Doomsday and Muriel Stuart
The BBC and National Public Radio both ran articles today on the opening ceremonies for the ‘Doomsday Vault’ – also known as the Svalbard International Seed Vault – a frozen repository buried deep within a Norwegian mountain, on the remote island of Svalbard, well north of the Arctic Circle.
The stated purpose of the project is to ensure plant diversity – and ensure against natural disasters, diseases, or climactic change that could potentially cause the extinction of plant species vital to our survival on the planet. This caught my ear, perhaps because I have noticed too many end-of-the-world movie re-runs on TV recently.
Seeds, several billion of them, will be collected from over 100 countries and stored at sub-zero temperatures behind a series of air-lock doors. The storage conditions are designed to keep even the least hardy seeds (lettuce, for example) viable for up to 50 years. More robust seeds, such as African sorghum varieties, might conceivably last thousands of years. The vegetable equivalent of immortality.
This news item reminded me of an excellent poem, written and published over eighty years ago by Muriel Stuart. Stuart, the daughter of a Scottish barrister, wrote several books of poetry, and lived most of her life in London, absorbed during her later years not with verse, but with gardening. Her book, “Gardner’s Nightcap” was actually something of a bestseller back in 1938.
The Seed Shop, and Muriel Stuart for that matter, were ‘finds’ - a poem and a poet that we editors did not know of previously, but were all delighted to find in the process of constructing the Poets’ Corner online collection. Typical of her style, the poem says a great deal over the course of its sixteen lines. The words explore themes of life, death, resurrection and immortality, and do if fluidly and beautifully. As Bob Blair said in an early Daily Poetry break back in October of 1998, “This is one of the poems that profitably leave almost everything unsaid, in order to concentrate on the things that will make you remember it. The diction is loose and easy; the images are exceptionally sharp and memorable; and the poem ends with an image that is at once startling and beautiful.”
This is also a good ‘reading aloud’ poem, whether it is to an audience or to yourself over lunch-hour. If your office mates stare at you oddly make sure you have an earnest expression on your face…
Here, in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shriveled, scentless, dry-
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the call of Spring,
Sleepers to stir beneath June's magic kiss,
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee suck here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century's streams,
These lilies shall maker summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells a million trees leap;
Here I can grow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.