“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost…” (from ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner)
On Sunday 17th May, I read my piece, If You are Lost You May be Taken, on RTE Radio One Extra, an Irish radio channel on their programme, Keywords. The keyword theme of the programme was ‘By Nature’. Here is a link to the programme. You can listen to it below; my piece comes about 7 minutes in.
If You are Lost You May be Taken
“Come,” she said and took my arm, her presence, a bristling beneath the skin. I had come a long way, stumbling among brambles, honeysuckle, white dead nettles. I had found myself here in her shade.
The light was fading, dancing leaf shadows on the trunks of the trees. The sun still oozed through the cracks and seams of the forest.
“Lie down”, she told me. The breeze was getting up, cold from the northern hills. I sighed and reached out my hands into the leaflitter. In the centipede, ant, woodlouse world beneath the fallen beech, I lay down, the trees floating about me.
“Let me dream, “ I said, “ Let me forget I am lost.”
A forest of archers came with dusk. They stood about me, dark silhouettes against the burgundy sky, ready to take me back. I wanted to forget, but my tangled dream enticed me down into oak and beech, hawthorn and hornbeam, spindle and hazel. And there it was, a hazel hand outstretched for me in the black earth, guiding me through the night.
She left as morning broke the yellow eggshell sky – and I sat alone beneath the fallen beech. The archers’ hoof prints in the damp earth led out of the forest. I followed. “There is no way if you are lost”, I heard the trees say blithely in the breeze. It will soon be over.
I had memories of the path before, memories of the river, but they were fading now.
And soon I stood in the sunlight in the middle of the field. I took the graft of hazel wand and held it to my heart. Leaves began to sprout and unfurl from my branches that now snagged the skudding clouds overhead. Tendrils twisted from my nose and mouth. “It is too late”, she’d said, “too late.” The archers would not return now.
Down into the earth my root toes lengthened, clutching at chalk nodules, clutching at flints one by one. Snails took shelter among them, violets sprung up in the soil between them. Then, in my branches, a blackbird began to build her heavenly nest, twig by twig while swallows wove the cerulean sky above my crown.
Last December, before lockdown, Kevin and I went for a night walk up Wolstenbury Hill beneath a near full moon. The hill is one of my favourite local downland sites and I’ve mentioned it in a previous blog post. We have been on various night walks over the years, but this time I was inspired by the paintings of Samuel Palmer and wanted to see if I could get the same feeling beneath moonlight in a rural setting as I get from looking at his work. I also wanted to try to take a good photo.
My favourite work of his is Harvest Moon. I have a tatty postcard of it that I bought on a visit to the Tate Gallery years ago. You can read an interesting piece about Harvest Moon here:
Our walk began on the road to the north of the hill where we parked. There was no need for a torch except for the dimnest parts of the path where it was quite muddy. The moon was bright, almost full and beamed with it’s cool rays through the trees.
The wood was silent, no bird sound or rustle, but we could hear the A23 to the east and once we were clear of the wood and ascending the hill, we could see the bright glittering streams of cars and the jewel-like clusters of Hassocks and Burgess Hill. The sky was the colour of burnished silver. A dark bird flew low and silent over the hillside.
We paused to take photos, balancing the camera on a stile post. Then we proceeded up the hill, our shadows leading the way – moonlight shadows. (I am reminded of the song by Mike Oldfield that I used to listen to on my Walkman while sitting in the willow tree of my childhood home at night surrounded by the nightlife of the city streets.)
The woods looked so quiet, still, self absorbed and eery. It felt as though we were being watched. Perhaps we were. I didn’t feel the tranquil, nostalgic feeling evoked by Samuel Palmer’s Harvest Moon. Instead I felt the night and moon as impersonal, the feeling reinforced by the sound of the main road. How the traffic encroaches!
On our visit to see the David Nash exhibition last year, we popped into the gallery library where there was a small display of photographs by Allan Grainger, Downland Gloaming. I was curious about whether I could also capture the downland at twilight. Allan Graigner has been inspired by Eric Ravillious and Edward Thomas, who both cherished the South Downs. His work is informed by “…the way the land holds a palimpsest of memory in the twilight, revealing itself and feeding the imagination”.
Inspired by this image, I’ve created a large pen and ink illustration of the moon surrounded by a chaotic ring of animals, Moon Animalia:
I realise I’ve just missed posting this at May’s full Flower Moon.
I started this illustration last year and put it aside to do other things. It is drawn on four separate sheets of A3 paper – I chose to do this as I can only scan A3 and then only in two separate parts. Looking closely you may see a few mangled animals where I haven’t joined the sheets very well! I’ll endeavour to work on this at some point :)
My unease has been growing steadily over the past six months. I’ve felt inclined to withdraw, retreat without really knowing why, other than being aware of a strange feeling of foreboding, of something bad on the horizon.
First it was the terrible fires in Australia. I despaired at what was and is happening to the planet. Then came the floods, the now usual floods upending people’s lives. Then came the locust swarms in East Africa. Now it is coronavirus. These are unsettling times for everyone.
One night recently I sat up in bed feeling a rising panic. I could see nothing in the future, but a dark mist over everything. It was as though a meteriote had struck the earth and we were now reeling in one long eternal night. It was frightening. It is frightening. Then an image of the earth appeared in my mind, the wonderful, luminous blue planet rolling in the dark void of space. The earth was not alone, it rolled with other planets, star clusters, galaxies. Earth has seen so many disasters and catastrophes throughout it’s long existence, it just keeps rolling. Life retreats and dies out, but it always returns. In the dark void of space in my mind the earth is so old. It is so silent up there and peaceful. I find it quite calming to think of these crisis situations from this perspective. The silence, so nourishing. Is this like the Buddhist’s silence and emptiness?
Spring time is a time to be joyous. Still, now I often wake up feeling a bit depressed, a deep worry inside that contrasts with the brightness of sunshine and birdsong. It is a grief that I feel and what a lot of people are feeling right now.
The value and beauty of silence has stayed with me. The day following my panic attack I set out on a walk heading north to the edge of the city. I pass a tree in blossom. It hums a song of nectar and pollen, of honey; the bees are busy. Further on. I reach Old Boat Corner, the boundary of Stanmer Great Wood where a fringe of elephantine beeches mark what I like to think of as the frontier, the edge of the countryside. Entering through the trees the din of traffic grows quieter the further into the wood I wander. I know I won’t find silence, but I do find the trees full of birdsong. I realise now how much I need both birdsong and trees. I need trees right now, the tall, majestic beeches, the gnarly oaks, the green, algal, mossy ones.
There is no panic here. The word ‘panic’ has its root in the Ancient Greek god, Pan, whose wild cries caused fear in the woodland.
I walk through a strip of woodland I’ve walked a few times before. On the map it links Upper Lodge Wood with Flint Heap. When Kevin came with me recently he named it Dead Beech Lane because it is a-jumble with dead and fallen beeches – great for fungi in the autumn. I have made a little map of this area, which has become my sanctuary, my haven to retreat to.
Some of the beeches must be at least two or three hundred years old.
There is also a beech stump where I once wrote my diary:
There is an interesting ruined farmstead in the area, Piddingworth Farm, that was abandoned in the early 1900s:
Sitting adjacent to the wood, I hear a green woodpecker call, then see a buzzard circling over a distant field. A flurry of gulls follows a tractor. Blue tits and great tits chatter in the hedgerow followed by jackdaws in the nearest beech tree branches. The drumming of a great spotted woodpecker echoes between the trees while a peacock butterfly follows me as I amble along the field-wood boundary.
Days pass and restrictions intensify. My unease is squeezed into a small space, home. I want to make this walk out of the city a regular thing, if it is still permitted. I consider it a sort of pilgrimage to visit the beeches. I want to sit with them. I want the land to dream me, to hold me. I feel grateful that I can walk out of my house and reach this patch of land that I could almost call home.
If I continue further into the woods and fields, I come to Green Broom, then Highpark Wood. The latter is a bluebell wood and currently has a verdant, leafy carpet soon to blossom to mauve. It is a popular spot with families and cyclists. Before they brought in even tighter restrictions, it seemed as though everyone was fleeing to these woods like myself.
Now more confined to home, I put my worry into words and images in my diary. I call these worry drawings. I’m not very imaginative with the images; anxiety constricts my imagination. I just let them come. Here are a few pages of worry drawings:
The coronavirus affects the lungs. Looking deep inside we see the landscape of our own hills, fields, rivers and trees. I must let the trees and land breathe me.
Back in December last year, I was sketching a drawing of Jesus while listening to Jocelyn Pook’s film music until I could take no more, my pen or pencil sometimes scratching in time to her unusual phrases. (One score was based on Romanian priests singing an Orthodox Liturgy and then played backwards!)
My sketches were for the cover of a new book by author Caroline Greville, who wrote Badger Clan, a book I designed the cover for. I was given a few guidelines in the brief – joy and celebration; perhaps Jesus talking to a group of people as a shadowy figure. Caroline liked my Dancer in the Grotto card, so I had an image to start from.
She also mentioned that she liked the images of the Turin Shroud. I like them too. I like the serene face with closed eyes, the light shining above the head imprint and the ethereal quality of the images. I also like the story and controversy behind the shroud.
I chose to use another grotto photo that was taken in the shell grotto in Margate a few years ago. The date of the grotto is uncertain, but there was a fad for creating shell grottos in the 18th century so it might date from then. The photos, enhanced in photoshop, have a haunting beauty with my drawings super-imposed.
Here is my final cover design with the title text:
In a recent blog post I mentioned that I was creating three altered books for the exhibition, Bugs: Beauty and Danger. I wanted the third altered book to be a close up of an ivy-covered tree with moths, bees, wasps and other wildlife. I often draw ivy around trees as it’s ubiquitous in the woods and parks. I thought I’d start looking at it a bit more closely.
There is something dark about ivy and not just because it has dark, green leaves. It actively seeks out shade. It conceals secrets, covers long forgotten tombs, reclaims ruins silently.
Dark places like woodland floors and the feet of trees, crumbling walls and the damp Victorian corners of cottage gardens are its abode. There is something ancient about ivy, it carries a message from the past. It creeps over everything. I think of the cloven-hoofed god Pan. I think of ivy wreaths. I think of death and churchyards, tombs and the hands of ivy linking lovers beyond the grave.
The Ancient Greek goddess of youth, Hebe, was associated with ivy, serving nectar and ambrosia to the Olympian gods and goddesses. There was even a secret festival called Kissotomoi or Ivycutters in the ancient Greek city of Philos. Ivy represented the grapevine and was a symbol of Dionysus, god of wine, festivity, wild pleasure and vegetation.
Ivy has long been a symbol of fidelity and marriage and was made into a wreath and given to newly wedded couples. The Ancient Celts made evergreen plants symbols of hope, rebirth, protection and good fortune and brought them into houses around the winter solstice. Ivy was adopted by early Christians along with holly as symbols of prosperity and charity. Both feature in Christmas carols, ivy representing the female aspect, holly the male.
English ivy, Hedera helix, has two stages with different leaf shapes. The vegetative stage has large, lobed leaves and is found in all sorts of places, climbing up trees and buildings. It is negatively phototrophic, which means it is drawn to shade because this often means there is a structure that it can climb. The reproductive stage of the plant has oval, pointed leaves. From this part of the plant come clusters of greenish-yellow flowers that attract insects including the Pink-barred Sallow, Angle Shades, Green-brindled Crescent, Yellow-line Quaker and Lunar Underwing. Beautiful names, beautiful moths. There is also a mining bee associated with ivy, the Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae. The flowers are followed by blue-black berries enjoyed by blackbirds, thrushes, jays and other birds.
Apparently, hederagenin, a substance found in ivy leaves, has been shown to kill various tumour cells.
I went on a short walk from my house picking ivy leaves wherever I came across them. There seem to be quite a diverse range of leaf shapes:
In my altered book I have included moths, bees, wasps , a bees nest, a speckled wood butterfly and a treecreeper. I love treescreepers, they often join mixed tit flocks at this time of year. They feed on small insects and forage in the bark of trees. I was fascinated to learn on Winterwatch recently that treecreepers roost in bark crevices if there is a tree with suitably soft bark.
Here is my Ivy Tree altered book ready to be sent to Groundwork Gallery for the exhibition:
One can use ivy in basketry work. Anyone in the Lewes area wishing to make ivy woven bags – check out Native Hands workshop in November.
I disovered an artist today whose drawings captivated me as soon as I saw them. Paul Bloomer works in charcoal and paint and he also makes etchings and takes photographs. It was his charcoal drawings of birds and skies that prompted me to get out my pen (I’ve mislaid my charcoal) and undertake some free, scratchy drawings.It felt liberating after so much detailed illustration.
Looking at Paul Bloomer’s artwork, I wondered whether the environment where artists live infiltrates their work. Paul lives on Shetland, a wild corner of the British Isles, no wonder his art is beautifully ‘wild’. Brighton doesn’t inspire me at all, so what hope have I? Then I thought of the weather – its wildness affects us all. The persistant storms have moved me so I decided to try and capture a bit of this wildness – the swaying trees, the birds flung across the sky like scraps of fabric, the constant movement. I wanted drawings with movement. Below are my sketches – all from some wild corner of my mind:
On the way home from our trip west, I was astonished to see fields completely underwater. So much water. I am not used to seeing so much flood water, apart from on the news. It is getting closer, the flood is coming. For some, it has come.
Water seeks to connect, to reconnect – river with river, river with pond and stream, river and sea with field and valley. It can connect people too, some of whom have lost everything to the water, but their lives. For me, water is a reminder of the vast ocean of imagination and memory from which I draw inspiration and which I too often forget.
Sixty-seven years ago The Great Flood of 1953 inundated parts of East Anglia. It was due to a combination of a high spring tide and a large storm in the North Sea. A few years ago, I wrote a poem about it called When the Sea Came ’53. It’s not a great poem, it just spilled from my mind, but it’s about flooding and so is applicable now:
She was in bed, we all were, wind singing round the houses,
water pouring in
the basement of my mind.
“Julie,” I said, “Tis a bad night f’ sailors.”
Dogger, Fisher, German Bight.
Took the cars on to houses
boats on to bridges
smashed and wrecked like a runaway train.
And I said, “There’s water comin’ in all about,
the basement of my mind.”
Became crazy, Old Joe,
bagging up dykes
to save his sheep up t’ farm.
Wild eyed they were
it’s the surge that got ’em.
The library in t’ high street flooded,
the church hall flooded,
stirred the bones in the cemetery
– not long gone my old man.
And I said, “Like no other storm this one!”
When the sea came
and breached the basement of my mind.
Then this wave came and – Julie – took the babe clean out her arms.
Water and waves left their mark
tried scrubbing but it wouldn’t work.
Gave the land salt – and eels,
put fish in the fields,
changed the land into a plane of mirrors.
Three days we had of it,
When the sea came and filled the basement of my mind.
I’m trying to appreciate this stormy weather – to appreciate feeling cold and wet, and seeing the land sodden and sapped of colour and life. A storm is a living entity that whips and beats you and the landscape relentlessly; the elements in all their natural wildness. It is good that there is something we humans have not yet tamed – air, water, fire, earth, wind, sea, flame, earthquake – the rumblings of a wild planet.
For some elemental art and interesting conversation between Robert MacFarlane and Julie Brook, check out this video.
Our weekend trip to Wiltshire began with a day of respite from the rain and strong winds. We drove to West Woods, southwest of Marlborough, for a walk along the Wansdyke path. The path runs parallel to an ancient dyke, originally named Woden’s Dyke from the Norse God Odin, god of wisdom. It was created in the early Medieval period to divide Celtic kingdoms or keep the Saxons away. It is about 21 miles long, but we only walked a small section of it through the beech wood, protected a little from the wind and accompanied by the croak of ravens.
The long barrow is surprisingly – well, long. The entrance is sheltered by some giant sarsen stones and, behind these, I was pleased to discover that you can go right inside the tomb. The interior is a passageway of algal covered slabs leading to a larger chamber at the end. There are five side chambers off the main passageway.
It was dark and still inside, quite a contrast to the bleak windswept fields without. It reminded me of Gavrinis without the carvings. I had a good feeling about it and could imagine all the rituals, camps and festivities that have taken place over the centuries within those sacred, cave-like spaces.
The barrow has been dated to about 3,700 BCE, the start of early farming, the heyday of pastoralism before the ascendance of crop cultivation. Artifacts were found within the tomb(s) – pottery, flint tools, coins and other offerings – alongside skeletons of about 36 people.
Descending from the long barrow, we detoured along the back of a strip of woodland. There was no official path, but footprints in the soft soil betrayed the countless other people who had done the same.
We were in search of a not-so-secret spring, Swallowhead Springs. At the end of the wood, we slipped through a gap in the fence and there it was, a area of lush grass and clear-running water seeping out from a bank. A red kite hung suspended over the field behind, jittering, and manoeuvring in the windy gusts from the southwest.
Central to the spring area, is a willow tree whose boughs arch to the ground, a clootie tree. Tangled within its branches are ribbons and offerings – a mug, corn dollies, candles, a little plaque with two hares on it, coins embedded in its bark. Some speculate that it was considered holy in ancient times, a place belonging to Brigid, an early Irish goddess of dawn, spring, fertility and healing. True or not, the place has become sacred to neo-pagans today and important to spring seekers like us.
The spring helps feed the River Kennet that flows beside the willow. Sarsen stepping stones have been placed in the river to provide access from the field to the north. On the day of our visit the river was high, submerging the stepping stones, flowing cloudy green, the colour of fluorite. A fallen crack willow bridged the river; it too was decked with ribbons.
We lingered, peering into the clear spring water with its waving verdant weeds, enjoying the quiet beauty of this sheltered corner. Then we made our way back to the car and headed to Avebury.
That night I had a dream. I was with a group of scientists learning about the difficulties they face in the world today with the climate emergency, bush fires, coronavirus, species extinctions, flooding, refugees etc. I was told that some scientists in remote places were forbidden to look out of the windows of their vehicles and had to watch virtual reality scenes instead, so bad was the devastation to the environment. Incongruously, among the scientists in the dream, was a willow grower lining up pots of willow trees. I was mesmerised by the apple green sunlight shining through the willow leaves. The light caught a gemstone, the sliver of a turquoise sea; it dazzled me. Then the willow grower handed me a book with well-loved pages saying I should read it as it was about willow trees. I remember musing about how good it would be to have answers to some of the world’s problems hidden within the willow tree. For a start, there is salicin from willow bark, a chemical similar to aspirin, but, perhaps there is more. Planting trees throughout the world is certainly part of the solution to some issues. Maybe the answers do lie with the trees – or with the birds as I have often thought. The croak of the raven…
I have always had a fondness for willow trees. In the garden of my childhood home, we had a weeping willow in which I used to sit. They are associated with water and the moon and I think there is a lovely flowing beauty about them. I know a little about willows, but now I shall endeavour to learn more.
We left Cherhill the following day just before storm Dennis came with full impact. After driving for an hour, the car decided to pack up and we became stranded on a roundabout. The winds grew and the rain lashed while we waited three hours for the RAC. Again, we cheered ourselves up singing Julian Cope songs and watching seagulls play in the rain.
Indeed, insects are declining at an alarming rate, especially bees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies and damselflies (see this article).
I have become increasingy interested in insects since I saw so many in France a couple of years ago. But, I was interested in them before that, especially butterflies, having done surveys at Castle Hill Nature Reserve and other places over the years. I have also liked seeing insects in the art of artist Irene Hardwicke Olivieri.
My small contribution to the exhibition is three altered books – Insect Meadow, The Butterfly Tree and one featuring a tree covered in ivy and the insects and other wildlife associated with ivy.
Here is Insect Meadow:
I decided to work in colour for the next couple of books because I think it’s more effective. For The Butterfly Tree I was inspired by Monarch butterflies. Some species of Monarch migrate between North America and Central Mexico, where they overwinter. Trees and vegetation become completely covered with orange wings – it’s a sight I would love to see. However, the bioreserve where they overwinter is under threat from illegal logging and the deterioration of the habitat. Recently two reserve workers were murdered for reasons that remain a mystery and there is fear in the region, both for the people and the fate of the butterfly. (See this interesting article.)
I decided to create this altered book a little differently from my others, by leaving the underlying pages as pages of text. I’ve also added butterfly wings that reach beyond the edges of the book, giving the impression that they’re bursting out:
I’ll write about the third altered book in my next blog post.
In my last post I mentioned I was working on an altered book commission based on the children’s book, The Box of Delights by John Masefield. I used to have the book as a child, I remember the paperback cover, but I don’t remember reading it.
I was asked whether I’d create an altered book based on a particular section of the story, when Kay, the boy character, discovers a box and opens it to reveal a magical woodland scene that he is then invited to enter:
..He pressed the tiny, golden rosebud and, at once, from within the box, there came a tiny crying of birds. As he listened he heard the stockdove brooding, the cuckoo tolling, blackbirds, thrushes, the nightingale singing. Then a far-away cock crowed thrice and the Box slowly opened. Inside he saw what he took to be a book, the leaves of which were all chased and worked with multitudinous figures, and the effect that it gave him was that of staring into an opening in a wood. It was lit from within and multitudinous, tiny things were shifting there. Then he saw that the things which were falling were the petals of may-blossom from giant hawthorn trees covered with flowers…..All the forest was full of life: all the birds were singing, insects were humming, dragonflies darting, butterflies wavering and settling… ‘It’s all alive and it’s full of summer. ..’
It’s a lovely passage. I hope I’ve captured the wildlife teeming in the wood and the characters, Kay and Herne the Hunter along with wolves, ducks, foxes and more.
Here is a video of me looking through the book to give a sense of the pages, although it is over-exposed in the winter sunshine:
Here are photos of some inside pages of the book:
I can dream of Spring and early summer as they’re sure to come. Already I notice the blackbirds and great tits busying themselves in the hedgerows, woods and gardens.