects miraculously became huge successes. (Ha ha.)
  I find I can end up turning from one goal to another with such dizzying speed, and always with the same urgency, that I drive myself closer to the ground – which is probably right where I’m needing to be.
  Just as wholistic health looks at the wellbeing of the body rather than treating symptoms, and permaculture (or biodynamics) says “Look after the soil and the soil will look after you”, the soul needs lowness – not only to remember how beautiful it is to be high, but for the value of lying fallow and being nothing.
 And the moon is generous when she returns: when we can see the dark lacuna of the ‘old moon’ beside the glowing curve of crescent, it’s known as ‘the old moon in the new moon’s arms’.


(If all that sounds too depressing, follow this link for things to grow through winter:

Las Acequias: Veins of the Alpujarras

Autumn is in full swing here in Spain; the grapevine at the bottom of our land has turned a heavenly pumpkin orange, crunching brown at the edges; bougainvillia is shedding its three-fold paper lanterns to the high winds, each one a different shade of fuchsia, violet, ochre, or something in between, and each leaf carrying a tiny twisted seed. Jasmine is still exploding into ecstatic white windmills.

The Bougainvillia's last gasp

Though the oranges on the trees are still green, this house saluted those gorgeous round baubles that dangle juicily like little scattered planets:

Orange on the edge

The eucalyptus wood we talked through this afternoon was lush with greenery, the last few whisperings of the acequia gushing along the path on its way to meet the river. We were trying to cut across the countryside to the little place my mother-in-law had rented on the other side of town, Shamsie on Caveman’s shoulders, baby Rosa in a rucksack on my back, dozing off.

Caveman and boy

We got stuck at a reedy marsh, wood spears blocking the path: None shall pass. The road was tantalisingly visible above, but we had to turn back and tramp up another hill. I thought of the Sherpas I’d been watching on a Michael Palin documentary the day before, hauling twice that weight at more than 6,000 metres. Tried not to complain, told my inner whingebag to shut its trap, and was rewarded by a cunning little short-cut that led along another acequia to the main road. Acequias, from the Arabic as-saqiyya (saqaa is to quench one’s thirst), are the canals that slope along the sides of the mountains carrying snowmelt to the smallholdings. Originally cut by the Romans but massively extended by the Moors, they are what turned this valley from the wild, semi-barren string of crags into the lush hills we see today. As such they are (almost)* universally respected, and one can always walk along them; they cannot be bought and are common property.

Acequia hard at work

Water rules all here. Three solid months of torrential rain last winter made the ordinarily dry Rio Chico burst its banks, ripping metres of earth away from people’s bankside gardens, undermining house foundations and carrying hippie vans off into the river. Yet without it there would be no greenery, no fruit on the trees, no almonds or pomegranates or olives or oranges, no reason for tourists to come and rent houses and bask beside swimming pools, gazing up at fountains of bougainvillia and jasmine spilling over walls. There would be no colour. What can destroy us also makes alive.

Pommes de Granada

* The exceptions (surprise surprise) are big businesses. Lanjarón, the waters sourced above the town of the same name, from the Arabic al-‘Aynu Harun or Aaron’s Spring, are bottled by the company that sells it nationally, owned by Danone. Elsewhere in the Alpujarras (from al-Bushra, Joyous News), acequias have been hijacked by the ravenous thirst of the greenhouses, lying like vat rippling plastic lakes on the warm slopes by the sea. The acequias high above the towns away, from public view, have too often being cemented, preventing the vegetation of the high slopes receiving any water as it passes by. These slopes are now brown and dry, trees dead, olive and almonds groves begun five centuries ago rendered barren. A great film about the Alpujarras and the water systems here is El Canto del Agua, in Spanish and English, by Lilian Simonsson, Kirian Scheuplein and Isabel Wolfes (