I’ve been on North Uist this past week, with poet and artist Alec Finlay, poet and historian Rebecca Hall, and Barney the dog, scent and walkie specialist. We were working in association with the arts centre Taigh Chearsabhagh on an arts project involving Langais Wood and secondary and primary schools in the area.
My job, as a poet with a background in natural history, was first to identify what was in the wood, and second to help the pupils write poetry based on the names of the things we found. We decided early on that we would identify 7 tree species, 7 birds, and 7 ‘plants’ (which included lichen). The birds were the most difficult, as they tend to fly away from groups of 30+ school pupils, but we relied on their sounds, and the knowledge of locals, and came up with our list. I’m supplying the names of the species, in English, Latin and Gaelic. We aim to produce some permanent physical outcomes, and to help to sustain local interest in their community woodland. It’s a marvellous resource for wildlife and for art-based activities.
A second project was Alec’s ‘Road North’, which aims to produce a poetry map of Scotland, paralleling Basho’s travels in the North of Japan. Alec has identified 53 Scottish places which he has ‘twinned’ with 53 of Basho’s sites. Alec and other poets are writing poems at each of these sites. Alec’s site here was Barpa Langais, a Stone Age chambered burial cairn not far from the wood. It is identified with Basho’s visit to the Eiheiji temple associated with Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen sect. It’s the form of Zen I practice too, so it was natural for me to want to write about it.