Almost exactly two years ago I walked up Wolstonbury Hill to watch the sunrise.
I walk in the footsteps of ancient people who would have awoken on this same hillside in millenia past to greet the dawn, casting their gaze out over the wooded lowlands, the Weald of Sussex.
As I stand on the summit I can see in all directions and experience the ringing silence of height. To my west, cluster the pylons of Truleigh Hill with a red light beacon the same red as the clouds before the sun rose.
A kestrel hovers over the top of the hill, wings scything in red-gold radiance. About me the land flickers; fresh dew in the grasses.
Dawn is a becoming, an edge, an awakening, a time of infinite potential; open, inviting and as subtle as a breath. Sometimes a silent cat of soft paws, it creeps over the land unannounced.
As the sun rose the grass glowed rose.
Wolstonbury hill is a well known chalk hill in the South Downs of West Sussex. It rises to 206 metres and at the top you can see for miles. It is not surprising that it was the location for ancient settlements since before the Bronze Age. There is evidence of ditches, enclosures and field systems. Excavations have found pottery, flintwork, human skeletons and animal bones.
I have become very fond of the hill as I can reach it by bicycle from home. There is something special about it’s layers of history, the sweeping views, smooth, rolling contours and the wonderful sense of space you get on it’s summit and hillsides.
Recently I thought about the word Eostre and recollected that Eostre was a Dawn Goddess. However, she is associated with both dawn and Easter. The Anglo Saxons worshipped Eostre in the month of April according to the Venerable Bede, a eighth century Benedictine monk. The festival celebrating the goddess had died out by his time and was replaced by the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. The word Easter probably derives from the word Eostre.
This year I thought I’d like to make a trip to Wolstonbury Hill with Kevin and perform a small ritual to celebrate Easter/Eostre – the spring and dawn.
We didn’t get up quite so early, but were up there by about 7.30am and were serenaded by skylarks on the hillside and a profusion of all sorts of birdsong in the woods on the way up and back down. Up there it was all about lightness, air, emerging and balance for me. Here is a little video of my movement ritual:
Dreaming, I stand on pebbles and sand. Before me is a rich, dark sea. There are waves, but not large waves. In the water there are octopuses, starfish, clams and swimmers. I want to join them, I want to be a swimmer too.
In the sea’s echoing changing room there is talk of violins. There are neighbours, people I recognise, friends and family. Everyone is talking.
Before long, the walls of the building crumble and in rushes the sea, the dark, rich, velvet sea of swimmers and octopuses, starfish and clams.
There are ammonites in the rocks. Strange creatures from the past lurk in the shallows. Beneath the waves I see continents and the blue-green eyeshine of the ocean floor. It becomes a melody of waving grasses and waltzing seals. I want to wade further in and join them, I want to become a swimmer-dancer too.
But I wake up. An amber light spills through the curtains. Did I join them? I would like to think so. Somewhere in another plane I may still wander the shore, marvelling at the life in the water. Of the land but tempted by water, mine is an world between air and sea. Perhaps it will always be that way.
I’m not alone in loving a wild, secret garden. Tangled ivy, vines, roses, brambles and signs of faded grandeur- all of these I’ve tried to feature in my new altered book, Wild Garden
For me gardens are places to contemplate, reflect, lose myself in layers and textures of shrubs and flowers, layers of time. They are special places to retreat to and hide in. Yes, hide, they are meant to be hidden in – and meant for memories. They are places where time stands still. I think I need quite a lot of still time. But,
The house where I grew up had a garden with a willow tree. I used to climb into the willow tree and sit up there at night. We were in the centre of town, but I had the sky and imagined myself elsewhere, somewhere wilder and more interesting.
I’ve been working on my Wild Garden altered book for the Open House exhibition that I’m involved with in May (more about that soon). I’ve put a lot of hours into the book and lost myself in the detail. Perhaps it has a little too much detail :)
I wanted to add a door that can be opened – to the next layer. A door, symbol of transition from one world to another…
I didn’t find this altered book as easy as some of my others. This may be because I’m more happy with wild natural themes – forests – as opposed to enclosed spaces. That’s why I wanted to draw a slightly wild, neglected garden – the sort of garden where foxes hang out and a few brambles overun shady corners.
I visited a few gardens for inspiration such as the walled garden of Preston Manor just down the road from me. It’s a 17th century, flint walled garden. At this time of year the magnolia tree is in full bloom. Preston Manor is supposed to be haunted by a certain White Lady. I wonder if she haunts the garden?
Preston Manor garden is lovely and an oasis of peace in the busy city, but I wanted a garden with statues or sculptures, so I chose to visit Charleston House gardens in East Sussex that’s a moderate drive away.
It has one or two interesting sculptures and statues including one beside a pond, a Levitating Woman, known as The Dreamer:
and a classical statue of a woman emerging from shrubs:
With gardens in mind, I can’t help but think of the book, Tom’s Midnight Garden, that I read as a child. It’s a mystical, ghostly, beautiful book in which time warps and a garden from the past becomes manifest. The garden may be the projected memory of an old lady, who lives upstairs in the old house, but we can only surmise. I’ve made a quick illustration for the story, but I don’t really think I’ve done it justice:
I have recently learnt, via an email from Sussex University, about a virtual reality project called Tree VR that enables people to “become a tree”. Intrigued I looked up the project and found the Tree VR website and a couple of videos.
Basically, Tree is a multi-sensory exhibition in which participants can experience the life of a rainforest kapok tree from it’s time as a seed to it’s growth as an adult tree. As part of Tree participants are exposed to various sensory inputs to enhance the illusion of being in a rainforest – sounds, scents and breezes. Tree was shown at the Davos conference in Switzerland.
Here is a little video of the first part, Tree VR – Seedling:
There is another video with more about the installation.
“an international non-profit organization working to build strong forests, healthy agricultural landscapes, and thriving communities through creative, pragmatic collaboration”.
Rainforests and forests in general are so important for the health of the earth. Sadly, they are still being cut down at an alarming rate. Scientists have found that they are vital for carbon-capture and the best thing to offset the effects of climate change. More trees in the ground!
I really wanted to experience Tree VR so was pleased to find a website where you can download it. All I needed was somewhere with the right VR equipment to “play” it.
Luckily Kevin, my partner, has a friend, Andy Baker, who is well into VR. So we went to his house and tried it out. Tree was my first VR experience.
It was all a bit mind-blowing, not real but surreal. It was an excursion into an alternative world, an interior world like that of dreams and the forests of one’s imagination. I was amazed at the very real sense of space and depth all around me. As a seed I climbed through metres of soil. On the level of a giant mushroom and leafcutter ants I broke through the leaflitter and ascended higher and higher. Macaws, morphos and bats flew all around. At first my arms were leafy blades but soon they became proper branches with bark and leaves and hung with lianas. My body became the tree’s trunk. Looking down I felt a touch of vertigo. Night came along with a huge moon, stars and birds flying home against the darkened sky.
I won’t say how Tree ends as that would spoil it for anyone who gets the chance to have a go.
In the rainforest mood, I thought I’d make another rainforest altered book – another forest of my imagination – but this time in colour. Based on a Central/South American rainforest, it features a kapok/ceiba tree along with a tapir, agoutis and scarlet macaws.
I plan to display this altered book at an open house I’m particupating in during Brighton Festival in May. I think I’d like to donate some of the sale price to the Rainforest Alliance or another rainforest charity. I’ll write more about the open house nearer the time.
I went a step further and decided to grow a kapok/ceiba tree. I bought a few seeds and have just sown them in a tray after soaking them in tepid water for 24 hours. Somehow I need to create an acidic rainforest environment and try and keep the seeds warm – they need an optimum temperature of 25C. With this warm, Anthropocene February we’re having, under plastic on the window sill might do fine.
My interest in trees, forests and geology continues. On Saturday, Kevin and I went to Pett Level beach, east along the Sussex coast from Brighton. We arranged our trip to coincide with a low tide because when the sea is out the wave-cut platform reveals the remnants of a prehistoric forest. A peaty layer of ancient tree trunks, roots and boles can be seen covered in seaweed and pock-marked by piddock holes.
We were surprised at how easy it was to see whole tree trunks. Some of these may have come from shipwrecks off the coast, but the spongy wood is likely to be from the sunken forest, which is about 6000 years old. Evidence of alder, birch, hazel, alder buckthorn, yew, ash and willow trees have been found along with brambles, sedges, meadow rue, bedstraws and marsh marigold. This mixed woodland flourished when the sea level was 60 metres lower than it is today.
It is strange walking over this ghost forest imagining the animals, large and small, that roamed among the trees and the people who possibly hunted there.
Our day was enriched by the sight and sounds of oystercatchers, cormorants, fulmars, curlews and a peregrine that sat on a cliff perch in the weak sunshine.
High up in the cliffs that overlook the area, we saw a cave now occupied by fulmars. but where archaeologists have found flint tools. They propose that it could have been a lookout used by Neolithic people for spotting game in the forest below. No doubt the cave was much more extensive in earlier times.
The cliffs are eroding fast, up to a metre a year. On our way back we watched as a trickle of stones fell down a section of cliff, where people had been walking a moment earlier. This was followed by a loud crash as a bush from the scrub above came down. I have never heard the earth sound so loud. Fortunately no one was nearby when it happened.
Further back in time the area was frequented by dinosaurs, their footprints have been found on the beach. We didn’t find much in the way of fossils or footprints, but Kevin found something else of interest and called me over. He wondered whether it was a piece of crab carapace. When I saw it I thought it must be a piece of skull as it had sutures, the wiggly joints between skull plates. We decided to take it home.
On Monday morning we contacted Archaeology SE to see if they could identify it. Their forensic archaeologist identified it as the back of a human skull and told us to contact the police as soon as possible! Three police officers came to collect it and took our details.
Perhaps it belonged to a sailor aboard one of the ships tragically wrecked along the Sussex or Kent coast. Such shipwrecks include RMS Alaunia in 1913, in which two crew members lost their lives. Hopefully we’ll find out a little more about it in a few weeks time.
In my previous post about my latest altered book, I mentioned that one of the pages – the fox page – reminded me of the Millefleur(s) art style. Millefleurs means “thousand flowers” in French and was a style using many flowers in the background of European tapestries between 1480 and 1520. The style was brought back into fashion by William Morris and his company Morris & Co.
I looked again at tapestries and particularly like Tapestry: Greenery designed by John Henry Dearle for Morris & Co. It hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, US and features deer, rabbits and a fox beneath chestnut, oak and pear trees:
I love botanical detail in tapestries and paintings, especially with my recent rekindled interest in plants. i like the way individual flower species are depicted. I first really took note of millefleur in Botticelli’s Primavera in which there are about 190 species of flowering plants depicted and many have symbolic meanings:
I have decided to write/illustrate another little book that I’m titling The Tapestry Fox inspired by Tapestry Greenery and of course, the foxes that live around my way.
The fox as totem animal is coming back into my life. it is a good luck animal for me. I’ll follow it wherever it takes me. I’ve worked on a few ideas for the book:
In the first picture above I’ve added teasel, bramble, oak and hornbeam – I try and add plants that can be identified. i haven’t managed the sinewy trunks of hornbeam. I particularly like adding bramble (of the rose family there are over 300 species in the UK and deer love it so you can often tell if a deer has passed by the bitten ends of new bramble shoots. Bramble was used for fencing where barned wire is used now and then there are blackberries! A great plant!)
While on the fox trail, I’ve been experimenting with the idea of millefleur and foxes at the woodland edge in a larger, A3 picture. I’ve called it Millefeuilles Fox – Thousand Leaves Fox:
In the picture stars are sprinkled among the leaves and plants so the sky becomes the land and the land sky. I like to think it might be an allegory of some sort with a hidden meaning :)
I’m looking forward to visiting the woodland edges, making sketches, taking photos and gathering a few plant specimens. With spring comes primrose, white dead nettle, yellow archangel, lords and ladies, stitchwort, herb robert, red campion, nettles….
I’ve just completed my Journey Through the Forest altered book. I’ve made two or three versions of this before, but this latest version has the most layers. It features a girl, a deer, a fox, a badger and trees. Here are photos of some of the pages:
I’ve written a vignette of a story to accompany the book:
Above, a shimmering bowl of stars. Orion, looks on, while Sirius, the dog star, points the way. On this night of the full moon she is taking a journey, one soft footfall after another, the deer a few steps behind. The silvered path is cast with eerie shadow. She knows the trail, or thinks she does. An owl, silent on a perch in an old oak, watches. The forest darkness closes in.
I follow the dog star, she says, That must be the way.
The only way to the oaks her people planted.
Soon all the trees look the same and the path petters out.
Listen, say the trees in their secret, silent way. Listen.
So she stands still among root and fern, briar and dog violet on the softly trodden leaflitter. She turns towards the moon, a distant, knowing face in the blackness.
That’s it, she murmurs, I can hear.
The subtle moan of the boughs, the whisperings of the land all around her. She is not alone, no, she is no longer alone. The land, the trees, the sky, the moon are with her. She can find her way, with the deer a few steps behind.
Journeys through lands and forests serve as metaphors. I even include them in my little story The Memory Tree. There are journeys into the psyche and physical outward journeys. Sometimes a map composed of symbols is needed. I think like this when I am vaguely looking for something, something I may have lost, perhaps a part of myself I have lost. Who knows… Now I am wondering how I can create some sort of animation of the journey part of The Memory Tree story, something magical. Hopefully I’ll post more about this soon.
I am reminded of a small ‘magical’ exhibition I went to at Hove Museum in December, called Magical Wonderland. It was a collection of paper and card sculptures of traditional stories and fairy tales called The Story Cabinet and created by a group of artists called Fabula.
I like their miniature worlds within worlds within chests of drawers, wooden cabinets and suitcases. I like the use of cardboard and everyday materials, the use of words woven into the sculptures and the cardboard tree – The Wishing Tree – in particular. Better photos are on The Story Cabinet website.
During my visit to the museum I got talking to the curator. She said that she likes to display artwork that shows that it is made of everyday materials to inspire visitors to be creative. I’m looking forward to seeing what Fabula comes up with next and perhaps trying my hand at altered books that are more sculptural.
i’ve created a couple of little booklets. I always feel good when I can combine drawing with writing, especially nature writing.
Fox is a flash fiction story about an urban fox. The writing won me a prize a few years ago and was first published in Creative Future‘s Impossible Things anthology :) The story is based on a fox encounter I had on the streets of Brighton. I’ve added three illustrations to this six page, hand-bound, A6 booklet.
The other little booklet is Hare. This is a piece of creative non-fiction that originally appeared in the summer anthology of the Seasons series published by Elliot and Thompson in 2016. It is about the hares on Havergate Island, off the coast of Suffolk, that I saw when I volunteered there. I’ve added a pen and ink illustration to this seven page booklet.
…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…
Towards the end of last year I was approached by writer Caroline Greville, who asked me if I’d like to design a cover for her book, a memoir called Badger Clan. Caroline had found me via Twitter and we also both had pieces of writing published in the Seasons anthologies by Elliot and Thompson in 2016.
I was very happy to design a cover and had a strong image in mind when Caroline told me what the book was about and what she’d like. I’ve also been drawing badgers quite a lot recently too – badgers are never far away!
The book has just become available on Amazon as a paperback. Below is the front cover:
Here’s the blurb from the back cover:
Discovering badgers isn’t hard when you know where to look.‘The only badgers I ever get to see are dead ones.’ ‘Well, if you keep seeing dead ones, their family can’t be far away.’This throwaway conversation niggled, leading Caroline Greville to seek out her own neighbourhood badgers near her Kent home. She found them and was soon well-acquainted – so too were most of her family. A sense of interconnectedness developed as they had more badger contact than they could have hoped for. Badger Clan charts a simple quest that turns into a full-blown obsession. From loitering near a sett to working as local contact for a regional badger group, this memoir tells of wild encounters and gradual, intimate knowledge of the local clan. The story is rooted in rural village life, while the family are honestly depicted and relatable. A feel-good read in which enthusiast and elusive creature become inextricably bound.
Maybe you are searching among branches for what only appears in the Roots. ~ Rumi
I have recently received a contributor’s copy of the journal, Minerva Rising, as I have one of my pictures, The Dreaming Tree, featured in its pages.
My picture sits opposite a poem, Coyotes Talks to Me by Gina Hietpas. Gina contacted me to say she’d like to send me a photo of a tree she loves that is somewhere in the US. It is a magnificent tree with roots exposed to the sea and wind, a real Tree of Life. I should love to see such a tree, but, for now it is in the photo and my imagination.
It is strange to see what is normally hidden, revealed.
I have been thinking about roots, origins and belonging. The theme of this issue of Minerva Rising is roots. Roots physical and metaphorical, have found their way into my drawings and writings since I first started doodling and, more recently, they’ve appeared in my altered books.
…What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water…
The Wasteland T.S.Elliot
Roots – I have the need to look beneath the surface of things and to look within. It may reflect a need to return to earth, the ground beneath my feet and look deeper. Up above a branching canopy transcends the troubles and problems that seem to pervade everything at ground level. Roots give shelter, a shield against the chaos of the world. If I was another sort of animal it would be good to be a bird, but I think I’d probably be a subterranean, crepuscular animal right now. A kiwi, perhaps, pottering among the subtropical roots of a podocarp tree.
I have always liked trees and roots. As a child, I loved the book, “The Tree that Sat Down” by Beverley Nichols, with the shop within the base of a willow tree.
Over the past ten years I have had a sense of being uprooted, a persistant upheaval carrying me away from what really matters and cutting me off from my source. This sounds dramatic, but off and on it has been quite unsettling and I’ve had to fight to root myself. This goes along with a sense of unbelonging, but then I’ve always really had that.
In Brighton I notice the roots of elm trees heaving up the tarmac in protest.
At the end of last year I decided to make a new altered book with roots as a starting point. I’ve based them on buttress roots of rainforest trees like the Ceiba Tree, a tree sacred to the Maya. The Maya believe the tree links the three realms – the heavens, the earthly plane where humans live and the underworld. I have written a little about it at the start of my piece, A Fragment of Forest over on my writing website.
The altered book has taken me a long time and it’s still not finished. It’s now many pages deep, both sides of the central spread. This one is just for me I think, I probably won’t be able to sell it.
I also wanted to paint a wooden scaffolding board with leaves and roots. I’ve had the board propped up in my kitchen-cum-studio for weeks. Now I wish to festoon it with intricate leaves of greens and browns, with animals between the leaves, roots and branches. And perhaps a few stars between the branches. My Tree of Life. This has come to me from many sources, including the myriad plants that surround me in my flat. Plants have been silently speaking to me as they always have. It’s good to try painting boards once again, although my basic acrylic paint infuriates me and I realise that I just can’t paint! At least I have broken the spell of ‘blue’. However, I’m toying with the idea of giving the painting a wash of blue to create a night scene….possibly.
Recently I stumbled on the wonderful botantical art of Jess Shepherd. Her Leafscapes are amazing. I find her work mesmerising and meditative. I recently went to sleep with the image of one of her leaves fixed in my mind’s eye. It stilled me and took me elsewhere. Thank you Jess, I’m following your wonderful journey in search of blue flowers down under. She has got me really thinking about plants, drawing vegetation from life and looking really closely at it. I am also reminded that I have an inclination towards blue too.
As the new year begins, I am still, taking a pause while I try to work out where I am going. I’m still waiting for a sense of direction. I feel as though I’m caught mid-stream, suspended and going nowhere. Perhaps this is what this roots exploration is about, trying to find something to anchor myself to before I can move off with the current. No doubt I’ll see in time.
I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of research. It’s like peeling away layers and discovering networks that spread and spread, mycelia of knowledge that go on and on and on. The earth is wrapped in nerves and synapses, strands and pathways – to roots and beyond. Recently I’ve read that scientists have discovered life deep within the earth’s crust. The deeper they go, the more surprises come to light. There are microorganisms that do not need the sun. Instead they create methane which they just use to repair themselves. They have been buried for millions of years. This is life living in the really slow lane, in geologic time, not in the franetic pulse of our diurnal rhythms. That fascinates me, it stretches my mind into deep time. Here is a link to the article.
As I write this I am reminded of one of my favourite novels, An Imaginary Life by David Malouf. I think of it partly because the copy I read had roots on the cover, but also because the main character, Ovid, from the cultured, tamed Roman world, becomes more aware of nature and less afraid of the wild in his last days. The writing, the plot, the themes of exile, of belonging and unbelonging, speak to me at the moment and the many layers of story and meaning are beautiful. Towards the end:
…”I am growing bodiless. I am turning into the landscape. I feel myself sway and ripple. I feel myself expand upwards toward the blue roundness of sky. Is that where we are going?
The earth, now that I am about to leave it, seems so close at last. I wake, and there, so enormous in their proximity to my eyeball that I might be staring through tree trunks into an unknown forest, are the roots of the grass, and between the roots, holding them together, feeding them, the myriad round grains of the earth…
Round the base of these roots, seeking refuge amongst them as in a forest, finding food, are the smaller creatures – wood lice, ants, earwigs, earthworms, beetles, another world and another order of existence….We have come to join them. The earth’s warmth under me, as I stretch out at night, is astonishing. It is like the warmth of another body that has absorbed the sun all day and now gives out its store of heat. It is softer, darker than I could ever have believed, and when I take a handful of it and smell its extraordinary odors I know suddenly what it is I am composed of, as if the energy that is in this fistful of black soil had suddenly opened, between my body and it, as between it and the grass stalks, some corridor along which our common being flowed. I no longer fear it. I lie down to sleep, and wonder if, in the looseness of sleep, I mightn’t strike down roots along all the length of my body,and as I enter the first dream, almost feel it begin to happen, feel my individual pores open to the individual grains of the earth, as the interchange begins….I shall settle deep into the earth, deeper than I do in sleep, and will not be lost. We are continuous with earth in all the particles of our physical being, as in our breathing we are continuous with sky.”