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.
Maybe you are searching among branches for what only appears in the Roots. ~ Rumi
I have recently received a contributor’s copy of the journal, Minerva Rising, as I have one of my pictures, The Dreaming Tree, featured in its pages.
My picture sits opposite a poem, Coyotes Talks to Me by Gina Hietpas. Gina contacted me to say she’d like to send me a photo of a tree she loves that is somewhere in the US. It is a magnificent tree with roots exposed to the sea and wind, a real Tree of Life. I should love to see such a tree, but, for now it is in the photo and my imagination.
It is strange to see what is normally hidden, revealed.
I have been thinking about roots, origins and belonging. The theme of this issue of Minerva Rising is roots. Roots physical and metaphorical, have found their way into my drawings and writings since I first started doodling and, more recently, they’ve appeared in my altered books.
…What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water…
The Wasteland T.S.Elliot
Roots – I have the need to look beneath the surface of things and to look within. It may reflect a need to return to earth, the ground beneath my feet and look deeper. Up above a branching canopy transcends the troubles and problems that seem to pervade everything at ground level. Roots give shelter, a shield against the chaos of the world. If I was another sort of animal it would be good to be a bird, but I think I’d probably be a subterranean, crepuscular animal right now. A kiwi, perhaps, pottering among the subtropical roots of a podocarp tree.
I have always liked trees and roots. As a child, I loved the book, “The Tree that Sat Down” by Beverley Nichols, with the shop within the base of a willow tree.
Over the past ten years I have had a sense of being uprooted, a persistant upheaval carrying me away from what really matters and cutting me off from my source. This sounds dramatic, but off and on it has been quite unsettling and I’ve had to fight to root myself. This goes along with a sense of unbelonging, but then I’ve always really had that.
In Brighton I notice the roots of elm trees heaving up the tarmac in protest.
At the end of last year I decided to make a new altered book with roots as a starting point. I’ve based them on buttress roots of rainforest trees like the Ceiba Tree, a tree sacred to the Maya. The Maya believe the tree links the three realms – the heavens, the earthly plane where humans live and the underworld. I have written a little about it at the start of my piece, A Fragment of Forest over on my writing website.
The altered book has taken me a long time and it’s still not finished. It’s now many pages deep, both sides of the central spread. This one is just for me I think, I probably won’t be able to sell it.
I also wanted to paint a wooden scaffolding board with leaves and roots. I’ve had the board propped up in my kitchen-cum-studio for weeks. Now I wish to festoon it with intricate leaves of greens and browns, with animals between the leaves, roots and branches. And perhaps a few stars between the branches. My Tree of Life. This has come to me from many sources, including the myriad plants that surround me in my flat. Plants have been silently speaking to me as they always have. It’s good to try painting boards once again, although my basic acrylic paint infuriates me and I realise that I just can’t paint! At least I have broken the spell of ‘blue’. However, I’m toying with the idea of giving the painting a wash of blue to create a night scene….possibly.
Recently I stumbled on the wonderful botantical art of Jess Shepherd. Her Leafscapes are amazing. I find her work mesmerising and meditative. I recently went to sleep with the image of one of her leaves fixed in my mind’s eye. It stilled me and took me elsewhere. Thank you Jess, I’m following your wonderful journey in search of blue flowers down under. She has got me really thinking about plants, drawing vegetation from life and looking really closely at it. I am also reminded that I have an inclination towards blue too.
As the new year begins, I am still, taking a pause while I try to work out where I am going. I’m still waiting for a sense of direction. I feel as though I’m caught mid-stream, suspended and going nowhere. Perhaps this is what this roots exploration is about, trying to find something to anchor myself to before I can move off with the current. No doubt I’ll see in time.
I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of research. It’s like peeling away layers and discovering networks that spread and spread, mycelia of knowledge that go on and on and on. The earth is wrapped in nerves and synapses, strands and pathways – to roots and beyond. Recently I’ve read that scientists have discovered life deep within the earth’s crust. The deeper they go, the more surprises come to light. There are microorganisms that do not need the sun. Instead they create methane which they just use to repair themselves. They have been buried for millions of years. This is life living in the really slow lane, in geologic time, not in the franetic pulse of our diurnal rhythms. That fascinates me, it stretches my mind into deep time. Here is a link to the article.
As I write this I am reminded of one of my favourite novels, An Imaginary Life by David Malouf. I think of it partly because the copy I read had roots on the cover, but also because the main character, Ovid, from the cultured, tamed Roman world, becomes more aware of nature and less afraid of the wild in his last days. The writing, the plot, the themes of exile, of belonging and unbelonging, speak to me at the moment and the many layers of story and meaning are beautiful. Towards the end:
…”I am growing bodiless. I am turning into the landscape. I feel myself sway and ripple. I feel myself expand upwards toward the blue roundness of sky. Is that where we are going?
The earth, now that I am about to leave it, seems so close at last. I wake, and there, so enormous in their proximity to my eyeball that I might be staring through tree trunks into an unknown forest, are the roots of the grass, and between the roots, holding them together, feeding them, the myriad round grains of the earth…
Round the base of these roots, seeking refuge amongst them as in a forest, finding food, are the smaller creatures – wood lice, ants, earwigs, earthworms, beetles, another world and another order of existence….We have come to join them. The earth’s warmth under me, as I stretch out at night, is astonishing. It is like the warmth of another body that has absorbed the sun all day and now gives out its store of heat. It is softer, darker than I could ever have believed, and when I take a handful of it and smell its extraordinary odors I know suddenly what it is I am composed of, as if the energy that is in this fistful of black soil had suddenly opened, between my body and it, as between it and the grass stalks, some corridor along which our common being flowed. I no longer fear it. I lie down to sleep, and wonder if, in the looseness of sleep, I mightn’t strike down roots along all the length of my body,and as I enter the first dream, almost feel it begin to happen, feel my individual pores open to the individual grains of the earth, as the interchange begins….I shall settle deep into the earth, deeper than I do in sleep, and will not be lost. We are continuous with earth in all the particles of our physical being, as in our breathing we are continuous with sky.”
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.
“The world Tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the terrestrial world, and, through its roots, the underworld.” (Wikipedia)
Below is a photo of what is thought to be the ‘root’ tree above ground in the grounds of Pech Merle;
Inspired by the idea of a tree with branches in the upper world and roots in the underworld, I’ve created a collage, World Tree:
It also features a Cosmic egg, butterflies and a jumble of other images, letter fradments, poems etc. I wanted to add insects as we saw so many at the cabin, especially cicadas.
Cicadas spend years below ground in a larval stage, only living a few months above ground as an adult. They also shed their skins periodically – I found a few exuvia attached to bark with all the intricate details of the live insect, even the sheen on the insect’s composite eye. This is another link with the ‘underworld’, and metamorphosis too.
I’ve added bees and wasps to the collage as in Ancient Greece bees represented a link between our world and the ‘underworld’ as well. I found various pieces of paper wasp nest near the cabin – beautiful and intricate – which I might add to some creation (watch this space).
With the idea of bees and honey, I’ve played with the World Tree image in Photoshop. Here is a honey-coloured version:
This reminds me of the Mappa Mundi that I went to see in Hereford Cathedral, Hereford, a few years ago;
I like the idea of using maps in collage and plan to do more, perhaps adding some natural materials like eggshells, wasp nests and feathers. I’ll also have to do my own Mappa Mundi at some point :)
Towards to end of last year a friend on Facebook, Meryl of Black Cat Floral Designs, suggested that I create some wedding invitations with woodland, wildlife or Goddess themes. It’s taken me some time to work out quite what’s required as there seem to be so many variations out there, I’m a bit in the dark about the whole subject.
Anyway, I’ve created some designs and had a few samples printed to see how they look.
They include Woodland Wildlife – with rabbits;
A springtime leafy one;
A ‘Goddess’ one;
and Two Deer one which might work best for an autumn wedding;
They are currently simple and unfolded on stiff white card but I plan to make some ivory ones on folded card.
Based in Chester, Meryl creates wonderful things with flowers for any occasion. See below and check out the galleries on her website.
I’m hoping to create a page on this website with more details and options soon. In the meantime if you’re interested, contact me here.
For the March issue of Brighton’s Preston Pages magazine my piece, Dawn Chorus in the City was featured along with the illustration below:
The Preston Pages’ Dawn Chorus in the City was a shorter version of a piece that was originally published on the City Creatures blog and which I’ve now added to my other nature writing website, From the Fields and Woods. I wrote the piece last year and there have since been changes to the garden my flat looks down on.
In January our next door neighbour had some of our trees cut because she wants more light in her garden. i felt very sad about this and requested that as little as possible be cut so the garden was still a wildlife haven. Below you can see photos of before the cut and after. I’m used to it now but the trend in cutting down city trees saddens me whether they are in the street or in peoples’ gardens. I’m all in favour of a bit of wilful neglect so wildlife can flourish in peace – and I mean birds, foxes, badgers or whatever (I draw the line at rats).
It’s not so bad!
Anyway, I’d like to create a Dawn Chorus artwork beyond an illustration. So far I’ve created a candle lantern:
Here is an MP3 recording of the dawn chorus from my balcony:
At the beginning of June I spent a week in a little forest studio at the edge of King’s Wood in Kent. The idea was to take some time out to experience the wood at dawn, dusk and day, time to get inspiration for the book I’m writing. I was doing another mini immersion in nature.
I spent some time wandering in the nearby beech wood plantation, listening to the silence or gentle moan of the wind through the branches. It was like being within a giant underwater forest:
There was such a contrast between the dark interior and the light exterior:
Wandering and looking at the beech wood trees made me think about the way I create woodland and tree altered books. So I have been making an “In the Beech Wood” altered book:
At dusk I went out to see if I could see nightjars in the chestnut coppiced area. I was lucky. For several evenings I heard their uncanny churring song and saw the dark shape of the males flying against the sky clapping their wings as they do to display to the female or ward off any other males encroaching on their territory. They were too fast and it was too dark to photograph them but I can picture them in my mind’s eye.
Nightjars are mysterious birds, birds which have attracted superstition and folklore down the ages. They’ve had many names including the name ‘goatsucker’, which stems from their Latin name Caprimulgus which means to milk nanny goats. The myth arose as nightjars were drawn to the insects surrounding livestock.
I wandered into the chestnut coppice by day getting to know nighjar territory and was surprised to find an old nest site with a couple of hatched eggshells!
As a child I loved pop-up books. A friend once sent me a pop-up postcard of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain featuring a thoughtful, solitary figure. It was a beautiful, inspiring card. I have mislaid my card but I found a photo of it on the web:
I am now altering books. I made my first altered book, angel wings a few years ago. Now I am working in pen and ink and with the forest as my inspiration, I’ve started with a square paperback book, a sort of thick pamphlet.
Altering a book is like creating a stage-set, a little window on to life or on to a dream. Life seems very much like that at the moment, I am in the wings, I have a secret view into a strange, alternative world that is sleeping or buzzing, busy with dreaming, busy with weaving dreams. (I am reminded of a lovely folktale from the Isle of Skye called The Dream Makers. It is about deer too. Sharon Blackie has written a lovely version of it on her blog here.)
I am fascinated by burrows, badger setts and secret havens. I like to find signs of the presense of animals – smeuses (gaps in vegetation made by the passage of animals), ‘couches’ of flattened grass where animals like badgers have lain while away from the sett; feeding signs. It is interesting to think that beneath my feet, along a woodland trail, might sleep a badger.
I bought a couple of the small Observer field guides secondhand. They’re not rare or valuable but I do like them and treasure copies I’ve had for decades. I thought that I’d work with an image that I’ve drawn recently, of a badger sleeping beneath tree roots which is inked in with a gold sky:
With another old book, I have created a forest scene, again with deer and a central tree with spreading branches and roots. I cannot decide whether to complete the picture behind the deer or leave the pages of text. I quite like seeing the writing, the essence of the book still evident.
The book of the forest. I have other ideas for altered books – portraits, goddesses, icons – but I don’t think I have quite finished with forests, trees and deer yet.
There is a new, temporary, sculpture in the park near me, a gateway or screen, a memorial to the Elm tree. It stands beside the two of the oldest elms on Earth, the Preston Twins of Preston Park, Brighton.
The sculpture is carved from elms felled in the River Cuckmere valley last year due to Dutch Elm Disease. Elm trees around the country were wiped out in their millions from the 1970s by the disease. In Brighton effective control measures were introduced, so it is the last stronghold in Britain for mature English elms. There is still a wonderful variety of elm trees here, originally planted by the Victorians and Edwardians.
On the front are flying birds – rooks – a copse of Winter elms and a sun. Along the bottom are the words:
“Ad gigantes augustos olim per terram nostrum pervagatos, nunc defectos” which means “A memorial to the lost, majestic giants once spreading through our land.”
On the other side are swirlly clouds like waves and the hopeful words:
“The last bastion, shielded so future generations may still know of them.”
The Elm tree had its own nymph in Greek mythology. She was one of eight tree spirits or Hamadryads and her name was Ptelea. Elm trees feature in ancient literature including the Iliad and the Aeneid, where in the Underworld there is found the Stygian Elm of the River Styx or Elm of Dreams:
Spreads in the midst her boughs and agéd arms
an elm, huge, shadowy, where vain dreams, ’tis said,
are wont to roost them, under every leaf close-clinging.
I seem to be continuing the woods and trees theme this year with my new booklet. This time it’s a story, a kind of folktale and I like to describe it as a “tale from the forest” and it’s called The Memory Tree. It is taking time though, already I have worked on several drafts and done many pictures – some for a colour version which I’ve decided to shelve for the moment.
However, I thought I’d show one or two pictures from the tale, a colour spread of a forest scene and it’s equivalent in black and white (the one I’ll use for the book) and a picture of the main character, a girl named Echo.
While she slumbered, a dream came to Echo, a dream of tree spirits and creatures she had never seen, watching, waiting, spying and humming in the darkness around her. It was a dream too, of forgetfulness, her tree, her garden, her parents and her past seeped away into the darkness as she slept.
Trees, woods and forests are so important to me. I need to take frequent trips out to the woods and it has been particularly lovely walking out in the Autumn woods recently, just before the storms hit and the blustery weather made its debut. Here is a favourite tree at Markstakes Common where we walked recently. It’s a large, spreading oak that’s been climbed in and well loved over time. All the woodland and forest visits I’ve made around the world – from woods like this to rainforests in Costa Rica – are distilled into my little story making the forest in it a lush, fictious kingdom from anywhere and nowhere, a forest of my imagination.