The Circle Game

There is an old Nordic proverb that says ‘what outward has been lost, shall inwardly be gained’.

When the Moon waxes it makes a B, when the Moon wanes it makes a D. And C is for circle and the widening circumference in between. The Moon is moving slowly but steadily further from Earth as it extends its orbit radiance many light years away. It is as though we have taken its circling embrace for granted.

Down at Leith Links in a thicket of bruised, tender stems there is an empty bottle of vodka, torn condom wrappers and cigarette butts discarded in the grass. These, an assembled totem to near misses with life and death. Or perhaps an offering from our nocturnal neighbours. A wasteland, some might have called the space before the big clean-up five years ago. But land is never truly wasted, just resting, waiting. All land is liminal. This late Sunday morning, inhaling deeply and looking deliberately into less beaten paths, a harvest can also be found.

In the long continuum of natural drama occurring in and around the Leith Links area of north east Edinburgh, today’s community garden and yesterday’s night-time shop floor exist only on the top soil of a midden. (I love that word, midden. It could only be old and of the north.)

Dig deep and there will be clues to the first drainage system providing clean, pumped water from Lochend to the townhouses of nineteenth century Leith merchants. Buried beneath this, are the remains of the 1645 plague victims, an outbreak that killed over half of Edinburgh’s population and weakened the city’s defences against later siege from Oliver Cromwell’s forces who built their citadel in Leith. A little deeper yet and there will be evidence of the first written rules of the game of golf, said to have been played by both Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox in the sixteenth century on the Links, but not together one assumes. And then deep, really deep, deep down, there will be oyster shells, grit and fragments of sea urchin from when the old ice melted, the sea became beach and the beach became grasses and dunes under the lunar pull of North Sea tides.

Now a Sunday in September- the marker of a new week, new season and, briefly, a new moon. Sept- em- ber… the three syllables tumbling lisp-like out of my mouth and landing in open air, still glowing warm, just, from the fire of late summer. The Sunday papers speak of nuclear destruction, a rocket-boy and the Donald, of a Noble Peace Prize winner presiding over ethnic cleansing, of Spanish police detaining Catalan journalists, of the UK Prime Minister hiding from her Foreign Secretary and of hurricane storms obliterating homes on tiny Caribbean islands. Some Scots reflect quietly to themselves that it’s exactly three years since our once in a lifetime vote but really, in the grand scheme of things, what does any of that matter now?

Further west along Constitution Street, the bells of South Leith Parish Church toll, calling believers to worship and to sing hymns, a particular type of protest song. Meanwhile, inside Leith Crops and Pots community gardens, Evie is faithfully collecting seeds from her crop of sunflowers. Their tall, creeping stalks hunched as though with arthritis brought on by the return of cold and damp and their black faces looking away somewhat embarrassed to still be in the ground. The flowers of the garden are fading quickly now like our tan freckles but the ground is still soft and dusty. It gives up its secrets to Evie’s tilling with rake and trowel.

On an exhale she stands to straighten her back, leans against the wooden handle of the rake with one forearm and with extended hand attached to the other offers me a fallen apple. ‘Here, a present,’ she says, catching her breathe in the soapy sting of September as I prepare to catch the fruit. Permitted fruit from an Eden project and a woman called Evie. It’s almost perfect. I clasp my hands around the little moon-shaped sphere of compressed juice and wonder if it would please her more for me to treasure or to taste the gift. I keep a hold of it for now and roll its reassuringly cold, hard smoothness up and down the curve of my neck and across the dip of my throat into the space where some men have what we call an Adam’s apple.

My back is pressed flat onto a picnic table bench and I am blinking up at the big, shuffling sky- an upside down kaleidoscope of kinetic colour and shape. The season is only hinting at the change to follow. Green foliage on chestnut trees shows glimpses of a racier yellow and orange at the corners- frayed, delicate edges where leaves will soon disintegrate, fall and land at our feet and in our laps like garments of antique lace that have shrunk in the wash. In his long-form poem from 1938, set against the backdrop of impending war in Europe, Louis MacNeice wrote of the tin trumpets of nasturtiums and the sunflowers’ blare of brass. It seems that Autumn is a big strip tease and September its cabaret warm-up act.

Rings of cigarette smoke move across the lowest tranche of my upside down skyscape and I sit up with a dizzying bolt to meet Andy across the table of the picnic bench. I realise that he has also been taking in the seasonal show and we eye each other suspiciously- two fair-weather gardeners with clean fingernails.

The allotments are common ground hard-fought by the families of Constitution Street and its surrounds. Unlike other areas of Edinburgh, few of the tenements in the Shore have communal back gardens, such was the pressure on available land for housing during the over-crowding of Leith in its seafaring heyday when the Port was the busiest in Scotland, exporting coal and wool from the Lothians across the globe and importing grain and timber from Canada and the Baltic states. Old maps from the archives at the National Library of Scotland hint at market gardens extending from the back of dwellings in the medieval Kirkgate but traces of these have long since been replaced by carparks and budget supermarkets. Rather, we have window boxes with geraniums and heather. Little nods to a horticultural wish list and entirely incongruous plonked as the plants are in shallow plastic or aluminium troughs lassoed onto window ledges.

The Leith Links communal croft doesn’t have the neat rose bushes or beech hedges of rented city council allotments with their inexplicably long and secret waiting lists. Instead, the rough mounds on the Links are topped by hand-painted signs spelling Stanwell Nursery or Citadel Youth Centre but like the inside of school jumpers marking goal posts on a playing field, these embroidered labels can be easily ripped and re-sewn. This land is our land. It has soft borders and is beautiful only to its mothers.

We can hear but not yet see Evie’s four children stamping out an angry dance behind us in the far edges of the garden. Mini street gods, they test the boundaries of adolescence by wresting then embracing and quarrelling once more, flinging large handfuls of what Aristotle referred to as organic matter at one another. ‘Hey, that’s Enough!’ yells the children’s’ Earth Mother. Enough. Commanded as a reprimand but loaded with tacit approval, acceptance and therefore love. Like the crops, the bees that pollinate the crops and the birds that eat the crops, the children have nothing more, nor less, to prove today. They just are.

There is a fresco hanging in the Vatican by Italian Renaissance artist Raphael called The School of Athens. It depicts Plato and Aristotle in conversation at the centre of a semi-circle filled with other ancient Greek philosophers. Plato is concerned with matters spiritual and looks up towards the Heavens while Aristotle casts his gaze down to Earthly physics. Sitting apart from the others and appearing to daydream with his head resting in his hands is Heraclitus. He is best known among contemporary environmentalists for his insistence that no one ever steps in the same river twice and that the path up and the path down are one and the same because of the ever-present flow of nature. The Raphael fresco also depicts a paradoxical tension- that humans are intrinsically part of the natural world- we breathe the same air and eat the same plants and animals as our fellow creatures- but humans have also developed the reasoning and technological skills with which to debate with one another in a semi-circle. Humans are both natural and social beings. This is our second nature.

I interviewed my friend and neighbour, Maddie. She is twelve years old and was on the cusp of starting secondary school at the time of our recorded conversation. Twelve is the symmetrical point on a clock face where the ticking hands complete the circle and are poised in a moment of equilibrium, both pointing north. Yet the joined hands do not pause for long, clock-wise as they are to continue on their rotation, ever- forward into new seconds, minutes and hours. Being tall and slender with dark hair cropped at her shoulders, a cartwheeling Maddie resembles clock hands.

Tall and slender

Newly torn from the field

Are their stems so tender.

Two girls in matching dungarees,

Pursed lips, puffing and pouting

The younger more at ease.

Dogs at their feet playing chase.

Nothing left to exhale

But here, a breathing space.

Seed heads scatter,

Drifting over whispering grasses.

And turning to look straight at her

I ask how to tell the time

With twelve years and twelve breaths,

My darling Madeleine?

I asked Maddie what, if anything, made her anxious in life, about her hopes for the future of our street and about her assessment of political leaders at Westminster and Holyrood. She told me that she too would one day like a garden of her own and that if she had the job of Prime Minister or First Minister, her top priority would be for Scotland to become more eco-friendly.

‘So there was a thing on the radio I heard that by 2030 or maybe it was 2040, there should be only electric cars. Which I think is a good thing. And I’d prefer if we tried to rely more on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels and things. You know?’

In transcribing interviews, slowly measuring each word against the press of my fingers on the keyboard to record its weight, I’ve become increasingly aware of the tendency we all have in spoken conversation to emphasise ‘you know?’ or ‘do you know what I mean?’ at the end of a comment. This appears less of a question and more of an empathetic plea. It seems important, quite urgent actually, that the communication lands and is accepted friend to friend, neighbour to neighbour.

Inherent to the human condition and our second nature is to be in community. Communities are slippery things to define. Most of us are in multiple communities of interest and place, professional and social, digital and virtual and these sometimes overlap like concentric circles in a Venn diagram. Where do communities begin and end? Is the decision-making of a community to be determined by those who shout the loudest? And what if you don’t want to be in the community, can you leave? These are some of the unresolved complexities in the Scottish Government’s community empowerment and land reform laws that commendably aim to open up access and ownership to Scotland’s wild spaces in both urban and rural areas.

A street community of neighbours is comparatively easy to define because a street has obvious start and end points on a map. It has a name and quantifiable members or residents who know that they have an address with a street number and so belong by default and can leave by default when they move house or business. At the far east of Constitution Street, tacked onto the arched, stone gateways to the Port and Docks that still frame the sea or city beyond- depending on which way you are facing- there are signs reading exit and entrance. This is a favourite place on the street for my neighbours’ four year old son, Orrin. He loves Thomas the Tank Engine and calls this spot his tunnel.

Resilient communities need dispersed and authentic leadership, drawing upon different skillsets and life experiences. Common ground for growing a few sunflowers, tatties or for flinging handfuls of dirt at your siblings might just offer up some coping strategies to deal with today’s urban struggles. Here is the commons where we put food on our tables, enhance the aesthetic, negotiate boundaries, stretch our limbs and must dig where we stand. It is the essence of thinking global and acting local.

The Great Leith Improvement Scheme in the 1880s marked the real transformation of the Links area. Work began to level the ground and mark off the traditional paths, fertilising the soil with ashes from the gasworks and, on the insistence of Rev. Mitchell of South Leith Parish Church, trees were planted- not by the local authority but by residents themselves. The popularity of the improved green, civic space reportedly brought a return of golfers, cricketers and footballers to the commons. New by-laws were then approved by city administrators to regulate access and maintenance of the space.

I watch Evie heave the contents of a plastic trug- weeds and rotten fruit I guess- onto the communal compost pile. Decay and renewal. Another day, another neighbour might stir the mulching, stewing vat with a long stick and feel inwardly smug about the fermenting brew as another might experiment with a home beer kit for it is satisfying to make new out of old and then necessary to show and tell, to complete the circle.

Today, the sails of a child’s plastic windmill anchored into the ground are spinning with each gust of a breeze and sounding a tat a tat tat like a football rattle. Its motion scatters fury dandelion wisps up into the air and they come to land on the surface of the dark compost. And I am reminded of the Joni Mitchell song.

‘We can’t return we can only look behind

From where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game’.