Sunday, September 25, 2016

Away and home

Coming home
I've been away in London for much of September, an enjoyably rich and emotionally satisying time which is already reduced in my mind to its essentials:  great food (in great amounts) and even greater friends. Nevertheless, the sight of the Breton coast in a glorious dawn over St Malo always raises the heartbeat as home grows closer and by the time the train rattles westward out of Rennes, I am mentally salivating in anticipation. Within an hour of reaching the longed-for destination, I am out in the forest, feeling a familiar blanket of peace and calm settle on my shoulders, smoothing out the last London frazzles, and bringing me back to the fulfilment of here and now.
Since then I have been working, and having fun, as a guide to American tour operator, Mindie Burgoyne, ( and her husband Dan. We have packed the last two days with visiting natural wonders in the forest, megaliths on the moors and elsewhere, and churches demonstrating the complexity of religion in Brittany, where paganism is never far from Christianity.
Enclos at Guimiiliau
Now I must get back work and finish my book on the Little Landscapes of Finistere before returning, after a ten year break, to fiction.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Chaos of Mardoul

Water’s words to stone here are alternately loving and savage, caresses turn violent, stroking becomes a slap. In wild weather it is a seething insistence of water. All that rock can do is hold to itself, edges rounded to ease the onslaught and survive the longest time under a constant assault that is both smooth and brutal. It’s an unequal contest in the end. The river can spread to mount its challenge: the rocks have no more movement in them. In dancing steps the water constantly changes direction, twisting, turning, preening round its static partner, forming shapes and ritual traces, like little tripping thoughts of happy times. As water tires of obstacle, there’s the trumpet of torrent and torment, a surge of force. Under an angry wind, white-topped waves rage down the valley. In gentler times, with little explosions of foam like a series of sneezes, it glides as clear as glass down a shelf of rock. The old war between rock and water is a lost cause for the remnants of another earth. The river will have its way, hard or easy.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Out and about, getting somewhere

I've been on two trips recently to spend more time in places that will figure in the new book. Firstly down south, among the black rocks of St Guenolé, initially given cultural reference by Chaucer in The Franklin's Tale, when Dorigen paces the coast at Penmarc'h, fearful for her husband's safe return to such a treacherous shore. It's a dangerous spot, with many fatalities to this day as foolish spectators of the high tides edge out to risk their lives for more dramatic photos. In fact the flat shelving of dark rock, completely hidden when the tide is up, is somehow more frightening and sinister than the gigantic stone pinnacles with iron railings to cling onto in the hope of avoiding being swept away by a freak wave. This was, in fact, the fate of the Prefect of Finistere's family as they enjoyed a leisurely picnic in 1870. Several of the bodies were never recovered.

This week I was in north-west Finistère, watching the estuary tides on the Aber Wrac'h for my chapter on Pont Krac'h, the Devil's Bridge. There was also time to hop over to Landunvez for some coastal reflections around the chapel of St-Samson, the scene that figured on the cover of my cultural history of Brittany, and one which will also appear in the new book.
At last I feel I'm getting somewhere in terms of completing this work. Delighted to say that Lynette Hardwick, an illustrious illustrator, will provide line drawings for my text, so we have also been working on those, and the page lay-outs - and the French version is also underway. Now all I have to do is finish the text....

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Short extract, work in progress

I have been busy with non-work related stuff lately, including a very pleasant interlude manning an art gallery in Goarec last week for a friend's exhibition. Now we have a heatwave and I struggle as ever to achieve much in such atmosphere, but I'm determined to finish with the landscape book in the next few months and move on to completely different writing projects. So, getting back into the mood...

 The landscape is a sponge for emotions, the great soakaway of human experience. We bring our woes and stresses to nature and lay them down at the feet of the sea or on a lonely mountain top or beside a quiet forest pool. Often we seek nature’s company simply because it demands and expects nothing from us, giving temporary release from inner burdens or the opportunity to ponder issues in the comfortable airy freedom of the outdoors. The search for peace and quiet is a strong factor in our need for landscape, balm for the human individual who is so rarely physically alone and in silence in modern life. We also respond deeply to the expansion of our vitality into open space and the basic practice of walking, man’s most natural pace, which puts us back into a lost rhythmic relationship with the detail of landscape. 

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.