Over the back-conversations with a metaphor
We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.
There is something to be said for living on the fringes, out on the edge of the world, far from the 24/7 hum of a living city. You can hear yourself think and hear the subtle messages blown down the wind, whispers from far away, possibilities thinned out and rendered transparent by Time and Distance. In a little mountain village of 800 people where everyone knows everyone else (and their business), it is possible to put time and space between yourself and those around you.
It is possible to be a spider connected to the world by a fibre-optic web, to feel the tug and pull of the world, to live anywhere at the speed of ADSL, and to look from afar. It is a blessing to be able to watch and wait and to react when it is time.
Sometimes, however, the fringe isn’t far enough, and my electronic lair becomes stuffy and crowded, and I need to go out beyond the fringe, into the Void, beyond people and dwellings. It worked for David Henry Thoreau, when he retreated to the depths of the forest and wrote Walden, his bible for contemplatives. It worked for Elijah and it worked for Mohammed and it worked for Milarepa, the Tibetan monk.
Sometimes you have to retreat to advance, step back to move forwards.
It usually comes when I am ready to look harder and listen more carefully to my mother, the Earth, when I am ready to hear what she has to say rather than trying to shout her down, when the opaque look on her face tells me she is growing frustrated with my addiction to a wired world and wants to get me back on task, writing more verses in my hymn to her beauty.
It is time to fill a thermos, pack a few nibbles, dress warmly, put my camera on the back seat of my truck, unplug the virtual umbilical cord of my online reality and head out.
My Dearly Beloved calls it “going over the back”. We turn off the tarseal onto the gravel, and point the truck upwards, climbing up towards the summit of one of the two passes which will take us over the edge of the world into silence and space. I dare not go without her; she is as addicted to the wide spaces as I am and we travel joyously together.
It is a time of re-cognition, of greeting the places we have come to love and to which we long to return, of studying how the year has wrought its influence upon the constancy of the river, the indomitable broom and the character of the road upon which we journey. In summer our destination is as far as time, light and inclination take us; in winter we know we will never make it over the Island Saddle, the highest pass in New Zealand. We have made a ritual of travelling it each March, of saying goodbye for the year to the tiny hut snuggled under the hill at its feet, of bidding farewell to the industrious bumble bees and their passion for everything blue. We stop at the summit and take one long look back. It will be summer before we can return to this secretive armpit in the mountains.
It is winter and it is July, weeks after the Big Snow came and clogged up the possibilities for adventure. The track up Isolation Hill is a white ribbon and beyond driving. We continue on, towards Fowlers Hut. Our friends in the village have told us not to expect to get much further, that the road along the bluff is barred by a huge snowdrift and even the cheat track round its base is impassable. But we will try anyway.
As we cross Isolation Flat, the remnants of 2m of intense snowfall have largely faded away, driven into ignominy by the series of warm fronts which have prised winter’s fingers from the land. But there is still enough lying in wait on the road to demand concentration and technique, to insist I focus on the road and its difficulties. Then, oddly, as we round a corner, the sticky morass suddenly vanishes and we have time to look, to experience and to…be.
Just below Fowlers as I weave around the potholes which have returned after the summer, digging themselves into the road, I notice a small patch of ice. A switch flicks in my soul, a moment of recognition. I file it, since we will be coming back soon.
Soon arrives unexpectedly and ahead of time. Just past Fowlers the snow is lying in wait, malicious cloaks spread across the road. It is thick and sticky, the result of cold nights and warm days. Chains will defeat it, but there is no sense in going to war with it when we are close to the end of the road anyway.
I turn around and we head back.
The ice patch is waiting. It intrigues and fascinates. A stubborn leftover from the storm, it sits in the shadows beside the rabbitproof fence. It takes time for me to understand it, to see how the turn of the days and the prodding of the wind has sculpted it. Then it comes. The warm winds of day have thawed it, the same wind as that fingering my neck, looking for ways in through my down jacket, ways to chill and discomfort me. Warm is relative.
As the ice has melted, the wind has pushed at the surface, finger-painting it in long pointed strokes, then allowing it to refreeze the following night, before returning. The wind as artist. The wind as painter.
I burrow into it with my camera, taking myself deeper and deeper into the metaphor, exploring a truth I sense but am as yet unable to articulate.As I do so, the ice is changing, melting into small lakes, mutant microcosms with their own complete story.
Then the light fades as the watery sun drifts behind the hill and the landscape written small sinks into the shade, retreats into its own thoughts. It is time to head home. The moment is frozen for future contemplation.
I do the initial edit and sort, sensing which interpretation wants to be taken further, which trail leads further across my internal landscape.
Ah, there it is. However the initial sculpting and shaping lends no clarity, offers no path through the forest. Rather than forcing it to speak false truths, it is time to walk away and allow it its own space, until it is ready to communicate. It may be minutes, hours, or even days. I leave the screen running and the image where it is, perched on its electronic easel.
I am on my way home from the city a few days later, when it clears its throat, coughs significantly and begins to share.
I am a metaphor, it says.
Well, I knew that, I reply. Do you have anything more to say? Would you like to unpack?
And, sitting in the passenger seat beside me, staring out of the window as we drive, it tells me. Of the interconnectedness of everything, of left and right, Tao, male/female, of Yin and Yang. You know, it says in a somewhat superior voice, that duality is the battery that powers the universe. It turns to me and fixes me with its steely gaze. You of all people, being a Libran, should understand balance, mésure, diu mâze, two. And you know of the truth engraved into a tukutuku panel.
I have been chastised. I return to the road and concentrate on my driving.
Now, however I know where the file wants to be taken.
At home, in front of my easel, with my electronic brush, I shape its tonalities and change the hues. I duplicate, re-layer and reflect it onto a larger canvas. As works do, when they are ready and you are suitably compliant, it comes to resolution quickly.
And there it is, looking back at me.
Tukutuku var. 2