Sketching ‘in the field’

Sketching is something I’ve always enjoyed, but as a former perfectionist (drama school helped me mostly shift it), I’m used to focusing on trying to make every little detail perfect. This results in every drawing taking several hours in a room with no distractions and a clear worktop. It seems a bit too sterile for creativity.

So I’ve recently started taking a little sketchbook and a few pens out and about with me on my walks. Then when the feeling takes me, I perch somewhere and just draw. It’s quick, rough and most definitely not perfect, but it’s also invaluable experience. We rarely experience the ‘perfect’ conditions for creativity, or at least what we think them to be. Through these quick, impulsive sketches I’m discovering the joy of a wonky line, a vague outline, a scribbled detail. And through this process, my drawings are beginning to look less like technical drawings and more, well, alive. Could this be because I’m drawing the real thing, rather than drawing from a photograph?

As a child I drew a lot, often just for the pleasure of it. As an adult, especially a self-employed creative preoccupied with productivity (has this replaced the perfectionism?), I often have to remind myself that it’s ok to be creative just for fun. It doesn’t have to lead to work, or a hundred likes on a social media post (but yes, I did post these sketches on Instagram….).

Of course, drawing ‘in the field’ has its challenges – in the first picture I wanted to add some shading to show the direction of the evening sun but was all too aware the midges had arrived and were eating me alive. So I took a photograph of this lovely spot and, back home, I added in the shading and created a bit more depth to the drawing (see image above left).

There’s also the time element. One evening I wanted to focus on a texture, doing a detailed study of the wooden bench I was sitting on. I sketched out the main components and began to fill in the details, but had to head back indoors for dinner long before I’d finished. So again, I took a photo and continued the drawing at home (as you can see from the image above right, I’ve still not finished).

I remind myself that these aren’t finished pieces. They’re reactions, explorations, a little adventure of pen on paper. A limbering-up of creative and observational muscles. And most importantly, they’re fun.

Notebook: Moleskine Art medium sketchbook, sapphire.

Pens: Faber Castell Pitt Artist Pen india ink pen, fine nib.

What am I? Playing with kennings

When I was training at the Curious School of Puppetry, the brilliant writer Anna Maria Murphy came to work with us for a few days, and one of the glorious creative titbits she introduced me to was the kenning. We ventured outside to observe the pigeons in a Bethnal Green park, and kennings tumbled out onto the pages of our notebooks.

Over the past few months I’ve been developing a daily writing practice. Looking back on those wonderful days at Curious, I remembered how much fun it had been to play with words in this way with Anna. So when I sat down for my daily dose of writing earlier this week, I thought I’d have a play with some kennings again…

The water called to her…

A short extract from a much longer creative writing project I am currently working on, which began life during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) 2020, and will hopefully become a full-length novel:

She followed the narrow track down to the coastal path, overgrown brambles catching at her ankles on the way. Suddenly the hedgerow opened out and there it was in front of her: the sea. Mighty, intimidating, it always inspired awe. It had shown her who’s boss a fair few times over the past six years, reminding her of the power of this little planet.

The coast path wound away to her left and right. Behind her: thick hedge, in front: nothing but space and water all the way to the horizon. Meg stepped as close to the cliff edge as she dared. The water was calling to her. She wanted to feel its coolness on her skin, so she found the spot where the bank sloped a little shallower and she scrabbled down like a bat.

Taking off her boots, she nestled them against the rocks. The sand was gritty between her toes. The waves broke onto the shore, splaying out foamy fingers across the sand. She walked down to meet them and felt the first chilly touch as the water lapped at her feet. The sea was unsettled today, a southerly wind blowing in across its surface, the peaks and troughs shifting constantly. Meg pulled off her clothes and threw them further up the beach, aiming above the high tide line of wet sand. She turned back to face the water and dived over the crashing wave. Cold enveloped her, the freshness an instant release. She resurfaced a few metres in, past the breaking point.

Bobbing on the surface, she looked back up at the cliff. Was that a figure she saw, standing at the edge? They were watching her. She turned away and dived under, away from the turbulence of the surface, and followed the seabed to deeper waters. Down here: peace.

Love letter to the sea…

Some days you love me
Caressing my skin with your silken 
coolness
Calming my worried soul
Bringing me peace
Joy
Perspective

Some days you torment me
Thrashing my body with your 
power, your rage
fuelling my fears of
abandonment
Why do you push me
away?

You show me wonders
Life circling beneath my feet
Colours
Curiosities
Wonders I cannot
reach

You hide them from me
Shroud your secrets
Deny me access
Yet always 
you give me answers
You're hot
then cold
But mostly cold

You're my teacher, my lover, my nemesis, my friend
My dreamy escape
My reality check
The thing I take for granted
Yet when I am far from you 
My heart aches for
your touch
your comfort
your beauty
your pain
your testing
your reminding
that there is always a reason
to go on. 

Landlocked

I haven’t been in the sea all week. These damn easterlies have shown no let-up, and yesterday’s swell made my stomach turn just to look at it. No clean sets, just a roiling mass of white water hurling seaspray at anyone who dared get near. The wind chill factor hurt.

This must be the first week since last April where I haven’t been in at least once. My body itches and can’t stay in one position for long. My skin feels too soft, a distinct absence of salt. I even bothered to blow-dry my hair the other day.

My fingers and toes are still freezing, but the chilblains on my feet have calmed down. To make up for that, this week I discovered my first ever finger chilblain, during the one week I don’t go in the water. Fancy that. What an exciting life I lead.

Each morning coffee, though oh-so-welcome, just doesn’t feel quite like I’ve earnt it. I bury my nose in its steam and take that first glorious sip, trying to pretend it’s a healing balm to my sea-cold core. But it’s merely a read-through, not the real thing.

The Windy app is my constant companion. I check it like a needy lover, needing more than it can give. Surely if I just will the little arrows to move round to the north they will? I live in constant anticipation of that precious ‘weather window’. There may have been one first thing Wednesday but I slept in. My frustration is suffocating.

In my daydreams I’m treading water, slowly, automatically, looking down at my bootie-clad feet in their watery world. My body immersed, suspended, free. I take a breath and go under, the cold intense and startling me awake. Then, that sacred, brief moment of clarity, completely submerged, my body a part of the ocean and it a part of me, before my buoyancy pushes me back to the surface.

I return to the present and I’m on dry land, watching the storm rage outside my window; not land-locked in the true sense of the word, but I feel like an invisible padlock is holding me captive on the land, so poetically-speaking it fits. As my body shifts restlessly I remember a phrase from a favourite poem, Morning Swim by Maxine Kumin: “My bones drank water”. That’s it, right there: my bones are thirsty.

I searched for peace

I wandered
cold
roaming the shoreline
The noise of life too
loud in my mind
I searched for peace
But it eluded me.

Up ahead, the beach had changed,
the sand shifted in the recent
tides, leaving slippery rock
exposed.

My path, more complex than anticipated.
I stopped
knelt by the nearest rockpool
and waited

Time passed

The light shifted

A subtle but unmistakable step over
the threshold.

The air bit at my fingertips
Blue morphed to amber
to golden
to red.

A twitch
A bubble rising to the surface
A spindly leg and pointed toe
emerging
feeling
sensing

To my left, another twitch

To my right, another

One by one, knees and mandibles
emerged
Shells traversed the sand
carried on thin, groping legs
sideways

One clambered over curly seaweed
up over around
Mandibles working
feeding

Crouched above them
I observed.
I watched the hermit crabs go
about their business
coming to life as the day faded
into night.

I forgot noise
I forgot cold
I forgot time

Until my stiff, human knees reminded me
it was December
and I wasn’t 16 any more
and crouching for 20 minutes
had consequences.

I left the rockpool
its edges silhouetted against
the rusting sky.

I left the crabs
breaking the noise
into tiny pieces
then burying them.

I carried my peace home.

Fear of fallen trees

I’ve written about my fear of fallen trees before, but that was several years ago and on a different blog. Why am I afraid? What is it about the tree being in this state that triggers this fear? If I’m not afraid of standing trees, why be afraid of ones lying on the ground? I think it comes down to two things…

There is a phenomenon known as ‘megalophobia’, which is basically the fear of big things. Now I know it can seem like there’s a phobia of everything these days, but I have long felt uneasy when close to large structures, both natural and manmade, so finding there’s a name for this reaction is helpful for me. I suddenly realise I’m not the only one, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call my feelings a phobia.

I love trees (you may have noticed). They fill me with an interesting mixture of peace and awe. Yet I can’t deny the faint niggles I feel deep in my gut when I approach a giant. And I’m aware that, by tree standards, these aren’t really giants that we have in the UK! The feeling is the same as that I experience when up close to a large statue. It’s fear, but of what? If I pull on those little threads and unravel my fear, I find at its core a visualisation of the object leaning over and toppling on to me, followed immediately by a blackout and the sensation of suffocating. So I guess I’m afraid of being crushed to death. I have no idea where this comes from!

Considering we’re talking about fallen trees, there’s no danger of them falling on me – that part has indeed already taken place, albeit thankfully not with me underneath! So perhaps the second reason for my fear is the overriding one…

Trees are rooted, literally, in the earth. They are attached to and embedded in the ground in a way us flighty mammals could never truly relate to. There is a sense of permanence to their existence. So when they are uprooted and fall, crashing to the ground, this stability, this security, this supposed permanence is shattered. Something that majestic, that great, that solid should not just fall like that. It feels wrong, unnatural, corrupt. Unsettling.

Roots claw at the sky, startled by the light. A foreboding ditch scooped out of the earth reveals its secrets – gritty stones in pastel hues, great boulders huddled together, tendril-like roots. A subterranean world of intricate network cables. It’s fascinating, yet feels voyeuristic, to violate the tree’s privacy in this way. We are seeing the inner workings of an organism, the part it normally keeps hidden from the world of light and human noise.

I tread carefully around the ditch and the saucer of crusty soil and stones still attached to the base of the tree. I walk alongside the thick, muscular trunk of the beech, now resting on its side. Up ahead, moss-covered branches reach out long, pushing back a circle of trees who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some fallen trees are caught suspended in a violent moment, ripped from their spot and launched by the wind. This beautiful beech, however, looked surprisingly peaceful, once I’d got past the exposed roots and earth. It lay on a lush bed of ferns and soft, boggy soil, getting comfortable for the big sleep. Everything has its time, it seemed to say.

From my new vantage point gazing along its branches, I saw a grace and beauty as present as when the tree stood upright. As if it had simply dozed off and tipped over on to its side, and now rested in a gentle slumber. How different a picture to my initial encounter.

I knew I would get poetic. When it comes to trees, I always do.

North coast discoveries: Chapel Porth to St Agnes

When my partner and I moved down to Cornwall, we stayed in a cottage on the outskirts of St Agnes for a few months while we desperately searched for a place to rent. It was a strange and difficult period in my life. My Grandma died that April and I sought solace in the rugged landscape, bracing winds and long walks along the coast path. Although we now live in Falmouth, St Agnes and the surrounding countryside will always be a special place for me.

Last Monday it was my partner’s birthday, so he booked the day off work and we drove up to the north coast for a peaceful wander away from the increasingly busy streets and beaches of Falmouth. I’ve often followed the path up onto the beacon or down along the cliff edge, past the much-photographed Wheal Coates engine houses. This time, however, we set off exploring a new route.

Following the stream from Chapel Porth beach up through the valley, the ground was blanketed with a rich tapestry of cow parsley, red campion, ferns, thorny bushes and grasses of various kinds. Though undoubtedly scratchy and a no-go for my shorts-clad legs, it looked invitingly soft.

The earth rose up either side of us, nestling us in the bosom of two small hills. Up ahead on the right the skeleton of an engine house was silhouetted against the dazzling blue sky, possibly the remains of Charlotte United Mine. Beyond that, a pimple of bare, exposed earth poked out through the green.

Trees cast dappled shadows across the path ahead, our sweaty bodies welcoming the shade after the roasting sun. It felt exciting to be discovering a new, hidden part of this area I thought I knew so well. How naïve to think I had seen all there was to see here.

In my mind the land surrounding St Agnes was open, rugged, scarred but beautiful, with very few trees. Here, however, was a completely different character: a pocket of lush green bordering the stream. Through a gap in the trees I saw giant leaves basking in the sun. Gunnera, I think. Past plants and random bric-a-brac for sale and an honesty box, blowing out flies that seemed determined to fly up our noses or into our mouths. Our feet padded across a carpet of fluffy catkins. Could these be white poplars overhead? I thought they didn’t drop their cotton-like seeds until late summer. Surely the start of June would be too early?

Beautiful red-roofed houses emerged through the trees up ahead, as the path led us past a family enjoying the sun in their garden. How the other half live. Oh to wake each morning to breakfast on the patio, nestled in amongst the woodland, far from the noise of traffic and human existence. One day I’ll write that triple figure bestselling novel. One day…

We re-emerged blinking into the sunlight, to join the familiar road that leads up from the village. The beacon beckoned, and we clambered up the hill, toes digging in to the dusty earth as we made our way up and over, then down the other side to the car. I felt as if we had returned from a brief spell in a different world. I had learnt the valuable lesson that, no matter how well you think you know a place, there is always more to explore.

Nature and wellbeing: sweet bedfellows

The link between the natural world and our mental and physical wellbeing is no new thing. People have known for centuries of the benefits a relationship with nature can bring, but every now and then many of us need to remind ourselves just how important this connection is.

I have struggled with my mental health since I was a teenager. I’ve been on medication twice, sat in stuffy rooms with countless counsellors, and was one of the first students in my FE college to receive cognitive behavioural therapy (which I did, in fact, find very useful). Over the years I’ve discovered and developed my own coping strategies to work with my mind rather than against it. For many years I just didn’t ‘get’ yoga, but then when I returned to it in my 30s it suddenly all made sense. Exercise helps, as does meditation (that one’s definitely a work-in-progress). However, when I’m having a bad day there is one thing above all else that I turn to: my relationship with nature.

Rediscovering nature: what I learnt at drama school

I trained as an actor at East 15 Acting School, under the formidable Andrea Brookes. All the drama schools teach certain core subjects and tools of our craft, but what Andrea also encouraged was a connection with nature as a way to build resilience and cope with the uncertainties of a performer’s life. Under her guidance, speaking sonnets to a leaf never felt silly, and I embraced my rediscovery of the natural world whole-heartedly. When you’ve just had your third ‘no’ in a row from an audition, taking yourself outside for a walk amongst all that green can help to put things in to perspective. There is something bigger than us. We are part of a complex and wonderful system far more important than our last audition and whether we sang in tune or not.

Noticing

During lockdown I’ve been going out for daily walks around Pendennis Headland, near where I live in Falmouth. For the first few days my feet seemed to land subconsciously, one after the other, my mind elsewhere, and there was a value in this itself. However, on the third day, while out walking I suddenly stopped and listened. It was a few minutes after sunrise and while humans were staggering out of their beds to promises of warm toast and a hot cup of coffee, or snuggling under the covers for ‘just five more minutes’, all around me the air was alive with song. Birds called to one another from the treetops, as if to say, “Good morning! Got much planned for today?” As I started to slow down physically, I began to notice more during this precious hour outside… Flowers I’d never bothered to acknowledge before, their colours impossibly vibrant. The robin that was always poised on a nearby twig, sussing out this newcomer to its territory. The common green shield bug basking in the sun on a leaf, almost indistinguishable from its surroundings.

When I slowed down, stopped trying to force myself into moulds I didn’t recognise and instead let the natural world in, this ‘noticing’ opened up a world of wonders around me. So many things I had missed before. And, very importantly, it brought a sense of quiet to my mind that I had been desperately searching for. This is akin to what we call ‘mindfulness’, but I find the word ‘noticing’ resonates with me.

I realise not everyone reading this will have access to abundant green spaces nearby, but even quietly observing a tree on your street, a bird on a rooftop or a bush full of camouflaged creepy crawlies will reap benefits.

Natural soundscapes

Out on my walks I’ve been recording snippets of the sounds all around me. When I’m feeling anxious or just can’t make it out the front door that day, I listen to these sounds and they soothe my worried mind. I’ve included one of my recordings below:

Birdsong and water

So next time you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, like there’s too much darkness in the world or too many thoughts in your head, all screaming for your attention, spend some time with nature. You will find darkness there too, of course. But you will also find light, beauty and, hopefully, some peace.

Rice crispie rain and a promise of violence

It was a heavy evening
Full of the promise of violence,
Yet I went out.
Climbed up the steep driveway to the castle,
Down into the moat
Where the wind held its breath.
The blackbird was silent as I waded through treacle,
Air heavy,
Charged
with an electric current.
The sickly sweet smell teased my nostrils,
A sugar-coating of things to come.
I risked a glance upwards.
Thick clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky.
I sped up.
What's a light smattering of rain?
But these clouds 
meant business.
Past the wall of primroses I stomped.
Red campion
Red valerian
Clumps of cow parsley,
Nodding at a fellow solitary walker
from a safe distance.
Passing the thick stalks of hogweed,
Chewing the name around in my mouth.
I felt the first stealthy drops
touch my cheeks.
Light fingers, tentative at first,
Multiplying into rice crispie rain.
Its lightness lulled me
Like a stroke before a
Slap. 
Toes tingling
Fingers fidgeting
I strode under the front porch
As the heavens fell behind me. 
Just in time.