Every Leaf Tells A Story

Leaves fall in their thousands,
possibly their millions;
a landscape lit from below
like golden snow.

And as I stand and gaze, slowly
breathing golden air,
enter (stage left), a man
with dog.

‘Autumn leaves!’ he says
and ‘wonderful’ I reply,
watching the dog
nose down, pulling at the leash.

‘Ah, wonderful, except’ –
(and here he smiles)
‘he has to sniff
every
single
leaf‘.

It’s been a while since I posted here and it feels good to be back. I’ve been drawing and writing and posting on my other blog but I’ve slipped out of the habit of slowing down and being more reflective, so I hope to put this right.

It’s not that I haven’t been noticing things – but more perhaps that I haven’t been giving them enough space. And having a place to put thoughts like this is like having a quiet garden set aside, to sit in and not to think, and just to let things grow. It’s a good season for change.

I Am That Horse

Watercolour drawing; close-up of a horse's eye

From time to time I think about the title of this blog. Ever wondered why it’s called Invisible Horse? I thought I knew, and I’ve talked about it before, even if sometimes I was explaining it to myself in the way I have to when something does make absolute sense but I’m not quite sure why.

One explanation is that horses have always run deep through my life as a constant thread, as far as I know from the day I was born because I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t so, even though there were no visible horses or ponies in my life until about the age of six when I finally started to ride and spend time with ponies (from which time on I thought of little else until the age of about sixteen). But even then this thread was never broken. They’re always there, the feel and the smell and the sense of them, and I only have to catch sight of a real live horse and I sort of melt and everything else drops away.

Thankfully I know there are other people like me, and this isn’t a kind of madness (although on the other hand perhaps it is). Some of them explain all this much better than I can – like Anna Blake, in her blog Relaxed and Forward – she knows how this feels, and how it always has…. ‘Maybe a better question is what is it about horses that hook us so deeply? I’m not being rhetorical; since the beginning of time, when horses first started trying to domesticate us, we’ve painted them on cave walls, burst into tears watching them run, and for some of us, took the blame when we fell short.’

But not too long ago I stumbled upon Andrea Datz’s blog Integrative Horsemanship,and now I know exactly why this title of mine has always been so right. The Invisible Horse is me.

Watercolour drawing of trotting horse

Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts called Letters To Myself, trying to be more self-sensitive, aware and compassionate, trying to plant signposts that were supposed to say, stop! Look! Here’s the way, and actually you know it……! But I’m not too good at these conversations, or rather I don’t listen or take the advice. I carry on in the wrong direction. When I notice (for the twentieth time in an hour, often) that my jaw is tight, my shoulders are hunched, my stomach’s in a knot, I’m liable to snap irritably and tell myself oh, for goodness sake, get a grip, stop doing this! And it’s not effective. It’s not even polite. It’s certainly not respectful. And the thing is, what I now realise is that although it seems I don’t know how to behave towards myself, I do know a bit about how to behave with a horse.

It’s been a long time since I worked with horses but it’s there, inside, as clearly as if it were yesterday – all the sensations intact – and the feeling is strong. I need to talk with myself as I’d talk to a horse.

Andrea speaks horse. She’s learned to slow down, to pay attention, to wait and to observe. She’s learned to let horses be horses, to speak in their own way through body language and resonance, teaching her to understand what they’re saying. And how she accomplished this is important – because as she describes it was largely by paying close attention to herself – to her own emotions, her nervous system, her reactions and responses – all the things humans ignore and repress.

The language of horse is subtle and easily missed or overlooked. So is the equally expressive body-language of humans (something else we don’t pay enough attention to). The language of my inner horse – my Invisible Horse – is subtle too, but easy enough to understand when I give it the chance and let it speak, and the best thing is that I immediately want to take up the conversation because I recognise it, and I’m happy to listen and respond.

There’s an African greeting, Sawubona, that means ‘I see you’. The response, Ngikhona means ‘I am here’. The sense in this Zulu greeting is that in a way, until you saw me, I didn’t exist. *

Sawubona, Invisible Horse. Ngikhona.

Notes on the sources:

Thanks to Bridget Edwards for the definition of Sawubona and Ngikhona.

I sketched both these watercolours using photos from Andrea Datz’s blog as a source. They were both painted directly in watercolour with no initial drawing in pencil or pen, partly as an exercise in Marc Taro Holmes’ current #30x30DirectWatercolor2018 challenge for the month of June. But there was another reason for me to paint like this, which I only understood while doing it, and that was to work more instinctively and responsively than I would if I’d drawn first and then painted. Another kind of communication, I suppose. I know enough about horses to see all the errors I’ve made in the drawing, but I’ll let that go. The painting was what mattered.

Letters to myself (5)

Attentive

Attentive


When I go for a walk I prefer to go alone, not because I don’t like company but because I can’t concentrate on noticing things. It requires letting go of thought, and it sounds like an odd contradiction that what we call mindfulness needs to be acheived by thoughtlessness – but it requires stepping off the endless loop of jibber-jabber that goes on and on inside my head all the time. Like leaving a room full of manic conversation and closing the door for a while. 

Paying attention means noticing. Animals do it all the time, constantly. But as a species we humans have become monumentally forgetful of the way it feels to just look, and listen, and sniff, and feel – and notice. I can’t believe how often I forget to do this myself, and I need frequent reminders to bring me back to it, again and again and again. 

It’s easier to do it in the presence of animals, or birds, or even insects. Words fall away. What they do, by paying attention, simply can’t be done with words. 

Little unknown insect in the sun

This is the fifth post in a series of letters to myself at the beginning of the year – the first one is here. I’d thought I would post one a day until 12th Night, and I’ve reached that point – but now I find I still have more to say to myself by way of nudges and pointers and so I think there may be more to come – just not quite so frequently. 

Last year I posted here only once in a while (being rather occupied with writing posts on my sketching blog) – but this space is special for me, and I’ve felt the lack of it. Writing and posting here again feels like coming home. It’s good to be back. 

Small Things And Quiet 

The snails in my garden are very, very fond of the white rose that I love. Every morning after I’ve done a bit of tai chi, I examine the damage done during the night and pick off the flowers that are past saving. I do sigh a bit and wish they’d leave the rose alone, but it’s irresistible to them and obviously delicious. So I put the nibbled, mangled petals on the ground, and let them get on with it.

It seems only natural then to stop and watch for a few moments, and watching very small creatures slows everything down. You can stop the whole world for a short time. I watched the snail eat a good portion of petal while its tiny insect companion climbed up the precipitous edge of the rose, waving thin, delicate feelers.

And then…the world started again.

I went indoors and made breakfast.

As Quiet As A Mouse

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A whole day given over to silence! Today in the USA it’s National Day of Silence, a wonderful idea, and I wish I’d been able to do this – to be completely wordless for 24 hours. Drawing is always a good way for me to drop into silence and to stop even thinking in words – which is a difficult thing to do when I try to meditate. Then often as not my mind goes into non-stop random pop-up mode and thoughts just jostle and push to try to get my attention. (The idea is to notice them, acknowledge them, and then quietly let them go and come back to a space of wordlessness, again and again. I do a lot of this.)

But there’s something about drawing that makes this state of silence happen automatically, and depending on what I’m drawing, it can be a lively, awake sort of silence or sometimes a deep and profound sort of wordless attention – which is what happened when I drew this little yellow-necked mouse in the natural history gallery at Cliffe Castle. The Easter holidays are over, children are back at school, and afternoons in the museum are quiet again. All alone in the gallery, I sketch tucked away in a corner amongst the Small Mammals. Not a sound. I’m as quiet as a mouse.

A Bird Out Of Hand

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Today is another one of those National Days in the USA – and one I didn’t want to miss – National Draw a Bird Day. But since I’m having a bad day myself and have had to spend most of it in bed, drawing from life wasn’t an option. Cliffe Castle museum is where I would have headed, as usual. I had it in mind to sketch the Passenger Pigeon which would have been appropriate, being American and being extinct (I thought I’d use the opportunity to celebrate it and mourn it at the same time) but it’s not an easy specimen to draw as it’s kept in an especially gloomy light to conserve it, and it’s such a sad bird anyway because of its sensitive looks and its extinctness that up to now I haven’t been able to being myself to draw it.

I settled for sketching from a photo, something I find extremely difficult (Charlie O’Shields is so good at this!) and since drawing a bird in flight from life is practically impossible I thought I might as well try a full-wing-stretch caught-in-mid-air kind of thing. Sigh! Sadly it looks less lively than the dead stuffed birds I sketch in the museum. Oh well. I’m glad to have been able to join in!

Day Of The Rat

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After having so much fun drawing a ferret for National Ferret Day, I couldn’t pass up the chance to sketch a rat for the US National Day of the Rat on Monday 5th and join the Doodlewash April challenge for a second time. Coincidentally unless I’ve got this wrong, in America today is also National Walk Around It Day – (yes, really) something that could be construed in a number of ways, but I imagine it’s something many people would be inclined to do if they came upon a dead rat, and encountering a live one many people would scream and wave their arms in the air, or throw things, and call the pest control people.

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I don’t feel this way about rats, though I’d be wary as I know they do sometimes live in sewers and can deliver a nasty bite (if provoked) but actually they’re very clean animals, and I’ve even wondered occasionally about the idea of having one as a pet.

The rat I drew today is a Brown Rat, and like the ferret it’s a stuffed specimen in Cliffe Castle museum. (I think it may have faded; it’s honey-coloured and I’ve seen rats outside in the park that are a lot browner than that.) There’s a Black Rat in the same display case for comparison – and I didn’t realise how small these are, and also how much less lovable they look – so much so that I think this would even be a contender for my series on drawing things that are frightening. (Though of course the taxidermist could have deliberately made it look this way; I have to keep reminding myself that taxidermy is an art, open to expression and not always very successful. There’s a duck-billed platypus in the mixed foreign species cabinet that looks sadly like a cow-pat with a beak and flippers.) Black Rats are the ones that were responsible for spreading bubonic plague and came to this country on ships, which must have made an ideal habitat as they’re climbers (easy to scamper up all that rigging and across gang-planks) rather than burrowers, which is what their brown cousins prefer to do. Though apparently Brown Rats are also not native to Britain and first came here in the 18th century.

Sketching this made me wonder if what people mostly dislike is the tail. Hairless and snake-like. If it had a tail like a squirrel, or even like a ferret, might it have greater appeal? Or is it just memories of bubonic plague that makes people shudder? Either way I’m still not worried by any part of the Brown Rat, and I’d still be tempted to have one as a pet. For now I make do with an even softer, more cuddly version, the one that lives on my window sill and which I pick up and stroke from time to time…
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Day Of The Ferret

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The 2nd April is National Day of the Ferret (in America.) Doesn’t have quite the same ring as The Day of the Jackal, but there are no stuffed jackals in Cliffe Castle museum and I knew I’d find a ferret, so I leapt at the chance of joining in Charlie O’Shields’ April Doodlewash challenge of sketching a National Day subject and thought I’d give it a try. What I wasn’t prepared for is the size of this creature – or rather its length. It looks like a stretched limo! I couldn’t get it on one page of my usual sketchbook so I abandoned my first drawing and used my small homemade concertina fold book instead. Then when I got home I found it wouldn’t fit in the scanner, so I had to photograph it instead.

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Drawing in Cliffe Castle’s natural history gallery is delightfully absorbing but it can be a bit of a challenge because of the low level of light, and this animal’s face and paws are half hidden in shadow – but I still find it a lot easier than working from a photo – and sadly I don’t know anyone who has a live ferret – even though this is Yorkshire, where famously men are known to put ferrets down their trousers. Well, the ferret-fanciers, anyway – and this being National Ferret Day who knows whether this kind of thing will be going on all over America?

Thanks for the challenge, Charlie, this has been fun!

Drawing Today, Remembering Tomorrow

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Sometimes drawing the everyday is not at all an every day thing. When you know something is going to happen, when there’s a goodbye to be said.

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Polly was only with us for a little over a year but she was more than 20 years old; she was mostly well, just increasingly stiff, a bit deaf, only able to eat a little at a time. And during that time she was gradually more conversational (she had a range of sounds that steadily expanded as well as a very expressive silent miaow for talking face to face at close quarters) and increasingly more loving. From above she looked like a bundle of autumn leaves. Underneath she was creamy white, silky soft, and she had the smallest little round front paws on any cat I’ve ever seen. She was gentle, polite, determined, and as time wore on a bit absent minded.

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Old age catches up. Eventually there was more pain from arthritis, and then other failings. It’s so hard to know when it’s time to say enough is enough, but when the suffering gets to a certain point you know the time has come to let go.

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Yesterday was that day. The rest of the day was full of sadness and the days to come will still feel empty and strange. I find myself still speaking her name and expecting to see her when I open a door or come into a room. Her chair is empty. Her dishes all put away, the litter tray gone, her basket packed up and hidden in the garage. Tears come suddenly at unexpected moments when I know her to be gone. Once again we are going through the pain of losing a friend, a special companion, a small creature who came to us because she wanted to and decided to stay. We loved her, and we won’t forget.
Love never stops.