This is a tale of some magic.
An elemental story.
It concerns an event that took place on Saturday in Cambridge when Robert Macfarlane and I got together for Cambridge Literary Festival to talk about the extraordinary wild life of The Lost Words.
But the story began a couple of days ago when Robert went to gather wild water for me to paint with.
Now, this is water that probably has not yet met with the shape of an otter, coming as it does from a chalk spring, rising out from the earth, pure and clear, a mirror for the sky.
Gathered into a gin bottle, nestled in the beech leaves.
Robert lives in Cambridge. I live in Pembrokeshire. Across two countries we worked closely together on making and shaping The Lost Words.
He wrote of “the moment of gathering, the landscape – in its full sense – of gathering.”
“As I filled the bottle with water for you to paint your otter with I could hear: four skylarks torrenting their song down, a woodpigeon, the rusty hinge-creak of a pheasant, a blackbird, a chaffinch, the London-Cambridge train passing a hundred yards away, a light wind in the tops of the trees around, a great tit, the clang of construction ongoing at Addenbrookes hospital, the caw of rooks, a small plane flying over…. This is very much an edgeland wood, but it is also a special place, made so by the ordinary miracle of springs rising from bedrock, and by the clarity of the water that flows through it (clear, with just a faint blue tinge; rather like gin, in fact, which is appropriate as I gathered the water into a cork-stoppered former gin bottle…), and because its interior belies in volume the extent of the wood as seen from the outside, as with all woods, really. May its springwaters flow through your brush and enter without falter onto page as otter.”
Then the water waited, caught in the blue of a Harris Gin bottle, to be freed with the mixing of ink, while my mind’s eye churned and turned with otters.
And meanwhile I struggled to work out how the otter would sit with Robert’s words on a page of heavy textured Arches watercolour paper.
I wrote the otter capitals, drove to Cambridge, where Robert inscribed the otter spell, and then, at The Cambridge Union, in front of an audience, I ground ink made from pine soot into the water from the spring at Ninewells, freeing the dark pigment to swirl, and part way through the talk, using water and ink, words and the memory of the shape of otter, unleashed a creature from the mind’s eye and onto paper.
This piece is the first made together that will be offered for sale. There are others. Peregrine is still travelling I think. Barn owl was worked into a sketch for Suffolk Wildlife Trust and has another destination as its resting place. Wren was a gift to those who had worked so hard to shape our book, a single painting with the wren spell written on it, cut into four. And Goldfinch can be found in Elementum Journal volume 3.
The resulting artwork is now being auctioned, to raise money for a new campaign, launched also at the event, to raise money to place a copy of The Lost Words in every school in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The auction will work in this way:
The piece is on heavy (640) watercolour paper, 76 cmd x 56cms. Ink, pencil, gold leaf, signed by Robert and myself.
This auction is now closed.
If you wish to donate to the Cambridgeshire appeal you can do so here: CambridgeCandi.
Cambridge Candi are a registered charity so if you wish you can gift aid your donation.