west dorset

Field Studies

Field studiesWhile taking my solitary walks in West Dorset – along the coast, through woodlands and wetlands – I’ve had plenty of time to think about why I enjoy doing this and what makes me need a ‘fix’ of nature on a regular basis. For me, it seems to be a contradictory mixture of escapism from busy modern life and yet immersion in the reality of the natural world. Richard Jefferies in The Story of my Heart said – ‘I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe’. This sensation of oneness with the environment is something that happens, usually when you least expect it, when you’re on your own, and it is this experience that draws me back time and time again into the countryside.

I then started thinking about the modern obsession for recording and identifying. I have a small camera which doesn’t always come up with what I am hoping for (probably my fault) and I only have some ancient binoculars. However, I believe that looking at nature through a lens can be a second-hand experience. The moment a deer appears in the woodland it’s tempting to reach for the camera. Then the connection with what you see is lost and your mind starts to think of exposures and focal lengths. You may end up with a brilliant photo with which you can share your experience with others, but I do wonder if this virtual moment is as meaningful.

Then there’s the matter of identification. This can become a bit of a train-spotting exercise and I know a lot of people enjoy recording species they see. There’s nothing wrong with this, but for me I prefer to ‘recognise’ rather than ‘identify’. When you visit the same place frequently you often see the same creatures or birds and they become familiar – you recognise them. There is a buzzard near Beaminster which I see every time I go to Horn Park. He always sits on the same fence post and, for me, it’s like seeing an old friend. I don’t always know the names of the birds I see, but I don’t always know the names of people I see in the street, yet I say hello to them.  Anyway, after this meditation, I decided I would try to just use my camera as an aide memoir and to record my walks with sketches and other ‘hands-on’ artwork, may be the occasional poem. This would involve properly looking at things and may result in a more direct experience of what I see. Time will tell …

Stag Beetle
Female hornetfeather

Three linocuts – of my favourite Stag Beetle found in my garden, a female hornet who built a beautiful nest in my garden shed and a pigeon’s feather found near Beaminster

Wild Cats and Catkins

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Saturday began with darkness and the howl of wind and rain. A power cut. We decamped to relatives in Portesham where, a mile from the coast, salt spray had frosted the windows. A pheasant and pigeon were battling over food in the garden and, despite the weather (or perhaps because of it) a great tit was investigating a bird box on the garage wall.

It didn’t get light all day. Snowdrops glowed like fibre-optics in the darkness of afternoon. As we drove home at dusk, an animal crossed in front of the car. At first we thought it was a fox, but the silhouette was wrong – and this creature seemed to float rather than run. It looked like a large wild cat. I have seen these a couple of times before in West Dorset.  I once saw one through my kitchen window. It was crouching in the long grass, feral and wary. We stared at each other for a long split second in mutual shock before it shape-shifted back into the undergrowth and vanished.

We drove on, headlights shimmering on the wet roads. Suddenly we saw a flare like a firework arcing through the darkness towards the ground. It was phosphorescently bright with a tail trailing behind. We concluded it must have been a meteorite – a brilliant end to a day of darkness.

Sunday however was a day of light – golden, green and blue. The sun reflected off floodwater, the silver bark of birches and the intense greens of ivy and grass. Golden catkins and daffodils shone out from the muddy banks. Little Egrets, like white paper cut-outs, dipped beside the river Frome. Low light gilded the Mallards’ green heads. Along the lane, white chalk cascaded from a badger’s sett. Drifts of snowdrops had covered the dismal roadside and, I noticed, among the bare branches of the hedgerow, the tiny exquisite white blossom of the Wild Cherry. In the distance, the hills seem to reflect light back to the sky, perhaps from the sheer white chalk which lies like a sheet just beneath the grass.

The storms had swept winter from the countryside leaving piles of dead leaves, branches, twigs and mud on the edges of everything. Now sunlight was filling the gaps.

Little egret at LodmoorIMG_5199IMG_5160IMG_5179