In Hortus at Amsterdam: the South African plant house


Bare Peat: microtopographies and restoration.

A description of drawing the eroded faces of peat, eventually using peat itself to envisage a restored living surface.

I found myself creating microtopographies and envisioning a restored Raised Bog.

I began by wanting to characterise ‘Bare Peat.’ For people involved in peatland restoration, Bare Peat is an alarm signal. It is an eroded face of the landscape where carbon changes its form and moves into the atmosphere.

Peat erosion can be considered scientifically at a microtopographic scale. I referred to an authoritative text (Evans and Warburton, 2007:181, Figure 7.6) and focussed on nine photographs of different textures of bare peat denoting different erosion patterns, resulting from wind or rain.

Nine microtopographies of Bare Peat @ Kate Foster 2019. Ink drawing,

Microtopographies? This is a word conveying detailed geographical study of small surface areas. This study helped me recognise the details of the processes by which peat is eroded. The description given with Warburton’s photographs gave a feel of the processes, such as ‘smooth surface of redeposited peat’ or ‘major step or wash front advancing from left to right.’


I explored ways to represent the textures of bare peat – through drawing, frottage, and printing, on different papers.

A Cut Peat from Lewis © Kate Foster 2019.  Frottage by pencil on tracing paper.

Drawing a cut peat from Lewis, I observed the presence of grassy fibres binding small segments of compressed peat moss together.

Eroding Peat © Kate Foster 2019. Graph Paper, Bone medium, peat.

The drawing above was about how microtopographies indicate sites where carbon dioxide is invisibly moving into the atmosphere, reflecting on my dependence on science to envisage that this proces even happens.

First Peat Print © Kate Foster 2019

I began to use peat itself to make the marks. Thanks to Dr Emily Taylor, Rachel Coyle, and Drumclog Plant, I was able to recognise and collect a small sample of ‘Squagy’ peat – defined as ‘the perfect consistencey for a digger driver to make peat dams with’.

Image: print-making at Edinburgh College of Art, Kate Foster 2019

Working in the print room at Edinburgh College of Art let me explore peat as a material. It is easily dried and blown away, diluted and wshed away, and readily becomes friable – releasing carbon into the atmosphere as it goes.

This developed as a series of abstract prints reminiscent of landscapes.

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How could I show these prints? Which way up should they go?

In the field, I had seen where Rachel Coyle (Peatland Action Project Officer at Tweed Forum) had measured the depth of peat in an upland area, surveying before restoration began at Crunklie Moss. I had this in mind, with this drawing on one of the peat prints. The peat probe used is typically orange.

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‘A field-worker probes the depth of the remaining peat.’ Image 5 in Mending the Blanket © Kate Foster, 2019.  Peat print with ink drawing on A4 cartridge paper.

Turned upside down, these prints might make you think about what is under your feet when you are on a raised bog. Given a restored green layer, and plenty of rain, the water table can rise and the bog be restored as a carbon store and habitat.

Ombotrophic Raised Bog © Kate Foster 2019. Peat print and ink drawing on A3 cartridge paper.

Peat seemed to convey the textures of a raised bog better than ink can, as I tested out with the prints below. Peat does its own thing well, especially when it’s wet with a living layer of sphagnum moss.

Raised Bog © Kate Foster 2019. Monoprint with soluble ink on A3 newsprint.
Raised Bog (2) © Kate Foster 2019. Monoprint with soluble ink on A3 newsprint.


This post was prepared as an element of my project, Developing Peat Cultures.

More info:



Mending the Blanket

This is a selection of drawings about the restoration of blanket bog. Peat ‘hags’ are a feature of badly eroded peatland, but they can be re-profiled to allow new growth of wetland mosses. Peat from a restoration programme at Crunklie Moss in the Southern Uplands was used to make the drawings shown in this post.


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I am working on a series of drawings about the restoration of Crunklie Moss,  which lies in a remote valley called Gameshope in the Scottish Southern Uplands. Gameshope is a former sheep farm which is coverd by ‘blanket bog’ – typical for this area. Borders Forest Trust now own Gameshope and want to restore the eroded peatbog. Tweed Forum is doing this through Scotland’s Peatland Action programme.

This is a selection from work in progress, which is made in appreciation of the work of people who are making peatland restoration happen on the ground. Rachel Coyle (Peatland Action Project Officer based at Tweed Forum) and Kenny Veitch (Drumclog Plant) worked on Crunklie Moss in early 2019 and helped me find some ‘squagy’ peat.

Squagy peat is the sort of peat that is good for creating peat-dams – and also perfect for making prints on paper.




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Acknowledgements to Peatland Action, Tweed Forum, Drumclog Plant, Borders Forest Trust, Crichton Carbon Centre, and Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership for support during the development of this piece.



dandelion and acanthus


Dandelion flowers have been brought out by the sun over the Easter holiday, and are feeding bees. I’m enjoying them.


Acanthus is the usual classical ornamental leaf of choice. It’s given a capital position – just look at Sicilian Greek / Byzantine cloisters.


This notice in a Sicilian National Park says Acanthus is celebrated as a Christian emblem of resurrection and is a symbol of fertility because it grows wild, rather than being cultivated. It’s tempting to draw because of its symmetry, deep notches, and clear veins.

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Dandelions also grow wild and have deeply indented and curious leaves. I’m making space for them in my yard.



A record of the Working the Tweed project

As there is continued interest in this 2013 project, we are making this presentation to German Friends of the Earth available for the record.

This presentation was given at the invitation of BUND (German Friends of the Earth) in October 2016 to their annual conference in Burg Lenzen, on the River Elbe.



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Working the Tweed was a socially engaged arts project in a rural region of Southern Scotland. Artists have led or been involved in similar projects elsewhere – and we hope the ways that artists can work is interesting for you with BUND’s work on the Elbe. This is offered as a pilot project for discussion, not as a finished artwork.

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This quote neatly summarises what we hoped to do: to contribute to river culture. Martin Drenthen is a Dutch philosopher who has done considerable work on rivers, communities and place-making. We chose our project title to emphasise the livelihoods offered by the river: how people have managed, used, and shaped it, and how other species depend upon it. We offered our project as a resource for creative practitioners in our region. We also wanted to connect our partner agencies with people who see the river in less instrumental ways.

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The project won public funding from the government arts and environmental agencies available via a ‘Themed’ year of Natural Scotland. Additional funding was via LEADER (EU), a charitable trust, and  support of regional venues.

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It was an artist-led project with partnership working at its core. We approached the two key agencies in our region concerned with sustainable development and environmental protection in the river catchment. Both are ‘bottom-up’ membership organisations.

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The Tweed River flows from upland moorlands towards richer agricultural lands, meeting the sea at Berwick upon Tweed. Its last section acts as a border with England. Salmon, trout, and other migratory fish run. Sport fishing is economically important.BUND talk slides.007

The River shares its name with woven cloth historically produced in the area’s small towns. The river was vital to an international trade as it powered the textile mills. The lower reaches were commercially fished. The Tweed has inspired many artists and is now seen as a rural river where nature can be enjoyed. There is a resurgence of interest in renewable hydropower as part of small town regeneration. Several flood protection schemes are being put in place.BUND talk slides.008

This is how Tweed Forum has summarised concerns about the river catchment. Tweed Forum’s Catchment Management Plan helped us structure the project. This adopts the concept of ecosystem services which can be given monetary value. As artists we were also concerned with intangible cultural value.

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For this project we as artists abandoned the expectation of making individual works. Instead, our role was to use our skills to facilitate conversation, through Claire Pençak’s creative direction. Our different art-forms let us respond flexibly to different contexts.
We had to learn to understand and speak different ‘languages’.
It was a pilot project researching ways to approach future artwork. This project let us develop our own and others’ awareness of the river and build networks across the catchment.

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It consisted of many different forms of meeting in unconventional settings, developing the art of conversation around river issues. A copy of the poster is available here.

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We will cover three of its eight strands: Knowing your River which toured public agricultural shows; the Riverside Meetings in carefully selected places and open to all interested artists; and Catchment Conversations which brought river specialists together for a concluding event. (The slide mentions the other strands).

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An accurate geographical catchment map is not freely publicly available, but we wanted one for the project. We created a traced drawing offered people a new view of their region. It does not show towns, or river names.

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We took this map to agricultural shows – busy summer events in the region. We invited people to locate themselves according to the catchment map. This prompted conversations which revealed a depth of local knowledge and many different ways of knowing the river.

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People were interested in this catchment image and it became a motif for the project. The idea of the region as a catchment – rather than a series of small towns with strong civic pride and rivalries – offered a sense of connectivity and cohesion.

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Invitations to Riverside Meetings were circulated via arts networks. The meetings included informal talks by ecologists, botanists, hydrologists, land managers, curators, biologists, cultural leaders, environmental officers, countryside managers and rangers, ground workers and foresters.BUND talk slides.017

Habitat and Species (from Tweed Forum Catchment Management plan) had a parallel theme of More–than–human (a term from cultural geography). In this photo, an ecologist points out Otter spraints (poo) to a poet. The riverside meetings were informal – no power point! People met at the river and talked freely about their connection to it.

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The site for this first meeting was a traditional fishing (Haaf) spot, the fishermen on this occasion were helping a biological survey by Tweed Foundation – an organisation that informs Sports Fishing which now is dominant. Tagging the Salmon gave the meeting a focus. The session ended with a boat trip to the river mouth.

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A hydrologist, Professor Chris Spray from Dundee University, described why historical drainage and river straightening had led to this stretch of river being graded poor by EU Water Directive Framework. We looked at the groundworks involved in re-meandering the river (which are now considered successful and are being extended).

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A local school teacher attended and later took a class to this site for a creative writing project on re-meandering.

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This was at Abbotsford House, culturally significant because it was the writer Walter Scott’s residence (an important figure in Scottish history).

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Caulds were barriers originally created for industrial water power. This innovative renewable energy scheme was popular locally, and interesting to watch too. A fish pass was tailor-made for migrating fish, lamprey and eels (though people were not sure if this really worked) as well as salmon.

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Megget Water is Reservoir in the uplands, built in the 1950s to supply water to Edinburgh. This is a protected site because of water security issues, and it was exciting to get access to this dam through our growing project network. Local people and environmental managers came along, who would not normally be permitted to go there.

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We discussed the Government’s pilot Land Use Strategy (Climate Change Scotland Act) alongside the recent Scottish Borders Region Cultural Strategy. This drew out the topic of cultural landscapes, and the interconnection with culture and land use. We reflected on how short-term political cycles do not achieve sustainable management , and how local actions have impact elsewhere.
There is an account of our artwork in parallel to the Land Use strategy here.

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This was the culmination of the project, directing attention to the future and action. We offered this event to our partner agencies as a variant of public consultation.
This brought together ten people by invitation, with varied relationships to the river e.g. a scout leader keen to get young people canoeing, a development manager for community energy projects, and a forestry manager, a curator, and a digger driver. Many had been to a previous event.
 The venue was an inspiring furniture maker’s riverside studio – we decided not to use a standard conference centre. An arts setting can stimulate different ways of thinking.

The outcome was a brainstorm on what action to take on three key themes that had emerged through the morning session. Documentation is available as a pdf via .

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How did we structure this event? The morning session used objects people had brought to introduce ourselves in relation to the river. For example, a digger driver brought a collection of historical clay drains, one of which had a small hand print on it from the person who made it.

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Participants also each brought two photographs, illustrating firstly something working well on the rivers and secondly something they thought needed improving.

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These are the themes for the afternoon workshop groups, themes that had emerged in the morning. We directed conversation to possible action. 
 This was a very different experience to going to a conventional meeting focussing on a specific problem (eg flood protection), like formal public consultation would do.

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These two slides recap the strategies that we brought as artists to the design of the project. We needed to think laterally, develop symbolic language, make connections, network, use interdisciplinarity (requiring many meetings between lead artists).

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There are potential conflicts between generating participation in cultural activities and being an environmentally responsible organisation.
We aimed to conduct the project sustainably – eg use of materials, or providing shared minibus transport to riverside meetings to minimise use of private car.

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Our intention was to take complex issues ‘off the page’ and into people’s imagination.
These are the material ways we communicated about the project to different audiences – from face to face, exhibition, to digital media. We made a DVD as a project summary, with reflection about collaborative practice and how arts practitioners can contribute to shaping the future of the catchment.

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The digital element has given the project an afterlife, as a library for reference and an international platform. For example a sound map was developed through Aporee as a digital means to post interviews, music, and sounds of places where they were recorded.

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Working the Tweed went some way to persuade funders, land use mangers and artists what creative practices can contribute to thinking around land use and environmental issues. It helped us appreciate that River Culture already strongly exists in our region, and think of further ways to get involved and help develop river connected projects.

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This project introduced a practice of including artists as part of teams working towards rural development projects, for example as a project artist for the Hawick flood protection schemes. Andrew Mackenzie became involved in public engagement and contributing to scheme design.

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Thank you!

The Red Moss of Balerno

I wonder what to make of the Red Moss (and what passers-by will make of me) as I attempt field drawing on a wet and wintery Sunday afternoon.

Image © Pantea Armanfar





someone just walked by with a cat on her shoulder

and now it has started to rain, she is returning with it on a lead


another interpretation board on the horizon


From the board I learn that:

Ponds are a haven. They are a complex habitat full of scavengers, predators, herbivores, decomposers, and parasites.

A conversation with a young person reveals that, all the same, despair is still to be found in this swamp. He has to go home because his brother fell in. If only they had brought a change of clothes with them!







River Ways and Land Uses

A drawing, a map and a guide are connected by the flow of water in the Tweed tributaries.

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This is soon to be published as a pecha kucha talk . It is about a catchment drawing, a Land Use map, and a guide to how carbon moves for water to air. The connecting theme is the flow of water in the Tweed tributaries. To begin, here are some of their names, collated for a project I was part of, “Working the Tweed” (2013)Kate Foster PC Mtb.003

Catchment maps are handy things for a project to have, but we needed one that was affordable. So I traced these River Ways to make a talking point on our project stall at agricultural shows. The drawing became a project motif. The Tweed is a very dendritic river – this drawing leaves out fine detail.

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This slide gives an impression of the project Working the Tweed. The Borders region is defined and connected by rivers, though people often think of it in terms of its towns. We learned that many people know their River Ways really well (and could point out  inaccuracies).

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Of course, many other artists have been inspired by The Tweed – these are just three that I have followed. Helen Douglas’ sumptuous bookwork Follow the River developed in the Yarrow Valley ; the Tweed Rivers Interpretation Project; and Andrew Mackenzie as project artist with the Hawick Flood Protection scheme.

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Here is Jules’ Horne’s Tweed Tweed made in cloth. It adapts an engineers plan for a re-meandering project at Eddlestone Water (near Peebles). These works were led by Tweed Forum. We showed this work with a toy-digger so people of all ages could help make the river meander again.

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At some point, I realised I should think about Drains too. People have been building a second kind of catchment over the centuries, rushing water to the sea. I began to look for drains in the landscape, and get interested in Subsurface drainage patterns.

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I also have become slightly obsessed by diggers (perhaps I’m not the only one). You see them everywhere when you start looking – performing Landscape Service and doing plenty of Groundwork. But they do seem to hide when it comes to Landscape painting and photography.


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Through the Tweed project, I and the other lead artists became involved in Pilot Land Use Strategy in the Borders, led by Tweed Forum as part of Scottish Climate Change Legislation. The consultation process focussed on maps and was framed by the concept of ecosystem services. The technical language of ecosystem services can be daunting …

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… but every person and every creature is affected by how humans use land. There’s various ways artists’ can contribute ‘intangible values’ and ‘cultural meanings’. As a starter, here’s the Tweed’s ‘indicator species’ – including salmon who need to migrate to cold Arctic waters.

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Stone Flies are a favourite food for salmon. Improvisational dancers also paid attention to their midsummer emergence on the riverbank. Stone Lives – led by Claire Pençak – developed as a result. This includes a dance score about personal associations with what happens in particular places.

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The 1930s Land Utilisation map is in the Mapping the Borders exhibition – it is still in copyright. Here’s a hint of what it looks like. This sketch was an experiment in using Claire’s score. The Land Use map itself is very colourful indeed, with yellow uplands of moorland and heath and flowing towards brown and green valleys, and red or purple towns.

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The 1930s map gives bright colours to times I have otherwise glimpsed through black and white photos. I imagine walking in these uplands then – curlew cries, shepherd’s calls, dark skies with crisp cold autumns … but perhaps the colours add gloss to what were hard ways of living.

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So, next, this is a scientific instrument – a Flux Chamber that measures how much carbon dioxide is released into the air from a flowing river. The amount of carbon being released as gas depends on the time of day, what season it is, and how the land is being used. Flux Chamber became the title for an interdisciplinary project about carbon landscapes.

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You cannot sense directly when carbon is moving fast from water to air, but you can learn to read signs of when it is likely – when the river is turbulent, brown and noisy. I piloted a ‘guide’ to carbon landscapes with a biogeochemist and a scholar of environmental literature.

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You can see this guide at the exhibition. It opens with an invitation: think of the lines on a catchment map as places where carbon is being released into the atmosphere. This piece combines Susan Waldron’s scientific observations with poetic responses by David Borthwick, and my drawings.

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Animal life plays a role too. Caddis flies –  like Stone Flies,  need clean waters and live in fast flowing upland streams. Expressed as poetry by David Borthwick:
.. the caddisfly larva (shredder, scraper, collector)
makes an armoured harbour
a tiny sequestration
sealed for instar
pupation for take off

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Another of the six pages is about Water Colours:
‘ soil and inorganic carbon colours the water and is swept downstream, which increases the flux from water into air. So the intensity of the colour of the water gives a clue about how much carbon efflux is happening.’ (Susan Waldron)

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These are colours of clear water of the upland River Yarrow, drawn out by the sun. The range of colours appeal to the senses, more alluring perhaps than after heavy rainfall when the river becomes dark brown.

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You can’t feel a river shedding carbon directly, but we can watch the leaf-fall onto its surface. We can see leaves snagged on trees at the river bank, left by previous torrents. Through drawing, I find meanings of a specific place which are not expressed by technical reports. For example, this next drawing about how autumnal leaves move in a swirling current.

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With winter rains, the rivers will become torrential, opaque brown with silt. I find this sight compelling and formidable.

The fears, hopes and meanings I find in places keep shifting around the metrics of mapping and surveys.

Roaming in Southern Scotland

A walk with a botanist suggests that unicorns might be coming more common in the well-wooded Yarrow Valley.

© Kate Foster

I suppose unicorns are quite common?

‘Well, yes’  agreed the botanist. ‘Especially’, she added, ‘if the quality of the woods is improving’.


Scottish Rights of Way must include Access for Unicorns: the signs instruct us to head up the path to Ashiestiel.

© Kate Foster

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Up, towards the Southern Upland Way. Woodlands around us are in reasonable condition – see the bryophytes? At the edge of the birch wood, a third sign:

© Kate Foster

The plant that is called Yarrow is still in flower in early autumn, and common in upland meadows. The Yarrow Pug is a southern insect, but the Northern Eggar should frequent a good upland meadow. Hares? Yes, should be plenty. Lapwing? well only a very small number nesting on the hill last year – they need undisturbed wetlands.

We enjoyed our rights of way, with the prospect of a unicorn – released from its chains – leaping a closed gate.

For any enquires about Unicorn sightings in the Yarrow Valley go to Fully Wooly  

Any scientific inaccuracy is my responsibility.








Rift Valley flyway

A road trip from Israel’s southernmost town of Eilat to its northernmost village of Metula offered glimpses of birds negotiating natural and human-made hazards. Birds can fly over the security fences that now entirely surround Israel, but on their passage they depend on the ways people use land to get safe roosting and forage.

The Rift Valley, running south to north through Israel and the Palestinian Territories, pulses each spring and autumn with millions of birds migrating between Africa and Europe.

Eilat is Israel’s southernmost town, very close to the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. At the end of March, thousands of Steppe Buzzards roosted on the ground overnight in the hills above the town. As the morning heat gathered, the birds rose upwards in the thermals.


A group of Artists for Nature were working at a viewpoint. The guides pointed out that Black Kites, Ospreys, White Storks, Steppe Eagles were some of the species that were flying alongside the buzzards.

Looking into a patch of blue sky through binoculars, you could see raptors appear in spirals and then disappear in high northward streams.



The new Security Fence could also be seen on the Egyptian border, with an observation post on the mountainous skyline.

With just a naked eye in such a sweeping landscape, the effort of the birds to reach the sky could only be seen as minute moving pinpoints.


Below the viewpoint, the expanding desert town of Eilat sits in the small triangle of land between Egypt and Jordan. A string of luxury hotels now greets tourists who can fly in.


Travelling north to the Negev desert, the road passes an airport under construction. The new Ramon airport will allow the largest of airplanes to taxi and turn, and will also release land nearer the town for more hotel development.  A peace-making plan for Israel and Jordan to share an airport was abandoned, so there are two airports next to each other on either side of the border.


Further north an oasis in the Negev provided delightful Organic Dates. I felt the ground shudder: ordnance, I assumed.


Dried-out ground stretches across the valley towards Jordan at the southern edge of the Dead Sea. This is the consequence of water and potash extraction.

To date, the Dead Sea has already lost over 1/3 of its surface area, the sea level has fallen over 25 meters and is continuing to drop by over 1 meter per year, causing land-subsidence sinkholes and other irreversible damages.



The rapidly increasing scale of human activity was underlined by comparing a 60-year old photo of the road along the Dead Sea (shown in Ein Gedi Kibbutz), with a snap from our car window.



A lay-by on the road offers a viewing point for Lot’s Wife, a Biblical character. Her name may not be remembered, but her form still stands in the intensely folded rocks.


A resident Raven flew above the precipice. In the desiccating atmosphere, watercolour paint was dry by the end of a stroke.



On the road north to Galilee, flecks in the sky turned out to be a flock of White Storks looking for an overnight roost.


Past Lake Tiberias, a road climbs into the hills above the Hula Valley and overlooks what was once an extensive wetland.

Before being drained in the 1950s, the original lake and surrounding extensive marshes were the largest wetland habitat in the Middle East. Since the draining, there has been a slow but steady push to restore wetland habitats, including the Hula Nature Reserve and the Agamon Lake. Today these wetlands, along with the surrounding agriculture and native woodland hillsides, attract the greatest diversity and abundance of wildlife and birds found along the northern Great Rift Valley, among which are over 60 globally threatened plant and animal species. Much of this diversity is directly related to the site’s location at the crossroads of Eurasia and Africa, where several bioregions overlap.



Israel’s northernmost village of Metula is next to the disputed territory of the Golan Heights. Intensely farmed fields characterise the views towards Syria. Looking towards Lebanon, the skylines are truncated by roads and an intensely patrolled border but hint at remains of beautiful forests.



Around Metula, there were orchards of all kinds – vines, apples, apricots, chestnuts.


Nahal ‘Iyyon Nature Reserve   boasted an extraordinary variety of wild flowers.


In the hills, White Storks were using the edgelands of Tsfat town rubbish dump for roosting and forage. Lines of storks dodged the compactor as it moved across the site, with shuffling jumps. Groups of storks then began to form and fly upwards with the morning heat. Birds in their hundreds, in their thousands – all moving north.


Birdlife International is working to protect this international flyway.  One conservation aim is to prevent of illegal trapping and hunting of birds in passage, especially the small songbirds. In this context, the welfare and free movement of birds and people become interdependent ideas, and human and avian culture inseparable.

Looking back through my sketchbook, these glimpses of migrating birds in such numbers and variety emerge as an intangible memory.


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