Friday, 21 January 2011

(47) Stonypath

‘An Autumn thought: Stonypath’

– IHF, Domestic Pensees



like a garden.


like a stone.

Jerome Rothenberg, 'Gematrias 12 x 22'

47 Autumn (Fallen)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Our temple of Zenshoji is Stonypath, Little Sparta

Our castle town of Daishoji is Glasgow where Jerry & Diane Rothenberg stay with Jeffrey Robinson

Our Sora for the day is Orcadian poet Alistair Peebles

Our single afternoon in the garden feels like a thousand li

Our daybreak voices chanting sutras clearer, gongs is the sound of rain on the porch roof, the tinkling of the Little Spartan Virgilian spring and the Stonypathian source

Our willows in the yard shedding leaves is the old ash tree finally fallen

Our sandals are the bucolic welly boots of youth

Our hokku-labels are jotted down hastily in the rain

47 Autumnal Stonypath
Alec Finlay, 2010


all that night
the autumn winds being heard
beyond the mountains

Basho, tr. Corman

The wind, roaring in the night, is
both stranger and friend.

IHF, Detached Sentences on Friendship

sweeping the garden
but letting the temple keep
the willow's droppings

Basho, tr. Corman

‘A small grove composed of young pine trees and delicate columns. All the needles which fall from the trees are carefully swept into heaps around the foot of the columns.’

IHF, Images From the Arcadian Dream Garden

This rite was performed by Ian, Sue, Eck or Ailie, before any visitor arrived at the garden, in the pine grove that shelters ‘WOOD/WIND/SONG’, along with other tasks – sweeping the paths, opening the gate and picking wild mint for tea.

It’s Raining Calligrames & Monostich

like I’ve not seen

with big gaps

A day of waters. Orcadian on-ding of rain, big, BIG drops that Peebs – Alistair Peebles – must’ve brought down from Stromness – soaking as much from the splash when they hit as the general film of wet. Fitting then that the sea has been turned upside down: MARE NOSTRUM.

The front garden at Stonypath was dominated by the shadow of an old ash which finally fell this Autumn – Ann Uppington’s email with the bad news reached me in Dunkeld, when Ken and I were on our road north. I left an arboreal elegy tied outside the Taybank Inn.

The ash and 2 lilac predated Ian and Sue’s planting of the garden. They speak of the era of the shepherd’s kail, currants and tatties. The pink and blue lilac, like liquorice all-sorts, stood by the original wooden gate opposite the house; the ash loomed over the far corner, opposite my bedroom window.

47 Mare Nostrum
Alec Finlay, 2010

‘MARE NOSTRUM’, meaning ‘Our Sea’, as the Roman imperium knew its Mediterranean.

47 Fallen ash
Alec Finlay & Alistair Peebles, 2010

‘Except on very calm days, (which are few, as you know), the ash fills the garden with its sea-sound. When people ask why so many poems refer to the sea, or comment that it is odd to find so many sea-references so far from the sea itself, I often point to the Ash Tree and say, That is our sea.’ (IHF, letter to Nicholas Sloan, who lettercarved Mare Nostrum).

the ash tree
's the garden's

sounding waves
in its dark-tipped
............. branches

Dipping a finger in the pond, rippling time in circles, today we’re here to open the gate for Jerry & Diane Rothenberg, who first visited in 1967 before the garden had really begun. Benevolent spirits, precentors of tradition and innovation. Jerry’s anthologies were among the first poetry books I read. His radical America: A Prophecy lived on the low bookshelf in the porch, by the phone – the coldest dustiest place in the house. Sometimes I’d flick through it's pages while a number dialed down the clicking phone-line in the dark. That evening Valerie Gillies recalled another seminal anthology, Technicians of the Sacred, with it's blend of Dada and Ancient Esoterica.

47 Greeting Jerry
Alistair Peebles, 2010

47 Jerry
Alistair Peebles, 2010

Hölderlin's wish

Jerry’s gift was to hear Hugo Ball in a Navaho chant, Artaud in Aztec Ritual. How like and unlike IHF’s intuitive seeing through time Jerry’s is and was; how similar and opposed their fascinations with rite and ritual. The one civilizing Dada, the other Dadaing the Ancient.



the thought of their confluence is a delight of contradiction and affection.

47 Present at the Present Order
(Nigel Leask, Elizabeth Robinson, AF, Jerry, Jeffrey Robinson, Diane Rothenberg)
Alistair Peebles, 2010

Our day is homely and cosy. A recovery to. Stonypath’s still a place to walk around and then have tea and a chat. At the same time, the day is intentionally, on my part, a playful interrogation, bringing our different rites to the garden – Jerry’s incantations, my wishes and hokku-labels, Peebs’ inquisitive and friendly framing of it's history. The uprooted remnants of the old ash the storm has prised open are themselves a catastrophe that seems to open the door upon the garden’s past. Do we even see into some future unknown?

47 Hölderlin's wish
Alistair Peebles, 2010

47 audio, Fragment
Alistair Peebles, 2010

As someone who grew up here I fee; that I have a right to the cheek of tying a wish onto the Hölderlin tree. The introduction of a rite, though it is not Little Spartan, is no affront. The most estranged accounts of the garden are those written by people – including former friends – who suppose that to be true to IHFs improving genius requires them to idealise, thereby confusing the relationship between life and art, muddying the source.

The silver bark, the rippled pond, the paper knot, accepting of its own passing. A ribbon of time and passing. Companion to Jerry’s wide-ranging love of and respect for mysticism and ritual.

And what is the garden poem if not an invitation to compose other poems for other places? What was Ian and Sue’s work, if not an encouragement, a suggestion, an invitation?

the poet's wheelbarrow


the gardener's trug


Today, at Basho’s invitation, I record what I can find of the Stonypathian, the homely and the mossy, in these few hours, grasping what memories I can in-between the showers.

47 Self-Portrait (myself as a boat in my childhood window)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Stonypathian Hokku-Labels

To set the scene, here is Sue's memoir of the beginnings of the garden.

"Spring came [1967] and I can see myself digging the borders, sod by slow sod, in the weak March sunshine, with the baby in the pram nearby. There was no wheelbarrow so I made a great heap of stone and weeds… Ian by now had made the pond that in my faithless eye was to inundate the kitchen – it never did! He had by now dug another hole in the centre of the front garden. This time it was the makings of the sunken garden. I remember ordering the Spring Beauty Pinks that were to clothe its walls for many years to come… For a long time the garden at Stonypath consisted only in the area at the front of the house. For many years this area was a patch-work of cultivated beds, mown paths, and uncultivated wild places not yet tackled by fork or spade. Difficulties – Chiefly our relative poverty and my lack of time. The potential of ‘ground’ – Ian’s desire to make works for the ‘outdoors’, for gardens. Our ignorance of gardening, of siting these works. The learning process. The love involved in this process. That loving absorption – the day to day tending of the poems. Their immediate surrounding areas, whether paved, grassy or covered with plants, always needed a lot of individual attention in the summer."

47 Tying a label on the sacred rhubarb
Alistair Peebles, 2010

47 hokku-label, the old ash
(‘tapsilteerie / this sea’s / run dry’, AF)

47 hokku-label, stone-moss
(‘what was grass / is stone / and now moss’, AF)

47 hokku-label, current-currant
(‘the current of time / or / currant time’, AF)

The blackcurrants were planted by Ian and Sue as one of their early garden compositions, to shape native verticals, splashes of colour lapping around a sundial which imagines the seasons as types of sailing boat.

47 sundial
Alistair Peebles, 2010

47 Wet Water
Alec Finlay, 2010

Today even the water is wet.

47 hokku-label, sacred rhubarb
(‘these are the dry eyes / of the sacred rhubarb’, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2010

Like the blackcurrants, this domestic rhubarb was adopted as a compositional element; a native decorative shading, one which was, as Ian would say, ‘Sacred’ – especially so when I harvested the best of it to make pudding, misunderstanding it as merely ‘rhubarby’ rhubarb.

47 Angelic Goosehut
Alec Finlay, 2010

Two Sources: The Little Spartan

People sometimes ask me what I mean by the
Stonypathian: a term which stands in contradistinction to the Little Spartan. IHF’s work is a lifelong dialogue between oppositions. The two terms can be seen to be wedded together, speaking to the home and the imaginal domain it became. The Stonypathian is a recuperation of the domestic, so crucial to IHFs work, so that Little Sparta is not an act of Imperial overwriting, as The Roman ‘Mare Nostrum’ was for the Mediterranean.

The tea I chose for this visit is appropriately named: ‘Iron Warrior Monk Tie Luo Han’.

47 tea-moon, Iron Warrior Monk Tie Luo Han
Alec Finlay, 2010

The ash tree is Stonypathian; the carved poem attached to it Little Spartan. The poetic impulse arcs between the given tree – which would have seen the horse-drawn plough till the fields here-around – and the addition of that distant name to the bark, embedded in stone, with its desire to speak to ages past and future. Now the tree has fallen and the poem, which bears 25 years of lichen, has no home.

47 Libating the Virgil Spring
Alistair Peebles, 2010

Today I will walk between the two sources. I begin by libating the Little Spartan freshet, The ‘Virgil’ Spring, which feeds the top pond, pouring in an offering of GlenDronach. Passing the bottle around I ask Jerry for a blessing to give these waters. For all that Little Sparta is filled with altars and devotional nomenclature there were no religious rites here. He kindly offered this Hebrew prayer:

47 audio, Jerome Rothenberg

Alec Finlay, 2010

in a cocoa tin

a fine filter
for the spring

Later, after the others have gone back to Glasgow, I take Peebs up the hill onto the moor. I want to show him the true source, a little spring that rises among the heather, which has fed the farm for hundreds of years. It is from this little water that the Virgil spring bubbles and gurgles, and the lochan, and all the ponds, and the taps that used to fill our baths. Talk of which turns on a wild shower chasing us downhill to the car. Basta!

47 Stonypathian Source
Alistair Peebles, 2010

47 hokku-label, the source
(‘the beginning / and end / is water’, AF)
Alistair Peebles, 2010

The Valley Source

That night Peebs and I dried off at Valerie Gillies’ place on Braid Hills Avenue, and she told me the whereabouts of St Bride’s Well, which I’d often seen on the map but never found. Valerie dowsed for it, locating the remnant cusp of earthworks in the field beyond the old railway line at Dunsyre. More old knowledge renewed.

Stonypathian verses

Brownsbank–Little Sparta

the side road

up the
stony track


his spade
dug out

the smallest

to float

a sailboat


the far side
of the Black Mount

was the near side
to Amy

now her ashes
lie scattered

among the
pale grasses

(i.m. Amy Page)


Ann Says Eelco
brought some
Japanese monks
to the garden
a summer ago
and they were
so moved
the garden brought
tears to their eyes


Northern Elevation

tiny hard pears
& wooden apples

neat green-striped
& purple gooseberries

like blood blisters;
wrinkled golden quince

nothing that ripened
unless determined


Inland Island: An Orcadian Stonypath

47 audio
: Alistair Peebles, Finlay’s House (on Rousay)
Alec Finlay, 2010


on the same side again
– and so that, says Diane,
’s how a stile works


in burn
out burn
all down
the same
old hatch






mare nostrum


Alistair Peebles

Coda: The Valley

It was always just known as The Valley to us and I haven’t found another name since I left. I half expect to read the title on the OS, south of Lochan Eck.

A shawl of fields and the strip-woods – planted by Sue’s father Simon after The War – folded between the twin White and Black Mount. Stonypath’s on the cusp of the northern moorland flank, the Covenanters’ open church, Black Law.

The Valley’s arable, farmed by timeless families – Allisons, Kerrs, Wallaces – whose children Ailie and I went to school with, each with our own seats on the school bus. They farm there yet. The moors are ling, screen for grouse and pheasant, dotted with sturdy ewes.

Ringed by a single red road which I can still play out from memory: from Stonypath road-end The Valley loops by Anston road-end, the gorse and scree of Corbies Crags on Dunsyre Hill, through Dunsyre village, with its single highlight, the phone-box. Over the River Medwin at Newholm, the Big House of the Lockharts’, where Sue grew up. At the T-junction head along the brow of the hill by Keeper's Cottage and Boreland, to Walston. Here we turn back down into The Valley, across The Flats, climbing up to Weston and the main road, back to Stonypath road-end.

The Valley of Ailie and my childhoods seemed an enduring entity, where change came in the year-wheel of farming. In those days we seemed woven in with the crops and the beasts, a generation unfolding in unison, carried along through the successive years of schooling. We registered no interruptions to this pattern – no deaths or births, no new houses built, precious few incomers.
The contrast with life on the hill grew stark. There was never a time we were unaware Stonypath was set apart from The Valley. Without asking or understanding, we knew the reason must be Ian. The 'stony path' that led up from The Valley to The Garden – marked by the ash tree – bled between two separate realms. Each gate marked our road home.

When Ian appended the name “Little Sparta” at the road end, adding a painted wooden sign, it was no more than nomenclature catching up with the split we had been negotiating all along. A line drawn territory which Ian didn't travel beyond.

The Garden was where we made our forays into the wider world from: hurrying down to the school-bus in the mirk of a Winter morn, fetching the milk from Kirklands in plastic pails, bringing up the groceries from the box at the foot of the road when the snow was too deep for Paul the grocer bring the van up. There, by the sign, where the tarmac world began, was our terminus to wait, wind, sleet, shine, for endless lifts. Dark winter evenings sat on the cold top bar of the gate listening for this or that car which would carry me away for a few hours, somewhere warm, peopled, exciting, watching for the headlights to strobe through the avenue of beech, fanning in wild beams across the hill behind.

In my youth I walked up the Stonypath track in the pitch dark when, as they usually did, the batteries in the bicycle torch dimmed, flickered and failed. There was liberation, striding through my fear of the dark, exchanging a world that was and wasn't there – fence-posts, wireless poles, molehills, sleeping sheep – for the black Pentland night. I found my way with the soles of my boots, feeling for the texture of loose gravel that told where the ruts of the road were, imagining precisely where I was at each point so as not to clatter my knee into one of the metal gates. Ploughing my face through the warm fog of my own out-breath; eyes taking in the stars, pitching down to the lowest, the single yellow one-eyed light of home which shone out from the Front Porch, blinking through the screen of trees.



Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, edited and with an introduction by Alec Finlay. Due for publication January 2012.

Alistair Peebles: Brae Projects

Jerome Rothenberg: Poems and Poetics

Ian Hamilton Finlay & Sue Finlay’s garden: Stonypath, Little Sparta

Valerie Gilles: The Spring Teller project


  1. I find your work so inspirational, it is an absolute pleasure to read this blog! Thank you!

  2. This is sweet and touching. Your mother writes so beautifully.

  3. It's quietly, calmly thrilling!!
    best wishes
    Jann Wirtz