Tag Archives: sculpture

New Moon

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On the brink of a New Moon, I’m pointing you in the direction of some new writing that has recently become available online.  There are some unpublished poems from my botanical travels on the Poetry International site, with an introduction by Katy Evans-Bush.

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Since the beginning of this year,  I have been visiting Cheeseburn Grange, just outside Stamfordham, and writing about the gardens and artworks there.  Much work is going on behind the scenes so that next year it will be open to the public.  It’s a wonderful place and an exciting venture.

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Regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that I’m posting less and less these days.  The Botanical project officially came to an end in May, after my marvellous visit to Pisa.  I’m currently concentrating on the various strands of writing arising from my research, poetry and prose, and so will only be posting sporadic thoughts and news as I go along.  The plan is that I will emerge again in the New Year…

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The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

 

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Poetry & Zen

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Meditation is not just a rest or retreat from the turmoil of the stream or the impurity of the world. It is a way of being the stream, so that one can be at home in both the white water and the eddies. Meditation may take one out of the world, but it also puts one totally into it. Poems are a bit like this too. The experience of a poem gives both distance and involvement: one is closer and farther at the same time.

Traditions of deliberate attention to consciousness, and of making poems, are as old as humankind. Meditation looks inward, poetry holds forth. One is private, the other is out in the world. One enters the moment, the other shares it. But in practice it is never entirely clear which is doing which. In any case, we do know that in spite of the contemporary public perception of meditation and poetry as special, exotic, and difficult, they are both as old and as common as grass. The one goes back to essential moments of stillness and deep inwardness, and the other to the fundamental impulse of expression and presentation.

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I started writing poetry in my adolescence, to give voice to some powerful experiences that I had while doing snowpeak mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. At first I wrote “directly as I felt.” Then I discovered the work of Robinson Jeffers and D.H. Lawrence. Aha, I thought, there is more to poetry. I became aware of poetry as a craft—a matter of working with materials and tools—that has a history, with different applications and strategies all over the world over tens of thousands of years. I came to understand poetry as a furthering of language. (Language is not something you learn in school, it is a world you’re born into. It is part of the wildness of Mind. You master your home tongue without conscious effort by the age of five. Language with its sinuous syntax is not unlike the thermal dynamics of weather systems, or energy exchanges in the food chain—completely natural and vital, part of what and who we are. Poetry is the leap off of [or into] that.)

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I think I had come to understand something about play: to be truly serious you have to play. That’s on the side of poetry, and of meditation, too. In fact, play is essential to everything we do—working on cars, cooking, raising children, running corporations—and poetry is nothing special. Language is no big deal. Mind is no big deal. Meaning or no-meaning, it’s perfectly okay. We take what’s given us, with gratitude.

The poet in us can be seen at both the beginning and the end of a life. Everybody knows a child can come up with a rhyme, a song, a poem that will delight us. At the same time, the old priest on his deathbed will write a poem, his last act. The most refined and accomplished people will express their deepest understanding in a poem—and the absolute beginner will not hesitate to try to express a transient transcendent moment. There is no sure way to predict which poem will be better than the other.

Poetry is democratic, Zen is elite. No! Zen is democratic, poetry is is elite. Which is it? Everybody can do zazen, but only a few do poetry. Everybody can do poetry but only a few can really do zazen. Poetry (and the literary world) has sometimes been perceived as dangerous to the spirit career, but also poems have been called upon to express the most delicate and profound spiritual understanding.

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Beyond wild. This can indeed include language. Poetry is how language experiences itself. It’s not that the deepest spiritual insights cannot be expressed in words (they can, in fact) but that words cannot be expressed in words. So our poems are full of real presences. “Save a ghost,” you might be asked by your teacher—or an owl, or a rainforest, or a demon. Walking that through and then putting a poem to it is a step on the way toward realization. But the path has many switchbacks and a spiritual journey is strewn with almost as many land mines as a poet’s path. Let us all be careful (and loose as a goose) together.

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Spending time with your own mind is humbling and broadening. One finds that there’s no one in charge, and is reminded that no thought lasts for long. The marks of the Buddhist teachings are impermanence, no-self, the inevitability of suffering, interconnectedness, emptiness, the vastness of mind, and the provision of a Way to realization. An accomplished poem, like an exemplary life, is a brief presentation, a uniqueness in the oneness, a complete expression, and a kind gift exchange in the mind-energy webs.

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder lives in the northern Sierra Nevada and practices in the Linji Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist tradition.  Pulitzer prize-winning poet and essayist, his most recent book is Practice of the Wild (North Point Press).

An extract from the Introduction to Beneath a Single Moon: Legacies of Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry. Edited by Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich (Shambhala Publications).

The first image is a detail from Felicity Aylieff’s Lotus Flowers (2006) at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, and the second and third are from Akio Suzuki’s wonderful show at the Globe Gallery, Newcastle, part of this year’s AV Festival.  The fourth and fifth are Alstromerias and a reclining Buddha on my window sills at home.

 

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Outside In

So, I came home via Edinburgh Botanics and spent a wonderful weekend wandering around the Gardens and looking at the displays inside and out.

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Franz West & Heimo Zobernig 2004/2013

IMG_6255A woman asked me What are those chairs doing?  She didn’t seem convinced when I told her imaginary people were sitting on them.

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I thought that perhaps the Petrosavialles Family was also imaginary…but apparently not.  According to Wikipedia, they are found in high-elevation habitats and have bracteate racemes, pedicellate flowers, six persistent tepals, septal nectaries, three nearly distinct carpels, simultaneous microsporogenesis, monosulcate pollen, and follicular fruits.  Sounds interesting.  I hope they find a specimen soon.

When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

John Muir

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The Country They Call Life

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You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

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Flare up like a flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

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Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going.  No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

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Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

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Give me your hand.

IMG_5224Poem from The Book of Hours, Rilke

(Translated by Anita Burrows and Joanna Macy)

Images from Glasgow Botanic Gardens – Kibble Palace and Main Range Glasshouses

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Golden Water Mouth Tree

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mapping
what’s on top
of what’s underneath

I am more here
than there

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Mother Nature

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In the various gardens I’ve been visiting, one of the things I keep coming back to is the feminine principle in nature – generative energy and mythic perspectives that appear to be inseparable from the whole business of the human impulse to garden.  Robert Pogue Harrison’s interpretation (in his wonderful book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition) is that, far from being a curse, Eve was our first gardener and so gave us the blessing of our human responsibilities to care for each other and the land.

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So I was very happy yesterday to make my first visit to see Northumberlandia – Charles Jencks’s ‘Lady of the North’ just outside Cramlington.  I’ve been following her creation with interest ever since the proposal was first announced seven years ago.  I admire Jencks’s contribution to the Maggie’s Centres around the UK, providing thoughtful and supportive care for cancer patients, and look forward to seeing the opening this year of the new one in Newcastle.  His Garden of Cosmic Speculation, near Dumfries, is a fascinating mixture of landforms and sculptures and other interventions, all playing with ideas of time and space.  Northumberlandia is very much his baby – especially his riddling, idiosyncratic signs dotted around her luxuriating body, drawing the eye in various directions.  Her ‘nipples’ point 12 miles south to the Angel of the North and 41 miles north to Lindisfarne!

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Interesting to read this recently from Zen practitioner David Loy:

…you know what I think the real problem with nature is? Nature is the realm of death. There are creatures, they’re born, they die. We don’t want to be part of nature because nature reminds us that we die. And that’s the problem with women, the problem with blood, the problem with sex,…we want to deny the fact that we’re animals. We want to deny the fact that we’re born and we pass away like other animals, that we procreate like other animals. We want to have a special fate because we don’t want to be subject to mortality in the same way. And there’s a whole string there, our attitude toward women and blood and childbirth and menstruation and all that. It’s all part of this same system of denigrating women, because women seem to remind us more that we’re part of the natural world that we don’t really want to accept, and too much of our religion is an attempt to escape from nature, isn’t it? “We have a higher fate, we have souls. It doesn’t matter so much what we’re doing because we have a higher destiny anyway, don’t we?”

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Hard to know what was more annoying here – the intrusiveness of the sign or the fact that the capitalisation was so random…The goddess’s face is the most striking part of her and we are directed towards looking in the mirror of her face from a distant spot across one of the constructed lakes.  I found myself speculating whether she is a cry for help.  A symbolic way of winning back the approval of Mother Nature, looking her in the eye, after treating her so badly for so many years – specifically in the open cast mining right next door and more generally on the whole planet?

At the moment the structure is still raw and the land not quite settled – it’ll be interesting to see what it looks like in a few years’ time when the grass has had a chance to grow and some wild flowers have made their home there.  Like the Angel of the North, I hope it will find a place in the local people’s hearts and minds and do its magic there.

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4 x 4

The Botanical Garden in Padua is all about the number 4 – four quarters, four fountains, four gates, four compass points, four seasons.  This patterning gives the garden a sense of stability, a solidity close to the earth.  Strong physical groundedness is matched with a pleasing intellectual rhythm, an orientation in both time and space.  There is the feeling of being located within a wider order, reminded of the four elements, the four winds, the four humours, the four phases of the moon – Renaissance ideas of harmony, the music of the spheres.

In a place so thoroughly governed by the number four, things make sense: it feels comfortable, secure, natural.  Even though, of course, it is all man-made.  But the men who made it (and in 1545 it would have been men), designed and dug and planted it, were looking at and listening to the world as if they’d just been born, asking questions, alive to their close connection to the land, the universe and their dance within it.

Vice-Prefect Antonella Molla gave me a book, a facsimile of L’Horto de i Semplici, published in Venice in 1591.  After a foldout plan of the garden, there is an alphabetical list of plants growing there, followed by a series of empty, numbered lists, arranged under the headings of the garden’s four quarters, for the students of the time to locate the plants in the garden and enter their names in the right place on the lists. A wonderfully simple way to encourage close observation and the process of identification.

What we don’t know, this being pre-Linnaeus, is what many of the plants listed actually are.  Venus’s belly-buttons?  Light hearts?    Bearded priests?

Here’s an extract from my notebook, written in the garden on Saturday 13th October:

This morning there are gardeners where yesterday afternoon, there were none.  They are planting and pruning, raking and barrowing – purposeful but relaxed.

I’ve come to sit by the statues of Solomon and the Four Seasons – intrigued by the way they’re placed just outside the circle and although set at some distance from each other, seem to look at each other:  Busts of Spring and Summer (female) and Autumn and Winter (male).  Solomon in the middle, holding a book and looking up to the heavens, as if for inspiration.

Spring is a young woman with flowers in her hair.  Summer is older, plumper.  Both women bare one breast, their left – but still manage to look serene, elegant, draped in carved folds of cloth, jewels in their ears, round their necks.

They are set against a tall, curved hedge of clipped bay, glossy with last night’s rain, sweet and aromatic pressed between my fingers.

I can hear the fountain trickling into its pool of water, contained within a circle of stone bracketed with metal bars.  The green surface of the water is almost covered with lily pads, a different green, submerged at the centre, lightening and rising towards the circumference.  And then the gardener, patiently raking leaves from the gravel paths.

To the right of Spring, there is a weeping white mulberry (Morus alba pendula).  Standing inside it, you are held in a circle of green light.  At her feet (if she had any) a small box tree with fresh new growth at its tips, trimmed into a small sphere.  Instead of feet, Spring has a cream-coloured pedestal topped with another, smaller, carved from pink stone.  She is marble, streaked with black dust from the cones of the Cupressus arizonica above her head.  She is less pretty close-up, slightly worn and no jewels as I’d thought earlier.

I prefer the maturity of Summer, on the brink of ripeness.  Her marble’s streaked with soft grey veins and she has a dimple in her chin that makes her look more human, less of an ideal.  She is looking at Winter (her seasonal dance partner?), an old man draped in furs with what look like winter fruits in his hair, maybe gourds or cones?  He has a tight mouth, thin lips, as if he’s lost his teeth, but is still noble with his strong nose and luxuriant beard.

Autumn clearly fancies Spring.  He has a touch of middle-age spread, a bon viveur, grapes and dates in his hair, a fleshy mouth and laughing eyes.  But there are bags under them, hinting at a vulnerability beneath his carpe diem attitude, knowing Winter’s not far behind.  Each season doesn’t look at the one next to them – perhaps too redolent of their own demise, preferring the symmetry of the Other, their polar opposite by which they might measure and balance themselves.

And then in the middle of the group, Solomon, making some sort of judgement with his book and what was once a sword.  Choosing between seasons?  Between male and female?  Between youth and age?  An impossible decision.  The circle of the pond in front acts as a sort of answer – unintended or not – a Zen-like taste of union and openness, continuity and change.

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