Today I was Charmed by a Greenfly
Today I took a walk along the lanes of Pembrokeshire. Along the journey there are some beautiful views across the rolling landscape towards the Preseli Hills over ten miles away. At this time of year my mind always wanders back to an old biology teacher called Arnold Darlington. He wrote a book about all the 300 species of insect that can be found on a single oak tree and another about Gall wasps. It was Mr Darlington who told me that the Autumn is a time of extreme abundance, when spiders and insects are more numerous than during any other time of year. The flowers may have gone to seed, and the plants may look dry and tatty, but move your focus closer into the micro-world of the hedgerow and you will discover nature is really active. The grasses are especially delightful, their whole beings arching under the weight of their seeds.
When I draw them I see them to be like fireworks exploding in slow motion.
I urge you to try sketching, and not worry about the results, because part of the reward of drawing is that it makes you focus longer and then you will see things you would otherwise not have noticed. But do not try to make long tedious accurate drawings, just scribble. Let the scribbles look after themselves. You will be surprised how order will emerge by itself, and you might even end up with something you can share with your friends.
Look at my scribbled lines of swallows with their grown young, until I started to draw them I had not noticed that they are all busy, each one an individual doing something different from their neighbours
and the distinctive fluttering flight that looks inefficient is hard to capture on paper. It is a wonder that they will soon be flying across the Sahara desert and the whole continent of Africa to reach their wintering grounds in Southern Africa.
The ubiquitous Speckled Wood butterflies are everywhere, fluttering over the brambles and amongst the seeding flower heads, sloe berries and grasses.
I saw one last dandelion being visited by a hoverfly. Vast numbers of Dandelions paint the roadside verges yellow in Spring, but this early Autumn one was alone and being visited by a lone hover fly.
There are hoverflies everywhere, big fat ones, small thin ones, brightly coloured and dowdy ones. Entomologists often call hover flies "nice flies" because they are entertaining, colourful, harmless and do not carry the diseases that the house fly are famous for spreading. All summer their larva have been munching on greenfly, now their charming adult forms have gathered in large numbers to feed on the nectar of the flowers of the tattered hogweed and ragwort. On one plant I counted seven different species.
In Britain there are about fifty different species of butterflies, a few hundred species of hoverflies and countless thousands of species of Wasps; Hymenoptera is one of the biggest and most successful genera of insects. The wasps are not nice, but their bodies are often elegant and beautiful, like this jet black wasp I saw feeding on the bramble flowers.
As I walked back down the hill towardsthe hamlet of where I live, which is called Lampeter Velfrey, I was met by a tiny winged insect. She landed on my drawing pad and walked across the white paper. Her body was luxurious lime green, her legs were thin and elegant, her translucent wings were neatly folded across her back, and on her head with two delicate feelers coming from between her two orange eyes. If she had been one of a thousand greenfly on the stalk of a house-plant I would have washed her down the sink, or poisoned her with a spray gun, but today she was my guest. Like a good host I felt privileged by her arrival because she seemed to me to be one of God's most precious creations, so after making a drawing I very gently blew her back into the hedgerow where she belongs. If I had killed her I would have grieved
Before I started writing these letters about drawing I promised to challenge your notions about what Art is. Perhaps in the winter I will have time to expand my series about drawing portraits, and explain more aspects of mentalese, but even finishing that series will still leave me far from my original intentions. My greenfly experiance has perhaps opened an opportunity to tease you with some thoughts that I think are very important to our understanding of what Art is about, and why every culture ends up with it own way of expressing it's values through Art.
Some years ago I started reading books on neuroscience and consciousness, and since then all my reading has been on this quite narrow subject. This obsession started after I noticed that every object stimulates an emotional response in me. Often the responses are contradictory; like my response to the little greenfly who fills me with wonder on my walks, but gets from me the opposite reaction when I meet her as part of a crowd that is making my house-plant sick. My emotional responses range from wanting to protect her to wanting to kill her by washing her down the sink.
It is fascinating to wonder why language, science, religion, art and a heighten sense of self have all arrived in one species simultaneously, as if from nowhere. In humanity our conscious selves include an ability to stand apart from our inner emotional responses, and modulate our emotional behaviour with a measure of rationalisation. A dog, when washing greenfly down the drain, would never be able to think to itself "in other circumstances I would value these little creatures I am now feeling anger towards", only we humans have these very colntradictory views of ourselves. Humans can stand outside their emotions, we can take the emotions of one moment and compare them to our emotions at another moment in our earlier lives.
One of the attributes of Art is that it is about focus. As mentioned in a previous letter the humble smiley is focused on just one aspect of what we see in faces; happiness. When we use art ot look at things we focus, and the focus changes with the context, and the context changes our emotional response to the objects we are looking at or drawing. A dog looking at my image of an aphid cannot read the emotional message that I have put into my drawing, but we humans can do this. Art is for humans, not dogs. To understand Art, and why all humans are involved in it, we have to learn to appreciate and understand our conscious selves.