Tuesday 29 March 2011

Spring tripped

UNDERNEATH our feet and underneath our eyelids and underneath the dead leaves of last year something has been happening. It came tentatively at first: shyly stepping in, still wrapped in a cloudwool scarf that it might still need. And at its knock, we got up out of our deadwood armchairs and stretched our stiffened arms in the sun.

Morning walks amongst the trees have breathed warm green into us. And the birds have sung us their heart-bursting songs of New. Always always at the turning of a new season I am reminded of all the others I have lived through. Glimpses like scents of previous Springs float past, and I am thrilled by the trilling of the birds who are glad and agree in my bones that things are warming.

There was a point near Spring's beginning, though, when the year's wheel hesitated; it got stuck in a rut in the road. The eager early blooming flowers were surprised by late frosts - we saw ice-edged daffodils hanging their heads in sheepish dismay. The first bursts of our own new-found energy for work and ventures got blocked too in the juddering starting of the engine of the year, and wilted like frost-bitten petals, bloomed-too-soon.

Even down in the water on the common there was a hiccup where day by day as we walked by we'd watched the black specks in their frogspawn jelly morph gradually into tadpoles. When the late cold came the water froze over and trapped within its icy crust a good many little swimmers who had been wriggling trustingly toward froghood, now halted forever in their growing.

I broke the ice for them: a cold photographic slide depicting their frozen moment of death - never-to-be-frogs encased in a beautiful snapshot of air bubbles and green green pondweed.
There was even still some unhatched frogspawn, which had been iced too, but underneath the ice their brothers swam on.

Not until I got home and opened up these photographs did I notice their little brown mouths and pinprick eyes and minuscule handlike frondlike gills, which in time they will reabsorb along with their tails, and hop out of the water in their new amphibious costumes. For now, the water is a mass of brown wriggling.


When the days were still grey, we went out to Wistman's Wood again, and sat amongst the elphame trees and green rocks there, stunned as I think I always will be in that place, by its beautiful strangeness. As we were about to leave, we glimpsed wild Dartmoor ponies at the top edge of the woods.

They were not scared as we approached, and continued to nibble (moss perhaps) from the tips of the branches. Dartmoor's umbers and greys and mosses made a wild and quiet backdrop for their chestnuts and whites and coppers. And dappled on the hill they gently walked and chewed as the valley stretched on below them and we went home.


But after a false start, Spring returned in earnest a few weeks ago. The days lately have been celebrations of sunshine and even pigeons sing in the mornings now. We have walked in the trees where the light paints the moss on their trunks brighter than it has been for nearly a year.

I stand with the sun on my back and the young trees stretch up with purpose and hum in that light which could only come through the branches in March. As we walk through the trees, it is warm enough to stop, and to sit amongst them listening to their hopes for the day and the sound of a slight smile in their voices.


Everywhere is bursting out: shoots and buds and openings occupy all quarters. New growth emerges from the elbow in a thorny stem; trees send forth their green spears; new buds grow on branches where old leaves still cling.

Through the dead carpet green bursts regardless. Here at this still moment we see life turning; we see life-in-death and know also that Death is always there, hands held in the merry dance with Life, skipping in a circle underneath our every moment.

A dead fox appears on our path one morning, mysteriously flung there by the roots of a tree, no sign of a fight, perhaps a bullet hole in amongst its still beautiful fur.

And days later Tom discovers a whole cow rotted to bones. We return that evening with rucksacks to collect, and marvel at the heavy bulk of the pelvis and the great skull full of herbivore's teeth. The vertebrae make a ladder in the grass, the tail tip is a witch's finger and the leg bones weigh heavy as a log.

How long this cow has been here, we don't know. The lower jawbone is elusive, and the other bones are scattered wide. We ponder the cow's demise whilst imagining the bones hung in the trees as eerie wind-chimes for the evening.

And then the celandines begin singing, awake and happy and holding dew on their yellow tongues. The waysides are stirring green again: a wild larder and my favourite of all gardens.


All through this Spring, we've dreamt and worked and laughed and walked. There was a House-that-Wasn't and a House-that-Will-Be. There has been sky gazing and hound running and vegetable dreaming and equinox celebrating. But that is all I'll say for now...

Branches against dusk skies made a labyrinth of fingers, filigree as the blood vessels on the back of your eye, and the clock on the churchtower chimes now over daffodils as yellow as bright as the promised sun, and yellow as the tune on my lips.

Friday 11 March 2011

Owl Words

WESHIMULO the Gypsies call her - Ghost of the Woods - hoohoo could she be?...
Owls have fared badly in folklore in general, being portents of death and ill omen:

Men beoþ of þe wel [owl] sore aferd. þu singst par sum man shal be ded: euer þu bodest sumne qued [evil].
~c. 1250 Owl and Nightingale - ed. J W H Atkins

The oule ek, that of deth the bode bryngeth.
~c.1374 Parliament of Fowls - Chaucer

Whil'st the scritch-owle, scritching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe,
In remembrance of a shrowd.
~ c.1595 A Midsommer Night's Dreame v. i. - Shakespeare

In 1934, an old country-man told of the death of a common acquaintance. "And .. it weren't no more nor I expected. I come past his house one night, and there was a scret owl on his roof, scretting something horrible. I always reckon to take notice of them things."
~1936 The Gods Had Wings - W J Brown

{All quotations above were taken from The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem}

In medieval bestiaries owls were described as an allegory for the Jews, since they "shunned the light". And indeed superstitions of bad owl-omens are found across the world: many Native American tribes held beliefs that owls were harbingers of death, some even describing death itself as "crossing the owl's bridge". A Mayan religious text describes owls as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan "Place of Fright"). And in Cameroon the owl has no name at all, it is simply referred to as "the bird that makes you afraid". But not all mythology tells terrible owl-tales, some cultures think of owls as spirits of their dear departed, and others consider them lucky talismans. In Russia, hunters used to carry owl claws to help them climb to heaven when they died. In India owl-eye broth was believed to cure seizures in children and cause one to be able to see in the dark. And in England the practice of nailing an owl to the door to ward off evil continued into the 19th Century.

But of course, probably the most oft thought of owl-quality is that of wisdom. Indeed, I have painted the owl before as animal-symbol of the sixth chakra, associated with far-seeing and psychic perception. Owls are often depicted as bespectacled librarians, keepers of knowledge.
From Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom to Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced goddess of Welsh myth, owl goddesses were powerful shape-shifting women. Marija Gimbutas in The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe traces veneration of the owl as a goddess, among other birds, to the culture of Old Europe, long pre-dating Indo-European cultures.

I present here three owl works of mine painted in recent weeks. The first, a new Once Upon O'Clock, commissioned by Nicholas as a gift for his mother. He told me she loved owls and books and trees. So a wise owl hides in a tree hole with his book, as time turns around him in these dusk woods.

please click to enlarge

But what is he reading? Words about himself I think... the owl-eyed linguists amongst you will spot words for owl in many languages*, painted tiny underneath the clock hands.

The Word Owl Clock is painted on a piece of apple wood which I show you here in my hand to give you an idea of the size of these clocks.

It was good to be clockmaking again, and another (with Gypsy flavour) will follow soon.

The wisdom or wordiness of owls is interesting, specifically in relation to a particularly curious play on words that I noticed some years ago between two Russian words. In Russian, owl is сова (pronounced sova) and word is слово (pronounced slova).. and it struck me that this word play would make an intriguing basis for a painting.

It's interesting how ideas germinate and gestate. When I thought of painting this сова-слово idea, I vaguely imagined some sort of rich Slavic-flavoured design, like a lubok, perhaps, with Cyrillic lettering and folk imagery. But how far from this the final work ended up!
I sit down at the drawing board in a certain state of mind, and let my pencil take the lead, and it still surprises me how surprised I can be at how my own work turns out! In fact this one has been rather a wrestle. The usual arc of creation-beginning-elation to looming-failure-depression followed the first few pencil strokes. And I suppose I didn't help myself (or the work) by deciding that I needed to step away from my comfort of tried and tested tools and media.

in progress

This is painted in gouache mostly - a paint I know little about, and am not used to using (the only other time I have used it was to paint that Hermitage blog header image up there!). I seem to use paints entirely not as one is supposed to. Oils I paint thin and watered down with a tickle of a paintbrush so minuscule it could have been a flea's toothbrush. Watercolour I use in tight small areas, and layers, paying no heed to the masters' techniques of washes over wide vistas of pale sky, and unworried flicks to denote figures. So I suppose it follows that gouache has foxed me a little; I understand it is best used for tight, opaque, detailed painting, which explains my difficulties covering large areas with it successfully. I was painting on paper too, and when the whole thing began to get the better of me, I left the paper there on the drawing board which is also in our living room and let her watch me for some days....
During which time, Tom and I walked with Macha out in the evening woods, and we heard hoo-hooing, and saw a shape flap onto a branch in the nearly dark just by us. There a Barn Owl preened. As we watched, we hooted hand-hoots and she hoo-hooed back.

The "her" that emerged was an owl-woman - a woman becoming a bird. She looks wistfully out of her owl-eyes at who knows what. She writes, with a feather from her almost-wing; she writes on the sky and on the tree: words of words and words of owls.
Owl-word, Word-owl, Owl, Owl, Word... Owl...

Behind her broods a dark turquoise sky. I looked at the painting for some days when the sky was still plain, feeling that the "something" that was still not quite right must be the emptiness of the sky, and so I sat down with another unfamiliar medium: pastels! Almost never have I used them before, but in the spirit of boundary pushing and desperation to salvage a possibly disastrous work, I carried on. Over the sky I drew pale stars, surrounded by dotted Van Gogh lines, and in amongst: more owl words, written by her. I added pastel to her feathers too, and her hair.

please click to enlarge

But still it wasn't right. She crouched there for more days in our living room, looking woefully at me, while I felt unable to resolve her.
In the end I sat down to work more on the painting and realised it was finished, even though I was unhappy with it. Knowing when you are done with something is an art and a half. So often for us perfectionists, the finish can only be reached with excellence, with a sense that you have done good and achieved. But of course much of the time we don't do good: In my own opinion I sometimes make utter failures, mostly I make sort of adequate mediocrities, and very occasionally: a really wonderful piece of true good work. But whether something is finished or not isn't really related to this sense of achievement. And after all, what, or who is the work for? A piece I may consider disastrous, someone else may love. Something might just perhaps speak through my arrangement of lines and colours to someone else in a language I am quite unfamiliar with. And it is for this reason that I am showing you this painting here, even though I feel the awkward shame of "exposure" in failure. Perhaps one of you might love this?

Slova Sova - print available here

So I rolled this painting up and thought on it for a few days... what ever happened to the original flavour of an idea? Could I make a little drawing closer to what I'd originally intended?
There followed this...

A small pencil drawing in my sketchbook, begun without definite direction in mind, but finished with some sort of pleased feeling, as if this had worked. Not in a brilliant masterpiece kind of way, but it reached its completion in a different place from our owl woman on her branch. I cannot really explain it.

Here two children hoo-hoo through their hands, but they too are the hoot. This owl sings her owl words through children hooting in the woods at dusk, just as we did on that other evening when the other painting wasn't working.

Who the Owl Said - print available here

I sometimes wonder if I am the hooted child, and my work the hooted word. But who is doing the hooting? Who is the owl?


The recording of owl calls are from Owl Pages, where much owlish information, mythology and hootery can be found.

And should you wish to buy a print of either of these owl-works, they are perched now in the evening tree of my etsy shop.

Just the other day I found evidence that I was not the first to note the Slavic sova-slova word play. Here's a linocut by Solomea Loboda (found in an owl menagerie on the ever excellent Animalarium blog) of a Ukrainian folk rhyme about the owl which rhymes these two words, and also vindicates my use of an а at the end of слово!

*German, Russian, English, French, Estonian, Polish, Bulgarian, Dutch, Norwegian, Hungarian and Finnish respectively.