The Laboratory with Leaves (Part 17): Woodland Words

The Laboratory with Leaves (Part 17): Woodland Words


As a child, I was lucky enough to have two parents whose heads were full of poetry. Out through the fields and the woods. And over the walls I have wended. A poem is a very personal thing. It’s about being human and it’s about being you. And scientists are trained not to go on about being you. You don’t say ‘I was surprised to find’. You don’t say ‘I was delighted’. You don’t say any of that, but in a poem that’s what you have to say. Writing confessional poetry I can’t do and could never do, because I’ve been so programmed not to talk about myself. But what you can do is write about things you think you’ve understood. I have climbed the hills of view. And looked at the world and descended. Parts of me are excited. They sense a tree, felled by snow, stressed till the fibres rip, and the whole rich mess thumps down. I stir in the earth. My hundred probes taste air in the caves and sumps of soil. They rise to dampness and emerge into a bark-roofed underpass. There, my body squeezes close, flat to the bast, and signals me. I shift shape and flow, burning and melting wood, and as I go, I feel sweet monomers tingle on my skin, infusing me with power. I press on. Hello, good morning. Very nice to see everybody. What a pleasing morning. I’m just going to say a word or two to introduce the day. Woodland Words is a fantastic opportunity for me to do what I really love. And being the Writer in Residence has licenced me to bother and annoy people and say, would you mind telling people about your research? And then I’ve been able to bring along poets and give them this privileged view of the research. We did these measurements of carbon and water fluxes, the way CO2 and other things move through the air is through the turbulent mixing of the air. The plants are still respiring, just like humans, they are releasing CO2 when they respire. If we do this over the seasons, we can end up with a full picture of the breath of the forest. It’s about intense focus on something outside yourself, for me. Enjoying the sensation of nature and then thinking about it. How did it come here? Why does it do this? What’s it like to be it. Badgers luckly are a bit more relaxed about being caught than other similar size, similar kinds of carnivore species. Nonetheless, I think it’s a sort of alien abduction for them. These strange people come along, they take them away in the space ship, they take them to a secret location and release them again. Sometimes in the twilight sleep of winter torpor, I dream. This is the badger speaking. Processor: this is a young female badger weighing about eight kilos, 670 centimetres long, and not as fat as I would expect at this time of year. It was the old dream again. The trap, the great light, warm paws parting the muddy fur of my belly. When I was 7, my mother took me to a secondhand bookshop in Highgate, North London, and bought me my first poetry book. The leaves are all dead on the ground. Save those that the oak is keeping to ravel them one by one and let them go scraping and creeping. Every tree has a little metal tag. When the wind’s blowing there’s a lovely tingling going through this forest. Out over the crusted snow when others are sleeping. This sense of having seen the truth. How plants connect to animals. And being able to convey truth. How sunlight is captured by leaves and cascades through woodland. This is something I absolutely love. To yield with a grace to reason and bow and accept the end of a love or a season?

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