Christian would love this...
A massive bird painted on an urban wall. What the hell’s that? What’s it here for?
It’s not graffiti. It’s street art. It's making a point.
Mark Anthony’s paintings caught my eye on Twitter (you can see why!). His artist's statement: "My paintings are a celebration of birds, a reminder of what species once lived here and could again with more consideration and improved habitat." I was intrigued so I investigated. And I’m so glad I did because there are many stories hidden behind these arresting images...
I speak to Mark, aka ATM Street Art, on the phone. He lives in London.
He tells me about the street art he made, after moving away from the illegal stuff. His first bird was a snipe, painted in 2013 (see below), to brighten a blank wall within the ‘grim’ South Acton Estate in south London. The council asked a group of artists to come up with ideas and Mark’s bird won their approval. Not only would the bird bring colour to the concrete jungle, but the snipe harked back to a time when the Bollo Brook flowed in the area, meandering through a patchwork of water meadows and small farms, in which habitat the snipe thrived. The brook, now covered with concrete and tarmac, and snipe unheard of.
“People had no idea what the bird was,” explains Mark. “Occasionally they would ask why I was painting it, but most just said how nice it was. How it cheered them up. One Somalian father remarked there was no way his son would ever get into trouble if he was standing next to the snipe - it gave the brutalist cityscape a touch of humanity: after all, a person’s environment affects their behaviour.”
How did Mark come to be painting birds? “Well,” he tells me, “I was obsessed with birds as a kid and I would draw them all the time.” He grew up in north west Rochdale, north of Manchester, an area covered in contrasting open moorland and steep wooded valleys with derelict water mills to explore (relics of the Industrial Revolution). Birds were everywhere. But when he went to art college his love for birds was ’knocked out’ of him as bird painting wasn’t taken seriously. Birds were no more… until 2013 when his passion returned.
Birds then adorned his canvases, but they never appeared as street art because, ‘[I] assumed it would take weeks to paint birds on such a large-scale, but outside you don’t have that luxury of time because of the weather and the logistics. There is an urgency. But I learnt, with the snipe, that it was possible.”
Mark went on to paint a grey partridge and a barn owl on the South Acton Estate. Why these particular birds? “I wanted to educate people. They are a symbol of the whole depressing decline of British farmland birds (70%-90% in the last 30/40 years), and the associated decimation of insects and wild flowers in the food chain. It’s so important to me that things change - I just can’t believe that most people don’t even know these creatures exist, and certainly don’t realise they are in serious decline.
“I’m often in a state of despair that we are destroying habitats blindly and people don’t seen to care about it - they only concentrate on social and political issues. But ultimately we depend on the environment and we’re going towards crisis point. Our disconnection from Nature, thinking we’re somehow separate from it, and our lack of respect for other living things is the key issue - we kill everything that impacts negatively on our food production or lifestyle.”
Take hen harriers. They are persecuted by gamekeepers because they hunt grouse. Mark’s artist colleague, Ben Oakley, found him a hen harrier-related painting site on an isolated spot in Shellness on the Isle of Sheppey. This area is directly under the migratory flightpath of hen harriers on their way to nesting grounds on the moorlands of northern England. The vibrant painting (see below), of a male hen harrier, contrasts starkly with its concrete wall home and can be seen from passing boats.
Mark also takes his street art on tour and created a turtle dove installation at Glastonbury Festival. “Again, most people don’t know the bird even exists, let alone its place in British history, literature and folklore."
Since his work at South Acton, Mark has been asked my multiple conservation organisations and councils to create bespoke street art. For example, he varied his subject for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, by painting a hedgehog in Ipswich as part of their Hedgehog Project (see below). “The Trust was looking for new ways to engage the next generation and street art works. With my paintings I want to portray the birds, and animals, accurately and inspire a love for the animal at a grassroots level - on the drab city streets where they come as a surprise to people. Art shouldn’t be in a gallery; it should be part of the everyday environment. Nature paintings should be in the middle of shopping centres.”
When not painting, Mark spreads his message in other ways. He gave an impassioned TEDx talk at Imperial College about re-naturing/re-wilding cities, to show people they had overwhelming power to help Nature by doing small, empowering actions: stopping their use of garden weedkillers, planting wild flower meadows, constructing insect hotels and guerrilla gardening.
He also works with Ealing Council, running a Summer Arts College at Brent Lodge Park, where children with criminal records, at risk of reoffending, get involved with creative ecology activities, such as mosaic making. The idea that Nature can nurture kids is gaining ground.
As for the future, Mark’s next painting projects include a common tern on Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park’s visitor centre and a (as yet undetermined) marine animal for National Marine Week for the Wildlife Trust in Portsmouth. His work is in demand - a sure sign that the future of public engagement with Nature will need to harness the creative powers of the artistic community.
After our phone call, it suddenly occurs to me that I hadn’t asked Mark why his passion for painting birds returned after a long hiatus. His answer, by email, was lengthier than expected - as always the untold story lurking in the background is often the real eye-opener. And in his case, Mark, like myself, really has been nurtured by Nature. I’ve slightly edited his response and reproduce this with Mark’s permission. He told me: “It’s the first time I've spoken about my physical/mental health in relation to what I do. Previously the focus has been on the birds and why I paint them."
“In the late '90s I was working doing public and community art, but eventually found that this was taking up all my time and I had no space for painting. So I decided to go to Berlin where I could get a big, cheap studio in a very stimulating environment, to try to resurrect my painting life. I went through a lot of different styles and subject matter, trying to find my voice. I had some good exhibitions in so-called 'off' galleries - ones which were set up by individuals just because of their love of art and not run on a commercial basis. I didn't get taken up by any of the commercial galleries I came into contact with.
Then after two harsh winters in a very cold, draughty, damp, concrete studio (it was an old factory), I got really ill. So much so that I couldn't function there and had to come back to London. I got some kind of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME and fibromyalgia.
That was ten years ago. For a few years I did almost nothing, I even thought I was dying I felt so weak and ill. I've still got these conditions and sometimes they affect me really badly, at others times I can function to a certain degree, but need lots of rest and recuperation.
Anyway, it was while I was ill lying in my bed thinking about my life, that I started to remember what my passion as a child truly was. It was then that I realised how much that was still in me and I started doing some little bird paintings again. It was also that I didn't give a damn any more about what the art world saw as serious art. My attempts at being taken seriously by the art world and being a successful artist on their terms had failed, so I was more inclined just to follow my own instincts. Then a couple of years later I got the chance to paint on a wall and did the snipe, all pared down and simplified. Since when I really feel I've found my voice. Maybe it's ironic, but had I not got ill, I might never have found this way of painting.
I still often work feeling really ill with lots of pains, and then get really burnt out, and that is why I absolutely need the recuperation time out in nature. When I went to the New Forest recently I literally just sat there staring at trees for hours, listening to the song of birds, absorbing that energy and movement, calming my brain down.
So in a nutshell, that's my story of the last few years.”
I suspect there are many people reading this, myself included, who will take strength from Mark’s words. In my own life, when the search for my missing brother brought me to my knees (mentally & physically), it was only then that I returned to my childhood love of Nature and found some stability… and awe, wonder and purpose.
Thank you to Mark for being so open.
Christian would love this...
Following on from walking in Lewes, with naturalist Steve Homewood (who learnt how to interact with Nature from his grandad, who'd lived in the Congo jungle with pygmies for nearly three years - it's a great story), I started to see animals in a different light. Steve had told me (succinctly):
‘Noise shouldn’t come from you, it should come to you.’
‘Don’t just hear things… really listen.'
‘Don’t just look at things… see them and understand what’s going on.’
This was really immersing yourself in Nature's activities - using your senses to work out what was going on. Animals were something to study. To lose yourself in their world.
A few days later I go on a walk with School of the Wild (an 'experimental nature school' based in Brighton) to connect with Nature, again, but with a different focus. The workshop, 'Becoming Animal', is led by Alistair Duncan who (the blurb says) has a 'keen interest in our psychological and sensory connection to the land'. His aim is to get our group to "drop out of neo-cortex thinking and reconnect with what the body does instinctively" - in short, tapping into what our mammalian body is capable of sensing. We would be experiencing this in woodland within Stanmer Park, just outside of Brighton (pictures below show our progress from the village of Stanmer to the woodland).
So, rather than observing an animal as a naturalist would, I was to become an animal. "Why do you want to do that?" asked my husband, who was to be on child-wrangling duty while I went and played in the woods. Well, I'd been given a book by my dad - Being A Beast by Charles Foster - and it was intriguing. In the 'Earth' section (woods), Charles takes his 8-yr old son, Tom, off into the Welsh woods on a hill-side to 'become' a badger for the summer. They live in an underground sett, adapt their body clocks to nocturnal snufflings, eat earthworms ('tastes of slime and the land'), crawl along tracks in the woods and doze in the sunshine.
We obviously weren't going to those extremes in the three/four hours allotted to 'Becoming Animal', but I wanted to see what I'd experience.
As we enter the woodland, Alistair reminds us that we are now walking into an existing community, a home: we should ‘dial down’ to connect into that environment and be aware of the sacredness of the magical woodland - be at one with it.
This sets the mood nicely, as the group stops chattering and we take time to look about us and open up our senses to the existence of life outside of us. Walking through a grove of sycamores (see below), you can hear them whisper gently.
Now ‘dialled down’, we can start on the process of becoming more ‘sense-aware’ which involves moving, seeing and hearing in a more instinctive way. Once settled into the beech woods (see below), Alistair takes us through some visualisation and breathing exercises to bring us to a ‘basal state’ to ground us, reducing our stress/emotions (I won’t reveal everything - go on the workshop!). At this point, my head feels very light, spaced-out, while my body is heavy and rooted to the damp, beech-tree mulch beneath our feet.
Then come the ‘tuning in’ exercises:
So, off we go, newly 'sense-aware' and following our instincts. We explore for ten minutes. Personally, it is a strange experience as I begin to feel like a fox - I know, a label - but moving so slowly I feel stealthy. I can feel the undulations in the ground, become aware of the shadows in the dappled wood, become startled by sudden bird sounds and bike riders crashing through on the cycle track, can feel the wind direction and see the wind moving through the connected trees. I am one with the environment in a way I’ve never experienced. When Alistair blows the cow-horn ‘bugle’ for us to regroup, it breaks the revere and I laugh at its incongruity.
I suddenly feel tired - in fact, many of us start to yawn. I suppose we are using ‘muscles’ in our brains so under-used that they are exhausted.
As we have tea, brewed from ground ivy (see left) which Nigel Berman (the ‘curator’ of natural workshops/founder of 'School of the Wild') picked en-route, talk turns to the writings of cultural ecologist/ecopsychologist David Abram. David’s books, The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, had blown Alistair’s mind when he was trapped in the corporate world and their insights propelled him to seek voluntary redundancy and explore the human bond with Nature. The books are now on my reading to-do list.
The next stage of the workshop moves us to a clearing in the woods where Alistair constructed a circle of logs a few years ago. Here he tells us of the final part of our animal experience - being blindfolded. With Nigel as my ‘guardian angel’, to ensure I don't fall down a hole or get knocked over by cyclists, I am given ten minutes to experience moving in the wood without sight. My goodness. You slow down. You become aware of warmth from the sun. You notice the sloping ground. You can ‘feel’ the presence of a tree in front of your body. The smells. I even begin to ‘see’ the wood on the inside of my black felt blindfold. When I come to a barrier on the ground, my instinct is to drop down and feel what is there. I take up a handful of leaves, or a snatch of moss, to smell (see below). Inhaling the damp earthiness of my surroundings. It is an incredible experience.
(Alistair pictured below, in background, with a blindfolded me. Nigel's image.)
Being ‘guardian angel’ to blind-folded Nigel is interesting purely because he’s never been able to take part in this exercise because he's usually ‘in charge’. The way he manoeuvres his way through the obstacles of tree trunks, branches and rotting logs is a joy to watch.
The final exercise sees us all ‘dumped’, still blind-folded, at a distance from Alistair and as he plays tunes intermittently on a tin whistle we have to navigate our way to him. With this focus, the senses become attuned to noise, much like an animal hunting moving prey - the peaceful exploratory movement of earlier is replaced by sharpened reflexes. It sets me on edge, back to the stealth mode I experienced during the initial exercise.
On the walk back down to Stanmer village, the sun warms us after the chill of the wood and chatter breaks out among the group. We are back to our reality. But 'Becoming Animal’ certainly opens a door in my brain and driving home I keep the radio switched off and use my peripheral vision to check the wing mirrors - I’m going to keep experimenting with my newly-unearthed animal senses.
Christian would love this...
“In the war, Grandad was in the RAF and his plane crashed into the jungle in Africa. He thought he was doomed after being injured and bitten by a snake, but he was found by a tribe of pygmies. By sheer luck, Grandad was also short (at 4’8”) so they connected with him and looked after him. Because Grandad couldn’t get back to his RAF base, he stayed with them for two-and-a-half years and, during that time, the jungle pygmies taught him everything they knew about living in the jungle, and all about the animals and plants.
“When he finally came back to England, being in the jungle had been a life-changing experience for him. I was about 11 when he took me under his wing. I was only with him for about a year, but he passed on all the information he’d learnt from the pygmies, so that I could understand and enjoy the countryside a bit better. I took it all on board and have carried his lessons in my head for the past 50 years. I wasn’t sure that people would believe Grandad’s story, but now, suddenly, seems the right time to start passing his knowledge on to others, especially youngsters, as Nature’s had such a positive impact on my life.”
My son, Cameron, aged eight, is listening wide-eyed to this fantastical, yet true, tale as told by naturalist, Steve Homewood. Although, Steve modestly refers to himself as an ‘ordinary man who enjoys being out in the countryside’, he’s more than that. I ‘met’ Steve via Twitter and asked him if he minded me tagging along on his daily walk, so I could notice nature from a naturalist’s point of view. Little did I know that usually Steve refuses offers to walk with others, preferring solitude.
Steve suggested Railway Land Nature Reserve, in Lewes, East Sussex, when I mentioned I’d be interested in exploring a ‘watery’ environment which I knew little about. Cameron, after hearing me talk about the walk, decided he’d like to come along too. “Perfect! Bring him along, so important to teach the kids,” replied Steve to my request.
“The world is now yours, Cameron,” Steve continues, after telling the African tale, “and you’ll inherit it when we’re all gone and it needs looking after. To be able to do this well, you need to be able to understand Nature. So, tonight I’m going to teach you a few things that Grandad passed onto me:
‘Noise shouldn’t come from you, it should come to you.’
‘Don’t just hear things… really listen.
‘Don’t just look at things… see them and understand what’s going on.’
We start our walk during the early evening, a time of day which Steve’s grandad (nicknamed ‘Billy’*, but called Harold Victor Mason) described as the ‘magic hour’ when the wind usually drops and the animals come out. Early morning is also the ‘magic hour’. “You mustn’t make any noise louder than a whisper, otherwise you’ll break the spell and scare all the animals away,” Steve tells us.
Before entering the Reserve, we stand on Cliffe Bridge, in the town’s centre, and Steve shows us our first ‘secret’: five thin-lipped mullet which are feeding at the edge of the River Ouse (which is currently on an ebb tide and, is here, eight miles from the sea). “Come with me,” he then says excitedly and off we go to see a special spot. In a patch of clear water, Steve shows us where he noticed thousands of these mullet congregating in the second week of February. The clear water is where the icy cold, chalk-filtered, spring water runs from the River Winterbourne into the muddy river. Last year, he put a camera into the spring water and realised that all the fish were injured in some way: bitten by seals, covered in fungal infections or had on them lampreys hitching a lift. He continued to observe and saw fish staying in the spring water, until their wounds were healed, and then they returned to the muddy Ouse.
[Steve was on BBC SpringWatch in 2016, explaining this ‘murmuration of mullet’ and he became a minor celebrity in Lewes - watch out for little lost 'Nemo' in the film.]
The next ‘secret’ to see this evening was the hard-to-see Reed Warbler - again, the African connection. We enter the Railway Land Nature Reserve which was once, as the name suggests, the train depot for the Lewes to Uckfield line (culled by Beeching) and left to the people of Lewes when the landowner died. The reed beds were planted and are now home to a huge variety of wildlife, which live in the reeds, the water and around the edges where the layers of spent coal from the steam engines makes burrowing very easy.
While taking in the view at the top of a spiral-wound hillock, Steve tells us we mustn’t wave our hands around as the reed warblers are very shy and startle easily. We can hear them, and a cuckoo, but they remain hidden. As we listen, Steve picks the top leaves from a nettle, pitches them between his fingers and, much to Cameron’s surprise, pops it into his mouth. “Too far gone,” he says, “don’t try them.” I should mention that Steve is also a forager and later on the walk he tries the top leaves of the blackberry, but these are too far gone as well. “The first little shoots taste of coconut.” Cameron and I make a mental note for early next Spring.
Steve gives Cameron another tip, which I’m sure he’ll try: “You can tame almost any creature - slowworm, snake or tiny bird - if you put it into your shirt top pocket for about two hours. It can hear your heartbeat and is nice and warm, which reminds them of being cuddled up to their mum or dad so they begin to see you as their parent… but don’t try it with an adder. I used to put snakes in my pocket to scare the girls at school,” he confides.
We suddenly realise we are breaking all of Grandad’s rules and we descend the hillock in silence, and make our way onto the path. “Mostly animals are so scared of humans because (just like us now!) we’re so loud and we rush around and it frightens them. But creatures get to know you if they see you often enough. Say if a fox comes around that bend in the path ahead - what would you do?
“You’d stop dead, stare at it, probably point at it and says, ‘Look, Mum, a fox’, which is just the behaviour of a predator. The fox would be off like a shot. What you have to do is:
The fox then knows you’re not a threat and it will stay and watch you for a minute and you can slowly get your camera out, point it in the right direction and click. By then, he’s seen you staring at him and he’s gone.
“If you spot an animal you want to sneak up on, first stick your finger right into your mouth to make it wet, stick it up in the air and see which side feels cold. [Cameron and I join Steve as he demonstrates.] The cold side shows you which direction the wind is coming from, so you need to get yourself upwind of the animal. If a fox is downwind of you, he’ll probably smell your flight/fight hormone which you’d give off when you see him and he’ll disappear. If you’re upwind, the fox can hear and see you, but he can’t smell you, so often he’ll disappear and in a few minutes he’ll reappear downwind, having trotted round in a big circle, so he can smell you.”
Unsurprisingly, we meet no foxes. “We’ve been far too noisy - chattering like reed warblers. But I’m so excited about meeting someone new!” Steve tells Cameron.
But we do see several airborne reed warblers as we make our way quietly along the path which meanders through the reed beds. Steve tells us he’s been looking out for the secretive birds for eight weeks and has only taken three reasonable pictures of them within the reeds. “You can tell where they are as the reeds will waggle about when they move. And if it’s windy, try swaying from side to side so they can’t see you stand out. But these birds are very hard to get to, and we don’t want to disturb them.” Cameron and I have heard our first reed warblers, so that’s a fine evening stroll.
Then we hear our first cuckoo of the season and Steve tells Cameron about the cuckoo’s brazen manipulation of the poor reed warblers - he takes over the nest, turfing out the warbler’s eggs, and sits squawking until fed by the hood-winked parents. Cameron can’t believe it when Steve then tells him about the magpie (when Cameron spots one) who used to be known as the ‘thieving magpie’ on account of their stealing wedding rings left on the ledge of an open window while the women did their laundry.
These tales, told with passion, are what ignites young minds. As we sit on a bench, Steve shows Cameron pictures he’s taken in the past of the reed warblers, which are in a self-published book: Secret Railway Land. Then follows stories of horse whispering, bird’s nests, kingfishers, young foxes hiding behind a leaf and thinking you can’t see their bodies, bear’s grease hair improver, ‘whizz-bang’ pirate bombs and ammonites. It really is the stuff of children’s fairytales and we’re both spellbound. Steven signs the book for Cameron, as a present.
“I used to come here when I was a child and talk to the old people. They passed their stories on to me and they fired my imagination, especially when they told me about soldiers using the site for bayonet training where animal guts from the abattoir were stuffed into sacking and hung up on a scaffolding for the soldiers to charge at. It got them prepared for the horrors of war.”
I think the reference goes over Cameron’s head, luckily, and looking about today, the scene is peaceful with a few dog walkers enjoying an evening stroll. The sun is setting and the insects lazily buzz above our heads. The only unnatural noise being the police siren which screams out from the nearby A26. “Wonder if we’ll hear the frogs?” exclaims Steve. “As it gets close to night, they really start to kick off when they hear a siren as they think it’s a predator. Have we got time to go and find them, and a grass snake if we’re lucky, in the water meadow?” he says, looking at his watch. “I know a patch of water channel where we might find a snake.”
Off we set, thoughts of school-night bedtimes set aside. As we walk I ask Steve about his background and am surprised to hear he was a dental technician for 30-odd years, working in surgeries all over England and Scotland, making bridges, braces and implants. Like many who are Nature lovers, Steve got fed up with being indoors five to six days of the week and when he had to have two knee operations, which saw him off work for two years, he vowed enough was enough. “I decided to reinvent myself and turn my hobby into my job, so now I give a variety of nature-related talks (alongside painting and decorating which pays the bills). People tell me I should do nature walks, too, and charge people money but I just can’t because Grandad would turn in his grave! I also turn down many requests for walks, as I don’t think most people ‘get it’ - but I thought you did from what I read about you,” he tells me, with a smile.
Unfortunately, we don’t find any frog chorus nor a grass snake as the farmer has removed the footbridge which leads onto the water meadows - the boisterous young cattle roaming about are obviously too ‘over-friendly’ with walkers. “I’m sorry we didn’t see anything exciting,” apologises Steve, as we turn for home. “You never know what to expect when you spend time outdoors. Sometimes you see tiny things, like Lacky moth caterpillars, and you can spend hours watching them, as they group together en masse, making their web tent and you wonder how on earth they communicate with each other. Or you hear a song thrush and marvel at the complexity of their song. It’s the best song. They are clearly declaring their patch and saying I can sing better than you, but there must be more to it than that.”
I wonder if there is a spiritual side to Steve’s connection with nature, but I don’t broach the subject. Instead I ask him if he knows about my brother, Christian Velten, who’s been missing in Africa for 14 years. “Yes, I was touched to hear about your brother, when I read about him, especially after my grandad was gone for so long. HE did not want to come back - as he was having a fine old time - and he couldn’t phone anyone or just walk out of the jungle… the Congo was a mad old place. He was there for the best part of three years and his mother and wife had no way of knowing where he was. But he reappeared. So, live in hope, Hannah.”
This almost makes me cry. I ruffle Cameron’s hair as I know Cameron thinks a lot about the Uncle Christian he’s never met. Christian is a zoologist/adventurer, so I can just imagine him and Cameron taking walks together… one day.
Suddenly, just as we have finished talking about Christian, Cameron shouts (yes, shouts, after all Steve’s told him!): “Look, it’s a baby chick!” We both stop and peer into the dark undergrowth (goodness only knows how he spotted it) and there, staring straight at us, is one of those ‘thieving magpies’ we’d been talking about. It made our night, and Cameron’s too, as he declared himself a “proper naturalist now”.
He’s been bitten by the Nature bug. Hooray. I hoped this walk with Steve would ignite something in him - it most certainly has. We now have Steve’s photographic exhibition pencilled in the diary (21st May 2017 - see details below) and on the way home he asked when would we go back out with Steve to find the frogs and snakes. Job done.
As for myself, I am beginning to rediscover a different side to Nature; one which I knew as a child growing up on a farm with Christian. Be silent. Listen. Hear. See. Observe. So much is revealed. Thank you to Steve who reminded me of this.
Email Steve for talk requests - foraging, connecting with nature & fishing:
Steve's books - including Secret Railway Land - can be purchased here:
* Rudyard Kipling named Steve's grandad 'Billie', after the character Billie Fish, the little Gurkha lost and found in Afghanistan in Kipling's story The Man Who Would Be King.
Nurtured by Nature: Connect / Explore / Flourish / Disperse.