Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Beach studies, St Bees Cumbria, and the Elements Festival launch!

 I've been on St Bees beach in a large caravan for over a month now, with a view onto the open sea, from my temporary home three vans back from the front. I can also see the sandstone head, its rocks and rockpools. The other cliffs south of the beach are limestone, though these too are red. Now that it's almost October the default weather is wind that rocks the caravan, sometimes driving rain, and yet the clouds can suddenly clear and the sky turn dazzling blue. I've done quite a bit of writing here, as well as teaching, on my West Lakes residency, and in just over a week's time I'll be home, then off to work elsewhere, but I'll be back mid October for a series of events for the visionary Elements Festival, which is all about diversity and minorities, and over 60's, quite a feat for such a rural outpost, thanks to Tonia Lu who dreamt it all up. I'll read some of my brand new residency inspired poems at the launch of the festival this Saturday, at Penrith Old Fire Station. 

The sea itself has swept into me, in all its terrifying splendour, the St Bees sandstone also has fed into the poems, one was written in Fleswick Bay, when I had it all to myself one glorious August day, and another aspect that's gradually seeped into my bones is the iron ore mining of Copeland's industrial past – our workshops are held in Florence Mine, where the miners' shower rooms are converted into a beautiful arts centre. This has led me to research my own mining past, in the depressed coal mining village of Llanbradach in the Rhymni valley, south Wales, where I lived with my estranged mother as a teenager for five years, under the shadow of the slagheap. She lived there much longer. I'm thrilled that I've written about this for the first time ever, because what a fascinating thing coal is, and the shallow sea-swamps of the Carboniferous, with their mega-insects!

The Irish Sea is wild in wind, roars like an open furnace, sometimes it's white with fume over glassy waves, sometimes bronze, pewter, or polished aluminium. People aren't swimming in it anymore, not even paddling, though on my daily walks along the mile wide sands that are revealed at low tide I wear sandals so I can paddle through the channels that lace the shore.  People mainly walk their dogs, usually in pairs, only a few family groups left. It's unusual to come across others walking alone, but when I do I tend to take photos (all these are with my iphone), and there are boats alone out there, sometimes paragliders above me too. For me, these frames of walkers, dogs with their shadows, seabirds, whether they're oyster catchers, a heron, or gulls, or boats alone on the horizon, are studies in solitude. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Lion's Mane Jellyfish of West Cumbria

Imagine coming across this on the beach. When I found my first, I took a photo and back in my caravan at St Bees, tried to identify it on google images. I guessed it was a jellyfish as it wobbled slightly when touched with a shell, but it could have been a giant eye, it looked like a giant eye washed up after the night's storm. It was surrounded by smaller blobs without the luminous red and tan colours. Those smaller clear jellyfish I'd seen before on other beaches, but my creature looked like it might be a lion's mane jellyfish. And the smaller clear ones? Moon jellies that the lions feed on! The lions that haunt Arctic waters can grow to be the largest jellyfish in the world, but these ones in the Irish Sea are more modest, the largest I found was a foot across.

Since then I've been obsessed by these sea-cats and the process of seeing them is quite strange. Once I see one I look around and usually find others scattered nearby. What's more, my feet seem to know where to walk, as if they've developed eyes. I think I've seen about fifteen by now, and some are striped like tigers or mint humbugs. Maybe one or two were compass jellyfish? Some have more mane to them and these larger ones have 'eyes' that look more like organs, bloodied even, like they've met with a violent death. I want to see more but I'm also aware these are freshly dead creatures and I don't want them to die.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Waves at St Bees, Cumbria, my West Lakes writing residency

It's been ten days since I moved into a large caravan on the beach of St Bees for my West Lakes writing residency, on the north-west coast of Cumbria. I'm taking part in the Elements project, a brand new festival celebrating age and diversity, and my role is to write poems, lead 6 workshops and 4 daytrips with my over 60's group and take part in the Elements festival in October, with a series of readings by me and the group, the whole thing dreamed up by Tonia Lu. I'm grateful to Tonia because since I've been living here I've become acquainted with the terrifying sea. Yes, I am terrified of the sea, in this case the Irish Sea – on a fine day I can see the Isle of Man on the horizon, and on my coastal cliff walks northwards I might glimpse Scotland, which is apparently only 25 miles away. Because there's so much to write about I'm focusing on waves today, and some pics of them taken with my iPhone, on the windier days. IPhones are good at capturing animals in motion, as I discovered when I took pictures of the jaguars in Paris zoos, but here is an altogether larger animal, with a multitude of claws, fangs, fur that sometimes seems made of ice, other times molten glass veined with kelp, and which has a roar like a mile wide glass kiln with the door wrenched open, the beast inside revealed. I've worked with glass so I remember that sound well, and the white heat.

Hopefully some of the poems I'm writing will go into my next book Mama Amazonica, due out from Bloodaxe in autumn 2017, but I'm putting together the rough manuscript by the end of this September, so am concentrating on the task, except it's not a task but a wild adventure which I'm very much enjoying, enthralled by my subject ma mère la mer. I'm not only writing mother sea poems – because I'm also still on those post-Peruvian Amazon trip ones – but interesting to bring the sea in now. I can see the monster from my caravan which has floor to ceiling windows in the front. 

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Macaws at the Chuncho claylick, largest colpa in Amazonia, Tambopata National Reserve, Peru

Listening to macaws gathered in palms over a claylick must be the happiest sound on earth. In zoos they sound raucous, but in the wild, they are ecstatic, as they patiently wait for a safe moment to descend on what seems to be their shrine. The scientists at Tambopata Research Centre have been studying their behaviour at Chuncho claylick for years, and have various theories as to why the macaws, parrots and mammals all come here to eat the mineral rich clay. The cliffs at the side of the creek are carved into caves by their beaks. 

The first morning I was there, the macaws gathered in the trees while the mealy and blue headed parrots came down to feed first, flocks of them. The macaws are easily spooked, just the shadow of an eagle and they flew past, their tails streaming behind them, like blue, yellow and red sunrays. They gather always in twos or threes, monogamous, longlived couples with their single juvenile chick. Their calls are like the voices of sunrays passing through a delicious but dangerous planet. The claylick, or colpa, must contain sacred salts or minerals, essential for their health, but what I saw was how they worshipped it, perched for hours before descending. 

Even when they did dare settle, one would usually be a lookout, and I noticed that the lookout faced us over on the opposite side of the creek. They knew we were there and when one of our groups tired of waiting for them to come down and left, it was a signal. Then down they came, much to our delight; we'd been waiting since dawn and it was now noon. 

In the photos below you can see blue and gold macaws, red and green macaws, mealy parrots, blue headed parrots, and scarlet macaws. In the last picture, Laura from TRC and a scientist volunteer are with the tame wild scarlet macaws which were hand raised as chicks. They were once near extinction so the scientists removed the second chicks from nests (that the parents neglect so they die) and hand raised them. They nest up in ironwood trees near the centre and return for banana treats and reguarly steal the breakfast of guests. While I was there Tobasco stole my breakfast bun and the butter. 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Harpy Eagle, Madre de Dios Peruvian Amazon

It's hard to believe that just over two weeks ago I was standing in primary Peruvian rainforest looking up at a harpy eagle! It's rare to see one, but here was this two-year-old juvenile, calling for his mother, and bobbing his head and crest to look down on us. I also saw the blur of his mama, but Brian saw her crashing through the trees, all six-foot wingspan. We were up in the hide opposite the mammal clay lick at the time, and our guide Berli was elsewhere, we later discovered he was harpy eagle hunting, calling until he got a reply. We stood there under the tree watching the juvenile for maybe an hour. Brian took these photos. 

It's hard to believe what's happened since in Britain, but I'm clinging to this image of a young harpy watching us – humans from another continent, strangers in his home. What does he make of us? We wound our long way back to the boat, but before we left his haunt, Berli showed us the emergent ceiba tree where the huge nest was hidden behind a philodendron right at the top. We passed a large burrow and Berli said it belonged to an armadillo but it was empty. This made him rush back to the juvenile to check – that tail hanging below it was not tail-plumes but the armadillo's tail.

Further down the track we almost stepped on fresh jaguar marks, and next to them, older ones. The pawprints were as big as my hand. Perhaps the jaguar was watching us? The harpy is also known as the jaguar-of-the-skies, being one of the apex predators of Amazonia, and the most powerful eagle in the world. Their main prey is howler monkeys and sloths, though they are not the eagles with the widest wingspan, that's the Philippine eagle, but they are the most powerful, with the larger female's wings reaching only six or seven feet across (shorter than the Philippine eagle's, so that it can swoop among branches of the canopy rather than soar). Its talons are six inches long and its grip can crush any skull.

How elated I was then, and how crushed now, not by a harpy eagle's claws, but a predator I don't understand, a dangerous power crashing through the canopies of Europe and America, not beautiful like the eagle, but ugly, skull-crushingly ugly.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Boatmen and Peccaries, Madre de Dios Peruvian Amazon

The first time we saw white-lipped peccaries they were in the soccer pitch next to the boatmen's hut. The soccer pitch is where the guides and staff at Tambopata Research Centre relax after lunch before the evening excursions. The small pitch is next to the hut where the boatmen sleep. When we went there searching for peccaries on a forest walk our guide Berli explained how dedicated the boatmen are to their boats, which is why they sleep here instead of at the centre, close to the riverbank. Every two hours all through the night, one will wander down the steep steps to the boats to check on them, but as the river was dangerously high at this time, with flotillas of trees floating downstream, they would be sleeping in their boats under a blanket. Here is the creek where they moor them, around the corner from the steps we used to climb up and down the high banks.

It was up here near their huts that we first saw peccaries, though were very aware of their presence as we could hear their screams from the lodge, their grunts and teeth-clacking like machine-gunfire, and see their tracks in mud. Most of all, we knew they were around because of their smell, which is like stale sweat. One of the main differences between climax rainforest with scattered human presence dotted along the riverbanks, and the pristine rainforest around Tambopata Research Centre, is the stench, much more pungent in the pristine forest. Apart from TRC, noone else is allowed to lodge inside the national reserve, so the diversity of wildlife is much richer. Even the trees there are more pungent, with names such as 'garlic tree', 'shit tree', and 'camphor tree', with smells that deter foragers from eating their leaves.


The peccaries crossed our path, stopping every now and then to look at us and to guard their young. Their passage took about twenty minutes as herds are vast. The next day we went down the creek to the Colorado clay lick, one of the largest in the world, to observe macaws and parrots, but found it occupied by the herd of peccaries. It is thought that mammals and parrots eat the salt-rich clay to neutralise the toxins in their diet, but research is ongoing as this has not been proved. More about the spectacle of macaws and parrots at another clay lick in a future post.


Thursday, 16 June 2016

Peruvian Amazon Madre de Dios, Tambopata National Park introduction

I'm going to make a pictorial record of my trip to the Peruvian Amazon on this blog, as an aid to writing poems, so this is an introduction. I went to the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon basin and stayed in two lodges. The first, Refugio Amazonas, is in the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Park, in the deep Amazon basin, climax rainforest but not totally pristine as there are goldminers here and there along the riverbank, mango farmers, and a couple of other small lodges. Access to Refugio ecotourism lodge is 4 hours by river, after a stupendous flight from Lima via Cuzco, over the Andes then the meandering Tambopata River and its oxbows, to the world capital of biodiversity: Puerto Maldonado, a jungle town.

I was looking down onto the vast coils of the serpent of Amazonian myth, fallen from the sky. I mentioned the sky-river to our expert guide Berli, of Amahuaca heritage, and he told me there is a scientifically acknowledged river in the sky, that the clouds above these waterways hold more water than the rivers themselves. It was along the meanders in this photo that we were carried, in a small powered longboat from the indigenous port of Infierno, 20 miles upstream from Puerto Maldonado, along the Tambopata, upstream towards the Purna foothills. Those boat journeys, down the centre of the river where it is cool with the breeze and mosquito free, were exhilarating, with Berli and other guides spotting caiman, capybara, turtles, monkeys, herons, vultures, and much more, along the banks, through their binoculars. Brian, my husband, who accompanied me, took these photos of the spectacled caiman with his Lumix camera bought specially for the trip. Butterflies and flies drink its tears and the caiman tolerates them though gets nothing from them.

We stopped at the buffer zone National Park guard checkpoint, and it was there that I got bitten by dozens of sandflies, having foolishly just worn a sleeveless tee shirt. Those bites still itch and scar my upper arms two weeks later! From then on I buttoned up in Nosilife mossie proof shirts and trousers from neck to ankle, the ankles tightly sealed with drawstrings. As there is the risk of Leishmaniasis at the deeper lodge 4 hours further upriver, Tambopata Research Centre (the only one in the Park and the remotest lodge in Amazonia!), and this nasty disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, it was essential to keep bites to a minimum.

One tenth of the scientists who work at this centre longterm contract the disease for which there is no prevention, only an unpleasant lengthy cure by intravenous antimony. It is impressive that despite this the scientists continue to do their crucial work, specifically with macaws, but also making a census of the wildlife left in pristine climax forest. At the buffer zone station their main task is to make a census of arthropods and insects there, and take DNA samples of each sub-species. New species are being discovered daily, so this is a herculean task.