Friday, February 19, 2021

The floating islands of Lake Vadimon

In these interminable lockdown days it is easy to get sick of walking the same streets over and over again. Of course there is always Google Earth, although I always suspect I may not always be looking at wha tI think I am. I thought I would travel in the footsteps of my blog namesake, Pliny the Younger, to the small lake 'called Vadimon'. According to Wikipedia its waters have now almost evaporated - 'the lake is almost completely underground and fed by sulphurous springs that pour milky waters into it'. But is there anything really still to see? Google Maps does show a small blue circle but Google Earth doesn't seem to allow you any closer than the image above (photograph taken in 2011). I think the 'lake' is to the right of the road, somewhere in that field.  

Pliny begins his letter by observing that one doesn't have to travel far to see natural wonders, sometimes they are practically on our doorstep. It is a point always worth bearing in mind, although I think I've seen all there is to see within a short Covid-restricted walk from our home. He then describes 'one of these curiosities', a lake

'perfectly circular in form, like a wheel lying on the ground; there is not the least curve or projection of the shore, but all is regular, even and just as if it had been hollowed and cut out by the hand of art. The water is of a clear sky-blue, though with somewhat of a greenish tinge; its smell is sulphurous, and its flavour has medicinal properties, and is deemed of great efficacy in all fractures of the limbs, which it is supposed to heal. Though of but moderate extent, yet the winds have a great effect upon it, throwing it into violent agitation. No vessels are suffered to sail here, as its waters are held sacred; but several floating islands swim about it, covered with reeds and rushes, and with whatever other plants the surrounding marshy ground and the edge itself of the lake produce in greater abundance.'

Pliny then explains how these islands sometimes move in a cluster and sometimes get dispersed, seeming to race each other. Grazing sheep from the surrounding fields board the islands, seemingly oblivious to the fact they have left dry land. The lake empties into a river which,'after running a little way, sinks underground, and, if anything is thrown in, it brings it up again where the stream emerges.' He signs off the letter by saying: 'I have given you this account because I imagined it would not be less new, nor less agreeable, to you than it was to me; as I know you take the same pleasure as myself in contemplating the works of nature.'

Saturday, February 06, 2021

On a Winter Morning before Sunrise

In his poem 'On a Winter Morning before Sunrise', the twenty-one year old Eduard Mörike (1804-75) wrote of his emotions on seeing the first light-as-down light of dawn: 'my soul is like crystal'. He felt his mind still as still water, opened to wonder by a ring of clear blue sky. A perfect way to start the day, certainly better than listening, as I do, to the latest grim news on the radio. The editor/translators of this poem, David Luke and Gilbert McKay, link it to 'Urach Revisited’ (1827), another 'major expression of the poet's youthful sensibility.' Bad Urach is a spa town at the foot of the Swabian Alb where Mörike studied at the evangelical seminary. His nostalgic return as a young man is reminiscent of Wordsworth’s poem on Tintern Abbey. A stream flows heedlessly past without any sorrow at the flux of time and the poet questions the landscape surrounding him:   

Here you all are, ancient and new,
Bare sunlit hills uprearing, summits made
For cloud-thrones, woods where scarcely noon breaks through,
Where balmy warmth mingles with deepest shade:
Do you still know me, who once fled to you,
Whose heavy head sweet-slumbrously was laid
Here in cool moss to hear the insects humming –
Do you know me, and shrink not at my coming?

Eduard Mörike wrote one of the stories most special to me, 'Mozart's Journey to Prague' - one I have re-read before in bleak times and found myself reaching for again recently. Although tinged with sadness, because we and the narrator know what will happen eventually to Mozart, it is a story of a brief, idyllic encounter, a moment (in the words of the translators) of 'festivity and conviviality, badinage and Lebenslust, memories of an earlier golden age of culture.' This sparkling novelle is not really about landscape although it begins with Mozart and Constanze journeying through the Moravian mountains. They then descend into a valley and stop at a village and Mozart decides to take a short walk. He enters the park of a local Count, sits down by some orange trees and, with his mind on his music, inadvertently picks one, an action which sets in train the events of the story.     

I will end this brief post on Mörike by mentioning a couple more poems on the subject of spring. In 'Frühlingsgefühle', translated as 'Intimation of Spring', violets wake and dream their time is near. It puts me in mind of the crocuses I saw on my lockdown exercise walk yesterday. 'In the Spring' find the poet lying on a hill: clouds drift, rivers flow and sunlight enter his veins. And yet he still feels a yearning, 'for what I cannot say'. It makes him wonder what memories are woven into 'this twilight of the gold-green leaves? / - The nameless days of long ago!'

Saturday, January 16, 2021

7000 Oaks

Joseph Beuys, 7000 Eichen
Photograph taken in 2003, from Wikimedia Commons 

Following on from my last post I thought I would briefly mention another famous European environmental art intervention from the eighties, Joseph Beuys' 7000 Oaks (1982-87). Here's a description by the Dia Foundation, who partly sponsored it:

Joseph Beuys’s project 7000 Eichen (7000 Oaks) began in 1982 at Documenta 7, the large international art exhibition in Kassel, Germany. His plan called for the planting of 7,000 trees—each paired with a columnar basalt stone approximately four feet high and positioned above ground—throughout the greater city of Kassel. With major support from Dia Art Foundation, the project was carried forward under the auspices of the Free International University and took five years to complete; the last tree was planted at the opening of Documenta 8 in 1987. Beuys intended for the Kassel project to be the first stage in an ongoing scheme of tree planting that would extend throughout the world as part of a global mission to spark environmental and social change. Locally, the action was a gesture toward urban renewal.

I have never been to Kassel but it must be fascinating to wander round and see how these trees are getting on. How many of the originals are still there? It is easy to imagine that the basalt columns are no more resistant to developers and planning decisions than the living trees. There were large protests near me recently at the felling of the Happy Man Tree, a much-loved 150-year old London plane tree. It made me think back to one of the first posts I wrote for this blog, on Charlotte Mew's poems about the 'murder' of the great planes opposite her home. 

I came across an interesting essay on a blog by Andrew Bruce that gives some information on how the Joseph Beuys trees have fared. He draws on an article by Stephan Körner and Florian Bellin-Harder, 'The 7000 Eichen of Joseph Beuys – Experiences After Twenty-Five Years' (2009). Perhaps unsurprisingly, many trees had not been well cared for. They estimated that '70 replacement trees are required annually – these replacements are not true Beuys trees, the basalt column is removed upon the death of an original.' However,

There are exceptions to the poor state of the trees as reported by Körner and Bellin-Harder. Volunteer groups have carefully maintained several groups of trees. Other trees have become beloved foci of community activity. The study gives an example of a Beuys tree planted at an intersection that was closed to traffic at the behest of a citizens group just prior to Beuys’ action. The linden in this Plätzchen (little square) has been the site of ‘street festivals, baptisms, and other parties such as children’s birthdays’, children also meet there to walk to school together and play there after school. The lives of trees like this one come closer to the social relevance Beuys intended...

Saturday, January 09, 2021

die wiese

herman de vries in the Steigerwald
(source: Vince de Vries, Wikimedia Commons)

The meadow planted near Eschenau in Upper Franconia by herman de vries, die wiese - one of the best known works of European land art - is no longer being maintained. According to a comment on the artist's website, 'in 2019 herman de vries decided not to intervene anymore and now the meadow will become part of the Steigerwald.' It is not surprising, because the artist is now eighty-nine, although I sometimes think artists who work out in nature must be a lot fitter than the average. There was a short interview with him in The Independent five years ago that said he was scaling back his work. 'The artist walks in the nearby forest every day, although health problems in the last year have slowed him down. He keeps a map charting his walks on the wall of his kitchen, which becomes an art work at the end of the year. He finds fallen trees: "They are nice sculptures, no? A sculpture that nature makes."'

I have been looking back at the Michael Fehr essay 'Herman's Meadow' (1992), which was reproduced in the Kastner/Wallis book Land and Environental Art (Phaidon, 1998). It was written six years after de vries and his wife Susanne began the project. I was struck by the lists of species in Fehr's descriptions of the meadow's development. Here is a quote from the essay with the lists turned into columns:

As a border, they planted a hedge composed of a variety of shrubs:


as well as a row of cultivated and semi-cultivated trees:

cornelian cherry

and older varieties of


- and let it take its natural course. Late in the year, after seeding, half of the area was cut and the cuttings removed, so that the fodder meadow - overfertilised up till then with artificial fertilisers and liquid manure three times yearly - would lose some of its richness. In the following year, herman and Susanne collected seeds along embankments, paths and the edge of the forest from plants that had been resistant to the farmers' machines and liquid manure sprays and planted them in their meadow: in molehills and earth which had bcen dug up by wild boars. Consequently,

naked lady
pincushion flower
meadow salvia
yellow iris
rhinanthus and

had a chance to spread. These were joined spontaneously by

red clover
wood anemone
blue cranesbill

and runners from the aspen at the end of the forest developed shoots in the upper part of the meadow.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Rock and Brook


The Coat of Arms of Alland, Lower Austria

I like the way that when you look somewhere up on Wikipedia you tend to get given its coat of arms and I've noticed over time that the heraldry for particular places and regions occasionally includes landscape features. Rivers are an obvious example. Wikimedia includes a whole category 'rivers in heraldry' which range from the subtle - just wavy lines or patches of blue - to complete symbolic landscapes like the one above, for the market town of Alland in Austria. 

Although my father is a heraldry buff, I know little about it and so I will have to quote here from the International Heraldry site. They explain how landscape symbols ('charges') have been used over the years:

The oldest geological charge is the mount, typically a green hilltop rising from the lower edge of the field, providing a place for a beast, building or tree to stand. Natural mountains and boulders are not unknown, though ranges of mountains are differently shown. An example is the arms of Edinburgh, portraying Edinburgh Castle atop Castle Rock. Volcanos are shown, almost without exception, as erupting, and the eruption is generally stylised. In the 18th century, landscapes began to appear in armoury, often depicting the sites of battles. For example, Admiral Lord Nelson received a chief of augmentation containing a landscape alluding to the Battle of the Nile. 

Lord Nelson's coat of arms - note the landscape above the shield.

If you take a particular European region and look at its heraldry you will mostly see lots of lions and eagles and crosses, but there will also be a few clues to the local topography. Taking a pretty much random example, consider the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany, which has twenty-four districts. River symbols representing the Rhine appear on the arms of the districts of Ahrweiler, Germersheim and Rhein-Pfalz-Kreis. A wavy white line in the arms of Mayen-Koblenz represents both the Rhine and the Moselle. The district of Südliche Weinstraße is named after the tourist wine route and has a white bar representing the route and grapes representing the wine. As this shows, such designs are not ancient, although they can incorporate older motifs - the Rhein-Pfalz-Kreis shield includes water lilies which were used in earlier Rhineland heraldry. The best one from a landscape point of view is shown below. The jug represent the ceramic industry, the green band refers to forests and the basalt columns symbolise the Westerwald's volcanic rock.    

The Coat of Arms of Westerwald District, Rhineland-Palatinate
If it seems reductive to think of place as mere landscape, for example by representing a complex four dimensional environment within a two-dimensional painting, then an image like this goes a stage further. Here we have an icon signifying a whole district of Germany made of just three colours and three shapes. It has to be said that modern heraldry like this can seem no more interesting than corporate branding. I am sure though that there are fascinating examples of landscape in the history of heraldry if you dig into the subject (which I've not done). I did a quick search and came up with one: Bad Griesbach in Bavaria, which has a design canting on the name of the town (Gries = rock, Bach = brook). The Heraldry Wiki includes the modern arms but also an image from a manuscript of 1599. This is rather lovely and could almost be a fragment of an early landscape painting. 
The Coat of Arms of Bad Griesbach im Rottal, Bavaria

Monday, December 21, 2020

Sacred mountains speak

A recent edition of The Early Music Show on Radio 3 focused on the music of Latin America and had a segment on the soundscapes of ancient meso-American and Andean cultures. Music archaeologists Matthias Stöckli and Alexander Herrera described the way musical instruments were drawn from the landscape - llama hoof drums, bone flutes, turtle shells - and used in rituals to encourage fertile crops. Sixteenth century dictionaries describe a Mayan shell horn trumpet that would promote the "greening of the fields". In the Andes, music and dance were associated with the changing seasons. They provided a way of communicating with ancestors, particularly through echoes. 

"...So the echoes of the instruments in the landscape are a way of communicating with the landscape, of making those sacred mountains speak to you. We find it in caves, we find it in spaces with rock art, which have a particular sound to them. They also have names. [One of these denoted] a place with a very special soundscape and that soundscape was made to resonate at specific times of the year with specific instruments..."

Andean musical instruments
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Andean Culture History by Wendell Clark Bennett)

Whenever I come across something like this, from a field of knowledge I know nothing about, I find myself trawling the internet for information and hoping it will lead to unfamiliar intersections between culture and landscape. You can find a lot online about the wind and percussion instruments of Latin America but what interests me is the way that the wider landscape would have featured in performance. The Met website has an article on ancient Andean music and mentions the ceremonial centre of Chavín de Huántar, where 'engraved stone slabs surrounding a sunken circular court show elaborately dressed figures walking in procession and carrying ritual objects such as spondylus shells, hallucinogenic cactus stalks, and shell trumpets.' There is website devoted to the Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics project where you can watch a short video and hear the sound of a pututu conch shell trumpet. But these shells were not taken from the local landscape, they were obtained through long-distance trade. So really this would have been the opposite of music attuned to nature: the sound of the conch shell has been a means of summoning people in many cultures (as readers of Lord of the Flies are aware) and here it would have cut across the soundscape, collapsed distance and, like Wallace Stevens' jar in Tennessee, taken dominion everywhere.

One writer I have come across with help from Google is Henry Stobart, a Reader in Music and Ethnomusicology at Royal Holloway, who has written about traditional music in Bolivia. I will quote here one interesting paragraph, pointing to the importance of landscape features. Stobart has a whole chapter on Andean sirenas in an anthology of essays, Music of the Sirens.

During feasts people may also dance for many miles across the landscape, singing and playing instruments as they go, as they make a tour of community boundaries, undertake pilgrimages, or visit particular homesteads. The lyrics of the songs they perform on such journeys may also reference a range of features of the landscape. Links between music and landscape are made especially explicit in rural discourses about sirinus or sirenas, spirit beings that are typically associated with specific places in the landscape, such as waterfalls, springs, rocks or caves. While living over several years, during the 1990s, in the rural community of Kalankira in the Macha region of Northern Potosí, I was often told that all music ultimately comes from the sirinus. And, just as music comes from these spirit beings of the landscape, it was also often played back as consuelo or “consolation” to the powers of the “animated” landscape that ensure human welfare. On many occasions I joined friends in Kalankira to play music in the landscape, focusing our attention on particular rocks, corrals or other places that were seen to ensure the welfare and reproduction of the herds, rather than on any human audience.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Beach at Low Tide

In between the first and second waves of coronavirus I managed to get to an art exhibition - the Royal Academy's Léon Spilliaert retrospective. It was a strange experience, trying to enjoy paintings while wearing a mask (steaming up my glasses) and keeping a safe distance from other people. Laura Cumming had written a preview in February which made it sound great. 'This is a vital opportunity, then, to catch sight of his dark and startling art in all its precise originality, and to understand him as more than a painter of the cold North Sea'. He certainly was a fascinating artist, but here, in keeping with the blog's focus, I will focus on his sea paintings, with quotes drawn from an essay by Anne Adriaens-Pannier and Noémie Goldman. Here is a page from the catalogue, open to show a remarkable early work, now in a private collection: Seascape with Beacons (c. 1900).

'The sea appears in his earliest works like a lightly coloured patch of life, gentle and calm, betraying an aesthetic borrowed from the Impressionists. The pastel is applied in shapeless strokes, the delicate colours creating muted harmonies sometimes brightened by tiny spots of light.'


Léon Spilliaert, Seascape Seen from Mariakerke, 1909

'When Spillaert wanted to enhance the intensity of the sea, he introduced a disturbing nocturnal atmosphere and put greater emphasis on the horizon, where the silhouette of the urban coastline can sometimes be made out. In this series of  'sombre seascapes' ... the water , waves, currents, clouds and light evoke constant motion, the uncertainty of life and the suffering of a tormented character...' 

Léon Spilliaert, Beach at Low Tide, c. 1909

'Spillaert then abandoned these broader horizons to look at something closer to hand, at the water's edge on the beach ... The narrowing of his gaze led him to simplified forms, images stripped bare. Subtly sinuous, the waves take possession of a sandbank, tracing an organic, almost abstract shape on the damp, dark beach.'

I will conclude here with three more quotes about Spilliaert's Ostende beach scenes, taken from reviews of the exhibition.

'A longing to escape – or at least to have the option – is palpable in many of Spilliaert’s land- and seascapes. In a 1908 gouache and watercolour of Ostend’s Hofstraat, a towering street leads to a lantern in the sea, an inviting will-o’-the-wisp in the murk. Spilliaert’s beaches often surge towards the ocean beyond' - Joe Lloyd

'His beachscapes depict the breakwater as an advance, an invasion, while poles, pillars, lighthouses, masts, lampposts are all ranged precariously against the relentless horizontality of the sea. The vertical is temporary – the horizontal always wins.' - Patrick McGuiness 

'With a work such as Seascape Seen from Mariakerke (1909), you peer into the layers of India ink – shade upon shade of black – as though into mist, until a stray brushstroke or a scrub-mark that reveals the paper beneath reminds you that you’re looking at a two-dimensional surface. The immediate physical sensation is a kind of retinal whiplash – but as the process is repeated in seascape after seascape it amounts at last to something more like yearning: wishing yourself into another world while unable to forget where you are.' - Samuel Reilly