Rocks, stars, and souls

Today the Guardian reported that “Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.” The complete article is well worth reading.

What are the practical implications of this? It means things are very bad indeed. It means that the people whose knowledge we trust the most, sensible scientists, reaching the most balanced conclusions, are making predictions which make the preachings of the crazier apocolyptic religions appear mild. It means your grandchildren’s lives will almost certainly be badly blighted. Your own life probably will be too.

What are the moral implications of this? It is that we (you and I) are collectively colluding in a holocaust many times worse than that of Nazi Germany. Like the people of Nazi Germany, we did not consciously choose it, but we bear the guilt nevertheless. Unlike them, we have no wicked leader to blame: it is a truly collective crime. It is a horror so enormous that almost the only option is to ignore it: the courage required to face it is, I think, almost too great for human strength. People say to me, ‘If you feel so strongly, why don’t you spend all your time protesting and stuff?’ The answer is, because I don’t have the strength. It would literally send me mad, and that would be messy.

What are the spiritual implications of this? Belief-systems promise happiness. Evangelical Christianity promises heaven when you die if you put your faith in Jesus. Secular liberal democracy promises happiness through freedom and prosperity. The liberal Christianity I have grown up in promises happiness through the promotion social justice, ‘God’s kingdom on earth’. All of these belief systems had much that was valuable in them. But the situation we face today shows all these belief-systems are now utterly bankrupt. If there is a ‘heaven’, our utter failure to even to face what our ‘sins’ are, let alone ‘repent’ of them or ‘turn to Christ’ ensures none of us will be going there. The secular utopia of liberal democracy has failed, because its own prophets, the scientists, are warning that the future holds not wealth and freedom, but poverty and war. The liberal Christianity, which preached that with God’s help we could build a fairer, more sustainable world, has proved itself to be the biggest pie in the sky of all. God hasn’t helped (I leave it to you to decide why!) and we were too weak.

Are there any glimmers of comfort? Well — if you take the perspective of geological time, the catastrophic climate change and mass extinction of the 21st century will be a very minor event. If you take the perspective of the universe, the events on one small planet is equally trivial. And if you look candidly at your own life or any other individual’s, with their days and years, joys and sorrows, there are in fact a million things which add or subtract to its happiness other than health, wealth or security, and the one certainty is that it will come to an end.

But if you value your soul, if the poor derided citizens of Nazi Germany have taught us anything, don’t hide. Most of us don’t want to be heroes or villains, we want to be ordinary members of the chorus, living little quiet lives (I want to write history books and novels, and sing and draw. The last thing I want to be is an environmental campaigner. For one thing, I’m dreadful at it.) But living quietly isn’t an option: not to be a hero, is to be a villain, like all those other villains of history who kept quiet in the face of gas chambers, guillotines, African slavery, or whatever it was. So screw up your courage, and find your way to be heroic.

Open your eyes. Find out the facts and face the reality of our situation. Look at the rocks and look at the stars. Understand what happiness really is. Act accordingly.

Ruskin’s Moss

Walking between amongst the stone walls and old trees of the Lake District this weekend I was trying to recall John Ruskin’s description of moss. I think it’s the most beautiful piece of descriptive writing I’ve ever found, so here it is, so I have it to hand when I have time to illustrate it, or learn it by heart: 

Mosses– Meek creatures! the first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks; creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honour the scarred disgrace of ruin, laying quiet finger on the trembling stones to teach them rest. No words, that I know of, will say what these mosses are. None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough. How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green, — the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the rock spirits could spin porphyry as we do glass, — the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fibre into fitful brightness and glossy traverses of silken change, yet all subdued and pensive, and framed for simplest, sweetest offices of grace? They will not be gathered, like the flowers, for chaplet, or love-token; but of these the wild bird will make its nest, and the wearied child his pillow.

And as the earth’s first mercy, so they are its last gift to us: when all other service is vain, from plant and tree, the soft mosses and gray lichen take up their watch by the headstone. The woods, the blossoms, the gift-bearing grasses, have done their parts for a time; but these do service for ever. Trees for the builder’s yard, flowers for the bride’s chamber, corn for the granary, moss for the grave.  — John Ruskin, Frondes Agrestes 59.

Christmas Cards

I became an illustrator by making my own Christmas cards. As a teenager I was obsessed by Celtic art. I would begin in January, and spend the year creating a set of designs.

At first they were closely derived from The Book of Kells and Lindesfarne Gospels, but I became more confident about designing my own layouts and patterns. I loved the philosophy of celtic art as well as the colour and intricacy: that the labour of the intricate work was a kind of prayer, that the geometric shapes, eternal lines and naturalistic designs were imitatitive of God’s own creativity, that small imperfections should always be left to ensure the artist did not become arrogant and put herself on a level with the Creator, the little symbol of three dots to represent the Holy Trinity.

Eventually exams and university caught up with me and by the time I returned to illustration, I had emerged almost literally from the Dark Ages, got a lot more sceptical and a lot less obsessive, and developed a strong interest in environmental issues. My designs still drew on the skills I’d learned copying those celtic knots, but were based on sketches of nature, like this one using my favourite weed, Herb Robert. I continued to draw on my spiritual tradition of the bible too, but instead of the abstract ideas I had entwined geometric knots around, I chose earthier ‘ecological’ passages like this one, Psalm 96.

‘Where is this stupendous stranger?’ is another design from this time, in which I finally untied myself from the knots, and experimented with the delicious possibilities of creating a colourful world out of black ink on white paper, and of earthing mystical words in quirky, modern illustration inspired by artists like Lowry and Escher.

I wanted to do more designs and draw on wider influences, and was also looking at ways to commercialise my work, so I came up with the idea of inviting people to commission a Christmas card design as a way of making these time-consuming  designs affordable. The first commissions were mostly from supportive members of my choir and the church congregation, so were dominated by carols, which were my suggested theme.

A few people commission a card from me every year, which allows me to create a series of designs, like this one which I gave the paradoxical name of ‘contemporary mediaeval’. It draws on the knotwork and calligraphy skills I learned in all those hours copying the Book of Kells, but gives it greater freedom, restraint and personality. I’ve got less afraid of blank space.

I continued to design cards for myself as well, to send and to sell, and these represent the work I want to do. My favourite themes in recent years have been nature and literature.

This year I took the literature theme a step further, because I’ve rediscovered something I’d put aside before I even began drawing those Celtic cards as a teenager: story writing. All my cards tell stories, and there with sub-plots hidden in the margins and themes running through the colours and styles. This year for the first time there’s a real story, The Falcon Christmas, based on research I’ve been doing for my history PhD. The illustration on the card illustrates the story, which is hidden in a little ribbon-bound book inside.

This doesn’t represent the complete collection of my Christmas cards. The full collection is in my Etsy shop where all their stories are told. I hope you enjoy them!

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The St John’s Garden

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St John’s Church at the West End of Edinburgh have just completed a major project to improve and open up their historic and beautiful graveyard. They asked me to provide an illustration for a new interpretative sign. It’s the cherry on the cake of all the work of tree-felling, planting, path-building and monument restoration which has been going on in the background.

graveyard-panel-smallMy illustration was beautifully put together with the information on the history and facilities of the site by graphic designer Peter Blood from The Osprey Company, www.ospreyco.com, who provided the signboard itself. If you want a sign, we’ve made a good team and would love to work together again!

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The sign was unveiled at a special ceremony with the Bishop of Edinburgh (the guy in the pink frock…) The unveiling is being done by historian Angus Mitchell, who knows more about the people buried in the churchyard than anyone. (I’m hot on his heels, however, because the people in the graveyard are some of the subject of my history PhD which you can read about here).

The sign is on the Terrace down the steps from Lothian Road — drop in and have a look if you’re in Edinburgh!

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