It was during an exercise of getting over 12 years worth of my paintings out of storage and reappraising them for a “sale” this week, as shared in my last post, that I noticed something in common about many of my landscape subjects. I was mentally rehearsing what I wanted to say to a friend who was considering purchasing a particular painting off me, about the place that it was of, which is the woodland tucked around the common beyond my house. I knew she would be receptive to this, being someone who has a very innate and powerful sense of connection with “place”, and I wanted her to feel some of what I felt when I painted that view…and why I have hung onto it as a favourite ever since.
The piece from over a decade ago is called “Sunset over frosted field” and it aimed to immortalise the magenta-into-inky-blue palette of a late afternoon walk (probably at this time of year) in a piece of the deep thicket bordering what used to be the village common here. And it was as I mentally described the piece, and its personal significance, to her that a truism struck me and it was this.
Over the past dozen years, an astonishing number of the artworks I’ve produced have been of the square mile or less in close proximity to my house; a corner of countryside that I often describe myself as feeling quite ambivalent about, compared to other places that I could go seeking out a more astonishing view. Ambivalent not because I don’t appreciate it or care or see its bursts of astonishing beauty but in the way of someone that has hardened them self off “against” something they know is already “lost”; whose “days are already numbered”.
You see, this corner of Berkshire in England is already “under sentence”, its “time has been called”, its brown fields mentally marked out, sold off, put to work in the name of “progress” and “growth”. Under the umbrella of that thing they refer to as “the desperate housing crisis”, new housing estates and associated road infrastructure are being built so fast around here that we seem to spin from one set of traffic-mayhem-causing temporary traffic lights to another as new cables go in and yet more brown dust hits our washing lines. It’s a relentless process that feels like watching someone being ravaged over and over again, wondering when she will either fight back like a dervish or sigh her last breath. As more and more people whose faces speak no connection whatsoever with this corridor of dormitory housing move in to become neighbours of sorts, I know the only way I have coped is to have hardened my heart against this place and speak, endlessly, of moving on.
In fact, we’ve been “leaving” this place since almost the moment we arrived; once the brief honeymoon period of kidding myself I was now living in a “rural location” had worn off to the harsh reality of ever-increasing traffic noise. In fact, talking about leaving has been my dinner-table opener for so many years that it’s almost funny. “Where we plan to move to” comes much higher up our topics than “how much we relish our lives” here (which, though we do relish life, doesn’t seem to have been related in our minds to this place at all). In fact, the tinder-wood dry humour that has grown out of all the things we don’t like about it has become our second dinner-table act, like a sardonic double comedy act we wheel out on for our guests.
When friends from afar, who travel the world by Airbnbs or hang out with spiritual communities in Costa Rica or New Mexico, announce they are coming to these shores, I find myself scuttling hither and thither finding desperately concocted excuses not to have them here (“we’re having work done…”), suggesting meet-up places, rather than have them disillusioned by “the view”. After all, from my artworks, they probably imagine I live in some English idyl, not a traffic-congested tour of housing development showrooms punctuated by garish new convenience stores (how much “convenience” does one village need…?), one of which appeared opposite, just a couple of years ago, like the big ugly sister of the little cottage-cum-post office with its hanging baskets of flowers and picket fence that stood there beforehand. In fact, for all our interior is eclectically welcoming and as beautiful as can be, and though I love to play host, I shudder to imagine hosting people here in case they might equate it with the inside of me and find myself postponing such events, in my daydreams, to some other setting five years hence, which is like living what should be your present life at arm’s reach, not quite touched by the fingers. Yes, I know this has all felt so compromised and off-balance for such a long time and yet…there it was, this morning…the molten heart and the hidden treasure of having out-stayed my welcome for so long. This place had been my inspiration after all. Born of such contrast, its moments of beauty had served as my muse more consistently than any more-idyllic setting might ever have done.
Because in spite of all the resistance and ambivalence I had been feeling and some pretty hard years living here in the first little while after I arrived, sixteen years ago, when I was impoverished and working all hours to keep this very roof over my head (and that was just before my health took a dive…), I see how I have been having this whole other relationship with the remnants of woodland and common that my house is, effectively built on, though what’s left of it is almost out of sight across the roof tops. In fact, the harder it has been to see, the more some part of me has been quite determined to see it…and to speak it out, in ways that would capture the feeling. These are places which, if I force my gaze between houses and the industrial unit to the rear, I can almost see from my bedroom window as the setting sun turns the sky molten behind a Giant Redwood brought here by some wealthy Victorian seeking to impress. In fact, is it coincidence but, the view of that tree seems to have got clearer this year as neighbours’ trees have been cut back to allow me a tunnel of improved view towards a pocket of the ancient common. Or, for one month a year, I get to see the rising sun over fields between two closely-packed buildings to the front; as it casts its shaft of light down my usually dark corridor towards my yoga mat so precisely, like any light shaft might between henges in an ancient field. I count these blessings…oh how I notice and count them though I long for more.
Then I know, if I’m honest, that I feel this place’s soil speaking to me even as I sleep, like a growl sometimes, felt through the root chakra. We had some energetic surveys done, twice – once by a consultant looking at geopathic stress lines, once by a psychic – and what they reported felt so consistent with what I sensed the earth beneath my feet had been trying to say to me, had been channelling through me, all these years, about unhappy waterlines that had become cut-off and congested by all the concrete of a modern-day town scape (and, oh, how I have worked with these flow lines…to release both them, and me).
I know if I’m honest, for how else could I keep painting it, that I feel this place profoundly, am aware of its subtle rhythms, notice it’s rising and setting suns seen from east and west upstairs windows and how these stir the very strata. I benefit from its great variety of birds, which converge on my feeders, the bats that dive-bomb my garden, the “woo woo” of the owl on summer’s nights. I’m tuned in to this place, in far more ways than I had admitted or could fully express, and all through the heart if not always the head…which is why I haven’t left so far, since I clearly had unfinished business and my artworks have been the clue all along. Less artworks of this place by far, I admit, in recent years as I have become more persistently outward looking yet, earlier this year, I spent hours creating the aptly titled piece Looking Back which is a poignant take on the rapidly shrinking view from the hill behind my house…and the deer that, until just a year ago, used to converge there. In fact, it was one of my routines to walk that hill just before dusk to meet up with over a dozen deer that would appear out of nowhere to spend the last daylight on its slopes but…since the nearby housing construction site got underway in earnest, ploughing up fields that had been their uninterrupted route from Berkshire to Hampshire…I have seen but one deer up there and that was months ago. This artwork’s title speaks, I now realise, for this place, for its wildlife, for its loss…but also for an era at an end, and for the whole world; its longer title “Looking back at what we had…”. I know it also speaks for me; like the the long-lingering look backwards that you would give before turning on your heel, saying farewell to something with which you have become surprisingly intimate. So am I already in the process of disentangling and of leaving; is that why the big clear out? Energetically, I know the answer is yes. Leaving, not abandoning, to continue this work on an even broader canvas, having learned my sensitivities in this place.
I’m not the first woman to have connected with this place or found solace in its countryside at the same time as playing witness to a rapidly disappearing way of life. My village – Spencers Wood – is a much maligned place in local minds and you would think it had no relatable history to speak of and yet, along with Three Mile Cross a mile or two away, it was the star of a popular book entitled Our Village (initially a series of magazine article, first pubished in book form 1824), written by Mary Russell Mitford virtually 200 years ago. I’m reminded by her that, when I first arrived here, it was a dream come true to get out of the town that she also moved from – nearby Reading. Like her, I was literally skipping down the lanes with joy on my daily walks for those first couple of years, just before my health seemed to crash (and a part of me has always equated even that event with a feeling of having arrived in a “toxic place”). Russell Mitford also found great solace from moving here and for bizarrely similar reasons to mine. Before that she had lived, coincidentally, in the house right next door to the very building around which I centred most of dramas of my life, two decades ago and, when she moved here, it was in the wake of losing her first flush of fortune (a lottery win!) due to the drunken and wayward behaviour of her father who had squandered it all away in gambling debts (I too started life here flailing about in the aftermath of divorce and debt from a previous husband prone to drink and gambling). Her book “Our Village” was a spontaneous purchase I made long before I ever set foot in these villages or, honestly, heard of them and yet there it was, in the middle of my bookshelf, enticing me to go there with her for at least a decade before that. It was years later, having coincidentally moved to the very places referred to in the book, that I finally picked it up and found reference to “my” common and other places that I frequent nearly every day.
One of them is a country estate in the next village of Swallowfield, where Russell-Mitford used to take tea with the likes of Dickens, whose dog Bumble’s grave I walk past on my own dog-walks. She later moved to a little house there, close to the gatehouse that I know so well and I get the impression she was nurtured in that community by those who appreciated her sensitivities and quiet yet potent wisdom. In my way, I know I feel like that too for, though I’ve lived here very quietly, I make myself heard to those who have an ear for it, in other ways (not, in my case, my neighbours who hardly know me); I can only imagine what use Russell-Mitford would have made of the internet. I pass her grave most days; such as the other evening at dusk when I found a lit candle left for her on All Saints, as there always is…evidence that I’m not the only one to still bear her in mind. It feels profound to have so many synchronicities strung across the years with this other woman who clearly “felt this place”; like glistening threads of a far-reaching spider’s web…and as though we see it beyond all the stuff that time and toil is putting it through. Partly, my fascination with Russell-Mitford is because she also found herself in the midst of a landscape that was in the throes of often quite abhorrent manmade upheaval; perhaps not such rapid, careless and desperate-seeming changes as I am bearing witness to but you can’t help but get the feeling she was speaking out for, and trying to record for posterity, a more nature-oriented way of life that was already well under threat of extinction when she wrote her best remembered book.
That country estate, where she must have tripped her way up the drive to take tea and discuss the ever churning wheels of “progress” with some of her era’s most opinionated minds, is somewhere I walk almost every day. It too is under invasion; not by houses (yet) but by the feet of the massive influx of people that pour from them. It’s a private estate so not technically “open” to the public, though estate mangers have long turned a blind eye to walkers just as long as the sheep aren’t disturbed and the countryside code adhered to. Well, at least so far though, as littering increases, gates are left open and cars brought into the field, I wonder how long that tolerance will continue. For years, I could walk my dog there taking photographs for over an hour and not see a soul. It’s a place where I’ve sighted kingfishers, many hundreds of red kites, all varieties of small birds, numerous generations of nesting swans, the seasonal come-and-go of huge gaggles of Canada and Egyptian geese, the gathering of small white egrets and, many times, photographed a resident barn owl that I consider a companion of sorts due to how often she shows up and shadows my route at dawn or dusk. Mountains and mountains of nature photographs, video footage of light on the water, all the seasons recorded in minute detail and, yes, more paintings have been born out of my long intimacy with this place. However, in the last few months, the vibe has completely altered to where I have to pace myself not to bump into the numerous clumps of people now walking there in what seems to be a community social event more-so than a country ramble. At certain times of day (rapidly becoming all times of the day) there are just so many people walking the circuit with small dogs or kids with bikes, scooters, frisbees and remote control toys that its like a municipal park and the voices of women shout-talking as they power-walk carries across the air, killing dead the likelihood of a rare bird sighting or the illusion of being in unspoilt Nature. It’s a frequent thing to find the remnants of picnics or drinking binges left by the water’s edge and teenagers now converge there to do what teenagers do. Its good, overall, that more people are seeking out Nature walks but the lack of respect is what rattles me.
Without turning to sour grapes (that’s not the point of this post), I want to get back to my original epiphany, being that it’s the very fact that these places are struggling, under threat, becoming very much the rarity and may not (at least in this location) be around for very much longer that makes my work so important. That work is to feel and to translate what I still know is there…the very pulse coming from the earth beneath my feet, the natural cycles which, after all, will always triumph even if it takes decades or hundreds of years to reclaim what we do to the surface with our bulldozers and mess. If something is about to be forced back under ground and paved over in this location then I want to be able to say that I heard it before it departed and that I spoke it outloud at the surface before it retreated without so much as a whimper of regret from the majority of people… so we can remember what we did in more enlightened times than these. I see, I hear, I notice…and the time I spend tuning into these precious things is a more worthy way to spend my time than dashing to where these beautiful and unspoilt things still come so easily due to, for the moment, the welcome absence of hoards of people and the convenient lifestyles they crave.
Each time I have focussed with my paintbrush or camera on all the beauty that is still there…still there…just about still there if you have the eyes to see it and heart to feel, its as though I have been turbo-boosting it, encouraging it, energising it enough to hold on a little longer. I can’t make anyone listen to me lament what is being so wantonly abused and deeply, thoughtlessly, trodden under-foot by the heavy footprint of “man”, but as so many other women have given voice to before me, I can spotlight what is already there in the hope to stir some nostalgia for keeping it; some reminiscence of ways as ancient as they are intrinsic to our very humanity since they connect us with the earth and our health and our soul.
Yes I could have turned to writing on this topic over all these years; could have written about this many times and oh-so much more angrily, agressively…such as on the many occasions that I’ve returned from my walk enraged by yet another incidence of fly tipping by the water’s edge (they happen nearly every week), yet I see how that would have felt like feeding the negativity and lowering the tone, including mine. Rather, the way for me to be most effective has been to convey the positivity of what I experienced in these places and to share some of the pure essence of all the exquisite beauty that I perceive in the hope that it stirs others to do likewise and then to care about it. As with my own circumstances, including my chroncially struggling health for all those years, I turned to what was positive and then amplified it; and art was my best medium for doing this.
So…I take new pause to realise…this seemingly mismatched place has been perfect for me in so many ways; has been “by design” for my higher purpose. In its nursery, I learned to express what wasn’t being seen by too many others, though I perceived it clearly through my foggiest years, as chronic health and financial worries turned me for solace to the Nature on my doorstep. Those pockets of Nature reached out to me, to start with, through the similarity of our plight; a kinship of feeling bullied and unappreciated, abused and curtailed, struggling and sickly…then we sought the most life-affirming qualities in each other in order to keep going. Living here taught me, the hypersensitive soul, how to live amongst hordes of people (not a mountain top in sight!) yet find my inner peace, my healing solitude, my deeper layers. It kept me in contact with the vibration of other people and all they are about…things I sense on the very airwaves as heavy traffic drives by…until I perceived the missing chord from their symphony so that I could be that very vibe, edging towards something more whole as a collective experience. Having found its frequency, I offered it up via what I wrote and, mostly, what I painted; none of which I was doing when I first arrived here yet, in time, these pursuits grew from me eagerly, determinedly, in the soil of this place, like a shoot necessarily seeking light.
Yes, living here served me both on the surface of all my excuses, with all its conveniences for raising a family, the need to be in this well-connected location and, far deeper than all that, as the foil against which I unwittingly rallied my vision of a more Nature-connected way, one I became so impassioned about from the sheer contrast with what I was seeing, since it is from the pushing point of opposites that all momentum is born. I like to think I’ve swept some grace through these places over the years; doing what grace does best, mixing up the light and the dark so that the line between them becomes softened…perhaps even more radiant. I like to think that in getting closer to finding my wholeness here, against all odds, I’ve increased the odds for all things that I’ve brushed past on my wending way.
Now I have something else that I feel compelled to offer my “voice” (in all its many forms…since to paint and create is, equally, to express, as are all the ways we choose to live our lives, leading by example). This one has no requirement that I be living here in particular or, indeed, anywhere else for that matter so, in a sense, I am done with the work of partnering with my immediate locale, in the specific, though I continue to appreciate, honour and hold space for its resilient Nature-gifts, which remain imprinted into all of these artworks and all that I am. Long may they hold out (and I see them having the last say, as Nature always does). Energetically speaking, I am set free from my contract (let life catch up soon…) and can choose from the heart. Who knows how this new thing and its requirement of “no particular place” might release me from an attachment to being in this place, which has so long been the invisible subplot to why I never managed to leave…and it only remains for me to surrender and discover how that plays out.
Suddenly, I feel newly calm about my circumstances…less harried about going anywhere…easy about seeing how or when it develops (knowing it will). Several other things have eased my resistance to being here of late including that I’ve invested more energy into making this home match my new priorities (now that the child-rearing years are over). This all tells me the bonds are softening…because, at some level, I now feel complete here; have found my wholeness “in spite” of all that I once resisted. Who knows how this new state could present me with unforeseen opportunities to be elsewhere and in ways I could never have orchestrated through “planning” them; since nothing attaches us more powerfully to another thing than our resistance to it!
Most of all, I discover I am feeling free and easy about how it all plays out now; without attachment to being in some pristine, Instagramable place in order to follow my inspiration, remain in my solitude or manifest my best life since (I’ve shown) these aren’t conditional on outward circumstance. That feels like the biggest liberation and transformation point of all…as I sit at my desk feeling distinctly unharried by all the Friday afternoon traffic speeding past my window and breathe deeply into the only home I ever truly need in order to remain grounded, being the inner dwelling of myself.
All included artworks here were inspired by scenes local to Spencers Wood village and Swallowfield Park, Berkshire; an area targeted by one of the most intensive growth plans in the south east due to its proximity to London.