Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Ash: the shaggy signs of Pan

Despite the obvious seriousness of the current ash dieback outbreak, I have to admit to having observed the crisis with a certain ambivalence towards this tree. However, today, walking the wooded combe's of the South Cotswold scarp, I was struck by how much ash is the dominant tree species in this landscape. Any significant loss of ash would radically alter the topographical character of the area, and the many others across Britain where it is similarly ubiquitous. Let us hope that the famed resilience of the ash, adaptability and quick growth offer some sort of resistance to the Chalara fraxinea fungus.


My walk began, appropriately enough, in the hamlet of Cold Ashton. And, stark and winter-bare, ash was the constant coda throughout the nine muddy miles: a knarled old pollard defiant in a field; dominating the hanging woods on the hillsides and the hedgerows of field and stream.  

Majesty lurks in the scruffy ugliness of the ash, summed up nicely by Roger Deakin: "There is something goat-footed about ash trees: the shaggy signs of Pan". But the utilitarianism of ash is its star quality, "its workmanlike resilience, foreshadows its practical virtues". William Cobbett cuts to the quick: "Laying aside this nonsense, however, of poets and painters, we have no tree of such various and extensive use as the Ash...It therefore demands our particular attention and from me, that attention it shall have". 

So here's to the ├Žsc ('spear' tree) and Yggdrasil ('World tree'), my constant companion on a benign winters day; and a tree not to be taken for granted. And lets hope that the words of Edward Thomas' poem 'The Ash Grove' prove to be prescient: "...But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die/ And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost."


...not forgetting the oak
...and the holly and the ivy


Cobbett, William, 2001 Rural Rides. London: Penguin

Deakin, Roger, 2007 Wildwood: A journey through trees. London: Penguin

Rackham, Oliver, 2001 Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape. London: Penguin 

Thomas, Edward, 2004 Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Local topographies and vaster worlds: Hunters in the Snow

Cycling to and from work today, through a frozen, sub-zero landscape, I have been drawn into my favourite landscape painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Hunters in the Snow.

The picture is one of a series of panels, completed in 1565, representing the activities of Flemish peasant communities during the changing seasons (and symbolising December and January). This calendar-based cosmology was a common motif in medieval art, rooted in religious iconography; but Bruegel and his contemporaries were the first to crystallise such scenes of interacting nature and humanity into what would later become the established genre of 'factual' landscape painting, encompassing "...both local topographies and vaster worlds..." (Cosgrove, 2008).  

Art historians also find interest in the work as an early example of the use of perspective in landscape painting:
"Our eye roams from a high vantage point over an extensive, diverse landscape that develops from the cultivated foreground area to an ever wilder nature in the distance. Principle lines direct the eye along a diagonal that begins with the houses on the left, accentuated by a stark row of bare trees, and extends to the lower right, into the valley. Only there, where it runs up against the mountain barrier and takes the opposite, diagonal direction towards the plain extending left to the horizon, is a sense of depth created which counters the dominant horizonal of a panorama" (Wolf, 2008).
On a broader historical note the painting presents stark evidence of the severity of winter throughout the so-called Little Ice Age, a period of comparatively lower global temperatures during the post-medieval/ early modern period. 
Self portrait of Bruegel, who died in 1569, aged 44
For me though, the fascination of this picture is its representation of 'real' people and their day-to-day activities in a living, naturalistic landscape; in the words of Kenneth Clark "the expression of an all-embracing sympathy with humanity...in which the accidents of human life are one with the weather and seasons. Few works of art are less in need of commentary". No figures here from heroic mythology or religious representations of ecstatic joy or demonic pain and damnation. There is real empathy with the hunter's and their dogs returning, weary from a day in the woods and fields. 

And each viewing spotlights a different element of small detail: the inn sign hanging precariously from its awning; the frozen water-wheel; the people, young and old, playing various games on the iced-over ponds; the snow-covered bramble in the foreground and the various breeds of dog in the pack accompanying the eponymous hunters.

The framework for these scenes within a scene is the expertly realised combination of the sturdy-looking buildings of the village (no rude hovels here), the blue-grey of the wintry sky and frozen watercourses, the skeletal woods and trees of the foreground, middle and far distance and the all-pervading whiteness of the snow. To me the only wrong note (a weakness it seems of many landscape artists) is the depiction of the distant high ground as ludicrously precipitous crags; this remember is Flanders!

Other less well-known but no less interesting pictures in the 1565 cycle include:

The Gloomy Day (February-March)

  The Hay Harvest (June-July)
 The Corn Harvest (August-September)
The Return of the Herd (October-November)

Select Bibliography

Andrews, Malcolm, 1999 Landscape and Western Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Clark, Kenneth, 1966 Landscape in Art. London: Pelican

Cosgrove, Denis, 2008 Geography & Vision: Seeing, imagining and representing the world. London: IB Tauris

Shama, Simon, 1996 Landscape and Memory. London: Fontana 

Wolf, Norbert, 2008 Landscape Painting. Cologne: Taschen

Saturday, 1 December 2012

River Song - ecstatic landscapes of the mind

Dennis Wilson Pacific Ocean Blue Album Cover 
River Song, the opening track on Dennis Wilson's solo album Pacific Ocean Blue personifies a yearning for a more simple relationship with the natural world. Perhaps only an illusionary late 60s to mid 70s chimeric proposition, and perhaps over-romanticised by someone like me, born into this period  (who has just watched a documentary on Wilson on BBC4).
The lyrics when written down (see below) are simple, almost banal; but on record, with Wilson's cracked yet soulful vocals, gospel choir backing and lush production, the song  cries out to soundtrack our universal desire to run away to, misquoting Werner Herzog, "ecstatic landscapes of the mind". 

Over to You Tube: 
Walkin' down by the river
Water running through my knees
River, oh river moves so free
Oh mighty river endlessly

Oo mighty river
I would love to be like you
Oo lonely river
Has not got the time to say

I was born into the city life
It's all that I've ever known
You know it's rough gettin' round this place
So crowded I can hardly breathe

You can only see about a block or two
In L. A. that's the truth
I'm lookin' for some country life
Some kickin' room no more city life
I want the river

Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on river
(I got to get away I got to get away I got to get away)
Rollin' rollin' rollin' on

It breaks my heart to see the city
I wonder why it ain't pretty
Oh I want to cry, want to cry
Come on you've got to do it do it do it

You got to run away you got to run away
You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away

You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away

You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away

You got to do it do it do it
You got to run away
You got to run away