Sphagnum Moss

Sphagnum Moss
Sphagnum moss remembers. It recalls 
the touchdown of each lark that tumbles
down upon its surface, the slightness of that weight
recorded in the tendrils of each stem. It anticipates
the appetites of flock which graze
upon that wasteland when the rare haze
of summer-heat crisps heather. 
The constant tide and toll of weather.
Snow concealing peat and turf like surf,
rolling in with weight of dark clouds curving
around the bleak horizon. The persistent smidge of rain
blurring the land’s muted shades year upon damp year again.

And, too, the heavy trudge of boots
which used to stamp upon it in pursuit
of sheep or cattle. Or else stumbling back
homewards just before the black 
of night consumed the borders of a bog
stretching wide before soles, the perils of a loch,
perhaps, where a neighbour drowned. Sphagnum moss, 
above all, stores the footsteps of those who are now lost,
those residents and denizens of moor
for whom moss feels an absence, their drum of feet
no longer pounding desolation like a heartbeat any more. 
Donald S. Murray

from The Guga Stone: Lies, Legends and Lunacies from St Kilda (Edinburgh: Luath, 2013)

Reproduced by permission of the author.
Donald S. Murray

Donald S. Murray comes from Ness at the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis and now lives in close proximity to 'the Ness' at the southern end of Shetland. His first poetry collection was Between Minch and Muckle Flugga (Kettillonia, 2005). He has written much about islands and the seabirds that fly around them. The gannet especially features in his prose account, The Guga Hunters (Birlinn, 2008), and Praising The Guga (North Idea, 2008). These books were inspired by the men who hunt the guga (or young gannets) each year in Sulageir off the north-east coast of Lewis. Gannets also feature in his illustrated collection The Guga Stone; lies, legends and lunacies of St Kilda (Luath Press, 2013). 

He has written about other matters such as the Italian Chapel in Orkney in And On This Rock (prose, Birlinn, 2010), growing up bilingually in Small Expectations (Two Ravens Press, 2010), and Harris Tweed in Weaving Songs (Acair, 2011). He has been a recipient of both the Robert Louis Stevenson and Jessie Kesson Fellowships.

Three further books appeared during the course of 2015. These were Psalm Boat (Roncadora Press), SY StorY: portrait of Stornoway Harbour (Birlinn)and Herring Tales: how the Silver Darlings influenced human taste and history (Bloomsbury).

Read more about this poet
About Sphagnum Moss

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2013 was David Robinson.

Editor’s comment:

In three words – ‘sphagnum moss remembers’ – Donald Murray has the key for this poem, and indeed a whole (rather fabulous) book on life and legends from St Kilda. And just as God remembers each and ever sparrow, so does the moss remember not just each lark that has landed on it, but also those moments ‘when the rare haze/ of summer-heat crisps heather’ (love that verb), and of course, the greatest absence of all – man himself. Is it not that very absence of man on islands so near to us that makes those islands haunt our imagination?

Author's note:

The opening poem in The Guga Stone, ‘Sphagnum Moss’ was largely inspired by a short walk across an island moor – one of many undertaken in my lifetime. On this occasion, I looked back to see where my every footstep had been, its mark remaining on the surface of the bogland I had trekked over a short time before. It was as if that stretch of moor possessed the ability to ‘memorise’ how I had made my way across it. Out of that thought came the line ‘Sphagnum moss remembers’.

Other thoughts tumbled out after this – the sight of small birds flapping their wings above the heather, the sheep grazing (and how both I and others used to flap our own hands when gathering them), even the losses sometimes associated with these places, either in the snow of winter where a couple of young men from my native parish became lost many years ago or the death of someone who stumbled into a loch.

The poem came easily and naturally of this, summing up the loss, too, of an ancient way of life

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