Silent upon a peak in Darien- On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Silent upon a peak in Darien- On First Looking into Chapman's Homer


Mouse Point-3“All perceiving is also thinking, all reasoning is also intuition, all observation is also invention.”

– Rudolf Arnheim

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”

– Marcel Proust

I was on my way home, in somewhat of a contemplative space, when the landscape began to reassert itself, to cough quietly and begin to whisper in my ear.

Have you thought about this? It gently drew my attention to the hills on my right. Just north of Waikari, there is a place where it is possible to click on the cruise control, sit back and allow the landscape to roll past, to observe the dance of light and space and time, to visualise and make photographs in my head. I sit on my virtual surfboard out on the variegated ocean, as the waves of the landscape rolled relentlessly by, and watch the light as it shapes and kneads the forms of the land into structures I can begin to understand.

The landscape was beginning to whisper to me again, to draw me to its bosom and offer me secrets and understandings. I had come around the koru again, to a familiar place, and yet one which was as strange as it was familiar. It was time to return like the prodigal son, to knock on the door of the past and renew my relationship with Mother Earth.

The landscape was calling.

So, rather than lying in bed and sleeping in, I gave my 3 am demons the day off and headed out. Often, when I leave home, I only have a vague idea of where I will go. There is no cunning plan, no artfully thought-out strategy to my movements. I will listen to the land, engage it in conversation, and go where I am directed. The voice in my head, as I travelled across a darkening plain containered by the limits of my headlights, suggested that I head south, across the opening of the day, at right angles to the light, and look for a place to stop, to wait, to experience and to document.

Bit by bit, as I have lived in this district, I have begun to get a sense of its unique and special rhythms, of the relationship between season, light and sky, to observe the divine circle of the year, to see the Creator’s Plan in the colour of the broom which blankets the hills, to feel the soft entrance of autumn as it gently turns the tips of the leaves and coats them in warm colours. Autumn had tip-toed into the room, the unnoticed guest at a raucous party who slips in the side door and waits to be acknowledged. I saw it in the twist of colouring on the oaks, and the subtle swing of the light as it gently shifted its position and brought the shadows into greater prominence. I felt it in the tight coolness of the morning air and the sudden appearance of dew on the windscreen, winter’s gentle knock on the door of my perception.

The mists of autumn were rising, but they would not do so this day. A warm Norwest wind was funnelling over from the Tasman, fingering my vehicle and causing subtle vibration and bursts of sound, blowing away my preordained ideas of trees poking up through the sun washed fog. I let go of my need to make certain types of photographs, let my potential disappointment off the leash and allowed myself to be directed.

We landscape photographers all have favourite places, mistresses whom we visit from time to time and then abandon. There is one such place I have come to know, and each time I call, it has changed, donned new clothing, and has new insights to share. Near Culverden is a place called Mouse Point, why I do not know, but the view from the ridge at dawn is spectacular. The highway curves around the finger of land poking out into the Amuri Basin, and from high up on the ridge the view is panoramic. It is always a gift and a blessing to be there before dawn, to watch the turn of the day and to make photographs.

Driving towards it, I let go and allowed myself to be open to whatever it had to show me. I turned off the highway and began the circuitous journey up the ridge, scattering startled rabbits as I went, following the track more by memory than by what the headlights had to show me, glad that all the gates were open as I slithered my way up the track, remembering to engage low ratio for the last section. I turned around at the top and waited. As I stood there, in my eyes adjusted, the landscape began to reveal itself, began to shuffle out of the shadows.

A phrase was playing in my head, a mantra drawing my attention. Silent upon a peak in Darien. It repeated itself and repeated itself, each time the click of a new bead in my mental mala. I could not place it, but somehow it resonated, a Significance drawn up from the well of my past, a line from a poem I could not place. I had to know.

I reached for my smartphone, which usually is, because it has an eerie ability to predict the word I want to write next, opened Chrome and googled it. The answer returned almost immediately, a poem by John Keats which I had studied at school and university, and long ago consigned to the backwash of my memory. In the darkness, as I sat there, the sonnet  began to make sense to me, more sense than it ever had when I had sat there in my youthful university lectures, aware that it was a necessary pre-requisite for my degree, but without the life experience to bring anything to it or take anything beyond the academic from it.

I imagined myself, as Cortez in rusty armour, coated in dirt and experience, as he stood looking at the Pacific for the first time, as  John Keats, when he opened a treasure chest and experienced an endless epiphany. I turned back to the landscape.

There, before me, as the darkness began to evaporate, the shadows to fade away, the feeling of déjà-vu, the sense of been there-done that disappeared and I opened myself to the opportunities. I began to see this familiar landscape anew, to develop a relationship as if for the first time. Absence had dissolved Preconception, and I came to my liaison as if for the first time.

Nothing had changed, and yet everything changed. As the light grew and coalesced, the familiar was there, the road from the silage pit to the implement sheds, the shelter belts and transmission towers which stalked across the landscape. The lone tree tucked under the armpit of the Hill was still there, as it had been last time I visited, and the patterns of the fields much as I had remembered them.

But the landscape had been shopping, and now wore new clothing. It had donned a new Technicolor Dreamcoat, a patchwork coat of many colours. The light skimmed across the surface of the code, burrowing into the shadows of the crops, picking apart the fabric of the trees in the shelter belts, carefully examining the stitching of the fences and pushing shadows ahead of it. The wonder of human intention and human endeavour lay spread out before me. There were new crops and new textures.

And, like Cortez, I stared in wonder, entranced by the metaphor before me.

Then the voice coughed again in my ear and whispered to me.

So, Cortez, are you just going to stand there looking at it? Or are you going to get some work done?

I smiled at the reminder, and turned towards my vehicle and my patiently-Waiting equipment.


On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

-John Keats 1816

2 Responses

  1. Martin Smith says:

    Those lines meant a lot to me too, You will find the phrase alluded to in Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ where the ‘intellectual’ teenager, Titty, names a hillside, ‘Darien’ within the ‘make-believe’ of the childrens’ fantasy about the island where they are camping, which is in the English Lake District (several films have been made…and it’s something I have used for teaching…) The poem is exciting because it’s about one creative artist looking inside the minds of not just one other, but two others – Chapman, the translator, whose version – from 1616, and 200 years later discovered by a friend of Keats – had opened up for him new horizons; and Homer’s own mind, of course, which Chapman’s translation illuminates in that vital, fresh way – and which the Sonnet attempts to convey. The only real trouble is that historically, Cortez was not the Spanish Conquistador who discovered the Pacific: it was in fact Balboa. I agree with you that your landscape is very visionary in feel and matches the epiphany of the poem; also you have captured it wonderfully. I am just creating a new website about learning English and have arrived at a paragraph where I say that, ‘no-one, ultimately, knows the full detail of any phenomenon’ – and I thought of Keats at this juncture. It would be great if you’d allow me to reproduce your photo at this point as well… If I may, I’ll pencil it in and see if it makes the point strongly, as I am sure it will (I also plan to have some Beethoven playing, from the Seventh Quartet, which was published in 1808, and is thus very close to the Keats poem in date. This was the time when the romantic individual was trying to find his voice for the very first time – a vastly important meltdown of the human spirit. Your endeavour reminds me also of Grass Script by Australian poet, Robert Gray (2001) . I also noticed some exciting landscape photography going on in the English Peak District in about 2012…. All Best, Martin

  2. Tony Bridge says:

    Of course you may use ot!
    With my blessing!

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