Friday, December 02, 2022

Autumn is the End

Today I found myself lying in bed with a cold, listening to an old album by Steven R. Smith, Autumn is the End (1998). The record label describes this as 'an instrumental soundtrack for more introspective moments, when time seems to wind itself down, and one gains opportunity for perspective on the landscape.' Smith was one of the Californian Jewelled Antler collective of musician/artists who often recorded outdoors and drew inspiration from nature. Last year Aquarium Drunkard had a feature by Brent Sirota on Jewelled Antler, which was originally a CD-R label founded by Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson. It begins a list of recommended listens with Thuja's The Deer Lay Down Their Bones (1999):

'Virtually all roads in Jewelled Antler run through Thuja. Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson originally founded the label with an eye toward releasing material by the quartet they had just formed with Steven R. Smith and Rob Reger. And virtually every project in the broader scene shared at least one member with this core ensemble. Named for the great red cedars of the Pacific northwest, Thuja inaugurated much of the mythos of the Jewelled Antler. Appropriately, they borrowed the name of their astonishing debut from California writer Robinson Jeffers’ poem about encountering the decaying remains of a deer in a mountain clearing.'

This poem, 'The Deer Lay Down Their Bones', begins as follows: 

'I followed the narrow cliffside trail half way up the mountain
Above the deep river-canyon. There was a little cataract crossed the path, flinging itself
Over tree roots and rocks, shaking the jeweled fern-fronds, bright bubbling water
Pure from the mountain, but a bad smell came up...'

I'll include one more passage from that Aquarium Drunkard article (the log-with-lichen quote below actually comes from Jim Haynes' 2022 Wire magazine article on the Jewelled Antler Collective):

'Sound artist and teacher Loren Chasse once mused about “releasing a piece of log with lichen on it” as an album. It was a joke, but a telling one. Chasse’s work, especially under his Of (and later, Ov) moniker, revolves around playing the found world as an instrument. He once described his art as a search for “acoustical situations,” often around the frontiers where the built environment dramatically gives way to the natural one. Sometimes this amounts to an aural observation, like his “Green Laughter” on The Jewelled Antler Library, which documents the choir of frogs, birds and crickets and cicadas on a summer pond. But, more often, Chasse enlists his natural surroundings as an accompanist, playing alongside and through the tumbling brooks and the wind in the switchgrass.' 

Loren Chasse was maintaining his own website ten years ago which is worth a look if you're interested (few seem to bother with blogger any more!) As I'm not feeling up to writing anything here myself, I'll conclude this post with relevant quotes from three Pitchfork reviews:

  • On The Blithe Sons' We Walk the Young Earth (2003): 'Recorded last summer in a World War II-era bunker in the Marin Headlands and under a creek bridge in San Gregario, We Walked the Young Earth picks up where 2001's achingly ephemeral Waves of Grass left off. Here, however, the duo forges the din of acoustic guitar, harp, bells, harmonium, toy amplifiers, gongs (submerged in a creek), battery-powered keyboards, vocals, banjo, birds, pipes, bell-blocks, drums, and branches into even quieter spaces of beauty.'
  • On The Skygreen Leopards' One Thousand Bird Ceremony (2004 - the name and title come from the writings of Kenneth Patchen): 'Like much of Glenn Donaldson's other work, One Thousand Bird Ceremony starts off with ambient forestal noises, chirps, the acoustic peregrinations of other animals, and properly spare bells. While certainly making use of Jewelled Antler [tenets] such as recording without predetermined lyrics or chord changes, instead of droning psychedelia, The Skygreen Leopards create blissful pop songs interwoven with ambient hiss and naturally occurring sounds.'
  • On Thuja's Pine Cone Temples (2005): 'As with their previous works, Thuja have recorded these pieces in a variety of natural settings, using strategically placed contact mics to help integrate the tiniest audible details of their ambient surroundings into the group's gentle commotion. Theirs is a uniquely intuitive, egoless species of improvisation, as the musicians seem to be competing not for the listener's attention, but to see who can most thoroughly camouflage himself in the underbrush'.

And finally, fast forwarding to 2022, here's a video clip from Steven R. Smith's latest album, which offers a glimpse of spring...

Saturday, November 05, 2022

The Hills become blurred


It was good to be able to visit London's Small Publishers Fair again last month, where I have found various unusual landscape-related books in the past (five years ago, for example, it was some Scots translations of classical Chinese poems). If this event had been going in the 1920s it might have had a stall for The Vine Press of Steyning, run by the poet and former acolyte of Aleister Crowley, Victor Neuburg. Justin Hopper has recently put together an anthology, Obsolete Spells, providing samples from these books and a short biography of Neuburg (whose other claim to fame was 'discovering' Dylan Thomas). The phrase 'obsolete spells' occurs in one of Neuburg's own poems, 'Downwood' which you can read in full at the 100th Monkey site, 'a resource dedicated to providing an accurate and complete bibliography of the literary output of Aleister Crowley and selected other writers.' Justin sees this poem as 'a chilling precursor to folk horror', evoking the Downs' pagan past. Here is Neuburg's brief preface to it.

                  An Autumn Vesperal, the grey hues merging into Night and the distant sound of the Sea. 

                  The Hills become blurred, a light Rain falls, and before the final Darkness there is a Vision of light low-browed men scudding amongst the gorse. Mingles with the dream of forgotten Races, there is a motif of Reminiscence and a Fireside.

I wrote here previously about Chanctonbury Rings, a musical collaboration with Sharron Kraus based on Justin's last book Old Weird Albion. They have teamed up again for Swift Wings, an album which was reviewed on Caught by the River by Gareth Thompson: 

Within a folk-gothic setting of rippling flutes and sci-fi synths, Neuburg’s words turn a startling corner. Kraus gives each lyric a spooky undercurrent, where dark and buried passions come to life as pagan sonnets. Sunny ballads and mysterious odes are offset by ghostly giggles. Hopper narrates the words in his best fruity tones, Kraus murmurs in tandem, as we drift into a realm of laudanum-laced harmonics.

Sharron says she had initial misgivings about Neuburg's ornate poetry, which is not that easy to like, and is perhaps best experienced via her musical settings. Interestingly, the first Vine Press book, Lillygay, a selection of verse taken in part from old ballad books, was read by the composer Peter Warlock who set some of its lyrics to music. 

Neuburg published landscape poetry by a few other writers through The Vine Press. The one I am familiar with from anthologies of Sussex writing is G. D. Martineau - his second volume The Way of the South Wind was put out by Neuburg in 1925. Martineau went on to become much better known as a cricket writer and his second Vine Press anthology includes some cricketing verse. Justin includes a small selection of Martineau's poems, including one describing the simple pleasure of lying alone at night on Fairlight Hill and another which describes 'black and harsh' Newhaven - 'here you stretch like a loathly sore, / clamorous over the ruined shore.'  

The Latin text on the page below from the volume Swift Wings suggests that the work of the muses is equal in glory. For me, the woodcuts used in the books seem at least as interesting as the poems. They were the work of three Steyning brothers, the Wests, whose printing works is still going strong. 'In their simplicity,' Justin writes, these rough illustrations 'gain an eeriness that's difficult to either pinpoint or dispel. The distance of a century helps: today, early books from The Vine Press give off a sensual leer and a slight air of threat that belies their jolly, bawdy origins, yet - I think - brings the reader to exactly the spot that Neuburg intended.' 

source: 100th Monkey

Friday, September 23, 2022

My Road

M. K. Čiurlionis, My Road I-III, 1907

Dulwich Picture Gallery has frequently provided material for this blog - see my earlier posts on Adam Elsheimer (2006), Paul Nash (2010), Salvator Rosa (2010), Tom Thomson (2011), James McNeill Whistler (2013), Emily Carr (2015), Eric Ravilious (2015), Adriaen van der Velde (2016), Tove Jansson (2018), Edward Bawden (2018) and Harald Sohlberg (2019). Yesterday we went to see their new show devoted to M. K. Čiurlionis, the Lithuanian artist-composer whose work I described here ten years ago. I was looking forward to seeing Fuga (1908), the striking semi-abstract painting of trees resembling a kind of graphic score, but it isn't included. However, the other works I mentioned are on show, including Creation of the World, which takes up a whole wall.

Čiurlionis produced all his art in six years and his earliest work includes symbolist landscapes like Serenity (1904/5), a mountain that resembles a giant figure emerging from the sea. Influences include Arnold Böcklin, Whistler and Japanese prints (including Hokusai's wave), Lithuanian folklore, theosophy, the Indian Vedas, Ruskin and the Young Poland movement. Although his mountains, cities and forests have a dream-like quality, the exhibition does include one relatively conventional specific landscape - the triptych Raigardas (1907). Kathleen Soriano describes this in the catalogue: 'the higher foreground is painted at the bottom left and right of the far panels so that the viewer falls into the valley laid out between them, the silvery line of the Kulbinyčia river streaking across it. The actual valley is very close to Druskininkai and was a favourite walking location for Čiurlionis.' (Google doesn't recognise "Kulbinyčia", but Druskininkai is a spa town in the south of Lithuania where Jacques Lipchitz also grew up - he remembered as a boy seeing Čiurlionis "passing like a shadow always in deep thoughts").

M. K. Čiurlionis, Sorrow I-II, 1906/7

The photographs I've included here show examples of the 'landscapes' Čiurlionis painted in which natural elements are recognisable but take on strange forms. My Road begins with a path leading towards a towering mountain but the middle panel is more abstract, its striations like 'inverted musical notation' and stars 'somehow still connected to the earth by long stalks reaching up towards them, potentially noting specific achievements in life'; in the third panel the road has reached a kind of castle. Sorrow I-II shows the sun going down on scenes partly obscured by mysterious dark forms. In the first painting they stretch around a bay like some kind of coastal defence and in the second a solitary grey shape occludes the view of a ruined city and distant line of birds. These have been interpreted as black flags, a reference to the flags carried by political protestors, with the birds perhaps symbolising fallen souls. Čiurlionis sadly never lived to see Lithuanian independence, dying in 1911 when his country was still controlled by the Russian Empire.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Taming the Garden

MUBI was a godsend during Covid lockdowns and is still proving good value for money as far as we're concerned. This week I watched Taming the Garden by Salomé Jashi, a documentary with extraordinary images of moving trees. 'Georgia’s former prime minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] has found a unique hobby. He collects century-old trees, some as tall as 15-floor buildings, from communities along the Georgian coast. At a great expense and inconvenience, these ancient giants are uprooted from their lands to be transplanted in his private garden.' Peter Bradshaw's review in The Guardian mentions some of the obvious references that spring to mind as you watch it (Macbeth, Fitzcarraldo) and describes Jashi's unobtrusively filmed footage of people involved in moving the trees:

Local workers squabble among themselves at the dangerous, strenuous, but nonetheless lucrative job of digging them up. The landowners and communities brood on the sizeable sums of money they are getting paid and Ivanishvili’s promises that roads will also be built. But at the moment of truth, they are desolate when the Faustian bargain must be settled and the huge, ugly haulage trucks come to take their trees away in giant “pots” of earth, as if part of their natural soul is being confiscated.

I am reminded of a previous blog post I wrote on the creation of Song Emperor Hui-tsung's garden, where plants and rocks were shipped in from all over China, and its later fictionalisation in Ming dynasty novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, which tells the story of a licentious and corrupt character called Hsi-men Ch’ing. 

Resentment has built up during its construction, as the process of shipping 'so many huge rocks and plants had cluttered up the canals and transport system. There had also been endless corruption and compulsion during the entire high-speed plan'. Unsurprisingly Hsi-men Ch’ing got involved in this. At one point in the novel he discusses with an official the way the 'flower and rock convoys' had impoverished ordinary people, before inviting him to partake of a typically lavish lunch. 

Salomé Jashi's slow, beautifully-shot documentary has no Herzogian narrator or any explanation of what is happening - the actual scale of the exercise, its costs, its purpose, its outcomes. Another Guardian piece by Claire Armistead makes the point that 'Taming the Garden is far from a balanced two-minute news report; it stands at the junction of documentary and myth, not even mentioning that Ivanishvili’s garden is now open to the public.' A New York Times article by 'but signs declaring this property private are everywhere. CCTV cameras are installed throughout, and motion detectors stand in front of every tree. Look, but don’t dare touch. And that message goes for the lawn, too. Guards with loudspeakers are quick to scold the noncompliant.' He describes Ivanishvili's political background and links to Russia, where he acquired his vast wealth from metals and banking. He also includes reflections from an academic researching the interconnectedness of trees and their supporting fungal networks, who says she felt physical pain when she heard about the project.

The trailer for Taming the Garden embedded above includes some of Jashi's poetic compositions, including lovely details like drifting steam and water running over metal. As Claire Armistead writes, 'although many trees were involved in the filming, their stories are represented by one symbolic journey.' She goes on to pick out a few details:

Villagers gather with their bicycles to see the tree on its way. A man lights his first cigarette in 30 years. An elderly woman weeps and convulsively crosses herself, while her younger relatives excitedly record the removal on their phones. As the tree is sailed along the coast – in a repeat of the image that inspired the film – two bulldozers await it on a stone mole, their excavator arms lowered like bowed heads at a funeral. And in a rich man’s manicured garden, round the half-buried roots of ancient trees held upright by guy ropes, the sprinklers come on.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Path of Perspectives

Last month Dezeen reported on a new landscape intervention by Snøhetta, a 'disappearing walkway' of 55 stepping stones on the Traelvikosen Scenic Route in Helgeland.

'Traelvikosen Scenic Route was commissioned by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. It forms part of the Norwegian tourist routes, which is a series of experiences for road travellers. "Along carefully selected roads in Norway, natural wonders are amplified by art, design, and architecture, with emphasis on the unique landscape and qualities of the different locations," Kvamme Hartmann explained. ... "At Trælvikosen, we wanted to intentionally design the site to ensure visitors were enticed to stay longer than normal," she continued. "To truly experience the details, the time and nature itself, and hence also understand it better, as it offers an opportunity to observe the ever-changing rhythms of our nature."'

It's an interesting thought, that an already beautiful landscape needs some additional help from art to get people to stop and experience 'nature itself'. 



Last week I experienced a similar Snøhetta intervention on Nordkette, the mountain overlooking Innsbruck. This viewing platform was also reported on by Dezeen - see their article from 2019. I was expecting this to be something like the suspension walkway on Mt. Titlis in Switzerland, where in addition to getting views across the Alps, tourists are given the thrill of looking down from a vertiginous height over empty space. However the Snøhetta platform is built on a relatively gentle green slope so all you see below you is grass. Whether the corten steel design makes a photograph here especially Instagrammable I'm not sure - there were spectacular backdrops already all around this mountaintop. The metal walkway curves onto a trail circling the mountain, the Path of Perspectives, although everyone I saw on it had clambered down a more direct desire path from the cable car station. There are other Snøhetta structures dotted round this trail - benches and viewing platforms - and they have quotes on them in German and English. I see now from the Dezeen article these quotes are by Wittgenstein (this wasn't evident to me, but it was distractingly hot up there, so I probably missed the explanation!) According to Snøhetta, "the words invite visitors to take a moment and reflect, both inwardly and out over the landscape, giving a dual meaning to the path of perspectives."

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The vault of light as the sun goes down

Philip Terry is an academic at Exeter specialising in the Oulipo and experimental writing - he recently edited The Penguin Book of Oulipo and described the experience in an article for The Irish Times. Carcanet have recently published his new book The Lascaux Notebooks, which they describe as 'the oldest poetry yet discovered, as written down or runed in the Ice Age in Lascaux and other caves in the Dordogne, and now translated – tentatively – into English for the first time.' 

In his introduction, Terry claims to have come across the name of a local poet, Jean-Luc Champerret, while on holiday in the Charente. He was given a box of the poet's papers, which took some opening but were found to contain a set of notebooks. In these he found what appeared to be modernist poetry derived from 'diagrams reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy.' Champerret, Terry learned, had been sent into the Lascaux caves soon after their discovery in 1940 by his Resistance cell, in the hope that they might prove a good hideout. Getting there before the archaeologists, he noticed that some of the marks on the walls resembled a kind of code. Speculating that they were a form of Ice Age poetry, he noted them down and then over time managed to produce translations them by imagining the signs' likely meaning. Initial versions were simple grids of words but, like a translator from ancient Chinese, he added some connectors and imaginative interpretation to render them as French poems.



If Ice Age people had poetry, there would probably have been frequent mention of their landscape in it. The extract above from the list of Lascaux signs used in these poems includes markings interpreted as meaning forest tracks, rivers, mountains and caves. They are of course reminiscent of Chinese ideograms, which were so important for Ezra Pound and which I've discussed here before as natural signs - see 'Climbing Omei Mountain' and 'Water falling, drop by drop'. They also reminded me of the poetry many of us find in studying the legends of Ordnance Survey maps! 

I'll give one example here of a Lascaux poem, but Terry's books is pretty long - 400 pages - so I can't really do his whole project justice. The 3 x 3 grid poem I've reproduced at the start of this post is rendered as follows:

                                light              sun             night

                                birdsong       birdsong     waterfall

                                track             river           mountains 

This is turned initially into simple sentences with the addition of a few words, e.g. line two: 'the song / of the birds / by the waterfall.' The text then undergoes two more transformations (which it is tempting to describe as Oulipian). First a version is made with slightly extended vocabulary - 'the bright song / of the birds / by the waterfall'. Finally, inspired by this, a more recognisable poem is presented: 'The vault of light / as the sun goes down / before nightfall // suffused by the song / of the birds / by the waterfall's torrent // the twisting track / following the river / winds into the distance.' 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sea and Sand Dunes

Here's what you see when you enter the Royal Academy's new exhibition, a view of a bay with oddly sketchy waves, scattered black buildings and stick trees like Chinese characters. In Jonathan Jones' Guardian review he says

'Avery is sometimes hyped as an American Matisse but he is much stranger, and better, than that. Far from simply emulating Matisse, he translates the pleasures of beach life and summer days the French fauve painted into the brooding land and seascapes of America with wild results. Little Fox River, from 1942, seems joyous and summery at first sight, with its butter-yellow landscape surrounded by blue waves, but then you notice how big and inhuman the waves are, how tiny the swell of the sea makes the frail houses and church look.'

 Milton Avery, Little Fox River, 1942

The first room of the exhibition begins with some of Avery's early, unremarkable Impressionist-style landscapes and a range of later ones which can seem wilfully ugly in their choice of thin paint, dull colours and awkwardly drawn animals and buildings. But he could also hit on a combination of forms that seems wonderfully original and appealing, like Blue Trees (below - available to buy as a jigsaw in the RA shop!) My favourite works in the exhibition weren't the landscapes or his snapshots of city life, but domestic scenes which he painted in increasingly simplified forms, like Reclining Blonde (1959). Here's Laura Cumming describing his technique in another five-star review:

'Avery thinned his oil paint to the diaphanous consistency of watercolour so that it lay on the surface in floating patches and veils. Sometimes he scribbled upon it – the outline of a pencil or a pipe, a fleet of horizontal nicks that somehow manifest as leaves on a rust-coloured autumn tree. Sometimes the brushstrokes of one colour merge into those of another to produce a soft frisson, as in the snow-white nude against a black background, where the overlap glimmers.'

Milton Avery, Blue Trees, 1945

I first came across Avery years ago when I was reading a lot about his friend Mark Rothko, but I've never seen an exhibition devoted to his work - unsurprising as there hasn't been one in Europe. This one was a real pleasure and, despite the glowing reviews, not too busy with other visitors. It ends with paintings from 1957 inspired by Cape Cod, where, as the curators explain, 'Avery spent four consecutive summers, often in the company of Rothko and Gottlieb. These later works, with their larger scale and more abstracted forms, reveal the influence of the younger painters. Intensifying what he had striven towards over the previous five decades, Avery omitted detail, distorted forms and used non-associative colours.' These non-associative colours are evident in the painting I photographed below, Sea and Sand Dunes, a truly weird landscape in shades of red, white and mauve. A painting like this actually looks more contemporary than the abstract expressionists, reminding me of Alex Katz or Peter Doig. Jonathan Jones concludes that after visiting this exhibition 'you’ll never be able to see a Rothko again without picturing a seashore at dusk where the red blazing sky is layered above the wine dark sea, in an apocalyptic revelation.'

Milton Avery, Sea and Sand Dunes, 1955

Friday, June 17, 2022

Chessboard fields


I remembered how from the air the valleys, hills and rivers gained a certain distinction but wholly lost that quality which is perceived by a countryman whose day's travel is bounded by the earth of three of four meadows, and whose view for most of his life may be constricted by some local rising of the ground. In the air there is no feeling or smell of earth, and I have often observed that the backyards of houses or the smoke curling up through cottage chimneys, although at times they seem to have a certain pathos, do as a rule, when one is several thousand feet above them, appear both defenceless and ridiculous, as though infinite trouble had been taken to secure a result that has little or no significance.

This is a paragraph from Rex Warner's novel about the arrival of an aerodrome in the middle of the English countryside. It was published in 1941 and I am sure there must be many other stories from this period with Nietzschean pilots who look down on historic landscapes that can no longer contain them. In John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance (1932) the industrialist Philip Crow purchases his own aircraft to fly to Wookey Hole, the extraordinary cave system that he wants to fill with modern electric lights and then transform with a tin mining operation.

As he watched down upon the earth, that clear March evening, and watched the chess-board fields pass in procession beneath him, and watched the trees fall into strange patterns and watched the villages, some red, some brown, some grey, according as brick or stone or slate predominated, approach or recede, as the plane sank or rose, Philip's spirit felt as if it had wings of its own ... How small and unimportant Wells cathedral had looked from up there. ... His brain whirled with the vision of an earth-life dominated absolutely by Science, of a human race that had shaken off its fearful childhood and looked at things with a clear, unfilmed, unperverted eye.

But at the end of the novel a flood inundates Glastonbury. Mayor Geard, who has tried to create a new spiritual centre drawing on the town's legendary past, feels his earthly work is done and heads off in a small boat. He comes upon his antagonist Philip Crow, who is keeping his head above water by standing on his submerged plane. Geard surprises Crow by asking to swap places. Crow needs little persuading and Geard leaves the boat to rest on the plane as it gradually sinks. At one point he kicks it to help it on its way. Eventually the wing beneath him disappears and Geard, with one final glimpse of Glastonbury Tor, follows it down.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

I leave my door open when spring days get longer

I've discussed Red Pine's translations from Chinese poetry before (see 'No Trace of Cold Mountain' and 'A terrace of incense lit by the dawn'). His enthusiasm for tracking down and exploring the landscapes experienced by the ancient poets is particularly relevant to this blog. In 1991 Red Pine visited the mountain on which the Zen monk and poet Stonehouse (Shihwu, 1272-1352) had lived. Five years earlier he had self-published a set of translations, having discovered this relatively obscure poet whilst working on Han Shan. Now he and a couple of friends were heading up Hsiamushan in a battered Skoda, having stopped on the way at a temple Stonehouse knew that had been almost completely destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Near the summit of the mountain they encountered soldiers at a radar station. The commander kindly cut a path through the bamboo and they reached a farm that had once been a temple. This was where Stonehouse had made his home in a simple hut - the spring he mentions in his poems was still there, along with slopes of tea and bamboo, although the pines had disappeared. Twenty years later Red Pine returned and found better roads, a water bottling plant in place of the military blockhouses, and the farmhouse replaced by a new temple. Stonehouse's stupa must be somewhere in the mountain cemetery, where the inscriptions are no longer legible. His memorial stone has now merged into the hillside.

To give a sense of this place through poetry, I've chosen ten elements of the landscape. First I'll quote couplets from Stonehouse's poems, then in italics some information from Red Pine's explanatory notes. 



'a trail through green mist red clouds and bamboo / to a hut that stays cold and dark all day'

Bamboo grows so thick on Hsiamushan, trails don't last long. When I first visited the mountain in 1991, the army officer who led me to the area where Stonehouse first lived needed a machete to reach it.

Drifting clouds

'As soon as a drifting cloud starts to linger / the wind blows it past the vines.'

Clouds are often used as metaphors for thoughts, while vines represent convoluted logic. Drifting clouds can also refer to monks.

Flat-topped rock

'sometimes I sit on a flat-topped rock / late cloudless nights once a month'

The flat-topped rock is still there, just up the slope from the water-bottling plant. Local farmers call it "chess-playing rock".

Gibbon howls

'gibbons howl at night when the moon goes down / few visitors get past the moss by the cliffs'

Gibbons and their eerie howls were once common throughout the Yangtze watershed but are now found in the wild only in a few nature reserves in the extreme south.


'a winding muddy trail / a hedge of purple hibiscus'

The hibiscus is found throughout the southern half of China, where it is often grown to form a hedge.

Orange tree

'down by the stream I rake leaves for my stove / after a frost I wrap a mat around my orange tree.'

The Yangtze watershed is the earliest known home of not only the orange but also such citrus fruits as the tangerine, the kumquat, and the pomelo. Apparently Stonehouse's orange tree (or "trees," as Chinese is ambiguous when it comes to number) didn't make it. He never mentions it again.


'I leave my door open when spring days get longer / when paulownias bloom and thrushes call'

The paulownia is one of China's most fragrant trees. It blooms in late March and early April and is the only tree on which the phoenix will alight - should a phoenix be flying by.


Pine pollen

'when Solomon's seal is gone there is still pine pollen / and one square inch free of care.'

The root of Solomon's seal, or Polygonatum cirrhiflium, contains a significant amount of starch. It is usually dug up in early spring. Pine pollen is slightly sweet and also has nutritional value. It is gathered in late spring by placing a sheet under a pine tree and knocking the branches with a bamboo pole. The "square inch" refers to the mind.



'mist soaks through my thatch roof / moss covers up the steps on the trail'

A thatched covering of grass or rushes is still the most common roofing in the mountains. However, hermits who can afford them use fired clay tiles. 

Tiger tracks

'dried snail shells on rock walls / fresh tiger tracks in the mud' 

Until recently, hermits in China often reported encounters with the South China tiger, which is much smaller than its Siberian and Bengali cousins but still dangerous.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Sea View Has Me Again

The 'Sea View' of Patrick Wright's recent book was actually the name of one of the two pubs Uwe Johnson frequented during his final decade, living in Sheerness and almost failing to complete the fourth volume of his novel Jahrestage (Anniversaries). Johnson did have a sea view from his house on Marine Parade, although it was almost blocked by a defensive flood wall that was still under construction at the time of his death in 1984. Wright notes that 'views over water mattered greatly to Johnson', and windows feature in his novel as a device for framing the vistas of New York visible to his protagonist Gesine, providing a surface on which she pictures scenes from her youth. Looking out towards the icy New Jersey shore she is reminded of a winter morning on Lake Constance, but the moment this happens both memory and present view begin to 'corrode'. Instead of regaining a complete image of an earlier landscape, she can only experience scraps and shards of it. The streets of New York can suddenly be transformed, smog covered houses recalling 'a soft rolling landscape, forest meadows', but the memory remains partial, like somewhere seen from a boat and then obscured from view, although 'reachable not far past the shoreline cliff.'

In his chapter 'Beach, Sea and 'the View of Memory'' Wright discusses the importance of lakes and rivers for Uwe Johnson. Indeed 'Anniversaries itself comes to resemble the geography of Mecklenburg', where Johnson and Gesine grew up: 'sea-edged and filled with marshes, inland canals and lakes as well as rivers and the occasional swimming pool.' When I read Anniversaries I found this unfamiliar and complicated geography further confused by Johnsons' references to both real and imaginary places. I am no more familiar with Sheerness, never having been there, although any reader of Wright's book will learn a lot about its history. At several points it touches on resemblances between Sheerness and Mecklenburg, which could offer some explanation for Johnson's puzzling decision to move to this unloved corner of Kent. 

Wright concludes his exploration of Sheerness with the story of a Second World War ship full of explosives that has never been removed - Johnson wrote an essay about it entitled 'An Unfathomable Ship'. This essay suggests that Johnson saw the sea as 'a non-human force that is nevertheless the witness and even bearer of the murderous history that keeps troubling the surface of Gesine Cresspahl's consciousness.' It features in Johnson's books not as a unified force, resembling simplified political narratives of the historical tides that swept over Germany, but as discrete waves, 'singular and yet interconnected', like the 365 days that make up the chapters of Anniversaries. The first paragraph in the first volume of Johnson's novel describes the action of waves on the beach at New Jersey, and this sea view reminds Gesine of her childhood by the Baltic.

'Long waves beat diagonally against the beach, bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over at their greenest. Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap round activity of air crushed by the sheer mass like a secret made and then broken.'     
(translation by Damion Searls. For more information on The Sea View Has Me Again see Patrick Wright's website).

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Grass pillow

Natsume Sōseki's Kusamakura ('Grass Pillow'), published in 1906, was an attempt at a haiku-style novel, a reaction against the enthusiasm for European-style naturalism that had recently entered Japanese literature, and it works so beautifully (at least, to my mind, in English translation) that it is disappointing he didn't try anything like it again. Maybe one luminous book is enough. Its narrator is an artist escaping fast-modernising urban Japan for a solo-walking tour in the mountains, where he stays at a hot-spring resort and encounters a beautiful and enigmatic young woman, Nami (which means 'beauty'). His project is to see the world in aesthetic terms and experience everything he encounters as if it is a poem. Like Sōseki, he is at home in Chinese, Japanese and Western literature and over the course of the novel he quotes Basho, Wang Wei and Shelley. I should probably refer here to the parts of the novel where he theorises natural beauty and discusses landscape art (at one point he describes British painters' inability to paint light - 'nothing bright could be produced in that dismal air of theirs'.) Instead I will include one of his paragraphs of word painting. This is from near the end of the book, where the narrator lies down on the grass among wild japonica bushes, sensing as he does so 'that I am inadvertently crushing beneath me an invisible shimmer of heat haze.'

'Down beyond my feet shines the sea. The utterly cloudless spring sky casts its sunlight over the entire surface, imparting a warmth that suggests the sunlight has penetrated deep within its waves. A swath of delicate Prussian blue spreads lengthwise across it, and here and there an intricate play of colours swims over a layering of fine white-gold scales. Between the vastness of the spring sunlight that shines upon the world, and the vastness of the water that brims beneath it, the only visible thing is a single white sail no bigger than a little fingernail. The sail is absolutely motionless. Those ships that plied these waters in days gone by, bearing tributes from afar, must have looked like this. Apart from the sail, heaven and earth consist entirely of the world of shining sunlight and the world of sunlit sea.'

Sunday, April 10, 2022


I realise I've been a bit remiss in posting recently, partly due to pressure of work (my day job is on climate change) and partly due to a lot of other non-landscape interests that have got in the way. But I said recently I'll keep these brief from now on and will just highlight a few interesting things I come across, such as this recently published limited edition book by Angus Carlyle, Mirrors. The book grew out of a series of tweets used to register runs that took Angus past a particular dewpond (see my earlier post on these runs, which gave rise to an earlier book, A Downland Index). You can see more images of the book at the publishers' website (as it's sunny outside this afternoon, I couldn't resist dappling mine with leaf shadows). I particularly like the shapes of the runs (see below), recorded using a sports watch and reproduced in the text along with the position of the dewpond and a brief text, limited in length by Twitter's character limit. 


Angus mentions some earlier admirers of Downland dewponds (or dew ponds), such as Hamish Fulton, whose 'Dew Pond on the South Downs Way' has concentric rings created by some disturbance in its water. For years now I have had a postcard on display of Jem Southam's photograph Ditchling Beacon (1999), picked up at an exhibition at the Towner Gallery - it shows Angus's dew pond with a white surface reproducing a blank sky. Angus quotes Jem Southam on the distinctive character of dewponds: 'full, they are like a mirrored disk or an eye reflecting heavens. Empty, they resemble craters made by celestial objects crashing into the ground.' New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art uses this quote on its page about Southam's photograph and also points out that these ponds were often artificial features, constructed following the enclosure of common land.

I will conclude here by quoting one example of a walk text from Mirrors that captures well the soundscape of the South Downs:

Across the valley calm, the rapid, ringing, drilling of a woodpecker; up on the ridge, the year's first ascending lark heard through strengthening wind; wading ankle-deep grey farmyard sludge, buzzard's mews, echoing shotgun blasts, wood pigeon flaps, whoops from mountain bikers.

Monday, January 03, 2022

Double Red Mountain

Isamu Noguchi, Double Red Mountain, 1968


I instinctively liked this sculpted landscape in the Barbican's Isamu Noguchi exhibition because of its beautiful colour and the texture of the marble. I tried to imagine owning such an object, but as usual found it impossible to conceive of an artwork surviving long in our messy house before being submerged under junk mail, coffee mugs and discarded clothes. Noguchi is certainly easy to criticise and Jonathan Jones was scathing in his review: 'what struck me most is how nice these objects would look in a smart luxury house or apartment. Noguchi makes you see the history of modern art in a new, and disappointing, way.' Double Red Mountain is normally safely housed in The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York. By the time Noguchi made it he was a globe-spanning art star and this sculpture combines Persian travertine, Japanese pine, and Noguchi's memories of the mesas of Arizona.

Isamu Noguchi, Contoured Playground, 1941 (cast 1963)


This wall-mounted bronze sculpture depicts one of his ideas for an actual landscape design - a playground in Central Park. It was never built, partly because the country was soon at war. Noguchi's residence in New York meant he was exempt from forced imprisonment but he voluntarily chose to enter one of the internment camps in Arizona. Here, at Poston War Relocation Center, he tried to develop an arts and recreation programme to improve the lives of the Japanese-American prisoners. His plan for the site, featuring a Japanese garden and a tree-line irrigation stream, is on display in the exhibition (see below). However, there was no real desire from the authorities to make conditions pleasant or build anything too permanent and so his ideas were frustrated. The temperature extremes and dust storms were hard to endure ("O! for the sea!" he wrote to Man Ray) and he decided to leave. He had to wait three months for his request to be granted and he returned to New York in 1943.