I’ve always been a sucker for synchronicities – those serendipitous events colliding in time or meaning, yet with no apparent causal link. The word was first used to describe the concept in the 1920’s, by analytical psychologist Carl Jung, who held that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. More on this here and here.
We’d been thinking for a long time that the garden would benefit from some sort of focal sculpture, at a point where, for the sort of historical aberration that results from having an organically evolving garden, rather than one carefully mapped out on paper, two parts of a path have an awkward horizontal and abrupt step shift in direction.
We knew that it would need to be quite tall, to create the sort of accent we wanted, and had intermittently explored concepts without really finding anything of meaning. Or more importantly, within our budget. Going big in sculpture of any sort, usually means big bucks for anything aesthetically pleasing.
So with my poem “Dream Leaper” fresh in my mind, I ran the idea past Fiona. What about turning it into some sort of physical presence? Much to my surprise, and to her enormous credit, she went with the idea.
Discussion followed. Quickly we arrived at stainless steel as a material, to capture the imagery of a mature salmon, but then there was the critical question of how to get the text onto the steel – etching or cutting, probably using a laser seemed the route to go. We had experience of laser cutting from many years back with our metal table top, but this was a very different challenge. Early on we had the idea for a simple shaped sheet with the text featuring on it, but then worked out that whilst it would work close up, from a distance it’d probably just look like an enormous, plonked silvery slab.
So there was only one thing for it. At this stage, over to Fiona for a major effort in speedy creative art work. She studied images of leaping salmon, eventually found one we quite liked, drew it out, scanned it into the computer, and then started to import the text. We were progressing, but the fish looked too fat.
No problem, Fiona, computer wizard that she is, stretched and thinned it. The text then needed reworking of our course, and we spent ages scrolling through font options. Finally, I stood back and reckoned the fish needed slightly angling off vertical, to create a more life like appearance.
Whilst all this was going on over about a week or so, I’d started trawling the internet, to use an appropriately fishy verb, to try to find a firm that might be able to turn the idea into reality. What we think was our table cutting firm has grown much larger, and the sales lady I got to speak to was frankly disinterested and unhelpful.
A more local firm sounded promising after an exploratory chat, but never responded once I’d sent through an email with our artwork.
Third time lucky and I tried “Etch and Cut” in Wigan. I’d liked the website, but more importantly one of just a handful of reviews extolling the helpfulness of the owner.
Suffice to say that this was key to my experience. Over the course of many emails and phone calls over a three week period, I always spoke with Mark Mennell, who is “Etch and Cut”. Every time he responded asap, and his technical advice and explanations were exemplary. (Thanks to Mark M. for one of his ‘work in progress photos’, below, to keep us in the loop).
He even raised doubts about whether we’d be able to read all the text with the height we had in mind and suggested I make a life sized mock up. So, I found the biggest piece of cardboard I could muster, cut out a rough scale salmon shape, (you can see why Fiona does the art work!) whacked in a post in the appropriate place, stuck on some scaled up text, stood back and viewed it from several points, and found he was absolutely right! It needed to be about 15 cm taller. Which doesn’t sound much, but it made all the difference for reading the whole poem.
His price came within our budget, and it was with real excitement that we awaited arrival of the piece last Friday, remarkably just a month after I’d glimpsed the fish in our stream, which was the trigger for me writing the poem.
But hang on a minute, what about the synchronicity I began with?
I’d decided early on that in the spirit of Dream Leaper, and to work aesthetically where we wanted to place it, the salmon should be life size. But what is life size for an Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar? (Origin: Salmon; leaping)
Sadly, large salmon are now extremely rare for all sorts of reasons, but ambitiously, given the poem’s title, I chose the statistics based on the largest rod caught salmon in the UK, which was a whopping 64lbs in weight, with a length of 58 inches and a girth of 28.5 inches. It was caught on October 22nd 1922, so nearly a century ago, by 32 year old Georgina Ballantine. She was fishing on the Scottish river Tay with her father, and at the end of a long day of salmon fishing when she’d already hooked and landed 3 other large fish, and her ghillie had left for home, she had a final bite. It then took her over 2 hours to fight and land her catch, by which time the arthritis afflicted spinster was understandably exhausted, and night had fallen. Click here to read her own riveting description of the battle with this clearly very Big Fish.
Roughly midway through our own Big Fish project outline above, another much more globally significant Big Fish was about to be landed. I’m referring to my younger brother Mark Wormald’s exciting discoveries based on the previously unknown friendship and artistic collaborations between the British poet laureate Ted Hughes, the Irish Nobel laureate poet Seamus Heaney, and an English born, Irish based painter called Barrie Cooke – now widely acknowledged as Ireland’s finest painter of the last half of the twentieth century.
The story of Mark’s detective work tracking this relationship down over many years and subsequently acquiring for his college, Pembroke, a unique archive of previously unknown correspondence, photos and art, is fascinating. After garnering diverse support to raise the necessary six figure sum, the news has attracted much interest from around the world. The archive will be housed as an open to the public exhibition, in a new Pembroke college gallery in Cambridge, due to open in 2022, with the potential for an archive based exhibition to travel more widely.
This discovery created a big media splash a couple of weeks ago, with a BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview, a page 3 feature in the Saturday “Daily Telegraph” and a major feature in “The Guardian” too, as well as numerous Irish media events. This is such a big deal at least in part, as Mark explained in some of the coverage, historically many such literary archives (including the bulk of both Ted Hughes’s and Seamus Heaney’s letters) end up being acquired by more affluent USA universities like the Coca Cola sponsored collection at Emory University in Atlanta. Click here.
Do watch this 4 minute video for a quick insight into this ongoing project, and hear Mark enthusing about the creative synergies between the two poets and the artist, with most of the friendship taking place, off the radar, across borders in the Ireland of the troubles of the seventies and eighties. It was a relationship based on a shared love of the natural world, water and rivers, and in the case of Ted and Barrie, a passion for fishing, in particular for salmon and pike. More than this, the friendship was critical in the mutual support and encouragement for the creative endeavours of all three men.
I’ve previously mentioned in a post way back in 2011, I think, that Mark’s beginning of this decade long journey of exploration began when he discovered that the room he was allocated when he first arrived at Pembroke college as an English Fellow, turned out to be the very same one that Ted Hughes had also occupied in his third year at Pembroke. It was there that the student Hughes had the vivid and extraordinary dream he recounts below, which led him, much later, to write one of his most well known poems – The Thought Fox. For those who struggle with Hughes’ life and work, it’s a brief insight into the aura of his physical presence and use of language.
So how strange that Mark’s Big Fish launch should so closely tie in with my brief salmon sighting, poem and now Big Fish sculpture. It also made me appreciate even more, the buzz one can get from a creative project, particularly if, as in this case, it’s a real collaboration of effort and minds – Fiona, Mark Mennell and myself.
Although we don’t have TV, I’m familiar with the excited anticipation of “The Repair Shop” participants who return to collect their much loved items after restoration. Although Mark M. had kept us really well informed with pictures of the emerging salmon, as the simple cut steel sheet arrived in his workshop, and then of the finished piece before shipping, it was still exciting to dig out the screwdriver and take the lid off his heavy and sturdy purpose built plywood shipping box.
We’d already sourced a suitably chunky river stone from the stream and wheel-barrowed it up the hill. One of a recent crop, washed out annually from the seam of moraine that sits between layers of clay and peat, I like the idea that it was chosen for a spot in the limelight after lying buried for, probably, thousands of years. Almost inevitably, since even an apparently inhospitable rushing upland stream teems with hidden life, we’d first had to scrape off a gravel clad larval caddis case, and black scorpion like Ephemera larva, from its underside. The to-be-exposed pinnacle also had a quick once over with a wire brush to expose the stone’s granite like texture.
A joint effort on Saturday saw Fiona angle grinding some irregularities off the stone’s face, and then after sinking it into the hole, came the tricky job of fixing the sculpture, which, being made out of 6mm plate steel, weighs almost as much as Georgina’s fish! Notwithstanding the muddy arms and guddling in the hole with a small wrench, the end result finished with it securely fixed and vertical in both planes, glitch free, first time.
We’re delighted with the end result, which has already shown us the unexpected and wonderful property of looking subtly different in different lights and weather conditions, even at this gloomy time of the year. By having the text etched on both sides, it also encourages the poem to be read and appreciated from both sides. For me it fixes a unique moment in this place, in a very personal way in this most unique of years. I hope that future garden visitors will engage with it, and as is sometimes the case on this blog, I’m intentionally not including a really clear full frontal picture of the whole piece here, so if you want to see it, you’ll just have to come and visit the garden some time!
I couldn’t end without a specific huge thank you to Mark M, for all his help with this – he was brilliant. If all businesses were this courteous, efficient and helpful, we’d have nothing to fear from Brexit. (But maybe that’s a big ask!) Should you ever need any laser work doing, he’s your man! Check out his website, to see just what he can work with and has created in the past – Etch and Cut
And indeed to brother Mark, for all the interest and inspiration I’ve gained from his years of literary detective work. It’s great to see it all coming together, and being widely appreciated as a great good news story for these challenging times.
As a final salmon fishy link, Mark W. also tipped me off about a fascinating contemporary exhibition at The Tate gallery in London. Salmon : A Red Herring is the collaborative effort of a duo who call themselves “Cooking Sections”. It is described thus…
A pioneering project that explores the deceptive reality of salmon, as a colour and a fish
Salmon is usually thought of as salmon pink. Today the fish should be grey, but chemical substances and food colourants make them the desired colour. Salmon is just one of many colour oddities resulting from the metabolisation of manmade substances in bodies.
As Cooking Sections describe it, salmon is ‘the colour of a wild fish which is neither wild, nor fish, nor even salmon’.
Through a site-specific installation and institutional interventions, Salmon: A Red Herring continues the long term project, Climavore, to critically reflect on the impact of salmon farms on the marine environment.
Cooking Sections are Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe: a duo of “spatial practitioners” based in London who use installation, performance, mapping and video, to explore the systems that organise the world through food. Their Climavore : On Tidal Zones project has been running for 5 years, and is described by Cooking Sections in this way:
It explores the environmental effects of aquaculture and reacts to the changing shores of Portree, Isle of Skye. Each day at low tide, the installation emerges above the sea and functions as a dining table for humans, with free tastings of recipes featuring ocean cleaners: seaweeds, oysters, clams and mussels. At high tide, the installation works as an underwater oyster table. The installation was activated by Cooking Sections in collaboration with local stakeholders, residents, politicians and researchers. Over breakfast, lunch, or dinner (according to the tides), performative meals featured a series of CLIMAVORE ingredients that respond to the environmental challenges of Scottish waters. The project also engaged with 10 local restaurants that removed farmed salmon off their menu and introduced a CLIMAVORE dish instead. The long-term project aims to look at CLIMAVORE forms of eating that address environmental regeneration and promote more responsive aqua-cultures in an era of man-induced environmental transformations.
As a result of one element of Mark W’s previous work (last year’s Cambridge “Owned by Everyone” conference), highlighting the ongoing risks to, and drastic decline in wild Atlantic salmon populations, we took the decision to stop eating any farmed salmon “products” at the beginning of this year. He’s since persuaded Pembroke college to take salmon off the menu. Cooking Sections have managed to achieve the same result with all 4 Tate gallery restaurants, and replace the dishes with more sustainable marine foods like seaweeds and shellfish. Click here to watch a short video explaining their Skye project and the background to the issues involved. Well worth a watch if only for the image of the pink sparrow at the beginning.
All because it ate some salmon feed, with the special numbered dye included in it, which ensures the grey farmed salmon flesh ends up being just the “right” selected shade of more attractive “salmon(?)pink”
Do your eggs match the egg yolk fan chart?
Or are they free range, and get their carotenoid yellow pigments from more natural sources?
The day after our Big Fish was landed, we experienced a minus 6 degrees C sharp frost. I inspected the sculpture in the first light of a lovely, though by then clouding, dawn to find the steel covered in small ice crystals. That in spite of having been cleaned with WD40, as recommended by Mark M. after installation.
I took a few photos, along with the wonderful fuzzy crystals covering our wooden table top, and etching the dragonflies, as well as finding an ice beard on a ancient Clematis stem, before setting to on some hedge laying, in my continued drive to not only defuzz the garden, but also to open up the views a little more into the surrounding landscape.
It was quite a bit later when I returned to the watering can behind the back door, and discovered one of the most impressive ice spikes I’ve ever found. Although beginning to melt, as the sun had by then moved round enough to bring the spike into its warming glare, the images show just how quickly these gravity defying structures can form, given the very specific and rare climatic/environmental conditions which will allow this to happen. Click here for a previous discussion about how this happens, and for some more images of the handful or so that I’ve seen since my first in January 2013. During last winter’s milder conditions, I drew a complete blank, but fortunately my lack of tidiness usually means that by winter proper, there are at last one of two containers that have filled up with rainwater, and have the potential to grow one, should the conditions become favourable.
I revisited the spike through the day as it continued to melt, intrigued by how its form would change, and almost convinced myself that I could see a small mouth at its tip – it would certainly have had a miniscule opening here, connected to a thin, open, water filled tube right down into the water of the bowl, which is how the structure grows. Did it even look animate in certain lights?
An ice eel, or elver perhaps? I’d heard of glass eels, and discovered that there’s even a company still harvesting such eels as they migrate into the mouth of the river Severn. This in spite of the evidence for collapsing eel stocks, rather akin to the issues facing Atlantic salmon. The young fish are sold on to fisheries across Europe, and the industry is supposedly a sustainable one. Addendum – the morning after posting this, as yet another piece of synchronicity, we caught a repeat of BBC Radio Four’s Open Country from the Somerset Levels introduced by local folk singer Kitty Macfarlane, which includes a wonderful insight into eel ecology and their extraordinary life cycle, click here.
Or here for some of the perils we’ve created for the eels and how their population has crashed in recent years, on the website of the pan-European Sustainable Eel Group.)
By way of another personal link, for a few years now, I’ve had a copy of “Catadrome” on our kitchen wall, a short poem by Ted Hughes about the eel, and quite unusual, in that it’s also illustrated by him with a lovely drawing of an adult eel. (The image below has been tweaked by me).
The poem was one of a very few printed by his son Nicholas, on their own aging printing press in Devon, which Ted’s sister Olwyn had given to him. Nicholas called the small scale publishing venture “The Morrigu Press”, a title which I’ve been looking at on the wall every day, for the last several years: But it was only after watching Mark’s archive video of the Hughes/Heaney/Cooke collection that the penny dropped as to the significance of this choice of name. The “Morrigu” (or Morrigan), was an ancient mythological female Irish deity, often foretelling fate and death, perhaps in battle.
The Morrigu was frequently portrayed appearing as a crow. (I knew none of this a month ago, when I wrote my poem). If you’ve clicked on Mark’s video you’ll see a detailed entry made by Hughes in Barrie Cooke’s guest book where Hughes writes both a poem and sketches an ink drawing of a huge crow, labelled as the Morrigu, about to swallow a giant pike – the Dagda. I can only imagine the thought processes and family discussions concerning the choice of this Morrigu moniker for Nicholas’s publishing venture, which ran for about 4 years (i.e. Goddess of war and foreteller of death). Certainly a big contrast to the rather cheerier “Rainbow Press”, which was an earlier self owned publishing business Hughes set up with sister Olwyn in the seventies. (Click here for more on the interesting reasons why Hughes was attracted to small scale publishing).
Suffice to say that the impact of the suicides of both Sylvia Plath, (Hughes’s first wife and Nicholas’ mother), after discovering Hughes’s affair with the tenant of their London flat, Assia Weevil; and the later suicide of Weevil and her and Hughes’ young daughter, would have left indelible scars on all members of the family.
Nicholas, who went on to become an expert in stream salmonid ecology after graduating, had type set the text for the poem on our wall whilst a student reading zoology at Oxford, and then printed off a limited run on hand made paper. I have my own fond memories of a spot of type setting at The Turk’s Head Press, our grammar school’s printing press club, in the early 1970’s, and great fun it was too. Though technically quite tedious and creatively limiting. What Nicholas created with these poems was more challenging – 2 ink colours, and Ted’s detailed drawing, with the text set within it.
How times have changed thanks to computers and lasers. (Thanks to Mark M. for the other work in progress shots below – note the incomplete jawline, before the laser works its magic on the steel).
Before leaving the subject, I should record that tragedy would play out yet one more time for the Hughes family, when 11 years after Ted Hughes’ death, Nicholas also took his own life.
Beware the curse of the Morrigu?
The final twist of this ice spike story came as the sun and temperatures dipped again. A last trip to the bowl revealed that the fish had now morphed from eel to shark, as most of the bubbles had melted away, and these wonderful shrinking sculpted lines were all that was left.
Aside from a spot of hedge laying and a lot more defuzzing, at last I got round to lifting and splitting some of our favourite lilies. Lilium speciosum var. album is our last to flower lily cultivar, apparently unappealing to the dreaded lily beetle, and usually its blooms appear in September, lasting right through into October. A huge treat, appearing just before the autumnal leaf tints of the Acers begin to develop in the copse. We bought a few bulbs many years ago to trial, and having discovered how successful they were, tried to order more, only to discover that they no longer seem to be listed by any of our usual nurseries. A couple of years ago I tried to bulk them up by scaling a few bulbs in the autumn, with limited success, but this year’s display was so wonderful I took a spade to what were now reasonably large clumps, with many stems per group.
In the end, digging them out of our very stony copse was fairly straightforward. The challenging bit was being able to separate the very large but fragile bulbs from each other, without losing too many of the loose fleshy scales in the process. It came down to using gloved fingers to attempt to forcibly rip the bulbs apart. How successful I’ve been remains to be seen, but if they all settle down and thrive, in future years we should have a more extensive display in this part of the garden.
Someone did tell me that the reason this lily had been withdrawn from the market was that this clone had become infected with a virus. I have to say that if this is so, they still perform remarkably well in spite of it.
As to seed propagation, I’ve had no luck, even after hand pollination, with getting any seed pods to form. Whether this is due to the clone being sterile, or simply that the flowers appear so late in the year, that there isn’t time for seeds to develop before the first frosts hit, I’m not sure.