I have moved. I have moved town and I am now even closer to the sea. To chalk cliffs, gulls, pebbles, the coast. It doesn’t call me, I am here. I try to belong. Something tells me I should belong. It says I used to belong. Once I was a sea person dreaming of selkies – all water and flow, the rush of the tide, mudflats, sand prints, seaweed. I had a small vision of myself as one with the water, decked in weeds or a ship with open sails caught in a seaward breeze. I daydreamed of the sunken, the deep, of shipwrecks.
But now, I’m not sure. I waver in the winds of uncertainty. If I was once a sea person, I guess I still am, but I can’t quite access that part of me right now, even though I try.
I am here, witnessing. The sea is here, is there, the blue wash, the forever waters, so close. But I am awkward in its presence. Gleaming white rock looks at me as I shyly behold it. I should belong, chalk woman that I am. And yet my dreams are still with the trees, with the wild wanderings of woodland. I am missing the deep, wooded places, the deep, green, lush spaces in dappled sunlight. And deer.
The sea I once was, now I am the land, desired by earth, dust, the intimacy of vegetation, of leaves. I pine for the scent of chlorophyll, for the moment I notice a dronefly caught hovering in a shaft of sunlight, memories of fungal gloom, the wood at dusk.
And the sea – there – it washes on forever. How can one contain forever? How can one contain the sea…
And now I have a faint desire to refind that missing sea fragment of myself. I can contain the trees, the forest, in books; but I cannot contain, cannot fathom the sea.
It has returned – as ideas, desires, dreams often do in some future time. So often these dreams come once the desire has passed in my life and I have moved on and it doesn’t matter any more. Things happen so slowly. I fear to dream because in decades time the Summoning, the Reckoning, when dreams or desires become manifest. But oh, so late. I fear the wheels turn too slowly, planets circle too distantly and I barely cast a glance at a past desire, which is now just a cinder. I wish it wasn’t so – and yet, better that dreams come true, become manifest, than nightmares. I will not think of those.
Tonight is the day past the Dark Moon. I’ll cast my thoughts to a star studded sky hanging over my sea, as it is now my sea. It is here and it is there, so close. I am here and almost there with it, trying to piece together that fragment of me that has now past and is hidden, caught within the forests in my mind, but, hopefully, not lost.
At the end of June we went down to south Devon where we stayed at the truly lovely Hearth Retreat in their little Apple Wagon.
It was so peaceful, roaming the fields and woods I was in my element. I just happened to be reading The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole – as I am a lover of all rainforests – so it seemed a good idea to visit some temperate rainforest in East Dartmoor National Par, as mentioned in the book.
Temperate – or Atlantic/Celtic rainforest as it is also called – is characterised by trees, often sessile oaks, bearing all sorts of epiphytes – polypody ferns, lichens, mosses, pennywort. The trees literally drip with verdant epiphytic life. Like all rainforests they receive a lot of rainfall that creates rich, moist, tangled layers of lush vegetation that I find incredibly beautiful in dappled sunlight.
We’ve visited smaller patches of rainforest in Wales in the past, but this area in Devon struck me as being more extensive and rich. Nothing beats a river flowing and muttering over rocks in a forest. Here it’s the River Bovey.
When we returned home I decided to work on another rainforest altered book, but this time of a temperate rainforest. I’ve featured an otter – they visit the River Bovey – a couple of stoats, a pied flycatcher and a jay among the ferns, moss, lichen and rocks.
Once again forests feature in my art. Like the author, Jay Griffiths, forests and woods make me happy. Temperate Rainforest Altered Book is available in my Etsy shop and in my website shop.
When I went on holiday to Hvar back in September, I took few drawing materials with me, just a small sketchbook and my Art Pen. I made a few drawings and I’m wondering where they will take me:
i’m thinking of creating a new booklet/zine that includes some of these images and more to be drawn. I want to journey into a dreamscape of mythical figures – nymphs, women of the woods, mystical beings – as I have been inspired by goddess myths in the past. I have Ovid’s Metamorphosis to dip into and I’m curious about the Ancient Greek mystery cults like the Eleusinian Mysteries. I’m also interested in exploring folktales and stories once again, perhaps creating one of my own.
I have loved the work of the artist Flora McLachlan for quite a while, her etchings, collagraphs and, more recently, her paintings. Some of her work reminds me of one of my favourite artists, Samuel Palmer – there’s often a crescent moon or moonlit shadows. I like the darkness, the dream-like quality and looseness of her style. So much about her work evokes night in all it’s ambiguity.
In her more recent paintings, I like her figures in the landscape – she becomes the figures in her paintings – or rather, her figures become representations of herself; she embeds herself in the lush landscape of her home country, Wales. To use her words:
“From the time when the undergrowth reached over my head, I have been fascinated yet at home in this weedy, sappy place, this path-frill, this edge-land. Among the stems are striped snails and jewelled insects, sharp shadows and sharp, green smells. Now I am only waist-deep in this greenness, I am half human half wild, a weedy mermaid; it’s a place of transformation, shape-shifting and wild imagination. I can enter this magical world at will, loop myself with goosegrass and move empowered through the dew of every morning.”
Perhaps my figures in the landscape are versions of myself, i’m not sure. What I have done is try to lose myself in the leafy greenness of my home place through movement, to feel at one with it. I have gestured and dialogued with birdsong. Here is a short video I made back in April:
I wondered about how I might see myself in the landscape. Where do I feel most at home? In what landscape do I belong? In the woods? It is not here in the rigid walls of the city. Or is it? When I lean out with feelers to connect with nature I confront walls and pavements, tarmac and SUVs.
Some of the drawings I’ve made since returning from holiday include three pen and ink pictures, Night Vigil, Goddess of the Harvest and If You Are Lost. I might include one of them in my new nature/myth booklet, but in the meantime they’ve been sent off to Obsidian Art for their Once Upon a Time exhibition:
It sounds mad, but I have noticed that there two sides to me, to my mindbody. My right side takes me forwards – I think of interacting with people, going into town, projects I’m working on, making progress, goals and bracing myself against The World. My left side is wordless. It reaches out to the environment, to the natural world and my niche within it, to feel embedded and belonging. My left side shrinks back from the harshness of The World. It takes me into the forests and into the hills.
I was very aware of this division in myself while away on holiday. It felt much more comfortable to hold back. I looked up at the hillside above the little village of Vrisnik, where we were staying on the Croatian island of Hvar, and thought, I’d like to be up there, not on the beach or in the town with other tourists. I needed nature connection, so I was very pleased when we discovered hiking trails up into the hills – trails free of dogs. The hills were waiting for me, so I followed my left side.
We set off on a path bordered by dry stone walls patterned with lichens. It was very straightforward looking out for the red and white circles that were painted on the rocks at frequent intervals. With flashes of their mauve or red wings, grasshoppers sprang ahead of us, while the land crackled with cicada song and the scent of rosemary and lavendar infused the air. We caught the perfume of pine when we reached the trees, Aleppo pines, characteristic of Mediterranean woods or maquis.
The landscape was green despite it being a very dry, karst landscape of limestone and dolomite with no surface water. Rainwater seeps through cracks, scouring out hollows and caves underground. On Hvar there is only one surface pool and that is temporary. It’s where Neolithic finds have been discovered; early man needed a supply of fresh water. Later, when we went looking for the pool on the lowland plain, it was alive with darter dragonflies.
The path zigzagged up the hillside. We were walking upwards on the north side of a ridge that stretches along the length of the island. The shade was welcome as the temperatures were in the high 20s C. The going was fairly easy and the views were lovely; we looked down on two villages, Vrisnik and Svirce. The town of Jelsa was also visible in the east. Finally we approached a giant bare rock with a hooked nose like the profile of an old man. I’m sure the rock has been given many names, but, rather unimaginatively, I called it The Shape. Soon we emerged at the top of the ridge beside The Shape into the sunshine and a mass of buzzing pines.
It felt good to be up with just the sound of the breeze and the insects. We looked around for the next red and white circle to continue on the trail. Eventually we found it, but the route was no longer clear cut. It took some searching to find the next few markers as we made our way through trees and stony glades. Then they seemed to disappear altogether.
We doubled back a bit, looking at the trees and rocks for any signs of red paint. There seemed to be many path options through the rocks and scrub. Kevin had studied the paths on Open Street Map and tried to bring the web page up on his phone, but there was no signal. We wandered fruitlessly through a maze of pines and vegetation. The plants here are drought tolerant and tend to have spikes that scratched our legs as we waded through them. Still the grasshoppers zipped about. Kevin caught sight of a small snake disappearing into a hole. There were lizards too, small brown ones and a large one like a fluorescent green plastic toy. It hung about long enough for us to admire it. I kept seeing vivid green praying mantises on the path too. Each one kept still and turned its head to regard me defiantly. Such intelligent looking insects, it’s no wonder that they’re revered in certain cultures. The San people of the Kalahari believed that the praying mantis gave them fire and words. They see them as sort of Dream Bushmen.
Then a large bird with a black and white tail took off with a bounding flight into the trees ahead of us – a hoopoe! That was exciting! I thought how good it would be to find a hoopoe feather. Not long after the sighting that is exactly what I did.
The air fuzzed with a sound. We looked up and saw a flock of bee-eaters flying overhead.
Noticing and appreciating wildlife was one thing, but we were lost. From the map in his memory, Kevin knew that a track ran along the valley between the ridge and a second line of hills. It wasn’t our path, but it would go somewhere. We decided to look out for it and before long, we could see a rough, stony trail. We made our way towards it and continued walking west. We were lost, but not lost. We didn’t quite know where we were going.
it’s not easy getting lost these days. You can still get lost in mountains and on moors. It seemed odd to be lost here. We had no real idea how far we were from any village. It was becoming increasingly unrealistic for us to try to retrace our steps, so we kept on walking along the track.
I couldn’t help thinking about the well-known poem, Lost, by David Wagoner,
Stand still. The trees ahead and the 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…
What would it be like to spend the night out here? I started thinking along those lines. I’ve often wanted to do a sort of vision quest and to spend the night out alone. It would probably be a bit chilly – I had no jacket with me. The moon was waxing so there would be light – and there would be a big, clear sky, much clearer than at home, with the Milky Way spilling over us from north to south. The scops owl we’d heard faintly on previous nights would call a little closer perhaps. There were snakes, ants and mosquitoes; it wouldn’t be a comfortable night. I was concerned, but not as worried as I thought I might be. My desire to connect to nature was strong. It felt natural to be drawn down to sleep on the earth among the vegetation, to lean into nature, to bed down into it. Some archaic part of me, my inner animal, was preparing me and it felt OK. It didn’t seem too great a step to feel at home out there among the thorny scrub, the rocks, the Aleppo pines. Perhaps it was helped by the warmth of the land. I had a welcome sense of belonging, my left side was content.
We continued walking west along the track. An empty building appeared on our right and, then, the track took us through lavendar fields.The lavendar had already been harvested, but its scent was still in the air. Hvar is well known for its lavendar. We kept on going wondering how many miles we’d have to walk before reaching a village or road. We knew we were still walking away from our village, it was hot and our water was getting low.
Eventually after a few miles we came to a crossroad of paths and a sign post. One direction pointed to the village of Svirce, not so far from ours. Now, at least we knew which way to walk, and the path we followed took us north once again, back over a pass in the ridge. Soon we could see Svirce in the distance.
It took us some time to walk back to base. Despite being lost on the ridge and the extra miles we had walked we were glad of the adventure. Being lost like that isn’t so bad. I spent the evening pondering what it would have been like to do a night vision quest up on the top. I guess it’s different when you are prepared for it. That’s something for the future perhaps. I thought of the face of The Shape keeping vigil, watching. My left side was still leaning, I now had more of the hills in me.
I could tell you about how grim the start of my year was and how, after one thing and then another, I caught Covid and am now recovering. Covid wasn’t so bad, but…enough about that. I’ll tell you instead about the Nest Project that I’ve been working on.
It’s time for nests. I’ve been watching a blackbird looking for suitable nesting sites in the garden and I’ve seen a crow diligently prising off twigs from one of our elder bushes for a nest in a tall tree a few doors down. I love finding nests from previous seasons, their intricacy intrigues me.
I recently went to an exhibition called Undercurrents by Louise McCurdy and Steve Geliot. It was about the starlings on the Palace Pier and their murmurations. Here is a photo from the exhibition of a giant starling’s nest. I love the interwoven flowers.
Apparently flowers and bark have aromatic chemicals so if woven into a nest they can fumigate it and deter parasites.
I’ve got out of the library, Nests by Susan Ogilvy. The book is gorgeous with lovely pink/cream pages and her watercolour paintings are exquisite. Here is one of her wren’s nests made of fine twigs, grasses, moss, skeleton leaves, feathers and hair:
And here is a photo of a wren’s nest I found in the garden last year, deep in the ivy (photographed after the wrens had fledged and left). You can see that the materials are very similar:
Below is my feeble attempt at painting an old mud-lined song thrushes’ nest as a still life:
I’ve been working on my Altered Sketchbook and have added the next section, section 2, a nest in the undergrowth. I’ve based it on a willow warbler’s nest, which is typically domed and made close to the ground. I’ve made a short video showing the whole of the altered sketchbook so far, including the nest section:
Here are some images of the Nest section (click on the images to see larger versions):
I’ve started working on a Nest nature booklet/zine. So far I’ve drawn blackbirds at their nest in the undergrowth:
In Wolstonbury Woods, just outside Brighton, there’s a large circle of sticks in the shape of a beautiful, human-sized nest:
Who made the nest I had no idea, until I did a bit of research and discovered the website of artist Flick Ferdinando. You can see more photos of the nest and a film about it on her website.
I’ve collected together images of some of the nests I’ve found over the years – a lesser black-backed gulls’ nest; a dormouse’s summer nest; an unknown nest with woodpigeon and blackbird eggshells; a long-tailed tits’ nest; a blackbird’s nest(?) in a hornbeam; a wren’s nest. Each one has a story, told very briefly below each image.
In my last post I said I was happy to be at home right now. That’s not exactly true. I spend a lot of time day dreaming about how I’d like to be elsewhere – often overseas, which is quite difficult right now with Covid and the climate crisis making one think twice about flying. I think about how much I would love to be in a rainforest and how much I would have loved to have been a tropical ecologist working in a rainforest, familiar with the birds, mammals, insects etc. That was my dream, or one of them. Still, it didn’t turn out that way. Now I draw forests, trees and rainforests instead, and I’ve just created a Rainforest Concertina card.
The card shows a scene from a Central or South American rainforest (such as those in Costa Rica or Ecuador). One side is a day scene featuring coatimundis, snakes, monkeys, butterflies and, of course, trees. The other side shows a night scene featuring a jaguar, an oil bird, frogs, small mammals and a tapir. I haven’t seen a jaguar or tapir or even an oil bird, but I have seen coatimundis, capuchin monkeys and morpho butterflies when I was fortunate enough to visit rainforests in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Ecuador.
I don’t anticipate these cards will be as popular as the others, as not everyone has a passion for rainforest like me. Anyway, I wanted to make one. Rainforest concertina cards are available in my Etsy shop and soon my website shop.
Here is a little glimpse of a young caiman I saw on my trip to Ecuador quite a few years ago:
It hasn’t been a particularly good summer. Right now I’m listening to the wind whipping around the garden, tossing the trees and moaning with an oceanic roar. Many leaves have come down and my courgettes lean over pathetically. They don’t stand much chance. I’m keeping home, partly because the weather hasn’t invited me out, but also, Kevin has hurt his knee so is confined to the house. That’s OK though, staying close to home is what I want right now.
However, this spring and summer, when the weather has been good, I’ve taken a few solo walks from home into the countryside around Brighton. I thought it might be a good idea to document my walks with photos and notes, but also more impressionistically with a sketchbook. I’m in awe of some people’s sketchbooks – how I’d love to be able to make a good one.
I found a slim A4 sketcbook in my collection of bits and pieces and have decorated the cover. I’ve used a map print-out – of one of my walking routes – builders’ scrim, acrylic paint and stitching. It’s a rougher. looser job than I usually do, but I’ve enjoyed doing it.
I’m filling it fairly randomly with whatever captures my attention on my walks. For example, I walked from Blackbrook Wood, just north of the village of Ditchling, via footpaths to Markstakes Common, Knowlands Wood and finally to the village of Barcombe Cross – a walk of about ten miles or so. Woods, Downs, fields, sheep, villages and more woods.
Walking along the south side of Markstakes Common along Balneath Lane, I was curious about the hornbeams bordering the path and wondered whether they once demarked a field boundary. Ancient field and wood boundaries are interesting, often they were planted with trees – especially coppiced trees – whose roots interwove, such as hornbeams, a native of southern England.
I returned to the lane to look at and sketch some of the trees. I love intertwined roots…
I might write more about my walks another time and possibly post more sketchbook pages as I do them. For now, I’m enjoying diary writing. I have a stump at the bottom of the garden near the fox earth I call my ‘Diary Stump’. It’s in among the vegetation – mainly brambles and cleavers – in among the green. I sit listening to birds, watching bees and the clouds skud over, bathing in green.
Scientists say women see more greens than men and we both see more greens than any other colour. Is this a legacy of our deep past in the forest?
Here is the route down the garden and a photo of my ‘Diary Stump’:
This week I visited Olafur Eliasson‘s The Forked Forest Path exhibition at Fabrica Gallery. I walked into a tunnel of cross-hatched branches. Spotlights threw light on to the branches, highlighting their skeletal forms, while sunlight beamed in through high windows creating square pools of dappled light on the flagstone floor. There was a fairytale ambience – I thought of witches’ brooms and caught the faint smell of dusty earth, old barns, country museums, hay; the smell of time holding still, memories just out of reach. The exhibition has echoes of a stage set awaiting a moment of drama. It holds a presence, something to kindle the flame of imagination. I followed the path to a fork where I chose to go right.
Back in April I joined an online discussion about the exhibition. After watching a video of the artwork it was interesting to hear other peoples’ thoughts. There was talk of a dreamlike experience, of fairytales. Someone mentioned a portal. We discussed holloways, winter branches, the impoversishment of nature, the space as a sanctuary in the hectic life of the city and the sanctity of nature within an old sacred space. We contrasted the exhibition forest with a real one, noting the lack of movement – of dancing leaves – and colour. I couldn’t help but think of ruins reclaimed by nature that I’ve come across occasionally.
To accompany exhibitions, Fabrica’s volunteers put together a magazine, The Response. I submitted a few relevant images of artwork with a forest theme (as I’m so into forests and woods!) before I realised the magazine is meant just for volunteers. If they use my images I think I owe them some volunteering.
Click on the images for larger versions.
I am contributing to the exhibition in a different way – they are selling my concertina cards and sepia cards in the Fabrica shop – and they’ve been selling very well.
There have been some interesting events associated with the exhibition. Check out the blog of Steve Geliot, who is a current artist in residence at Fabrica. He has an interest in nighttime forays into the woods just outside Brighton.
It was so good to get away. I’d been in Brighton a bit too long and unable to break free of it because of the lockdown restrictions on travel. Last week we drove to Dorset and spent three nights in a lovely, spacious artist’s studio in an area of rolling hills, earthworks and rookeries. The birdsong was amazing. Two chilly mornings I stumbled out of my dreams at 5.40am on to the frosted grass of the garden to record the dawn chorus:
Listen to the dawn chorus in Pentridge:
Chaffinches, blackbirds, robins, a pheasant, rooks – we were beneath a rookery. I’ve wondered what it must be like to sleep beneath a rookery ever since I read about Roger Deakin sleeping out in Wildwood. Rooks do quieten down at night.
We watched the moon waxing, becoming bolder in its silence with each passing night as it loomed towards full; a pink supermoon, a blossoming planet. Now it’s time has passed and it’s waning once again.
One morning I set off alone up Pentridge Hill above the village. ‘Pentridge’ means Hill of the Wild Boar; from pen for hill and twrch for boar in the old Celtic language of Britain.
The wind had a distinct chill that made my eyes stream. Far off in the pines ahead of me I heard a cuckoo. It seemed to beckon, so I followed. I followed it to the western edge of the copse of trees, through gorse and bracken. I scanned the tree branches all around. Cuckoo, cuckoo now came from a tree along the southern edge. I followed the call up, along, over and through, weak sunshine sending out long, shape-shifting shadows.
It was close by but I couldn’t see it. With the wind blowing and the light wavering through the branches, the call of the cuckoo now haunted me from the east. When I walked to the east of the hill it sounded from another copse of trees, far away. The elusive bird!
They say the call of the cuskoo means spring is on its way. For some, hearing the cuckoo for the first time in the year is a sign of increasing wealth, especially if you turn some coins in your pocket. ( I didn’t have any coins in my pocket, only a mangled feather.) For others it is a more omenous sign of impending storms, hunger or death. Apparently the 28th April is known as ‘cuckoo day’ in Cornwall. There seem to be plenty of other ‘cuckoo days’ too.
Pentridge Hill was the site of ancient Mesolithic and Neolithic settlements. There is so much evidence of ancient people in the whole area of Cranborne Chase – long barrows, tumuli, a cursus, Roman roads and dykes. We had some fascinating conversations with the studio owner, who told us about the local archaeology and archaeologists in the area. While out walking she said she’d found a Neolithic flint axe head. Treasure indeed!
The studio and garden are full of artistic touches – life drawings, paintings and sculpted heads. The owner kindly gave me a roe buck skull to add to my collection and for me to draw. I made a few other natural finds.
We went for walks in Garston Wood, a RSPB nature reserve known for its marsh tits and spotted flycatchers. We heard coal tits calling, sounding like squeesy bottles. We then walked on to Chase Wood.
The next day we visited nearby Martin Down Nature Reserve with its strange humps and scrubby down, its skylarks and wheatears with their flashing white rumps. It felt ancient, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why. Perhaps it was its old, worn, threadbare carpet look. We walked a little way along Bokerly Dyke and tried to locate Grim’s Ditch, a prehistoric earthwork, but only found an area of grass a slightly different shade of green to indicate where it could have been.
I’m now thinking about the land above and below, its folds and seams, its hidden treasures, its deep past, its future, it’s bones.
Finally done, my Night Wood nature zine/booklet. I’m pleased with how it’s turned out. I decided to call it ‘Night Wood’ instead of ‘Night Forest’ because I started thinking about what the words ‘forest’ and ‘wood’ mean to me.
The word ‘forest’ conjures up a vast area of trees, sweeping over the landscape into the distance. On the other hand, when I think of a wood, I imagine a smaller, more intimate place of trees. So, my booklet title is Night Wood.
I do like the word ‘forest’ though. It is the Old French word, ‘forest’, which later became ‘forêt’. Forest probably came from the Late Latin words forestem silvam meaning ‘the outside woods’, or the woods beyond the fenced park.
The word ‘wood’ comes from the Old English word wudu meaning a collection of trees. Wudu may come from the Old Norse word viðr or the Swedish word ved, meaning tree or wood. Another possible source is the Welsh word gwydd, meaning trees. This website mentions a few other interesting forest words including Silvanus, the Roman God of woods and fields from which we get ‘silviculture’. Apparently Silvanae were goddesses who accompanied Silvanus… (I can see some further research and pictures that might materialise).
My Night Wood nature zine/booklet is full of wildlife, including badgers, deer and an owl, beneath the moon. All special to me. I like getting lost in intricate detail. There isn’t a story, just a few words – enough to set the scene and tie the book together. The book is A5 size and comes with a black, C5 tie and washer envelope. I like to think of it as a special gift, more than a card, a little book to treasure for anyone who loves woods, trees and wildlife as much as I do. It’s available in my Etsy shop and my Reflections shop.