Dark Skies, Stargazing and Storytelling – Guest Blog

Below is a guest post, co-written with Soo Hammond of Top of The Woods, an eco luxury camping and glamping site in West Wales, where I run storytelling and astronomy evenings. This post was originally published on Top of the Woods’ website.

Dr Alice Courvoisier runs the Top of the Woods – Dark Sky Safari where she shares her life-long passion for the ancestral stories of the stars and the modern scientific discoveries the stars have inspired with our camping and glamping guests.

Pembrokeshire is one of the best stargazing places across the UK and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park boasts eight nationally recognised ‘Dark Sky Discovery Sites’.

At Top of the Woods campsite, there is low light pollution and you will on a clear night have the best chance to see and explore the dark skies for star constellations, the Milky Way or maybe something else!

Top of the Woods has also been named the best campsite for stargazing and one of the UK’s most loved campsites on the internet based on research by Just Kampers.

Camping under the stars. Top of the Woods image.

The Galaxy, stars and storytelling.

All the individual stars you can see at night belong to our galaxy.

When you look at them, you might be tempted to join the dots and form patterns and shapes. Various cultures have done exactly this and have populated the sky with stories of animals, people, and objects.

Most of the groups of stars, or constellations, we inherited in the West come from Ancient Greece. For example, if you look towards the southern horizon after sunset in the winter, you will see Orion the Hunter followed by his loyal dogs.

Orion the Hunter and his dogs. Image Copyright Bob Moler.

The constellation of Orion is recognisable by the three bright stars of his belt framed by a large rectangular shape. At the top left corner is the red supergiant Betelgeuse and at the bottom right is the blue-white supergiant Rigel. Stars do have different colours depending on their surface temperature.

One of Orion’s dog is the constellation of the Great Dog. It contains the brightest star of the night sky, Sirius, which lies 8.6 light-years away (so the light it emits takes over 8 years to reach us) and is a close companion of our Sun.

Can you find Orion in this picture ? A little clue, see if you can spot Orion’s belt!

The constellation of Orion. Image credit: Akira Fuji.

The constellations that we can see at sunset from a particular location depend on the season, and stars have been used as time keepers and seasonal markers. The Ancient Egyptians for example based their agricultural and ceremonial calendar on the yearly motion of Sirius in the sky.

Summer skies – The Milky Way

In the UK’s summer evening skies, we do not see Sirius nor Orion, but we get the best views of the Milky Way, the ribbon of light that stretches across the sky.

The Milky Way over Pentre Ifan, ancient burial chamber in North Pembrokeshire. Visit Pembrokeshire, Image Copyright

The Chinese call it ‘the Great River in the Sky’, but for the Greek, it represents the spilled milk of the goddess Hera. Down it flies the beautiful constellation of Cygnus, ‘the Swan’. Another Ancient Greek legend says it was Zeus the God of the Sky who disguised himself as flying swan, to win over the love of Leda, the Queen of Sparta and mother to Helen who sparked the Trojan War.

Artist’s conception of what Cygnus’ figure looks like, against the backdrop of stars that make up the constellation. Image Credit: Wendy Stenzel (first published on NASA Kepler website).

Some constellations are visible throughout the night and throughout the year, such as the Plough (part of the Great Bear) and the Little Bear at UK latitudes.

These constellations are close to the North Celestial Pole located by the North Star at the tip of the Little Bear’s tail. Using these stars for navigation, you can always find your bearings on a clear night.

Free to use, Image Copyright

Not just stars out there to see when you are camping!

Of course, there are other objects to be seen: planets; deep sky objects such as Andromeda’s galaxy (best viewed through binoculars); many star clusters; artificial satellites criss-crossing the sky; and, who knows, perhaps the occasional UFO.

The Moon could be there, ever changing and ever stunning, but its shine overpowers the light of many stars, so for stargazing, times when the moon is waning or in the few days following the New Moon are best.

Then in mid-August come the shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower, a treat to watch and an experience not to be missed!

Top of the Woods, Image Copyright

If you want to see the best stargazing and why everyone is talking about Top of the Woods, why not come and stay this year! – check out our availability here.

Don’t forget to book your Dark Sky Safari with Alice & let her share her love of the stars with you.

Fairytales & the shadow side of engineering

I originally posted this text here (from where you can also access the audio version), but since it’s about fairytales and how we might tell them as much as it is about technologies, I thought it worthwhile reposting here.

Through SGR (Scientists for Global Responsibility), I came across an article in The Independent describing how arms company offer branded learning STEM material for primary school children in order, as critics say, to sanitise their reputation [1]. A link directs towards an “engineering fairy-tale” video supplied by BAE Systems, a British multinational arms, security and aerospace company, and based on the story of Hansel & Gretel, a tale originally collected by the Grimm brothers. This video can be accessed here [2]. Further videos featuring army personel or arms company staff reading adapted versions of well-known tales are available from stem.org. The stories are accompanied by Design & Technology activities for primary school children (usually 4 to 11 year-olds, split in various age groups) provided by educational consultancy firm STEM First [3].

BAE Systems makes profits selling weapons (and yes, the weapons are being used, and yes, they do kill people, including civilians, including children) as well as fighter-jets that are playing a key role in the Saudi bombing of Yemen, fueling one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent times [4].

“The idea of allowing arms dealers to target young children through school and home education is bizarre, dystopian and wrong. They are not doing this because of any love for education, It is because they want to build their reputations with children and parents, and sanitise the appalling things that they do,” Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade reportedly said to The Independent. He also reminds the reader that thousands of school children died in the Yemen bombings. “Bizarre, dystopian & wrong”. I can only agree. In addition, I believe that these videos illustrate our culture’s inability to face what I call the shadow side of technologies: an axe can be a tool or a weapon; a drone can save lives [5] or kill [6].

The Hansel & Gretel story is read by a uniformed young woman, who introduces herself as an aircarft technician with the British army. In this made-up tale, Hansel and Gretel’s family are living by a lake near a deep, dark forest where a witch lives. The family’s business is to make drumsticks for pop bands and one day the father needs the children’s help to cut a tree and bring it home. For the first time they’re allowed in the forest and as per the original tale, they get lost. Then, while smart, computer geek Gretel gets pen and paper to write step by step instructions on how to go home, her brother gets trapped in the witch’s house. What will the ending be? Children are tasked to help Hansel and Gretel get safely home, thus developping their problem-solving skills.

What is the link between this story and what I call “the shadow side of engineering”? By “the shadow side”, I refer to what is hidden, what is not talked about, what remains in the darkness, what is left to fester until it becomes too big to address and starts causing problems.

Let us look at the story in more details.

First, Hansel and Gretel’s parents run a drumstick making company for a living, yet the video is sponsored by an arms company. Preventing such companies from taking part in children’s education raises the issue of censorship and of where we draw the line, so I’d like to offer a slightly different take. Below is a slowly altered (and shortened) version of the introduction:

Once upon a time, a man and his two children lived happily by a lake next to a deep, dark forest. The boy was called Hansel and his older sister’s name was Gretel. Their father was working as an engineer for an arms company, making weapons and aircrafts for the British army and to sell abroad. The children had a lot of freedom, and they spent their time exploring the lake shore and skimming stones over its quiet waters. The only rule was that they must never stray into the forest for there lived a very dangerous witch.

One afternoon however, the father called the children for help. He needed to cut a particular tree that grew deep into the forest to make veneered missile heads for a special and expensive order, but he also had to attend a very important meeting. So he asked Hansel and Gretel whether they would carry the tree home for him. The children were more excited than scared at the prospect of entering the forest, and they readily agreed.

How does this sound to you? Would you be happy for your children to hear this? It’s not really pleasant, is it? Yet we need ot face this. This. What we’re doing. What we’re allowing.

I contend that if arms companies want dealing with children’s education, they should own up to what they do, for not doing so means some things aren’t properly acknowledged. One thing could be that their products are designed to kill people or is this something that can’t be said too loud? Something that needs to remain in the dark? Is there a reason why Hansel and Gretel’s parents can’t be building fighter jets? missile guidance systems? weaponised drones or autonomous killer robots? I’m sure they could still find an excuse to get into the forest, to find a particularly strong wood for bomb casings or machine gun handles, or perhaps there could be a mine deep in the wood which supplies the family in rare eath elements. If Hansel and Gretel’s parents were weapons making engineers, a sliver of light would penetrate the darkness and the door would open a crack when a six year-old asks: “Have your missiles ever killed someone?”

Arms companies exist, they sell weapons, they provide lucrative work for engineers and revenues for countries [7]. Perhaps it is time we openly talked about it – for example, is it an ethical way to earn one’s living? Of course I have an opinion on the subject, but what I’m really after is an open debate. Is this how we – as individuals, as a society, as humans on this planet – want to live? Perhaps it is, but it must be a conscious choice we take full responsibility for. That includes looking after the widow and the orphan.

But let’s face it, making drumsticks is far less controversial. In theory, they are harmless. They are designed to beat drums rather than people, and if kids were found fighting with drumsticks, then a responsible adult would probably confiscate them, not add more sticks to fuel the conflict. In addition, drumsticks are a “cool” thing to be making. I cannot help but be reminded of a Department of Electronic Engineering I worked at and where there is an excellent music technology group, the “drumstick side” of engineering. Yet military applications of electronic technologies are rife, graduating students will have the tools, skills and knowledge to work in, say, weapons manufacture, and UK universities receive funding from military sources [8]. This is little acknowledged, and as far as I know, not discussed.

What I am trying to highligh here is an institutional and societal issue and what I describe is probably symptomatic of most engineering departments around the world: they naturally convey the message that technological innovation is always “good” and a key part of building “the future” without any discussion whatsoever of what kind of future we want to build and for whom. During my engineering studies in France, we discussed the philosophy of time, but not that of weapons building, nor more generally that of engineering and technology – at least, not that I recall. Either people are working on what is perceived as harmless and beneficial technologies, or, well, one needs to make a living, or defend one’s country, or that’s the way the world works, so the shadow side remains in the shadows.

This is not without problems. I heard of, but did not witness, a student demonstration during a career fair and understood that an arms company ended up leaving. The lack of an open, informed debate leads to polarisation, it becomes all black or white, good or bad, because people – students, staff and company employees alike – do not have the tool to engage in discussions about the festering shadow side. An important step would be for arms companies interested in children’s education to acknowledge what they do in front of the kids they pretend to help teach. An urgently needed step is to open inter-disciplinary spaces for discussions in schools and universities rather than focus science-based curricula on technical knowledge and skills only. That technological innovations can have harmful applications should be openly discussed, and that requires the input of historians, sociologists, philosophers and artists. A challenging step in the current climate of impact at all costs and lack of public funding.

Finally on this first issue, it is worth noting that often, the shadow side comes first and is on the driver’s seat. Technological progress is often driven or hijacked by military needs. The first application of nuclear power was the bomb, not the production of energy. The pesticides used by modern agriculture have their root in WWI mustard gas, the Zyclon B used in Nazi gas chambers, and Agent Orange used by the Americans in Vietnam [9], while the fertilisers are derived from unused WWI explosive stocks [10]. Currently, the likelihood that we’re dealing with the consequences of gain-of-function research is no longer censored on mainstream media platforms [11]. Why was that type of research ever allowed on pathogens? Was there any debate? Was the public ever encouraged to take part? What other weapons technology is lurking unacknowledged away from the scrutiny of the people? Transparency is lacking, leading to polarisation, leading to conspiracy theories. It is urgent to acknowledge the shadow side, to stop pretending that the kind of technological innovation our culture fosters is the only way forward and always a “good” step towards so-called “progress”. The shadow side also comes last: what to do with the often toxic waste our linear manufacturing systems produce? A key example is nuclear waste, which needs to be managed for millenia to come. Yet another solution has been to resell it: depleted uranium (DU), with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, is a radio-active waste product of the uranium enrichment process. In the US, it has been given away to weapons manufacturers and DU projectiles have been used, in particular in the First Gulf War, at huge costs on all sides [12].

Second, in the STEM version of Hansel & Gretel, a tree is cut very casually. It’s a special tree they say, that would make very good drumsticks. The message here – that cutting a tree is nothing, that cutting a very special tree is nothing – is dangerous, especially given the current climate and biodiversity crises, especially as ancient woodlands are being destroyed for the sake of twenty minutes [13]. There is an option army engineers and BAE systems might never have heard of: coppicing. You can harvest branches thick enough for drumsticks without killing the tree and potentially increasing biodiversity in the process. This highlights a further dark side of engineering and of our current ‘tech-lust’ [14], which is the question of the supply chain. I have highlighted metal supply chain issues in another blog and none of it is a pretty story. Yet the issue is hardly discussed in the mainstream media and there are plans to open more mines and to reopen mines to fuel our needs for so-called “green” technologies. I felt the extent of the wastefullness of our linear production systems when watching E. Burtynsky and J. Baichal’s Manufactured landscapes, which I really encourage everyone to look up [15]. Extractivism is a dead end. We can teach our children something different. For example it could start by such simple things as making them aware that we can harvest parts of trees without killing them and that we can thank the tree for offering one of its limbs. It is high time supply chains came out of the dark. As Ryan Gellert, General Manager for Patagonia, put it in a podcast interview [16]: “If you’re in the business of making things […] the single, strongest piece of advice I’d give you is to really commit to deeply understanding your supply chain because I think almost in any business that manufactures anything that’s where the dirty stuff happens.”

Thirdly, I found watching these STEM videos very disturbing. When I shared them with other storytellers, a common opinion was that it was clumsy storytelling, but my unease went deeper. Traditional tales, even the over-used ones such as Hansel & Gretel, Cinderella or Rapunzel, bring some magic with them, they take you to a different place, a different time, a nonlinear world of the imagination, where fairy god-mothers turn up with appropriate gifts. Those stories are about experiencing life in all its complexity. It’s about sensing the darkness of the woods, and the fear of being lost. It’s about tasting the gingerbread house and relishing its sweetness. It’s about coping with adversity. Instead, those videos reduce an emotionally charged life situation to a cold problem-solving task using step-by-step instructions, teaching children to fit in a machine-ruled utilitarian world. In the STEM version of Cinderella, contrary to the “usual story”, the heroin hasn’t much time for her helpful god-mother and none for the prince. Her aim is to sell the patents of her newly invented smart household devices to a businessman in order to escape her social media hungry step-sisters. (As an aside: does one really need to know about social media, let alone own a smartphone, at 4? even at 10?) Here again the story ends with an activity: can the children help Cinderella keep time so she gets her contracts signed before midnight?

What is in the dark is more subtle here, but to me it’s the underlying world view of our technological society: following sanitised and well-determined step-by-step instructions towards an ill-defined goal called “progress”. We might as well turn into computers or be replaced by them. Perhaps this is what some of us want want, and efficiently run world of AI and transhumanism. But I have to ask: has this anything to do with life as we experience it? Life is more messy, life creates itself, life has the freedom to paint its own canvas, it’s the gift of experiencing the senses, it doesn’t care about efficiency and targets: it cares about playfullness and joy in the present moment. As I mentioned early on in another blog, technologies change the context of my life, not its quality (by which I do not mean access to hot showers).

This brought me to the question: can stories be used in STEM education? My reaction was to answer no, but teachers I shared the videos thought rather that stories were helpful to engage children with an activity. Perhaps they are, but then I believe the story should be properly told, and be part of a multi-disciplinary approach where questions of emotional intelligence can be addressed alongside the more practical challenge of finding a way to escape the witch. And if the way to escape involves more than a paperclip bridge as in Rapunzel’s story, if it involves, say, the apparition of a rainbow over which the children can walk to hitch a ride on the wind, then it should be perfectly acceptable, for in a fairy tale, there are no restriction as to what can be imagined and what is possible.

Let us end with another story, which I first read in Calling us Home by Chris Lüttichau [17]. The passage reads:

One teacher told me a Native American story I will never forget. A boy went to his grandfather in pain, saying that his friend had betrayed and hurt him; why would people do such things? The old grandfather listened carefully as the boy talked, and when his grandchild had finished, he finally spoke: ‘There are two wolves. One is the light wolf, which shares with others and seeks understanding, peace and friendship. Its quality is respect. The other is the dark wolf, which is greedy, envious and seeks conflict. It judges others, and takes even small things personally; it carries anger and hate. Every human being has the two wolves inside them, and these wolves are in a terrible battle, both trying to win dominion.’The boy thought about this, and asked, ‘Which one wins?’ His grandfather sat in silence for a while. The he said, ‘The one you feed’.

In not acknowledging the dark wolf, the shadow side of what our technologies can do, we risk feeding it, or letting it be fed until it becomes unmanageable, like Fenrir, the Wolf of Scandinavian mythology who ends up devouring the Sun, the Moon and Odin himself.

Know thyself” was one of the maxims written on Appollo’s temple in Delphi [18]. It’s not easy, it can be unpleasant, but it is time we accept that as human beings, we are capable of the best and the worst, that it’s simply a matter of choice for which we need to take full responsibility. Which wolf do you feed? What kind of a world do you want to create? What technologies (if any) do you want to invite in? These are the questions I am asking myself. These are not questions for the experts, but for every single one of us.


[1] Jon Stone, “Arms industry supplying schools with ‘dystopian’ branded fairy tales for nine-year-old children”, The Independent, 24th Janury 2021. Available: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/arms-companies-fairy-tale-stories-bae-b1780982.html [accessed 29th July 2021]

[2] Hansel & Gretel, Engineering fairy tales, STEM Learning, http://www.stem.org.uk. Available: https://www.stem.org.uk/resources/elibrary/resource/484545/hansel-and-gretel [accessed 29th July 2021]

[3] Engineering fairy tales, STEM Learning, www.stem.org.uk. Available: https://www.stem.org.uk/resources/collection/484536/engineering-fairy-tales [accessed 29th July 2021]

[4] See for example: BAE Systems, Campaign Against Arms Trade, March 2021 update, www.caat.org.uk. Available: https://caat.org.uk/resources/companies/bae-systems/ [accessed 29th July 2021]

[5] Sarah Whittaker, “DJI and EENA: Drones help rescue people faster, study shows”, Drone Below news, 25th September 2018. Available: https://dronebelow.com/2018/09/25/dji-and-eena-drones-help-rescue-people-faster-study-shows/ [accessed 29th July 2021]

[6] Jamie Doward, “Britain funds research into drones who decides who they kill, says report”, The Guardian, 10th November 2018. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/10/autonomous-drones-that-decide-who-they-kill-britain-funds-research [accessed 29th July 2021]

[7] The UK, for example: “UK remains the world’s second biggest arms dealer, figures show”, BBC News, 6th October 2020, Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54435335 [accessed 29th July 2020]

[8] For a report on military funding in UK Universities see e.g.: Dr Stuart Parkison, “Military involvement in UK Universities – an update”, conference slides, 24th January 2021, Scientists for Global Responsibility. Available: https://www.sgr.org.uk/resources/military-involvement-uk-universities-upd [accessed 29th July 2019]. See also the reports on corporate influence on science and technology here: https://www.sgr.org.uk/index.php/projects/corporate-influence-project-main-outputs

[9] See for example a documentary I highly recommend on how to forestall climate change by healing the Planet’s soils: Kiss the Ground, narrated by Woody Harrelson. Available: https://kissthegroundmovie.com/. See also: https://kisstheground.com/.

[10] See e.g. Postwar fertilizers explode in Farming in the 1940s by Wessels Living History Farm, York, Nebraska. Available: https://livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/crops_04.html [accessed 30th July 2021]

[11] See for example: Aaron Feis, “‘Damning’ science shows COVID-19 likely engineered in lab: experts”, New York Post, 6th June 2021. Available: https://nypost.com/2021/06/06/damning-science-shows-covid-19-likely-engineered-in-lab/ [accessed 30th July 2021]. “Why gain-of-functions research matters”, The Conversation, 21 June 2021. Available https://theconversation.com/why-gain-of-function-research-matters-162493 [accessed 30th July 2021].

[12] I read this story on pp. 61-62 of Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, Volume I, The problem with civilization, Seven Stories Press, 2006. Fluoride is another example of waste-turned-dangerous-product the author uses. An edifying read.

[13] See e.g. the HS2 rail link campaign page of the Woodland Trust. Available: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/protecting-trees-and-woods/campaign-with-us/hs2-rail-link/ [accessed 30th July 2021]

[14] T. Maughan, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust”, BBC Future, 2nd April 2015. www.bbc.com/future [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth [Accessed 25th February 2019]

[15] Manufactured Landscapes trailer, YouTube, published by YouTube movies on 3rd August 2011 [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVybNCPzG7M [Accessed: 19th June 2018]. See also the TED talk: Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured Landscapes, YouTube, published by Ted on 15th April 2008 [Online]. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2Dd4k63-zM [Accessed: 19th June 2018]

[16] “Business for good – Ryan Gellert”, podcast interview, Sismique, 20th March 2020. Available: https://www.sismique.fr/post/business-for-good-ryan-gellert [accessed 30th July 2021] If you are a French speaker, I highly recommend listening to this podcast.

[17] Chris Lüttichau, Calling Us Home, Head of Zeus, 2007. The quote is from pp. 23-24.

[18] See e.g. the Wikipedia page of the temple of Appollo in Delphi. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Apollo_%28Delphi%29 [accessed 30th July 2021].

The Road to “Dancing the Red Moon”

Last May, I had the privilege to take part in the Starlight virtual residency (please use the dropdown menu to access speakers, participants and sketchbooks) organised by Mayes Creative. This blog relates part of my experience as well as the genesis of my final contribution “Dancing the Red Moon”, which you can listen to by clicking below.

Tales & Shapes · Dancing the Red Moon

During the residency, we had talks by visual artists engaging with physicists and with astronomical data, as well as talks on astronomy and archaeoastronomy. As a Pembrokeshire-based storyteller, I was particularly interested in the what astronomer Carolyn Kennett and writer Cheryl Straffon had to say regarding possible astronomical alignments of megalithic monuments of Cornwall and beyond.

One of the first activities was starhopping with the option to map a constellation in one’s local landscape. We looked at Cygnus, the Swan, flying down the whitish ribbon in the sky we call the Milky Way(*). Thinking where on the land I could journey, I was reminded that for various cultures, the Milky Way is the Great River in the sky. It is so in a Chinese myth, where the river separates two lovers, the Weaver Maid and the Cowherd. The Weaver Maid is associated with the star Vega in Lyra, the Harp; the Cowherd is Altair in Aquila, the Eagle; and somes stars of Cygnus, including its tail, Deneb, form the Great Ford in the sky that allows the lovers to meet once a year. Vega, Altair and Deneb form the ‘summer triangle’, a large isosceles triangle clearly visible at sunset over the summer months (I say more about it in episode 3 of my podcast). The river analogy led me to followed a stream close to where I live and to look for stones suitable placed to stand for the three stars of the summer triangle, this was the best I could find:

Land analogue of The Great River in the sky with the summer triangle stars as stones

I also experimented with recording a version of the Chinese tale alongside the music of the stream, gentle for the earthly river, more tumultuous for the Great River in the sky. The recording was made on my phone by moving near or away from the stream as I read the story, but I don’t think any edit would have made it blend better. This isn’t a polished piece however, and the storytelling can always improve.

Tales & Shapes, A Chinese star myth – experimental recording

Much of what we learned and saw was fascinating, not least astronomical images of nebula, and since I have a soft spot for black & white images, I fell in love with Melanie King’s black & white rendition of raw images from satellites or telescopes. I was however, after something closer, something more physical, more tangible, more embodied than bytes of data sent over space. I was after a relationship with the stars, a relationship with the moon, a relationship via the land and through my body(**). Hence my interest in archaeoastronomy, in the rythms understood through regular naked eye observations.

A late May full moon, a supermoon even as its orbit brought it close to the Earth, was happening during the residency and luckily we had clear skies. I first observed the near full moon rise over the fields at home, then I went to admire the full moon rise over Gors Fawr, a neolithic or bronze age stone circle, at the edge of bleak moorland on the southern foothills of the Preselis. The moon rose over the plain, orange and full, next to the orange light of a nearby farmhouse, but I could not access the feel of anything special. I wondered what the surrounding landscape was like in prehistoric times – trees? bogs? fields already?

Then I noticed Venus, the planet Venus just returning as “Evening Star” following her transit behind the sun, her superior conjunction. You can just about see her as a tiny bright dot, in the pinkish glow, above the lowest part of the Preseli ridge. (There is much to say about Venus, I made a small inroad in episode 4 of my podcast).

During the course of the residency, I spent more daytime getting a feel for the prehistoric landscape of the Preselis, looking for standing stones, sketching skylines and rocks – including the single standing stone left at Waun Mawn, the presumed original location of the Stonehenge blue stones. Below you can see: Pentre Ifan; the remaining standing stone of the Waun Mawr circle; Carn Ingli.

Then there was Melissa‘s provocation: “Design your own constellation, describe the planet you are standing on and design a stone circle or the like related to that constellation”.

A constellation; a stone circle; a ceremony to relate the two. I was hooked on the idea.

I began by imagining the Thunderbird, it would look a bit like the Swan and become visible at sunset at the begining of the rain season. It would be linked to rain and to fertility. The moon is also related to fertility and to water, so the moon had to be involved somehow, and the sea. The stone circle would be by the sea, on a planet with two darker moons, an orange one and a red one. For the ceremony, the red one would matter – in fact, the ceremony would be called “Dancing the Red Moon”.

Then there is Ursula K. Le Guin. Her masterpiece Always Coming Home, a skillful weave of anthropology and story introduces us to the culture of the Kesh people – a culture of the future on planet Earth, wise, gentle and complex, and without need for fancy technologies – is the most hopeful work I have read in recent year. The book contains a description of Kesh ceremonies, including their “Dancing the Moon”, which is very different, but an inspiration (in content and form) for the telling of “Dancing the Red Moon”, a ceremony I imagined happening on an eastern shore, somewhere. It had to be East, or its equivalent, as the signal to the start of the dance would be the full moon rising over the sea.

Then there was Carolyn and Cheryl’s talk with its brief mention of lunar standstills, which are part of an 18.6-year cycle, nearly a generation’s time. “Dancing the Red Moon”, I decided, would happen at the major lunar standstill and would be an opportunity for far away tribes to gather and exchange – news, stories, knowledge, goods, people. The Moon Dancers, young women in general though young men are not excluded if it is their calling, would dance through the night and receive visions to guide the people for the next cycle. The dance would happen on a sandy beach, this liminal space between land and water, just below the Old One’s Council, a stone circle built on a small grassland promontory by the shore. The backdrop would be forest, with its sacred Saana trees and magical groves, and mountains, including the sacred mountain, home – it is believed – to the Ancestors. The dance would end at moonset, and both moonrise and moonset would be framed within stone portals.

Moonset framed by the Setting Portal

To make this work, however, I had to understand the motion of the moon better. In an earth/moon-like system, is it possible to have the most northernly moonrise be in a particular constellation, and for the Moon to be full? The answer I realised is far from straightforward. The following paragraphs might feel quite technical and tell part of the story.

First, I must admit that I soon gave up the idea of two moons. Jupiter, massive as it is, can handle a few moons, but for an earth-sized planet with moon-sized moons, that could be more problematic. The three-body problem – determining the motion of three bodies of comparable mass under the law of gravitation – is notoriously complex and even Newton thought the hand of God was necessary to keep the solar system stable. The redness of the moon would then refer to its colour at moonrise, the time when the ceremony begins.

Then, we are familiar with the phases of the moon, its most apparent rythm with a period, called the synodic period, of about 29.5 days, summarised in the image below.

The cycle of the phases of the Moon

But you might have also noticed that the moon doesn’t always rise and set at the same place, and that the maximum height it reaches in the sky varies. This movement of the moon over about a month (27.3 days to be precise) is similar to the movement of the Sun over a year and is due to the fact that the moon’s orbit is tilted with respect to the Earth’s rotation axis. At the analogue of the summer solstice, the moon will rise at its most northerly position in the east, reach its maximum height, and set at its most northerly position in the west having followed its longest course in the sky. Then it rises and sets at a lower latitudes, and reaches less high in the sky until it reaches the analogue of the autumn equinox when it rises due east and sets due west. Its rising and setting point then become more and more southerly, until about two weeks later it reaches the analogue of the winter solstice when it rises and sets at its most southerly azimuths, and reaches its lowest point in the sky. Then the rising and setting point begin their journey north again. This ascending and descending motion of the moon is a key rythm for biodynamic gardeners, and to make matters more interesting, it doesn’t coincide with the cycle of the phases of the moon – for example, the most northerly moonrise isn’t always the full moon. In fact, the full moon correspond to the time when the moon rises opposite the sun, so to have the Moon rise in the north-east, the sun need be setting in the south-west, so at the time of the Winter Solstice. If I wanted “Dancing the Red Moon” to happen when the full moon rises over the sea at its most northerly position so that it would follow its highest and longest course across the sky, then the ceremony had to happen at the heart of winter, not what I had originally imagined. This however answered my constellation: the Winter Solstice sun is visible against a particular constellation of the Zodiac, Sagittarius at the moment (it very changes very slowly due to the precession of the equinox), and the corresponding full moon is in the opposite Zodiac constellation: Gemini. The Winter Solstice felt however a strong enough time marker to overshadow the role of a particular constellation. I decided then the leave the Thunderbird for another time and to focus the ceremony solely on the Moon.

Now, importantly the most northerly and southerly rising and setting points aren’t fixed. They reach the extremes of their range every 18.61 years, at the time of the “major lunar standstill”, an appellation attributed to A. Thom in his 1971 Megalithic lunar observatories. “Standstill” because although there are definite maxima, the Moon reaches close to those for months in a row. Then, half a cycle, so 9.3 years, later, the moon is at its “minor lunar standstill”, when the most northerly and southerly rising and setting points reach minimum values. At the heart of this phenomenon is the fact that the moon’s orbit is tilted by 5.1 degrees with repect to the ecliptic – the course followed by the Sun over a year – which itself is tilted to the earth’s rotation axis by 23.4 degrees. The moon’s orbit crossed the ecliptic twice at positions called nodes: the ascending node and the descending node. Due to gravitational effects of the Sun on the moon’s orbit, these nodes change position: if you imagine a line joining them, this line rotates in the opposite direction of travel to that of the sun and moon and completes a full cycle in 18.61 days. This phenomenon is called “the regression of the line of nodes”. The “major lunar standstill” happens when the ascending node coincides with the vernal (or spring) equinox, the point where the ecliptic crosses the celestial equator. The “minor lunar standstill” happens when the descending node coincides with the vernal equinox. Perhaps, this phenomenon is best explained through images.

The path of the sun (in yellow) and the path of the moon (in red) and their relationship to the celestial equator at different times of the moon’s 18.61-year cycle (Images inspired by a drawing of J. Bieniasz, in Beyond the Blue Horizon, E.C. Krupp, Harper & Collins, 1991.

I found this website helpful in understanding this cycle, and of course, there are yet more subtle variations to the moon’s motion.

In the end, rather than imagine an earth-like system and as a grateful nod to Ursula Le Guin, I decided that “Dancing the Red Moon” would be an earth-based ceremony, happening on an eastern shore, mid to high-latitude of what we now describe as the Northern Hemisphere. It didn’t happen in our past, but it could happen in our future, at a time with a warmer climate and different seasonal patterns, at a time when dancing in the sea at the heart of winter would not require to brave the cold. I remember having this experience once, of swimming under the full moon at a time when I usually huddled in jumpers. I was in the Southern Hemisphere, it was summer at Christmas, I dripped with sweat in the heat and my body was confused, my senses in obvious contradiction with my mind’s belief that Christmas should be cold. Yet that particular night held magic and with the white sand reflecting the moon’s silvery glow, we could see as clearly as in daylight. For the first time I became accutely aware of the special qualities of moonlight and of the eerie shadows it casts.

Finally, “Dancing the Red Moon” is real. I am not imagining it. Can you see the moon rise, red, over the sea? Can you feel your feet sink a little in the sand as small waves lap onto them and the soft touch of a piece of seaweed? Can you taste the salt, smell the iodine? Hear the Moon Carers drum, their faces illuminated by the warm glow of fires lit on the shore? If I mention them clap their hands to mimic the rain, it’s because I have heard them.

(*) What we refer to as the Milky Way can be two different things: the great ribbon of light we see in the sky, an area so dense with starlight we see it as a cloud rather than as individula stars; or our home galaxy, all the stars we see in the night sky, whether part of the great ribbon of light belong to the galaxy, to the Milky Way. Here I use the term “Milky Way” with the first acception.

(**) My interest in astronomy dates back to seeing an exhibition of the incredible images of Saturn and Jupiter from the Voyager probes as a primary school kid, but in my experience, nothing beats seeing Saturn with one’s own eye through the lens of an optical telescope. When I do, I can’t help smiling as I think, “it’s really there and it does have rings!”.

A Tale of Two Quarries

There is a stone quarry opposite where we live. You can’t miss it. The most recent OS map reads ‘disused’, but that’s not to be trusted. A hill is slowly disappearing, carted away, truck load after truck load of broken stone.

Quarrying is noisy. The rock is blasted and crushed, stored in heaps by size, loaded onto vehicles. ‘Beep, beep, beep’ – it seems their machinery can only reverse. Sometimes when the air is damp or the breeze from the south, the noise fills the air and reaches all the way into the farmhouse. One late summer afternoon, it was was so overwhelming that I escaped to the old quarry for solace and muffled sounds. At last, I felt I could breathe, more than on the hillside’s open moorland.

The old quarry is a large corrie, tens of metres deep and nearly as wide. It is entered by a narrow path between two heather-covered spoil heaps, then the way opens into a canyon. You can scramble down to the bottom in dry weather, or you can follow a wide ledge on the right-hand side to arrive at a platform by the excavation’s back wall. There you can sit on damp grass, eyes level with the foliage of the willows growing by the swampy pond below. In early spring, insects are active all round. Honeybees from the nearby hives are on their first scouting trips. Huge buzzing bumblebees taste noisily the first willow blossoms. Birds fly between the branches. More than their songs, I notice the flutter of their wings. A blackbird shoots past. A wood pigeon shouts, weary of people. High above the kites glide and ravens sometimes send echoeing cries. The adders, perhaps, are just waking.

In the old quarry, I feel no anger, no judgements other than the ones I bring. In the old quarry, there is life, just life, neither good nor bad: life expressing itself in a flurry of creativity, a wealth of shapes and more shades of greens and browns than I was aware existed.

“That’s it, they’ve stopped!”

I imagine the spirit of rowan spoke it first, a tiny seed in a crack of rock, brought by the wind, shaken by the last blast. A drop of water slid down the exposed rock face to nudge it awake. The others heard: the spirits of willow and sycamore, of hawthorn and cottoneaster; the spirits of bracken, brambles and gorse, of heather and bilberries; the multitudes of lichens, algae, liverworts, mosses and fearns. They came to have a look.

“Is it a good place for us now?” they asked.

And for most, it was. Some settled there right from the start and thrived. True, they were disturbed again. What people call “rubbish” was dumped in the hole: glass, plastics, a no longer functioning washing machine slowly oozing its rust into the leaf-filled bottom pond. Iron is returning to the land, miles and miles away from where it was extracted. I bet it misses its ore still, the elements it was with, the particular tilt of the Earth’s magnetic field where it grew up, its subtle modulations. It has to attune to yet a different place now, but at least it’s free once more, redness spreading into water. Life grew over the disturbance, most of the plastic has disappeared under a thick carpet of moss.

Life is returning to the spoils too, those large heaps of haphazardly piled pieces of slate. Carefully climbing the steep loose slope, I reach the top edge, a platform of moss strewn with heather, gorse and a few rowans. Life is spreading on scattered stones, as mysteriously as at a larger rewilded quarry I visited further north, where birches seem to grow from rocks, vegetal meeting mineral in an embrace across kingdoms.

We’ve gratefully taken stones from one of the heaps and so reopened the closing wound, removing that little heather bush, that clump of grass, slowing the healing. Below me, I see the resulting scree of lightly weathered stone pieces, grey, yellower, reddish, a jumble of rocks. It’s as if I were peering into the Earth, yet the slates I look at shouldn’t be above ground. Their broken surface offers a wider area to the air, to the rain, quickening erosion, loosening elements that perhaps should have remained hidden for millenia to come, until the Earth chose her time. Of course, she can be violent in her rebalancings. There are eathquakes and landslides; volcanic eruptions and tsunamis. The Earth knows her timings. But here, the change was triggered by dynamite, ordered strata are mixed up in a confusion of angles. Was there ever asking before the taking?

To the south, I can see the other quarry, silent in the evening, lit golden by the setting sun. We can see the explosions send dust high up in the air, but we feel their vibrations and hear them first. Does our hill cry at the loss of her sister, as her own bones shake in response to the blasts? Does the rock feel pain when you crush it? Does metal enjoy crushing the rock, or does it feel sorry for the role it’s forced to play? And the people – do they enjoy the noise, the diesel fumes, their machines’ unchallenged power, or just the hard-earned, honest cash in their hands?

Looking from the top of the corrie, I see faces etched in jutting lumps of rocks. Perhaps spirits have awakened. What used to be inside is now part of the surface. Perhaps a rock feels the warning tremors of an earthquake, so subtle sismographs don’t register it. Deep below, they might know the time is ripe; deep below they prepare. Then the move comes, as sudden and life-altering as a birth. If human gestation is nine months, how long is that of a rock? What warning is there in the length of a wick?

Yet life comes back, slowly, inexorably, despite the trauma in the land. Life returns spurred by water, and by the old quarry, the water has mysterious ways. A stream that snaked on the moor now runs deep underground, like tears left inside oozing shily from under a spoil heap. Yet still it sings, joyful notes that echoe against the rocks, the cheerful bubbliness of running water. Perhaps the stream enjoys its underground journey. Perhaps it has a mission: to bears witness to the rocks’ suffering, all the way down to the Ocean. And in turn, Ocean will bring the soothing rains, the catalysts that brings vegetal life to embrace the stony face, drips and drops that send lichens, liverworts and mosses spread over the cut like plaquettes rush to close up a wound. The quarry offer a diversity of habitats that moorland doesn’t have, liminal spaces, where life can create, explore itself further. The wound can be a blessing. “It’s rare to find such an undisturbed gem of a place!” Matt wrote to us excitedly after his visit. He found around 70 species of mosses and liverworts and mentions names I’d never heard before: spagnum palustre, plathypnidium lusitanicum (new to the area), philonotis arnellii, fossombronia fimbriata or fragile frillwort, a species which was feared extinct at one point. The old quarry is a sanctuary we enter with reverence.

Living wall

Yet there is a question of scale. On the hill opposite the destruction goes on, with more efficient technology than over a hundred years ago when the old quarry closed. Elsewhere, the destruction is beyond human scale as hectares of lands fall to oversized diggers’ teeth. The land can’t heal until we stop. Life remains on hold, at the ready. But what if we never stop? Or what if we stop after we passed an invisible threshold, a tipping point beyond which regenerative cycles are broken for good and ecosystems unable to recover?

“The stuff has to come from somewhere,” people say. It’s true. We’ve taken stones from our spoil heap to make hardcore for a horse shelter. Perhaps, however, we could mine consciously: asking the land, explaining our purpose, receiving with gratitude, learning to listen to the signs, to the subteltly of the reply. It will slow us down. It will require us to put a limit to extractivism. But Western culture doesn’t do limits. It needs bigger trucks, faster trains, more electronics, more technologies, more weapons too. This culture breeds lack, but the antidote – gratitude – can be learned.

The Earth waits for us to stop. Life can’t grow back in the working quarry, not now, not while the rock is still being torn apart, while there is violence, fury and noise, while the destruction still goes on. Can one live in a war zone? Or does one just survive, leaving the healing work for afterwards, for when the guns have gone silent and urgency gives way to time once more? Can one live at war with oneself? Perhaps when the judgement and self-criticism, the weapons of self against self turn silent, perhaps there is a remembrance that there is life in people too, and once more it can flourish.

I go into the old quarry to heal, to hope, to meet with the scarred ancestor, to remember. There Mother Earth rocks me sane, offering unconditional love despite the trauma my culture is causing. The old quarry reminds me that life accepts change and explores every opportunity. A tiny ledge; a thin and intermittent rivulet of water along a vertical wall; a slightly damp and sheltered crack between two rocks. As a result, trees grow tall on improbable slopes, the white silhouette of a rowan tree stand out against dark heather, willows colonise the damp quarry floor, bilberries thrive over a heap of rock. Soil returns bringing yet more opportunities. A virtuous cycle of healing.

I sit on a willow tree that grows at the bottom. Sunlight scatters on the small, growing leaves of slender vertical shoots. I reflect that some of the thicker branches seem dead when I notice, right in front of my eyes, a tiny bud, like a pinkish egg rising from a green shell. It stands proudly on a slim and dry branch. Rusty tendrils, like thin copper wires, stem from the pale green moss that surround it and covers the lower part of the tree. The tiny bud aims straight up, towards sunlight, a symbol for life’s desire, life’s will, the push, the energy to be and experience, even if that may mean emerging through concrete in a polluted city.

Bud life

The whole willow is stretching up, but it is also rooted. This was forced to my attention whilst exploring the furthest reaches of the quarry. I saw two intertwined, inch-thick branches falling vertically from a ledge to the bottom floor, about a foot away from a rocky wall. What trees are these? I wondered. The answer made me laugh – of course, they are roots, the roots of another large willow, one that grows on the ledge. Roots pulled down to a perfect vertical by gravity. Roots attracted by the Earth. There is a famous such root falling like a pillar in a painted, paleolithic cave of the south of France. A root that chanced on a hole and followed the pull to its floors metres below to find the Earth again, and ground itself to drink, feed, grow. Behind the quarry roots, the wall is glistening wet, covered in mosses in all shades from sombre orange to dark green. Then I noticed them: a full network, a wet woody web stretching across the wall. Roots – the ledge-growing trees reaching towards the Earth as much as their branches reach for the sky, allowing me to see what is usually hidden.

Willow roots

In some traditions, the trees are our standing brothers. In the rewilded quarry, they show us the way. You cannot reach for the sky if you don’t root yourselves, if your desire for the Earth isn’t as strong and solid as your desire reach up. Yet Western culture is forgetting the Earth, it uproots us, make us live in cities, work in offices, stare at screens all day long. It uproots forest, it uproots rocks, it sends metals into space that were never meant to be cut loose, adrift from their Earth-born ores. The too many satellites that marr the sky woulnd’t be there if it weren’t for the mining. It’s important to remember this as we get hooked onto all things ‘virtual’ – for nothing is.

The willow says: “Reach for the sky, but root yourselves. Like us, you are beings of the Earth. We trust you remember in time.”

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.