On cutting trees – a storytelling post

Please note: in this first storytelling blog post, I have included three stories. By linking them together with text and comments, I share how I personally receive these stories at this moment in time, however for you, they might resonate differently. There are two ways to proceed: you can chose to read my thoughts as well as listen, or you can simply click on the videos and enjoy the stories.

This storytelling blog is prompted by the under reported news that HS2 contractors are carrying on their work of destroying Britain’s ancient woodlands, while tree protectors are being evicted under the new covid-19 law [see e.g. 1-3]. The seeds of the idea were however planted when I saw the last Star War movie: The Rise of Skywalker. It was just entertaining enough, however one scene shocked me to the point of anger. Rey was training in the forest by the rebel base, light sabre ablaze, jumping, rolling amongst the trees… and cutting some, just like that, faster than with a chainsaw, without a second thought. So what’s the moral here? It’s OK just to cut trees casually while doing your fitness training?

The director had probably not heard Tam’s story [4]. Please use password Tam.

Tam ‘only’ cut a branch. But we’re cutting more than branches. We’re destroying whole forests. I heard a 1990 speech by Carl Sagan, where he mentioned that the forests were disappearing at a rate of 1 acre per second [5]. Read slowly: tick, tick, tick, tick that’s 4 acres gone already. I’ve seen various figures for current rates, if anything, it’s worse. “We’re doing something immensely stupid” Carl Sagan said, thirty years ago. Now, it seems the Amazonian rainforest has reach a tipping point beyond which it will not produce enough rain to sustain itself [6].

Here is another cautionary tale. It is an Ogoni story from the Niger Delta collected by Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and activist, a man murdered by his own government for trying to defend his homeland from Shell’s polluting oil operations [7, 8]. It took me time to be able to tell that story for it is not easy to hear, but somehow so necessary. Please use password Madola.

One lesson is harsh, but simple: when we cut the trees, the children die first. The industrial civilisation has been in the process of destroying the lungs of the Earth for quite some time now: without trees or plant life, there will be no oxygen for us and other animals to breathe. Now as I write these words, a virus is in turn destroying human lungs.

Yet we are born on this planet, we have the right to be here, the right to air, water, food and shelter simply because we exist here, now. That could involve cutting trees or harvesting parts. The question is: how do we go about it? Again, folktales provide clues [9]. Please use password Strawberry.

There is a key word when dealing with fairies and that is ‘politeness’. One must be polite when interacting with the natural world, we must ask before we take and accept ‘no’ as a valid answer rather than feel entitled simply to use and misuse everything. In a version of the story it is said that thanking the Old Men breaks the spell; gratitude breaks the spell. It’s worth repeating, also for myself: gratitude breaks the spell. Activist and scholar Joanna Macy writes that gratitude is our birthright, it is the shout of praise of every spiritual tradition for the sacred gift of life. Gratitude, she also writes, is subversive and liberating: it contradicts the dominant message of Western consumer society that tells us we’re not enough or don’t have enough to incite us to buy yet more [10]. Gratitude and appreciation help us recenter in the here and now. If we can reconnect with it whatever our circumstances, the spell of wanting ever more will be broken, and we will only take what we need.

Gratitude can be practised, so let’s try. I invite you to spend a couple of minutes thinking about a personal story of gratitude towards a tree, whether you experienced gratitude at the time or retrospectively as you recall the memory.

Here is the story I would like to share:

Back in September 2016, my partner and I went hiking in the Ardèche. We left the air-conditioned TGV around 11am to find ourselves in crushing heat. We just about managed to drag ourselves along small, sun drenched tarmac roads to reach a small town a couple of hours later. We bought lunch and collapsed under the welcome shade of sycamore trees. It was still very hot when we finally moved on late in the afternoon, and the going was hard and slow. Then we noticed a fig tree laden with ripe fruits just by the side of the road. What a blessing and a delight! The figs gave us the boost of energy to walk on to the campsite we had booked for the night. Our gratitude toward the trees that had sheltered and given us strength that day was overflowing.

Please do not hesitate to share your tree story in a comment below.

We might not all have the power to stop chainsaws in the Amazon or in Canada, or to stand in front of diggers at an HS2 sites, but we all have the power to shift our relationship to trees and the natural world to one of gratitude; we all have the power to ask for permission and learn to listen to the answers [11].

Notes and references:

[1] “HS2 protectors evicted from construction site under Covid-19 guidelines”, ITV report, 26th March 2020. Available: https://www.itv.com/news/central/2020-03-26/hs2-protectors-evicted-from-construction-site-under-covid-19-guidelines/ [accessed 16th April 2020].

[2] J. Rawnsley & P. Barkham, “Chris Packham begins legal case to halt HS2 amid coronavirus crisis”, The Guardian, 27th March 2020. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/mar/27/chris-packham-begins-legal-case-to-halt-hs2-amid-coronavirus-crisis#maincontent [accessed 11th April 2020].

[3] S. Baker, “Construction on phase one of £106bn HS2 rail link can begin, government says despite coronavirus lockdown”, Mail Online, 15th April 2020. Available: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8220347/HS2-given-green-light-enter-construction-phase.html [accessed 16/04/2020].

[4] Adapted from “The Alder Sprite”, Dancing with Trees, Eco-tales from the British Isles, A. Galbraith & A. J. Willis, The History Press, 2017.

[5] I cannot recommend enough listening to Carl Sagan’s keynote speech at the Emerging Issues Forum held at Cornell University in February 1990. Available: https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=emb_logo&v=9Xz3ZjOSMRU [accessed 17th April 2020].

[6] D. Phillips, “Amazon rainforest ‘close to irreversible tipping point’ ”, The Guardian, 23rd October 2019. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/23/amazon-rainforest-close-to-irreversible-tipping-point [accessed 17th April 2020].

[7] See e.g. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s page on Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Saro-Wiva [accessed 17th April 2020]

[8] Adapted from “Madola”, The Singing Anthill, Ogoni folk tales, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Saros International Limited, 1991.

[9] Adapted from “The Goat and the Strawberries”, Dancing with Trees, Eco-tales from the British Isles, A. Galbraith & A. J. Willis, The History Press, 2017 & “That’s Enough to Go On With”, Botanical Folktales from Britain and Ireland, L. Schneidau, The History Press, 2018.

[10] J. Macy & C. Johnstone, Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy, New World Library, Novato, California, 2012.

[11] On listening to the natural world with a genuine intent to hear what is being asked of us, I would recommend looking up the Accidental Gods website and podcast. See https://accidentalgods.life

A return to the Moon?


At the end of July, I was invited to tell stories at the closing party of the first Moon Festival organised in London. The evening was run by the Young Producers at the Greenwich Maritime Museum, where a special Moon exhibition celebrates the 50 year anniversary of the 1969 Moon landing. What had interested the Young Producers was my track record of mixing folk tales with science as I have done for a number of years at the York Festival of Ideas. They asked whether I could mention conspiration theories. Being unfamiliar with those, I ended up including a touch of Sci-Fi in the more reflective part of my performance. Below I develop further what I tried to convey.

As a kid, I certainly wanted to go into space and visit the Moon; perhaps because I was fascinated by the pictures of outer space sent by the Voyager probes; perhaps because Tintin has explored the Moon; perhaps, also, because I loved the idea of weightlessness.

In a Chinese story, retold by E.C. Krupp in Beyond the Blue Horizon, Heng O chances upon the immortality pill that her husband, the famous archer Shen I, has hidden in the rafters of their house as he waits for the appropriate time to take it. To Heng O, it looks like a beautiful sweet. She eats it and begins to float. At that moment, her husband returns home. Understanding what she has done, he pursues her with great anger. So she floats off, escaping all the way to the Moon.

So there is a Chinese lady on the Moon. The Americans in charge of the space programme however chose to send men into space: white men, all from the military except for a scientist, the geologist Harrison Schmitt who was part of the last crew to land on the lunar surface. A group of women, the First Ladies Astronaut Trainees, had trained as part of a private programme, yet despite their skills, they were never seriously considered for a space mission. One of them was Jerry Cobbs, a record breaking aviator. A black pilot, Ed Wight successfully went through the arduous test pilot training with the added challenge of segregation, yet was sidelined when the final choices were made. First Nation’s people? They’re not even mentioned. The first Native American astronaut, John Herrington, went on a mission to the ISS in 2002.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed watching Hidden Figures and appreciated that finally women, and black women in particular, are getting more of the recognition they deserve. Yet if you read the much more detailed book, you understand that the women broke through in larger numbers because their brain power had been required for the 1940s war effort.

This to me is the dark side of the Moon landing, the uneasy, ongoing relationship with the military. Despite the plaque that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had with them stating that they “came in peace for all mankind”, they remained white military men planting an American flag ahead of the Russians – the result of the Cold War, of competition and conquest, of a wish for supremacy.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the prototype for the Saturn rockets were the Nazis’ V-2 rockets, which by the end of the war were built by Jewish prisoners from a concentration camp in squalid underground conditions, and which killed tens of thousands in bombings in Europe.

Perhaps also there was a need for a distraction from Vietnam for ahead of the speech that launched the Moon Programme, President Kennedy had approved sending ‘advisors’ to the South Vietnamese government as well as the use of Agent Orange.

Then what about spin-off technologies? Teflon is often mentioned to me as a great example, yet I can assure you that you can to cook perfect pancakes without a non-stick pan and that might even be better for your health. In fact, it seems that most technological ‘progress’ benefited the militaro-industrial complex, furthering in particular the development of inter-continental ballistic missiles able to carry nuclear warheads.

That uneasy partnership is far from over. The Moon exhibition’s last room highlights the regain of interest for lunar travel by governments, corporations, and even individuals. The reasons: potential mineral resources; a springboard or testing ground for future missions to Mars or further; and even though this is not acknowledged, the Moon remains a strategic location in the solar system. The curators, as well as the Young Producers, are asking: Should we return to the Moon? Who does the Moon belong to? Can we buy the Moon? Even though an Outer Space Treaty signed in particular by both the US and the then Soviet Union recognised the Moon (and any other space object) as a ‘global commons’ accessible to peaceful missions of any nationality, the question of resource exploitation and mineral land rights is not yet legally settled. NASA is aiming to return to the Moon by 2024; Lockheed-Martin, the world’s largest military corporation, is the lead contractor for their manned spacecraft Orion.

We still have a long way to go before exploration is decoupled from conquest or exploitation – in facts and, I should add, in most fictions: can we not even imagine an alternative?

Back in the 1960, what did the astronauts find on the Moon?

They didn’t mention Heng O, nor the Palace of Boundless Cold built by her reconciled husband and that she now inhabits, nor the cassia tree that grows nearby, nor the white rabbit who tends it.

Back in the 1960, what did the astronauts find on the Moon?

Dust and rocks. Dust so thin it infiltrates everything; rocks billions of years old, older than any rock on our volcanically active planet.

In a short story published in 1951, Sentinel of Eternity, Arthur C. Clarke describes a research mission on the lunar surface. A geologist, his assistant and their driver truck across the landscape looking for minerals and collecting samples. One morning, as he’s frying the breakfast bacon, the geologist happens to look out of the galley window and notices a strange light shining from an unnaturally flat peak top, as if it were reflected of a mirror-like surface. He convinces his companions for the need to investigate – if anything, it’d be a break from the routine and an opportunity for a hike. So the geologist and his assistant scale the mountain, helped in their efforts by the Moon’s low gravity, as well as their fully regulated space suits. At the top, they find a black smooth tetrahedron surrounded by a hemispherical force-field, obviously an alien object from a much more technologically advanced civilisation. Twenty years later, as the structure still defies any scientific analysis, the men stationed on the Moon blow it up with nuclear power. They can only destroy what they don’t understand. Of course the geologist remains haunted by his discovery and believes the object to be a beacon, a sentinel left by another civilisation in order to be warned of the time when the intelligent species likely to emerge on the promising blue planet of this solar system begins to develop space travel technology.

Perhaps there is no sentinel on the Moon.

Perhaps there is one, still waiting to be found.

Perhaps there is one, it was noticed by the astronauts or by unmanned missions, and no-one told us about it.

If there is one (and even if there isn’t), we might want to ask: what kind of truths are we showing about ourselves? About (hu)mankind?

That of a culture with the technology to go to the Moon and back, yet who treats its home planet as supply house and sewer, and is ready to let it die?

That of a culture with the technology to send tourists to space, yet ready to let millions die in and of poverty?

Tell me, what is there to be proud of?

Of course I’d still love to go to the Moon, but not like this.

The Americans went there in a spirit of conquest, on a collective, if not on an individual basis. Yet back on Earth on July 21st 1969, people from all backgrounds and all countries have been hooked to the broadcast of Armstrong’s first step on the lunar soil. One can’t help it – despite the misgivings, there is a sense sacredness to this moment that can still be felt 50 years later.

What the astronauts rediscovered was the Earth, the Earth rising over the lunar horizon. Our own, stunningly beautiful spacecraft. They have been awed by what they have witnessed, some have experienced what has been called the ‘overview effect‘. Despite the glory, the astronauts didn’t return as conquerors.

Earthrise, NASA/ William Anders 

The plot of a recent French thriller involves a return to the Moon and the idea that it is possible to develop a planetary consciousness by making the overview effect accessible to the majority of people. The author, Jean-Pierre Goux, followed through by founding the Blueturn project, which offers access to videos of the Earth as it rotates thanks to a very clever processing of the daily images taken by the NASA/DSCOVR satellite. His aim is to offer anyone a space traveller’s view of our home planet.

Perhaps this is the lesson, to remember awe and to remember the Earth. To heal the wounds we’re inflicting to her fabric, the wounds we’re inflicting to ourselves, and then, perhaps, we can reach for the stars once more, as a child would, in a spirit of awe, wonder, curiosity, care and ultimately love.

Should we return to the Moon?

My own answer is no, not yet, not until we find better ways of relating to each other, not unless we use less destructive, less polluting technologies, not unless we are able to send a genuine civilian mission of discovery.

In the meantime, we can learn to relate to the Moon from the Earth. We can look at the Moon, acknowledge her, follow her movement in the night sky, find ways to honour her cycles and reconnect with them. Perhaps we should ask: what does it mean to know the Moon?

Tonight, August 6th, on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the Moon is a waxing crescent visible towards the West at sunset.


I take this opportunity to thank the Young Producers, the National Maritime Museum, the Moon Festival team; the audience who joined us; and my fellow performers of the ‘chill out space’ who were themselves a treat to watch.

Visits to Hebden Bridge

This October, I had the privilege to take part in Artbound’s Ideal Destinations exhibition at Hebden Bridge Town Hall, a community-owned space, with a welcoming café that allows you to drink deliciously simple filter coffee at an unbranded price.


It was the first time I was exhibiting digital, coulour pictures, which led to a succession of new questions: how to print, how to frame, how to display. Luckily, a few months previously, I had met in a photographer whose work had been printed on mat paper and hung, unframed, using paper clips. I very much liked the idea as it made the image look like a drying canvas. 

The pictures I was showing had been taken during a sea kayaking journey to Northern Norway, and I wanted to retain the idea of movement by presenting the work unframed, as if the images had just been imprinted on the paper and were drying on the fly. In additition, I very much liked the immediacy of contact with the pictures it afforded: no glass, no barrier between the viewer and the landscape. Meg from Artbound understood my idea and did a fantastic job of setting the pictures up.


I had been to Hebden Bridge previously, attending evenings run by the friendly and welcoming Shaggy Dogs Storytellers. This time, I had the opportunity to explore more, stayed in the well-run hostel, and walked through woodlands up to Hardcastle Cragg and its off-grid café, a real treat with the forest in full autumnal bloom. Seeing the wealth of community projects and care for the environment happening in and around town certainly was a welcome antidote to the news!


I am currently exhibiting black & white pictures of last winter’s late snow in Yorkshire as part of Artbound’s Winter Wonderland exhibition and have happily joined the community.


A month in Lauzerte

This September, I have been privileged to exhibit black & white photographs alongside Jess Wallace’s sculptures at the Espace Art Point de Vue in the southern French village of Lauzerte.

The welcome at the gallery was tremendous. We arrived on the first morning of the installation to be offered coffee, then lunch, then extremely gracious help by members of the Association Art Point de Vue, the group (mainly volunteers) running the gallery in conjunction with the town hall. 

Place des cornières

Lauzerte itself is a beautiful little medieval village on the Compostelle trail. It is located on a little mound, which affords a 360º view of the surrounding countryside. We placed Jess’s cows by the window, which we liked to prop open so they could be in the fields. This resulted in my tree pictures being shaken by the wind, as branches do.


The opening night was extremely friendly and all in attendance looked carefully at the art displayed. This genuine interest carried on throughout the month as visitors, locals or from further afield, really spent time engaging with the art.


For Jess and I though, the finished pieces are only a small part of the story. What matters more to some extent is the creative process for this is where the learning and the engagement with the world takes place. This is part of what we would like to share and the reason why my photographs documenting Jess’s work and models are shown alongside her scupltures. 

Following Roger Keyes’ opening words in his poem Hokusai says,

Hokusai says look carefully
He says pay attention, notice,
He says keep looking, stay curious,
He says there is no end to seeing.

it all begins with looking.

As Jess, alongside her trusted border-collie Tess, showed me how to look, I realised that an artistic process didn’t need to be very different from a scientific one (which is my educational background). The observation is as keen. 

Jess’s deep and graceful respect for her subjects taught me to approach animals in an entirely different way, less conceptual, more empathetic, and together, we are extending this approach to the rest of the natural world, vegetal with trees and mineral with standing stones. 

So in Lauzerte, we were also looking for ways of sharing our approach, and the catalogues and articles we had left for people to read alongside the artwork were not attractive enough. Luckily, however, our stay coincided with the journées du patrimoine in France (these are ‘heritage days’, held over a week-end)  and we were invited to take part.

Jess offered an adult workshop on sculpting animals in clay. We were generously hosted by a local artist in her studio. She also provided lunch, which we shared in the sunshine on tables that had been set on the street. The following afternoon, we ran a drop-in clay workshop for children, who were terribly enthusiastic, immensely creative and mostly knew what they wanted to do.

Stage Sculpter les animaux Jess Wallace72dpi


Tess, of course, is herding everyone

I offered a storytelling evening on the topic of trees for alongside being outside photographing and drawing trees, I take an interest in myths, folktales, botany, and biology.

Conte-moi les arbres avec l'artiste Alice Courvoisier72dpi

The process of looking is ongoing, I am merely scratching the surface, yet I can feel how my understanding is shifting. Whilst in southern France, Jess and I stole five days away to hike in the Haut-Languedoc. I didn’t know this area at all and hadn’t expected most of the walks to be alongside forestry tracks. It was a real gift to meet so many trees, and to feel the change in atmosphere when crossing from conifer plantations, to beech woods or oak forests. I might not have noticed anything had I not begun to look, had our companion donkey not slowed our pace.

Back in Lauzerte, our favourite times were when school kids visited the gallery. They were thrilled to be allowed to touch the sculptures and play with Tess and the pigs. They didn’t know what bronze was, thought it could be mixed with clay, and were ready to believe that Tess herself had done horse drawings. I think that Jess got the best possible review from ten-year old Marylou who had a perfect understanding of her work:

“Les animaux en argil et en bronze sont si magnifique qu’on aurait dit qu’ils étaient vivants et qu’ils attendaient le bon moment pour sortir de leur position et vous suivre.”

‘The animals in clay and bronze are so magnificent that one would believe they were alive and only waiting for the right moment to shift from their positions and follow you,’ she wrote in the guest book.


View from the gallery


Jess and I are extremely grateful for the tremendous hospitality we received from the town and the art community in Lauzerte, with particular thanks to Sandra Clerbois. We are also very humbled by the faultless welcome of my parents, without whom our stay in France wouldn’t have been possible, let alone nearly so pleasurable.


Artistic Integrity vs Technical Perfection

I took pictures in Dartmoor on our third visit, the first time we had a little sunshine walking there. However, as luck would have it, I had issues rewinding the film, and opening the camera in not ideal conditions resulted in light damage. Was it still worth printing the images?

Much can get in the way of getting a nice print: dust, light-glitches, drying marks on the film. Issues that can be alleviated with patience, care, and a proper setup. However if the negative itself is damaged, the challenge take a different proportion, for darkroom options are limited. As an example, here’s one of my Dartmoor pictures. I love the way those ancient trees rise to dominate the windswept grass. But certainly, those dark shapes in the sky aren’t clouds.


Of course, nowadays, anything can be done with a photographic software, so there is a digital way to ‘rescue’ the image. However, when Jess and I began to work on the black & white booklet documenting her work using the photographs I had taken, we made the deliberate choice to remain as hands-on as possible, in keeping with Jess’s artistic statement. This meant as little computer interference as possible, hence scanning prints obtained in the darkroom from film photographs. This kept the process simple and with a clear boundary: as far as individual pictures were concerned, the art stopped at the darkroom print. I have kept this ethos ever since, so digitally tweaking the image was out of the question.

Darkroom alternatives were to crop the glitches out of the picture, or dodge the corresponding area. One of the advantages of deciding to be an independent artist is the freedom in setting the boundaries of one’s work. In the case of photography, the key moment to me is that of pressing the button and the image is composed then, so no later cropping allowed (I am not so strict with colour pictures taken on a small digital camera or on my phone for portability, but for black & white photography, I use a reflex camera, so there is no excuse to not get it right at the moment of exposure). I tried dodging, but the result was highly unsatisfactory and left close to a third of the picture blank. More care, more time in the darkroom might help, but even though I enjoy printing, most important for me is to spend time outside, looking – ultimately, this is what I believe will result in better pictures.
So it looks like a return to Dartmoor beckons.

In some situations though, I might just accept the light glitch as part of the process, a testimony that I am working with light and chemistry rather than with a mouse facing a screen. For example, below is a print that works for me.


The light was perfect then, giving a Japanese quality to the leaves and branches of the foreground sycamore, who seems to be looking after the other trees like a benevolent relative. So no, the result is not technically perfect, but it fits my artistic ethos and makes a statement I am happy to stand by.

Technical errors can also lead to interesting effects and discoveries. I do like this print, in all its elusiveness.

It was obtained by inadvertently exposing the wrong side of the paper and might end up showcasing  it for it uncannily captures the essence of what I was after: how those ancient, isolated trees rise out of the grassland.

Rekindling the spirit of the great Aurochs

I am including here again an essay that I wrote in reaction to Jess Wallace’s art. Perhaps it’s more important than ever, at a depressing time when the UK government set on deciding that animals aren’t sentient beings after all.

According to Lakota Elder John Lame Deer, domesticated cows have lost the wild spirit of their buffalo ancestors: ‘You have not only despoiled the Earth, the rocks, the minerals, all of which you call “dead” but are very much alive’, he addresses Western man, ‘you have even changed the animals, which are part of us, part of the Great Spirit, changed in a horrible way, so no-one can recognise them. There is power in a buffalo – spiritual, magic power – but there is no power in an Angus, in a Hereford.’ There was a time however when aurochs, bisons, and mammoths, the great herbivores of the Ice Age steppes, played for paleolithic Europeans a similar role to the buffalo for indigenous Americans. We might never know for certain while Cro-Magnon people crawled into the depths of caves to represent them, but the fact remains that their engravings, drawings, or paintings are precisely observed and sensitively executed, with a sureness of line that even impressed Picasso.

Lascaux painting
Aurochs, deer & horses, Lascaux, France

On a recent visit to the paleolithic engravings of Cresswell Craggs, England, our guide mentioned that animals had been more important then. This caused me to stop. Had they? Are we eating less meat? Or rather, have we all but forgotten that meat does in fact come from living animals? Which is so easily done in Western consumer society where unrecognisable bits of them are readily available, wrapped in plastic, on supermarket shelves. The guide’s benign comment illustrated only too vividly the broken link between the living animal and the food; between the cow in the pastures, and the steak on the plate. And there is more: I rarely think of my leather belt as once part of a calf. I bought it from a market stall. I didn’t have to stalk the aurochs, kill it with a stone pointed spear, dismember it with a flint knife, etc… In those hunting gathering days, like in many surviving indigenous cultures, there was respect for the natural world, respect for the animal that gave its life, and no waste.
The great herbivores have all but disappeared from the European landscape – wild bisons just about survive at the border of Poland and Belarus, in a remnant primeval forest. For most of us, however, they have been replaced by shadows of themselves, tame cows. This sad transformation happened to all domesticated animals: ‘There was great power in a wolf, even in a coyote. You have made him into a freak – a toy poodle, a Pekingese, a lap dog’, Lame Deer writes on. However much I understood his point, something in his statements puzzled me and I couldn’t quite agree with their definitive sense of gloom. It took me time to figure out why, but I understood: when I read Lame Deer’s book, I had already come across Jess Wallace’s art, and met her models. Her sculptures showed me that the spirit of the wild aurochs still lives on, even in the tamest of cow breeds.

Jess grew up puzzled. Why do we eat some animals, when others are accepted as family companions? Unable to resolve this conundrum, she stopped eating meat. Jess’s youth was spent around horses, riding ponies by the Pinewood studios as a child, then entering a racing career as a National Hunt jockey. There she learned a lot about these animals, in a man-controlled environment. Years later, she renewed her partnership with them, but took the time to work on their terms. She shared their existence in a non-competitve environment, inviting rather than demanding; observing more, but indirectly; building a deeper, more understanding, truly ‘I-thou’ relationship. She writes: ‘A lifetime of contact with and observation of this enduring species has caused me to have a profoundly respectful appreciation for their ancient wisdom and innate generosity. They adapted and survived for over 50 million years before we appeared on the planet. We have used them as food, drones, engines of empires and sports machines, but despite being domesticated by us and bred and enslaved for our own purposes for thousands of years, they have retained their dignity, intrinsic nature and life force intact’. Their “life force”, “intact”; in spite of domestication, selective breeding, and abuse. An answer to Lame Deer’s statements, a plea to notice that in spite of the damage, all is not lost if you look with openness, empathy, patience and no agenda. Jess sees the animals as integral beings, not as food stores, slaves or dolls, and she respects them for who they are.
Jess began by sculpting the animals she knew best, our so-called ‘companions’, horses and dogs. She doesn’t illustrate their anatomy (although details are perfectly observed), nor does she personify some sort human quality; there is no heroism, nor sentimentality. Her horses and dogs are depictions of horses and dogs, the most truthful, compassionate, and alive I have ever seen. They reach to the essence of the species and breed, yet they retain the individual qualities of the specific being represented. Border Collie Stalking shows all the tension of a working herding dog, yet it remains undoubtedly Tess.

Border Collie Stalking (Tess)

Her animal’s postures are unconventional. Jess spends much time looking and sketching. Approaching her subjects with no preconceptions, she remains receptive to the animal’s truth. Her eye doesn’t look for anything, it doesn’t objectify, but receives and sets free. Jess can see the wildness in horses and dogs not as a display of primal strength but as their essential, untamed spirit, who they uniquely are, the “life force” still flowing below the layers of human conditioning. Deeply buried in the ever herding Tess, she can see the hunting wolf. In addition Jess’s sculpted animals are free from human interference: the dogs have no collars, the horses no bridles, no saddles. If the human link is hinted at, as in her early Galloping Horse, then it is from the animal’s point of view. The work represents Moonee River, whom she rode on the track. When the horse is at full stretch, as the piece shows, the rider has to blend with them simply to stay on top: the human is the one who needs to adapt.

Galloping horse (Moonee River)

Later, life brought Jess in close contact with cows and pigs, and her vision expanded. What she found in horses and dogs, she appreciated in them too. She saw them as what they were, other complete beings, “other nations” as Henry Beston would have it, not as walking larders, or milk taps. Jess’s sculpture Two Cows, Sleeping is just that, two cows sleeping, completely themselves and completely free, and that is the point. She saw the beauty in them, she saw their spirit: the spirit of the great aurochs ancestor painted in Lascaux, the “life force” that despite all his efforts, Western man hasn’t managed to eradicate. She saw it, and she showed me, patiently, inobtrusively and quite unbeknown to me, even though I had then very little interest in either cows or pigs, or even I daresay, in art itself.

Two Cows, Sleeping (Ernest & Pugley)

Jess’s sculptures have this arresting quality, they stop you on your tracks, they make you look, and you can’t help but notice the life that flows through them. Looking at Border Collie & three Pigs when the light is dimmed, or catching them with a corner of the eye, you can’t help but wonder whether that pig has indeed moved, or whether Tess hasn’t inched a step closer.

Border Collie & three Pigs  (Tess, Eos, Echo & Bertie) – detail

In this time of crisis, our survival as a species depends on our ability to relate to the living world and its inhabitants. By splitting ourselves from Nature, we have lost our own wild spirit, our identity as part of the great web of life. Just as we have imprisoned animals behind barriers and fences, we have imprisoned ourselves in a virtual reality disconnected from our earthly beginnings. ‘You have not only altered, declawed and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves’, Lame Deer adds. But it’s not too late to learn. Jess’s sculptures are a timely reminder that the “life force” still exists, and that we have the ability to open to a true encounter with the great Animal Spirits, and with Nature.
Jess’s art brings hope to a century that began full of doom and gloom. As overused pictures of damaged or tortured animals fail to shock us into action, Jess takes a radically different approach. She has an answer to Lame Deer: she sees the life force and celebrates it. Once you share her look, once you have met the animals on their grounds and see them as the individual beings that they are, there is no going back. You realise that it is time to act for the respect and preservation of the natural world; that it is time to honour it, free it, and in doing so, free ourselves.

Lame Deer quotes from Lame Deer, Seeker of visions by John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes (1972), Pocket Books enriched classics, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1994 edition, p.120.


Nature knows best

We travelled to Southern France in early September 2016. At 11am, we exited our air-conditioned TGV at Bollène – La Croisière. Our plan was to walk to St-Martin-d’Ardèche, where we would spend the night. After a gruesome hour and a half, we reach the town of Pont-St-Esprit and reassessed the situation over lunch: with the heat reaching 35 degrees Celsius, we would have to wait for the coolness of early evening to go on walking on the small tarmac roads leading to our destination. So we explored the town museum and an art exhibition taking place in the priory. The attendants at the table barely lifted an eyelid and ticked a piece of paper as I entered; I seem to remember one was smoking. The exhibition itself involved video set-ups made by artists inspired by Nam June Paik. At the back, was a stack of TV screens of various sizes showing interference patterns and chaotic trajectories: light paths on a darker background, I cannot remember much colour. The artist was there, frustrated by some technical issues, and asked what I thought. The question was hard to answer. The setup was interesting, the maths teacher in me enjoyed the references to dynamical systems, yet I found watching all these lights flashing in various directions very unnerving and disquieting – which if I remember well was part of the idea. I remained skeptical.

The following day, after an early morning hike along the Ardèche on another canicular day, we settled by the river to cool down. I soon became fascinated by the patterns of light reflected from the water surface underneath the rocks overhanging the river. Their soft moves and shimmerings were hypnotising, surprisingly relaxing and conducive to contemplation. It seemed to me that nature was doing with ease and elegance what the video artist has been trying to recreate on his screens. In this, as in many things, I concluded, Nature knows best.

The Ardèche, the light patterns can be guessed more than seen on the rocks.