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Dancing with Grasses

As the philosopher said, ‘Sometimes the smallest things take up the most space in your heart.’ And sometimes the most mundane and unspectacular things turn out to be fascinating and beautiful when you look at them the right way. It helps if you have an expert guide to open your eyes and really see what’s been under your nose for years, hardly noticed.

Like grass.

A new online exhibition reveals the wonders of this most ubiquitous and overlooked plant. When the Grass Dances is the result of a year-long collaboration between two highly expert guides: Orkney photographer Rebecca Marr and Edinburgh poet Valerie Gillies. It consists of over 80 photos and 70 poems, arranged in four broad sections.

‘Approaching the grasses’ introduces the exhibition and explains why the artists believe it’s such a rich topic: ‘Grass symbolises life in all its growth and freshness. […] When the wind is blowing through grass on the moor or on the shoreline, the whole ground moves and shimmers and there is a great green presence about it. […] Looking at grass and listening to words about the grass has made us feel more joyful and more connected to nature.’

‘Knowing the grasses’ is an enlightening description in words and images of some two dozen Scottish and Orcadian grasses. (More manageable than the 12,000 varieties that grow around the world, from Anomochloa marantoidea to Zoysia, not to mention Barley and Bamboo!) The names of these Orcadian grasses are almost a poem in their own right: Purple moor-grass, Pendulous Sedge, Sweet vernal-grass, Star Sedge…

Rebecca Marr’s photography reveals the incredible variety of the grasses, some growing in simple, spiky clumps, others in tall, graceful sprays. The photos don’t illustrate the poems, and the poems don’t explain the photos. Rather, the two ways of looking interact with each other, bringing fresh perspectives and richer understandings of thir subjects.

‘Using the grasses’ explores the endless ingenious ways humans have found to transform grasses in useful ways. Valerie Gillies’s poems in this section can be short and imagistic:

 

You can spin soft yarn

from bog cotton, knit bed-socks

for your wedding-night

 

They can also be longer and more enigmatic, reminiscent of half-remembered folk tales:

‘What are ye daein here, on Drowsy Brae?

Letting the gress grow aneath ye, in amang
this saft brome, weel-kenned as 
sleepies?’

Forwandert, we’re doverin ower,
takkin a rip o pluff-gress for a pillow
whaur it is nid-nod-nodding.

Oor darg maks us sair forfochten
and taigled wi aa the chainges,
we’ve lain doon, tyke-tired.

We’ll streek oor length on Drowsy Brae
for that’ll keep oor banes green.
We’ll sleep as soond as a peerie.

We’ll mind o this, when we wauken,
oor fowk were aye made o gress,
bairns o the yird an o the universe.

 

‘Living with the grasses’ examines the way that birds and beasts interact with various grasses. Some eat it, some hide themselves in it, some make nests from it. Cattie Faces, Whaups, Voles and other Orkney creatures are covered, alongside less obvious denizens of the grasslands like Brown hares, Glow-worms and ‘The Writing Lark’:

 

A flock of yellowhammers are in the hedgerow.
Ae yellae yite undulates in flight
To its nest of moss, in a tuft of coarse grass.
Three eggs, a purplish clutch; fine lines blotched
And inked with brown are boldly jotted down.
The scribbling lark has made these marks,
A cryptic watchword inscribed by the bird
Whose message begs, 
Dinna tak ma eggs!

 

All in all, the online exhibition is a joyous, eye-opening celebration of something most of us see every day…but never look at. It runs online and also has a physical version called The Kist o Wild Grasses, featuring photos and poems stored in a unique sycamore and marram grass box made by Orkney chairmaker Kevin Gauld. The box has its home at Maggie’s Centre in Edinburgh.

Here at Ola Gorie we’ve appreciated the beauty of grass for many years. (Ola has an eye for the hidden beauties of nature as well as its showy splendours.)

Our Machair collection is inspired by the dunelands of the Scottish and Irish coasts, with their amazing mixture of grasses, reeds and flowers, all growing from beds of wind-blown sand. Meadowlark is an art-deco interpretation of birds in full-throated song, surrounded by elegant seeded grasses (Grass of Parnassus? Or Tufted-hair grass, perhaps?) Mistral takes its name from the wind that blows southwards down the Rhône Valley and into Mediterranean, bringing a winter chill to the Camargue, with its beautiful marsh meadows…and there’s that grass again.

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