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?’

DUNGENESS

Dungeness is a wilderness of pebbles, a sea of stone almost as vast as the sea itself. Flying over it in a light aircraft, as I have done once or twice, you can clearly see the great, copper-coloured waves formed by the high tides of long-gone ages. Sea-cabbage sprouts untidily, its rubbery leaves adapted to the salt air; yellow broom litters the place; marram grass grows in dishevelled tufts, occasionally interrupted by flowers with malevolent names like Viper’s Bugloss. Nothing sweet-sounding grows here. Precious little sweet-looking, either. This is a garden without a gardener, nature in rebellion, doing what it wishes and not what a landscape This was the place where I made a momentous discovery: the horizon is round. Brought up in the suburbs I had only ever appreciated it as a short, straight line between houses. At Dungeness you can turn and turn and turn, and still there is sky. You can understand how not so long ago men were sure that the world was flat and that they were scurrying about on it like ants on a plate.

For nine years I worked as a clerical assistant in an office overlooking the English Channel at Dungeness A Power Station, long-since decommissioned. Every now and then HQ in London would Send Someone. Most often it was the Courier, a cheerful, pipe-smoking cockney. Sometimes it was a PR man in a golfing sweater, or his companion the strained-looking photographer, burdened with tripods and light-meters and white umbrellas for reflecting the light. Occasionally it was a Graduate Trainee doing his or her obligatory six week stint of ‘grass roots’.

One of them happened to be staying close to where I lived, so I offered her a lift in to work on the first day. There she was, at eight-fifteen, poised at the edge of the pavement in a rather nice calf-length raincoat. I promised myself a trip to Oxford Street very soon. At first she was chatty but as we got closer to Dungeness she became quieter and quieter, gazing out of the passenger-side window with an expression of dismay, bordering on fright.

Suddenly I began to see the place through her eyes: the women potato-pickers with their headscarves and dangling cigarettes glaring at us from the side of the road; that piece of agricultural machinery trundling ahead – vast, pea-green, all prongs and spikes, it’s driver merely a pair of eyes in a mirror; the gravel-works – a sprawl of conveyor-belts on both sides of the road, prodding against the morning sky, chutes trickling black sand onto needle-pointed mountains of the same; the few trees carved into anxious, shaven shapes by the prevailing wind, and all along the road the crow-pecked corpses of foxes and rabbits killed by the night shift careering off home to their beds. No wonder.

My own first sight of Dungeness, when I went for the job interview, had not been that scary. I was into science fiction at the time and the distant prospect of the two stations, those sororal twins mushrooming out of the naked shingle and shimmering in the heat, fascinated me. The Approach Road was blue with Viper’s Bugloss and there were butterflies everywhere.

One was expected to be blasé about the view out over the Channel from the office window. When visitors remarked on its magnificence one was supposed to drawl, ‘Oh yes, but after the first few weeks you hardly notice.’ A lifetime would have been too short to dim my pleasure in that ever-changing landscape.

The beach was a busy place. One minute there would be a man and his dog, the next an entire school geography class come to examine shingle-deposition on this ‘unique, cuspate foreland’. Sometimes beach-feeding was in progress and a succession of little dumper-trucks buzzed back and forth, temporarily reversing the effect of something known as ‘eastward drift’ – the natural tendency of shingle from the western side of the point to be washed round by the tide and deposited on the eastern side – thus preventing the power stations from being washed into the sea. Sometimes there were skin-divers. There was also a mysterious wooden hut, with chimney, which moved up and down the beach although nobody actually saw it moving. Every now and then it disappeared altogether. Could it have been the Russians?

Once in a while the sun would shine gloriously. Thousands of seagulls would bounce past the second-floor windows and I would sit entranced, trying to guess which one was Jonathan Livingstone. The sea would bustle with porpoises, racing yachts, ferries and fishing-boats; battleship shapes would be strung out on the horizon like grey washing.

Then there were the days when it snowed for hours and one began to wonder childish, magical things like how could there be so many snowflakes, and did they think any last thoughts as they melted into the shingle or drowned themselves so delicately in the sea?

There were spring and autumn days when the wind howled around our flimsy windows, rattling the raised blinds and mocking the central heating; days when there were no ships at all, and the sea was white, hurling itself screaming onto the beach in the throes of some dreadful, dreadful grief; days when the sky looked as if some lunatic painter had had a go at it, streaking it with black and yellow, splotching it randomly with cerise. End-of-the-world days. Death days.

I didn’t leave for several more years, by which time the Graduate Trainee lady had become Head of Something at HQ. I never did get to Oxford Street to buy that raincoat, but I did leave with a landscape, and it has never left me.