To paint the perfect dragon

(First published as ‘Landscape’ in Buddhism Now, June 1991)

What is a landscape? – an innocent sounding question but one which started me off on a train of thought which was to waste most of a perfectly good Sunday afternoon. That’s the trouble with being a philosophoholic, one thought is never enough…

My dictionary defines a landscape as ‘picture representing, art reproducing or actual piece of inland scenery’. If only it were that simple I might have hoovered the bathroom carpet, got the washing out before it rained and peeled a sprout or two.

The trouble is you see there is no such thing as a landscape. For a start, the scene you are looking at changes from microsecond to microsecond, or rather from so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant to so-vanishingly-small-as-to-be-non-existent instant. Now you see a blue sky and bright sunshine; blink, and there is a wisp of cloud or one of those long-rolling shadows that blight the British summer. Who knows, a rabbit may have popped its head out of a hole while you blinked, a leaf may have fluttered to the ground, and of course the grass is growing.

For another thing, you have selected the landscape. If you are an artist you will no doubt have borne in mind the harmonious pattern, the beautiful balance it would make on the canvas, and even if you are without the artist’s eye you will be looking at that part of the scene which particularly interests and attracts you. An inch to the left here, two inches to the right, and it would be a different landscape. Unlike a painting a landscape has no edges.

Furthermore, the landscape you see depends on the way you see. If like me you are short-sighted what you see will be blurred and Turneresque – only experience and glasses tell you that it is not actually that way. If, on the other hand, your vision is 20-20 you will see every vein in every leaf, every nuance of the light. If you were an animal you would see in a different way again. If you were a frog you might see the Lake District as a series of moving coloured squares, rather like looking through a frosted glass window; if you were a sparrow you would see a range of colours undetectable to man. Who is to say which is the real landscape – a myopic blur or the bird’s kaleidoscope of subtle greens?

And it isn’t just our eyes – we see with our minds. If we didn’t, the landscape would mean nothing: a tree would not be a tree, sunshine would not be sunshine, or even yellow. It would just be. So we reinvent each landscape we see from a compound of personal associations, memories, attitudes and the way we happen to be feeling at the time.

For example, looking out of the window onto my garden at this moment I see a small black tree, leafless but decorated with strings of raindrops. Beneath that, somehow, is a memory-picture of the wire fence running alongside the allotments I used to pass every day on the way to school. After heavy rain the raindrops would be strung out along the wire in just that way and if you tapped it, it vibrated, showering raindrops anew. Now, you wouldn’t see that.

Similarly, if I am in the depths of depression I will see the most picturesque scene as boring, picture-postcard stuff. But if I am in love I may well float through some ruined dockyard marvelling at the glisten and swirl of oil in the puddles, the geometric patterns of cranes against the sky, the fiery colours of rust. We have all experienced such miracles.

A landscape is not a neutral thing – it reacts with the personality of the watcher. I worked once at Dungeness on the Kent coast and loved the bleak landscape out there, the shingle and the sea plants and the lurid skies. But a lady visitor from London hated the place. ‘It’s hideous,’ she said, ‘so empty. It gives me the creeps.’ You may be drawn to a landscape because you sense that it expresses an aspect of your personality, one which you couldn’t put into words. Equally, a landscape can be a threat, a contradiction, even a negation of your personality. It’s like women with perfume, or people with each other.

The Zen way of ‘seeing’ a landscape is different. Instead of there being an ‘I’ to view and an ‘it’ (the landscape) to be viewed, the viewer melts into the landscape. He becomes it, and it he. This is very difficult to understand and in fact cannot be understood, only done… sometimes… maybe. I am remembering here the Zen story about the man who wanted to paint the perfect dragon, and was sent away for years, until he could see dragons, hear them, even smell them. But that wasn’t enough. Before he could paint the perfect dragon he had to become the dragon. But the dragon doesn’t exist… ah, but does the landscape?

And if a landscape is something which cannot be defined because there is no universal standard by which to define it, doesn’t the principle equally apply to reality itself? A madman’s reality may be quite different from mine. Another example: some years ago I was told of a woman who insisted that there was an extra, invisible storey on her house and up there a gang of wicked men were forging money using her electricity – that was why her electricity bill was so high. Well, maybe she was right. How can I be sure?

How can I be sure that time is as it seems? I see a black bird apparently flapping across my chosen landscape, but how do I know that bird has not always been flying and will not always be flying, just so? Supposing all time is really happening in an instant, simultaneously. At one and the same time the bird is on the upstroke, the downstroke, not here yet, long gone.

Time is surely a function of perception. If I were a butterfly with only a two-day lifespan I would surely feel that my two days lasted as long as threescore years and ten. Human beings would move so slowly that they would not appear as living creatures to me at all, but static pieces of scenery, like rocks. So maybe rocks are living creatures too. If we could time-lapse film them over millions of years, would we see them heave, groan, yawn, lumber around a bit?

Perhaps I should just forget about the washing, get into the car and drive to some shady hillside. Yes, I shall reach for the thermos, break into the chocolate biscuits, wind down the window and remark to the nearest rabbit, ‘Nice here, innit?’

MIDWINTER UNWRITTEN

This one short story has fought me mounted and standing – a description I once read of a novel that was giving its author a pretty hard time – on and off for the past twenty years, and I still haven’t pinned it to the field of battle with my trusty sword… to push the fantasy/archaic military imagery slightly beyond its usefulness.

It started out as a ballad – you know, one of those long poems with interminable four-line verses – and rather a good one, I thought. However, at some point I decided it had to be turned into a short story and then, various house moves and computer meltdowns later, discovered I had lost the poem and could no longer remember the words. Unfortunately I still have the character Midwinter in my head, and I still have the story behind the poem. If only I hadn’t lost the original poem, I might have been able to let go of the short story obsession. Midwinter still nadges at me for her story to be told.

The original beginning for this phantom short story, went:

The robes of Wizardesses are blue with stars. The robes of Wizards are green with stars. And there are still Others, of whom little is known and less is said, whose robes are beyond description being of all the colours of the rainbow, and none. But all have stars.

I just adored those four sentences, but didn’t get much beyond them.

Harry Potter put a spanner in the works. Pinched some of my (unwritten, unpublished) ideas, so she did.

I have made plot summaries for this short story. I have written various half- and quarter-versions of it – filed them, fished them out, had another go, filed them, fished them out. All those yellowing bunches of file paper held together with rusty staples or rusty paperclips. Recently I even conceived a plan for a quartet of linked short stories based on an ever-expanding (in my mind, only) saga of conflict, cruelty and retribution between an ancient race of wizards and an equally ancient race of men. Each element in the quartet was going to have the name one of the Celtic festivals – Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh – with the grand, overarching title of Midwinter. It was going to be the bee’s knees, this quartet of mine.

I had another go at it this afternoon. Maybe if I just start writing, I thought. Attempt to channel my inner wizardess…

The child had no name. Sometimes it was called It. Sometimes it was called You. Once in a while it was addressed as Wryshanks on account of its twisted legs and crooked back. In its head it was Midwinter, for the time it arrived at Castle Bellbroke, and for the first of its memories.

Of that day, it mostly remembered cold. Thin limbs, a think blanket, cold like a rat a-pinching its ears and gnawing at its face. Its fingers and toes were afire with the pain of cold and it waited for death. Death, so much better than cold.

Above it, a mouth full of iron teeth, like the teeth of an iron giant. Great chains on either side. Above that windows like slits for arrows to come through. What it rested on was wood, slatted, wet. Wet seeped through its blanket…

Gone. Now I know how men must feel.

What to do? I know this could be a good short story, maybe more than one short story – a novel, even. So why can’t I write it? I am writing this to find out why I can’t write it.

Um… I am wondering if it wants to be a poem again? Tell me, Midwinter, are you wanting me to re-materialise you, atom by atom, as an interminable ballad that no one will read? No one reads poems. I love poetry and even I don’t read poems. Not in blogs, anyway.

Is it because I’ve tried and failed so many times before? Is it possible to lose all interest in a character yet still not be able to let them go? Why can’t I just dump you, Midwinter? Hop on the bus, Gus…

Is it perhaps that you are me, Midwinter? What is it about you that both grieves and obsesses me, makes me reluctant to nail your sorry self to the floor and be done with you? Would I be repairing some great rent in my inner landscape in repairing you, my Twisted Child? Are my Archetypes even now engaged in mortal combat? And have they always been so? Sometimes I have this image of dragons entwining, warring dragons becoming one, metamorphosing. Am I ready for that battle, that becoming and that extinguishment? Do I want to be that powerful? Could I bear a happy ending, if I could write it?

Maybe I run on misery.

Would I be destroyed, if I was happy?

[If the thing ever gets written, believe me, you will know. I will trumpet it from the rooftops, I will tell it in Gath, I will proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon: MIDWINTER WRITTEN – yay!]