Wednesday, 25 February 2009

erasing that tree

All the new thinking is about loss.

In this it resembles all the old thinking.

The idea, for example, that each particular erases

the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-

faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk

of that black birch is, by his presence,

some tragic falling off from a first world

of undivided light.

from a poem by Robert Hass

I wanted to write about these lines that I had received some days ago, from somebody who is very dear to me. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't come up with something more beautiful (and 'beautiful' means here 'round', or 'whole', too) than the gift that I had been given along with this poem, and which is this small confession:

'I want all the little details of the world, I want to see them and touch them with something like love, the woodpecker and the knots and hollows of the birch - but, at the same time, I long for that “undivided light” so much that my eyes fill with tears and I ache with a feeling like thirst. I fear myself a little, because I think I might be willing to erase the birch and the woodpecker (a terrible, terrible thought) if that meant I could stand in this light.'

Tonight, looking at the tree in this picture, my friend's words have come back to me (they hadn't left me at all, to tell the truth). I remember how I stood on the shore of the frozen lake and opened the back side of my camera, slowly, letting the light in. The unbearable light of the winter sun.

And then other words have come, ancient words, that I had thought long forgotten, the words of the God echoing thus, in my mind:

'The Blessed Lord said: There is a banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down and whose leaves are the Vedic hymns. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.

The branches of this tree extend downward and upward, nourished by the three modes of material nature. The twigs are the objects of the senses. This tree also has roots going down, and these are bound to the fruitive actions of human society.

The real form of this tree cannot be perceived in this world. No one can understand where it ends, where it begins, or where its foundation is. But with determination one must cut down this tree with the weapon of detachment. So doing, one must seek that place from which, having once gone, one never returns, and there surrender to that Supreme Personality of Godhead from whom everything has began and in whom everything is abiding since time immemorial.'

Bhagavad Gita, from Chapter 15


  1. Avant d'entrer dans les bois,
    La pluie frappe aux feuilles
    Qui sont pour elle le seuil
    D'une solitude sans poids...

    Salve M.

  2. So it's a banyan tree? I wondered. I have a different ideas about the tree. But understood the conflict between wanting the undivided light and erasing the woodpecker in the birch. They exist together, because they need to.

  3. I offer the belief that the birch and woodpecker are also part of the 'undivided light' and could not be erased, unless 'connect with' would be the same as erasure, and that I don't believe, because in light 'everything is abiding'.

    thank you for all that is in your post.

  4. I love this photograph, this tree glimpsed --- not only at the moment of erasure --- but more in the ambiguity between being and non-being, the mind of the god flickering now in between (Hölderlin: “…for the signs / Of day are good, if a god has wounded / The soul in response”). I am attracted as always to the empty spaces in your images, this black, not waste land but creative, source and under-reality, and I admire the artistic sense (or restraint? or instinct? or courage?) that allows this to happen.

  5. you forgot to mention its full of mangoes ;-)

    why do you seek that "undivided" light? wouldn't you have all the colors of the rainbow instead?

    these are very deep words. there are strong shades in your musings of the mystery of the sufis. I read a book by Idries Shah that one cannot be taught to be a sufi (like one is taught mathematics or philosophy) but it a world view, a sensitivity, a sense of ecstacy arising from a feeling of oneness with the world that is inherent in some people and only these people can be guided by a sufi teacher to sharpen their instincts and realize this essence...

  6. Marc. (is that point very important? :-), you speak french too! how many languages do you know? but it is true that all the portuguese that I have known are good with languages.
    j'aime 'le seuil d'une solitude sans poids'...

  7. no, it is not a banyan tree :-) it is not a birch either, but this is not so important, is it, folded?
    so good to hear from you... and yes, I was sure you would understand.

  8. Manuela, I thank you for writing this here. we need this belief too, don't we? one thing I like about this (technically deeply flawed) picture is that the erasure becomes a kind of manifold, an openness.

  9. 'the mind of the god flickering now in between'
    how beautiful you put it, James! I would have to make a post just for this one sentence. but this happens so often with your words.
    I hadn't been aware of the importance of the blank space in my pictures, but after you told me that, I've started to think about it.
    and Hoelderlin, yes...

  10. zuma, mmm, mangoes. I have only bananas here now, but it is too late for that anyway :-)

    it is not 'either/or', it is 'not only/but also'. it's quite a painful paradox. I will post about this again, I think.

    'a sense of ecstacy arising from a feeling of oneness with the world that is inherent in some people' - this is a fundamental reason why I love and need photography, because I have this sense and this feeling when I take pictures.

  11. ps. for Marc., I think they call that 'dot' in english :-) not 'point', I was thinking in french. but my question remains :-)

  12. and your photos, as insistent as the stubborn woodpecker, probing the world, with divided light

  13. ah, fff - my photos insistent as the stubborn woodpecker, this is the most unusual description of them I've ever heard :-)