The Library of Obscure Wonders

The problem with perfect

Oak tree in the woods

Perfect is a closed circle, static, fulfilled, existing out of time. An idea that does not really happen in nature because of the need for change and adaption in order to survive.

Take an oak tree. Imagine for now it is born from the perfect acorn in the perfect soil, it has every potential of becoming the perfect mushroom shaped oak seen in picture books. It grows into a stalk, and starts to develop leaves, but there are big holly bushes next to it, so it’s leaves can’t get much sunlight to photosynthesise. It is going to have to grow much taller than them. In its 30th year there is a harsh winter, so it drops some of its lower branches to conserve nutrients. In its 50th year a house is built to one side of it preventing sunlight reaching it from that side, so to make up for this it grows more on the other side giving it a somewhat crooked shape. The tree is a healthy oak that will live for a couple of hundred years, but it is not the perfect tree, it does not have that neat mushroom shape, it is crooked, tall, and sparse on the lower branches. It is the ability to change and not remain perfect that has meant it can live a long healthy life.

Now we imagined a perfect acorn, but evolution being as it is, that acorn probably wasn’t perfect, a genetic difference may have slightly altered the tree’s bark, or made it extra tasty for a particular insect. While in one case this could have been an annoyance and potentially damaging to the tree, in another the bark difference could make it particularly resistant harsh winds, so if it or one of its future acorns ended up on the Scotland Highlands it would have a better chance of survival than one that didn’t have that bark difference. Equally so being tasty to a particular insect could be damaging in one instance but if that insect happened to eat another more deadly insect that could infect the tree then being tasty to the first would be an advantage.

That is just one simplified example of the need to adapt and how the our idea of the classical closed perfect organism would not survive because it can not change and adapt to its environment.

If you get a compass and draw a circle on a piece of paper it may look perfect, you can call it perfect and others will agree. Yet time will smudge and fade the ink, it will tear and rot the paper, till eventually your perfect circle is nothing but mush. This mush will hopefully be put in the ground where if can feed another seed which will eventually grow into another plant that will feed another animal or maybe even a human who draws another perfect circle.

November – New classes!

Watercolour classes

I’m taking over the running of the Monday morning drop-in class in Watercolour at Lordship Hub in Tottenham. 11:30 to 1.30.

Currently only £8.

Paints and brushes are provided. Paper can be purchased. All levels are very welcome. A subject is covered in each week, from landscape painting to portraiture, still-life and abstraction. It has a very relaxed environment with a nice group in the middle of a beautiful recreation ground. No need to book, just come along. Contact me for further details – info@obscurewonders.co.uk

Also at short notice I’m running a class at City Lit called Drawing into Watercolour which is very much for beginners who wish to explore Watercolour. Basic materials are provided. This is a 6 week course Tuesday evenings from 6 to 9pm. Full fee is £209, concession £127. Still time to book up but you need to do so quickly!

https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/drawing-into-watercolour

Geometry and Nature

This is a short course at CityLit for beginners. Learn to draw the patterns found in nature and find out about the golden ratio and the Fibonacci sequence.

https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/geometry-and-nature

Coming up early next year…

Drawing Nature – Botanical and Natural History Illustration

I’m starting a new class at St John in Bethnal Green every Saturday afternoon, beginning in January. More information coming soon.

There will also be my usual Botanical Illustration course at CityLit running from the end of January to mid March. For more info visit

https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/botanical-illustration

Roots

beech2Charles Darwin, aside from evolution, came up with the “root-brain” hypothesis along with his son Francis, in their book The Power of Movement of Plants. This suggests the roots act like a brain network. Ignored at the time (evolution was enough to deal with without the suggestion of trees having brains as well) it is only now beginning to be taken seriously.

I have been sitting drawing beech tree roots today. They are fascinating indeed. Largely unseen they undertake a big proportion of a trees practices and are often the same size as the tree above ground. Their skin can have an interesting textured quality and they curl around each other like snakes which is very good to draw. Where I live in London you can see the roots bursting through the Tarmac, looking distinctly like monsters from the underworld. What happens in roots and around roots is just as strange as what they look like.

Roots search the soil for water and minerals that they absorb and then send up to the leaves for photosynthesis. A root grows from its tip which it pushes forward through the soil. The root tip can detect the pull of gravity and aims itself downwards into the soil. Behind the root tip are root hairs that grow into the soil to gather supplies.

Fungi have symbiotic relationships with roots, this is called Mycorhizass. There are two main kinds of mycorrhiza, ones that penetrate the roots and ones that surround the roots without penetrating. The fungi transfer essential minerals such as nitrogen and phosphorous from decaying matter to the tree. The fungi cannot photosynthesis so the tree does this for them, providing the fungi with energy.

Other advantages to such relationships include speeding plant growth, stimulating fine root development and lengthening the life of the roots. They can also protect plants from drought, predators (such as nematode worms), and micro-organisms that cause disease. In areas polluted by toxic heavy metal it seems fungi can buffer their tree partners against harm. A diversity of fungi is valuable to a tree, as different fungi will specialise in the various functions, so one species may be good at taking up particular nutrients, while another will be better at producing enzymes.

Trees have also been found to pass on carbon dioxide to other trees in need of it, even trees of different species, through the roots. This is also thanks to a symbiotic fungi in the soil. In fact new discoveries about roots really put them as essential and quite incredible things. I’m reading a lot about tree communication at the moment, I’ll write about it more once I’ve got my head round it. The idea of them having a “root brain” where the tips of the root are small neutron centres seems to fit in somehow.

 

 

Beech Tree

 

leafskeleton3

Beech leaf in winter. The drawing on the right is done in coloured pencil, and the one on the left done in watercolour paint about a month later.

I fell in love with a beech tree in Cornwall. A big beautiful tree on a hillside. It has a curious hollow in it’s trunk, triangular shaped and filled with water most of the year round. The water from the hollow of a Beech tree was traditionally used to help skin conditions such as eczema and scaly skin, and increase beauty. I thought I’d try out the Beech water’s beneficial effects on my skin so have been rubbing my face in this water. It does seem to make the skin more smooth.

A spell spoken to the roots of a Beech tree is said to come true. A curse spoken underneath its boughs is said to be effective if the tree approves. The Celtic God Fagus was associated the Beech, it is also seen as a feminine tree and associated with the god Danu, a female god of learning and knowledge. This isn’t surprising seeing as in Anglo Saxon the word for “beech” was “boc”, the source of the word “book” and beech wood was once used for carving words upon. A spell can be written on a beech leaf and buried to draw the support of the earth god.

In the winter this year when I was leaving Cornwall, going home to London, I went to say goodbye to the tree. I hugged it, it is a tree that feels good to hug, and whilst doing so I thought it would be nice to have a winter leaf skeleton to remember it by. I had been searching for leaf skeletons in the woods because they are good to draw but had not managed to find any so far this year. As I finished hugging the tree I looked down at my feet and there by my right foot was a beech leaf skeleton.

Oak

oak

 

The first tree that particularly fascinated me was the Oak. I have always felt a certain warmth for Oak, as many people do. They are strong deciduous trees found in British woodland and indeed in many other parts of the world.

Today I walked through the local park looking for an Oak. I found a large one up against the wall. I sat myself down to draw it , but I could not get far enough away to see the whole tree and it was so criss-crossed with its branches and the falling leaves that I soon got lost trying to draw it. I feel that this tree was going to take a lot more investigation than just a quick sketch. Then, with some amusement, the thought came into my head to look for the Green Man in it’s trunk. The Oak is often associated with the Green Man. At first I noticed nothing, the trunk looked the same ridgety complication all over. Then I flippantly asked the tree where the Green Man was, I looked again and there he was! Clear as anything, with a strong nose and brow.

The Oak has been called the “king of the woods”. A symbol of strength, protection and longevity, it was the tree sacred to Zeus in Greek mythology. Priests would read the pronouncements of the gods by reading the rustling of the Oaks leaves.

It was also sacred to the Norse God Thor, the god of thunder. Curiously the Oak is struck by lightning more than any other tree – unlike the Holly which detracts it – so much so that people would collect blackened pieces of Oak tree for good luck. I read recently that the Druids would not meet for rituals unless an Oak tree was present, so important was the Oak to their belief system. The old name for Oak is Duir and the name Druid is thought in part to be connected to the Oak, meaning “people of the oak”.

The Oak has been seen as the gateway to the Otherworld. In folklore the Oak is linked to the sacrificed king whose ritual death happens in midsummer. An old story about the Oak, popular in the medieval period, had the Oak as the king of the summer. Each year the Oak King fights the Holly King of the winter, each new spring the Oak King wins the battle, each new fall the Holly King wins.

An Oak can live to a thousand years old. Their powers of protection are thought to be great. Two twigs of Oak, bound with a red thread so that they form an equal armed cross, makes a safeguard against evil. It should be hung in the home. If someone is sick in your home and you have a fireplace make a fire of Oak wood to draw out the sickness. Carry an acorn against sickness and pains and to give you longevity. Carrying any piece of the Oak brings good luck. Carrying an acorn can increase fertility and increase sexual potency.

In spring Oaks produce both male catkins and small female flowers , their fruit is the acorn. It is a keystone species in many habitats, a number of types of truffle have symbiotic relationships with Oaks, and the small bird known as the European pied flycatcher builds it nest solely in Oak trees. Acorns and Oak leaves are poisonous to cattle, horses and sheep, but pigs can live off them and were often reared in oak forests. Indeed acorns formed an important food source for many early human cultures.

The other night i slept under the Oak tree in the park. It felt like a very safe place to be, though the knat stings were dreadful!

Sequences, Spirals and Dynamic Patterns

Notes on Fibonacci, spirals, the Chinese concept of Li, and examples of geometric patterns Fibonacci and Spirals2mud-cracks_9389_990x742.jpg

Headless People

headinchestA mythical people known as akephaloi (Greek “headless ones”) or Blemmyes had no head or neck and their eyes, nose and mouth were placed in their chest. They lived by the Nile, in Ethiopia, and in parts of India. Often naked, fierce and combat loving they were eight feet tall, their skin could turn to a golden colour and their beards could grow down to their knees. It was said their lacking of a heard was due to the sins of their ancestors

The Colour Green is a Thursday

whiterose1 1 I always see Thursday as green. I’m told this is a type of synesthesia. This picture I made from recycled Mills&Boon romance novels. It is loosely about lost love on a Thursday evening. I had a private view of my work that night, my boyfriend at the time came along as it ended and brought me a bunch of white roses. They looked unwell. I think we both knew it was over. The green of the leaves didn’t look quite right to me, and was much more noticeable than the flowers themselves. It was a messy London Thursday goodbye, an oldness pretending to be young.

On the visible spectrum green is the colour between blue and yellow. In painting it is considered a secondary colour because it can be mixed from the primary colours of blue and yellow. Green is middle of our colour range. It contains no red, no ultra-violet or infer red, it is just green.

Looking at the colour green has been found to help with cancer. The people of the rainforest are said to have very many words for green. If you walk into a wood in the summer and look up you can understand why. In nature there are so many different greens, it is of course the colour of photosynthesis, that magical spell that converts sunlight into chemical energy and gives us our oxygen. Interesting though I recently learnt that green is the only colour that is actually not used in the process of photosynthesis, which is why it is the one that is reflected out. A simple experiment that shows this is when tomatoe plants (or cress, I don’t think it makes much difference) are grown under different colours of light. They will be fine growing under only red light, only yellow or only blue, but under just green light they are not able to carry out photosynthesis, so die.

This explains that chlorophyll are green because they don’t use green light energy so green is reflected out. This is because chlorophyll arose in organisms in the ocean where halobacteria was already converting light energy to chemical energy using green wavelengths but not so much of red and blue wavelenghs, so chlorophyll was entrepreneurial and made use of the red and blue, reflecting out the green. Imagine if that had been the other way round, the world would look very different. Purple trees!

The modern English word for green comes from the same root as the Germanic words for grass and grow.

Symbolism

I am currently burning a green candle because green is the colour for Venus, the goddess of love and I could do with some care free love in my life right now.

In Europe and the U.S. green is the colour most associated with nature and growth, however is does have the negative symbolism of envy and illness. In America it is the colour of money, and it is the national colour of Ireland.

In Japan green is associated with eternal life, in China it is the symbol for health and happiness. Though in old Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Viennese green isn’t a separate colour but a shade of blue.

In North Africa it is the colour of corruption

In Islam it is the sacred colour representing respect and the prophet Mohammed, it was the colour of the banner of Mohammed and represents the lush green of paradise.
In Indonesia it is a forbidden colour.

Mixing Greens

For anyone who get curious about the colour green, mixing it is the ultimate way to get to know it. When painting greens for plants, ready made greens brought from a shop are rarely accurate to portray a green in nature. A ready made green can often look garish and false when applied directly to the paper. Even if one ready mixed one in the palette looks close I will try it with maybe a little alizarian, it’s complementary colour, to bring it down a touch and try this next to the subject. It amazes me what a difference just a spec of red can make.

Exercise mixing greens
Start by putting some lemon yellow in your palate. Using a soft flat brush put a sample of it in the top corner of a sheet of paper.
Clean your brush in water and take a very small amount of cobalt blue and add it to the lemon yellow. Put a sample of this next to the original yellow on your paper.
Repeat the last stage again adding a little bit more cobalt blue to the lemon yellow and add another sample alongside the previous two.
Continue this along the page with the greens getting increasingly bluish until the sample you have is almost completely blue. Label the sample Lemon yellow and cobalt blue

green2From yellow gradually adding more blue

Repeat this exercise all over again but instead of using cobalt blue use French Ultramarine. Remember to label the names of the colours next to the samples so you can use it for reference later. Do another sample strip u using Prussian blue. Now your sheet of paper should start to show the huge variety of greens it is possible to mix. Carry on the exercise doing a sample strip using all the different blues in your palate. Once you have done that choose one of those blues to keep the same and instead try all the different yellows you have, try cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, Indian yellow.

Make sure your water is clean and if not change it, you will get muddy unintended colours if using dirty water.

If painting natural objects you may find the greens you mix are a bit too bright. Improve this by adding the very tiniest drop of red to bring it down a touch, try Alizarin Crimson or Rose Madder. Be gentle though, you will be surprised at how the smallest amount can change the colour. Red is the complimentary colour to green, on the other side of the colour wheel, add too much to the mix and you’ll end up with a brown or grey. Though these can be used to good effect in shadows.

Even if you never intend to paint a picture, sitting and mixing greens is a very calming exercise. I recommend it on messy Thursdays.

Hazel “The Poet’s Tree”

hazelbranch

I have a horrible cough right now which just doesn’t seem to go away. I read on the internet that finely powdered hazelnuts mixed with water and honey can get rid of a stubborn cough. So I give it a go, hand grinding the hazelnuts in my pestle and mortar. I’m not sure if I’ve ground them fine enough but it does make quite a nice drink. We’ll see what it does for the cough.

Hazel was the name of my best friend at primary school, she was very clever. She got to the posh grammar school for intelligent girls, I got sent to the units for special needs children in the roughest school in the area. I was a very slow developer and could barely read at the time. I didn’t want to be Hazel’s friend after that, I ignored her calls and avoided her in town. Pride eh? Very foolish of me!

The Hazel was the tree of wisdom, according to Irish mythology. In the otherworldly realm there is a well from which the rivers of Ireland flow. In this well there swims a salmon and around it are nine sacred Hazel trees. The hazelnuts from these trees fall into the pool and are eaten by the salmon everyday so they themselves become wise. These wise salmon swim from the pool to the sea and back. If you manage to catch and eat the salmon you too will become wise and able to tell the future. Fionn mac Cumhailfrom, the hero of many an Irish legend, was cooking this salmon for his Druid mentor, who had been seeking the fish for a long time. He accidentally burnt his finger and sucked it to make it better, but juices of the salmon are on his finger so sucking it means that he gets the wisdom. His poor mentor gives up then, seeing at once that Fionn now has The Knowledge. This links into the practice of Imbas Forosnai, a type of inspired, fortune-telling poetry once practiced in Ireland. I’ll write more about this in another blog.

Hazel comes under the planet Mercury, the colour orange, the element air, and of course the god Hermes/Mercury. Hermes has the caduceus, a winged staff with two snakes twirling round it, and this was made of hazel wood.

The tree has been regarded as playful, wise, and enchanting. It was frequently used for divination and to find water or buried treasure. When my parents first moved to Pembrokshire and needed to find a well on their land, the locals didn’t hesitate to recommend the local diviner who, I believe, used a forked hazel branch, and it worked. Hazel is also excellent for making magic wands and walking sticks. In Irish legend it is sacred to the god of love and eloquence Oengus mac Og.

To enlist help of faerie folk thread several hazelnuts together on a string and hang in your home. Hazelnut twigs on a windowsill are said to protect against storms. Hazelnut necklaces are thought to bring good luck into the home. Three hazelnuts clumped together are lucky. If you are looking for poetic inspiration and magical insight chew on a hazelnut to induce this.

Hazel is a deciduous tree, often growing underneath oak and birch. In managed woodland it is frequently coppiced which extends its life from 80years to several hundred. Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree, but hazel flowers must be pollinated by pollen from other hazel trees. It is mainly wind pollinated, bees find it difficult to carry hazel pollen as it is sticky and the grains repell each other. The male flower is a yellow catkin that comes out in February before the leaves. The female flower is small and bud like with red styles. Once pollinated the female flowers develop into round fruits that hang in groups. They mature into nuts with a woody shell surrounded by a leafy husk. Hazel leaves are hairy and soft to the touch, oval in shape they are toothed and pointed at the tip. Hazel leaves turn yellow before falling in winter. Many caterpillars live off the hazel, this is particularly good for The Hazel Dormouse for they can eat the caterpillars in the summer months and save hazelnuts for hibernation in the winter.

In the spring hazel branches are particularly bendy. Semi permanent structures can be made by bent hazel poles tied into dome shapes and stuck into the earth and covered with hides or waterproof tarpaulin.

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My cough seems a little better now than it was this morning. I also read that hazelnuts taste particularly good with Salmon, I decide to give this a go. Delicious! And maybe it might make me a little wiser.

 

Mushrooms! And how they help the trees talk

mushrooms2Mushrooms are amazing, I love to eat them, to look at them, to draw them, and when I investigate them they are quite mind boggling. No, before you ask, I haven’t tried magic mushrooms, one day maybe.

Opposite where I live in Newington Green there is a magnificent greengrocers which sells all sorts of vegetables and fruit, from the everyday parsnip to the weird and wonderful where I can only guess at name and purpose. Among this there are mushrooms of many types. Although recently it has been decided that mushrooms aren’t actually vegetables, but closer to animals, I and the greengrocers aren’t worrying about that right now. Yesterday I brought a selection of the more visually enticing mushrooms to paint. A friend popped round and on seeing the mushrooms said “Are those colours real? They’re not edible are they? They look poisonous”. I paint them in watercolour laid out in a line. It is difficult though, they wither very quickly and darken in colour.

Autumn is the time for wild mushrooms, that smell of autumn woodlands is created by fungi working their way up through the soil. The mushroom itself is of course the flowering body of the fungi, the part that disperses the spores. Fungi themselves are everywhere, often microscopic they are on every surface, in the air we breath, and everywhere we put our foot. Underneath, in the soil, is an intricate web of fungi threads, called the mycelium, which can exist in the tiny body of a dead fly or span across an entire forest. In the Oregon’s Blue Mountains in the United States there is a mycelium that occupies 2384 acres and is thought to be between 2000 and 8000 years old!

A friend and I once created a mycelium installation at the ICA. It was good fun, black inside with threads criss crossing through it. Members of the public enjoyed going and just sitting inside. They said they found it comforting. Recently I feel like I need to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself inside, amongst the roots and threads, I haven’t done so yet, it is probably from me reading too much Brian Catling and his book of abandoned angels.

As mentioned before trees have symbiotic relationships with fungi. Apparently 90 per cent of all land plants have mutually beneficial relationships with fungi so it is nothing unusual. The tree obtains sugars through photosynthesis for the fungi and the fungi obtains nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil for the tree. Plants also communicate with each other through fungi. Mycelia link up plants that are wide apart. In the media this is often described as being like the world wide web, but so much is described as being like the internet these days the phrase makes me cringe. But trees can transfer carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen between themselves through the mycelia. A large tree can help a small young tree in this way. It has also been found that old trees that can no longer photosynthesis are sometimes kept alive by trees they are connected to through the mycelium. No one knows why.

Amazing thought that, plants are communicating with each other and using the fungal networks to do so. Trees can also use mycelium to transfer chemical signals warning other plants of oncoming signals. This was initially discovered on tomato plants. The tomato plants are grown in pairs. Some of them are allowed to form fungal networks and some aren’t. The leaves of one plant in each pair was sprayed with blight disease. Air-tight plastic bags were used to stop any above ground signalling between plants. After 65 hours the scientists tried to infect the second plant in each pair. They found that if the plant pair had been allowed to develop mycelia the second in the pair was much less likely to get the blight and if they did they had significantly lower levels of damage.

I suppose I cant really mention this relationship without mentioning the other side of it. Some trees have been found to pass poisons across through the mycelium. Some trees don’t like other trees growing too near them, they like some space to themselves, so they send out poison via their roots and the mycelium to poison potential newcomers. Bit like me in my flat.

Fungi also feed on dead organic matter, and what a vital role that is for without this the world would pile up with dead leaves, dead wood, dead animals and other matter. The dead matter is broken down and returned as nutrients in the soil for plants again. There is even rumours that mushrooms can affect the weather!

Today the mushrooms on my table have become shrivelled shadows of what they were. I finish the painting and am still determined to eat them. I slice them and fry them with a lot of garlic. Delicious! Much more tasty than your regular mushroom. And I’m not dead yet…

 

A class on drawing and painting mushrooms will take place at 3pm this Sunday (18th June 17) at The Greenhouse, 49 Green Lanes N16 9BU. thegreenhouselondon.com