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Samhuinn

Janice Duke:

I had a fabulous time with Nomad Photographic and friends at the 2014 Beltane Fire Society Samhuinn Fire Festival in Edinburgh. Here is his blog about the event‎:

Originally posted on Life Through The Lens:

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After a trip to Edinburgh to celebrate the coming of Winter (though most people dread the winter months) I would like to share the experience. The photos were taken during the Beltane Fire Society’s parade down the Highstreet of Edinburgh. The group put a lot of work into this and work very hard and I’d highly recommend attending their events.

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Firstly forget Halloween, sourced from All Hallow’s Eve which in turn is thought to be a Christianised version of the old Celtic harvest celebrations. Though many people we met on the way and around town had no idea what Samhuinn is and assumed that the wolf skin I was carrying or wearing was Halloween or a few even said Game of Thrones, they got a less than impressed response.

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Samhuinn is a mystical and magical time of year, the source coming from the old Celtic Religions, celebrated by many ‘pagan’…

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While on my last brief visit to London I heard that Kew Gardens was holding an event featuring psychedelic plants. I will take any excuse to visit Kew, it’s one of my favourite places in London (not something you’ll often hear from an Essex girl), and the psychedelic and altered states of consciousness are subjects I find absolutely fascinating, as someone who practices meditation, as well as someone with an interest in herbs and fungi and their traditional and historic uses.

So off I went to the event, feeling a bit excited to have this subject on display as a mainstream curiosity. I was amused to see some hemp grade (non-psychoactive) marijuana in a padlocked cage and only fake Amanita Muscaria on display, while a tobacco plant remained conspicuously free to get up close and personal with. There were prominent ‘Do Not Touch’ signs with the psychoactive displays, but both the tobacco and alcohol displays featured information about how many people die from illnesses relating to their use each year, while the, mainly illegal, psychoactive drugs failed to declare much in the way of deaths at all. The subtle implications almost made the display a work of art.

There were a number of displays, talks and activities. On the whole it was an okay event to attend, it failed to blow me away as I was hoping (but then that would take a lot) and I thought it could have been a bit more tightly organised (some displays weren’t working, events were cancelled; the films could have been on loop so there was less of a gap and it would be easier to see them all at your convenience). But I was satisfied enough to see this subject on display in a respectable context, as it deserves. I would like to see more of this.

I was also happy to see an emphasis placed on the importance and fascinating nature of fungi, something many people are completely unaware of. Like bees, they are an overlooked and much abused key component of our environment more than deserving of our appreciation.

Kew features many things I enjoy. The fact I can never make it around everything whenever I visit and there is always something different each time gives it much appeal. But the main joys of Kew for me are the art collections at The Marianne North Gallery and The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The display of skill and soul in those few rooms puts to shame the majority of work on show in many of the modern art galleries in the city. Any aspiring artist should visit these galleries at least once.

Eagle Country

So a little while ago I went on a sketching and photographing adventure, camping and walking about around Assynt and Gruinard Bay, passing through Strathnaver and Durness along the way.

Apart from stunning scenery and wildlife Assynt features Scotland’s smallest castle (seen below being invaded by Scotland’s smallest resident). Known locally as Hermit’s Castle, it was built in the 1950s by English architect David Scott, who only stayed there for one weekend having spent months building it. One can only speculate as to why he would build it for one weekends use, or what drove him away…

Try as I might I failed to see any Golden Eagles. I could see that the area is perfect for them and I had a sense of them belonging there, but they declined to make an appearance. I’ll just have to keep looking.

On my way from Assynt to Gruinard Bay I decided to visit Inchnadamph. I’ve been to the West Coast of Scotland a number of times. I’m a bit of an addict (or a glutton for punishment depending on the weather). Last time I passed through Inchnadamph and walked out along the valley 4km to the south of it to the Bone Caves. These are named for the large variety of animal bones that were discovered within them over a hundred years ago. There are three main caves, named Badger, Reindeer and Bone, and what they lack in scale they more than make up for in mystique. The bones of animals that once roamed this part of the country have all been discovered here: bear, reindeer, lynx, arctic fox and wolves. Even the skull of a polar bear has been identified.

On this visit I stopped at Inchnadamph itself and walked up the Traligill river valley to the Traligill caves. These caves are big deep flooded entrances to the largest cave system in Scotland. They are suitable only for equipped and experienced cavers, so I only went in a short distance where I could.

Both the Traligill and Bone Caves have a sense of something ancient, like a giant made of moss and stone sleeps beneath the hills, his earthy breath so gentle you can only just catch the sound of it if you listen closely. The sight and sound of water dripping and rushing deep into the dark is enchanting and on both my visit to the Bone Caves and Traligill I could only wonder at how people lived in these places in ancient times, what it would have been like back then and what beliefs and stories such places would have inspired.

My favourite part of Gruinard Bay was at Mellon Udrigle. The beach there is gorgeous, purely on scenery alone, but added to that were wonderful pieces of art that had been made from stones and shells that were dotted about along the coast. I had a fabulous time wildlife watching and hunting for art.

Gruinard Bay features the infamous ‘Anthrax Island’ (Gruinard Island), where biological warfare testing of anthrax took place in 1942. The island was deemed safe in 1990 but people are still pretty loathe to go there because of this, making it a haven for wildlife, including a pair of breeding White Tailed Eagles known to nest there. I caught a brief and wonderful glimpse of one at quite a distance flying near some cliffs over the sea. It turned in the air, exposing the full view of its talons, tail and outstretched wings, dwarfing the gulls trying to mob it. Then with another twist of its body it was gone. Absolutely beautiful.

Other places worth a mention:

* If you’re ever near Lochinver go to the pie shop. In fact, go to Loch Inver just for the pie shop. I have never eaten such tasty pies!

* The Clearance trail and scenery around Strathnaver are well worth seeing if you’re in that part of the world. The scenery is stunning. The trail is heartbreaking.

* Balnakeil Craft Village just outside of Durness is fabulous. If you like art, crafts, chocolate and coffee it is heavenly.

On Thursday 4th and Saturday 6th September I continued my adventures in teaching art by returning to teach at RSPB Forsinard as part of the Wild North Festival. I taught two and half hour sessions for beginners, taking them through basic pencil work, structure, use of mark making, use of positive and negative space and practice of observational skills. A foundation for drawing wildlife in the field.

And what a location to teach in. One of the most truly wild places in Britain, I am inspired every time I visit. Forsinard has stunning scenery for miles across the reserve, with plenty of wildlife if you’re looking – and you would be if you’d just been to one of my classes!


Myself and some of my students.


Work by student.

Art and Nature

The question of art imitating nature is a popular one in aesthetic philosophy and art in general. It is a fascinating topic, but something in particular about it has been niggling at me for a while now, especially recently. That something is the distinct lack of nature in mainstream modern art.

In recent years I have been volunteering with the RSPB, doing my bit for nature and engaging with the public to share my passion for wildlife. I have had a lifelong love of the natural world, but in the beginning it was, much like my love for art, an escapist love. I grew up in Greater London, spending the majority of my time in Essex, where one finds a clash of nature and man on virtually every street. Parts of Essex are ancient woodland and wild meadow nose to nose with housing estates and motorways. My childhood was all about finding the wild places and their inhabitants, escaping from a grey human industrial world populated with predators that made a sparrow hawk or a fox look positively friendly.

But if I drew animals it was usually my pets, of which I had many, some rescued wildlife but most of the domestic variety. Although I did draw them my preferred subject was always fantasy, worlds completely apart from this one, where natural forces dominated and giant mythic beasts roamed. I fell in love with the artwork of Brian Froud and Alan Lee, who take nature to fantastical places, they and others and many, many books gave me yet more escape routes from the council houses I grew up in with their abusive neighbours and insulting social workers, Sun newspaper brainwashed communities and the gaping maw of the poverty trap.

Drawing tended to come from reality to escape it and nature was the place I went to be free. I did not want a drawing of the wild wood, I wanted to be there, and I could not draw the woods of home without turning burnt out cars into fairy grottos and crumbling toilet blocks into troll lairs. Wildlife was scarce, education about it scarcer, and I was an impatient child, quick to replace it with dragons and adventures on alien worlds. Only in recent years have I gone back to that fascination with wildlife and cultivated it into something more still and receptive. Exposure to truly wild places is very likely the cause of this. I suspect if I had stayed in the city it would have rotted that wildness out of me eventually, leaving me another empty husk endlessly craving to fill the void.

It is only when completely cut off from the human that we really find ourselves. An invincible summer in the midst of winter. Without that communion with the alien beyond ourselves we live in an echo chamber of humanness, in which the narcissistic and psychotic become amplified as all we repress is skilfully manipulated by consumer culture to manufacture warped desires that can never be sated.

If we never learn to face and relate to the animal without, how can we possibly hope to come to terms with the animal within? It claws and bites under suits and make-up, its primal hungers surging out in unexpected and unhealthy ways. It has become the subject of endless torments, from factory farming to collateral damage and extermination for sport, it is stuffed, pickled and packed for display, valued far more dead than alive. And all the while inside of us it howls.

When I walk through modern art galleries I am often confronted by this disconnect between man and nature played out vividly (nothing says this more than an exhibit sponsored by Shell). Yet throughout art history the influence of nature is undeniable, it is the very basis of the vast majority of work. Now it is the idiosyncratic, the facile and the profitable that inspire the mainstream. And escapism. Much like my own escapism told me quite clearly there were things in my life I needed to face head on, the escapism of our society’s aesthetics tells us that more broadly. As for our emphasis on the idiosyncratic, the facile and the profitable, I would venture to guess that those are the very things that need to be faced.

Far from escaping reality, in art as well as in nature, I have found the starkest confrontation with reality possible. I found myself beyond myself, out there, part of it all. From this vantage the absence of nature from our portraits and of people from our landscapes speaks volumes.

Recently I finally got around to watching an interview I’ve been told about many times by people on both ‘sides’ of the argument and neither: Richard Dawkins vs. Deepak Chopra [Click Here to Watch]. Dawkins, as usual, puts on airs of being Mr. Reasonable and Objective and ends up, to me, looking something of a bullying arse. The High Priest of Atheism as ever steps beyond the realm of his expertise (he has actually done good science and should continue with that). Although this is still within science – Chopra is a qualified and experienced medical doctor, a board-certified endocrinologist, experienced in conventional medicine and alternative therapy, Dawkins is a qualified and experienced researcher in evolutionary biology, quite different – Dawkins still acts as though he is the only ‘real’ scientist there (concerned more with statistics and trends than real individual instances, ever the research scientist).

In the full interview Chopra comes over very well, I think, it’s an interesting chat between two people with very different views. To call Chopra an enemy of reason would seem more than a little unfair. In the edit used for TV Dawkins makes Chopra look like a total charlatan. It’s pretty pathetic really. Dawkins shines as an evolutionary biologist, but as a ‘champion of reason’ he seems as smug and underhanded as he does foolish. Anyone who fails to believe what he believes is mad. Sound familiar?

I think the personality cult he has amassed and the attention he receives for his opinions disguised as facts is probably all to engrossing, like many groups and movements those who have bought into it believe they have all the answers and everyone else is crazy. They believe ‘Science’ is the lens through which everything should be viewed and yet, as Dawkins shows in the interview, science is a vast subject with many areas he himself knows nothing about. So when he says ‘Science’ what he likely means is research science, specifically animal behaviour and evolutionary biology. The lens through which everything should be viewed just so happens to be his.

Terry Eagleton has remarked ‘imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read[/hear] Richard Dawkins on theology.’ Or indeed philosophy, psychology, physics and a host of other subjects he seems to have decided can only be understood and found valid or invalid by him, er, I mean ‘Science’.

Dawkins seems to have an ego Neutron stars would envy – appearing small only due to its immense denseness. He could learn a thing or two from Chopra, if he could ever actually see beyond his own point of view. Even if Chopra is a charlatan, his work makes people happy and I’ve yet to hear of anyone threatening the lives of others or belittling them in its name.

As ever the comments on this and anything to do with Dawkins tend to descend into incredibly tedious and ubiquitous ‘religion is true/false’ slap fights in which the main taboo appears to be admitting we know nothing for certain and can only test our theories. This just so happens to be good science as well as good mysticism. I can only assume that dogmatism has more appeal to our basic tribal instincts.

The question of the empirical truth of religion and spirituality seems to me entirely uninteresting and missing the point. “Truth” applies to religion and spirituality as much as it does to art. Have you ever seen anyone arguing that a painting is “True”? Or two similar paintings being killed over because one is believed to be “True” and the other “False”? It would be absurd.

The interesting questions regarding religion and spirituality are why people have them and what purpose they fulfil. To fail to acknowledge and investigate the function of religion and spirituality as evolved and interesting natural phenomenon seems to me as much poor science as it does a failure of imagination on the part of the inquirer. But thankfully there are many thinkers willing to look at these issues, unfortunately none are as famous, infamous or influential as Richard Dawkins, who appears intent on promoting a fundamentalist materialist world view that seems to amount to existential nihilism, which leads inevitably to the Camusian question: ‘Why not kill ourselves?’

I chose to see the Nietzschean light at the end of that particular dark tunnel, that we must create our own meanings, and those meanings can and do have validity, the kind there is little use in poking and prodding about for in a laboratory. I accept the fact I am a limited life form with limited fleshy sensoria that can only tell me so much, I will never comprehend the entirety of this wonderful phenomenon that appears to be occurring, however many instruments I use. I lack the hubris to claim I could know it all but I also lack the fear to let that diminish me. I can know what I can know. I embrace that and am in wonder with it. I am an artist.

Hen Harrier Day

Today is Hen Harrier Day. A day primarily about raising awareness of wildlife crime and the persecution of a protected bird of prey. The Hen Harrier, also known as the Skydancer, should be a common and widespread bird of prey in the UK. But intensive management of upland areas and relentless persecution for the sake of driven grouse shooting has driven these birds to near extinction in England, where just three pairs bred in 2014, while there is habitat for 962-1285 more pairs in Scotland. But they are missing and we know why.

The illegal killing of these beautiful birds must stop. Support Hen Harrier Day!

Hen Harrier Day Overview: http://birdersagainst.org/hen-harrier-day-overview/

Petition to ban driven grouse shooting in the UK: https://submissions.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/65627

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