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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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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Box Frames

It started with my neighbour having a clear out and leaving a pile of white box frames on the wall outside my house (it’s common for people to leave stuff on the pavement with a note saying “Free, please take me!”). The box frames were in excellent condition and I had an idea of creating a layered illustration inside one similar to the way I make altered books.

My first attempt was of a deer in a glade. I took it to Studio 45, a little gallery near the Open Market in Brighton, where it promptly sold. I created more layered illustrated papercuts and bought some more box frames to continue the project. Those I’ve completed so far can be seen below. Some have gone to good homes, some are for sale in my Etsy Shop and Folksy shop and a couple are in galleries. They reflect my current themes of woodland, woodland edges and the wildlife that lives there.

Deer in the Glade Box Frame

Deer in the Glade Box Frame

Blackbird Nest Box Frame

Blackbird Nest Box Frame

Emerging at Dusk Box Frame

Emerging at Dusk Box Frame – badgers!

At the Woodland Edge Box Frame

At the Woodland Edge Box Frame – fox!

Owl at Dusk Box Frame

Owl at Dusk Box Frame

I am creating a separate page for box frames in the same way I’ve created a page for altered books. I’m still very much into pen and ink but soon I’ll get into colouring again.

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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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Spring in the woods

β€œIn the woods, the spirit can stretch and change, can move like a willow, elastic in spring…In the woods, you may be lost in your thoughts, willingly lost, creatively lost, which allows you to enter the mind’s forests, where the wind within can blow you somewhere sought and as yet unfound….In the forest is a child. But inside the child, will always be the forest. Breathe the forest deeply enough in childhood, and the birds will still be singing seventy years on.”
From Forests of the Mind by Jay Griffiths

The Mens West SussexHere in the UK, it’s Spring and I’ve been out in the woods enjoying it. Woodland flowers are blooming and birds are singing their hearts out. A week ago, while wandering a wood near Brighton, I watched as a stoat was chased by some very protective rabbits; it was a real wildlife treat!
The Mens West SussexThe other day, Kevin and I ventured further to two of my favourite woods in West Sussex, The Mens and Ebernoe Common both owned by The Sussex Wildlife Trust.

The Mens is an open beech and oak wood, with other trees such as holly and midland hawthorn. I chose to take photos looking into the light which streamed through the open canopy and Spring growth. Great tits dominated on the bird front, but we also saw or heard woodpeckers, treecreepers and nuthatches. The paths were soft with last year’s leaflitter and some slopes were dotted with wood spurge and lesser celandine. We had the wood to ourselves and one of its beauties is that it’s big enough to get lost in! But I’ve never been truly lost…in a wood…yet.

Stream at Ebernoe CommonEbernoe Common is perhaps my favourite wood. It’s here that I come to see woodland butterflies such as silver-washed fritillaries and a plethora of grasshoppers and crickets in Summer, or to do bat surveys and enjoy the sun sinking mauve over Furnace Pond. On our recent visit, we spent some time around the lake watching orange tip butterflies mating or laying eggs on cuckoo flowers on the wet margins.

Furnace Pond at Ebernoe

But besides the wildlife, and escaping the town, I agree with Jeanette Winterson that woods

β€œ..are places to dream….There is a wooded place in our heads….the forest holds the memory of other lives and other ways of life…is one vast memory system that binds with our own.”

The bluebells are coming out now. If you’re interested in finding a wood near you check out the Visitwoods website.

 

Embracing the Tree of life

Lost by David Wagoner.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you
.

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Beautiful Demoiselle

Beautiful DemoiselleI took this today while visiting Woods Mill, headquarters of The Sussex Wildlife Trust here in Sussex. There were many flitting above the water and resting on their territories amongst the vegetation. This is a male, resting on his territory hoping to attract a female. I love his indigo wings! Watching and trying to photograph them is captivating.
Flying beautiful demoiselles

Kevin took the other photo which, although its blurred, I like better as it shows their beautiful, hazy flight and the shadowy stream bed.

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