Saturday, 18 October 2014

It's Behind You

St. Catherine's Hill across the M3 cutting

After a week of dull and rainy weather, things cleared up a bit on Thursday, so I went for a walk.  I did a four-to-five mile circuit from the Hockley Viaduct, up onto the remnant of Twyford Down opposite St. Catherine's Hill, over the footbridge crossing the M3, down the track beside the Hockley Golf Course, then along the side of the wood at the bottom of the valley towards the Morestead Road, finally heading back along the unmarked right-of-way across the fields towards the motorway footbridge.  It's a route that only takes a couple of hours at a moderate pace, but, unaccompanied and on the lookout for photographs, with many off-road diversions into woods and stony fields and much standing about just looking at and thinking about things, it takes twice as long.

Photography's main tool, and its main limitation, is selection.  Cameras have no peripheral vision, and a photograph cannot include or even hint at what is out of frame. Just inside the beechwood on the south side of a small but steep-sided valley, someone had been busy tidying things up in readiness for the winter; gathering up the plastic sleeves that protect saplings against deer into heaps, piling sawn logs for collection and burning the brash, leaving neat round bosses of ash and charred wood on the leaf-litter.  It made a nice scene in muted tones, with the receding tree trunks and leaves just starting to turn in the background.

However, turn yourself through 180 degrees in the same spot, and the view to the north is completely different: a ploughed and sown chalk downland field rises up to a ridge from within the shadow of the wood on the facing slope, with a big open sky floating past on the near horizon.

I suppose a 360 degree panorama might do more justice to the reality of such a place, but then that would be true of more or less anywhere you could stand.  It would be a pretty dull (and unusual) landscape where what is behind you exactly resembles what is in front of you.

This partiality of the camera lens troubles some serious-minded people, I think mainly because it seems like an analogy for the partial view of history and society that has privileged the dreaded Western Colonial / Patriarchal White Male view of the world over other, equally valid, worldviews.  You show us this, mister straight white man, but why not that?  The romantic idea of a landscape as an analogue of one's inner states is also deeply suspect to many, or at least deeply unfashionable.  How dare you presume that a wandering cloud is lonely? You can build a decent career out of "challenging" such things.  It goes along with an obsession with traces and implied absences, and the (not unreasonable) idea that the prominence of one point of view must have obscured others.  I am sympathetic, but don't always trust the sincerity of the rhetoric. As with conceptual art, I am more persuaded by the outcome than the prospectus.  "Don't trust the teller, trust the tale"...

Other points of view abound, of course.  Birds, for example.  These fields are a favoured spot for skylarks, and to them I must look suspiciously out of place and a potential threat seen from way up there. The foolish creatures lay their eggs and raise their chicks in mere scrapes in the ground, where they are vulnerable to clumsy boots, not to mention agricultural machinery, or foxes and badgers.  The RSPB does encourage farmers to create "skylark plots" in their fields, now that autumn-sown winter crops are so commonplace, but they are still very much under threat from us: our species can and will continually change our ways, but they are stuck with theirs.

Fossil shell in pathway flint

I was struck, yomping across those recently-ploughed fields, by the sight of a spider hunkered down in the lee of a single clod of earth.  What must our shared chunk of planetary surface look like, seen through those multiple, tiny arachnid eyes, filtered through that tiny, arachnid brain?  We simply cannot begin to imagine.  And, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, even if a spider could talk, we could not understand her.


Debra Morris said...

Another fine instance of your creativity on the World Wide Web, Mr C.

Mike C. said...


Thanks. Now, I had set myself a rule not to publish "nice one!" type comments, but I suppose the occasional one won't hurt... :)


Alastair Deery said...

Brachiopod fossil impression from the late Cretaceous spied in the much disturbed superficial deposits of a former warm tropical sea bed. I'd have probably lifted that Flint nodule and tapped it with a hammer to find more, but I was ever a collector. I see other faint fossil traces in the surface, complement of your pictorial detail.

Mike C. said...


Indeed, it's a good spot for derived chalk fossils -- you should probably see this post from last year: