Touching the Earth

I am yearning for the land. Hearing the wind outside it is not exactly inviting but I feel a pull, a need to connect with layers beneath me feet – rock, sand, mud, grass, the earth’s bone against my bone.

At Eridge Rocks

Over the past few years I’ve been moving outdoors, relating to the natural environment through movement – as I did in a workshop, River Women, earlier this year. In the last year or so I have tried to make a short video, a movement video. It is about the earth, about woods and the sea. I felt a bit lost during the filming and was going to call it “What have I lost on the path?” a phrase I remember writing and illustrating in my diary many years ago. I felt that I had lost something on the path – in the earth – and the film was about acknowledging this. Originally the video was going to be a filmpoem – a film of a poem – but I’m no poet so I decided to keep it simple and see what would arise. I can’t dance or move very well either, but it’s just an experiment :)

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Fox

“It is the dark time of the year and there’s a fire aglow in the orchard; I hear fox.

As evening slides into night, I put on my coat and head out into the street. The night is sepia and a sleepy half-moon rests its belly upon the chimney pots of the houses opposite.”

So begins my piece, Fox, written for the Creative Future’s Literary Awards. I was so pleased, it won first prize for fiction, a Platinum award. At the Awards Ceremony and Showcase, in London a week or so ago, I received my award and read out my piece in front of an audience along with the eleven other finalists. Lemn Sissay introduced the evening and read along with Maggie Gee, both also contributed to an anthology of all the finalists’ work, titled Impossible Things.

Lemn Sissay and the Sign Reader

Lemn Sissay introducing the evening with a sign language interpreter.

Impossible Things Anthology

My piece of writing, Fox, in the anthology, Impossible Things.

Fox and Moon

The fox that inspired me.

Lemn Sissay and Alexi Francis

With Lemn Sissay at the Creative Futures Awards Ceremony

Here is a video of me reading “Fox” at the Creative Futures Awards Ceremony. I’m a bit serious!

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Forest Altered Books

As a child I loved pop-up books. A friend once sent me a pop-up postcard of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain featuring a thoughtful, solitary figure. It was a beautiful, inspiring card. I have mislaid my card but I found a photo of it on the web:

Alhambra Postcard

Postcard showing the Lindaraja Balcony within the Alhambra.

I am now altering books. I made my first altered book, angel wings a few years ago. Now I am working in pen and ink and with the forest as my inspiration, I’ve started with a square paperback book, a sort of thick pamphlet.

Book to be Altered

A book to be altered as an experiment.

Altered Book Half Finished

Forest altered book half-finished.

Altered Forest Book

Forest Altered Book

Detail in Altered Forest Book

A deer in the glade.

Altering a book is like creating a stage-set, a little window on to life or on to a dream. Life seems very much like that at the moment, I am in the wings, I have a secret view into a strange, alternative world that is sleeping or buzzing, busy with dreaming, busy with weaving dreams. (I am reminded of a lovely folktale from the Isle of Skye called The Dream Makers. It is about deer too. Sharon Blackie has written a lovely version of it on her blog here.)

I am fascinated by burrows, badger setts and secret havens. I like to find signs of the presense of animals – smeuses (gaps in vegetation made by the passage of animals), ‘couches’ of flattened grass where animals like badgers have lain while away from the sett; feeding signs. It is interesting to think that beneath my feet, along a woodland trail, might sleep a badger.

Badger Sett

One of the entrances to a badger sett in Newtimber Woods.

I bought a couple of the small Observer field guides secondhand. They’re not rare or valuable but I do like them and treasure copies I’ve had for decades. I thought that I’d work with an image that I’ve drawn recently, of a badger sleeping beneath tree roots which is inked in with a gold sky:

Slumbering Badger

Can you see the face amongst the roots?

Books to be Altered

Old Observer field guide books.

Badger Altered Book

The badger altered book underway.

Badger Altered Book

A badger sleeps beneath tree roots.

With another old book, I have created a forest scene, again with deer and a central tree with spreading branches and roots. I cannot decide whether to complete the picture behind the deer or leave the pages of text. I quite like seeing the writing, the essence of the book still evident.

Forest Deer Altered Book

Forest Deer Altered Book

Click on the image to see a larger version.

The book of the forest. I have other ideas for altered books – portraits, goddesses, icons – but I don’t think I have quite finished with forests, trees and deer yet.

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The White Hind in the Thicket

Deer. Signs of their presense, torn bark, a trail of hoof prints through the trees, a shed antler. Deer are elusive, highly tuned to the slightest sound or movement; a delight to come across.

Fallow Deer Antler

It is easy to understand how deer are often seen as magical creatures in myths and stories, connected with the spiritual, supernatural world. Often in these stories and myths they are white, a brilliant, glowing white. In Celtic mythology, they are seen as ‘fairy cattle’ that are milked by mystical women – sometimes banshees – who themselves shapeshift into deer. I am fascinated by shapeshifting in any form and by the crossing of the subtle veil between worlds.

I have been collaborating with the author and storyteller Roselle Angwin. Once I had written my book, The Memory Tree, Roselle proof-read it. She liked my artwork and suggested that we work on something together; I would illustrate one of her stories. As she lives close to Dartmoor, she chose an old Dartmoor tale that she first heard from Dartmoor storyteller, Mavis Hewitt. The story is about a man’s encounter with a magical deer. Stories with this theme occur all over Europe.

Here are some photos of our booklet fresh from the printer. It is available in my Folksy shop and in my shop on this website.

The White Hind Booklet

The White Hind Book Inside

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Looking for Moose in the Forest

I’ve been in the forest, sleeping, wandering and getting back in tune with the natural world. Not the forests here in the UK, but in Sweden where there is so much forest, mile upon mile of it interspersed by lakes and more forest. Pines and firs, some growing naturally, ancient forest, others in plantations. Several days spent with the bilberries, pines, cow wheat and mosquitoes, bedding down in a little vegetation covered hut, cooking over a log fire.

Alexi at Kolarbyn Ecolodge

Alexi by Campfire Sweden

The days are long in central Sweden at this time of year, the dusk stretches all the way to midnight with postman blue skies. It is easy to find ones way with no moon or stars.

Kolarbyn Ecolodge

We went in search of moose. Stepping quietly as a group through some ancient woods. We found spoor and droppings and twigs browsed by their feeding. No moose strayed our way while we were out on foot.

Moose Droppings

Later, in the van, almost out of hope, we stumbled on a large bull moose stock still in the lamp light shouldering the dusk. He was so still, statue still. Forest still. So quiet he almost looked like a stuffed animal with his doormat coat, felted antlers and glassy eyes flaming in the light. Eventually this hunk of the forest shifted, turned and slid into the darkness like a ship into mist.

Moose in the Darkness

My photo is terrible; it was too dark and my camera isn’t the best. Here’s a link to Wild Sweden which has better images.

The forest has fed my imagination in all sorts of ways. I’ve been rather taken by a Swedish fairy tale called “Leap the Elk” that I’ve found which has been beautifully illustrated by the nineteenth century artist John Bauer. Here is a version of the story and below an illustration of Leap keeping guard while Princess Cottongrass sleeps. I love the sepia reproduction of this version.

Leap The Elk

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She Who Knows Magazine

Just a little something – I’m very happy to have an image of one of my favourite paintings on wood, Psyche, on the cover of the second edition of the new magazine, She Who Knows. Not only that, but there’s an artist’s interview with me in the magazine too and some other images of my work throughout the pages.

The magazine is described for “awakening women” and is full of interesting articles. It’s even printed on recycled paper which is always a good thing!
She Who Knows Magazine

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Grass Baskets, Nests and Blackcaps

At the weekend I did a grass baskets workshop with Ruby Taylor of Native Hands. I have wanted to connect to nature by making something and using my hands. The closest I’ve got so far is making a moss journal. The workshop took place at Wowo campsite in a special campfire area in the woods. First we cut handfulls of grass in an adjacent field, golden and maroon sheeves we carried to the workshop site. After tea, Ruby took us through a few minutes of opening up the senses to the natural world around us. She lit a fire with metal and flint, to have a constant supply of tea throughout the day.

Grass Baskets Workshop

Concentrating hard weaving grass baskets.

The base of my grass basket

The base of my grass basket.

My Grass Basket

My slightly scruffy grass basket.

As Ruby pointed out, baskets can be like nests and she brought out a box containing a beautiful nest with a couple of thrush eggshells within it. Birds are the ultimate artisans.

When I was younger, I used to collect nests, empty ones. I climbed trees like many children, fascinated by being up high in the leaves with a birds-eye view. I came across the occasional nest and if it was empty, I’d bring it down if I could. I grew a stash of nests in my bedroom. Unfortunately birds nests harbour fleas so my collection didn’t last for very long.

Thinking about this, I am reminded of some passages in Jay Griffith’s book, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape about children and nests:

Stumbling on a bird’s nest as a child, I was breathtaken. I gasped at the tenderness of it, the downy feathers, softer than my fingers, moss folded into grasses and twigs in rounds. My eyes circled and circled it, caught by the mesmerizing perfection of the nest. It was the shape of my dream, to be tucked inside a nest and to know it for home.

A nest is a circle of infinite intimacy, a field-hearth or hedge-hearth. Every nest whispers ‘home’, whether you speak English, Spanish, Wren or Robin. Part of a child’s world-nesting need is answered seeing a rabbit warren, a badger sett or otter holt, as children’s writers instinctively know, giving children a secret passage to dens, nests and burrows.

Through nests, a child’s own hearthness is deepened and the child grows outwardly and inwardly into its world. Outwardly, children stare at a nest, fascinated. Inwardly, the nest reflects not just the body’s home but the mind’s. In the snug refuge of the nest, the psyche fills itself out from within, as round and endless as a nest, creating its infinite-thoughted worlds. Intertwined with the world of fur and feather is the world of metaphor where mind makes its nests. Metaphor weaves ‘grass’ and ‘shelter’ together. It ties ‘twig’ to ‘refuge.’ It knits ‘moss’ to ‘home.’

Finding a nest is a homecoming for a child. In Greek, homecoming is nostos, the root of the word ‘nostalgia’—an ache for home, a longing for belonging. Children, filthy little Romantics that they are, have an uncanny gift for nostalgia in nature; something inchoate, yes, but yearning, yearning for their deepest dwelling.

She also has some interesting essays about home as part of the Stay Where You Are project. I never outgrew my fascination with nests, eggs, found animal skulls. I still collect such things when I find them.

Throughout our time in the woods, we heard a persistant blackcap – or at least I think it was a blackcap, blackcaps can sound very similar to garden warblers. A few years ago I spent a few days watching and recording a blackcap singing in a nearby wood as a volunteer for The Woodland Trust, so I am quite familiar with its song. Blackcaps have a lovely, flutey, scratchy song. Here is my recording:

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A Walk Between Heaven and Earth

A Walk Between Heaven and EarthI have just finished reading “A Walk Between Heaven and Earth” by Burghild Nina Holzer. It is a lovely book about how to write a creative journal, written in the way of a journal. Burghild’s writing shines in its simplicity and beauty. There are many passages I like, such as the quote on the back of the book:

Talking to paper is talking to the divine. Paper is infinitely patient. Each time you scratch on it, you trace part of yourself, and thus part of the world, and thus part of the grammar of the universe.

There are many passages I relate to. One in particular, about when the author spends time beside a river, reminds me of my time beside the River Bure. Here is an extract from page 107:

On the last day of my journey I sat by a river with long green hair. It was like the hair of some wild river woman, swirling at my feet, as if she wanted to caress me. And the river woman whispered to me, she said, “Put your feet in the water, put your hands in.” And as soon as I did I saw the fish….And the green hair caressed my feet, and I forgot about time. And when I finally turned to go, I saw that my backpack had fallen into the water, as if the wild woman wanted to claim it, as if she wanted to claim my journal and make the task of translation impossible…”

River Bure with Long Green Hair

River Bure with long green hair.

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Moss Journal

I love all things natural, including books made from natural materials. I was very interested to read about the natural book Bridgette Guerzon Mills created on a Maker’s Foraging Retreat that took her out of her comfort zone. (I love all her work by the way!)

I wanted a make a natural book and perhaps one obvious thing would be to make handmade paper and bind it with nettle cord. One day. Instead I decided to collect natural materials – as I do for some of my paintings – and simply decorate one of my journals.

After a day in the woods at the beginning of June, these were my finds:

Gifts from the woods

I took one of my small, kraft paper notebooks and covered it first with bark – I think it is hazel bark – then moss and finally lichen. The spine I have decorated with rushes.

Moss JournalMoss Journal



A very earthy journal! The trouble is that bits fall off while I’m writing out my dreams first thing in bed!

Journalling or writing a diary is very important to me; I write most days but much of it is babbling thoughts that need sorting. I have written a journal/diary since the age of 13 when I read Anne Frank’s diary; it moved me a great deal. Now I have piles of old notebooks in storage boxes and I’ve decided to embark on a proper storage project: creating Diary Boxes that will contain all my journal/diaries as well as other memorabilia. In these ones I have feathers, eggshells, rabbit jaw bones, letters and, of course, diaries.

Memory Box

Memory Box

Mermaid Memory Box

I’ve partly been inspired by The Library of the Forest created by Miguel Angel Blanco that I read about in Robert MacFarlane‘s The Old Ways. The boxes are a beautiful and natural record of walks the artist takes into the Guadarrama Mountains outside Madrid where he lives. It is worth reading the whole of his artist’s statement, but here is a passage from it in English:

It is still possible to plunge into nature’s secret life. In some places, earth emits a dense breath, which, when inhaled by man, immediately passes on to him knowledge and sensations he possessed in former times, when living in its bosom. The telluric sensibility of ancient man can still be retrieved. Our capacity to fathom the ancient to discover the new. Nature presents itself as a transcendent experience, a means of reclaiming man’s hidden greatness, so that he may grow spiritually and penetrate the dark. The forest is one of these privileged places, where it is possible to feel mother earth’s throb. It is where the sky takes roots in earth, a sacred space heavy with mystery.

I have also discovered an artist Jan Kilpatrick, who creates all sorts of boxes. They look great!

I have decided to leave my diaries to The Great Diary Project when I die – not that anyone would find them very interesting, but who knows?

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Ulmus Memoriam

There is a new, temporary, sculpture in the park near me, a gateway or screen, a memorial to the Elm tree. It stands beside the two of the oldest elms on Earth, the Preston Twins of Preston Park, Brighton.

Ulmus Memorium

The sculpture is carved from elms felled in the River Cuckmere valley last year due to Dutch Elm Disease. Elm trees around the country were wiped out in their millions from the 1970s by the disease. In Brighton effective control measures were introduced, so it is the last stronghold in Britain for mature English elms. There is still a wonderful variety of elm trees here, originally planted by the Victorians and Edwardians.

Ulmus Memorium

The sculpture is the creation of wood sculptor Keith Pettit and part of a project called Ulmus Maritime organized by The Conservation Foundation along the South coast. He created the screen as a memorial to this fated tree.

On the front are flying birds – rooks – a copse of Winter elms and a sun. Along the bottom are the words:

“Ad gigantes augustos olim per terram nostrum pervagatos, nunc defectos” which means “A memorial to the lost, majestic giants once spreading through our land.

On the other side are swirlly clouds like waves and the hopeful words:

“The last bastion, shielded so future generations may still know of them.”

One of the Preston Twins

The Elm tree had its own nymph in Greek mythology. She was one of eight tree spirits or Hamadryads and her name was Ptelea. Elm trees feature in ancient literature including the Iliad and the Aeneid, where in the Underworld there is found the Stygian Elm of the River Styx or Elm of Dreams:

Spreads in the midst her boughs and agéd arms
an elm, huge, shadowy, where vain dreams, ’tis said,
are wont to roost them, under every leaf close-clinging.

And finally here is a link to a lovely poem, ‘The English Elms’ by Carol Ann Duffy.

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