Sunday, June 23, 2019

The wind that waves the pines

The Overstory (2018) is the novel about trees that was up for the Booker last year and has now won the Pulitzer Prize.  Clearly it is a very highly regarded novel but I have to admit I found it a slog to get through.  There is a lot of explanation of what we now know about trees and the Wood Wide Web which is very reminiscent of Peter Wohlleben, indeed one of the characters in the novel writes a book that sounds just like The Hidden Life of Trees (Powers has said this particular character is inspired by Suzanne Simard and Diana Beresford-Kroeger).  As for the story itself - I agree with Benjamin Markovits that 'the ordinary diversity that tends to shape plot on a human scale doesn’t get much of a look-in'.  There is an article by Sam Jordison that does a good job of describing the reasons why the novel didn't work for me ('if The Overstory really is one of the best books of the year, then the novel is dying even faster than the forests.')  However, you may well disagree - Powers clearly has lots of admirers - and my purpose on this blog is not really to give positive or negative reviews. 

I am mentioning The Overstory here because it deals in a sustained way with trees and forests, although I wouldn't say it has any particularly memorable descriptions of landscape.  I am therefore going to veer off and talk about a poem by Wang Wei that plays an important part in the book. One of the main characters learns that her father, a Chinese immigrant, has committed suicide.  He
'puts a Smith & Wesson 686 with hardwood grips up to his temple and spreads the workings of his infinite being across the flagstones of the backyard. He leaves no note except a calligraphic copy of Wang Wei’s twelve-hundred-year-old poem left unfurled on parchment across the desk in his study:
An old man,
I want only peace.
The things of this world
mean nothing.
I know no good way
to live and I can’t
stop getting lost in my
thoughts, my ancient forests.
The wind that waves the pines
loosens my belt.
The mountain moon lights me
as I play my lute.
You ask: how does a man rise or fall in this life?
The fisherman’s song flows deep under the river.'                                                                 (p51)
This poem, 'Answering Magistrate Zhang', can be found translated in many anthologies.  Most of them note that the last line is an allusion to an ancient poem 'Yu fu' ('The Fisherman'), one of The Songs of the South. 'The Fisherman' concerns the banishment of poet Qu Yuan (4th century BCE), which I wrote about here last year. Wandering by a river bank, he encounters a fisherman who tells him that it is wise not to be chained to material circumstances, but move as the world moves.  Qu Yuan wishes to hold himself aloof and pure rather than submit 'to the dirt of others'.  But the fisherman advises him to adapt to the times.  He paddles off, singing as he goes that when the river's waters are clear he can wash his hat-strings in them, and when they are muddy he can wash his feet.  The same song also appears in the Mencius, where the philosopher asks how to deal with a man who is inhumane, and who delights in the things that could lead to his destruction.  It can certainly feel sometimes as if we are dealing with such people in these times, and living in a world where mud is clouding the river waters...

Qu Yuan and the Fisherman
From 'Scenes from the Chu Ci poem Yu Fu' by Bai Yunli 

Friday, June 21, 2019

Chanctonbury Rings

"Time had gone soft at the crossroads..." 

So begins Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper's spoken word album, based on his recent book, The Old Weird Albion.  I have written before here about his reading voice, its American accent sounding 'neutrally classless, not immediately identifiable either with those who live and work on the land or those who own, walk over and contemplate it.'  An acknowledged influence on Chanctonbury Rings is 'the lost era of  poetry and music albums, like David Cain and Radiophonic Workshop's The Seasons', a strange record I discussed here a while back.  The narrator of The Seasons was poet Ronald Duncan, whose eerie delivery is partly what makes the record so unusual - 'when not aggressively melancholy, the register is madly affirmative'.  There is one track on Chanctonbury Rings on which Justin sounds urgent a little unhinged, like Captain Beefheart reading The Peregrine, but mostly his voice is so appealing that it draws you in and holds you, changing pace and emphasis according to whether he is remembering a walk or dramatising an uncanny experience.  The record ends not with words but with music, the story having concluded with a recollection of descending the hillside and seeing that 'the calendar had turned. It was summer.’

The music for Chanctonbury Rings was created by Sharron Kraus, who collaborated with Justin on readings when The Old Weird Albion appeared, and Jim Jupp, whose Belbury Poly project I first mentioned here more than twelve years ago.  An article this week on Caught by the River describes some examples: 
'The hallowed chords on ‘Layers’ and ‘Wanderer’ come from an open-tuned dulcimer, wherein Kraus strikes the instrument’s body like someone rapping a coffin lid.  Ghostly exhales and buzzy drones on ‘Breath’ were created by Kraus layering bamboo flute, vocal noises and percussion, with Jupp adding extra elements. The close-mic’d crackling from a box of dried leaves adds a hair-raising creepiness. ‘Bonny Breast Knot’ then conjures an impish galliard that high steps into a full country dance [...] Jupp describes the microKORG used by Kraus as a ‘wonderful and massively underrated little synth’. It conjures bestial riffs on ‘The Devil And St. Dunstan’ where Jupp adds Mellotron and tape echo feedback.'
I particularly like this track, 'The Devil and St. Dunstan', which tells the story behind Devil's Dyke, an extraordinary dry valley near the house where I grew up.

Trees above Devil's Dyke
Photographed by me in 2015

Today, the summer solstice, is the official launch date of Chanctonbury Rings.  According to a site devoted to Sussex archaeology and folklore, 'you can see the fairies dancing in the Ring on Midsummer Eve as well as UFO's flying overhead.'  It is also one of the special days when the Devil can be summoned by walking widdershins seven times round the ring.  I'll end here with a quote about this uncanny landscape from an interview Justin did with Gary Budden at the Learned Pig.

'Chanctonbury is one of the highest points in the downs, so it was always going to be important. In the Iron Age, all of the settlements were at the top of the downs; today they’re at the bottom. Chanctonbury will probably still be there when Brighton and Shoreham are under the ocean.  But beyond that, I do think that there are thin places. It’s a special place. I didn’t know anything about it the first time I went up there, and I have truly visceral memories of that first moment. I’ve never slept up there, but everyone I know who has has said they wouldn’t do it again. If you go up there, you can feel that there’s something special – and we can’t say exactly what it is.'

Sunday, June 16, 2019


Colin Sackett has kindly sent me a copy of Printed Landscapes, an anthology drawing on his earlier books, some of which (like River Axe Crossings and The True Line) have featured on this blog previously. Its cover, as you can see, is plain Manila - no picturesque views here.  In a set of notes, positioned near the middle of the book rather than at the end, he says of this body of work, published since the early 1990s, that
the subjects are commonly about geography, its interpretation and abstraction on the printed page. The locations are often places of familiarity and association, from across southern England, while the book has to do with making connections between its modalities. As with places, or types of places – its subject as such – the reading is intendedly multi-directional.
A few examples can be seen on Colin's website - I've reproduced below an image from 'Geeooggrraapphhy', which comprises overprintings of four maps from London's Country, By Road, Steam and Fieldpath, a guidebook from 1923.  Another work inspired by an old book, The Coast of England and Wales in Pictures (1960), quotes test from the 167 picture captions that describe the coast.  I was pleased to see plenty of cliffs in this - it reminded me of a collage of words to describe the Ligurian coast that I made once here, using words from the poems of Eugenio Montale’s poems in Ossi di Seppia.  W. G. Hoskins, L. Dudley Stamp and Geoffrey Hutchings are all re-purposed in Printed landscape to draw attention to the ways in which places are framed and studied.  In 'Directory' some entries for 'Farmers' from the 1998 Yellow Pages are given, followed by aerial views of farms with their phone numbers.  It made we wonder whether telephone directories are still a thing or have they finally disappeared?  And also of that famous J. G. Ballard quote, that the Los Angeles Yellow Pages was "richer in human incident than all the novels of Balzac". 

Abinger, Albury, Gomshall, Merrow Downs, Shere, Wotton.

One of the entries I particularly like is 'Collection', which reproduces card labels that used to come with bunches of watercress (a shame they couldn't be reproduced in colour).  'Each label,' Colin writes, 'tethered the cress to a typical and identifiable landscape: a clay and chalk valley with water from a spring, or raised from boreholes, channelled to flow gently across wide beds of seeded concrete and gravel.  Seen from above, these planned rectilinear forms impose upon and contrast with the undulating topography on the ground.'  Living in London I don't often think about where watercress grows before it makes it into a salad.  I most associate it with the old Irish story of The Madness of Sweeney (Buile Shuibhne), an outcast who lives on a diet of little else.  Of course watercress labels no longer exist, as we buy the product from supermarkets sealed in plastic.  This collection of 'printed landscapes' has therefore become an archive of signs that remain 'fixed to the activity and geography of their time'.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Shore of Sumiyoshi

Tawaraya Sōtatsu, The Beach at Sumiyoshi,
from the 'Tales of Ise', c. 1600-40
The Cleveland Museum of Art

In the highly refined Heian dynasty culture of ninth century Japan, landscape was admired in ways that would not be seen in the West for nearly a thousand years.  Consider the 68th episode of The Tales of Ise (c. 900), concerning the journey to Izumi of the poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-80).  At Sumiyoshi beach, 'he was so moved by the scenery that he dismounted from his horse and sat down again and again to enjoy the lovely views.  One of his party proposed: 'Compose a poem with the phrase "the shore of Sumiyoshi" in it.'  The resulting poem in its five brief lines combines autumn and spring imagery, chrysanthemums, wild geese and the sea.

Katsukawa Shunshô, Snow Scene Like a Flowering Grove
from the series 'Tales of Ise in Fashionable Brocade Prints', c. 1770-73 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Peter Macmillan's recent (2016) translation of The Tales of Ise is a pleasure to read and includes fascinating explanatory material.  He notes, for example, that 'Episodes 66, 67 and 68 are all set along the shores of Osaka Bay and feature beautiful poems on the local scenery.'  In the 66th tale, 'The Sea of Life', Narihura stops with his friends by the shore and composes a poem on the boats in the bay, 'carrying us across / the sorrow-filled sea of life.'  And in the 67th, 'Snow Blossom', they see Mount Ikoma, revealed when the sky cleared.  Only then were he and his friends able to see 'the woods in snow blossom', the 'pristine white snow ' on the branches of the trees. I have included an eighteenth century illustration of this scene above.

Tawaraya Sōtatsu,  Noblemen Viewing the Nunobiki Waterfall,
 from the 'Tales of Ise', c. 1600-40
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Another episode involving admiration of scenery is 'Travels in Ashiya' (no. 87) - its theme, according to Peter Macmillan, is 'how excursions and the pleasures of the landscape can fill the heart with delight.'  The hero and his companions decide to climb the mountain to see the Nunobiki Waterfall. 
'The rock face was a good two hundred feet high and fifty feet wide, and the water pouring over it made it look as if its whole surface was covered in rippling silk.  A rock the size of a round straw mat jutted out from the top of the falls, and water cascaded over it in huge drops the size of chestnuts and mandarin oranges.  The man invited everyone there to compose a poem on the waterfall...'  
The resulting poems are good, but not as beautiful as the poem composed on their way home, as night fell and they could see firelight on the sea:
Are those stars on a cloudless night
or fireflies on the riverbank,
or are they the lights
of the fishermen's fires
in the direction of our home?

Saturday, May 18, 2019

A shower has not long passed

In a recent clear-out my mother passed on to me this 1950 publication on Constable.  At first I took it to be an exhibition catalogue but it is actually a short booklet concerning the V&A's superb collection of Constables, based on a gift made by the artist's daughter in 1888.  There are thirty-three black and white reproductions - I've included one of the paintings featured below.  The book cost one shilling and a note in the back says that copies 'may be had from the Victoria and Albert Museum bookstall and from H.M. Stationery Office...'  I've always read this as 'Her Majesty's' but of course in 1950 it would have been His Majesty's Stationery Office.  In the United States of America it could be obtained 'from the British Information Services, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York.'  The publication is 'Small Picture Book No. 23' - a quick search online reveals other V&A titles in this series covering, for example Adam Silver (no. 35), English Chintz (No. 22), Toys (No. 63), English Prehistoric Pottery (No. 28) and Glass Table-Ware (No. 1).

John Constable, Study for The Leaping Horse, c. 1825

The paintings in the book are preceded by a wonderful series of quotes, many of which will be very familiar to those with an interest in Constable (some have been used on this blog in the past). Here are ten of them

  • "The landscape painter must walk in the fields with an humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in her beauty."
  • "The world is wide; no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.'
  • "Light - dews - breezes - bloom - and freshness; not one of which has yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world."
  • "I never did admire the Autumnal tints, even in nature, so little of a painter am I in the eye of commonplace connoisseurship.  I love the exhilarating freshness of Spring." 
  • "The landscape of Gainsborough is soothing, tender and affecting. The stillness of noon, the depths of twilight, and the dews and pearls of the morning are all to be found on the canvases of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man.  On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them."

 J. M. W. Turner, The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl, 1823
  • "Turner is stark mad with ability.  The picture (the Bay of Baiae) seems painted with saffron and indigo." 
  • "Brightness was the characteristic excellence of Claude; brightness, independent on colour, for what colour is there here?" (holding up a glass of water).
  • "What were the habits of Claude and the Poussins? Though surrounded with palaces filled with pictures, they made the fields their chief places of study."
  •  "... some 'high-minded' members [of the Royal Academy] who stickel for the 'elevated and noble' walks of art - i.e. preferring the shaggy posteriors of a Satyr to the moral feeling of Landscape."
  • "I have seen an affecting picture this morning by Ruysdael; it haunts my mind and clings to my heart, and stands between you and me while I am talking to you; it is a water-mill; a man and boy are cutting rushes in the running stream (the tail-water); the whole so true, clean, and fresh, and as brisk as champagne; a shower has not long passed."

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Garden or Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel that circles round various mysteries: the life and death of a Japanese garden designer, Aritomo, living after the war in exile in Malaya, and the location and purpose of a prison camp that he may have had some connection with.  The narrator of the novel, Yun Ling, a survivor of this camp, wants to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died there.  This sister had developed a fascination with Japanese gardens on a visit to Kyoto before the war.  Yun Ling goes to visit Aritomo, with the intention of asking him to design a memorial garden, but instead she becomes his apprentice, lover and then the inheritor of his own garden.  Aritomo begins her training with a copy of the Sakuteiki (which I mentioned here once before), written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna in the eleventh century, and explains to her various principles of Japanese gardening, such as shakkei ('borrowed scenery').  Later she writes that 'Aritomo could never resist employing the principles of Borrowed Scenery in everything he did' and the reader suspects something significant in this, that the landscape beyond the garden has some kind of special significance linked to their memories.

When Aritomo first explains shakkei to Yun Ling, he mentions Tenryuji, "Temple of the Sky Dragon, the first garden to ever use the techniques of shakkei."  Here's what I said about this garden, designed by the great poet Musō Soseki (1275-1351), in another earlier post
'The temple of Tenryū-ji, was built by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of the emperor whom he had deposed.  Musō wrote a sequence of poems about the landscape garden he helped create there, 'Ten Scenes in the Dragon of Heaven Temple.'  Some of these scenes have survived the centuries, like the lake Sōgen-chi where moonlight still strikes the waters in the dead of night; others have gone, like Dragon-Gate House where Musō observed the most transient of images, two passing puffs of cloud.'
Aritomo goes on to list the four approaches to shakkei:  "Enshaku - distant borrowing - took in the mountains and the hills; Rinshaku used the features from a neighbour's property; Fushaku took from the terrain; and Gyoshaku brought in the clouds, the wind and the rain."  Years later, looking again at their garden, Yun Ling wonders whether the wind and clouds and ever changing light had been part of Aritomo's design.  And if the mists were an element of shakkei too, gradually thickening and erasing the distant mountains.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Roden Crater

I thought I would follow up my last post on Katie Paterson with something about James Turrell, whose light works I was reminded of when looking at her Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008).  I have been reading James Turrell: A Retrospective, a sumptuously produced book which I should think gets as close as possible to giving a sense of what his artworks look like, even though they are nearly impossible to describe in two dimensional photography and words on a page. It is interesting how often the word 'landscape' is used in the book, even though what is usually being described is a perceptual environment or spaces from which to observe the sky.  Of course Turrell is a contemporary of the American land artists and it is easy to relate his magnum opus, Roden Crater, to their more monumental earthworks.  Turrell himself has said, 'I am not an Earth artist, I'm totally involved in the sky.'  But works like Observatory by Robert Morris (1971) and Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels (1973-6), which are aligned with the solstice, can be seen as precursors to Roden Crater.

Roden Crater
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was clear from the book that Turrell's career hinges on that famous flight in 1974 when he located the setting for what has become his life's work. An experienced pilot, Turrell used a Guggenheim Foundation to fuel his plane and scoured the western states to find 'a solitary cinder cone or a butte' that would allow him to create the perfect space from which to experience the phenomenon of 'celestial vaulting'.  Work continues at Roden Crater - there are plans for a Fumarole, for example, which will look like a giant eye.  A pool will act as a lens and light from the sky will pass over it through an aperture.  'At night, the still water will focus images of the stars onto a floor of black volcanic cinder underneath such that a visitor might have the experience of walking on light from the stars.  The bowl shape of the bath's bronze-and-glass bottom is complemented by a small invisible antenna on the aperture's edge that effectively turns it into a simple radio telescope.  Bathers will be able to submerge their ears under the water to hear the ancient static radio noise emitted from the portion of the sky visible through the aperture.'

Some of the inspirations for Turrell's work, and some of the phenomena he has explored in his art:
Skyspaces - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - blackout curtains - the desert landscapes drawn by George Herriman in his 1940s Krazy Kat cartoons - the view from the Apollo spacecraft - Plato's Cave - Ganzfelds - Minimalism - Perceptual Cells - Blake's 'doors of perception' - Quakerism - the temple at Borobudur - Mesoamerican pyramids - emblemata depicting effects of light in a 1636 book by Guilielmus Hesius - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows - Buddhism's 'embrace of the void'...
Of course Turrell is familiar with the ways light has been used in the history of art, but his whole practice has been to work with light, rather than merely representing it.

According to the Christine Y. Kim in James Turrell: A Retrospective, there are now more than seventy-five Skyspaces around the world, enclosed chambers with an opening that lets visitors contemplate the sky.  You can find photographs of these online - the one I have included below is in Switzerland and actually shows the view out through its door (I guess if the spectacle of the sky starts to pall, you can still contemplate the Alps).  There are some spectacular looking Skyspaces in sunny places like Napa Valley, California.  Photographs of the Skyspace in Yorkshire Sculpture Park (which I mentioned here once before) show a damp patch of floor where the rain has entered.  Another British example is Cat Cairn (2000), in Northumberland, built with natural stone to blend into the landscape (the Kielder website explains that Turrell has recently upgraded the lighting system for this work).  Back in 2000 Monty Don wrote in The Observer about his experience of Cat Cairn.  'The experience of sitting quietly (albeit freezing) is enormously satisfying and enriching, even though sensation is stripped down and pared back as far as it will go without being diminished. All superfluities are abandoned. I would love this in my garden.'

James Turrell, Skyspace, Piz Uter, (inside) - 2005
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Kamahele