On seasons, transitions, and moving forward

From Equus © by Tim Flach

Carrying on from Tuesday's post, the second book I've been re-reading this week as a means of coping with grief is The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich -- a collection of interlinked essays on life in the mountains of Wyoming, where the author settled after the death of the man she'd intended to marry. Ehrlich writes beautifully about land and solitude, about the turn of the seasons and the changes of life. In one essay she describes the waning months of the year in the high mountain country like this:

The Solace of Open Spaces"The French call the autumn leaf feuille morte. When the leaves are finally corrupted by the frost they rain down into themselves until the tree, disowning itself, goes bald. All through the autumn we hear a double voice: one says everything is ripe, the other says everything is dying. The paradox is exquisite.

"We feel what the Japanese call 'aware' -- an almost untranslatable word that means something like 'beauty tinged with sadness.' Some days we have to shoulder against a marauding melancholy. Dreams have a hallucinatory effect: in one, a man who is dying watches from inside a huge cocoon while stud colts run through deep mud, their balls bursting open, their seed spilling onto the black ground. My reading brings me this thought from the mad Zen priest Ikkyu: 'Remember that under the skin you fondle lie the bones, waiting to reveal themselves." But another day, I ride into the mountains. Against rimrock, tall aspens have the graceful bearing of giraffes, and another small grove, not yet turned, gives off a virginal limelight that transpierces everything heavy....

"Autumn teaches us that fruition is also death; that ripeness is a form of decay. The willows, having stood for so long near the water, begin to rust. Leaves are verbs that conjugate the seasons.

"Today the sky is a wafer. Place on my tongue, it is a wholeness that has already disintegrated; placed under the tongue, it makes my heart beat strongly enough to stretch myself over the winter brilliances to. Now I feel the tenderness to which this season rots. Its defenselessness can no longer be corrupted. Death is its purity, its sweet mud. The string of storms that came to Wyoming like elephants tied trunk to tail falters now and bleeds into stillness."

From Equus © by Tim Flach

From Equus © by Tim Flach

From Equus © by Tim Flach

In another essay, Ehrlich writes of Wyoming's winter months:

"Winter looks like a fictional place, an elaborate simplicity, a Nabokovian invention of rarefied detail. Winds howl all night and day, pushing litters of storm fronts from the Beartooth to the Big Horn Mountains. When it lets up, the mountains disappear. The hayfield that runs east from my house ends up in a curl of clouds that have fallen like sails luffing from sky to ground. Snow returns across the field to me, and the cows, dusted with white, look like snowcapped continents drifting. 

"The poet Seamus Heaney said that landscape is sacremental, to be read as text. Earth is instinct: perfect, irrational, semiotic. If I reading winter right, it is a scroll -- the white growing wider and wider like the sweep of an arm -- and from it we gain a peripheral vision, a capacity for what Nabokov calls 'those asides of spirit, those footnotes in the volume of life by which we know life and find it to be good.'

"Not unlike emotional transitions -- the loss of a friend of the beginning of new work -- the passage of seasons is often so belabored and quixotic as to deserve separate names so the year might be divided eight ways instead of four. This fall ducks flew across the sky in great 'V's as if that one letter were defecting from the alphabet, and when the songbirds climbed to the memorized pathways that route them to winter quarters, they lifted off in confusion, like paper scraps blown from my writing room."

From Equus © by Tim Flach

Ehrlich relates but does not linger on the death that drove her from New York to Wyoming -- and yet loss and grief are the subtext of every essay in the collection. It's a book about ranching and sheep-herding, yes, but also about the challenge of creating a new life from the ashes of an old one. The narrative voice is clear-eyed and unsentimental; it is also reflective and poetic; and the skillful juxtaposition of both modes of writing is one of the reasons I love Ehrlich's work. As she writes in the book's Introduction:

"The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities of earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding. Finally, the lessons of impermanence have taught me this: loss constitutes an odd kind of fullness; despair empties out into an unquenchable appetite for life."

From Equus © by Tim Flach

Today's featured artist:

The imagery here is by the great animal photographer Tim Flach, who has "an interest in the way humans shape animals and shape their meaning while exploring the role of imagery in fostering an emotional connection." He is based in London.

The photographs come from Equus (2008), Flach's exquisitely beautiful book on the subject of the horse. His subsequent books are wonderful too: Dog Gods (2010), More Than Human (2012), Evolution (2013), Endangered (2017), Who Am I? (for children, 2019), and Birds (2021).

I urge you to have a look at his website, which not only shows you the breadth of his work but also has one of the best opening pages I've ever seeen....

From Equus © by Tim Flach

 The photographs above are from Equus by Tim Flach (Abrams, 2008); all rights reserved by the artist. The passages quoted above are from "A Storm, the Cornfield, and Elk," and "The Smooth Skull of Winter," essays published in The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich (Viking Pengun, 1985); all rights reserved by the author. I also recommend her related books, A Match to the Heart (1994) and Unsolaced (2021).


The art of Kay Nielsen

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

On a chilly, mid-December morning, my thoughts turned to fairy tales of the north, and then to the great Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen. Here's a reflection on this great artist's work and life....

The period in art history now referred to as the Golden Age of Book Illustration occurred in London at the end of the 19th century and in the dawning years of the 20th -- growing out of the reassessment of Book Arts fostered by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts-&-Crafts movement, and aided by advances in printing techniques that made the publication of sumptuously illustrated volumes suddenly economically feasible. As a result, a number of the greatest book illustrators the world has ever known were clustered in London during those years: Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Charles Ricketts, Lawrence Housman, Henry Ford, Jean de Bosschère, and many others -- including a young Dane named Kay (pronounced "Kigh") Nielsen, who turned up in the city in 1911 at the tender age of twenty-five with a series of black-and-white drawings inspired by Aubrey Beardsley under his arm.

Kay had been born into an illustrious theater family in Copenhagen in 1886, growing up with the trappings of wealth and fame and a strong interest in the arts. (His father was the director of the Royal Danish Theater, his mother was a much-revered actress, and visitors to the Nielsen household included Ibsen and Grieg.) At eighteen, Kay left Copenhagen for Paris to study art in Montparnasse. It was there that he, like so many art students, discovered Beardsley's work, with its fine use of line and ornamentation and its aura of dark romance. Beardsley's drawings made a considerable impression on him, containing as it did two of the things he loved best: imagery from myth and folklore, and the strong influence of Japanese art. Under Beardsley's spell, Nielsen produced a series of morbidly romantic black-and-white drawings titled The Book of Death, portraying the tragic love of Pierrot for a young dying maiden. Moving from Paris to Beardsley's homeland, Kay mounted a major London gallery exhibition of the series in 1911. Mixed in with these darker drawings were designs for watercolors based on classic fairy tales -- the art for which the young painter would henceforth be best known.

Pop! Out flew the moon.

On the strength of this work, Kay soon received his first English book commission: In Powder and Crinoline, a volume of fairy tales retold by Arthur Quiller-Couch. The book appeared in 1913, instantly garnering wide acclaim. A year later, when he was just twenty-eight, Kay published the work that would be his most famous: East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Old Tales from the Norse. With these two volumes, Kay Nielsen came out from under Aubrey Beardsley's long shadow into a style that was all his own -- one that incorporated the influence of Romantic Art, Art Nouveau, Japanese woodcuts, and Chinese prints, yet gave them a chilly Nordic elegance and a modernist look. The original paintings from these two volumes were exhibited in London in 1915 (book artists depended on the sales from such shows, for they earned very little from the published works), and then formed the core of a Nielsen exhibition in New York two years later.

In 1917, Kay traveled from New York back to Copenhagen and became, during the post-war years, deeply involved with the theater again. Collaborating with his close friend Johannes Poulson (now known as a pioneer of Danish cinema, but then a young stage actor and producer), he designed elaborate sets and costumes for Adam Oehlenschlaeger's Aladdin at the Danish State Theater, as well as for a lavish production of Scaramouche, with music by Sibelius. It was during these years, between 1918 and 1922, that the artist also created his sensual illustrations for The Arabian Nights, incorporating a melange of influences from Eastern art to the Italian Renaissance. Publication plans for the series fell through, but the paintings were shown in a London exhibition in 1924, along with new illustrations for a volume of Hans Christian Andersen tales.

So the man gave him a pair of snow shoes

Kay married his beloved, charismatic wife Ulla Pless-Schmidt in 1926, and the two of them lived in grand style for the next decade in Copenhagen -- where Kay, due to his popular books and innovative theater work, was now a celebrity just as his mother and father had been. In 1936, the theater work led to a prominent job in Hollywood, creating designs for Max Reinhardt's Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl -- then Kay stayed on at the request of Walt Disney to design the "Bald Mountain" sequence of the animated film Fantasia. When war broke out in Europe again, Ulla joined Kay in Hollywood, along with their two Scotty dogs, and the couple settled in to a new life in America. At first, it was a life as luxurious as the one they'd left behind -- but gradually, Kay's working relationship with Disney Studios deteriorated...and when he turned to his own art again he found, to his astonishment and despair, it had fallen quite out of fashion.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

Then began a long stretch of years where jobs were few and far between, and Kay's once highly sought after paintings became impossible to sell. His disadvantage, notes Hildegarde Flanner, a friend and neighbor in southern California,

"lay in the narrowness of his range in a day that was suspicious of fantasy -- unless neurotic or Joycean -- that 'the Golden Age of Illustration' in which his name had been notable along with those of Morris, Beardsley, Boecklin, Pyle, Rackham, Dulac, and their brotherhood had closed, and however vital his skill in decoration, he had no ease in self–promotion. In other times his talent and reputation might have carried him without anxiety for the rest of his life, yet already in the forties of the century and his own middle-fifties his successes, both European and American, were all in the past and apparently behind him, and he was living obscurely in a mortgaged cottage in the foothill suburbs, with no prospects ahead. Apprehension about money became chronic, and also there was the crucial matter of ill health. In spite of his tall appearance of well-being, Kay was not strong and Ulla, since no one dares be sick without plenty of cash, did not mention the fact that she was threatened with diabetes."

''Tell me the way '' she said  ''and then I'll search you out.''

Ulla and Kay tightened their belts, moved into the modest cottage near Flanner, and set about living with as much gentle grace and style as they could muster on a small and dwindling income. It was then that Flanner first met the couple -- astonished to find that her neighbor was the very artist whose books she had most treasured in her childhood.

"As I came to know him," Flanner writes, "he appeared to be the model of his tall heroes, and like them seemed puritanic, as much monk as painter, never quite coming out of the hieratic forest....Asked today what they recall most about him people invariably answer, 'He never said an unkind word about anyone.' "

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

Despite their financial worries, the Nielsen house was a warm and lively place, filled with friends, art, conversation, and the distinctively Danish customs with which they kept their homeland close. It was also filled with baby chicks, for the couple attempted to breed and raise Cornish game hens to supplement their income -- but after a while this business failed too. And still Kay's art didn't sell.

 In 1941, good fortune came in the form of Jasmine Britton, supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system. Distressed to find an artist of Nielsen's caliber living in genteel poverty, she pulled some strings and located funds with which to hire him to create a full-scale mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School. It was a vast undertaking, a painting on which the artist spent three long years of hard work. When the mural was finally completed, it was ceremoniously unveiled to enormous acclaim; Arthur Miller called it "one of the most beautiful wall paintings in America" in the L.A. Times. One year later, the school building was taken over by the Los Angeles Board of Education for a new administrative headquarters, and the mural was stripped from the wall as the room was converted to offices.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

Enraged, Jasmine Britton threatened the School Board with a well-publicized public scandal. They agreed to transfer the mural, and a new home was found for it at Sutter Junior High School in the San Fernando Valley -- but the enormous painting had been badly damaged in the course of its careless removal and storage. A further two years of work was required to restore the art in its new setting -- a blow from which Kay's health, fragile at that time, never fully recovered. When the restorations were complete, he went on to a new commission -- a splendid altar painting for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. After this, however, it was six long years before he received another commission.

In the late 1940s, lacking all prospect of work, the Nielsens returned to Denmark, though life there was to be quite different from what they had known before. Where Kay had once been a celebrity, followed everywhere by the media, now he was aging, his work was obscure, and their country house, though charming, was also rustic and bitterly cold. Kay spent dark winter days wrapped in blankets, attempting to paint, as his health grew worse.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon illustrated by Kay Nielsen

By the 1950s, the Nielsens were back in the cottage in California once more -- where good fortune appeared once again in the form of another Britton sister, Helen Britton Holland, who arranged for Kay to receive a mural commission from Whitman College. It was the last major painting he would ever complete -- for over the next several years his cough worsened, his frame grew thinner and thinner, and in 1957 he died quietly at home at the age of sixty-nine. Ulla made no pretense of wanting to go on with life now that her Kay was gone, and she died just thirteen months later of complications from diabetes. Neither knew that a revival of Kay's life work was soon about to begin.

Illustration by Kay Nielson

In the 1960s and 1970s, Kay's fairy tale paintings were rediscovered as part of a general cultural reappraisal of Victorian fairy art, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Golden Age book illustration. In the latter group, Nielsen's work was ranked once again alongside Rackham's and Dulac's as the finest of the age. In America and England, Kay's pictures appeared on notecards, posters, and calendars, and facsimile editions of his various fairy tale volumes soon followed after. In the 1970s, Peacock Press, under the visionary direction of Ian and Betty Ballantine (who were instrumental in popularizing Tolkien's books in America) presented a series of trade paperback volumes honoring the works of Golden Age illustrators. Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin, was published in 1975, followed up by The Unknown Paintings of Kay Nielsen (featuring the artist's Arabian Nights paintings) in 1977.

Since then, Kay's work has become beloved by fans of fairy tale fiction and illustration all around the world, and a new generation of mythic artists are now as inspired by the art of Kay Nielsen as he was once inspired by Beardsley.

The art of Kay Nielsen

"Though naturally conversant with the historic advances of painting in the twentieth century," writes Hildegarde Flanner, "he remained aloof from the times in his work. Excelling in the lyrical and poetical was the ideal that absorbed him and he made no effort to modernize the subject-matter that had governed his style."

Today, we can only be grateful for the artist's devotion to "the lyrical and poetical." He maintained his own unique vision to the end, leaving his wondrous pictures as gifts to the future. I hope somewhere that his spirit, and Ulla's, knows just how much we treasure them now.

Before long the troll fell asleep and was snoring

The paintings above are from East of the Sun, West of the Moon, illustrated by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957).


A Spell for Opening

Back to the Stone by Simon Blackbourn

A Spell for Opening 1

Autumn leaves

A Spell for Opening 2

Autumn leaves

A Spell for Opening

Autumn leaves

We've been speaking about the giving and receiving of gifts in previous posts, and of shifting our perception of art and life away from our culture's fixation on the the market economy as the primary arbitrator of value, to one of gift exchange, reciprocity, generosity and community.

LeafToday is my birthday, and I grew up in the tradition of receiving birthday presents each year  (I expect that you did too) -- but as a folklorist I'm aware that this old folk custom is not universal. In some cultures, children present gifts to their mothers, or to both parents, in gratitude for the gift of life. In others, a birthday marks the opportunity for a giveaway: food, flowers, or gifts ceremoniously distributed to everyone in the family or tribe. 

In the spirit of the latter, I want to gift you all with the poem/chant/prayer pictured above: "A Spell for Opening." It's from my little book Seven Little Tales, which is part of the Seven Doors in an Unyielding Stone series from Hedgespoken Press, curated by Tom Hirons and Rima Staines. The poem was inspired by the series' name; I loved the mystery of doors in stone. I pictured this particular door in one of my favourite places on the moor: Scorhill, a circle of standing stones. What would it take, I wondered, to find that door and open it up...?

Please accept this gift of words...and then pass on a gift of your own to someone, somewhere, some day.

Seven Little Tales by Terri Windling Hedgepoken Press

Dartmoor Hawthorn by Simon Blackbourn

The beautiful imagery in this post is by local artist Simon Blackbourn, photographer and co-founder of the excellent Dartmoor Collective. Simon has spent the last ten years immersed in the wilds of the moor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To see more of his work, please visit his Instagram page and the Dartmoor Collective Gallery

For more on the subject of gift exchange, I recommend Lewis Hyde's seminal book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Informs the World, and Robin Wall Kimmerer's remarkable Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River by Simon Blackbourn

The photographs by Simon Blackbourn are: Back to the Stone (Scorhill), Dartmoor Hawthorn, Dartmoor Pony, and The North Teign River. All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist. 


Magic from the hedgerows

Strength by Danielle Barlow

A while back my friend and Chagford neighbour Danielle Barlow began a massive artistic undertaking: to create a new tarot deck, The Witches' Wisdom Tarot, in collaboration with Phyllis Curott. Danielle is an artist and practicing hedgewitch here on Dartmoor; Phyllis is an acclaimed American writer on all things Wiccan. Their project was an immersive one, growing slowly over many, many months: imbued with all the myth, symbolism, tarot lore and deep love of the natural world these two women carry between them.

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

Danielle often uses family and friends as her painting models, so when she called for models for this project I nervously agreed to help. It's not that I haven't been painted before (in this faerie picture by Brian Froud, for example, painted back in the 1990s; or this one in David Wyatt's "Mythic Village" series, 2011), but I've crossed into my older years now -- a stage of life when the image in the mirror rarely matches the ageless self we still inhabit in the mind's eye. I'd be no faerie sylph this time, but an archetypal elder. 

Furthermore, my health disability was at an especially low point then: I was physically frail, anaemic, shaky on my feet, not feeling particularly "magical" at all. The day Danielle came over with her camera was the day I learned the card I would be posing for: Strength. I laughed when she told me, it seemed so unlikely. "There are many different kinds of strength," she told me firmly. "Trust me, this is the right card."

Some time later I saw the finished painting (pictured at the top of this post) . . . and Reader, I admit, I cried.

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

Today, as the dark of winter approaches, as a new variant of Covid looms and our cultural/political discourse seems to grow more divisive by the hour, we're all in need of strength, and of the reminder that it comes in many forms. Danielle's words, imagery and hedgewitchery helped me to remember and re-imagine mine. I hope this story will do the same for you. Sometimes the quietest, deepest, most individual and paradoxical forms of strength are the ones we should value most of all.

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

To learn more about the wonderful Witches' Wisdom Tarot, go here. To see more of Danielle's art, including her equally lovely Green Wheel Oracle deck, go here.

"I trained in textiles, and then in horticulture," she says, "before returning to painting, my first love. These days I work primarily in ink and watercolour. I still juggle all three elements -- painting, stitching and herbalism. Deeply rooted in this ancient landscape of ours, my work draws heavily on folklore and mythology, and explores the deep connection, both physical and spiritual, between people and the land they inhabit. The spirit of this land has sunk deep into my heart, and as I wander its ancient tracks, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the shifting relationships between human, animal, plants and land. My paintings above all attempt to capture the elusive Genius Loci - Spirit of Place."

Danielle Barlow's art for The Witches' Wisdom Tarot

Craftsman of Air by Danielle Barlow

The Witches' Wisdom Tarot was published by Hay House last autumn. The artwork is copyright by Danielle Barlow, all rights reserved.


The urban wild

Nocturne in Silver and Blue by James McNeill Whistler

After Long Covid, veterinary and family-life interruptions, I'd like to return to my series of posts recommending favourite books on the subject of water. We've had a similar series on sea and coastal tales a while back, so this time the focus is on rivers and other inland waters.

All of the texts discussed so far have been set, largely, in the countryside or the desert wilderness, so today let's look at two interesting books dedicated to urban waterways: Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem, set on the banks of the River Thames as it passes through London, and Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler, set among the canals of Birmingham.

Hidden Nature and Mudlarking

A mudlark, the Cambridge Dictionary explains, is "someone who searches the mud near rivers trying to find valuable or interesting objects." Although we tend to think of mudlarks as figures out of the 18th and 19th centuries, there are still dedicated mudlarks today, and Lara Maiklem is one of them: irresistibly drawn to the tidal portion of the Thames, scouring the mud to find treasures, curiosities, and cast-offs full of stories about the past. Maiklem explains her unusual vocation like this:

Nocturne in Blue and Gold by James McNeill Whistler"It amazes me how many people don't realise the river in central London is tidal. I  hear them comment on it as they pause at the river wall above me while I am mudlarking below. Even friends who have lived in the city for years are oblivious to the high and low tides that chase each other around the clock, inching forward every twenty-four hours, one tide gradually creeping through the day while the other takes the night shift. They have no idea that the height between low and high water at London Bridge varies from fifteen to twenty-two feet or that it takes six hours to come upriver and six and a half for it to flow back out to sea.

"I am obsessed with the incessant rise and fall of the water. For years my spare time has been controlled by the river's ebb and flow, and the consequent covering and uncovering of the foreshore. I know where the river allows me access early and where I can stay for the longest time before I am gently, but firmly, shooed away. I have learned to read the water and catch it as it turns, to recognise the almost imperceptible moment when it stops flowing seawards and currents churn together briefly as the balance tips and the river is once more pulled inland, the anticipation of the receding water replaced by a sense of loss, like saying goodbye to an old friend after a long-awaited visit.

Drawing of the old Battersea Bridge by James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne in Brown and Silver (Old Battersea Bridge) by James McNeill Whistler

"Tide tables commit the river's movements to paper, predict its future and record its past. I use these complex lines of numbers, dates, times and water heights to fill my diary, temptations to weave my life around, but it is the river that decides when I can search it, and tides have no respect for sleep or commitments. I have carefully arranged meetings and appointments according to the tides, and conspired to meet friends near the river so that I can steal down to the foreshore before the water comes in and after it's flowed out. I've kept people waiting, bringing in a trail of mud and apologies in my wake; missed the start of many films and even left some early to catch the last few inches of foreshore. I have lied, cajoled and manipulated to get time by the river. It comes knocking on all hours and I obey, forcing myself out of a warm bed, pulling on layers of clothes and padding quietly down the stairs, trying not to wake the sleeping house....

"It is the tides that make mudlarking in London so unique. For just a few hours each day, the river gives us access to its contents, which shift and change as the water ebbs and flows, to reveal the story of a city, its people and their relationship with a natural force. If the Seine in Paris were tidal it would no doubt provide a similar bounty and satisfy an army of Parisian mudlarks; when the non-tidal Amstel River in Amsterdam was recently drained to make way for a new train line, archaeologists recorded almost 700,000 objects, of just the kind we find in the Thames: buttons that burst off waistcoats long ago, rings that slipped from fingers, buckles that are all that's left of a shoe -- the personal possessions of ordinary people, each small piece a key to another world and a direct link to long-forgotten lives. As I have discovered, it is often the tiniest of objects that tells the greatest stories."

Wapping by James McNeill Whistler

Mudlarking is an unusual and thoroughly engaging book, full of the history of the city, of the river, and of the quirky society of mudlarks drawn to the banks of the Thames, past and present. Maiklem is a wonderful raconteur, and a knowledgeable one. If the subject intrigues you, check out her London Mudlark Facebook page for pictures of her adventures and finds, like the one below:

Mudlarking finds. Photograph by Lara Maiklem.

Black Lion's Wharf by James McNeill Whistler

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler is memoir woven through with nature writing (or perhaps it's the other way around), centred on the old canal system of Birmingham in the English West Midlands. It's the story of the unravelling of a heterosexual marriage, of slowly and cautiously coming out as gay, and of the challenge of beginning a new life while standing in shock in the ruins of the old -- something many of us can relate to, even if the particulars of our dramatic life changes are different than the author's. 

Longing for solitude and immersion in nature, Fowler daydreams about running away to Bolivia or central Asia, but settles on an adventure closer to home: exploring the Birmingham Canal Network -- in the heart of the city and beyond its borders -- in an inflatable kayak. She romanticises neither the urban canals nor her own life choices, writing honestly and insightfully about each; and yet the resulting story has a raw beauty of its own. Fowler writes:

Symphony in Grey and Silver (The Thames) by James McNeill Whistler"The backwaters [of the Icknield Port Loop] fascinated me. At night, I dreamt of returning to it, swimming, running through the water or just floating back down the same stretch that runs after the boatyard. In those dreams I saw everything in great detail. 

"Nothing in that stretch was precious, not the abandoned day boats, the rubbish strewn in the water, the wayside weeds or framed views of urban wasteland beyond the broken factory facades. Nature there was a mixture of native and non-native. The weeds were growing straight out of heavy-metal pollution and were stunted or burnt by the effort. None of the trees showed the soft, new green of spring, but instead were flushed already with deficiencies, their trunks scarred by the battle of living there, their branches strewn with ribbons of plastic. As I returned to those images, I was already obsessed with and a little haunted by that landscape. I went back to do the loop again.

"It was as unsettled as I was. Its position was as temporal as mine. It was barely holding itself together: the canal sides were crumbling, the banks bursting with wild things ready to march into the water and claim new ground. That landscape couldn't quite decide what it was. It was wild, but not natural, it was old, but not old enough. Its riches kept changing or floating away. It belonged only to those who cared to claim it, outsiders, tenacious wildlife, the drunken, the homeless, the lost and me.

Symphony in Gray (Early Morning Thames) by James McNeill Whistler

"I have never been much for joining in or up. I liked people and I liked belonging, but I have always floated between identities. One foot here and the other there, ready to move on if the boundaries seem to be settling into something rigid. I like best the edges of society, of ecosystems, of friendships. I like the place that is both held on to and departed from. And this watery world was just that. For the first time in nine years, I'd found a bit of Birmingham to fall for and all my internal butterflies took flight with excitement.

"I felt the great pull of the unknown, of adventure, setting in: if a place that was just a few miles from the city centre could hold another world so strange and unsettled, what would the past reveal? The pastoral edges of the network didn't pull me half so much as the dirty great industrial heart and its drum-thumping factories."

Limehouse by James McNeill Whistler

Much later in the book, Fowler reflects on this passage of her life, and her obsession with the city's waterways while in the midst of seismic life change. She writes:

Little Wapping by James McNeill Whistler"Travelling on the canals is to carry out a series of small rituals, to bear witness to the way light changes on the surface of the water or a seed head disperses and where next year's plants will appear. The best journeys are always worth repeating, and that is how I feel about my favourite stretches of the canals. I like those cathedrals of green trees in the suburbs. I like them in the spring when the fresh new green unfurls. I loved them in the autumn when those buttery leaves swirled around my paddle, and how in the stark of winter I see their bare bones swaying in the wind as I feel the chill of the water beneath me. 

"I see now that this journey on the water was about finding an external correlation to my inner world, a fluid space that would allow me to make my own changes.

"The canals will change and change again. Those metal hulls will sink or be dragged out, the edges tidied, graffiti removed. I hope there will always be kingfishers and butterflies to watch; I hope later generations will watch herons spear fish and lean over the edge of their boats to peer at pike. I hope that everyone has the sense to leave a little of the edges wild."

Nocturne in Blue and Silver (Cremorne Lights) by James McNeill Whistler

We've talked about urban magic in a previous post, and how the cities, too, contain rich pockets of nature and of enchantment. Mudlarking and Hidden Nature, in their different ways, are celebrations this; and of the ways the wild flows through all our lives, no matter where we live.

Nocturne in Grey and Silver by James McNeill Whistler

The art today is one of my favourite American artists, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), a brilliant colourist whose tonal paintings were both widely admired and deplored by the 19th century art establishment. (His work rarely invited mild reactions, nor did his pugnacious personality.) Whistler was born and raised in New England, but also spent part of his youth in Russia and London due to his father's work as a railroad engineer. He was educated at West Point Military Academy and worked as a military draftsman before deciding to devote himself to art. He then set sail for Paris at the age of 21, where he studied in the atelier of Marc Charles Gabriel Gleyre and fell in with a social circle that included Alphonse Legros, Édouard Manet, and Charles Baudelaire. He eventually settled down in London (around the corner from Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Thomas Carlye), where he spent most of his adult life.

Although today Whistler is perhaps best known for his figurative work (and his iconic portrait of his mother), he also made many paintings, drawings, and etchings of the River Thames over forty years.  Art scholar Angeria Rigamonit di Cuto notes: "He began his explorations in the east of London, at Wapping, Limehouse and Greenwich, before moving upriver, his cosmopolitan background and outsider status perhaps easing his access to the mean streets of the docklands (among 'a beastly set of cads', according to his friend George du Maurier)."

You can see more of his distinctive artwork here.

Nocturne in Grey and Gold by James McNeill Whistler

The passages above are quoted from Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem (Bloomsbury, 2019) and Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017); all rights reserved by the authors. The titles of the Whistler paintings and etchings above can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)