Thursday, May 14, 2015

Elez - my life in a river

I'm writing about the Elez for the autumn exhibition on Breton landscape. It's made me think a lot about the comfort and inspiration of a river, something that emerges as far more significant to me than the rhythms of the sea. It's to do with one directional flow, an infinite variation of pace and the coherent trace from source to mouth or confluence.
Looking down on the Yeun Elez
The Elez is intensely interesting for the variety in its short length. Most famous is the Yeun Elez, a vast marshy bowl said to contain the entrance to the Celtic underworld, and the setting of many a Breton legend. Here near the source, the river immediately settles into stagnation and the lazy squelch of bog, its force constrained in a peaty reservoir. The 1930s Lac St-Michel flooded the area to hold a mass of water for producing hydro-electricity, with a barrage at Nestavel, and later serve the 1960s nucelar power station on the lakeside.
Once resolved of such serious responsibility, the Elez can breathe freely and move at a rapid pace, becoming positively light-hearted at the magical Chaos of Mardoul, where it lilts among the granite boulders with playful insistence. Held up again for another functional duty with a lake and barrage at St Herbot, it somehow manages both to fulfil the demands of the artificial channel to the electricity plant and yet retain enough energy to power down spectacular tiered cascades over massive stones near St Herbot.
Mardoul Chaos
Cascade at St Herbot
After the drama, a calm rural meander across eastern Finistère, passing (and occasionally threatening) a friend's mill-house between Collorec and Plouyé, before reaching the Aulne near Penity St-Laurent.
My affinity with this river is, of course, in great part a matter of scale and accessibility. I doubt I'd feel so strongly for the Limpopo. But while the sea remains too vast to grasp, too over-whelming, predictable and unpredictable, diurnal and eternal, the Elez is simply a beautiful river with a beginning and an end to its story, easily analogous to a life's course with all the attendant rises and falls.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Lac de Guerlédan (again) - a narrative

Before... or after

After ... or before
Landscape is the result of human activity on nature. Every anomaly in landscape hints at narrative. The Blavet river's connnection between central Brittany, long devoid of easy communications and commercial development, and the south coast ports of Hennebont and, from the 17th century, Lorient, gave it a vital role as a means of passage and transport. It was later to be transformed by canalisation into an essential part of the Breton waterway system in the early 19th century, forming a section of the Nantes-Brest route north and west of Pontivy, and taking 28 locks to the south direct to Hennebont, sixty kilometres away.
The next stage of the Blavet's story came a hundred years later, as scientific advance created surging demand for electricity. It was decided to flood a twelve kilometre stretch of the valley between Locks 119 and 137 to create a reservoir and barrage to feed the new hydro-electic station, a progress outlined in the little Musée de l'Electricité at nearby St Aignan. Four hundred hectacres of woodland, as well as many locks and houses, were engulfed by the project. The resulting lake was to become a focus of tourism and watersports, an economic spin-off for the locality, a new phase of the river's life.
At rare intervals the lake has been drained for inspection and repair of the barrage. 2015 may be the last time, as robotic machines should be up to the job in the future. The empty lake on show this summer is an extraordinary spectacle by any criteria, its walls and bed stripped naked for human assessment. Skeletons of trees submerged for eighty-five years still stand upright from the mud. Locks with their uselss weirs and chutes still exist intact, accompanied by the ruins of their workers' houses, walls withstanding the pressure of the waters where roofs have disappeared. Layers of narrative are fully exposed.
But there is movement in the bottom of this gigantic emptiness. The Blavet continues to flow. Nature continues to hold its place under the weight of all that landscape.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Full of emptiness - Lac de Guerlédan

Abbaye de Bon Repos
Wonderful day, full of interest and excitement. First a visit to the Abbaye de Bon Repos for a meeting about possible exhibition project for next year (on mapping and lines of communication), followed by a good look at the current offering on canals in France (and Brittany in particular). I gave permission for a radio interview I did about the Barrage de Guerlédan to be used in this exhibition via headphones and a listening post: quite a strange and not altogether pleasant experience to hear myself as others hear me.
Decided to take advantage of being in central Brittany to go and see the extraordinary spectacle of Lac de Guerlédan emptied of water for the barrage to be closely inspected and repaired. The ghostly skeletons of former locks and lock-houses are revealed by the drainage, but the most surprising impact is the sheer depth and volume of the Blavet valley at this point.

Lac de Guerlédan
 I actually like the area better without the lake and wish it could stay like that - not a popular opinion, I suspect.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Emotional landscapes

We bring our emotions to nature for many reasons which we consciously acknowledge: looking for beauty to balance pain; for neutrality of context to wrestle with problems, for soothing colours and sounds to alleviate weariness; for a change of scene to give a new perspective; for a situation which relaxes by demanding nothing. In identifying being in landscape as a kind of emotional mirror that offers a supportive reflection, we are not in danger of tumbling headlong into the bog of pathetic fallacy. There is no truer instinct than to respond to the fundamental connection between us and nature – the condition of being alive.

We’re not being taken out of ourselves, not operating as observer, admirer or physical activist, but participating in the greatest whole that exists. Nature is not an external entity. By placing our individual happiness, misery, grief and irresolution into a wider context, we are plugging into shared roots and deriving relief, succour or repose from universal energy. Our private energies are recharged by this merging of life and landscape. The fact is that when the heart is too full for talking to people, places can absorb our positive and negative emotions. Not transference, but osmosis, the flexing of membrane. When ties to other people and our local community fail us, nature offers a different kind of common bond. This one is constant.

Monday, April 06, 2015

A good day's work

Rade de Brest
I spent today checking out and writing up a walk for the new volume of Walking in Finistere (out in spring 2016). When I saw the weather forecast, this public holiday was immediately earmarked for a working day in pleasant surroundings. No amount of poring over maps and researching interesting points along the way can guarantee that a walk will turn out to be suitable for the book, and many days of trial and error are to be expected. Good but not good enough on the ground is a common problem. Today I was lucky. Despite one or two tricky points and some short alternatives needing to be mapped for the highest tides, this one is definitely going in the book.
I deliberately chose a peninsula which has no coastal path, and therefore is inevitably far less walked than the many others on offer in Finistere. It also had a merit of a culminating point in the Rade de Brest which is inaccessible by road - indeed the complete absence of cars and mechnical noise was a major advantage of the whole circuit. Apart from a few family walkers in the hamlets, I saw no-one else on the route. It was three and a half hours of blissful peace and spectacular views. I still feel excited about it now, sitting at my desk in the calm of the evening.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Falling in love again

I've been in Rennes all week. Little leisure time, but did manage to spend a few minutes gazing at one of my favourite constructions in the world, Les Horizons. It's such a happy building, I have to smile every time I look at it.
And it always smiles back...