Language and Seeing

Extract from The Invitation by Barry Lopez as published in the last issue of Granta (n. 133), a thoughtful meditation on language and seeing:

“When I was young, and just beginning to travel with them, I imagined that indigenous people saw more and heard more, that they were overall simply more aware than I was. They were more aware, and did see and hear more than I did. The absence of spoken conversation whenever I was traveling with them, however, should have provided me with a clue about why this might be true; but it didn’t, not for a while. It’s this: when an observer doesn’t immediately turn what his senses convey to him into language, into the vocabulary and syntactical framework we all employ when trying to define our experiences, there’s a much greater opportunity for minor details, which might at first seem unimportant, to remain alive in the foreground of an impression, where, later, they might deepen the meaning of an experience.”


By Sylvia Plath

Since Christmas they have lived with us,
Guileless and clear,
Oval soul-animals,
Taking up half the space,
Moving and rubbing on the silk

Invisible air drifts,
Giving a shriek and pop
When attacked, then scooting to rest, barely trembling.
Yellow cathead, blue fish —-
Such queer moons we live with

Instead of dead furniture!
Straw mats, white walls
And these traveling
Globes of thin air, red, green,

The heart like wishes or free
Peacocks blessing
Old ground with a feather
Beaten in starry metals.
Your small

Brother is making
His balloon squeak like a cat.
Seeming to see
A funny pink world he might eat on the other side of it,
He bites,

Then sits
Back, fat jug
Contemplating a world clear as water.
A red
Shred in his little fist.

Balloon Before Waterfall. Roman Signer. 1982.

Balloon Before Waterfall. Roman Signer. 1982.


Waterfall. James Dickson Innes. 1911.

Waterfall. James Dickson Innes. 1911.

La Perte de Pucelage

La Perte de Pucelage (The Loss of Virginity). Paul Gauguin. 1890-91.

La Perte de Pucelage (The Loss of Virginity). Paul Gauguin. 1890-91.

The Loss of Virginity relates a young girl’s sexual awakening to the natural landscape. Gauguin referred to the fox – a recurrent motif in his work – as the ‘Indian symbol of perversity’, though Breton folklore also identifies it with sexual power. The crowd of figures in the background may be a wedding party coming to meet the deflowered girl. Although painted in Paris at a time when Gauguin was closely involved with Symbolist writers and critics, the landscape is recognisable from other works that he made in Brittany. The model was Juliette Huet, a seamstress. She was two months pregnant at the time, and gave birth to their daughter Germaine while Gauguin was in Tahiti.

Text from Tate

Natural Orchestra

Sounds from my tree house at night (Trinidad). Listen to the sound of “silence”.
Musicians: frogs, crickets, geckos, beetles, etc.

Trivaux Pond

Trivaux Pond. Henri Matisse. 1916-7.

Trivaux Pond. Henri Matisse. 1916-7.


Arenig, North Wales. James Dickson Innes. 1913.

Arenig, North Wales. James Dickson Innes. 1913.


Molly Peacock — Desire

It doesn’t speak and it isn’t schooled,
like a small foetal animal with wettened fur.
It is the blind instinct for life unruled,
visceral frankincense and animal myrrh.
It is what babies bring to kings,
an eyes-shut, ears-shut medicine of the heart
that smells and touches endings and beginnings
without the details of time’s experienced part-
. Like a paw,
it is blunt; like a pet who knows you
and nudges your knee with its snout—but more raw
and blinder and younger and more divine, too,
than the tamed wild—it’s the drive for what is real,
deeper than the brain’s detail: the drive to feel.

Zoo Without Animals

I read about a zoo in Gaza, the Marha Land Zoo, which is now famous in its area for its creativity and ingenuity in bringing Gaza its first zebra. Many of their animals were dying and they were suffering from a lack of visitors. So they summoned their imaginative powers to transform 2 donkeys into “zebras” with the help of some masking tape, paintbrushes, and hair dye. The children were delighted and the zoo filled with visitors. The success was short-lived, however, and one year later it was once again a sad zoo with very few visitors and very few animals, including a funny donkey-zebra.

Maybe zoos should do away with animals altogether and instead have a zoo without animals? Not that I am a strongly against zoos or anything, but just take a moment to imagine what it might be like without the animals:

I imagine a cool sculpture park where you could spend the day climbing trees and cages and gazing at the weird “sculptures” all around. You could have a nap in the cool, smooth shade of the empty penguin pool, or a picnic on the little island in the middle. You could walk through rooms lined with glass tanks full of water and seaweed and rocks before resting on the dry logs where the lions used to lay, while birds fly freely overhead. Or, if you wished, and there was free wi-fi available, you could even just sit in a grassy spot and watch cute videos of cats and dogs.

Root in the dark

A car without an engine

And to finish off, here’s an excerpt from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (p. 277) by Milan Kundera:

“The very beginning of Genesis tells us that God created man in order to give him dominion over fish and fowl and all creatures. Of course, Genesis was written by a man, not a horse. There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing that mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars. The reason we take that right for granted is that we stand at the top of that hierarchy. But let a third party enter the game –a visitor from another planet, for example, someone to whom God says, ‘Thou shalt have dominion over creatures of all other stars’ — and all at once taking Genesis for granted becomes problematical. Perhaps a man hitched to the cart of a Martian or roasted on the spit by inhabitants of the Milky Way will recall the veal cutlet he used to slice on his dinner plate and apologize (belatedly!) to the cow.”

unbearable lightness of being

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Ted Carrasco

Ted Carrasco, Andes, 1988. granite. Olympic Park, Seoul, North Korea

Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.

Extract from De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

Ted Carrasco/Oscar Wilde

Ted Carrasco is a Bolivian sculptor inspired by nature and especially by his native Andes. For him the powerful Andean landscape is a symbol of life and his work explores man’s relationship with it. In his sculpture Andes (1988) he depicts the Earth goddess Pachamama, the sensuous embodiment of nature itself. From this photograph it’s hard to make it out, but it is supposed to represent Pachamama as “a reclining woman-mountain with an altar on her belly, her genitals serving as a doorway to the secrets of life.” I would love to see it in the flesh and stare for a good while. It’s a bit far, but a great excuse to go to North Korea!

De Profundis is a letter written by Oscar Wilde in 1897 while he was in prison, the title refers to a latin prayer, a cry of appeal expressing one’s deepest feelings of sorrow or anguish. In the letter he describes his spiritual growth during his imprisonment and writes about his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and the extravagant lifestyle which led to his imprisonment for gross indecency.

Just like Ted Carrasco’s sculpture, this extract from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis is also inspired by the relationship between man and nature, written at a time of immense physical and emotional hardship when he turned to nature and spirituality for relief. Two beautiful and evocative works of art.