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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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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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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The Ghost Faced Sheep

For the Year of the Sheep – The Ghost Faced Sheep.

I climb up the western edge, the disused quarry falling away into a swathe of shadow to my left. The sun spills over the crest ahead of me, its brightness blinding my eyes. The ground falls away steeply into a chaotic muddle of hillocks, hollows, dips and clumps steeped in shadow within a cool pocket scooped out of the hillside. I pause to take in this uneven landscape quiet beneath its worn duffle coat of short turf, the work of an army of rabbits. A solitary magpie strutts and frets on a sunlit mound, a performer uttering a soliliquy in a giant amphitheatre. He hops on to the path that snakes between the mounds then takes off with a clatter to alight in a nearby tree, a hawthorn, winter- stripped and dusted green with lichen.

I turn back to the sun and stomp uphill trampling last year’s crumpled hawthorn leaves in the squish of chalky mud underfoot. At the top bright sunshine and the full force of the wind. I find the gate and notice the gorse is still speckled yellow with flowers. The view opens out on to the golf course which descends to a mousy scrubland mix of hawthorn and elder furring the valley like a mould. I circle the broad hollow towards the shadow.

I hear blackbirds scuffling deep within the skeleton of a hedge and glimpse the silhouette of a robin. I look about for birds of prey; I’ve seen kestrels here before, a pair, circling and hovering before collapsing into a bank of trees, scattering pigeons in all directions. They look disproportionally large when hunched on a tree top; distance can be so deceptive.

Just then, I happen to look through a gap in the hedge and am taken aback by the ashen face of a lone sheep standing there like a shocked ghost. The field of mauve shadow with its mist of white grasses contrasts starkly with the sunlit trees beside me. To get a better view I wade through ivy, feathery tufts of yarrow, and ash saplings with their hooflike buds pointing skyward. The sheep stares vacantly in my direction with an air of unease before returning back to graze; a ghost in the lee of a hill that the sun never sees.

Ghost Faced Sheep

Oh sheep sheep
Do not look so wide-eyed and lost!

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A Day in a Watery Landscape

Underwateredge MapLast Sunday Kevin and I joined a group of artists at Herstmonceux Castle for an introduction to a project called Underwateredge organised by artists Clare Whistler and Charlotte Still. The project has involved exploring the site of where the coastline used to be in the area now known as Pevensey Levels, searching with archaeologists and historians to unearth interesting finds in the layers of the landscape. Now they are inviting artists to respond to the landscape with writings, artworks, dances, stories, audio experiences or music for exhibiting or performing during Waterweek.

Underwateredge

Last year Waterweek took place in the town of Hailsham in East Sussex. It celebrated water and was the culmination of Clare and Charlotte’s exploration of the tributaries of the River Cuckmere. It involved archaeologists, water boards, conservationists, dancers, farmers etc and this year will include other artists too. Last year I took my little River Goddess booklet as a gift as I felt so drawn to it all and I guess that is why I was invited this year to one of the artists’ walks.

Underwateredge

Underwateredge

Underwateredge

The landscape was sodden, marshy and the sky, a stretched, taught sheet keeping the sun at bay. Crack willow lined some of the dykes; a broken, unkempt landscape awash with water. Water spilled everywhere and in some places it was scummed by pennywort, an “alien invader” weed. I noticed the shells of freshwater mussels on a bank where dredging had taken place. It was interesting to wade through the land and think that where we ventured was once sea or at least salt marsh. Scrubby willow woodland marked the ancient water edge on higher ground. A hare bolted from behind a log pile of willow, riveting across the puddles only to vanish as suddenly as it had appeared. Robins sang in the tangled, lichened woodland and in the distance, gulls or egrets looked like white flags snagged in the trees and dykes.

When we returned to the castle for lunch, Sally Willow, a storyteller, read out her version of an old Sussex folktale called Elynge Ellet about an ugly hag who lived in the swamp and lured people to their doom. According to Michael O’Leary, in the Sussex dialect, ellet was an elder bush and elynge described an eerie, uncanny, solitary place. In the story, “Elynge Ellet was a green-toothed, green-haired, frog-eyed creature with long fingers like suckers and woe betide the children who played beside a marsh pond as Elynge Ellet might get them.” She would be an interesting character for me to illustrate :) Most of the story can be read here.

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Moving Below Vulture Rock

Blue tit, tree creeper, bullfinch;
fallen acorns and the dry crunch of dwarf oak leaves;
scent of lemon and lavender as I wade through cloud fields
flower husks, the dry, deadhead suns of Autumn,
burnished mists, soft on the gaze.

A cricket zips past with a flash of blue sky in its wings;
a praying mantis strikes a combative pose on the path, quizical, as I walk past lonely ruins,
rocks that could be sacred.
And above me, vultures caress the currents and gather on the pink-grey vulture rock of vulture cliff.

What is the land saying?
It sloughs off Summer insignificantly,
in layers and earth warming browns,
in shards and bones,
in dry, bone trees in skeletal stances,
twisted and rattling,
abrasive and catching at my trousers.
Birds flit from tree to tree,
tick tick, tack, tack…
browns, honey, straw colours, beiges…
Even the snake wears beige.

In this basin of rock outcrops,
place of layers and silence,
shades of blue fade to more watery, distant, blues,
a valley of liquid air,
a valley I fall into with my gaze,
that I could almost swim into if I reached out…

I am the cliff,
I am the vulture,
I swim the valley and push to fly;
I am the knarled tree,
the scissoring cricket,
the lizard’s liquid escape,
the overarching sky.

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Hummingbird

Hummingbird has entered my life. I’m not quite sure what I think of Spirit Animals, Animal Totems, Western Shamanism, I try and keep an open mind about it all and find myself drawn to it sometimes.

Feathers

From left to right: 3 tawny owl, feral pigeon, carrion crow, 2 magpie, herring gull, 4 jay, 2 buzzard, pheasant and an unknown.

I’m always interested in animals and wildlife, although this rarely creeps into this blog. A jackdaw has taken to frequenting the scaffolding outside my bedroom window; we were curious about each other. Sometimes it feels as though nature/wildlife has a message and that I should listen. I’ve found myself collecting feathers from woodland paths and even the street. Recently I found a buzzard feather and now I actively search for them – owl, jay, woodpecker – any feather of any bird. Summer may be the best time to find feathers when birds are moulting, but now is OK as well. Feathers give me a tangible link to the natural world; I even had a dream about one. I’m being drawn to birds, to the sky, to flight and freedom.

So often I’ve thought (symbolically) that my “wings” are torn and broken and however much I wish to “take off”, I can’t. It is a sort of freedom I seek, but something has always held me back or down.

My first experience of hummingbirds was in a garden in Mexico. The bird came quietly like an apparition to visit some red blooms – probably hibiscus flowers. It seemed as though it was an uncanny link with an “Otherworld” at the time, as though this was a special, silent messenger. I’ll never forget the memory.

Hummingbird

Hummingbird on reclaimed wood block.

I mentioned another hummingbird encounter in a piece of writing recently published in the magazine Earthlines:

“…After a few minutes I hear a noise, more like a vibration than something audible, coming from my left. It is like feline purring, a soft tinnitus, another sound in this place of voices. A fragment of the forest’s heart splinters off and a tiny hummingbird comes into view unlocked from its own chasm of sound, beating within its own silent bubble.

A coil of memory, recalling a poem by D. H. Lawrence, spools out in my mind,

‘Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.’

The bird hangs needle sharp, chest out, suspended in a brief blur of wings, threading the air. No brilliance here, more like a moth it hovers, patiently in the half light. But, there’s something misplaced, unravelled, something lost and found in the single, graceful poise of this tiny bird fluttering like an off key note against some invisible membrane.

I feel privileged to be caught in a moment with this bird. When the Sun seeks the Moon, says Mayan legend, it becomes a hummingbird. I feel like the moon, feel as though the bird has a message from another world just for me. The moment passes and the White Bellied Emerald is gone, disappeared into the gloom.”

Now I’m painting hummingbirds. And not just in blues! So much of my painting is in blues and turquoises – that I love – but I’ve broken the blue spell and want to paint in yellows and maroons and golds and ….

According to various sources, hummingbirds can symbolize many things – energy, joy, perseverance, flexibility, Eternity and Infinity. Apparently hummingbird wings flutter in a figure of eight, the symbol of Infinity. Hummingbirds appear playful and light encouraging enjoyment of life and positivity. I do feel joy, after sometime of shadow, should I trust it I ask myself…

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Blue Tiles, Bones and Time Out in Nature

My recent visit to Portugal has left me with many impressions. We stayed at Pego Ferreiro in two cabins, the Boar Hide at first followed by The River Lodge. The Boar Hide Pego Ferreiro The Boar Hide is shrouded in trees and overlooks a glade where wild boar come to forage. We spent some evenings watching the scene silvered by the light of a waxing moon.

But no boar came. By chance, we spotted a family of boar across a vale making their way through boulders and broom scrub while we were out wandering one morning.

Most of my days were spent dawdling by or in the river, watching butterflies and enjoying the peace and beauty of nature. In the River at Pego Ferreiro But we also went for walks, tended the fire – The smells of woodsmoke and yellow bloom linger in my memory – cut wood, filtered water, showered in sun-warmed water and read; heard nightingales, cicadas, frogs in the depositos and the river that never slept.

The River Lodge Pego FerreiroView from The River Lodge The River Lodge is a tented “cabin” perched on a platform on rocks overlooking the River Sever below. The river suffused my days and dreams. The moon embedded overhead, shone like a pearl and spilt into the waters below; vapour trails of planes became waves across the shores of the night sky. Mayflies, butterflies, frogs and snakes came by day and at dusk, crepuscular toads crept too inquisitively close to the fire.

Boar Bone? One day, we found the bones of an animal and wondered whether they belonged to a boar. I sent photos to the experts to find out. They’re bones of a horse apparently… I think of some poor, stray animal lost in the hills and vales without a rider…

From Pego Ferreiro we went to Coimbra and Porto. I found myself atuned to urban nature in the cities, the wildflowers growing in gutters, the screeching swifts scything the air and the scimitor wings of a kite over the rooftops.

We paused in cool, shadowy cloisters festooned with moss and algae and the odd green man.

Green Man in Cathedral Cloisters in Coimbra

I loved the fading, crumbling shabbiness mixed with the grandeur of the past. Blue tiles and murals were everywhere – like this one of Jesus on a kite on the facade of Carmo Church in Porto.  Why blue? The cobalt blue of porcelain… I am drawn to blue. The Portugese call them Azulejos, from the abrabic word Zellige but so similar to azul, the word for blue.

Jesus on a Kite Mural in Porto

Fado leaked into my conciousness; it strained from the speakers of a souvenir shop selling fake tiles and a couple played and sang outside a restaurant down some narrow street where children played and fruit boxes spilled over the pink, ceramic cobbles and I caught my passing reflection in boutique windows. There was a Fado Centre with plush seats where Fadistas performed each evening; a strange, bronze statue of a woman with the body of a guitar stood beside one of Coimbra’s old, city walls and closeby our favourite square where a lame siamese cat slipped the affections of passersby. I feel drawn to Fado, the sentiment, the nostagia, the longing or as the Portugese describe it, “saudade” – a word with no real translation. I can see how some of my drawings hint at the same pathos – like Embracing the Waves from my Turtle Dreaming story – the longing, the sea, the loss…

Embracing the waves

If a gull would come
Bring me Lisboa sky
In the drawing it would make

In that sky where the look
is a wing that can’t fly
Weakens and falls to the sea

What a perfect heart
In my chest would beat
My love in your hand
In those hands
Where my heart fitted perfectly
…….

Words taken from a Fado song with no title.

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Midway Film

I have just seen a trailer for the film, “Midway” which has deeply moved me. It strikes a cord with me because it features albatrosses that remind me of the gulls on Havergate, but mainly because I feel terribly irresponsible at having contributed to the Mid-Atlantic gyre – my message in a bottle! I want to do what I can to promote this film and the issues it raises.

I read much about ecological and environmental problems and it all gets very depressing. Often I want to just switch off, it all seems so painful. The trailer to this film is about an environmental tragedy but it is both beautiful and poetic.

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