Amongst nature: Illustrating John Boorman’s lockdown diary

Susan Morley drew on memory and on Kerry’s flora to illustrate her old neighbour’s book

At the beginning of May 2020, I received an email from Kathy Gilfillan, an old friend and neighbour from the Wicklow hills. In April, John Boorman told Kathy that he was writing a nature diary, and as a director of the Lilliput Press, Kathy suggested he publish it. John agreed to continue the diary through the months of April, May and June, the duration of the national lockdown, and I was asked to illustrate it.

This would be our second collaboration of words and images. John had collected my paintings over the years and was particularly fond of a large watercolour of a beech tree I had painted around 1999. He rang me one day to tell me he was writing some poems about his trees and had written one about the painting. That led to him asking me to illustrate all the tree poems for Conclusions, his memoir published by Faber & Faber in February.

As fate would have it, the Dublin launch of Conclusions at the IFI, which was to host the screening of a short film directed by John to accompany the book along with his autobiographical film with John Hurt, I Dreamt I Woke Up, coincided with an announcement by the government of a countrywide lockdown. The launch was cancelled and we all returned home and settled in for the duration.

The commission to illustrate John’s new nature diary came as a gift from the gods. It brought a purpose and structure to my daily life in splendid isolation in my Kerry home and studio. Every day when I went out for walks I found the plants, leaves and flowers that John was writing about in his diary in Annamoe. The early primroses, buttercups, daisies and dandelions that he discovered unfolding on his daily walk to the twin oak at the end of his drive were emerging here in the Kerry ditches. My subjects were picked and brought back to the studio. The simplest of Irish flowers that miraculously come up every year became precious symbols of certainty in a world suddenly become strange and uncertain.


It was a time for observation, time had slowed down for us all. There was nothing to rush for, and nowhere to go.

There was time to examine the veins in a leaf, the centre of a flower, the funny twisted turn of the fern or bracken. Lili Mae Boorman sent me wonderful photographs of the lime tree leaf, the giant redwood leaf and mighty trunk, and the carved boulder.

The carved boulder. I remember when Brother Anthony of Glenstal Abbey came to the Glebe many years before to chisel Celtic spirals out of a huge granite boulder in front of the house. He spent many months working on it. John told me that it starts at the salmon carved into the base, and the spiral continues around the stone in beautiful fluid shapes until it returns to the salmon.

Fortunately, because of the work I had done on the drawings for Conclusions in August 2019, I was very familiar with John’s beloved trees. We had been neighbours and friends for over 30 years, our land separated by the Avonmore river which flowed between us. I remember thinking then, as I scrambled down his river bank through gorse and bracken that August when we were free, finding the right spot to draw the giant monkey puzzle which frames the view up the hill to the house, that it had to be someone as familiar with the landscape as I was to be John’s eyes for his trees. I loved that landscape too and knew it so well.

It was a fascinating process, drawing the plants to go with the diary as it was being written. We were both in our separate worlds though connected by the magical process of collaboration on a project. I work quite well under a bit of pressure, and as John was a month ahead in his writing, I had to work fast to catch the emerging plants at their best. Back in my studio I was surrounded by branches and leaves, wilting flowers and pieces of bark and bracken. There was no struggle, the drawings flowed.

The year after we moved to Annamoe, John was filming Excalibur. A lot of the filming took place in the primeval oak woods of the Glendalough estate. The wasteland was depicted as a desolate treeless landscape. John has always loved trees. And the river. The fearless man who filmed Emerald Forest in the Amazon jungle has challenged the elementals who reside in the Middle Earth of the Wicklow hills.

The river which flows gently like a stream in dry periods can turn into an angry flood after heavy rain. Both our lands have been severely flooded in past years. It is not a land for the faint-hearted. He writes about being helped into the river by his son, Lee, in which he used to swim like a fish. What honesty and courage he displays. When we all grow old we should talk with such honesty. John understands that we are like the trees, and it is all nature.

One of my favourite excerpts is from April 19th:

"Lee's muscular power and speed over the ground are in such contrast to my slow passage and dimming eyes that I have come to depend on his observations, but this journal must, at heart, be the about an old man's connections with the natural world. At the highest level are the occasional strong connections I feel with trees. I experience a discernible energy coming from them that is soothing and enveloping. I try to respond. It is non-verbal. Trees give off endorphins, which make us feel calm when we walk through a wood, but this is of a different order."
Susan Morley is the illustrator of John Boorman's Nature Diary: One Eye, One Finger, pulbished by the Lilliput Press (€15)