Friday, September 03, 2021

Island Zombie

 

Last year Princeton published this collection of Roni Horn's Iceland writings. The cover image beneath the yellow titles is one of 23 visual editorials she published in 2002 for the weekly culture supplement of Iceland's national daily newspaper (you can see the pinkish paper and newsprint showing through from the next page). It is an interesting choice for a cover as you might expect them to have used one of Roni Horn's photographs, but then this is a collection of her writings. Reading them with few of the familiar images of rocks, pools, icebergs and horizons puts more emphasis on the quality of her words. As a collection of brief reflections they reminded me of other kinds of poetic place writing I've enjoyed, like the Paul Claudel I highlighted here in May. 

The section of Island Zombie covering her newspaper contributions includes some poignant longer pieces written twenty years ago, at a point when Iceland still had a choice over whether to preserve its landscape from development. The book also has a speech ('My Oz') and samples from her 'Weather Reports You' project in which Icelanders relay terrifying stories of high winds, treacherous seas and blizzards. But the bulk of the book is given over to writings that formed part of Horn's art practice, spanning her years in Iceland, beginning with the texts already published in To Place IV: Pooling Waters (1990-91) and adding others written during the last thirty years.

Some landscapes...

  • On a foggy day in 1979 at Bakkafjörður, she discovered a white stone among the dark rocks on the bank of a stream. The white was almost transparent and it looked as if something dark lay within, a mystery. Writing in 2018 she rolls the stone in the palm of her hand, 'whole, complete, not a fragment of something else.' Over the course of her lifetime, handling the stone, she herself has been a mildly erosive force and feels 'the softness and smoothness of this white rock intensifying over years of intimacy.'  
  • At Dyrhólaey, where she lived for a time in the lighthouse, the cliffs form a city of birds. Approaching the edge, all is quiet but for the sound of the wind, until she reaches a point where suddenly the cacophony of bird sounds emerges, a noise that 'is part of the landscape here, like the bluff itself. It doesn't go away. When I arrive, I become the audience for this geologically scaled performance.' 
  • Standing on the mountain Kerlingarfjöll one warm evening she finds the atmosphere focuses the view like a lens, with everything visible through the thin air. 'Looking around I can see the ocean way out there, in all directions,' she says, reminding me of a magical flight of fantasy in Virginia Woolf's Orlando. She can see each pebble and flower, each lava field and river, simultaneously and without hierarchy. The way the landscape is taking shape is visible in its boiling water, lava fields and tectonic plates and all of this 'takes you one step deeper, beyond appearance, beyond the simple visibility of things.'

Sunday, August 08, 2021

The Succession of Strata


I was recently given the splendid Thames & Hudson volume STRATA: William Smith's Geological Maps, which has contributions from a range of experts and a short foreword by Robert Macfarlane. The book is a thing of beauty as you can see from the gallery on the T&H website. In addition to Smith's maps, it includes photographs of the fossil collection he amassed, which was fundamental to his understanding of geology and which he arranged on sloping shelves to represent different geological strata. When Smith got into financial trouble he was forced to sell these fossils to the British Museum but twenty years later they remained unopened in their boxes (reminding me of a similar story of indifference from a century later, when Apsley Cherry-Garrard donated to the museum an emperor penguin egg collected in the Antarctic after 'the worst journey in the world'). There is an interesting story of social class running through the book, with Smith having to earn his living from practical work in mining and land improvement and only fully appreciated by the intellectual elite at the end of his life.

From a landscape perspective the most interesting drawings are the panoramic sections that show how strata lie underground and where they emerge on the surface. The example above is on a separate bookmark / legend which comes with the book; its reverse shows the sequence of strata and their colours, ranging from London Clay to Granite, Sicnite and Gneiss. The example below (published in July 1819) shows part of Britain I am familiar with, the chalk downs near Brighton. The text underneath the image here is very practical - 'Much Chalk goes from these Hills by the Ouse Navigation to the interior of Sussex and is there used on the Land either in a crude state or burned to Lime by Wood fires for that purpose. The Sussex Clunch or Gray Chalk like that of the Surry Hills makes an excellent Lime for building in Water.' Colourists were employed for his maps but Smith himself was an enthusiastic draughtsman and STRATA includes a selection of portrait drawings of acquaintances from his sketchbooks. To quote Robert Macfarlane, Smith's great map ' now exists somewhere between artwork, dreamwork and data-set.'

 

 

Friday, June 25, 2021

Untitled (Moon Image)

 

The oceans and deserts of Vija Celmins are monochrome patterns of pencil marks and brush strokes - no landmarks, just abstract surfaces. She may have looked at particular sites but the artworks only reproduce her photographs, or photographs taken by others - landscape at two removes. Their sources are hidden in titles like Untitled (Desert) and Untitled (Ocean). Nevertheless, the patience and attention needed to make her art seems to ask questions about how closely we attend to the world and really spend time in a particular environment. Observational drawing has a long history - Briony Fer cites the examples of Dürer's Large Piece of Turf and Ruskin's advice in The Elements of Drawing in her essay in Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory (ed. Gary Garrels). But art of this kind is closer to still life than landscape. Celmins' drawings of the sea are each 'a graphic rendering of a ready-made image and not a record of the vastness of the ocean.'    

 

A page from Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory showing moon drawings from 1968-9


One sentence from another essay in this book by Russell Ferguson particularly struck me. In discussing Celmins' early paintings he suggests that 'T.V. (1964) shows an everyday object from the studio - a television set - but a very contemporary one: this is probably one of the earliest representations of a TV in painting.' If this is true it is remarkable to think that art can have ignored such an important object in people's lives for twenty years. One could also say that in the late sixties Celmins was one of the first artists to depict the landscape of the moon, although her drawings of NASA photographs are clearly at second hand, deliberately reproducing the blurring and imperfections in the source images. In this way they are quite different from the pastel drawing John Russell made nearly two centuries earlier using a telescope, which despite the vast distance was based on direct observation. 

 

John Russell,  The Face of the Moon, 1793-97

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Knowing the East


Paul Claudel (1868 - 1955) joined the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs after university, where he had begun writing poetry and attending Mallarmé's 'Tuesdays', and in 1895 was made vice-consul in Shanghai, following junior postings in Boston and New York. He would spend the rest of his life as a prominent diplomat and writer, although I suspect that in England he is a lot less well known than his sister Camille (portrayed in the 1988 film Camille Claudel by Isabelle Adjani). When he arrived in the Far East he began composing prose poetry; the first one was written in Ceylon before he reached his destination in China. Some of these poems were sent home and published in outlets lke La Revue de Paris and La Revue blanche. Claudel returned in 1899 intending to become a priest, and his book Connaisance de l'Est came out in 1900. But having abandoned his religious vocation and returned to China, he supplemented this volume with a smaller group of poems written in the period up to 1905. 

No doubt Knowing the East can be read critically in terms of Orientalism and French imperialism, but I found a lot of beauty in these poems. Some titles: 'The City at Night', 'Sea Thoughts', 'The Sadness of Water', 'Noon Tide', 'Hours in the Garden', 'Libation to the Coming Day'. Things I was reminded of as I read them: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Francis Ponge, Lafdacio Hearn, Victor Segalen, Empire of Signs, Invisible Cities. This quote, from their translator James Lawler, summarises my first impressions of the book.

'With what pleasure do we savour these landscapes, this continent so far removed from our own: coconut palms, banyans, Japanese pines; the Yang-tse of 'Drifting', 'The River', 'Halt on the Canal'; Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto temples and tombs; hermitages, suspended houses; crushing heat, night as clear as day; festivals for the dead, a festival for the rivers; wheat harvests, rice harvests; torrential rain, apocalyptic storms; cities that seem chaotic but have a concealed pattern and sense, 'flayed' Chinese gardens, the Shogun's golden ark. One may label the images picturesque but that is not the way I read them. I recall Julien Green saying of Claudel that he was a man "who had known how to live elsewhere," words I take to mean that we do not find a quest for oddness but affectionate deployment fold by fold of a reality the poet comes to know.'

In keeping with the theme of my blog, here are a few examples of how Claudel treats landscape in his poems:

  • Stopping to survey the mountains that surround him, he measures with his eyes the route he will take. As he walks, he savours the slow passage of time and thinks about 'the bridge still to cross in the quiet peace of the afternoon pause, these hills to go up and down, this valley to traverse.' He already sees the rock where he will watch the sunset.  
  • One December day, 'a dark cloud covers the entire sky and fills the mountain's irregular clefts with haze: you would think it dovetailed to the horizon.' He sweeps the quiet countryside with his hand, caressing the hyacinth plains, the tufts of black pines, and he checks with his fingers the 'details embedded in the weft and mist of this winter day - a row of trees, a village.' 
  • On the vast yellow river he thinks about the nature of water. 'As the segments of a parallelogram come together and meet, so water expresses the force of a landscape reduced to its geometrical lines.' Each drop expresses this as it finds the lowest point of a given area. 'All water draws us, and certainly this river...' 
  • He describes knocking on a small black door somewhere in Shanghai and being led through a succession of corridors to a garden. He follows a labyrinthine path until he can look down on 'the poem of the roofs'. Later he reaches 'the edge of the pond, where the stems of dead lotus flowers emerge from the still waters. The silence is deep like that of a forest crossroads in winter.'
  • And in a Tokyo shop, he finds himself looking at miniature landscapes (bonkei). 'Here is the rice field in spring; in the distance, the hill fringed with trees (they are moss). Here is the sea with its archipelagos and capes; by the artifice of two stones, one black, the other red and seemingly worn and porous ... Even the iridescence of the many-coloured waters is captured by this bed of motley pebbles covered by the contents of two carafes.'

Saturday, April 17, 2021

In the twilight there is a field


Yosa Buson, Travels Through Mountains and Fields, c. 1765
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've been reading The Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, translated by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento. The collection was put together just after Buson's death in 1784. Such brief verse can evoke a landscape through metonymy but rarely makes you think immediately of landscape views like the Buson painting above, the Met's Travels Through Mountains and Fields. I did notice a general exception to this rule though and it occurs when fiels are the subject of the poem - you can't really talk about a field without evoking a landscape. There are 868 haiku in the volume so I think it is probably OK under fair use to reproduce just four here, one for each season. For spring it is a toss-up between numbers 58, 140 and 183 but I'll go for the first, which actually has a 'landscape' title, 'Looking across the Field'.

Mist in the grass

the water silent

just before sunset

This summer poem, no. 317, also has a title, 'On the Way Home from Seeing the Nunobiki Waterfall with Tairo and Kito'. Tairo and Kito were his disciples. Nunobiki Waterfall I have mentioned here before in connection with The Tales of Ise (c. 900).

Evening sun slipping behind the hills

a waterwheel is turning

in the field of ripening wheat

The autumn poem, no. 487, is again set at sunset

The mountains darken after the sun goes down

in the twilight there is a field

of silver grass

And finally, no. 742, winter

Vast dry field

out in the desolation

the sun slips into the rock

Clearly these are all variations on a theme: the field and the sunset are constants, but the atmosphere is different in each poem.

 


Finally, a message I have to pass on from Blogger. 'Recently, the FeedBurner team released a system update announcement , that the email subscription service will be discontinued in July 2021.
After July 2021, your feed will still continue to work, but the automated emails to your subscribers will no longer be supported.' Sorry about this...

Sunday, April 04, 2021

A Landscape Painter in Albania

  

 Edward Lear, The valley of the Shkumbin River
near Elbasan in central Albania
, 26 September 1848 

Edward Lear's travel writing is, as you would expect, written with a sharp wit and punctuated with discriptions of landscape. The fact that he was travelling and then writing as a landscape painter gives his books a double interest for me. Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania for example begins with a description of his equipment - only the essentials needed to travel light, in what was then still a region barely visited by English travellers. He complains a lot about his accommodation but explains that he had no choice but to stay in roadside khans - if he had tried to stay instead with the local pashas he would need to have fitted in with ceremonies and meals that would have left no time for sketching. Lear was there in the autumn of 1848 and mentions finding a German newspaper to read and being amazed at the news of revolutions across Europe. His route through what is now Albania was partly forced on him by widespread quarantine and travel restrictions (cholera, rather than Covid-19, in those days). It began in the east, after he had travelled overland from Thessalonika via Bitola and Ohrid. He then headed towards Tirana and just before reaching it wrote this description of the mountain landscape.

'How glorious, in spite of the dimming scirocco haze, was the view from the summit, as my eyes wandered over the perspective of winding valley and stream to the farthest edge of the horizon — a scene realizing the fondest fancies of artist imagination! The wide branching oak, firmly rivetted in crevices, all tangled over with fern and creepers, hung half-way down the precipices of the giant crag, while silver-white goats (which chime so picturesquely in with such landscapes as this) stood motionless as statues on the highest pinnacle, sharply defined against the clear blue sky. [...] 
It was difficult to turn away from this magnificent mountain view — from these chosen nooks and corners of a beautiful world — from sights of which no painter-soul can ever weary: even now, that fold beyond fold of wood, swelling far as the eye can reach — that vale ever parted by its serpentine river — that calm blue plain, with Tomohr in the midst, like an azure island in a boundless sea, haunt my mind's eye, and vary the present with visions of the past. With regret I turned northwards to descend to the new district of Tyrana; the town (and it is now past eleven) being still some hours distant.
 
Edward Lear: Tepeleni, Albania, c. 1848–1849

Unfortunately, as this suggests, Lear's descriptions of scenery are not all that interesting, even if they do make you want to visit Albania. You wouldn't expect anything like his nonsense verse but you might hope for a more original mode of landscape description. In an NYRB review (from which the image above is taken) of a reprint of the journal, Brad Leithauser says

'The book imparts almost no sense of Lear’s reading, the literary spirits he might have been seeking to commune or contend with during his travels. Most of the few literary references are to Byron, only because he happened to precede Lear to Albania by a couple of decades. Sentence by sentence, the book gives scant indication of a poet’s sensibility, for Lear was a slapdash prose stylist. Edward Lear in Albania often seeks to portray panoramic landscapes through words, a challenge that typically elicited from Lear sweeping and obvious adjectives: “noble,” “majestic,” “sublime.” He was especially fond of “picturesque,” which at one point appears three times in a single paragraph.'

Despite this defect, it is fascinating to read about Lear's experiences of a country that had so recently been under the rule of Ali Pasha. I'll end here with his decription of visiting Tepelenë:

'At the end of the space enclosed by the walls, and overhanging the river, is a single mosque — solitary witness of the grandeur of days past ; — and beyond that, all the space, as far as the battlement terrace looking north and west is occupied by the mass of ruin which represents Ali's ruined palace. The sun was sinking as I sat down to draw in what had been a great chamber, below one of the many crumbling walls — perhaps in the very spot where the dreaded Ali gave audience to his Frank guests in 1809 — when Childe Harold was but twenty- four years old, and the Vizir in the zenith of his power. The poet is no more ; — the host is beheaded, and his family nearly extinct ; — the palace is burned, and levelled with the ground ; — war, and change, and time have, perhaps, left but one or two living beings who, forty years back, were assembled in these gay and sumptuous halls.'*



*I'm not sure what Tepelenë is like today. In 2013, Tim Neville, on the trail of Byron, described it in a travel piece for the Financial Times: 'I drove to Tepelena, where the remains of Ali Pasha’s palace stood derelict and littered with rubbish. A plaque celebrating the poet’s visit hung from the side of a wall next to a petrol station...'

Sunday, March 28, 2021

the quiet island

Last year Carcanet published The Threadbare Coat: Selected Poems by Thomas A. Clark, a writer I have often referred to on this blog. There is an introduction by Matthew Welton that briefly discusses the poems' language and formal properties. He notes, for example, the repetition of words from poem to poem: 'the hills, clouds and water give us a sense of where we are in the landscape. And the mentions of nothingness, aloneness and longing, say something of what we can expect from territory of this kind.' He suggests that the 'reuse of a limited vocabulary across a range of poems feels appropriate to the landscapes that are the focus of these poems.' These places are only occasionally identified but it is clear that we are reading about the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Perhaps some of the poems are about the idea of this landscape rather than anything more specific - 'the quiet island', for example, is like a parable where the narrator finds peace but misses the melody of events, and so one morning, quietly leaves.

I could mention several of the book's landscape poem sequences but will just highlight one here. 'a walk in a water meadow' suggests that we will be given a series of ambulatory observations, but in the first stanza, a gentle mist closes in. This mist dampens sound and detaches objects from their context. The walker attends to the world in a different way: as places disclose themselves, vision is both impaired and repaired. The water meadow takes on the forms of mist: fine webs, cotton-grass and cuckoo-spit, alders wrapped in wool and skeins of mist snagged on larch. A walk in mist, he concludes, 'makes no progress / history is suspended / resolve dissolves.' History feels suspended in almost all of these poems, which offer the chance to concentrate on timeless phenomena: dusk and dawn, wind and waves, raindrops in a pool, light falling on a leaf, water flowing over roots and stones.

There is a YouTube clip where Tom introduces the book and reads 'the quiet island'. I have embedded it below and transcribed here what he says about the Highlands and Islands:

'These are landscapes of great clarity and resilience; they often have a surprising gentleness - all qualities that I want to percolate into the poetry.  But this is not where I live. I live on the east coast, above Edinburgh. So I'm always at some distance from the landscapes I write about. No doubt this distance sharpens desire. I always want to head out into the Highlands. Somehow I feel more relaxed there than anywhere else. I seem to be more responsive and resourceful than anywhere else. It's as if a whole set of cultural accretions has fallen away, or more likely, blown away. And this is one sense of The Threadbare Coat, the title of this new book from Carcanet Press. It's an image of poverty and exposure, as if there could be only the lightest membrane between you and the landscape.'

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake

I have been looking back at some books I read before starting this blog and have never got round to mentioning. One of these is Simplicissimus, the picaresque novel by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, written in 1668 and translated for Dedalus by Mike Mitchell. Near the end of the book, its hero Simplicius hears various tales told about 'the Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake on one of the highest mountains in the neighbourhood.' (Wikipedia's entry on this Black Forest lake begins, disappointingly: 'the Mummelsee is a 17-metre-deep lake...') The stories told to Simplicius concern disappearing animals and sightings of water sprites. On one occasion, he learns, a Duke of Württemberg tried to measure the depth of the lake with a length of twine but his boat started to sink and he had to abandon the attempt. Curious about this strange place, Simplicius decides to set off to see it for himself.

When he arrives with his companion after a walk of less than six hours, the two of them polish of the food and drink they brought and then proceed with some scientific observations, drawing a map and tasting the water to see if it would explain why some trout that had been introduced on one occasion all died. They then locate a spot 'where the water, otherwise as clear as crystal, seems to be pitch black on account of its awesome depth'. Ignoring his companion's advice, Simplicius throws stones into the lake. Storm clouds begin to gather and, looking into the water, he sees creatures swimming up from the depths, bringing back the stones. One of them, the Prince of Mummelsee, comes to the surface and takes Simplicius back down with him. Eventually they reach the centre of the earth where they discuss politics, religion and geography. He doesn't spend long there before returning to the surface, but he does give a memorable short description of the way this land of the sylphs is lit by the lakes of the world.

'While I was there I observed how the sun shone on each lake in turn and sent its rays down to these awesome depths, making it as bright in this abyss as on the surface and even casting shadows. The lakes were like windows for the sylphs through which they received both light and warmth. Even if they didn't always come directly, because the sides of some lakes were twisted, they were transmitted by reflection because nature had set whole slabs of crystal, diamonds and rubies where necessary in the angles of the cliffs.'

The Mummelsee
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The magical lake of Mummelsee also appears in a poem by Eduard Mörike, who I wrote about here last month. 'The Ghosts of Mummelsee' is one of his poems later set to music by Hugo Wolf. There is a New York Festival of Song blog post on this Lied, which gives an English translation by Charles L. Cingolani. The narrator, hiding in some bushes, sees a funeral procession for the king of the lake. The ghosts walk over the water and then enter it through a sparkling gate. However, there is a twist at the end when they realise they have been watched...

How lovely the fires glow on the water! 
They flare and then turn green;
Fog moves in clusters along the shore,
The pond is turning into a sea—
Be still!
Is there something stirring out there?

In the middle a twitching—For heaven’s sake! Help!
They come back again, they are coming!
A bellowing in the reeds, a crunching in the rushes;
Make haste, take flight!
Away!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Landscapes of Detectorists

When I look back on this period of lockdown I think the 'highlight' will probably be the fortnight or so we spent as a family watching Detectorists on the BBC iPlayer. What my sons say they most appreciated was the gentle humour and escapism of it, but I suspect too there was something comforting in the idea that historical imagination and curiosity can transform a small stretch of landscape. Despite some sunny weather, this has been another weekend of staying indoors except for the short permitted exercise along familiar streets, and yet each time we walk them we see some new detail in the design of a house or the contents of a garden. Every day I pass a house with a blue plaque to the poet Louis MacNeice but I have long since taken as much interest in the houses surrounding it, wondering about the lives they have contained. The terminus of my regular walk is Canonbury Tower, an old Tudor building once owned by Thomas Cromwell which reminds you of the layers of history anywhere in London.

Last year Colin Sackett's Uniformbooks brought out a book on Detectorists in which four geographers analyse the series in terms of different ways of reading landscape, aspects of verticality, gender roles and the resonance of lost, everyday objects. It is a pleasure to read, although if you have just binge-watched the series you'll find it covering familiar ground. In some ways I was more interested in what writer Mackenzie Crook and producer Adam Tandy had to say about the making of the programmes and the ways in which they made metal detecting more televisual. I didn't realise, for example, that it is best done in autumn or winter on muddy, unattractive ploughed fields - very different from the sunny Constable-like landscapes we see in the series. Crook took up the hobby when he started writing the script and actually managed to find a piece of gold Roman jewellery, which is now in the British Museum. And it was wonderful to learn that one of the more poetic moments in Detectorists had happened to him in real life. One day, while he was out detecting on a farm in Suffolk, he 'dug down four inches to find an exquisite bronze hawking whistle.'

'I took a few minutes to unclog the mud with a piece of straw, then held it up to my lips and blew. The note that issued from the whistle was a ghost, a sound unheard for centuries, and the last person to hear that sound, that exact sound, was the person who dropped it just yards from where I was standing. And it wasn't a faint, feeble ghost either: it was an urgent, piercing shrill that echoed across the field and back through time.'

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:

hazel
hawthorn
blackthorn
dogrose
euonymus
viburnum
rowanberry
privet

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

hazelnut
rowan
cornelian cherry
medlar

and older varieties of

apple
pear
plum

- 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,

columbine
naked lady
alchemilla
scabious
pincushion flower
agrimony
angelica
avens
meadow salvia
primrose
valerian
mugwort
leonorus
yellow iris
comfrey
carnations
hops
byrony
rhinanthus and
belladonna

had a chance to spread. These were joined spontaneously by

spiraea
saxifrage
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.