Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012

Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012
'Necessity is not the mother of invention; play is.'
Ian D. Suttie

It gets late early out here
in the lacklustre places,
wind in the trees and the foodstalls'
ricepaper lamplight, fading and blurred with rain,
the wire fence studded with fleece
and indelible traces
of polythene wrapping; marrowfat clogging the drains
on the road that runs out to the coast
then disappears.
A last bleed of gold in the west, like a Shan Shui painting,
then darkness. 

The animals are gone
that hunted here:
wolves coming down from the hills, that
immaculate hunger,
rumours of bear and cat, quick
martens and raptors.
The rain is darker now,
though not so black,
oil-iridescent, streaked with the smell of lard
– it gets late early out here; though late, out here,
has a different meaning:

stars in the road
and the absence of something more
than birchwoods or song,
pallet fires, tyre-tracks,
grubbed fields clouded with grease
and palm oil, hints
of molasses and lanolin, tarpaper,
iron filings.
A narrow band of weather on the road,
then houses; though we scarcely think of them
as that.

I remember a meadow at dusk
in another rain
(and this is nostalgia now); I remember
I stood in a wind like gossamer and watched
three roe fawns and a doe
come quietly, one by one, through the silvering grasses,
wary, but curious, giving me just enough space
to feel safe,
their watchfulness reminding me of something
lost, a creaturely
awareness I could only glimpse

in passing.
That meadow is gone, and dusk
isn't dusk any more 
– or not out here –
just miles of tract and lay-by on the way
to junkyards and dead allotments,
guard dogs on tether,
biomass, factory outlets,
the half-light of ersatz dairies petering out
on rotting fields
of rape and mustardseed.

We've been going at this for years:
a steady delete
of anything that tells us what we are,
a long 
distaste for the blood warmth and bloom
of the creaturely: local
fauna and words for colour, all the shapes
of ritual and lust
surrendered where they fell, beneath a fog
of smut and grime and counting-house
as church, the old gods

buried undead beneath the rural sprawl
that bears their names, or wandering the hills
of Lammermuir and Whitelee, waiting out
the rule of Mammon, till the land returns
– with or without us –
chainlink going down
to bindweed, drunken
thistles in a sway
of wind and goldfinch on the dead estates, fat
clusters of moss
and gentian, broken

tarmac with new shoots
of coltsfoot breaking through
like velvet, till the darkness of the leaf
unfurls into a light we could have known
but failed to see
by choosing not to find
the kingdom-at-hand:
this order;
this dialectic;
this mother of invention,
ceaseless play. 
John Burnside

first published in Black Middens: New Writing Scotland 31, edited by Carl MacDougall and Zoë Strachan (Glasgow: ASLS, 2013)

Reproduced by permission of the author.
John Burnside

John Burnside is a poet and novelist whose work explores fundamental spiritual and ecological issues about the nature of our dwelling on earth. 



Read more about this poet
About Travelling South, Scotland, August 2012

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:

Most dystopias are set in the future, not the present. But that's exactly what we are living in now, says Burnside: even in rural Scotland, childhood's remembered meadows have been replaced by ‘miles of tract and layby on the way/ to junkyards and dead allotments’. The next stanza puts Burnside's ecological politics as concisely as anything he has written. You could imagine this argument being spat out in debate yet rage is just another Mr Angry in the TV studio. And what Burnside is saying, from the very first, is said more in sorrow than anger: that it really might be too late for us to change our attitudes.

Yet nature is playful. It changes, and will change ‘with or without us’. That phrase is the key, and the final stanza imagines nature getting its grip back on the planet, bursting through tarmac, showing its true glories, revealing its wonders even if in the absence of that species that once was (as, ironically, here) so good at recording them.

Author's note:

This poem was composed while driving at night on the road south, after my sister Margaret had a traffic accident and I headed down to the trauma unit in Coventry where she was being treated for a severe back injury. That was the immediate occasion, though the sentiment of the poem arose from having to witness yet again the damage that is being done to land we should have treasured and defended, damage inflicted over a long period by short-termism, the profit motive and a socially unjust subsidy system. Though I would usually not reveal them so overtly, in this case I did not feel that my feelings of rage and disgust diminished the poem; after all, there is much to be angry and disgusted about and I wanted the poem to contend that anyone – landowner, corporation or political party – that could desecrate this land deserved, not our subsidy handouts, or our votes, but our contempt.