Underland and Arranmore

Underland and Arranmore

I’ve recently finished reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, a poetic and profound book about all that is hidden. Macfarlane descends into caves, tunnels and holes all around the world as well as climbing a few mountains too. Much of it is genuinely terrifying especially as MacFarlane interleaves his stories with tales of similar past expeditions which went tragically wrong. And MacFarlane travels to Paris.

The entrance to the Underland…is somewhere in the second tunnel

While I was reading the book, I took a walk down to the Petit Ceinture, the abandoned railway that rings Paris and that passes under the Mountsouris not far from here. Like the High-Line in New York, the railway has now been rehabilitated for Sunday strollers. The day that I went there, surprisingly, the gate leading to the tunnel under Montsouris was open. There in the middle of that tunnel there used to be an entrance to the carrières, Paris’ former underground quarries where the limestone that made famous monuments all around Paris were extracted. The middle of that tunnel is dark, silent and damp. Today, the entrance to that Parisian Underland that Macfarlane writes about in his book is closed, sealed off. But there in the middle of the tunnel, daylight a thin semicircle a few hundred yards away, one can catch more than just a whiff of the solitude and isolation, so paradoxical a sensation in such a crowded and dense city.

Continuing in the book, I found myself agreeing with much of what Macfarlane wrote, impressed by his learning, nodding in agreement with his little sketch of the scientist making incredible measurements in a cave deep underground with as about as much drama as someone buttering a slice of bread. That’s what science teaches you to do, it tells you how to confront the infinite and to abstract it away so it can’t touch you or affect your judgement.

Further on in the book I found this passage:

In the Celtic Christian tradition, ‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile. Such locations were, for the peregrini or wandering devouts of circa AD 500 to 1000, often to be found on westerly headlands, islands, caves, coasts or other brinks. This place [Norway], now is one of the thinnest I have ever been.

I looked down again at the words I was reading and I saw that my bookmark was in fact a thin test strip of baryta paper on which I had printed a slice of Aranmore island, a close-cropped landscape with a house in the distance with grey-white walls and the paint only there in places.

Now I understood. Arranmore is a small island just off the coast of Donegal, very close to the mainland but far enough away so that one indeed feels some slight sense of such things. I was there for a few days this summer with ML. Even then in the heights of July and August there are not many people on the island. If one walks around to the other side of the bay, away from where the small passenger ferry comes in and where the pubs are one is alone facing the Atlantic. The lights of the mainland are resolutely blocked by the cold soil of the land. There are beaches with abandoned boats and low grey skies heavy with silvery clouds. People live here, though. I walked past a school and on the wall there was a big map of Ireland. What surprised me about it was there was a big black blank hole in the top of right of the map, devoid of features and writing or place names, that’s where I come from.

Hang on St. Christopher…

I realised reading Underland that in fact I have been searching for these “thin places” like this Island for all of my life. I am not as an adventurous traveler as Mr. McFarlane, but I will bear his words in mind, I think.

In Heidelberg

In Heidelberg

I have just returned from a short trip to Heidelberg. Looking back at what I wrote the last time I was there I see that my concerns haven’t really changed at all (and stay tuned for my next post). And I discovered there is at least one person who reads this blog ! So I will try to post a little more.

Deep in the fog

This time, I was in town for a Euclid meeting on the mountain, in the forest, and I stayed with ML for a few days in a hotel in the old town. The very centre of Heidelberg is certainly beautiful but does not seem to be the most dynamic place I have ever visited. The Saturday market boasts only one stand selling rather tired-looking fruit and vegetables. The streets at night seem strangely quiet.

At night in Heidelberg

The last morning there was a heavy fog over the river. It was easy to take photographs which looked like that they were taken a hundred years ago, especially with a film camera to hand, and I had fight hard against that urge. The place where we had our meeting was beautiful, a lovely glass building surrounded by the forest. With some luck, I’ll be back before too long.

Andrée Chédid, « Destination : arbre »

Andrée Chédid, « Destination : arbre »

This lovely text appeared on the exam scripts of millions of French students yesterday:

Parcourir l’Arbre
Se lier aux jardins
Se mêler aux forêts
Plonger au fond des terres
Pour renaître de l’argile

Peu à peu
S’affranchir des sols et des racines
Gravir lentement le fût
Envahir la charpente
Se greffer aux branchages

Puis dans un éclat de feuilles
Embrasser l’espace
Résister aux orages
Déchiffrer les soleils
Affronter jour et nuit

Évoquer ensuite
Au cœur d’une métropole
Un arbre un seul
Enclos dans l’asphalte
Éloigné des jardins
Orphelin des forêts

Un arbre
Au tronc rêche
Aux branches taries
Aux feuilles longuement éteintes

S’unir à cette soif
Rejoindre cette retraite
Écouter ces appels

Sentir sous l’écorce
Captives mais invincibles
La montée des sèves
La pression des bourgeons
Semblables aux rêves tenaces
Qui fortifient nos vies

Cheminer d’arbre en arbre
Explorant l’éphémère
Aller d’arbre en arbre
Dépistant la durée.

52 photographs (2018) #52: In the garden

52 photographs (2018) #52: In the garden

It’s the end of the year. And the last photograph in this series. The sky is overcast. It is what they call on the photography forums a “flat day” (it took me a long while to understand what that meant). There was never a day flatter than this. But I am in Versailles, and I never tire of going to the gardens there. I brought my recently-repaired Rolleiflex with me, loaded up with my last roll of Tri-X.

In the garden

Here in the depths of December the statues are all wrapped up for the winter. I look down the avenues of the garden and remember what Szarkowski wrote about Atget not taking the photographs that the garden wanted you to take. So I look a little to the left, and I wonder if I’ll be able to see the wrapped-up statues against the empty hedges. I click the shutter.