Birds of Firle: Wings of Desire by Neil Gower & Anja Steinig

I often take feathers home. When I feel a deep wish, I entrust it to a feather,
which I hang on the grating of my balcony door. From there it can carry
my wish to heaven. 
Even stronger than a feather for me
is the wooden wing my lover sent me at the beginning of lockdown.
I hold it in my sleep every night.
–– Anja Steinig

A two-handed tale from new lovers
kept apart by Coronavirus

When Goldelse…

…pings into my phone on a Sunday evening I know Anja is nearly home. It is our sign. She sends a photo of the winged figure, snapped through the windscreen while waiting at the lights.

Goldelse by Anja Steinig

In fifteen minutes she will pull up Falckensteinstraße. It will take her five more minutes to carry the bags and the leftover food up to the apartment, then another fifteen to find a parking space this side of the Görlitzer Park and to walk home. After unpacking, she will shower off the weekend’s work and the Witzke earth. This week, a few kilometres into the journey home, she stopped to fill a bag with elderflowers that grow beneath the darkest night sky in Germany. These must be placed in a large bowl of water with sliced lemons, to steep overnight in readiness for making jelly with her daughters tomorrow.

Only when all this is done can we relax and prepare the risotto. We each stand a phone beside the stove and begin as we do each week: with a smile of tender longing, two glasses of robust red raised to screens across a locked down continent, reminding us of January in Palermo. Where we knew.

–– Neil Gower

Neil Gower for Birds of Firle

Here in Kreuzberg…

…the residents put everything on the street that is no longer needed. They know that somebody will take it away. On a warm summer evening, a walk through the neighbourhood can throw up many treasures. One comes with new pots and books or with old registration cards of a Berlin library (what I am writing on now). These cards represent so many stories: Not just those of their books, but also the stories of the people who borrowed them. But that must be at least 30 years ago.

As diverse as the treasures of the streets are the inhabitants of all ages, nationalities and preferences. There are also many strange birds living here, some shimmer like birds of paradise. Some lose feathers, like one I found the other day that does not help with flying, but is more for display. It is good to imagine it when it was speeding with its owner through the nights of Kreuzberg.

I often take feathers home. When I feel a deep wish, I entrust it to a feather, which I hang on the grating of my balcony door. From there it can carry my wish to heaven.

Even stronger than a feather for me is the wooden wing my lover sent me at the beginning of lockdown. I hold it in my sleep every night. My great love – who lives 1000 kilometres away from Berlin – also has one. We send each other pictures of these wings, each to each, to remind ourselves dass wir zusammen sind. Mit unseren Flügeln können wir gemeinsam überall hinfliegen*

–– Anja Steinig

Anja Steinig for Birds of Firle

* …we are together. With our wings we are able to fly together anywhere.

Neil Gower is a Welsh-born graphic artist and poet. He has two sons and lives in Lewes, at the heart of the South Downs, where he runs on chalk.

Anja Steinig founded her design practice, Studio F, in 2009. She also teaches typography and graphic design at several universities. For nine years she has been a board member of the Art Directors Club Germany, heading its editorial section. She has two daughters and lives in Kreuzberg, Berlin.

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.

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Birds of Firle: Crow Road by Laine Thompson

Crow Road 1 by Laine Thompson

Crow Road 2 by Laine Thompson

Crow Road 3 by Laine Thompson

Crow Road 4 by Laine Thompson

Crow Road 5 by Laine Thompson

Crow Road 6 by Laine Thompson

Crow Road 7 by Laine Thompson


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 

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Birds Of Firle: The Book-Field by Jo Sweeting

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.

First Sight of the Book-Field by Jo Sweeting
First Sight of the Book-Field by Jo Sweeting


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.

Book-Field by Jo Sweeting
Book-Field by Jo Sweeting


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.

Flint from Book-Field by Jo Sweeting
Flint from Book-Field by Jo Sweeting


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.

Buzzard Feather Carved in Chalkstone Found Beside It by Jo Sweeting

Further Resources

Artefact: A Footnote on Little Toller’s The Clearing by Jo Sweeting

“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…”

Three Views of a Chalkstone on Little Toller’s The Clearing by Tanya Shadrick, Jo Sweeting and Louisa Thomsen Brits.

“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.

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Birds of Firle: ‘Singing for Souls Passing’ – a poem by Alberthe Papma

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

Alberthe Papma is on Twitter @ZinInGroen

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