Solstice Greetings everyone, wherever
you are on our wonderful planet.
Wishing you all the very best for 2015
Solstice Greetings everyone, wherever
you are on our wonderful planet.
Wishing you all the very best for 2015
Here is one of the finest poems I’ve read in a long time, Ode to a Drum written by American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa. Please accept it as a festive gift and pass it on.
Gazelle, I killed you
for your skin’s exquisite
touch, for how easy it is
to be nailed to a board
weathered raw as white
butcher paper. Last night
I heard my daughter praying
for the meat here at my feet.
You know it wasn’t anger
that made me stop my heart
till the hammer fell. Weeks
ago, I broke you as a woman
once shattered me into a song
beneath her weight, before
you slouched into that
grassy hush. But now
I’m tightening lashes,
shaping hide as if around
a ribcage, stretched
like five bowstrings.
Ghosts cannot slip back
inside the body’s drum.
You’ve been seasoned
by wind, dusk & sunlight.
Pressure can make everything
whole again, brass nails
tacked into the ebony wood
your face has been carved
five times. I have to drive
trouble from the valley.
Trouble in the hills.
Trouble on the river
too. There’s no kola nut,
palm wine, fish, salt,
or calabash. Kadoom.
Kadoom. Kadoom. Ka-
doooom. Kadoom. Now
I have beaten a song back into you,
rise & walk away like a panther.
Source: Internet Poetry Archive
Yusef Komunyakaa Photo: David Shankbone, Creative Commons
Caught inside a Kikuyu garden: a memorial to Karen Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton
I wrote this piece back in March. Every day since several people have clicked on it, and on one single day in the summer this rose to 170 viewings. I have no idea why this happened, or why, judging by the search terms, Denys Finch Hatton’s grave in Kenya’s Ngong Hills is of particular fascination. I thought it was just me who was fascinated. Anyway, here is the post again – a tale of loss and romance in the tropics. It is timely perhaps too, since in the UK at least, now is the season for showing Sydney Pollack’s film Out of Africa once more on TV. Happy Holidays everyone.
This was not supposed to happen. In fact you could say it adds insult to irony: that a man so steadfastly dedicated to an unfettered life in the wilds should, in death, end up hemmed in, and so very domesticated within this small Kikuyu shamba. Yet here it is, the mournful stone obelisk, marking the grave of Denys Finch Hatton, son and heir of the 13th Earl of Winchilsea, Great White Hunter, and lover of two women far more famous than he is: writer Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and aviator and race horse trainer Beryl Markham (West with the Night).
Yet another woman, the one whose shamba this is, shows him a new kind of love, taking care of the garden around the obelisk. If you want to visit the place it is not easy to find – either her little smallholding on the Ngong Hills, or the grave within. When we visited years ago we found only a hand-painted signpost nailed to a tree. We parked in a paddock outside the farmhouse door and were charged a few shillings. We could have bought a soda too, if we’d wanted. We could not see the grave though, and soon found that it was deliberately hidden from view by an enclosure of old wooden doors. More irony here of course. More symbols of shut-in-ness.
Denys spent most of his life in Africa avoiding any kind of confinement – out in the Tsavo wilderness, running shooting safaris for the rich and aristocratic. His clients included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) . In fact it was during the safaris for the Prince in 1928 and 1930 that Finch Hatton began to promote shooting on film rather than with a gun.
His lover, Karen (Tanne), Baroness von Finecke-Blixen lived in a small house below the Ngong Hills, some twelve miles outside Nairobi. By the time she started her affair with Denys she was divorced from her charming, but philandering husband, Bror, although they always remained friends. Her family had invested a great deal in the couple’s coffee farm, and Karen struggled to make a success of it. But the location was entirely wrong, and in the end she was forced to sell up and leave Kenya. It was during the period of selling the farm that she heard news of Denys’s death.
Looking towards the Ngong Hills from inside the veranda at Karen Blixen’s house. The house now belongs to Kenya’s National Museums.
Denys Finch Hatton’s untimely end may be put down to his passion for flying. For those of you who remember Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa, some of the most elegiac moments of the film are when the celluloid version of Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) takes Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) into the skies above the Rift Valley. Denys died in his Gypsy Moth in 1931, and in unexplained circumstances. He was taking off from the airstrip down in Voi in southern Kenya when his craft exploded. He and his Kikuyu co-pilot were killed. Denys was forty four.
View towards Nairobi from Denys Finch Hatton’s Grave, and overlooking another Kikuyu smallholding.
By the time of his death, his relationship with Karen was well on the wane, and he had already started an affair with the younger Beryl Markham. His biographer, Sara Wheeler says in Too Close to the Sun, that there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Beryl was pregnant with Denys’s child, but that she then had an abortion. To have known this would have truly broken Karen Blixen’s heart: her letters show that she had longed to have a child with Denys.
With yet another twist of irony, it was with his death, that Karen somehow reclaimed him, remembering that he had told her of his wish to be buried in the Ngong Hills. The spot he had chosen was one that Karen had decided on for her own grave.
Denys Finch Hatton
Karen Blixen with her deerhound Dusk.
“There was a place in the hills, on the first ridge of the Game Reserve, that I…had pointed out to Denys as my future burial-place. In the evening, while we sat and looked at the hills from my house, he remarked that then he would like to be buried there himself as well. Since then, sometimes when we drove out in the hills, Denys had said: ‘Let us drive as far as our graves.’ Once when we were camped in the hills to look for buffalo, we had in the afternoon walked over to the slope to have a closer look. There was an infinitely great view from there; the light of the sunset we saw both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Denys had been eating an orange, lying in the grass, and had said that he would like to stay there.” Out of Africa
The obelisk was only put up later by Denys’s brother. During Karen’s last days in Kenya she had the site marked with white stones from her own garden, and as the grass grew up after the long rains, she and Farah, her Somali house steward, erected a pennant of white calico so she could see the spot from her house, some five miles away.
Sometime after she had returned to Denmark she received a letter with some strange news about the grave:
“The Masai have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch Hatton’s grave in the the Hills. A lion and lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time…After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there thy can have a view over the plain, the cattle and game on it.” Out of Africa
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
Thinking of spring to come, except I realise now that I forgot to plant any bulbs, so these memories of tulips past will have to serve. They were snapped at very close quarters in my garden last April, and with a Kodak Easy Share. The poor little camera has lost its zoom, but it’s quite good on macro. The same might be said of the photographer.
Somewhere in the Maldives
To take part in Thursday’s Special, or see more posts, drop in at Paula’s at Lost in Translation.
Looking down on the small holder farms of Escarpment in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley
And on Shropshire farm fields from Wenlock Edge
It’s an interesting thought that in time the Great Rift Valley could become a seascape, for even now the earth’s crust is pulling apart along its 6,000 kilometre length. The Horn of Africa, Somalia and the eastern half of Kenya would then become an island. Meanwhile these views of Shropshire show a landscape that was once covered in a shallow tropical sea. Also Wenlock Edge, on which I am standing to take this photograph, was once the bed of that sea before geological forces shunted it upwards. It makes you think, doesn’t it – the relentless forces of change?
And for the story that connects these vistas: First Post Revisited: By the Silurian Sea
For more about the Great Rift see an earlier post: Vulcanicity: welcome to the hot zone
Fever trees, Acacia xanthophloea, and waterbuck at Elmenteita, Kenya
For those of you who follow Frizztext’s alphabet prompts, the tail end is always a challenge. What the devil begins with ‘X’? So here, yet again, I am cheating a bit, but at the same time introducing you to a tree I fell in love with while we lived in Kenya. It is well worth getting to know. It has a velvety golden bark, and feathery foliage, and it smells of…I don’t know what it smells of…perhaps something warm and faintly spicy, and a bit like gorse.
It acquired its English name ‘fever tree’ from early explorers who thought it actually caused malaria, rather than the mosquitos that infested the water sources near which it was often found growing. It is also known as the Naivasha Thorn because the shores of this Kenyan lake (still much occupied by the descendants of white settler families) are characteristically populated by these graceful trees.
Its botanical name comes from xanthos meaning yellow, and phloios meaning bark or skin. A golden skinned acacia: I think that sums it up. I read somewhere, too, that it is one of the few trees where photosynthesis takes place in the bark as well as in the leaves.
One New Year we had a hangi pit roast party in our front garden in Nairobi. This involved heating up rocks in a big hole in the lawn, and then wrapping food in banana leaves and burying it until it was cooked. It was a good party, and later we filled in the hole and planted a fever tree sapling. It grew wonderfully in the ashy soil. We called it the Party Tree.
Looking back, it seems like a good name. The fever trees in these photos do look as if they might break into a dance given half a chance; a waltz perhaps; something gently wafting anyway.
Nakuru National Park, Kenya. Giraffes like fever tree browse too. They steer their tongues around the thorns.
Traditionally, the timber is used for charcoal making, firewood and building poles. The foliage and the pods make good animal fodder. The trees can also be cultivated as a living fence, thus providing for many household needs all in one go. The roots are also nitrogen fixing, and the delicately scented pompom flowers are good bee forage. They are also elephants’ food of choice when they are not eating grass, although a Zambian zoologist once told me that they target fever trees for destruction because they are trying to stop them encroaching on their grassland reserves. In Australia, where it is an introduced species, the fever tree is regarded as a major and costly pest of pasture, so the elephants clearly have the measure of their tree.
In South Africa the tree is called Mukanya Kude by the Zulu people who revere it for its medicinal properties. They also use the bark to promote lucid dreaming and provide spiritual insight. Scientific analysis has shown that the tree’s parts comprise many active ingredients, and it is used throughout Africa to treat both physical and mental illness. Paul Kabochi, the ethno-botanist whom I used to meet at Delamere Camp at Elmenteita, told me he had once successfully treated a local typhoid epidemic with decoctions of the bark.
Personally, I always find it heartening to remember that there is something bigger than Big Pharma – the still surviving natural world that harbours all manner of life-enhancing creation. We might also remember not to destroy it before we have learned of its many useful properties, or indeed learned to value other living things simply because they are there, and are in every sense magnificent.
Meeting elephants in a fever tree thicket at Lewa Downs, Kenya
copyright 2014 Tish Farrell
The other day I was astonished to look out of my kitchen window and behold this perplexing vision on the side of a carpet truck. It was a bit like spotting a unicorn. Well, what do you think this image is saying carpet-wise? Hey, come unravel me? Anyway, it made me laugh. And some days you do need a sense of humour to live where we live.
Trucks are a daily feature of Sheinton Street, a town lane that somehow in the 1980s was upgraded to an ‘A’ road. This means it is designated as a “through road”, and that there should thus be nothing on it to impede the flow of traffic.
Anyone who has read my previous post (By the Silurian Sea) will know that while the back of our cottage mostly overlooks farm fields and woods, the front is very close to this road. Along it come all manner of large vehicles – many so big that they get jammed together trying to pass one another. This includes school buses, and combine harvesters, garden fencing lorries and clay trucks. Sometimes they block the road completely. Not good news if you are trying to get to hospital in an ambulance. There truly is no other way to go without a huge detour.
Over the years I have captured a few of these HGV encounters. I call the phenomenon Truck Stuckage. Most of the photos are taken from my upstairs office window. See what I get up to when I’m supposed to be writing. (I know: it’s hard to say what is more oddball – the photos or the person who took them). And not only do I snap stills, I also from time to time put short video clips on You Tube so I can forward the links to Shropshire Council’s chief highways engineer. She’s called Alice. I think we are on first name terms. She doesn’t know what to do about this road, but a team of consultants has recently been employed to think about what might be done. Or not.
In the meantime, if the trucks get any larger, we will need the local fire brigade on permanent standby to unravel the stuckage. They will have to do this before they can answer any emergency calls north of Sheinton Street. One can see where the “through road” designation begins to fall down somewhat:
All is peripheral in the place where I live – our house beside the path, beside the field, whose name on the 1847 tithe map, Townsend Meadow, marks the old town boundary of Much Wenlock. The town, itself, is very ancient, and only in recent times has it outgrown the frontier along Sytche Brook. It anyway has a more remarkable periphery than this – the edge of Wenlock Edge under which it lies.
I cannot quite see the Edge from my house, but I see the big sky above it: the dramatic false horizon that the wooded scarp creates, and thus the endless movement of weather along it. Hours can be wasted sky watching: the breezy march of clouds across our roof lights, the flush of hundreds of rooks from Sytche Lane wood, peppering the skyscape at dusk; their raucous cries, their enigmatic feats of aerial choreography.
That you cannot see the Edge from the town is something of a paradox given that its massive presence has shaped the place in so many ways, and not least in the fabric of its cottages, parish church and ancient priory. To get a proper glimpse you need to leave Wenlock – take the steep hairpin-cutting down to Shrewsbury, or the tree-lined road that strikes across the Edge top to Church Stretton, or else meander along the labyrinth of lanes beneath it. The villages down there have old world names – Church Preen, Hughley, Rushbury, Longville. Above them the wooded ridge bristles like a giant hog’s back – a long, dark spine nearly twenty miles in length. It is all unavoidably mysterious.
Photo: National Trust
The limestone flanks have been dug into for centuries, creating vast gaping wounds. As you take the road over the top, there are dizzying glimpses through verge-side trees where the ground shears away. All the quarries are unworked now, but in earlier times, for a millennium and more they were the source of most of the area’s building stone.
Then there was the burning of limestone to make fertilizer – another important local industry. Lime is an essential additive to unlock the nutrients of the sticky clay soils that lie below the Edge. Today, you can still come upon the remains of many kilns on Much Wenlock’s outskirts. Once their fumes must have hung like an ill-smelling fog above the town.
But perhaps the most important use of Wenlock limestone – at least as far as the history of world technology is concerned – was the crucial part it played in the production of iron at nearby Coalbrookdale. This small Shropshire settlement, just across the River Severn from Wenlock, has been called “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”. It was here, in 1709, that the Quaker brass founder, Abraham Darby I, first smelted cast iron using coke instead of charcoal. Into his blast furnace went iron ore, coke and limestone, the stone to act as a flux and remove impurities that would compromise the quality of the smelted pig iron.
And this was only the start. It was in Coalbrookdale too, in 1779, that Abraham Darby III pulled off a monumental PR stunt to promote the family trade. He built the world’s first cast iron bridge across the River Severn at a place now called Ironbridge, and thereby spurred on huge innovation in construction techniques that spread around the globe – from cast iron garden seats and cannon to iron ships, railways and skyscrapers.
So it was that Wenlock limestone (from this now sleepy part of Shropshire) played its part in the great march to industrialisation.
In more recent times, only the quarry spoil has been used – crushed to produce aggregates for road building. It has been many years since Much Wenlock’s homes shuddered in a pall of white dust whenever the quarrymen were blasting, or the streets vibrated to the endless rattle of passing stone trucks.
Of course there are other sources of disturbance on our mediaeval thoroughfares – over-sized farm vehicles and garden fencing trucks. They pass by on the other side of my house, which is not so scenic, although interesting in other ways.
For instance when I’m standing in the kitchen eating toast, I might look up to meet the serially startled gazes of a tour bus party as their coach nudges past our windows, brushing hard through our privet hedge in order to wheedle a way past another HGV. It is the only way to do it on a road too narrow for two large vehicles to pass.
We locals amuse ourselves by taking photos of the trucks and buses that several times a day get jammed outside our homes. We send ‘the evidence’ to officers at Shropshire Council who shrug helplessly, quite unable to say what their predecessors were thinking when they upgraded a bottle-neck lane into an ‘A’ road. There’s nothing to be done, they say. It is hard to believe. One day, I tell them, a European mega-truck will drive down from nearby Telford and block the road forever. Then what will you do?
But for all the present day shove and shunt, there is still a sense of romance about the town and Wenlock Edge. Spirits from the past make their presence felt in all sorts of ways. Housman set the Edge in verse; Vaughan Williams rendered it in song; the explorer, Stanley, sat upon it, his dark heart brooding on his time in Africa as he surveyed the more benign Shropshire landscape below. Even Henry James and Thomas Hardy came visiting, James more than once, and it is said he worked on The Turn of the Screw while staying as guest of the Milnes Gaskells in the old Prior’s House. (When Henry James Came to Wenlock).
Then there is the Shropshire writer-poet, Mary Webb who spent her adolescent years living on the Edge at The Grange, and was well known about the town. When in 1949 her novel, Gone to Earth, was turned into a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, some of the scenes were shot locally. In fact my neighbour tells me that one of the film’s extras used to live in our house, and that he was also the town’s projectionist. He would thus have shown Gone to Earth in the little town cinema that is now the museum, thrilled to bits as the scenes flickered on the screen: seeing himself and other townsfolk alongside Hollywood star, Jennifer Jones. (Jennifer Jones Comes to Wenlock).
But the Edge itself has far older stories than these. Back in the Silurian Age, some 430 million years ago, it was a tropic seabed, and in rare moments when my mind can embrace such vast temporal constructs, I imagine my house on the shore of the Silurian Sea. (A Solaris moment perhaps). Of course back then the ground on which my house stands was not even in the Northern Hemisphere.
No. Back then the earth’s landmasses were still on the move, shifting up the globe from the South Pole. The English Midlands and Welsh borderlands, that I think I know so well, lay 15 degrees south of the Equator in what is now the Indian Ocean. They were part of the micro-continent of Eastern Avalonia that in turn bordered the Iapetus Ocean.
And so while Shropshire lay somewhere off Mozambique, the world warmed and the Ordovician ice caps melted, the low-lying lands filled to become the Silurian Sea. I like to imagine that, after living in East Africa for seven years, returning to settle in Much Wenlock is, in some convoluted sense, a return to the place where I was. It has a feeling of alchemy about it, and time travel, that lessens the loss of Africa.
Our much travelled escarpment is understandably a fossil hunter’s paradise and, as such, is the most famous Silurian site in the world. In its seaside days, warm, shallow waters were home to sea lilies, corals, multi-radiate starfish, trilobites, gastropods, brachiopods and fish. Indeed, somewhere over my garden hedge, there may have been some reef lagoon that hosted ammonites, squid and, horrifically, water scorpions five feet long.
My house is of course composed of these Silurian deposits, dug from those vast quarries along the Edge. I thus inhabit a re-purposed fossil seabed. There are crinoid stems and corals in the chimney-breast, all belonging to an age before the birth of amphibians or dinosaurs, or before there were mammals and birds in the world.
While I can easily picture my house on a flat, gravelly shore beside a teeming shallow sea, it is hard to conjure the great absence of earth-life. We might easily imagine that the terrestrial world would have been a very quiet, still place, but this, I gather, would be a grave misconception. The land may have been lacking in life forms, but there was instead a perpetual wind. And because the paucity of land life meant there was little with which to bind the earth’s surface, the Silurian seashore would have been a dreadful place of roaring sandstorms and lashing gravel.
Not so now. Today, the farmland that surrounds the town is lush and homely. It has sheep and cattle, arable crops and pasture, woods and thickets, the old quarries and sundry ruins, remnant green lanes and farm cottages. There are deer and rabbits, foxes and rodents and also, as far as the town’s allotment owners are concerned, far too many birds. That said, though, it is good to hoe and dig to the mewing of buzzards, and cawing of rooks.
Most of the land within the town boundary, and this includes Townsend Meadow behind our house, is still feudally owned and tenanted. It is within these little bounds of landowner imposition that the small market centre has grown up and been continuously lived and worked in for the last thousand years.
It is probable, though, that the first human settlement took place a few millennia earlier than this. Perhaps the first Wenlockians were Bronze Age Celts who, as venerators of water, would have been drawn to the many springs that rise below the limestone escarpment. The Celts were also skilled metal workers, and Wenlock Edge would have provided a natural, upland byway for itinerant smiths and metal traders going to and from the mineral-rich hills of Wales. Certainly Bronze Age hoards have been found in and around the nearby River Severn which, through many ages, was one of the country’s busiest inland trade routes.
There is certainly evidence for Roman settlement in the town – a large villa on the site of the Priory, and one which apparently had its own Romano-Christian chapel.
Water, and sacred water at that, is another of the themes that runs through Much Wenlock’s settlement history. The town has many holy wells, including ones dedicated to St. Milburga and St. Owain. Milburga was a Saxon princess, who in 680 AD became abbess of a monastery for both monks and nuns, founded here by her father, King Merewald of Mercia. The monastery was built near the site of the Roman villa, perhaps chosen because of its already Christian associations. The invading Saxons established their authority by building chapels and monasteries. Later, the invading Normans did the same, but on a grander scale.
The Benedictine priory that succeeded the Saxon abbey in 1079 (and whose remains you see here) was part and parcel of the Norman master plan to control all aspects of Saxon life. Much Wenlock’s age-old reputation for holiness guaranteed that the local Norman earl, Roger de Montgomery, would choose the town for a big demonstration of power and piety. He invested heavily in the priory that was to become one of the most imposing religious houses in Europe. To ensure its future prosperity, all that remained was to annexe St.Milburga’s reputation for miracles, in particular her ability to strike holy springs from the ground. A new shrine was built to honour her sanctity, so ensuring a steady influx of pilgrims and traders throughout the Middle Ages.
Roll forwards a few centuries and the town has another claim to fame, one that has significance to all of us today. In 1850 the town’s physician and apothecary, Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) founded the Wenlock Olympian games that were to become the driving force behind the modern Olympic movement. Brookes fervently believed that exercise brought moral, physical and intellectual improvement to all who took part in it. He was a campaigner of national standing, and responsible for the introduction of physical education into British schools.
His ideas spread, and in 1890 when Baron Pierre de Coubertin came to see the Wenlock Games for himself, Brookes shared with the young man not only his visions for everyone’s health and welfare, but also his wealth of experience from running the Games. He even designed and had made at his own expense wonderful medals for the winning competitors. Sadly, he did not live to see the first modern international Olympics in Athens in 1896, although De Coubertin did give him due credit as the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games. Tribute was also paid to his home town in the 2012 Olympics when ‘Wenlock’ was the name chosen for one of the mascots. I hasten to say that this strange, one-eyed being bore little resemblance to any living Wenlock resident.
The Linden Field ,where Brook’s Olympian Games first took place, is now a public park, bequeathed by a former feudal worthy for the pleasure and recreation of the people of Much Wenlock. Every July the Games are still held here, and with competitors from all over the world.
The field is only a step from my house, and I sometimes toy with idea of running down the avenue of lime trees that Dr. Brookes planted there 150 years ago. Musing on his notions that exercise breeds mental and physical improvement, I think the activity might relieve the creative doldrums, spur on the story-telling process, help me escape the peripheries, and finally get some work done.
Of course one of the hazards of being a writer, apart from devising ever new means of diversion and prevarication, is the hoarding of story ideas. Like the Silurian seabed, they go on accreting: stuff and more stuff, piles of notes and scribble and memory sticks slowly compacting on every surface in my office. Hopefully they do not enfolding anything as alarming as a five foot water scorpion. And now that I’ve conjured this monster, I rather wish I hadn’t, although you never know: there’s maybe a story in it.
© Tish Farrell 2014
I wrote the first version of this blog’s first post as the means of showing what ‘Writer on the Edge’ was about, namely the importance of evoking place (at least in some sense) in all creative writing. It is also a portrait of the place where I live and think; it is the edge on which I reside both physically and metaphysically. For although I lived in Africa for some years, Shropshire is where my roots are. At least I think this is the case. Once you have lived in foreign places for a time, it is often hard to know where home is.
*Historical source: Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock, Shropshire Books, 2001
#WenlockEdge #Shropshire #TishFarrellWriter #HenryJames
At twilight these crab apples glow like tiny lanterns against the darkening sky. And that’s when the blackbird comes to feed. Or at least this is the time when I most often spot her silhouette bobbing amongst the fruit. You will have to imagine her. It is a piece of English winter magic. A gift.
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