An interview with Gill Lewis, author of ‘Sky Dancer’.

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With Hen Harrier Day events happening recently in Sheffield, and several more coming up this coming weekend, (August 11th and 12th, see the end of the article for more info) in a variety of locations around the UK, I decided to read a book that addressed the issues involved in the persecution of this iconic species for younger readers. I first encountered Gill Lewis early in 2018 on Twitter, when she supported Gavin Gamble’s petition to ban driven Grouse shooting. The petition was the most recent of four, all with the same objective. The first three were initiated by well-known, long-standing conservationist Dr. Mark Avery. Although it did not elicit the massive numbers of its predecessors, (Mark Avery’s last one in 2017 received over 127,000 signatures, resulting in a Parliamentary debate), it did very respectably, bringing in almost 50,000 signees.

Ms. Lewis is a multiple award-winning UK author who has written several books for children and young adults, many concerned with issues around conservation. The one I just read, ‘Sky Dancer’, (published in 2017), is the first I’ve read, but it will not be the last…

The story centers on the conflicts and challenges of a young boy and his family, set on a Grouse shooting estate in the moorlands of England. How he navigates some very difficult situations drew me in and kept me reading, more than I would have imagined for a book for younger readers. The title ‘Sky Dancer’ is a name given to the Hen Harrier, (Circus cyaneus), a highly endangered raptor in the UK, with population numbers each year in the single digits, rather than several hundred, which should be seen.

Hen Harriers are persecuted near driven Grouse shooting locations, as are many other wild creatures who prey upon the Red Grouse that are shot in the tens of thousands each year for this ‘sport’.  The moniker ‘Sky Dancer’ stems from the extraordinarily acrobatic aerial gymnastics the Male Harriers perform during courtship. They soar to great heights, perform stunningly graceful maneuvers, then drop with lightening speed, again and again, to win the affection of their chosen mate. Here is a short clip:

 

 

Here is a short video with Gill discussing Hen Harriers with RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Warden Steve Garnet:

 

 

‘Sky Dancer’s characters are very believable, and one can relate to what they experience. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a good read, especially young people, but not exclusively. A compelling story, with emotional resonance, it also brings to life a hugely divisive topic in the UK – driven Grouse shooting. The story does so in a way that is graceful and well-integrated to the lives of its characters. Highly recommended!

Gill was kind enough to agree to a short email interview, to answer a few questions about Sky Dancer. I thought this would be a good time to hear a little more about this particular book, how she came to this topic, and her views about driven Grouse shooting in advance of a range of events coming up in different locations in the UK on August 11th and 12th, called Hen Harrier Days. I will provide an information link at the end of the post. I also inquired about her upcoming novel, ‘Run Wild’, which will be published soon.

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First of all… Thank you so much for taking time out of what I know is a busy schedule, between family life and your ongoing writing projects… 

Q: Your novels often approach issues related to conservation. What led you to write a novel set around driven Grouse shooting in the UK?

Gill: First and foremost, it was about the Hen Harrier. This is a bird of prey that has been persecuted to near-extinction in England for the sole reason that it eats Red Grouse on moors managed for driven Grouse shooting. I had previously written a story about an osprey, a birds that has recovered in great numbers in the UK after centuries of persecution. So why, I wanted to know, was the Hen Harrier still a victim of relentless persecution? Why was its recovery still struck in the Victorian era? The answers lie in our peculiar British socio-political history, in tradition and mired in Victorian preservationist mindset.

I wanted to write a story that could begin to unpick some of these answers. The story had to centre on the Hen Harrier because it has become an iconic symbol of the controversy surrounding driven Grouse shooting. It is a bird that highlights the ongoing persecution of birds of prey and the intensive destructive land management of our uplands. I tried to research as thoroughly as possible, read literature from both sides of the debate, visited grouse moors, talked to conservationists and gamekeepers in the field. It became apparent that the issue is complex and very much underpinned by the human condition; of those who own land wanting to hold onto status, tradition and power, and of gamekeepers who work on driven grouse moors where their work is a source of identity and pride.

So to begin to write a story you have to find the person to narrate it. It would have been easy to have a polarized viewpoint, to vilify and pit one side against the other . But life is more complex and nuanced than that. So Joe walked in to tell the story, a gamekeeper’s son who is exposed to the prejudice from all sides of the argument.

‘Sky Dancer’ became his story.

Q: What are your main objections to DGS?

Gill: My main objections to driven Grouse shooting are two-fold:

  1. Illegal persecution of birds of prey. The stark fact at the centre of the controversy, and one that is recognised by those on both sides of the argument, is that unless Hen Harrier populations are controlled (currently the only method to control their numbers is illegal persecution), they rise in such numbers and take enough Grouse to make a driven Grouse moor economically unviable. Therefore it can be concluded that illegal persecution is at the heart of driven Grouse shooting. This is not to say that all grouse moors partake in illegal activity, but that all driven grouse moors benefit from those who do, and cannot run economically without it.
  2. Destructive intensive land management. The rotational burning of the moor creates strips of different age heather for the purpose of creating a habitat to artificially raise the population of Red Grouse. Burning lowers the water table, has a negative impact on carbon capture of the delicate blanket bog, reduces water quality and biodiversity, and effects water hydrology which can in turn increase flooding risk downstream. The vast acreages of tinder dry heather provides a high wildfire risk landscape.

The eminent ecologist, Frank Fraser Darling said of the Scottish Highlands: The bald unpalatable fact is emphasized that the Highlands are largely devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation.’ The devastation he was referring to is bad land use; the stripping of natural tree cover, the burning and overgrazing that has been happening across the uplands of the UK for centuries.’

Q: People involved in this activity justify it by calling themselves true ‘guardians of the countryside’. They claim that without the economic activity provided by their sport, these areas would be full of unemployment and that the environment and wildlife would suffer. What do you say to that?

Gill: On unemployment and economy: People fear change. Understandably, there is a fear of losing a way of life, a career, a home and ultimately identity. Therefore any change must attempt to benefit and include those who have most to lose. To change the uplands from the fare fire-scorched hillsides into rewilded landscapes requires bravery and insight. But there would be increased benefits to the local through ecotourism. Grouse shooting is an activity for the few and the money it brings in benefits a narrower share of the local economy than money generated by ecotourism. A survey last year showed that grouse moors brought in 23 million GBP.  Bird for bird, and acre for acre, this is very small compared to the 5 million GBP plus that just a few pairs of sea eagles generate on Mull. Imagine the economic benefits of rewilding large areas of our uplands!

On environment and wildlife: Managed driven grouse moor is a highly impoverished landscape. Some ground-nesting waders do fare better on grouse moor than they would on overgrazed land. Indeed, the grouse shooting industry marches with the banner of beleaguered waders as their raison-d’etre. However, land that has been rewilded provides habitats with a wealth of biodiversity for a multitude of species of both flora and fauna. You can still have the waders and the birds of prey in a rich and varied landscape.

Q: Have you noticed any changes regarding the public perception of this activity in the past few years?

Gill: Yes, most definitely. The campaigns led by Mark Avery and Chris Packham have been supported by many. Dr. Ruth Tingay continues to highlight the high levels of persecution and is a contributor to the excellent Raptor Persecution blog on the website, http://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/ The RSPB Sky Dancer Life project works hard to engage the public about the threat facing Hen Harriers and LUSH is a big supporter of the campaign.

Q: In doing your research were there any things that you came upon that were surprising or unexpected?

Yes;

1) The astonishing realisation that very few people are brought to justice for illegal persecution of raptors even when there is hard evidence. One case is the alleged shooting of a Hen Harrier in Carbrach, Morayshire, where a individual is clearly seen to shoot a Hen Harrier. It begs the question, why are people getting away with it?

Http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/our-work/rspb-news/news/440987-alleged-killing -of-a-protected-hen-harrier

2) The levels of depravation and cruelty some individuals will go to, to rid the moors of anything that preys on Red Grouse.

Q: There have been a few petitions calling for an outright ban on driven Grouse shooting, also a recent on calling for it to be licensed. What is your preference?

Gill: I signed both petitions.

My preference is for a ban.

However, a licensing system will reveal what we already know; that unless Hen Harriers are prevented from breeding on the moors they will take enough grouse to make that grouse moor economically unviable. Hence driven Grouse shooting will be forced to cease.

Currently the only method to reduce the majority of Hen Harriers on grouse moors is illegal persecution. The Grouse shooting industry would like to implement brood management, which would be a legal method to remove the majority of Hen Harriers from the grouse moors. This is a farcical option that only plays into the hands of those committing crime. It is not just Hen Harriers that are persecuted but Eagles, Peregrines, Goshawks, Red Kites, etc. Fortunately, Dr. Mark Avery and the RSPB have both applied for a judicial review challenging the government’s poor and ill-informed decision about brood management.

Q: Damage to the uplands because of DGS extends far beyond persecution of Hen Harriers, with regular burning of moors (to create new growth for Red Grouse to eat) having been proven to increase CO2 emissions, possibly increase flood risk in communities below, and pollute water and air in the area. Eating the grouse meat may also result in ingestion of lead particles, a well-known neurotoxin, from the ammunition. Lead ammunition also poisons many thousands of other wildlife each year. There are alternative views of how areas currently used for DGS might be managed. You mention in the book the idea of rewilding. Can you tell a little about this? 

Gill: Imagine a bare hillside with patches of burned heather. You may hear the guttural call of a Red Grouse, and, if you are lucky, the bubbling sound of the Curlew. A Sky Lark may lift up to its dizzying heights in front of you. Bu that was pretty much it, on my last walk across a grouse moor. This barren landscape goes on for miles and miles. It is essentially an unbroken and unnatural monoculture. There will be areas of bog damaged by rotational burning. There will be waders that benefit from predator control. But this is an impoverished land, degraded by intensive land management for Red Grouse.

Now imagine a landscape softened by native deciduous woodland, and of healthy blanket bog where cotton grass catches the sunlight, and of fringe heather heath where the curlew will call. Woodlands are far richer in biodiversity than moorland. Walk beneath the dappled shade watching Treecreepers spiral up tree trunks, the blur of a Sparrowhawk in flight. Walk out onto the heath where there will not only be Red Grouse, but the Black Grouse too, which prefer woodland edge.

Just imagine the biodiversity of invertebrates alone in this landscape of varied habitats. There is so much to gain from rewilding. Wildlife benefits and people do too. Rewilding is about restoring natural process and healthy functioning ecosystems to our landscapes. This is already becoming a reality in some areas of the UK with great success and exciting results. Rewilding is the vital change that needs to happen. It is the future. We can’t afford it not to be.

Q: Do you have an age range you write for primarily?

Sky Dancer and my other novels are aimed at children aged 8-12. However, I don’t really like to categorize reading age. Younger children read my books, as do adults. My stories are told from the viewpoint of characters that are about 10-12 years old with their perception of the world around them. But that is to patronize the intelligence, experiences and opinions of youth.

Q: What is your favorite part of the process of coming out with a new book?

Gill: I love the research and having time to really explore all aspects of an issue and challenge and hone my own views about a subject. But the most exciting part of writing is finding the narrator and seeing the world through their eyes.

Q:  Do you enjoy meeting your readers?

Gill: I love meeting readers and hearing their views at both schools and festivals and sharing their enthusiasm about all things wild. It’s one of the best perks of the job! Skype visits are great to connect with readers around the world.

Q: David Suzuki, long-standing Canadian conservationist broadcaster and writer, has also written books about the environment for children. A few years ago, he revealed that his approach to some very serious problems relating to the natural world was going to alter slightly, to avoid overwhelming young viewers/readers with so much negative material that they might feel the situation is hopeless. He therefore emphasized doable, positive actions they can undertake, as individuals and in groups. Many have noted that young people are the greatest source of hope for environmental and wildlife stewardship, as, if they care, they will act to protect these precious creatures and their habitats. Do you worry about portraying some of these difficult issues in your work?

Gill: I agree with his sentiments. I think it’s really important to not patronize and protect readers from reality. There’s no benefit to putting a sticking plaster on a haemorrhaging artery. But neither do you want to overwhelm readers. I believe in hopefully endings, not necessarily happy and resolved ones. The most challenging book for subject matter that I have written has been ‘Gorilla Dawn’, a story set in the DEmocratic Republic of Congo about the mining of minerals needed in the production of mobile phones and the impact it has upon the environment and people. It’s important to give readers the facts, but also show that there is a resolution to the problem, and that they can be a part of it with actions that they can take as individuals and a group. Young people do care greatly about the environment and their future. We are fortunate in the UK to have many young people taking action and also using social media to highlight awareness of issues.

Q: Your new book, ‘Run Wild’ has just come out, your first for Barrington Stoke, in conjunction with Rewilding Britain. Although just released in July, it’s already receiving rave reviews… I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Can you tell us a little about how this one came about?

Gill: ‘Run Wild’ was inspired by my own childhood. I grew up on the edge of a city, but the place I loved to visit most was a patch of overgrown council land where I roamed feral with my friends. We watched birds and tried to spy on urban foxes that dug their earths beneath the tangled thickets. It gave me my love of wildlife and wild space. It has since be covered by the encroaching march of concrete. I wondered, where do the children who lived there play now? Children have less time and significantly less space to roam wild. They are losing a connection with nature. It is becoming something to experience on a screen or during a tick-box trip to a nature reserve. The ever-building pressures from society for children to perform and achieve has a damaging impact on their mental and physical health. We are neglecting the care of the natural world and in doing so, damaging our children.

I was delighted to write for Barrington Stoke, a publisher that specializes in accessible great stories for readers with dyslexia.

Thank you, Gill, for sharing your views… One can hope that as the public learns more about the plight of Hen Harriers, and the environmental and economic costs of DGS, that we will see an end to it before too long.

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Find details and locations of upcoming Hen Harrier Days around the UK, (an annual event that grows every year):

http://henharrierday.org

Hope to see you there!

 

 

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‘The Lost Words’ by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris.

Note: I began this post early in October, but circumstances conspired to delay things… Hope you enjoy anyway… Since The Lost Words’ release it has already won several awards, including The Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller. This book is absolutely extraordinary…. A great idea for a gift… for yourself or someone you might enjoy sharing it with : )

There has been a noticeable buzz on social media recently, especially on Twitter. A new book  called The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris was announced in September. Anticipation ran high, and, in the first of an extended tour by the authors, the book was launched on the evening of 5th October, at Foyles Books in Charing Cross, London. I was visiting the city, having arrived that afternoon after a long flight. I knew of the event and had reserved a ticket. After finding my lodging, taking a few (jet-lagged) deep breaths, I set out in a taxi… running a bit late… We left Chelsea with almost an hour and a half to spare before the event ended.. The fates, however, were feeling capricious. Forty minutes later, through heavily traffic-snarled streets, I arrived, with only a half hour or so to go, at the venue – Foyles theatre. The room was packed. Chairs surrounded a smallish stage, where Mr. Macfarlane, Ms. Morris, and Gareth Evans, the MC for the evening sat on a low stage, near a screen showing a range of delightful images from the book. I was very sorry to have missed most of the evening, but grateful to have not bypassed it entirely, and to have a chance to see this book I had heard so much about.

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Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris took questions from the audience, and, as it was a smallish, intimate space the interchange was informal, humorous at times, informed, and very congenial. Discussion and questions ranged from the ways we might encourage children to connect with the natural world, whether the term ‘environment’ is a good one to use when introducing children to nature, (Mr. Macfarlane thought not… better to teach the specifics and show how connected we are with it). One of Ms. Morris’ instructors from Bath Academy, Brian Dunce, was in the room. He praised his former student, noting that Ms. Morris had been a stellar student, one who followed a style few of her contemporaries have chosen, and remarked that, disappointingly, representational art, especially focusing on wildlife and the natural world, is currently not often encountered. Further questions revolved around the digital world; how it is affecting both children and adults, and the tenuous relationship, increasingly, we all have with the world of nature. Both Ms. Morris and Mr. Macfarlane are on Twitter regularly, with Macfarlane posting a daily ‘word of the day’ that has attracted many followers, often leading to compelling and extended comment threads. Ms. Morris also has a delightful blog…

Around 9:00 discussion wound up, and many of us lined up to have our book signed and to meet the authors… both, gracious, personable and genuine. It was a great pleasure to meet Jackie and Robert, who were each kind enough to agree to an email interview about their  recent collaboration.

 

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The Lost Words’ is a large book, physically, and in its aspirations… The size is perfect for drawing the reader into the immersive text and captivating renderings of the creatures and plants portrayed. Described as a ‘book of spells’, it is designed to conjure some of the ‘ordinary creatures and plants that, though common, are becoming less so…’ These include badgers, otters, hares and herons, along with acorns, bluebells, ivy and dandelions.  Seemingly a children’s book, the spells and stunning, oversized watercolour renderings will nevertheless, with their subtle wordplay and evocative imagery, appeal to all ages. Twenty words are evoked… with subjects that move, play, dance, frolic and flee –  then are further brought to life by Ms. Morris’ paintings that thrill, spill, float, fly and rollick across the pages.

The arrangement of this volume is also incantatory… repetition, colour (gold), and rhythm weave a dense tapestry of words and imagery. Each word’s spell is preceded with a double page that suggests it, but its presence must be detected amidst a skein of other letters, to be teased out… incarnated. Following pages contain the actual spell, bringing life and context to the chosen word. Immediately following each is a setting containing the real thing… vividly manifested by the incantation. It took a few readings to decipher this, yet it is this sort of  patterning that, especially when shared with young readers, will resonate and enrich the experience.

 

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In a recent interview on BBC6 with Cerys Matthews, Robert Macfarlane noted that the spells were intended to be read aloud, in the best spirit of incantations. By happenstance, I had the opportunity to read the entire book to a couple of young children, on a very crowded train to Oxfordshire a few days later. The older one, around seven years old, paid close attention to the words and proudly told of her experiences picking berries in brambles (one of the words), and of a hare that lives in a field near her house. The younger sibling, a toddler, was more interested in the enchantingly vivid illustrations.

The words and images in ‘The Lost Words’ are full of musicality, motion, vitality and artistry… they evoke creatures and plants we might see on a walkabout in almost any neighbourhood, or in the countryside. Also, to make it even more compelling, (especially for those new to the magic of reading), each spell is written as an acrostic, with the first letter of each line spelling out the word. This would be a delight for a child beginning to decipher the potential of letters… to invoke words that allow entry into entire other realms…

This will be a volume to share with young and old…. then head out for a walk to see if the spell has worked its magic. Of course, the mere act of slowing down, paying close attention, looking and listening to the wonders of the natural world is certainly reward enough. At a time when populations of wildflowers, birds, butterflies and wildlife are rapidly declining, a book that invites us to take notice of and savour the beauty of common flora and fauna, especially with the next generation, may be just the spell we all deeply need.

 

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Robert Macfarlane noted in an earlier article, ‘The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch.’ Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages. They are present in part as a sign of hope, for those bright birds represent a rare conservation success story in Britain, their numbers having surged by almost 50% over the past 10 years. They are there, too, because the collective noun for goldfinch is a “charm” – a word which also means “the chanting or recitation of a verse supposed to possess magic power” and “the blended singing of many birds, or children”. Books such as The Lost Words help children discover the wonders of the natural world, and the words that bring it alive. This is absolutely vital, for a generation which has grown up with a close connection to the wild world and its flora and fauna, may take care to nurture and protect it, when they become the decision-makers of the future.

Interview with Robert Macfarlane:

  1. Such a stunning book you and Ms. Morris have created… Did you know one another before this project began? Can you let us know a little of how your collaboration on The Lost Words was born?

Robert: Thank you, Jo. We didn’t know each other in person, but we did know each other’s pages, as it were; Jackie’s books, especially The Snow Whale, had lived in and been loved in our house for years, read to all three of my children as they grew up. And Jackie had read The Wild Places and Landmarks. So when we finally met – under a vast polar bear at a Greenpeace protest outside the Shell HQ in London – it felt like a renewal of a friendship rather than the beginning of one. So it’s proved; working with Jackie these past 2 ½ years has been a total joy – being invited into her wild world, and watching the magic she works with her brush

2. Certain books that we come across as children can have a major lasting impact on us for our entire lives.. I recall finding C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, beginning with ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’… the wonder of encountering that other realm, and revelling in it.  Also books by Eleanor Estes and Beverly Nichols, especially his ‘The Tree that Sat Down’, and so many others. Are there certain books that had a major impact on you as a child?

Robert: Yes – as you suggest there are certain books that, when read in childhood, drive deep into the imagination, setting their roots and growing through a person’s life from there. Sometimes the flourishing can come unexpectedly late – I’m only now understanding how powerful some of that early reading was in shaping my writer’s imagination in, as it were, my heavyweight books (especially The Old Ways and The Wild Places). I discuss some of my most powerful childhood encounters with books in this essay, but I guess I would re-name and acclaim here in terms of teaching me nature, so to speak, books such as Cicely Mary-Barker’s The Flower Fairies, Arthur Ransome’s novels and also add the Reader’s Digest guides to British Birds, Animals, Insects etc, one of which I bought each year with the money I’d saved up: they were beautifully illustrated hardbacks, and I have the whole run still. I also loved Observer books, though didn’t collect them. Later came some of the fantasy novels I talk about in the essay, including Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood cycle, Susan Cooper’s magnificent The Dark Is Rising sequence and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, as well as TH White’s The Once and Future King. In all of these books a kind of magical naming is practised, that exhilarated me when I first encountered it (and rather still does).

3. During discussion at the book launch of TLW in London, in response to a question about lack of knowledge of the names of common creatures, plants, trees, etc. you made a point of emphasizing you are definitely not judging people who lack knowledge of these words, and that no one, especially children, should feel ashamed about this.  You also noted there appears to be a hunger to connect with, and learn about the natural world on the part of adults as well. Can you elaborate a little?

Robert: Well, again, the essay linked to above elaborates more fully and formedly than I could here, but yes, I value the chance here to re-emphasise that lack of familiarity with the living world around us is not for a second the fault of a child; and that this separation, if we want to call it that, runs up and down the ages. We’ve had some people scoffing at the idea that a child in 21st-century Britain might not know what an acorn is, or a kingfisher, or a wren. Unfortunately, that scoffing is itself usually a function of ignorance on the part of the scoffer. Access to nature, and knowledge of it, is massively unevenly distributed across our society at present, affected by poverty, ethnicity, postcode and what we uneasily call ‘class’, among other factors. To remedy this we need to restructure our entire relationship with the natural world and the species with which we share our landscapes, building a need for nature into our infrastructure projects, our planning laws, our education system and our culture, seeing it not as a luxury but as a necessity. Again and again research has shown that what is good for nature is almost always good for children, too, growing confidence, happiness, social skills, play, self-awareness…

4. There has been a petition by Mary Colwell earlier this year to implement a GCSE* in Natural History. The idea was to help young people become much more familiar with and knowledgeable about the natural world. The petition says: ‘Young people need the skills to name, observe, monitor and record wildlife. It is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically both in the past and today.’  The petition got over 10,000 signatures, but was halted due to the general election last spring. Would you be in favour of this?  If so, why, and if not, please elaborate…

Robert: I greatly admire Mary Colwell’s work as a writer, activist and change-maker. She’s inspiring. As it happens, though, I would prefer not to see a Natural History GCSE – my wish would be to integrate ‘nature’ across the curriculum at primary and secondary. Don’t hive it off into a separate qualification, and don’t treat it only as a ‘science’ (i.e. as ‘biology’ or ‘ecology’), but also as something that is vitally part of the arts, the humanities, design and technology, citizenship and of course politics and history. The John Muir Award* is a good example of a game-changing initiative that is making connections across the curriculum, and thereby supporting whole-school priorities. A subset of this: include nature and environmental well-being in Section 78 of the Education Act (‘General Requirements in Relation to Curriculum’). Nature and our relations with it become part of life, behaviour and ethics.

*The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification, generally taken in a number of subjects by pupils in secondary education in England and Wales.

*An environmental award scheme for people of all backgrounds – groups, families, individuals. It’s non-competitive, inclusive and accessible. Here’s a link: https://www.johnmuirtrust.org/john-muir-award

5. You mention the group ‘Action for Conservation’ in some of your interviews. Also, in the book it notes that some of the revenue from The Lost Words will be donated to AFC. Can you talk a little about this organization, how you became involved, and what sorts of programs they create?

Robert: Yes, well, it’s a dynamic young charity on a rocket-shoot to the stars right now. I’m lucky to be a founding trustee, and to have been involved with the charity’s shaping from the beginning. People can find out more here: http://www.actionforconservation.org But briefly, our mission is to work with secondary schools to inspire students to become the next generation of conservationists. Our workshop programmes are led by young conservation professionals working in the field, bring the magic of nature into classrooms and empower students to take action through a range of opportunities. We also run summer camps in conjunction with the National Trust and other organisations. Most importantly to me, our focus is on those schools and students who might otherwise be excluded from access to nature. Conservation is often caricatured as a middle-class need or echo-chamber, but more than 80% of the schools we work with have more than 50% of their students on Pupil Premium. I knew from early on with The Lost Words that I wanted to connect ‘creation’ with ‘action’, and finding a way to return some of any money made from The Lost Words directly to Action For Conservation was the obvious way to do this. It’s been a joy to be able to talk about the charity’s work as part of the discussion that has emerged around the book.

6. There seems to be a very special chemistry between your words and Ms. Morris’ images. Have you considered any future collaborations? Any possibility of a sequel?

Robert: Ha! Well, I’m still writing spells. Five or six more so far, new ones. Goldfinch, egret, beech, peregrine & barn owl among them. Jackie is painting in response to these, slowly, among her many other commitments. And yes, we have one major project in mind, which if it works out might be bigger even than The Lost Words (in outcome if not in size of book). But there are a number of problems to solve with that before we can move forwards with it, so I’d better zip my mouth at this point…

Here is Robert MacFarlane reading a spell from The Lost Words, along with an interview: https://youtu.be/j9WrlGZirPs

Interview with Jackie Morris:

  1. I read you were at Art College in Hereford, Exeter and in Bath….

Jackie: Hereford was where I did a Foundation. Exeter was where I began my degree, but when I realised the college was not right for me, they suggested that I might like to leave rather than transfer as I would never make it as an illustrator. Fortunately I had an interview at Bath Academy and Brian Dunce recognized my absolute hunger to learn. He said he wasn’t interested in talented students as they were often lazy. What he wanted was those students with a desire to learn.

2. Since you and Robert MacFarlane have published several other books on your own, how was this project different, working in collaboration?  What were some of the joys of this project? Did you find there were any challenges?

Jackie: Every book is a challenge. I had collaborated before, with Caroline Pitcher, James Mayhew. And at the time I was also working on a book with James Mayhew, but in that case I had written the text for Mrs Noah’s Pockets and James was illustrating it. I loved seeing how James put the flesh on the bones of my words.

Each collaboration is different, and there was something very different about the way Robert and I worked together, shaping the book, words, images, design, with a wonderful team to back us up, but also I began to feel that we were also working with the creatures and plants we were painting, writing. It sounds strange, almost mystical, but that was how it was.

The joys were being given those incredibly sharp moments of focus that the words give you. And every single moment was a challenge. To live up to the natural beauty of the wild world. How can that be anything other than a challenge?

3. The Lost Words is a book that may become a classic, one of those books that people read or are read to as young children, that stay with them for life, as an immersive introduction into the power and magic of words and images to bring nature to life within the pages of a book… Are there certain books that had a major impact on you as a child? Also, are there any current authors or illustrators you particularly admire?

Jackie: I always loved the work of Brian Wildsmith. I adore the work of Angela Barrett. Clifford Harper has been a hero of mine for years.  Shaun Tan, Nicola Bailey, Pauline Baynes. Nicola Davies is one of the best authors for children working today. She weaves a rhythm around the natural world that slides facts into a child’s mind. She tackles subjects that are so hard, with no sentimentalism, just an honest heart.

As a child I loved the books of Jack London, I loved Tarka The Otter, and My Friend Flicka. I wanted a horse and a hound and a hawk, to walk through standing stones into other worlds. I was a dreamer. I am a dreamer.

4. You two have been undertaken a fairly intensive series of public events since the London launch of The Lost Words. Can you tell us some of the highlights? Were there any surprises?

Jackie: Everything was a surprise to me. From the moment we launched the book, seeing how people took it to their hearts. Walking in to independent bookshops and seeing the book in so many bookshop windows. Meeting so many booksellers I had worked with for years, from Penzance to Carlile who were delighted that the book is selling so well. All the events were wonderful in their way. The pre-launch at Solva Woollen Mill gave us an idea of how things were going to be. We met so many amazing people who waited for so long to get their books signed. The twins, 6 years old, at Hay Winter Festival, were just amazing. They came with parents and grandparents. I had wanted the book to be a book for everyone, not only for children, and people have sent us photographs of readers aged 6 months, to old and wise.

5. Just recently a crowdfunder by Jane Beaton was launched, with the aim of providing every primary school in Scotland with a copy of  The Lost Words. Here is the link: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/thelostwords/? Like many children, I spent happy hours as a child totally engaged in books that a kindly librarian helped me find. Libraries ensure that everyone has access to special books, whether or not they can afford to buy them… How does it feel to have this sort of initiative launched for your book?

Jackie: It’s been astonishing to have worked so long and so hard in isolation, to then have a period of waiting, painting, thinking and then to see our book out in the wild, taking seed in people’s lives. It’s only been a few weeks now since the book was launched in Foyles. It took 2 1/2 years to make, from idea to launch. Jane’s initiative is just an astonishing thing. And I know other people are buying the book for schools too. The book is in some senses a protest, but I hope a different kind of protest. I hope it is a beautiful one.

6. With ongoing news of the effects of pollution, wildlife population declines, global warming and then recent political developments in America and the UK, where do you find hope and refuge, in order to continue your work?

Jackie: In the wild world that gives no heed to the stupidity and the games of humans. Watching birds fly, the movement of water, the slow time of trees. If things get too much I stick my head under water. Now and again knitting helps. But mostly walking, walking and looking and listening to the wild.

Also standing in the dark looking up. Where I live there are no street lights. You can see the stars. That usually puts things into perspective. That and learning things.

And losing myself in paint.

7. Any ideas for future projects, or ongoing ones?

Jackie: I’m working on a novel, with a few differences. Hopefully it will be published early autumn next year. And Robert and I, we have ideas, yes.

 

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Congratulations to you both for creating such a unique, evocative work, invoking the words/world of nature, and the joys it, and reading, bring us all. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions at what must be a mind-bogglingly busy time for you.

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Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the author of a number of bestselling and prize-winning books including The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Holloway and Landmarks. His work has been translated into many languages and widely adapted for film, television and radio. The American Academy of Art and Letter awarded him the E.M. Forster Award for Literature 2017. He is a word-collector and mountain-climber – and he has three young children, who have taught him more about the world than any book.

Jackie Morris grew up in the Vale of Evesham and studied at Hereford College of Arts and at Bath academy She has illustrated for the New Statesman, Independent, and Guardian, collaborated with Ted Hughes, and has written and illustrated over forty books, including beloved classics such as The Snow Leopard, The Ice Bear, Song of the Golden Hare, Tell me a Dragon, East of the Sun, West of the Moon and The Wild Swans. Jackie Morris lives in a cottage on the coast of Pembrokeshire.

 

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Wordless Wednesday

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Interview with Jess Shepherd:  ‘Capturing the Essence of a Leaf’

 

Posted on January 17 2017 by joturner57

 

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Jess Shepherd is a peripatetic UK botanical artist. She studied botany to ensure that her paintings would be botanically accurate, detailed renderings, based on an intimate knowledge of her subjects. Her most recent project is a series of thirty-four watercolour leaf paintings. It began in 2014 when she decided to paint leaves in her immediate environment. As she found each leaf to paint she noted its location; she then made audio recordings of the sounds she encountered around each. By manipulating these, sound artist Derek Thompson has composed a continuous soundtrack where place, time and space become intertwined.  The composition of these field recordings is ambient, yet totally immersive. The intermingling of natural and human worlds encourages listeners to pay more attention to the diversity and beauty of their surroundings, both in the city and countryside.

 It all began when Jess was living in London’s East End. As she walked along a street one autumn day, she noticed a leaf on the ground, and became fascinated by its intricate details. She decided to do a watercolor painting, on a larger-than-usual scale, and to record the ‘found sounds’ around it. Over the next couple of years, she expanded on the initial idea by creating a collection of thirty-four watercolour paintings.

Recently Miss Shepherd embarked on a Kickstarter project to raise funds so that she could publish a limited edition book, (500 litho-printed copies), entitled ‘Leafscape’.

Each volume has been made with a great attention to detail, from the selection of the paper to the overall design and layout, and each copy comes with a CD of the soundtrack. The project was highly successful.

There will be an exhibition to launch the book from February 16th – 25th, 2017: 

Abbott and Holder
30 Museum Street
London, UK
WC1A 1LH

www.abbottandholder.co.uk

+44 (0)20 7637 3981

Private view: 16th February 2017

6.00pm – 9.00pm

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To begin: Thank you Jess, for taking time to talk about your work at an especially busy time for you. Can you tell me a little about how the project began?

Well, the story of Leafscape began 18 months ago when I picked up a Catalpa leaf from a London pavement in July 2014. At the time I was moving house and felt that the condition of the leaf told my own story. It had been scuffed by the streets of the city and was no longer attached to the tree, just blowing across the floor in the wind. I began to paint it in larger than life size so that I could carefully document every scratch and blemish.  Once finished, I was drawn to paint another one and then another.

After months of painting these leaf portraits, all from different moments in time and different geographical places, I had accidentally documented a visual story.

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 1. By pairing sound recordings with botanical paintings, you created a multi-media approach to connecting with these iconic representations of  nature… so familiar, yet represented in such detail, and at such a scale, that they may open people’s eyes to the exquisite beauty to be found in the everyday… Do you have any particular artists or musicians who have influenced you, or whose work you especially admire? 

I very much hope that Leafscape brings botany to people in a way that they didn’t expect. In all my work I encourage everyone to be aware of the diversity and beauty to be found in both the city and the countryside. I paint to give plants a voice… I admire a great many artists, so it is difficult to chose. I have always been interested in the work of David Hockney and his approach to painting. I am inspired by the work of Richard Long, Rory McEwen and Katie Paterson. I have a very large music collection that I dip into every day. I listen to Pink Floyd a lot, and have been repeatedly inspired by the work of Derek Jarman and Coil.

3.  On your website your approach to botanical painting is described as being ‘based on very close observation’, but then you take it even further. You write:

“I believe that a good picture is made using not only sight, but also touch, sound, smell and movement. One has to be aware of all of these elements in order to portray the plant well and describe the space that the plant is growing into, both over and underground.”

 By adding the sound component, is there anything in particular you are endeavouring to convey?

The idea behind adding sound is to add a new dimension to botanical art; to communicate the importance of plants and our environment more poignantly in our modern day. Sounds are different than pictures; they bring experiences closer to us by entering us, and are therefore deeply personal. As we listen, we become vessels; as space and time meld inside our bodies, we begin to contain a lost landscape in our minds. Pictures, on the other hand, are always separate from our bodies and we judge them from a distance.  By using sound I am able to bring the leaves closer to you than I could with paint alone.

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4. Can you tell me a little about how you got into botanical painting, your training, and how long each picture takes?

I haven’t had any training in how to paint. I am self taught. I studied for my bachelor’s degree in botany at Plymouth University. I chose this course because a large part of the assessment at Plymouth would require students to learn about the history of botanical illustration. We also had to submit a portfolio of work. This appealed to me. I liked idea of including art in a science-based program.

I was already painting before this point, and had decided that I wanted to be a botanical painter so it really was a no-brainer! During my time at Plymouth I studied what was a science degree; plant physiology, biochemistry, genetics, ecology and identification were just some of the themes around our syllabus. After completing my undergrad degree, I secured a scholarship with NERC to study botanical taxonomy as an MSc at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (Edinburgh University). Here I was again expected to submit a portfolio of anatomical drawings, mostly of dissected flowers, for assessment.

ginkgo-leaf-painting5.   With your choice of leaves, do you have any favourites? I noticed one of your images is a Ginkgo biloba leaf. Such an ancient species, with lovely golden fall colour, like tiny amber fans… As a horticulturalist, I can appreciate your fascination with the intricate details in deciduous leaves, and their evolution through the seasons. Are there any particular qualities you look for, or like to highlight, in the leaves you select to paint?

Oh yes, I am a big fan of the Ginkgo tree. I admire its tenacity, and like the hidden symbolism in the heart shape of its leaf. It’s one of my favourite species. I do like trees – I have many favourite species. However, when it comes to leaves there aren’t really any particular qualities that I select for. Leaves just come to me, sometimes they are flat and in other times they are shaped. I tend to be drawn to big leaves.

6.  For your paintings, do you work from the leaves themselves or from photographs? If from the leaves, are they dried when you start? How do you maintain them? Are your paintings renderings of particular leaves, or are you working from your observations and memories of them, or is it a combination?

I begin a painting directly from reference material, which means you have to paint quickly when painting fresh leaves, I then move onto photographs if the leaf dies mid-painting. This is why I chose a lot of the mummified leaves for this collection as these didn’t wilt and they retained their colour. When working on different projects, I often press my reference material in a flower press to create the same effect, and I will take colour notes. After I finish a painting I tend to ‘hide’ it for a few weeks,  then revisit it, adding extra bits from my imagination. This last stage takes a long time and can be pretty exhausting because one has to use their eyes in a different way.

 

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7.  I have noticed several of your paintings show leaves in a state of decline, or with ‘imperfections’. It reminds me of the designer Piet Oudolf, and his frequent use of structural perennials that ‘die well’, often with seed-heads that add interest to the fall garden, as well as providing food for wildlife. Was this a conscious decision, and if so, were you making any sort of comment? 

It wasn’t a conscious decision. I actually prefer my leaves to be green like my big artichoke leaf. I like dense green canopies that are teaming with life. In Leafscape, the semi-decayed leaves are mostly the Catalpa leaves which had ‘mummified’ under the searing Spanish sun. After having been dried so quickly in such a dry environment, these leaves kept their colour for months, and in some cases for years, in my studio. This made them ideal to paint from as they were frozen in time. They didn’t decay any further. Having said this, I am happy that there are some leaves in decay, as this refers to the temporal aspect of the collection and of life in particular. In Leafscape every painting has been coded by a man-made measurement of time to mark the point of acquisition. These codes guide the observer through a two-year journey, a man-made journey which is regularly intercepted by the lives of the leaves themselves, each at their own point of decay.

8.   Regarding the printing of Leafscape, you mention that you chose a local printer. Can you tell us a bit about the process involved?

I am using a printer in Sussex to print the book using litho-press. I have opted for a white textured cover and a slip box, and then have found another company to make the CD. I have chosen a local printer as I have dealt with them in the past and they always deliver a fantastic product. It’s quite a complicated process to have all of these parts. In addition to this, I am also working with another company who make bespoke postal boxes to ensure that the books are delivered all over the globe safely.

9.   This is quite an elaborate project. Can you tell us about some difficulties you encountered along the way? Any surprises? 

There are always going to be little problems, life is like that. However, I have been incredibly fortunate in that I didn’t come up against an obstacle that was too difficult to surmount. I have a fantastic support network of friends and family around me, without whom none of this would have been possible.

 

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10.  Will there be a copy of the book in a public library?

Yes, I am donating copies to British Library, Linnean Society of London, Lindley Library, The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, New York Botanic Garden, Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, Denver Botanic Gardens and Real Jardin Botanico in Madrid.

11.  Any future projects on the horizon? Do you see yourself working independently mostly, or would you like to collaborate with others at some point?

I have two projects which I am currently planning out, but I am keeping these pretty low-key as I work out which one to run with first.

Thanks so much for your time Jess… Congratulations on your work and the new book! I look forward to your future creative endeavors.

 Jess Shepherd’s upcoming exhibition: ‘Leafscape’   February 16th – 25th, 2017:

 

Abbott and Holder
30 Museum Street
London, UK
WC1A 1LH

www.abbottandholder.co.uk

 

To find out more about Jess Shepherd’s work:

Twitter:  @inkyleaves
Facebook: www.facebook.com/inkyleaves
Instagram: www.instagram.com/inkyleaves
Website: inkyleaves.com

 

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Wordless Wednesday

“The past is history, the future is a mystery but the present is a gift.”

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Wordless Wednesday

“In silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.”
Rumi

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Wordless Wednesday

 

 

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