Branch call: A male stonechat. Their calls sound like two stones being knocked together
Jo Brown made her very first journal entry — an exquisite drawing of three stems of horsetail (Equisetum telmateia) she had seen in the wood behind her house — on April 4, 2018.
She drew it in painstaking detail in ink and coloured pencils, complete with the grid reference for the exact bit of wood in which she had spotted it, day of the week, weather and, in neat pencil, listed the most interesting of the myriad facts she had discovered in her exhaustive research.
‘Living fossils — the only living example of the Equisetopsida class from the great Paleozoic forests. Over 500 million years old.’
Days later, on a sunny Tuesday in May, she spied the cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) — a.k.a. lady’s smock, mayflower, milkmaids, fairy flower — and nearby its regular visitor, the orange tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines) and recorded those, too.
‘Young leaves have a peppery taste and can be substituted for cress in salads.’
Three days after that came the blisteringly yellow gorse (Ulex europaeus). And on May 8, an overcast Tuesday, she found a green dock beetle (Gastrophysa viridula) chomping through a dock leaf in her own back garden.
So in it went, on Page Four.
You can’t beat this: Drumstick truffleclub is a rare find
Every single day, Jo, 41, would walk for a few hours in the small wood behind her Devon cottage with her Jack Russell, Bowie. If something really moved her, stirred her insides, made her ‘jump up and down with joy’, then she would take loads of photographs of it, thank it profusely — whether it was a bug, a spider, a leaf or a mushroom — and then, back in her cottage, record it in a black A6 Moleskine journal.
Each drawing took her between six and ten hours — all somehow fitted around her day job as an illustrator for word search and puzzle books.
‘I did it as a memory for me, to remember what I’d seen. It was deeply personal and private,’ she says as we tramp together through one of her favourite stretches of ancient woodland.
Every minute or so, with little shouts of almost childlike joy, she points out popping out of the undergrowth milk caps, porcini past their best, beef mushrooms that bleed when you cut them, bright yellow chanterelles, puffballs, fly agarics and death caps — some tasty, some lethal.
‘Look, look! False death caps. I wouldn’t eat them — but if you did they wouldn’t kill you.’
First-class flight: The small pearlbordered fritillary
But in spring last year, things ground to a halt. Her creativity dipped. ‘I hadn’t drawn anything for a few weeks,’ she says. ‘I was really struggling.’
So she posted a video of the journal on Twitter, turning the pages as she filmed. The reaction was extraordinary. Overnight, she gained more than 11,000 followers.
People were eulogising over her work, thanking her for the positive impact it had had on their lives and on their mental health.
Since then, the video has been viewed more than a million times. Now, every page, every entry, every pencil mark and rubbing-out has been reproduced in Secrets Of A Devon Wood.
‘I didn’t start it with the intention it would be published. I was just drawing what I saw and liked. What made me feel happy,’ she says. ‘Just being in the woods makes me happy. It’s my therapy. Being in the woods is my Prozac.’
Jo is brilliant and bouncy — but admits she is not like most people.
Pure nectar: Getting right up close and personal with the buff-tailed bumblebee
Even in non-Covid times, she rarely went out socially — maybe once every three or four months — and she lives alone.
She suffers from depression, anxiety and sleep problems, but gets her solace, her strength, her mental wellbeing not from counselling or antidepressants but from nature.
‘Mushrooms make me really happy,’ she says. They get me really excited. I’m obsessed with them. I respect them. Of course I do . . . Look! There’s a brown roll-rim. They’re deadly,’ she says casually.
‘The toxins are cumulative. One by one, your organs shut down.’
When she was a girl she loathed school but she has been drawing for as long as she could hold a crayon. After art school in Falmouth, Cornwall, she drifted into a series of design jobs including at a greetings card company.
When her beloved father died suddenly of a brain tumour in 2008 she made some hard decisions.
‘His death unleashed something,’ she says. It made me think, I’ve only got one life. I’d better start using my talent and stop sitting around drawing stuff I had no interest in. I needed to draw stuff I loved — that made my heart sing.’
Last September, she spotted a fungus even she could not identify. She was so excited.
‘It was in my back garden! I was rearing fox moth caterpillars from eggs — 17 of them — and was foraging for fresh bramble leaves for their dinner,’ she says. ‘And under one leaf, there it was.’ And now it’s on Page 89.
Scientists at Stirling University and the University of East Anglia are still investigating but it looks like Jo could have discovered a whole new species. They might even name it after her.
Parting with the journal was very difficult. Before it went to the publishers, she scanned every page.
‘It is very precious to me,’ she says. Partly because it was her father who inspired it but also because it symbolises how nature has saved her. Protected her. Brought her joy to blot out anxiety.
Parting with the journal was very difficult. Before it went to the publishers, she scanned every page
She hopes it will encourage others to embrace nature. ‘Without nature, my life would be unbearable,’ she says.
‘I just wouldn’t be able to cope. Everyone has access to nature, wherever they live. Just look at the cracks in the pavement and you can see tiny plants and grass . . . you just have to look.’
Or you could, of course, buy this truly wonderful book.
Secrets Of A Devon Wood by Jo Brown will be published by Short Books on October 8 at £14.99.
To order a copy for £13.19 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Promotional price valid until October 10, 2020.