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Deer Rut

Recently I’ve visited the Knepp Estate to witness the fallow deer rut. I wanted to experience it this year to write about it for the book I’m writing, Dusk Night Dawn.

I went with my partner, Kevin, and we were in luck, stumbling on a rutting stand with a few males with magnificient antlers paralell walking. Then the fighting began. My photos came out blurred because of the dim, dusk light, but they’ve caught the primal energy! :)

The Fallow Deer Rut at Knepp
The Fallow Deer Rut at Knepp
Rutting Deer at Knepp
Rutting Deer at Knepp
Rutting Deer at Knepp
Rutting Deer at Knepp
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Trees, Owls, Ruins and Altered Books

Recently I was commissioned to create an altered book with the simple suggestion of making it somewhat ‘foreboding’. I usually draw forest/woodland scenes – leafy undergrowth, gnarled trees, roots – but this time I thought I’d add a human element, a ruined house. One can’t get more foreboding than a ruined house at night. (I love ruins, especially when you stumble on them accidently…)

Ruined Chapel, Norfolk
Ruined Chapel, Norfolk

I started thinking more about ruins then and I suppose I have a favourite ruin, Baconsthorpe Castle in Norfolk, a fifthteenth century fortified manor house. It is supposed to be haunted – a watchman walks the ruined walls and throws pebbles into the moat. The setting of Baconsthorpe adds to its ominous ambience – isolated in fields, bleak in winter, a few leafless trees silhouetted against the sunset, the presence of crows, the mist of dead teasel and willowherb. When I visited a few years ago, a barn owl appeared in the evening light and beat the ruin bounds. (I’ve written about my barn owl experience in the book that I’m writing. See my illustration for it below.)

Baconsthorpe Castle
A view of part of Baconsthorpe Manor
Barn Owl at Baconsthorpe
Barn Owl at Baconsthorpe
Baconsthorpe Castle Watchtower
Baconsthorpe Castle Watchtower

So I was thinking of Baconsthorpe when I added the ruined building to one of my recent altered books.

Ruin Through the Trees Altered Book
Ruin Through the Trees Altered Book (click on the image to enlarge.)

I have now listed a few new altered books in my website shop. They’re also available in my Etsy shop. If you would like a book altered with a theme of your choosing, it would be great to discuss it with you. Contact me here.

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In the Forest

At the beginning of June I spent a week in a little forest studio at the edge of King’s Wood in Kent. The idea was to take some time out to experience the wood at dawn, dusk and day, time to get inspiration for the book I’m writing. I was doing another mini immersion in nature.

The Forest Studio
The Forest Studio

I spent some time wandering in the nearby beech wood plantation, listening to the silence or gentle moan of the wind through the branches. It was like being within a giant underwater forest:

Beech Wood Plantation
Beech Wood Plantation

There was such a contrast between the dark interior and the light exterior:

Edge of the Beech Wood
Edge of the Beech Wood

Wandering and looking at the beech wood trees made me think about the way I create woodland and tree altered books. So I have been making an “In the Beech Wood” altered book:

The Start of an Altered Book
The Start of an Altered Book
Beech Wood Altered Book
Beech Wood Altered Book

At dusk I went out to see if I could see nightjars in the chestnut coppiced area. I was lucky. For several evenings I heard their uncanny churring song and saw the dark shape of the males flying against the sky clapping their wings as they do to display to the female or ward off any other males encroaching on their territory. They were too fast and it was too dark to photograph them but I can picture them in my mind’s eye.

Nightjar
Nightjar

Nightjars are mysterious birds, birds which have attracted superstition and folklore down the ages. They’ve had many names including the name ‘goatsucker’, which stems from their Latin name Caprimulgus which means to milk nanny goats. The myth arose as nightjars were drawn to the insects surrounding livestock.

Dusk Night Dawn Writing Book
Dusk Night Dawn Writing Book

I wandered into the chestnut coppice by day getting to know nighjar territory and was surprised to find an old nest site with a couple of hatched eggshells!

Nightjar Nest Site
Nightjar Nest Site

Plenty to write about.

The Chestnut Coppice at Dawn
The Chestnut Coppice at Dawn

My thanks go to Stour Valley Creative Partnership for allowing me to stay in the Forest Studio.

Stour Valley Creative Partnership

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Tracks in the Snow

At the end of April I visited Romania.

They were close by, perhaps watching us through the trees, through the dim blue morning twilight – bears!

On the first morning we set off early, leaving our hostel at 5.30am. The streets were dark and wet with snow piled up the kerbs and covering the pavements in the town of Zarnesti. Romania was experiencing freak April weather – below zero temperatures and snowfall. Ramon, our expert guide and tracker, drove quickly and effortlessly into the white landscape on the edge of Piatra Mare Mountains, winter tyres proving their worth.

The bears had returned to their dens – so we searched for wolves instead as wolves don’t mind the cold and snow. But the blanketed slopes and meadows were empty.

Snowy Scene
Snowy Scene – by Jurj Ramon

Come dusk we went out again. The temperature was minus 4 and the breeze was coming from the north so Ramon took us up the side of the valley into the forest to stay downwind. The snow was two feet thick in places and as we walked in single file, I stepped in the footprints of Ramon and Kevin who were ahead of me. This made it easier to walk. Every-so-often Ramon pointed out tracks – a trough in the snow where bears had dragged their bellies or the arched prints of red deer.

We came to a stream, a dark, trickling ribbon flowing through banks of snow and beneath omenous windows of ice.

Snowy River
Snowy River – by Jurj Ramon

Then the valley slopes steepened and we climbed a snowy corridor up through the trees – Norway spruce, beech and silver birch. My heart felt as if it would burst with the exertion as I sweated beneath my numerous coats and jumpers. At last we reached a viewpoint from where we could see the opposite side of the valley, a rock ridge of mountain with a belt of forest on it’s lower slopes above open fields of snow. There we waited and watched, waited and watched scanning the fields with binoculars or with just the naked eye.

Some animal was moving on the edge of the trees far off. It was not a bear but a red deer, identifiable by its fawn rump. Then we saw three of them. One kept a lookout while the others browsed on tree buds. I have only glimpsed red deer in Scotland so it was good to see them.

Red Deer in the Snow
Red Deer in the Snow – by Jurj Ramon

On our way back down we saw fresh tracks of a family of boar that had crossed our own. We looked about and listened but the animals themselves remained elusive. Further on Ramon stopped and whispered that a bear was close by; there was a change in the smell of the forest and even I noticed a slight hint of animal nearby – not like fox, but a dense, animal smell.

On our second morning we returned to our valley viewpoint. Dawn broke with a wonderful rosy light illuminating the mountain before us. The air was crisp, cold and clear. Ramon pointed out a scratched triangle of trees, the territory of the only lynx in the valley.

Dawn
Dawn over the Postavarul Mountains – by Jurj Ramon.

Up the hillside again Ramon noticed fresh bear tracks disappearing into an enclave of rocks and bushes. He said that he saw a bear there and told us to move further down the slope as a bear cornered in the area could be dangerous. Earlier he had told us that a bear on its hind legs was looking about to assess the situation. A bear crouching close to the ground was a dangerous bear, an animal ready to charge. We trusted he knew what he was doing as he’d spent years tracking and researching bear behaviour. From a distance Ramon clapped in the hope that the bear would show itself, but no bear emerged.

Wildlife was so close and nowhere to be seen; it was as though the bears were teasing us. The snowy hillside remained full of their presence and absence at the same time. Despite not seeing bears it was a wonderful experience being out in the snowy wilds at dawn and dusk and knowing that we were so close to some of the top predators in Europe.

Bear Back and Fore Prints
Bear Back and Fore Prints – by Jurj Ramon.
Bear Tracks
Bear Tracks – by Alexi Francis

The photos above – apart from the last – were taken by our bear tracker and expert, Jurj Ramon.

I can’t help thinking about Spirit bears. I’ve drawn a bear image. Perhaps this is a Spirit Bear drawn to evoke the wild bears when we return to Romania in the future.

Spriit Bear
Spriit Bear
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Bee Goddess

I’m very into natural sound recordings and came across Be:One last year. It was created to accompany The Hive installation. The Hive was an installation by artist Wolfgang Buttress at Kew Gardens last year.

“An open-air structure standing at 17 metres tall and weighing in at 40 tonnes, The Hive encapsulates the story of the honey bee and the important role of pollination in feeding the planet, through an immersive sound and visual experience.”

Here’s a video about the soundscape:

There’s something hypnotic about the bees’ droning.

The soundtrack is available from Caught By the River’s record label, Rivertones.

In the Ancient Greek world bees were worshipped as they represented a link between our world and the underworld. There were special priestesses refered to as “bees” or “Melissas”, the Greek word for honey bee. In Ancient Greek myth Melissa was a nymph who nursed the baby Zeus, feeding him honey instead of milk. It was from her that the cultivation of bees for honey was supposed to have come.

I’ve worked on a Bee Goddess illustration with this ancient bee nymph in mind. I’ve now made it into a card available in my Folksy and Etsy shops.

Bee Goddess
Bee Goddess

Since February I’ve been noticing many large bumbee bees while out walking. They’re queen bees seeking nesting sites. I came across a carder bee nest one summer which I was a little wary of but it was also quite charming like any nest!

Carder Bee Nest
Carder Bee Nest
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Woodland Dawn Chorus

For a book I’m writing I wanted to experience the dawn chorus in both the city and the countryside. In February I sat on my balcony and listened to the city birds waking up the day. Now it’s April, I chose to get up before sunrise yesterday morning and visit Butcher’s Wood on the outskirts of Hassocks with my partner Kevin.

We set off at 5.45am in the mists and when we arrived we parked in a suburban road of bungalows, cherry blossom and magnolia trees – all now in bloom. The sky was lightening rapidly as we made our way along the railway line footpath to the wood.

The woodland floor is now carpeted with wood anenomes beneath oaks, birches, coppiced hazels and hornbeam trees. I noticed lesser celandine, bluebells just coming up and dog violets too. The wood was already alive with song and the sun was yet to rise.

Butcher's Wood
Wood Anenmes in Butcher’s Wood.

I recorded birdsong along with the passing trains heading into Brighton or up to London. I expect the birds sing more loudly here as they have to compete with this extra noise.

On the audio you can hear a persistant nuthatch, a wren, a chiff chaff, blue tit, great tit and a train passing.

I love the shapes of silhouetted trees with their bare, zig-zag branches against the eggshell blue and salmon sky; some birches bore misty crowns of newly emerging leaves and the hazel understory was yellow-furred with drooping catkins.

Sunrise in Butcher's Wood
Sunrise in Butcher’s Wood

We wandered into a field edged with blossoming blackthorn and blanketed in a milky fleece of mist. It felt colder than inside the wood so we retreated back into the trees.

Misty Field at Sunrise
Misty Field at Sunrise

A while ago I was searching for images of papercuts and came across one I like very much called “Night Gathering” by Ed Pien. There’s something quietly mysterious about the indistinct figures in the lattice of branches. What are they gathering for at night? Why in the trees? Are they children? The figures merge with the tree. It’s an amazing work of art.

Night Gathering by Ed Pien
Night Gathering papercut by Ed Pien

According to his website, “Pien is not entirely sure what it is about trees that allure him and why they are recurring motifs in his cuts, but they speak to him of childhood adventure, of birth and death, and of fear and the unknown.”

My own art adventures with trees and forests continue with more altered books and box frames. Trees, woods and forests mean a lot to me. Within a wood my imagination can branch and grow. In a forest I feel protected in a complex web of secrets I wish to fathom. So often I have a longing for a secret place, a shadey forest retreat beneath the arms of a towering oak, or simply a forest in my mind.

Here is ‘Through the Forest’, which is currently on sale in my Etsy Shop. I hint at fairy tales with this altered book.

Through the Forest Altered Book
Through the Forest Altered Book
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Looking for Tracks and Other Wildlife Signs

My interest in wildlife and nature extends well beyond illustration; I am a frequent roamer of woods and ways and have written pieces about my excursions, some of which have been published in anthologies which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

I do like signs and presences left in the environment, the tracks, feathers, eggshells, etc that I might find on my wanderings. I also like art that hints of the same – I have mentioned the earth art of Ana Mendiata before.

Ana Mendieta
Ana Mendieta

I have thought about starting a new nature ramblings blog, but have decided to write about nature here as I often want to create something artistic from my finds. Spring is the perfect time to get out and watch birds and other wildlife, busy with breeding activities, and look for signs.

Recently I went on an excellent two day Wildlife Tracks and Signs course. We studied the tracks and gaits of various animals and signs such as scat, skulls, feathers and pellets. We found badger, hedgehog, vole, otter, roe deer, fallow deer, muntjac deer, squirrel, wren, newt and beetle tracks. It’s challenging to get into the mind and world of the animal and tracking as an art means using all of ones senses. I like to connect to nature in a deep way – and leave only footprints… and occasionally something else for somebody to find :)

Badger and Hedgehog Prints
Badger and Hedgehog Prints
Fox Print
Fox Print – small proximal pad and empty space in the centre.
Squirrel Footprint
Squirrel Footprint
Otter Footprint
Otter Footprint
Beetle Tracks
Beetle Tracks
Muntjac Scent and Scrape area
Muntjac Scent and Scrape area
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Looking for Moose in the Forest

I’ve been in the forest, sleeping, wandering and getting back in tune with the natural world. Not the forests here in the UK, but in Sweden where there is so much forest, mile upon mile of it interspersed by lakes and more forest. Pines and firs, some growing naturally, ancient forest, others in plantations. Several days spent with the bilberries, pines, cow wheat and mosquitoes, bedding down in a little vegetation covered hut, cooking over a log fire.

Alexi at Kolarbyn Ecolodge

Alexi by Campfire Sweden

The days are long in central Sweden at this time of year, the dusk stretches all the way to midnight with postman blue skies. It is easy to find ones way with no moon or stars.

Kolarbyn Ecolodge

We went in search of moose. Stepping quietly as a group through some ancient woods. We found spoor and droppings and twigs browsed by their feeding. No moose strayed our way while we were out on foot.

Moose Droppings

Later, in the van, almost out of hope, we stumbled on a large bull moose stock still in the lamp light shouldering the dusk. He was so still, statue still. Forest still. So quiet he almost looked like a stuffed animal with his doormat coat, felted antlers and glassy eyes flaming in the light. Eventually this hunk of the forest shifted, turned and slid into the darkness like a ship into mist.

Moose in the Darkness

My photo is terrible; it was too dark and my camera isn’t the best. Here’s a link to Wild Sweden which has better images.

The forest has fed my imagination in all sorts of ways. I’ve been rather taken by a Swedish fairy tale called “Leap the Elk” that I’ve found which has been beautifully illustrated by the nineteenth century artist John Bauer. Here is a version of the story and below an illustration of Leap keeping guard while Princess Cottongrass sleeps. I love the sepia reproduction of this version.

Leap The Elk

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Moss Journal

I love all things natural, including books made from natural materials. I was very interested to read about the natural book Bridgette Guerzon Mills created on a Maker’s Foraging Retreat that took her out of her comfort zone. (I love all her work by the way!)

I wanted a make a natural book and perhaps one obvious thing would be to make handmade paper and bind it with nettle cord. One day. Instead I decided to collect natural materials – as I do for some of my paintings – and simply decorate one of my journals.

After a day in the woods at the beginning of June, these were my finds:

Gifts from the woods

I took one of my small, kraft paper notebooks and covered it first with bark – I think it is hazel bark – then moss and finally lichen. The spine I have decorated with rushes.

Moss JournalMoss Journal



A very earthy journal! The trouble is that bits fall off while I’m writing out my dreams first thing in bed!

Journalling or writing a diary is very important to me; I write most days but much of it is babbling thoughts that need sorting. I have written a journal/diary since the age of 13 when I read Anne Frank’s diary; it moved me a great deal. Now I have piles of old notebooks in storage boxes and I’ve decided to embark on a proper storage project: creating Diary Boxes that will contain all my journal/diaries as well as other memorabilia. In these ones I have feathers, eggshells, rabbit jaw bones, letters and, of course, diaries.

Memory Box

Memory Box

Mermaid Memory Box

I’ve partly been inspired by The Library of the Forest created by Miguel Angel Blanco that I read about in Robert MacFarlane‘s The Old Ways. The boxes are a beautiful and natural record of walks the artist takes into the Guadarrama Mountains outside Madrid where he lives. It is worth reading the whole of his artist’s statement, but here is a passage from it in English:

It is still possible to plunge into nature’s secret life. In some places, earth emits a dense breath, which, when inhaled by man, immediately passes on to him knowledge and sensations he possessed in former times, when living in its bosom. The telluric sensibility of ancient man can still be retrieved. Our capacity to fathom the ancient to discover the new. Nature presents itself as a transcendent experience, a means of reclaiming man’s hidden greatness, so that he may grow spiritually and penetrate the dark. The forest is one of these privileged places, where it is possible to feel mother earth’s throb. It is where the sky takes roots in earth, a sacred space heavy with mystery.

I have also discovered an artist Jan Kilpatrick, who creates all sorts of boxes. They look great!

I have decided to leave my diaries to The Great Diary Project when I die – not that anyone would find them very interesting, but who knows?

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A Day in a Watery Landscape

Underwateredge MapLast Sunday Kevin and I joined a group of artists at Herstmonceux Castle for an introduction to a project called Underwateredge organised by artists Clare Whistler and Charlotte Still. The project has involved exploring the site of where the coastline used to be in the area now known as Pevensey Levels, searching with archaeologists and historians to unearth interesting finds in the layers of the landscape. Now they are inviting artists to respond to the landscape with writings, artworks, dances, stories, audio experiences or music for exhibiting or performing during Waterweek.

Underwateredge

Last year Waterweek took place in the town of Hailsham in East Sussex. It celebrated water and was the culmination of Clare and Charlotte’s exploration of the tributaries of the River Cuckmere. It involved archaeologists, water boards, conservationists, dancers, farmers etc and this year will include other artists too. Last year I took my little River Goddess booklet as a gift as I felt so drawn to it all and I guess that is why I was invited this year to one of the artists’ walks.

Underwateredge

Underwateredge

Underwateredge

The landscape was sodden, marshy and the sky, a stretched, taught sheet keeping the sun at bay. Crack willow lined some of the dykes; a broken, unkempt landscape awash with water. Water spilled everywhere and in some places it was scummed by pennywort, an “alien invader” weed. I noticed the shells of freshwater mussels on a bank where dredging had taken place. It was interesting to wade through the land and think that where we ventured was once sea or at least salt marsh. Scrubby willow woodland marked the ancient water edge on higher ground. A hare bolted from behind a log pile of willow, riveting across the puddles only to vanish as suddenly as it had appeared. Robins sang in the tangled, lichened woodland and in the distance, gulls or egrets looked like white flags snagged in the trees and dykes.

When we returned to the castle for lunch, Sally Willow, a storyteller, read out her version of an old Sussex folktale called Elynge Ellet about an ugly hag who lived in the swamp and lured people to their doom. According to Michael O’Leary, in the Sussex dialect, ellet was an elder bush and elynge described an eerie, uncanny, solitary place. In the story, “Elynge Ellet was a green-toothed, green-haired, frog-eyed creature with long fingers like suckers and woe betide the children who played beside a marsh pond as Elynge Ellet might get them.” She would be an interesting character for me to illustrate :) Most of the story can be read here.

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