An animation of this work, including audio, can be viewed on Twitter
Laine Thompson’s daily walks are a ritual that have become a way of caring for soul in the ever decreasing circles of present life. She does not set out with a fixed purpose, following instead time and tide and seasons: photographing anything that captures her attention, and using it as a springboard for imagination. You can see her responses to the natural world @marlinhoister
On a frozen day in February walking high on the Sussex Downs at Firle Beacon, I turn northwards. In front of me is a stark, bold shape several miles away. A pair of white fields. The chalk bright, the fields folded outwards with a central dark ridge. A sculptural form. An ‘open book’. Illuminated by sun in the sharp air, it became a crisp pair of pages with a vertical spine.
I need to get closer.
I realise that the fields must be very close to my home-ground. The height of the Beacon giving me a new view of their form.
I walk daily. Part of a ritual of clearing my mind before entering my studio.
I carve limestone but have grown up walking over fields of flint and chalk.
I walk with my two whippets as companions. I find both words and images come to mind in this space. The clear rhythm of walking, breathing and looking removing anxiety and bringing clarity.
The ‘Book-Field’ and its changing pages teach me a still more intent attendance to place.
As I walked it in early February, the field was a donkey-grey tilth interspersed with large flints and furrows following the curving uplift of the field. Wing-like. The drills describing sketched lines or a crosshatched page. The low light raking its top surface, leaving the deeper cuts in shadow.
This land has been my own ground and I have never left it. For twenty-five years this large island has been my bedrock. I walk it and I carve it, with my feet and by hand.
Early grief has limited my travels. Although I often refer to myself as ‘three-mile radius girl’, this is not something that brings me limitation. Instead it has always had me pay full attention to the specifics of the place where I dwell.
I celebrate the tiny changes I notice, in my work and in the rituals by which I live my life. By the end of February each day reveals new colour and the early growth of plants in the meadow at the base of the book-field.
And its pages begin to turn.
By late February, the blank pages are ploughed with a dark line left rhythmically at each tractor width. An underlining. Awaiting seed. Asking for word.
On the field are large split pieces of flint. Chalky grey crusts often revealing sky blue or storm grey cores. As much sky as ground. Held in the hand, they become tiny monuments to the wider landscape. They mirror the sky and ground they fall between.
These field lines are tattooed in my mind as I return to carve in the studio.
I walk the field’s spine every day and meet head on the drizzle and dreich. High wind, far more welcome in the open than listening to its heavy presence around the house’s edge and glimpsing rain through windows. I walk through the grief I sometimes feel. Grief is acutely sensed, and we feel it alone. Often unaltered by discussion or time. But when I walk there is the quiet company of birds.
Good days are a three buzzard day, or a charm of twelve goldfinch, or a tilting, wing-waltzing flock of gulls. I am mostly attended by larks. A bird in decline, but not here it seems. Rising from the gratten and dropping into grass.
March comes and so the gold-lichen on the hawthorns and the oak moss become luminous. Rain-washed soil and flints from the chalk path down the field’s spine are stranded as marginalia. Broken, scattered clods of soil are grammar. Above the notational sound of lark song there is little noise from the road: we are now in isolation. A sense of muted sadness and fear felt heavily in heart and somehow transmitted to pace. A darkening of the light in the fields. The birds somehow louder – or are we stilled and less vocal? On the ground I find a flint, rather bovine in nature, that becomes a touchstone for my journey. I tap it each time I pass and await its presence.
Early April and the field has become so well-walked that – as in meditation, I find my mind has emptied itself to anything but the act of walking. Larks rise and fall, drop to earth.
I find a feather on the path today: 16th April 2020.
It is broken and torn. A thing more of ground than air now. None the less, it is a buzzard’s flight feather, and held in the hand it weighs more than expected.
A gift to be offered to Birds of Firle and one which I have echoed in the chalk which was found beside it. A carved memorial to the buzzard-bright days that will be returned to us.
“A single shoe pulled from the darkness of a drawer where it has spent many years. In my hand it is no longer than my index finger and only twice as wide. It is bird-like in weight but has an undertow of force for me…”
“This found erratic boulder on a high point of the Sussex Downs becomes a touchstone for we three women. Chance and skill and intent triangulate to form art. We will make something of this, we decide. Choose words for place from the Sussex dialect and return here to carve them.”
JO SWEETING is a sculptor and lettercarver, whose work is informed by the concept of ‘shul’, a marking which remains after the thing that has made it has passed. She works chiefly in British Limestone. She designed the frontispiece for Hetty Saunders’ biography of J. A. Baker, My House of Sky, published by Little Toller in 2017. Jo is at present carving a large erratic boulder called Foundle (see project’s Instagram here). She is also working towards a large project in Devon in collaboration with Common Ground and the National Trust, supported by Robert Macfarlane, Chalk Cliff Trust and The Burton Art Gallery, beginning in late March 2021 . This project will work on an even larger boulder, taking on themes of language, time and place. Find out more about Jo’s work on Instagram.
Birds of Firle – a small, single edition book of bird images inviting thoughts on grief and hope as the things with feathers – was sent to Alberthe Papmus in the Netherlands just before the Coronavirus pandemic changed our world. As the weeks passed after she placed it in the post back to me, we both believed it lost as postal and delivery services tried to cope with emergency deliveries of food and medical equipment. But it did return, and contained this moving response: a poem whose lines – including ‘once upon a time there would be singing for souls passing’ – feel increasingly poignant as more and more people pass now without their loved ones near them.
by Alberthe Papmus
once upon a time we were sung into this world
welcomed – celebrated – named
voices cradling – enfolding – with love and encouragement and hope
once upon a time birds taught us to sing life and loss – and how –
sing meaning to the world – and our place in it
taught us to sing sense
once upon a time there would be singing for souls passing
voices cradling – enfolding – with love and encouragement and hope
songs of grief and gratitude – for lives lived – for love received and given
when loss would hit us – grip us – rip us – throats choked – songs caged – voices broken
birds would be with us singing – taking our beloved on soft wings whispering
this world to another
a soul carried in murmuration – swirling – twirling – swooping – free
others softly gliding into the night on the wings of owls
a lark rising to the skies – an eagle soaring
when grief hits me – grips me – rips me – chokes me
birds gently – patiently – persistently – teach me to remember – and how –
gratitude for lives lived – for love received and given
today – on the cusp of morning a blackbird sings dawn into being
tender tunes of hope – guiding my lost soul home
“As I wandered, I thought of Felix. He is rarely out of my thoughts, my 20-year-old son who died in 2017…Maybe the Victorians were onto something with their elaborate mourning rituals. Today I felt I was performing one, doing something with my grief. A quiet focus on small, natural things.”
I set off for Cornwall on a most inhospitable day, the latest in an endless stream of them. I could barely see as I drove down the dual carriageway to Plymouth, sheets of rain lashing the windscreen. Birds of Firle was in the inner pocket of my rucksack, placed in a plastic sleeve as I was worried it might get ruined in the rain. I’d taken a quick look at it before I left, flicking through the black images of the birds which appeared to me like Victorian silhouettes. They gave me echoes of mourning, something which the Victorians did in an elaborate fashion.
Down in Portwrinkle, the rain eased but the wind was still very strong, making my eyes water. I walked down into the harbour, which was dry as the tide was going out, and full of sand. I stood inside it, looking at the walls around me. The harbour was full of great lumpen piles of seaweed and other debris dumped there by the sea. Bedraggled seagull feathers stuck out of the piles. There were old pieces of rope, mermaids’ purses large and small, driftwood and small bits of plastic.
I walked out of the harbour mouth and onto the long curve of grey beach. I was on the hunt for treasure, a feather perhaps, or something else. But it wasn’t about the finding, or even the seeking, it was the about the act of looking, of observing. Instead of briskly walking as I usually do, I slowed down and started to examine the small things around me. There were ribbons of bright pink seaweed and tiny cowrie shells resting on top of the shingle. In the rockpools, crimson anemones flowered underwater with very slight movement. A patch of snakelocks anemones glowed green, giving me a thrill of excitement.
As I wandered, I thought of Felix. He is rarely out of my thoughts, my 20-year-old son who died in 2017. I thought back to Birds of Firle. A book born out of grief. A small focus on the birds as a way of putting the grief somewhere. I sat down on a rock and looked at the book, slowly this time. The birds seemed so fleeting, so slight, and yet somehow they symbolised something, or maybe nothing at all? Maybe they are the embodiment of a feeling, any feeling you want, whether it be grief, joy or hope.
I picked up a small, smooth mermaid’s purse. It was an odd, pale brown colour, ridged like my fingernails, with tiny curling tentacles off each of its four corners, like the tendrils on a sweet pea. A place where new life started. I kept it in my hand and walked further along the shore, and then up to the tide line. I found an unusual piece of bright, coral pink seaweed, its firm branches dotted with tiny pink buds. New life forming.
There was a big rectangular flat rock sticking up from the middle of the reef at the front of the beach. It looked like a large grave stone, tilting at a dangerous angle. I went up to it and leaned into it and closed my eyes, thinking of Felix. I rested against its cold, barnacled hardness and listened as the oyster catchers trilled in the wind and the waves pounded the rocks. My memorial stone.
Maybe the Victorians were onto something with their elaborate mourning rituals. Today I felt I was performing one, doing something with my grief. A quiet focus on small, natural things.
Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.
Her son Felix died at the age of 20, suddenly and unexpectedly. His death was recorded as SUDEP – Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. SUDEP claims 21 lives a week, mostly in young adults and it is not known why it happens. You can learn more about SUDEP and raise funds by going to SUDEP Action – a small charity that does vital work in campaigning and funding research.