Book Review of “Turning” by Jessica J. Lee

I haven’t had a lot of practice writing book reviews, but I thought I’d try. Here’s one I’ve written recently:

I am drawn to water and freshwater in particular. Inspired by Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog”, I was keen to read “Turning”, a swimming memoir by Jessica J. Lee – and really enjoyed it.

The author, a Canadian with British-Chinese parents, is living temporarily in Berlin to write up a thesis. Feeling depressed she turns to swimming in the hope that she’ll heal a broken heart. She decides to set herself the challenge of swimming in 52 lakes around Berlin over the course of a year. With just her bicycle and packed lunch she sets off during breaks in her writing to swim in a lake every week, sometimes using the train and often alone. Swimming in all weathers, she likes winter the best and occasionally has to break lake ice with a hammer. Her relationship with the lakes grows as the environment subtly changes with the seasons.

Turning by Jessica J. Lee

Turning by Jessica J. Lee

Swimming becomes a way for her to find a sense of belonging in a new city. She hopes to find solace and gain an understanding of herself by literally immersing herself in the landscape. The book works well in various ways. For example, the author’s experiences, memories and feelings are reflected in the landscape and water with the use of simple similes and metaphors,

“I’ve been angry with myself for losing my equilibrium, for confusing swimming with love. I’ve been furious at myself for sinking… Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.”

When she swims, the language is sensual and lyrical but hints at her deep hurt,

“…The lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet, more like cut glass.”

She has a keen eye for the details of the natural world, illustrated when her current situation as a newcomer to the region is accentuated by some wildflowers she notices,

“I’m struck by a tiny flash of pale pink in the green. Himalayan balsam… They are aliens here.”

During her explorations she encounters the ghosts of Berlin’s past as well as her own. Musings by writers such as Theodor Fontaine and the research of water scientists interweave with the author’s story.

Water permeates the book; cities, countries and continents are linked by their lakes and the author’s history. Relationships ebb and flow, sometimes serving as anchors, sometimes causing grief. Her present story shifts to her past and back again until we are acquainted with her life – like the stratified layers of a lake.

In the last chapter Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing”, is mentioned, an influential book for the author. Perhaps this could have been introduced earlier in the book.

Like Roger Deakin in “Waterlog”, Jessica J. Lee successfully gets “under the skin of things”. But her story is markedly different. “Turning” is beautiful book about lake swimming, loss, resilience, solitude and finding a sense of belonging.

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Deer Rut

Recently I’ve visited the Knepp Estate to witness the fallow deer rut. I wanted to experience it this year to write about it for the book I’m writing, Dusk Night Dawn.

I went with my partner, Kevin, and we were in luck, stumbling on a rutting stand with a few males with magnificient antlers paralell walking. Then the fighting began. My photos came out blurred because of the dim, dusk light, but they’ve caught the primal energy! :)

The Fallow Deer Rut at Knepp

The Fallow Deer Rut at Knepp

Rutting Deer at Knepp

Rutting Deer at Knepp

Rutting Deer at Knepp

Rutting Deer at Knepp

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Trees, Owls, Ruins and Altered Books

Recently I was commissioned to create an altered book with the simple suggestion of making it somewhat ‘foreboding’. I usually draw forest/woodland scenes – leafy undergrowth, gnarled trees, roots – but this time I thought I’d add a human element, a ruined house. One can’t get more foreboding than a ruined house at night. (I love ruins, especially when you stumble on them accidently…)

Ruined Chapel, Norfolk

Ruined Chapel, Norfolk

I started thinking more about ruins then and I suppose I have a favourite ruin, Baconsthorpe Castle in Norfolk, a fifthteenth century fortified manor house. It is supposed to be haunted – a watchman walks the ruined walls and throws pebbles into the moat. The setting of Baconsthorpe adds to its ominous ambience – isolated in fields, bleak in winter, a few leafless trees silhouetted against the sunset, the presence of crows, the mist of dead teasel and willowherb. When I visited a few years ago, a barn owl appeared in the evening light and beat the ruin bounds. (I’ve written about my barn owl experience in the book that I’m writing. See my illustration for it below.)

Baconsthorpe Castle

A view of part of Baconsthorpe Manor

Barn Owl at Baconsthorpe

Barn Owl at Baconsthorpe

Baconsthorpe Castle Watchtower

Baconsthorpe Castle Watchtower

So I was thinking of Baconsthorpe when I added the ruined building to one of my recent altered books.

Ruin Through the Trees Altered Book

Ruin Through the Trees Altered Book (click on the image to enlarge.)

I have now listed a few new altered books in my website shop. They’re also available in my Etsy shop. If you would like a book altered with a theme of your choosing, it would be great to discuss it with you. Contact me here.

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Earth Pathways Calendar

Earth pathways calendar 2018

Earth pathways calendar 2018

I had a lovely surprise when the post came the other day and I received a copy of the 2018 Earth Pathways calendar. I was very pleased to find that my illustration, ‘The Fadista’, now graces the page for July next year :)

My Picture in the 2018 Calendar

My Picture in the 2018 Earth Pathways Calendar

The Fadista

The Fadista – also a card in my Folksy shop.

A fadista is a Portugese woman who sings Fado, the lamenting song originally sung by women as early as the 1920s when sailors went to sea. Often the song is about loss, mourning, the sea, shipwrecks and love and I first came across it when I heard the contemporary fadista, Mariza, sing.

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‘Into The Forest’ Exhibition

I’m having my first solo art exhibition at the Sustainability Centre in Hampshire. It starts today, 6th July and goes on until 30th September.

Exhibition at The Sustainability Centre

Screen shot of the Exhibition at The Sustainability Centre webpage.

Yesterday I drove with my partner and a car full of artworks to the centre near East Meon. We spent a few hours putting ropes and hooks on pictures and hanging them in the Beech Cafe under the supervision of Lyn, the curator.

I took a few photos.

Five A3 Illustrations

Five A3 Illustrations

Kevin Putting up Altered Books

Putting up Altered Books

Through the Forest Altered Book

Through the Forest Altered Book

A4 Illustrations

A4 Illustrations – A Fragment of Forest (Blue), and H(e)art Tree.

Steps to the Light

Steps to the Light

Triptych of Three Dryads

Triptych of Three Dryads

The exhibition features some old illustrations and new box frames and altered books and the theme is ‘Into the Forest’. In the shop I have cards, books and badges for sale too.

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In the Forest

At the beginning of June I spent a week in a little forest studio at the edge of King’s Wood in Kent. The idea was to take some time out to experience the wood at dawn, dusk and day, time to get inspiration for the book I’m writing. I was doing another mini immersion in nature.

The Forest Studio

The Forest Studio

I spent some time wandering in the nearby beech wood plantation, listening to the silence or gentle moan of the wind through the branches. It was like being within a giant underwater forest:

Beech Wood Plantation

Beech Wood Plantation

There was such a contrast between the dark interior and the light exterior:

Edge of the Beech Wood

Edge of the Beech Wood

Wandering and looking at the beech wood trees made me think about the way I create woodland and tree altered books. So I have been making an “In the Beech Wood” altered book:

The Start of an Altered Book

The Start of an Altered Book

Beech Wood Altered Book

Beech Wood Altered Book

At dusk I went out to see if I could see nightjars in the chestnut coppiced area. I was lucky. For several evenings I heard their uncanny churring song and saw the dark shape of the males flying against the sky clapping their wings as they do to display to the female or ward off any other males encroaching on their territory. They were too fast and it was too dark to photograph them but I can picture them in my mind’s eye.

Nightjar

Nightjar

Nightjars are mysterious birds, birds which have attracted superstition and folklore down the ages. They’ve had many names including the name ‘goatsucker’, which stems from their Latin name Caprimulgus which means to milk nanny goats. The myth arose as nightjars were drawn to the insects surrounding livestock.

Dusk Night Dawn Writing Book

Dusk Night Dawn Writing Book

I wandered into the chestnut coppice by day getting to know nighjar territory and was surprised to find an old nest site with a couple of hatched eggshells!

Nightjar Nest Site

Nightjar Nest Site

Plenty to write about.

The Chestnut Coppice at Dawn

The Chestnut Coppice at Dawn

My thanks go to Stour Valley Creative Partnership for allowing me to stay in the Forest Studio.

Stour Valley Creative Partnership

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Tracks in the Snow

At the end of April I visited Romania.

They were close by, perhaps watching us through the trees, through the dim blue morning twilight – bears!

On the first morning we set off early, leaving our hostel at 5.30am. The streets were dark and wet with snow piled up the kerbs and covering the pavements in the town of Zarnesti. Romania was experiencing freak April weather – below zero temperatures and snowfall. Ramon, our expert guide and tracker, drove quickly and effortlessly into the white landscape on the edge of Piatra Mare Mountains, winter tyres proving their worth.

The bears had returned to their dens – so we searched for wolves instead as wolves don’t mind the cold and snow. But the blanketed slopes and meadows were empty.

Snowy Scene

Snowy Scene – by Jurj Ramon

Come dusk we went out again. The temperature was minus 4 and the breeze was coming from the north so Ramon took us up the side of the valley into the forest to stay downwind. The snow was two feet thick in places and as we walked in single file, I stepped in the footprints of Ramon and Kevin who were ahead of me. This made it easier to walk. Every-so-often Ramon pointed out tracks – a trough in the snow where bears had dragged their bellies or the arched prints of red deer.

We came to a stream, a dark, trickling ribbon flowing through banks of snow and beneath omenous windows of ice.

Snowy River

Snowy River – by Jurj Ramon

Then the valley slopes steepened and we climbed a snowy corridor up through the trees – Norway spruce, beech and silver birch. My heart felt as if it would burst with the exertion as I sweated beneath my numerous coats and jumpers. At last we reached a viewpoint from where we could see the opposite side of the valley, a rock ridge of mountain with a belt of forest on it’s lower slopes above open fields of snow. There we waited and watched, waited and watched scanning the fields with binoculars or with just the naked eye.

Some animal was moving on the edge of the trees far off. It was not a bear but a red deer, identifiable by its fawn rump. Then we saw three of them. One kept a lookout while the others browsed on tree buds. I have only glimpsed red deer in Scotland so it was good to see them.

Red Deer in the Snow

Red Deer in the Snow – by Jurj Ramon

On our way back down we saw fresh tracks of a family of boar that had crossed our own. We looked about and listened but the animals themselves remained elusive. Further on Ramon stopped and whispered that a bear was close by; there was a change in the smell of the forest and even I noticed a slight hint of animal nearby – not like fox, but a dense, animal smell.

On our second morning we returned to our valley viewpoint. Dawn broke with a wonderful rosy light illuminating the mountain before us. The air was crisp, cold and clear. Ramon pointed out a scratched triangle of trees, the territory of the only lynx in the valley.

Dawn

Dawn over the Postavarul Mountains – by Jurj Ramon.

Up the hillside again Ramon noticed fresh bear tracks disappearing into an enclave of rocks and bushes. He said that he saw a bear there and told us to move further down the slope as a bear cornered in the area could be dangerous. Earlier he had told us that a bear on its hind legs was looking about to assess the situation. A bear crouching close to the ground was a dangerous bear, an animal ready to charge. We trusted he knew what he was doing as he’d spent years tracking and researching bear behaviour. From a distance Ramon clapped in the hope that the bear would show itself, but no bear emerged.

Wildlife was so close and nowhere to be seen; it was as though the bears were teasing us. The snowy hillside remained full of their presence and absence at the same time. Despite not seeing bears it was a wonderful experience being out in the snowy wilds at dawn and dusk and knowing that we were so close to some of the top predators in Europe.

Bear Back and Fore Prints

Bear Back and Fore Prints – by Jurj Ramon.

Bear Tracks

Bear Tracks – by Alexi Francis

The photos above – apart from the last – were taken by our bear tracker and expert, Jurj Ramon.

I can’t help thinking about Spirit bears. I’ve drawn a bear image. Perhaps this is a Spirit Bear drawn to evoke the wild bears when we return to Romania in the future.

Spriit Bear

Spriit Bear

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Bee Goddess

I’m very into natural sound recordings and came across Be:One last year. It was created to accompany The Hive installation. The Hive was an installation by artist Wolfgang Buttress at Kew Gardens last year.

“An open-air structure standing at 17 metres tall and weighing in at 40 tonnes, The Hive encapsulates the story of the honey bee and the important role of pollination in feeding the planet, through an immersive sound and visual experience.”

Here’s a video about the soundscape:

There’s something hypnotic about the bees’ droning.

The soundtrack is available from Caught By the River’s record label, Rivertones.

In the Ancient Greek world bees were worshipped as they represented a link between our world and the underworld. There were special priestesses refered to as “bees” or “Melissas”, the Greek word for honey bee. In Ancient Greek myth Melissa was a nymph who nursed the baby Zeus, feeding him honey instead of milk. It was from her that the cultivation of bees for honey was supposed to have come.

I’ve worked on a Bee Goddess illustration with this ancient bee nymph in mind. I’ve now made it into a card available in my Folksy and Etsy shops.

Bee Goddess

Bee Goddess

Since February I’ve been noticing many large bumbee bees while out walking. They’re queen bees seeking nesting sites. I came across a carder bee nest one summer which I was a little wary of but it was also quite charming like any nest!

Carder Bee Nest

Carder Bee Nest

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Woodland Dawn Chorus

For a book I’m writing I wanted to experience the dawn chorus in both the city and the countryside. In February I sat on my balcony and listened to the city birds waking up the day. Now it’s April, I chose to get up before sunrise yesterday morning and visit Butcher’s Wood on the outskirts of Hassocks with my partner Kevin.

We set off at 5.45am in the mists and when we arrived we parked in a suburban road of bungalows, cherry blossom and magnolia trees – all now in bloom. The sky was lightening rapidly as we made our way along the railway line footpath to the wood.

The woodland floor is now carpeted with wood anenomes beneath oaks, birches, coppiced hazels and hornbeam trees. I noticed lesser celandine, bluebells just coming up and dog violets too. The wood was already alive with song and the sun was yet to rise.

Butcher's Wood

Wood Anenmes in Butcher’s Wood.

I recorded birdsong along with the passing trains heading into Brighton or up to London. I expect the birds sing more loudly here as they have to compete with this extra noise.

On the audio you can hear a persistant nuthatch, a wren, a chiff chaff, blue tit, great tit and a train passing.

I love the shapes of silhouetted trees with their bare, zig-zag branches against the eggshell blue and salmon sky; some birches bore misty crowns of newly emerging leaves and the hazel understory was yellow-furred with drooping catkins.

Sunrise in Butcher's Wood

Sunrise in Butcher’s Wood

We wandered into a field edged with blossoming blackthorn and blanketed in a milky fleece of mist. It felt colder than inside the wood so we retreated back into the trees.

Misty Field at Sunrise

Misty Field at Sunrise

A while ago I was searching for images of papercuts and came across one I like very much called “Night Gathering” by Ed Pien. There’s something quietly mysterious about the indistinct figures in the lattice of branches. What are they gathering for at night? Why in the trees? Are they children? The figures merge with the tree. It’s an amazing work of art.

Night Gathering by Ed Pien

Night Gathering papercut by Ed Pien

According to his website, “Pien is not entirely sure what it is about trees that allure him and why they are recurring motifs in his cuts, but they speak to him of childhood adventure, of birth and death, and of fear and the unknown.”

My own art adventures with trees and forests continue with more altered books and box frames. Trees, woods and forests mean a lot to me. Within a wood my imagination can branch and grow. In a forest I feel protected in a complex web of secrets I wish to fathom. So often I have a longing for a secret place, a shadey forest retreat beneath the arms of a towering oak, or simply a forest in my mind.

Here is ‘Through the Forest’, which is currently on sale in my Etsy Shop. I hint at fairy tales with this altered book.

Through the Forest Altered Book

Through the Forest Altered Book

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Looking for Tracks and Other Wildlife Signs

My interest in wildlife and nature extends well beyond illustration; I am a frequent roamer of woods and ways and have written pieces about my excursions, some of which have been published in anthologies which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

I do like signs and presences left in the environment, the tracks, feathers, eggshells, etc that I might find on my wanderings. I also like art that hints of the same – I have mentioned the earth art of Ana Mendiata before.

Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta

I have thought about starting a new nature ramblings blog, but have decided to write about nature here as I often want to create something artistic from my finds. Spring is the perfect time to get out and watch birds and other wildlife, busy with breeding activities, and look for signs.

Recently I went on an excellent two day Wildlife Tracks and Signs course. We studied the tracks and gaits of various animals and signs such as scat, skulls, feathers and pellets. We found badger, hedgehog, vole, otter, roe deer, fallow deer, muntjac deer, squirrel, wren, newt and beetle tracks. It’s challenging to get into the mind and world of the animal and tracking as an art means using all of ones senses. I like to connect to nature in a deep way – and leave only footprints… and occasionally something else for somebody to find :)

Badger and Hedgehog Prints

Badger and Hedgehog Prints

Fox Print

Fox Print – small proximal pad and empty space in the centre.

Squirrel Footprint

Squirrel Footprint

Otter Footprint

Otter Footprint

Beetle Tracks

Beetle Tracks

Muntjac Scent and Scrape area

Muntjac Scent and Scrape area

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