I spend a blissful hour in the garden sketching a beech tree. It is strong, with a powerful trunk and wood that look solid as can be. When we bought the field that would become our garden, there was nothing on it but grass and one very put-upon looking tree at the front. The wind howled across the field, harsh and cruel. One miserable Sunday in January about fifteen years ago my husband Marcel drove the 200 miles to Future Forests in Cork with an empty van, and came back that evening with 500 saplings. They were of many varieties. Ash, hawthorn, oak, holm oak, holly, beech, birch, poplar, lime, larch, beech pine, blackthorn, hazel, horse chestnut, sweet chestnut…I don’t know, I’m sure there were others. He spent the next two weeks planting the trees in the wind and rain. The future arrived and we have a forest. The wind is tamed, we have a clearing instead of a field and we are surrounded by the sounds and sights of birds wherever we look (at the expense of the skylarks, who love a field). There are nests high in the trees, foxes prowl and the occasional pheasant pays a visit. The hares aren’t as keen on the trees as they were of the open grassland, and I have only ever seen one owl years ago, but I hear the high-pitched call of some kind of bird of prey just after nightfall. Maybe they’re owls. We have hedgehogs and bats….and lots and lots of rats (there is always trouble in paradise). But to go into the miniature forest of trees now is to leave the chaos of daily life behind: the sound goes flat and all you can hear are birds and bees. Now that I am sketching nature, I am looking extra-closely at the wildlife around the edge of our garden. It is a huge pleasure, like taking one of those forest baths that the Japanese talk about, and I would not be doing it if it weren’t for making this visual record. The last time I was this conscious of nature I was about ten years old. I look closely at one of the delicate, pointy beech buds, and all of a sudden I am in the trees on the untamed edge of my parents’ six acre garden on the side of a mountain in Co. Wicklow once more, my mind not yet filled with a million things that shout louder than nature. I thought we couldn’t go back to our childhood: it turns out we can.
Liv (15) and I have made a pact, and I have kept my end of the bargain: I have made cinnamon rolls. The deal was that I would help her hack up clothes and make them from scratch on condition that she made a face mask from start to finish on her own. This is because there are loads of sewing techniques embodied in that little scrap of fabric, and she needs to build her skills and confidence with a sewing machine. She is not best pleased at this condition, and insists that I throw a batch of cinnamon rolls into the bargain to sweeten the deal, so to speak. Everyone is happy: Liv makes a very slick face mask out of the bottom half of a black t-shirt (illegally, prematurely hacked), I make cinnamon rolls, and she is well on the way to going full tilt at poor unsuspecting clothes in her wardrobe.
I paint the cinnamon rolls. I stand up to do this, and I use a paintbrush with no linework or pen. At first it looks like a mess, but I know that everything looks like a mess at the start, and it’s just a question of time (to build up elements of shape and shadow) and patience (so the paint has time to dry between layers). I use my pens, brown and black ink, to pick out the sultanas – the addition of which greatly irritated Liv, who prefers her cinnamon rolls without them – and little by little a plate appears, and wood grain, and shadows, and brown overcooked bits…and in the end, white icing on top, painted with a jar of solid white ink that is surprisingly useful. It is a battle to have this many cinnamon rolls left to sketch: well over half of them have been gobbled. But painting them is a great pleasure and I can feel my technique starting to develop as the days go by, my hand needing less and less direction. There is nothing like painting every day to push you past barriers, as the alternative is getting bored with yourself.
I have the rest of my life to enjoy nature, and I can’t wait to get back into that little forest tomorrow with my paints.