Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Coffee Pot

Drew this picture to celebrate our new high table and stools that we now use for breakfast and lunches in our utility room overlooking the garden.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Box of White Flowers

A quick sketch of the gardener with a box of white flowers to plant out in the walled garden.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Silver Birches

Three silver birch trees outside the garden tea rooms at Witley Court (Worcestershire). This was a bit of a quick playful experiment and I wasn't too sure where it would end up. It was beautifully sunny and I loved the horizontal stripes and textures on the tree trunks.

Witley Court woodland garden

This small, steep wooded garden valley at this English Heritage property looked beautiful this morning with bright sunlight highlighting leaves just beginning to turn colour and accentuating the greens of the lawn. Three alder trees stand in the forground by the edge of a small stream.

Autumn leaves

Autumn colours of hornbeams (I think) in the parkland at Croft Castle.

Croft Castle Tea Rooms

A very heavy rain shower forced me to take shelter in the tea room at Croft Castle (National Trust, Herefordshire). It was fairly empty before the lunchtime rush and I liked all the different colours of the bottles and things in the drinks cabinet.

"Look at Me".

The National Trust property, Croft Castle, is one of my favourite places to visit. Today found me sheltering in the cafe from a heavy rain shower and being inspired to draw the colourful drinks cabinet. The place was empty mid-morning, but at lunchtime it was packed out with visitors and I had to join a long queue to buy a BLT sandwich (which was worth the wait). I sat in the walled garden for a while and sketched the apple trees and then climbed up though Fishpool Valley up through the woods and onto the top of Croft Ambrey. The conifers have started to be felled here and a forestry machine was making short work of felling, cleaning and slicing the long tall trunks into shorter sections. The earlier mist of the morning had completely dissipated and there were magnificent views all over the Welsh borderland. As I walked back down to the castle the sunlight was spectacular. It was now late afternoon and the light was taking a golden turn beneath a clear sky. As the trees are well into turning colour, the scenery around me was spectacular. There was hardly any breeze and, with the sun low in the sky all colours, shapes and changes of light seemed to be accentuated to give a breathtaking beauty to everything.

If ever there could be a day in which Nature (God?) was saying "Look at Me" then today must be one of those days. It was day that brought a sea of mist, dramatic clouds and showers and a golden evening's sun. It showed me lots of wildlife from woodpeckers to deer. It showed me numerous different trees from the apple trees in the walled garden to the colourful hornbeams that I sketched. It showed me a landscape of hills and valleys. This was a reminder that we live on a planet where by the forces of nature will always continue to do their own thing. Mankind will, seemingly, never cease to evolve into a species that alienates itself from the natural world and seeks a selfish "I can do whatever I want" attitude with disregard for one another, other cultures and civilisations. We seem intent on destabilising communities and countries by greed, fundamentalism and selfish ideologies with no regard for a bigger Earthen picture or philosophy.

Sunrise, Hopton Titterhill, Shropshire.

The sheltered valley in the woods is surrounded by birdsong as I walk up Hopton Titterhill. It feels like a spring morning. As I climb higher through the trees their song gives way to the fine chirps of possibly tits and goldcrests that inhabit the conifers. I find a place to sit and I have only just got here in time.

The sky above is mainly a flat sheet of cloud with a few break here and there to the pale blueness above. This is reflected in the valley below me by a carpet of mist, an almost perfect blanket of white that fills the whole Vale of Wigmore and extends as far north as I can see up towards Church Stretton. It looks like a frozen lake before me, so distinct at its edges and so smooth. The sun, with a bright pale orange light, briefly emerges a little way above the horizon through a gap in the cloud layer lighting up the edges of the distant mist, before being shrouded in grey again.

The mist is moving slowly in the valley. All the hills above a certain hight have stood proud of the mist. Clunbury hill, that about ten minutes ago looked like a perfect island of green fields and topmost trees surrounded by water, has now almost vanished under a mist tsunami. The forecast had a been right to predict a mist and so I had anticipated a dull, damp morning with no promise of a sunset. This is magnificent. As I write, so Clunbury Hill has now reappeared again and the horizon is lit by golden rays of light emerging from the gently moving clouds. The light intensifies and I am now in morning sunshine. A the sunlight changes and evolves with the movement of the clouds so large areas of the sea of mist are lit up before me. These constantly move and change as it there is a giant spotlight that tracks over the landscape - randomly appearing in selected areas.

A greater spotted woodpecker taps away at on old tree stump about fifteen metres away. Small birds are chirping everywhere around me, unseen in the trees, and a blackbird sings out over the hillside. Later on I saw some deer on one of the forestry tracks.

During yesterday's long drive I was wondering whether I should make these trips in the future. When I spend my whole day glued to a computer screen it takes a while to adjust to this new perspective of being in the landscape. Sitting here, looking out over the mist and hills just forces me to stop and readjust to a different world.

Sunset on Black Hill, Clun.

It may have been a bit of a mistake to try and take a Friday afternoon off work today but I have been trying to get up to my homeland for a few weeks. I am, thankfully I suppose, incredibly busy at work and a major bit of work landed on my desk just a few hours before leaving which, because of the nature of it, ruffled a few of my feathers. Still, I sorted it all out by 2.15pm and then drove for just over three hours through showers and bright autumn sunshine up to Black Hill near Clun, Shropshire. A favourite parking place rewarded me with a place at which to cook tea and a have an extensive view over the Welsh hills to the sun on the horizon and the remainder of the storm clouds. I've watched several sunrises and sunsets here in the past and as I then walked up onto the hill I was rewarded with a gorgeous amber light, salmon clouds and a tranquil landscape. My focus for much of the past week has been intense concentration at my computer screen and now, here, I felt an openness and space that I have been longing several weeks for. After a short walk, the light seemed to be disappearing rapidly. It was a very still evening with just the gentlest of breezes beneath a clearing star-filled sky. It was cool but not at all cold. Where the sun had set some clouds had edges lined with deep pink and a little later there was a large block of deep grey shapes that lingered behind the distant hills. I wondered if they were rain clouds heading this way.

Saw a distant dear and a quick glimpse of what was possibly a woodcock silhouetted against the sky amidst some conifers. A tawny owl hoots and its call echoes throughout the woods. It is good to see the hills again; to smell the damp bracken; to see tall conifers; to hear the bleating of sheep in distant fields and to drive, twisting and turning along the step narrow lanes with revealing beautiful views. I see a shooting star in the sky and the gentle twinkling lights of very high aeroplanes. Condensation drips gently from trees around me. There is no total escape from noise of man though. I can hear the occasional car and the heavenly rumble of the aeroplanes.

I probably manage to get up here about once a year as it is on the distant edge of my homeland haunts. It is the conifers that seem to mark the passage of time more than most things for me. I notice their growth over the years and how felled areas are replanted and new trees fill the landscape. I look forward to the time when the trees around the car park at Hopton Hill are felled to reveal the views once again, but I think that may not be in my lifetime.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Beauty and Prayer. Part 2

This follows on from the previous post.


What is prayer? I like this definition from the internet 'Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God' (Dr. Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of all desire). John O’Donohue calls prayer ‘A bridge between longing and belonging’.

I have thought a lot about beauty recently and now I have moved on to prayer. In many ways they are connected. Each is an expression of something desirable, something put right, something aesthetically pleasing. Each welcomes the desire to improve one's emotional balance. Each draws upon the soul to look outward into the world seek change.

Journal Notes

It is early on a late September morning and the sun has yet to break over the houses at the end of the garden. The sky is gradually brightening - an expanse of blue with a few high wisps of salmon pink clouds in the distance. It should be a bright day and I plan to go and spend a couple of hours just sitting on a local hilltop. A sort of mini retreat, and I will see what happens. I have no expectations. Being in Nature requires the suspension of expectation. I just need to let it ‘be’, for I cannot make anything happen. I am there to just let go and find a place from in which I can receive. I am not too sure whether I can really learn from Nature as such, but I feel I can definitely receive from a place that accepts my presence.

Prayer can possibly be said to begin with the placement of the self in the universe. The first thing that happens is that you acknowledge yourself. It is you that forms the starting point, you are the centre of what will follow. You are the initiator.

Can prayer happen without your presence? Can Nature pray in your absence? Imagine an empty cornfield. Where or when does prayer happen? I started to think that an empty field cannot pray but once I stand in that field then prayer will happen. It needs me to be the initiator and the focus or does it? My intention for the prayer is what matters. How does that prayer leave me and how does it affect the recipient of the prayer? How does what I am thinking about in that field touch something else? Can it? Will it? What are the factors that decide if, how and when a prayer will work?

What are the boundaries between my imagination and prayer? I could easily pray that a teleportation device would suddenly appear and by pressing a button I could be instantly transported back to my homeland. This is unlikely to happen and is this just wishful imagination? So does prayer then have to be something that could, in reality happen? I could pray for Alice in Wonderland to appear with a wonderful tea party accompanied by lots of English speaking animals. Well, this could happen, but not in the form that I imagine it. I could come up here one summer with my daughter with a few of her cuddly toys for a picnic. But then is there here just a wishful imagining of something that is based around a collection of varied subconscious thoughts that I have picked up over the past few weeks?

Prayer must be an idea about something that will manifest itself in someway though how it does so may not be quite as we expect it to. If there is a perceived answer to prayer then is it not just our consciousness taking note of something that may have actually occurred anyway? Is it just random whether prayer works or not? Is it just an over positive, intense emotional moment that affects us psychologically and alters mental processes in ways that could be construed as being attributed to a ‘spiritual’ moment.

Prayer is about me having particular thoughts and directing them at something. How can my thoughts influence something - say, internally for healing or externally to people or situations? And what about a group of people praying?

There is a hope that by praying there is a supernatural element that can change the ways the universe is. We pray because we want to change things around us that are unjust, unwell, painful etc. We have an emotional attachment to wanting to better our lives.

Back to the illustration of the field, I am in Nature, if I believe that Spirit is around me then I am not alone and I am part of a bigger picture and somehow I connect with that. I was born in to it and it sustains me. I cannot survive independently of nature.

Prayer is being in touch with beauty.
Notes made amongst the trees:
I've cycled to one of my regular haunts a wooded hill top where sycamore birch and ash form an open, spacious area. The tall slender trunks reach upwards to the high enveloping canopy. As a progression from the earlier thought of praying in an open field, I wondered how I would feel being in amongst the trees. I have enjoyed the freedom that is presented by open fields and hilltops before. Sometimes the liberated feel of the body away from any physical restriction is the right place to be in. Now I am exploring this patch of trees and wondering the following: does prayer exist here when there is no human present?

If I and nature are imbued with the same spirit then although I have a conscious mind and can entertain the concept of prayer, could not the trees around me also, in some way, be part of Nature's way of prayer - their presence being part of the eternal evolution of life on this planet.

In a place like this is am surrounded by objects of nature. Trees, grass, moss, fungi, nettles etc. Each is present as a thing of natural beauty and creation. When an empty field is transformed into such a tangible expression of creation, this is where life exists in proliferation. It is in our nature to fall in love with the trees and see them as a thing of beauty and as a multi-faceted resource. It is here, amongst the trees that I think the concept of prayer can be heightened.

In churches prayer is often expressed in groups of people. Here I am surrounded by other living non-persons, but could they not actually form the same function? Together with the trees I could pray. I could uses their symbolism and presence to help me form my prayers.
Here are some thoughts from Nimue Brown’s book (see Beauty and Prayer: Part 1)
'Essentially it is about entering a mystery, not getting a result.' John Pritchard, How to Pray, SPCK 2002.

'Prayer is, in essence, an attempt to start a conversation with something.’

'Much of the prayer work suggested by religious leaders, regardless of tradition, has nothing to do with petition. Prayer is more about entering into a relationship with the divine, being open to the voice of the spirit; open to direction and inspiration. Prayer is an invitation to the numinous to enter your life.'

'The important thing ... is being open to, and aware of, something beyond us. We break down the privacy of the world inside pour skulls, a little. Something else is then able to get in ... The actual existence of things beyond us. We might then learn to empathise with that which is not us, and start to care about it.'

'Everything we do brings us in contact with other living beings ... Everything we do automatically engages us with other manifestations of spirit. Everything is about such relationship and it all brings scope for meaningful exchange. If everything we do becomes prayer, then we should be listening to what is around us, with the intention to walk more lightly, cause less harm, use less, and live more harmoniously.'

What to pray for? Nimue sees much petition prayer as inappropriate because of the way it excuses the prayer from taking responsibility for their actions; it can be just an ego boost and a desire for a quick-fix, much like the modern consumerist culture we live in expects of us. We should pray more respectfully for:

Gratitude: our existence and expanding out to every part of our lives. That which hurts and challenges us can also help us to grow... these are the things that shape us. Look for what seems especially good, beautiful or precious... Seeing the good, responding to it, praising, appreciating and supporting, all help to make life that bit better for ourselves and others.

Strength and gratitude: although with petition prayer, if the solutions are given to us then we do not learn or grow, this can be useful. Asking for strength to endure, and the means to do the necessary work, is not about getting off lightly. It is about developing a quality of self.

Inspiration: as with the above, this is not a petition to get out of something. Inspiration solves problems, but does not take them away. Inspiration reduces insurmountable obstacles to hills we can feasibly climb. Inspiration allows us to look properly at the rock and the hard place, and respond by growing some wings.

Relationship: a way of seeking connection. We can pray to reach out, from a desire to experience, understand, learn and be changed by what we encounter.

Healing: prayers that seek to find a good way through. May be more effective than those that assume we know what the best method or outcome should actually be. Sometimes the most useful thing to do is to seek insight, not solutions.

There is a concept in Druidry of the idea of Awen which I like. I feel I can more easily identify with it as a Holy Spirit concept because it talks in a language that I identify with more easily. It is less paternalistic and personified (I am not a people person as such so this is more comfortable in my mind) and more in tune with a sense of creativity, inspiration, mystery and beauty. Here are a few random definitions from the internet:
‘Awen is the wisdom, truth and most of all the inspiration, Awen is Nature, the universal power behind life, yet it is never born and shall never die. Awen is a force or energy forged from an indivisible source that is the power behind the physical and non-physical or spirit forms Existence, and distinction between the natural and the super-natural becomes meaningless, as both are the personification of Awen Every link which is a part of nature, be it a man, animal, plant or elemental force, each holds its own little piece and together make up the whole chain which is Awen. Awen is the spirit of Druidy itself, it is knowing, sensing and feeling it in your essence and true being, it is the freedom to accept ones nature.(’

‘Loosely translated from Welsh, it means flowing spirit, or flowing inspiration. We know that it is a flowing spirit, a kind of life essence, a source of spiritual strength, prophetic insight and poetic inspiration.’

‘It is an awareness, not just on a physical and mental level but on a soul deep level – an awareness of the entirety of existence, of life itself.  It is seeing the threads that connect us all.  It is the deep well of inspiration that we drink from, to nurture our souls and our world and to give back in joy, in reverence, in wild abandon and in solemn ceremony.’

Beauty and Prayer. Part 1

Over the past few months I have been journaling as often as I can as part of a self-initiated healing programme to help me overcome anxiety issues. Two recurring themes seem to have presented themselves to me: the concepts of beauty and of prayer. I have come to see these two as being intrinsically connected to each other and what follows is a brief exploration of this.

The following books more eloquently expand various ideas and philosophies regarding beauty and prayer and have been helpful to me on this journey:
‘Timeless Beauty’ by John Lane, Green Books Ltd, 2003 (An artist takes a philosophical and cultural look at beauty)
‘Divine Beauty’ by John O’Donohue, Bantam, 2004 (A Catholic Scholar explores the human desire to belong)
‘Eternal Echoes’ by John O’Donohue, Perenial (Harper Collins), 2002 9(A Catholic Scholar explores divine beauty)
‘When a Pagan Prays’ by Nimue Brown, Moon Books, 2014 (A Druid takes an interfaith look at prayer and wonders why it works. An interesting look at prayer from a sceptics viewpoint covering prayer meaning, function, ethics, practice etc. I may not agree with all of it, but it was a refreshing look at prayer from a different and often useful perspective)
Some quotes to start with:
‘The human soul is hungry for beauty; we seek it everywhere - in landscape, music, art, clothes, furniture, gardening, companionship, love, religion and in ourselves. No-one would desire not to be beautiful. When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are of beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. ..... The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us and calls forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace. It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life.’ John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty.

‘For whatever we believe, beauty-beauty ‘whereof one cannot speak’-remains unchallenged as a fact of everyday experience. We can see it, we can feel it, we can know it as a sensuous reality that accompanies us throughout life. It is something we encounter on street corners, in public buildings, waiting for a train or looking up from a book. We can also know that there is nothing so inspirational, nothing so transfiguring, nothing so noble, nothing so elevating as transient beauty. But its origins, its significance and destination must remain a mystery. ... For a century or more it seems that we have been running away from silence, stillness and beauty. For all that time, modernity has engendered a culture that trivializes and feeds our discontent .... it is too seldom that we pay attention to the beauty of things. In the frantic unending hustle of contemporary urban life, it is easy to become unaware of the possibilities of acceptance-a total acceptance- of things as they are-just life as it is. .... We need to practice a new way of looking at nature: not to learn about her, but to learn from her. .... For it is a fact that our crisis is one of the psyche, not politics, nor economics, technology and the environment. It is not only the Earth but we who need to be healed-to become whole again. The quest for beauty can make a significant contribution to that healing. For the love of beauty heals and comforts, nourishes and inspires. It absolves and celebrates. It can help us recover our dignity. It is the bridge between time and eternity, earth and heaven’. John Lane, Timeless Beauty.
Here are some edited notes from my journal where I first started to think about beauty:
... I need to relax into my artwork. I can find it hard to relax and focus on things, there must be a way to do it and I should find that way. Keep it simple and all will be revealed. I wonder what I can draw? I wonder what I can create and I wonder how the elements can fit together? Beauty in the time here writing and beauty in the page before me. Beauty is everything, because beauty comes from God.

God and the beautiful reside together. Is that what I want: to find a connection between beauty, God and my artwork? So what is beautiful? Is God beautiful? God created everything and so created beauty. Thus God must know beauty. God must know the Original Blessing - that blessing was was bestowed amongst us in Jesus - His Son was beauty personified. Beauty and pain, peace and war - the juxtaposition of elements - anything can be beautiful in the right context.

In this place I pray for healing. I pray that as I discover beauty so I will discover healing. Beauty is healing - it is the opposite of pain - and healing can be found in the beauty of pain. Pain can be beautiful as can be the release from that pain. All that I create should be beautiful. When I begin to see beauty within me and in my art then I will begin to see God at work. Then God will be my healer.

On holiday in Wales I was awakened to seeing so much beauty around me and I wanted to reach out and touch it. It wasn’t just the landscape that I liked though. I was more inspired by the way that people find a need to make their surroundings aesthetically pleasing. For me it was a moment of having my eyes opened to this desire we all seem to have - to plant window boxes, to put up pictures and to improve our immediate surroundings. I want to create beauty.

“Recognise the beauty around around you and your pain will go. Recognise that you are a thing of beauty - part of the Original Blessing and thus always good. Find those things that are beautiful to you and use them to inspire your art. Make mistakes and yet persevere in all that you do. Relax into it and see where you are lead.”

I have wondered where one draws the line as to what is and isn’t beautiful. Usually it is matter of perspective by the onlooker. I recognise that there are times when there is deep trauma, pain, hurt and suffering where beauty seems to be absent and this just as to be accepted as part of the great mystery of life and existence. Nimue Brown talks about nature [and therefore I take it that means the whole of the Created world] being ‘good’. This is a challenging concept for it then implies that death, violence, suffering, disease and decay are all necessary parts of nature. It accepts that life includes all of the bits we don’t like. There are no optional things, nor irritations we should be able to get rid of, it is all intrinsic to existence. To ask God to release us from things is asking God for something for nothing. We just want to rely on God to get us out of a situation and to take no personal responsibility for anything that happens. We can do what we like, therefore why care? God will sort it out. Why bother living, I say? She also asks why does God let certain events happen? Well, what about the events God may have prevented from happening that we, no doubt, know nothing about?

When thinking about beauty I realised how similar it was to prayer in many aspects. Both are ways in which we seek the transformation of ourselves or our surroundings into something more aesthetically pleasing or that gives a positive transformation to some person, thing or event. It seems to be something that is ingrained in our psyche. Whether we are brushing our hair, hanging a picture on a wall or admiring a landscape, we are looking for a way of finding an emotional bond with something and increasing our identity and place in the world around us.