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The Cabin – Dreaming

The Cabin of Quercy
The Cabin of Quercy

A cabin on a wooded hillside with cicadas all day long; the forest song. Heat, there the sun beats. The sun beats and the grasses are dry, bleached. A hawk tilts over, dark and long against the blue. Then a kestrel. Drowsy butterflies drift over our glade – scarce swallowtails, white admirals, dryads. There are bush crickets. capricorn beetles, dragonflies patrol at dragonfly hour – ‘horse stingers’, ‘snake doctors’. Stag beetles emerge horns upright, haphazardly in search.

In the Scrub
In the Scrub
Outside the Cabin
Outside the Cabin

It’s the hour of the bat, or perhaps of the nightjar churring from a tall oak in the scrub. churring softly Softing churring – the purr of an engine.

The Nightjar Tree
The Nightjar Tree

Owl hour, the tawnies are about. The moon rises, a biscuit moon, buttery, warm, almost whole. Night.

In the little cabin, off grid in southern France in July, we immersed ourselves in nature, reading, writing and visiting the local palaeolithic cave art. It was a sort of retreat. The world above – the sun, the wood, the cicadas, the deer, the badgers, the moon. The world below – roots, caverns of calcite sculpted over time by the hands of water and ice; an underworld of beautiful beasts solitary or shifting in silent herds painted thousands of years ago.

Living was simple; drinking filtered water, washing in a bucket, cooking on a ring using a gas cylinder. I had time to think, time to dream, time to watch spiders weave intricate webs;

Spider Web
Spider Web
In the Hammock
In the Hammock

time to watch Jupiter rise in the south; time to revel in the constellations; time in the hills with the trees; time to contemplate deep time, listening to the sunlight through trees,

Morning Light Through Trees
Morning Light Through Trees

dreaming in gold and sweat. Dreaming in thunder.

We swan in the River Lot

Swimming in the River Lot
Swimming in the River Lot

and in the River Cele with butterflies on the bank for company.

Swallowtails and Scarce Swallowtails
Swallowtails and Scarce Swallowtails

I sat out at night in a storm while the sky ripped itself into shreds of white light and warmth came up from the earth all around. And it rained thick pillars of rain. So immediate it was, in the midst of it all – wood, hillside, storm, then darkness, the moon’s shadow and the milky way.

And on our last night the moon became shy and subdued into shadow. Red and warm bloodied it pulsed like an embryo in its swathe of sooty cloud, the longest lunar eclipse of the century.

Eclipse - Painting on Wood.
Eclipse – Painting on Wood.

The retreat was wonderful, relaxing, a little hot. Now, with all the images and the experience inside me I want to respond somehow – painting, writing, drawing… new projects.

I have written a piece for TOAST magazine – Time in the Limestone Hills.

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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 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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Pink Temples and Goddess Figurines

In June I visited the islands of Malta and Gozo. I’m writing about them now as I’ve had plenty of time to digest the visit.

I am drawn to islands and have been curious about the ancient temples and early Goddess worshipping culture of these two. I’ve read quite a bit about ancient Venus figurines and “The Myth of the Goddess”, so it seemed like a good place to visit. These sun bathed islands of desert scrub and rocky coastlines made quite an impression on me.

Malta gave me: temples of limestone – sometimes pink limestone,

Ggantija Temple
Ggantija Temple on the island of Gozo
Mnajdra Temples
One of the Mnajdra Temples which was mainly used as a solar year calendar and astromical observatory.

portals through pitted stone,

Pitted Portal
Pitted Limestone Doorway at Mnajdra Temples – I think of portals, caves and secret chambers.

interesting obese goddess figurines,

Goddess Legs Tarxien Malta
Goddess Legs Tarxien Malta
Small Seated Goddess
Small Seated Goddess in Museum in Malta

and other curious figurines.

Snail Figurine
Snail Figurine Malta
The Sleeping Lady
Postcard of The Sleeping Lady in the Museum of Archaeology, Malta.

Sometimes what is needed is a shift in perspective and that is what I returned home with from my visit. Before going I had a feeling of being constrained, running along tram lines. Every so often I shake out of my mindset and refind what I want, which is a feeling of wholeness to my life and not a narrowness.

In Malta, the temples, portals, giant slabs of pink and white fashioned from raw limestone that have stood solid, timeworn and pitted down the centuries, spoke to me of silence and endurance.

On returning I felt more open to new sights and experiences once again and had a desire to take a more oblique path. I am being asked to lean towards the left, closer to the earth, like a sailing boat close hauled, leaning into the wind. I am setting off on an oblique course to find my way back to myself.

Malta had plenty of other things I liked, mainly natural things that include all the different sorts of limestone; sun bathing and sea urchin fossil finding on the rocks at Dwejra; the lizards, purple flowers …

On Gozo
On Gozo
Hole in Door
Door Hole Ggantija Temple
Dots of Lunar Calendar
Mnajdra Temple. This temple was aligned astronomically. Lines of dots on door post may represent the possible number of days between equinoxes.

Some years ago I tentatively researched into the “goddess” in her varying forms. I made a little book on Goddesses of River, Sea and Moon, and found myself painting faceless images of female figures. They weren’t all faceless but many were, just like the goddess figurines of the ancient past.

Once again I’m experimenting with faceless figures inspired by the female figurines and colours of Malta. I tell myself that it is not necessary to create something good, but simply to do it, indulge in the process of making a mark, marking a point in time and painting a simple figure is one way to start. The work by the artist Laurie Doctor resonates with me at the moment. She incorporates calligraphy into some of her paintings and sometimes her figures are faceless in a desert-like landscape. I especially like the one I found below – whose title I don’t know – and Night Vigil:

Painting by Laurie Doctor
A Painting by Laurie Doctor
Night Vigil by Laurie Doctor
Night Vigil by Laurie Doctor

In an artist statement for one exhibition, she wrote:

I wish to communicate moments of fluidity between this world and the world of dreams. I want to share the sense of confirmation that happens when a dream steps right through the daytime door.

Good words. The desert colours of red, gold, faun – colours of earth, sand and rock – work for me at the moment.

I have painted a few little canvases in acrylic incoporating string, leaves and cloth pieces. Here are Desert Dreamer, Desert Icon, Gold Icon and The Pilgrim.

Desert Dreamer
Desert Dreamer painted in acrylics on canvas.
Desert Dreamer2
Desert Dreamer2
Desert Icon
Desert Icon
The Pilgrim
The Pilgrim
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Looking for Moose in the Forest

I’ve been in the forest, sleeping, wandering and getting back in tune with the natural world. Not the forests here in the UK, but in Sweden where there is so much forest, mile upon mile of it interspersed by lakes and more forest. Pines and firs, some growing naturally, ancient forest, others in plantations. Several days spent with the bilberries, pines, cow wheat and mosquitoes, bedding down in a little vegetation covered hut, cooking over a log fire.

Alexi at Kolarbyn Ecolodge

Alexi by Campfire Sweden

The days are long in central Sweden at this time of year, the dusk stretches all the way to midnight with postman blue skies. It is easy to find ones way with no moon or stars.

Kolarbyn Ecolodge

We went in search of moose. Stepping quietly as a group through some ancient woods. We found spoor and droppings and twigs browsed by their feeding. No moose strayed our way while we were out on foot.

Moose Droppings

Later, in the van, almost out of hope, we stumbled on a large bull moose stock still in the lamp light shouldering the dusk. He was so still, statue still. Forest still. So quiet he almost looked like a stuffed animal with his doormat coat, felted antlers and glassy eyes flaming in the light. Eventually this hunk of the forest shifted, turned and slid into the darkness like a ship into mist.

Moose in the Darkness

My photo is terrible; it was too dark and my camera isn’t the best. Here’s a link to Wild Sweden which has better images.

The forest has fed my imagination in all sorts of ways. I’ve been rather taken by a Swedish fairy tale called “Leap the Elk” that I’ve found which has been beautifully illustrated by the nineteenth century artist John Bauer. Here is a version of the story and below an illustration of Leap keeping guard while Princess Cottongrass sleeps. I love the sepia reproduction of this version.

Leap The Elk

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Moving Below Vulture Rock

Blue tit, tree creeper, bullfinch;
fallen acorns and the dry crunch of dwarf oak leaves;
scent of lemon and lavender as I wade through cloud fields
flower husks, the dry, deadhead suns of Autumn,
burnished mists, soft on the gaze.

A cricket zips past with a flash of blue sky in its wings;
a praying mantis strikes a combative pose on the path, quizical, as I walk past lonely ruins,
rocks that could be sacred.
And above me, vultures caress the currents and gather on the pink-grey vulture rock of vulture cliff.

What is the land saying?
It sloughs off Summer insignificantly,
in layers and earth warming browns,
in shards and bones,
in dry, bone trees in skeletal stances,
twisted and rattling,
abrasive and catching at my trousers.
Birds flit from tree to tree,
tick tick, tack, tack…
browns, honey, straw colours, beiges…
Even the snake wears beige.

In this basin of rock outcrops,
place of layers and silence,
shades of blue fade to more watery, distant, blues,
a valley of liquid air,
a valley I fall into with my gaze,
that I could almost swim into if I reached out…

I am the cliff,
I am the vulture,
I swim the valley and push to fly;
I am the knarled tree,
the scissoring cricket,
the lizard’s liquid escape,
the overarching sky.

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Blue Tiles, Bones and Time Out in Nature

My recent visit to Portugal has left me with many impressions. We stayed at Pego Ferreiro in two cabins, the Boar Hide at first followed by The River Lodge. The Boar Hide Pego Ferreiro The Boar Hide is shrouded in trees and overlooks a glade where wild boar come to forage. We spent some evenings watching the scene silvered by the light of a waxing moon.

But no boar came. By chance, we spotted a family of boar across a vale making their way through boulders and broom scrub while we were out wandering one morning.

Most of my days were spent dawdling by or in the river, watching butterflies and enjoying the peace and beauty of nature. In the River at Pego Ferreiro But we also went for walks, tended the fire – The smells of woodsmoke and yellow bloom linger in my memory – cut wood, filtered water, showered in sun-warmed water and read; heard nightingales, cicadas, frogs in the depositos and the river that never slept.

The River Lodge Pego FerreiroView from The River Lodge The River Lodge is a tented “cabin” perched on a platform on rocks overlooking the River Sever below. The river suffused my days and dreams. The moon embedded overhead, shone like a pearl and spilt into the waters below; vapour trails of planes became waves across the shores of the night sky. Mayflies, butterflies, frogs and snakes came by day and at dusk, crepuscular toads crept too inquisitively close to the fire.

Boar Bone? One day, we found the bones of an animal and wondered whether they belonged to a boar. I sent photos to the experts to find out. They’re bones of a horse apparently… I think of some poor, stray animal lost in the hills and vales without a rider…

From Pego Ferreiro we went to Coimbra and Porto. I found myself atuned to urban nature in the cities, the wildflowers growing in gutters, the screeching swifts scything the air and the scimitor wings of a kite over the rooftops.

We paused in cool, shadowy cloisters festooned with moss and algae and the odd green man.

Green Man in Cathedral Cloisters in Coimbra

I loved the fading, crumbling shabbiness mixed with the grandeur of the past. Blue tiles and murals were everywhere – like this one of Jesus on a kite on the facade of Carmo Church in Porto.  Why blue? The cobalt blue of porcelain… I am drawn to blue. The Portugese call them Azulejos, from the abrabic word Zellige but so similar to azul, the word for blue.

Jesus on a Kite Mural in Porto

Fado leaked into my conciousness; it strained from the speakers of a souvenir shop selling fake tiles and a couple played and sang outside a restaurant down some narrow street where children played and fruit boxes spilled over the pink, ceramic cobbles and I caught my passing reflection in boutique windows. There was a Fado Centre with plush seats where Fadistas performed each evening; a strange, bronze statue of a woman with the body of a guitar stood beside one of Coimbra’s old, city walls and closeby our favourite square where a lame siamese cat slipped the affections of passersby. I feel drawn to Fado, the sentiment, the nostagia, the longing or as the Portugese describe it, “saudade” – a word with no real translation. I can see how some of my drawings hint at the same pathos – like Embracing the Waves from my Turtle Dreaming story – the longing, the sea, the loss…

Embracing the waves

If a gull would come
Bring me Lisboa sky
In the drawing it would make

In that sky where the look
is a wing that can’t fly
Weakens and falls to the sea

What a perfect heart
In my chest would beat
My love in your hand
In those hands
Where my heart fitted perfectly

Words taken from a Fado song with no title.

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R is for River

R Illuminated letteris for River, with its soothing lap licking its flanks, waving its pelts of animal weed to its own rhythm and pulse, swinging to the music of rock, soil and tree beneath a tourmaline sky. Willows crack their bent, untidy branches into the flow. Through shadows, eddies and pools, the river journeys through transformation; a meandering, belly-through-the-earth passage on a sunken, sinuous path.

An underground river courses silently and slips beneath the everyday fabric of my life. Half in water, half on land it seems. The link with water is ancestral, as old as when our wild, creature ancestors crawled on to land.

All things ‘river’ draw me to them; the sea with it’s distant horizon and churnings is just a little overwhelming right now. From a plane to Abu Dhabi I saw gleaming ribbons of rivers emptying themselves into the Persian Gulf, wishing I had my camera ready.

In Norfolk, I sought out and relaxed beside the River Bure, entranced by its verdant depths with willowing pelts of weed. In the cool light, I saw a humble but beautiful river whispering archaic messages, carrying memories from source to sea, a quiet voice snaking its way through the landscape.River Bure at Itteringham A witness to the drinking of trees, a carrier of dreams, a passage of mirrors and when she — as I’ll give it a gender, why not — finally arrives, an Empress, proud, loud and with skirts rippling against the tide, mixing voices of the land and sea.

I have had a thirst….

… a longing to reconnect to water, to the emotions, to the well or river of creativity. I’ve been feeling like the proverbial ‘fish out of water’, adrift from my moorings. I’ve had lots of dreams about the sea, floods and being out in boats on a big blue swell. The sea is in the distance at the moment. Here, with the river, I can take it easy, relax, watch, listen, follow its soothing passage back into the throng of things or back to the source, to begin again. I feel at my best when I can connect to the inner river.

River Bure with weedsThe Celts, long ago, made offerings to the waters. Often items of warfare, shields, swords, helmets have all been found in waters or where rivers, lakes or bogs once existed. Many rivers have their own Gods and Goddesses. Favourites of mine include Saraswati the Goddess of the Sarasvati river who went on to become a Goddess of the arts, culture and speech, Ancasta a Celtic goddess of the River Itchen where I’ve swum and Verbeia a Romano-British goddess of the River Wharfe.

I have a smattering of river memories, big rivers like the Congo in what was then Zaire. Taking a passage from Kinshasa to Kisangani with a giant ferry heaving with people, music, crocodiles and chickens tied up beneath the seats. River Bure underwaterPeach coloured skies were reflected in it’s serene expanse; I remember the tiny lights of fires along its rainforest banks and fruit bats winging their way homewards overhead as I lay on the ferry roof. While swimming alone in a rainforest river in Costa Rica, I noticed a green snake doing the same; it’s small rivers that I like best, at quiet times when I can swim or sit and watch clear flowing waters.

Back to the Source

Enough musing, I’m back in Brighton and have busied myself with some illustration. I’ve been fascinated by old manuscripts with illuminated letters so I’ve done my own. Below is a new drawing, “Back to the Source” that’s the largest I’ve done with watercolour pencils, a whole sheet of A1! I had to photograph it as it wouldn’t fit in the scanner.

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A gift to the mountains

View of Dhauligiri from Poon HillBurying a gift to the mountainsPoon Hill at dawn. A torchlit procession up there. I buried a friend’s gift to the mountains in sight of the impressive Dhauligiri. There were many flowers – a beautiful night meadow (or Night Garden) :)

The Poet Dreams of the Mountain

Sometimes I grow weary of the days with all their fits and starts.
I want to climb some old grey mountain, slowly, taking
the rest of my life to do it, resting often, sleeping
under the pines or, above them, on the unclothed rocks.
I want to see how many stars are still in the sky
that we have smothered for years now, forgiving it all,
and peaceful, knowing the last thing there is to know.
All that urgency! Not what the earth is about!
How silent the trees, their poetry being of themselves only.
I want to take slow steps, and think appropriate thoughts.
In ten thousand years, maybe, a piece of the mountain will fall.

~ Mary Oliver ~

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Day of the Living Goddess

Kumari at IndrajatraIndrajatra Durbar Square, KathmanduSeto BhairabThree Nepali women in redA day in Kathmandu. We stumbled upon Indrajatra, a festival to celebrate Indra, the Hindu god of Heaven and Rainfall. At this time a fearsome face of Shiva, the deity Bhairab, is displayed. It is also an occasion when the Kumari or “Living Goddess” comes out from her house and leads a procession around Durbar Square. Kumaris are pre-pubescent girls chosen and worshipped as “Living Goddesses”. The chosen girls need to have ‘thirty-two perfections’ of a goddess including a neck like a conch shell and a body like a banyan tree.

Caught up in the throng of people, we surged back and forth with our cameras trying to see the young girl as she was lifted into a palanquin. Crowds swamped the temples, reds, pinks, blues. Vegetable stalls still traded with neat rows of vegetables, people appeared at windows, waiting expectantly, watching the frenzied dancing of a man with a ceremonial pole in front of the ungainly palanquin. I craned my neck to survey the erotic carvings beneath the temple roofs and took photos: three women in red with a young boy and a Seto Bhairab mask. The predominant colour was red, everywhere, red against red brick temples.

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Hail the Jewel in the Lotus

Om mani padme hum.

I’m back from a dynamic trip to Nepal. A year or so back I wrote that I wanted mountains, I pictured myself half way up a hillside in sunshine, crystal clear air and sky, simple villages, … yaks perhaps? Well, I went in search of the picture and the state of mind. I didn’t quite find either, in fact it was rather different from how I expected it but very interesting all the same. Instead of finding peace and quiet, often the opposite was true and I found people everywhere. I came away very aware of my own unresolveable problems that won’t go away. I guess one always learns something unexpected. Anyway, here I shall share a few of my experiences.

Boudhanath stupaOur journey started with a stay in Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal. Here a giant stupa on top of a large white mandala dominates. It’s surrounded by a circle of buildings – mainly shops. Under the ever watchful, “Buddha eyes”, hordes of devoted Tibetans and many others circle the stupa in a clockwise direction spinning the prayer wheels as they go.

Often I’d find myself heading back to the guest house walking counter clockwise against the tide – slow progress. On top of the stupa, its quiet, with good views of the surrounding buildings and crowds, – monks talking, monks poised with their bowls awaiting food gifts, little Tibetan women with aprons and beads, pigeons, dogs, tourists with cameras, women with umbrellas against the sun. Busy, yes, but Boudhanath is inside a bubble, outside the gates it’s shocking with clamour and noise. It’s a sacred bubble despite the commercial side – the shops piping out new age chants, the shops selling gems, prayer flags, incense – the mandala seems to whisper and hum like some big inverted singing bowl.

And at dusk, out come the candles. The prayer wheels keep turning and the circling throng has grown; it’s religious rush hour at the stupa. The prayer flags keep flapping gently in the evening breeze. There’s something hypnotic about watching weathered prayer flags lapping softly at the air.

The Boudhanath stupa is interesting but not exactly beautiful to me. I find it somewhat comical like a square toy on top of a puff ball mushroom. I like circles though, I love the constant circular flow around it.

Boudhanath sceneOur guest house was next to one of many monasteries. Each morning we were woken very early by monks doing trumpet practice – on their “Rains Retreat”. Not far from Kathmandu airport, the explosion of planes overhead shook me in my semi-conscious state so I thought the world was coming to an end.

Welcome to Nepal,
Om Mani Padme Hum.

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