"something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it"
The Shawshank Redemption
There have been some excellent initiatives to engage, entertain and exercise us following the introduction of the Covid-19 pandemic's resultant lockdown. The awakening of dormant creativity combined with an outpouring of generosity has given us much to choose from; if you are bored in the coming weeks then try and open yourself to new experiences, new fun, new learning. For the first time I am participating in an online reading network on Twitter, organised and led by the brilliant landscape and nature writer, Robert Macfarlane.
To be truthful, I was not convinced of the efficacy of these groups, yet such doubts are entirely unfounded. We read a chapter or two, then as a substantial group of readers dotted across the globe we contribute our interpretations and experiences on Twitter, using the CoReadingVirus hashtag. This concerto of literary expression is orchestrated by Robert, prompting us with thoughtful questions, while providing his own profound insight into the book and its subject, all with the light touch of which only the most confident conductor is capable. The first book we are studying is The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, a short but beautiful word-painting of her lifelong connection with the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland. I highly recommend both book and group.
Yesterday we looked at chapter five - 'Frost and Snow' - and what is striking from this chapter, and indeed Shepherd's writing in general, is the extent to which the details of the landscape, rather than the broader views, are the author's preoccupation: 'I had no idea how many fantastic shapes the freezing of running water took,' and 'Water running over a rock face freezes in ropes, with the ply visible.' This is not looking, it is observing. 'Close-noticing' as Robert so accurately calls it.
While the present lockdown is understandable and necessary, it is, by nature, restrictive. Yes, we can still shop (essentials) and we can take exercise outdoors, yet knowing that this is subject to sanction does start to take its toll. We begin to inhabit an existence where the walls are closing in and it is easy to let this feeling get the better of us. The freedoms that we took for granted have become less tangible, and bars on the windows are becoming increasingly visible. Everyone has a different trigger, but for me, being unable to roam the landscape, to absorb its spatial qualities without censure, is difficult. Almost intolerable. On the horizon there are only clouds. Heavy, relentless, slate-grey.
There are ways to avoid being sucked into this oppressive thought-vortex.
It was mid-morning, and a growing warmth from the sun had lured me into the garden with a cuppa. The fresh gorse of the Ashdown Forest, tempting but prohibited now, came to mind. It would have to wait, and the Subbuteo-green boredom of the lawn suffice. The Law of Unintended Consequences often works against us, but in our current predicament I have started to notice some positive effects of this, none more enjoyable than the reduction in traffic noise. Sitting on the patio, it seemed as though the birds were shouting, were it not for the sweetness of their song. Listening carefully, I also became aware of a faint, almost imperceptible, multi-pitched hum. An ensemble performance from the garden's insect life going about its business. It was quite wonderful and reminded me of sitting in the Royal Festival Hall as the orchestra tuned up before the conductor took to the podium. Small flies on flutes, bumble bees on bassoons. A strange, but alluring discordant harmony. And suddenly there it was, sitting on the patio, sunning itself, ragged wings flickering slightly: a butterfly. A simple Peacock butterfly. In these dull days of restriction, of vista denial, the landscape's constituents and details take on a significance and beauty, that in truth are always there but often overlooked. In Frank Darabont's cinematic classic, Shawshank Redemption, the prison inmates enjoy a rare interlude, a fleeting glimpse of beauty when Andy Dufresne plays a Mozart duet ("Che soave zeffiretto") from Le Nozze di Figaro over the prison's PA system. As 'Red' remarks later "it was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.' It might be a little self-indulgent to find equivalence between a prison life-sentence and elevenses in the garden, but I hope you catch my drift. I was so excited to see that butterfly! I had felt a little restrained, and my visitor helped to lighten the mood, injecting beauty and colour before wheeling away into the air in a chaotic, but controlled flash of earthy-red. Over the fence and away. Free.
It was such a beautiful moment that I came indoors and committed the memory to paper. I drew butterflies with proliferation as a child, adding colour with pens and pencils, but have never painted one. I was to learn again that rendering half a butterfly is difficult enough, but replicating a mirror image on the other side is very challenging indeed. Your accuracy, or lack thereof has an immediate reference point. I had intended to make a simple study of the Peacock and so painted it first, but on reflection felt that including the patio, painted quickly and freely as a mere suggestion would provide an important context and complete the story.
Nan Shepherd's focus on nature's detail in The Living Mountain has been a tremendous release, an exhortation to pay attention to the simple things around us that offer no less pleasure than the sweeping grandeur of a twelve-mile view. Nature's qualities are there to observe in the most unassuming of venues; observe the detail and you will find intricacy, fragility, beauty, wonder, work ethic, ostentation, chaos and structure. And if you have a garden, no matter how small, you are in a privileged position. Do not take it for granted, rather take advantage of it. It is your landscape for now - treasure it, be in it, define it. Most of all, practice your 'close-noticing.'