Last year a friend told me about The Sketchbook Project. This is a crowdfunded art library in Brooklyn of sketchbooks created by people from around the world. I love looking at other peoples’ sketchbooks, although I find making them myself quite a challenge. However, I was very interested in getting involved and decided to set myself the challenge.
To take part I had to pay a fee and was sent a small 5″ x 7″ sketchbook in a little string and washer envelope. I could do whatever I liked with the sketchbook as long as it didn’t end up being thicker than an inch or have loose bits that would fall off. I like forests – it’s possibly quite obvious if you’ve seen a lot of my art on this site, (at one time it was rivers, which I still feel very drawn to), so I decided to title my book, Forest and see what I could come up with.
I have pretty much finished the book now, so yesterday I ventured out to take some photos of it beside one of those giant beeches in Dead Beech Lane:
I’ve used acrylic paints, scrim – basically mixed media – pen and ink, watercolour pencil and photos. The book is a mixture of different styles, images and writing more than sketches.
I like the poem ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner, so I wrote it out and incorporated a papercut overlay of pen and ink trees. I also wanted to include a fold-out page. I drew a forest scene based on the tropical forest I encountered at Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in Cambodia some years ago, with myself as a tiny figure. On the back I’ve added quotes from a piece of my creative writing about looking for slow lorises in the forest (you can read the piece, Night Eyes, over in my writing pages here).
I did cheat a bit and stick in little drawings I’ve done in the past. Sometimes the white page can be a bit threatening :)
I’ve included my piece of writing, If You Are Lost You May Be Taken, that I wrote about in a previous blog post and finished the book with a mixed media collage of a ‘seed woman’ in the leaflitter.
I need to register my book and then send it to the US. I’ve been told to wait a bit for the library to reopen after lockdown.
On the inside cover of the sketchbook, I attached a small black and white image of myself communing with a pine tree in a Sussex wood. I’d hestitate to pose in the same way again :) (I was inspired a few years ago by Nikki Simpson’s Wild Women of the Woods project. I’m not exactly wild, but, sometimes, I like to think of myself as ‘of the woods’ – or, in this case, ‘of the Forest‘ :)
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 :)
“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.
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.
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.
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.
My concertina greetings cards have been selling really well and I have made a new one, Owls and Blackbirds. It features a pair of blackbirds at their nest with busy bluetits and vegetation on one side. On the other side there is a night scene with a family of tawny owls among the leaves and branches of oak trees beneath a starry, moonlit sky:
I have also just made another little illustrated booklet, The Barn Owl of Baconsthorpe. I’ve decided to sell my little booklets as a bundle of four:
I had a request for a print of my River Wife image (I wrote about the book The River Wife in a previous post). I then decided to make the design into a card:
I took a chance and had some enamel mugs made featuring three badgers:
Unfortunately I didn’t remove the white background when I uploaded the image for printing, so it appears as a grey band around the mug (you can just see it in the photos). That’s something I’ve learnt now :( However, I’m impressed by the high quality of the mugs.
My concertina cards, bundle of booklets, The River Wife greetings card and the Three Badgers enamel mug are all now available in my shop and Etsy shop.
Just off the coast of Brittany, in the Gulf of Morbihan, there’s a special little island called Gavrinis, ‘goat island’. It’s special because it has a large burial mound or cairn known for the detailed engravings that adorn the wall, floor and ceiling slabs of the cairn’s interior passage that are 6000 years old. In Neolithic times Gavrinis was a granite hill on the mainland coast overlooking the River Vannes, but the seas rose and the hill became an island. Today you can visit it by boat. We have just returned from a trip to Brittany where we visited Gavrinis on a day trip.
You are not allowed to take photos inside the burial chamber. In the photo below, taken from the Brittany Tourism website, the interior passageway looks longer than it seems in real life. It is an intimate space about three and a half feet wide. The granite slabs are engraved with swirls, chevrons, wavy lines and axe shapes and look very like fingerprints. What they symbolise is a mystery. It has been suggested that the lines represent waves or water or perhaps furrows of ploughed land. The Neolithic creators of the megalith were the first farmers and the land was revered and sacred. Gavrinis appeals to my liking for islands, for caves and for deep, quiet, ancient sacred spaces. The carvings remind me of labyrinths. How tempting it is to trace the lines with one’s finger. Perhaps they depict a kind of map to the next world? Perhaps an underground, underworld way of water.
No evidence of any bodies have been found at the cairn. It is thought that the acidic nature of the granire stones may have eroded any bones away.
You can see another island from Gavrinis, Er Lannic.
On the boat journey back we crossed a strong current at high tide to see the half submerged stone circle on Er Lannic. It illustrates how sea level has risen.
The same day we drove to see the long lines of standing stones at Carnac – rows, dolmens and tumuli. There are over 3,000 prehistoric granite stones erected over 5,000 years ago. There is a myth that says the stones were Pagan soldiers turned into stone by Pope Cornelius.
After our megalithic sightseeing we travelled north to the Parc Naturel A’Armorique where we stayed in a little cabin on a permaculture farm.
Each day we went down to the River Aulne to watch birds, mullet feeding in the shallows and the tide coming in or going out.
From my diary:
River, still as a lake. carrying the sky’s visage, the splintered reflections of egrets, the crescent moon. Fish prick the surface waters of the incoming tide. Golden is the eastern sky. The shore crackles as inch by inch, silt upon silt, salt into fresh the water creeps, almost silently, unobtrusively. A cormorant now wings along the farther shore towards the sun over the white dots of roosting gulls. A curlew calls. The forest that was mirrored in the glass of the river is now bronze, now dense with darkness. The river says nothing. Spleechless it shifts, slowly it sucks up the land. The tide says nothing; this is its prerogative. All is held in a quiet dislocation, a shifting constant of sea and river. Silence bears witness to silence as the shore shrinks and we wait on the bank for some action, for a mammal, for a fox perhaps, or even an otter. Nothing comes and the hour gapes, waiting, waiting, waiting. This is forever. This is what forever sounds like, the silence then the crackling shore. In it comes, slowly, while above the crescent draws and pulls, pulls and draws. The sun behind the hill. A faint breeze. The gloaming now.
I am still working on the film poem I mentioned in my last post. I think it’ll take me a while.
Still, one thing that has come out of my Sea Trout project is the creation of new concertina cards. I call them concertina cards because they’re long cards folded twice. The idea arose from my long sea trout picture (click on the images for bigger versions):
I wanted to create a card out of the design and thought it would be good to feature a picture on the reverse side. So I drew a shoal of trout:
Here is the finished Sea Trout card:
I decided to create a further two cards, both with a “trees” or “forest” theme. The first of these is In The Forest. One side of the card features a daytime forest scene with deer and a fox beneath the trees:
On the reverse is a night scene featuring badgers, deer, foxes, owls and hedgehogs:
It reminds me a bit of a tapestry :)
Here is the finished card:
My third card features a badger sett. One side you see a badger family out foraging at night:
The other side shows a cross-section of the badger sett with some slumbering badgers along with a rabbit burrow, tree roots and a burrowing mole:
Here is The Badger Sett card:
All cards are available from my Etsy shop and come with a little tag for a message and a square kraft envelope. :)