Cover page.


  • Acknowledgements
  • Ripples on New Grass
Migration Made the World
  • First Cell
  • Dance of the Prokaryotes
  • Revelation
  • Breaking the Bond
  • Go and Stay
  • Allele
  • Cell Begins her Travels
  • Spinning the Plasma
  • Flight of the Apple
Go and Come Back
  • Dunlin
  • Where Clavicle and Wishbone Fuse
  • The Children of Storm
  • Swallows Hibernating at the Bottom of a River
  • Rift
  • The Boy from Haiti
  • The Watcher
Finding the Way
  • When You're On Your Own
  • i Osprey
  • ii Humming-Bird
  • That Bird Migrations Record the Movement of Earth's Crust
  • Star of the Different Road Back
  • Choice
  • The Hostile Planet - Air. Sea and Land
  • Nocturne
The Ampullae of Lorenzini
  • Barnacle's Lovesong to the Humpback Whale
  • In Praise of Eight Million Fruit Bats
  • The Miracle of the Fish-Counter in Budgeons
  • Ethogram for a Painted Lady
  • Blade Runners of Madagascar
  • Road Closed to Save Mating Toads
  • Chemical
There is Always a River
  • Song of the Herbivores
  • Zebra Go First
  • Dream of the Zebra Foal
  • Wildebeest Calf
  • Vulture Optics
  • The Mara, Rising
  • How Does a Zebra Decide?
  • Pregnant Gazelle
History's Push and Pull
  • The Wild One
  • Homo Ergaster and the Red Horizon
  • Riders from the East
  • Leaving Troy
  • The Mission
  • The Appointment
  • Kywash - and John White's Lost Colony
  • Directions for the Plantation of Ulster, 1610
  • The Colossus
  • Landscape with Flight into Egypt
  • Migrant Mother
  • The Letter Home
  • What You Told Me About Islands
  • i The Two Flames
  • ii Blown Ruby
  • The Music of Home
  • Music from the Deep
  • The Two-Handled Jug
  • The Freud Museum
  • Entry of the Sabbath
  • Godfearing
  • Pieter the Funny One
  • Sphinxes on Thames
  • Sphinxes on Thames
The Broken Mirror
  • Lodestone
  • Gun
  • End of the Line
  • Sea Catch
  • The Mirror of Nature
  • Rabbit on the Moon
  • The Camden Telescope-Making Class
  • Letter to a Portuguese Cosmologist
  • The Lunar Registry
  • Sharing Space
  • Farming the Wind
  • The Marshes of Eden
Children of Storm
  • The Desert and the Sea
  • Ghost Ship
  • Orestiada
  • Wetbacks
  • Maltese Fishing Boat and Broken Net
  • The Place Without a Door
  • Immigration Counter and the Gates of Ivory
  • The Apple Orchard in Ghosts
  • The Prayer Labyrinth
  • Purple Ink
  • Carpet Karaoke
  • Dancers with Bruised Knees
The Wanderings of Psyche
  • The Wood where Birds die for Christ and Rise Again
  • Only Here On Earth
  • Matisse Writes a Postcard after the War
  • Prayer on an Orphic Gold Leaf
  • Open Door: After Rumi
  • Time to Fly

About the Book

Why do animal species migrate – and why do we? Padel’s poems address one of the defining movements of our era. Starting with the first living cell to appear on earth and the earliest spread of plants and microbes across the globe, she turns to the seasonal migrations of birds and beasts.

There are sharply drawn portraits of animals, storm petrels, jellyfish, humpback whale and lemurs as well as human beings who studied them (often, like the painter-cum-birdwatcher John James Audubon, immigrants themselves) and the epic migration of wildebeest and zebra from Kenya to Tanzania, culminating in the crossing of the crocodile-infested Mara River.

But civilization too is the story of migration. From early hominids out of Africa and the founding of Rome by refugees from Troy, to diasporas of the modern world, attempts to colonize the moon or today’s mass migrations, detention centres and asylum-seeking, The Mara Crossing explores the ways in which we are all ‘from somewhere else’.

Padel’s poems, interwoven with illuminating prose passages, investigate what we learn from animals, how our migrations resemble theirs, and how both animal and human journeys are now affected by the ways in which we have changed, and are changing, our shared planet.


pages 212-17

Asylum means ‘the place which can’t be plundered,’ a sacred concept in archaic Greece. At an altar, you were safe, you were a recognized suppliant, had crossed into sacred space. Anyone who violated asylum was accursed.

Turn the crystal of ‘migration’ and you get ‘home’. It is the Home Office which deals with immigration, and detention, in Britain. It also manages deportation. In the mid-1990s, the Home Office began what medical agencies call outsourcing abuse: hiring private companies to take home refused asylum-seekers.

This is a new industry. The companies are called escort agencies or security solutions firms. Reports have found multiple abuses in deportation. The escorts are on hourly pay and have a financial incentive but don’t get a bonus unless they return the deportees to their country of origin. A record of criminal assault is no bar to employment as escort and their actions are not open to public scrutiny. The new legal industry of ‘security solutions’ firms and ‘escort agencies’ mirrors the illegal one of people-smuggling. Two lots of money are made out of people who have none. Trapped between criminals and governments like wildebeest between crocodiles and lions, migrants are big business; except to themselves.

Mara means ‘bitter’ in Latin. In Germanic and Scandinavian folklore, Mara is the spirit of confusion, a nightmare-causing wraith. In Slav myth, Mara is goddess of darkness, death and horror. In Sanskrit, mara means hindrance, obstacle, death personified; in Buddhism Mara is the demon lord of illusion and temptation, who tempted the Buddha when he sat in meditation before being enlightened. This Mara came from the Vedic demon of drought: now he spreads terror through deception and illusion, threatening us not by withholding rain but obscuring truth.

Maybe 'Mara' can stand, not only for the terrors of migration and the spectre of hope driving billions onto the road today, but also for the barrier which many do manage to cross - and then, like migrating cells, go on to create new life.

Hope, the word which powers migration, lies in staying open to what is happening. In not looking away, questioning those who operate the portcullis, exposing and resisting cruelty in implementing government policies, paying attention to the developed world’s responsibility for displacements - the fished-out seas, the mining which uproots millions of people and makes unproductive the land of millions more – and keeping sympathy with other people’s stories, seeing their experience as part of our own. In people who use a faculty we possess which most other animals don’t seem to need but poor old homo viator needs more than ever today. Compassion – and beyond that, empathy.

Ghost Ship
You have to get out. But this is how you imagine
you might go, when you wake at night afraid
of moving on from Gambia or Guinea Bissau

and hear the redslick in your temple beat
like waves around the ghost ship
discovered off Ragged Point, Barbados.

A six foot yacht, adrift. No name, no flag
and a phantom crew, eleven young men
in green, red, orange, blue,

mummified in salt of their own sweat.
You can’t shake out of your head
that airline ticket from Senegal, the note

in a dead boy’s pocket – Excuse me, this is the end,
sorry to my family in Bassada –
saying how the skipper disappeared

before they left Cape Verde.
How he could have jumped as his friend did
when they were towed. And how one night

the rope was slashed by a machete.

pages 237-244

Migration is the great let’s-get-out-of-here hope for our physical being but we have always dreamed of our souls carrying it off too Egyptians gave the dying soul equipment for the journey; many modern religions treat dying as ‘migration’: to another body, another life or another land. A better land, glimmering beyond this one like sky behind branches of a tree.

Hinduism says souls migrate from one life to another and each life is a pause in the cycle. After every life you are born again. Shakuntala, a Sanskrit play from the first millennium BC, tells the story of a king who has been cursed to forget his beloved. One day he hears a woman singing outside his window and feels a strange pang, as if reminded of something he loved in another life. The song, he says, seems ‘to cling like a fragrance to my migrant soul’. While physical displacement is the main push factor in migration, psychological displacement is a motive force in imagination and creativity. Plato assumed a parallel between the body, the soul and society, the body politic: they are metaphors for each other. In the Republic, damage and healing in one is an image for damage and healing in the others. Freud saw ‘displacement,’ the word which echoes through human migration, as a potent operation in the mind – or, as both Freud and Plato would say, in the psyche.

Freud saw psychological displacement as part of the way personality is formed. As we grow, and learn to respond to what happens around us, we deal with painful feelings like anxiety, grief or anger by constructing individual defences against them. Displacement is one way we find to do it: we ‘displace’ disturbing feelings into areas where they feel less threatening. By withdrawing from a trauma, the mind re-routes feelings about it onto something else and so transforms these feelings. We go on doing this throughout our lives: we all displace unpleasant emotions into areas where they don’t feel so destructive and may even be creative. But psychologists say that painters, theoretical scientists, philosophers, poets and mystics make particular use of withdrawal and displacement.

If you displace pain you escape it, not by denying it or distorting reality, but by migrating to a different and with any luck creative perspective. You’re not misunderstanding or denying the world, you know the massacre has happened, but you’re making something of it. Goya paints The Disasters of War.

As the bonds in the DNA molecule are broken so the proteins can replicate the genetic code, and as cells migrate in the body to heal or generate an embryo, so in the mind so the drive to re-find and re-place what has been lost is the driving force behind both creativity and migration.

Auden’s elegy for Freud portrays him wanting us to be ‘enthusiastic over the night’ - the unconscious, presumably - because of ‘the sense of wonder it alone has to offer.’ Around Freud, the poem sees ‘fauna of the night’: unconscious feelings, ‘dumb creatures’ who are also ‘exiles,’ longing for ‘the future that lives in our power.’

It is a hopeful vision, of the unconscious as a source of imagination and transformation. The power to move our lives, the poem suggests (or suggests that Freud suggested), lies inside us invisible, dumb and estranged. If we encourage it we shift our alienated feelings into the light; we give them a new life, a ‘future’. It is the dream of every artist as well as every migrant. Tennyson said that ever since he was young he had thrilled to the phrase ‘far far away:’ a phrase and a feeling encapsulated by the song ‘Over the Rainbow.’

Sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939) before the screen explodes into colour, the song begins with an octave leap. Its first two notes (‘some-where’) are a musical migration like an uprooting of the self. Salman Rushdie calls it an anthem for all migrants; for anyone searching for where ‘the dreams you dare to dream come true.’

At the film’s end, ruby slippers carry Dorothy home while she murmurs ‘there’s no place like home’. But then she discovers that the people at home were also her friends in Oz. ‘So Oz finally became home,’ says Rushdie. ‘The imagined world became the actual world.’

There is indeed, the film suggests, a place ‘like’ home. It is the place we create in our imagination.

Fantasy is not the same as imagination. Fantasy escapes reality by denying it. Imagination transforms it, lifting us from our current life to a colour-filled place which doesn’t exist but might if we can make it. Until, like Psyche, we end up with a new life. Or, like Dorothy, we get our old home back but see it with new eyes.

The poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, or Rumi, was born in Balkh, one of the oldest cities in the world. The Arabs called it Umm Al-Belaad, Mother of Cities; the Greeks called it Bactra. It is now in northern Afghanistan. Rumi was born there in 1207 but his family left when he was a boy, in the face of Mongol invasions. They migrated to Konya, which is now in Turkey and then was the capital of the Sultanate of Rum. Rumi, often called Maulana, the Learned One, became the leading religious scholar in Konya’s dervish community.

Dar is Persian for ‘door.’ Just as an open door is at the heart of the Christian icon of the Transformation, so a dervish opens doors. What opened the door for Rumi’s poems was his friendship and mystic conversation with Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish.

Shams disappeared, probably because Rumi’s students became jealous. He was found in Damascus and brought back but one December night, however, he was called to the back door and vanished forever. He was probably murdered. In his grief, Rumi began writing poems. The spring of his poetry was loss and the mystery of recovery.

Open Door: After Rumi
What is not exile? Beginning is flight.
(The end is free flow of breath.)

I am inside your looking, I wait to be light.
(Rustle of water, of wind.) Cling
to the surface. Hold to the depths
as tired eyes look forward to sleep.

Why should I seek? (Rusty cliffs glow
in the lake. Tremble of aquamarine.
White mosque silhouette on the peak.)
A hand closes and opens like wings.

You are where I am. Let go
what you thought you had lost.
Praise those who wake early in grief.
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