Monday, September 10, 2012

The Vaux Swift

Darkness is all they've known. Imagine the moment: leaving the black depths of a hollow tree or chimney to emerge into the brightness of an open sky, flying into the light.

The flight paths of Vaux's swifts. Two families, recorded between 6.35pm -6.45pm, above a tiny clearing in the forest.  The palest lines indicate the first minutes, gradually moving to darker for the later ones. Drawn while laid on my back...

Migration path along the West Coast into South America

A detail from the picture, showing the wide mouth and large eyes. Their closest relative is not the swallow - but the humming-bird.


Perhaps their nest fell away from the vertical wall of the chimney, but these five nestlings landed in the hearth, and I was able to sketch them before we placed them in a shallow basket on a low ledge in the chimney. The parents continued to feed them, and they all flew successfully. 

We kept the flue closed after that, knowing the parents would feed any that fell. A relative of these swifts creates the nests used to make the famous "bird's nest soup". The twigs were those from the damaged nest that had been glued together with saliva - the famous ingredient of bird's nest soup. So, how do those nesting twigs taste?...Salty.

What do you feed a fallen nestling? It was so tiny when we found it in the ashes of the fireplace, still with eyes tight shut and no feathers. Thankful for the help and advice of our expert friend Julie Stonefelt, we began intensive care - feeding it every hour. 

As we warmed each feed, I would mimic the sweet swift's call, which communicates that the parents are coming with food - and always got an answer.  In the last few days, he began to make short flights; landing on the stone of the chimney, the sleeve of my cardigan, or in my hair, hanging vertical.

During August, his chimney siblings were the last family to fledge, and we went outside to watch their flight. On the next day, as their flight was reflected in his large dark eyes, he spread his wings and lifted into the air, circling the house to gain height, then flying up and out of sight to join them. 

Throughout the day I watched for him. The young family flew in unison, their flight was less confident with more wing flaps than older birds. Then I saw him - his body smaller, his feathers a little ragged. He was flying lower than the rest, but an adult flew beside him like a guide or companion, leading and following every curve and turn in his flight.

That night, I waited until long after dark, not knowing if he  could or would follow the fast descent of the others into the tiny chimney. When I came indoors I called up into the sooty darkness above the hearth...and he answered. He answered every night until the whole family left together, about a week later.

 Favorite place, clinging to my hair

Every spring when the swifts return, their flights seem joyous. Calling loudly, they circle low around the house, the only time they ever do that. I always go out and answer, wondering if he's there among them...

Monday, March 12, 2012

On the way to the Goblin Hall

  Wizardry and Hobgoblins, Robert the Bruce, composer Carlo Menotti and Lady Gaga all have links to a mysterious 13th century ruin hidden deep in a Scottish wood, known as the Goblin Ha' - an underground chamber built by Hugh de Gifford, the famous Wizard of Yester, where he reputedly practised his art with the help of an army of goblins. This painting contains impressions from our first journey to the Goblin's hall.

On the way to the Goblin Ha'

  The wilder grounds of Yester House where the ruin sits became one of our favourite places when we lived in Scotland; a tangled wood of beech, oak, rowan, and birch. In early spring we would follow the Yester stream, gathering baskets of wild garlic leaves growing in the damp shaded soil, one of the earliest edible green plants of the year. No matter how much we gathered, it was never enough, with two hungry children eating handfuls of raw leaves on each visit; by the time we returned there was barely enough left for soup.

  Walks to the ruins took a longer trail. Rather than crossing the mown lawns of Yester House, we circled around the grounds, following deer trails through the woods.

  With the vaguest of directions, we crossed the stream on the remnants of an overgrown 13th Century footbridge. The lower stones still arched around the stream, a halo of lichen and moss, but many of the upper stones lay half submerged in the bog. We rambled along steeply wooded banks towards the higher ground until suddenly, between the trees, we were confronted by this mysterious anachronism. 

  Completely obscured until you are almost upon it, there stands a ruined tower hidden between leafed trees. There is no path, just the fungal fragrance of sweet beech mulch beneath your feet. 

  The tower has arched windows. Some say the upper one was a door. The lower is almost sunk into the earth. It dates to a time before 1267, when Hugh de Gifford, the renowned magician, first built it. 

  You have to search for the way in. Around the side we found it, hidden on a steep bank high above the stream- a goblin-sized arched door and passageway. Every stone is beautifully cut and tooled, shaped and fitted precisely around the curve. 

  Stepping from the green, song-filled wood, we crouched our way along a dark passage until it opened into a hall, lit by shafts of light from the upper "window". The height, age and beauty of the vaulted ceiling took us by suprise. It is one of the oldest examples of its kind, and is still perfect and completely unexpected after tunneling under tree roots.

  It is said that the wizard worked his magic in this chamber, summoning the help of faeries or goblins. Some suggest he was an educated mage, a man of science, returned from his travels with small dark skinned 'helpers' that appeared like goblins to local villagers. 

  Across the hall an even darker passageway of descending stone steps goes deeper into the earth. An ancient wall now seals off whatever lies beyond, a dungeon, a well?

The owl feather that began the painting

  On the way back from our first visit, at the ruined stone footbridge, a barn owl's pale breast feather fluttered in the breeze, resting on damp liverworts. Inspired, I carried it back with some gathered liverwort, birch bark and leaves. They were the starting point for this painting. The owl feather is on the right, and around it other things from that first walk. I planned a silhouette of the ruined tower - but what emerged was an underground chamber filled with light and ethereal figures. The trees also suggest the shape of the arched structure. The owl sits between the two realities. Above the ground another figure, half seen, dances in moonlight. 

  And what of the famous necromancer, the Wizard of Yester, Hugh de Gifford? He was a well-known local character, both in magic and politics. This one tower and underground chamber are all that has survived of the magnificent castle he built. 
  One other thing did, a wedding present he gave his daughter Margaret a pear, kept in a silver box. He told her as long as the pear was cared for, her family would suffer no misfortune. For 400 hundred years, generations of her family prospered, until 1692, when the bride of the family's head, Sir George Braun, was tempted. 
  She removed the pear from its silver casing. It looked unnaturally fresh, and she tried a bite. It was rock hard - and the spell was broken. 
  Within a short time, Sir George lost the whole estate to gambling. His brother Robert bought it, but soon after Robert and his two sons were drowned on their way to Edinburgh, when an unusual flash flood caused the River Tyne to overflow its banks, washing them off the road. 
  Since that time, the pear has been kept safe in its silver box, and today remains in Colstoun House near Haddington.

Map of Yester estate (outlined in red), Gifford, East Lothian.

  The wizard of Yester's reputation was earned in his own lifetime. Less than a hundred years after his death, the chronicles of John of Fordun mention the underground chamber where he worked his magic. 

  In 1308 the castle was illegally occupied by the English. In later years it was one of many destroyed by Robert the Bruce trying to prevent an English occupation. 

  By 1557 a later castle was abandoned, and the owners built a more comfortable tower-house where Yester House sits today. 

  The last mention of the Goblin Ha' in use was in 1737, by the Marquess' falconer.

  Yester House has always been a house of music. Harp tunes survive which were written in years past in honour of generous patrons. The current Yester house with its Adams interior was sold in 1972 to the composer Gian-Carlo Menotti, who was impressed by the fine acoustics. A few years ago his son put the property on the market, and it became Scotland's most expensive piece of real estate.

  Last year world headlines announced that final papers were signed, and Lady Gaga would be the new owner of Yester House and the famous Goblin Ha'. It was easy to imagine one of her videos being shot in this location, but the rumours were untrue, and it remains unsold.

  This link has photos of the beautifully cut stonework surviving at the Goblin Ha' chamber and passageway. It also gives an indication of the surrounding woodland. If you want to see pictures of the house, or surviving harp tunes just google 'Yester House' and scan the hundreds of pictures. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Singing Stone

A map of the land, with the streams, ponds and house marked. The dotted lines are favourite deer trails I follow. Red dots are recent cougar kills. The position of Songstone is high-lit where the trail past the house meets the stream. 

THERE IS NO HUMAN SOUND HERE. No voices, no machinery, It’s not silence, because the woods are alive with nature.  Even the stones sing…

Music originally heard from nature is a part of every culture in the world. The music might be within a hill or a rock. A fiddler might play a tune his grandfather heard on the hill, a tune the fairies gave him - or the seals sang.  There is a nettle song in the Himalayas, one of plant songs, almost forgotten. When you hear one for yourself, then you believe. A Snoqualmie elder recently shared his river song with us, a song he keeps hearing on one particular stretch of the river.

There is an unusual art form among the native people here, which uses bold painted shapes, and groups of dots. The dots are songs; I was told they represent the number of songs the person had “heard” in nature.

Walking in the un-tamed wood is an aerobic exercise. You have to scramble over high windfalls and tumble into ancient holes where root boles have been pulled from the land by wind or water. A  bear may have her den there. You might disturb ground-nesting wasps, and be chased for hundreds of yards over rough terrain by armed guards flying with the speed of fighter jets. Balancing on a log to cross a waterfall, in a mindless moment you might grasp a devil’s club stem for balance; their 10ft tall, upright staffs follow the water course.  A large cougar might watch you pass, invisible behind a veil of leaves, or laid in wait on the branch above your head. It’s an unnerving experience to find a cougar kill on a trail you use regularly.

Tip of a tall 'devil's club" staff  growing along the stream. The painting is mounted on paper made using Devil's Club fibre, on top of cedar fibre paper.
Awareness is different here.

You pay more attention when there are serial killers loose in the forest. Your senses are sharply-honed, listening to every wild conversation - listening at the edge of sound for a change in the pattern.

It’s nothing like a walk in the park.

I love this place because of all these things.

Songstone: The Songstone stream  flows beside it, a remnant of the glacial flow that once deposited this huge boulder. The stone is granite, with sparkling crystalline structures.
Nothing can prepare you for the day when, standing alone in a familiar place, miles from other people, you hear harp-like music, echoing from a stone as if coming from a great hall or metal room. Others hear it too, in this same place, from this mammoth glacial rock.

There is no human sound here. But the stones sing…

Friday, February 3, 2012

Meeting Treebeard

Golden-Crowned Kinglet - Male (NW Journal)

The snow has almost melted. White water flows from the springs, and night-rains have left fallen branches, sparkling on a carpet of brown leaves.

These revelations from the upper canopy are like hidden gardens; the realm of tiny birds, whose calls, muffled by thick cedar fronds, remind me of tinkling silver bells…

On a low branch, there is a moment’s eye contact before one continues foraging; like a downy seed puff with wings and a tail. If you ever wondered what these birds eat in winter, bring a windfall inside and see how many species of insects and spiders hop, crawl, or fly out. Speckled beetles a sixteenth of an inch long and smaller; long antennae, short antennae, looping caterpillars, or flies with rainbow wings, like specks in the air. It’s another world. A spider an eighth of an inch wide dangles from my lamp, asking to go back outside. I carry it on a silk thread.

Body feather and primary 
flight feather of a Kinglet
These lichens are like a highly-populated shrubbery for all to share, from tiny kinglets to giant ravens. The animals will come too. For the deer and the elk, lichens are a regular part of their seasonal diet, helping them absorb nutrients from other foods. The flying squirrel needs them, in turn the main prey for the spotted owl.

Lichens are the lungs of the trees, cleaning the air - a tangled, inter-dependent mass of growth, several feet thick. There can be dozens of species on the thinnest branch.  They grow so thickly here in the North-West that trees send aerial roots into their mats, drawing nutrients hundreds of feet above the ground.  The lichen is itself a symbiotic plant, (two species - an algae and a fungi - living as one, each unable to survive without the other). Can it then be called a symbiotic relationship with healthy trees? How can we separate one from the other?  There is a web all around us, above and below.

Usnea longisimma, once found worldwide, is now listed as threatened, and classified as one of the most sensitive of all lichens. All lichens absorb pollution, forming a protective skin around the tree, but cannot survive beyond their capacity to deal with the toxins. As I hold them in my hand this year, I think of reindeer on a frozen continent in Europe, their breath misty in cold, un-polluted air – but their bodies  poisoned with caesium from Fukushima, traced to the lichens in their diet. In Malaysia they have a name for lichens, –tahi angin which means ‘excrement of air’.
 Native Americans believe they maintain the lungs of the planet, in a sacred relationship with trees - and the North wind.

All over the world these beings were named variations of  “Tree- moss” or ‘Tree-beard’.
If undisturbed, Usnea longisimma just keeps growing and growing, the wind garlanding it over generations of branches the ‘longest lichen in the world’ with strands measuring  up to 10 feet. The English name “Methuselah’s beard” can be traced back in writing to 1390  a Christianized form of ‘Old- man’s- beard’. Methuselah was said to have lived nearly 1,000 years…. the god, or priests of a god, who prophesized the last great flood if men did not change their ways.

I gathered some fallen bunches today. Usnea is one of the strongest anti-bacterial medicines in the forest able to overcome strep and staph infections, but I was gathering it for help with a respiratory problem – just like the trees.

Kinglet pair foraging lichens by the river,
with scouring rushes (NW Journal)
Detail from larger painting

note:- Usnic acid was named for an active ingredient in Usnea. It was noticed that the same function the lichen uses to destroy bacteria could be used to increase human metabolism. Taken out of context, the knowledge was used to put usnic acid together with other chemicals into pill form, and sold as a diet pill. It caused liver damage. In traditional medicine, usnea was and is used externally on wounds, and occasionally internally for short periods - often in combination with other plants.

Lichens have been used worldwide by hunter-gatherers for weaving, and beautiful colors can be obtained using traditional dye techniques. Gather it after a storm - never from the trees. Once the branch is shed, it rarely survives for long . Do not gather all you see. Leave plenty for the forest.
Usnea longissima had a name change a few years ago. It is now called Dolichousnea, still an Usnea. This is just a case of biologists fine-tuning its heredity by examining DNA  and molecular structure. It’s still the same long, mossy,  “Treebeard”.