Saturday 24 December 2011


THOUGH THERE ARE PRIMROSES growing outside our house, and coat-wearing is a matter of choice, they tell us this is December, and midwinter passed without our breaths becoming visible in the air. Nevertheless we have hung lights and evergreenery in our houses, and lit fires against the cold that hasn't yet come. And nature, in puzzlement, has bedecked herself in winter costume - white-green lichen for snow, and unfallen apples for baubles. Her branches are as beautiful as frost-furry antlers, but warm still and waiting, waiting for the snow...

My days have been a clockwork of hectic, but now we settle in for spiced and flickering nights with each other and the dark fathoms-deep Dartmoor sky. I want to wish you all the most wonderful Yuletide and a year of good true adventures to follow. Thank you most earnestly for all your kind kind words and for your support and purchases and donations this year, and for continuing to read and to look at what I scatter here with such delight, it really does mean a great deal to me. Thank you to all those who snapped up the winter cards, I was unprepared for the enthusiastic uptake! There'll be more available in the new year when my shop reopens. Before too long, I'll gather all the loose strings of things still to tell, but for now, on this Night Before Christmas, I wish for something unexpected and wonderful in each of your stockings hanging now by your fires, and I leave you with words from one of my most cherished writers - someone I would have dearly loved to meet, someone who for me in the winter, becomes a kind of godmother through her wise and quiet words - Tove Jansson, who brings us snow... 


by Tove Jansson


When we got to the strange house it began to snow in quite a different way. A mass of tired old clouds opened and flung snow at us, all of a sudden and just anyhow. They weren't ordinary snowflakes – they fell straight down in large sticky lumps, they clung to each other and sank quickly and they weren't white, but grey. The whole world was as heavy as lead. 

Mummy carried in the suitcases and stamped her feet on the doormat and talked the whole time because she thought the whole thing was such fun and that everything was different. 

But I said nothing because I didn’t like this strange house. I stood in the window and watched the snow falling, and it was all wrong. It wasn't the same as in town. There it blows black and white over the roof or falls gently as if from heaven, and forms beautiful arches over the sitting-room window. The landscape looked dangerous too. It was bare and open and swallowed up the snow, and the trees stood in black rows that ended in nothing. At the edge of the world there was a narrow fringe of forest. Everything was wrong. It should be winter in town and summer in the country. Everything was topsy-turvy. 

The house was big and empty, and there were too many rooms. Everything was very clean and you could never hear your own steps as you walked because the carpets were so big and they were as soft as fur. 

If you stood in the furthest room, you could see through all the other rooms and it made you feel sad; it was like a train ready to leave with its lights shining over the platform. The last room was dark like the inside of a tunnel except for a faint glow in the gold frames and the mirror which was hung too high on the wall. All the lamps were soft and misty and made a very tiny circle of light. And when you ran you made no noise. 

It was just the same outside. Soft and vague, and the snow went on falling and falling. 

I asked why we were living in this strange house but got no proper answer. The person who cooked the food was hardly ever to be seen and didn't talk. She padded in without one noticing her and then out again. The door swung to without a sound and rocked backwards and forwards for a long time before it was still. I showed that I didn't like this house by keeping quiet. I didn't say a word.

In the afternoon the snow was even greyer and fell in flocks and stuck to the window-panes and then slid down and new flocks appeared out of the twilight and replaced them. They were like grey hands with a hundred fingers. I tried to watch one all the way as it fell, it spread out and fell, faster and faster. I stared at the next one and the next one and in the end my eyes began to hurt and I got scared. 

It was hot everywhere and there was enough room for crowds of people but there were only two of us. I said nothing. 

Mummy was happy and rushed all over the place saying: “What peace and quiet! Isn't it lovely and warm!” And so she sat down at a big shiny table and began to draw. She took the lace tablecloth off and spread out all her illustrations and opened the bottle of Indian ink. 

Then I went upstairs. The stairs creaked and groaned and made lots of noises that stairs make when a family has gone up and down them for ages. That’s good. Stairs should do that sort of thing. One knows exactly which step squeaks and which one doesn't and where one has to tread if one doesn't want to make oneself heard. It was just that this staircase wasn't our staircase. Quite a different family had used it. Therefore I thought this staircase was creepy. 

Upstairs all the soft lamps were on in the same way and all the rooms were warm and tidy and all the doors were standing open. Only one door was closed. Inside, it was cold and dark. It was the box room. The other family’s belongings were lying there in packing-cases and trunks and there were mothproof bags hanging in long rows with a little snow on top of them. 

Now I could hear the snow. It was falling all the time, whispering and rustling to itself and in one corner it had crept onto the floor.

The other family was everywhere in there, so I shut the door and went down again and said I wanted to go to bed. Actually I didn't want to go to bed at all, but I thought it would be best. Then I wouldn't have to say anything. The bed was as wide and desolate as the landscape outside. The eiderdown was like a hand, too. You sank and sank right to the bottom of the earth under a big soft hand. Nothing was like it was at home, or like anywhere else. 

In the morning it was still snowing in just the same way. Mummy had already got started with her work and was very cheerful. She didn't have to light fires or get meals ready and didn't have to be worried about anybody. I said nothing. 

I went to the furthest room and watched the snow. I had a great responsibility and had to see what the snow was doing. It had risen since yesterday. A thousand tons of wet snow had slithered down the window-panes, and I had to climb onto a chair to see the long grey landscape. The snow had risen out there, too. The trees were thinner and more timid and the horizon had moved further away. I looked at everything until I knew that soon we would be done for. This snow had decided to go on falling until everything was a single, vast wet snowdrift, and nobody would remember what had been underneath it. All the trees would sink into the earth and all the houses. No roads and no tracks – just snow falling and falling and falling. 

I went up to the boxroom and listened to it falling, I heard how it stuck fast and grew. I couldn't think of anything but the snow. 

Mummy went on drawing. 

I was building with the cushions on the sofa and sometimes I looked at her through a peephole between them. She felt me looking and asked: “Are you alright?” while she went on drawing. And I answered: “of course”. Then I crept on hands and knees into the end room and climbed onto a chair and saw how the snow was sinking down over me. Now the whole horizon had crept below the edge of the world. The fringe of forest couldn't be seen any longer; it had slid over. The world had capsized, it was turning over quietly, a little bit every day. 

The very thought of it made me feel giddy. Slowly, slowly, the world was turning, heavy with snow. The trees and houses were no longer upright. They were slanting. Soon it would be difficult to walk straight. All the people on earth would have to creep. If they had forgotten to fasten their windows, they would burst open. The doors would burst open. The water barrels would fall over and begin to roll over the endless field and out over the edge of the world. The whole world was full of things rolling, slithering and falling. Big things rumbled, you could hear them from far off, and you had to work out where they would come, and get away from them. Here they were, rumbling past, leaping in the snow when the angle was too great, and finally falling into space. Small houses without cellars broke loose and whirled away. The snow stopped falling downwards, it flew horizontally. It fell upwards and disappeared. Everything that couldn't hold on tight rolled out into space, and slowly the sky went dark and turned black. We crept under the furniture between the windows, taking care not to tread on the glass. But from time to time a picture or a lamp bracket fell and smashed the window-pane. The house groaned and the plaster came loose. And outside, large heavy objects rumbled past, rolling right through the whole of Finland all the way down from the Arctic Circle, and they were even heavier because they had collected so much snow as they rolled and sometimes people fell past screaming all the time.

The snow on the ground began to slither away. It slid in an enormous avalanche which grew and grew over the edge of the world … oh no! oh no! 

I rolled backwards and forwards on the carpet to make the horror of it seem greater, and in the end I saw the wall heave over me and the pictures hung straight out on their wires. 

“What are you doing?” Mummy asked. 

Then I lay still and said nothing. 

“Shall we have a story?” she asked, and went on drawing. 

But I didn’t want any other story than this one of my own. But one doesn't say that sort of thing. So I said: “Come up and look at the attic.”

Mummy dried her Indian ink pen and came with me. We stood in the attic and froze for a while and Mummy said “It’s lonely here,” so we went back into the warmth again and she forgot to tell me a story. Then I went to bed.

Next morning the daylight was green, underwater lighting throughout the room. Mummy was asleep. I got up and opened the door and saw that the lamps were on in all the rooms although it was morning and the green light came through the snow which covered the windows all the way up. Now it had happened. The house was a single enormous snowdrift, and the surface of the ground was somewhere high up above the roof. Soon the trees would creep down into the snow until only their tops stuck out, and then the tops would disappear too and everything would level itself off and be flat. I could see it, I knew. Not even praying would stop it.  

I became very solemn and quite calm and sat down on the carpet in front of the blazing fire. 

Mummy woke up and came in and said, “Look how funny it is with snow covering the windows,” because she didn't understand how serious it all was. When I told her what had really happened, she became very thoughtful. 

“In fact,” she said after a while, “we have gone into hibernation. nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!” 

I looked carefully at her and understood that we were saved. At last we were absolutely safe and protected. This menacing snow had hidden us inside in the warmth for ever and we didn't have to worry a bit about what went on there outside. I was filled with enormous relief, and I shouted, “I love you, I LOVE YOU,” and took all the cushions and threw them at her and laughed and shouted and Mummy threw them all back, and in the end we were lying on the floor just laughing. 

Then we began our underground life. We walked around in our nighties and did nothing. Mummy didn't draw. We were bears with pine needles in our stomachs and anyone who dared come near our winter lair was torn to pieces. We were lavish with the wood, and threw log after log onto the fire until it roared. 

Sometimes we growled. We let the dangerous world outside look after itself; it had died, it had fallen out into space. Only Mummy and I were left.

It began in the room at the end. At first it was the nasty scraping sound made by shovels. Then the snow fell down over the windows and grey light came in everywhere. Somebody tramped past outside and came to the next window and let in more light. It was awful. 

The scraping sound went along the whole row of windows until the lamps were burning as if at a funeral. Outside snow was falling. The trees were standing in rows and were as black as they had been before and they let the snow fall on them and the fringe of forest on the horizon was still there. 

We went and got dressed. Mummy sat down to draw. 

A dark man went on shovelling outside the door and all of a sudden I started to cry and I screamed: “I’ll bite him! I’ll go outside and bite him!” 

“I shouldn’t do that,” Mummy said. “He wouldn't understand.” She screwed the top onto the bottle of Indian ink and said: “what about going home?” 

“Yes,” I said. 

So we went home.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Wayfarers' Nativity

THE NIGHT COMES EARLY these days, leaning up against our old rattly windowpanes, which ooze condensation and owlsong from four o'clock on. The long evenings afford us time to do Things Indoors by the fire, or at our dark desks. In the picture above, you might just be able to make out the image emerging on the paper below the lamp - but only in the reflection in the window.
It's a new winter painting - a ritual I've kept for some years now - to make a new snowy painting at this dark end of the year. No other time of year seems to call me to paint it so regularly, and these winter paintings always end up on my Christmas cards when I send them. 

This year I decided (at long last) to make Winter Cards to sell, which meant completing this snowy painting early so that the cards could be designed and ordered in time for fairs and for you to buy to send...
Which meant that I couldn't labour over a detailed creation for weeks on end, and since I've been trying to force a freer looseness in my work of late to combat my finickity temperament, I made this a watercolour of quick light sketchy strokes, and tried to draw with the paintbrush in splodges rather than with hair-thin lines. I deliberately used a paintbrush slightly too big and determined to finish this in two days. 

So here follows the progress of this work in pictures....

The image - a kind of gathering of nomadic folk, stopping to set up camp and collect firewood amongst the trees in the snow - I drew quickly, without worrying it too much, and without "finishing" the figures at the pencil stage which I am prone to doing:

Then I splurged on some sky, and put colour on clothing, not worrying if the paint ran over the edges, or colours mixed in unintended spots...

My accuracy with the too-big paintbrush was a little haphazard around the trees and I intentionally left watermarks where wet and dry paint met. I put on loose washes over the faces and left a space for the firesmoke too...

Gradually, each little figure was put in, suggested rather than drawn...

All of the painting came straight from my imagination, drawn and painted without reference to anything, except my inner snowy, firelit world.
Some of the scenes were very small...

And then I began to add other details around the figures - small blueish brown splodges for snow-footprints all around the encampment, and twigs in hands and on backs...

Finally, when all the paint was painted and dry, I coaxed the important bits out with a pencil, sending back the darks and tucking in the edges...

Though I decided in the end to leave the trees and their edges with the sky alone - just rough seagreen watercolour, not heeding its proper boundaries...

But I drew in the faces softly where I could...

And then, almost to my own surprise, it was done.

And here it is, Wayfarers' Nativity available to buy as a print in my shop now.
The tribe, whoever they are, gather wood for the fire in the midst of cold white winter to warm the stew in the pot, and to warm the babe in arms, just visible inside the bender. I didn't know this was going to be a nativity painting to begin with, but it has become somehow an alternative to the story we all know, yet really the same: where we all bring gifts to the child of light in the dark days of winter. The gift in this case is the gift of firewood, which in a life on the move, mostly lived under the sky, is the most important gift of all: warmth.

And so to Winter Cards....
I've been busy selling at Advent Fairs and setting up my little December exhibition in the bustling Courtyard Wholefood Shop and Cafe in Chagford, where my cards are for sale next to the cakes. I'll write about this soon, but meanwhile... here are the cards, a selection of eight of my wintry paintings from the past few years, packaged all together, or as single cards and packs of four.

They are printed on lovely heavy white card stock, with a very subtle matt sheen and come with recycled brown envelopes. The eight designs included are: 

Baba Yaga
Telling Stories to the Trees
Father Christmas
Picking Up Sticks
Winter Crow
Wayfarers' Nativity

The cards are all wrapped up and sitting in the shop waiting to be posted out to you. I hope you like them. If you live overseas and would like to send these on before Christmas, you might be wise to order them soon before the postal services get too hectic.

Days are getting chillier here on the edge of the moor, and the first noticeable frost crept into the fields around our house on the first day of December. Macha has taken the warmest spot on the rug by the fire, and we busy on, readying ourselves for dark lamplit evenings, mulled-wine-stitched musical gatherings, and gathering plenty of firewood to warm the Winter Child. 

Also, I have a giclée print of Baba Yaga up in an auction which is running til December 18th in aid of our dear Terri Windling who has struggled financially lately due to a combination of health and legal difficulties. Her worldwide circle of friends and fans have gathered an enormous amount of creativity and support and this auction is full to bursting - a veritable Goblin Marketful of delights. Please go and support it in any way you can - either by bidding or offering or word-spreading. Terri has inspired and helped so many of us, she deserves this support. 

Thursday 17 November 2011

Autumn Aflame

YELLOW FIRE licks the clear blue skies of these short November days in a last farewell. At the year's retirement, branches give up their last sparks to light the winter fire that will burn for us and in us throughout the cold coming months, and warm us with red ember-spice and cinnabar-stories from deep within the hearth of winter.

Hedges crackle with golden fire and bracken burns its last in the low sunlight.

Eventually the flames fall, and there is fire under our feet. 

We kick and leap in the auburn embers of the trees' last celebration.

And we lay on this soft red carpet thinking toward the day when it will turn hard and white.

 Our Autumn has been firelit from September onward...

For my birthday, Tom took me to the circus for the first time in my life.

We drove in our little red van to Cirencester for the last night of the season of the extraordinary Giffords Circus, who had circled their wagons in a field on the edge of town, ready to perform for the last time their astonishing production of Tolstoy's War & Peace.

All the vehicles were painted traditional burgundy and cream, and the wagons around the big tops served home made pizzas and programmes and Wurlitzer wonders.

Giffords are a traditional progressive circus, meaning their setup incorporates all the beauty of a traditional circus without the animal cruelty. The animals in the show were their own horses and birds, trained and loved and happy.

I was as wide-mouthed as the children in the front row throughout the show. Gasping at the feats and grinning at the magnificent Russian-flavoured music.

There was a man who tap-danced on his hands, a knifethrower and a dove-tamer, a Hungarian who galloped around the ring standing astride two horses at once, and a woman who played the violin upside-down in mid air, dangling from a rope; there was a goose who followed a horse, a hawk and a brilliant clown,  who wove the whole rambling story of War & Peace incredibly, madly together.

I was most wowed by an incredibly athletic troupe of Russian acrobats who flung each other into the air with breathtaking dare. Seconds after I took the photo below, this tiny woman - one of that troupe - tossed the flaming hoop high into the air, then she herself was flung up high by the two fellows supporting the narrow bendy board on which she stood, and she somersaulted mid-air through the flaming hoop only to land upright and un-singed on the narrow board again!

Outside the big top in the dark, the circus-glow made us grin...

... and we returned to our van to sleep, bellies full of Giffords' own hand-reared hog roast and vodka. 

These pumpkins were grown for our community by Chagfood - an amazing local food initiative here, where fruit, vegetables and flowers are grown for this area's residents and we sign up for a share of the harvest, year round, receiving an abundant box every week. The wonderful organic veg are grown by lovely people (and a horse) in a field just down the road a bit. When they reach our plates, the vegetables have not been out of the ground for longer than a few hours. The vegetables we receive are seasonal and so amounts fluctuate according to yields throughout the year. It is one of the most inspiring and nourishing (in all senses of the word) projects I've come across, and I'm proud to support it and have it as part of our community. The blooming veg boxes we receive every week really do make our hearts smile. I'll write again at some point about Chagfood in more detail, because it's important to me, but meanwhile you can see some wonderful photos of the land, the people, the project and the food at this lovely Chagfood blog.

To celebrate this year's harvest, Chagfood held an October gathering at their field, with fire and pumpkin soup and local cider sold from their hand-built vardo. As the sun set, we lit candles for a story and folks gathered on straw bales around the fire to be taken into Baba Yaga's forest. 

As ever, the evidence that we told a story is hazy at best. But you should be able to just make out our shapes by the wagon - me illustrating Tom's wonderful story with my accordion. It was a different tale this time, though our favourite Russian witch featured again of course. This time we had a chase (with suitable Russian um-pah chase-music) through the forest, and even squeezebox-witch-snoring. 
Thanks to Miriam Boy for taking these photos of us. I particularly like the candle-lit face of the child to the right of the photo above.

As the evening drew on, we sat in happy circle with the people of this place with whom we share vegetables, and looked into the fire.

The magnificent Kes Tor String Band played bluegrass into the night.

And the fire burned higher.

On the fifth of November, we attended another local spectacle - the Sticklepath Fireshow - a yearly performance of puppet-ghouls and papier-mâché skellingtons in front of an audience of thousands. 

The fireworks that followed the death-parade stitched the black sky with fire-stars, dancing their extravagant crackles about the white moon, who stood still up there and watched.

And after it all, the enormous wooden hotel-façade that they'd built for the performance, was burnt to the ground. What a strange and powerful thing it was to stand in a crowd of thousands watching a house burn. Watching the way the rafters and stairs burnt through, the burning rocking chair which had contained Guy Fawkes, and the hot hot dancing changes in the glowing wood, disintegrating in the fire, we wondered at how odd it was that this old fire tradition had got so knotted up with a character in a seventeenth century Catholic plot to assassinate the Protestant king. 

If you thought about it too hard, you realised it was quite a horrific scene - all these people standing calmly watching a house burn to the ground. But it had power too - at the Inbetween place straddling the old and new years, the ghostly place, where the dead and the Others are much closer than usual, we gave our unwanted things to the burning house of the old year, and were warmed by the flames into the new. 

That new year's day, November the first, we climbed the hill we climbed last Samhain, and saw the sun up with fried eggs and toast on a fire.

This new sun painted our edges with gold...

... as we stood together looking over the auburning of our land in the sun of the year to come.

Now, at home, as the fogs roll in, we see the flame burn on in the pith of the pumpkins and in the shadows on a leaf. 

I am preparing for upcoming winter fairs where I'll be selling prints and originals and Christmas cards too! Over the next two weekends I'll have stalls at two Steiner School fairs in Devon: Exeter Steiner School on the 26th November and this coming Saturday, 19th November, at the South Devon Steiner School in Totnes, who are holding what looks to be an extravagant advent fair, with marquees and tents of local crafts and chai and music and mulled punch and more! Here's the poster to the left, above that for another event we'll be selling our wares at: Dartmoor Frost & Fire - A Yuletide celebration on December 11th, hosted by Nigel Shaw and Carolyn Hillyer, mythic musicians of Seventh Wave Music. There'll be medieval music from the wonderful Daughters of Elvin, transporting bardic harping from Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and many more warming wintry wonders.
For the whole of December, I'll have my work exhibited again at Chagford's wonderful Wholefood cafe - The Courtyard, where on December 13th, we'll have a mini fair over a couple of hours in the evening for the community's late night opening hours where aromas of hog roast and carol singing waft across the square and both wine and gift giving are mulled. Please come along to any of these events if you are nearby. If you are not, keep an eye out on my virtual stall for wintry creations in the weeks to come.

If you look in through the damp window of our studio these days, you can see that the flames of autumn have leapt into my latest painting. 

May the flame keep burning, gold and copper and red, in your core as the nights close in.