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In Virtual Forests

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.

After experiencing Tree, participants are encouraged to support the Rainforest Alliance,

“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.

Experiencing Tree VR
Experiencing Tree VR

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.

Rainforest Altered Book
Rainforest altered book in colour.
Rainforest altered book detail
Among the trees in my Rainforest altered book with the tapir and a scarlet macaw.
Rainforest altered book detail
Lianas, cecropia trees and palms among the rainforest trees of my Rainforest altered book.

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.

Kapok seeds planted.
Ceiba pentandra seeds sown.
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A Prehistoric Forest and an Interesting Find

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.

Pett Level beach showing sunken forest remains.
Pett Level beach showing sunken forest remains.
Tree trunk on Pett Level beach
Tree trunk on Pett Level beach.
Sunken forest on clay - Pett Level beach
Sunken forest on soft clay – Pett Level beach.
Pett Level Forest
Imagining the view from a cave overlooking Pett Level forest in Neolithic times.

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.

Cave in cliff - Pett Level beach
Cave in cliff – Pett Level beach.
Cliff strata - Pett Level beach
Cliff strata – Pett Level beach

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.

Cliff fall - Pett Level beach
A fallen bush and rock fall – Pett Level beach

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.

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Time of the Deer

Time of the Deer
Time of the Deer

Time of the deer,
Wind and swirling dream,
Heavy, brooding skies,
Amber light,
And the coming of night,
So early.

I feel it in my bones,
I feel it in the river, swollen now with autumn rains.

In the honey and copper forest,
Glimpsed in the woodland ride,
A presence drifts,
Scattering pennies to the earth,
The accepting, gathering, honest earth,
Where all the animals hide.

I feel it in my bones,
I feel it in the river, swollen now with autumn rains.
Time of the deer,
Wind and swirling dream.

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A Forest in a Tea Box

I’m a bit of a tea addict and certainly get through tea. So recently I put aside a few empty tea packets with the idea of turning them into something instead of recycling them.

Empty Tea Boxes
Empty tea boxes waiting to be made into something.

In need of distraction at a very busy time, I started making a little box of ‘forest’ by first cutting a rectangle out of the front of one of the tea packets and covering it with some printouts of my Memory Tree book inside cover. I then created layers of a forest scene in the same way as I do for altered books and box frames (but a little more hastily as this was just a prototype to see if it would work. If it worked – who knows, perhaps printed card boxes to self assemble for fun :))

Here’s the result, a deer forest in a tea box!

A Forest in a Tea Box
A Forest in a Tea Box

I cut up more printouts of my Memory Tree book inside cover and stuck it on card. Then I cut around the images of the girl and trees to create layers. I stuck these inside another tea packet. Then I covered the tea packet with the leftover printouts and put inside some small, battery-powered LED lights. The result looks like a sunny day in the woods or a forest fire!

Tea Packet Light Box
Tea Packet Light Box

I think I’d better get back to doing something more useful!

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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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River Voices

I have just got back from one of my favourite places, Penpynfarch, in a beautiful wooded valley in Carmarthenshire, Wales. As I wandered the river, lakeside and woods I listened to the many ‘voices’ I always hear when I visit, voices of the river and trees. It’s as though moments and memories from times past and future speak from the very soils, hidden spaces and waters. I found myself listening, searching and waiting, and the words ‘deep song’ came into my mind, the deep song of the river and woods.

Nant Gwyddyl
Nant Gwyddyl

With my new mp3 recorder I recorded the many voices of the Nant Gwyddyl; returning to rivers, that mean so much to me.

Listen,
Rock, cleft, moss, stone,
of memory and eternity,
the River speaks
voices of rock and root,
echoes of shoot and bark,
algal smooth
chasing
animal pelts of weed,
into
a whirlpool of laughter
an eddy of thought,
rush smooth,
babbling,
gone.

a kingfisher,
riot of dazzling blue.

A child’s voice,
A deep vowel,
sonorous tones,
silt of silk,
a current
secretly shifting the world.
A haunting harmony
carries me along by thought and dream.

I am river.

I have many photos from a few years ago, little has changed.

The ruin is a bit more overgrown,

Ruin

the wrecked caravan a little more hidden in its green swathe of undergrowth,

Wrecked Caravan
Wrecked Caravan

there’s no sign of goshawks in the trees,

Looking for Goshawks
Looking for Goshawks

and the lake is still peaceful.

The Lake Pen Pynfarch

Then rain came as it always does in Wales. So I walked in the rain and watched the herons flying to and from the heronry, the river rise, it’s voices a little stronger.

Now I am back home again I need to be patient and listen more deeply.

I am reading two books at the moment, both have “river” in the title. The first, The Other Side of the River by Eila Carrico, is a memoir and exploration of the meaning of water both physically and metaphorically in our lives, especially in the lives of women. It is written as a river flows, shifting gently here and there. The second book, At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid. Perhaps I am drawn to anything with the word ‘river’ :) Both books flow with rivers of words or beautiful language, both weave in nature and hint at tropical lands.

Books I'm Reading

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From the Forests Beneath The Waves

Forests are still my thing, what better than a forest beneath the sea, a kelp forest. The colours, for one, are beautiful – perhaps some of my favourite colours, aquamarine, turquoise, blues. I imagine it to be a world of beings passing through – seals, brittlestars, rockfish, sea urchins, otters – in the arms of kelp – the odd diver, the odd wreck splintering and lost, discarded bits and pieces tossed by muted currents, swaying waters that whisper the secrets of the land beneath the waves. A forest dream of a world.

Kelp Forest

Enter the Kelp Maidens.

Kelp MaidensI have painted two new long boards on reclaimed wood, the Kelp Maidens. They are varnished with exterior varnish and ready for the outdoors.

I am a little familiar with the Kelpie myths – water spirits that live in lochs and rivers in Scotland, water horses that shapeshift into men or women. My kelp maidens are slightly different, there is no hint of horse, no horse’s mane or hooves. But they live in the kelp forests, amongst the fronds of Saccharina and Saccorhiza (and other kelps) in Scottish waters – they are like the names of two sisters :)

While I was painting my kelp maidens, the Guardian published a series of Forest Fable podcasts. All the fables are good, but one of them, The Princess’ Forest by Alec Finnay just happened to be about the myth of a submerged forest off the coast of St Kilda where a giant woman was said to reside. It is said that she was addicted to hunting deer in the forests between the islands of Harris and St Kilda before the seas came and flooded the land.

My Kelp Maidens are now in the lovely shop Way Out There and Back in Littlehampton along with some of my other paintings and cards.

My River Sisters painting, that was in the shop, has just gone to a new home. I’m delighted!

River Sisters
The River Sisters
The Blue Forest
A new painting, The Blue Forest, (yes it’s blue as usual and I’m still with the forest theme!)
Way Out There and Back
Some of my other paintings in Way Out There and Back.
Kelp Maiden Altered Book
A coloured altered book featuring a Kelp Maiden, which I have put on my Reflections Folksy Shop.
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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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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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