Ghostways: Two Journeys in Unquiet Places

Robert MacFarlane is among my top five favourite writers, fiction or non-fiction. The two pieces collected in Ghostways are very different: Ness, not-quite-a-play, not-quite-poetry, but to my mind meant to be read aloud, explores the depths and layers and secrets of Orford Ness, a shingle spit in Suffolk-a place I know as a birding site and nature reserve, but one that has another history. It is both haunting and disturbing, in the way T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are. Its imagery will stay with me a long time.

Holloway, a prose exploration of a deep-worn, sometimes hidden path of Dorset is both a personal journey, a memoriam for fellow author Roger Deakin, and a wider discourse on landscape and meaning. ”Stretches of a path might carry memories of a person just as a person might of a path.” MacFarlane writes, and “paths run through people as surely as they run through places….” As a writer exploring the meaning of memory and place as filtered through grief in my current book, and as a person with a deep interest in how landscapes shape both individual and collective consciousness, MacFarlane (and his co-authors) as always, challenges and inspires me.

Ode to the Cat

The cat, at darkest nighttime hour

Woke me from my deepest sleep

Clawing windows, screaming mee-owr!

Threatening glass with forceful leaps.

What beastie caused this early ruckus?

Fox or cat or something else?

But whate’re it was, there is no justice,

For this human, sleep has left,

But cat is snoring on the loveseat,

Unperturbed by nighttime fun.

While I wonder, eating chocolate,

Where it is my words have gone.

In our arts we find our bliss

Cats and writing go together. Hemingway famously had polydactyl cats, their descendants still inhabiting his house at Key West. William S. Burroughs led an unconventional life, but he loved his cats. Macavity the Mystery Cat, a verse written by T.S. Eliot to amuse his godchildren, is one of the first poems I remember delighting in as a child.

My own cat, Pye, keeps me company most of the hours I write. She’s licking my forearm as I type now. Sometimes she’ll curl up beside the laptop; sometimes she installs herself in the good-on-one-side-paper basket that sits on top of my printer.  Mostly, she drapes herself across a shoulder.

This relationship – cats and writers – is as old as writing and domesticated cats, I think. Medieval manuscripts frequently include cats, as marginalia, as decoration, as accidental contributors to the text. In my own medieval historical fantasy series, one of the characters is a scholar and a writer. In the current book of the series, the one I’m writing now, there will be a scene involving a white kitten that has adopted him. The scholar’s friend comes in after a time away, sees that he is writing a poem, and asks what it is.

What it is, with all the artistic license writers can use, is an imagining of a scene from the 9th century, a little later than my setting, but no matter. In the Reichenau Primer, an early 9th century manuscript written almost entirely in Old Irish, is a poem about a writer and his cat and the parallels between their lives. It is this poem that my character Cillian is writing, to his white cat.

Here is the best-known translation, by Robin Flowers*, the one I learned as a child:

I and Pangur Bàn my cat, 
‘Tis a like task we are at: 
Hunting mice is his delight, 
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men 
‘Tis to sit with book and pen; 
Pangur bears me no ill-will, 
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry task to see 
At our tasks how glad are we, 
When at home we sit and find 
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray 
In the hero Pangur’s way; 
Oftentimes my keen thought set 
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye 
Full and fierce and sharp and sly; 
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I 
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den, 
O how glad is Pangur then! 
O what gladness do I prove 
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our task we ply, 
Pangur Bàn, my cat, and I; 
In our arts we find our bliss, 
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made 
Pangur perfect in his trade; 
I get wisdom day and night 
Turning darkness into light.

This small scene is a conceit, a darling I won’t kill*. It adds to the world-building for some, to Cillian’s character for others, and will, I suppose, do nothing at all for some readers. But it’s a tribute to my Pye, and all the other cats who have kept me company over the years.

(Update: I did kill it. But it survives as a short story, here.)


Democracy Melting….

This is a link to the incomparable Neil Gaiman’s website, and a video he and his wife Amanda Palmer and a lot of other talented people did of Leonard Cohen’s Democracy. It’s stunningly beautiful and moving, and all proceeds from purchase of the track (you don’t need to purchase to see it) go to Pen America.

Wind and Silence

This verse was my visceral response to being at the site referenced in it.  It’s not my greatest verse, but the image and the impact stay with me.

December 29, 1890 (July 30, 2001)

The wind is the first thing; that,

And the silence. Dry land, brown bent grasses,

Blue sky.

In the valley, where the tents were,

Where the children were,

There are dreamcatchers for sale.

On the hill, against the carven stone,

A buffalo skull and flowers lie

Beside rolled tobacco and a teddy bear.

What dreams are caught at Wounded Knee?

A Verse for All Hallows’ Eve

Angels Unaware

The hollow hills return their travellers

Lost and out of time

On the unsubstantial streets.

The boy panhandling on Yonge

Has no shadow, and will live forever.

Seven crows are silent among the pigeons in the square;

In the haven of the Spit, a white ship, un-noticed,

Waits to sail west.

In the dreamt city the riff-raff are

The guards at the gates of faerie;

Are the rockfall that hides the easter caves,

The glamour that obscures the grail.

Two Verses

Lucifer, and, Terns at Hong Kong Harbour

These two poems reflect just a little of the awe and joy watching birds has given me over the last forty years.


Lucifer (Sterna paradisaea)


Arctic Terns live almost entirely in light for their entire lives. They fly 30,000 km each year, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. Their return – south or north – heralds the light, and spring.


Land freezes;

Dawn and dusk reach to each other;

Birds flee, or huddle, silent.

Sunset and blood stain the snow:

Ice grows.

Where the world spirals and all northings meet;

And the sun is always or never,

The tern circles, once, twice, three times

Memory and stars beckon.

Light will fail here;

Sunset and blood stain the snow

Before the final dark, before

Ice and silence triumph.

The tern circles, once, twice, three times

And not again; south sings in its bones

And blood; stars set and rise.

Sunrise spirals and stretches; light prevails.


Terns at Hong Kong Harbour


Spare black on white, swift to frothing wake

in pewter waters; silver sweep of wing

bright counterpoint to lightning’s rake

rending the heavy hanging cloud; hovering,

holding; plunging to take the shining glide,

the curve and scale, beating upward against

the drag of wave, watching for the gleaming slide

of fish, awareness stretched and tensed and held

to dancing, diving grace.

Two Sonnets

Nassagaweya Township is where I live. Still mostly rural, it is dominated by rock and swamp and small fields, and was first settled in the early-to-mid 1800s. The lives and labour of those first settlers, who cleared huge tracts of hardwood and white pine, dragged enormous boulders to build boundary walls, and quarried limestone for rock and lime, were in part behind these two sonnets.

Nassagaweya 1: Winter Deer

Dividing wood and tangled swamp the road

Cuts survey-straight, a line drawn cleanly on

The map, unlike the trail that six deer followed

Through brush and cattail, three pairs of doe and fawn.

Their path ran crooked, keeping to high ground

Between the clumps of osier, brilliant red

Against the morning’s snow. A final bound

Brings the first doe to the road: the others, led

By her, follow, and in silent file cross

This barren space, alert, deliberate,

Unhurried; not admitting any loss

Of path or cover, valiance animate.

No survey stake or draftsman’s pen rules here:

Red osier, swamp, and wood belong to deer.

Nassagaweya 2: Rock and Water

Rock and water underlie this township,

But neither deeply; it’s rarely more than

A few feet to the rock, and every dip

Of land’s a swamp. A challenge to a man,

To try to farm this, but his chance to make

A life is here. So fields are cleared and streams

Diverted; roads are built. But rock can break

Both ploughshares and spirit: too many dreams

Of harvest awake to springtime flood

And summer drought; the skin of soil above

The limestone now like rock itself; now mud.

His sons say there’s not enough here, to love

Or prosper on: they answer other calls

As trees surround the crumbling boulder walls.