In February I was sent to make rock paintings for the Dark Mountain: Issue 13 cover. In my bag I had hangman’s ochre from Oxfordshire; rosso ercolano, a red ochre from Italy found in paintings from the Paleolithic, via the Renaissance, to the present day; English willow charcoal; some water and a bristle brush.
I have always dreamed vividly and remembered my dreams, which vary wildly in tone, content, imagery and meaning. Over the last decade these dreams have made their way onto paper, into lyrics, journeys made, and thousands of words recording them all, working with them is part of my practice. It is a new thing for me to paint them on a rock, my usual scale of work can fit on a desk. As I planned the Dorset trip I was not sure what I would paint, I wanted to let the rock surfaces inform any decisions, and not impose. What hubris… Turns out you can’t impose upon Portland stone with a stick of charcoal, I needn’t have worried. In my head I had characters dreamed the two previous nights, they seemed like ancestors, but non or pre-human, my hand drawing them was also part of the narrative, unlike any dreams I had had before. On the train, the beings finally made it into picture form, using charcoal in a sketchbook made from rag paper that I had stitched with willow bark twine. All contained in a bag made of rawhide from a roe deer I skinned and ate last year. I like to make everything from scratch at least once.
I will state the unpopular fact: the earth is alive and sacred. I always knew it and I know it again now, being mostly fully reclaimed from the grid-like grip of the machine. I don’t have one cogent argument to offer in defence of my love of land. It’s all feeling, which is why I can’t be a politician, environmentalist or a writer, perhaps. I tend to stop mid-sentence to light a candle or make an offering. In Parliament, at meetings with one’s editor, and in stand-offs with the police this is not the done-thing. What can I offer?
This painting, my movement and my life, in conversation with the earth.
The ancient yoga of Britain is walking, the pilgrimage. The ancient offering of these islands is conviviality in nature under the wild wood and stars. The wine of the land is spring water. Our altars are stones or wood set upright or recumbent. Reverence is raising love amongst family and friends, celebrating the turning of the year, the welcoming-in of strangers. Art, song and dance should be everywhere. It’s a crime that they’re not. It is equal parts Julian of Norwich and Julian Cope. It is eating large handful of cobb nuts fresh off the ground and beating the squirrels to them. It is also making sure another handful get planted, then tending the hazel trees as they grow, pollarding a few for bean poles and walking staffs. It is remembering to wassail them.
For years I researched my passions, studied with good teachers about early art materials, wilderness survival and earth skills; then made a bed, bower and fire, staying warm all night and sheltered from the rain, cooking on embers of hazel and bony oak. Oak bark made roofing tiles. In my bower as I lay there under the wild raw thatch, it became clear that the best postures for a human to meet the land are walking, externally, and wonder, inwardly. At the end of the day you can lie under your wool blanket on a bed of springy spruce boughs and wait, open.
As I do each month, this week I rode the train over the great mouth of the River Tay at Dundee which takes four minutes to cross. The green-brown water was rolling under me and the water was flowing in two directions at once. The tide was coming in very strongly, flood tide. The river was full of winter rain flowing down to the sea, following its nature, and causing static waves that looked like the surface of flowstone in Cheddar caves, or like the skin of a great serpent. The wind was also whipping up small white caps on these standing waves. I saw all this with my eyes, but I felt it viscerally. The whole land pleased me so immensely: when I get held by whatever this earth energy is, it feels like this.
Over this entire archipelago, mountains in Ireland and the UK are not so high, even Ben Nevis can be walked in a day. There is no K2, no Ararat, or Eiger. Well-travelled sophisticates sneer at their own mellow lands and do not realise that the valley and the mountain are two parts of the same whole, an ineffable thing that cannot be reduced to spot heights above sea level on maps. The real land magic here is the vastly crenelated coastline. It is so long, going in and out of 100,000 inlets on over 1,000 islands. The rivers and the sea are an embrace, you can’t be sleepy in such arms, they can suddenly squeeze you, and you may drown.
Explaining my love of land to people, I have tried sincere clarity, and well-made arguments, but I never won over anyone for earth that way. Instead I get people excited about mixing paints from cherry tree gum and deep red earths dug, washed and graded by Jonathan the miner in the Forest of Dean, like his ancestors over the last 4400 years. Or by getting people to use their earwax to help mix a blue watercolour from indigo made from woad, and by boiling up oak gall ink from tree bits and rusty nails. If it doesn’t feel great in their body, they won’t care. Materials of earth foster love of land and its preservation.
On Portland, Dorset, I slept overnight in a hut on the beach, listening to the roar of the spring tide on the pebbles. The cove where I stay has intriguingly shaped stones, which at closer inspection turn out to be sea-rounded quarry waste. The Weares themselves, the high cliffs and ragged, now protected, habitats along the coast, are full of lizards, raptors and tiny versions of wild flowers, happy in the ‘unimproved’ soil. This place is a fecund absence: the stone for St Paul’s Cathedral, Whitehall, The Cenotaph, and so much of what rebuilt official, religious and bureaucratic central London after the Great Fire was removed from here. You can still find huge blocks with Sir Christopher Wren’s sigil on, (an up-turned wine glass). To me this place is the uncivil inverse of the City of London, its exiled, wind-scoured, kestrel-eyed wild twin.
In the morning I gathered my materials, walked out into the rocks, and saw what marks got made, it did not feel like decision-making. I was not ‘making my mark’ upon the land. It was tricky to make a way through the giant brambles to the right rocks. Though a clear cold day, with a whipping north-easterly wind, the huge rocks and sea cliffs sheltered me, and I even got a little sun-burned. Yellow, orange-red and black, plus almost white scratches into the rock itself, using smaller rock shards, were the materials. In my art I use these natural ochres all the time, but the difference with rocks is the grand scale they offer, and the unforgiving surface. It will have your knuckle skin as gladly as your paint. I tipped the ochres into two scallop shells then added water and used the stiff brush almost to scrub colour onto the stone. After a few hours balanced amongst giant boulders, in the dazzling gift-horse light of a late winter day, I took some photographs of what had been made.
It rained hard the following week. Within five days the works themselves were washed away.
There’s more where this came from in our latest book.