Monday, June 06, 2016

Mindlessness inflicted on rocks

The defacing of stones by mindless graffiti is not a recent phenomenon but I have become mightily aware of it since living in an area famous for its granite boulders of remarkable size and shape. Apart from a few minor examples which are fairly unobtrusive unless up close to the rock-face, there has been surprisingly little of this most brash kind of damage up until now.
Two recent glaring instances, however, have made me re-evaluate my own reactions. The first appeared a while ago, high up on a steep hillside above one of the main roads out of town. The tree cover has been felled, leaving an open expanse of boulders, dead wood, scrubby growth and churned earth. One of the stones, a pleasingly rounded mass of grey granite has been given two eyes and a smile, courtesy of black paint. And it made me smile the first time I passed, like a sudden revelation of a grinning entity long hidden by forest growth. This anthropomorphism of rock did not make me think of defacement and hooliganism at all, but initially as something rather amusing, the sort of landmark that people driving in and out of the town would enjoy. It is after all the rocks that give this place its life and identity. And people relate more easily to the sort of facile humanization shown here than the apparent in-animation of a mass of stone. I regret this reaction on reflection and attribute it to the fact that the rock is simple and ordinary, un-moulded by dramatic erosion.
The second example has made me angry. A famous rock, mid-stream in the river and hollowed out by natural erosion of granite to resemble a mini-cave or seating-place, has acquired the incised initials DD, writ large above the opening. The main tourist path passes here and the rock itself is easily accessible from the far bank across other stones, so it has become an obvious spot for photos of children or adults sitting inside the rock or filming of atmospheric sequences. I once saw a korrigan (local gnome of spirited character) seated inside the stone as the camera rolled for a Breton themed short or perhaps a tourist trailer. That is harmless fun and in its way does honour to the natural qualities of this environment. The ensemble of river and rock under a canopy of trees pierced by shafts of light is a conjunction of elementals that speaks powerfully to something inside us and defines the spirit of this particular place.
The rock will long outlast the cretin and the letters will weather away, but the imposition of humankind – the engraving of initials is a statement of facile human power over nature – degrades this landmark, as well as the perpetrator him or herself. It is not the work of a child but an ‘adult’. It is not the work a moment but considerable effort.
The fact that I care more about this than the other reflects the important of context in our relationship to particular landscapes. The smiley face is in essence no more acceptable to lovers of natural landscape than the initials, but it reveals at least benign intention rather than an egotistical assertion. The latter instance seems so much more intrusive by its deliberate spoiling of a significant spot for locals and visitors alike, a rock whose whole incredibly long history is mapped in its unique shape, its situation where the combination of elements stands together to create a powerfully numinous experience for those who are open to it.





Monday, May 09, 2016

The art of landscape



In the May Greenwood
I have a television for the first time in nearly two years. The first thing I watched was on a subject close to my heart and the object of my own current work: landscape. James Fox’s Forest, Field & Sky: Art out of Nature examined the work of contemporary artists who create their work within the living context of landscape – Andy Goldsworthy being the best known example featured. He was attempting to build a vertical wall within a hollow tree-trunk. There were also David Nash’s extraordinary Ash Dome and Julie Brook’s inexplicably emotional fire stacks. I was less taken with the careful construction of artistic frameworks shown in the latter part of the programme, not because they were not memorable, but somehow far further removed from the nature they were openly manipulating.
It all made me reflect as bitterly as usual on the totally unnatural walkers’ cairns that now so often spoil wild and rural landscape. These are glaringly intrusive features, making statements about the self, vaunting the vertical as mankind is so fond of doing. Are people not capable of containing their homage to place within? Are spiritual and emotional reactions too demanding compared with piling Pelion on Ossa? Do we still need to say so physically ‘I was here’? These clumpy lumps are not art, just empty self-expression.
Contrast them with the sinuous partnership of man and nature in the work of Nash, Brook and Goldsworthy, whose challenge is to enter into landscape rather than impose themselves on it, to understand its workings and to learn the strengths and limitations of its materials. Their work is not immediately outstanding from the surrounding landscape, so close is the harmony between nature’s creation and their own. They reflect that edge of us that can soften into landscape and blur – often fleetingly, for such is nature - the separation between man and his environment. Picking up a stone and placing it on top of another, distorting the lie of the land and showing community with other people rather than natural landscape is not an art. Unfortunately it is rapidly laying claim to being a tradition.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The island of Ouessant

It's been a busy time with various guided visits/tours and translation work, whilst moving house, with all that brings. I recently enjoyed a great visit to the island of Ouessant, taking a small group to see the dramatic landscape of this westernmost outpost of Breton territory, 25km out into the Atlantic from the coast of the Pays d'Iroise. We left from Brest for a three hour voyage out, stopping at mainland Le Conquet, then the tiny island of Molène before crossing the turbulent waters of the Fromveur towards Ouessant. It's odd to arrive in an isolated port without houses, commerce or bars, but only stark cliffs and the towering radar tower that protects the Rail d'Ouessant, keeping large freighters at bay. Le Stiff, the oldest lighthouse in Europe (Vauban's idea in 1695) peeps out above the headland.
We were staying on the edge of Lampaul, the only village, at the other end of the island. Its name reflects the tradition that Welsh saint Pol Aurelien made land here and initiated a spirited confrontation with pagan practices, determined to break up a sizeable cult centre. Decades of archaeological investigation at Mez Notariou have offered some insights into the nature of island worship from the Bronze Age onwards. The results can be seen in an exhibition in the Museum of Lighthouses and Signalling, located in the iconic black-and-white Phare du Creac'h.
In the bourg, we visited the church and cemetry to see evidence for the proella, a sad ritual made necessary by so many lives lost at sea as the menfolk from the island habitually served in the French navy. A small wax cross was treated as a symbol of the dead, with a vigil at the family house, a procession to the church, the placing of the cross in an urn until a bishop's visit for a formal blessing, and then the 'resting-place' of the cross in a special tomb in the cemetry, the only structure aligned north-south in contrast to the graves which all lie east/west.

Mostly we walked the coastal path, surrounded by lighthouses and the sites of countless shipwrecks, whose origins indicate the location of Ouessant at the epi-centre of international trade over centuries. In 1937 the Greek ship Mykonos went down off the northern shore (remains can be seen at low tide at the Baie de Calgrac'h), releasing a cargo of fat white sheep which some enterprising local took advantage of, with the result that traditional scraggy, hardy black Ouessant sheep are a rare sight in their home territory.
Ouessant is an exceptional place for walkers. My new book Walks in Finistère contains a feature with full maps, suggested routes and places of interest along the way. The island offers nearly 50km of coastline and plenty of inland paths through hamlets, marshes and moors, mostly with views of the sea on the horizon.

Monday, March 28, 2016

New book

Advance copies arrived - out shortly. My new collection of walks in Finistère including town, coast, country, island, circular and linear routes, features on places of special interest to walkers. Published by Red Dog Books (www.reddogbooks.com) who produced the excellent maps. Practical spiral binding. Enjoy.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Combourg and environs

Chateau de Combourg
I've been staying in Combourg, revisiting the wonderful chateau and its English-style park which are so evocative of Chateaubriand's formative years here, intensely described in Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, published soon after the great writer's death in 1848. And what a remarkable man he was - explorer in North America, soldier, author, politicial figure, opponent of Napoléon, royalist, journalist and diplomat (ambassador to London in 1822) - all roles examined in the powerfully emotional prose and beautiful language of the Memoirs. For all his far-flung careers and final resting-place on a little island off St-Malo, I can't help feeling that his spirit lingers strongest here, where he felt the first stirrings of the all-possessing exhiliration and hopelessness of a passionate nature that was to earn him the title of Father of Romanticism.
There was also time to seek out a little known menhir of great size and presence, rather unusually placed on a high ridge not far from Broualan.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Barnenez



The funerary monument at Barnenez is probably the oldest structure in Europe. It is a powerfully impressive place to visit. This enormous cairn (now 75x28m), orientated east/west, was constructed in two phases: five tombs built from local dolerite date to about 4600BC, and another six made from granite taken from nearby Ile Stérec were added perhaps a thousand years later. The dry-stone work of the overall structure, a huge carapace of smaller stones protecting the graves, is remarkable for its time, and the actual tombs show a range of techniques from chambers shaped by megaliths to tholos-style circular roofs. The architectural abilities and degree of organization demonstrated rather give the lie to the concept of a primitive prehistoric society.
The land was acquired in the 1950s by a developer involved in public works construction. He used another nearby cairn as a quarry, destroying it in the process, and had begun breaking into the existing monument in 1955 when protests led to a halt in the demolition and the first prosecution in Finistère for deliberately damaging an important historical site. Four tombs in the westernmost later section had already been slashed through by the diggers, leaving an unexpected cross-section view for visitors today, demonstrating the variety of design and execution by the Neolithic builders.

Careful excavations were carried out in the following twelve years, as well as conservation and restoration work. André Malraux, the minister of culture in the 1960s, famously and fittingly, called Barnenez the ‘neolithic Parthenon’. Finds were not prolific, but they included pottery fragments, polished axes, arrow-heads, flints and a later copper dagger, attesting the continued or renewed use of the site. Some equivocal carvings include an idol’s head with spiky head (or is it a shield), cup-shapes and wavy lines (like those seen at Carnac). Recently, traces of red and black colouring have been identified, suggesting artwork.

The landscape has changed considerably since the construction of the monument. Now the sea of the Bay of Morlaix laps at the foot of the prominence where the cairn was situated. This gives quite a different impression from the original setting, where the bay was grassland with a river running through it. Rather than being sited to astonish passing travellers or signal a ritual rendezvous to those arriving by boat, perhaps its size and solidity are more a weighty reminder to those on the low hills across the water – this is our territory, marked by the graves of our significant ancestors.


A great degree of confidence and security led to the foundation of this cairn, and ensured its re-use by later generations. As the balance between men and the earth began to shift for the first time with settlement and incipient farming, control of the environment became an issue. Construction of monuments that carry a sense of permanence and anchor a people to their land is one manifestation. The pride and satisfaction of extending their practical knowledge and skills to complete such a memorial must have been enormous. It is an expression of living community as much as reverence for the dead. Smiles and laughter, mixed with grief.