Further to yesterday’s post, here’s another Macfarlane mock-up. The Old Ways includes an extraordinary section about the artist (and Yorkshireman) Steve Dilworth. MacFarlane travels to Harris in the Outer Hebrides, off the North West coast of Scotland, where Harris has lived and worked for decades. He’s best known for his incredible work ‘The Hanging Figure’, made from a real human skeleton, dressed in horsehair, blackthorn and seagrass, augmented with animal parts. He made this in the late 1970’s and has a plan for ensuring its preserved for posterity that sounds “insane” but is probably a logic that bears echoes of our neolithic forebears. We look at the remnants of the things they made and marvel. Dilworth’s work evokes that same sensation, and each piece looks like it was made to inform the future of something important. Just for that section, a dozen or so pages in total, the book is worth the price of admission.
This is the first mock-up cover I’ve done for Robert Macfarlane’s ‘trilogy’ of books: The Wild Places, The Old Ways and Landmarks. He’s written others, but these three are thematically aligned, as he explores his ideas and observations about what’s often referred to as ‘the natural world’ or, as I prefer, ‘the world’. There’s conflicting arguments as to the reasons for our perceived “separation” from ‘nature’, but it’s an easy chasm to cross. Go for a walk in the woods, or up in the moors, or down to the beach. Don’t take any gadgets with screens or that make distracting noises. Take your time in those places and soon enough you’ll find the heavy armour of “civilisation” fall away and you’ll become attuned once again to the world we as a species evolved into. In my old job, I used to have to regularly take the train to London for the kind of meetings that redefined Arthur Koestler’s writings on prison: “The main probem is apathy, depression and gradual dehumanisation. The spirit dies.” As I got off the train at Paddington I walked dejectedly through an entirely man-made environment of concrete, steel, and plastic, with flickering screens everywhere, and advertising hoardings screaming for your attention. I came to feel that this was probably what hell looks like, and judging by the faces of everyone else I saw there I came to feel that most people seem to know it. It’s not a place we should be living in. Macfarlane’s writings remind us of that fact, time and again. He doesn’t so much rhapsodise about these wild places as open himself up and let the places speak through him.
The Stubborn Light Of Things’ is a collection of music created by Peter Rogers. Initially intended as a soundtrack for author Melissa Harrison’s podcast of the same name, it more than stands up as an album in its own right, evoking for me the same moods as those in Budd/Eno/Lanois’ The Pearl, Virginia Astley’s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, Bibio’s recent Sleep On The Wing, and even Boards Of Canada at their most ‘pastoral’. Inspired by the changing seasons, England’s arable landscape, and the beauty and solace provided by nature during the 2020 lockdown, it’s been a welcome antidote to the sonic warfare undertaken by the arsehole who lives over the back from me, going at it all day yesterday with an angle grinder. That evening I was at DefCon1, but after bathing in the soothing ambiene of Mr Roger’s compositions, I’m now as calm as a summer breeze.
Further to previous posts, it’s been the usual midweek slump where I get very little painting done, but there’s some new fine detail in places and it’s generally going well. As a younger man I used to be able to pull all-nighters and really get a lot of work done, but I’m at the age now where I just cannot function without seven hours of pure coma. So, it’ll be done when it’s done.
Of the three schools I attended during my childhood, two were located next to graveyards, and, like Al, I’ve always found them to be atmospheric and inspiring places. Every dinner time we used to walk through the one next to our secondary school, on the way into town to check out the girls from Morley High, and many years later I went back and took a photo of a key part of that walk, just as you enter the graveyard. For me it’s an image loaded with personal significance, and it’s a photo I’ve long intended to make a painting from, but I’ve had to wait patiently for the day when ability matches ambition. That day might have finally arrived.
Al’s portfolio has been published in book form by Another Place Press and you can order a copy here:
Further to previous posts, here’s what a weekend of dedicated effort got me. The background is finished, a meld of smokey silver and gold paint that wasn’t planned but felt right. Defining the detail on the head and completion of the blue undercoating gives me a better feel for the tonal range I can use. It’s going well, but there’s still no title for it. I keep referring to the main inspirational material – J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine – for a line or a passage I can use, but so far nothing has leapt out. I suspect this is one that will pop into my head when I’m in the shower or cycling to work.
My 2014 painting ‘The Tiger’, used as part of a mocked-up cover design for John Vaillant’s excellent book of the same name. The Tiger is epic in every sense – scope, theme and narrative content – and Vaillant’s prose is more than up to the task, lean and muscular, but suffused with the desolate poetry of the place he describes. The setting is the Primorye Territory in Russia’s far east, where it collides with the north-eastern border of China. This is terra primordia, a place that actively repels human incursion, so much so that beyond its one major city – Vladivostok – there are thousands of square miles where very few humans have ever set foot. A place where temperatures drop so low that trees explode. A place where the creatures that inhabit it have been Darwinially sculpted into formidable specimens of every kind, and at their apex is the undisputed lord of the taiga, the Amur Tiger. More commonly known as the Siberian Tiger, it gains its true name from the river that runs though this area. Much bigger than other sub-species of tiger, the Amur Tiger is an unbelievable animal. Why do people waste time imagining creatures from other worlds? The tiger is already otherworldly, a magnificent creature that deserves awe and respect. What it doesn’t deserve is to be hunted for its skin, its bones and its organs, most of which ends up in the illegal and/or unconscionably-tolerated trade for ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ or, to put it another way, “insane voodoo nonsense.” The fact that there are more captive tigers in Texas alone than there are living in the wilds of Primorye is an indication of how dire the situation is. There are many organisations trying to directly address this, premiere of which is Panthera, who are essentially the NRA of big cat conservation. They have one single issue, and they focus their time and energy on it with laser precision. And the plight of the tiger is a warning to our own species, because the dark forces marshalled against them are coming for us also.
Jonathan C Slaght is a wildlife biologist and author, who works for the full time for the Wildlife Conservation Society as their Russia & Northeast Asia Coordinator. His territory includes apex predators like the Amur/Siberian Tiger, and the Blakiston Fish Owl, of which he is one of the world’s foremost experts. The terrain he focusses on is the far eastern coastal fringe of Russia, a gnarly lanscape of forests and mountains that is almost completely unpopulated by humans. I first read about this place in John Vaillant’s The Tiger, which documents an intense human/animal interaction in the late 1990’s that’s as compelling a “wilderness adventure” as anything Jack London wrote. This is a landscape that wants you dead, so anything that can live there is hard as nails and has zero interest in anything but survival in its rawest state.
Jon’s new book, Owls Of The Eastern Ice, will be published in the UK later this month and it’s top of my reading list.
In it he focusses on the on the rare and spectacular Blakiston’s Fish Owl, which looks like an inspired Brundle between a Mogwai and a Haast’s Eagle. These birds are hardcore, living in terrain that no-one sane and with more comfortable options would stray into, so why are they so rare? As with many endangered species, they are losing their habitat to the the rapacious demands of unrestrained capitalism, and until that madness stops, I suspect Jon Slaght is going to remain a busy man.
Jon’s blog for Scientific American: East of Siberia
Missy Prince is a photographer, based in Portland, Oregon. Her portfolio River’s Edge (and I quote) “evokes the darkness and mystery of the Northwestern landscape, revealing a primordial quality that persists in the terrain and the psyches of its inhabitants.”
I like the aesthetic, which is evocative of the film of the same name. If you were a teeanger in the 1980’s, you can be divided into two camps – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or River’s Edge. No prizes for guessing which camp I fell into.