Dagobah

Eight years ago my sister moved away from suburban Toronto to outside-the-city on the Escarpment, she said, a bungalow with an outdoor swimming pool and land attached, come visit. So I did.

I arrived in early March. It was a long drive from the airport. After the daily tube crush, the smog infested streets, the office busyness it was good to get away, breath fresh country air. Around about where she lived were farms where they the grew crops: soybean and corn. The view from the car was flat and white, it had snowed the night before. Their land, their hundred acres was mostly rented out farmland, but including a strip of woodland, 20 acres, right by the house. It wasn’t much; their neighbour called it the bush or scrubland. For me a backyard was a garden, this scrubland, this wood was a forest.

I woke early the following morning, put on a warm coat and wellingtons and went out, out of the house, across the snow covered lawn and into the wood. Without pause plunging into this black and white world. Picking up a fallen branch to help me in my trek through the thick snow. The trees were tall and slender for the most part. Against the white of sky and ground they appeared like a mass of dark lines. Branches still had their share of snow. It was a simplified world, silent but for the crunch, crunch of my footsteps. Every step a negotiation, uncertain, yet exhilarating, demanding – unlike the tense jostle along platform or pavement amongst soot and sweat. I kept on going and soon the house was no longer visible. Lost in the woods. Suddenly there was light, a large circular clearing. There was glare, the snow reflecting the sky. I paused, then stomped into the space. Half way across my leg broke through ice into  – water. Struggling to get out I fell and slid on the ground. Lying on my back face up, breathing hard. The sky had now cleared, to a brilliant blue. It was just me and the birds and the stillness and the snow. I lay there and began to laugh. Should I get up?

I walked all the way to the end of the wood, where the field began, then back to the house exhausted and hungry. A breakfast of freshly made blueberry pancakes and maple syrup awaited. I mentioned the clearing I had come across. “That was Dagobah,” my nephew said.  He had named it after the swampy planet in Star Wars. Where Yoda came from, where he trained Luke to use the Force. Why Dagobah? “You have to see it in the Summer,” he said.

The following year I returned, this time it was Summer. The wood was wet and green, unrecognisable from before,streams had appeared and paths had disappeared, into undergrowth. A green blanket of leaves filtering and blocking the light. Foliage congregated anywhere the sky was visible. Access was difficult mainly because of insects, filling the wood like a noxious gas, mosquitoes to midges, buzzing and biting. I would spray repellent and cover-up; any bare skin was soon bitten. I had splodges of itchy red but was not deterred. The wood drew me. Dagobah was now totally overgrown with vegetation and a spawning ground for mosquitoes. Early morning it looked like its namesake, the swamp planet, with layers of vapour floating above the grey-green foliage, the surrounding trees still in gloom. The sun rose and the light hardened, was the morning mist imagined ?

I came another year, in September. After a dry summer there were not so many insects. The reds and oranges of the dying leaves were just appearing. The wood was now easier to traverse. I would walk out every morning, sometimes take a book with me. Maybe read it sitting on a tree stump. I heard birdsong and an occasional deer in the distance but mostly it was just me, and the wind clattering the topmost branches of trees. A silent vulture crossed the sky. I paused and shrunk a little as it’s shadow traversed the ground at speed, seeking prey for its master above.

One evening we returned late to the house. I saw something glowing at the beyond the lawn. A childhood memory came to me – Jugnu. I followed the moving glow into the wood, into the dark, keeping to the path. Going further in, my eyes began to discern between the differing blackness’s. I reached the edge of a clearing. There were many hundreds of fireflies – a sea of glowing lights, shifting, blinking off and on.This was still Dagobah, now reflecting the stars blazing in the night sky above. Looking up, stars and more stars and darkness. Yet, in time the patches of darkness would reveal further, farther away. Time and distance related! There was no end to them. There was no end unless you stopped looking.

Hockney and me

A winters day standing in Finsbury Park looking down towards the main entrance. It is cold. The sun is low and clouds are encroaching and flirting with it. The light changes from moment to moment. I love winter light, there is a crispness to everything.  I watch the scene like a photographer waiting to press the shutter. I have no camera and enjoy the subtle changes to the landscape: the trees, the grass, in the varying light. If I took a picture, the rustle of leaves, hum of traffic would not be captured, nor the light play. While it would be a moment frozen in time, a static reminder of all I saw when standing here in this park, on this day, it would be a reminder only to me, a poor facsimile. I continue watching carefully in my chosen spot, the one where everything is just so, balanced: the sky, grass, trees. The sun is gone behind cloud. A uniform dullness descends. No longer changing, no longer quick. I leave the park, through the exit into the busy street, the energy of traffic and sparkle of lights in dusk.

Maybe I learnt to see through taking pictures but I felt its restriction. The decisive moment: selecting a picture, framing it, was all about exclusion, removing the passage of time. 1/100th of a second is not a moment but a thin time slice on an inhuman scale: half blinking eyes, unnaturally frozen faces, no sense of a space. I discovered David Hockney’s photo collages, called joiners, while studying photography in the early 90s. In them he played with the portrayal of space and time, overcoming limitations he found in single photographs. I made my own Joiners. I came to better know his ideas. He felt photography was limiting and returned to painting. My interest too waned, life moved on.

In 2005 I went to India, to Bangalore, and fell in love with trees. The city had two large parks and wide tree lined avenues, big trees, impressive extending over roads, providing shade. Bangalore had been a sleepy post-colonial town, now rapidly urbanising, improving its infrastructure. I saw a flyover, which curved round the bowl of an old resident tree. I saw a building built in deference to the tree it now contained. Trees were sacred here, as it should be. But then on a road trip to Mysore I saw destruction. By the side of the road for the whole length of the journey from one city to the next were felled trees, one after another, 200-year-old trees, their great trunks left upturned by the roadside, sacrificed to road enlargement.

The same year I visited my sister in Ontario, Canada. She had moved out of the city to a bungalow with a fifty acre wood attached. For someone feeling imprisoned at a desk it was pure magic. I woke up in the morning and walked out on the garden lawn and into the trees, maybe disturbing a deer. I visited with snow on the ground, in early spring, later in summer then in autumn. On each occasion with my camera – the same trees in different seasons, different conditions – attempting to capture their beauty, their alteration, their permanence.

2010, in London I visited the Tate to see a painting, Large Trees at Wurther, one picture the size of a wall. Hockney was bringing IMAX to the art world. I had not been following his progress for a decade. He had in the interim started painting landscape, with trees, in his native Yorkshire. This one was made up of many canvasses, arranged in a grid like one of his Polaroid joiners. There was a tree with a wood behind, the sun behind and low. I liked the way he painted shadows, purples and pinks. Film with its reduced tonal range – as compared to the human eye – could not compete. I sat and absorbed it. The picture was big enough that it filled my field of vision, the quantity making qualitative difference in my brain. I was immersed in it, in the time it took in the painting of it. Days not fractions of seconds, human time. Longer, meditative time. Hockney and me, we were aligned again, now in our love of trees.