Monday, 31 May 2010

Ralph Gibson

Ralph Gibson, Cloud, from the series Deja Vu, 1972, silver gelatin print, 32.6x21.5cm. He's not generally someone whose work I like, but I do love this image.

Friday, 28 May 2010


The fledgelings have flown this morning, so I can have a closer look at the nest now. It's actually very solid and there's no way this construction would have been dislodged. The outer is made mainly of soft, sphagnum moss, but there's some man made fibre in there too - most noticeably blue packing string!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

almost fledgelings

A very short clip of some thrushes in their nest in my back garden - short because the mother soon noticed me and made her displeasure known even although the clip was made with the camera at maximum zoom and I was pretty far back. The annoying sound is the autofocus on the camera working overtime. The nest is unusually low (4 - 5 feet from the ground) and urban foxes regularly visit the garden, so I'm hoping they'll be ok.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

the living mountain

I finished reading Nan Sherperd's slim volume 'The Living Mountain' today.  It's one of those books which you want to savour, and at a mere 84 pages, you know will be over before you really want it to be. Sensing it's condensed riches, I've read it really rather slowly over the last month.

Her only non fiction book, it is a meditation on the Cairngorm mountains and of the experience of walking and getting to know it's peaks, corries and the plateau. It's an amazingly well observed, perceptive and thoughtful consideration of the ontological aspects of spending prolonged periods in wild spaces. This work was written in the 1940's (though not published until much later by Shepherd in 1977 when she was an old woman) and was, for it's time, a prescient book that still resonates today. It stands apart from much mountain literature written by men (although WH Murray would seem to be a kindred spirit) in the way that it explores the nuances of the whole experience of being in the Cairngorms rather than on simply conquering peaks. As a woman walking (often solitarily), bivvying, and camping on the tops for days on end at a time when hillwalking wasn't the mainstream pastime that it is today, Shepherd must have seemed to be a bit of a radical adventurer.  Having her own income (she was a lecturer in English at the Aberdeen College of Education after graduation from Aberdeen University until retirement), her working life echoes the sentiments in Virginia Woolf's 'A Room of One's Own'. She has often been compared to Lewis Grassic Gibbon in terms of the writing style and content in her fiction, though hers is a more emancipatory vision of modern women finding a way out of the drudgery of unliberated life. Her circumstances did permit her to be able to spend many thousands of hours exploring and deepening her knowledge of the Cairngorms which she grew to love so much.

I suspect my own relative familiarity (I read some of it with a 1:25000 OS Explorer map at my side recalling my personal experiences of the locations) with the plateau extended my own enjoyment of the book immensely, knowing how an understanding of the Cairngorms doesn't usually reveal itself upon ones first visit there, unlike the more spectacular western peaks in Scotland. From afar, the Cairngorms actually look a little dull, and their mass is difficult to appreciate. Walking on them on a fine day, they seem benign, and the ground below your feet stretches out for long miles so that the drama of a vertiginous drop doesn't often surprise. However, repeated visits seem to offer up a different appreciation where the vast distances one is required to walk allow for an experience where one begins to make connections with a bodily connection to place, where one feels a greater sense of 'being' in relation to the land.

Of course, one of the most defining characteristic of the Cairngorms is the extreme severity of the climate which it experiences. It is the only place in the UK where it's climate is considered sub-arctic, and the types of flora and fauna present testify to this. Mists can come in unexpectedly and the uniformly high altutide of the land make navigation particularly difficult. In winter, judging distances in whiteout conditions is treacherous and many have died over the years through navigational error - sometimes remarkably close to safety.

Shepherd acknowledges the various terrors, but mostly joys, of this remarkable landscape. In her observations, through chapters headed The Plateau, The Recesses, The Group, Water, Frost and Snow, Air and Light, Life: The Plants, Life: Birds Animals Insects, Life: Man, Sleep, The Senses, & Being, she breaks down and analyses the constituent parts of the mountain experience in a way where the interconnectedness of sensation are made more lucid. She notices small details and enlivens our appreciation of natural phenomena with botanical and geological precision.

Sometimes a smooth portion of stream is covered with a thin coat of ice that, not quite meeting in the middle, shows the level of the water several inches below; since the freezing began, the water upstream has frozen and less water is flowing.


At one point (I have heard of it nowhere else) near the exit of a loch, the peculiar motion of the current among ice floes has woven the thousands of floating pine needles into compacted balls, so intricately intertwined that their symmetrical shape is permanently retained. They can be lifted out of the water and kept for years, a botanical puzzle to those who have not been told the secret of their formation.

In Sleep, she contrasts the experience of physically traversing the land with that of the quiet stillness found through sleeping on the high plateau and experiencing awakening in such a place.

I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence. No one knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure initimacy with the tangible world.

Shepherd's approach, desipte the specifics of it's Cairngorm location, isn't parochial, but could be seen to reflect the work of Maurice Merlau-Ponty and the study of phenomenology, and shares much with Zen Buddhism in the appreciation of being in inanimate things.

She says, in the penultimate chapter, Senses, when trying to explain the fascination and love for high places:

It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to it's essesnce, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.

..and in the final chapter Being:

Here then, may be lived a life so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness, is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.


Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible but paramount.

Monday, 3 May 2010

found in the back of a Baedecker

These two images were found tucked into the back of my copy of Baedecker's Switzerland. They are two unsent, clean postcards, presumably mementos of a trip accompanied by the said Baedecker Guide when Rudolf Beer - the original owner of the book - toured the Swiss Alps.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

the solitude trilogy : part 1

I've been listening to one of Glenn Gould's CBC radio broadcasts that he made in in the 1967 entitled "the idea of North". It's a collage of various people who live in or have a relationship with the North, and in this instance, the North of  Gould's native Canada. It can be quite difficult to follow or hear as he's layered some of the voices of the 5 people interviewed over one another so that there's a fading ebb and flow of text - presumably the creativity of Glenn Gould "the pianist" was something that he wasn't willing to sacrifice for the sake of documentary clarity, and here too Gould was trying to create an audio work, rather than simply a piece of public broadcasting. Radio as art as it were. In fact, he often described his radio works as contrapuntal, borrowing the term from music and characteristic of the Bach repertoire he's most widely known for. He made these radio broadcasts after his retirement from the international recital/concert citcuit.

The piece concentrates on how people view and interact with the North as both a space and an idea, and crucially, isn't simply a romantic treatise on solitude, although of course, it acknowledges romanticism as a spur to movements Northwards. Gould says the work "sought to examine the effects of solitude and isolation upon those who have lived in the Arctic or sub-Arctic".

I still have the other two pieces to listen to, but have transcribed some of the quotes from the piece I found most interesting.

I've long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and Subarctic of our country. I've read about it, written about it and even pulled up my parka once and gone there; yet, like all but a very few Canadians, I've had no real experience of the North. I've remained, of necessity, an outsider. And the North has remained for me a convenient place to dream about, spin tall tales about, and in the end, avoid. – Glenn Gould during the introduction to the idea of North.

..three of the various voices from the piece:

You're excluding the rest of the world that will never understand, and you've made your own world with these other people, and probably you'll never know, and what nobody else will know is whether you're kidding yourself or not. Have you really made your peace with these other people or, or have you made a peace because the only alternative is a kind of crack-up?

I was in many repsects solitary, but in a strange way the North has made me more, sort of, gregarious, 'cos the North does show you exactly how much you rely on your fellow man, what the sense of community means. The sense of community in the North, unlike in the South, is a matter of life and death. The thing about the North of course, in personal terms is that in the North you feel that's so big, it's so vast, it's so immense, it cares so little and, and this sort of diminishes you, and then you think "my god,  I am here, I've got here, I live here, I live, I breathe, I walk, I laugh, I have companions."

I found that the wide open spaces concept isn't quite what it's cracked up to be. I felt cooped-in in the wide open spaces because I was so afraid to get lost, that the environment around me, while being vast in the physical sense - one could see theoretically for a thousand miles, it was as nothing was in the way to break your view - it was surrounded on each side by dangers, dangers for instance of getting lost, that this was, to me, the biggest danger of all.