The February Canvas

Sky Land Water in place against the larger landscape

I walk in and between / this place shaped by cultures / the walls and paths and fields of humans / the culture of trees in touch with one another and the soil around them through an underground web

/ the culture of birds / the culture of moss and lichen / an interwoven land fed by air and water / and all the living things that dwell a circular interconnected cycle of existence / naturally cultural / culturally natural

The sun’s slanting light finds its way over the high land, and makes the fell tops shimmer in haze; it startles the lake into a bright blue after its night’s slivering under the moon.

Heading up into the fells to place Sky Land Water

We’ve walked in from Hartsop, at the south end of the Ullswater Valley, heading for the shore of the lake where we hope to find a place to erect the canvas. We’re both slightly apprehensive: the light is serene but the wind is far from it, gusting unpredictably, and we know that the large canvas (2.5m x 2.5m) will act like a sail if the wind is strong, and may not withstand the force.

We are aiming for Silver Bay, a small shingly beach that we often gaze across at from the other side of the lake where treefold:north stands. It curves round and we hope will be sheltered from the wind. 

I could at this point edit the notes I made, but I think it’s best to keep them as I wrote them, fumbling with my words as much as we were fumbling with the canvas … 

Tension, the tension.
The wind whipped the cloth and tore away WATER and the N of land
We took the cloth down, gathered up the letters. Frustration rising. 

Our first attempt to put up the canvas failed in the strong winds. We had to replace some of the letters and think whether to go ahead or not. A tough choice that we talked through while the wind continued to gust.
Our first attempt to put up the canvas failed in the strong winds. A tense time of rethinking…

Fail. It cannot be done in this wind. 

And we don’t know if the letters will reattach or even if we can fix it here, where the wind is gusting and the ground is wet and sloping. We don’t talk for a while, just huff and puff and watch the wind whipping the surface of the lake. 

I walk off to get a feel for the wind strength further around the bay where the sun hasn’t yet reached. Rob is busying himself moving things around and tying up ropes. Despair sounds like a strong word when you’re ‘just’ putting up a piece of canvas but we did teetered on its edge, almost ready to sink and give up. I turn on my phone to check the Met Office weather forecast: nothing but worsening winds for the next seven days. 

We get out the map and ponder – might it be worth walking up Deepdale and finding a spot there, where the fells may be blocking this gusting wind? Could we drop in to the local school and use their hall to reattach the letters? 

The wind keeps gusting, blowing us, whipping the lake. It’s too strong. We edge around the possibility of giving up, and feel our moods wilting. I take the discarded letters and stick them randomly onto the canvas so at least they don’t stick to one another – because if they do, it’s really, really difficult to pull them apart. 

All the odds are set against us. We both have furrowed brows and very low hopes. Then we pull ourselves back. We’re here, now, so why not try once more? An hour, let’s give it an hour. We walk to a flatter area where the gusts feel slightly less strong and lay out the plastic cloth. I have marked the canvas on each edge at the point where the top of the letters should lie. I use a piece of blue string to hold the line, and set about laying out the letters. It worked. 20 minutes later and the cloth is mended. We take a breath and get started again. And this time, it works, not without some extra support from behind, but it holds, and for a brief period becomes part of the landscape, an intervention, an invitation for thought.

putting up Sky Land Water
Sky Land Water in place
Harriet bracing Sky Land Water against the strong, gustsing wind
Bracing the canvas against the strong gusts of wind


Three elements of this place that can never be ignored, that come into every view, that change constantly, at differing rates, that measure and reveal time in many ways.

Walking out today my first sensation was that of a wide sky, no edges, clear and blue above a frosted land. And then I thought about the cultures that have grown to fill sky, land and water, and the cross sections between them, these three fundamentals hosting an web of complex, interdependent systems. There’s something grounding about paring my thoughts back to these, but of course, these are just the canvas on which life writes itself. 

birch trees Birk Fell
Looking up into birch trees Birk Fell

Once we have tidied things away we wander into the woods beside the bay: a collection of mostly birch trees on the slope of land that plunges from Birker Fell to the lake shore. This has the feel of a wild wood, tumbled trees and roaming moss, trunks split and fallen, dead trees hosting old, brown bracket fungi and the telltale signs of a peregrine’s dinner, with feathers spread across mossy clumps. There’s no human-determined order here, just trees and moss and lichen and fungi, finding their way, beneath the sky, rooted in earth, above the lake.

We lie beneath the leafless trees. My eyes follow the thousands of lines of light where the sun silvers one side of every trunk, of every branch, of every twig. The sky here has become a weave of half-lit twigs moving, ever so slowly, in an invisible breeze.

remains of a peregrine kill

We eventually pull ourselves away from the wood, and leave the lake, following the path around the back of Silver Crag, past thick clumps of juniper. The moon has found its way into the bright blue of the evening, and glows, as a pendant, above the stony ridge of Grey Crag. 

heading off the fells after placing Sky Land Water
Moonrise over Grey Crag

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