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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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The Curlew Literary Journal

I’m just writing a brief post to spread the word about a new literary journal, The Curlew, in which I have an essay and some artwork.

I was very pleased to have my essay accepted. It’s about a bat survey I took part in at Ebernoe Common woods in the summer. My image, Echoing Swans and a pen and ink illustration of a dark wood also feature.

The Curlew
The Curlew literary journal.
The Curlew
My essay about bats in The Curlew.
The Curlew
Echoing Swans in The Curlew

The Curlew donates to wildlife charities such as Cheetah Conservation Fund and The Born Free Foundation and is looking for contributions of creative non-fiction, poetry, artwork and photography. It’s also keen to involve young people with a special section called “Sanderlings”.

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Summer and Autumn Anthologies

I am very pleased to have pieces of writing in the Spring, Summer and Autumn anthologies published by Elliott and Thompson and The Wildlife Trusts. Spring and Summer are on sale now and Autumn will be out on the 25th August. I feel honoured to have writing alongside writers such as Gilbert White, Melissa Harrison, Helen MacDonald and Amy Liptrot.

Summer and Autumn Anthologies
Summer and Autumn Anthologies
Autumn Anthology Inside
The beginning of my piece about badgers.

My piece in Summer was about the hares on Havergate Island, an island I’ve mentioned before here. Below is an extract:


“…Evening, and the moon over Orford Ness is round and full, a warm, butter moon. Below, in its light, I can make out the dark shapes of fishermen casting into the rippling Narrows. The hares will be out feeding on grasses and herbs now. At night I sleep and dream reed-lined, silt-laden dreams, drifting channels in my skiff, hugging the shallows, calm and sheltered from a ravaging sea beyond. I wake and the winds are playing havoc with the wind turbine again.”

Butter Moon
Butter Moon over Orford Ness

For Autumn, I wrote about a badger encounter I’d had with my partner in Woodchester Park in Gloucestershire. I find myself often drawn to nocturnal wildlife:

“Nocturnal wildlife has a special fascination; it usually lives out of sight beneath the radar of our everyday, human lives…”

(As I am writing about my writing, back in February, I wrote a piece about seeing Manx shearwaters and storm petrels on the island of Skokholm, birds of the night. You can read it on the Caught By The River website.)

As my Autumn piece is about badgers, I thought I’d show my latest altered book, Badger Family. I was given a tatty old Observer’s guide to Wild Animals, beautiful in a wabi sabi sort of way. I’ve transformed the book’s interior into a woodland scene with badgers.

Badger Family Altered Book
Badger Family Altered Book
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Spring Anthology

Writing is as much a part of me now as making visual art of some sort. They are two channels in the river bed of my life, sometimes intersecting, other times flowing in parallel, two parts of myself getting to know each other. Perhaps one day they’ll blend. Writing my journal is something I’ve always done – and treasured – I’m excited now that my other types of writing are becoming just as important.

As part of the prize for winning the Creative Future Literary Award for fiction last year, I’ve been having mentoring with Amy Liptrot whose memoir, The Outrun, has just come out. I’m reading her book at the moment, enjoying the beautiful, clear writing; the contrasting phases of her life, the interesting steps she takes in her recovery from alcohol and her accounts of living and visiting remote Orcadian islands. I find myself wanting to gaze at the sky, watch the sea – even get in! I need to find myself an island. It’s a recommended read :)

Spring Anthology

So far with the mentoring I’ve concentrated on creative non-fiction, “nature writing” mainly, which leads me on to Spring: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, in which I have a piece of writing. I have only just opened the book and read a little of the introduction by Melissa Harrison:

It is a moment of quickening, of rebirth. the old, lovely story: life surging back, despite everything, once again. However spring finds you – birdsong, blossom or spawn – it is a signal: the earth turning its ancient face back to the sun.

Beautiful! – I’m already looking forward to reading the whole thing. The book comes out 18th February and is published by Elliott and Thompson and The Wildlife Trusts.

In the book my piece is about seeing a stoat at Newtimber Hill on the South Downs. The Newtimber Estate is an SSSI. Newtimber Wood on the north side of the hill is one of my favourite local haunts and where I filmed part of Touching the Earth. It is also a bluebell wood. Here is a photo I took a few years ago in March.

Newtimber Wood crossing the bostal
Path in Newtimber Wood crossing the ‘bostal’.
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Fox

“It is the dark time of the year and there’s a fire aglow in the orchard; I hear fox.

As evening slides into night, I put on my coat and head out into the street. The night is sepia and a sleepy half-moon rests its belly upon the chimney pots of the houses opposite.”

So begins my piece, Fox, written for the Creative Future’s Literary Awards. I was so pleased, it won first prize for fiction, a Platinum award. At the Awards Ceremony and Showcase, in London a week or so ago, I received my award and read out my piece in front of an audience along with the eleven other finalists. Lemn Sissay introduced the evening and read along with Maggie Gee, both also contributed to an anthology of all the finalists’ work, titled Impossible Things.

Lemn Sissay and the Sign Reader
Lemn Sissay introducing the evening with a sign language interpreter.
Impossible Things Anthology
My piece of writing, Fox, in the anthology, Impossible Things.
Fox and Moon
The fox that inspired me.
Lemn Sissay and Alexi Francis
With Lemn Sissay at the Creative Futures Awards Ceremony

Here is a video of me reading “Fox” at the Creative Futures Awards Ceremony. I’m a bit serious!

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The White Hind in the Thicket

Deer. Signs of their presense, torn bark, a trail of hoof prints through the trees, a shed antler. Deer are elusive, highly tuned to the slightest sound or movement; a delight to come across.

Fallow Deer Antler

It is easy to understand how deer are often seen as magical creatures in myths and stories, connected with the spiritual, supernatural world. Often in these stories and myths they are white, a brilliant, glowing white. In Celtic mythology, they are seen as ‘fairy cattle’ that are milked by mystical women – sometimes banshees – who themselves shapeshift into deer. I am fascinated by shapeshifting in any form and by the crossing of the subtle veil between worlds.

I have been collaborating with the author and storyteller Roselle Angwin. Once I had written my book, The Memory Tree, Roselle proof-read it. She liked my artwork and suggested that we work on something together; I would illustrate one of her stories. As she lives close to Dartmoor, she chose an old Dartmoor tale that she first heard from Dartmoor storyteller, Mavis Hewitt. The story is about a man’s encounter with a magical deer. Stories with this theme occur all over Europe.

Here are some photos of our booklet fresh from the printer. It is available in my Folksy shop and in my shop on this website.

The White Hind Booklet

The White Hind Book Inside

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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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The Memory Tree – Launched!

Finally I have finished The Memory Tree book it is in some shops already including my Folksy shop and my Reflections shop.

The Memory Tree Book

The Memory Tree Back Cover

Inside The Memory TreeInside The Memory Tree

I took a few books into a gallery the other day and the owner said he’d give one to his daughter who’ll be going off travelling to remind her of home. That’s a nice thought!

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The Ghost Faced Sheep

For the Year of the Sheep – The Ghost Faced Sheep.

I climb up the western edge, the disused quarry falling away into a swathe of shadow to my left. The sun spills over the crest ahead of me, its brightness blinding my eyes. The ground falls away steeply into a chaotic muddle of hillocks, hollows, dips and clumps steeped in shadow within a cool pocket scooped out of the hillside. I pause to take in this uneven landscape quiet beneath its worn duffle coat of short turf, the work of an army of rabbits. A solitary magpie strutts and frets on a sunlit mound, a performer uttering a soliliquy in a giant amphitheatre. He hops on to the path that snakes between the mounds then takes off with a clatter to alight in a nearby tree, a hawthorn, winter- stripped and dusted green with lichen.

I turn back to the sun and stomp uphill trampling last year’s crumpled hawthorn leaves in the squish of chalky mud underfoot. At the top bright sunshine and the full force of the wind. I find the gate and notice the gorse is still speckled yellow with flowers. The view opens out on to the golf course which descends to a mousy scrubland mix of hawthorn and elder furring the valley like a mould. I circle the broad hollow towards the shadow.

I hear blackbirds scuffling deep within the skeleton of a hedge and glimpse the silhouette of a robin. I look about for birds of prey; I’ve seen kestrels here before, a pair, circling and hovering before collapsing into a bank of trees, scattering pigeons in all directions. They look disproportionally large when hunched on a tree top; distance can be so deceptive.

Just then, I happen to look through a gap in the hedge and am taken aback by the ashen face of a lone sheep standing there like a shocked ghost. The field of mauve shadow with its mist of white grasses contrasts starkly with the sunlit trees beside me. To get a better view I wade through ivy, feathery tufts of yarrow, and ash saplings with their hooflike buds pointing skyward. The sheep stares vacantly in my direction with an air of unease before returning back to graze; a ghost in the lee of a hill that the sun never sees.

Ghost Faced Sheep

Oh sheep sheep
Do not look so wide-eyed and lost!

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