I’m more marginally martian than mainly martian these days, but my old enthusiasms are remembered in some interesting places — so I was happy to be invited to talk about the new “Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art” contemporary art show at the Barbican on Radio Four’s Front Row yesterday. I’m afraid I don’t have time to blog on it now, except to say a) the concept is a bit overdone, b) there’s good stuff and not so good stuff there and c) Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (pictured) is in the first of those classes. It reminds me hugely of Stranger in a Strange Land, and has the advantage of being a lot shorter (nb that’s a cheap jibe, not a serious diss). Here’s part of the artist’s accompanying text; if you want to imagine the Answerer as Michael Valentine Smith in order to grok it more fully, be my guest…
Q. To begin with, could you describe this work?
A. Yes, of course. What I’ve done is change a glass of water into a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.
Q. The accidents?
A. Yes. The colour, feel, weight, size …
Q. Do you mean that the glass of water is a symbol of an oak tree?
A. No. It’s not a symbol. I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree.
Q. It looks like a glass of water.
A. Of course it does. I didn’t change its appearance. But it’s not a glass of water, it’s an oak tree.
Oak Tree image copyright Michael Craig-Martin — used with respect but without permission
I wish I was finding time to write here, but I’m not — however kind Sean has sent me some more trees, rather inspiring ones, and they are as good a post in and of themselves as anything I’m likely to write at the moment.
And since Sean has I’m inspired me to the pictorial, here’s another London snapshot. Those of you not in London (as I am not, at the moment) may not appreciate that though what you see in Sean’s pic looks like a clear winter day, it was in fact a clear very springlike day in the season formerly known as winter. These
magnolias camellias [yes I’m a moron] of Nancy’s make the point.
For comparison: the opening of chapter 6 of Eating the Sun
The agency of animals is a visible thing. Their eyes blink, their gills flutter, their hackles rise, their pulses set the rhythm for their lives. They move back and forth, here and there, drawing their histories out behind them like the blur of a cheetah or the slime of a slug. The lines of their lives criss-cross the world, from the gyres of the ocean-circling albatross to the stochastic pinballing of a fly against a windowpane. The whole point of being an animal is trying to get somewhere else. Quite a few—let’s hear it for the oysters—have given up on this birthright, and rely on currents and providence to bring them their world. But most of us have not.
Plants, on the other hand, very rarely move themselves around; they just grow, and in almost every case they do so imperceptibly. By and large, the agency of plants is invisible. This is the simplest, and perhaps the most profound, of the differences between those that eat light and those that eat others. It is why plants have a relationship with their environment both more intimate and more abstract than that of any animal. It is why they have no faces and no hearts.
This great difference stems from the fact that sunlight is, at the efficiencies photosynthesis is capable of, a rather dilute source of energy….
…Trees are generally pleasing to look at, with the exception of the birch, which comes off as a bit “uppity”. But what’s below all the eye candy?
Well it turns out that trees make oxygen, which is important to many people worldwide. A tree can also be converted into wood, which has several uses, although once it becomes wood, the tree loses its oxygen-providing capability, so it’s a double-edged sword.
If that’s all there was to it, trees would be a no brainer. But as always, there are complications lurking below the surface.
First of all, trees take a long time to “grow”. You can start a tree now and possibly be dead by the time it starts to provide a significant benefit to you. This requires a degree of philanthropism on your part to even begin the process.
Additionally, leaf-bearing trees generate a huge mess every year, rudely dumping last season’s fashion everywhere with callous disregard to property values or the volume of work required to clean them up.
Trees also provide sanctuary to filthy birds who chirrup endlessly in the small hours of the morning, despite this author’s yells and throwing of little rocks. [Whole thing]
The cartoon’s by Rosemary Mosco, coloured by Stephanie Yue, all rights reserved, and will be taken down if she has a problem with it …[update: she didn’t, except to point out that Stephanie deserved a shout out.] Thanks to Jenny for spotting it
Over the holiday I read Richard Mabey’s Beechcombings (Amazon UK), a fascinating and enjoyable book about which I may well have more to say, but which I currently wish simply to digest and to put into the context of some other current reading.
However, this passage from Edward Carpenter (mystical socialist and, wikilegedly, the man who introduced the sandal into Britain) that he quotes in a chapter called “Electric Beeches” struck such a chord of recognition with me that I thought I’d share it here, along with the passage in Eating the Sun it reminded me of:
It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early spring. Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and upturned fingertips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them into the spaces of heaven, and of its roots plunged into the earth and drawing the same energies from below. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of earth and sky, and full of the most amazing activity.
— Pagan and Christian Creeds, 1904
Now reverse the polarity:
Think of a beech tree in winter, its leaves lost, its architecture revealed in dark lines against cold grey cloud. Do what Robin Hill used to urge his children to do to cultivate the artist’s eye—take away the tree’s established “common sense” context by turning round, bending over and looking at it upside down through your legs. Its growth looks less like something pushed from the earth than it does something drawn from the sky. Its limbs, branches and twigs spread into the air like ink into blotting paper or cracks spreading through glass, embodying something between desire and transubstantiation.
The tree’s form tells the truth. The tree grows into the air because it grows out of the air. The bulk of the tree is not made from the soil beneath it—indeed, the soil is in large part made by the tree. Both soil and tree are made from carbon drawn from the sky above. Trees are built from sun and wind and rain. The land is just a place to stand.— Eating the Sun, 2007
“No longer a separable organism” strikes a strong chord with me, and “ramifying into space” always seems like a good idea. Most crucially, “Sharing and uniting the life of earth and sky”, as Carpenter had it, is more or less what photosynthesis does, and as such what I set out to celebrate. But it does it by pumping celestial energies into the earth, not vice versa. As in electric circuits of a more mundane sort, the earth is the sink, not the source.
Filed under: Trees
Today, because I am an idiot, I turned up at Keib Thomas’s memorial celebration at Southwark Cathedral exactly 24 hours late. This would probably have amused Keib. It saddened me a bit. Then I came home and saw this tree in the glorious not-quite-summer sun and thought I’d put a little memorial here.
Keib was a community activist who did a great deal to make life better for all sorts of people in Southwark and the Borough, and a wonderfully gentle presence. He used to live just along the road from our house in Greenwich, above Halcyon Books; for a long time he was just the-guy-who-looks-like-David-Crosby to me, but we got to know each other, stopping to chat now and then when we saw each other. That all came about after I somehow enlisted his help in taking down the Tree of Heaven in the overgrown back garden next door, a tree that was feasting on sunlight that should have been feeding the plants Nancy was growing in our passageway. Getting to the tree through the garden’s clutter and kibble was in fact the hard bit; dismantling it with a hand saw was easy — the wood was so soft it was like cutting butter. I took off branches two, three metres tall. But as Keib knew and told me, the tree would return. And as you can see it has made a good start.
I think we both knew, too, that people and trees differ in this — that when the time comes we do not return, or, for that matter, go on. While he was active with interfaith groups Keib had no religious beliefs himself (he thought their absence positioned him well as a go-between). But such knowledge, in the context of Keib’s time having come far too soon, is hard. Happier to look at the tree, breathe deep of the air he and it shared and which everything yet to come will share in too, and indulge in a little Kipling:
They will come back—come back again, as long as the red Earth rolls.
He never wasted a leaf or a tree. Do you think He would squander souls?
Picture of Keib from SAVO website
Filed under: Trees
Those of you who have got to the home straight in Eating the Sun will know that a wonderful cedar tree makes its appearance around the beginning of Chapter 8, for the purposes of celebration, aesthetics, metaphor and shade. Somewhere I have pictures of it which I may some day post, but in the mean time dear Sean sends me a picture of a favourite Cedar of his own, also from a Capability Brown landscape (Blenheim, not Bowood).
And this, apparently, is what you can find beneath it (though that’s not Sean)
An interesting piece about climbing trees in Saturday’s Guardian review by Robert Macfarlane, whose Wild Places I am greatly looking forward to. It prompts further thoughts about how Eating the Sun fits in to (or complements, perhaps) the new crop of British nature writing which Macfarlane both illuminates as leading light and serves as cheerleader, and which made up a big chunk of The Independent’s Top Ten Nature Books list
The past few months have seen a flourishing of first-person narratives in search of some version of “nature”. To borrow an ecological metaphor, it has been a “mast year” for nature writing. To the books already mentioned could be added Mark Cocker’s hymn to localism, Crow Country, and Jules Pretty’s elegantly forceful The Earth Only Endures. All these volumes differ markedly in tone, but all share a passionate engagement with “the land”, in Aldo Leopold’s rich sense of that word.
This British nature writing resurgence – and it is emphatically a resurgence, not the emergence of a new form – is only one aspect of the wider back-to-nature movement under way in Britain. No great claims should be made for the effects of this literature. It is not planet-saving, nor does it substitute for the hard work of field science and conservation. But it does annotate, and perhaps stimulate, our increasing desire for what Pretty calls “reconnection with nature”.
I see some of myself and my purpose in that: Eating the Sun is definitely “in search of some version of ‘nature'”, and it is more of a first-person narrative than I necessarily expected it to be. But it does not share “a passionate engagement with ‘the land'”. Indeed rather the reverse. One of its original aims, which I think is probably fulfilled to some extent, but perhaps not as explicitly as it might have been, was to celebrate air as the basis of life — which it is for plants and thus, indirectly, for us. One aspect of this is to encourage an appreciation that the air is universal where the land is particular — the carbon taken in by trees in Brazil has come in part from your lungs and mine, the carbon taken in by the rose on my terrace has come from all the lungs of the world, not to mention coals that have sat buried for a million centuries.
One of my reasons for writing about photosyntheses was specifically this — that it was a way to talk about the living earth that did not have to be a way of talking about specific places (though there are specific places in the book, some of which I love deeply). I find ideologies of land and rootedness worrying intellectually and hard to partake in emotionally; I suspect them of being innately regressive and conservative. One of the great opportunities of the current carbon/climate crisis is to create what might be called an ideology of air — of valuing and caring for something common to all and intrinsically global, and of creating a passionate engagement with the open sky and the endless sun.
And a corollary of that stance further distances me from the tradition that Macfarlane is celebrating and reinvigorating. I have no back-to-nature yearnings. I see the golden age of humanity’s relationship with the natural world lying ahead of us, in large part because I greatly prize the role of understanding in that relationship, and I value scientific understanding very highly. Much though I admire the tradition that Macfarlane sees reemerging, I feel my writing to be drawn out of the future more than out of the past.
Yet at the same time I share a delight in the detail of what is, and at my best an attentiveness to it, which seems to be of a piece with that which he celebrates. And I look forward to his book even more.