I’ve created a new zine/booklet titled ‘If You Are Lost You May Be Taken’. It’s different from my Night Wood booklet in some ways, although both have 16 highly detailed, illustrated pages of my pen and ink illustrations. It is an illustrated book version of a piece of writing that featured on the RTE Irish radio programme, Keynotes, a few years ago.
The piece was written as a sort of response to David Wagoner’s poem, Lost and loosely inspired by the myth of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. I like to describe it as a strange, poetic tale from the forest, haunting and the stuff of dreams.
The booklet/zine is now available to buy in my Etsy shop and soon on my website shop.
It sounds mad, but I have noticed that there two sides to me, to my mindbody. My right side takes me forwards – I think of interacting with people, going into town, projects I’m working on, making progress, goals and bracing myself against The World. My left side is wordless. It reaches out to the environment, to the natural world and my niche within it, to feel embedded and belonging. My left side shrinks back from the harshness of The World. It takes me into the forests and into the hills.
I was very aware of this division in myself while away on holiday. It felt much more comfortable to hold back. I looked up at the hillside above the little village of Vrisnik, where we were staying on the Croatian island of Hvar, and thought, I’d like to be up there, not on the beach or in the town with other tourists. I needed nature connection, so I was very pleased when we discovered hiking trails up into the hills – trails free of dogs. The hills were waiting for me, so I followed my left side.
We set off on a path bordered by dry stone walls patterned with lichens. It was very straightforward looking out for the red and white circles that were painted on the rocks at frequent intervals. With flashes of their mauve or red wings, grasshoppers sprang ahead of us, while the land crackled with cicada song and the scent of rosemary and lavendar infused the air. We caught the perfume of pine when we reached the trees, Aleppo pines, characteristic of Mediterranean woods or maquis.
The landscape was green despite it being a very dry, karst landscape of limestone and dolomite with no surface water. Rainwater seeps through cracks, scouring out hollows and caves underground. On Hvar there is only one surface pool and that is temporary. It’s where Neolithic finds have been discovered; early man needed a supply of fresh water. Later, when we went looking for the pool on the lowland plain, it was alive with darter dragonflies.
The path zigzagged up the hillside. We were walking upwards on the north side of a ridge that stretches along the length of the island. The shade was welcome as the temperatures were in the high 20s C. The going was fairly easy and the views were lovely; we looked down on two villages, Vrisnik and Svirce. The town of Jelsa was also visible in the east. Finally we approached a giant bare rock with a hooked nose like the profile of an old man. I’m sure the rock has been given many names, but, rather unimaginatively, I called it The Shape. Soon we emerged at the top of the ridge beside The Shape into the sunshine and a mass of buzzing pines.
It felt good to be up with just the sound of the breeze and the insects. We looked around for the next red and white circle to continue on the trail. Eventually we found it, but the route was no longer clear cut. It took some searching to find the next few markers as we made our way through trees and stony glades. Then they seemed to disappear altogether.
We doubled back a bit, looking at the trees and rocks for any signs of red paint. There seemed to be many path options through the rocks and scrub. Kevin had studied the paths on Open Street Map and tried to bring the web page up on his phone, but there was no signal. We wandered fruitlessly through a maze of pines and vegetation. The plants here are drought tolerant and tend to have spikes that scratched our legs as we waded through them. Still the grasshoppers zipped about. Kevin caught sight of a small snake disappearing into a hole. There were lizards too, small brown ones and a large one like a fluorescent green plastic toy. It hung about long enough for us to admire it. I kept seeing vivid green praying mantises on the path too. Each one kept still and turned its head to regard me defiantly. Such intelligent looking insects, it’s no wonder that they’re revered in certain cultures. The San people of the Kalahari believed that the praying mantis gave them fire and words. They see them as sort of Dream Bushmen.
Then a large bird with a black and white tail took off with a bounding flight into the trees ahead of us – a hoopoe! That was exciting! I thought how good it would be to find a hoopoe feather. Not long after the sighting that is exactly what I did.
The air fuzzed with a sound. We looked up and saw a flock of bee-eaters flying overhead.
Noticing and appreciating wildlife was one thing, but we were lost. From the map in his memory, Kevin knew that a track ran along the valley between the ridge and a second line of hills. It wasn’t our path, but it would go somewhere. We decided to look out for it and before long, we could see a rough, stony trail. We made our way towards it and continued walking west. We were lost, but not lost. We didn’t quite know where we were going.
it’s not easy getting lost these days. You can still get lost in mountains and on moors. It seemed odd to be lost here. We had no real idea how far we were from any village. It was becoming increasingly unrealistic for us to try to retrace our steps, so we kept on walking along the track.
I couldn’t help thinking about the well-known poem, Lost, by David Wagoner,
Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you…
What would it be like to spend the night out here? I started thinking along those lines. I’ve often wanted to do a sort of vision quest and to spend the night out alone. It would probably be a bit chilly – I had no jacket with me. The moon was waxing so there would be light – and there would be a big, clear sky, much clearer than at home, with the Milky Way spilling over us from north to south. The scops owl we’d heard faintly on previous nights would call a little closer perhaps. There were snakes, ants and mosquitoes; it wouldn’t be a comfortable night. I was concerned, but not as worried as I thought I might be. My desire to connect to nature was strong. It felt natural to be drawn down to sleep on the earth among the vegetation, to lean into nature, to bed down into it. Some archaic part of me, my inner animal, was preparing me and it felt OK. It didn’t seem too great a step to feel at home out there among the thorny scrub, the rocks, the Aleppo pines. Perhaps it was helped by the warmth of the land. I had a welcome sense of belonging, my left side was content.
We continued walking west along the track. An empty building appeared on our right and, then, the track took us through lavendar fields.The lavendar had already been harvested, but its scent was still in the air. Hvar is well known for its lavendar. We kept on going wondering how many miles we’d have to walk before reaching a village or road. We knew we were still walking away from our village, it was hot and our water was getting low.
Eventually after a few miles we came to a crossroad of paths and a sign post. One direction pointed to the village of Svirce, not so far from ours. Now, at least we knew which way to walk, and the path we followed took us north once again, back over a pass in the ridge. Soon we could see Svirce in the distance.
It took us some time to walk back to base. Despite being lost on the ridge and the extra miles we had walked we were glad of the adventure. Being lost like that isn’t so bad. I spent the evening pondering what it would have been like to do a night vision quest up on the top. I guess it’s different when you are prepared for it. That’s something for the future perhaps. I thought of the face of The Shape keeping vigil, watching. My left side was still leaning, I now had more of the hills in me.
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’m always happy to see one of my pictures or pieces of writing in print. In the November issue of The Simple Things magazine I have a piece of nature writing, ‘Still’, about encountering a badger. It sits alongside pieces by good writers such as Tim Dee, Alys Fowler and Neil Ansell. It would have been nice if they’d sent me a copy of the magazine. Instead, I had to go and buy one. (There do seem to be a plethora of these cosy, classy, hyggey, crafty, lifestyle magazines around at the moment. Is it ‘our’ need for comfort and reassurance in these somewhat dark, unsettled times?)
The piece was originally published in the Autumn anthology as part of the Seasons series by Elliott and Thompson. I’m now in the process of making little, A6 illustrated books using some of my previously published writings. Here is an example I’ve titled, Into the Wood:
The last badger I encountered was in the scrubby area behind the cabin in France where I stayed in the summer. It nearly ran into me as I stood quietly waiting for nightjars; they have poor eyesight but a great sense of smell.
I’ve just created some little vignettes in pen and ink that I’ve sent to Avocet Gallery in Rye for their Christmas Fair. One of these is of a sleeping badger – pen and ink with a blue copper sky painted with acrylic metallic paint and ink. The others are of a hare, a nest, an owl and, of course, deer:
I love vignettes both in art and writing – moments captured! And I love the way Jay Griffiths describes a badger in her little book, “Twilight“:
“Then I see him touched by two light, day-streaked and night-stroked, a keyboard playing a twilight sonata in a minor key for the maligned creatures of twilight, the badgers themselves, the wolf, the hare and the bat – flittermouse in flights of arpeggios to catch moths. And owls.”
The murmuration over the West Pier in Brighton is fairly well known. Whenever I go down to see it in the autumn and winter, there is always a crowd of people. Nevertheless, I chose to write about it for this month’s Preston Pages and the other free magazines such as The Post and The 7 Directory.
Here is a photo of my article with an illustration, Murmuration 1 (not exactly an inspired title, but still!):
Apparently the illustration is on the cover of The 7 Directory :)
The original illustration has now sold along with another similar one, Murmuration 2. But I now have digital prints for sale in my website shop. They’ll be ready to go out next week if anyone’s interested.
I can’t help including a photo of the pier in the 1990s before it completely crumbled into the sea and later went up in flames, wonderfully derelict :)
The West Pier today:
Chris Watson did a great radio programme of sounds and memories of the West Pier, Ghost Roost, that really brings it to life. It’s well worth a listen.
I have recently been commissioned to make a Harry Potter altered book. I don’t know that much about the Harry Potter books and I’ve only ever seen Harry Potter films on flights, however, this seemed like a good challenge.
I wanted to make the Whomping Willow the main feature and got caught up in the detail of branches and leaves:
It was fun overlayering the crashed car with the top layer:
I added an owl in the foreground and Hogwarts in the background against a starry sky:
Along with the Harry Potter altered book, I created another ‘Into the Beech Wood’ altered book as part of the same commission:
To accompany this I put together a little booklet with a piece of my writing called Time in the Beech Wood. I wrote it when staying in the Forest Cabin last year. I’ve wanted to do something with this piece for a while, so this seemed like a good opportunity. I played around with my World Tree and deer illustrations to create the cover in Photoshop:
(I think there’s a hint of cave painting or Cretan vase in the design!) I’ll add it to the book as a little gift.