Thursday, 24 September 2009

Mull and Iona

From Cumbria earlier this week my parents and I visited the Scottish west coast and the islands of Mull and Iona

Right on the edge of the ocean the land becomes fluid with the wind and the sea. Rocks and hillsides rise suddenly from the tides and lochs fill up any low place in this beautiful area. Iona’s light and colour is often praised, perhaps because the sky is so large there. Here’s a sunset over our campsite on the Ross of Mull.

Even Iona’s rocks are extravagantly coloured and organic.

Rockpools cluster with Mussels, Limpets, Anemones and seaweeds. More camera-shy were Eider Ducks, Gannets, Guillemots, Herons and the occasional Seal.

One moment we had light bright enough to turn the sea crystal, and the next moment the wind rushed in rain storms. Honestly, the seasons changed every ten minutes.

Iona is most famous for the abbey established there by St Columba who came to the island in 563 and was important in spreading Christianity from Ireland to Scotland and England. The Book of Kells is likely to have been written there, and Iona is still home to much beautiful Celtic stonework.

The modern cloisters draw upon the Celtic tradition of creating sacred art from the natural world. 

Friday, 18 September 2009

No wealth but life

I’m in Cumbria with family at the moment and this week visited Ruskin’s house, Brantwood, where Alexander Hamilton has responded to the place with an exhibition, Sensorium: Picture’s from Nature’s Laboratory. In a blue room he displays a series of photograms of plants, images made from laying plants on light sensitive paper which when exposed to the sun catches the plant’s shape in a vivid white against the indigo.

(from Sensorium, (c) Alexander Hamilton)

Hamilton explains, ‘I want to let the plants reveal themselves’. By the chance of his chemicals and the plants’ forms the resulting image is very beautiful, laying out the plant as though moonlit so you look again at a crocus or snowdrop because it has been made strange. I appreciated this glimpse of spirit of crocus, anemone, fern; Hamilton himself avoids naming.

(Sensorium, (c) Alexander Hamilton)

Hamilton is also experimenting with images drawn from the plants’ sap. He tries to show the inner life of the plants by making a solution of sap and water that soaks up into paper to form bubbling layers of greens and browns. From day to day the images change, perhaps responding to the moon, to the weather, or to the artist.

Hamilton worked in Ruskin’s moorland garden on the slopes above Coniston Water. Ruskin (who is quoted in today’s title) shaped grassy terraces between the trees and created small reservoirs in a stream that flows down through Brantwood’s gardens. The path zigzags up to this place away from the more managed gardens. Ruskin had a plan for the slopes patterned on Dante’s Mount Purgatory, topped by the garden of the earthly paradise. 

The idea made me smile, since we visited on a grey Cumbrian day and the moorland garden stream gives out before reaching the lake, so it didn’t appear to have the cleansing force of Dante’s Lethe. But after we’d spent a quiet moment there listening to the breeze in the birch leaves and smelling the damp grass, while a last heavy bodied dragonfly danced alone at the end of summer and clattered above the ponds, I felt differently about Ruskin’s idea.  

Friday, 11 September 2009

and grieved to have a soulless image on the eye

 My brother recently returned from a trip in the French Alps in an area we often visited as children and he reports that the glaciers have retreated remarkably over the past decade. His photos are here, and there’s an article here about climbing and climate change that really gives a sense of time running out.
It's a painful situation. One of the most powerful parts of the magnificent film Age of Stupid shows a Chamonix guide thinking about what's happening:
Here are images from around the world:

The thought of mountains without glaciers gives the title quote, wrenched from Wordsworth's account of first seeing Mont Blanc:

. . . That day we first
Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and griev'd
To have a soulless image on the eye
Which had usurp'd upon a living thought
That never more could be. (The Prelude, Vl 452-6)

(There is good news. While Wordsworth did have some more positive experiences in the Alps later, his heart was in the Lakes. Also, there were great winter conditions in Scotland last year as the Mountainplan blog recorded. So flying isn't totally necessary. But really, there are no easy answers to this.)

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Late summer in the Botanic Garden

The route into the city is fruiting riotously just now, with blackberries, rosehips, conkers and all sorts of red berries, cherries and so on. At the Botanic Garden the apple trees are heavily loaded with all different varieties, in shades from apricot through lime to chestnut-red:

Cat's head

John Innes 1001

John Downie
Golden Hornet

Here's Magdalene Tower from behind the pond, as though rising out of the jungle:

Some jolly sunflowers:
Something spiky from Spain (Eryngium Tricuspidatum):
And finally crocuses hallucinating spring, even as we approach Autumn Equinox: