Sunny, bright blue sky. Light wind. We walk across the beck and up the steep road, following the Cleveland Way. Fenced-off cliff-tops and a road that disappears into the void beyond the cliff edge. We follow ‘a line made by walking’ through a field of winter wheat, then on up the hill, climbing all the time, past cottages precariously positioned near the cliff edge. Last year’s bracken is bright, singing in the sunshine, contrasting against sparkling blue sea and sky. Up a steep bank with wind-sculpted hawthorn and a robin. Round the back of a dis-used quarry and up to a trig point, then on past noisy, shaggy cows and a communications mast. Turning down a steep lane with a pond to the side, an owl appears silently, flying low over the pond. We stand absolutely still, breath held. It turns and flies towards us, then suddenly off across fields to the right, and it’s gone. A flock of lapwings swirl around then disappear too. On we go, enlivened by our encounter, down the steep lane, past interesting farm houses and out-buildings. Back onto the footpath and we join the muddy line through the field. An owl pellet lies on a rock by the path: A perfect waste disposal package of hair and bones with jaws and pairs of teeth protruding from the tightly packed mass, not unlike the fossils embedded in stone down under the nearby cliffs. The shape and darkness of the pellet is similar to some of the pebbles I collected on the beach earlier in the week. We are almost back at the village and the owl re-appears and I see clearly now that it is a barn owl. A bonus second sight, this time prolonged as it flies low over a patch of rough cliff-top grassland. It cruises up and down, around, back and forth, hunting for quite some time. Suddenly it turns and comes too close, our eyes meeting for a split second, then it thinks better of it and flies off towards the sun setting behind the smoking potash works. Light fading. It occurs to me that the pellet I found was probably from this very same bird and the whole encounter feels very special indeed.
A long time ago I was taught how to dissect pellets and identify all the different small mammals, amphibians etc. that the owl had eaten. I haven’t decided yet whether to do that with this one. It is tempting to investigate all those tiny little jaw bones and skulls but there is something rather wonderful about this tightly bound bundle as it is.
I’ve just posted off my entry to this year’s Sketchbook Project. My book is called Contemplating the Badger and is made up of drawings of a dead badger that I met last September. Encounters with wildlife in this way provide a closeness that we are never afforded when they are alive. It may seem morbid to want to study an animal that has met with an end like this but I see it as an opportunity to understand more about them. It was particularly moving to find this young badger freshly killed (by a car) within days of the badger cull being re-started in the area of the country I was visiting, something I strongly disagree with. Very sad. One of my all time favourite books is a collection of drawings from wildlife by Keith Brockie. Many of his studies are made from dead animals: the model stays still! I have had his books since childhood and I go back to them again and again.
In order to fit my badger into the small format of the standard Sketchbook Project book I took the book apart and laid the pages out together so that I could work on a larger scale. I drew from a series of photos I had taken. The pages were then re-constructed back into their book form. The drawings are therefore broken up and somewhat abstracted. I have also included on my pages words from a poem of the same title as my book by Nigel Morgan:
I stopped the car I was alone,
I snapped it three times
with my phone and now
it lies here on his desk,
three shots of this dead thing,
its dark blue pool of blood
that spills half on the road
half on the grass, from deep
inside its side it’s dead,
and really still,
it has a such beauty,
This weekend there was a magpie dead on the road near my house. My daughter told me it was there so we went to look. It was laid out in the middle of the road. I removed it from its undignified position and spent a couple of hours drawing it.
Contemplating the Badger will eventually be able to view either as part of the Sketchbook Project tour or via the digital library, once it has arrived and been processed. Previous contributions to the project can be seen here and here.
> Yesterday was a day of new acquaintances. Not only did I meet these two lovely ladies but I also met the two week old baby of one of my oldest friends and my four month old first cousin-once-removed!
I’ve been around chickens before and I’ve sketched them before but I’ve never really ‘met’ any before.
What’s more, they were kind enough to provide us with some breakfast (the larger one is a double yolker)!