Friday, November 21, 2014

A stand of trembling reeds

In The Small Heart of Things (2013) Julian Hoffman writes about the Prespa Lakes, where the borders of Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia come together in the middle of a stretch of water.  History and politics divide this landscape but artificial frontiers 'make no allowance for the mobile lives of people and animals, for shifting water currents, for the ways of wind and wing.'  In one of the interconnected essays that make up the book he writes of finding bear tracks on the damp sand at the edge of the lake.  'Walking in the bears' steps tightened the weave of the Prespa basin, threaded the lakes and three countries together, transforming the term transboundary into something more than just a human designation.'  He follows them in his imagination through the marsh grass and down from the high mountains, past migrating butterflies and apple trees seeded by storms, over a land bridge once used by refugees and through a quiet wood of oaks and junipers where white ribbons on the trees mark the paths of migrant labourers making their way at night across the border. Finally, 'passing the wide-open eye of a long blind bunker, the bears move off into darkness.'

Two of the essays in the book can be read in the journal Terrain - one centred on the work of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, another on time spent recording the movement of birds for an environmental assessment on the region's karst plateau.  These online versions are illustrated with photographs but the book relies solely on its vivid descriptions of landscape and nature.  Reading it I sometimes felt as if I had entered a Poussin painting... enigmatic ruins, trees stirring in the wind, light penetrating storm clouds, a shepherd playing a flute, a snake choking a heron.  The book is full of chance encounters with animals and birds - dolphins cresting the surface of the sea, kestrels sheering across the grasslands, snipe exploding out of a marsh, a fire salamander, a caterpillar, an old collection of micro-moths, 'delicate as filaments, ephemeral as dust.'  Such moments, he suggests, arise from a receptivity to experience: 'everything beckons us to perceive it'. This line, from one of Rilke's poems, is 'an invitation to openness, encouraging us to let in the wild and unpredictable, the ordinary and overlooked, the fleeting and unexplained.'  It is possible to find more mystery in 'a few moments spent in a stand of trembling reeds than a lifetime passed in an unperceived world.' 


Last year Julian delivered a presentation on the Hoo Peninsula at the Shorelines Festival that I didn't get to see but have heard a lot about (Diana Hale called it 'mesmerising' on her blog).  It sounds like he had a kind of Hendrix-at-Monterey impact - Gareth Evans described this entrance into the New Nature Writing scene as so electrifying that Robert Macfarlane, next on the bill, had an almost impossible job following it.  Gareth was talking at the LRB Bookshop this week, introducing Julian as part of a panel there to discuss 'Place Writing Now'.  They were joined by Ken Worpole's, whose New English Landscape I featured here last year, and Philip Marsden, whose recently published Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place I've not yet read.  It was a fascinating discussion ranging across language and representation, regeneration and displacement, ritual and memory.  Julian's short talk, prepared specifically for this event, felt perfectly pitched.  I'll be looking out for news of future gigs, although this current four-stop tour will soon be over and he'll be heading back home to the Prespa Lakes.  You can follow him there on his blog, Notes from Near and Far.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mountain with boat

We made our annual visit to the Small Publishers Fair this afternoon, where there were various new publications with a landscape theme: from Shearsman, the book version of Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn's The Road North; from Corbel Stone Press, Mark Peter Wright's Tasked to Hear; from Peter Foolen, herman de vries - an edition in two parts.  I was talking to Peter about his son's new boat tattoo and he was explaining that it is based on a design by sailor/artist Graham Rich.  Peter gave me the bookmark below, showing a similar boat scratched onto a broken end of wood.  Its jagged edge resembles a mountain landscape, like the ones Hamish Fulton ('HF') photographs or draws in outline to represent his walks.  Seen upside down, this vessel draws attention to the way the bottom of the sea is an inverted mountain range.  The course of a boat is like the path of a walk.



The paintings Graham Rich makes do not need to describe a place directly because they are made from fragments that have a synecdochal relationship to the rivers and estuaries through which he and his wife sail.  Indeed these pieces of wood can have a kind of "magical" resemblance to the wider landscape, as he explains in the YouTube clip below.  "Very often the material that we find will reflect the place where we found it ... We were in the mouth of the River Otter and we found a piece of wood and I held it up and it was the shape of the mouth of the River Otter."  These remnants of old boats, detached from their original use and immersed in the water for an unknown period, have soaked in something essential about the environment.  And their traces of paintwork, faded by the elements, can even guide the artist to a better understanding of the landscape.  "I've actually discovered the light on the upper reaches of the estuary," he says, "from having found the light on pieces of wood."

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Dancing in Water


I have been listening recently to music by Somei Satoh, particularly Sun - Moon (1994), three pieces for shakuhachi and koto.  His best known composition is probably 'Birds in Warped Time II' for piano and violin (see clip above), but I am intrigued by a more experimental piece, 'Echoes', created back in 1981 for the Mist, Sound and Light festival of Kawaji (it can be found on Volume 18 of the series Obscure Tape Music of Japan)Here is how Satoh describes it:
'The venue was located at the Kawaji hot spring’s Ojika river valley, which was 50 meters wide and 200 meters long with an area of 7,000 square meters.  Eight large loudspeakers were set up on hills surrounding the stream, with music played through an octuple channel-tape system.  The combined length of cables connected with the loudspeakers exceeded one kilometers.  The audience was amidst dense artificial mists spreading upward from the bottom of the valley, laser light beams projected on the hill surface, and tape music that played in extremely low tone at full blast, echoing in the valley.  'Echoes' consists of the sonic ingredients of the three types of percussion instruments used in 'Emerald tablet' as well as my own voice.'

Satoh also engaged with nature in another more recent work, River, composed for the Kronos Quartet to accompany a dance piece by Eiko and Koma.  It was staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the dancers emerging from shallow water bordered by two low banks.  The dance had previously been performed outdoors - in the Delaware River in 1995 and subsequently in various bodies of water.  A reviewer at that first performance wrote as much about the landscape as the dancers: 'Muted light shone through the water.  Across the river, the shoreline and trees glowed at times in a faint haze of light.'  That evening the performance ended in a sudden downpour: 'pocking the river, the rain made a river of the sky above.'  Reading this reminded me of a post I wrote here on Ben Greet's outdoor Shakespeare theatre, which toured America a century earlier - on one occasion the heavens opened during a performance of The Tempest.  I have embedded below two clips of Eiko and Koma: Dancing in Water: The Making of River, preparations for a performance in the landscape, and River: Proscenium Version, in which you can hear Satoh's score.


Friday, October 31, 2014

When the soft wind turns bitter


 
The Natureingang, 'nature opening', is found in many forms of Medieval poetry: the Latin verse of the clerici vagantes and Goliards, the songs of the Troubadours and Minnesingers, lyric poetry in French, English, Irish.  Spring would be the setting for songs of love and pastoral dialogues, whilst the end of summer and the onset of winter would signify loss and mourning.  Such poetry can therefore be grouped according to mood, like books of haiku arranged according to their season word (kigo).  The sleevenotes to one recording of songs by the early thirteenth century German poet Neidhart explain that he tended to classify them 'into “summer” and “winter” songs, according to which season he employed in the Natureingang (nature introduction) that opens nearly every song. Here he establishes an emotional backdrop for the lyrics: “Winter” symbolizes a melancholic atmosphere and is well suited to introducing topics that strongly refer to classical Minnesang, while descriptions of the approaching summertime are generally used for lighter subjects, often containing dance descriptions.'  You can hear one of these, 'Welcome the Sweet Summer Weather', in the clip embedded above.  The lines below begin another, sadder song:
Everything that all summer long was full of joy
turns to sadness with this winter-long, arduous time.
The birds have everywhere fallen silent with their singing.
Flowers and grass are utterly withered.
Look, how much cold frost covers the forest canopy.
The heath lies pale for good reason...
It occurred to me that it might be possible to string together nature openings to form a seasonal cycle, beginning now, in autumn, at a turning point in the year.  Here, for example, are lines are from some troubadour poems:

When the soft wind turns bitter
And the leaf falls from its branch                              
[Cercamon]

For I see the oaks reft of their leaves,
While nightingale, thrush, woodpecker and jay
Shiver with cold, and from the chill retreat               
[Peire d'Alvernhe]

When the ice and cold and snow retreat
And warmth creeps back into the land                      
[Guiraut de Bornelh]

Such sweetness spreads through these new days
[Guillem de Peitus] 

When tender grass and leaves appear
While buds along the branches throng                      
[Bernart de Ventadorn]

Now high and low, where leaves renew,
Come buds on bough and spalliard pleach               
[Arnaut Daniel]

In April when I see all through
Mead and garden new flowers blow                         
[Peire Bremon lo Tort]

When the days grow long and warm with May,
How sweet the birds' song sounds afar                      
[Jaufre Rudel]

(Translations from Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, ed. Robert Kehew)

The Natureingang was not only used in lyric and love poems.  As K. H. Jackson points out (in a book I quoted earlier this month), it also served to set the scene for longer poems like the Canterbury Tales and Vision of Piers Plowman.  I will end here therefore with Chaucer's opening lines; as we head towards winter, they offer a sweet reminder of spring... 
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages...

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Jewelled Garden

Before him there were trees of precious stones,
And he went straight to look at them.
The tree bears carnelian as its fruit,
Laden with clusters (of jewels), dazzling to behold,
It bears lapis lazuli as foliage,
Bearing fruit, a delight to look upon.

[25 lines are missing here, describing the garden in detail.]

... cedar
... agate
... of the sea ... lapis lazuli,
Like thorns and briars ... carnelian,
...
Rubies, hematite, ...
Like... emeralds (?)
... of the sea,
...
- The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet IX, trans. Maureen Gallery Kovacs

This is the earliest known literary depiction of a garden.  Time wore away the clay tablet on which it was written so that we no longer have a view of the whole, just these imagistic fragments, a few imperishable precious stones separated by ellipses.  The jewelled plants in the Epic of Gilgamesh remind me of the crystal flowers in J. G. Ballard's story 'The Garden of Time' which, while they last, are able to keep at bay the progress of time.  There is an analogy with the nature of a garden too, as Donald Dunham pointed out in his essay, 'Architecture without Nature': 'just as evidence of an untended garden's existence slips gracefully back into the earth, so too elemental nature has eroded the ancient tablet's legibility.'

The Gilgamesh tablets were found in the buried Library of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king who I described here in an earlier post, dining in the garden at Nineveh whilst a tree nearby hung not with jewels, but with 'the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites.'  When Nineveh was sacked and burned, the library's contents were fired and thus, ironically, made more durable.  Over the years, as Egypt's papyrus libraries crumbled away or went up in flames, the clay tablets preserving the Gilgamesh Epic lay unknown under a mound near Mosul.  Heat had transformed a story originally written on wet clay with with a blunt reed into a part of the landscape, awaiting rediscovery.

This process came to mind when I read last week about a 100-foot Gillian Clarke poem written in clay onto the landscape of North Wales.  The BBC reported that
'a giant mural of a poem on a rock face in Snowdonia for an outdoor theatrical production has been likened to graffiti after attempts to remove it failed.  Rain was supposed to wash the writing off the slab near Gladstone Rock but there are worries it has been baked on due to the warm September weather.  National Theatre Wales has apologised and said it will rectify the problem. ... A spokesperson explained that Clarke's poem had been written on "bare rock with a non harmful clay-based product designed to wash away in the rain".  The spokesperson added: "However, the unseasonably dry weather in September has meant that her powerful words have remained visible longer than expected. With autumn now upon us nature can take its course and continue to wash away the poem."'

 
The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI

I wonder whether any traces of this poem will remain after the autumn rains, or if all efforts will be made to eradicate its words completely.  The Gilgamesh fragment shown above comes after the garden episode and describes a great deluge when the gods caused humankind to be almost entirely washed away.  In the nineteenth century, at a time when Biblical history was under intense scrutiny, the 'powerful words' of this ancient text were capable of provoking extreme excitement.  According to the British Museum site, 'this Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum. On reading the text he ... jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.''

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sweeney's Bothy

Sweeney's Bothy

One of Alec Finlay recent projects, Sweeney's Bothy, was built last year on the Isle of Eigg as part of The Bothy Project.  'The bothy belongs within a new contemporary movement – identified by Finlay as ‘hutopian’ – in which artists create huts and viewing platforms in the Scottish wilderness, proposing them as ecological, technological, architectural, and social models.'  Some interesting artists and writers have already stayed there, as you can see from the Bothy blog: Kathleen Jamie, Hannah Devereux, Oran Wishart.
'The bothy is based on Finlay’s design, inspired by the 7th Century Gaelic King Sweeney (Shuibhne). Cursed, Sweeney fled into a wilderness, surviving for a decade among the trees and birds, living on sorrel, berries, sloes and acorns, and enduring ‘the pain of his bed there on the top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn in the glen, every twist that he would turn sending showers of hawy thorns into his flesh’ (Flann O’Brien, At Swim, Two Birds). Sweeney’s poetry from that period describes the austere beauty of the remote glen where he lived naked, communed with animals, and existed beyond convention. The myth of Sweeney conceals remnants of shamanic animism within pre-Christian culture. Like Han Shan, Basho, and Thoreau, Sweeney is a visionary hermit rejecting ‘feather beds and painted rooms,’ engaging with nature, the irrational, overturning accepted knowledge.'

View from Sweeney's Bothy with thorn bowl

Residents at Sweeney's Bothy can enjoy 'sorrel, berries, sloes and acorn' from bowls with a scratched thorn decoration, made by my wife.  The original poem Buile Shuibhne gives a vivid sense of the way Sweeney was able to live off the land.  I have written here before about the wonderful English version by Seamus Heaney, which was inspired by Kenneth Jackson's earlier translations.  Jackson's first book, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (1935), has recently been reprinted and it contains this marvellous description of natural foods in Irish poetry (the numbers refer to poems translated in the first part of the book).
'The variety of the plants and animals found in the countryside and eaten by the early Irish on the testimony of the poems is quite astonishing to a twentieth-century town-dweller, to whom "living on berries and nuts" seems such an improbable kind of existence.  No. V mentions apples, yew-berries, rowan-berries, sloes, whortleberries, crowberries, strawberries, haws, hazel-nuts, mast, acorns, pignuts, water-cress, herbs, wild marjoram, onions, leeks, eggs, honey, salmon, trout, water, milk and beer.  No. XVI speaks of deer, swine, mast, hazel-nuts, blaeberries, blackberries, sloes, trout.  No. XV has cress, brooklime, mast, trout, fish, wild swine, stags, fawns.  In no. XIX are blaeberries, blackberries, apples, sloes, strawberries, acorns, nuts, pig fat, porpoise steak, birds, venison, badger fat, fawns, salmon, fish.  No. XVII mentions blackberries, haws, hazel-nuts, bramble shoots, "smooth shoots", garlic, cress, meadhbhán, dilisk, birds, martens, woodcocks, otters, salmon, eels, fish.  Suibhne Geilt gives his "nightly sustenance" as blaeberries, apples, berries, blackberries, raspberries, haws, cress, watercress, brooklime, saxifrage, seaweed, herbs, sorrel, wood-sorrel, garlic, wild onions and acorns ... The diet is then one of flesh of animals and birds, fruit, berries, nuts, herbs, shoots, and waterplants, eggs, honey and fish, an impressive and intriguing menu.'


Earlier this year the Corbel Stone Press published Alec's Sweeney on Eigg which 'leaps off' from Seamus Heaney's version of  Buile Shuibhne.  It imagines the outcast Suibhne wandering as far as the island of Eigg.  Fleeing over crags and burns, sheltering among sheep, passing over moss and moorgrass, through birch and tares, blackthorn and brambles, he comes at last to a stop. 
I will sing
with peewits, cuckoos, & throstles
making the moor ring
from Druim na Croise.

I will hide Rum
with my hand
and stroke the fine down
on my arms.

Then, when the sunsets
drive me mad
with their beauty,
Suibhne will be gone.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rhine (Melancholia)

Like the Turner exhibition I went to a couple of weeks ago, the Royal Academy's Anselm Kiefer retrospective is full of landscapes that are also history paintings.  The Morgenthau Series, for example, are ostensibly romantic depictions of nature, but the title is a reference to the wartime American plan to deindustrialise Germany.  The Guardian's Jonathan Jones was beguiled by them: 'we seem to fall into nature, to be immersed in it. Giant threads of light waft in the wind, dwarfing the spectator, who gets lost in the reverie of a rural hike right in the middle of London.'  He doesn't mention that one of these paintings has a rusty mantrap attached to it (a vagina dentata - the painting is named after Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du Monde’).  But it is true that these are less sombre than most of Kiefer's work, their extraordinary colours enhanced with gold leaf and lead that has been turned emerald green through a process of electrolysis.  Kiefer himself seems to have had some doubts about their beauty, as he told Jackie Wullschlager of the FT. “I so much like flowers and I painted so many flower pictures that I had a very bad conscience, because nature is not inviolate, nature is not just itself. So what to do with this beauty? I thought, ‘I will call it Morgenthau’." It sounds cynical but he was probably joking.  As with his close contemporaries from southern Germany, Werner Herzog and W. G. Sebald, there is often an undercurrent of dark humour in what he says.



I took the photographs above on the way in to the Royal Academy.  They show one of two installations in the courtyard dedicated to the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, who developed an esoteric theory on the cyclical nature of naval warfare (a few years ago Kiefer devoted a whole exhibition of sea paintings at the White Cube to Khlebnikov).  It would be impossible to do justice to everything I saw inside the exhibition - there is far too much to write about even if I just stick to landscape-related work: an early watercolour of a bleak winter landscape with a severed head in the sky dripping blood onto the snow, a huge wall-sized vitrine containing a painted forest with real roses and brambles (owned by the sister of Alain de Botton), a nightscape with real diamonds set into the paint that reminded me of what I wrote here only two days ago about mountains and stars...  I will quote instead two more critics, writing about artworks made nearly forty years apart, one in a case at the beginning of the exhibition, the other taking up the whole of its last room.
The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975): Martin Gayford in RA Magazine explains that this 'documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.'
The Rhine (1982-2013): Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph writes that 'the show ends on a high, with a beautiful installation called The Rhine, a collage of black-and-white woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac compiled over more than two decades, between 1982 and 2013. The various gigantic canvases of this compelling artwork have been arranged as interlocking screens, so that the viewer enters a maze-like forest with the waters of the Rhine visible in the distance.  In between the tree trunks stand the touchstones of Kiefer’s imagination: wartime bunkers, a blaze of fire, the polyhedron from Durer’s famous print Melancholia. It is as if one of Kiefer’s lead books has come to life and is embracing us within its pages.'