Monday 2 September 2019

be a mountain

‘To sit, to listen, to be, to observe, to breathe, to think, to remember – the most urgent choreography’ (Lepecki 1996: 107).

‘Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is try to be there’ (Dillard 1998: 10).

Deep space

For two years in the mid-1980s I lived on a mountain in Australia, some miles to the west of the national capital Canberra. My rented home on the mountain – Mount Stromlo - was one of a number of 1950s single-storey wooden houses in a small community attached to a major observatory. A little further around the mountain towered half a dozen huge, brooding, domed telescopes. My neighbours were astronomers, astrophysicists, PhD researchers, computer engineers; they usually worked at night, and I rarely saw them out and about during the days. This was a place of deep looking of a specific kind. Initially established as a solar observatory, research at that time was focused primarily on galactic astronomy, notably supernovas and the rate of change of cosmic expansion, as well as the monitoring of space weather. To walk at night amongst the structures housing the reflector telescopes was an uncanny experience. These silent monolithic sentinels would suddenly crank and whir into life without warning, their slowly revolving aluminium domes winking in the moonlight as they opened to the infinite pearl-strewn intricacies of the night sky. Once I lay on the ground beside them, looking upwards, trying to imagine something of what they were seeing.

Awakening: ‘the 10,000 beings’

‘Don’t be a mountaineer, be a mountain’ (Snyder 1999: 20).

Lucy Cash and Simone Kenyon’s short film How the earth must see itself (a thirling) offers a distilled, poetic mapping of an area of mountain terrain – Glen Feshie on the western side of the Cairngorms in Scotland – through embodied engagement with and perceptions of its particular material attributes and energies. The film concerns itself with modalities of seeing, sensing and knowing, ecologies of place making, an explicitly gendered economy of respectful attention and exchange (in sharp contrast to the ‘heroic’ assaults, conquests or catastrophes of so many mountaineering narratives), and a resonant wonder that both recognizes the provisionality of its understandings and affirms the abundant complexity of a wilderness environment which exceeds the cognitive reach of the self. In image and sound, it proposes to displace any singular perspective in favour of a more modest, contemplative, ecological immersion in the protean dynamics of present process.

The film draws on and refashions material developed for a series of live performances directed by Kenyon with a group of women collaborators, their work inspired by Nan Shepherd’s astonishing book The Living Mountain, originally written during the second World War and first published in 1977.  Shepherd’s book might be read as a kind of modernist mystic’s love song to a place she knew intimately, and the amplified sensory attention and devotion of her enquiry are in many ways tonally and thematically reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s exquisite writings about Tinker Creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Both women elaborate a grace-ful pedagogy of seeing and sensing. And while Shepherd’s Presbyterian materialism perhaps offers a particularly Scottish counterpoint to Dillard’s ecstatic questioning pantheism, both seek a profound interpenetration of body, consciousness and place – they are thirled (1) - that undoes the self and sets it in motion, casting it into an unfinishable, contoured endeavour to understand an abundant, auratic here-and-now that will never fully give away its abiding mysteries.

In his perceptive introduction to a recent edition of Shepherd’s slim volume, Robert Macfarlane characterizes her writing in terms of ‘a compressive intensity, a generic disobedience, a flaring prose-poetry and an obsession (ocular, oracular) with the eyeball’ (Shepherd 2011: xiii). Consciously or otherwise, Cash and Kenyon appear to have conceived and moulded their film at least in part in the light of these qualities, and they condense fragments of Shepherd’s acutely pensive text to accompany and guide us in voice-over through the film. Spoken by the Scottish performer Shirley Henderson, these voicings are marked with a distinct gender, accent, timbre, and a flinty, weathered grain (in Barthes’s sense, grain as the body in the voice) that reminded me of Linda Manz in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (I can think of no higher compliment). Like Manz’s, Henderson’s voice is indeterminate in terms of age and historical time, as if archetypal – a benign revenant version of the pre-Christian Cailleach of the highlands, perhaps. And what she says come to us in a dream-like close-up, at times whispered, little more than shaped breath, like thoughts on the threshold of consciousness and at the cusp of articulation. Hers is the voice of an old soul, like Shepherd’s: faraway and so close.

The film as a whole seems to be discreetly rounded with sleep, framed by the very first voice-over words we hear in terms of the fresh perceptions activated when one emerges from a night spent on the mountain. From its opening blurred pan across the dormant body-like folds of the Cairngorms, set against a misty skyline, one might perhaps conceive of the film itself as a soft, porous ‘awakening’ into an attuned, uninsulated receptivity in an immersive, quasi-animist present. ‘Noone knows the mountain completely who has not slept on it. As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid. The body melts. Perception alone remains. One neither thinks nor desires nor remembers. There is nothing between me and the earth and sky’. And the mountain itself seems to stir into flickering life – a sprig of heather dancing softly in the breeze, a scurrying beetle, the astonishing feel-stretch of a caterpillar exploring a budding twig, the play of light on a spider’s web. The film’s closing fade-to-black, set alongside the sounds of a women’s choir and bird song, returns us to the darkness of (a different) sleep.

On first ‘awakening’, we are drawn into proliferative life and movement in image and sound, registers of the teeming material world often referred to in Buddhist literature as ‘the 10,000 beings’. We slip (at first I wrote the verb ‘plunge’, but that’s much too sudden a trajectory for this study in slow perception) (2) – we slip gently into a world of dynamic complexity, delicacy, precarity, resilience and interconnectedness, and over time we come to sense a tacit invitation to ‘think like a mountain’, to borrow Aldo Leopold’s celebrated phrase. For the film perceives and maps this mountain massif as an intricate ecosystem, a biodiverse web of agencies, interrelations and interdependencies between earth, rock, flora, fauna, water, weather, sky, all of them intertwined and in process.

As the film unfolds, our orientation through seeing and listening pulses between crystalline resolution and out-of-focus, proximity and distance, extreme close-up and wider context. The camera knowingly makes of our vision a modality that is imperfect and provisional, its rhythms contrapuntal and discontinuous, its points of view shifting. At moments the materiality of the 16 mm film and the camera’s mediation of seeing interrupt the ‘natural’ quality of these images, declaring their contingent madeness. A range of evanescent visual textures and effects, both deliberate choices and chance mechanical accidents happily embraced, briefly undo the integrity and singularity of the filmed image, destabilising the authority of the camera’s claim to truth, its ‘mastering’ of reality. These include frame slippage – the split-frame judder that registers those spaces between frames that are usually invisible to the viewer – the flaring micro-tempests of light leak, over-exposure and solarisation, shifting unstable focus and the sense at times of a softer peripheral vision, and the foggy blur of halation around certain objects, like breath on a mirror. Although superficially reminiscent of the work of certain other contemporary filmmakers in terms of their heightened engagement with film’s textural materiality (for example, Ben Rivers, Guy Maddin or Mark Jenkin), in Cash’s work, in addition to her activation of duration itself as material – an analogue to the deep time of the topography of this place - the very act of seeing is foregrounded as mercurial, unpredictable and dynamic, entailing an active process of negotiation of the partial and the compromised. In this way, the film enacts a kind of formal equivalence to Nan Shepherd’s own nuanced phenomenological insights in The Living Mountain as to the unsteady provisionality of vision, its morphing multiplicity and its inevitable implicating - literally, ‘en-folding’ - of other senses in embodied processes of experiencing and (always partial) meaning making. In particular, hearing and touch.

Never silent, the film’s complex sound track invites a kind of somatic ‘deep listening’, to use Pauline Oliveros’s term. It layers Henderson’s voice over a montage of bird sounds (corvids, a cuckoo, a skylark), the chattering flow of a small stream, footfalls in heather, a tiny crunching like infinite insect legs scurrying across pine needle debris, the soft thwoosh of bodies falling, and the continuous movement of wind and air, which at times suggests the tidal susurration of a distant spectral sea. In addition, a choir of women sings Hannah Tuulikki’s meditative vocal score, its compositional arc rising gradually towards collective celebratory flight towards the film’s ending. Combining sonic materials that are both spatially close-up and further afield, this heterogeneous sonic environment elaborates a detailed topography of holistic entanglement in a textured braiding of elements, sensations, creatures and perspectives. ‘For the mountain is one and indivisible … all are aspects of one entity: the living mountain’ ...

Look out

‘I knew when I had looked for a long time, that I had hardly begun to see’ (Shepherd 2011: xix).

The mountain observatory that was my home in Australia all those years ago was a designated place of looking in other ways too. At weekends during the summer months, I worked a 6-hour solitary shift as a fire ‘watcher’, spending a sustained chunk of daylight hours at the top of a tall circular metal lookout platform on one side of the mountain. In this windowless space high above the pine canopy there was a tall chair, a curved bench table, a logbook, binoculars to scan the surrounding ranges and valleys for any trace of smoke, a phone and a 2-way radio to file hourly reports to a central fire office in the city. I remember maps, a radio for weather reports, and a printout detailing different kinds of smoke plumes and how to read their specific colours in terms of the combustible materials involved. At the top and bottom edges of the framed panoramic field of vision were compass points etched into a metal strip, a version of the old 32-point wind rose. The direction of any smoke seen in the distance could be gauged relatively accurately by suspending a line vertically through the field of vision and aligning the plume with the compass coordinates above and below. A number of such readings from partner lookout points in the area, with intersecting fields of vision, would enable the central office to triangulate and fix the whereabouts of the fire. The semiotics and mapping of smoke.

My rhythm was to scan steadily and formally, backwards and forwards across the 180 degrees of visible landscape to be surveyed, then step away from the binoculars to rest my eyes in a softer drifting mode of looking, an undirected hazy pan of reverie or a jump-zoom in on something much closer at hand. A tuning in and out. Whenever I was distracted from the methodical, meditative engagement with what lay in the scalloped distance, it was triggered by registering change of some kind, something ‘fleet and fleeting’ as Annie Dillard might say: the interruption-event of a boisterous flock of white cockatoos, a loping wallaby or kangaroo foraging in the undergrowth at the base of trees nearby, an unfamiliar insect or spider alongside me in the lookout space, a caterpillar edging forward hesitantly with invisible information, a shift in the cloud cover, the breeze, temperature or light on my face.

One Saturday afternoon, I fell asleep up there, I’m not sure for how long. Looking out just folded slowly and softly into a looking in. When I woke up with a start, flushed with self-consciousness as if someone or something might have seen me sleeping, above all I was anxious as to what I might have missed; I immediately looked up and out. And I saw that it was almost dusk, and that there were no visible smoke plumes, and that everything had been transformed utterly and remade while I wasn’t even looking. And I saw ‘in a blue haze all the world poured flat and pale between the mountains’ (Dillard 1974: 41) …

Almost twenty years later in January 2003, long after I had left Mount Stromlo, in the height of a summer drought a devastating firestorm consumed the mountain utterly, sweeping through the pine forests on its flanks and destroying five of the telescopes, their aluminium domes, mirrors and lenses literally melted away, along with years of research data. The fire also razed to the ground many of the research buildings and houses, including my former home, and the lookout tower. The residents were given 20 minutes warning for their evacuation. Only one telescope survived the inferno.

Seeing touching

‘I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell’ (Dillard 1998: 14).

Like Shepherd’s book, Cash and Kenyon’s film activates a perceptual and conceptual terrain that sits astride a number of apparent binaries: looking/seeing, proximity/distance, small/large, subject/object, human/non-human, material/immaterial, speed/slowness, deep time/the present moment, knowing/mystery, sleeping/waking, living/dying. In both book and film each of these is unstable, in flux, the axis of a potential becoming. Each term is implicated in the other. To this list must be added the core pairing of seeing/touching, a conventional Western clefting that is actively frayed and then repurposed in this film. The women performers – quietly receptive explorers of and somatic witnesses to the mountain - embody the vibrant connective tissue in the space between these two kinds of perception.

As a range of writers, philosophers and phenomenologists have suggested over the past half-century or so – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emanuel Levinas, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Elizabeth Grosz and others – touch, the first sense to develop in the human foetus, involves a corporeal doing that exposes the sensitivity, porosity and vulnerability of the self to the world. As act and metaphor, touch represents the impingement of the world as a whole upon subjectivity; and touching locates oneself in proximity with the givens of the world, rather than in opposition to them. At the threshold of inside and outside, touch as encounter and interface with the more-than-oneself, the event of another. Touch as a modality of difference.

As the film unfolds we see one, then three, then five women on the mountain: Jo Hellier, Claricia Parinussa, Caroline Reagh, Keren Smail and Petra Söör. Their clothes - hand-knitted jumpers, leather belts, trousers, an elegant contemporary version of what women hikers would have worn half a century ago – reflect the textures, shapes and colour spectrum of their surroundings. They appear to belong in the mountain. They practice movements and states of being-in-place that are akin to what are known as ‘The Four Dignities’ in Chinese literature, fundamental modes of being mindful and present (‘at home’) in one’s body: Standing, Lying, Sitting, Walking. First we see one of the women standing immobile, dwarfed by a tree, contemplating its soaring presence, before softly placing her hand on its trunk and stepping ‘into’ it. Then the women as a group, walking slowly and silently through the heather. We see their eyes seeing, their bodies sensing, feeling the air on their skin and through their hair. At one point they lie folded in the heather, their arched woolen backs like scattered boulders that slowly stir into movement. A hand dips into running water, lingering with its energy and temperature, drinking them in. Another hand, then bare feet, carefully explore the qualities and architecture of thick spongey moss. The pleasure of tender exchange in the rust-coloured moss’s give and return, the responsive dance of toucher touched in the flesh of the world. Subsequently the women perform a simple collective choreographic cycle of organic emergence and return, appearance and disappearance: individually rising from the heather, standing, swaying in the breeze, gradually provoking imbalance by bending backwards and inverting their perception of the world - ‘unmaking’ the habitual - before finally letting go and falling back softly to earth. At times the camera adopts the fallers’ point of view, tracking the backward slide of their visual field across the sky.

Ultimately perhaps the film invites us to see a range of tactile encounters in proximity, with a view to the experience of the film itself offering the viewer an engagement with a haptic space rather than a singularly optical one. No opposition is established between these different kinds of sensing; instead the film encourages us to recognize the possibility that the eyes can see - and the ears hear - in a tactile fashion, apprehending and lightly brushing the epidermis of the world. If we are to find a trajectory ‘into’ any environment through open embodied contact, it seems to suggest, our journey will necessarily entail something of that pulsing world entering and taking (a) place within our own internal topography. For the edges of our bodies are membranes for two-way traffic …

So let us take time, make space.
Dissolve the mind, walk out of the body.
Allow what’s out there to in-here.

That’s the invitation, the most urgent choreography.

‘Lick a finger; feel the now’ (Dillard 1998: 99) …

1. Online Scottish dictionaries offer an uncertain etymology for the term ‘thirl’, with possible links to the words ‘through’, throw’, ‘thirl’ (a hole, aperture, nostril), ‘hurl’, ‘thrill’ and ‘thrall’. Formally, as a noun or verb ‘thirl’ suggests the creation of an interconnecting hole or passage way, a perforation that enables an intersection and interpenetration between spaces; the sensations and symptoms of intense emotion, physical stimulation or piercing cold (trembling, tingling, throbbing, vibrating, a literal and figurative ‘thrilling’); and a binding connection to a particular place (see DSL). The glossary appended to Shepherd’s book simply contains the following short entry: ‘Thirled, bound, tied’ (Shepherd 2011: 114).
2.  René Daumal: ‘There is nothing quite like the mountains for teaching slowness and calmness’ (Daumal 2010: 19).

Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL). ‘Thirl’, entry in the online ‘Scottish National Dictionary (1700-)’,
Daumal, René (2010. Mount Analogue, New York: The Overlook Press
Dillard, Annie (1998). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, New York: Harper Perennial 
Lepecki, André (1996). ‘Embracing the stain: notes on the time of dance’, Performance Research 1:1 (‘The Temper of the Times’), Spring, 103-7
Shepherd, Nan (2011). The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books
Snyder, Gary (1999). The Gary Snyder Reader, Washington DC: Counterpoint

Photo at the top: Stuart Lindenmayer - Mount Stromlo, burnt out observatory at night, 31 August 2017 (remains of one of the original telescopes, which now exists alongside new observatory facilities). Wikimedia Creative Commons license

This essay was originally written as a response to a film by Lucy Cash. Entitled ‘'The most urgent choreography’: reflections on seeing and sensing in How the earth must see itself (a thirling)', it was commissioned by Lucy Cash in 2019