the risk in being good

Oh my goodness. Robert Frost’s Exposed Nest. What a poem.

What is it to do good? What harm can come from intervention? How swiftly do we turn “to other things” and often have no measure of the consequence of what we think of as our “caring”? Quite a raw spot this one, I think, and not just on microscopic level.  Just think of the abundant socio-political parallels for interventionism and the righteous certainty of doing-what’s-best OR for-your-own-good …

And yet we want to care, we need to care. I’m quietly terrified that we might forget. This impetus to care, and the infrastructures we imagine into being and create around us in order to care for one another, these are key to Wind Resistance (especially – for me – those that involve birth, healing and refuge).

The Exposed Nest

You were forever finding some new play.
So when I saw you down on hands and knees
In the meadow, busy with the new-cut hay,
Trying, I thought, to set it up on end,
I went to show you how to make it stay,
If that was your idea, against the breeze,
And, if you asked me, even help pretend
To make it root again and grow afresh.
But ’twas no make-believe with you today,
Nor was the grass itself your real concern,
Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clovers.
‘Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
The cutter-bar had just gone champing over
(Miraculously without tasking flesh)
And left defenseless to the heat and light.
You wanted to restore them to their right
Of something interposed between their sight
And too much world at once–could means be found.
The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might out meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared. Why is there then
No more to tell? We turned to other things.
I haven’t any memory–have you?–
Of ever coming to the place again
To see if the birds lived the first night through,
And so at last to learn to use their wings.

by Robert Frost

a palm for a blackbird’s nest

With thanks to Heather who pointed me to the legend of St Kevin And The Blackbird. Here’s the mighty Seamus Heaney reading his poem about the same … “a prayer his body makes entirely …”

There’s much in this that resonates with my diggings and delvings at the moment for WIND RESISTANCE. Birds, of course! And also: the qualities (and imaginative and ethical power) of myth; human connectedness to other creatures; the meaning of compassion; the concept of sanctuary (both in terms of Kevin’s historic life as a hermit and his body – in this tale – as a sanctuary for another life); suffering and love and how they elide.

Kevin                                                                                              image by Michael Cook @hallowedart

St Kevin and the Blackbird (1996)

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged  and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

 

From Seamus Heaney – The Spirit Level (1996)

pigeon-tongue

“Mum, I think I can talk to birds”, says my nearly nine year old son first thing this morning. “Wow. That’s cool!” I reply, “What do you say to each other?” “Well it’s kind of hard to tell you, because, well … we don’t talk human”. And he procedes to make some soft cooing and burbling noises. “Ah, is that pigeon?” I ask. “Yup”. “Is it pigeons that you talk to, love?” “Well I talk to a lot of different ones, but mostly pigeons and doves” he says, before adding “because they’re I think they’re kind of most like people”. “And what happens when you talk?” “Well I listen to what they’re saying and then I say something back. And then they talk back to me. And a lot of times they come up closer to me. One even let me touch it once. I think they like me”. “Oh that’s great, love. Do you mean it’s a bit like when Harry Potter speaks parceltongue to the snakes?” “Exactly!” he says. “Mum, what was the first bird I ever saw?” “Ooh I”m not sure, dude.” “What’s the one you’ve told me about before?” “Aw. I know the one you mean. You never actually *saw* that one though. You mean the barn owl that swooped over our car the night you were born, yeah?” “Yeah the barn owl! Like the one I held at the Owl Centre one time”. “Uhuh, she was beautiful. Do you know in Gaelic she’s called The White Faced Old Woman of The Night? So she’s sort of a wee bit like a white witch.” He pauses for a moment to absorb this. “Mum, do you think she’s the one that gave me my bird-talking powers?”

I absolutely LOVE my son. I think he is amazing and wise. I think he’s a brilliant listener, a thinker and a gorgeous compassionate wee soul. And maybe he does to talk to birds. And maybe they do talk back.

That barn owl – cailleadh oidhe – is part of my WIND RESISTANCE tale. And so is my beautiful son.

You are all bog-born

Some notes on a walk to Fala Flow yesterday afternoon, during which I said to the moor: Please tell me about yourself. Ragged and incomplete … but a glimmer in it … something to develop.

I have room for you
but I am not for you
I am for myself and all that lives in me

I’ve been here a long time

I am earth and I am water
I am sedge and I am sky
I am chicken wire and culverts
4x4s and Barbour jackets
I am 7 dense metres of peat and raised moss
I am old, dead things
I am alive, alive, alive

You’ve skipped barefoot through my heather
and lain down among the mosses
with your fingers and your lusting
and your soft, pale bellies
You’ve made love
and made life
inside your dark, damp bodies
as I have in mine.

You are all bog-born.

When the plagues and the soldiers
marched up the Royal Road
north – south
east – west
you dressed your wounds in sphagnum
and you drank from the Flow.

When the khaki suits hunkered
in the bunkers at the mudflats
and the test bombs thundered
under Aberlady Bay,
I welcomed the geese
who were chased from their beds,
who were weary from the north
where the glaciers gleam.
I salved their pink feet in my cool lochan waters.

Since ever you arrived
I have looked after you,
with your digging and your draining
and your cutting and your clearing.

I’ve been fuel for your fire.
I’ve been light to see in winter.
I’ve been meat upon the table,
if you should be so lucky.

One year you burned me til my skin turned black
and my mouth like a desert couldn’t sob or sigh.
In the dry dust that followed I heard the moorcock cry:
go back go back go back

go back to what?
go back to where?

I am tired,
so tired of the tackit boots of keepers
and the clatter of the beaters
and the shotgun expeditions
that cost thirty grand a day.
And the EU directives
and the eco impact studies
and the economic models of your moorland plans.

It seems I need to be managed.
I do not know what’s best.

I am 12,000 years old.

And to those day-tripper walkers
who are out to find themselves
in the clear air of the day
and the laverock’s song –

You never slow to listen
to the pounding of their footsteps,
the crunching upon gravel,
the crinkling through the rushes,
the snapping in the muirburn
and the shlooping of the bog.

I am not your fucking muse.

Listen:
It’s dusk and the moorcock cries:
go back go back go back

go back to what?
go back to where?

The first place you ever knew
was warm and wild and wet.
In that dark womb you grew.

You are all bog-born.

 

The plover loves the mountain

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On the night of May 5th into May 6th 2016, when I might ordinarily have stayed up stupid late drinking red wine, watching the incoming Scottish Parliamentary election results and ranting to the world on twitter, I was, instead, happed up in an Arctic sleeping bag in a tent pitched beside my local peatbog lochan, Fala Flow.

Even in darkness on a southern upland moor, human industry is omnipresent. The traffic never truly stops on the A720 Edinburgh City Bypass some eight miles to the north and cars continue to travel the A68 north-south trunk road which passes through my home village of Pathhead. Still, as creatures we are diminished in the scheme of things in these hours and it’s possible to imagine a world that’s that’s not wholly in thrall to what Robert Burns called “tyrannic man’s dominion”.

The sound that wakes me and my tent-mate, sound designer and composer Pippa Murphy is the plaintive bell of the  Golden Plover  (and BTW BBC Radio 4’s 5:58am Tweet of the Day is one of my first great love affairs on this making-trip – thanks Pippa!) Isn’t that just a beautiful call? And all the more so in anticipation of a sunrise. Hot on the heels of the plover come oystercatchers, skylarks, meadow pipits and the “go back, go back” rhythmic clamour of the Red Grouse (known in Scots as moorcocks).

The whole chorus is a wonder, which Pippa captures (as we continue to lie cooried in our bags) on her SONY PCM-D50 courtesy of some lovely microphones borrowed (thank you) from Edinburgh University. I’m not quite sure exactly how as yet, but that sound will play a role in the show.

One of the key threads to WIND RESISTANCE is my personal enchantment with birds and the landscapes they inhabit, as well as the sounds they make, the complex lives they live and the stories and myths they’ve inspired in us.  To me, they have a lot to say about the aformentioned dominion of human beings and how our lives entwine (and sometimes mess) with the lives of other creatures.

The musical and sung content of WIND RESISTANCE is still very much in the air. Indeed, I think there are new songs still to write. One which feels essential to the piece however is Robert Burns’ lyrical Now Westlin Winds (Composed in August).

The partridge loves the fruitful fell
The plover loves the mountains
The woodcock haunts the lonely dell
The soaring hern the fountain    

It’s a song which arrived in my life through the letter box of a grotty Dundee bedsit in October 1992, the night before the funeral of my beloved Grampa, Peter Quinn. My soon-to-be boyfriend at the time, Dougie, delivered to my door a cassette version of Dick Gaughan’s all-time classic folk album Handful of Earth. It was a big deal because we were both totally skint at the time and it was an actual bought tape, from Grouchos record store in the town centre, unlike the thoughtful mix tapes Dougie had been cooking up for me all autumn (and through which I discovered the mighty Mr Gaughan, as well as James Taylor, Michael Marra and John Martyn).

I’ve loved the album ever since. I associate it with that time and place, with the memory of my Grampa and with Dougie himself. If you’ve never heard it, Gaughan’s version of Now Westlin Winds is as good as the song is ever going to be sung. EVER. It’s perfect. Indeed it’s so perfect that it should Never Be Attempted (I mean, listen to it).

Still I’m going for it. Indeed, I’ve gone for it more than once before, not least in the rather surreal surroundings of the Scottish Parliament’s main chamber, in the company of The Queen and her coronets, and her moorcock-shooting Prince, at the opening of the last session of Parliament, following Holyrood elections in 2011.

But it’s my first public outing of the song which holds a key as to why it’s pivotal to WIND RESISTANCE. In 2003, I led a community education folk song class for the Adult Learning Project in Edinburgh, now the Scots Music Group. One of the participants was a man called Robbie, who worked for Scottish Natural Heritage. At class one day he asked, “How do you fancy a gig in Kingussie singing to a visiting party of Swedish ecologists?” “Why on earth not?” I replied. And he added, “You have to sing Now Westlin Winds though”.

I knew and loved the song already anyway. No sweat.

When it came time to sing to the fair Swedes in the back room of a Highland hotel, Robbie stepped up to explain why the song was so important to him.

“It’s one of the earliest understandings in poetry or literature of deep ecology“, he said. “Burns understood that the world is not ours, as humans, that we are only one of many creatures who inhabit the earth”, he went on, “and that even as human beings, we have so many different ways of living in the environment that sustains us”.

And he proceded to interrogate the entire lyric with this idea in mind. It was fascinating, moving, stirring. And it gave a song that was already deeply meaningful to me a whole new resonance. A resonance that has stuck and that is at the heart of this show.

Now I just need to figure out how to do it justice.

Now westlin winds and slaughtering guns
Bring Autumn’s pleasant weather
The moorcock springs on whirring wings
Amang the blooming heather

 

 

Breathing into life

My first outing for the ideas behind WIND RESISTANCE was at The Old Church in Hackney on February 28th 2016, as part of BREATHE Festival. Ah, let’s just say it was pretty fresh (I was still writing the piece as I passed The Emirates Stadium into Kings Cross Station that day from Edinburgh …).

And it grew.

And grew.

And kept growing and growing through the afternoon.

Armed that evening with thirty odd pages of sellotaped text printed in the kind of pale blue ink that’s a nightmare to see under the light of an angle poise lamp in a church neuk, my first letting go was a rather breathless endeavour.

It felt intensely risky. And overtly and directly personal in a way that many of my songwriting output manages to skirt around.

I apologised a lot. Too much, yes.

And I’d forgotten – again – that I wear glasses now! I remembered too late for assistance with seeing through the inky blue paleness of my ideas.

Yet, there was the kernel of something that mattered. I ended up in conversation at the close of the night with mothers who shared their birth stories, amateur ornithologists who talked animatedly about their favourite birds, with hikers and bikers and ecologists, and all kinds of folks railing against the immanent political threat to those elements of our collective civic life that we’ve created from a sense of care and responsbility for one another.

I spent the next two days re-writing and honing and took the show to The Traverse Theatre Bar in Edinburgh for its second work-in-progress run through on March 1st.

Performing in Edinburgh is a different beast for me than London because there are always so many people in an audience who are familiar, not to mention actual loved ones and friends. Amongst those I knew was a man who’s erstwhile organiser of a local Folk Club, and now anchor at a local radio station. He would’ve seen some of my very earliest gigs as a traditional singer and member of bands like Malinky, Macalias and Battlefield Band. Jings, I thought, in a moment of profound self-doubt, surely he’s gonna think this is wierdo pretentious guff?

It was brave, he said later. Bold. Before reminding me that he’d worked, prior to retirement, in environmental protection. It’s a minding not to project my own anxieties onto them. It’s an affirmation too.

Sanctuary. Maternity. Moss. Flight.

Thanks to everyone who attended those two sold-out early shows and for the perceptive and helpful feedback I received from many of them afterwards. Anything created by a writer of any kind only half exists on a page or on a tongue. The rest of it is breathed into life by others when it lands inside them and gets entangled in their experiences and values, which are not mine.  It’s what I love most of all about live performance, that it’s real time communication, a partnership in making meaning out of this beautiful and brutal world.

 

A wind at my back

When I walk on my local moor at Fala, Midlothian, south east of Edinburgh, I get filled up with space and wind, ease and earth, and a visceral sense of connection to the depth of time. So when, in the autumn of 2015, BREATHE – a bold new arts festival at The Old Church in Hackney – invited me to perform on the theme of AIR for their inaugural programme, I thought immediately of Fala Moor.

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I heard the clattering, snaking skeins of pink-footed geese that fly each autumn from Iceland and eastern Greenland to winter on this unassuming patch of southern Scottish peatbog. And I talked and waved my arms into my computer from my kitchen table about what those birds might have to tell us as human beings … a bit like this:

And from these domestic ramblings and environmental observations, a new show – WIND RESISTANCE – was born.

This site documents my WIND RESISTANCE journey from my kitchen to an intimate church in London where more than thirty pages of sellotaped-together ideas started to cohere into what will be, in the months to come, a run of performances at the Edinburgh International Festival in co-production with Edinburgh’s beautiful Lyceum Theatre.

It’s already been quite a whirlwind.

Sincere thanks at the outset to Rachel Milward and The Old Church team in Hackney and to my friend, dramaturg and writer, Ruth Little for the opening of a door afforded by BREATHE festival in late February 2016. You were the first kind wind at my back.

The starting blocks

Fala Karine Pippa walk 06-05-2016

Pippa Murphy & Karine Polwart on Fala Moor 5/5/2016

I’m a singer. A musician. A writer. I write songs. And essays. And ranty facebook posts. I notice the world. I tell stories. I listen. I walk. I stand still and ask questions. I wonder. I think about time and all the people who have gone before me. I rejoice in the other creatures that inhabit my south east Scotland part of the universe, especially the feathered creatures of the air. I think: Why? How come? What if? Now, it seems, I am writing something for a theatrical setting, which is both a dream I’ve had for a couple of years and a quite unexpected turn of events. The world has turned, rather quickly, into a place where something I had only half-imagined into some possible future is actually going to happen. I’m just catching up. This online space maps the process of me writing and thinking and making to catch up. I’m writing here primarily for myself, as a discipline, as a witness, as a friend. But maybe there will be something of interest for you?