Saturday, February 28, 2015

The evergreen forest seethes and roars

There are still a couple of weeks to see From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, an exhibition I have already referred to here.  It was her paintings of trees that most impressed me and their qualities are well described in Laura Cumming's review:
'Carr paints young pine trees aspiring tall but fragile in the silvery light of dawn, the air scintillating around them like St Elmo’s fire. She paints clearings in the forest where the sunlight is tinged with the deep green of the trees, which spread across the canvas like an all-over Jackson Pollock. An astonishing painting of windswept trees shows the painter’s arm moving round the scene like the wind itself, the forest branches shivering and roaring, the air made visible in a sort of spectral transparence that appears to lie both in and on top of the painting.  As the painter Peter Doig remarks in the catalogue, you don’t just see Carr’s trees, you hear them too.'
This auditory quality is evident in Emily Carr's prose description of the Canadian forest in The Book of Small (1942):
'The silence of our Western forests was so profound that our ears could scarcely comprehend it. If you spoke your voice came back to you as your face is thrown back to you in a mirror. It seemed as if the forest were so full of silence that there was no room for sounds. The birds who lived there were birds of prey -- eagles, hawks, owls. Had a song bird loosed his throat the others would have pounced. Sober-coloured, silent little birds were the first to follow settlers into the West. Gulls there had always been; they began with the sea and had always cried over it. The vast sky spaces above, hungry for noise, steadily lapped up their cries. The forest was different --she brooded over silence and secrecy.'
The Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist  R. Murray Schafer quotes this passage in his book The Natural Soundscape.  Every type of forest, he suggests, produces its own keynote. 
'Evergreen forest, in its mature phase, produces darkly vaulted aisles, through which sound reverberates with unusual clarity – a circumstance which, according to Oswald Spengler, drove the northern Europeans to try to duplicate the reverberation in the construction of Gothic cathedrals. When the wind blows in the forests of British Columbia, there is nothing of the rattling and rustling familiar with deciduous forests; rather there is a low, breathy whistle. In a strong wind the evergreen forest seethes and roars, for the needles twist and turn in turbine motion.  The lack of undergrowth or openings into clearings kept the British Columbia forests unusually free of animal, bird and insect life, a circumstance which produced an awesome, even sinister impression on the first white settlers. ... The uneasiness of the early settlers with the forest, and their desire for space and sunlight, soon produced another keynote sound: the noise of lumbering.'
Emily Carr, The Remains of a Forest, 1939
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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