16 November 2015

Night Vision

In a week when my second fledgling left the nest, 'Night Vision' came to mind again. This is the song I used to sing in my head (I spared them any rendition of mine out loud :-)) when both my sons were little and indeed as they grew up. It was one of my parenting anthems, if you like; it's surely what any parent wants for their children:
I would shelter you
Keep you in light
But I can only teach you
Night vision
(You can find the lyrics and a list of all the writers of the song on this site.) You can listen to the song here:

Rumour has it that both much-loved sons, and their wonderful girlfriends, are doing well in London and Montréal; long may you stay in the light my dear ones.

Empty nest or not, day-to-day life goes on. Warm temperatures over the weekend meant a lot of tidying up in the garden. I don't overdo it--listening to wise admonitions from other gardeners to leave overwintering places for the beasties who share my patch--but there does come a time in the year's turning where I have to acknowledge the oncoming quietness of winter. For me, some judicious cutting back of dead and dying perennials helps that along. I think that many of those who advise us to leave the garden as is, allowing nature to take its own time etc. etc. probably garden on much larger patches than mine. I can see just about all of the garden from my back window, and the horizontal asters, collapsed grasses, slimy ends of Maianthemum, and raggy, burnt-looking leaves of Rodgersia eventually get to be too much to bear. It's not a scorched earth policy, by any means: I don't cut them all the way down but leave about 8cm or so to provide some winter shelter for the plant. I also don't do it all on one day (the garden isn't that small or maybe I'm not diligent enough), but there is something very satisfying about, as my father used to say, putting a bit of smacht on it.

Fallen stars: the asters gave in to Autumn winds a couple of weeks ago
And so the garden is looking very bare and rather dreary now, but Autumn has of course brought some wonderful colours. Just a couple of weeks ago, I gathered this small selection from a tidy-up of my dad's garden:

Autumn flowers and berries light up any room
And a few weeks before that, in late September, I brought together some flowers and foliage for a friend whose mother had just died. It was the first time I've made what's called a coffin spray and it includes the colours and some of the plants her mum loved, gathered from her mum's own garden, and from my garden and that of a friend, supplemented with a few plants bought in the Dublin flower market. It was an honour to be asked, and I should point out that the rather jaunty looking upside-down blue trug was not part of the arrangement! It was just a handy thing to stand the spray on while I was working on it in the back garden.

In memoriam Marcella B.
Some things I learnt while working on this:
  • a few hours' work doing something you enjoy just flies by (well we all know that one, right?) 
  • I enjoy making things that not only have aesthetic value but also have some meaning: this was especially important in this case, and there's very little that made it into the spray that didn't have some significance
  • ivy is a *great* filler
  • it turns out I do love colour 
  • undertakers find colour in funeral flowers 'interesting' (by which I think they meant, surprising)
Thanks again to LB for asking me to do this and being okay with my writing about it here.

My progress on the birch tree has been s-l-o-w. There has much hand wringing on my part about composition, and while that was going on in my head I was also trying to get the colours right for the changing autumnal leaves:

Still having trouble getting value as well as colour
(any arty friends reading this, feel free to comment here or on facebook with helpful hints!)
Raggedy leaves are more interesting to draw...
Yellows are tricky
All coloured pencil (Caran d'Ache Luminance and Faber-Castell Polychromos) on Fabriano Artistico, for those who wonder about such things.

To finish, some lovely worldwide webbiness. Looking at the picture of the asters, while I was compiling this blog, I thought of fallen stars (aster,  ‘a star’): via Latin from Greek astēr ‘star’.)
and that brought Frost's Star in a Stone Boat to mind. While looking for a link to bring you the poem, I found this piece by Kevin Keller; you might like to listen to it while you read the poem, which I've included below... you'll only need to take about seven minutes out of your day:

A Star In A Stoneboat
For Lincoln MacVeagh
Never tell me that not one star of all
That slip from heaven at night and softly fall
Has been picked up with stones to build a wall.
Some laborer found one faded and stone-cold,
And saving that its weight suggested gold
And tugged it from his first too certain hold,
He noticed nothing in it to remark.
He was not used to handling stars thrown dark
And lifeless from an interrupted arc.
He did not recognize in that smooth coal
The one thing palpable besides the soul
To penetrate the air in which we roll.
He did not see how like a flying thing
It brooded ant eggs, and had one large wing,
One not so large for flying in a ring,
And a long Bird of Paradise's tail
(Though these when not in use to fly and trail
It drew back in its body like a snail):
Nor know that be might move it from the spot—
The harm was done: from having been star-shot
The very nature of the soil was hot
And burning to yield flowers instead of grain,
Flowers fanned and not put out by all the rain
Poured on them by his prayers prayed in vain. 
He moved it roughly with an iron bar,
He loaded an old stoneboat with the star
And not, as you might think, a flying car, 
Such as even poets would admit perforce
More practical than Pegasus the horse
If it could put a star back in its course.
He dragged it through the plowed ground at a pace
But faintly reminiscent of the race
Of jostling rock in interstellar space.
It went for building stone, and I, as though
Commanded in a dream, forever go
To right the wrong that this should have been so.
Yet ask where else it could have gone as well,
I do not know—I cannot stop to tell:
He might have left it lying where it fell.
From following walls I never lift my eye,
Except at night to places in the sky
Where showers of charted meteors let fly.
Some may know what they seek in school and church,
And why they seek it there; for what I search
I must go measuring stone walls, perch on perch; 
Sure that though not a star of death and birth,
So not to be compared, perhaps, in worth
To such resorts of life as Mars and Earth— 
Though not, I say, a star of death and sin,
It yet has poles, and only needs a spin
To show its worldly nature and begin 
To chafe and shuffle in my calloused palm
And run off in strange tangents with my arm,
As fish do with the line in first alarm. 
Such as it is, it promises the prize
Of the one world complete in any size
That I am like to compass, fool or wise.  
Robert Frost
In a week where it was brought home to us once again how some of us choose death over life, fear over love, and ignorance over learning, it's good to remind ourselves that 'such resorts of life as Mars and Earth' are rare and precious and we need to treasure all lives as best we can.

27 October 2015

...and fallen leaves

Betty came by on her way
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves
from River Man, by Nick Drake

Have a listen to this new rendition by American singer Lizz Wright:

A mild and virtually wind-free October has meant that the leaves seem to have hung on for a lot longer than usual this year. A mild October feels like some sort of blessing, shortening winter as it does. But the last day or two have brought a change, and a southeasterly wind--and the rain borne on it--have brought us fallen leaves...

Japanese Maple in the garden, going all 'drama queen' about losing its leaves:
overnight the ground is covered

Rain and wind bring down glowing beech leaves near the stream
Maybe it's my appalling memory, I don't know if this happens to you dear reader, but every single year I am delighted anew by autumn leaves. On dull grey autumn days, the yellow-gold radiance of a stand of ash trees, the honeyed glow of a pile of damp beech leaves, the ruby fire of the Japanese maple -- all of these are a marvel to me. And while I'm singing Autumn's praises, may I put a word in for the joy of cycling? The route I take brings me over the Dodder river on a different bridge now than the ones I used to use and being on the bike means that when this gorgeous scene caught my eye the other morning, I was able to pull in and take a pic to share with you all. Even without the phone pic, I would have stopped. Couldn't have done this from a bus or from a car. Love the aul' bike.

Autumn on the Dodder river
Autumn in the garden means tidying up (though not tooo much: down to natural indolence on my part and leaving nice habitats for small beasties) and that includes the greenhouse. The tomato plants have been consigned to the compost heap and the last of the tomatoes themselves are being eaten now. I've tried to sort out some of my alpines in the hopes of getting them through the winter. But I've left the Shoo-fly plant alone:

Nicandra physalodes still blooming in the greenhouse
I just love how its surprising green-ness and its almost violet-blue flowers continue to whisper summer, while autumn is everywhere else. And its flower buds and later its seed pods are gorgeous things: you can see why its specific name is Nicandra physalodes: those seed pods look very like Physalis. Come the first serious frost it will succumb, even under glass, but that's okay, I'll enjoy it while I can. You may remember I tried out an #inktober drawing of one of its seed pods recently:

Seed pod of Nicandra physallodes

Far from fun #inktober sketches, the *real* paper awaits: Fabriano Artistico Extra White 300gsm. I've to get a portrait of the birch tree onto this. And make it look convincing, and maybe beautiful too. Oh dear.

Fear of the blank Fabriano page looms large...
After much displacement activity over the weekend (including house-cleaning, which will give you some indication of how scared I am) I worked on composition. I'm currently getting some great advice from my resident photographer and from artist friends. Some day soon I'll have to, you know, put pencil to paper. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, go well all.

18 October 2015

Querulous rooks

They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.
Derek Mahon, A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford 

Travels this summer brought us to friends in Kilkenny, Westmeath and Donegal. In the 'van we went to Clare and Tipperary. In spite of the rather awful summer, the journeys--short and all as they were--brought home to us once again what a lovely country we live in. Though it's a country that sadly shows traces of rural de-population at many's the turn.

Close to our friends' house in Kilkenny, a farm lies deserted, left to someone who won't be living there. Sheds crumble and weeds take hold, and always the rooks circle through and around the spreading oaks and high sycamores, landing in tattered raucous groups only to rise again. The shed brought to mind Derek Mahon's well-known poem. I don't understand the depths of some of Mahon's work, but he has written many beautiful and accessible poems, some of which work on many levels and resonate even for those of us who don't have a classical education or a well rounded literary background. His poems will turn up here again for sure.

Deserted farmyard, midsummer

Disused shed, midsummer
You'll hear some rooks here as well as blackbirds et al. Fintan O'Brien again. Great stuff. 

eh... did I say summer?

Iz keeping watch as one of her humans disappears into the sea (Donegal)

Spot the schauzer - Burren Karst (Clare)

It wasn't all gloom - there were some sunny days; view from a campsite in Co. Clare
Glen of Aherlow (Tipperary), seen from a walk near another campsite
The reason we went to Tipperary was to visit Birdhill Nurseries to see the original of Betula utilis, var. jacquemontii 'White Light' (I hope I have that right). It's one of the plants that features in the new project being run by the ISBA, this time in conjunction with the Irish Garden Plant Society. A series of Irish heritage plants will be celebrated in paintings and words and brought together in a book and exhibition next year. I was assigned the birch and I'm delighted and daunted. The tree is a cross between B. jacquemontii and B. costata, with the beautiful white bark of the former and the autumn colour of the latter. To my eye, 'White Light' also seems to have more plentiful and more 'stretched out' lenticels on the bark than the jacquemontii has (I've three jacquemontiis in my front garden, so I've something to compare with!).

We found Birdhill Nurseries without too much trouble but only to discover that, sadly, John Buckley died just over a year ago. But Mrs Buckley very kindly welcomed us to the garden and let us stay to photograph and sketch the tree (and others in the garden), which we did. In the rain. I ended up with a few very spattered sketchbook pages and some very rough sketches. Mrs B also let us take away some small branches with leaves as well as some of the beautiful bark and said we could come back any time to check up on it. I've found this before and it was lovely to discover it again: when you're doing a project like this, so-o-o many people are kind and interested and helpful. I've had another member of the IGPS posting photos of his 'White Light' birch (thanks PT!) and I know I've an open invitation to visit the tree any time. Lovely stuff.

So, have I been making good use of all this good will? The rolls of bark are still on my desk, I've drawn the leaves and branches. I've done some messing about with colours. And I've hassled other artists (at the ISBA support days in the Bots) about composition. Now all that's left is the Terror! I'm going to have to, you know, do a portrait of the tree.
Nervous. Very nervous.

Starting to look at colours

Practising on Bristol Board

Trying out bark sketches on Fabriano paper

Sketch sketch sketch 
And again on the Fabriano paper
Did I mention very nervous?

Okay, enough of the nerves; I'll finish with a smile:

Oh, was it only me who found it funny? You aren't rocking with laughter; this should be slated; you don't give a schist; if you're laughing, it's just to be gneiss?

Sorry :-)

Go well all.

13 October 2015

Blue hills and a buttermilk sky

Out there in the real world I asked a friend (and loyal reader of the blog) recently if I should get back to blogging and she said yes... Was she was just being nice? Quite possibly, but I took it on face value (thanks lb!).

I'd been thinking about the blog quite a bit over the summer: on the one hand there's been a lot of 'oh I'd love to mention that garden/plant/hillside/fox-sighting in the blog'; but on the other it has been nice just letting myself enjoy the various sights, sounds, sensations without having to record and share. Though if truth be told, I've been sharing it via facebook. It's the lazy woman's way: just select the phone pic and share. And yes, there's an awful lot of sharing going on in here on t'internet, so why add to it by getting back to the blog? Partly because I've enjoyed the diary aspect of it; and the discipline of it was fun when I started: I wanted to prove to myself that I could write weekly and did for two years. It also takes more commitment than pressing 'share' on a phone pic and that's not a bad thing.

But I'd become concerned that the blog was getting too repetitive: I set out to show that a small garden and an interest in nature can provide lots of wonder, and they do. The problem with confining myself to just those is the fear that things become too repetitive (in the garden's case) or they carry the expectation of being too depressing (in the case of writing about nature): loss of biodiversity, pollution, climate change, destruction of our peatlands... all of these things inevitably come to light once you take an interest in the natural world and to ignore those issues as I have seems Pollyanna-ish, but honestly I get exhausted by so much gloom.

Always I've wanted to share some sense of wonder, some sense of exploration. Sometimes the exploration is of nature and gardens, sometimes of place, sometimes of trying out new things such as drawing. So, I'll continue with those but overall, this will be a mixed bag. It is a bit risky: so many blogs seem to be very focused on Just One Thing (gardens or plants or drawing/painting). Those who focus on the one thing are then very good at that thing, so the theory goes, and the readership builds up accordingly. But my mind is a bit like a pondskater on a summer's evening, dashing from one place to the next, not even scratching the surface. I can't stay on just one thing: while I admire the skill and knowledge of those who do, it's not for me. I get entranced by a drawing and then I get pulled into a poem. I am delighted by a piece of music and then I marvel at birdsong. 'Nature' is the common thread to much of it, though not all.

So, if you come along for the ride, I hope you enjoy it, but I can't guarantee it will interest you *all* of the time; I only hope you'll find something some of the time that causes you to pause for thought. Thanks dear readers.

Here's a start then:


by Sarah Simblet, from the New Sylva; you can find more here.

A diary bit

It was cycling through the suburbs only a week or two ago, on my way home from work, that the blog came to the fore yet again. Even in the 'burbs, the surroundings can be delightful: on that evening, the Dublin mountains (hills really) were a gorgeous violet-indigo blue and had a pale buttermilk sky behind as the sun had just set. Ah Autumn!

While enjoying the colours, the contrast, the hills pulling my mind out and away from the traffic, the noise and the fumes, my mind immediately also connected to a song, and I thought the blog would be a nice place to record all that.

Some music

It was of course the buttermilk sky that brought this song into my head, although it was the wonderful Freddie White, not Mr Carmichael, who was singing in my head. While searching for the song, I found this next piece of music which is very different, but lovely too; take some time out (it's just over three minutes) and have a listen while you think of some blue hills you know with a pale sky behind.

The birdsong:

While searching on soundcloud, I found recordings by this man, an Irish cabinetmaker who loves to record birdsong. How serendipitous and great is that? Do you have time to take 10 more minutes out? Immerse yourself in the night song of Thrush Nightingales in Estonia:

The gardens:

After what can most charitably be described as an indifferent summer, we've had a wonderfully mild autumn. The colours are still beautiful; here's how my own patch looked last weekend:

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The garden in autumn -- asters, sedums, agapanthus and grasses. Oh, and a photo-bombing Verbena bonariensis...
And a rather more expert gardener looks after this:
Caher Bridge garden in August


We finally got a campervan: old and much loved. We've been gallivanting a bit:

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The van in the Wicklow hills. Beautiful autumn weather and the heather in bloom. 
And I've been exploring with ink. Lordie, drawing is hard enough, but with ink, the safety net of the trusty eraser is gone! Scary but fun once I stopped worrying. I just go for it and see what happens, with ballpoint pens, ink, felt-tips, whatever. All part of the #inktober meme. Yes, the internet can be an okay place. 

Spot-the-schnauzer sketches done with metal nibs in ecoline

Nicandra physalodes, also in ecoline, brush and pen
See you here again soon I hope.