Wednesday, 21 March 2012

spring to summer

Now we've reached the vernal equinox, I've begun planning an expedition to take place over the summer solstice. This is to walk along the watersheds of the rivers South Tyne, Tees and Wear, collecting material and artwork as I go.

This morning I walked along the South Tyne valley, up onto Yad Moss to Crookburn Bridge, where the B6277 crosses the county boundary between Co. Durham and Cumbria, before returning by the road. A tarmac surface may be quick, but it was very hard on feet and legs.
the Cumbria/ Co Durham boundary; also the North West/North East regional boundary
As you can see, one challenge I shall have is a lack of firewood at night. This view looks straight across towards Great Dun Fell (covered in cloud) and is the route I shall take. I 'm guessing that there isn't a single tree across those eight miles. I plan to stay the first night on the Northumberland border close to Killhope Cross and move from there to this point for the second night. Both these happen to be close to roads. From here, not only will there not be a single tree until I get within sight of Garrigill, but neither will there be any roads. Here's a view of the last trees I saw, about 3km away...

For all its bleakness, the detail in the moorland is full of life. I nearly trod on this frog. It was probably the first time it had seen a human. I hope the experience didn't disappoint.
Inanimate forms, too, abound, revealing miraculous patterns and colour transformations. To make the most of the experience, I shall be prepared to deviate from my planned route often, over the course of five days and four nights. I expect to spend about one third of the time observing (eco-gazing!), painting, drawing and taking photographs, one-third walking and one-third resting (more eco-gazing!), eating and sleeping.
Below is a sketch-map of my planned route. Because I need to deviate and stop so often to make artwork, I need to do it alone. However, if anyone wanted to spend some time at my night-time rests, that could be good, especially if they brought something to drink or smoke, or to add to the fire!

The purpose for this trip is to raise money for the new roof on Garrigill Village Hall. I shall ask people to sponsor me by buying prints of the work I shall be making. I shall hold an exhibition of the work at the village hall over the autumn equinox. 30% commission from any work sold at that will also go towards the roof. More details on a separate page on this blog:

Thursday, 8 March 2012


What is life, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare? (William Henry Davies)

Good question. We should make time. The variable weather at the moment gives plenty of opportunity to experience the widest range of physical conditions. Why should we make time? Standing, staring, gazing and wondering are not passive states. They are interactive. They require one to confront the way things are. They can lead us to an enhanced sense of well-being, that we belong in the natural realm.  In an article entitled "The healing touch of the wild" for Positive News psychotherapist Hetti Dysch concludes with the sentence 'Helping us to reconnect individually and culturally,wilderness therapy invites us to get to know our landscape and inspires communities to be guided by the blueprint of sustainability and interdependence that nature reveals.' For me, it's a way of triangulating current situations.

This morning I was watching and sensing the interaction of wind and flow on the river water. This was time, the river and my presence creating a moment. Having learnt and practised meditation techniques intermittently, I knew that I could change my level of consciousness. Apparent emptiness could be filled if I allowed the river in. With concentration, I can hold on to what I consider to be a deeper level of consciousness for a while, so turned my attention to the trunk of a tree.
As so often before, once I had started to draw, I became part of what I was observing. The drawing is only an exercise in observation; an aid to understanding. And although I don't set-out to create a drawing that becomes something that might have its own value as an end-product, the desire to create something beautiful does, nevertheless, play a part. By something beautiful, I think I mean something that attempts to communicate or express some human emotion. I was drawn to draw this particular tree trunk by some very raw sensibilities, such as the raw sexual attraction of an orifice and of the released binding from a wire fence. Making the drawing was so very different from taking a photograph and later manipulating it, as I had done two days' previously:

I took this image on my way to the top of Noonstones Hill, from where I could experience the effects of the weather at different altitudes. Also the image below.
From the summit I took this image of Yad Moss. I think it speaks for itself. I was not inclined to interfere with it in any way.
The point I'm trying to make is that meanings and values seem to come to the surface just by gazing. I guess it could be at anything - or anyone - that you love. It seems to reinforce that love. Just as lovers gaze at each other, just as a mother gazes at her baby and the baby gazes back. They and we are a part of each other, and sense a fullness by our belonging. A love of the fullness of life and the way that we are part of that fullness may help us to break our addiction to consumerism. If that's so, maybe we should do it more? And if that's so, I'll give the activity a name. I'll call it eco-gazing.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


In this winter's quieter moments, there's the chance to draw. It's a great excuse to just gaze as well, and just to wonder at how the material world is as it is. The more I gaze, the more I wonder,and the more I wonder the more I wander - into the realm of fantasy and fable. Below is part of a longer panel around the idea of the Celtic tree-spirit, Leannan si. I'm playing with ideas such as these at Celtashgill, my new Wondercelt blog.

Running water, cold air and rocks collaborate and create fantastic forms of ice, turning unremarkable gills into remarkable wonderlands.
Ice grows its crystals across glass, along twigs and around the edges of foliage, leaving another lexicon of shapes from which to draw.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

on the wander

The new year has been shoved along by ferocious winds, which, for a few days at least, have relented enough to make it OK to walk around and absorb what's going on. It's very mild, too, although damp. I've taken the opportunity to look out for a new wild-site to use as a base.

Wandering around the fellsides within striking distance of home, I'm aware how much erosion and chaos the winter weather has been causing. Chaos triumphing over order. Everything in a state of entropy. I quite like that. It's reassuring to note that for all our technological powers, they are as nothing to the forces of natural physics, at any scale. Fungii, mosses and lichens colonise our buildings, gripping the contours of eroded ridges. Winds blast and howl around the corners and under the eaves. They flog to destruction anything loose. Rain and snow is forced into the smallest crack and crevass.  We would do well not to ignore such things. We should be mindful of natural forces all of the time, even when, as now, they whisper to us rather than shout.
I guess this watchfullness is the main motivation for wanting to revive a wild-base. After quite a short while in a natural environment, I can start to feel an attachment. The area around me begins to communicate. I sense a full range of experiences and emotions, although the originhal stimulii may be inexplicable. Sometimes I sense there's a flow that I can be part of; sometimes not. Today I felt like dancing, but didn't.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

feeling slightly sheepish

The surface landscape of the North Pennines, just like anywhere else in Britain, is an occlusion of geology, climate and human exploitation. Farmers and shepherds have brought and bred sheep and cattle that suit the prevailing conditions. They've piled stones into walls, and burnt lime for sweetening the pastures and cementing the stones into shelters. They've planted and felled trees for timber and firewood. They've built tracks and drove roads across and through the hills and dales of this upland area.

The sheep that are such a strong feature of the North Pennines landscape produce wool, of course. Last week, we celebrated and promoted North Pennines wool at an event that attracted around 400 visitors to Lanehead, high in the North Pennines and close to the source of the River Wear. It brought together farmers, small-holders, fleece-processors, spinners, weavers, dyers, craftworkers and wearers of wool. There was a friendly and lively atmosphere to the event, and kindled new relationships and ideas amongst those who attended. Look at this blog:
The week before the wool event, I went with a group down Tyne Bottom Mine, a long-disused leadmine, and another example of North Pennines geology and human exploitation coming together. I was able to dig out some pigment for making into paint, including the yellow ochre in the sheep pictures.
The fusion of rocks, minerals and water underground has created a slowly-evolving visual feast.
On the surface, sheep, pasture, wind, rain and sunlight energise the fellsides.

Meanwhile, the remains of my shelter continue to provide visual stimulus; for creating more artwork and for setting-off a train of thought about the universal process of development and decay.

Friday, 15 July 2011

still learning

Although two seasons have passed since my shelter was dismantled, the experience continues to inform my work. The tumbling of the sky over the land, the scouring by rainwater, and the exposure of rock and buried peat all contribute to the way the composition forms itself.
It's haymaking time just now, and the patterns of the hay meadows are accentuated as the hay is cut, dried, turned and bailed. The sun early in the morning and late in the evening floods over the fellsides, picking out the drama and tensions between the wild gills, the tamed meadows and the drystone walls that separate them.

Friday, 17 June 2011

macro to micro

The Orion Nebula, taken by Hubble, NASA/ESA
Whether gazing millions of light-years into deep space, or staring at a plant just a few inches away, you can only be struck by the beauty of form as it flows around and fills space.
Thistle at my feet
An alluring aspect of space-gazing is the language. The words are more than utilitarian descriptors. They rely as much on references to classical cultures as they do on technical classifications. I've marvelled at Hubble's 'top twenty' photographs and their captions, extracting some of the phrases used and re-ordered them into a kind of poem. It is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd lyrics.

Hubble has peered into the Sagittarius Star Cloud
Majesti appears as a whirlpool
Young stars reside in the curving spiral arms,
the formation of supermassive black holes.

'The Mice': a pair of galaxies
engaged in a celestial dance of cat and mouse.
A dense swarm of stars, patches of dust,
and a bright star cluster near the nucleus of the galaxy.

Saturn's four moons pass across its face.
The white icy moons Enceladus and Dione,
the large orange moon Titan, and icy Mimas.
Enceladus and Dione are preceded by their own shadows.

A Seyfert 2 – a galaxy
probably powered by a black hole at its core.
The thick ring around the yellow core
is an area of active starbirth.

In the Orion Nebula,
more than 3,000 stars reside
in a dramatic dust-and-gas landscape
- plateaux, mountains, and valleys.

A picture-book of star formation,
from the massive, young stars shaping the nebula
to the pillars of dense gas
that may be the homes of budding stars

A Sun-like star is ending its life,
casting off its outer layers of gas,
forming a cocoon around its remaining core.
A white dwarf is in the centre.

Monday, 6 June 2011

crysalis colour

Bark Face
After having stayed very quiet in one place, you begin to notice that the natural world, which at first recoiled from your presence, gradually gets back to its business. Close-at-hand, all sorts of relationships form, fall apart and reform, and at all sorts of timeframes. The contrasts of dark and light seem to intensify, and colour emerges from where there seemed little before. Further afield, where your presence is almost insignificant, clouds and sunlight play on the gradients and planes, reflect off water or become absorbed into clefts.

I've been preparing some new artwork for an exhibition at High Cup Winery, which is open from 18th June - 29th August, and based on the North Pennines around High Cup Nick.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

drawing threads

A visit to the Tarset valley in Northumberland  on Thursday placed me in a different landscape and stimulated some new drawing. However, within seconds of laying out my materials, my attention was drawn to the ground around my feet, where fresh wood sorrel (oxalis) was growing through the leaf litter and moss.  I became engrossed in the same old topic of the adaptive cycle, and the same old obsession with triadic form and composition. Sorrel, moss, and leaf litter were representing the stages of development, consolidation and release. The leaves of the sorrel were divided into three.

After the sorrel, I turned my attention to a dead tree that had fallen across a drystone wall. Here again was the same adaptive cycle. The dead tree had created a new and vibrant environment for insects and therefore a food source for birds. The wall had lost its original purpose of creating a boundary; it was keeping nothing out or keeping nothing in. It had been colonised by plants, some seeking shade, some seeking dry rooting and others seeking shelter from wind.

Light gives way to dark, dark to light, death to life, life to death. Everty time I draw I explore and excite new relationships.

  By drawing the rotting wood, the rusting iron and the crumbling stone of the farm buildings at Tarset, I understood a little more about the buildings' history, and how it was connected to the changing practice of agriculture from pre- to post-industrial times. The farm buildings are now used for more than stock and crops. There is a studio for artists who stay for a year's residency and an office for the publishers of poetry. A barn is used for exhibitions. So the cultural space, too, has adapted to change.

As I was drawing, I reflected on what I was doing. This was my way of experiencing 'deep ecology'. I continue to struggle with the question - is this the way I see things, or is this the way things really appear? I feel part of,and apart from, this place and its inhabitants at the same time.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

spring moon waxing

beech on the banks of the South Tyne
The first flush of spring greening is heralded by an overture of birdsong and rushing water this morning. As  I was drawing, I was wondering which way round it was. Was it tree-roots to rocks to river, or river to rocks to roots?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

fragile & fleeting

iced river surface
I'm at last reconciled to not having a shelter anymore. I've detached myself from the attachment-and-loss-syndrome, and it feels good. From now on (until I build another shelter...) I shall regard the total environment within easy walking distance of home as my 'studio'. That's only right, since it's the place where I study, and where I test-out ideas and follow lines of investigation.
iced river rock
Today I set about a rather obvious thought, and not at all original. It was all about beauty, how it can never be captured, and how it is so fragile and temporary. The frost was sparkling on twigs for a few moments, erect and proud, when the sun's rays flooded in, and then that same sun overwhelmed those thrusts of frost and their sparkle melted away into dark damp patches. These events, tiny in the scale of the immense universe, but immense in the tiny world of the twig, reminded me to be mindful in the moment, to love, dance, sing, laugh and enjoy whilst I still can.

I've been looking at the Lichfield and Lindisfarne gospels, the Lutteral Psalter and the Book of Kells again recently. There's no doubt in my mind that those monks working away in their cold dark cells were like shamans. They saw real and imagined beauty in the connectedness of the universe and transported it through their inks and parchment into our own times. I want my own artwork to attempt the same but in a secular context. I'm reminded, however, of the rather portentous and pompous lines of William Blake:
He who binds himself a joy
doth the winged life destroy
but he who kisses the joy as it flies
lives in eternity's sunrise.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


The mantle of my shelter has been removed. Presumably by a 'keeper in preparation for a passing shooting party - it would be unseemly for the landscape to be scarred by signs of shanty habitation. The season finished yesterday, so the shelter lasted well. Even the stones from around the firepit have been removed. The bigger posts of wood have been laid on top of the brash to weigh it down. The earth walls have been kicked away. I felt cut free. I've been wondering over the fellsides ever since, looking for somewhere else to set-up when the spring brings easier weather.
I've been digging out bits of clay and peat (very tiny bits) that have been exposed by the flush of meltwater, drying them, mixing with PVA, and using them to make images like this one.  As it happens, this also includes a photo of an exposed rock-face and some branches.
Other bits I've brought back down from the shelter, like this wool and lichen, and the piece of birch-bark below.
I've learnt so much from this experience, although I fear that I'll forget some. Writing this blog may help me to remember. Most importantly, I've learnt so much about where to site a shelter and how to construct it. Rough wooden shelters are no good for the winter. This is no place for beast or human habitation.

Monday, 3 January 2011

frozen out

snow remnants
The ice-jaws of the season have had an almost relentless grip since the end of November, pinning the earth down in sub-zero temperatures. Occasionally, a playful release and the surface melts. Then the jaws shift position for a few hours before clamping shut again. The crests of snow and the troughs of brief melting have broken the banks of the shelter. It's reclaiming itself to itself. Nature to nature. It's left me to retreat to the warmth of our house, home and hearth, firelight, family and friends.  Culture to culture. Human relationships become important again.  We talk of our exploits and plot the future. We make-up stories as we share and reflect on the myths, legends and histories in our background.
Dragonade: Rolling Minstrels

In the next three months I shall use the images and material that I've harvested from the site over the year to create, assemble and curate an exposition for display and/or publication.
Supine Earth; Rolling Minstrels

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


The snow keeps piling in, so I set out for the shelter this morning to see just how much more it might have changed. I was prepared to spend some time sculpting the snow. Or, to be more accurate, I wasn't that prepared, because I could only find one glove.

The journey was exhausting because the snow is so light and uncompacted. It had drifted a little, filling the hollows and flattening the crests. Without a stick, I was unsure how deep I would plunge with every step. Sometimes it was around shin-deep, mostly knee-deep, but often waist-deep. On two occasions I went as far as my armpits. That was frightening, especially close to the gill where I had no way of judging where land stopped and water started. I couldn't afford to twist my ankle or fall awkwardly; no-one knew where I was. I became supremely cautious and watchful of every move. At one point I stamped some steps down a steep side, looked across the gill and jumped with both feet landing parallel, unsure whether to brace or relax into the snow. As it happened, the spot I had chosen to land on was relatively firm, the snow being no deeper than knee-height.
This trip seemed to be all about edges. Some blown, some blasted, some cut, some stamped and some eroded. Windward and leeward edges. Sharp horizons and snow-blown crests. Dark bellies and crystalised combs.
spider twigs
Upon arrival at the shelter, I hesitated. The driven snow had created beautiful arcs and bends around and over it. It seemed crass to change it, but I did. I compacted the snow with the intention of packing it around the wood and turning it into an igloo. However, the snow was so soft it just seemed to melt away. After a while I stopped, resolving to let time and weather do the work for me. It was warm and cosy inside as it was, and the insulating properties of the loose snow was obvious. Adaptation could be left to natural forces. I found my stick and came back across the open fellside, making good progress with the confidence that the stick-cum-probe provided. The snow was no thinner, but the going was easier.