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Nest Project

Nest Oracle Card
Nest Oracle Card – the deck is growing!

I could tell you about how grim the start of my year was and how, after one thing and then another, I caught Covid and am now recovering. Covid wasn’t so bad, but…enough about that. I’ll tell you instead about the Nest Project that I’ve been working on.

It’s time for nests. I’ve been watching a blackbird looking for suitable nesting sites in the garden and I’ve seen a crow diligently prising off twigs from one of our elder bushes for a nest in a tall tree a few doors down. I love finding nests from previous seasons, their intricacy intrigues me.

I recently went to an exhibition called Undercurrents by Louise McCurdy and Steve Geliot. It was about the starlings on the Palace Pier and their murmurations. Here is a photo from the exhibition of a giant starling’s nest. I love the interwoven flowers.

Nest in undercurrents Exhibition
Nest in Undercurrents Exhibition at the Phoenix Arts space, Brighton

Apparently flowers and bark have aromatic chemicals so if woven into a nest they can fumigate it and deter parasites.

I’ve got out of the library, Nests by Susan Ogilvy. The book is gorgeous with lovely pink/cream pages and her watercolour paintings are exquisite. Here is one of her wren’s nests made of fine twigs, grasses, moss, skeleton leaves, feathers and hair:

Susan Ogilvy's Wren's Nest
Susan Ogilvy’s Wren’s Nest

And here is a photo of a wren’s nest I found in the garden last year, deep in the ivy (photographed after the wrens had fledged and left). You can see that the materials are very similar:

Wren's Nest

Below is my feeble attempt at painting an old mud-lined song thrushes’ nest as a still life:

song thrush nest in watercolour
Song thrushes’ nest in watercolour, mud-lined with dry moss and grasses.

I’ve been working on my Altered Sketchbook and have added the next section, section 2, a nest in the undergrowth. I’ve based it on a willow warbler’s nest, which is typically domed and made close to the ground. I’ve made a short video showing the whole of the altered sketchbook so far, including the nest section:

Here are some images of the Nest section (click on the images to see larger versions):

I’ve started working on a Nest nature booklet/zine. So far I’ve drawn blackbirds at their nest in the undergrowth:

Blackbirds at Their Nest
Blackbirds at Their Nest for my new nature booklet/zine.

In Wolstonbury Woods, just outside Brighton, there’s a large circle of sticks in the shape of a beautiful, human-sized nest:

Nest sculpture Wolstonbury Hill
Nest sculpture Wolstonbury Hill

Who made the nest I had no idea, until I did a bit of research and discovered the website of artist Flick Ferdinando. You can see more photos of the nest and a film about it on her website.

I’ve collected together images of some of the nests I’ve found over the years – a lesser black-backed gulls’ nest; a dormouse’s summer nest; an unknown nest with woodpigeon and blackbird eggshells; a long-tailed tits’ nest; a blackbird’s nest(?) in a hornbeam; a wren’s nest. Each one has a story, told very  briefly below each image.

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Nests, Eggshells and Natural Finds

The breeding season for many birds is well underway. Some birds are even on second broods. In May I went out to the woods and surrounding countryside to watch and listen out for birds and other wildlife but also to see what I could collect in the way of discarded eggshells and any other natural finds. Below are my eggshells – so far this year:

Eggshells
Eggshell Finds.

In the photograph you can see two song thrush, a magpie, a blackbird, some sort of wild duck and a moorhen. In my wanderings I’ve also found a pike’s head, but that’s a bit too gross to show here! (I need to clean it somehow for displaying.)

I’ve been keeping an eye on a crow’s nest in an ash tree next door. I can just glimpse some frantic wing flapping through the leaves – fledgings? I’m guessing the young will leave the nest soon, but the parents are still tooing and froing and circling their territory.

On the subject of nests, in May I went to see the exhibition, Natural Selection at the Towner Gallery by Andy and Peter Holden. Peter Holden is an ornithologist and his son is an artist so they teamed up over a period of years to create ‘Natural Selection’. The exhibition shows a collection of nests from around the world:

Natural Selection Exhibition
Nests from Around the world – Natural Selection Exhibition.

a video installation, various creations inspired by nests,

Natural Selection Exhibition
Artwork inspired by the bower bird’s nest.

and a room of hand-painted egg replicas in boxes:

Natural Selection Exhibition.
Boxes of Handmade Eggs – very clever, but not as good as finding eggshells.

I like to think I straddle both arenas, the art and science of nature, sometimes art has a slight edge, but overall I’m a naturalist. Anyway, I’ve started to keep some of my small natural finds in a printer’s tray my sister gave me for my birthday:

Natural Finds Collection
Natural Finds Collection – jay feathers, piece of warthog tusk, vole skull, eggshell, piece of lava and a gemstone.

Inspired by the exhibition, I’ve decided to create natural exhibits using old cigar boxes. Here is one I’ve started:

Box of Natural Finds
Box of Natural Finds – including rabbit skull, pheasant feather, dried fungus and oak leaf.

As I have a thing about nests, I’ve made another altered book, Buzzard’s Nest and a Song Thrush Nest box frame. Both are in my Etsy Shop.

Buzzard Nest Altered book
Buzzard Nest Altered book
Song Thrush Box Frame
Song Thrush Box Frame
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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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Grass Baskets, Nests and Blackcaps

At the weekend I did a grass baskets workshop with Ruby Taylor of Native Hands. I have wanted to connect to nature by making something and using my hands. The closest I’ve got so far is making a moss journal. The workshop took place at Wowo campsite in a special campfire area in the woods. First we cut handfulls of grass in an adjacent field, golden and maroon sheeves we carried to the workshop site. After tea, Ruby took us through a few minutes of opening up the senses to the natural world around us. She lit a fire with metal and flint, to have a constant supply of tea throughout the day.

Grass Baskets Workshop
Concentrating hard weaving grass baskets.
The base of my grass basket
The base of my grass basket.
My Grass Basket
My slightly scruffy grass basket.
Grass Cutting Video
Click here to see a short video by Ruby of a few of us cutting grass during the workshop.

As Ruby pointed out, baskets can be like nests and she brought out a box containing a beautiful nest with a couple of thrush eggshells within it. Birds are the ultimate artisans.

When I was younger, I used to collect nests, empty ones. I climbed trees like many children, fascinated by being up high in the leaves with a birds-eye view. I came across the occasional nest and if it was empty, I’d bring it down if I could. I grew a stash of nests in my bedroom. Unfortunately birds nests harbour fleas so my collection didn’t last for very long.

Thinking about this, I am reminded of some passages in Jay Griffith’s book, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape about children and nests:

Stumbling on a bird’s nest as a child, I was breathtaken. I gasped at the tenderness of it, the downy feathers, softer than my fingers, moss folded into grasses and twigs in rounds. My eyes circled and circled it, caught by the mesmerizing perfection of the nest. It was the shape of my dream, to be tucked inside a nest and to know it for home.

A nest is a circle of infinite intimacy, a field-hearth or hedge-hearth. Every nest whispers ‘home’, whether you speak English, Spanish, Wren or Robin. Part of a child’s world-nesting need is answered seeing a rabbit warren, a badger sett or otter holt, as children’s writers instinctively know, giving children a secret passage to dens, nests and burrows.

Through nests, a child’s own hearthness is deepened and the child grows outwardly and inwardly into its world. Outwardly, children stare at a nest, fascinated. Inwardly, the nest reflects not just the body’s home but the mind’s. In the snug refuge of the nest, the psyche fills itself out from within, as round and endless as a nest, creating its infinite-thoughted worlds. Intertwined with the world of fur and feather is the world of metaphor where mind makes its nests. Metaphor weaves ‘grass’ and ‘shelter’ together. It ties ‘twig’ to ‘refuge.’ It knits ‘moss’ to ‘home.’

Finding a nest is a homecoming for a child. In Greek, homecoming is nostos, the root of the word ‘nostalgia’—an ache for home, a longing for belonging. Children, filthy little Romantics that they are, have an uncanny gift for nostalgia in nature; something inchoate, yes, but yearning, yearning for their deepest dwelling.

She also has some interesting essays about home as part of the Stay Where You Are project. I never outgrew my fascination with nests, eggs, found animal skulls. I still collect such things when I find them.

Throughout our time in the woods, we heard a persistant blackcap – or at least I think it was a blackcap, blackcaps can sound very similar to garden warblers. A few years ago I spent a few days watching and recording a blackcap singing in a nearby wood as a volunteer for The Woodland Trust, so I am quite familiar with its song. Blackcaps have a lovely, flutey, scratchy song. Here is my recording:

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