Thursday, December 24, 2015

An image of the sun

To not look at the sea, but over it.
In winter, not at the tree, but through it.
With art, not to look at or through but with it.

- Roger Ackling (1947-2014)

These lines appear in one of the short essays and appreciations collected together in a new book, Between the Lines: The Work and Teaching of Roger AcklingThey suggest why Ackling rarely discussed his own work: 'not to look at or through but with it'.  However, he was persuaded to give a talk as part of a 2002 residency at Morai in Hokkaido, from which the quote above is taken.  One of the organisers, Toshio Nakamoro, recalls the beach there having 'all the elements Roger needed - clear and intensive sunlight, water and air' and Ackling told his audience that the melancholy, remote beauty of this place had impressed him greatly.  He had become a regular visitor to Japan, where his meditative approach to art has always been appreciated - in 1986 the Acklings chose to celebrate their wedding at the Meiji shrine in Tokyo.  The talk ended with him modestly admitting that he still did not necessarily know what he was doing.  He described the means by which he had been making sculpture for nearly thirty years: pieces of wood, found by the sea's edge and then burned with a magnifying glass.  How long this took would depend on cloud cover, the time of day and year, the altitude and the age of the wood.  'I usually work from left to right and against the grain.  Each line is made up of many black dots.  Each dot is an image of the sun.'

Between the Lines includes many contributions from Japan, along with reminiscences by his fellow British artists Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Thomas A. Clark.  There is a short piece by Evan Parker, whose album Lines Burnt in Light (2001) refers to Ackling's work.  Former Tate curator Judith Collins contributes the transcript of an interview she did for a BBC Radio 3 programme, Artists and the Landscape, in January 1994.  For this she travelled to the Norfolk coast, where the Acklings lived in a coastguard cottage on an eroding cliff.  'Ackling worked on the beach in front of his cottage, in the shifting space between land and sea.  But his sculptures were actually made in the 93 million miles of space between the sun and the piece of found driftwood he held in his hand.'  On winter days like the one on which they met for this interview, it was not possible for Ackling to make his work as the light was too weak.  But this enforced break meant he could return to it refreshed each year in April.
  
 Reading Between the Lines in weak winter sunlight

As ever here, I have been focusing on landscape and art, but Ackling did not see himself as a land artist and the later sections of the book on his teaching practice illustrate how open he always was to new ideas.  In a catalogue essay from 1997, Sylvia Ackling explained that
'he still identifies strongly with the more abstract elements: ideas of remoteness and isolation, an art that is not necessarily object-based, a lack of respect for a hierarchy of materials fixed by commercial values.  However, although his fellow Saint Martin's students Hamish Fulton and Richard Long continue to be important influences, together with Dada and Carl Andre, he also looks to the work of Alan Charlton and Peter Joseph, and to that of the sixteenth-century Japanese sculptor Enku.  Increasingly, Roger finds inspiration in Enku's work, the Buddhist monk whose life was a journey as he walked from temple to temple throughout Japan in his quest to carve one hundred thousand buddhas...'

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Steps


It is high time I drew attention here to the admirable Longbarrow Press, whose strapline is 'Poetry from the Edgelands'.  I recently bought from them Steps by Mark Goodwin, one of the 'radical landscape poets' selected for Harriet Tarlo's 2011 anthology The Ground Aslant.  You can read and hear one of its poems at The Journal of Wild Culture, but much of the book is taken up with one long seventy-page walk poem, 'From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny.'  As the title suggests (those indefinite articles inserted before the places names) this poem is not always an easy stroll in terms of language and an endnote recognises that use of 'an' and 'a' will jar with some readers. But I enjoyed it, partly because it reminded me of our own walks years ago on the Cornish coast (Goodwin is accompanied by 'the woman I love' who has a 'creaturely' connection with the animals they encounter.  It brought to mind an incident when we spotted some other walkers down on the rocks and I pompously remarked on their irresponsibility in letting a dog swim among the rough waves, only to be told by my wife that what I was looking at was a seal).  The walk from St Juliot has strong cultural associations with Thomas Hardy and his future wife Emma, 'the woman whom I loved so' as he refers to her in 'Beeny Cliff', a poem quoted within Goodwin's.  On finishing this poem a strong impression of the landscape remains: its broken black slates and white-watered zawns, its sea-pinks and samphire, steep paths, holloways, gorzy slopes and views out to sea.


Extracts from Goodwin's walk/poem appeared in Longbarrow's anthology of walking poetry, The Footing. With the exception of Goodwin this book features poets based in Sheffield and can be read as an exploration of the city's streets and rivers.  On the Longbarrow Press site you'll find sound and video clips of poets reading their work out in this landscape.  I've embedded one of them below, in which Matthew Clegg and songwriter Ray Hearne are filmed in the woods and by a canal, accompanied by birdsong, the singing of leaves and a brief bit of laddish chanting from a passing boat (6 minutes in).  Harder to appreciate from a website is the high production standard of the Press's books, and also their pamphlets, like Peter Riley’s The Ascent of Kinder Scout.  The black and grey fonts in Steps look beautiful on the page and an interview with Longbarrow's Brian Lewis makes clear how much care has been taken over their layout.  In 'From a St Juliot to Beyond a Beeny' the text follows the poet's steps along the Cornish coast for seven kilometres, varying the pace, diverted by memories and then returning to attend to such things as the river, dotted with shadows, where water circles and light slides and rolls over 'layered pages of still slate.'

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565

According to Robert D. Denham's, Poets on Paintings: A Bibliography (2010), Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus has been the subject of at least sixty-three poems.  In addition to the well-known ones by W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams, there have been others by, for example, Dannie Abse, Gottfried Benn, Allen Curnow, Michael Hamburger and Philip Whalen.  However, it is clear from this bibliography that Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow has also drawn an interesting range of writers: Williams again, John Berryman, Anne Stevenson, Walter De La Mare (and they keep coming: the new edition of Granta has one by Andrew Motion).  Berryman considers the hunters frozen at a moment in history and Stevenson imagines their moment of arrival as they 'pull / off their caked boots, curse the weather / slump down over stoups. . .'  Williams describes Brueghel's artistry, beginning matter-of-factly - 'The over-all picture is winter / icy mountains / in the background...' - and ending by noting the way he chose 'a winter-struck bush for his / foreground to / complete the picture.'  Walter De La Mare begins in ekphrasis, starting like Williams with the distant landscape: 'Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green / Wall in the wild, cold scene below'.  His poem ends on a mysterious note:
But flame, nor ice, nor piercing rock,
Nor silence, as of a frozen sea,
Nor that slant inward infinite line
Of signboard, bird, and hill, and tree,
Give more than subtle hint of him
Who squandered here life's mystery.


William Carlos Williams' Brueghel poems appeared posthumously in Pictures from Brueghel and other poems (1962).  Denham's bibliography lists other examples of poets who have written extended sequences or whole volumes devoted to painting.  Perhaps the most prominent of these is, R. S. Thomas, whose ‘Impressions’ in Between Here and Now (1981) include landscapes by Monet, Pissaro and Gauguin.  One of them is devoted to Cézanne’s The Bridge at Maincy which was featured in one of my earlier posts here.  There have also been whole books devoted to single artists, such as Turner and Monet.  Robert Fagles, best known for his translations of Homer, published one of these in 1978: I, Vincent: Poems from the Pictures of Van Gogh.


Denham has compiled a long list of individual poems but my impression on leafing through it is that relatively few of them have been about independent, unpeopled landscape paintings.  It is though unsurprising to find that writers have been more attracted to paintings suggesting drama, complexity or ambiguity - in the last century artists like Edward Hopper and Marc Chagall were common subjects.  Even in paintings where landscape dominates the composition, people exert a fascination (Czeslaw Milosz, reflecting on a painting by Salvator Rosa, writes of 'figures on the other shore tiny, and in their activities mysterious.')  Simple unadorned description of a what a painting shows is rare, although William Carlos Williams, advocate of 'no ideas but in things', does this in 'Classic Scene', recreating in words Charles Sheeler's 1931 view of the new Ford plant near Detroit.

Although Denham explicitly excludes from the book examples of reverse ekphrasis (paintings inspired by poems), the variety of poems listed invite speculation on ways of combining writing, painting and landscape.  It occurs to me that you could use a kind of algebra (which would need to allow for poets painting and painters writing poems): if, say, the combination of a poet, P, writing, w, about landscape, L, gives rise to a landscape poem, P.w(L), and, similarly, a landscape painting arises from an artist creating a landscape, A.c(L), then a poet writing about a landscape painting is P.w(A.c(L)).  Reverse ekphrasis involving a landscape poem would then be A.c(P.w(L)).  Here's an example of something more complicated.  John Hollander (whose visual poetry I have mentioned here before) wrote a poem about another Charles Sheeler painting, The Artist Looks at Nature (1943).  Sheeler's painting is a kind of landscape - there are grassy slopes and the walls of battlements - but it also contains an artist working on a canvas.  And though apparently painting from nature, his canvas depicts the interior of a studio.  Thus Hollander's poem could be represented as P.w(A.c(L+A.c(L'))).

Being thirsty,
I filled a cup with water,
And, behold!—Fuji-yama lay upon the water,
Like a dropped leaf!

This is Amy Lowell's imagist poem inspired by Hokusai's 'Hundred Views of Mt Fuji'.  Denham's book doesn't really get into the subject of Japanese or Chinese poetry about landscape painting, although he does mention Su Shi's ‘Two Poems on Guo Xi’s Autumn Mountains in Level Distance'. In Chinese art where the 'three perfections' (poetry, calligraphy, painting) are combined in one object, we are often not sure what came first: the poem or the painting.  Where artist and writer are one and the same, my algebraic distinctions would be meaningless. I will end here with part of another poem inspired by a Hokusai, 'Lightning Storm on Fuji' by Howard Nemerov.

Katsushika Hokusai, Rainstorm Beneath the Summit, c. 1830
                        ... the serene mountain rises
And falls in a clear cadence.  The snowy peak,
Where the brown foliage falls away, is white
As the sky behind it, so that line alone
Seems to be left, and the hard rock become
Limpid as water, the form engraved on glass.
There at the left, hanging in empty heaven,
A cartouche with written characters proclaims
Even to such as do not know the script
That this is art, not nature. ...

Friday, December 11, 2015

When We Came To This Shore

Following a big survey of landscape and music in 2013 and similar but shorter posts in 2012, 2011, and 2010, I highlighted just four releases this time last year.  One of these, John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, has apparently been an inspiration to Taylor Swift.  Perhaps one of these four will be up her street too?  Each illustrates the way contemporary musicians are organising albums round a landscape idea or sense of place.  Of course I could have chosen others and have deliberately excluded some musicians whose work I have discussed here before - Richard Skelton, Rob St John, Simon Scott.  Feel free to suggest others in the comments below.


I'll begin with The Thompson Fields, an album for jazz orchestra by Maria Schneider which is named after farmland on the prairie where she grew up.  The Telegraph's review explains that 'the liner notes are an indispensable part of the experience, picturing the landscape and its wildlife through Audobon’s bird paintings and photographs of country lanes that to a British viewer look remarkably familiar – until you turn the page and encounter another image, which shows this landscape is on an altogether vaster scale.'  In an interview with extracts from the music at the NPR site she describes the region's great skies and spectacular weather.  'Maria Schneider, nature poet of jazz' she is called in a Boston Globe article.  It notes that 'The Monarch and the Milkweed' was 'inspired by the delicate relationship between the title butterfly and the host environment on which it depends.'  Asked about this tune she said “I pictured each soloist as a person walking through a landscape and commenting on it.”

Another widely-praised American album drawing on memories of a specific locale was Daniel Bachman's River.  As Pitchfork's review explains, 'he is a native of the northern Virginia city of Fredericksburg, near where the Rappahannock River winds out of the Chesapeake Bay.'  The album includes two cover versions, 'Levee' by Jack Rose and an old 1928 number by William Moore. 'Though divided by nearly a century, Rose and Moore both lived in the riverine area Bachman extols here; Rose grew up in Fredericksburg, and Moore used to cross the Rappahannock for work. Bachman treats their tales with the same familiarity and fondness he treats the land and his own life there.'  Bachman writes in the record's liner notes that the Rappahanock, 'divides north and south, mountain and bay and, at one point in time, it even separated two great armies.'  In the clip below from the NPR site you can see him playing a track from the album at Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.



Stefan Betke recorded seminal glitsch albums as Pole in the nineties but has been relatively quiet since.  He is now making music related to the walks he takes in the German countryside.  According to Boomkat his new album Wald 'breaks down to three movements: firstly a trio of tracks establishing and mirroring the forest's spatial intricacy via sparse, overgrowing electronics; secondly a trio of tracks focused on raw sounds - bird calls, rustling textures, woody drums and naturally discordant drones; followed by a 3rd and final section emulating nature's inherently psychedelic patterning in filigree yet barely harnessed matrices of echo, reverb and delay.'  Pitchfork think it 'may bring to mind Wolfgang Voigt's Gas project, whose foggy swirls of classical samples were inspired by the Black Forest and its role in German Romanticism. But the two artists' impressions of the woods couldn't be more different. Where Gas is either dark and claustrophobic or starlit and idyllic, Pole's Wald evokes porous thickets and branches stripped bare by the elements.' 


The other day in Somerset House I was listening to 'What Does the Sea Say?', a soundscape composed by Martyn Ware (ex-Human League) and reflecting on how many famous names from post-punk bands are now composing music inspired by the landscape.  John Foxx (once of Ultravox) is another, although he has now been working for many years in a psychogeographical vein, producing art and music on the theme of ruins and rewilding.  This year he released London Overgrown, based on an idea of London as future garden city that would incorporate The Hanging Gardens of Shoreditch, The Glades of Soho and a resurrected Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.  A collaborative work also released this year, Codex, includes tracks like 'The Pleasure Of Ruins' and 'When We Came To This Shore'.  There is an interview at Metropolis/2520 with Foxx which mentions these albums and, although it's not strictly relevant, I will end here by quoting from this his lovely description of first hearing Erik Satie:
'I heard someone play the Gymnopédies one afternoon in the old lecture room at art school.  I can still picture the instant – early summer, big open doors, the view down the marvellous avenue of trees at Avenham, and that beautiful elegant music. It is perfect minimalism, with poise and tranquillity, like distilled civilisation in a few notes and a sound. I was transfixed. it seemed to alter everything. I’ve loved piano ever since. It really is my favourite sound in the world apart from a blackbird’s song.'


Sunday, December 06, 2015

Southern Light Stations

Inspecting a tiny stereoscopic cloud study in 
Noémie Goudal's Southern Light Stations

Here's the Photographers' Gallery summary of the work on display in Noémie Goudal's Southern Light Stations exhibition.
'In Towers, large-scale follies or telescopic structures sit within vast, featureless landscapes, as if suspended between heaven and earth, while Stations depict seemingly free-floating spheres, reminiscent of celestial bodies: the sun, moon and planets. Closer investigation of the images reveals ropes, scaffolding and smoke referencing their construction. The exhibition centrepiece is an observatory-style architectural structure, offering a selection of stereoscopic cloud studies.'
Goudal has been identified as part of a group of younger photographers 'choosing to foreground the formerly ‘repressed’ aspects of the medium', i.e. the physical means and technical processes necessary to create an image. The apparatus required to keep her spheres in place comes over though as more than just a reaction to photoshop and a means of focusing attention on the actions of the artist.  It gives the Stations photographs a mysterious quality, as we wonder what purpose they serve - are they remnants of some installation or performance, or envirographic instruments of the kind imagined by the British Exploratory Land Archive? As she says in the interview embedded below, the work is partly based on early astronomers like Copernicus and the instruments they might have used.  The gallery's central observatory like-structure with its stereoscopic viewers provides a way to imagine studying the form of clouds before the invention of the telescope.


The exhibition includes one Stations photograph that takes up a whole wall.  Watching my son walking up to this it looked as if he was on a stage set, and then as if he might enter the imaginary space.  In a short essay on the artist's work Marta Gili sees her images in terms of an emptying of the landscape. 'As in the theatre of The Absurd it could be said that here nature is represented in order to be vacated, like a stage ultimately intended to be inhabited by other sets, which are in turn nothing other than masks of something that might have been or might have taken place in another time, past or future, or another place, near-at-hand or far off.'  This theatrical element is echoed by Bernard Marcelis who writes of the way Goudal has chosen to situate her constructions in caves and islands, places that are 'imbued with a certain dramaturgy, or at least are propitious to reconstructions or particular mises en scenes'.  In a third essay reprinted on the artist's website, Sebastien Montabonel and Emma Lewis relate her imagined spaces to Foucault's notion of heterotopias. 'Building a stage on which our imaginations can play out, a narrative in which we are protagonists, Goudal’s images brings us, as viewers, back to ourselves.'

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Lorca's Olive

Laurie Clark, To The Hills, 2006

A recent survey by Jeremy Cooper, Artists' Postcards: A Compendium, divides the field into ten categories (aside from promotional postcards), each of which could be illustrated with cases involving landscape imagery.

  • Artist-designed postcards - there are many examples; in an earlier post here I am holding up one that features in the book - by Francis Alÿs, a view of a flat sea with a description of the artist's journey on the reverse.  See also the postcard by Laurie Clark above.  Artists have been designing postcards since their invention.  The future Expressionist Emil Nolde earned money by designing them in the 1890s and his strangest designs were a sequence of giant faces drawn into mountain ranges.
  • Manipulated postcards - where artists overpaint or erase parts of an image; in Bridges for example Tim Davies covers over the landscape to leave their structures floating in space.  I get the impression many artists have done this privately - I've referred before to playful postcards sent to friends by Peter Lanyon and Cooper includes an example by Josef Albers in which he has overwritten an aerial view of the woods near Black Mountain College.
  • Composite postcard pieces - a fine example of an installation involving a collection of photographs is Susan Hiller's Rough Seas, which I described here at the time of her Tate exhibition.
  • Postcards in collage - John Stezaker's uncanny film star portraits with landscape postcards over their faces are a well-known example (on show at the Whitechapel recently).
  • Boxes, sets and books of postcards - among the book's examples of these kinds of work there is Carl Andre's Three Works on Land (1979), a concertina of nine black-and-white postcards documenting three land art sculptures: 'Angellipse', 'Timbering' and 'Quadrill'.
  • Postcards in mail art - this art form which emerged alongside Fluxus is obviously central to a discussion of postcards in art and the book includes many examples. Michael Leigh's The Arses of Scotland (1996) can be seen in a Lawrence Norfolk article on the Tate Archive. 
  • Postcard presses, designers and photographers - this disparate category includes the output of presses I've often referred to here, such as Coracle, Wild Hawthorn and Moschatel.  Among photographers Paul Greenleaf has dealt with landscape in projects like Correspondence (2007-9), where he re-photographed scenes from 1960s postcards.
  • Graphic postcards - Thomas A. Clark's postcard for his Moschatel Press, below, is an example of a purely textual image; the book provides another one by Peter Liversidge printed in a font that looks as if it might disappear in snow: In the bleak mid-winter months very little stirs on the North Montana Plains (2000).

 Thomas A. Clark, Anything which is understood is a postcard to yourself, 2008

  • Postcards as pictures  - lastly there is art in which postcard images are transferred into paintings, as in the photorealism of Malcolm Morley, or prints, like the Katharina Fritsch images of Essen that I've mentioned here previously.
The other artist I mentioned in that earlier post on Fritsch and postcard-based landscape art was Tacita Dean.  She is quoted in the introduction to Artists' Postcards: A Compendium: 'recently I have begun, quite unintentionally, to collect old postcards thematically.  It started with finding an attractive postcard of a frozen water fountain.  On finding the second frozen water fountain, I had begun a collection...'  Among her postcard-related works is Washington Cathedral (2002), two grids of non-identical found postcards published at different times; the cathedral was begun in 1907 and only finished in 1990 so these postcards represent a colorized dream of the yet-to-be-completed monument.  She also produced an edition of postcards linked to her film The Green Ray; I said here recently that the green flash of the setting sun is difficult to see on screen but it is visible in the postcard.   

Here is Jeremy Cooper's description (he is fond of exclamation marks) of another Tacita Dean postcard, Lorca's Olive (2007), inspired by a trip to Cadaqués, where 
'her host informed her that his grandfather used to tell of having seen the painter Salvador Dali and the poet flirting in a particular olive grove in the village!  Dean looked for the olive grove but discovered it had been destroyed by a fire, only one tree remaining.  She photographed the tree and made it into a postcard, as if from the 1920s, the time of the alleged affair, putting two coats of silver on the surface of the black-and-white photograph to give the impression of age.' 
This postcard is referred to at the end of a 2011 James Purcell review of an exhibition of personal postcards at the Federico García Lorca Foundation, curated by Martin Parr.  'The framed cards extend along the wall in an unbroken line. But look closer, and you can find the moment when Lorca’s correspondence ends. The family postcards themselves sweep on, albeit with gaps in time. No mention is made of the atrocities, grief and terror having been expressed elsewhere, privately...'  Tacita Dean's postcard, which featured in another exhibition at Lorca's house/museum in Grenada, can also be related to the writer's death.  After being killed by a Fascist militia his body was dumped among olive trees, or so it was thought.  'The postscript to the postcard: Lorca’s presumed grave was excavated in 2009, and was found to contain no bodies. To date, there is still no news of Lorca’s whereabouts.'

Friday, November 27, 2015

Mountains rising like teeth from the plain

Whilst in the Courtauld Gallery earlier this week to see the Peter Lanyon exhibition I had a look at the permanent collection and spent some time wondering at the landscape background in an early sixteenth century painting by L'Ortolano, Woman taken in adultery.  Instead of a simple grass bank behind the figures, there is a blur of green in which leaves seem to float like seaweed.  To the left, deep blue rocks frame what appears to be a fast flowing river, looking as if it had been photographed with a long exposure.  There is another painting attributed to L'Ortolano down the road at the National Gallery (below) in which these effects are less marked, but where areas of grass and rock, painted in short Renoirish strokes, bear some resemblance to the surface of water.

L'Ortolano, Saints Sebastian, Roch and Demetrius (detail), c. 1520

The Met own an Adoration of the Shepherds, about which the curators remark 
that 'as in so many Ferrarese paintings, the landscape is enchanting, with itsmountains "rising like teeth from the plain," as they were once described.'  There is a disquieting contrast between the pastoral middle ground and those strange storm-cloud like forms rising from the land beyond the water.  Some more of these billowing mountains can be seen in the Fitzwilliam's St John the Baptist (right) and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj's Nativity with Saints.  In these too they contrast with serene, sunlit scenes just behind the main figures.  At this time painters in Ferrara such as L'Ortolano, Garofalo and Mazzolino seem to have come under the influence of Northern landscape painting. You find rock formations rearing above the landscape in paintings by Joachim Patinir, but they usually resemble shards of ice or crystals.  L'Ortolano's look as if they have surged briefly into life and could soon blow away, like a summer storm.

L'Ortolano, The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), before 1527


L'Ortolano, Nativity with Saints (detail),1520s

Friday, November 20, 2015

Heard beyond the mountains


So it seems I have now been writing this blog for exactly ten years.  If I had considered this when I started and realised it was going to have more than one or two actual readers, I might have come up with a better name for it...  I recall being too eager to get down to it to think beyond the idea that it would be about 'some landscapes'.  That first post in November 2005 was about two works by Richard Long and Hamish Fulton combining sound, text and art - three ways of addressing landscape through culture that I have continued to write about ever since.  All the subsequent posts are still available on my clickbait-free sidebar, or they can be accessed through the index (itself now nearly 20,000 words long) or through the Google maps I recently added.  However, rather than look back on what I have covered over the years, I thought it might be good here to celebrate other people's blogs that I have particularly enjoyed, with a few autumnal images and quotes thrown in.
'The sun passes lower in the sky, bringing the quickening rush that starts the long winter months. Tresses of drying peppers spread like flames across sheds, turning the stone walls into scenes of tropical design. The elegant stems of onions that have spoked all summer above the swelling bulbs are plaited, woven together like hands in a dance, and hung out of the way of snow. Felled trees are hauled by donkey from the forests, wearing a glaze of lichens and ice. They’re split by axe throughout the day, the thud of blade against wood marking the hours, and stacked to face what is left of the sun.' 
This description is from 'Gathering In', an autumn 2011 post on Julian Hoffman's Notes from Near and Far.  His blog has formed the basis of a book, The Small Heart of Things, on the landscape of the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece.  In 2015 it seems more likely that a Twitter feed will lead to a book deal - Penguin recently won a bidding war over the Herdwick Shepherd.  According to the Guardian, The Shepherd’s Life 'may well do for sheep what Helen Macdonald did for hawks'.  Before H is for Hawk, Helen (as Pluvialis) wrote Fretmarks, a personal blog which flew wherever it wanted - there were obviously a lot of hawk photos but also thoughtful reflections on poetry and nature writing, plus on one occasion a little appreciation of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (that's a JSBX T-shirt being worn by Plinius in the photo accompanying this blog).  Some writers have obviously been told to write blogs by their publishers but there are those who clearly do them for the love of sharing their experiences in the landscape - Melissa Harrison's Tales of the City, for example.  I often turn to Caspar Henderson's A New Map of Wonders for inspiration - today he has quoted Barry Lopez: 'the first lesson in learning how to see more deeply into a landscape was to be continuously attentive...

Julian Hoffman, photograph for 'Gathering In', 2011 

Both myself and Mrs Plinius are great admirers of the writings of Ken Worpole.  The blog he started with Jason Orton, The New English Landscape, contains short essays on some of the themes I have covered on this site.  British writing, music and film have all been covered in recent years on Landscapism, which I hope Eddie manages to keep going while he pursues his academic studies.  Similar ground has been covered by the collective blog Caught by the River, for which many of those I am talking about here have written short pieces.  Collaborative sites can be as transitory as personal ones, but this one, with its publications, social events and festival appearances, looks like it will become a long-lived and well-loved British institution.  Another excellent blog with many authors is hosted by The Wordsworth Trust.  It's focus is on Romanticism broadly, not just Wordsworth - I have a post on Robert Southey's 'The Cataract of Lodore' coming up on it soon.

Some of the earlier literary blogs posted diary entries of great authors - you can for example read what Henry David Thoreau had to say about cranberries on this day in 1853.  The John Clare Weblog started over a year before mine and reached its 1000th post sometime ago.  Each entry contains a poem or text, often linked to the changing seasons.  From November 2005 here is the first stanza of one of Clare's autumn poems which seems particularly apt in a week of such blustery weather.
I love the fitful gust that shakes
The casement all the day,
And from the glossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window pane
With thousand others down the lane. 
The web is full of poetry sites (the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog has a long list of links) but one of the most visually appealing is 'Beyond the Pale', a blog by Tom Clark.  This is the American Tom Clark, not to be confused with Thomas A. Clark who also has a more infrequent blog, highlighting his art works and new publications. 'Beyond the Pale' covers a wide range of material but it does sometimes feature poems with landscape imagery; a recent post for example centred on a translation of Hsieh T'iao's 'Viewing the Three Lakes', from which these are the opening lines
Red clouds mirrored where the waters meet.
From the red terrace -- birds returning,
the encircling plains, mosaic of river isles.
Inklings of spring's luxuriance
as autumn's last yellows fade.

Last yellows, from my window today

These autumn images keep reminding me of the transitory nature of blogs which may aspire to the form of trees but are more often like leaves, sustained only for a short time.  I am sure many psychogeography and walking blogs have been started over the last ten years; among those still being maintained are the Psychogeographic ReviewUnder a Grey Sky (Berlin), Urban Adventure in RotterdamEast of Elveden (Norfolk) and Particulations (theory).  My two favourites (both with exemplary accompanying Twitter feeds) are Lines of Landscape and The Fife Psychogeographical Collective.  The FPC now have a book based on the blog, From Hill to Sea, which I am sure is excellent.  The most recent dispatch from Fife had an Autumnal theme and included these lines from Rilke's Letters on Cézanne
'At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.'
Sadly, over all these years, I have never found any other blogs devoted to the history of landscape art.  I had hoped that the Internet's 'long tail' might have given rise to blogs devoted to the art of Cézanne or Balke or Altdorfer, to the Nanjing School or Aeropittura or early seventeenth century copper plate landscapes... perhaps they do exist and I've failed to come across them.  For garden history I always used to enjoy Gardenhistorygirl - silent since 2014 - but the Garden Visit site's blog continues and it sometimes discusses interesting historical questions (e.g. on whether Zen gardens really were 'Zen').  I like the way its latest post begins: 'hard to know what I would write if the Sunday Express asked me to do a few hundred words on garden design but I can put some helpful advice in one sentence: 'don’t take advice from Alan Titchmarsh''.

No doubt someone has already written an academic study of blogging's role in art practice.  Chris Drury has used microcosm and macrocosm to document three of his projects, but it has been dormant since 2012.  He is one of the artists whose progress I follow through Peter Foolen's blog, a reliable source of intelligence on upcoming exhibitions by people like herman de vries, Roger Ackling, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alec Finlay and the artists wrote about ten years ago today, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. Alec Finlay's own blogspot site is probably no longer the optimal means of keeping up with his activities but, like Chris Drury, he has used blogger to chart the progress of certain projects.  Five years ago I wrote about The Road North, in which he and Ken Cockburn mapped Basho's famous journey onto the geography of Scotland.  Station 47 was their temple of Zenshoji, Stonypath, the garden created by Alec's parents.  In this post Alec quoted an autumn poem by Basho (the translation is by Cid Corman).
all that night
the autumn winds being heard
beyond the mountains

Alec Finlay, Autumn (fallen), 2010 

Music and sound art blogs have come and gone - the useful Field Reporter site for example seems to have become inactive a year ago.  It looked for a while as if Alex Ross would stop writing The Rest is Noise but he is still at it (I quoted him in a recent post about Mahler).  His latest post is about a 'mobile opera' performed out in the landscape, HopscotchSome of the composers I have featured in my end-of-year landscape music surveys have kept blogs.  The Land Observations site documents the work of James Brooks which I first mentioned here in 2012.  Jez riley French has a blog for his field recordings but also another one, treasure hiding, that is more of an online notebook featuring art and photography as well as music.  Richard Skelton has one blog under his own name one for his Landings project.  The Corbel Stone Press which Richard runs with Autumn Richardson has its own elegant Wordpress blog - newest posts concern the latest edition of their journal Reliquiae.  (I will shortly be editing the first Reliquiae Digital Supplement in collaboration with flowerville, whose own blog engages with an intriguing range of writers).

There are more I should mention... hard to classify like The Art of Memory (the link I've embedded here is to posts labelled 'sea'), or at the outer limits what I cover on this site: Friends of the Pleistocene, Ecology without Nature.  Design, with its constant flow of striking images and new ideas has been an ideal subject for blogs, some of which have grown into more ambitious undertakings (two of my neighbours run an excellent site called Dezeen which often features nature-related design and landscape architecture).  I have kept links here to a few blogs that investigated landscape futures even though they are no longer being updated: Deconcrete, Landscape and Urbanism and the much-missed Pruned.  But the best of these speculative blogs, indeed the finest blog of any kind I have encountered, Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG, passed its tenth anniversary last year.  I'll end by repeating here what Geoff wrote then, thanking you 'for reading, commenting, critiquing, and following along, whoever and wherever you are.'

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Southeaster

'There is nothing that lasts on this scene of forgetting, nothing stands firm and endures.  It changes its face, continually trying to draw borders and shorelines.  The river is new for each story.' - Haroldo Conti
Rivers lend themselves to linear narratives but deltas, with their tides, silt, shifting channels and networks of shallow tributories, suggest stories that will not necessarily lead anywhere, not even to the sea.  I have been reading the Argentinian writer Haroldo Conti's novel of the Paraná Delta, Southeaster (1962), recommended to me for its treatment of landscape.  I could quote here descriptions of sandbanks, shorelines and mist-shrouded islands but it would be hard to convey the cumulative effect of two hundred pages on these waters.  You can read a review by Melissa Harrison in the Financial Times which sums the book up very well.  As she says, the protagonist 'is a drifter who has worked for some time with a nameless old man, cutting reeds in the wetlands of the Paraná Delta. This is a landscape Conti knew intimately, and in his sensuous and meticulously observed descriptions of the alluvial basin and islands, the dense scrub and the humid, oppressive weather, there is a sense of a way of life unchanged for centuries — yet in the distance, if the light is right, the towers of Buenos Aires shimmer, and every so often military aircraft scream overhead. The effect is unsettling.'


There is an 'Afterword' by John King, whose excellent Modern Latin American Fiction: A Survey I read avidly at university when it seemed as if all the most interesting writers were from South America.  Three of the novels I enjoyed back then, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General In His Labyrith (both by García Márquez) and The Green House (Vargas Llosa) concerned river journeys but they were very different to Southeaster, with its slow pace, muted imagery and precise descriptions of fishing and navigation.  King mentions other pre-Boom writers admired by Conti for whom landscape was important: the Uruguayans Juan José Morosoli and Juan Carlos Onetti, the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa, and the poet most associated with the Paraná river, Juan L. Ortiz.  He also draws parallels with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the nineteenth century president of Argentina in whose political writings the river was a central theme.  Conti lived near Sarmiento's old home and both their houses have now become museums.  Politics only featured in Conti's last novel, Mascaro, the American Hunter, published in 1975.  A year later a new military regime came to power and Conti became one of the disappeared.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The pass where Roland fell


We went down to Chichester last weekend to see the Pallant House David Jones exhibition. I have written here before about Jones' book The Anathemata but not previously described his paintings, which are discussed in the excellent catalogue by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills.  Landscape became a central concern for Jones in the late 1920s when he lived with Eric Gill's family at Capel-y-ffin (shown above on the cover of the book).  After his turn to writing and breakdown in 1932 there are fewer landscapes and these mainly views from windows ("I like looking out on the world from a reasonably sheltered position").  Finally, after the war, there are his tree paintings - simples studies to begin with and then, in 1947-8, the complex multi-layered symbolic vision Vexilla Regis which now hangs at Kettle's Yard, the home of his friend Jim Ede.  I like what it says of Jones on the Poetry Foundation website: 'he spent the last years of his life quietly working, trying to salvage the remnants of traditional Western culture from the onslaught of the twentieth century'.  Paul Hills suggests that Jones' art, which became unfashionable when 'any whiff of the literary or the illustrative in painting was suspect', may find a new audience in a world where major figures like Sebald, Twombly and Keifer are revered for their interweaving of personal memory, history and myth.

Here are three examples of David Jones landscape paintings that reach into the past:
  • Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu (1926) - a view of the distinctive hill visible from Capel-y-ffin. 'The Welsh hill ponies in the foreground, gracefully cropping the turf, were a motif to which Jones returned throughout his life; for him they represented a living link to the last days of Arthurian Britain, when the riderless horses of Arthur's defeated knights 'gone to grass in forest and on mountain, seem as their masters to have a new yet aboriginal liberty.'' 
  •  
  •  Roman Land (1928) - a seemingly timeless view of farmland made on Jones' first trip abroad since his return from the trenches.  'The plough team, drawn by oxen,' Jones wrote, 'seemed to sum up the whole feeling of France as part of the Imperium and that is why it is called Roman Land.'
  • Landscape, Salies-de-Béarn (1928) - a vibrant painting with echoes of Bonnard and Dufy painted on the same trip.  In a footnote to his book In Parenthesis Jones says he associates Béarn with Le Chanson de Roland 'because, once, looking from a window in Salies-de-Béarn I could see a gap in the hills, which my hostess told me was indeed the pass where Roland fell.'

    Jean Fouquet, The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, c.1455–1460 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Zona


I seem to have written rather often about Andrei Tarkovsky on this blog, but perhaps it's not so surprising - how many other directors made two major films about possibly-sentient landscapes?  Last week I went to watch one of them, Stalker, at the BFI Southbank, where there is currently a 'Mirroring Tarkovsky' season.  It is some years since I last saw the film - this was the first time since having read Geoff Dyer's book about Stalker, Zona (2013), which was fun to turn to again after seeing the film.  One scene I had forgotten about is where the three men have come to a temporary halt on their journey and the earth seems to undulate like waves.  In my memory of Stalker the landscape of the Zone was mysterious but entirely free of any special effects.  This strangely rippling ground prompts from Dyer a couple of the many humorous digressions that make up much of his book and which some readers will find self-indulgent (on quicksand and LSD trips).  But he also provides the interesting background information that this footage came from an earlier stage of filming, when there were more science fiction elements than appeared in the final cutHowever, he doesn't fully explain what is going on here...
'The little islands of grass do not ripple.  The trees in the background do not ripple: it's just the boggy-looking dried earth that ripples and then, gradually, stops rippling.  How does Tarkovsky do this, how does he achieve these effects?  Or are they not effects?  Was it simply luck that he came across a patch of ripply quicksand and then it started snowing where, a few seconds earlier, it had been dusting and blossoming?  Is this part of the random magic of cinema that Herzog discovered in a sequence of footage shot by Timothy (Grizzly Man) Treadwell?  Treadwell plunges into and then out of shot, leaving the camera to record only the wind-whipped bushes and foliage. 'In his action-movie mode Treadwell probably did not realise that seemingly empty moments have a strange beauty,' Herzog explains as the bushes and trees bend and sway in the wind as if in unconscious homage to Tarkovsky*.
'* Or, of course, to Herzog himself, specifically the famous epigraph - 'Don't you hear the terrible screaming all around you?  The screaming that men call silence' - and shot of wheat swaying in the wind at the opening of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.'

Friday, October 30, 2015

What the rocky mountain tells me

Mahler's hut at Steinbach

I have often written here about writers' huts but said nothing about composer's retreats, apart from one reference to a Tomas Tranströmer poem on Grieg in his work-cottage, 'shut in with silence.'  Gustav Mahler had three composing huts: in the Salzkammergut at Steinbach, further south at Maiernigg, and in Toblach (now Dobbiaco, in Italy).  They are all in spectacular settings and can form the basis of a tourist itinerary, although it is questionable how far we can still experience the landscapes Mahler knew.  Ten years ago, visiting the hut at Steinbach which Mahler had built in 1893 to avoid noise in the inn where he was staying that summer, Alex Ross suspected that his 'unquiet ghost is no doubt upset by the fact that his idyllic lakeside retreat is surrounded by an RV site and campground, where kids squeal all day long and German rap pumps from boomboxes.'  Nevertheless, 'if you look up to the colossal rockface of the Höllengebirge, which towers hundreds of feet above the lake, you can get a sense of why Mahler found this site so inspiring.'  Ross quotes 'Bruno Walter's memoir of Mahler: "As on our way to his house I looked up to the Höllengebirge, whose sheer cliffs made a grim background to the charming landscape, he said: 'You don't need to look — I have composed all this away!" The rockface became the introductory theme of the Third Symphony, the unison chant for eight horns, which he dubbed in one sketch "What the rocky mountain tells me."'


On that trip to Steinbach in 2005 Ross was accompanied by the critic Jeremy Eichler.  Earlier this month in the Boston Globe Eichler described a return trip.  (The article's picture caption refers to 'Gustav Mahler’s conducting hut' which leads me to imagine somewhere built because his family got fed up with him waving his baton around in their holiday inn).  Eichler writes that 'the walk had changed since my last visit. In Mahler’s time, meadows covered with wildflowers led down to the lake. Later, livestock were kept here. Eventually the site was converted into a campground. On this visit, the mobile homes I had recalled at the periphery seemed to have multiplied to the point that the area had the feeling of a full-fledged camping village.'  Apparently the hut itself had been attached to camp bathrooms until its restoration in the eighties, and prior to that it had been used as a slaughterhouse.  Leaving the hut, Eichler wonders whether more great works of art 'should have their own tiny huts, physical places you could visit that symbolize their very essence. Of course someone is always fixing their generator nearby, or wanting to turn the hut into a bathroom. But maybe the impulse to seek out these places nonetheless is not naively literal-minded so much as it is part of how we make the works our own, the way we locate their cosmic expressions on a more humble map of lived experience.'

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stone Bell Mountain

A short way downriver from Jiujiang, where the the Yangtze meets Boyang Lake, there is a famous sonorous landscape called Stone Bell Mountain (Shizhong Shan).  According to the Song dynasty poet Su Shih, 'Li Po of the T'ang was the first to travel to the site, and he found a pair of rocks protruding from the lake. "I struck them and listened," he wrote. "The one to the south sounded deep and turbid, the one to the north had a high, clear pitch. After they were struck, the sounds continued to reverberate as the vibrations slowly faded." He thought that he had thus solved the matter. But I still had my doubts about this theory.'  Su found himself in the area in July 1084 and went to investigate.  Testing Li Po's explanation he found that the rocks in the lake merely gave off a dull thud.  Later that evening, he and his son took a boat out under the cliff and heard the piercing cries of falcons, followed by the cry of an old man, or was it a crane?
'I had just begun to feel uneasy and wanted to return when loud sounds were emitted on the surface of the water, booming "tseng-hung " like continuous bells or drums. The boatman was frightened. We slowly approached to investigate and found that at the foot of the mountain were grottoes and fissures in the rock. I could not tell how deep they were, but it was the small waves which entered, surged around, and crashed against each other that were causing this sound.
'As the boat returned, it passed between two mountains and was about to enter the harbor. There was a huge rock standing in the middle of the current, which could accommodate a hundred people seated. It was hollow inside, and it also had many holes in it. It swallowed and spit out the wind and water, giving off ringing sounds—"k'uan-k'an t'ang-t'a "—as the water struck it. It seemed to reply to the booming sound we had previously heard, just like a musical performance.'
Su Shi felt he had solved the mystery of the Stone Bells, but his account stimulated further enquiries, as Richard Strassberg writes in Inscribed Landscapes, from which this translation is taken.  'Among those visiting the place during the Ming and Ch'ing periods were Ch'iu Chün (1420–1495) and Lo Hung-hsien (1504–1564), who argued that the name was based on the mountain's shape, and P'eng Yü-lin (1816–1890), who discovered an underwater grotto and asserted that the mountain was hollow like a bell.'  Are people still seeking to understand the mysteries of this landscape?  I can't find anything much about Stone Bell Mountain online beyond a few tourism sites - we need a sound artist like Wang Changcun, Yan Jun, or Chris Watson to go there and investigate in the spirit of Su Shi.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Sandwalk wood

Our print of Darren Almond's Sandwalk Wood (2014)

Each day I pass on our stairs this print by the photographer Darren Almond.  It is one of his long-exposure images taken at night, which I mentioned here previously in 'Moons of the Iapetus Ocean'.  This print came with an accompanying limited edition book, To Leave a Light Impression, which includes a short essay by T. J. Demos that uses Almond's photographs to discuss denaturalised nature, hyperobjects and the anthropocene.  Fullmoon@Cerro Chaltén (2013) for example 'shows a nature estranged'; its uncanny appearance suggests the impression it must have made on Charles Darwin, who stopped in this remote landscape during his voyage on The Beagle, and the disorientating effect his work had on Victorian ideas of nature.  Our print feels, by contrast, quiet and mysterious: the dark tree's leaves are lit with a weak golden light and a silvery mist covers the field beyond the gate.  Visitors to our house have asked what the significance of this place is.  A world away from the rivers and mountains of Patagonia, it is Sandwalk Wood near Bromley, a landscape just as important to Charles Darwin, as it contained his thinking path.  His son Francis describes it in The life and letters of Charles Darwin (1887):
'My father's midday walk generally began by a call at the greenhouse, where he looked at any germinating seeds or experimental plants which required a casual examination, but he hardly ever did any serious observing at this time. Then he went on for his constitutional—either round the "Sand-walk," or outside his own grounds in the immediate neighbourhood of the house. The "Sand-walk" was a narrow strip of land 1½ acres in extent, with a gravel-walk round it. On one side of it was a broad old shaw with fair-sized oaks in it, which made a sheltered shady walk; the other side was separated from a neighbouring grass field by a low quickset hedge, over which you could look at what view there was, a quiet little valley losing itself in the upland country towards the edge of the Westerham hill, with hazel coppice and larch wood, the remnants of what was once a large wood, stretching away to the Westerham road. I have heard my father say that the charm of this simple little valley helped to make him settle at Down.

'The Sand-walk was planted by my father with a variety of trees, such as hazel, alder, lime, hornbeam, birch, privet, and dogwood, and with a long line of hollies all down the exposed side. In earlier times he took a certain number of turns every day, and used to count them by means of a heap of flints, one of which he kicked out on the path each time he passed. Of late years I think he did not keep to any fixed number of turns, but took as many as he felt strength for.'

Friday, October 16, 2015

A formed handful of earth as mountain and atmosphere

 Hon'ami Koetsu, Fujisan, 17th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his book Zen Landscapes Allen S. Weiss discusses the way Japanese connoisseurs have seen natural forms in the surfaces of pottery.  Two famous examples are Fujisan and Seppo, tea bowls made by the great artistic polymath Hon'ami Koetsu (1558-1637).  On Fujisan the white glaze is said to resemble the snow on Mt. Fuji.  Seppo ('Snow Peaks') is a renowned example of kin-zukuroi (repairing with gold) in which the filled cracks resemble water flowing through melting snow.  Other pots by Koetsu include Amagumo (Rain Cloud) and Shigure (Drizzle).  Weiss observes that 'in Fujisan the pottery surface recasts a formed handful of earth as mountain and atmosphere.'  He writes about the importance of the foot of a vessel, where the unglazed clay is revealed to the drinker, a trace of the earth from which the bowl came. 'This appreciation of clay flavour is not unlike the sense of terroir in French gastronomy, signifying those site-specific characteristics of taste so often evoked in wine connoisseurship.'

There are other ways in which bowls can become a kind of landscape art.  I have mentioned here before for example the music of suikinkutsu, those reverberant vessels placed in Japanese gardens, and made a connection with Wallace Stevens' poem 'Anecdote of the Jar'.  Weiss suggests that pottery objects are subject to the same viewing conventions as other art forms in Japan, and therefore it is relevant to consider the the idea familiar from Japanese gardens of the 'borrowed view'.  He discusses a contemporary sake bowl (guinomi) by Satoshi Sato which has bamboo forms on the exterior and mountain shapes inside.  'In a greatly reduced sense, the guinomi 'landscape' may exhibit such a borrowed view every time it is examined and drunk from.  As the cup is raised, its lip serves as the 'horizon' that links the proximate scene on the front to the 'distant' landscape beyond the lake of sake within, as is the case for the cup by Sato Satoshi, where the bamboo branch forms the proximate field for viewing the distant mountains.  That the sake is transformed into a cascade as the elbow is bent and the guinomi is tilted is rarely an unwelcome effect.'

Friday, October 09, 2015

An eagle, a mountain, a ship

George Frederic Watts, Portrait of William Morris, 1870

When, in the summer of 1996, the V&A held an exhibition to mark the centenary of the death of William Morris, it seemed rather out of tune with the times - Cool Britannia, the YBAs and all that.  This was years before Jeremy Deller used the heroic figure of Morris in his Venice Biennale exhibition and then juxtaposed the output of Morris and his company with Andy Warhol and The Factory.   Making my way round that V&A exhibition, I felt rather pleased and vindicated when I spotted Brett Anderson from Suede peering into a display case just in front of me.  Perhaps Jeremy Deller was there too, unknown to me then (as The Guardian explained, he 'was of the same generation as Damien Hirst and the YBAs, went to the same parties, but never made any money'.)  Now it occurs to me that perhaps it was Jeremy Deller I saw, as he does bear a certain resemblance to Brett Anderson.  Writing this I am painfully aware that 'seeing Brett Anderson' has become what I most remember about the exhibition, despite having enjoyed it and come home with the catalogue.  I probably knew at the time that this moment was something that would unavoidably 'strengthen into memory'...
— Getting clearer now as it wears

The worn-down landscape.  Torn and bald and filled.

You know what will strengthen into memory: an eagle, a mountain, a ship.

As a place becomes somewhere you are starting to remember, it empties out and becomes more absolute.

It becomes the map.

Is it after all you who studies the map?
Lavinia Greenlaw, Questions of Travel: William Morris in Iceland
The Map: William Morris's 1871 Journey to Iceland
There is a full size version at the William Morris Archive

In her book Questions of Travel, Lavinia Greenlaw extracts particular phrases in William Morris's Icelandic Journal and uses them to formulate brief observations on the nature of journeys.  The examples above are also questions of landscape: how we regard it, how we remember it afterwards.  They were prompted by the page in which Morris describes a ride across the plain of Helgafell:
.... The mountains we look back on, toothed and jagged in an indescribable but well-remembered manner, are very noble and solemn. As we rode along the winding path here we saw a strange sight: a huge eagle quite within gunshot of us, and not caring at all for man, flew across and across our path, always followed by a raven that seemed teazing and buffeting him: this was the first eagle I had ever seen free and on the wing, and it was a glorious sight, no less; the curves of his flight, as he swept close by us, with every pen of his wings clear against the sky was something not to be forgotten. Out at sea too we saw a brigantine pitching about in what I thought must be a rough sea enough. The day has been much like yesterday throughout, and is getting clearer now as it wears.
Edward Burne Jones, William Morris in Iceland

When I picked up Questions of Travel (one of those appealing little hardbacks published by Notting Hill Editions), I recognised the title as a reference to the Elizabeth Bishop poem, but was expecting an account of a journey in the footsteps of William Morris.  I was probably thinking of Moon Country (1996) in which Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell travelled to Iceland in emulation of Auden and MacNiece.  However Lavinia Greenlaw says she was not on the trail of an earlier poet: 'I didn't go to Iceland because of Morris but, like him, because of my idea of the place.'  Morris, nonetheless, was very much inspired to travel by his reading - something that comes over clearly in the Iceland chapter of Fiona MacCarthy's wonderful 1994 Morris biography.  She describes him as 'certainly the first Englishman in Iceland who arrived with such a knowledge of its language and literature'.  Shortly after leaving Rejkjavik he was already noting the locations of Njáls saga and towards the end of the trip he tried out the hot-spring bath beside the house of Snorri Sturluson.  Helgafell is where the Laxdœla saga's extraordinary heroine Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir lived and was buried.  Morris also described this 'terrible place' in a letter home to his wife Janey.  His first impression was of 'a great sea of terribly inky mountains tossing about' but, he continued, 'there has been a most wonderful sunset this evening that turned them golden.'


William Morris is quoted in Letters from Iceland and mentioned in Moon Country: at one point Armitage and Maxwell add their names to a visitor's book Morris had signed.  Shortly afterwards they find a piano Auden and MacNiece had played and sit down to attempt 'the one song they both knew, 'Perfect Day' by Lou Reed.'  In 1936, Auden had complained about the sameness of Icelandic music but 'got some gramophone records of more primitive local music, including an amazing one of a farmer and two children who yell as if they were at a football match.'  Simon Armitage brought his own supply of tapes, including Talking Heads, The Fall, The Smiths and, naturally, Björk.  Lavinia Greenlaw is reticent in the introduction to Questions of Travel about her own experiences of Iceland but one might guess, based on her extensive writings about music, that she took a pretty fine selection on the iPod.  Back in 1871, William Morris had to be happy with what music he encountered on the way.  One morning a 'little maiden' played a langspil - the ancient Icelandic fiddle - for him, 'but it was sadly out of tune.'  
   

The Icelandic Journey has itself now been turned into music: a composition for chorus and orchestra, Earthly Paradise, by Ian McQueen.  Fiona MacCarthy wrote about in an article for The Guardian that also mentions Lavinia Greenlaw's then work-in-progress.  Morris's original poem 'The Earthly Paradise' 'was the work that brought him real fame. In this poem he develops one of his great themes: the ruination of the land. Morris had been watching with increasing horror the rampant industrialisation of Britain and the damage caused to the environment by uncontrolled factory production: poisoned air, polluted rivers, tracts of industrial waste. Iceland, by contrast, was purity itself, and his travels through the mountains braced him and inspired him for the years of environmental campaigning ahead.'  MacCarthy concludes her piece by wondering why it is that Morris retains his appeal to new generations of admirers.  'It has something to do with his peculiar, irascible, enchanting personality, still vivid in our age of triviality and blandness. At a time of endless half-truths and moral shilly-shallying, Morris's eccentric integrity shines out.'