Stumps and trees

Yesterday I ventured for a post-lockdown visit to Batsford Arboretum (a wildlife park for trees) in north Gloucestershire. Bowling along in the sunshine, it struck me as odd to drive to a place to see trees, when they were all around me, gloriously bursting into bud. I began to look and enjoy, but then I noticed a troubling and very sad thing. In numerous stretches of hedgerow along the ancient Fosse Way were large gaps where trees should be – and instead: fresh stumps. In one place a whole copse was missing. It didn’t take long for me to ‘twig’ (pun unintended). Ash dieback.

This blight is sweeping through Britain destroying our ash trees, our third most prolific tree species.

When I first heard, a few years ago, that this disease had struck our ash trees through saplings brought in from the Netherlands, my first thought was: why on earth would you be bone-headed enough to import ash saplings? They grow everywhere. Or they did.

Now, on seeing the consequences of this a few years later, my thought was again one of incredulous anger. Why on earth would you cut down all our ash trees just because they have a disease – which only ash trees can catch? Again, here was human folly at its most lamentable. I have not seen an ash tree ailing because of ash die back. I have not seen one at all for a long time. Presumably because local councils, bored during Covid lockdown, decided to send out their staff to cut down all the ash trees before they even caught the damn disease.

I tried to trace the causal train back. Was the person who ordered diseased trees from the Netherlands really an incompetent idiot? Probably not. He worked for the landscaping department of a construction company, and the only ‘supplier’ of ash trees (not including nature of course) was in the Netherlands. The grievous, sorry tale is caused by our society’s general tendency to ignore and exploit the natural environment. Rather than choosing a place to build in between the prolifically growing ash trees, and leaving them where they are, we must rase the whole area, pack roads and buildings into it, and then ‘landscape’ it – with infected trees from our supplier in the Netherlands. Look where this efficiency has got us.

The wrong-headed behaviour at the other end of the story, the tree felling, reveals another morally questionable attitude: the demand for tidiness and perfection. Rather than tolerate some ailing trees in our landscape, still enjoying their colour and shade, and only felling them if they become dangerous, we make it intolerable to have imperfect trees about the place. So they must be destroyed and disposed of – airbrushed out. Why can we not learn to live with imperfection and see the beauty in it? If it is imperfection caused by our own flawed thinking, maybe we OUGHT to see it.

As I was thinking all this, I passed by a recently renamed pub, The Stump. It seemed likely to me that this was not a coincidence.

Arriving at the arboretum, I was able to forget all this for a few hours and indulge my love of trees to the full – the Japanese cherries, in particular, being in full bloom. Then, at last, I came to the Peace Pagoda.

I entered the pagoda, and at its heart, what should I find but – a tree stump. This was all that remained of a huge elm tree that had been growing since 1750 and, we were reminded, had lived through all the wars, and all the monarchs’ reigns since then, until 1975 when ‘it was felled because it had Dutch elm disease’. Note that it was felled not because it was dangerous but because it ‘had’ this disease from – why is it always the Netherlands? Anyway, it had this disease. Maybe it would have recovered, or partially recovered. Maybe it would have pushed out new, more resistant shoots. This policy of chopping down, other than bringing to an end that tree’s grand life, has done what for the the elm tree population exactly? Elms are virtually extinct in the UK. Presumably present policies by councils and landowners will ensure that the same thing happens to the ash.

So if you have an ash tree, shhhh. Don’t tell a soul. Don’t cut it down. It will probably get through this – and, if not, its saplings probably will.

Let’s hope that the time comes when we learn to live with nature and respect it; tolerate messiness (often of our own making), and realise that what takes only minutes to destroy is a piece of natural heritage and history. If we don’t, then maybe one day the dryads will come to destroy us, even though we are only a little bit sick.

Follow this link to support the Woodland Trust in combating ash dieback.

Easter is icumen in

Here we go again! Easter is ‘icumen in’ (to borrow a phrase from a medieval madrigal) – but once again we are not ‘allowed’ to see our families or friends, to gather at church, to have fun together or celebrate. It really does make me aware of the fragility of the liberties that we have so long taken for granted.

The spring flowers are appearing, but we are not permitted to share our enjoyment of them with any loved ones who do not live with us. Even after a year of the craziness I still find this troubling and bizarre. We are all persevering, heading for the light at the end of the tunnel. However, our personal relationships are too precious to be sacrificed long term. The time might have to come when we become determined to strive for their restoration.

In the meantime, deprived of family gatherings, it remains true that we can keep in touch by sending cards. If you want to do that this Easter, you might find that some of my designs appeal to you. Hope you have a lovely spring and Easter despite the restrictions.

http://www.magpieandjay.co.uk/shop/easter-cards.

Time to grow

Woodland Jays clock from Magpie & Jay.

The word ‘growth’ is used so much in business, often to suggest unreasonably accelerated expansion where the buck being made has to be quick, decimating whole environments, exploiting workforces and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

Growth, however, is actually a great metaphor if used while bearing in mind that it is something actually invented by nature, and that only nature knows how to do it sustainably and sensibly.

Natural growth is in complete harmony with the environment upon which it depends. It happens slowly and steadily when the conditions are right; it enables living organisms to reach sizes and quantities that are appropriate for their environment, and it keeps progressing until a plant blossoms with beauty and elegance.

This is the version of the metaphor that I want for my business. Over recent months, through small decisions I’ve made, my design business has just started to grow a little, like cress on a windowsill. I have produced and started to sell my first few sets of greetings cards. I have introduced new designs, intended for a wider range of decorative items. Now, my sister, Joanna Henwood, has introduced me to a company that can help artists place their designs upon products, which are then printed on demand. I like the sustainability of this idea – no waste of energy, space and resources while thousands of items sit in warehouses – and the possibility of slow organic growth. Just starting with a few sales and building.

So there it is: ‘time’ to grow, just a little, to go on doing what I am doing but do more of it and share it with more people. And as I have mentioned ‘time’, what better to illustrate this piece than the new clock, bearing my Woodland Jays pattern, which is now available through my partner supplier Red Bubble. If you would like to look at my products (or Joanna’s motivational range called MotifAtion), please go to their site. See image above and link below.

‘Time’ to stop now. Have a lovely day/evening.

https://www.redbubble.com/i/clock/Woodland-Jays-by-Magpie-and-Jay/72705488.1X49C

The value of melancholy

Rodin’s Thinker does not pretend to be jolly.

It’s true that negative thinkers drag us all down. For this reason it is to be welcomed that social media such as Facebook and Instagram tend to focus on happy ‘stories’ and feel-good pictures. We gain a positive energy from such things. That said, it seems a step too far that the ’emoticons’ provided guide us to express almost entirely upbeat emotions. There are lots of representations of smiles, grins, laughs and giggles, and very few expressions of nuanced and thoughtful emotions, or faces tinged with melancholy.

We have all been through an emotionally draining experience these past twelve months. My main reason for neglecting this blog recently is that, in the intervening time, I have lost my father to covid and have had covid myself. It is perhaps a cliche, but also true, to say that it is okay to be melancholy sometimes – in fact it is essential to feel, accept and express grief in order to process it.

Not only so, but sadness can have huge creative force. The artists Vincent Van Gogh and Francisco de Goya produced extraordinary, emotionally charged works powered by their feelings of sadness, fear or distress. Mozart wrote his Requiem as his own life was ebbing towards its close. To deny sadness, melancholy and the dark things in life is to deny an inalienable aspect of the human condition.

I obviously tend to avoid melancholy sentiments in my greetings card designs, although the symbol of the cross in the Christian designs tells a very sad story indeed (despite the upbeat Christian epilogue of resurrection). The best art is powered by authentic thoughts and feelings, located at various points on the emotional scale, including at the happy end. Yet sadnes and melancholy can be wells from which we draw creativity. The art that we produce in these states may in fact not even be depressing but perhaps something of beauty that assuages our own feelings and is cathartic to others.

Nihil quam optime

‘Nothing but the best.’ I might have been the only person at my comprehensive school (which didn’t teach Latin) to understand the school motto. I believe I always tried to live up to it. I was seen as a ‘high flyer’, and that did prove to be true in my academic achievement.

Permitting myself a moment of immodesty, I must say I have continued to strive for excellence in everything I have committed time to. Nihil quam optime. And yet – here I redress the immodesty with an embarrassing admission – I have been pretty unsuccessful at acquiring either money or status. (That might change now I am pouring my efforts into Magpie & Jay, but who knows.) A simplistic explanation for this could be that I took the motto altruistically, to mean ‘nothing but giving of my best’. It probably did mean that, but what about the other side of the coin – ‘expecting to receive the best’? Forty years later I have only just thought of that. Perhaps one should aim for both? This may be obvious perhaps to someone with strong self-esteem.

Be that as it may, the question presents itself: what actually is meant by ‘the best’? The Latin words optimus and optime are linked in English to the adjective ‘optimal’. Rather than being synonymous with ‘best’, ‘optimal’ is associated with a compromise (in a good sense): a situation that is in balance, where a plethora of matters are well arranged and adjusted in relation to one another and the right conditions have been established. Optimal does not mean ‘biggest’ or ‘richest’ or ‘most famous’. It means ‘most suitable and functional’.

Balance has for a long time been my holy grail, mainly because I cannot be happy without it. To me this means enjoying exercise of both mind and body; working hard but also spending time with friends and family; doing difficult things and having fun; being both analytical and intuitive to create something new. I have wanted my life to be ‘most suitable and functional’. And I suppose it has been. But for what?

Goals were never my strong point. Balance itself seemed an adequate goal until 2020, but with my definition of it severely dented by the Covid pandemic (all cultural embellishments to life being severely curtailed), I need to think what ‘balance’ means to me now. How does it look in a Covid-ravaged world?

Efforts promoting balance, and thus deserving of the epithet optime (best), are surely not big and bullish (and consequently destructive). On the contrary, they are shaped by a less ostentatious but much more efficacious collection of social qualities: perceptiveness, circumspection, forbearance, patience, astuteness, flexibility, cooperation. These are needed to tackle the world’s biggest problems: climate change, Covid, and any new monsters on the horizon.

Delicacy and diplomacy aren’t exciting or newsworthy (and social media algorithms are on a mission to annihilate them), but these attributes characterise the approach needed: a subtle balance between vision and realism; a judicial weighing up of the facts to find optimal solutions to multiple interrelated issues; and the communication skills – ranging from decisiveness and clarity to persuasiveness and sense of humour – to get others on board.

So where does this leave me with my goal of balance? Well I am now part of an unofficial global team. Covid has taken away much, but this makes it mandatory to distil what I can best contribute.

As it happens, the one practice that draws together all my academic and creative impulses, while adhering to social distancing, is visual art and design. This I can pursue through Magpie & Jay. After all, a business first and foremost needs a product. However, my secondary goal should be to graft the products I create into a new, balanced and ‘optimal’ economy that is flexible and visionary: aligning my activities with the pursuit of solutions to global problems in small, but creative and well-honed, ways and habits.

I might do worse than begin by making it socially acceptable to re-use greetings cards and their packaging. When is a better time to start than the 1st January 2021?

Birds in art

Much of my art is inspired by wildlife. Two birds – the magpie and the jay – are the theme for my brand and one of my first sets of designs. Birds are such fascinating creatures. They have been evolving since the time of the dinosaurs and have perfected a way of life from which we can learn much. Through their flight and their virtuosic song, they focus on the moment and infuse sheer joy into it. The poet Shelley was so right to call the skylark a ‘blithe spirit’.

Can there be another class of creatures (Class: Aves) that displays such wonderful colours, such iridescent textures? This is of course why the tribes of Papua New Guinea hunted the birds of paradise almost to extinction.

We have such an odd relationship with nature. Birds inspire our artistic endeavours, yet when we want something we are quick to prey upon them.

A few years ago, there was a fashion for gorgeous textile patterns featuring songbirds. They were achingly lovely, but somehow I did not want to buy these clothes. Behind the prettiness, I suspected,  were industrial processes that probably did grave harm to the environment – and the birds that inhabit it. Surely, if you are going to feature birds in commercial products, there is a moral imperative to protect them; otherwise it’s hypoocrisy.

Yet as an artist I am inspired by birds and want to depict them. When I started Magpie & Jay, and developed my designs of the eponymous birds, I promised myself that this inspiration would be partnered with a commitment to sustainable production. I also decided to make the back of each card work hard: to promote the appreciation and protection of the birds depicted, giving information about charities that also have that aim.

Meanwhile, selling my cards through a local online shop, Stroudco, I found there was a demand for bird seed to put in people’s garden bird feeders. So I began to sell that too. Now I even offer a gift hamper for bird lovers through Stroudco, including treats for both the person and the birds! If our love for birds is serious, then we need to show it with our actions.

A lesson from Martin Schongauer

What could possibly be the connection between a colourful ‘hygge’-style tin of butter biscuits and this fantastically extraordinary 15th-century woodcut by Martin Schongauer?

The obvious link is beauty. I find the one utterly charming, the other horrifying and sublime. The more significant link is temptation. Schongauer’s image shows the Temptation of St Anthony by demons and monsters. Tempters like that don’t exist today, do they?

Well, today’s hideous monsters are more devious. They hide behind cute, charming things. The tin tempted me by its great beauty and cheapness (£1.95 in Aldi) – sheer gorgeousness that I yearned to possess. I knew deep down that the back story might be dark and ugly, not because butter biscuits are bad for me (we all need a little comfort at the moment), but because (1) they are shortlived food items in a tin built to last a century; (2) they contain palm oil not identified as ‘sustainable’; and (3) the price of £1.75 is too good to be true. But – the dinky little deer! I fell in love with it. Under its guise, the demons – vast steelworks pumping out CO2; tyrannosaurus-sized bulldozers razing the rainforests – reeled me in.

Two days later I heard of a pristine rainforest in Papua New Guinea being flogged off by tribal elders and turned into a palm oil plantation. Even simple, tribal people, it seems, are susceptible to temptations. I thought of orang-utans driven from their homes, palm oil exported for biscuits while a blast furnace somewhere in China belched out CO2 for the ‘deer’ little tin: the demons’ plan was complete. Beauty itself has been hijacked to attack our moral sensibilities.

So how does this relate to my business? Well, it demonstrates that prettiness is hypocrisy if something demonic lurks behind it, and it reminds me to always keep sight of my values. Small businesses, by their nature, tend to be less destructive because they do not use resources on an industrial scale and are less process-driven and more intuitive. Rather than pushing costs to rock bottom, you can build a brand around rarity, the personal touch, and a commitment to sound values.

Yet in the current economic model an ugly ‘back story’ can remain completely hidden. This will continue to be the case until we get Food Standards and Trading Standards that make the protection of sensitive environments and vulnerable people mandatory; until we get an International Law of Ecocide; and until companies and countries refuse to trade with monsters.

Pretty tin of biscuits and a woodcut by Martin Schongauer showing St Anthony tormented by demons
Charging down monsters on a white horse.

I am in sincere hope that after Britain ceases to be subject to EU rules, we may in fact surpass them, repudiating an economic model that has been so destructive and leading the vanguard of change (white charger optional); that we may set up the strongest and most ethical trading and food standards in the world, bring beauty home and send the monsters that tormented St Anthony back to hell where they belong.

Penrose kite and dart

My Penrose Mandala greetings cards are designed using tilings discovered by Sir Roger Penrose (recent Nobel prizewinner for physics). The ‘kite’ and ‘dart’ he discovered are based around pentagonal symmetry and the golden rato. All angles are multiples of 36 degrees, and the tiles can be assembled in an infinite number of ways, most of them lacking rotational symmetry (unlike my designs) and none of them periodic (repeating).

Mandala composed of decorative Penrose tiles
Mandala composed of decorative Penrose tiles


I love the underlying mathematics in nature, but I also love the forms, shapes, colours and randomness of nature itself. So my kites and darts (three pairs, each in three colourways) are designed to create lattices of fronds and plant forms strewn across the structure of the tessellation, creating a more complex overlaid network. Within my design you can spot a cabbage-white butterfly, a greenbottle, a star fish, elder leaves, bramble leaves, sea wrack, germander speedwell and scarlet pimpernel.

Circular economics

Many well-intentioned discussions about being ‘green’ are circular – just tail-chasing. What’s needed are a better kind of circles: supply chains that bring waste goods back into use.

For years I neglected my passion for art because I was too busy worrying about the environment. Nothing could be more important than nature – not only because we rely on it totally, but also because of its intrinstic value. For many artists like me it is also our main inspiration. But I concluded that as we need an economy, it is good to participate in it. Furthermore, I, as an individual, need art for my fulfilment, mindfulness and identity. So I went ahead with my range of cards, promising myself to pursue and promote environmental best practice.

I felt that cards illustrating natural plants and animals might be rather meaningless if I did not ‘stand up for’ these creatures in practical ways. Hence I started adding ideas on the backs of the cards about actions to protect nature and charities that are doing so.

I also began to think about sustainability in my supply chain. I asked my printers to use cardboard from well managed forests. (Note to self for phase 2: do due diligence to check how they actually delivered on this requirement.) Finding envelopes known to be sustainable, let alone recyclable, was a bit of a fruitless enterprise. True, many paper mills use pulp from well managed forests as a matter of course, but finding a supplier with the selection I needed who also informs you about sustainability seemed to be a big ask. I believe it may be a case of finding a supplier you like and then asking for the environmental information once you are a customer, persuading them to pursue best practice in future. One big achievement was finding sleeves made of plant-based biodegradable cellophane, which I’ll be introducing for my Christmas card range this year.

The final issue is to reduce waste and close the loop by trying to re-use some of it. I thought my cards could be re-used by writing in them in a certain way – top left; also that I could offer to take back the cards and cellophane and try to reuse them. I have added information on the backs of the cards about how this can be done.

Needless to say, not only are the fronts of my cards working hard to please the recipients, but the backs are now working pretty hard too. I am definitely getting my money’s worth out of every square inch of that sustainable cardboard!