Sunday, 10 August 2014

Through Any Window

I love windows. I love that they are interfaces between the outward and the inward. That at a window I am invited to give a part of myself – perhaps a fragment of my future - to places I want to be. And that in turn I can receive back the sky’s endlessly varying diffuse light, as well as its direct sun and moonlight.

[European window scenes from our 2013 trip] 
Windows, of course, are fragile: the thinnest of barriers, almost literally illusory. They remind me that even the best of shelters is temporary; that I ultimately belong “out there”. You were made from dust, and to dust you will return”, as Genesis 3:19 has it.

One of my most vivid memories has me in a hostel in New Zealand. It is forty years ago, so details are scant. But these elements remain lucid. I am on the top bunk in the dormitory. I wake to a cold, clear morning and pull back the curtains. A bright sun streams into the room, warming me deliciously.

I have to shade my eyes to survey the scene outside. The hills are green, probably, but something else wipes that mere detail away. In the middle distance stands a classic volcano-shaped mountain. I know it’s a volcano: it is smoking!

The mountain was Ngauruhoe, mid-way through its 1973-75 period of eruption. I was possibly in the small town of Ohakune – the geography makes sense – staying in an old schoolhouse turned YHA.

That morning there was no hurry to leave. We were hitching around New Zealand, and still had a few days to reach Wellington. While others rattled and scrabbled to get ready to leave, I lay back in the sunshine, every now and then glancing in disbelief at Ngauruhoe. It was one of the most blissful experiences of my hitherto brief life.

[Blissfully sunny: inside Greenstone Hut, South Island, NZ]  
Glass windows, like those in the hostel, have been around since Roman times. That’s nearly as long as Mt Ngauruhoe, which only bubbled into being around 2 500 year ago. But the mass production of glass, which took some pointers from volcanic processes, only began in about the 17th century. After that glass windows began appearing in ordinary houses and public buildings.

There were window openings before that, of course, though they were usually louvred or shuttered. When they had to keep the elements out, they also excluded the light. That meant no blissfully comfortable volcano watching for most of our ancestors.

[A playful see-through sign invites you into the Waitakere Ranges, NZ] 

Since that 1974 experience, a few other windows have made fresh claims on my bliss count. Moving windows are among the strongest candidates, especially on trains and boats. (I exclude planes because I find their speed usually interferes with any real sense of invitation into the scene.)

A small port hole on a slow barge provides a fine example. Our trip, by bike and barge through Burgundy, offered us a fresh, circle-framed scene every morning. One morning it might be a forested canal verge, complete with calling birds; another an ancient town or village, with the French equivalents of butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers hurrying by.

A thousand or so years before ordinary window glass came along, churches regularly used stained glass in windows. It was more about light and glass telling stories, and evoking awe, than it was about letting light into the buildings. One sublime example is Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. As with so much else in Paris we had to queue to get inside the gothic chapel; and as with most Parisian waits, it was worth it.

[Inside La Sainte-Chapelle, Paris]

The two-storey building’s lower chapel, with its ribbed and richly painted ceiling, is extraordinary enough. But the vast rose windows and stained glass “wall curtains” of the upper chapel, left us breathless. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of mediaeval church goers were illiterate, the high windows aimed to recount the story of the Creation in over 1,100 pictures. That is some task for a window!

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Gardens: Interpretations of Nature

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. - Cicero

[Part of the garden of Villa Carlotta, Lake Como, Italy] 
There are sounds we shouldn’t be hearing; feelings we shouldn’t be feeling. It’s still July, supposedly deep winter here in Tasmania. Yet there’s the unmistakable pee paw call of a spotted pardalote; the mating call, the one I associate with spring. That’s when large numbers of these little spotted birds migrate back from warmer parts to join the hardy individuals who have stayed here.

And I’m sure I’ve been hearing male blackbirds calling too, mostly tentative churrs and chips, but occasionally that elegantly fluid warble that surely must impress any female within earshot. There’s been sunshine too, warm and welcome on some of our still, cloudless winter days.

At times like this the garden calls, begging us to delve into its neglected dirt. Our excuses – it’s been raining; it’s too cold; we’ve been away; it’s such a mess – melt into the warming air. I start by ripping the rankest weeds from the raised veggie bed, then scrape a hoe through the tiddlers, and mattock the most resistant. It’s hard work, and something I can’t achieve without bending my back.

But the feel and the smell of fresh earth, and the winter sun on my bent back, reward my labours. When the bed is finally cleared of weeds I barrow in some compost. It’s distinctly second-rate: I’ve never mastered the dark art of composting. But a bag of sheep manure covers a multitude of sins. And when that mix has settled in and I’m ready to plant, a good dose of worm “juice” will top it all off.

* * *

A year ago we were also neglecting our garden, ‘though with the reasonable excuse that we were travelling in Europe at the time. Yet even there the urge to touch the earth was strong. Two particular gardens helped answer that call, though in different ways.

Claude Monet believed his garden at Giverny was his most beautiful masterpiece. Given his superb artistic output, that is debatable. Yet unquestionably the garden is magnificent, even 88 years after his departure.

[A living masterpiece: part of the water garden at Giverny, France] 
We joined the throngs who had travelled the hour or so from Paris to see the garden; to see if we could gain a sense of how it inspired some of his work. Our own inspiration was limited by the need to shuffle and negotiate our way around so many other visitors. Even so we managed to find brief moments, small spaces, nooks in which time stood still, allowing the dazzling colours, shapes, shadows and scents of the garden to enrapture us.

We half-expected to see Claude himself shuffle around the corner, painter’s palette in hand, muttering about his urgent need to capture another “free and emotional interpretation of Nature” (to use his words).

[Part of Monet's cottage and garden at Giverny, France] 

That may have been Monet’s definition of impressionist paintings, but it works well for Giverny too. And for at least parts of the stunning garden we found in the grounds of Villa Carlotta in northern Italy. The opulent late 17th century villa was built for the then marquis of Milan. Its 17 acre grounds contain an amazing garden, half the area of Hobart’s generous Royal Botanical Gardens, and every bit as complex. Its lower slopes, closer to the imposing villa, feature formal gardens and paths, with fountains and annual flower beds.

[Looking from Villa Carlotta over Lake Como, Italy] 
But it was in the “back yard” that we began rejoicing in the freer impressionist style: gardeners as artists. Up the steep slope from the villa they had created a marvellously incongruous blend of semi-tropical, woodland and flowering plants: bamboos here, palms there, ivy and rhododendrons everywhere. Here it was shades and colours and textures than mattered most, not botanical provenance.

[A shady "creek" with Tasmanian man fern, Villa Carlotta gardens, Italy] 
In the hot and humid conditions we gravitated towards the shady paths. And there, as though to turn our minds towards home near the end of our trip, we found some Australian man fern (Dicksonia antarctica) in a marvellously cool artificial gully. Surrounded by ivy, hydrangeas and busy lizzie, and over-towered by exotic trees festooned with elk-horn, “our” ferns were thriving, adding a beautiful southern hemisphere touch to a gardener’s interpretation of green absolutely worthy of Monet.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Just Add Snow: Part 2

Snow was falling,
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness. 

- Mary Oliver

Ah, snow and imagination! Such powerful and persistent allies, even in the face of our actual experience of snow’s discomforts and dangers.

[Fiercely beautiful: summer snow in the Swiss Alps] 

We are traversing a little-walked route at the back of the Cradle Plateau. We are defying a “woolly” weather forecast, which has now taken a turn for the worse. Just after our point-of-no-return we enter a snowy, whooshing white-out.

The snow presents us with two problems. One is way finding, as our route has become disguised and there are no snow poles. We walk on into the white anyway: a little apprehensive, but keen to try ourselves out.

[The point-of-no-return? Heading into snow on the Cradle Plateau.] 

Snow’s second problem soon arises, and that is movement per se. Post-holing isn’t something most walkers in Tasmania get to practise. We usually only have brief skirmishes with snow, and its odd amnesiac properties wipe former difficulties from our memory. Right now we have to re-learn what an apt term post-holing is for what happens when you to try to cross fresh, soft snow.

We’ve started with visions of softly traversing the snow’s surface a la Legolas the elf. This is punctured as quickly as the snow, as first one leg then the other sinks thigh-deep into the snow. Only with a shuddering and inelegant heave do we extricate a back leg, scissor it up and across our front leg, and then plunge into a new hole.

We do this over and over again, wondering why we thought walking in snow would be fun. Even breathing is a challenge, as snow lashes our faces and the cold wind swipes the air from us. After a relatively short amount of this energy-sapping exercise we are exhausted, even a little demoralised. A little voice tells me it’d be wise to lurk behind the lead walker and use his steps as mine. But it’s a variety of slipstreaming that is usually noticed by the leader. It will soon end with one or other of them “allowing” me my turn; if my pride doesn’t make me take it first.

[Back on track: the Horse Track, Cradle Mountain] 

That day on the Cradle Plateau was only a brief taste of hard snow walking. We soon found the better marked Horse Track and dropped down out of the worst of the snow, and back to a warm hut.

And now, despite all that I have just written about the difficulties of those few hours, I look back on that day with overwhelming fondness. In asking myself why, I have begun to think that there’s something deeper at work than just the aesthetics, the prettiness, of snow.

As I write this I am looking out on a snowy kunanyi/Mt Wellington. It is cold here at 200m, but up there it is way below zero, and winds of 40kmh are blowing from the south-west. The snow up there is deadly as well as beautiful. And perhaps those two sides of snow have always been deeply embedded within us.

There is a fierce beauty to snow. It can kill, but it can uplift: like death, like love. Was that what Danish writer Peter Hoeg was getting at in Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow when he wrote these words?

Maybe falling in love, the piercing knowledge that we ourselves will someday die, and the love of snow are in reality not some sudden events; maybe they were always present.