The snow had fallen all night, but the morning dawned clear and sharp. To the south, as I topped the first rise of the hills, lay the Pyrenees, higher, more intricate in form and peak, more immense in span of horizon than I remembered. My second time as an artist in residence at Bordeneuve was beginning in beauty. Some of the peaks were blushed pink-apricot, others were subdued in greys and pearls. The foreground of rolling, energy-filled hills was their prelude, dark with winter filigree of trees. This massive display of seemingly timeless mountain ranges, so memorable, so old, so sacred and so wildly beautiful, left me with mixed emotions. I could understand why early man used the Pyrenees mountain caves and dwelt in these abodes close to their food sources and to their gods.
Not everyone is able to live in places where the natural landscapes are still relatively untouched by man. Most people live now in an urban environment, imposed on nature by arbitrary, often arrogantly blind man. It may be stimulating, it may be memorable, yes, and it will shape those who grow and live in a world of concrete, stone and glass. These landscapes produce human beings who, inevitably, have their optic subtly or obviously shaped by such geometric, unyielding surroundings. One of the most evident differences, to me, is the types of visual art produced by city dwellers, versus those living in the midst of natural surroundings. It is much easier, for example, to base art on abstract or human-based concepts that reflect the absence of nature. Daily life goes on in a world that most humans believe impervious to the laws of nature, until some huge natural event reminds them otherwise.
Landscapes such as the Pyrenees Mountains leave me so grateful that I do not live in a big city. I have done so in the past, but always on a limited basis. My inner compasses have been fixed by natural worlds that show themselves on such a grandiose scale that right from the start, I could never think that man dominates nature.
I have always also realized that different types of landscape elicit different reactions and psyches. The world in which I grew up was the seemingly limitless horizons of Northern Tanzania, where the plains are a carpet of tawny browns stretching to far-distant blue mountain ranges that tell of the Rift Valley. Hundreds of miles of space give one a sense of liberty, of humbleness and awe. By day, the sky above, with its blinding white equatorial light, is a dome that speaks of eternity. By night, the then-unpolluted sky shared the almost-incomprehensible immensity of the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and the reach of universes far beyond our own. This high African plateau was, for me, a land that taught of man’s insignificance, his infinitely short life span, his vulnerability. There, you gloried in the moment, deeply aware of its fleetingness.
Coastal Georgia has the same feeling of golden space and light. The wide-flung marshes stretch to distant narrow ribbons of islands that form barriers to the Atlantic. It is flat, flat land, where salt water and salt-laden air cause a scintillation of light that enhances the sense of space and over-arching wide sky. Nonetheless, the hinterland, an ancient sea bed, is a world of slash pine cultivation; few distinguishing natural features alter its monotony. Here, to me, man is not challenged and stimulated as in other more diverse landscapes. Life seems often a little more humdrum, easier to take for granted.
My other compass-fixing landscape is a wonderful hybrid mix of steep and ancient mountains, red ocre plains and sapphire-turquoise sea – Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands. No wonder the early Western civilizations were born and prospered around the Mediterranean Basin! Here, most places offer landscapes that shelter, stimulate, sustain and yet remind man of their place in nature. Only in recent times has modern man started to forget that sense of harmony with their landscapes; bills are starting to fall due as natural resources, such as water, are becoming less abundant, less secure. Yet the Mallorcan landscape is one that remains beautifully welcoming in its scale, small enough to be encompassed easily by man, ample enough to allow the soul to expand and glimpse dimensions greater than each of us.
Perhaps these landscapes that I have known and loved are landscapes of the mind – who knows? I do believe, nonetheless, that each of us mirrors, to a great degree, the natural (or less-than-natural) world in which we live out our days. Celebrate the beautiful, the amazing, the humbling, the diverse, the invigorating and ultimately sacred landscapes of this planet!