Saturday 17 September 2011

Flowers in the Hair of Summer, Songs in the River of Green

THESE GREEN EYES have looked out over my summer and seen the fire in the river, the wind in the song, the sky in the feet of our days. Our summer has worn flowers in her hair and uncoiled her jubilant tendrils through our thoughts. Mother to the scrapings-of-crickets and leaping-naked-into-streams, this World Woman has been leaving us small gifts in the grass and humming us songs of late evening under the wild open sky.

She stepped out of the summer and appeared under my paintbrush one afternoon whilst I was making the largest ever Once Upon O'Clock yet. The long and beautiful piece of Yew I painted it on was given to me by the commissioner - tipi-maker Ian Hamilton - who had asked for this clock as an anniversary gift for his wife, Merle. He told me many lovely things about his family, and the flavour of their lives, not least the fact that he and Merle were expecting a child, welcome but unexpected in their later parenthood. And then, in the shape of the piece of wood, I saw the pregnant belly of some sort of Mother Earth figure who gradually took shape as I drew...

Her left arm reached to the sun, where a hummingbird drank from a flower in her hand. Her legs curled into night time, and stars shone on her knees. Trees grew from her earth-flesh at all angles, pushing their roots into her armpits and between her toes. If you looked down on her round belly, you could see Ian and Merle's family dancing around a tipi-clock and all the while, flowers grew in her hair. 

For me there's something lovely in her face, something kind and sad and powerful. Painting faces is my favourite of all things, but it is at the same time a strange phenomenon: an enormous strength of feeling is born in the process of creating a character, an empathic understanding with this just-met person. And all the while you shape them, darken their eye-sockets, choose the sparkle in their eye, they look back and consider you in turn.

You might remember that this clock had already been paid for in part with an enormous ex-army Arctic bell tent, and we took this very tent out again along the lanes of this land to Hampshire and the Uncivilisation Festival where we met Ian and Merle and handed over the clock. I'm happy to say they were delighted indeed, and I hope its ticking brings them abundance in their happiness, stars at their knees and flowers in their hair.

Our wonderful tent, a-smoking in the sunshine. Photo by Andy Broomfield, used with kind permission.

As ever, I seem to have been too knotted up in festival-overwhelm to take many decent pictures of Uncivilisation. Here above is my only photograph of our display, before we displayed any wares! (That easel held the original Dark Mountain painting.) And here below - a view from inside our tent - is the only one of my photos showing any evidence that there were other people at the festival!


We pitched our temporary home right in the middle of the action, which meant we had to retreat at intervals for a breather and tea and toast on the wonderful folding Frontier Stove.

This festival was one of the most interesting, conversation-provoking, soul-affecting gatherings I've been to yet. Whilst sharing a lot of perspectives with people at Uncivilisation, I had worried that I might find it too cerebral and discursive, that I'd feel an imbalance in favour of analysis against grubbiness... Indeed there was a heavy emphasis on talking about things to be done, but there was also scything and storytelling and foraging and a feral choir! The place was beautiful and wooded, and home to wonderful woodland structures like this, built by Ben Law...

Some of the land at Hampshire's Sustainability Centre is used as a natural burial ground, which saw us wandering on the Friday afternoon in nervous anticipation for that evening's storytelling performance unable to find a people-less corner for our last rehearsal. We walked further and further until we slowly began to realise that there were body-shaped mounds amongst the trees. Our search for a perch away from the graves was fruitless, and so I sat with my accordion at the far end of the land on a bench that looked like it had not been sat on in some time whilst Tom [do click - he has a fantastic new blog!] tied on his bear-mask and we told the story one last time without a live audience to the ears of the dead.
By the time the stars were out and the music had finished, people were gathering around our fire to be transported to that place somewhere in between Story and Old Russia under the dark dark sky.
I had made a very rudimentary projection device from a shoebox painted black, a torch and an old magic lantern lens; inside it I had taped an upside-down silhouette painting on perspex. And so behind our expectant firelit story-circle, a warm and undulating circle of light shone Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut in the trees onto a white cob wall...

And then as I played the first few strains of a Slavic folk tune into the night, Tom emerged from the forest blackness in his magnificent bone-toothed bear mask ringing a bell...
What followed was a journey through worlds, meetings with bears and giants, otherworldly birds and Baba Yaga herself; not to mention a beautiful maiden, strips of flesh and a very deep hole...
The audience was entranced, Tom's telling was artful sorcery of the highest degree, brave youngsters announced themselves not at all scared, and my fingers only made one mistake. Our story, Ivashko Medvedko - Little Ivan, Bear Child, though apparently amongst many people's highlights of the weekend, seems to have become like a mythical beast, glimpsed only in grainy photographs in books about The Unexplained. Though over a hundred people watched, there's not a skerrick of video evidence, and just a couple of dark photographs of people's firelit faces listening. A million thanks to Helen Harrop who took this below and also snatched a recording of the end of the story as she walked towards the fire. It's quiet but there... Even the photograph of my projection is one I took during experiments at home! 

Firelit faces, lost in a story. Photo by Helen Harrop, used with kind permission

I'm sure you'll know that duplications of these experiences can never be an adequate or fair substitute, and I think that what you imagine of this event is in fact truer than a video ever could be.
Sadly, we were busy with our stall for much of the weekend, and so missed things we'd have loved to have seen. We did, however, experience the wondrous Liminal - Dougie Strang's performance-experience in the woods at night, where we were led a merry dance through candlelit forest paths past strange-familiar glowing images in the trees and in the earth, otherworldly grunts, people on the wayside offering, asking, laying with the bones, and all the while we followed the sound of a flute...

The other powerful experience for me was on the last day - hearing Jay Griffiths speak eloquently and beautifully about the Songlines of West Papua, alongside Benny Wenda, an exiled West Papuan living in the UK, who spoke very movingly about his people's fight for freedom against Indonesia's brutal occupation, which is happening right now - still - in support of American gold mining companies who alongside sickeningly offensive Christian missionaries are raping the land and silencing the songs of its people.
We were also shown a film about the West Papuan struggle: Forgotten Bird of Paradise, made by Dominic Brown.

The whole film can be seen here.
This is a struggle we should not ignore - a genocide likened to that of the Aboriginal Australians whose land sings just 150 miles south of West Papua.

Many people who were at Uncivilisation have written artfully about their experience of it, notably Catherine Lupton, Amelia Gregory (+ here) and Charlotte du Cann who also wrote about the festival for the Independent and mentioned a certain Russian Storytelling. Paul Kingsnorth has collected reflections of the festival here and here and these all will give you a much better idea of the whole event than I can offer.
But I will say that no other festival has remained with me as a feeling long after the event as this one did. We made good friends there and talked a great deal about the ways and ideas of it all after returning home. I was left with a fondness for the honesty and unusualness of this thing, whatever it is.. for these people who are climbing the Dark Mountain.


The loudest song of our summer, however, has been the song of the moor. Dartmoor becomes more and more beloved the more time we spend out there.

When the days were longer than now, we took quite a lot of heavy belongings up into this wild wide place for three days to sleep under the sky.

We carried our chattels in short bursts past grazing Dartmoor ponies in the evening sun, and headed down into a river valley through bracken and granite.

We found an island in the middle of the river, all granite-bouldered and hidden in the willows.
There we lost time and found Dartmoor. 

Cold cold water crashed past us on either side, and eddied and rushed and trickled and gushed... Granite river rocks made triangles of white water foaming over moss and lichen. Every stone changed the river's direction. It swerved and pushed, as quick as it could, under and over and round and through. Some rocks had stood in the river for so long that the river had run through them, leaving behind legends of fertility and disease-cure for those who passed through after it.

I loved the water. Cold on hot skin. Rocks slippery with moss and river. Hours crouched in the rushing, catching small waterfalls over granite in my hands.

 By day and night we cooked over a fire in our cast iron dutch oven hanging from a tripod.

We washed potatoes in the river and tied hammocks to the low trees.

Buzzards called to us from the sky as we cooked dinner, and we glowed in our woodsmoked Skins Of Outside. All the small things mattered. Feet bare on warm stone, or sunken in boggy grass. Small pieces of bracken made strange shadow-symbols on the canvas. And the days and nights stretched long past each other.


Untented as we were, midges came to eat us in the mornings and we drove them away with a dawn fire and a cup of tea too early.
Then we'd sleep again and our dreams were strange. Not-roofed dreams. Dreams of this wide place that held us.

 And all the while she looked on...

Finally, a great going-sadness on us, we packed up, leaving promises to return and charcoal-written thanks on the rocks.

When we walked out of that time, strong and full, we came to the edge of Dartmoor, which ended abruptly as the fields began.

And we returned home to our thatch-fringed sunlit morning window which now brings us a different air. That changing sunlight which looks the same but smells different... Autumn approaches.

A new batch of beautiful high quality giclée prints is for sale now at the gate of my shop. I've chosen my favourite few paintings and had them printed in archival inks on 310gsm Hahnemuhle German Etching paper and framed with an ivory coloured mount. Each print is signed and hand embellished, and I'm tremendously pleased with them. The limited edition for sale at The Imagine Gallery is beginning to sell at prices of £400 and up, so if you'd like a good quality giclée print of any of these six paintings at a lower price, now is your chance! These are slightly smaller and unframed, and an open edition, but the quality's just as good!

In a couple of days I turn thirty two. I'm happy. This year I've heard all the songs of the seasons' changing clearer than ever, I've felt known and loved by the one I love, and more deeply in love with the land.

The sun has made beautiful shadows through the branches and grasses of this year... I step boldly into the auburn months with my face to the wind, arm in arm with my beloved, under the high green cathedral of trees.

Photograph by Tom's talented artist sister Hita Hirons