Heaven’s Embroidered Cloth – Pacific night watch

All all alone lone the wide wide sea…. Well, apart from four fellow Salty Moretons, resting below decks, Counting Stars – a companionable catamaran with a family of American sailors, and a fair amount of commercial shipping. With his Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge gives us an epic to remember in snatches and piece together in the wee hours. On night watches unfamiliar stars shine, layer upon layer. Is that the Southern Cross? We’re doing Big Bang Theory in Boat School, Stella and Fin soaking up information and drawing colourful timelines to adorn cabin walls. (Turns out to be a very fitting moment, Stephen Hawking passing away as we sail and learn.) In Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust, a nun doesn’t have a problem squaring the 13 billion years since the Big Bang with creation theory; days were longer then. Perhaps he’s…. No, never mind.

Listening to the stars, I strain to hear the chiming music of the spheres, as described so beautifully in Laurens van der Post’s A Story Like the Wind. “A story is like the wind,” he says, “it comes from a far off place and we feel it”. The first book to make me weep at the end as I could not read it again for the first time, though I’ve read it many times since. This is a book to teach us to live in tune with nature, if ever there was one. We plan to put our sweat where our sanctimoniocity (did I make that up?) is and join a couple of Galapagos projects that are supported by the Galapagos Conservation Trust to educate about the evils of single-use plastic. If we use it, we eat it, eventually – reduce, reuse, recycle. We forget to examine the stomach contents of the rainbow-clad bonito tuna we catch and eat, trusting that although we caught it and it’s fellow between Panama and the Las Perlas islands, both of which are strewn with non-biodegradable trash, that it is as unspoiled as the Galápagos Islands 800 miles ahead of us.

After a while a red full moon rises and banishes all but the nearest million or billion (mas o menos) stars.

A ditty by T.E.Hulme, whose imagery springs to mind on these occasions:

Above the quiet dock in midnight,

Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,

Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away

Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play.

A following wind heaps Prussian blue water in flopping, sighing crests; shadows mistaken for dolphins. Definitely not for sea monsters, no. Brian the wind vane keeps us on track. (Good Vibrations, Beach Boys, Brian Williams, geddit?). I check and recheck the AIS, relieved that we can track the distant lights as they materialise into enormous vessels. We can see what they are, their course and speed, and together with the hand-bearing compass lit by a head torch set to red, ensure we can safely slip between them as they round the small Pacific island of Malpelo.

Pre-passage showers and clean hair wear off by day two, hair twisting into spaghetti in the salty wind. Wash on day three. Noodles and doodles – draw a small squiggle (two lines and a dot) and your playmate squiggles more to make a picture. Hours of fun! I later discovered it works in Spanish too.

Night again with glittering sparkles of phosphorescence and bright trenches ploughed into the sea under us.

Horizon light of Flying Fish, an American father and daughter team, seen eight miles behind us as the shrinking moon struggles up through a wedge of grey cloud.

Francis Thompson’s Arab Love Song:

The hunched camels of the night trouble the bright and silver waters of the moon.

The maiden of the morn will soon through heaven stray and sing, star-gathering.

Now while the dark about our loves is strewn,

Light of my dark, blood of my heart, O come!

And night will catch her breath up and be dumb.

…The rest of the familiar poem flows easily.

Feet get harder, fingertips softer. The continuous glucose monitoring device comes into its own on night watches, when disrupted sleep patterns can cause havoc. Kind skipper gives me the first watch to minimise disruption. After a bit of nimble tweaking, the sensor is secured into place on my arm with a wound dressing to protect it from bashes. The previous one, tried out at home, lasted only three days before an unnoticed bash broke it. This one does as it should, lasting a full fortnight, in and out of salt water. It is brilliant – saves the fingers too.

Food is cooked in order of shelf life and signs of rot. We shall end up with squash, water melon and pineapple surprise. The carrots last an unexpectedly long time, individually wrapped in foil with the ends free. The cruising boat network is alive with such handy tips.

William Beebe’s enthusiasm for this journey in his Galapagos: World’s End, is a refreshing bucketful. He set off from New York in 1923 with a shipful of scientist, lawyer, artist and several other bods of specific skill, for a rollicking adventure, enticingly described, bringing in philosophy and literary quotes as well as beautiful and precise illustrations and sharply observed science. My kinda guy.

A school of a dozen pilot whales investigate us, approaching, falling back to discuss their findings, bounding forwards again, until, satisfied, they head off.

A brown common booby from the mainland sails around and around the boat, head tipped to one side in curiosity. A handful of lone and pairs of masked boobies sit on the sea and watch us go by. Could these be Galapaguenos already? Anna and Fin meet a pair of red-footed boobies, stopping at dawn for a brief visit. Definitely a vanguard.

Follow the moon on the water. So the fortune teller told the carousel pony as he left the circus. Anyone else read that book? Possibly written around the 1930s, read with Oldgran, but I can’t remember who it was by or what called.

Waking up with full sympathy for Kafka’s Gregor, incapable of bending in the middle, flailing beetle limbs, after a few hours wedged in my bunk trying not to roll to the ocean’s breath.

Crossing the equator is a serious business. A feat I achieved aboard the sailing tour ship Cachalote four years ago, along with tots of rum and a group photo shoot with dreadful yellow T-shirts. This means I am a shellback and the rest of the crew, being new to it, are polywogs, and I get to be Neptune/Poseidon this time, wearing a foil crown and brandishing a trident. According to U.S. naval tradition, there’s a way to do these things, involving Neptune accusing, humiliating and initiating newbies. We concoct a family-friendly version, suitable for after dark.

“I am Neptune, I am Poseidon, smelling of seaweed by any name!”

“How should we address you?”

“Darling!”

Punishment – sea water over head, spaghetti over head (raw egg for the worst crime)

“Safely sail!

Love the whale!

Tell your tale!”

Welcome to the order of Neptune – adorn with wire sea-animal and cowrie medal.

Libation – give him a tot of rum, and (oh yes!) rum and juice for us too.

Offering – pineapple surprise upside down cake (with six spoons – definitely too much for Neptune to manage on his own), mermaid drawing, precious shells, poem and medal.

My watch after all that is a long one. I stand on the deck, clipped to a shroud and balancing to stay alert, or at least, awake. I think of core strength and imagine my nasty midriff getting the message. I stay there for an extra hour, watching the sea and sky and taking the chance to give the skipper an extra hour’s sleep, and myself extra Pilates.

After five and a half days of spinnaker run (goose-winged at night) we snuggle into Baquerizo Moreno harbour, San Cristobal, the first Galapagos Island visited by Charles Darwin that September in 1835 on his momentous journey. Had The Beagle left the island to starboard they would have found plentiful fresh water falling over a cliff, flowing down from El Junco crater, 700m above. However, he left it to port, landing at Cerro Brujo. No fresh water to be had. Back to now and, anchored and still salty, we drink another libation to ourselves and a kind Neptune, and sleep a long sleep and a sweet dream, the long trick over.

Too few hours later we awake to underwater sealion barking (“Urfbubble, urfbubble, urfbubble!), soon followed by the first of a long procession of officials to inspect our fitness to be here. A big ketch with a weedy bottom is turfed out early – our chances of approval improve. Maybe Ronald the plastic duck swings it, together with many weeks of preparation by Patrick and Anna, a spotless boat and our crew uniform of booby-blue toenails.

Our landings and swimmings are another tale. The next night passage – to the largest Galapagos island of Isabela – is eighty miles and a single night, motoring over a silky glassy sea in a pool of phosphorescence. Glistening shapes streak towards the boat, criss-cross and speed away, unidentified. The skipper sees a dolphin leap right out of the water in a midnight firework display. Big white handkerchiefs, or maybe the nocturnal swallow-tailed gulls flap around the forestay. Espanola island, invisible to our south, is still empty of the albatross at this time of year, but this gull nests there too. Tour boats pass, lights blazing, shipping enthusiastic passengers to the next site. Rising to a grey dawn on the sea’s face, geometric shaped grey islands on either side draw in colours. Santa Cruz fading into purple. Tortuga, a barren crescent of warm ochre. Isabela, by far the biggest island in the archipelago, shades of green and black. A new island ready to receive us with new adventures, new landscapes, different beasts, new waves to surf.

It’s Not You, It’s Me (or: Put Your Whole Self In, Your Whole Self Out!)

While I may not think I subscribe to Selfie World, I do post the odd snap of self (and dog), features distorted by the lens, most often to say, “Hi, it’s a real person in here, and I laugh at my own jokes!”.

Some of us get a fright when we identify the hobbit in a group photo, the ceiling in a mirror at face height for your host.  And trip over the disparity between the self that is us, and what we imagine we are less than.  Self-acceptance is a thing best learnt early, and can be a struggle, but at any age we can learn something new about the cut of our kaleidoscope, and treasure it.

Acceptance of difference (and allowing ourself to be different) was a recent theme at a Salisbury Cathedral School assembly.  Aimed to promote the “Don’t bully others who are different to your gang” approach.  And to arm us against random unkind comments from the insecure that are part of life.

wire selfie plus skeleton

The wire selfie can be enlightening, empowering, and is a fun one to do with kids.  Or with Salisbury District Hospital’s after work art club, and many others besides.

As Artist in Residence at Salisbury Cathedral School these last few weeks, that’s exactly what Years 7 and 8 were grappling with.  By the cunning device of measuring the self in inches and creating the sculpture in centimetres, thus creating a, er, (insert fraction) scale model without doing any sums.  I’m quite proud of that idea, and frequently use it with sculpture classes and in my own animal sculpture.  Using both sides of the brain at once can be rather taxing.  Best to use both sides of the tape measure.

We start with looking at some interesting sculptures by The Greats.  Sculptors I particularly admire for their capture of vitality include my hero Rodin, of course, Frink (who did what she did because Rodin had done what he did), Marini (funny, moving, mostly the man-horse combo) and Giacometti who’s main interest was the space around a person; so much so that the person themselves became compressed to a minimum by their own outline.  There are lots more, but these are a good place to start.

We are looking at the individual, not the average or perfect, as often depicted in ancient Greek sculptures of athletic perfection, and again in Victorian art.  Why is this person the only person who can hold this exact pose in this way?  What is it that makes us say, “Wow!”?  How can we make something that conveys that Wow?

la vie est belle

Rodin was the master at showing us this.  After his “too accurate, you must have cheated” Age of Bronze, his work became freer; more expressive. He slightly exaggerated, and altered scales.  He often chose poses that, tried by the ordinary mortal, are extremely difficult to achieve, let alone hold for any length of time.  Some poses require a body of particular proportions, such as Crouching Woman, above, and The Thinker, below.  Have you tried holding that pose?  Holding it and breathing at the same time?  Go on, try it!

thinker

Some Rodin poses actually can’t be held, but are mid way between the two poses his model must have moved between.  The Burghers of Calais were understandably a bit stressed as they were bundled off to be executed, but Jean d’Aire’s clenched opposing muscle groups aren’t technically possible.  All-consuming cramp?  However, this hugely add to the tension expressed.  (These images are borrowed from a Bing search – mine are pre-digital, but I’ll scan them if I discover this isn’t the thing to do)

Jean d'aire

The Wire Selfie sessions can be a bit on the riotous side – people are moving around, measuring themselves and each other, sketching, wearing safety glasses and grappling with lengths of wire.  I liken it to trying to train a room full of retriever puppies.  A hoot!

“Can it have wings?”  (Yes – great idea!)

Skinny slight lad in a group of multiply expelled kids (not SCS!): “Does it have to be life like?”.  (Keep the skeleton lifelike, then build up how you like).  Huge muscles ensued.

“Why’s yours bigger than mine?”  Petite girl to strapping lad in another excluded group.

How best to understand our place in the ecology of world – our negative shape?  Learning from Rob MacFarlane’s fabulous “The Lost Words”, the shape that isn’t there can be just as powerful as the shapes that are.  Notable by their absence, their silhouette, their habitat changing without their influence.  He refers to words of the natural world that are falling out of our children’s dictionaries, being replaced by digital age words.  Those of us who had a gloriously muddy, creative childhood have a huge resource to draw on.  We are shocked at this news, and fight to keep children’s delight in nature alive.  And ours.

I had a conversation with a fellow sculptor recently, about the joy of seeing patterns in the bubbles in the bath.  I saw some Galapagos islands in mine, and the profile of a friend.  He saw something equally relevant in his.  “What joy!”, we agreed.  How lucky we are to see a world in our bath!  Sometimes this shape recognition is overwhelming, and on a countryside walk I see umbrella handles and huge grey spiders disappearing over a river bank (swan necks and cygnets), or bright flat geometric shapes (a reflected bridge with sunlit bracken, jagged trees and another swan).  Here lies Alice in Wonderland.  And we see people everywhere.  Animals do it too, shying at shadows and snowmen.

Yew Dance

Mary Oliver puts it beautifully, in her poem, Wild Geese:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In portrait sculpture, the sculptor must have a good understanding of their own appearance so that doesn’t overwhelm their portrait of the model.  You will sneak in, try as you might, but the end piece should aim to have only a pinch of its maker.  Frink portraits are easily identifiable, possessing a recognisable element of her strong handsome features and bearing.  Left to our own devices, we are battling an instinct to create a balloon-shaped head with our own features, and maybe hair similar to the model’s.  Its easier if you don’t assume you know what you’re looking at.

80% look; 20% do, is a useful maxim of Rodin’s.  Measure at the beginning, but looking is your most powerful weapon.  Looking and seeing *.  Understand the bones and muscles. Get your model to move and tell them jokes.  Put your tools down and look at the model and your work from a distance.  “Simplify!”, my tutor, Harry Everington, at the Frink School of Figurative Sculpture used to say.  Again and again.  Look for the strongest geometric shapes, and the patterns between them.

Reme

As a tutor myself, I tend to make a piece alongside my students.  Going through the layers of looking and sharing discoveries is more inspiring than pure criticism.  This one of Reme, a friend’s niece, is nearly there.  Chin needs reducing (mine is rather huge), and eyebrows need to come down a bit (perhaps I was peering, specless).  Why does this person look like that?  How can you tell what they are like as a person by looking at them? Book? Cover?  It’s a mystery, and that is what keeps me enthralled by the process.

Now, who’ld like to sit for my next portrait class at Salisbury Arts Centre?

*Another Mary Oliver poem from her book, Why I Wake Early:  Look and See

This morning, at waterside, a sparrow flew
to a water rock and landed, by error, on the back
of an eider duck; lightly it fluttered off, amused.
The duck, too, was not provoked, but, you might say, was
laughing.
 
This afternoon a gull sailing over
our house was casually scratching
its stomach of white feathers with one
pink foot as it flew.
 
Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we
only look, and see.
 

The Reset Button

A few months after The Big Birthday and still slightly reeling from the shock, finally the winter pea-souper of gloom is dispersing, the Reset button is loosening up, and the boulders are more disposed to be rolled a little closer to the top of the hill.  Vamos!

Thankyou for joining me in this, my first foray into Blogdom, and seeing what the turning patterns of the world, especially the joys of nature and creativity, look like through my own idiosyncratic kaleidoscope.

The world-as-a-cushion is showing where my next mini-adventure lies.  Its twin is aboard the good ship Blue Zulu, a 51′ ketch captained by my Salty Moreton brother and crewed by his family.  At this moment, like tomorrow, they make their way up the huge locks of the Panama Canal from the Caribbean, along with gargantuan ocean liners, before dropping down into the Pacific Ocean a long day later.  You can follow their enviable maxi-adventure on their lively Salty Moretons  blog.  Shortly I’ll be joining them for an exciting sail from Panama to Galapagos, like Darwin did in 1835, only from a slightly different angle.  After a few midnight circular arguments with myself I have booked flights, and now have a short time in which to relearn any little Spanish I once knew, become (a waffeur-thin mint of a fraction) thin(-ner) and (a smidge of sweat) fit(-ter) and tackle the huge pile of overdue paperwork and exhibition preparations, all in an unrealistic sliver of time.  Almost enough to make me retire to bed with the latest unmemorable whodunit, but no; not this time!  Avaast ye life-gobbling pirates!

So what’s it all about?  Why step away from beloved dog and a fridge full of cool insulin, miss a half-term of teaching an after school art club and the first block of a printmaking course that’s taken a couple of years to set up?  They are in good hands, and will come back to me next term.  I have clever cool bags for the insulin.  So why the worry?  John Masefield needed only “a tall ship and a star to steer her by”.  He revelled in “the vagrant gypsy life, the gull’s way and the whale’s way and, where the wind’s like a whetted knife”.  Brrr!  But he wanted punctuation, too – to return home, or at least to a cosy hostelry to swap stories and to sleep.

W.H. Auden suggests that “To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star.”  I believe his star is Christmassy, but the three wise men may have a thing there.  We all need a personal star to follow – a mission to lead us onwards.  How can we be better at living this life, big or small?  We might take up Sir David Attenborough’s challenge of picking up the plastic litter we see, so it doesn’t make its way into the rivers, the oceans, and eventually into our own food chain, wreaking havoc on its way.  Perhaps we can try to be more mindful and appreciative along our current path.  It’s easy to catch the Eeyore-like cynicism that abounds, but that’s life-shrinking, not life-expanding.  Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner can tell us all about that (and boy, did he – he stoppeth one in three of the unsuspecting wedding guests, and shook them with his tale.  Note to self: is your audience only listening out of terror?).  It was as he spotted that the “slimy things [that] crawl with legs upon the slimy sea” were actually “O happy living things!  No tongue their beauty might declare!”  What happened next was the game changer:  “A spring of love gushed from my heart and I blessed them unaware”.  Only now could the unfortunate albatross fall from his neck, could he sleep, could his ship move towards shore, and the Rime end slightly less awfully than otherwise.

Albatross etching

I hugely hope the Galapagos Waved Albatross will be following us untroubled by crossbows, and we can learn from the angst of the fabled mariner rather than reinventing that ships wheel for ourselves.  It is after the March (we are talking right on the equator, so Summer, not Spring) equinox that these critically endangered birds regroup on their breeding colony on Espanola.  Probably closer to May, truth be known, but I live in hope.  I met some of their number four years ago – I wonder if I’ll meet the same individuals again.  That was bit later: in June when they guarded their egg, keeping it from frying by sitting down with feet stuck straight out in front, breast feathers teased down as a cooling cosy.  The birds are as unafraid as most Galapagos wildlife, not having had a need to flee from land-based predators for the aeons of their occupation.  They look you in the eye, as the Earth might, or perhaps David Attenborough (this is true – I once met him at a book signing for Life on Earth, and he seemed genuinely interested in every life form, including one shy and adoring teenager).  I found myself replying (to the albatross, not to Our Dave), “Sure, I’m not busy.  I’ll do my best to help you survive.” *adds to mission*.

 

However it takes shape, the adventure will be an immersion in family life, and in an astonishing part of the world.  I’ll revel in it all and return with full sketchbooks, ready to share the treasure, refreshed and thoroughly reset!

Bronze Waved Albatrosses