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.
Our weekend trip to Wiltshire began with a day of respite from the rain and strong winds. We drove to West Woods, southwest of Marlborough, for a walk along the Wansdyke path. The path runs parallel to an ancient dyke, originally named Woden’s Dyke from the Norse God Odin, god of wisdom. It was created in the early Medieval period to divide Celtic kingdoms or keep the Saxons away. It is about 21 miles long, but we only walked a small section of it through the beech wood, protected a little from the wind and accompanied by the croak of ravens.
The long barrow is surprisingly – well, long. The entrance is sheltered by some giant sarsen stones and, behind these, I was pleased to discover that you can go right inside the tomb. The interior is a passageway of algal covered slabs leading to a larger chamber at the end. There are five side chambers off the main passageway.
It was dark and still inside, quite a contrast to the bleak windswept fields without. It reminded me of Gavrinis without the carvings. I had a good feeling about it and could imagine all the rituals, camps and festivities that have taken place over the centuries within those sacred, cave-like spaces.
The barrow has been dated to about 3,700 BCE, the start of early farming, the heyday of pastoralism before the ascendance of crop cultivation. Artifacts were found within the tomb(s) – pottery, flint tools, coins and other offerings – alongside skeletons of about 36 people.
Descending from the long barrow, we detoured along the back of a strip of woodland. There was no official path, but footprints in the soft soil betrayed the countless other people who had done the same.
We were in search of a not-so-secret spring, Swallowhead Springs. At the end of the wood, we slipped through a gap in the fence and there it was, a area of lush grass and clear-running water seeping out from a bank. A red kite hung suspended over the field behind, jittering, and manoeuvring in the windy gusts from the southwest.
Central to the spring area, is a willow tree whose boughs arch to the ground, a clootie tree. Tangled within its branches are ribbons and offerings – a mug, corn dollies, candles, a little plaque with two hares on it, coins embedded in its bark. Some speculate that it was considered holy in ancient times, a place belonging to Brigid, an early Irish goddess of dawn, spring, fertility and healing. True or not, the place has become sacred to neo-pagans today and important to spring seekers like us.
The spring helps feed the River Kennet that flows beside the willow. Sarsen stepping stones have been placed in the river to provide access from the field to the north. On the day of our visit the river was high, submerging the stepping stones, flowing cloudy green, the colour of fluorite. A fallen crack willow bridged the river; it too was decked with ribbons.
We lingered, peering into the clear spring water with its waving verdant weeds, enjoying the quiet beauty of this sheltered corner. Then we made our way back to the car and headed to Avebury.
That night I had a dream. I was with a group of scientists learning about the difficulties they face in the world today with the climate emergency, bush fires, coronavirus, species extinctions, flooding, refugees etc. I was told that some scientists in remote places were forbidden to look out of the windows of their vehicles and had to watch virtual reality scenes instead, so bad was the devastation to the environment. Incongruously, among the scientists in the dream, was a willow grower lining up pots of willow trees. I was mesmerised by the apple green sunlight shining through the willow leaves. The light caught a gemstone, the sliver of a turquoise sea; it dazzled me. Then the willow grower handed me a book with well-loved pages saying I should read it as it was about willow trees. I remember musing about how good it would be to have answers to some of the world’s problems hidden within the willow tree. For a start, there is salicin from willow bark, a chemical similar to aspirin, but, perhaps there is more. Planting trees throughout the world is certainly part of the solution to some issues. Maybe the answers do lie with the trees – or with the birds as I have often thought. The croak of the raven…
I have always had a fondness for willow trees. In the garden of my childhood home, we had a weeping willow in which I used to sit. They are associated with water and the moon and I think there is a lovely flowing beauty about them. I know a little about willows, but now I shall endeavour to learn more.
We left Cherhill the following day just before storm Dennis came with full impact. After driving for an hour, the car decided to pack up and we became stranded on a roundabout. The winds grew and the rain lashed while we waited three hours for the RAC. Again, we cheered ourselves up singing Julian Cope songs and watching seagulls play in the rain.
I haven’t had a lot of practice writing book reviews, but I thought I’d try. Here’s one I’ve written recently:
I am drawn to water and freshwater in particular. Inspired by Roger Deakin’s “Waterlog”, I was keen to read “Turning”, a swimming memoir by Jessica J. Lee – and really enjoyed it.
The author, a Canadian with British-Chinese parents, is living temporarily in Berlin to write up a thesis. Feeling depressed she turns to swimming in the hope that she’ll heal a broken heart. She decides to set herself the challenge of swimming in 52 lakes around Berlin over the course of a year. With just her bicycle and packed lunch she sets off during breaks in her writing to swim in a lake every week, sometimes using the train and often alone. Swimming in all weathers, she likes winter the best and occasionally has to break lake ice with a hammer. Her relationship with the lakes grows as the environment subtly changes with the seasons.
Swimming becomes a way for her to find a sense of belonging in a new city. She hopes to find solace and gain an understanding of herself by literally immersing herself in the landscape. The book works well in various ways. For example, the author’s experiences, memories and feelings are reflected in the landscape and water with the use of simple similes and metaphors,
“I’ve been angry with myself for losing my equilibrium, for confusing swimming with love. I’ve been furious at myself for sinking… Feeling as clear as the day, as deep as the lake.”
When she swims, the language is sensual and lyrical but hints at her deep hurt,
“…The lake feels cleaner on your arms, less like velvet, more like cut glass.”
She has a keen eye for the details of the natural world, illustrated when her current situation as a newcomer to the region is accentuated by some wildflowers she notices,
“I’m struck by a tiny flash of pale pink in the green. Himalayan balsam… They are aliens here.”
During her explorations she encounters the ghosts of Berlin’s past as well as her own. Musings by writers such as Theodor Fontaine and the research of water scientists interweave with the author’s story.
Water permeates the book; cities, countries and continents are linked by their lakes and the author’s history. Relationships ebb and flow, sometimes serving as anchors, sometimes causing grief. Her present story shifts to her past and back again until we are acquainted with her life – like the stratified layers of a lake.
In the last chapter Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing”, is mentioned, an influential book for the author. Perhaps this could have been introduced earlier in the book.
Like Roger Deakin in “Waterlog”, Jessica J. Lee successfully gets “under the skin of things”. But her story is markedly different. “Turning” is beautiful book about lake swimming, loss, resilience, solitude and finding a sense of belonging.
Last Sunday Kevin and I joined a group of artists at Herstmonceux Castle for an introduction to a project called Underwateredge organised by artists Clare Whistler and Charlotte Still. The project has involved exploring the site of where the coastline used to be in the area now known as Pevensey Levels, searching with archaeologists and historians to unearth interesting finds in the layers of the landscape. Now they are inviting artists to respond to the landscape with writings, artworks, dances, stories, audio experiences or music for exhibiting or performing during Waterweek.
Last year Waterweek took place in the town of Hailsham in East Sussex. It celebrated water and was the culmination of Clare and Charlotte’s exploration of the tributaries of the River Cuckmere. It involved archaeologists, water boards, conservationists, dancers, farmers etc and this year will include other artists too. Last year I took my little River Goddess booklet as a gift as I felt so drawn to it all and I guess that is why I was invited this year to one of the artists’ walks.
The landscape was sodden, marshy and the sky, a stretched, taught sheet keeping the sun at bay. Crack willow lined some of the dykes; a broken, unkempt landscape awash with water. Water spilled everywhere and in some places it was scummed by pennywort, an “alien invader” weed. I noticed the shells of freshwater mussels on a bank where dredging had taken place. It was interesting to wade through the land and think that where we ventured was once sea or at least salt marsh. Scrubby willow woodland marked the ancient water edge on higher ground. A hare bolted from behind a log pile of willow, riveting across the puddles only to vanish as suddenly as it had appeared. Robins sang in the tangled, lichened woodland and in the distance, gulls or egrets looked like white flags snagged in the trees and dykes.
When we returned to the castle for lunch, Sally Willow, a storyteller, read out her version of an old Sussex folktale called Elynge Ellet about an ugly hag who lived in the swamp and lured people to their doom. According to Michael O’Leary, in the Sussex dialect, ellet was an elder bush and elynge described an eerie, uncanny, solitary place. In the story, “Elynge Ellet was a green-toothed, green-haired, frog-eyed creature with long fingers like suckers and woe betide the children who played beside a marsh pond as Elynge Ellet might get them.” She would be an interesting character for me to illustrate :) Most of the story can be read here.
“Beneath every river there is another river and all of them flow into the Lake of Time”.
This is a quote from the book The River Wife by Heather Rose that I have just finished reading. I feel close to this book, it’s taken me back to a more aqueous time, a time when I would find myself beside rivers gazing into their depths, day dreaming up my river goddess projects. (Perhaps my river goddess was not a goddess at all, but more like a “river wife”, as in the book, a tender of the river, collecting, sorting, weaving the stories told and unheard.) It is a beautiful book and reads like the gentle, mesmerising flow of a river. The river wife is a woman by day, but returns to the river, to moonpools and the vastness of lakes, as a fish by night. She falls in love with a man who comes to stay in a house by the river and gradually the timeless patterns of nature start to unravel. It is a story of magical realism, an enchanting, adult fairytale, tender and melancholy. Within it there is a timelessness, like any fairytale, and a depth; it hints at eternity, of a place before and after Time, a numinous, archaic place beyond the known. But most of all, it’s about the mysteries of water and love.
“Water is message. It is truth that asks nothing, a story older than people and older than mountains, a holder and deliverer of memories beyond time.”
“…some would say any story of water is always a story of magic, and others would say any story of love was the same…”
I cannot remember how I bought my copy, I know that it came from Australia as it’s not possible to buy it here in the UK. I’m so glad that I made the effort to get it. I hestitated before reading it as I thought it might influence a story that I’ve begun to write that I’m calling “The Fisherman’s Dream”, a magical story that is inspired by the life cycle of the brown/sea trout. Hopefully I’ll get around to working on it, and to investigating the mysterious spawning grounds of the trout, which include some remote chalk streams here in Sussex. (That will be another project to add to my jumble of other half-finshed projects.)
Today is the Winter Solstice, the day the sun stands still, waiting. The year hangs poised on it’s fulcrum, about to turn us once again into lengthening days and the long journey back towards the light. Today felt subterranean. Beneath a sky of grey lace, Kevin and I found ourselves on a hill beside a spring near the village of Sharpthorne, Sussex. We were there with seer and shaman, Wind Singer to bless and honour the waters, a slightly different way for me to spend the shortest day of the year.
There is something I have always found special about bodies of water and rivers and springs are no different. Springs have been honoured for millenia – where there’s fresh water straight from the ground, it is life-giving and carries the note of the rock from where it issues, iron or other minerals which are beneficial. The waters of many springs were – and still are – believed to heal. The spring we visited today is a chalybeate spring. The word chalybeate derives from the latin word for steel which originally comes from the Greek word khalups, single for Chalybes, a mythical people who founded iron working from Mount Ida in Anatolia and where, incidently, Cybele, an Anatolian Mountain, Mother Goddess was worshipped.
In the russet landscape beneath an intensifying sky, We stood in a triangle around the spring pool. Bubbles rose up to the clear surface periodically – it seemed to be alive. Wind Singer felt the landscape energies and led the blessing. We laid holly for the male, mistletoe for the female and ivy for the light. And then we placed a woven square of twine beside the pool and scattered flowers on its surface to drift above the last water boatmen. I put my hands into the water and was surprised by its warmth and softness.
We will revisit this little spring and would like to give it a name. Something to do with Cybele perhaps, or iron or even a still, frozen sun.
Progress is slow on the art front. I’m continuing with my goddess book and every-so-often get drawn to doing a painting or two. While researching occasionally I stumble on an artist, poem or film that resonates with me. So I thought I’d share a few artists and other inspirations that make me feel encouraged to work more expansively.
Firstly I’ve chosen this video clip of Ariel from the film, The Tempest. It aludes to a liminal, spirit world just out of sight, beside the shore, through woodland trees on an island. A haunting, beautiful realm of magic and spirit. Ariel, male or female or both, resides there in this realm. I like the description of him that accompanies the video clip:
“the embodiment in spirit of human emotion, vulnerability and compassion. He can transform his physical presence into essences of light, fire, wind and water, and the corporeal manifestation of harpies, frogs, stinging bees and bubbling lava”.
Freed from his/her imprisonment in a tree by Prospero, he/she is bound to serve the magician but yearns for freedom; (I can relate to that.)
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.
Ethereal, otherworldly, ghostlike, haunting, with nature and water – all ingredients that moved me to paint my Siren picture a few years ago.
I’ve drawn on my Siren painting for my goddess Lethe of the River Hades, one of the six rivers of the Ancient Greek Underworld – a goddess of the liminal world. While researching for her, I stumbled on the an installation which was the result of a collaboration between the sculptor Rosalyn Driscoll and the film-maker Tereza Stehlikova called “Rivers of Hades: Forgetfulness (Lethe)”. Both artists were exploring perception and synesthesia. (Synesthesia is something I’m fascinated by … hearing colours, seeing sounds, the blurring of the senses.)
I like the description and photos of the installation, how it is about a viseral relationship with nature, memories, feelings and dreams. It is made of translucent rawhide giving it an organic, animal quality and the colours of twilight. It is sculpted in such a way as to suggest water caught in time or a body in water with video images projected on or through it, representative of memories, dreams, the otherworldly, hauntings, ghosts and death. This is Lethe, a river which the dead must cross to forget their former lives, a River of Forgetfulness (like my River of Memory painting that I have painted before). Video images cross and blur boundaries and edges suggesting impermanance and fragility. I would have liked to have seen the exhibition and the Sensory Worlds conference that staged it.
So much water this year, the news seems to be inundated with stories of floods and storm surges. Water is taking over, spilling over banks, uniting oceans, seas, rivers… and it is seeping into my art themes once again.
I am into pen and ink once again which takes me back to my days of doing many illustrations for the Brighton based organisation, RiverOcean. In those days my drawings were all about sea creatures and the sea. Well once again my pen and ink drawings are water related but drawn for a small book I’m writing on River, Sea and Moon Goddesses, a theme that I’m especially interested in… back to that underground river that flows beneath my life.
My illustrations here are of perhaps some lesser known goddesses. Take Ved’ava for example, a goddess of the sea or water spirit placated by fishermen of Finno-Ugric peoples. She is sometimes portrayed as a kind of mermaid with a fish tail, playing, singing and seducing humans. If a fishermen saw her it was not a good omen as she was believed to be a drowned person’s spirit.
Then here’s Vejama, or Yemoja, she has several names. A goddess of pregnant women and the River Ogun, a river in West Africa, but she is also a goddess with namesakes in other parts of the world. In Brazil, she is Queen of the Ocean and a goddess of fishermen and shipwreck survivors. She is a mother goddess, a fertlity goddess, a spirit of Moonlight too. I wanted to base my pen and ink illustration on the photo collage of my River Goddess, Moanna. I’m not sure it works, what do you think?
A better-known goddess is Sedna, or Nerrivik, goddess of sea creatures and the Underworld in Inuit mythology. There are various stories about Sedna but most tell of the chopping off of her fingers from which are created the seals, walruses, whales and other marine creatures the Inuit hunt. If angered she withholds the sealife from hunters in her undersea domain and it requires a shaman to metaphorically dive to find her at the bottom of the sea and brush the tangles from her hair to calm her. I am particularly inspired by Inuit culture and myth right now. My goddess still has her hands and she looks a bit wooden so I’ll need to work on her.
This is a ‘taster’ for my book. I’ll be keen to get back to working with colour again soon.
is 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. 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.
The 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. Peach 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.
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.
‘Around 1620 BC, a gigantic volcano in the Aegean Sea stirred from its nineteen-thousand year slumber. The eruption tore the island of Thera apart, producing massive tsunamis that flooded the nearby island of Crete, the centre of Europe’s first great civilisation – the Minoans. This apocalyptic event, many experts now believe, led to the eventual downfall of the Minoans, and provided the inspiration for Plato when he later wrote about the people of a mighty island, Atlantis, which sank beneath the waves and was lost forever, ‘in a single day and a night of misfortune’.
I’m once again back into drawing. I wanted the woman in my picture to be “awash in a pearly dream” of sea creatures – just like the sea creatures on the Minoan ceramics after the Thera explosion that caused a tsunami to reach the shores of Crete. I thought I could perhaps use the idea in my Turtle Dreaming story.
I have been inspired by other art namely Diego Rivera’s Water: Origin of Life mural, my favourite mural that sadly no longer exists as it was painted in Mexico City’s water system and has now been washed away. The theme was homage to the life-creating power of water. I like the hands, the myriad of protoplasmic life forms, the crabs, lobsters, representations to people and god-like figures and the cross-section nature of it.
And recently, I have dreamt of boats leaving their moorings and the arms of the harbour, setting out to sea on voyages into the unknown. It is good to feel as though I’m once again going somewhere :)