A friend recently suggested that many of the things I make have something of the spirit of the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi – had I had the term? I had, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant so I looked it up.
Wabi-sabi is a term rich with many layers of meaning, but could be summed up as an aesthetic celebrating the beauty in transience, impermanence, and imperfection. Well, yes, I thought, many of my photographs are about looking for beauty in moments embodying much of this.
I’ve been intending to do some more work with found audio for a while, and this post has a little sample. Ironically, it is just that – a post! In this case – a metal gate post beside the road up to Craigowl hill in the Sidlaws. I’ve often noticed that when the wind is in the right direction, this particular post has a lot to say. I suppose this is not surprising, the post is basically a meter high metal tube with a couple of holes placed rather like those on a flute.
As I set out on a windy afternoon to see if I could capture some of this sound, it did cross my mind that a slightly baleful, but (to my ears) resonant and interesting sound encountered only when the wind blows a certain way in a particular place in the middle of field usually occupied by at most some sheep or cattle was definitely a stab at finding a fairly transient and imperfect fragment of beauty: wabi-sabi.
If there is a poet of the idea it must surely be the great seventeenth century traveller and haiku pioneer, Matsuo Bashō. A master whose work sometimes makes me think of photographic ways of seeing, although written long before the invention of photography.
The wind is mentioned often in Bashō’s haiku. Here is one to consider, with some alternative translations, perhaps while you listen the piece of sound I made (lower down) using the plaintive voice I heard calling from a post by the road to Craigowl.
蜘何と 音をなにと鳴 秋の風
Kumo nan to ne wo nani to naku aki no kaze
Spider, say again!
It’s so hard to hear your voice
in the autumn wind.
Spider, I say!
In what voice do you chirp?
An autumn wind
(Tr. Makoto Ueda)
Old spider! What is your
song? How do you cry
to the autumn wind
(Tr. Sam Hamill)
I tripped on some kindly light,
where fallen cones eroded by birds
echoed the labyrinth.
From site A to building B
busy at work passing directly
through Kinburn Park.
Light prefers straight line shadows,
though indirect paths, still and cool,
might enlighten more.
Hand scored benches keep the goal:
George Fox 1658
‘Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit’
In spirit my fingers follow the spiral sign,
tracing the miniature way, and
I stop to think that I would like to be that.
I had a pleasant donder around Monikie Reservoir with my pal Cavan this morning. Lots of interesting birds on the water just now. We spotted some redshank and heard their lonely note calls, but at this time of year it’s the large number of cormorants in from the coast that are most noticeable visitors.
Apparently in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan took the form of a cormorant to disguise himself in order to enter Eden. More tragically, but romantically, Norwegian mythology says that those who are lost at sea can visit their homes in the form of one of these birds.
I don’t know about that, but I suppose the well-stocked quiet waters of Monikie must seem like paradise to a cormorant – at least compared to a chilly winter gale battered coastline. Curiously when they come to Monikie they always roost together on only one of the three islands, the one on the south side of the water. And they really do roost – seeing such large birds perched high in the branches of the trees is a little unexpected.
I wrote a poem inspired by these winter visitors a few years ago. Visiting them again this morning made me make look back for a wee redraft…
Heliopause 1: Mariners
[northern hemisphere: 23.4 degrees obliquity, perihelion]
Black stroked full flaps down
over un-cast overcast naval greys,
wingtip taps reflected wingtips
a parallel rhumb line rhythm flight
ruled over inshore mirror water.
Pulling up in a clumsy prehistoric stall,
a drunken marine’s shore-bound landing
pitches the branches of this,
their February Isle.
Around again our orbit wheels
past drear and dreich northern months,
until anglers rewound cast again
from their wooden clinkers.
When longer days’ winds whistle
and fetch and chop and slop the surface.
And, filled with heat and hunger,
the cormorants quit to seek
from deeper waters,
from driven seas.
Very chuffed to have both my poem Horizoned and one of my ptarmigan photographs (double cheer!!) published in the most recent edition of The Curlew.
The Curlew is a terrific non-profit printed periodical dedicated to fine writing and illustration about the natural world which seeks “…passion, images that make us smile or shiver, word pictures that stay with us and make us think. Writing and illustration that enriches our lives.”
Sales of each edition benefit organisations and charities dedicated to protecting habitats, stopping wildlife trafficking and educating people worldwide about conservation and animal welfare.
More details: https://www.the-curlew.com/
This poem was my contribution to a collection made by the Wyvern Poets with Dundee University as part of this year’s ‘Being Human’ programme in Dundee. The collection took the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a starting point to think about how the story still resonates.
Mary Shelley had probably either seen or was very aware of the showmanship of a character called Giovanni Aldini, who was the nephew of Luigi Galvani [that’s the famous electrical pioneer and zapper of frogs’ legs]. His nephew Aldini went one better and presented spectacles involving electrifying the (human) dead. In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote:
“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
As a novel bound up with the question of what it means to be human, Frankenstein remains very much relevant to now. Today there is a collection of real and often troubling ideas involving topics like gene-splicing, bio-hacking, body augmentation, digital consciousness, and no less than the reanimation of cryogenically frozen heads … all enterprises that find their ground somewhere around the idea and under the the banner of “transhumanism”.
This poem came (perhaps from a slightly tongue-in-cheek perspective) from thoughts about Frankenstein, transhumanism, identity and ‘being human’ …
Transhuman™ [some assembly required]
Six million dollars doesn’t buy the dream team of once-upon-a-time,
the future’s DIY, blister packed, bubble wrapped, and shipped by UPS.
… check the manifest of better-than-you-were-before;
better, stronger, faster, custom body parts …
They say deluxe membership guarantees personality upload,
your destiny securely backed-up in the eternal cloud.
They just have to work out how to do it, and how,
when, where and if, you might finally come back to life.
… fix cryo-preserved head to brass neck collet
with twin 15mm chromed boris-karloff bolts …
I wonder if bionic organs will harbour residual bodily charms,
some gene squeezed vestigial glamour, post bio-hack-and-splice?
Could you courie in to perfect bliss, a bench-grown better embrace,
cosily snuggle up to a pale cyborg, un-sun-kissed but so sublime?
… kneel and carefully tighten the jesus nut, but note:
improper fitting may fatally void warranty …
Reborn as carbon composite, I discover built-in lingering doubts,
has something (maybe still in the flat-pack?) somehow been left out?
- Wyvern Poets Frankenstein’s poetic progeny
- To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death
Old dog standing
You’re an old dog now, no mistake.
Titanic as you weigh anchor to embark
from under the table, your safe-harbour
day-bed, out on to the linoleum sea.
The idea of standing is there
but between your back feet cross
caught napping, and front feet
skiting wide like a novice pond skater,
it takes time and struggle for the plan
to swim. Trying to float, confusion flaps
behind the George Clooney gaze,
signals flag a drift cast slightly all-at-sea.
Until at last you stand four-square
floor-launched to general relief,
we all tracked your slipway staggers,
familiar waters met though bearings lost.