I have created a calendar of wildlife illustrations for 2023 called Into the Woods.
The calendar features 12 highly detailed, sepia, pen and ink wildlife illustrations for the months of 2023, with an additional one for January 2024. Accompanying each illustration is a grid for each month for notes along with the phases of the new and full moons, but no public holidays. It is sized A4, opening to A3 when it is hung on the wall, with a punched hole for hanging.
Included are pictures of badgers, nightjars, owls, deer, hares, otters, a kingfisher and a dipper, amongst other woodland animals. It is printed on high quality 200gsm paper and will be sent in a stiff, kraft envelope.
Over the past couple of years I have been putting together a little book, Dusk, Night, Dawn. It is a collection of nature writings about my encounters with wildlife during the twilight and night hours here in the UK and on trips abroad.
The book started when I was having mentoring with Amy Liptrot. She commented that much of my writing was about dusk. I then collected a few pieces together and set out to have more experiences that I could write about. These included the time when I saw nightjars in King’s Wood, Kent and looking for bears in Romania. Some of my pieces have been published in magazines, on websites or blogs and in anthologies, but I have put them all together in one book and have included pen and ink illustrations to accompany many of the pieces. Here is an example:
I submitted my book to WriteNow in 2017 and it was shortlisted. I submitted it to Spotlight Books and again it was shortlisted, but it didn’t win. It was suggested that I should include more of myself in the book and make it into a narrative. Well, it is what it is, a collection of writings like an anthology. I have sent it to a couple of publishers but I am expecting to hear the same problems with the book, so I won’t be surprised when I hear back from them. In the meantime I’ve put together a mocked up copy with the help of my partner Kevin.
It took Kevin quite a while tp format and lay out the book ready for printing and help design the cover. He took it on as a project.
Having got the printing done, I was keen to investigate ‘perfect binding’ to put it together. This means that when the pages are put together, there is no creep. I researched how to do perfect binding and Kevin made me a page vice. Some commercial printers only do staple bound, so I chose to do the whole thing myself.
I applied PVA glue to the vice-bound page edges and attached the cover.
Here is the finished book, front and back:
The process was tricky but fun. I’ll wait to see what the publishers say before I do anything else with it.
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.
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.
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;
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,
dreaming in gold and sweat. Dreaming in thunder.
We swan in the River Lot
and in the River Cele with butterflies on the bank for company.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My interest in wildlife and nature extends well beyond illustration; I am a frequent roamer of woods and ways and have written pieces about my excursions, some of which have been published in anthologies which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.
I do like signs and presences left in the environment, the tracks, feathers, eggshells, etc that I might find on my wanderings. I also like art that hints of the same – I have mentioned the earth art of Ana Mendiata before.
I have thought about starting a new nature ramblings blog, but have decided to write about nature here as I often want to create something artistic from my finds. Spring is the perfect time to get out and watch birds and other wildlife, busy with breeding activities, and look for signs.
Recently I went on an excellent two day Wildlife Tracks and Signs course. We studied the tracks and gaits of various animals and signs such as scat, skulls, feathers and pellets. We found badger, hedgehog, vole, otter, roe deer, fallow deer, muntjac deer, squirrel, wren, newt and beetle tracks. It’s challenging to get into the mind and world of the animal and tracking as an art means using all of ones senses. I like to connect to nature in a deep way – and leave only footprints… and occasionally something else for somebody to find :)
It started with my neighbour having a clear out and leaving a pile of white box frames on the wall outside my house (it’s common for people to leave stuff on the pavement with a note saying “Free, please take me!”). The box frames were in excellent condition and I had an idea of creating a layered illustration inside one similar to the way I make altered books.
My first attempt was of a deer in a glade. I took it to Studio 45, a little gallery near the Open Market in Brighton, where it promptly sold. I created more layered illustrated papercuts and bought some more box frames to continue the project. Those I’ve completed so far can be seen below. Some have gone to good homes, some are for sale in my Etsy Shop and Folksy shop and a couple are in galleries. They reflect my current themes of woodland, woodland edges and the wildlife that lives there.
I am creating a separate page for box frames in the same way I’ve created a page for altered books. I’m still very much into pen and ink but soon I’ll get into colouring again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“In the woods, the spirit can stretch and change, can move like a willow, elastic in spring…In the woods, you may be lost in your thoughts, willingly lost, creatively lost, which allows you to enter the mind’s forests, where the wind within can blow you somewhere sought and as yet unfound….In the forest is a child. But inside the child, will always be the forest. Breathe the forest deeply enough in childhood, and the birds will still be singing seventy years on.”
From Forests of the Mind by Jay Griffiths
Here in the UK, it’s Spring and I’ve been out in the woods enjoying it. Woodland flowers are blooming and birds are singing their hearts out. A week ago, while wandering a wood near Brighton, I watched as a stoat was chased by some very protective rabbits; it was a real wildlife treat!
The other day, Kevin and I ventured further to two of my favourite woods in West Sussex, The Mens and Ebernoe Common both owned by The Sussex Wildlife Trust.
The Mens is an open beech and oak wood, with other trees such as holly and midland hawthorn. I chose to take photos looking into the light which streamed through the open canopy and Spring growth. Great tits dominated on the bird front, but we also saw or heard woodpeckers, treecreepers and nuthatches. The paths were soft with last year’s leaflitter and some slopes were dotted with wood spurge and lesser celandine. We had the wood to ourselves and one of its beauties is that it’s big enough to get lost in! But I’ve never been truly lost…in a wood…yet.
Ebernoe Common is perhaps my favourite wood. It’s here that I come to see woodland butterflies such as silver-washed fritillaries and a plethora of grasshoppers and crickets in Summer, or to do bat surveys and enjoy the sun sinking mauve over Furnace Pond. On our recent visit, we spent some time around the lake watching orange tip butterflies mating or laying eggs on cuckoo flowers on the wet margins.
But besides the wildlife, and escaping the town, I agree with Jeanette Winterson that woods
“..are places to dream….There is a wooded place in our heads….the forest holds the memory of other lives and other ways of life…is one vast memory system that binds with our own.”
The bluebells are coming out now. If you’re interested in finding a wood near you check out the Visitwoods website.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
I took this today while visiting Woods Mill, headquarters of The Sussex Wildlife Trust here in Sussex. There were many flitting above the water and resting on their territories amongst the vegetation. This is a male, resting on his territory hoping to attract a female. I love his indigo wings! Watching and trying to photograph them is captivating.
Kevin took the other photo which, although its blurred, I like better as it shows their beautiful, hazy flight and the shadowy stream bed.