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.
“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.
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.
Autumn greetings! A few new things for my shops.
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.
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.
Over the past couple of years I have been putting together a little book, Dusk, Night, Dawn. It is a collection of nature writings about my encounters with wildlife during the twilight and night hours here in the UK and on trips abroad.
The book started when I was having mentoring with Amy Liptrot. She commented that much of my writing was about dusk. I then collected a few pieces together and set out to have more experiences that I could write about. These included the time when I saw nightjars in King’s Wood, Kent and looking for bears in Romania. Some of my pieces have been published in magazines, on websites or blogs and in anthologies, but I have put them all together in one book and have included pen and ink illustrations to accompany many of the pieces. Here is an example:
I submitted my book to WriteNow in 2017 and it was shortlisted. I submitted it to Spotlight Books and again it was shortlisted, but it didn’t win. It was suggested that I should include more of myself in the book and make it into a narrative. Well, it is what it is, a collection of writings like an anthology. I have sent it to a couple of publishers but I am expecting to hear the same problems with the book, so I won’t be surprised when I hear back from them. In the meantime I’ve put together a mocked up copy with the help of my partner Kevin.
It took Kevin quite a while tp format and lay out the book ready for printing and help design the cover. He took it on as a project.
Having got the printing done, I was keen to investigate ‘perfect binding’ to put it together. This means that when the pages are put together, there is no creep. I researched how to do perfect binding and Kevin made me a page vice. Some commercial printers only do staple bound, so I chose to do the whole thing myself.
I applied PVA glue to the vice-bound page edges and attached the cover.
Here is the finished book, front and back:
The process was tricky but fun. I’ll wait to see what the publishers say before I do anything else with it.
Towards the end of April I visited the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire with my partner in the hope of seeing wild boar. I’ve written a simple piece about our search that is published today on Caught by the River. Soon I’ll put it on my writing website, From the Fields and Woods.
Here is a wild boar illustration, Summoning the Boar. (Yes, it features brambles once again!)
I’ve just completed my Journey Through the Forest altered book. I’ve made two or three versions of this before, but this latest version has the most layers. It features a girl, a deer, a fox, a badger and trees. Here are photos of some of the pages:
I’ve written a vignette of a story to accompany the book:
Above, a shimmering bowl of stars. Orion, looks on, while Sirius, the dog star, points the way. On this night of the full moon she is taking a journey, one soft footfall after another, the deer a few steps behind. The silvered path is cast with eerie shadow. She knows the trail, or thinks she does. An owl, silent on a perch in an old oak, watches. The forest darkness closes in.
I follow the dog star, she says, That must be the way.
The only way to the oaks her people planted.
Soon all the trees look the same and the path petters out.
Listen, say the trees in their secret, silent way. Listen.
So she stands still among root and fern, briar and dog violet on the softly trodden leaflitter. She turns towards the moon, a distant, knowing face in the blackness.
That’s it, she murmurs, I can hear.
The subtle moan of the boughs, the whisperings of the land all around her. She is not alone, no, she is no longer alone. The land, the trees, the sky, the moon are with her. She can find her way, with the deer a few steps behind.
Journeys through lands and forests serve as metaphors. I even include them in my little story The Memory Tree. There are journeys into the psyche and physical outward journeys. Sometimes a map composed of symbols is needed. I think like this when I am vaguely looking for something, something I may have lost, perhaps a part of myself I have lost. Who knows… Now I am wondering how I can create some sort of animation of the journey part of The Memory Tree story, something magical. Hopefully I’ll post more about this soon.
I am reminded of a small ‘magical’ exhibition I went to at Hove Museum in December, called Magical Wonderland. It was a collection of paper and card sculptures of traditional stories and fairy tales called The Story Cabinet and created by a group of artists called Fabula.
I like their miniature worlds within worlds within chests of drawers, wooden cabinets and suitcases. I like the use of cardboard and everyday materials, the use of words woven into the sculptures and the cardboard tree – The Wishing Tree – in particular. Better photos are on The Story Cabinet website.
During my visit to the museum I got talking to the curator. She said that she likes to display artwork that shows that it is made of everyday materials to inspire visitors to be creative. I’m looking forward to seeing what Fabula comes up with next and perhaps trying my hand at altered books that are more sculptural.