The Numinous: the phrase itself is mysterious, suggesting a depth and breadth that cannot be measured in normal terms. It’s a word that commands your individual response to the experience it describes.
Contact with the Numinous: the spectacular and unforgettable experience of being in direct contact with the forces of both creation and destruction. A privately powerful experience, one that confirms mortality while at the same time pointing towards the infinite. Time is big and small at once; individual and collective exist within each other.
The word originates from the Latin for “divine presence”, numen, with the verb nuene, “to beckon”. The Divine beckons. It is also a word well suited to the sense of pure wonder that can be experienced by people of any culture, background and religious tradition. It describes an overwhelming sense of awe at an incoming power; it comes over and through us. Some numinous experiences can be terrifying, like sensing the enormity of the abyss, while others are ecstatic, as though the whole world is dripping with gold and light.
So I have been looking for it.
And I find it in landscapes. Not always, and definitely not reliably. But I keep on looking, specifically for a way to translate, interpret and record this ineffable, wordless experience. I find the Numinous most accessible when alone in a vast, open, natural space, with the scars of time shaping the ground and the eyeless sky glaring down upon me in my smallness. This faceless, unknowable power; it scares and thrills me so I want nothing else; it threatens to obliterate or offers to heal. It gives meaning and it takes it away.
I use strong contrasts of black and white to emphasize the extremes of the experience. Extreme because it’s so different to everyday waking life, like a light bursting through the dark, and also because of the potential for apparently opposite emotions to arise: fear or love, hope or despair.
So the exhibition at RAMM is a record of an ongoing journey, glimpses into moments that represent the fullness and the emptiness between the spaces that join us all together. Life, its wildness, and our beautiful, fragile planet Earth.
Thanks to: Carmen Marin, RAMM, Mark Carter, Margaret Dawkins, Calmar Framing, Sylvan La, Louise Page, and all the people whose contributions to the journey made it possible.
There is a small island called Soay off the southwest coast of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland, with a community of three. Two of those residents are my dad and his wife, Anne, and she has written a book about life on Soay, called Island on the Edge, published this year. If you would like to find out about the history of Soay and what it's like to live on a remote Scottish island, you can find out more about it here, and buy the book here. Oh look, there's even a little video about it...
I'm having an exhibition of photos, paintings and mixed media pieces at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, October 2016 until January 2017. It's called The Numinous, and is a series of journeys through wild landscapes both psychological and worldwide. I'd like you to come and see it! This is a behind-the-scenes timelapse video of me preparing for the exhibition.
As I get ready for The Numinous at RAMM, I'm listening to a marathon of TED talks: art, psychology, human nature, science – and most encouragingly, the beauty of being a misfit... What are your favourite TED talks?
I'm preparing for an exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, starting in early October. It's called 'The Numinous', and continues my attempt to describe through landscape what lies beyond the physical, along the knife-edge of beauty and mortality, that wild freedom of the abyss and all that we have no answers for. There will be black and white photos, prints, and some new mixed media pieces. Gosh, how exciting!
Lately, I've been busy developing new techniques involving layers of painting and video. Below are a couple of frames from an experimental painting-video.
I'm also currently working on a music video quite unlike anything you will have seen before. I'm also preparing for a trip to visit some John Muir Trust sites in Scotland to gather material for an exhibition at their visitor centre next year.
...Oh yes, and I made a promotional video for Alistair Phillips' coracle business...
...And I collaborated with Katy Hooper on a YouTube video...
...And I went on holiday to Lanzarote...
...And plenty more, but you'll have to meet me in real life to hear about the other things. :)
I'm exploring the potential of mixing several of my favourite media together in one image. I'm really excited by the possibilities and it's opened up a whole new way to make pictures! I'm staying within my usual subject area of birds and wildness but I have a head full of images that involve women, too.
Above: 'Oysters Divide', using an oil paint sketch of some oystercatchers (intended for a current commission), layered with ice bubbles – just to experiment with texture – and my first attempt at digital painting.
Below: 'Release Me', using a pen sketch of a girl, a photo of some pigeons and a background of carbon on oil paper. I'm learning so much and it's great fun.
Folk singer Katy Hooper wrote the song Woman of the Road about a sense of rootlessness. I made this video for her while travelling down the west coast of America, through Oregon and California and into the desert of Death Valley.
I never expected to find myself battling through an underworld of 20-foot reeds, scraping under willow branches with my eyeballs at water level, colliding with hawthorn bushes and inadvertently acquiring an outfit of spiders, mud and foliage – but it turns out that having an adventure by coracle is incredibly good fun!
This outing was facilitated by Alistair Phillips of WoodWorks and Coracles, as a reunion activity for a group of volunteers who’d met when building a cob roundhouse. All being of a similarly outdoorsy type, keen to learn new skills and explore the countryside, we travelled to Oxfordshire and had our first tentative wobble in a coracle on the pond in Alistair’s garden.
Traditionally, coracles are made using a willow frame with a skin of calico coated in tar. Alistair’s modern coracles use ash with strong plastic instead of calico, making them more durable and lighter to carry. We used the PVC offcuts to make pirate hats, and, sporting the height of coracling fashion, we set off for the river.
Within moments of launching our tough yet precarious crafts onto the River Thame (a tributary of the Thames), we were mastering the art of moving the paddle side to side in twisting strokes – known as sculling – to propel ourselves through the water. A gentle current nudged us downstream but not before we’d starred briefly in an improvised attempt at Swan Lake. Stay tuned for the drama of me stuck under a tree...
Forging through the first jungle of reeds, we broke out between neatly manicured private lawns and drifted steadily towards a bridge with a series of archways that presented an alarmingly swift choice for the novice not quite yet in control…
Rapids! Tiny ones! We plunged gently down a stony shelf below the bridge, one by one, popping out the other side – except our admiral, Cliff, who capsized! He emerged from the shadows bravely, hatless, and with one dry shoulder. Tipping the water from his little boat, he climbed back in and we set off once more down the peaceful, dark green tunnel between hedgerows dense and tangled with August’s bushy sprawl.
It was a privilege to paddle along the quiet river, seeing things from a perspective usually reserved for river-dwelling creatures. We saw no other humans on our one-mile, three-hour journey, only swans, ducks, and perhaps a mink below the surface of the water. We heard the call of a kingfisher, hidden from view by the English jungle. Several times, I got stuck in the thick reed beds and once under that tree, but my loyal, bedraggled companions shunted me along and we all agreed that travelling by coracle was definitely the way to explore Britain’s secret waterways.
You can make a coracle of your own with Alistair by contacting him at www.woodworksandcoracles.co.uk. We also whittled wooden spoons – well, at least a rough impression of a spoon – and turned some lovely bowls.
Here's some Alistair made earlier...
When my dad met cyclist Danny MacAskill preparing to shoot his epic mountain bike film Riding the Ridge in the nearby Cuillins on Skye, he didn't really understand that Danny wasn't just going for a bike ride. When we saw the film (with Dad in a tiny boat cameo in the background), we were so impressed that we just had to make our own version...
Molten Mountain will be auctioned this Wednesday in Plymouth to raise money for ShelterBox. The charity sends boxes of practical supplies to people in disaster or humanitarian crisis zones – things such as tents, lighting, blankets, sleeping mats and cooking equipment. They have also provided schooling equipment and art therapy materials to help children recovering from traumatic experiences to regain a sense of normality.
To bid for this painting and support the auction, go to Rumpus Cosy in Plymouth at 6.30 on Wednesday 12 August, 2015. I'm looking forward to finding out where our box(es) will be sent.
In the wilderness, there are no easy exits, no signposts or pavements. We are insignificant in the expansive and intimidating cathedrals of power; tiny unseen scratches on the primeval rock face of time.
It is a place of sweeping vistas and magnificent contrasts, where extremes can suddenly change form without warning, into sudden storms or a burst of light across a dark plain. Volcanic eruptions, endless deserts, crumpled mountain ranges; the molten creative spirit is unpredictable – awesome and beautiful and deadly...
Wild are the creatures that can survive and thrive in the wilderness and have wildness in their heartbeat and the beating of their wings. Wild is an acceptance of natural forces greater than ourselves and a degree of acquiescence to those forces, which means being crushed and absorbed if necessary, but also the ability to swim and merge and allow the wilderness to create an updraft on which to glide.
We have not forgotten these forces and the power of gliding with them. We are still afraid of being in the wild places and the dangers are still very real: mortality, loss of control, the inability to protect ourselves… And also the thrill, the challenge, the reward of temporary alignment – everything we undertake comes down to the balance of these things.
We are still wild, living in the wilderness, inside, when we see without distraction. There are unpaved places within us that can expand without warning into overwhelming internal scenery. We have to adapt and surrender constantly to survive.
I love this and don’t want to become tame – I want to dive and swoop and glide and take my chances of being obliterated. So I am drawn to wild places where the powers of creation and destruction are pure and raw; I feel small and do not worry, because I surrender. I am a tiny mirror that beams with excitement in recognition of my wild reflection.
In the subalpine wilderness of Yosemite National Park, the Pacific Coast Trail meanders across flat open meadow, under the impossibly pointy mountains of the Sierra Nevada and into forests of pine. The air is deliciously tree-scented and fresh, with the last patches of snow outlining granite formations under a blue June sky.
We walk between twisting trunks of dying ponderosa, pinyon and lodgepole pines, turned yellow and black with a combination of sap and sun. Pinyon and lodgepole pines turn grey and add to the high risk of fire. This is the driest year on record. Six years of drought across California and dwindling snowpack levels mean less water for thirsty trees. The bark beetle, endemic to California’s mountains, usually helps to maintain the health of a forest by attacking weaker trees, but because of the change in climate, the beetle has flourished and the forests are suffering. Short, gnarled limbs reach outwards like burnt arms reaching for rescue and the trail enters a graveyard of fallen, rotting tree corpses. Whole families have fallen together and lie side by side in the bird-tweeting late afternoon.
Healthy new saplings rise up from the wreckage, vivid needles luminous and shining with life. They are sharp to the touch, sturdy and self-protective. Pine cones a few inches long decorate the trail and rocks change colour from stripy, rust-stained reds and purples to white stones flashing with quartz, to yellow, sandy, gravelly pieces. Large boulders loom from the woods like quiet elephants sleeping behind the trees. These massive rocks would have been transported by melting glaciers, carried for miles over the now-polished moonscape where trees stand on sheets of rock and appear as though they might scuttle along when my back is turned… Their determination to grow in cracks, on ledges and without any apparent room for roots is a testimony to the strength of nature. Tufts of wiry grass sprout in the rough, sandy soil, with yellow flowers and mosses shaped like sage-green stars erupting in unassuming clumps, minding their own business as the humans pass by.
We ascend, my barefoot Alaskan companion and I, the trees and boulders becoming bigger as we cross patches of dirty snow, stepping into lengthening shadows as the sun disappears below the horizon. Zach stubs his toe and puts on Crocs with purple socks, a bright reminder of the twenty-first century world we left behind. Before nightfall, we set up camp beside the wonderfully tranquil Young Lake, edged by stunning snow-covered mountains on the opposite shore.
During the night, I step outside and walk around, the lakeside trees and boulders illuminated by moonlight. The temperature had dropped below freezing and my bones hurt with the ache of cold. In the lake is a perfect reflection of the snowy mountains under a full moon caught exactly at the midpoint between the two highest peaks. This is beautiful and I am fully alive.
This landscape is a visual sea of impossibility. The shapes, shadows, planes and dimensions are almost baffling to observe, like an optical illusion or a giant jigsaw puzzle. There is no moving of the pieces, of course, but just trying to understand where they are in relation to each other is quite a challenge. My human eyes are not trained or experienced at reading such a landscape and I am humbled by the initial spatial bewilderment.
In the midday haze, bright splashes of red draw the eye to smoothly rounded buttresses. A hundred castles on top of fortress walls and undulating shelves in gradients of colour that reveal an overarching consistency to the whole swerving chaos. Tracing the layers of paler rock suggests a measuring system and a way to tell the time – that once, these cousin rocks were joined and formed together. In the centre of this vista is a stack of sandy-coloured pieces, higher than its neighbours, as though determined to hold onto its yellow head and shoulders while all the rest are worn down to the colour of magnificent flowerpots.
Little green trees dot the entire landscape, fading into grey-green shadows on brown. On the horizon, a vast flat shelf of dark green, high up against the pale blue, cloud-sausaged sky. A few caves arch into vertical red cliffs, offering shelter in unreachable places. Dark, wobbly cloud shadows ripple across the scenery, chasing and disappearing into hidden valleys to reappear smaller in the distance, surprisingly small and suddenly far away. Ravens soar and swoop into the chasms a mile below – I wonder if they know how lucky they are?
These experiences are so important for the conservation of our planet, as well as our psychological wellbeing. Without the opportunity to experience nature, to recall the childlike fascination with natural beauty, we can easily lose touch with our place in the wider picture. From the experience of a lifetime in the Grand Canyon to witnessing small wonders like a bee in a flower, this is how we remember our role as caretakers of the Earth. We are part of ecology, not separate from it, and a regular dose of awe inspired by those moments of connection with beauty and shared appreciation is a richness available to all and so necessary. You don't have to go all the way to the Grand Canyon to experience it.
The human mind is small when thinking of small things.
It is large when embracing the maker of walking, thinking and flying.
Native American poet, Joy Harjo.
As evening turned to night above the dusty town of Tecopa, a thunderstorm ripped across the floodplains, howling wind whipping sand in exfoliating blasts against the windows of Cynthia’s Hostel, shaking the building – shaking my bed! Lightning struck and I could smell the rain before it came, and when it poured, the delicious scent was intensified as though I could smell the desert’s gratitude for the blessing of rain.
I drove into Death Valley at dawn, weaving between abrupt and curiously sculpted hills of old, dark sand. Triangular formations of pink, brown, vanilla and mauve oozed together and set like different flavours of ice cream, until pushed aside by increasing expanses of stony open desert. Bleached mini-trees, salty plains gleaming, and one long road that faded into the flat distance, curving and dipping to reappear in miniature far ahead, accentuating the magnitude of the vast desert landscape.
The twists and turns took me ever further into enormity, past dazzling streaks of salt flats edged by zigzagging indigo mountain shadows. Then, at Badwater Basin, tourism began on a modest scale, with noisy people sauntering out into the heat haze to pose for photos in the lowest place in North America, 85.5 metres below sea level. The temperature began to increase as the sun rose: 32°C by nine o’clock and 37°C by midday. Blood temperature.
It is the hottest place on Earth. In July, the average temperature can be 46°C. Spending days outside in that kind of heat can lead to damage of the internal organs and then death, so the best time for the anti-social to visit Death Valley is in the summer. Even in May, it was too hot to spend much time out of an air-conditioned car for most of the day. I enjoyed the novel sensation of being cooked alive but became dizzy after a while and had to retreat.
At Mesquite sand dunes, I wandered out into the heat towards an unattainable, undulating crest much further away than it appeared. Walking on fine, soft pale sand lumpy with human footprints and crossed by the delicate tyre-tread patterns of scurrying lizards, I saw a grey spider and long, looping grooves in the sand that could only have been carved by snakes. Baked playas where water once stood now offer a cracked floor for incongruous ballroom dancing – if only I’d had a partner. Dipping down between dune hills, the car park disappeared and I had a sense of how terrifying it must have been for those men who, in search of gold, got lost and gave it the name ‘Death Valley’.
It is not really such a valley of death, though, as it hides unexpected biodiversity – almost 1000 native plant species and endemic fish, snails and other aquatic animals that have enabled the Timbisha Shonone people to live here successfully for hundreds of years. They continue to gain great strength from the desert and say that the land is a “valley of life” and a place of healing. As I lay on the warm ground in my tent the following night, aware of a comforting heat gently permeating the blankets below and rising into my body, I felt that to be true.
As I drifted off to sleep in the peaceful dark of remote Wildrose Campground, I was suddenly jolted awake by the screech of a donkey right outside the tent! I looked out but couldn’t see anything except the stars, shining like laser beams through velvet.
In the morning, I packed up early and stopped for breakfast beside the road, surrounded by graceful mountains woolly with small shrubs and gradually lit by the rising sun. I watched the colours change from dark to grey and brown, then bleached lighter as the harshness of the day increased. I sat on my cool-box and ate oats and did a little painting. Nobody came by and I felt quite serene and at peace, in my right place in the middle of nowhere.
Warm ochre, pastel slabs. Flakes and fingers.
Chalk dusting regular holds and the quiet, clean click of carabiners. Squeaking swallows, honking geese. Hundreds of tiny non-biting insects swarming the warm sunlight. Ponderosa pines in dusty ground; elephant's breath grey soil, a welcoming silt.
This landscape is majestic and somehow reassuring, protecting the valley with its massive walls and spires of rock, sheer and impossible, the outline crisp and gnarled on a skyline graced by raptors and ravens.
The rock calls us to it, climbers and non-climbers alike. We want to be near it, on it, embraced by it. Maybe some want to conquer it, as if that were possible. Some of the routes are amongst the hardest in the world. This rock commands respect, and it pulls my awe from the river to the skyline.
Isle of Soay, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.
The splat, suck and splash of welly boots in saturated sphagnum. The tremulous tweeting of little springtime birds. Rhythmic seaside sound of oystercatchers across a mirror of ice-blue sea. Quiet munching of sheep tearing up short, blonde winter grass.
Frogspawn in jellied lumps on the track, daring the drying puddles to remain in Easter's sunshine. Rusted tin on the sheep shed and tumbling walls losing themselves under years of cushioning moss. Gnarled birch and rowan, not yet budding into bloom. Gently rippled water of dark, secret lochs.
A sky of wisps and swathes above mountains cradling the last creases of snow. Bones and dead, brown crisps of bracken. Dry rustle of grass and crunch of heather, ghosts of last year's bells now a faint colour of parchment. The dark indigo peaks of Rhum embedded in white cotton wool. Patterned rocks, layered with lichen.
Around the coast, salt sea breeze mingles with warm mossy wetness. Silver sea into blinding sunshine. Sienna, ochre, silver, blue.