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Sunday, 27 January 2013

Into the Silent Planet


The sun has come again and the last of the snows have melted in last night's rain. With that comes the chance to think about winter. Winter didn't feature much in art before the late sixteenth century and according to one source this is because before that time, winter was just too hard. It was only after we became better at coping with its effects that we had the luxury of observing it. Before that, we were too busy just surviving it. It now feels as if I have chance to think more about it now that the snow - that most tangible sign of winter - is gone. 

During the snows the activities of wild things were everywhere. At the feeders the to-ing and fro-ing was dizzying. On the piles of apples on the banks the winter thrushes were gorging themselves on any exposed surface of fruit. And in the open fields the fox, normally sly and edgy in his movements, loped across open ground driven by urgency and desperation. 

In thinking about the human relationship with the extreme seasons I like the idea that what is now the developed world was once governed by them. We ran, worked, foraged, prepared, farmed, played and lived to the beat of the seasons and none other. This was no different in the farms and the fields than it was in the cities and towns and with that must have come an acute awareness of how every other animal that walked the world felt at the coldest, most difficult times. 

The 1909 painting Lone Tenement by the New York artist George Bellows is a reminder of this. Any writer on the natural world worth their word count would dismiss out of hand any difference between the streets and the fields as negligible when it comes to describing our response to nature. Lone Tenement shows this just as clearly as any image depicting a rural scene where nature is supposed to be closer. That might be true in summer but winter changes that. It levels the playing field. 

In the image the building of the painting's title looms largest but it is the urgent and furtive nature of the figures in the bottom left that draw the eye. It is clearly a winter harder than stone on the east river. Amongst the tanneries, slaughter houses, breweries, wharves and warehouses they seek warmth. They might live in the city but they're aware of nature alright. They have to be. They are being slowly broken by it. 

I have no wish to revisit those days. I would hope the days are gone of developing a dangerous nostalgia for an environment where children were damned to the same iron-hard existence as their parents. Nonetheless we have lost an awareness, an empathy. In the hardest of winter moments we've lost the thought and feeling that other flesh is struggling just as we are. Our genetic memory on this is slightly faded now, reduced to decision making on whether to get in the car or not. 

For many of us winter is no longer be a thing to be feared but the complete opposite may be to give up too easily a sense of the value of what lies beneath the snow. 

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