A Walk in the Woods

“Geopoetics is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world.”

There was a good turnout on Sunday morning for the inaugural gathering of the London branch of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. This first meeting took the form of walk from Muswell Hill to Gillespie Park Local Nature Reserve just south of Finsbury Park, and was excellently guided by Gordon Peters and Richard Meyers, whose knowledge of the history of the area, as well as the local flora and fauna, was at times staggering.

Parkland Walk 2nd September 2012

We started at the top end of Parkland Walk, a park which follows the route of a railway line which used to run between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park. Almost immediately we had wide views across London, then entered the canopy of trees that would accompany us for most of the day: sycamore and oak, rowan and hazel, birch and beech. We left the Walk and entered Highgate Wood, where Richard pulled a sprig from an alder to show how, perhaps unusually, you can see last year’s female flowers, this year’s female flowers and this year’s male flowers all at the same time.

In the shade of ancient woodland we looked at remains of kilns, where jobbing potters – Ancient Britons – fired clay for Roman households. We spied blue tits and nuthatch and lesser-spotted woodpeckers. With our hands we gauged the age of coppiced hornbeam. I remembered Andrew Waterman’s poem, ‘In Highgate Wood’: “I lean against//a hornbeam’s fluted trunk to follow up/the frail slant of a silver birch bole hung/with tatters of bark like peeling paint.”

Back on Parkland Walk, we could see more clearly now its previous incarnation as the railway track, including two cavernous archways. Different species of bat have been found in the park, and roosting in the tunnels. When they were excavating the tunnels they found ostracods and gastropods, shark and crocodile teeth, remnants of the tropical sea that covered southern England during the Eocene.

The park has fought development into both a stretch of motorway and a housing estate, and now has Local Nature Reserve status. It is a place to be shared by the local community, mostly joggers and cyclists judging by today (they clearly take exercise much more seriously here than in my usual East End haunts), but also as a shortcut to work, and a treat for those midnight bat-hunters.

The Spriggan – a sculpture by Marilyn Collins. 2nd September 2012

I like what Gordon says, about the fact that this shared space is therefore a negotiated space: one has to accept different interventions into nature, and our group’s interest has as much a place as the youth with his spray-can, graffiti-ing the bridges.

At one point we hit blue-and-white police tape, forensics in their plastic jumpsuits. A different intervention, a reminder. We curved off, a little more silent now, rejoining the path at Finsbury Park before entering Gillespie Park, another Local Nature Reserve, with ponds and meadows, and the Islington Ecology Centre that opened in 1990 (early, I believe, for this sort of urban thinking to take root) and which had laid on a cracking lunch.

After lunch, Norman Bissell, down from the Isle of Luing where he is the Director of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, gave a very interesting talk, introducing the ideas behind geopoetics and the work of the centre (its meetings, talks and publications), before leading a discussion on people’s experiences of the day and future possibilities.

Perhaps unsurprising for a group based in London there was a lot of talk about the Lea Valley, and the loss of public land, or the changing of the natural into the utilitarian, particularly along those stretches near the Olympic Park. While it was agreed that the Lea Valley is currently intelligently and subtly managed to suit the needs of both human and wildlife, there was a consensus at how easily it is for governments or local authorities to reverse environmental decisions and that the need to defend our public green spaces was a constant one.

Norrie reminded us that while we should be rightly concerned with these matters, standard activism was not what geopoetics was about, but nor could we just be a walking group interested in the natural world. The twin constructs of geopoetics – geo being of the earth, and poetic being creativity (not just poetry, but all types of creativity) – demanded a creative response to our relationship with the earth. And indeed, walking in a large group, catching and weaving through various conversations, watching other people point things out or ask questions, listening to informed guides as well as hearing different ideas and perceptions from others, meant that I came away with many more notions for writing than I would on a normal walk, those sparks that might well turn into poems.

*****

There are plans to hold future meetings, perhaps on the South Downs and again in London. If you’re interested in attending, or would like more information about the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics visit www.geopoetics.org.uk or get in touch with me through this blog and I’ll pass your details on.

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