Sunday Archive: Ordinary Magic

This one is from five years ago. I have edited out some of it that related to that time but the sentiment is present this time of year in those cool grey evenings when the light fades…

Yesterday afternoon, after a tussle with the Harvard Referencing system, I sat down and looked out at the afternoon sky. It was an ordinary day, neither here nor there. But sometimes, often, it is in the ordinary that the magic resides. Such days do not push themselves upon us. They allow us to drift, free us from the demand for enthusiastic action.

‘It’s so sunny!we must go out!’

‘Its snowing!’we must build a snow man!’

On a dull day, an ‘ordinary’ day, we don’t have to do a damn thing.

As I watched, the clouds grew more ragged and dark against the western sky, bright and tinged with gold as the day faded. I could hear the cold wind from the north combing the roof and feel it in the draughts around the windows and doors. Without having to look, I knew the sea to the east would have become a solid block of cobalt in the dusk. On Brownstown Head, the brake lights of some fisherman’s car might glimmer, ruby-like in the patched green folds that are trimmed with rusty rocks and seem, at this time, to be stitched onto the blue-grey stuff of the bay. As the wind died, as it often does around sunset, the light from the Hook lighthouse in Wexford would begin to flash.

I felt the tiredness in my bones and, without thinking, I was right in the moment. And in every moment of every ordinary day ever and nothing mattered that much and without looking I knew the fisherman had gone from the opposite headland, up the muddy, rutted path to home and I felt, without seeing, the light fading and the wind dying and then the rain came.

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Sunday Archive: Sea Potatomania

SEA POTATO SM

I am thinking of my Connemara friend this week as its her birthday so here’s this post from five years back..

For years now I have yearned to find a sea potato, those fragile, heart-shaped, star-marked members of the sea urchin family. Given the amount of time in my life I have spent walking beaches with a bowed head it has quite aggravated me that these delicate sculptures of nature have eluded, an aggravation that is exacerbated by the fact that no-one else seems to have any problem finding them. One friend has them scattered about his car and claims they are ‘everywhere’. Another friend said he would find one for me, walked a few paces and picked one up and presented me with it. I promptly broke it. Nature, it seemed, had deemed me too clumsy and uncouth to be allowed communion with these fey tubers of the sea. I finally gave up. You can imagine my joy when, on a trip this year to Connemara, as I walked on beautiful Glassilaun, I spied on the grainy white sand a single, perfect sea potato framed artfully by thong weed (that stuff with which mermaids make their knickers) as if waiting for me. I had finally been accepted into the Sea Potato Club.

I often claim not to indulge in magical thinking but it is a claim that is false and I immediately saw in the sea potato a change in my fortunes. The clouds had parted, good things would surely come. I had let go and all that I wanted had come to me. I paced the rest of the beach with an outstretched hand that gently cupped my talisman of good fortune like a coronation herald carrying a crown on a cushion. I could rest easy now, content that I had found what I was looking for. My search was over…

Within five minutes I was wondering if I could find more. The thought of more took hold of me. I would find one more and give it to my friend’s little girl, Feile. Bolstered by my altruism I veered back to the magic spot to see what I could find. I found that my sea potato had been the last of of a long scatter of sea potatoes jumbled on the shore line, some in pristine condition, some cracked or broken, in shades of ochre, grey and white. There were even some hairy ones. I had managed to walk past all of them without seeing them and probably even crushed one or two under my clodding, ignorant feet. I did not deserve such beautiful things and I felt momentarily abashed. Then I greedily began to gather as many as I could.

GLASSILAUN SM

One for me, one for Feile, one for my niece Charlie, one in case one got broken…The difficulty of carrying a couple of kilos of fragile objects back to my car soon became obvious and I came to my senses kneeling on the white sand, surrounded by blue and green heaving mountains above the bright shore lapped by azure waters feeling as embarrassed as a Dutch burgher in 1638. I eventually took five sea potatoes. As I walked back up the beach my magical thinking head moved up a gear. Life is like my sea potato search, it thought. You look endlessly for the things you want not realising that they are in front of you all the time, that you are in fact trampling all over them. Try as I might though I couldn’t remember stomping on any nice young men or piles of money. My sour thinking head broke in to suggest that everything is random and the only patterns-besides my flibberty gibbet thinking patterns-are the ones on the tiny, alien skull-like sea potatoes, each evenly, delicately perforated with the outline of an outstretched star, arms open to the heavens. Maybe that’s enough.bMy friend and her daughter did not collapse with joy when I presented them with my treasure. In fact they seemed sort of underwhelmed and though I may have imagined it I thought I heard a mutter…

“Those bloody things. They’re everywhere…”

Sunday Archive: Off the Hook

The whales are back off the Copper Coast for the winter so I thought it a good time to share this from five years ago….

OFF THE HOOK1A few weeks ago, after reporting on the stranded Killer Whale, the IWDG gave me a heads up about a charter boat doing whale-watching trips from Dunmore East. So one chill, sunny, breezy Friday afternoon I hopped onto a boat heading out past the Hook lighthouse.

This area is great for spotting whales and dolphins during January and February. They come inshore during the winter chasing the sprats and the Hook is where they end up before disappearing out to sea again, no-one quite knows where. I often track the fin whales up the coast of Waterford during the cold months but only from the shore. This day, I was hoping to get up close.

There were rumours of a humpback whale in the area and this was the one I wanted to see. Fin whales, though they are twice as big, are more common and they don’t ‘fluke’ or ‘breach’ or do anything exciting. The humpback by contrast, that star of a million motivational posters, can jump around like a frog on a frying pan when the mood takes it.OFF THE HOOK3

With seven or eight others on board we motored out some miles off the Hook and the skipper began to criss-cross the area. It was a beautiful day and I occupied myself watching the birds; gannets – always a good sign of whale activity – razorbills and gulls.OFF THE HOOK2

By the time I heard the shout I had given up on seeing any whales and was just enjoying the trip.  Sure enough there was a blow and a quick flash of a black back and fin. I had hoped it was a humpback but it was a fin whale. Still, it was a blast to see one. Over the next couple of hours we dodged about looking for another sighting and were rewarded a number of times but it seemed the whale (or rather two whales, I am fairly sure) were intent on evading us.OFF THE HOOK4

Having watched groups feeding from land I have noticed they stay in an area and remain visible even when there are boats about so maybe these ones had fed earlier in the day and were just trying to catch an afternoon snoozle (whales sleep by shutting down half their brain).

I felt a bit conflicted that we were in a boat chasing them. As whale-watching becomes more popular in Ireland we may have to evolve some guidelines for charter tours so we don’t chase them away.

I got some nice photos but pictures can’t catch the salty smell, the fresh breeze, the thump and roll of the boat, the jolt of happy surprise at the eruption of a blow, the rainbow of light caught in the spray, the massiveness of the rolling back or the buoyant camaraderie on board as we shared our delight. We searched the seas and pointed when we saw anything, made room for each other so no-one would miss anything. Often space was vacated for me near the cabin as, with my camera, I had little balance on the rolling sea.

The appearance of a fin, a sudden blow, always brings people together. Sometimes the more knowledgeable are questioned and gladly share what they know, but mostly there is delight and wide smiles, free for a time of irony, are exchanged.OFF THE HOOK5

The creatures of the sea seem to evoke this. Maybe it because they live in the mysterious deep and seeing them is like a window into another world. They seem to be freer than we are, us gravity-locked animals of the shore. The birds, like the diving gannets, sew the two worlds together with knotted stitches of spray that tearing delicate silk of the sea.

We put-putted back to Dunmore East past the Hook lighthouse, its white stripes pale ochre now and dwarfed by a container ship gleaming gold in the afternoon.Behind us a ladder of lavender foam dissolved into the fading day. We were cold but happy. For a while.

Brendan Glody’s operation is now called Dunmore east Boat Trips http://dunmoreboatrips.ie/about.html 

 

Sunday Archive: Sea Witches

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The Autumn is beginning to make itself known, the beaches are emptying and water babies everywhere are able to feel a bit special again. Many people think swimming in the sea all year around is nuts but I think not doing it is nuts. You will never feel bad after a swim (unless you drown I suppose but then you won’t be alive to feel bad about it) and it is good for the soul, for the head and the body.

An acquaintance mentioned a group of year round swimmers to me once not realising I was part of the group.

“There are these crazy ladies who got in the sea in all weathers, “ she said, her eyes round with awe. Then she lowered her voice…

“I have heard that even though many of them have been doing it for years they haven’t aged a day since they started! It’s like they are witches.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, ” there are no such thing as witches.”

And I walked away cackling…

Extra Sketcher

For the duration of the lockdown (until December here in Ireland) I am going to post weekly from the archive. However to start this is a post from some years back which I never published…

The sunlight falls through the wicker awnings on the jumble of earthenware jugs that hang there, casting striped shadows on the rough plaster wall, on the platters of cabbage and turnip and beet and the rough yarn, bright against the turquoise lap of my roughly woven gown. The man the next stall over fusses with some logs and then stands and hitches up the leather belt that holds his tunic together, pushing his greasy hair out of his eyes getting  ready to lift the wooden barrel at his side. Somewhere a goat bleats and hens cluck fussily from a wicker cage as people cross the market, chatting and laughing, their faces like small suns with happiness after a long winter.

The air is pungent with the smell of horse manure and thick with smoke from the braziers of the various stalls for it is still early spring and there’s a nip in the air. For all that, the faces of the soldiers above their dully glinting plated jerkins are shiny and streaked with sweat. It runs from under their helmets as they man the walls, gazes directed toward the rutted track curling around the side of the hill and the still skeletal horse chestnut tree on its brow.

Soon the thunder of hooves and the jingling of harness catches my ear and we are all gazing towards the skyline, at the nobles galloping down the track, embroidered banners flapping furiously. As they ride in, everyone rushes out of their path, nodding and curtseying clumsily, turning, robes swirling in the dust. I stand and bow, my wool tumbling to the ground as I catch my foot on my gown and nearly get tangled in my cloak. After the fuss has died down, we return to our places as the horses wheel back up the track while men and women necklaced with headphones and wearing cargo shorts and hoodies re-assemble the scene and rearrange the gear. It was my first day on the set.

I was an extra once before on the movie Circle of Friends and enjoyed it immensely. A chance to sit and do nothing without guilt, to observe, to talk to people one wouldn’t usually meet. Its an interesting way to loosen the bonds of my own self-imposed fetters. As a gloomy, wearer of black I was appalled to find myself on the Circle of Friends set dressed in a yellow blouse, a pink cardigan, a green corduroy jacket and a long brown crimplene skirt with brown tights and flat black shoes. My hair was tied up on my head with a yellow ribbon. I looked dreadful. And hilarious. And it didn’t matter.

When I went for the fitting this time I sincerely hoped I would be a heroic warrior type or soldier. I had tried to make myself look as fierce as possible for the audition photo. As I waited for my costume I looked at the bejewelled and veiled ladies about me and thought it might not be so bad to be a princess. Then the wardrobe girl presented me with a large shapeless brown woolly dress, a brown throw that would have not looked out of place on the sofa of a student bedsit after a three-day drinking marathon and a pair of volumnous leather boots. A princess I was not.

I walked across the car park to the hair and make-up sheds looking probably like a large brown moth with hippy leanings. In the first shed the hair-dresser looked at my long, unkempt locks parted in the middle and asked how I usually wore my hair.

“Like this,” I said.

“Hmm,” she said in a tone laced with well-meant pity. She told me not to do anything with it. Similarly in the make-up shed the girl told me not to put any make up on on the day of the shoot.

“I don’t usually wear any,” I said.

“Hmmm,” she said in a tone not dissimilar to her hairdressing counterpart and patted me sadly on the arm.

It was only as I walked glumly back across the car park that I noticed the oversized luggage tag attached to my costume as it fluttered in the breeze. ‘Lower Class’ it read in large capital letters, in case, I suppose, anyone mistook me for anything else. Still, I couldn’t help but be excited about my first day on set. I was planning on bringing my sketch pad…

Shrew

A tiny brown shrew ambles past the open door. I look out in time to see its furry hindquarters disappear into a hole in the cement where it meets the wall of the house. It’s sunny, the light thick and creamy. A breeze sends little eddies through the dead hawthorn leaves. A great tit chitters in the bare branches and a young swallow wobbles on an air current over head. The turfy air, threaded with the musky scent of weed, begins to tremble with the soft burr of a distant JCB, yellow on blue. Autumn is here.

Break-your-heart-blue: A Virtual Walk on the Copper Coast

I am currently working on a book of illustrated essays from this blog. In the meantime here’s an old post.IMG_0501

It is beautiful today, though there is a cold wind from the west. The light is rich and honeyed, the waters of the bay an intense blue. It is the kind of blue that reminds me of the Firth of Forth at Edinburgh, which is visible from so many parts of that beautiful city. It is the blue of Cezanne’s Mediterranean at L’Estaque on the aptly named Cote d’Azur. So dense a blue, I can feel it resonating in my chest; a break-your-heart blue, vibrant and intense.

L'ESTAQUE WITH RED ROOFS(PAUL CEZANNE)

L’Estaque with red roofs (Paul Cezanne)

Up the dusty road, daffodils nod on the ditch towards the T-Junction watched over by big bellied pine trees. Rockett’s Bar (now closed) is up to the left, while the bright ochre beach and dunes are visible, for a while at least, to the right until the road drops past the big yellow field to bend and turn north towards the town.

DAFFS SMAn Anvil Head cloud has risen to the south. It is a cloud that occurs when cold air rises until it meets warm air and then spreads out to form the shape of an anvil. In the sun on an ivy covered wall, two cats sit facing each other, as if in deep conversation.

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PALS

The road towards the town passes Newtown House where the crows carrying sticks are wheeling through the blue sky crazy-paved with the twisted branches of squiggly trees. Further on the apple blossoms delicately kiss the sky.

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BLOSSOMS

TREE

TREE

Descending Newtown Hill I pass a plump collared dove perched on a wire. At the bottom of the hill I turn left onto the Cliff Road which runs along the west side of the bay to Newtown Cove & the Guillamene, a mecca for swimmers all year around. The rocks on this side of the bay, empty now, are often dotted with people fishing for mackerel in the early autumn.

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Fresh Mackerel

Swerving past the entrance to the cove’s car park, the road curves up into Newtown Woods, a steep sided ravine of decrepit decidusous trees that shelters owls and pigeons. Here the new ferns glow between the shadows that also ladder the footpath which is edged with the mush of last years leaves.

Today, as every day, at every step of the way, something catches the attention, from my own shadow, to a twist of ivy root, to a familiar and much-loved stump (much-loved by me that is. I know it’s weird to love stumps). Everywhere there are possible paintings, photographs, drawings:striped shadows on a barn wall, a road sign, trees that look like a dancing couple, a sunlit path descending into dark undergrowth, an ivy covered fence post.

BARN AND MOON

BARN AND MOON

Emerging from the woods, I turn towards home and the landscape opens out again. The dusty road is lined by fields and an occasional house. The Metal Man and his pillars dominate the landscape here but the rusty cows pay him no heed as they amble in the gorsey, rocky fields. As I pass the familiar bank of rattling reed stems and walk up towards the setting sun, the sea to my left, is still blue but the waxing moon is rising towards the coming night.STUMP

IVY AND THE MOON

IVY AND THE MOON

Nature at Work

This is a post from 2014 but I thought it might be useful now…

I work long shifts in a factory in an industrial estate. During the time I am at work I sometimes think of my real self as being switched off. I knuckle down, my focus narrows, I apply myself to the job at hand. If I didn’t do this I fear I might spend the whole time sobbing.

It’s not that it’s a bad place to work. The conditions are very good and I consider myself lucky but being in a bright indoor place pounding with noise, working hard and staying focussed on a nuanced but repetitive job among metal moving parts can seem like an unending assault on all the fraying senses.

I take my breaks outside in my car and it is this that redeems me. For the most part I bury myself in one of the books I am reading, escaping into another world. At other times I am so drained that I sit and look out the window slack-jawed if not actually dribbling.

The other day in the scrub at the bonnet of my car a flash of red caught my eye. A Bullfinch and his lady were flitting about chirping to each other and disappearing occasionally into the ivy cover of a tree trunk. I don’t think I have ever seen a Bullfinch though they are common and I was captivated by the jet black of the males cap and the striking red of his breast deeper and more crimson than the Robins.BULLFINCH SM

Above them a Blackbird bobbed, tail fanning out for balance while a portly Wood Pigeon bowed on a branch and another Pigeon, his intended victim I suppose, fled the cover of the trees to fly across the tarmac closely followed by the suitor. They passed over one of the local Magpies who often patrol the car park and a Hooded Crow that I could see marching around in my rear view mirror. The starlings criss-crossed the sky. It made me remember all the other welcome intrusions of nature that have captivated me in this unlikely place.

The building where I work is low and slightly sunken below the car park. There are two fish ponds at either of its main entrances which were, until recently at least, stocked with fish:orange and piebald and one which looked like it had its brain on the outside which tickled me. FISH SM

The fish attracted a Heron of course. I saw it on the roof once, its still silhouette tacked to the roof by its needle like legs, head in profile, beady eye pointed down. In recent times the fish seem to have finally disappeared along with the foliage that protected them.HERON SM

There are Cherry Blossom trees, now blooming, and an Apple tree among the trees and shrubs planted on the trim grassy slope beside the steps between the building and the big car park which spreads out from the plant~there are three or four car parks in fact~and is edged with high hedges and saplings. Beyond the farthest kerb a scrub land stretches to the nearest road lined with its car dealerships and hotels.APPLES SM

Big bellied conifers, tall, frowning and dark, shimmy and shake in the wind over the road leading up to the car park. With a moody grey sky behind them they are imposing. If they sang~and I often imagine they are singing~ they would be baritones, those baddies of the operas, their song low and deep rumbling up from their roots as they elbow and jostle each other.TREES SM

At certain times of year the car park is alive with birdsong the whole night through, the birds who nest in the trees and hedges being fooled by the lights into thinking the dawn is arriving. It sounds not unlike what a jungle must sound like. I imagine the birds exhausted and slumped in their nests by afternoon the next day feeling like they have just drunk a slab of Strongbow cider and wondering why the night seems so short.

A Fox roams here at night, trotting from one side of the car park to the other, stopping sometimes when he senses someone is watching, then resuming his unhurried journey past chrome bumpers that reflect the street lights and down concrete paths and trimmed grass and back into the night.

The day after I saw the Bullfinch a Rabbit hopped out of the hedge and began digging around a couple of feet from the car. Occasionally it paused to look about then after five minutes or so it lolloped slowly under the hedge and into the field beyond where cows grazing showed in rusty patches through the branches.

BUNNY SM

My colleagues teased me after my break for being so pleased to see a bunny and I felt a little silly. A Rabbit along with a Bullfinch, a romantic Pigeon, a Heron, a Fox, a Magpie, a Hooded Crow and some singing trees are little enough to be happy about but it reminds me of who I am, reminds me that I am alive and in the world.

Though I like the countryside and the cliffs and the sea I am quite captivated by the urban environment, by concrete and brick, by straight lines and right angles, by the contrast between organic and inorganic, by weed pushing up through the kerb stones, by the wildlife that pops up everywhere.

In the dark of the long night when the exhaustion is upon me, when life feels as if is being suffocated in stainless steel and noise and the smell of nothing at all, when I look out into the night speckled with the jewel-like street lamps reflected in the shivering drops on my windscreen the faint aroma of wet earth in my nostrils and see a silent silhouette pause in a pool of acid orange light nose to the breeze before slipping from the shining path back into the dark I can remember how big the world is and all the mystery that pours unceasingly from its hands and I can breathe again.FOX SM

Image of the Week: Flash Ferns

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I took this on an evening walk by the sea. I rarely use the flash but as it was getting darker I decided to mess around with it. Once before in the full dark I took photos of trees with a flash and they came out really well, very dramatic and scary. But this time I only had the zoom lens on the camera and it wasn’t dark. Still I was pleased with the result. The zoom has flattened the picture plane and the flash combined with the slow shutter speed and me moving a little has created a drop shadow. I really like ochre and blues together too. I am not sure if I will ever use this ‘technique’ for anything but its worth making a note of. Here’s the same ferns minus flash.

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Image of the Week: Soft Looking

DSC06082I really enjoy taking snaps in city as I walk to and from work. The practice originated with my use of a camera as a notebook for references for colour, textures and shapes when I was painting. Sometimes I would even replicate the photos in paint but that started to seem a bit pointless and I began to appreciate the images for themselves. More recently I started sharing them on Instagram in lieu of posting images of my work as the way the image of the artwork is becoming more important than the artwork itself makes me uncomfortable. You can photograph just about anything and make it look good or interesting. It’s common to see a photo of a painting and likeit and then see the real thing and find that it is a disappointment. Or at least different. Think Pollock, whose visceral experiential canvasses are reduced to mere srcibbles on the page or Kahlo’s underwhelming paintings which are often smaller than their striking print reproductions. This is not to say Kahlo’s paintings are rubbish but their photogenic qualities can distract and divert from their real qualities. On a more general level the rise of the image of the artwork might also mean the rise of poor quality, shallow, artwork. After all, all you have to do is make something that looks OK from a certain angle or up close or in a certain light. Even good artists can get seduced by the image of their own work, can get lazy. Perhaps we are seeing not only the outsourcing of our memory to the internet but our culture too.

As I want my work to be experienced I try to avoid posting images of it, though sometimes I cannot resist. I am not free of ego-stuff. I still want the attention social media gives. So I post random snapshots and this posting has caused me to deconstruct my looking and looking is not as easy as it seems. As soon as I begin to walk with the specific intention of taking a photograph of something ‘interesting’ I can’t seem to see anything. If I force it the resulting snaps look engineered or trite. So, there is a way of looking that is not direct. It is an awareness or readiness to receive what the world throws at you. In certain Tibetan meditations one sits with eyes open, not focusing on anything, making the gaze soft.

This soft looking is relevant not only to meditation but provides clues about how we might live – ready to take on what comes without anticipating it or dwelling on what has gone. Not holding onto one thing or the other yet being open to it all.

Like this bollard. Happy and sad at the same time.