Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Dochans & Nettles & Butterflies & Wild Pansies

I've been hunting for a poem about dochans but to no avail. It seems that the poor dochan - unlike the nettle and the thistle - has never so far been celebrated in verse.

This surprises me. And pains me a little. The garden of our newly built house, a brown field site in mid-June, is now a wash of brilliant green, courtesy of the dochan.

Nonetheless, I have been fighting a rearguard action to extricate and contain it, for it is vigorous and abundant enough to choke out any namby pamby garden plant I might like to grow. One small segment of dochan root left in the earth will next year have a head of emerald leaves. One seed escaping down into the soil can remain dormant for forty years, before thrusting upwards into the light of day. Respect!

There are thistles too, though less plentiful. And yet thistles have poems. Here's one by George Mackay Brown:


Walk along the way of our year
Past the stations 
Of snowdrop, crocus, the

Marvellous green trumpets opening 
To announce
Voar, spring, Easter,

A troop of yellow coats, daffodils
Jostling in ditches,
Laughing along the wind;

The fluent tulips;
The poppies like blood splashes;
The rare secret

Yesnaby primula
That will not root 
In sealess rockeries, southward;

Rose; seapink; meadowsweet ...
But few praise
The tinker thistle, the outlaw;

Knives in his belt, whetted,
A tall swaggerer going
With his tribe down

Lost lanes of summer.

Nettles too, I've come to realise, are quite a bonny plant, with their crimped leaves and purple hearts. If they didn't sting my feet in my sandals when I'm hanging out washing, I might let them stay. Edward Thomas praised them in a poem:

Tall Nettles

Tall nettles cover up, as they have done 
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough 
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone: 
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now. 

This corner of the farmyard I like most: 
As well as any bloom upon a flower 
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost 
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.

But dochans have no champion. Or at least none I have found. When my two sisters came to stay, Maggie and I were clearing dochans and other weeds at the back of the house when Catherine who had gone in for a rest, appeared at the door and, observing two winged creatures above our bent heads, spontaneously recited a poem from memory:

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white, 
(His honest idiocy of flight) 
Will never now, it is too late, 
Master the art of flying straight, 
Yet has - who knows so well as I? - 
A just sense of how not to fly: 
He lurches here and here by guess 
And God and hope and hopelessness. 
Even the acrobatic swift 
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves

Along with the cabbage white's erratic flight, it was swallows that swooped in and out of our vision that day, not swifts, but the line could equally apply to them.

So there are three lowly specimens of the natural world that have poems dedicated to them. 

Who will write about the dochan?

Today, as I waded through their lush greenery, I glimpsed something bright under the leaves. I parted them carefully and found this!

A wild pansy! And then I remembered a story my mother told about wild pansies:

"One year when I was small – about ten or eleven maybe, there was a field next to the yard at home, which was sown with oats, but it also had a myriad of wild pansies – violets – in the corner of the field where there were no oats.
And there they were, the violets, a magical triangle of hundreds of wild violets.  I picked them – as many as my small hands would hold.  I buried my face in their cool, exquisite scent – how can I tell you what it was like – the flowers were purple and yellow, rich, violent colours, but they felt so cool and the scent was so delicate – my lips felt the silkiness of the flowers and my hands, cupped round a huge bunch, felt the absolute opulence of such splendour – more flowers than I could hold.  Oh, the complete delight of that experience – I can see the lovely purple of the petals – I can feel the silky cool touch of them on my mouth. I can smell the faint almost ‘no scent’ of the flowers. I only need to close my eyes and I can taste the ‘violets’."

What my mother leaves out of this account is that she walked back towards the house with her armful of 'violets', turned a corner and, instead of fields empty save for a few dairy cows grazing, saw trucks and men pouring in and tents going up. This was her first sight of the platoon of soldiers who were to be billeted on her father's small farm during the war. 

I'll let my mother's words stand in for a poem about dochans. It was dochans that sheltered that single wild pansy in my garden and recalled to me my mother's memory.

George Mackay Brown The Collected Poems
Edward Thomas
Robert Graves

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