Monday, 3 October 2011

Through the Garden Gate

Linda France is an award-winning poet, freelance writer, editor and tutor. She has published seven collections of poetry; the latest is You are Her (Arc 2010). Linda also edited the acclaimed anthology Sixty Women Poets (Bloodaxe 1993). She has a particular interest in cross-arts collaborations and has worked with visual artists specializing in, amongst other things, stone, wood, metal, glass and textiles. Linda is continuing to explore the theme of gardens and the natural world at You can read more about her work at

The end of September and three months on from my time as Leverhulme Poet in Residence at Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, I’m in the midst of harvest - gathering together my work there to share with others. On Wednesday 19th October I will be reading some of the poems to celebrate the publication of a pamphlet, illustrated with images by Kim Lewis, and the installation of a sculpture in the Desert House, created by Alec Peever. The numerous practicalities of organizing this work and this event is also being shouldered by various folk at Moorbank, OPAL, Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts and my friend, the designer Melanie Ashby. This sense of collaboration and interconnectedness was one of my most striking impressions of the way things work in a botanic garden.

My residency started in October, in many ways a counter-intuitive time to begin a new body of work inspired by a garden, just as many of the plants were dying back preparing for winter. But last autumn was a spectacular one and the changing colours of the leaves on Moorbank’s magnificent collection of trees gave me my first opportunity to explore the process of photosynthesis. I was moved and astonished at the cycle of breath we share with what grows in the garden. As a poet, with an educational background in the arts, my grasp of scientific principles is rudimentary to say the least; however once I started finding out more about the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen, the alterations in the chemical compounds in the leaves that create all those gorgeous oranges, russets and reds, it was impossible not to feel a sense of the miraculous.

Many of my Moorbank poems refer to the act of breathing, the key to life itself. Both fact and metaphor, it underlines the necessary physicality of the way we experience a garden. Being there is a dazzle and balm to our senses, making us feel more alive and happier, calmer than out on the streets of the city, armoured with tarmac, concrete and metal, just on the other side of the gate.

This pattern of interdependence is also reflected in the way that human beings participate in their activities at Moorbank. Alongside the cycle of the seasons, the light and the weather, the diverse plants and trees, the visiting birds, butterflies and insects, the staff, volunteers and students all play their part in the smooth running of things. Whether it’s under glass in the Tropical House, where pruning is a year-round task, or outside where trees, flower beds, compost heaps, not to mention a newly-designed pond, all demand attention, a small but dedicated team work hard to tame the wild and make it look as if it all just happens naturally. The horticultural style of Moorbank is organic, unfussy and relaxed, not to distract from the glory of the individual plants. There are too many wonderful specimens to mention but I have revelled in getting to know the bizarre carnivorous plants and the Angel’s Trumpets (Datura stramonium) indoors and the Meadow Fritillary, Meconopsis, Trillium and Centaurea outside. Some of these have seeded themselves in my poems.

To be a poet is a solitary affair and during my time at Moorbank I’ve really appreciated the chance to feel part of an ecological system, something bigger than I am. I was interested to discover that the root of the word ecology is from the Greek ‘oikos’, meaning home. That became another of my themes – how much we feel ‘at home’ in a garden, somewhere we can be ourselves and sense we are in the right place at the right time; not quite as alone as in the city, despite (or maybe because of) its crowds and busyness. Everyone I met at Moorbank spoke of the benefits, the simple pleasure of working there, or even just visiting. And I felt it too, nourished and inspired not just for the nine months of my Residency but, I suspect, for some time to come.

Linda France's reading on Wednesday 19th October at Moorbank Botanic Garden is now fully booked. However, if you would like to go on the waiting list, or learn more about future readings, contact Melanie Birch on 0191 222 7619 or email: More details can be found about the reading here.

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