May Meanders

I'm logging the progress of my work and my excursions over the month of May 2012. To follow, read from the beginning of May as logged just below, and continue reading down the page to the end of the month. 

WED 2 MAY 2012

Two days into the Merry Month of May. It's my favourite month because it offers so much promise - even though, by the end, usually much that was promised remains unfulfilled. But that doesn't really matter, because there are still the long days of June to look forward to, and to be optimistic about. The May morning dawned with steely grey skies and a soggy wet fellside. Not a good start. A long chat down the 'phone with a good friend was a better distraction.

Anyway, yesterday in Penrith we visited an exhibition of photography of the natural world, before watching an inspirational film and listening to its main protagonists as they described the process of filming, the process of milling flour using wind or water, and the process of making bread. It was a strange contrast. The former was formal, clinically clean, precisely presented but lacking any humanity. The latter was a whimsical, clattering fairground ride of ideas, enthusiasm and passion. The headlights of my car failed as I returned home - really difficult to stay on the road in the dark, especially in the fog.

I'm trying to prepare artwork ready for opening a new gallery space in Alston this weekend. Also, Trish's car needed some repairs to the exhaust. So I walked, almost ran, across the fells and down to the village to collect it. I was just about tripping over the lambs. In my haste, I was sometimes failing to spot the boggy bits. By the time I was at the garage, my right foot was squelching with wetness in my boot. There was no time to really engage with the river in spate, roaring through its gorge, glistening and sparkling as it crashed its way through and over the rocks. There was no time to even smile at the bright new green shoots, or to savour the scent of the springing wild garlic, or to watch the lambs and their mums.

Today I needed to go to the Scottish Borders, to make progress on a project looking into the feasibility of linking arts activity with young people surviving trauma, which will be taking place in the Scottish Borders region and in North Edinburgh.. I left in dismal damp, cold fog. This cleared by Tynedale, and then broke into a riot of sunshine and cloud shadow as I headed through Redesdale, crossed over Carter Bar and headed for Jedburgh. After my meeting in Galashields I went to visit Thomas The Rhymer's Stone. The rich loam and red clay of the Tweed Valley is highly-cultivated. Thankfully, there are interesting hills that draw your eye further out to both the north and the south.
Although the sun was summer-warm, the air from the east was cool.
Bluebells and comfrey were the most noticeable plants in this part of the Tweed Valley - apart from the lurid yellow rapeseed, of course.

In the town of Melrose, it seemed that people had come out with the blossom. A small compact camera is ideal to record these stolen moments when I can leave the official route for a while. By the time I returned, the skies across the North Pennines, too, had cleared.


Strange weather yesterday; very localised. I walked out over soggy, spongy ground. Wreaths of mist, rather than cloud, clung resolutely to some ridges and crests. The light cool wind was still in the east, but the sun was warm from early on. I came back and finished a couple of paintings, both of which were stimulated by the way that mosses seem to suck the moisture out of air. The sunlight was strong where I was. One painting is a close view, the other a far view.

In the afternoon I had to go to Edinburgh. That really showed how localised the weather was in the North Pennines. I returned in the early hours. It was a strange sensation along the ridge from Catton over to Carrshields. You could see the moon shining brightly above, but you couldn't see more than a few yards ahead because of the persistent mist.

Today the rain has a sweet smell. It's gentle,and  there's only light zephyrs of wind. I'm going to spend the rest of the day setting-up our new gallery space which we're calling Alston Art Space. I scrawled some oil-stick across a painting to try and liven it up.


According to the Met Office, this is the coldest start to May for 70 years. It was -7C on Saturday morning. I had to break the ice on the hens' drinker; something I expect to have to do only occasionally in midwinter. The annoying aspect of this weather is having clear nights (along with a full 'super-moon'!) so all the heat dissipates, and then cloud thickening through the mornings, ending-up with flurries of snow, hail and rain. The night times have been light - an eerie blue moonlight where you can clearly see details on the hills, but not  enough light to reveal reflected colour. My bay tree, which I keep indoors over winter, is surely suffering. This is a bank-holiday weekend, but the usual droves of sports bikes screaming their way along the trans-Pennine routes are missing. There seems to be very little leisure traffic, either. I feel sorry for the cyclists on the C2C route. For all their effort, they're rewarded with a biting cold headwind, and less-than-the-usual spectacular views each time they summit. The retail and leisure businesses on Alston Moor are very weather-dependent. Yesterday (Sunday) a ceramics gallery sold precisely nothing to three visitors. We fared only slightly better in our gallery. Here's a drawing from the window. I left the cars out, so it seems even bleaker than it really was.

Because of the cold, I don't feel inclined to go out walking the fells. It seems odd to have to dress for winter in such long daylight hours. The farmer has told me the grass has stopped growing again. If it hadn't been for the unseasonable coldness it would have been a record year for numbers of lambs born. Many died within the first few hours after birth from coldness.


Yesterday morning the same pattern of weather prevailed; clear cold dawn and then thickening cloud with showers that increased their strength and length as the day progressed. I decided to go out regardless and dressed accordingly.
Cross Fell was dwarfed by the plume of cloud that rose from its escarpment. I was up on the aptly-named Windy Brow, feeling the sting of wind-driven showers. The brow is really a series of steps of different layers of sandstone and limestone. I was on the penultimate plateau from the crest.
It was pock-marked with sink-holes and old bell-shafts, cracked with gills that had eroded the rock further and exposed glistening piles of loose stones, and split laterally by the weight of peat that sagged in great lumpen wave-like haggs.
The surface was spongy with sphagnum moss; a constellation of bright green stars. For all the sullen sky, stinging rain and searing wind, there was much at which to wonder.

Much of this exchange of weather, mineral and vegetation I shall try and represent in artwork when I get a day in my studio again later in the week.

This morning and through to mid-afternoon, the weather was much kinder. Light, relatively-warm wind and some direct sun bathed the hills for long spells. The hens were contented. The lambs and their mothers were basking on hillocks. I spent much of the day at a planning meeting in Ellie's workshop on her smallholding. The sun had lightened our mood, and we made great progress. On my return trip I resolved to visit a ridge I hadn't even noticed before. However, this late afternoon and now into night-time, clouds have darkened the skies and the weather has yielded to persistent rain.


Since the middle of last week the weather has remained chaotic, with only one constant; cold air. Apart from  yesterday evening and overnight, the wind hasn't been strong, but the constant change from bright sunlight to dark, dense and thick cloud is very unsettling. I start to do something, get sidetracked, start something else, dither, dally, drink too much coffee and eat too many impromptu sandwiches.  I never did get to do a whole day's work in the studio. On Thursday the snow fell from low cloud in large dollops. Later, as the cloud lifted it revealed the sugar-iced summits of the surrounding hills. I dragged myself up along Windy Brow and looked over to Cross Fell, which was completely white where it wasn't obscured by fingers of cloud.
The snow made me look more closely at the ground around my feet. The shy unassuming water avens are out. Fronds of sweet cicerley and meadowsweet are appearing. There's still hope that the summer will resume.

On Friday I did my stint in Camelot House. It was a great excuse to leave all that unpredictability of the fellsides, to shelter among the dependable walls and roofs of the town, and watch from behind a window. There were a few visitors late in the day. Before that I took the opportunity to once again draw what was outside.
The rectangles and regular patterns of windows and fascias were just so easy. It was a relief. Order was clear, although at pavement level the usual clutter of cars obscured the completeness of the buildings. Although this is an obvious statement, the sky was so less important that it is out there in the open country.

On Saturday and Sunday I went to the Clyde coast to prepare my boat for the season. I experienced the usual surge of excitement as I crossed the Erskine Bridge and  looked northwards up the deep blue firth studded with white sails, and the pale blue mountains beyond.  However, the weather was not as settled as forecast, with sunny spells and short showers. So once again, once I reached the boatyard, prolonged activity was thwarted as I moved back and forth from varnishing inside to painting and scrubbing outside. The electronic message boards along the motorway all said "HEAVY RAIN SUNDAY". That meant I had to make the most of the long daylight hours. I finished at 9pm when the light had faded and the last sails had gone from the loch, had a restless sleep until 5.30am on Sunday, and resumed work until the freshening wind brought squally showers which developed into constant rain. Not a single sailing boat was on the move today. There was no point in carrying on, so I packed-up and returned home.

Today I tried to download images from my camera, only to discover I hadn't put the card in. The few long shots I'd taken of the evening sky toward the mountains on the Isle of Arran will have to remain only in my memory. I tried to ignore the all-too-fresh air around the house. We're still lighting a fire at night, so using what I thought would be my autumn supply of logs.


The early rain yesterday, Tuesday, turned to sleet and then to snow, and fell hard enough to settle for a while. This unseasonal weather is not just getting boring, it's also getting depressing.

Although the day brightened a little, the air was still far too cold. I made some bread to compensate. There is so much I need to do at this time of year - gardening, canoeing, walking, sailing and, of course, drawing and painting - but I can't, and a strange fatigue is setting in. I want to be out there, watching the small daily changes as spring gallops on into summer. For a while in the late afternoon, the sun came out and the wind faded away, so I went down to continue the drawing I've been requested to do of Garrigill Church. I spent a blissful 45 minutes in the churchyard with the woodland birds for company, before the chilly wind picked-up and the clouds darkened the sky once more. (I wasn't as insulated with andrelin like the newly-inaugurated French President Francois Hollande who faced-down a soaking along the Champs d'Ellysee.)
 This morning, though, after the crisp white frost, was bright and sunny. I resolved to make the most of it and took quite a lot of art materials with me. I headed for a stretch of woodland on a steep bank where I knew there'd be plenty of wild garlic. Since the trees are still not in full leaf, I hoped to find some interesting deep views deep into the tree cover. The walk across the fell and down to the river was strange, because although the sun was strong and almost hot from the southeast, the slight wind from the northwest was still bitterly cold. Fire and Ice. At the river, the sun was playing on and through the water to the riverbed.

Before I got to my preferred destination I was distracted by a small thicket by the river at which I often stop. It may sound rather silly, but this place has often set me wondering about a strange energy in and around the trees.
There's an old half-decayed dead tree that seems to be the mother of all the others. None of them seem to be too bothered about growing upright. It's a wild stretch of riverbank where decay, germination, development and consolidation become intertwined. Only when I start to draw it can I really begin to understand it more fully. It's a very alluring place; it's so intense with life that it creates a sexual frisson. The curves and clefts in the limbs are those of beautiful women. I drew some of the old dead matriarch with great respect.
 My chosen space was a complete delight. I explored it more fully and spent so much time feasting on its smells, sounds and sights, that I didn't make any more artwork.

I did take around 30 photographs, though, and having now downloaded them, will use some as starting points for paintings.


Almost a week has passed, and everything is beginning to change fast - as demonstrated by this exploding larch tree. Although none of us was thinking of fast change last Thursday, as the coldness continued to dog the late spring. On Thursday I took a desultory walk up to the snow-poles and back. The clouds and patches of sunlight on the hills made for some interesting interplay, but generally the landscape seemed weary of waiting to move into the warmth.

I spent most of Friday on our gallery space, so paid little regard to what was going-on out on the fellside. On Saturday and Sunday, Trish and I were busy with tidying the house for our Tanzanian guests. We hoped they'd not feel too cold, coming from just 1 degree South of the Equator. The grass was dry enough to cut. Some of the quiet Alpine plants had begun to flower, and the nettles and mints had become more visible. There's enough new growth on the garden herbs to start using them now. May is beginning to open-up its treasures. It seems strange for daffodils still to be in bloom, alongside tulips. The lambing is finished and the lambs are growing sturdier by the day and have lost their newborn appeal. In fact, they've invaded my garden in gangs a couple of times, now, like testing teenagers.

Yesterday, Monday, I was out early on my bike. No wind and a warm feel to the air from early on, although I found a tiny patch of frost still. I sat outside drinking coffee with Pete before he went to work. He's just constructed an amazing shed/ studio (he calls it his shedio), and sowed a turf roof. By afternoon, the haze turned to cloud with only an occasional break. It's hardly surprising, as the air rises to clear the summit of Cross Fell which was completely white with snow on Saturday morning (gone by late afternoon). The water temperature from the solar panels only reached 52 degrees. In March it was over 70 on several days, so the sun's warmth is still not penetrating as well as it might.

Today the sun is increasing in strength and so far only an occasional waft of cloud from Cross Fell has wondered over its path. Looking for green shoots of growth - yes, the ironic reference is intended - I feel prompted to put in a sub-heading here.

birch, bottle-brush and bugle

A purpose of this log is to demonstrate my response as an artist to climate change. I'm aware that I'm doing this from quite an oblique angle. However, I hope a reader can see that the more I observe of seasonal changes in the natural world, the more I'm aware of factors that need to be taken into account when assessing climate change, and how fragile the patterns and correlations seem to be; how vulnerable they appear to be to the slightest change. And that's from someone who knows next to nothing about the reliance of insects, birds and animals on plants appearing at the right time, especially for global migration patterns. The swifts and swallows have arrived at some local buildings, but not with us yet. I feel very aware that chaos, catastrophic change and various tipping points are not far away. So while some of us are almost mesmerised and caught in the headlights of natural forces, others have never observed them directly and therefore feel no sense of urgency.
Maybe visual art on its own cannot create the necessary scale of shock to jolt the media and populations to demand a sustainable future. Instead, as ever, the news is dominated by economy - a human-made condition - that trumps ecology every time.
Here's an example of what concerns me, written by Tian Song in a publication

"Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 2"

 edited by Henry Sussman.

The Economic Chain is a Transforming Chain of Matter and Energy
Let’s start with a simple question: why can we drink a bottle of mineral water coming from some remote mountain on any street corner of any city whenever we want to? Such a thing happens so frequently that we do not feel anything strange about it; the experience is part of daily life. Only 20 years ago when bottled water first appeared in supermarkets most Chinese viewed it as weird: who would be so rich and so silly as to buy it? How things change. What does it mean?
The simple answer is this: we are able to buy it, and we are able to afford it. Why can we buy it and afford it? Because of economic development, we can exploit mineral water from the source at a low cost, then we can bottle it and transport it all over the globe. This is the upper link of the transformation chain of mineral water. The consequences of the upper link are the following: 1) a large amount of water is taken away from its original place; 2) the water will no longer play its original ecological role for humans, animals, and plants there. The water companies obviously do not pay their workers enough compensation, since if they did the bottled water would be too expensive to afford.
But only considering the upper link of the economic chain is not enough to answer my question: why can we drink a bottle of mineral water on any street of any city? Answer: because we can throw the empty bottle into any garbage can in the streets. This thoughtless action concerns the latter half of the economic chain. Why can we throw the empty bottle into any garbage can? Because the garbage in the can will be transported to some garbage dump outside the city by a large group of cleaners employed by the city. Why can the city build garbage dumps outside the city? Because the city is able to buy land for its garbage dumps at a low price, given its economic and political power. If we continue asking questions in this way, we can trace the rest of the economic chain, and reach its lower link.
Similar to the upper link, the consequence of the lower link is that humans, animals, and plants living in the location of the garbage dump can no longer live there as before, and the ecological system at the site of the garbage dump is destroyed.

Meanwhile, the new shoots on the larch tree in my garden continue to explode.


...just a day later, but the grass is greener, the blooms are brighter and the air is warmer, as the sun continues to shine. Here's the bugle again, 24 hours later:


Apart from a canoe trip on Wednesday evening on a beautiful calm Ullswater, returning home to warm evening air, I seem to have spent the days since I last updated this just driving around. This means that you read the landscape very differently from sitting or standing still, walking or cycling. You're looking for flow in the road, mostly looking well ahead and so seldom experiencing the immediate ground over which you're travelling.

On Thursday, we moved unequivocally into summer conditions. The temperature reading for the solar thermal panels rose to 128 degrees; 87 at the top of the tank. We've made more than £10 each day since then from our solar PV panels. I took a route to North Northumberland that saw me opening gates down in grassy valleys in some parts, and then travelling at high speed at other places across high open moorland.

All of this against a blue cloudless sky. I enjoyed a pub meal outside with some friends on the North Northumberland coast and drove back to their home as the sea fret moved in.

By Friday morning the cold sea fret had filled The Meuse and the Tweed valley as far west as my destination, Jedburgh. It was cool until mid-morning when the sun broke through, as you can see in this image of Jedburgh Abbey

Returning to Alston to do my stint at the gallery I had a tyre blow-out. The surface of the road was reflecting back some heat from sun. It reminded me of mainland Europe. In the evening we shared a meal with our Tanzanian visitors, who still felt the need to wrap in blankets...

On Saturday and Sunday, we spent most of the time with the Tanzanians at the North Pennines Centre, Lanehead, near the source of the river Wear. I thought it strange that the boys preferred to play football in their bare feet on the old gritty tarmac. Apparently that's so they don't wear out their shoes. As I was playing, the ball ran out into a patch of nettles, followed by a Tanzanian boy. Nettle stings were a new experience for him.

The sky remained cloudless throughout the weekend and up to midday today. I was hot in Galashields - almost unknown. At Harestanes, the sun had brought out parent and toddler groups. I spent some time talking to Eoin Cox MBE about his work with woodland and people, the Big Tree Society
I'm excited about the prospect of working with him. What he does is clear evidence that connecting people to the natural environment through working with natural materials is transformative and empowering. To quote, "most households have huge fuck-off plasma screens in their living rooms, but they don't even own a saw".


Yesterday I was back along the road to an overcast Edinburgh. Before I left I had time for a walk in the sun along by the river and up Ashgill Gorge, and within minutes of setting-off, I heard the first cuckoo call of the year. It was very re-assuring. There was a time, about four years' ago, when I hadn't heard a call, and I thought this might mean that yet another familiar seasonal mark was fading away.

However, I've neither seen nor heard a buzzard for several months. The news is that this week wealthy Tory MP Richard Benyan, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Natural Environment and Fisheries), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who only last week was applauding the work of wildlife trusts, has sanctioned the 'permanent removal' of buzzards from some grouse moors in Northumberland using £375,000 of taxpayers' money. To quote from The Independent:
The Defra research contract proposal has no figures. Instead, to grab a little statistical credibility, it says that "76 per cent of gamekeepers believe that buzzards have a harmful effect on game birds". Well, they would, wouldn't they? It might have quoted a study carried out by the agricultural consultants Adas, commissioned by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which found that on average, the number of pheasant poults taken by birds of prey (all birds of prey, that is, of which buzzards would be just one element) was 1 to 2 per cent, with far more dying as a result of road collisions. But it didn't.
Instead, what has brought the contract into being is the request of a group of six shooting estates in Northumberland, who feel buzzards are taking too many of their poults, however many that may be. Their good fortune is to have found a very receptive listener in Richard Benyon, a millionaire landowner with a 20,000-acre estate in Berkshire and a strong sympathy for the shooting lobby. And now Mr Benyon has personally sanctioned research costing £375,000 of taxpayers' money to investigate buzzard control through measures which include "permanently removing" birds from sites, and giving them to anyone who will take them, and destroying their nests by "for example, using squirrel drey-poking pole, or shotgun from below".
 This seems to confirm that the government's promise to 'be the greenest government ever' is just cynical greenwash, and that the vested interests of the Tory establishment will trump all other interests every time. Buzzards are wild, pheasants are not, Mr. Benyan.

Most trees have completed their greening, and Ashgill Gorge looks resplendent in its verdant summer clothes, creating deep shade below for a wide range of wild plants.

Today, it seems that the hot sunny weather has gone, and the frenetic clamour of plant growth has quietened.. That's just as well, as I need to crack-on with writing a report. It's so much easier without the distractions of sunny fellsides. Tomorrow is the last day of May, making this my penultimate entry.


A defra Press Release regarding buzzards now says:
We’ve listened to public concerns, so we are stopping the planned research and developing new research proposals on buzzards.
Today, Wildlife Minister Richard Benyon said:
“In the light of the public concerns expressed in recent days, I have decided to look at developing new research proposals on buzzards.
“The success of conservation measures has seen large increases in the numbers of buzzards and other birds of prey over the last two decades.  As Minister for Wildlife I celebrate that and since 2010 we have championed many new measures to benefit wildlife across England – set out in our England Biodiversity Strategy. 
 “At the same time it is right that we make decisions on the basis of sound evidence and we do need to understand better the whole relationship between raptors, game birds and other livestock. I will collaborate with all the organisations that have an interest in this issue and will bring forward new proposals.”


By the time I awoke after a music session last night, the skies were dark with cloud, the wind was swishing the drenched new leaves and the rain was stotting on the conservatory roof. It was refreshing, and over the course of the day, as the clouds thinned to let in some milky sunlight, the greens deepened in hue and the flowers were almost luminous.

Shoots from the dark earth seemed to yearn for the fresh damp light.

The late spring continues to be the most vivacious episode of the year. Running this log has been an insightful way of looking closely at the changes, not in an externalised sort of way, where you just mark your observations, but in an introspective way. I've wanted constantly to be reassured that events are happening according to what I've known from the 60 or so springs I've previously experienced. it's made me edgy. I haven't had the usual luxuriant Dylan Thomas exuberance about spring and its fecundity. But it's still been a great trip, and taken me to real places, some just a few paces from where I live and work, to seek out the extraordinary in the ordinary.
I shall probably miss doing this log, but my next venture starts soon. I shall be wandering the watersheds over the summer solstice. The grass will be longer and wetter and the midges will be on the wing...

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