Sunday, 21 December 2014

Midwinter greetings

with best wishes to all visitors to the Toadblog!

Phutukawa trees are wonderful! Find out more: Metrosideros excelsa

Sea tree,
Stone tree,
Bark as grey and
Beautiful as boulders,
Wrapping rocks with roots,
And twisting branches
Out over the waves,
Lifting sea-green leaves
In a burst of crimson fire
To the wide blue skies.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Tuahu walk

Walking in the Tuahu forest

I leave the car first and the sealed road second. I'd like to leave my shoes as well but stern warnings of thorn-vines and stay-a-bit-longer creepers infiltrate the impulse. Familiar, alien birdsong fills a spring afternoon and with the woods just over there and green fields and roadside flowers I could be in England. 

The woods are calling and their edge and its shadows turn the blackbirds away, and the greenfinches and goldfinches and chaffinches. Even the bold robin won't follow me for long. The trees here aren't the trees I know and even these are alien to the wood that waits. Japanese Honeysuckle, Pepper bushes, gum tree and wattle are punctuated by those cheerfully tough treeferns. They seem to manage to poke their wonderful exploding crowns of uncurling fronds through any gap in other trees' canopies, doing their bit to defy these alien invaders

At the useful station, I pause to scrub my shoes and disinfect them. Having endured for millennia and bypassed the logging orgies of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the survivors are now facing another of those pernicious Dieback fungi that seem to be turning up everywhere these days

Keep walking. Keep walking. Listen now. Now I can hear native voices singing: tui, bellbird, maybe. A fantail dances in the sunshine on the path and flits away as I get closer to pause on a branch and tease me on

The woods are changing as the path begins to climb. On my right, the hillside drops away sharply to where an unseen stream burbles along. The shadows under the trees are filling with tree ferns, thrusting upwards, elbowing the toppled trunks of their parents aside. A little further on, and palms are doing the same thing. The two trees create a prehistoric gloom where something hungry, browsing and reptilian would not seem out of place.

The woods are still changing. Tougher locals replacing the invasives. Big trees, now: southern beech have their grey trunks bearded with ferns and cascades of epiphytes. They are massive trees, trunks fork and sweep majestic branches out over the path. Elegant Rimu and Totara slip in beside them. Tough vines string trees together and by now, I seem to have left all the birds behind and the woods are quiet. Tree ferns sigh and their dangling dried fronds whisper secrets to each other. Or rustle suggestively so that I reflexively look for the squirrels of home or expect deer.

The path climbs and forks and I take the narrow trail that loops back, climbs up the hill. Steps. More steps. Somewhere I take my shoes off. The need to do this barefoot is greater than the risk of thorns. Still climbing, still rambling, at least on the inside, I turn a corner

I have met older trees and possibly met bigger ones but very rarely have I met a tree with the simple majesty of a mature Kauri. At 500 years, the Tuahu Kauri is the oldest of this forest and it stands there and takes my breath away. Someone written into being from a book. It reminds me of so many moments: Tolkien's Middle Earth. Beautiful Iftsiga from Andre Norton's Janus books. Ursula Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest. Charles de Lint's First Forest. Middle Earth again. Mallorn? 

At 8' wide, the trunk soars upwards. 25' before the first branches, The trunk is sort-of smooth. It flakes carefully to keep itself free of fern-beards and moss-hairy chests. Those growths come with the branches high above. Here, the trunk feels rough as elephant skin and as grey. Down at ground level, Vulnerable root systems lie just below the surface, cruising through the mulch the trees make for themselves. Delicate, easily crushed, too fragile for a tree of this size, we have to approach Kauri on boardwalks, lifting us off their sacred ground and making the whole experience even more of an audience

For it is an audience and I know I enter the Presence as a supplicant slipping into the throne room.  somewhere, I slow down. Feel the smooth wood under my feet, the warmth if it, the rightness of the moment. somewhere I manage to shut myself up. To stop talking and reading and spouting and just. Stop. And be still. And curl up on a corner of the boardwalk and just breathe for a bit. And stop for a bit and be wrapped in the ancient, growing peace of a Kauri tree.

Tane mahuta in the Agathis Forest of Northland, New Zealand, is believed to be the oldest kauri surviving and to be anywhere from1 250 to 2,500 years old. Coyly, Tane does not give away his age

Winter tales and spring stories

Winter tales and Spring stories
Stories in school with Creeping Toad
December 2014 - April 2015
marking the changing edge of the year, here are old stories, new adventures and chances to create tales that no-one else has ever heard before!

in performance,
photo c/o: Laurence Crossman-Emms
and the Woodland Trust

With stories running from the frozen edges of the world right through to the first flowers of spring and the waking of the bumblebees, here are stories and activities to enchant and inspire.

Gordon MacLellan – Creeping Toad is one of Britains foremost environmental art and education workersand he tells stories as well! 

Here are some workshops and suggestions for activities that you might like to jump onto for a session in your school - or other centre

A days visit to your school (or country park, library or exciting crypt...) might include

storytelling performances: lasting up to 60 minutes for up to 90 children at a time

stories out of anything! usually we might do this outside but given wintry weather, we'll use leaves and pine cones, twigs and stones and shells indoors to inspire words, create poems and shape a set of stories never told before (allow 60 minutes for a class session)

story and book workshops: taking a bit longer (allow 90 minutes for a class) as well as discovering those stories no-one has ever heard before, now we will build those into the books that no-one has ever read before and leave the classroom with a library no-one has ever visited before!

pop-up storyscapes: allow an hour for a class: gathering ideas, images and words well make quick 3-d landscapes holding the essence of a story or maybe the thrills of a lifecycle in a setting, key characters and the words that set the adventure running

Winter lights: finding words and images to hold the essence of winter or the hopes of spring in quick poems, we'll slide words  and pictures into lanterns and make a swarm of small glowing lanterns to glow through the darkest nights or gloomiest days

shadow stories: out of my stories might come new stories: drawing on whatever theme we are working with to create quick performances of shadow puppets. Incorporating silhouettes, translucence and transparency, we'll mix science with story to create an (almost) instant set of story performances to show or perhaps to film

Ancient Lives: add a voice from the distant past to your history topics with stories that our Stone, Bronze or Iron Age ancestors might have listened to. Stories. models, artefacts and drawings can feed into art inspired by cave paintings, carvings and jewellery

your own themes and ideas: or are you exploring a particular theme that you would like to involve some stories in? pirates.tropical islands.ancient Greeks…fairies, frogs and trolls..where in our school would bears live?the Great Fire of London  have all featured in recent Creeping Toad projects

Charges: £250 a day: includes storytellers fee, travel and materials. Can be paid on the day or I can invoice you. Activities can be adapted to suit groups from KS 1, 2 or 3

For further information: visit the Creeping Toad website at           
To book: contact Gordon directly at
            or by telephone:
            landline: 01298 77964
            mobile: 07791 096857

you never know who, or what, will end up in a Creeping Toad story!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Waterfalling words

New Zealand: words and stories


Tuis build their songs,
Out of everyone else's leftovers.
A squeak, a creak, a whistle,
And a bubbling waterfall trill
That froths like wave foam
And wakes the morning into delight

Tui (Presothemadera novaeseelandiae are beautiful birds 
whose gentlemen where smart tufted bow ties 
of white feathers on their black bibs)

The Falls 

(started at the Erskine Falls in the Great Otway NP, Victoria 
but then finished at falls on the Kaimai Mountains in NZ)

Endless voices,
Shouting or whispering,
Depending on the rain

Voices pouring
Themselves over stone.
Wearing away,
Washing away.

Moss grows,
Ferns drip fronds,
And straps and necklaces,
Leather and pearl and precious metals,
All in green,
And glistening,
In the sprayed whisper
Of the falls.

Trees die
And drop
Stone-smooth trunks
To block
The stream
And build deep,
Dark pools among the
Dinosaur boulders,
Where the voices

Who lives in the cold shadow
Of the pool?
Whose are the voices
That sing,
That whisper,
That shout,
That wash away
Polish the hard rocks of my grief
And anger and pain
Into the rounded boulders
Of hope


My words on paper
Write you into black and white
I can't even catch the cloud-grey shades
Of our conversations.
The prospects of the bright colours of our passion
Are lost in the arts of pen and processor



Once I had a thought
Of hills and woods and
A cottage by the sea.
Once I had a dream
Of ambitions climbed
And mountains scaled
And hopes flowering

Once I held a promise
Of joy
In my hands,
On my heart.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

In praise of Moon Jellyfish

 11/11/14 and following
a whole series of probably stand alone snippets starting in Melbourne Sea World and ending on the beaches at Brighton (Melbourne). 

1. A delicate shiver
Of moonlight,
An enduring ripple,
In the tides of the sea.

2. The moon draws
The seas into tides,
And seeds the waves
With occasional bubbles
Of hope.

3. Moonlight pared
Into a delicate hope,
Defying wind and tide
To dance with her mother
Reflected in the waves

4. Moonlight poured
As thin as hope,
Foam drifting,
Wave dancing,
Ending with sunrise
And the hard, bitter sand of the shore

5. Turn,
And turn again blindly,
Through swarms of food, and threats, and partners.
And turn again blindly,
As the tide flows,
And turn again blindly,
In a sea bounded by acrylic shores.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Being provoked

On reflection, this piece is full of the things I've been saying and trying to do for most of my working life, but it was good to feel them coming back to be as it were like a boomerang out of the interviews recorded with contemporary people

In Melbourne Museum

This is not a dead place. It is full of the dead but it feels like a celebration of life. From geology and fossils to invasions and the stilted culture of Victorian settlements, this is celebration. The museum is full of active, vibrant voices and the heart of the buildings is alive: a living, growing, wriggling and swimming forest. "Museum" - a house for the muses

Bunjalika , a native Australian gallery, has caught me most. There are familiar cases of less familiar objects: lives and fragments in glass boxes. There are big photos and tall carvings. Relationships with the invading/colonising Europeans have their bones laid bare, too: a grim litany of deceit, betrayal and dismissal. But, there are first person panels and films of activity: contemporary people practising or learning older skills. "I" and "we", and the text wakes up, the commentary lives, reminding us that these are not the artefacts and traditions of a lost people. There is also a great generosity in aboriginehood (? aboriginality?) that welcomes newcomers if only one grandparent, or maybe even great grandparent, came from the tribe. That is enough for you to be welcomed back in.

Most intriguing of all was a wall of faces. Almost life-size, presenting an absorbing sequence of monologues: living voices talking about culture, connection and landscape. Here, home, people and place were all woven together so that the personal, communal and political are all inevitably connected through a relationship to place. Individuals and the human communities they belong to are recognised as growing out of, being dependant upon and in turn supporting the land where they live. And out of those relationships comes the identification of issues and the need and the will to act.

Of course, I don't know if what I read, watched and heard here is representative (I would hope for it and, at the same time, be surprised if it was). It might just be Melbourne, or the state of Victoria or even just the curators of this display but these were not the voices of a defeated people or a dwindling culture. These were people advocating a different perspective on self, community and how we live within a landscape and for me they raised challenging and exciting questions about identity, especially in reflection of UK debates about regional and national identities. There is an immediate, active and graceful sense of mission here, recognising the huge length of history behind the indigenous people of this land, but moving forward, to learn and be inspired by but not to be trapped by the past.

Thinking about "being British", or Scottish, or Welsh or from Yorkshire, we often seem to talk about what we were and what we did, or who we are not (not English, not from Lancashire) while what we are seems to dissolve into a sea of generality. Maybe "being British" is to be generally vague without any vibrant distinctiveness. Are we becoming essentially bland? I can't pin this down to my satisfaction. To be "distinctive" isn't really the issue but it might be a symptom. I think I am looking for a sense of self that is rooted in celebration of ourselves: not in opposition to other people but a pride in being "of here" or "of there".

This isn't about nationalism or regional identity in overt political terms. Reading and listening to voices here, I hear a people who many counted all but dead and gone, just getting on with being, with becoming who they need to be, where that "who we need to be" is governed by their principles of people, land and culture as much as by the interaction with a wider culture and the loss of personal or community identity in the swamping presence of that other socety. Here, and I'm seeing this again with Maori principles in New Zealand, culture is seen as growing from the fusion of individual, community and place: we are who we are because of how we interact with each other and our land. I think that "land" bit is crucial( the despairing cry of environmental educators and interpreters for so many years, myself included). How we live in a place and with a place is as important to who we are as what we say and do to and with each other. Culture grows from the inspiration of place. And out of that thought comes the challenge: to find ways of reconnecting culture, people and place

To work on a sense of place - not just to talk about it in exhibitions, books and blogs but to encourage people to find their own sense of place in where they are now. We can remember where we once were (the lost home we would return to?), and reflect on where we might be (the dream home we might never see), but most of all we need to explore the place where we are now. To map it: physically, emotionally, creatively; to find ways for people to express how they feel about "home". We need to find ways to appreciate it, to work with it, to grow into the hills and moors and streets and buildings that surround us now. To find the songs, stories and practices that express those feelings. There may be old traditions to draw upon, to reawaken or reinvent or that fusion of people, place and culture might offer new seeds for new traditions.

We could learn from the example of the oldest human culture around today and remember that we are part of the earth we live on, we are bound to it and all that we are comes from the world around us. Connection is never broken, just sometimes forgotten. Environmental education (and interpretation?) is not a stand-alone discipline. Effective env ed will also see the individuals involved learn, grow and develop and education about environmental issues overlaps with community education, and environmental action also becomes community action and vice versa. Education to promote a sense of place then always (almost?) draws personal and community action into the same eddy. Like a spiral pattern in Maori or Celtic art, everything moves. To touch one piece of a pattern is to be drawn into the whole. To separate one section is to break the pattern

We can shake ourselves a bit, waking up again, and stand and breathe. We don't need to wait for official approval or even grant support (although that would be nice). We can just get on with becoming who we need to be to live gracefully, richly, creatively with the land we walk upon. We don't need to permission to appreciate a sense of home, to explore the fusion of "people, land and culture". We just need to do it.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Leek: once, now and next

LEEK: once, now and next

very little of the original Dieulacres is left....
 Free public activities celebrating the richness of Leek's heritage, the excitement of the town now and dreams for its future

Using the 800th anniversary of the founding of the now vanished Dieulacres Abbey to get ideas going, Leek: once, now and next sets out to encourage the people of Leek and the Staffordshire Moorlands to celebrate the richness of their heritage. I'm involved in this as one of the artists - so join us for some wild times, big drawings, fascinating talks and occasional silliness!

With a grant from Awards for All, the project offers free activities for families, youth and community groups, clubs and the general public involving everything from "design your own abbey" pop-up landscapes, to "once and future" lanterns, and a "Leek Now" Big Draw frieze. In the middle of the project there will be a "Birthday Party for a Lost Abbey" featuring Abbey Lanterns from local youth groups, music, storytelling and a giant Abbey Birthday Cake

The Lost Abbey: running through all our events is the thread of Dieulacres: Leek's Lost Abbey. For a few hundred years Dieulacres was one of the richest and most important Cistercian Abbey's in the county but with its Dissolution in the reformation almost all traces of it disappeared. A few carvings and other stoneworks  survive in the buildings of Abbey Farm, but that is all. 2014 would have been the Abbey's 800 birthday…

Buxton-based community arts group, Stone and Water find innovative ways of celebrating the richness of the people, wildlife and landscapes of the Peak District. Recent project have included crocheting a prehistoric seabed fro the ancient seas that gave us the limestone of the White Peak and adventurous activities designed to encourage people to go "exploring with stories"

Borderland Voices aims to promote mental health through the arts and to raise public awareness and understanding of mental health issues by delivering accessible arts projects and offering creative space for self-expression within a mutually supportive community.

Public events
all events are free and no booking is required
Sunday 12th: Apple Day, visit this farm in the Upper Dove Valley for an autumn day of orchards, fruit recipes, art and stories and a chance to explore this beautiful landscape, its animals and plants
Time: 11am - 3.30pm
Where: Dove Valley Centre, Under Whitle, between Sheen and Longnor

Friday 17th: Stitching time: join our artists and add your own panel to the new Cope for the Lost Abbey. Images of ancient saints and modern heroes lie side-by-side on this community cloak. With fabric and felt, wool, silk, thread, beads and sequins: no experience is needed!
Time: 1 - 3pm
Where: Silverdale Library, Newcastle: High St, Silverdale, Newcastle ST5 6LY, 01782 297444

illumination workshops have been
capturing Moorlands moments
Saturday 18th: Old stories, new adventures! Join our storyteller to listen to old tales of the Moorlands: of giants and mermaids and magic and monsters! Create your own stories about life and adventures in Leek
Time 10am - 12noon
Where: Leek Library, Nicholson Institute Stockwell Street Leek. ST13 6DW

Saturday 18th: unrolling Leek! a Big Draw event, we'll be drawing all your favourite places in Leek on one huge piece of paper: from Brough Park to the Foxlowe, from William Plummer's anchor memorial to your own back garden, everywhere works!
Time: 2 - 4pm
Where: Foxlowe Art Centre, Market Place, Leek, Staffordshire ST13 6AD

Thursday  23rd, Ladydale Well, the Leek Ladder and other marvels: a talk by  archaeologist Mark Olly. A chance to meet the more mysterious side of the town, join us to think, wonder and speculate
Time: 7.30 (finishing about 9 - 9.30), refreshments provided
Where: Quaker Meeting House, Overton Bank
Leek ST13 5ES

Saturday 25th, Birthday Party for a Lost Abbey! make a small monk puppet, write a poem, listen to stories, wonder at the Abbey Lanterns, add your own visions for the future of Leek - an afternoon of activities and creativity will lead to the unveiling of the Cope and the formal cutting of the Abbey Birthday Cake
Time: 2 - 6pm
Where Foxlowe Art Centre, Market Place, Leek, Staffordshire ST13 6AD

Tuesday 28th, Ancient Adventures: To celebrate Leek's ancient history: come along and make your own medieval castle or pop up abbey – and add some tiny puppets to tell some ancient tales!
Time 10am - 12noon, 1.30 - 3pm: drop in, allow yourself 45 minutes to make something!
Where: Leek Library, Nicholson Institute Stockwell Street Leek. ST13 6DW

Wednesday 29th, Dieulacres Abbey - Leek's vanishing heritage. A talk by local historian Michael Fisher: find out about the history of Leek's lost abbey!
Time: 7.30 - 9
Where: Foxlowe Arts Centre, Market Place, Leek, Staffordshire ST13 6AD

Thursday 30th: Ancient tales, modern adventures: storytelling, story making, art: what adventures can we invent for the trees, animals and children of Brough Park?
Times: 10 -12, 1 - 3
Where: Brough Park: Vicarage Road Car Park or walk in and find us under a tree in the middle of the Park!

For more information, contact 01298 77964

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Adventures at Abriachan

Adventures at Abriachan

25th and 26th September 2014

a two day workshop drawing inspiration from woods of Abriachan Forest Trust to give us poems, stories, puppets and plays….
workshops began with long scribble-sheets of ideas

workshops began with long scribbly drawings, sharing ideas, looking out of windows and speculating wildly as people arrived.
scribbles became pages in our Old Book of Abriachan

first draft, meet the actual maiden below

The woods gave us  characters to play with, strange artefacts to discuss, goblin camps with troll-snot on sticks* to enjoy, smoke signals to send

Deep in the woods, 1
Deep in the woods,
The wind whispered through the branches,
Speaking in quiet airy voices,
Voices sounding like waves on the sea.
The treetops creaked like sailing ships.

Always watching
For sea eagles,
Always watching,
Always waiting.

Distant voices?
Distant laughter?
Children having fun?
Over where?
Over there!

Don’t go!
a little old house where a little old man sits

Deep in the woods, 2
Beyond the path,
Beyond the pond,
There is an old, old house,
Where a lonely old man sits,
Knitting his beard into socks,
A beard so big he carries it in a bag,
Too old to use the stairs,
Too crumbly to use the ladders,
He zip wires up and zip wires down
When he goes shopping 
For shrimps in Drumnadrochit

Stories and poems grew out of moments, notes and pictures. Unexpected characters grew under our fingers

a poem written as pictures
a rather lovely storyboard

3. Not nasty, just lonely

An old witch lives
In a house made of branches and bracken,
On a beach beside a burn,
Brewing bubbling potions
In a big, iron cauldron

But lonely old man
Met lonely old woman
And they went out for a romantic meal

Goblin Girl, 1...

... and her friend, Goblin Girl 2

Day 1 produced small puppets and instant plays while on Day 2 we took time to make more complicated puppets and build more involved stories, inviting parents, carers and stray passersby to join us for final performances in the Textural Maze

a dramatic moment

3 warriors on a quest for the red ribbon that will stop wars
(they also found an emergency caterpillar)

Goblin Girls out adventuring

a rapt audience

* less educated people call it marshmallow