Lunch Break

Artichoke gall, also known as Hop Gall, on Sessile Oak.

THIS MAKES A CHANGE; sitting with my sandwich, leaning against the trunk of an oak, the tree canopy above me and birches and bracken stretching down to the stream below. I’m deep in the wood yet only 15 minutes walk from my front door. I timed it because yesterday, when I first tried a lunchtime mini-adventure, I had assumed that I would have time to walk the full circuit of the valley but I hadn’t factored in the number of times that I’d stop to photograph fungi so I ended up rushing to get back home on time.

It’s better to have more time to stop and enjoy my surroundings. Even half an hour of brisk walking is better than none.

My habitual lunch break, when I’m on my own and Barbara is working at the bookshop, would be something on toast then to slump on the sofa with a mug of tea and listen to The World at One. But we’re in the middle of the party conference season so what better time for a change!

Of course, I’d love to have time to draw too but these photographs give an impression of what you can see in the wood, even during a one hour lunch break.

Stress proof your life

I can’t make a case for my life being particularly stressful but I couldn’t resist picking up Stress proof your life; 52 brilliant ideas for taking control by Elisabeth Wilson when I saw it in the library.

I had to work away one day last week, doing some lettering on boards, which gave me an opportunity to observe how someone else ran her business. Although she ran a much bigger, more involved business than mine, it got me reassessing my working habits.

As a freelance illustrator, I can choose what I do and who I work for, so why, so often, do I feel frustrated at not being able to settle to my work?

Self-help books are something that you have to read when you’re in a suitably open-minded mood otherwise the content washes over you and you think ‘that would be a good idea, if I ever have the time to put it into practice’. But things are settling down for me this autumn. I’ve cleared the decks by completing the illustrations for the museum and my article for the Coxley newsletter so I’m more than ready to settle down to my own work.

10, 20, 30

In this situation, chapter 4 in Stress proof your life, ‘Never procrastinate again’ seems especially appealing. Wilson explains the ‘rotation method’ devised by Mark Forster, featured in his time management book, Get Everything Done.

You divide your working session into segments;

Working down each column from left to right, I spent ten minutes on each of the activities, half an hour in total, then twenty minutes on each, finishing with three half hour sessions. I used a kitchen timer to keep track.

Coffee breaks are taken in between. There’s nothing magical about the 10, 20, 30 – you can change those times to suit yourself – and you needn’t limit it to three activities but those three reflect the three strands of my work.

One of the big advantages of being freelance is the unbroken blocks of time you can sometimes find yourself with, so why should I want to break up my day like this?

Writer’s Block

Three reasons:

  1. Book: I’m suffering from a case of writer’s block with my ‘Book’ (title omitted to save my embarrassment at having spent eight years researching it!). When I sit down to start, the task always seems too daunting. But even I can get motivated and compose myself sufficiently to spend 10 minutes on it. Then, having broken the ice and taken a break with the two other, less demanding, activities, I’m happy to put in a further 20 minutes and so on.
  2. InDesign: I always have something that I’m trying to learn; at the moment it’s the desk-top publishing program, InDesign but if I leave it until I have a free half day to devote to the subject, I can go a month or more without settling down to it. Then when I do spend several hours on one subject it can be too much. You can learn more in three twenty minute sessions than in a single one hour session.
  3. Fungi: for ‘Fungi’ read any kind of natural history drawing or writing notes for this online diary. Typically I’ll leave this until about 4.30 in the afternoon when I’ve put in a good session on my work proper (my current book or freelance work). But my natural history drawing and writing form the basis of my work. If I’m to keep things fresh, broaden my knowledge of my specialist subject and keep myself interested, I should factor it into my day.

During the couple of days that I’ve tried this regime, it’s worked well. I’m keen to keep escaping to the natural world during my lunch break. If my morning and afternoon sessions are suitably productive thanks to a spot of time management, I should be able to justify an hour’s break each day – a little over an hour as I have to fill a flask and make a sandwich (peanut butter and local honey in homemade granary, based on Ray Mears’ suggestion for his favourite fellwalking sandwich!).

Oh, and in autumn woodland, there’s more essential; a folding foam mat to sit on.

Love the job you’ve got

I think you’d get more stressed if you attempted to sample every single one of the 52 stress busting techniques in Elisabeth Wilson’s book, but I like what she says about work in the chapter on ‘How to love the job you’ve got’;

‘ask yourself how you can make it special, imbue it with your own uniqueness, breathe creativity and a little bit of love into it.’

Not a bad mission statement for me to have in mind as I work on my book.

Link: Mark Forster’s Get Everything Done. His latest is book is intriguingly titled Do It Tomorrow, which sounds like a time wasting technique but Forster has a knack of offering a fresh approach to people like me who’ve got themselves in a bit of a rut.
I can’t find a website for Elisabeth Wilson.

Witch’s Egg

AT FIRST I thought that this ‘Witch’s Egg’ was an extra large earthball fungus. It about half the size of a tennis ball and not as firm to the touch as an earthball. It was on its own, lying on a shady, moist woodland bank amongst the leaf litter in Stoneycliffe Wood. This seemed strange as most fungi grow up from the ground rather than on it and I thought that perhaps it had been dislodged.

But this ‘fruiting’ part of the fungus has only a single white cord connecting it with the mycelium, the growing part of the fungus which is associated with rotting wood.

Stinkhorn covered with flies

The ‘Witch’s Egg’ is said to be edible but poor but this is certainly one that I wouldn’t have tried, even when I was down and out and living in a tent in Iceland, as it’s filled with olive-green slime. It’s the initial stage of the Stinkhorn fungus, Phallus impudicus, which grows up from it, wafting its carrion odour through the wood.

Buczacki comments that ‘it is usually detected by its evil smell‘, which he find ‘repulsive‘.


WE SPOTTED this Treecreeper climbing up the crab apple by the pond, meanwhile a Nuthatch had flown to take a sunflower heart from one of the bird feeders. Our delight at seeing these two infrequent visitors in our back garden at one soon turned to shocked horror as the Treecreeper hurtled like a missile towards the feeders then continued, hitting the patio window and instantly killing itself by, as far as I can tell, breaking its neck.

I didn’t want it to have died in vain so I picked it up to draw and also checked the internet and phoned the British Trust for Ornithology just in case someone might be studying the species and might have a use for a fresh casualty for analysis, but they didn’t know of any study at present, unless the bird had died of disease.

Length: 12.7 cm
Beak: 1.7 cm
Tail: 6 cm
Weight: 8 grams

Common Earthball

COMMON EARTHBALL fungus grows in woodland and heathland sometimes on its own but often ‘in small, trooping ± tufted groups’ as Stefan Buczacki explains in the new Collins Fungi Guide. ‘Trooping’ means that they’re growing close to each other but are physically separate, ‘tufted’ means that they grow from the same base.

He describes the fruiting bodies as covered in ‘coarse brown scales or low pyramidal warts’ and you can see from my drawing that the texture varies amongst this group.

The older one (top) has burst open at the apex, revealing the dark brown spores inside.

They were growing on the grassy verge of a track through the plantations at Newmillerdam. I photographed them, then drew from the photograph but I do hope I’ll be able to make time to draw on location before too long.

Buczacki describes the Common Earthball as ‘possibly poisonous’ but it really depends on how hungry you are. I ate young specimens when I was in Iceland living in a one-man tent at Lake Myvatn for 4 weeks on a stretched to the limit Minor Travelling award from the Royal College of Art. The flesh is whitish at first and I thought that it smelt of mushrooms.

Delicious fried in butter. But probably poisonous. You have been warned.