Jean Harrison is the new Featured Writer. Her new book, Terrain is published by Cinnamon. Terrain is sharply observant, wry and tender at the same time, its cover so aptly suits the poems. I met Jean on a course some years ago in Yorkshire (where I was born and bred and where she now lives) and we walked together on the moors. I recall she said something like ‘Don’t try to write a poem.’ That’s what I remember anyway! Wonderful advice, it is…(try altering the stresses in that line). She herself never wastes a single word and her poems need reading with the eye of a hawk.
Talking of which, I dreamt of a peregrine last night. Last time I really saw one was another snowy day this February under a brilliant azure sky. And the daytime moon was shining snow-whitely in the sky as if there had been a blizzard up there. A peregrine came into view and flew right over my head and under the moon and, looking up, it seemed to me the barring of its underbelly gleamed very white.
In the present Unspring I wanted to find out about how some particular snowdrops were faring in this bitter cold and the smattering of Dartmoor snow. But first let me explain: near where we live is a ruined farmhouse and because it feels haunted I’ve attempted to find things out about it – no more than anyone still alive can remember, so not much to go on. It is now like a large stone container of birch, sycamore and hazel trees. The chimney stack has collapsed and you can walk through the old doorway and then climb through the rooms. Even sixty years ago an old man lived alone in the already derelict building until the roof fell in. The local farmer kept a weather eye on him.
During the 1800s a family had farmed the land there for a couple of generations. They must have prospered because someone planted a lilac tree, a lime tree and a slightly exotic pine. During the downturn in agriculture in the latter part of that century the farmer took to gambling on horses and after he lost everything one day at the races killed himself, maybe throwing himself from the train. (I don’t know how I found that bit.) His widow, Nancy and the children stayed on for another four or so years until they had to move away, loading up a cart with their belongings. What sad day for them it would have been. The house remained empty thereafter…. except for the old man of course, and two old women who used to come for one day every year, arriving and leaving by taxi. Were they two of the daughters who were once forced to leave their childhoods behind? In the hedge down there, I found the frame of a very old lounge chair that I fancied they had kept for that day. In the spring and summer the place is full of roe deer and if you sit quietly a fox or a badger will nip past.
But now it is full of snowdrops. They run wild in the old trackway and in the hedges: a very tall, late-flowering and strongly scented variety with quite long petals. I imagine Nancy cultivated them to make bunches which she sold at the local market each week to make a few extra pennies. Snowdrops must be one of the toughest of flowers and yet serve us to epitomise fragility. My own snowdrops have collapsed and I wonder if, when it warms a little, they will rediscover their back bone and stand tall. By contrast, the ones at the ruined farmhouse look almost untouched. Yesterday evening they looked pale violet.