I woke before dawn to see a crescent moon high in the southern sky. Now it’s a beautiful bright cold day with frost on the lawn and on the rooftops. I am longing to get out into the woods, but the car is broken, I’ve put my back out and we’re in lockdown. I’ll have to wait. Instead I’ve found a patch of sunlight to work on my new ‘forest’ book.
This book is about the forest at night. It’ll be titled Forest or Night Forest and will be mostly made up of illustrations with minimal text. It’ll be similar to a zine, but I like to think it’ll be more than a zine – I’m printing it on good quality, 160gsm paper.
So far I’ve drawn three two-page spreads of nocturnal forest scenes. One is of a nightjar flying at the edge of a forest on an early summer evening:
Nightjars are such special birds, I have a bit of a thing about them.
The other two-page spread is of a family of badgers in a forest glade. The full moon has risen higher, it’s bold and bright in a dark, starlit sky:
I intend to make limited edition prints of these illustrations on white, linen paper. I’m hoping the printers I use are able to take on print jobs during this lockdown. Meanwhile, I’ll plan the other pages in the book. These will feature owls, deer, woodmice, moths and possibly bats.
I have a bit of a thing about forests. I guess I’m a nemophilist – from the Greek nemos, which means grove, and philos, which means affection. That also means I’m a dendrophile, a lover of trees. And then I’m also a bit of a nyctophile, someone who loves night and darkness. Interesting, but right now I love sunshine and am looking forward to the light and warmth of spring.
On fine days this autumn, I’ve tried to get out into the woods and see some beautiful colours. Autumn is my second favourite season after spring, so when I decided to create a coloured concertina card, I thought I’d be guided by the colour around me.
When I think of woods, I often think of deer – and sometimes see them too – so I’ve created an autumnal, woodland scene with deer on the front and, on the reverse side, I’ve drawn a field with some hares. I’ve called it ‘The Woodland Edge‘ because so much happens at the edge of things! :)
Here is a photo of the deer side:
And here is the hare side:
Here are the full length images (click on the images to make them bigger):
I’ve used pen and ink with coloured pencils. I would have liked to have used coloured inks, but the water would have made the black ink run and I prefer to use my Art pen for this sort of drawing. I think the colour has worked.
What comes first the tree or the book? The tree of course – there would be no books without trees. However, having just finished an altered book, Beneath the Old Tree, I was inspired to find a really large, old, real tree. So, I decided to pay another visit to Kingley Vale, just north-west of Chichester in West Sussex, which has an ancient yew forest. Some of the trees are thousands of years old. Each time I go there, I’m in awe of this wondrous, magical place.
In the forest it was hushed beneath the elephantine old yews. There were other people about – families – but their voices were muffled. Quiet and peaceful, the air was still, the forest floor was dappled by sunlight that streamed through the tangled spiralling branches.
Within this sanctuary are trees with enormous muscular girths and heavy limbs as smooth and hard as ivory; tusks descending to and disappearing into the dusty earth only to re-emerge nearby as offspring trees, creating a shambling, rhythmical cascade away from the main trunk. Each ancient yew stands within a fortress of these spidery, fluid limbs, each a powerful presence, deep, self-contained and stoic with a desire to reach out and touch the earth.
A bullfinch sounded in a hawthorn on the periphery of the grove, its sad note sung as though the bird was lost on the other side.
Some trees bear bark that is dry and peeling, others raw but smooth. As I ducked beneath each weighty limb, I felt the underside, polished by countless hands, rubbed to a shine by shoulders of both humans and deer.
Sitting within the hook of a limb, I felt safe and secure – anyone needing comfort should seek out a low tree to sit in.
Trunks fold into fissures and hollows, bulge with muscular growths. Some trees are whiskered by fresh, verdant shoots, others have openings like doorways or mouths frozen in silent song.
We came across a tree with its sides split, perhaps by lighning. Inside, the heartwood was deep arterial red. I picked up a square shard from the earth, a piece of the yew’s heart, to take home. Most of the trees bear wounds.
Some branches are algal green, elsewhere purplish pink, like the irridescent tip of a pheasant’s feather.
Little grows beneath a yew. They are both warm and inviting and brittle and repelling. A friend believes that here the yews talk to each other. She may be right.
After our amble in the groves, we emerged onto downland covered with chalkland flowers. Bees and butterflies busied around marjoram, birds foot trefoil and thyme-covered anthills in the bright sunshine. A roe deer leapt across the grassland and disappeared into the wooded hillside. Overhead a kite wheelled, it’s wings showing the gaps of its summer moult.
On returning home I wanted to create something in response to being in this forest. I decided to work in a looser, more carefree style and try out media I don’t usually use – chalk pastels and smudged penwork.
Below are some sketchbook drawings inspired by yews:
Perhaps it was fortunate that I missed the Hayward gallery exhibition Among the Trees because of the virus. I took this as an invitation to spend more time with real trees.
Back to my altered book. It’s of an old tree with a mass of roots within which hide a badger family. On deeper pages there is a squrrel, a fox and deer.
I have a new concertina card out now, Foxes Abroad, available to buy in my Etsy shop and website shop. It features a family of ‘country’ foxes on one side and a family of urban foxes on the other. The urban foxes are based on the foxes I sometimes see in the garden or out in the street at dusk.
Most people are familiar with foxes in the city, but if you haven’t heard their cries, here is a brief sound recording I made – it’s rather quiet so you may need to turn up the volume:
And here’s one of them bickering – it really sounds like a banshee!
There’s a fox earth at the back of the garden – where it’s a bit ‘wild’. My neighbours downstairs have just moved out, so I went down into the garden to photograph it. Overgrown with nettles, brambles, ivy and sycamore saplings, there was no fox smell, just the earthy scent of elder flowers:
Fox cubs are born around the end of March, so there may well be cubs venturing out now – I’ve certainly heard them. Apart from the hole and a few scrapings in the earth, I could see no obvious sign of the foxes. Fox prints are similar to some dog prints, but they are narrower and it’s possible to draw a cross between the digits and the pad on a fox print.
Thinking about paws and hands, I sketched a fox paw print. With colour, additional details and inspired by the Middle Eastern Hamsa Hand symbol, it turned into a Fox Hamsa Paw print.
The Hamsa Hand depicts an open right hand and is worn for protection, especially against the evil eye. It is sometimes thought of as the Hand of Fatima, the Hand of Mary, the Hand of Mirium or the Hand of the Goddess. The Fox as Goddess – now that’s an interesting thing to investigate… :)
Today, we saw what looks like a youngish fox sunbathing in its favourite spot. Kevin took a photo from our balcony:
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‘ :)
“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.
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.