Hunting the Hare

Monday, 4th July 2005

hare formJust as Nasa is smashing 'a space probe the size of a washing machine into an object the size of Manhattan' this morning the post arrives including the latest issue of The Beany (see below) and a preview copy of BBC Wildlife Magazine for August which includes some of my sketches illustrating an article by Stephen Harris, professor of biological sciences at Bristol, on animal tracks and lie-ups.

It's an honour to be in the magazine, even if seeing my work in the context of stunning photographs and elegant wildlife art makes me feel as if I've walked into a champagne reception in my old anorak.

'We all loved your work', Simon, the art editor reassures me, 'so don’t throw that anorak away yet!'

This hare, in my preliminary roughs, didn't make it into the magazine because the author wanted me to show just the tracks and lie-ups rather than the animals themselves. Quite a challenge: my job was to draw not the hare, not a botanical study of grasses, but a concept, a pattern: the impression the animal leaves as it rests or moves amongst the grasses.

cranesBirds Britannica

The August issue of BBC Wildlife also includes features on our wild coasts (which makes me want to get out there again soon), some charming photographs of water vole behaviour and a canoe safari along Scottish canals. There's a preview of Mark Cocker's Birds Britannica (shouldn't that be Avifauna Britannica?) while, in his regular column, the book's co-author, Richard Mabey, writes about the place cranes have in our dreams, myths and imagination. He asks:

'What is it about cranes that has elicited this kind of response, across the globe and throughout history?'

The Crane-bag

The White GoddessMabey's question gets me reaching for my battered copy of The White Goddess, 'a historical grammar of poetic myth' by Robert Graves (1895 - 1985), which includes a chapter on Palamedes and the Cranes.

Canada geese

Palamedes, 'the inventive one' in Greek mythology, was credited with inventing writing after watching cranes. The V-shapes of a row of cranes in flight resemble the earliest forms of writing, which consisted of chevron marks impressed on clay tablets (those are Canada geese above, but you get the idea). Another version that I've read somewhere is that the shapes the cranes make in their elegant but awkward courtship dance gave Palamedes his inspiration. In a similar myth, the Egyptians credited Thoth, whose symbol was the white ibis, with the invention of writing.

The Crane-bag - carried by Palamedes, Perseus or Hermes, depending on which version of the myth you're reading - was made from the skin of a crane, and contained . . . well, that's a bit of a mystery; 'the contents of the Crane-bag were a close secret and all reference to it was discouraged,' says Graves, darkly. There's a powerful magic attached to the alphabet.

The White GoddessGraves gives us some clues:

'Imagine the pictures on a vase. First, a naked young man cautiously approaching three shrouded women of whom the central one presents him with an eye and a tooth; the other two point upwards to three cranes flying in a V-formation from right to left. Next, the same young man, wearing winged sandals and holding a sickle, stands pensively under a willow tree. (Willows are sacred to the Goddess, and cranes breed in willow groves.) Next, another group of three beautiful young women sit side by side in a grove with the same young man standing before them. Above them three cranes fly in the reverse direction. One presents him with winged sandals, another with a bag, the third with a winged helmet.'

It's hardly surprising that as a nature writer, Mabey, who also often stands pensively under willow trees, feels a special affinity with cranes, and they make an appearance - a symbol of hope and healing - in his recent Nature Cure (which I read while in Norfolk, see 26th May).

Graves thought that poetry wouldn't return to Britain until the cranes danced again. Perhaps we won't have to wait too long.

The Beany #2

The BeanyI think of Michael Nobbs as the poet amongst drawing journallers, even though his subject matter at first sight seems determinedly prosaic. There's a cadence in his sequence of drawings of teapot, bottle, pen . . . leaf . . . that reminds me of minimalist music. He weaves a wistful skein of from the frayed and tangled threads of our everyday lives.

Nobbs makes a trip to Ikea into a revelation - like a trip to Valhalla.

As so much of his work centres on beautifully designed still lives of sauce-bottles and pickle jars, it's interesting that he reveals that his father once worked as a butler.

'I've never been very good at giving things shape,' he writes, 'It's much easier to drift and let things take a shape of their own'.

He's searches for insight into the deeper mysteries of life in the most commonplace of objects and they do indeed take on a shape of their own; they assume a symbolic, mythic dimension in the gentle intensity of his drawings. For Nobbs, drawing probably is a matter of life and death:

'I think I'm slowly recovering my perspective,' he writes, and you feel that he could mean either in his life or in his drawing. Next Page


BBC Wildlife Magazine

The Beany

Richard Bell,