Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Moor thoughts

I returned today after a six month absence to my old haunts on the moors and was instantly overwhelmed by a deluge of familiar sensations. It was as if the first pressure of my foot on the stony track activated a certain pattern of thought, despite the many changes in my life and perceptions in the interim. But is the trigger in the landscape or in me and my own wild, open inner terrain? Do I react so because I am on a moor or because the moor is in me?
I can trace my deep connection with the moor to early journeys over the Brecon Beacons. My poor exiled Welsh parents, miserable in manicured and over-managed Gloucestershire countryside, often made the return to their homelands - Swansea, Mumbles, Gower - with four children in tow. It was part of my father's hopeless quest for identity and part of my own very early passionate attachment to landscape. The passing of the beloved object on the way to another destination has also had its legacy, and later made travel more valued than arrival in almost every aspect of my life.
There was no more to this early love than that the sight of the moors made me happy. To a childish imagination they represented endless, boundless freedom and apparent simplicity. Other landscapes were psychologically more complex to me even then as a small child: the sea with its tides, the endless movements of a river, the uncertainties of woodland, hills lost to the unsettling exploitation of farming. But those long, high rounded slopes, empty of life and difficulty, solid and unchanging, gave me both a powerful sense of permanence and an invitation to endless possibilities, to the open heart and mind that seemed so perplexingly elusive in the constraints and compromises of the everyday world. I came to learn that there was far less isolation and considerably more connection for me in the wilderness of moor than in family life.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Death in the forest

Working on my text about death in the forest this morning, which involved both writing and a long walk to review the relevant sites. Death comes easy and hard in the normal order of forest, with its acceptance and exploitation of the cycle of decay and regeneration in nature and the practice of hunting. But there is also murder and accidental death (or possibly suicide) to consider in my forest. 
Long after the war was over, the bodies of three young men, executed by the Germans, were found on the hillside above the Argent river. They represent the great number who, with all the desperate nonchalance of youth, took action to resist enemy occupation until such bitter ends as a blanket of dirt and leaves on a wooded slope. A stele marks the fate of Pierre Ruelen, Jean Volant and Emile Bérthou. Whenever I hear the explosion of a hunter’s gun echoing through the trees, I think of falling limbs with human faces.
In May 1919, the body of Victor Ségalen was found by his wife among the beech trees on top of a high granite outcrop, once the site of a medieval motte. He was apparently sitting propped against a tree with an open copy of Hamlet, having bled to death from a wound in his heel. This curiously staged scene – and his hurried burial avoiding an autopsy – has led many to think he took own life to put an end to the nervous depression and mysterious physical malady that had taken hold of his life.
Born in Brest in 1878, the profession of medical doctor took Ségalen on journeys that went far beyond the practical fact of travel. It was China that came to shape his remarkable inner life: he conducted archaeological digs there and became a Chinese language specialist, before returning to France. The cultural landscape of his experiences was manifested in poetry and texts (such as Stèles, published in 1914). He was in Huelgoat for his health, ironically, walking daily in the forest with a book and notebook, experiencing the profound sense of containment and aloneness offered by this special place. For a man who lived on the borderlands between reality and imagination, he chose a good place to die.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

La Belle Vie

Liz and her work
At the opening last night of my friend Liz Ridgway's fine exhibition in Brest, where a crowd of art-lovers were wowed by her reflective images of women in landscape. Good fun, happy people, promising sales. It's on until March 28th at the Espace Exposition, Saint-Marc.
www.artitudebrest.com             www.lizridgway.artweb.com
Liz's work will feature in my exhibition on landscape at L'Autre Rive in Huelgoat in October.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

It was Chaos...

AIKB group
Very pleased to take a large group of AIKB members around the forest at Huelgoat today, considering basic questions of history and legend. We started with a Trembling Rock and ended near the spot where Victor Ségalen finished his life under the beech trees high above the Gouffre. A bit of Chaos and King Arthur came in between. I really enjoyed the afternoon and thank everyone for their company and good cheer.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Welsh victory

Spent the day at book fair at Le Cloitre St Thegonnec (a good old Welsh saint himself) and so missed seeing the match and Wales' great win over Scotland, but managed to fly the flag nevertheless. Writer Hervé Bellec told me that a group wants to ban the dragon from the Welsh flag as it represents the devil, but that can't be right as everyone knows the Devil is English. It was a good day, with lots of old friends - both writers like Catherine Chartier and Anne Guillou, and visitors - and some new ones, like professional magician and now thriller writer Alex Reeve (alexreeve.net).

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Walking, noticing and leaping hares

Walked for hours today, on familiar territory but with renewed awareness, thanks to a book by Claire Thompson recently given to me by a perceptive friend. Mindfulness and the Natural World is one of the simply meaningful editions published by the Leaping Hare Press. (That name in itself is enough of a connnection for me as David Brayne's unbelievably rich painting of a leaping hare has long hung on my wall, purchased in the far off days when I had money to invest in art.) I already have The Art of Mindful Walking by Adam Ford in the same beautifully produced series - these books deserve to be better known.
What I am most grateful for today is the reminder of the difference between looking and noticing, and the concomitant quality of mindfulness as an active state. Walking with all the senses is a direct experience, complete in itself and only stifled by the process of thought. Claire Thompson's opening chapter 'We are Nature' joins up all the dots of existence and expresses my own feelings of belonging in the natural world where - as she puts it - 'I don't feel alone, I feel alive.'

Sunday, February 01, 2015

A big change

After writing the previous post on this blog, I could no longer ignore what has been gnawing away at me for the last two months, ever since I started work on the new Finistère guidebook. Raising the perennial problem of guidebooks (where the good stuff that digs beneath the surface gets cut and only the basic facts remain) made me finally face up to the most important basic fact of all. I do not want to do this any more.
My last book, Brittany – a cultural history (Signal Books, Landscapes of the Imagination) at least allowed me the luxury of arguments and issues to the extent that overall word and page count would permit, and now there is no way back to the more constricting, prescriptive format of conventional guidebooks, the need to conform to expectation in terms of sites and coverage, to reader profiling and in-house styles.
I need a more creative process, a focus on my landscape writing, whether or no a book in publishable form emerges. I need to work from the inside out and not vice versa. I need to give more time to other things and other people. What I no longer need is to sit at my computer for ten hours a day or travel under frustrating pressure of collecting and regurgitating information in a limited timescale. So I have reneged on an agreement for the first time, something quite against my normal instincts, and in doing so have made a major change in my life.
Walking in the early evening today, the debris of frozen hailstorms still lingering on the rocks in the forest, I felt a sudden sting not of panic but hesitation and uncertainty. What on earth will I be doing at 9 o’clock or 10 or 11 tomorrow morning? I have worked so hard for so many years on a clear progression of full-time, demanding writing projects (usually fired by economic imperative) that I’ve forgotten the sense of freedom that accompanies true creativity. 
A minute later, the last ray of a previously veiled sinking sun flashed through the skeletal trees right into my face, lighting a golden path ahead. It was a simple reminder of alignment, of the beauty of doing the right thing at the right time. Whatever I do tomorrow morning will be new and exciting and worthwhile, even if it’s only sleeping in for a change…