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.
When you are lost, you look for landmarks to get your barings, a map perhaps and tools to navigate. This year I have felt lost and adrift, but paradoxically anchored like a buoy and going nowhere. I suffer from a sort of sea vertigo, clutching at nothings. Time has passed and I have little to show for it. When in a state of quasi-suspension, like a trout caught mid-stream, I need a project.
Recently I received the e-newsletter from Dark Mountain and read Charlotte Du Cann’s piece, Sea change, which resonated very much with me. I was especially moved by the little video included in the post, Manta Ray, from the film Racing Extinction. Why watching zooplankton is moving I cannot say, but I felt very humbled and loving towards all of life after watching the video. Here it is:
I mused about the sea and being lost. Soon a project started to develop. I wanted to work with paper, ink, maps, currents, islands. I had few clues as I was feeling ‘at sea’, amniotic and floating. So I returned to an old motif, the fish, and thought about sea trout and their amazing life cycle. Like salmon, they hatch in rivers, go out to the sea and return years later to breed. They undergo a transformation, a metamorphosis – they shapeshift between fresh and saltwater, their lives mysterious and subtle. I like that change and adaptability.
Sea trout spawn in some of the rivers here in Sussex. You can read a well written description of their life cycle on the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust website. I have been doing river surveys for OART for the past few years, looking for ‘redds’, the piles of gravel the fish make for breeding.
Occasionally I see a trout and once I watched several jump up a weir. Sea trout are not lost, they recognise the ‘taste’ of the water where they hatched and return to the same river to breed themselves. Each river has its own olfactory signature. They may pick up other clues to find their way to their native waters, such as the magnetic field. Who knows. I think it is amazing. Follow your nose… find your way.
The river pulls me too.
I doodled in my sketchbook, sea trout…
and drew a foldout image of a sea trout.
The Dark Mountain piece was illustrated with photos of artwork by the artist Leya Tess. She draws marine designs on sea charts. I decided to take my inspiration from her as I have some old nautical charts, acquired from an auction some time ago and waiting for a project. I used a chart that shows the area of coast where the Sussex rivers – the Ouse, Adur and Cuckmere – enter the sea. Here is my finished artwork:
I also visited one of the gravelly streams where sea trout come to make their redds and spawn. I filmed under the shallow water:
I am going somewhere in a way. I have made a start and hopefully it will lead me futher. I’m now working on a brief film poem.
Dreaming, I stand on pebbles and sand. Before me is a rich, dark sea. There are waves, but not large waves. In the water there are octopuses, starfish, clams and swimmers. I want to join them, I want to be a swimmer too.
In the sea’s echoing changing room there is talk of violins. There are neighbours, people I recognise, friends and family. Everyone is talking.
Before long, the walls of the building crumble and in rushes the sea, the dark, rich, velvet sea of swimmers and octopuses, starfish and clams.
There are ammonites in the rocks. Strange creatures from the past lurk in the shallows. Beneath the waves I see continents and the blue-green eyeshine of the ocean floor. It becomes a melody of waving grasses and waltzing seals. I want to wade further in and join them, I want to become a swimmer-dancer too.
But I wake up. An amber light spills through the curtains. Did I join them? I would like to think so. Somewhere in another plane I may still wander the shore, marvelling at the life in the water. Of the land but tempted by water, mine is an world between air and sea. Perhaps it will always be that way.
My interest in trees, forests and geology continues. On Saturday, Kevin and I went to Pett Level beach, east along the Sussex coast from Brighton. We arranged our trip to coincide with a low tide because when the sea is out the wave-cut platform reveals the remnants of a prehistoric forest. A peaty layer of ancient tree trunks, roots and boles can be seen covered in seaweed and pock-marked by piddock holes.
We were surprised at how easy it was to see whole tree trunks. Some of these may have come from shipwrecks off the coast, but the spongy wood is likely to be from the sunken forest, which is about 6000 years old. Evidence of alder, birch, hazel, alder buckthorn, yew, ash and willow trees have been found along with brambles, sedges, meadow rue, bedstraws and marsh marigold. This mixed woodland flourished when the sea level was 60 metres lower than it is today.
It is strange walking over this ghost forest imagining the animals, large and small, that roamed among the trees and the people who possibly hunted there.
Our day was enriched by the sight and sounds of oystercatchers, cormorants, fulmars, curlews and a peregrine that sat on a cliff perch in the weak sunshine.
High up in the cliffs that overlook the area, we saw a cave now occupied by fulmars. but where archaeologists have found flint tools. They propose that it could have been a lookout used by Neolithic people for spotting game in the forest below. No doubt the cave was much more extensive in earlier times.
The cliffs are eroding fast, up to a metre a year. On our way back we watched as a trickle of stones fell down a section of cliff, where people had been walking a moment earlier. This was followed by a loud crash as a bush from the scrub above came down. I have never heard the earth sound so loud. Fortunately no one was nearby when it happened.
Further back in time the area was frequented by dinosaurs, their footprints have been found on the beach. We didn’t find much in the way of fossils or footprints, but Kevin found something else of interest and called me over. He wondered whether it was a piece of crab carapace. When I saw it I thought it must be a piece of skull as it had sutures, the wiggly joints between skull plates. We decided to take it home.
On Monday morning we contacted Archaeology SE to see if they could identify it. Their forensic archaeologist identified it as the back of a human skull and told us to contact the police as soon as possible! Three police officers came to collect it and took our details.
Perhaps it belonged to a sailor aboard one of the ships tragically wrecked along the Sussex or Kent coast. Such shipwrecks include RMS Alaunia in 1913, in which two crew members lost their lives. Hopefully we’ll find out a little more about it in a few weeks time.
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 often had an image in my mind of a woman trapped in stone beneath the waves, a sort of Rock or Stone Goddess or Buddhess. I first drew a picture of this in my diary back in 1989. I think I was feeling reflective at the time.
The image has stayed with me so I thought I’d work with it on another altered book, a colour one this time. Playing with photoshop and layering several images, I put together the image below to help inspire me: (I might make this image into a small card.)
I had in mind a sort of Frida Kahlo image.
I have two large dictionaries, but I thought there’s something sacrilegous about cutting up a dictionary so I bought a secondhand history book from my local PDSA charity shop (I should, perhaps, have read it first!). It’s a bit of a tome as I wanted some depth to the images.
The result is below. It’s coloured with inks, a mixture of turquoises, blues and golds. The creation of it was a way of expressing a feeling of entrapment I feel at the moment and a reminder that there is treasure within even if I can’t always see it :)
Here are some of the pages. Click on each to see a larger image:
Forests are still my thing, what better than a forest beneath the sea, a kelp forest. The colours, for one, are beautiful – perhaps some of my favourite colours, aquamarine, turquoise, blues. I imagine it to be a world of beings passing through – seals, brittlestars, rockfish, sea urchins, otters – in the arms of kelp – the odd diver, the odd wreck splintering and lost, discarded bits and pieces tossed by muted currents, swaying waters that whisper the secrets of the land beneath the waves. A forest dream of a world.
Enter the Kelp Maidens.
I have painted two new long boards on reclaimed wood, the Kelp Maidens. They are varnished with exterior varnish and ready for the outdoors.
I am a little familiar with the Kelpie myths – water spirits that live in lochs and rivers in Scotland, water horses that shapeshift into men or women. My kelp maidens are slightly different, there is no hint of horse, no horse’s mane or hooves. But they live in the kelp forests, amongst the fronds of Saccharina and Saccorhiza (and other kelps) in Scottish waters – they are like the names of two sisters :)
While I was painting my kelp maidens, the Guardian published a series of Forest Fable podcasts. All the fables are good, but one of them, The Princess’ Forest by Alec Finnay just happened to be about the myth of a submerged forest off the coast of St Kilda where a giant woman was said to reside. It is said that she was addicted to hunting deer in the forests between the islands of Harris and St Kilda before the seas came and flooded the land.
My Kelp Maidens are now in the lovely shop Way Out There and Back in Littlehampton along with some of my other paintings and cards.
My River Sisters painting, that was in the shop, has just gone to a new home. I’m delighted!
I am yearning for the land. Hearing the wind outside it is not exactly inviting but I feel a pull, a need to connect with layers beneath me feet – rock, sand, mud, grass, the earth’s bone against my bone.
Over the past few years I’ve been moving outdoors, relating to the natural environment through movement – as I did in a workshop, River Women, earlier this year. In the last year or so I have tried to make a short video, a movement video. It is about the earth, about woods and the sea. I felt a bit lost during the filming and was going to call it “What have I lost on the path?” a phrase I remember writing and illustrating in my diary many years ago. I felt that I had lost something on the path – in the earth – and the film was about acknowledging this. Originally the video was going to be a filmpoem – a film of a poem – but I’m no poet so I decided to keep it simple and see what would arise. I can’t dance or move very well either, but it’s just an experiment :)