Category Archives: Writing
Where Should I Plant this Sapling?
They say a man plants
A tree, not for himself, but
For his descendants. Well,
I agree, and have seen
The benefits of a mulberry
Planted by a man I never met,
More than a century past.
As the sentinel starts to sag
I’ve saved a sapling from
Between its roots and would
Take the next step for my
Generation before it falls.
But where would it prosper?
I fear the weather
Will not favour the same spot
As its forefather for much longer
Than half its lifetime,
And ere it gives fullest fruits
Will stand in different clime.
So, where should I plant this sapling
In a changing world?
Where its roots can anchor the eroding soil
As farmers harvest down to the last?
On a slope so the children of this village
Can reach the lower limbs
To stain fingers and lips on
Summer afternoons, should
Any remain after rains have
Deserted the landscape?
In a ditch to take some advantage
Of rich dampness as the rest
Of fields blister in the sun?
Or on a high knoll to stay dry
While surrounding ground soaks
Under incessant thunderstorms,
Turning this aridness instead wet?
It seems a bet to hedge;
I should plant a score
From hill to shore.
Though the rains have returned, it’s still kinda nice enough to get out of the city these days.
And it’s so nice to do so.
The orchids are up in the Valdorba, and the thyme blooming.
Unfortunately, the rains have increased the erosion in many places where there’s not enough vegetation to hold the soil. This bunch of thyme is clinging on, but you can see the rocks breaking away from the side of the gully behind it.
And yes, that is recently burnt vegetation behind the orchid… some farmers just don’t get that scrub serves to hold their soil from washing away down to the Ebro and silt it up, which they complain about later when the farms on the floodplain… flood.
Hopefully the other plants can grow and help slow down further breaks.
Here’s a poem I wrote recently about getting into the countryside.
Birdsong Outside the City
Something calls, unseen, to me
Hidden in a willow tree of a copse
Alongside a swift river tugging
Tangled dangling fronds and
Flooding islands, a place
Providing people only invitation,
Unheard above the cars of
The city where blackbirds scream,
A small, soft, birdsong twittering
Like a signal, reverberating in
This stillness, resonating
As far as childhood; deeper,
Into bones, birth, bringing
Relief like a lost boy seeing
Family, safety, a memory.
A song saying stay, for whenever
Could one return?
While Spring officially started at the beginning of the month back home in Ireland, in Spain we are still in the middle of winter, with the next season only set to start in another month on the 21st of March.
It is, I admit, the height of skiing season, but even here, the daffodils are shooting up and will soon burst buds, the crocuses in the parks are spotting the grass, and I even saw a few daisy and dandelions the other day. The trees are mostly still bare, but showers of catkins have popped out on a few.
Mostly, though, you can just smell it. The air is different. Despite the snow that we had last week, there’s a feeling of spring that even humans living in a city still experience.
Spring is here, as far as I am concerned.
And summer isn’t far behind. For I saw the bats take their first flight of the year and it reminded me of a poem I wrote last year on the subject of signs of summer, more than spring. It’s perhaps a little premature to be thinking about butterflies and bees, but since I haven’t posted a poem in a while, here it is.
Signs of Summer
There are many signs of summer coming, here,
Starting perhaps with cuckoo calls and swallow sighting
And the return of the swifts, or
The first flight of the bats at twilight,
The scent of honeysuckle through open balconies and
The abundance of butterflies on the garden lavender,
Some are specific to Spain, like closing the blinds
Against sunlight to keep the house cool, and
Sleeping with the windows open all night
Pouring water to fill the swimming pool and others
Seen only in this city: setting up the tombola,
Putting the fences around the flowers in the park
In preparation for the festivals and digging up
The road to get it ready for the running of the bulls,
And lastly, putting up with the stench of piss
Upon opening up the street door every morning.
George Monbiot has an interesting, if depressing, article out this week about the British Govt. doing more or less nothing to solve the environmental crises we are facing.
We all know the shit is approaching the fan, and it will surely hit it at speed and force should we so blithely as we currently are, continue to do our business as usual on the planet.
I have used in Easter Island as an example in my biology classes for more than a decade now. I had my students read use the essay Twilight at Easter by Jared Diamond in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005 before he I read his book Collapse.
It’s an instructive, if depressing, lesson on how people can undermine their own future by going with the business as usual way of doing things, even when that means short-term gains lead to long-term destruction.
People often wonder what the person who cut the last tree on Easter Island thought as he did so.
And the answer of course, is that he didn’t cut down a big tree, he only cut a small tree that he needed to cut to cook his meal, and it looked just like all the other bushes around, so he didn’t think very much of it at all – the big trees had been gone for a while.
We always assumed those poor sods were ignorant, that they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight like we do. If we, with their example, do the same stupid thing, then we would be so many times dumber than they were.
However, perhaps the Eastern Islanders weren’t all that stupid. I mean, perhaps all of them were not that stupid. The ones who weren’t so blind were nearly stymied by the majority of stupid.
I’m sure some saw it coming.
It’s clear that they didn’t do very much to stop it.
More importantly than asking what the guy who cut the last tree, we should ask what went through the mind of the guy on Easter Island who was shouting out to stop the cutting of all the trees. The guy(s and gals) who were predicting the future, pointing out the disappearance of the birds they used to eat, lamenting the old state of the canoes that could not be replaced and meant dolphin and deep-sea fish were off the menu, etc.
You can almost imagine a Monty Python-esque scene where the proto-ecologist says to the crowd that the big statures aren’t going to help get more food or help make canoes to catch tuna, and one of the stone masons shouts back say to him, “Shut up, you, or I’ll bloody throttle you – I’ve a good job here making them statues.”
If it were indeed case that some knew the collapse of their society and lives was imminent, well, it would make Easter Island an even more instructive, and depressing, lesson for us today as we face the guardians of the status quo.
Even more so than the statues of Easter Island, the status quo is a hard stone to roll off us.
“But if we cut down all the trees, Bob, we’ll be fucked!”
“Shut your face, BigNose! I’ll look much more enigmatic surrounded by grass.”
Belated happy new year, everyone.
Another year rolls around, another calendar goes up on the wall. If you don’t have yours up yet, why not get this one?
I got it for my office wall, where I am writing now. And I also got this nice card with a note from Monika Kull, thanking me for renewing my WWF membership.
You should donate whatever you can, too. If you think your pet is important, imagine how much more important it is to save entire species which will otherwise vanish from our lands – from our television screens, even.
And how much less beautiful would our calendars be then, too?
The Rains Return
The sky weeps;
Hills soak to refill rills.
Upon the porch, we sit still.
The rain – snow in the high ground – has finally returned to much of Spain, bringing some relief to the drought we’ve been experiencing this year.
The spring that supplies our village in the Valdorba is still flowing at a trickle, though. It will take much more rain to raise the water table and refill the reservoirs.
the spring last week above, the same spring in September below…
But everyone has been happy to see the rain, despite the need for umbrellas instead of sunglasses.
This is a photo of one of the beaches in San Sebastian, aka Donostia, taken when I was there last week.
I sat on the beach and wrote this poem.
Donostia, December 2017
On the breakwater, as tide rises,
Shielding eyes to see gleaming mountain
Snowmelt trickle by.
We shouldn’t be able to see the mountain from the beach at this time of year, for the blanket of cloud that normally shrouds the city.
But what is normal anymore?
Anyway, I wrote a few poems that afternoon. It reminded me of another poem I wrote a few weeks ago, which describes a little of why I’ve written so little recently, and posted less.
But maybe we’ll get back to normal sometime soon…
Words Come Forth
They say our words won’t be kept down;
They bubble up, under pressure, like lava
Pushing through a fissure,
Bursting forth if they can’t flow.
But instead, they are drawn
Under empty sky,
Sucked out by silence,
Pulled forth by the vacuum
Of open space,
Giving them a place to emerge
Timidly into tranquilly
Like deer from the thicket at twilight.
So, I know it’s been a while, but things have been as hectic as a 2-year-old in a new playground. Literally.
My final chapter of the Silver Nights Trilogy is out now, and so I thought it a good time to recap what I learned in the process of writing it.
1) Things take longer than you think…
Especially when you think you can squeeze side projects in there between…
I always knew I’d finish my trilogy (I advocate the finish your shit mantra) but I thought I’d have it done a couple of years ago – around six months after the first novel came out and I realised just before publication that it was going to be a trilogy. The nuclei of the second two parts came to me very clear and I reckoned that I’d have them both done by Christmas – I had a part time job and summer in between, after all.
But then I got the idea for a novel about Loch Ness, and that just grabbed my attention like a talon clutching my balls, insisting I go along with it. So I thought it best to comply. The first draft spun out easily, but then there were drafts to go over before I submitted, and another project popped up. This was going to be easy – my publisher put out a call for erotic romance novellas set in one night in any city, for a series called City Nights. Well, I had a long short story set in Madrid that could be refitted in a jiffy. Or not. The challenge of writing erotica wasn’t half as hard (fnarr!) as shaping it into a longer story that was still under 25k words. Anyway, despite it taking me several rewrites I got the bug and did 2 more cities since, Pamplona and Boston (for these the story was simple, starting from scratch always is simpler) published under the name JD Martins – yes, I am a school teacher. Then there were edits for a YA paranormal and a children’s fantasy novel to go over for publication (yes, I’d a drawerful of old novels that I finally found willing publishers for). And of course, real life did it’s usual trick of getting in the way. Our daughter was diagnosed diabetic at two and a half, so I spent a lot of time cycling across town to inject her at lunchtime, we had another sprog six? months ago… all that great stuff. But the sequels kept simmering away in the meantime, slowly taking shape… of course, people kept asking when they’d be ready and I kept telling them a date not too distant in the future – three months or so, by this Christmas, as soon as submissions reopen, I’m sending both books straight away…
2) Think before you decide to write a trilogy.
At least, think before you tell everyone, and have the second and third pretty much ready to go before you tell everyone. Sure, the idea for the second and third novel might come to you real quick and seem pretty safe and secure, but they need to tie together like a trilogy, and, more importantly, people are going to be waiting on them – some won’t even read the first part till they know the second and third are written and out there for them to read straight after – hands up who’s waiting on Game of Thrones to finish it’s run before even starting? Only me? Oh… anyhow, though the ideas might seem pretty solid, they have to lead directly from the first to the second and into the third and though there might be three books, hence trilogy, a series can have three books, too – you just don’t write the fourth book, and nobody’s going to feel cheated. Are you? It’s not that the second and third novel aren’t solid, but the challenges facing the characters can’t be the same, and things that happen in the sequels need to have a coherency with the first, so perhaps write them all at the same time, rather than have one done and decide to add two more
But definitely write part two and three together. It might piss off those waiting impatiently for the second to come out, but it’s better in the end. Also helps keep all those characters in your head at the same time – werewolves have big families, dammit, especially when they’re trying to build up their numbers after centuries of persecution.
3) Stick to your original vision
I wrote the first novel in this trilogy, Leaving the Pack, twenty-five years ago. The time in between turned out to be very useful. I was inspired by Whitley Strieber’s novel Wulfen, and to honest, I never really read much about them since then. I liked my werewolves (almost as much as Strieber’s) and I didn’t much like the movies I occasionally saw or the few books I read. Having a book out before you write the next leads to the temptation to take reader’s opinions into account as write. But making everyone happy isn’t a possibility and if the reader didn’t like the first book, it’s pointless to try please them in the second, or the third. Besides, when I looked around at some of the other werewolf novels out there, I realised their tastes were more aligned with the books I wanted my story to stand out from – the real tribe who engendered the original myth.
4) Don’t bother reading in-genre – it’s probably not your genre, and there’s some weird shit out there.
I did read a few other books over the years, but reading other werewolf novels was a bad idea. They filled my head with stuff that I didn’t like, making me second-guess the world I’d created – a real world where shifting is just as physically impossible as it is in ours.
In tandem with their physiological lunar rhythms, these people worshipped the wolf, had an affinity with their four-legged brethren that had led their enemies to assume they turned into beasts.
As a zoologist, I knew that wolf mating is similar to dogs, where they are unable to separate afterwards for a while. I went to double-check the term (knotting) in the final edit and discovered a sub genre of werewolf novels that was eye opening, let’s say.
5) The real world has changed, and so must your characters.
Even though my werewolves are first found roaming the city during the late Eighties, when homosexuality wasn’t nearly so visible in our cities, and I have no interest in writing gay sex scenes – and I doubt I could make them hot enough for the readers of werewolf knotting – I totally agree that we need more diversity characters in our novels. The werewolves are an ancient tribe, and the poster boys for patriarchy, but even they have to evolve to deal with the way things are nowadays, including equality for their daughters. But such changes are a joy to write, to put your characters in awkward situations. One thing that has not changed for the pack, however, is they still hate vampires, and real vampires are not so nice as they’re made out to be.
You can get all three books here….
The cranes started passing over Pamplona yesterday evening.
They were chased by the rain that came in overnight. The first in weeks.
Autumn has thus officially started.
And hopefully also this means the end of the fire season for this year.
While Ireland braced for an almost unheard of hurricane in the North Atlantic, in northern Spain and Portugal, forest fires were killing even more people than Ophelia killed.
There were dozens burning over the weekend and until Tuesday, when the rains helped to finally extinguish them.
Unlike hurricanes, though, which are terrible, and indirectly related to man’s activities, these forest fires were only wild in the sense of the untamed destruction they could wreak. They were not natural. They were man made, purposefully started, and repeatedly so.
After so many deaths, there are now questions being asked of politicians as to how these arsonists can be stopped. Spanish news has little else, other that the Catalan situation – politics and fraud, even football has been put in the background by the terrible scenes of people trying to escape burning villages only having to turn back as the roads are flanked with flames, and others park inside a motorway tunnel to wait rescue, or let the fires pass overhead.
Because these fires have been a part of summer in places like Galicia for years. As soon as the weather dries, huge tracts of forests go up there. All directly caused by humans and usually set intentionally, with a few the result of stupidity and neglect.
The people of Portugal are naturally outraged, after a summer of huge fires has been followed by an autumn death toll almost as terrible, with dozens of people claimed by the flames.
The perpetrators must be caught and jailed for their murders, but also, the politicians and police, if it is the case, must be held responsible for letting this situation get to this state. Why have these people not been caught for their previous fires? – because there’s no way these conflagrations were started by first-time arsonists.
Why do people go out of their way to set fires, driving along highways in the middle of the night with fireworks tied to helium balloons?
It’s clear they have nothing better to do, and they’re assholes of the highest calibre, but there must be some other, external, motivation for most of the fires. What is it? Why has it not been identified years ago and why has it not been removed?
There are forests that could burn just as badly and even more easily in other parts of Spain, so why are there not so many fires elsewhere? Galicia has 40% of all fires in the country, and half the area burnt every year for the last decade.
Surely the arsonists are spread out in a broader swath across the country. Or is there something about the mind-set of Galicians that makes them excessively prone to arson?
The gorse fires and heather fires we have seen in Ireland in recent years were all set intentionally for financial gain – the current agricultural subsidy system means that farmers make more money if there land is considered in use, even if it’s not.
Ultimately, stopping them will require a change in the EU farming subsidy system to allow land go fallow without farmers losing money.
Is there a financial motivation in Galicia and Portugal for setting huge fires?
According to Ecologists in Action, this is only the cause of a small proportion of the fires set.
What other factors are in play?
The use of fire for farming practices is permitted much more freely than elsewhere.
In most of Spain it is not permitted to light fires in camping and picnic areas and other recreational areas during times of fire risk. Not so in Galicia.
Vehicles are also allowed onto forest paths in Galicia during the summer, which is prohibited elsewhere.
AND they allow fireworks in village festivals during the summer, which is just asking for trouble.
But as I said, the summer is over.
The cranes, luckily, don’t stay long in Spain during their migration.
When they passed before on their way north I wrote this poem. Hopefully it will ease the depression of these fires. Watching the birds certainly lifts the spirit.
The Great Migration
I’ve not yet seen the Serengeti,
Nor the caribou upon the artic plains
But up above my house in the hills,
I’ve been privileged to witness
The cranes migrating, calling
Eyes aloft to observe their long
Strings streaked across the sky
Huge wing beats by the thousands,
And can’t but wonder where
Those numbers bide in other times,
(Amazed such spaces yet exist)
And where they will find abode
In other climes.
Here’s a short story for your spring, now that we see the flowers growing like they’re on steroids – and they are, of course – for a flash fiction challenge about invasive species – a topic I’ve talked about before….
Always said them scientists would mess everythin’ up, playin’ round with Creation like they was God.
The environmental beatniks said it too, course, but they said all kind of whatnot, like the weather was changin’, that we didn’t listen much to them guys. Joel McCallum, though, he reads the scientific papers, and he said they reckoned the canola plants’d be the ones that did it, them being so common and close to weeds anyway. He said the genetically modified canola would mix with the field mustard plants, and lead to a superweed that nothin’ could get rid of. The idea of sunflowers takin’ over like they was on steroids, well, we none of us predicted that.
What we never saw comin’, either, was losing our land to the federal government after trying so hard to keep independent from them assholes in DC.
We bought the land fair and square, set up our town ten years beforehand. We were self-sufficient by then, hundred per cent, and all set for the apocalypse, should it decide to turn up. We never did think it’d turn out this way.
It was the federal government’s fault, though, too. Always knew that would be true. They were the ones invited that crazy sonbitch to plant those damn sunflower plants out our way. Gave him permission to use federal land we used to graze cattle off, not twenty miles from town. Well, we didn’t think no sunflowers’d stand the shallow soil there. No depth at all, after the dustbowl years took it clean away. Even the grass dried up when it didn’t rain in late spring. We didn’t think the plants would stand up in the wind, first time we went out there and they told us what it was they were growin’.
Joel tried to explain what they’d done to the sunflowers – struck in some genes from a creeper, a vine of some sort that was supposed to only change the roots from the deep taproots sunflowers supposed to grow, into wide spreading roots that’d keep the plants upright and get them enough water from what rains came. They’d spread the seeds out farther than normal to compensate. Well, Joel didn’t know what way they’d messed up – whether they’d put in the wrong piece of string or if the gene did more jobs than just make roots of one sort or the other, but mess up they did, good and well. Plants grew up stringy and creeping; stretched along the ground, covering the empty patches between plants till it was just a sea of green, with all trace of the rows they’d been planted in gone. The flowers were small, but each plant had four or five ‘stead of one. We was amazed that first year. The scientists just took notes. They harvested some, but with the way the plants were all higgledy-piggledy, they missed half the seed heads.
Course, we didn’t like to let the food go to waste. We was self-sufficient, but it’s a sin to waste such bounty as the Lord places before you. We planted some in our own plots – and planned to keep plantin’ it, till we realised it didn’t need no plantin’. The wind came through one night, the way it does, and the seeds flew everywhere on it. Next year, it was everywhere. It invaded the wheat fields, covered the town. It was kinda pretty at first. We used the oil for our trucks, couple of years. But we soon saw it was gettin’ serious when it covered the forest floors, started cloggin’ the creek, and broke half the corn plants before they got to cobbin’. It wrapped around everything – I mean everything – like vines, like morning glory, or that Japanese knotweed and them other invasive species they’re always goin’ on about. These creepers blocked out the light from every other plant, till there were was nothin’ else we could grow.
Well, we thought we could at least use the oil to cut and burn it out, but eventually, much as it galled us to do it, we had to ask the federal government for help. It was their problem, all said and done.
They came, in helicopters, since the roads were practically overgrown by then. One fella told Joel they was comin’ anyhow, whether we asked them or not. Their scientists told them to shut down the whole operation – and more. They was goin’ to move us – would’ve paid us to up and move sticks someplace else. But what we asked for help, they just took us out, told us to gather up our belonging, and make damn sure it was all clean of vegetative material, they called it.
We did as was asked – we weren’t no fools, wishing this upon everyone, or anyone else. That would be a sin not even God might forgive. Besides, we weren’t ready for this kind of apocalypse. Nor were we ready for any kind of reckonin’ without our land, our shelters, our supplies.
When they took us up in the helicopters, we saw them start the firebombin’ straight off. That shit smelt like the end of the world. No wonder them Vietnamese hated us, using that shit on them. I asked the pilot how much they was going to burn. Five thousand square miles, he told me. Hell of a lot of Napalm man. Of course, we had some Napalm ourselves, just in case. When I saw the town explode, I thought, well, there’s an end to it. We might not survive the next apocalypse, but at least we helped the world avoid this one.
That’s what I thought. That’s what we all thought, true as the Lord is lookin’ down on me.
Thing about sunflowers, though, even these crazy ass ones, was the seeds were real tasty. The kids in town used to go round all day, biting on them and spitting out the shells. Well, how can you put the blame on the shoulders of a little kid, not eight year old, instead of the scientist that made them seeds? She meant t’ eat them, of course, and all would’ve been well. But when she saw the explosion from all the stuff we’d in storage, well, she jumped so high she near enough fell out of the damn chopper herself. Only natural the bag slipped out her hand.