Here’s how Blackbird and I developed our relationship and how she passed on that knowledge to her fledglings. I can only imagine, through human eyes, how the conversations went. I sometimes listen to the chattering of birds, the clicking, the tweeting and whistling noises they make, and I mimic them.
Unlike starlings, blackbirds are very tuneful. They have an elegant presence in the garden, and even in open spaces they don’t seem to be too nervous around humans. They are similar to robins in this respect. Both birds soon learn that gardeners digging the earth means worms for tea.
Things to ponder, thoughts to incubate and consider, while I tell the story of getting to know Blackbird.
This summer I believe the birds and I have learned from each other. How rude we humans are about our feathered friends sometimes, in our flippant use of language. We use the term ‘bird brain’ as a derogatory remark, yet on observation they are hugely intelligent and learn very quickly. To have ‘gone cuckoo’ refers to someone who has lost their mind, a cuckoo human is a drug dealer nesting in other people’s homes. Someone who is ‘flighty’ is inconsistent and unreliable. Yet the owl is imbued with being ‘wise.’
Blackbird built her nest in a large, deep bush safely hidden from cats, in a huge garden, at the top of a hill that leads down to a big river. No dogs or cats spend time in the garden and in all the time she has been nesting, there she will rarely have seen a human. Neither in the garden nor the house. The house is up for sale.
Very occasionally, she will have seen humans wander around inside and step into the garden. Then they go and all is quiet again. It provides a very safe space for her, but there has been very little gardening done, so not a lot of grubs or worms to feed on. Last year the owner used to put out bird food, but she is rarely there these days.
On her search for nourishment for her brood in the spring, she began to visit the gardens of the houses across the road where I live. The long Victorian terrace of tiny houses was constructed tightly in a line, swooping down to the Severn. Newnham was once a bustling port.
She flew up from her garden, over the high wall and perched on rooftops, watching what was happening below. She rarely saw anyone in the garden of no.1, though she knew people live there as she occasionally heard a young woman singing. The people in No.2 very rarely go into their garden. But the woman in no.3 (me) has been busy outside this year. For a while, there was someone here removing the wooden floor and gravelly surface, then turning the soil. Blackbird kept her eye on that and popped in for the odd worm when he had gone.
Eventually the work was finished and I started to plant things in the ground. Blackbird learned the sound of the back door opening and quickly flew down and crept up behind me, close to my feet. She tried to keep out of sight, hopping about like a shadow, because she needed to take every opportunity to grab worms for her fast growing fledglings in her nest. Sometimes I alarmed her.
“Ooo! You made me jump, hello little bird!”
She has never been scared by me, maybe because I sometimes passed a worm her way. I learned to recognise her as she has a thin line of white feathers around her neck. I’ve seen other birds bully her for this difference, so she is cautious about keeping a low profile. But she’s definitely not hiding from me.
Blackbird visited regularly as I replanted the garden. I brought in some well rotted horse manure, a perfect worm factory as all birds know. She enjoyed digging them out, alongside small plants, scratching out the soil with her feet, and kicking it, and the seedlings, out onto the slabs.
Her sleuthing skills developed well too. Every morning she listened at my window, and when she heard me visit the bathroom she dropped down onto the wall outside the window and called – ‘tut tut tut’. I replied from the window, looking down at her, “tut tut tut, good morning little bird, I won’t be long”.
Then one day I went into the shed near her back door, to fetch something. She hopped across the corrugated roof, making a loud pitter patter sound, and peered down at the entrance, waiting for me to emerge. I looked up at her and said ‘tut tut tut’. She cocked her head in wonder and responded ‘tut tut tut’. After we had repeated this exchange several times I scattered a handful of mealworms on the ground and went back into the house, closing the door behind me.
My first job of the day was always to go down and throw some mealworms out for her. She crunched and munched making a loud tip-tap noise with her beak on the concrete ground. She could hear my routine too – the loud clicking noise of the kettle, the clank of me washing up, water running, music and singing.
Once Blackbird was full herself, she gathered rows of mealworms, holding them across her beak and clamping them firmly in place. She then hopped up the twelve concrete steps one by one until she got to the top, where there was a clear flight path to her nest.
Up into the air, over the other gardens, high over a rooftop, then back down into the garden across the road. She did this round trip about four or five times a day, until either the mealworms ran out, or she was too exhausted to return. Her well fed fledglings got bigger and bigger until one day, the strongest was ready to learn to fly. After a few trips in the nest garden, she brought them to the feeding ground on a hunting trip. It’s easy pickings and the young need to learn not to depend on humans, but it is a safe place to start. They also need to navigate the predators and bullies.
Blackbird knows she is safe here, because I have been a reliable source of food for weeks. There have been a few days without, when I have been away, but rarely long until they are delivered again. She trusts me.
We have worked together to develop a safe space for her to eat. Throughout the summer the backdoor is left open. If there is no food outside, Blackbird hops into the house to remind me. I sense her arrival. When I look up from my book or computer I smile and talk to her in a sing-song way. She pauses and listens, then I stand up and go to fetch the mealworms. I usually feed her immediately, but sometimes if I was busy on a phone call I chased her out. Once she began to go upstairs, felt nervous when I caught her, pooed on the carpet, and nonchalantly went down again and casually hopped outside.
Things were going along fine, apart from Blackbird being occasionally attacked by other female blackbirds trying to get a look in, or males playing power games with her. I came up with a plan to help. When I put the food out we chatted a while before she ate. I leant against the doorway and watched her eating and occasionally the predators would hop into the area. I would call ’tut tut tut’ and talk to Blackbird in a reassuring way. The other birds were terrified by me and flew off rapidly. I watched over me until she had finished.
We must retain some boundaries.
The starling family presented more of a problem to her mealworm munching routine. They are raucous annoying birds that are pretty neurotic too. They act as one, a cloud of noise and aggression flying in all at once, scattering the mealworms with their crazy flapping wings. The wind they produce sends the food to the edges of the feeding area, underneath plant pots, trays and buckets. Stupid birds. They land and look baffled by the disappearance of the food. And the noise! Clicking, screeching and scrapping!
They are scared of me, I just have to clap my hands, or look out of the window and whoosh, off they go, bumping into each other, panicking. Blackbird stays put and eats calmly, knowing that I will keep the starlings at bay.
This sounds like a one-way deal, but it isn’t. She makes me happy. She chatters to me and tut tut tut’s. I always respond. Sometimes I sit down on the ground close to the mealworms and take photos, make films. Occasionally, when she enters the feeding area there is what must look like a one-eyed thing in the middle of the feed. It is my 360 camera. It makes no noise, doesn’t move at all, just sits there. There is a tiny light on its side that flashes, but it doesn’t worry her. Because I am nearby. And it is never there for long. Blackbird does look a bit baffled when she hears the videos on playback, relistening to our conversation.
It’s been a long summer and Blackbird successfully produced several fledglings. I didn’t see her for sometime, but the youngsters carried on visiting. From plump fluffballs to almost adult blackbirds, their feathers changed colour and became more glossy. Some have fine patterns in pale gold, others more orangey and bold. They all have just a few white feathers, some on their neck, like their mother, others just under one wing. One black male who has gained his deep black sheen quite early, has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing – very distinguished!
I wrote this in September, today is 24th December 2021. There has been a male blackbird visiting this week. I have restarted the mealworm ritual.
He isn’t scared of me and comes closer when I tut-tut-tut.
He has a spit of white on his back, on the edge of one wing.
Lights on lights off.
Credit to Martin Creed – his work made an empty room into a place to inhabit and be aware of one’s own presence in the world.
My thinking around lights on and lights off has not come from an indoor lightbulb moment, but rather a streetlight one. And its relationship with sunrise and sunset.
My short film Pecking Order is a sunrise moment, when the birds announce their arrival and territorial scraps breakout as they shout and posture. Their concerns with presence are not about individuals, they are tribal, about occupation and dominance. And the volume of voices.
The only singular presence is me, with my iphone in hand.
A few days ago I went out to stalk the birds at dusk. As I filmed a street light came on behind me, making me very aware that I was present in a liminal moment of time. Significant for human safety on the street and an indicator of nest-time for the birds.
For 15 winters I have delighted in the jackdaw gatherings. I don’t use an alarm clock, I just leave the window open a little. This year there are more than ever before and I am leaving this house soon. So I relish every early morning call. I even get out of my cosy bed to see them now.
Today I went out at 7am today into a lowlight and mist, I could feel it gently landing on my face as I went quietly down the street to the riverside. I stood watching huge rafts of branches and twigs being carried upriver, appearing from nowhere to my right and very slowly passing by and disappearing again into the fog. Mesmerising.
As I walked towards home my heart lifted as a cloud of jackdaws flew above me. I stood still to watch them and they began to gather in the tall trees next to the river. Behind me, a street light switched off.
I filmed the bird’s arrival, clusters settled onto branches, silhouetted against the sunrise, which wasn’t quite making it through the low fog. They chattered away happily, the noise like children at a busy school assembly. Then a loud “caw! caw!” penetrated the air. The jackdaws noise stopped immediately. The birds took off as one, the sound of their wings deafening as the trees emptied rapidly. Only seconds later, as I resumed my walk home, did the crows begin to come down and meet in the trees. Louder and bigger they reminded me of the importance of pecking orders. And how they so often seem unfair.
I read recently that jackdaws mate for life, and like most birds who follow this custom become engaged early in life, long before sexual maturity.
“First the young males of a new brood struggle among themselves to decide their individual status, and then pairing with females begins. The jackdaw female promptly upon pairing assumes the same social position of her male. His rights and restraints become her rights and restraints.
Should a female not secure a mate, then she remains the lowest ranked member of the flock in all social things. She is last to the food and last to the shelter. She is pecked by the lowliest, and snubbed by the least. Nor are there any lesser jackdaws on whom she can vent her frustration. As Lorenz related, it was one of these lowliest females that gave him much insight into jackdaw social behaviour. When a strong male returned to the flock, absent during the time of dominance struggles and male-female pairings, he quickly became the number one dominant male. He was forced to choose one of two unmated females for his mate. Instantly his new mate rocketed up the jackdaw social ladder and was able to peck others as much as she wanted, and she did. It took her a year to settle down. According to Lorenz the most significant factor of social behaviour was the immediate and intuitive grasp of the new hierarchy by each and every jackdaw. From the hour of her ascendancy, every jackdaw by oldest instinct knew his new place, and hers. She was “number one”.
In spring 2020 Carolyn tracked Eva down in Sweden and asked permission to use her kulning song on her film “When You Call I Shall Come“. Eva said yes, and their friendship grew from there.
They have continued to work together remotely. One way that has happened is by Eva joining the Stroud based Walking the Land Group. Meeting online, the group expanded from local to international quite quickly.
We agreed that for the December 2021 walk we would both walk up hills near our homes. We exchanged ideas and content and found we have both been reflecting on a game ‘scissors, paper, stone’ or, as it is in Sweden, ‘scissors, stone, bag’ ( paper bag). Eva adapted a traditional children’s song for the sound track, mixing her voice in layers. Whilst Carolyn created layers of footage.
Working together has becoming increasingly interesting over time. We would both like to work in each others countries, develop films and songs and projects in the real world, physically. There have been many synchronicities in our lives since Covid began. It is as if our paths have crossed in films, not in fields. Online not in cafes. Through messages, emails and collaboration where conversations are open and honest.
We hope one day we will secure funding to visit each other, until we do, together apart is a good term to use.
Thanks go to Kel and Richard of Walking The Land for creating these monthly opportunities for us to gather, talk and grow.
We will submit this film for exhibitions and screenings so it may not be online for very long. If you are interested in including it in an event you are running do get in touch.
The title will resonate with more mature audiences – a song title by Manfred Mann in 1976.
the film is new
the thinking is old
the visuals are old
because they are informed
by old work
made twenty years after
the words flashed into my mind today
as the sun slashed my face
of snakeskin projections
on my body
on my face
made during my masters
I have just uploaded my offering for the watermarks project to be shown as part of the showreel at the Highlands and Islands Edge Conference coming up in December on the 15th & 16th.
This film has been made for a project called Watermarks – organised by Walking The Land Group. It will be screened as part of a showreel at the Highlands & Islands Conference in December 2021.
The film shows a video rendering of a birds eye view of the Arlingham peninsula, which is on the other bank of the Severn River to where I live. The Google logo is compulsory – and it also makes a comment on how we relate to landscape – we view it virtually, quite often via satellites, before we experience it. It keeps us at a distance from the reality of the lived experience of place.
By 2041, if predictions are correct, most of the Peninsula will be under water. Hills will be islands. I want to engage in conversations about the future, if we can imagine it we can maybe work together to prevent it, or reduce impact. I am writing and making work about this, prospecting for a future landscape, visualising what the view might look like then.
This is a sensitive issue to discuss and many feel it is scaremongering and unlikely. It is not possible to provide scientifically accurate facts, but there are many projections available online that have been programmed from statistics of rising sea levels, increased rainfall, raised temperatures that dry the land, followed by flash flooding that the can cannot absorb. We don’t need to be convinced about those things – we are seeing it regularly on the world news – huge fires devastating forests; floods bringing countries to a halt due to strain on the infrastructure of road and rail; temperatures rising steadily causing droughts and effecting food production. I could go on but surely I don’t need to, it is obvious.
I have just read an article by Ben Okri in the Guardian. He speaks eloquently of what is needed from creatives: “The ability to imagine what we dread most is an evolutionary tool that nature has given us to transcend what we fear. I do not believe that imagining the worst makes it happen. Imagining the worst might be one of the factors that makes us prevent it from happening. “
Today is the anniversary of my brother’s death, 5 years ago.
Two things he said to me the last time I visited him were:
- You need to get a bungalow, that house has too many stairs for you as you get old
- Why aren’t you making art any more? It is fucking ridiculous
The year he died was the year of Brexit; his imminent death; me being scared I had cancer and turning 60. I had been planning to go to Australia for a month at Christmas, but cancelled it, leaving January 2017 a blank space in my calendar. I was deeply depressed during December. In the gap between Christmas and New Year I went on a 3 day meditation retreat. I came back from that ready to draw again.
I made up for the years of not making art by working madly on a series of drawings of both sides of the Severn. I began to write a book too. Gradually I felt grounded again. The Severn held me here. I tried to sell in 2019 because I felt I could no longer live in a house not suitable for an ageing woman. I was getting a bit of arthritis, it was time to go, just as Steve had told me. I tried to imagine living outside Newnham, my only criteria being either a view of the Severn or of the sunset. I took it off the market in Winter 2019 with a view to put it back on in Spring 2020.
Spring brought a pandemic to the world.
It also freed me up to spend all my time on my artwork. It was a good year for me. Money was certainly tight, but creativity was off the scale. I haven’t looked back. Until today.
I woke, as I so often do in the autumn months, to the jackdaws gathering and swarming from tree to sky to roof. I pulled up the blind, opened the window, and checked on the river. Still there.
Today’s sky is a pale pink. There is a chill in the air.
From my studio window upstairs the sun rose above the Cotswolds and below me in my tiny garden young starlings scrabbled over fat balls. Spring 2020 I took on an allotment, which eased my discontent of only having a small space at home. I grew vegetables and enjoyed the sunsets there most days. My home garden became less of a jungle, with most food plants banished I could enjoy the flowers more.
Back to today. The view from the studio window. I opened the big window wide and breathed in the cool air. In the sky four parallel lines of white clouds announced the arrival of transatlantic planes bringing commuters to work. The river sparkled in the early light and there was a sense of quiet imminence. Behind me, the computer chimed and began to gather its data for another day.
I stared at the view and thought about today. Is this day one of countdown to moving from this beautiful place? It has always felt like a holiday home, so special, how could I be living here and enjoying the views every day? So lucky!
Will there be birds where I move to? There won’t be views like this. I have had fifteen years of them. I shall miss them terribly. (View the sale details here.)
As I write this, I realise that I didn’t take a photo of today’s views, though I often do. This home has inspired a huge body of work and given me strength over the years. If it sells it will be another goodbye. Acceptance.
A friend said the other day that one day we will die, the others we live. I add to that ‘and have lived’. Loss and farewells are part of living too. Things change, it’s fine. Life would be so boring if they didn’t. And if I can live somewhere with space for a studio AND space for visitors and friends, as well as birds, all will be well.
Thanks Steve, you kicked off this phase of life. It looks like I am still vying for approval from my big brother, which was never easy to achieve.
This drawing was made in response to the structure of tors in the Dartmoor landscape. Worked on acid-free, handmade white deckle edge Indian paper, using graphite powder. It is no.1 of a series of 3.
The rorschach technique was used as a starting point, using just one fold in this work. It echoes the similarity between the tors, the stacks, the granite. But once mirrored, the rocks were expanded into a landscape, captured by drawing the wider vista.
Size: 21.5 cm x 28 cm 200gsm paper (hand made so variable)
Signed by artist in pencil
IM me on Instagram @Severnsideartist to buy £120 + PP (£5 in UK, £15 International). Supplied unframed, mailed out in a card envelope. Or complete contact form here.
PLEASE VISIT MY PROFILE ON INSTAGRAM FOR FURTHER WORKS @SEVERNSIDEARTIST
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#floodsnearhome call to action – prospecting future flooding
Disclaimer: I’m an artist, not a scientist or activist. I rely on readily available online data and do my best to ensure the maps and information I share are from reliable sources. But no-one knows the facts because it is impossible to have them. Everything is in turmoil. People used to prospect for gold, now we prospect for facts.
I’ve just made a page about this, because it is important I contextualise the call to action. You may have come here because you saw my Instagram posts on @Severnsideartist.
I shared two photos today on Instagram – one of the flooding forecast for my local area near the Severn:
And a video showing how beautiful it is now:
Find out more detail and how to get involved by visiting the dedicated page #floodsnearhome